Posts Tagged contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

Interview with Merrill Wyatt and giveaway of her latest mystery, Tangled Up in Nonsense

Merrill Wyatt is the author of Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen, and Tangled Up in Luck. Her newest, Tangled Up in Nonsense, (Margaret K. McElderry Books, release date November 29) has young detectives Sloane and Amelia trying to crack a case that happened over a hundred years ago. Set in a creepy mansion during a peony competition, Sloane and Amelia work together to piece together the clues to attempt to find out who kidnapped a dog and where millions of dollars are stashed. The Kirkus review raves, “A warmhearted, very funny, madcap caper.”

Merrill Wyatt

Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, Merrill!

It is such a pleasure to interview an author who lives in my backyard. (Well, not quite, but you live here in my city of Toledo.) Speaking of backyard, Tangled Up in Nonsense is your second novel that features Northwest Ohio in the plot. What made you choose our beautiful area as the backdrop for your mystery?

There’s so much history and mystery in this area! Not only was Toledo a major stop on the
Underground Railroad, it was a hotbed of crime in the 1920s and 1930s. As in major robberies,
hidden gambling dens, gangster shootouts from speeding automobiles, and bootlegging – so much
bootlegging. If you were into crime in the 1920s, Toledo was the place to be. Which is why Sloane
and Amelia are searching for Bootleggin’ Ma Yaklin’s Missing Millions.

Young sleuths Sloane and Amelia run into all kinds of nonsense as they try and solve several mysteries nearly a hundred years ago; who kidnapped a bootlegger’s dog and where is the two million dollars that disappeared around the same time. What, or who inspired you to create this plot?

I’m a big animal lover, so animals frequently pop up as minor characters in my books. The bootlegging piece is straight out of Toledo’s history. If you talk to anyone who was alive during the 1920s or 1930s, they all have stories to tell you about gangsters and bootleggers. There’s a restaurant just down the street from where I live – I could walk to it – and one time, my dad casually said, “That was a big gangster hangout back when I was a baby. Licavoli and his guys went there all the time.” Licavoli was a major Toledo gangster with ties to other gangs all over the country.

Sloane and Amelia are rather fearless. What scares you?

Everything! Dolls creep me out – yet I love dollhouse miniatures. I can’t explain that. There’s a scene in Tangled Up in Nonsense in which Sloane and Amelia go upstairs to check out an attic in the middle of the night. As originally written, it swung between creepy and hilarious as Amelia convinced Sloane that there was probably an army of haunted dolls on the other side of the attic door. I had to cut a lot of that out because – even though it was funny and creepy – it slowed down the plot too much. There’s still a little bit of it in there, though. I couldn’t bring myself to cut out everything. I mean, if I was in the attic of a one-hundred-year-old mansion, I would definitely be worried about haunted dolls. We once had raccoons break into the attic of our very-normal house, and all the thudding and bumping woke us up in the middle of the night. But neither my husband nor I had the courage to go upstairs and check it out until it was daytime.

The mystery resolves around a time that many young people may not be that aware of…Prohibition of alcohol and bootlegging as a result. What drew you to this time frame? Are there history lesson tie-ins with the topic?

My grandmother could remember that time period very clearly, and even my parents have memories of what Toledo was like not long afterward. It really was the city’s big, shining moment. A lot of the city’s beautiful, older neighborhoods like Old Orchard, Ottawa Hills, West Moreland, and a lot of the developments along River Road date to around that time. Plus, the downtown area was gorgeous during that time. If you google “Toledo 1930s”, you’ll be able to see all these stunning buildings that are no longer with us.

If you’re looking for history lessons, a lot of the federal policing structures took shape around this time. Without Prohibition and the bootlegging that resulted, you wouldn’t have the FBI. That came directly as a result of all the crime Prohibition caused. And speaking of the FBI, one of its early directors once referred to Toledo as the most corrupt city in the country! Apparently, the mayor and the police knew they had all these gangsters living here, but they didn’t care because it brought business to the city! Also, this is when the police first got police cars. They didn’t really have them before the 1930s. But the gangsters did, and so the police would be trying to chase after them on horseback as the bootleggers drove off in cars. It didn’t work well.

 The shenanigans of the various characters reminded me of some of the Three Stooges’ antics, which my kids loved when they were younger. What slapstick comedians did you have in mind when creating the characters?

You know, I loved The Three Stooges when I was a kid too! There’s just something timelessly funny about physical comedy. I was definitely thinking of them as I was writing this. And to be honest was definitely inspired by a lot of the slapstick comedy you see on Disney and Nickelodeon shows, too. I watched so many of those with my daughter, and you can tell they are inspired by the Stooges, too. I would also add Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. You can find their movies on YouTube, and they still hold up well even a hundred years later. Slapstick comedy is timeless.

I know you work full-time, are married, and have a teenage daughter. How do you balance it all? What does your writing process look like? Are you a plotser or pantser…do you plot out your storyline, or fly by the seat of your pants in writing your novels?

I start with a general plot and try to map out as much as I can. As you mentioned, I’m super busy every second of every day. I have to snatch the writing time whenever I can get it. Having a well-mapped-out plot helps with that. That being said, sometimes I’m really detailed in that process and sometimes my notes include things like, “and then something happens. Figure it out later.” Other times, once I start writing, I find that the story very naturally progresses in a different path than I thought it would. If that seems to be working, I try to follow it as much as I can while still bringing it back to my main goal. Typically, when I start writing, I have a clear beginning and a clear end. I sometimes refer to the middle as the “soggy middle” or the “squishy middle” because it’s the part that changes the most. 

I know that writing fiction requires research, and I imagine you studied the Stranahan home which served as the inspiration for the mansion where the peony competition takes place, as well as Prohibition. Could you share your research techniques with readers?

You can do a lot of research online. I usually start with just general searches, reading blogs and looking at a lot of pictures. Images definitely inspire me. After that, I start to get more detailed. I’ll only focus on online library archives and historical societies because they are more factual and trustworthy. The Lucas County Library has a terrific collection of online photographs that include details about them. Next, I’ll go to the library itself and start pulling books. The Main Library in downtown is absolutely fabulous, with incredibly knowledgeable librarians. I also went to the Stranahan Mansion at Wildwood, which is open to the public year around, though the best time to go is at Christmas when it’s decorated for the holidays. If I could, I’d be like Amelia and dress up as Nancy Drew. In fact, when I was writing Tangled Up in Nonsense, I checked out “Nancy Drew clothes” on Pinterest – and that led me down a wormhole that it took hours to get out of. I almost ended up with an adorable cloche hat and houndstooth cape. But they were sold out, sigh.

Is there a third mystery in the works?

There is! It’s called TANGLED UP IN MAYHEM, and it takes place at Cedar Point. Sloane and Amelia are hired to investigate a lost time capsule. They’re thrilled that someone actually wants to pay them for their detective work – until both their nemesis Mackenzie and a ghost show up to stop them.

Thank you for your time, Merrill!

Merrill has agreed to give away a complimentary copy of Tangled Up in Nonsense to a random winner. To enter, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ukraine for Middle-Grade Readers

Before Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, many people elsewhere knew only a little about the country. Recent nonfiction and fiction books on Ukraine for Middle-Grade readers can help them understand what Ukrainians are fighting so fiercely to defend.

Most of these books appeared in 2022, and many of their publishers will contribute sales profits to Ukrainian relief.

NONFICTION:

Ukraine is known for  the beautiful golden-domed architecture of its cities and the richness of its culture and language. It is also called “The Breadbasket of Europe” because other countries in Europe and the world depend on its abundant harvests of grain for food.

Blue Skies and Golden Fields: Celebrating Ukraine, by Ukrainian children’s author Oksana Lushchevska (Capstone Press, 2022), covers Ukraine’s  history of withstanding invasion and domination by other countries, including Russia.  Lusgchevska also aims to immerse young readers in the Ukrainian culture. There is one whole section on sunflowers, the national flower and symbol of Ukraine. She includes instructions on how to plant your own sunflower and a Ukrainian poem to recite while you water it! Ukrainian Easter eggs are world-famous, and she tells how to dye eggs with natural dyes. She’s even included a guide to learning the Ukrainian alphabet and some key phases. Bright photographs illustrate Blue Skies and Golden Fields.

More list-like  is The Great Book of Ukraine: Interesting Stories, Ukranian History & Random Facts About Ukraine, by Anatolly Drahan (Independently published, 2022). Learn here not only about Ukraine’s past, but about pop culture, folklore, food, music, religion, celebrities & symbols, and why Ukranians celebrate two different New Years.

Ukrainian is  one of the most lyrical languages in the world. Enjoy learning some of it from Ukrainian Picture Dictionary Coloring Book: Over 1500 Ukrainian Words and Phrases for Creative and Visual Learners of All Ages (Lingo Mastery 2022).

FICTION:

These four Middle-grade novels take place in other times of great conflict and invasion in Ukraine’s past. The situations the young characters must face are grim and terrifying. But these are stories of resilience, courage, and hope, the qualities most needed in war-torn Ukraine today.

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, by Erin Litteken (Boldwood Books, 2022), takes place in the 1930s, a time known as The Holodor, The Great Starvation. Russia’s Soviet ruler, Joseph Stalin, occupied Ukraine and tried to erase its culture. The Soviets claimed all grain produced in that fertile country and starved  4 million Ukrainians to death. In The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, 16-year old Katy at first sees village neighbors disappear for resisting the Soviets. Soon she herself is engaged in the struggle for survival. Author Litteken is the granddaughter a Ukrainian refugee from World War II.

Winterkill, by Canadian/Ukrainian author Marsha Forchuck Skrypuch (Scholastic, 2022), also  takes place in the time of the Great Starvation. In this gripping story, young Nyl is struggling to stay alive. Alice, whose father has come from Canada to work for the Soviets, sees that what is happening to the people is terribly wrong. Nyl and Alice come up with a daring plan. Will they survive long enough to carry it out?

In April of 1986, the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, not far from Kyiv, melted down, poisoning the environment. In Helen Bates’ graphic novel, The Lost Child of Chernobyl (Otter Barry Books, 2021) two stubborn old ladies refuse to evacuate. Nine years later, forest wolves bring a ragged child to their door. The child has been living with the wolves in the forbidden toxic zone. Will the two be able to find his family after all this time?

In the suspenseful novel, The War Below, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Scholastic, 2020),  a Ukrainian boy smuggles himself out of a Nazi forced labor camp during World War II. He has to leave behind his dear friend Lida, but vows to find her again someday. IF he survives. Racing through the countryside, he struggles to evade both the Nazis and Soviet agents and finds himself in the line of fire.

MORE BOOKS ON UKRAINE FOR MIDDLE-GREAD READERS ARE COMING SOON: A NOVEL AND A WORDLESS BEAUTY

Maya and Her Friends: A Story About Tolerance and Acceptance To Support the Children of Ukraine (Studio Press, 2023) takes place in 2017. In that year, Russia conquered Crimea and annexed it from Ukraine. They also temporarily occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. This is the story of families with children in Crimea, all with different family backgrounds. It shows how living under occupation and the shadow of war has impacted their lives. Ukrainian author Larysa Debysenk wrote this novel in Kyiv, with the roar of Russian gunfire in the background. She says, “I want to shout that the children of my country need international protection. The world needs to understand this.”

Yellow Butterfly: A story from Ukraine  will come out from Red Comet Press in January, 2023. Without words, and using the yellow and blue symbolic colors of Ukraine, children’s book illustrator Oleksandr Shatokhin shows a young girl’s view of the military conflict: her fear, her anger and frustration, and finally her hope.

Let’s hope, too, that by the time these last two books appear, the fighting in Ukraine may be over and rebuilding can begin!  Slava Ukrajini! 

 

 

 

Author Spotlight: Interview with Hena Khan

Three years before the pandemic hit, I had the great luck of sharing a train ride with Hena Khan, the award-winning author of Amina’s Voice. Hena and I were headed home from #nErDCampLI, and I remember feeling wiped out—and talked out—from the conference. But once I sat down next to Hena and started chatting, my weariness evaporated and an instant connection was formed. For the next 60 minutes, we talked about writing (we were both debut authors); parenting (Hena’s two sons were in middle school; my daughter was a senior in high school); and countless other topics that newfound friends on a train often discover.

Since Amina’s Voice came out in 2017, Hena has gone on to publish multiple MG novels, including Amina’s Song (2021), More to the Story (2020), and the Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series. She is also the author of seven picture books and has contributed to six children’s anthologies, including Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices. A popular guest speaker in classrooms, school auditoriums, and libraries across the country, Hena’s latest MG novel, Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure, is out now from Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Here’s a brief summary:

Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure

Zara lives for bike rides with her friends—so, when her shiny, brand-new bike goes missing from the park one day, she’s crushed. After her parents insist she earn the money for another bike herself, Zara’s determined to start a business. But what kind? A lemonade stand? Not profitable enough. Selling painted rocks? Not enough customers.

Zara’s starting to get discouraged when she and her friend Naomi finally come up with the perfect idea: The Treasure Wagon, a roving garage sale that unloads knickknacks from the Saleem family basement and makes money all at once! But when a mix-up gets Zara in hot water again, will she have to give up everything she’s earned toward her new bike?

The Interview

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Hena! I’m so happy to have you here. I can’t believe it’s been five years since our paths crossed!

HK: I know! But it’s so nice to reminisce about that lovely train ride and our instant friendship! Thanks so much for inviting me to talk about my newest book.

MR: Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure is the second of a trilogy. (Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun came out earlier this year; Zara’s Rules for Living Your Best Life pubs on March 21, 2023.) What was the inspiration behind the series?

HK: I came up with the idea during the pandemic while listening to children playing outside in droves and thinking about my own childhood. I adored Beverly Cleary’s books, characters like Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, and reading about their clever antics (anyone else want to stomp around on coffee can stilts too?). I wanted to write a series that similarly makes kids wish they were part of the neighborhood and imagine themselves joining in the fun, just like I did.

MR: Zara has two loving parents, a cute-but-sometimes-annoying little brother, Zayd, a strong bond with her extended family, including her grandparents and her uncle, Jamal Mamoo, and a crew of caring, fun-loving neighborhood friends. Is this reflective of your own childhood? What are the main similarities and differences?

HK: The crew of neighborhood friends is very much based on the children I grew up with, and the Goldsteins are inspired by my lifelong friends who lived across the street. The extended family, however, is more reflective of my children’s experience and vantage point as third-generation Pakistani American Muslims. I’m fascinated by the way my kids interact with their grandparents (Naano and Nana Abu are essentially my real-life parents), aunts and uncles, and the way they relate to the culture. They find it alternately cool and hilarious and don’t have the same type of pressure, expectations, or awkwardness that I felt as a child of immigrants. I also didn’t get to grow up around many relatives, and always wished I had been as fortunate.

Trash and Treasure

MR: One of the main themes of Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure is our emotional attachment to possessions. This resonated with me deeply, because I recently had to clear out my mom’s apartment, which contained 60 years’ worth of stuff. (The task was daunting, to say the least.) What made you focus on this theme? And where does Marie Kondo fit into the picture?

HK: Oh wow, my heart is with you—I’m sure that was incredibly difficult! I grew up with parents who saved everything, and we had a storage room much like the one I describe in the book. They were reluctant to part with anything, in the hopes that it could be useful in the future. I wanted to tackle the topic because it’s something I still wrestle with, both in terms of finding the right balance between saving, donating, and recycling my own things, and convincing my mother to part with her “junk.”

I thought a lot about the idea of trash versus treasure, why we value the things we do, sentimental value, and what really matters. And it felt both cathartic and wishful to write some of the scenes. I’ve heard a lot about Marie Kondo, particularly the controversy around getting rid of books (the horror!), and thought it would be funny to include her although I’m not a disciple . . . at least not yet!

Viewing Life from a Younger Lens

MR:  Compared to some of your previous MG novels (Amina’s Voice, Amina’s Song, and More to the Story), the Zara’s Rules trilogy skews younger, ages seven-10, with shorter chapters and numerous illustrations. What’s the main challenge when writing for a younger audience? What’s the most fun?

HK: I’d say the biggest challenge is having less space to fully flesh out characters and plots, which is very important to me even in a shorter book. But it’s so fun to be able to jump right into the action, and to examine the world through the lens of a 10-and-three-quarter-year-old. Kids at that age are very aware and engaged with the world but still so earnest and innocent, and I love to explore the things that I’m thinking about now from that perspective.

Series Versus Stand-alones

MR: In addition to the Zara’s Rules trilogy, you’ve written the Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series, with six books in total. What’s it like to work on a series as opposed to a stand-alone book?

HK: The biggest difference is that you get to know your characters deeply, so it feels like getting to play with old friends in each story. I never really believed authors who talked about their characters deciding what happens in a story, but I kind of understand that concept now. When characters become so fully developed in your mind, you have an idea of what they would say or do in a situation, and it becomes easier to write them. At the same time, it’s critical to keep the stories fresh and interesting and avoid repetition. I love making passing references to former books as little surprises to those who have read them all.

Picture-Book Love

MR: You also write picture books, including the acclaimed Under My Hijab. Is it tricky to switch from MG to picture books—and from picture books to MG…?

HK: It’s not too hard to switch back and forth between the formats since they use very different writing muscles. I generally don’t work on two middle-grade projects at once, but often turn to a picture book during breaks. I love the economy of words and the way one sentence can make or break an entire book. It forces you to be a sharp editor and pay attention to every syllable.

Celebrating Diversity

MR: Your books are lovingly infused with elements from your Pakistani heritage, and your characters are ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse. What can authors—and publishers—do to increase the visibility of authentic, diverse characters in kidlit?

HK: Thank you! The people I love inspire so much of what I write. But it’s important to remember that I represent only one subset of the Pakistani American Muslim community, which also has diversity within it—in terms of level of cultural assimilation, socioeconomic status, religious observance and more. And then, of course, the American Muslim community is even more diverse. I think it’s wonderful to see more diverse representation in kidlit, but we need a bigger variety of stories and characters in all genres. Also, while it’s wonderful to have books to celebration diversity, culture, and traditions, I hope to see more stories where identities aren’t necessarily emphasized but are simply woven into the background like in Zara’s Rules.

Plotter or Pantser?

MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have a particular schedule? Also, are you a plotter or a pantser?

HK: I wish I had a routine, but I don’t. I write at all times of the day, sometimes every day for a while and then not for weeks. But I’d like to find some discipline someday! Overall, I’m more of a plotter than a pantser.

The Secret to Success

MR: You’ve written 13 (and counting!) middle-grade novels, seven picture books, and stories included in six anthologies. What’s the secret to being such a prolific author?

HK: Well, I’ve been at it for a while now, and sometimes it feels like I’ve published a lot, and at other times I think I could have done more! I think the key to staying engaged and motivated is to keep challenging myself to improve my craft, to try to reach audiences in different ways, and to only write about what genuinely excites me.

What’s Next?

MR: What are you working on now, Hena? Enquiring Mixed-Up Files readers want to know…

HK: I’m excited to be starting on my second graphic novel, finishing up a new middle-grade novel, and editing an anthology that hasn’t been announced yet. I’ve also got some new picture books on the way! Please connect with me to get updates on my new titles.

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack?

I prefer cookies but settle for nuts or kettle corn.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee all the way! I drink espresso with a little bit of milk.

Marie Kondo: Yea or nay?

Nay, can’t do it!

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

If I had to choose an apocalypse, it would be the one.

Superpower?

I’d have to go with invisibility.

Favorite place on earth (besides Seville, Istanbul, and Seattle)?

Turks and Caicos is just incredible.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?

My husband and two sons. Or if they count as one family, then ice cream and my laptop.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Hena—and congratulations on the recent publication of Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure!

Thank YOU!

Bio

Hena Khan is an award-winning author of picture books and middle-grade fiction. Her middle-grade novel Amina’s Voice launched Simon & Schuster’s groundbreaking Salaam Reads imprint and was named a Best Book of 2017 by the Washington Post, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and others. The sequel, Amina’s Song, won the 2021 Asian/Pacific Award for Children’s Literature. Hena wrote the popular Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream series, and More to the Story, a novel inspired by her all-time favorite book, Little Women. Hena’s acclaimed picture books include Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Under My Hijab, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, Night of the Moon, and It’s Ramadan, Curious George. Learn more about Hena on her website and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

(For more on Hena Khan, check out this MUF interview by Jonathan Rosen!)