New Releases

Author Spotlight: Lara Williamson

Lara Williamson and I crossed paths more than two decades ago (eek!), in London, while working at J-17 magazine. Lara, who hails from Northern Ireland, was a fledgling beauty editor while I wrote an advice column and edited articles. After I returned to the U.S., Lara and I stayed in touch. First we exchanged emails; then we exchanged manuscripts. (I had the pleasure of reading an early version of Lara’s breakout novel, A BOY CALLED HOPE, hailed by the Sunday Express as: “Warm, heartbreaking, and hilarious in turn,” and shortlisted for the prestigious Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.)

Lara’s books—available worldwide—have been translated into Russian, Italian, Korean, Turkish, Estonian, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Her latest novel, THE GIRL WITH SPACE IN HER HEART, launches in the U.K. on August 1 from Usborne. Find more about Lara on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

MR: Lara! First and foremost, thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files. I am beyond excited to have you here!!! *blows kiss*

LW: Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s so lovely to join you on the Mixed-Up Files. And talking about Mixed-Up Files, when I was about ten the first slightly more “grown-up” book I picked for myself, and read by myself, was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. And, not surprisingly, I loved it. I recently bought myself a new copy and must re-read it, and re-live the magic I felt all those years ago.

MR: For readers not familiar with your books, can you tell us a little about your background and your path to publication?

LW: I grew up in Northern Ireland and studied fashion design. After I left college, I worked on a teen magazine called J-17. It was such a creative time and a solid foundation for everything that came after. At work I had to come up with ideas for photoshoots and write copy to a deadline – all good grounding for writing a book. Fast forward a few years and one child later, I wanted to write the MG book I’d always dreamed of writing and naively I thought, “How hard can it be?” Very, was the answer. In the end, I wrote a number of books and got an awful lot of rejections, probably over one hundred in the end. And I can’t say I didn’t feel dejected; I did. But in this business you’ve got to persevere. You’ve got to actively chase your dreams. So in 2013, I got the urge to write a little book – a quiet little book, a book about families, life, heartbreak, and hope. But mostly hope. I thought, for it to be published it might need adventure and zombies and I could expect more rejection. I was wrong. The quiet little book about hope was the very thing that turned everything around. It got snapped up by an agent and a publisher and the rest is, as they say, history.

MR: Your first three books, A BOY CALLED HOPE,THE BOOK WHO SAILED THE OCEAN IN AN ARMCHAIR and JUST CALL ME SPAGHETTI-HOOP BOY, all feature male protagonists. What is it about boys’ stories that resonate with you? 

LW: Ah, I wish I had the perfect answer for this one. One of the stories I had worked on previously, and had been rejected, was from a girl’s point of view so I had written a girl before. But something in me – call it gut instinct –  just felt that these stories were about a boy and I couldn’t shake that feeling, so I had to go with it.  Sometimes, when you’re writing, you’ve just got to listen to that inner voice that tells you to go a certain way. Trust and believe in yourself. That’s what I did, in the end. I went with my own instinct and it proved to be right. Also, my books are emotional and full of heart and there are lots of books for girls on those subjects, but I think boys like those stories too.

MR: Your forthcoming novel, THE GIRL WITH SPACE IN HER HEART, is the first of your novels to feature a female protagonist—Mabel Mynt. What was it like to write from a girl’s perspective this time? Did it feel different?

LW: To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could achieve it at first. I’d written three books from a boy’s POV. What if I couldn’t be a girl? I know, that sounds daft because I am one. But I did worry about it for a while and I doubted myself in the beginning. In the end though, I decided to go with it and write the way I always do. I figured there was no big difference, because what it came down to was the story and the hope within it – and it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or girl, because everyone needs hope in their life. It’s universal.

MR: The loss of a parent is a major theme in all of your novels. In A BOY CALLED HOPE, Dan Hope searches for his absentee dad; in ARMCHAIR, Becket Rumsey is separated from his mom; In SPAGHETTI-HOOP BOY, Adam Butters searches to learn more about his biological mom; in GIRL WITH SPACE IN HER HEART, Mabel’s dad walked out on the family. What is it about the subject of loss that drives you as an author? What are you trying to say to your readers?

LW: I have slowly realized that all my books are about loss, in one shape or another. Honestly, I’ve tried to write about stuff that resonates with me. I don’t think I could write any other way, particularly when I’m writing about feelings. In our lifetime, we will all experience loss in one way or another. It’s not necessarily the most obvious way, either. There are many ways. I’ve tried to write about it in various forms and then  comfort the character in the book, and make them realize that they can come through that loss and out the other side. It’s important to me that at the end of my books, my character will walk away a stronger person. If I didn’t believe that, I don’t think I could write the stories. I’m not saying that within the story everything goes perfectly; it doesn’t. Some of the losses cannot be changed, no matter how much the character wishes for it. But in all my books, there’s always hope for the future, and that’s what I’m trying to say to my readers (and myself) most of all.

MR: Your breakout novel, A BOY CALLED HOPE, was received to wide acclaim and racked up tons of awards. With that it mind, what was it like to write your subsequent books? Did you feel pressured to live up to the success of HOPE?

LW: The second book syndrome! It’s like having a successful first album and then wondering if you can repeat the magic. And sometimes it does feel a bit like magic. There are times when I’ve written a book and can’t even remember all the steps it took to get there. You write and edit for ages and then–whoosh!–it’s done. So, yes, it can feel like a pressure when you’re writing the second book (and third, and so on). I wanted to repeat the magic…do it all over again. But that’s the thing about magic; it’s hard to pin down no matter how much you wish you could. In the end, I’ve learned to be grateful for any successes I have – big or small, because I’ve never forgotten the hundred-plus rejections. We should celebrate everything. Have you written a sentence today, or 500 words, or a chapter? Have you finished writing a book? Pat yourself on the back. It’s a huge achievement. You’re one step closer to your dreams. The real magic is there – it’s within you.

MR: What’s your writing process like, Lara? Do you have a specific routine? Writing rituals?

LW: I’m so chaotic in my writing, for a reason I’ll explain in a minute. Okay, so I know everyone is different. Some writers meticulously plot and, seriously, I’m envious. There are days I wish I had a writing shed with lots of pieces of paper on the wall spelling out the plot. I wish I knew about rise and fall within chapters. I wish I was organized and knew all there was to know about writing. But no, none of those things actually applies to me. I sit at my dining room table and write for a few hours most days. All I know is the beginning of my book, and the end, and I know what the character wants to achieve. Then I write in the most messy, muddled-up way; a sort of outpouring of emotion and feeling. And it works for me. I’m basically writing myself a comforting story: a story of hope. I’m writing about things that matter to me, and if it’s a bit chaotic – fine. Emotions sometimes are. They come slowly… they come in a rush…maybe some don’t make sense to start with; maybe some do. I’ve had to accept that I am the writer I am, and there will probably never be notes or plans on the wall–but I’ve got it all going on in my heart. And because of that, I let my heart take the lead and plan the route; I’m just joining it on the journey. And that’s okay.

MR: Would you care to share what you’re working on now?

LW:  I’ve just written a small 10,000 word story for seven-to-nine-year-olds. It’s completely random and was a lot of fun to write. I’d also like to write an adventure too. Again, I wonder if I can. It’s like the writing a girl situation all over again. I’ve never written an adventure before, but I’d like to give it a whirl. I’ve also written a younger book that’s coming out in 2020, but I can’t tell you anything about it yet (sorry!). Oh, and I’ve started another MG but am only 10,000 words in. So, I’m doing a few things at once and will see which one sings to me most–and then go with it.

MR: And finally, no Mixed-Up Files interview is complete without a lightning round. So…

Preferred writing snack? Crisps (salt-and-vinegar flavor).

Coffee or tea? Tea (chamomile).

Cat or dog? Dog.

Favorite authors (you don’t have to say me; that’s a given 🙂)? Ha! You know I love you! But other than you, Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay.

Superpower? Seeing into people’s hearts.

Favorite place on Planet Earth? Home – always.

Hidden talent? Wiggling my ears and raising one eyebrow. And tap dancing too. Maybe all at the same time!

MR: Thank you for chatting, Lara. Big hugs!!

Big hugs back! And thank you!

Diversity in MG Lit #10 Growing the next Generation of Writers

Many writers felt the spark of story in them when they were very young. But many never found the support they needed to develop and hone their skills at a young age.
When I visit schools for my books I often encounter one or two children out of hundreds who are hungry for more interaction than a school visit is designed to offer. Nine years ago I formed the League of Exceptional Writers a free mentoring workshop for young readers ages 8-18.
Because I’m a member of the SCBWI in Oregon, I approached them about providing a small honorarium for the authors and illustrators who were mentors to the League each month. I approached Powells Bookstore about hosting the events and providing promotional materials. Here’s an example of what they made for the last. year. Every month from October to May eager young writers pull up chairs at the bookshop and dig into the nitty gritty of making books with published authors, professional illustrators and other folks who work in the book industry, designers, editors, agents, audio book producers, etc. The League has seen its members grow from shy beginners in 3rd or 4th grade to active writers at their high school newspaper to editors of college literary journals. One has even gone on to work as a designer at a publishing house in Boston.
I mention this not to self-congratulate but rather to offer a model that could be easily replicated elsewhere. The SCBWI is a gently aging organization. Their survival depends on drawing in new young members year after year. What better way to promote the organization than to start mentoring young writers now. Most independent bookstores would be receptive to the idea of hosting a writing club for kids. So please consider starting a League of your own in your home town.
Many cities and states have writing enrichment programs in place such as the Writers in the Schools program sponsored by Oregon Literary Arts. Consider volunteering or donating money to these programs.
And finally if you have a young writer in your life, here’s a book they might enjoy. BRAVE THE PAGE: a young writer’s guide to telling epic stories by Rebecca Stern and Grant Faulkner is a kid friendly guide to writing a boo,k taking the NANOWRIMO model. The tone is peppy and practical. The text answers most of the questions even an adult writer has about the process of writing and the focus is solidly on the writing process rather than selling a manuscript. I think it will work well for avid writers as young as 9 and as old as 14 or 15. Brave the Page is on sale in August of 2019 and is available in audio.

Exciting new releases for June!

Mom, I’m bored!

School is barely out for most districts, but perhaps you’ve already heard this from your tween.

Have no fear, the library and your local independent book store are here!

Check out the latest releases for your middle-grade readers. A bit of nonfiction, a dash of fiction and their boredom will be relieved!

Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid, written by Adrienne Wright

Page Street Kids, June 4 release
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On June 16, 1976, Hector Pieterson, an ordinary boy, lost his life after getting caught up in what was supposed to be a peaceful protest. Black South African students were marching against a new law requiring that they be taught half of their subjects in Afrikaans, the language of the White government. The story’s events unfold from the perspectives of Hector, his sister, and the photographer who captured their photo in the chaos. This book can serve as a pertinent tool for adults discussing global history and race relations with children. Its graphic novel style and mixed media art portray the vibrancy and grit of Hector’s daily life and untimely death.

Heartbreaking yet relevant, this powerful story gives voice to an ordinary boy and sheds light on events that helped lead to the end of apartheid.

Escape from the Isle of the Lost: A Descendants Novel (The Descendants), written by Melissa de la Cruz

Disney-Hyperion, June 4 release

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Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos may have once been the baddest of the bad, but their wicked ways are (mostly) behind them-and now graduation is almost here! But before the seniors can don their custom-designed caps and gowns, courtesy of Evie, they’ve got an epic plan to put into action. There are tons of villain kids on the Isle of the Lost who are eager for their chance to come to Auradon Prep-even Celia, Dr. Facilier’s trickster daughter, wants in on the deal!-and Mal’s crew is using their upcoming visit to the Isle to help make it happen. But Auradon’s biggest threat is still at large?
Trapped on the other side of the barrier, Uma is more desperate than ever to get her long-awaited revenge against Mal. When she discovers an underground lair belonging to Hades, god of the underworld, Uma realizes she’s found the perfect partner in crime. Together, they can defeat Mal, bring down the barrier, and escape the Isle for good.
Mal and Uma have a score to settle, and they’ll come face to face in an explosive underwater battle that could determine the fates of Auradon and the Isle of the Lost once and for all.

All the Greys on Greene Street written by Laura Tucker

Viking Books for Young Readers, June 4 release
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SoHo, 1981. Twelve-year-old Olympia is an artist–and in her neighborhood, that’s normal. Her dad and his business partner Apollo bring antique paintings back to life, while her mother makes intricate sculptures in a corner of their loft, leaving Ollie to roam the streets of New York with her best friends Richard and Alex, drawing everything that catches her eye.

Then everything falls apart. Ollie’s dad disappears in the middle of the night, leaving her only a cryptic note and instructions to destroy it. Her mom has gone to bed, and she’s not getting up. Apollo is hiding something, Alex is acting strange, and Richard has questions about the mysterious stranger he saw outside. And someone keeps calling, looking for a missing piece of art. . . .

Olympia knows her dad is the key–but first, she has to find him, and time is running out.

Sea Sirens (A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure) written by Amy Chu, illustrated by Janet K. Lee

Viking Books for Young Readers, June 11 release
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Trot, a Vietnamese American surfer girl, and Cap’n Bill, her cranky one-eyed cat, catch too big a wave and wipe out, sucked down into a magical underwater kingdom where an ancient deep-sea battle rages. The beautiful Sea Siren mermaids are under attack from the Serpent King and his slithery minions–and Trot and her feline become dangerously entangled in this war of tails and fins.

This beautiful graphic novel was inspired by The Sea Fairies, L. Frank Baum’s “underwater Wizard of Oz.” It weaves Vietnamese mythology, fantastical ocean creatures, a deep-sea setting, quirky but sympathetic main characters, and fast-paced adventure into an imaginative, world-building story.

Maximillian Fly written by Angie Sage

Katherine Tegen Books, June 11 release
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Maximillian Fly wants no trouble. Yet because he stands at six feet two, with beautiful indigo wings, long antennae, and more arms than you or me, many are frightened of him.

He is a gentle creature who looks like a giant cockroach. This extraordinary human wants to prove his goodness, so he opens his door to two SilverSeed children in search of a place to hide.

Instantly, Maximillian’s quiet, solitary life changes. There are dangerous powers after them and they have eyes everywhere. But in this gray city of Hope trapped under the Orb, is escape even possible?

Maximillian Fly is a masterful story brimming with suspense, plot twists, and phenomenal world building. This compelling novel delves into family dynamics and themes of prejudice, making the case for tolerance, empathy, and understanding.

Midsummer’s Mayhem Hardcover  written by Rajani LaRocca  

Yellow Jacket, June 11 release
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Eleven-year-old Mimi Mackson comes from a big Indian American family: Dad’s a renowned food writer, Mom’s a successful businesswoman, and her three older siblings all have their own respective accomplishments. It’s easy to feel invisible in such an impressive family, but Mimi’s dream of proving she’s not the least-talented member of her family seems possible when she discovers a contest at the new bakery in town. Plus, it’ll start her on the path to becoming a celebrity chef like her culinary idol, Puffy Fay.

But when Mimi’s dad returns from a business trip, he’s mysteriously lost his highly honed sense of taste. Without his help, Mimi will never be able to bake something impressive enough to propel her to gastronomic fame.

Drawn into the woods behind her house by a strangely familiar song, Mimi meets Vik, a boy who brings her to parts of the forest she’s never seen. Who knew there were banyan trees and wild boars in Massachusetts? Together they discover exotic ingredients and bake them into delectable and enchanting treats.

But as her dad acts stranger every day, and her siblings’ romantic entanglements cause trouble in their town, Mimi begins to wonder whether the ingredients she and Vik found are somehow the cause of it all. She needs to use her skills, deductive and epicurean, to uncover what’s happened. In the process, she learns that in life, as in baking, not everything is sweet.

This Was Our Pact written by Ryan Andrews

First Second, June 11 release
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It’s the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, whenthe town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has itthat after drifting out of sight, they’ll soar off to the Milky Way andturn into brilliant stars, but could that actually be true? This year,Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanternsreally go, and to ensure success in their mission, they’ve made a pactwith two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.

The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes tolearn the truth, but it isn’t long before the pact is broken by allexcept for Ben, and (much to Ben’s disappointment) Nathaniel, the onekid who just doesn’t seem to fit in.

Together,Nathaniel and Ben will travel farther than anyone has ever gone, down awinding road full of magic, wonder, and unexpected friendship*.

*And a talking bear.

The Girl Who Sailed the Stars written by Matilda Woods,  illustrated by Anuska Allepuz 

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When Oona Britt was born in the magical town of Nordlor, where all of the homes are built from wrecked ships, her parents never expected her to be a girl. Having listened to a faulty prediction from a washed-up soothsayer, they were promised a “bold and brave son,” so as the youngest of seven sisters, Oona’s birth became a disappointment — especially to her sea captain father, who doesn’t believe there’s a place for girls aboard ships.

But Oona is different from the rest of her family. She longs for adventure and knowledge. So she steals aboard her father’s ship just as he’s about to set sail for his annual winter whale hunt, and suddenly finds herself in the midst of a grand adventure! The ship has its own sea cat, Barnacles, and a navigator named Haroyld, who show Oona how to follow the stars. But for all that, Oona’s father is furious. Can she prove to him that she’s worth his love and pride, even though she’s not the bold and brave son he was promised?

The Boy, the Boat and the Beast written by Samantha M. Clark

Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster, Paperback release June 25
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A shout out to one of our contributors, Samantha M. Clark, as her middle-grade novel is released in paperback this month!

A boy washes up on a mysterious, seemingly uninhabited beach. Who is he? How did he get there? The boy can’t remember. When he sees a light shining over the foreboding wall of trees that surrounds the shore, he decides to follow it, in the hopes that it will lead him to answers. The boy’s journey is a struggle for survival and a search for the truth—a terrifying truth that once uncovered, will force him to face his greatest fear of all if he is to go home.