Posts Tagged animal stories

A Serendipitious Interview and Giveaway

Code Name: Serendipity CoverI recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Amber Smith’s middle grade debut Code Name: Serendipity about a misunderstood girl  named Sadie who discovers that she can hear the thoughts of a stray dog that she finds in the forest behind her house. In her quest to rescue the dog, Sadie finds that Dewey, the dog, can hear her thoughts as well, and a friendship forms between them. Soon, through her rescue efforts, Sadie is making more unlikely friends. This is a book to hand to anyone who loves animals and who has ever felt misunderstood. So, when an opportunity to interview the author arrived, I jumped at the chance. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Amber.

MUF: Tell us about Code Name: Serendipity?

A: Code Name: Serendipity tells the story of eleven-year-old Sadie, a lonely misfit whose life seems to be going all wrong lately — she can’t get along with her older brother, her best friend moved away, and it seems no one understands her. That is until she meets a stray dog and realizes that they have a very special connection: They can communicate telepathically. Sadie sets out on a mission to rescue the dog, but in the process, she might just rescue herself too.

MUF: You’ve written several great young adult novels, and Code Name: Serendipity is your first MG? How was the experience different?

A: In terms of process and structure, it wasn’t too different to switch from writing YA to MG. But I found that it took me quite a while to find Sadie’s voice. As I was drafting, I struggled to balance her youth and maturity in a natural way, one that was so different from the older characters I have been writing for years now. Once I found it, though, the pieces of the puzzle just started falling into place!

MUF: Your bio says that Code Name: Serendipity was inspired by your own experiences rescuing animals. Are there any particular animals that inspired Dewey? Are there any stories from your time rescuing animals that particularly inspired this story?

A: Definitely! My wife and I are both huge animal lovers – we currently have seven rescues (two dogs and five cats). There are little pieces of each of these sweet furbabies threaded throughout the story, but the one who really inspired it was a third dog, Darwin. I rescued him from a shelter when he was still a puppy and he was with me his whole life, up until he was a senior, and eventually passed. I always refer to him as my “soul dog” because we had such a close bond that at times, it really did feel as if we knew what each other were thinking. Not quite telepathy, like Sadie and Dewey, but pretty close! So, I started writing this book in memory of him, and how much joy and love he broughtDarwin, the inspiration for Dewey in Code Name: Serendipity into my life.

MUF: Not gonna lie, I really wish that I had Sadie’s power not only with my own cats but also the cat that I TNR’d. (Trapped, Neutered, Released) Have there ever been animal rescue experiences where you wished that you had Sadie’s power?

A: First, I love that you participate in a TNR program!

This is how we have ended up with the majority of our rescue cats. Former members of feral colonies, who, when brought in for spay/neutering, were found to have health issues that prevented them from being re-released back into their feral colonies. These kitties can have such weird and sometimes aggressive behavioral issues that prevent them from being (or staying) adopted — after all, they’ve never been a part of a household or family. So, my wife and I have become known as the “crazy cat ladies” the shelters call to take the cats who have run out of options. I have definitely wished I could telepathically communicate with some of these cats (we have five of them currently) to explain what it means to transition from feral-to-house cat. They get it eventually, but it would be so much easier if we could just talk it out!

MUF: Code Name: Serendipity deals with some weighty issues with Sadie’s grandfather’s illness, her LD, and also what could happen to Dewey if she’s not rescued from the shelter. How do you approach writing about these topics for MG. Is it different from how you’d approach writing them for YA, and how so?

A: My YA novels have all dealt with some pretty heavy, hard-hitting topics that sometimes get into dark places, and while I definitely wanted to touch on serious real-world topics in Code Name, I was very conscious of not wanting any of Sadie’s problems and challenges to ever feel insurmountable. One of the ways I tried to achieve this was to show her finding tools, help, and allies along the way – so there was always a light at the end of every tunnel.

Amber Smith with DarwinMUF: Why does Gramps call Sadie Sassafras?

A: Gramps has a lot of what Sadie refers to as “Grampsisms” – or his own unique made-up expressions – old-timey sayings, but with a twist! When I was brainstorming nicknames he might have for Sadie, I kept thinking he’d probably want to express his admiration for Sadie’s spirited (or, some might say, sassy) nature. I thought at first, he could call her “Sassy,” but I wanted it to be something a bit more endearing and special, so in true Gramps style, Sassy became “Sassafras.”

MUF: Your descriptions of food in this story are awesome. I ended up buying a box of Uncrustables because I was craving PBJ after this. Were there any foods that you wrote, that you were hungry for after describing them?

A: Yes, I ate many a late-night PBJ sandwich while writing this book – and I still don’t know whether it was my snack that inspired the recurring PBJs in the book or the book that made me crave the recurring sandwiches. Also, Sadie has a penchant for French toast and big weekend breakfasts with her family, which is something I always looked forward to as a kid!

MUF: Sadie’s very gifted with art. I loved the scene where she’s drawing out the word problem. Do you draw? Or do origami like Macy? (Fun side note, I tried to learn origami in Japanese class in college because we did this whole Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes thing, and I literally made one sad, pathetic paper crane because like Sadie, I cannot figure it out.)

A: I actually do have a background in visual art – I went to college for Painting and grad school for Art History, so I love to incorporate creative and artistic themes in my books. I honestly don’t practice art too much these days, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as my first creative love. (Side note: I probably logged at least 100 hours of YouTube tutorials on origami while writing this book because I wanted to get the descriptions of Macy’s creations just right!)

MUF: Also, in a similar vein, throughout the story, we see Sadie working on her graphic novel. Are you a fan of graphic novels? If so, what are your favorites?

A: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an illustrator, but my wife is the true graphic novel aficionado in the family, so I borrowed that interest of hers for Sadie.

MUF: What are your favorite books?

A: I have too many to name (and the list is always growing), but on the middle-grade side I love anything by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Kate DiCamillo – Because of Winn-Dixie has been a long-time favorite of mine, and definitely inspired Code Name!

MUF: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the beginning stages of a new middle-grade novel that I’m super excited about (all I can say right now is that it involves another special animal – this time, a cat).

How can readers find you online?

A: I love connecting with readers! You can find me online at www.AmberSmithAuthor.com, @ambersmithauthor on Instagram and Facebook, or @ASmithAuthor on Twitter.

Thanks for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

Code Name: Serendipity is out now, and here at Mixed-Up Files, we’re giving away a copy to one lucky reader.

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Digging Into Journey Beyond the Burrow

Hi Mixed-Up Filers! We dug into all kinds of nature topics with author Rina Heisel, author of the upcoming Journey Beyond the Burrow.

MUF: Welcome Rina. Thanks for joining us today. I’m really excited to be talking to you about this book.

Rina Heisel: Thanks. I’m excited to be here.

MUF: So, tell us about Journey Beyond the Burrow.

Rina Heisel: Journey Beyond the Burrow is an adventure story about a young mouse, Tobin. He’s the top weather scout in his burrow, and he’s an expert in the Rules of Rodentia. He’s very proud of this, and always follows the Rules, until a big storm introduces a new predator that scuttles off with Tobin’s new baby brother. The Rules say to never pursue a predator, but Tobin goes on a rescue mission, along with his best friend and his little sister.

MUF: Speaking of the new predator, they definitely freaked me out, but not as much as the part where Tobin winds up in a nest of snakes. I had to put the book down at that part. Snakes scare me.

Rina Heisel: I’ve actually heard that from a few reviewers. Some people go into Journey Beyond the Burrow expecting a cute animal story, and it is that. But it’s also got some pretty scary, intense parts. Those are some of my favorites because I always loved those types of books when I was a kid.

MUF: Speaking of books that you enjoyed as a child, can you tell us some of the books that influenced you?

Rina Heisel: I read a lot of animal fantasy: Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I liked horse books and animal rescue books, but I also loved ghost stories, especially books by Mary Downing Hahn, and the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

MUF: Oh! Those were so good. I saw on your website that you worked on nature shows for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, how did your time there influence Journey Beyond the Burrow?

Rina Heisel: The natural science shows were my favorite projects. I spent a lot of time in the Badlands getting prairie dog footage and observing them and their burrows. It got me thinking about the relationship between predator and prey.

MUF: So, you started with prairie dogs, why is the story about mice?

Rina Heisel: Mice are so expressive, and they have fingers. It’s so helpful in writing animals that an animal is able to hold something because it’s such a human quality.

Also, I had a pet mouse in college that I rescued from a tarantula cage. The owner tried to feed the mouse to the tarantula, but the spider was scared of this little baby mouse and just clung to the top of its cage. I had a very understanding roommate who let me take the mouse back to our room. We named it Lucky, and it lived on cafeteria food.

MUF: Oh! That’s awesome. So, are the Arakni in the story based on that tarantula then?

Huntsman Spider

“Hunstman Spider (Heteropoda sp.)” by GeeC is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Rina Heisel: Arakni are based on tarantulas, yes, but also on Hunstman spiders, and A. Eximius spiders, which are spiders that live in colonies. I basically took the most terrifying traits of several spider species and combined them to make the Arakni, much to my agent’s chagrin. She had to go over all of the

different versions of the cover with spiders on them.

MUF: Wait! There’s a spider on the cover? I never noticed.

Rina Heisel: Yes! The mice that Paul Canavan drew are so expressive that they just pull you in, but there’s definitely a spider on the cover if you look for it.

MUF: Oh, I see it now. It’s kind of … menacing. So, tell us about the Rules of Rodentia. How did you come up with them?

Rina Heisel: The Rules come from nature and the relationships that animals have with each other. I got the idea from a biologist who talked about rabbits and the trails that they memorize. I thought about how all animals have these codes that they follow instinctively, and I wondered what that would look like written down.

MUF: Are there more rules that weren’t covered in the book?

Rina Heisel: There’s a little wiggle room in the numbering. So, there may be new rules, but there’s also a gray area. In life, it’s not just black and white. There’s this whole murky gray area.

MUF: That really feels like Tobin’s arc is finding that out. Rules of Rodentia would have made a pretty good title too.

Rina Heisel: It’s funny that you bring that up. Rules of Rodentia was my title, but my editor, Alice Jerman, wanted a title that would convey more of the story. So, my daughter and I brainstormed about 10 titles, and Journey Beyond the Burrow was one of my daughter’s suggestions.

MUF: Ha! That’s awesome. Can you tell us about your writing journey so far?

Rina Heisel: This story has been with me for about 15 years. The idea for the plot came to me in the Black Hills when we were interviewing a biologist about symbiotic relationships between animals, and I wondered “What would make a mouse and a snake team up?” I carried that little kernel of an idea around for a year or so. Then, the spiders came into play, and I wrote a summary. Then, I went to SCBWI classes and conferences to learn about writing for kids. It was around that time that my family moved to Florida, and I met my amazing writing group, The OWLS. I My first meeting with them I brought a 15 page first chapter of this animal fantasy that started out with Tobin just thinking about life. The OWLS were very patient with me, and I learned so much from them.

“Giant Batfish!” by montereydiver is licensed under CC BY 2.0

MUF: So, would that be your advice to new writers? Find a good group?

Rina Heisel: Yes, a supportive group is the biggest blessing, and SCBWI is a good resource. I learned so much by going to conferences, and going to conferences with my writing group was like imagination fuel.

MUF: Speaking of imagination fuel, what are you working on next?

Rina Heisel: I have an idea for a possible sequel to Journey Beyond the Burrow sketched out, but, right now, I’m working on an MG ghost story about siblings who visit a haunted hunting lodge in the North Woods.

MUF: Sounds spooky! Only a few more questions. What is something that readers would be surprised to find out about you?

Rina Heisel: Well, I love nature and being outside, but I’m scared of big fish. I went scuba diving with a friend near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we saw a huge batfish. My poor diving partner, when we surfaced, said, “You kn

ow, for a small person, you have the most vice-like grip.” I was terrified!

MUF: That sounds like nightmare fuel. How can readers find you on social media?

Rina 

Heisel: I’m on Twitter: @rinaheisel. Instagram: rina.heisel and my Facebook page is Author Rina Heisel.

MUF: Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Journey Beyond the Burrow comes out July 13th, but one lucky winner will have a chance to win a sneak peek by entering our giveaway below.

 

Journey Beyond the Burrow Prize Pack
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New Middle-Grade from Reka Simonsen at Atheneum

Reka Simonsen is Executive Editor at Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. She loves to work on books all across the age range, though she has a real soft spot for middle-grade novels, especially those that can turn kids into lifelong readers. She looks for believable, engaging characters whose voices she can’t forget, and stories with that special blend of humor and heart. Find out more about Reka at https://simonandschusterpublishing.com/atheneum/our-team.

Hi Reka, thanks for chatting with us. You’re publishing two new middle-grade novels from my 2019 cohort by Jamie Sumner and J. Kasper Kramer. Can you talk about what originally sparked your interest and made you want to acquire their debut novels?

Well, if a manuscript opens with a reference to The Great British Bake Off, of course I have to read more! Though it was the main character Ellie herself who made me want to acquire Roll with It. Ellie is smart and funny and she refuses to fit into the “sunshine and cuddles” stereotype that the world seems to expect of her as a kid who uses a wheelchair. That combination of grit and humor in the face of daily challenges, especially as she fights to be seen for who she really—that spoke to me, and I think it will speak to many kids who don’t get to see themselves in books very often. Ellie is determined to tell her own story, not the story others expect from her.

Jessica’s novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told, is also about the power of storytelling. It explores the way that stories—and who gets to tell them—shape what people think. From the start, I was intrigued by the setting, and loved that Jessica was weaving folklore and history together into one narrative. But that’s a tricky thing for even an experienced writer to pull off, much less a first-time author, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then I got swept up in Ileana’s story as she navigates a dangerous world where any neighbor could be a spy, and any loved one could be disappeared by the government for even thinking something that’s critical of the government. Jessica captured what it felt like to live in those circumstances, and wove in the folklore so beautifully that I thought it must be a very personal novel based on her own life. It’s not!

Both novels seem like they might present specific challenges to edit. Jamie’s book, ROLL WITH IT, is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy; Jessica (J. Kasper)’s novel, THE STORY THAT CANNOT BE TOLD, is set in Romania during the Communist revolution, told through the eyes of a 10-year-old. Can you talk about your approach to editing middle grade fiction dealing with subject matter that may go well beyond your first-hand experience?

Many of the books I work on go beyond my own first-hand experience. That’s probably true of many editors, and of many readers. For me, the entry point for working on a middle-grade novel is to find the places where I have an emotional connection to the character, so that even if I haven’t personally experienced her exact situation, I have felt what she is feeling. That common ground is what will allow a young reader to connect with a story, and hopefully to empathize with a character whose life is very different from anything the reader herself has experienced.

Middle-grade kids are at an age where most of them probably haven’t encountered many people whose lives are significantly different from their own, so the books we create for them are an opportunity to let them meet people of different abilities, ethnicities, religions, and experiences than their own. I want those first meetings to be ones that allow young readers to see the commonalities among us, as well as the challenges that they themselves may not have had to face, but others do. So I always edit with an eye to helping make the characters as relatable and believable as possible. Then when it comes to the aspects of a story where I don’t have first-hand knowledge, I work with the author to make sure that those aspects are as authentic as possible. Sometimes that involves getting authenticity readers to vet the story. Jamie and Jessica were on top of this from the start, even before the manuscripts came my way.

I know all too well that there are a lot of pitfalls in writing historical fiction. What makes middle grade historical fiction successful— first, artistically, and second, in terms of marketability? What general advice do you most often give middle grade authors who write historical?

Artistry is what makes or breaks historical fiction, as far as I’m concerned. A lot of people who want to be writers but don’t know where to start try their hand at historical fiction. I suspect this is because research is something concrete and familiar; they feel more confident in their ability to find some interesting moment in time and build a story around it than in their ability to make up something brand new from whole cloth. The result is that editors see a lot of historical fiction that is factually accurate but boring as can be (or worse). It has also been one of the most heavily published genres in kids’ books, so there are already thousands of middle-grade historical novels out in the world creating competition for any new one that hopes to make it into print. To be honest, although historical fiction is a mainstay of children’s publishing, it’s not seen as a highly marketable genre, more of a slow and steady.

So to stand out, a book has to have a terrific, fresh voice and point of view, especially if it’s about a time and place that has already been written about a lot, such as World War II. More than that, though, it has to feel relevant in some way to readers today—obscure moments in history might interest some nerdy types (like me), but unless the story includes some themes and issues that we are still dealing with today, it’s not likely that a book will resonate with many contemporary readers.

You’re also editing Joy McCullough’s new middle-grade, A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST (April 2020). Joy’s Young Adult verse novel, Blood Water Paint was published to a lot of well-deserved acclaim last year. What do you see as the challenges for authors who switch genres/age bands on their second book? Does this present any branding or marketing issues for a relatively new author? Do you ever advise authors you work with to stick to one genre?

We didn’t publish Joy’s YA novel in verse, so there’s no pressure from our marketing team to follow it with something similar. There used to be a concern within the industry that an author’s audience would get confused and not follow her if she switched genres. I think it’s far less of an issue now for writers to change age ranges and genres from one book to the next; the kids’ book world as a whole has gotten more comfortable with the idea that writers might have talent in more than one area. It’s not a bad idea for an author early on in her career to have her second book be something that the audience of the first book would enjoy, since building a readership, especially with middle-grade readers, can take more than one book. But I don’t think it’s a necessity.

What’s the most intensive editorial project you’ve ever worked on?

That’s nearly impossible to say! There have been so many projects that were intensive in some way, and the ways in which they are intensive can vary so much. I’ve worked on some fantasies that took incredible amounts of thought on my part and the part of the author to make the worldbuilding as clear and solid as it could be. Other books are intensive because there’s a lot of factual information to condense and shape into an engaging story—for instance, figuring out how to narrow the amazing and long life of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who just turned 101, into a book for middle-grade readers was a bit of a challenge. And still others are intensive because I signed up the project based on something really special, but other aspects might not be working—structure, age range, whether it’s first person or third, or present or past tense—and an overhaul is called for.

What unique talents or perspectives do you think you bring to the table as an editor for middle-grade?

I like to joke that my bad memory is my great editorial strength. In reality I don’t have a bad memory so much as selective one; I can reread mysteries after a few years because I rarely remember whodunit, since what I love about a good mystery is the mood and the rich characterization. In all seriousness, though,

this does allow me to reread manuscripts with somewhat more of a fresh eye than I might otherwise have had on that third, fourth, or fifth read. And that is a real help, because we editors have to reread manuscripts so many times that the risk is high of familiarity allowing our eyes and minds to auto-correct something, rather than catching that it could use more thought.

What’s the number one thing a new middle-grade author can do, pre- or post-publication, to help boost sales of his or her books?

If we knew the answer to this, every book would be a success! My best advice is for authors to make friends with people at their local indie bookstores and libraries and attend events there, and try to get to know other authors in their area. It’s always helpful to build connections within your local literary community, where you can help support one another and build the word about your own books and those of other writers in your community.

What’s an under-represented middle-grade genre or topic that you’d like to see more of?

I’d love to see more books about kids struggling with financial insecurity. We live in one of the richest countries on earth, yet nearly half of our children are living below or dangerously close to the poverty line. Yet even as we’re entering a time when realistic slice-of-life stories are trending again, so few books deal with the issues of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether your family will be kicked out of their home, or whether you’ll be taken from your parents because they can’t care for you.

Do you have other forthcoming or new middle-grade novels you’d like to introduce us to?

Of course! In a completely different vein but also absolutely wonderful: The Green Children of Woolpit by J. Anderson Coats is a deliciously creepy, spine-tingling fantasy based on a British legend about two children with green skin who mysteriously showed up in a small village. Jillian has brilliantly interpreted this story as a dark fantasy involving a strong-willed young girl and the dangerous fairy folk from English legend.

On the younger end of middle-grade is The Very, Very Far North by Dan Bar-El, an utterly charming novel about a sweet and curious young polar bear named Duane who befriends an array of animals as he discovers where he belongs. It really feels fresh and new, yet it has all of the classic appeal of Winnie the Pooh, or of Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomintroll books, which are favorites of mine.

And one to look forward to next summer is The Great Pet Heist by Emily Ecton—which is what would happen if you cast Oceans 11 entirely with animals, complete with reconnaissance rats named Marco and Polo, a brains-of-the-operation bird, the coolest of cats, and a decoy dachshund named Butterbean. It is the funniest book I’ve read in ages.

Thanks so much for your time, Reka!