New Releases

Interview with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of SHINE!

Today at MUF we’re talking with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of the middle-grade novel, SHINE! (Random House Children’s Books), which James Patterson says is, “Inspirational, commonsensical, and a whole lot of fun.” We got the writing partners — and life partners! — to tell us about their new book, how they work together, and what’s next for them.

 

Shine!

Mixed-Up Files: J.J., we understand the idea behind SHINE! was yours. Can you talk about what sparked the idea? What made this the story you decided had to get written?

J.J.: I guess living in New York City has made me hyper aware of how hard everybody here strives to get ahead. What pre-K your child gets into, theoretically, will help determine whether they get into Harvard. Growing up in an environment where accomplishments and awards were highly prized, I wish I had read a book that said who you are as a person is even more important than landing on the honor roll or winning the lead role in the school musical.

We know that J.J. has helped behind the scenes on many of Chris’ other books, but how was the process here different than in the past?

CHRIS: In the past, J.J. has been my first editor. She reads everything before anyone else and encourages me to cut out the boring parts. She also lets me know if anything takes her out of the story. An odd word or phrase. An illogical leap. Confusion of any kind. But, in the end, those books are my books and I get the final say (even though I typically take all J.J.’s notes and make all her suggested changes).

On SHINE! we were equals. Both our names would be going on the cover. We both had to be happy with every word.

MUF: What did your collaboration look like?

CHRIS: Well, first we spent months blocking out a very detailed outline. VERY detailed.

That’s a technique I learned from James Patterson. When I work on a project with him, he creates an extremely detailed outline with all the twists and turns plotted out. I execute a first draft from that outline and check in with him every month with new pages.

With J.J., we checked in every day.

We also discovered that we have extremely different writing techniques.

In college, I majored in Communications at the University of Tennessee. J.J. studied music and theater at Northwestern (yep, that’s why the hero of our book’s father is a music teacher). At the end of my freshman year at UT, I took a typing test. We needed to do 30 words a minute before we could take any sophomore level courses. From then on, every assignment we turned in had to be type written.

When I graduated, I could type over one hundred words a minute. In fact, working as a temporary typist was how I supported myself when I first moved to New York City to pursue a writing and comedy career.

So now, when I write, I think through my fingertips.

J.J., on the other hand, has a theatrical background. For years, she toured the country doing musicals. She also appeared Off Broadway in the long-running hit NUNSENSE. Today, she works as a voice actor, creating lots of different characters. (She narrated my HAUNTED MYSTERY series from Random House.)

When J.J. writes, she wants to act out all the scenes. And play all the characters. Something I was doing in my head and sending down to my keyboard (and she thought I was just typing). This led to some very interesting scenes in the writing room.

Chris and JJ Grabenstein

MUF: Did you ever disagree at points on what direction the book should go? If so, how did you resolve that?

J.J.: Not on the overall direction. On individual scenes? Yes. If neither one of us could convince the other to see it our way, then we realized there was something fundamentally wrong with both approaches. So, we’d chuck whatever we were championing and work out a solution that made both of us happy.

MUF: Do you find collaborating on a book with someone else harder or easier than doing it solo?

CHRIS: In a lot of ways, it’s much easier. Someone else is helping you map out the journey and make decisions along the way. Then, if you take a wrong turn, it’s not entirely your fault!

MUF: What’s it like when you get editorial notes back? How did you decide to tackle those edits? What was the division of labor there?

J.J.: We were very fortunate to have Chris’s longtime Random House editor Shana Corey working with us on SHINE! In fact, we often say, her name should be on the cover, too. She was a true third partner throughout the whole two-years and six drafts it took to get the book right.

Like I’ve seen Chris do (from time to time), I’d whine a little about the editorial letters and all the notes. After all, what we had turned in was perfect, right? But then, the next day, I’d also do what I’ve seen Chris do countless times: Realize Shana was right. And the book would be better if we made her suggested changes, cuts, or additions.

MUF: What projects are next for you both?

CHRIS: Well, let’s see…my first picture book, NO MORE NAPS, from Random House will be coming out in February. There will be a fifth Lemoncello book, MR. LEMONCELLO AND THE TITANIUM TICKET, coming in late summer, 2020 to be followed by the first book in what we hope is a new Middle Grades series. I also edited and contributed to a collection of short stories for the Mystery Writers of America that will be out in June. James Patterson and I will have, I think, three books coming out in 2020, including the 7th in the popular TREASURE HUNTERS series. And, I am doing a new Audible Original entitled STUCK, where I get to make a cameo appearance.

J.J.: Well, after reading Chris’s list, it looks like I have a lot of first editing to do! I’ll also be heading back to the sound booth to record books and voice overs for all sorts of clients. I’m also happy to report that I will be appearing in the Audible Original STUCK. Chris and I play goofy cartoon characters at a game-arcade/restaurant called Chuck and Ernie’s.

MUF: Do you both read quite a bit of middle grade? What are some of your favorite recent MG titles? Any recs for us?

CHRIS: I do read (and listen) to a lot of Middle Grade stories. My recent faves include Steve Sheinken’s BORN TO FLY, R.J. Palacio’s WHITE BIRD, Stuart Gibbs’ CHARLIE THORNE, and Jerry Craft’s NEW KID.

J.J.: I read a ton of Middle Grade books. Because Chris writes a ton of ’em every year.

MUF: Tell us a little bit about SHINE! for our readers. 

CHRIS: Well, the gang at Random House always knows how to summarize a book better than me! Here’s what they say:

“Who do you want to be?” asks Mr. Van Deusen. “And not when you grow up. Right here, right now.”

Shine on! might be the catchphrase of twelve-year-old Piper’s hero–astronaut, astronomer, and television host Nellie Dumont Frisse–but Piper knows the truth: some people are born to shine, and she’s just not one of them. That fact has never been clearer than now, since her dad’s new job has landed them both at Chumley Prep, a posh private school where everyone seems to be the best at something and where Piper definitely doesn’t fit in.

Bursting with humor, heart, science, possibilities, and big questions, Shine! is a story about finding your place in the universe–a story about figuring out who you are and who you want to be.

MUF: If you have anything else to add, please feel free!

We’re excited to see the numerous ways teachers and librarians have already brought SHINE! to life in their schools. We’re also thrilled that the folks at Random House put together such a fantastic Educators’ Guide for the book. (Click here for the Educators’ Guide to SHINE!)

 

Would your favorite childhood books get published today?

Writer friends often gripe that classic and modern classic children’s literature is rife with so many of the no-nos we are counseled to avoid. So much exposition! Too much description or flowery language! So episodic. Too much showing not telling. Not to mention the subtle or not so subtle references to dads reading Playboy magazine that I keep finding as I re-read some of my childhood favorites. (Although I’m sure they were all the kinds of dads who subscribed to the magazine because the articles were really good.)

As anyone who has been following my previous posts might guess, I have been caught up in the theme of old-fashioned vs modern and what still feels fresh no matter the decade or era. Continuing in this vein, this time the question I am asking is: would classics that are still in print and greatly enjoyed by young people today, actually get published today?

I posed the question to many different kinds of people in the children’s book publishing industry and in the writing community, both in the US and the UK, and have been having some really interesting conversations. Because my personal taste tends toward the character-driven quieter dramas of everyday life rather than the big action, adventure etc., and those are the kinds of books I want to write, I asked about mid-to-late-century books from authors like Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume, or older ones like Ballet Shoes and Anne of Green Gables, as well as ‘modern classic’ UK favorites like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.

I realized that this is a large question and might only be answerable on a case by case basis. And that one could think about it as both a philosophical exercise and as the basic question of ‘if x manuscript landed on an editor’s desk today would it be published?’ But I invited people to take the question in any direction that felt interesting to them and now I would like to share a few answers.

In Short: the answer is NO. And YES.

Kendra Levin, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, said: “Here’s the thing about this question, which is a good one: it’s very hard to imagine an alternate world where those classics you mentioned– Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, Roald Dahl, et al– weren’t already published in the past. …one reason I feel books like those don’t get published as much today is that these classics already exist, and are so enduring that anything similar will feel like an also-ran when compared with them.”

This answer both stopped me in my tracks and finally answered what has been bothering me enough to keep exploring it. It seems obvious now and perhaps I have been dense or obtuse because I so love some of these books of the past I was depressed that I couldn’t set out to write one myself. (Never mind personal talent or ability!) But Kendra’s answer reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction when it first came out. I went to see it three times! I had never seen or experienced anything like it. But if it came out today it wouldn’t be so astounding and beloved because so many movies now look like it or have used its structure. It’s simply the difference between something being an original, done for the first time, and something being derivative. Indeed, we already have Judy Blume.

Wanted: More Mirrors

But Kendra added something that shifted the question and reframed it in an important way:

“What I think more and more people are recognizing is that, while we have many books that do live alongside Ramona, Fudge, and the Dahl catalog, the vast majority of those books continue to represent children who already have the privilege of seeing themselves and their lives reflected in many, many books. There are very few, if any, books about a black (or Latinx or indigenous or Asian-American or…or…or…) girl who does all the things Ramona does, in her own way that’s unique to her life and world– fight with her sister, worry about being creative enough, mishear song lyrics, get into trouble, and so on. Writers and publishers and booksellers have a responsibility to work together to present far more books reflecting the many experiences that have been held outside the gates of published literature, and those are the books that can become the classics of the next hundred years. And many writers and publishers and booksellers are working on this very project as we speak– and I predict that more will commit to it more deeply in the years to come.”

So Kendra thinks that on one hand, something exactly like Ramona or Fudge would not necessarily be published today, but on the other hand, a new Ramona or Fudge can–it just might not look like what some people may picture when they say “a book like Ramona” or “a book like Fudge.” To her, it’s about redefining what you consider a potential classic and expanding the way you create comparisons; resisting putting books into the same boxes they have been put into for the past decades. She said, “The books of Cleary and Blume and Dahl are often called ‘universal’ and we have to recognize that they are not truly universal– and also that a book about a character who is living a different experience than Ramona’s or Fudge’s or Matilda’s can be just as ‘universal’ as these characters are said to be.”

Clever…But Racist

Indeed, I hope the paths toward books published today that will be tomorrow’s classics are wide and infinite. Candy Gourlay, a British-Filipina author, whose Costa-shortlisted book BONE TALK has just been released in the US, and who often speaks about how growing up she didn’t know that characters who looked like her could also be in books, responded to my question like this:

“My books at home as a child were not very contemporary as my parents bought those ‘Children’s classics’ collections sold by door to door salesmen and only discovered Enid Blyton when I moved schools. Nevertheless I loved Tom Sawyer and Heidi and Black Beauty etc. Recently someone on Twitter called me out when I mentioned how much I loved Tom Sawyer on a blog. Why, she asked, do you recommend a racist book? First of all I was not recommending it … I was just stating that this was a book I loved … but I guess she was right in that, saying I loved it was a recommendation. I was stung and terrified that she was right. I re-read Tom Sawyer. It was every bit as clever and well written as I remembered it. But yes, it was racist. Not about black people but about Native Americans. I wrote a blog about it.”

Recently, Candy was tagged on Twitter by teachers discussing how Bone Talk would be a good companion to studying Robinson Crusoe. She said: “I realised they would be studying it on the basis of the primitivism of my heroes, which seems dangerous to me. So I created resources for my website that responded to these issues.”

I highly recommend reading Candy’s thought-provoking and soul-searching post as she grapples with the complicated legacy of the books she loved as a child, and also watching the video she includes of Grace Lin’s PBS video about what to do when your beloved books are racist. Also check out the classroom resources she created for teaching today’s children a classic story alongside her own novel.

Separating the Author from the Book

Then there are the problems with the authors themselves. In 2018 there were several news stories revealing that plans to commemorate Roald Dahl in the UK with a special edition coin a couple of years before had been scrapped over concerns about his anti-semitic views. But during his lifetime, in both the UK and the US, Roald Dahl’s anti-semitic views were known but unremarked on in a way that I cannot imagine an author getting away with today without having their career shattered. Or perhaps I am being naive. Either way, the Dahl books are still staples in libraries, bookstores and homes—including ours—and they are still adored by both old and new generations of readers.

Conclusion: La-di-da-di, We Likes to Party

Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick: their 1984 song La-di-da-di has been sampled over 500 times

Fashions and styles change, but enduring stories do not. Reading Anne of Green Gables today, I am tempted to skip large swathes of description that might bog down or bore (fairly or unfairly) a child of today. It is also largely episodic. Then there is the uncomfortable bit where the bad guy who sells Anne the hair dye that turns her hair green is a German Jewish peddler. But the story itself, about an orphan with spunk who loves beauty and tugs on everyone’s heartstrings—characters’ and readers’ alike—is evergreen. Beyond the classic book that is still in print after more than a century, the story keeps undergoing artistic iterations in the form of plays, movies, graphic novels and TV series, including the latest one on Netflix Anne with an E.

For me personally, Kendra’s answer finally made me see that I was on a path that was taking me in the wrong direction. But also that all is not lost for future Ramonas and Fudges—as well as Toms and Annes—whatever they might look like, whatever their names might be, whatever their small and large dramas, and whatever is unique to their particular world.

Recently I have been obsessed by a TED Talk on originality given by famed musician, DJ, and producer Mark Ronson. He explains that when sampling first started 30 years ago, artists didn’t do it to “cash in on the familiarity.” But rather because they heard something in that music that spoke to them and “they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music.” He shows how one song, La-di-da-di by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick has been sampled over 500 times, by musicians as various as the Notorious B.I.G. to Miley Cyrus. But it’s not derivative because each time it is reimagined and used in a different way. Each musician, or creator, takes an idea—a sample—but makes it their own. He gives the example of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album, which captures a long-lost sound, but without the very 21st century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse, the project would have risked being pastiche. Instead, she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time. Mark Ronson’s take is that you can’t “hijack nostalgia wholesale” because it leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.

I love this idea and would argue that this is a good metaphor for any art or artist. And in particular for children’s book writers. For me it is personally a productive way to think about the classics, and what we—any of us, from any background—might choose to create for the children of today, and the future. What do you think?

 

December New Releases

December is for holidays, hot chocolate, and a whole lot of great middle-grade books. So take a look and decide which ones you might want to put on your wish list!

 

Major Impossible (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #9) by Nathan Hale

This ninth book in the bestselling series tells the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed geologist who explored the Grand Canyon John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) always had the spirit of adventure in him. As a young man, he traveled all over the United States exploring. When the Civil War began, Powell went to fight for the Union, and even after he lost most of his right arm, he continued to fight until the war was over. In 1869 he embarked with the Colorado River Exploring Expedition, ten men in four boats, to float through Grand Canyon. Over the course of three months, the explorers lost their boats and supplies, nearly drowned, and were in peril on multiple occasions. Ten explorers went in, only six came out. Powell would come to be known as one of the most epic explorers in history! Equal parts gruesome and hilarious, this latest installment in the bestselling series takes readers on an action-packed adventure through American history.

 

Who Is Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Patricia Brennan Demuth, illus. Jake Murray

You’ve probably seen her on T-shirts, mugs, and even tattoos, well, now that famous face graces the cover of our latest Who Is? title. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is famous for her stylish collars (called jabots) and her commanding dissents. This opera-loving New Yorker has always spoken her mind; as a young lawyer, RBG advocated for gender equality and women’s rights when few others did. She gained attention for the cases she won when arguing in front of the Supreme Court, before taking her place on the bench in 1993. Author Patricia Brennan Demuth answers all the questions about what makes RBG so notorious and irreplaceable.

 

Mac Cracks the Code (Mac B., Kid Spy) by Mac Barnett, illus. Mike Lowery

Mac B. and his arch-nemesis are facing off at the Video Game World Championships! But first, Mac B. needs to crack an unbreakable secret code. Can he solve it in time to defeat his enemy? Find out in this kid spy adventure from New York Times bestselling author, Mac Barnett! The Queen of England calls on Mac B. once again! This time, Mac must crack a secret code that has been recovered from a double agent. A series of clues leads Mac to France, and then to Japan, where he comes face-to-face with his arch-nemesis, the KGB man . . . and the world headquarters of Nintendo! Is the KGB Man secretly behind all of this? And are Mac’s video game skills good enough to face down his enemy at the Video Game World Championships? With Mike Lowery’s signature illustrations on every page, historical facts woven throughout, and of course intrigue, history, hilarity and more, catch the latest in this totally smart, wholly original, side-splittingly funny series.

 

Night of Dangers (Adventurer’s Guild, Book 3) by Zack Loran Clark, illus. Nick Eliopulos

After falling victim to a vile betrayal, Zed is cut off from Brock and their friends and unable to warn them about a dangerous enemy on the move. The Adventurers Guild may have defeated the evil that cast the elves from their home, but that doesn’t keep them in the Freestoners’ good graces for long. An ordinary day at the market comes to a fatal end when a rare Danger infiltrates the city, leaving over a dozen dead. Tensions come to a boil as the city is threatened by upheaval from within and becomes alight with terror. Brock finds himself frustratingly unable to utilize his underground contacts . . . though the mysterious Lady Grey may not be finished with him yet. To come together to save their city from a timeless evil looking to settle a score, the young adventurers must learn to trust in each other again and be willing to do whatever it takes to stop the tragedy of the Day of Dangers from happening again.

 

Bad Kitty Joins the Team by Nick Bruel

See Kitty as you’ve never seen her before: EXERCISING (reluctantly) in Bad Kitty Joins the Team, the latest installment of Nick Bruel’s phenomenally successful New York Times bestselling series. Kitty is terribly out of shape―she can barely torment Puppy without needing a break to huff and puff! When Kitty’s owner catches her wheezing, Kitty is told it’s time to EXERCISE. It takes some serious convincing, a high-stakes competition, and a little bit of trickery but eventually Kitty gets into the competitive spirit . . . albeit reluctantly. What did you expect? Will our favorite feline friend learn what it means to be a good sport? Find out in this hilarious addition to the Bad Kitty series.

 

 

Don’t Tell the Nazis by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

The year is 1941. Krystia lives in a small Ukrainian village under the cruel—sometimes violent— occupation of the Soviets. So when the Nazis march into town to liberate them, many of Krystia’s neighbors welcome the troops with celebrations, hoping for a better life. But conditions don’t improve as expected. Krystia’s friend Dolik and the other Jewish people in town warn that their new occupiers may only bring darker days. The worst begins to happen when the Nazis blame the Jews for murders they didn’t commit. As the Nazis force Jews into a ghetto, Krystia does what she can to help Dolik and his family. But what they really need is a place to hide. Faced with unimaginable tyranny and cruelty, will Krystia risk everything to protect her friends and neighbors?

 

The Winterhouse Mysteries by Ben Guterson, illus. Chloe Bristol

Danger, intrigue, and the power of family combine in The Winterhouse Mysteries, the fast-paced conclusion to Ben Guterson and Chloe Bristol’s illustrated, enchanting Winterhouse middle grade trilogy. It’s springtime at Winterhouse and Elizabeth is settling into the joyful chaos of her new home. But it isn’t long before she and Freddy are drawn into an ominous new mystery. Guests at the hotel start behaving oddly, and Elizabeth’s powers manifest in thrilling―sometimes frightening―new ways. As unnatural tremors shake the foundations of Winterhouse, Elizabeth hears cries for help from Gracella Winters, a villain she’d thought dead and gone for good. Elizabeth’s discovery of a rare book containing secrets of an ancient ritual leads to a tragic realization: someone at the hotel is trying to help Gracella rise again. Can Elizabeth and Freddy banish these threats and protect the future of Winterhouse once and for all?

 

Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson

From the author of Ice Dogs comes a riveting adventure about a musher who sets out to prove her impaired vision won’t hold her back from competing in a rigorous sled race through the Canadian wilderness. Perfect for fans of Gary Paulsen. McKenna Barney is trying to hide her worsening eyesight and has been isolating herself for the last year. But at the request of her little sister, she signs up for a commemorative mail run race in the Canadian wilderness—a race she doesn’t know if she can even see to run. Winning would mean getting her disease—and her sister’s—national media coverage, but it would also pit McKenna and her team of eight sled dogs against racers from across the globe for three days of shifting lake ice, sudden owl attacks, snow squalls, and bitterly cold nights. A page-turning adventure about living with disability and surviving the wilderness, Dog Driven is the story of one girl’s self-determination and the courage it takes to trust in others.

 

Sisterland by Salla Simukka, translator, Owen Frederick Witesman

Fall under the spell of this contemporary fairy tale that’s perfect for fans of Emily Winfield Martin’s Snow & Rose and the Chronicles of Narnia series. Alice thought it was unusual to see a dragonfly in the middle of winter. But she followed it until she fell down-down-down, and woke up in a world unlike any other. Welcome to Sisterland, a fantastical world where it is always summer. The most enchanting magic of all, though, is Alice’s new friend Marissa. But as the girls explore the strange land, they learn Sisterland’s endless summer comes at a price. Back on Earth, their homes are freezing over. To save their families, Alice and Marissa must outwit the powerful Queen Lili. But the deeper they go into Sisterland, the less Alice and Marissa remember about their homes, their lives before, and what they are fighting for. This is a wondrous tale about heroism, loyalty, and friendship from one of the most celebrated Finnish children’s authors.

 

What Were the Negro Leagues? by Varian Johnson, illus. Stephen Marchesi

This baseball league that was made up of African American players and run by African American owners ushered in the biggest change in the history of baseball. In America during the early twentieth century, no part was safe from segregation, not even the country’s national pastime, baseball. Despite their exodus from the Major Leagues because of the color of their skin, African American men still found a way to participate in the sport they loved. Author Varian Johnson shines a spotlight on the players, coaches, owners, and teams that dominated the Negro Leagues during the 1930s and 40s. Readers will learn about how phenomenal players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and of course, Jackie Robinson greatly changed the sport of baseball.

 

The Love Pug: A Wish Novel by J.J. Howard

J.J. Howard, author of Pugs and Kisses and Pugs in a Blanket, delivers more puppy love and friendship mix-ups. Emma’s pug, Cupid, has a hidden talent: He is a master at matchmaking! Her pet seems to have a nose for spotting which two people belong together. With the big school dance coming up, Emma decides to use Cupid’s powers to find her best friend, Hallie, a date. But as Emma tries to navigate crushes and secrets, she finds that things are a lot more complicated than they seem. And what if Cupid also has a surprising match in mind . . . for Emma herself?

 

 

 

My Survival: A Girl on Schindler’s List by Joshua M. Greene and Rena Finder

Rena Finder was only eleven when the Nazis forced her and her family—along with all the other Jewish families—into the ghetto in Krakow, Poland. Rena worked as a slave laborer with scarcely any food and watched as friends and family were sent away. Then Rena and her mother ended up working for Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who employed Jewish prisoners in his factory and kept them fed and healthy. But Rena’s nightmares were not over. She and her mother were deported to the concentration camp Auschwitz. With great cunning, it was Schindler who set out to help them escape. Here in her own words is Rena’s gripping story of survival, perseverance, tragedy, and hope. Including pictures from Rena’s personal collection and from the time period, this unforgettable memoir introduces young readers to an astounding and necessary piece of history.