Posts Tagged debut authors

An Interview with Zohra Nabi (plus a book giveaway!)

I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful book covers. 

I remember wandering school book fairs in elementary school with armfuls of the most colorful, vibrant-looking books I could find. Even now as a middle school teacher, I display dozens of books in my classroom every year, and I fully admit that the ones getting the most love are the ones with beautiful covers.

Of course, with all that focus on the outside of the book, the stage is set for some occasional disappointment when I actually get down to the business of reading the story. But then there are also those moments when the promise of the front cover is wonderfully fulfilled as the story unfolds, and that’s the sort of thing we’ll be talking about today.

Zohra Nabi’s debut middle grade, The Kingdom Over the Sea, is just as sprawling and fantastical as it looks thanks to Tom Clohosy Cole’s beautiful cover design.  I’m so glad I was able to ask her some questions about the story and her process, and I think you will be, too! Stick around to the end to learn how you can win a copy of the book for free!


Chris: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me, Zohra! Let’s start with you as a writer. Your biography says you studied law at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, so how did you find your way to the world of storytelling?

Zohra: I’ve always liked writing stories, ever since I was a teenager. I liked writing in the style of my favorite children’s fantasy books, although nothing I produced was ever publishable. Even when I was studying Law – which I did really enjoy – I was writing in stolen moments when I should have been studying. Lockdown came just as I was sitting my final exams, and when I graduated there was suddenly no legal work experience I could do, and nowhere I could travel. But I did have some money saved up from a legal essay prize I had come second in. So, I decided to put the money towards a creative writing course, and try to write a book.


Chris: What an interesting way to come into publishing! Let’s talk abut your process —  I love learning how authors develop their characters. Your main character, Yara, is such a passionate and adventurous person. How did you work behind the scenes to create her for this story?

Zohra: Yara is such an interesting one! For me she’s a real mix of my two younger sisters, with her determination, and her strong moral compass. She also definitely has quite a bit of me in her as well – I loved debating and campaigning when I was Yara’s age. I wanted her to be someone who was shaped by how she grew up in the UK, who was equipped to fight injustice in a fantasy world because of what she had experienced here. I wrote her life story in first person to find her voice, and did little questionnaires to work out her favorite foods and biggest fears.  But even with all that preparation it was difficult to get her on the page. I had to really work with my editors to make Yara’s personality come through in the text, and to make sure that she continued to be a believable girl from our world even after she travels into Zehaira.


Chris: There are references in the book to Yara being a champion of causes, one of them being the banning of books / closure of libraries. Was there anything in your personal experience that made you want to incorporate this into Yara’s backstory?

Zohra: When I was Yara’s age there were a lot of library closures, and people in communities all up and down the UK really turned out to protest – in some cases successfully. Libraries are such an important part of a community; the ability to access information, or even just to print out the documents you need and talk to someone who wants to help you is such a necessary thing, especially when you’ve recently moved to a new country. My dad always talked about how important his local library was to him growing up, and I loved spending time in mine as a child. I knew Yara would be the kind of person who wouldn’t stand for her local library being shut down. When she gets to Zehaira, the library there has been burnt down – the ultimate in book banning and library closures – and I wanted to be honest about the impact it has had. The sorcerers of Zehaira have preserved some of their culture and knowledge, but a lot of it, maybe most of it, has been lost. I think some people are very casual about book bannings today, saying that will just make kids read those books more – but I think if we’re not careful, we’ll lose important texts for good.


Chris: That’s a great point. Language can be like that, too, and there are some themes of language in the book — what prompted you to incorporate it into the story?

Zohra: I think because immigration and movement of people is such a key theme of the story, and language is such an important part of that. Yara’s mama is preserving their link to their culture and country when she speaks her language to Yara, and I imagine Yara was also an interpreter for her mum growing up, the way many second-generation children are today. But I think it’s also been quite lonely for Yara, not knowing anyone else who can communicate with them in the same way. Speaking to other people in her mother’s language when she gets to Zehaira is a way for her to expand her knowledge of her culture through sources other than her mum, and I think that is a source of wonder for her. I also think it’s really important that when Yara does discover the magical power of language, it’s not by using English, which is the language she would have used when she was campaigning back at home, but in the language her mother taught her – because Yara’s mother is the person who made her want to fight back against everything wrong about the world. 


Chris: The streets of Zehaira are so richly described in the book, which is very atmospheric overall. Were you inspired by any real-world places?

Zohra: Thank you! I was hugely inspired by the cities of the golden age of the Islamic world – which were these places of amazing scholarship and learning and wisdom, with beautiful libraries and universities. I think I must have been influenced by all the different cities I visited before, because I tried very hard to imagine I was walking around Zehaira as I was writing, but I was careful not to create anything that was too close to reality. Part of the magic of Zehaira is that it feels familiar but also strange! There’s a book by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities which describes different fictional cities, deconstructing and reconstructing the concept of a city itself, but centering the descriptions around an idea of Venice. I’m not trying to do anything so elaborate, but it gave me the confidence to build my own fictional city based on an idea of a city as a place of both culture and corruption.  


Chris: It totally works! So, what’s next for you as an author? Can you give us any clues about new projects you’re working on?

Zohra: I’m currently working on the sequel for The Kingdom over the Sea! I’m really enjoying working on it with my editors, and puzzling out how Yara’s journey can continue. Book 2 takes us deeper into Yara’s past, examining both her family history and the history of sorcery itself. Yara makes an important discovery – but the Chief Alchemist is hot on her heels, lurking in the shadows…


Chris: Sounds amazing — thanks for the sneak peek! Okay, and now for the lighting round…


Favorite place to write?

At my desk in the attic.

Favorite authors?

Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, Judith Kerr.

Best desert?


Do you have any pets?

No, but I did once have a hamster called Horace

Favorite elementary school memory?

Making up imaginary worlds for pretend games with my friends.

Favorite piece of advice for other writers:

Write to entertain yourself. And drink lots of tea.


Many thanks to Zohra for taking time to chat with the Mixed Up Files. You can find her online on Instagram at @zohra_nabi and Twitter at @Zohra3Nabi, and you can learn more about the book HERE

And last but not least — leave a comment below for a chance to win a free copy of Zohra’s book. We’ll be selecting one commenter at random on Monday, June 19th 2023!

Spooky, Scary Stitchers

For those of you who love spooky, scary middle grade, I have a treat for you. The Stitchers (ABRAMS/Amulet 2020), by debut author Lorien Lawrence, releases this week, and alongside that spooky scary goodness, it’s SO. MUCH. FUN.

The Stitchers Cover

About The Stitchers:

Thirteen-year-old Quinn Parker knows there’s something off about her neighbors. She calls them “the Oldies” because they’ve lived on Goodie Lane for as long as anyone can remember, but they never seem to age. Are they vampires? Or aliens? Or getting secret experimental surgeries? Or is Quinn’s imagination just running wild again?

If her dad were still around, he’d believe her. When he was alive, they’d come up with all sorts of theories about the Oldies. Now, Quinn’s determined to keep the investigation going with the help of Mike, her neighbor and maybe-crush. They’ll have to search for clues and follow the mystery wherever it leads–even if it’s to the series pond at the end of the street that’s said to have its own sinister secrets. But the Oldies are on to them. And the closer Quinn and Mike get to uncovering the answers, the more they realize just how terrifying the truth may be.

Interview with Debut Author Lorien Lawrence

Welcome, Lorien Lawrence, to the Mixed-Up Files! As I often do, I shared your book with my son, who’s a middle grade and young adult reader.  He loved the Stitchers–which meant he and I got to collaborate on these interview questions.  NOTE: This interview has been edited slightly in order to group topics and transitions.

HMC: I am always curious about origin stories – where did you get the idea for the Stitchers?

LL I think I say this in another!er interview, but there’s nothing scarier than losing someone you love. I wrote this story after my dad suddenly died. I had just moved back to my hometown with my husband, and we would go for these really long walks and try to make sense of what happened. Eventually, my childhood streets brought back happy memories and feelings of nostalgia instead of sadness. And we started to play a “what if” sort of game, where we took turns wondering “what if that house was haunted?” or “what if that pond was magical?” Eventually, one of these “what ifs” turned into THE STITCHERS. So I guess writing Quinn’s story helped me come to terms with my own grief.

Writing About Loss for MG

HMC: (As you just mentioned,) your main character, Quinn, is coping with the loss of her father … and picking up where he left off, investigating the same mystery. Loss and fear are pretty scary subjects no matter how old you are … how did you balance respecting your middle-grade readers’ maturity with knowing when the subject matter needed to be age-appropriate?

Finding this balance was probably the most difficult part of the writing experience for me. I knew I needed to show Quinn coming through the other side, so to speak. She doesn’t miss her dad any less, but she learns how to live a new kind of normal. Her dreams continue, her friendships continue, even though she herself has changed. But the change isn’t all bad: she’s stronger. She’s braver. She’s more determined and more vulnerable. And she realizes that she’s still surrounded by people who love her.

Questions from HMC’s Son

HMC’s Son: What was your favorite part of this book to write? 

LL: Great question! My favorite part to write was the scene in the basement of the funeral home. I won’t give it away, but it was delightfully gruesome and fun to imagine!

HMC’s Son: What did you like most about Quinn? 

LL: Another great question! I like that Quinn is flawed. She lies. She hides the truth. She hides her true feelings. But these are things that normal 12 year olds do. And by the end of the book, she makes things right.

HMC’s Son: This book is the beginning of a series. Can you give us any hints about what is coming up next for Quinn and Mike?

LL: The next book in the series is called THE COLLECTORS, and it comes out next fall. It follows Quinn once again as she and Mike launch into a new supernatural investigation – but I don’t want to give too much away! 😊 I can say that it picks up directly where THE STITCHERS leaves off.

Stitchers Fan Art

                                                                                Stitchers Fan Art, by Elle Jauffret

Eternal Youth, Monsters, and Witches

HMC: Another interesting theme in your book is about the eternal quest for youth … and how it can make people do strange things. (!!) What takeaways do you think this element in your plot has for the middle-grade reader?

I think I was inspired by the day-old conundrum of kids wanting to be older, and adults wanting to be younger. In reality, we need to just learn to appreciate where we are in the moment.

HMC: In this book, I found lots of literary and theater connections, from Frankenstein to the Crucible. Did any of those influence your writing?

LL: Oh my gosh, I’m thrilled that you noticed! YES! I’ve always been taken with Frankenstein and The Crucible – really the whole idea that society creates the monsters, not the other way around.

Open Mic Question

HMC: What do you want us to know about The Stitchers that we haven’t asked?

LL: A quick fun fact: I have tiny clues hidden in THE STITCHERS and THE COLLETORS that hint towards future books in the series!


HMC: I’ve begun a new line of pandemic questions in all my interviews because I’m curious about how we as kidlit authors are going to handle the pandemic in our writing going forward. You’re a middle school teacher in New England – will you be going back into the classroom to teach this fall, or will you be teaching virtually?

LL: As of right now, I still don’t know where or how I will be teaching. I am assuming that I’ll be teaching virtually as I did in the spring. I’m from Connecticut, and our state got hit with the virus early, so my school closed in early March and remained closed for the year. Whatever I end up doing, I’ll try to make the best of it!

HMC: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your writing life?

LL: I grew up with (and still struggle) with anxiety, and writing has always been a coping mechanism for me. So I’ve actually been writing a lot! I wrote two new manuscripts during quarantine. I don’t know if these books will ever see the light of day, but it helps me to throw myself in a made-up world when times are scary.

HMC: Will Quinn and Mike have pandemic related conversations in your new book?

LL: This is a great question! I honestly don’t know the answer! They won’t be talking about it in the first two books in the series, but if I’m able to publish more adventures of Quinn and Mike, I’ll have to have a serious think about what to do with that. Maybe I’ll ask my students if they would be interested in reading about something so scary and recent. I’m sure they’ll have strong opinions either way!

((More about pandemic writing in this archived post on Writing Prompts for a Pandemic))

HMC: Thanks so much, Lorien. Congratulations on your debut and best of luck to you!

Debut Author Lorien Lawrence

Lorien Lawrence

Lorien Lawrence is a writer and middle school English teacher from Connecticut. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found hunting ghosts with her family. The Stitchers is her debut novel.

Where to find the Stitchers:

    1. Click on this link, then search for THE STITCHERS — or any other book.
  2. Amazon

Agent Spotlight: Alexander Slater, Trident Media Group

Alex Slater has been with Trident Media Group since 2010. His clients include Ali Novak, Janae Marks, Jodi Kendall, and other award winning and bestselling authors. He is most interested in stories that blend genres, in characters that have been historically underrepresented, and in voices that enrapture him to the point of missing his subway stop. His list focuses intently on middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction, but peppered throughout are adult thrillers, literary fiction, Coen Brothers-esque crime noir, pop culture, narrative nonfiction, and in particular, graphic novels for all ages. Alex lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

It’s not often I get a rush of excitement reading an agent’s manuscript wishlist, but Alex Slater’s tweets hashtagging #MSWL set my heart aflutter. Just one of my many favorites:

Please send me #MG that you’re afraid pushes the envelope, concerning topics some might think “aren’t suitable”…yet that’s exactly why you had to write it. Send me your truth. #MSWL

Who could resist a request like that? Slater’s wishlists beg for qualities like “empathy,” “heart” and “humanity,” paired with concepts that “burn down white supremacy,” in genres including creepy MG, graphic novels, and work by marginalized authors. This lit agent also gets serious props from current clients like Keah Brown, who gushed not long ago: “he just lets me be and fights for the things he knows I want. He’s a real one.”

Slater’s clients include two 2020 middle grade debuts, Claire Swinarski (What Happens Next) and Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington). He reps graphic novelist Breena Bard (Tresspassers) and middle grade authors Amy Ephron (The Other Side of the Wall), Jennifer Blecher (Out of Place), historical nonfiction kidlit author Tim Grove (Star Spangled, May 2020), and Adam Perry (The Magicians of Elephant County).

Welcome Alex!

I love that you’re actively soliciting middle grade fiction that addresses topics that some may consider unsuitable. I’m drawn to books like this myself. But aren’t you courting a massive headache? How would you go about persuading an editor (or for that matter, a librarian, parent, bookseller) that envelope-busting middle grade subjects are not “niche” books with low sales potential (or perhaps worse, books likely to be censored or rejected by gatekeepers)?

FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks is an important and timely debut about systemic racism, criminal justice, and cupcakes.

The Congressman, and award-winning children’s book author, John Lewis has devoted his life to getting into “good trouble,” that is, engaging in types of civil disobedience, and it’s an activity we should all participate in. Getting into necessary trouble that pushes boundaries and changes minds for the better is my goal as an agent and as a human being.

In regards to the books I help publish, that means seeking out stories with the themes, characters, or plots that the gate-keepers of the past didn’t trust children enough with. That gate-keeping got us to where we are today. If we don’t push past it, if we don’t ask more questions, or seek more stories, we don’t progress to where we need to be for our children’s children. So yes, it’s a risk to ask editors, booksellers, or teachers to step into this same frame of mind, but I will point out that it’s only bestselling books that ever get banned.

You’ve been in the lit agent business for a decade now. What’s changed in the middle grade marketplace in that time? What changes are you excited about, what changes less so?

In the past decade, publishers finally began believing that audiences want more diversity in their literature. The bestseller lists don’t lie, and more stories that exist outside of the white American experience have been breaking on to it. Middle grade books with people of color on their covers are no longer automatically shelved, artwork hidden, into a section at the back of the bookstore. They are now face out, front and center, on display when you walk inside, or featured on websites. And while diversity is no longer as hidden, and in fact it’s celebrated and sold, the numbers continue to show that predominantly white stories are being published, and the marginalized stay marginalized. There is still much work to be done.

Breena Bard’s graphic novel, TRESPASSERS, publishes in May 2020.

Another part of the marketplace that cannot be ignored is the explosion of graphic novels and their high demand among readers. In just the past couple years we’ve seen practically every major publisher establish their own graphic novel imprint, if they didn’t have one already, and a vast majority of the graphic novels that are selling so well are for middle grade audiences. Five years ago most agents were barely looking for or taking on graphic novelists because the books were so costly to produce and the advances were too small to justify the time. Now, the exact opposite is going on. I had a graphic novel sell last year in a six-figure auction, on only a proposal. Some might say this is just a bubble, but again, whole imprints operate now for these stories, and as a category they’re selling better than any other book in all of publishing. It’s a really exciting time because it feels like creators have all the control.

What do you consider the biggest challenges for new authors trying to break in at this moment?

If we frame this question with the theory that fewer books are being bought in bookstores, and therefore even fewer manuscripts are being acquired by publishers, the big challenge is getting an editor to see and strive for the long-game in children’s publishing. What I mean is, editors are under a lot of pressure within their companies to acquire books that will make a big splash, and usually, those tend to be debuts.

However, if an editor truly just loves a beautiful, quiet, meaningful novel that doesn’t have real film/TV potential yet, it’s harder for them to ask their companies to invest in it. And if they do, it’s harder still to ask them to invest in that author’s second book, because the sales numbers “weren’t there” to continue justifying that investment. My main goal is to launch careers, and that shortsightedness makes it difficult for everyone.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, by Claire Swinarski, is a beautiful middle grade debut about sisters, secrets, and astronomy.

How do you help your clients build a career, rather than just being one-hit wonders?

Well to expand on my last answer, the way to build a career is to make the best decisions you can along the path of that career. That means going with the right publisher, if you’re lucky enough to get a book offer. It means, at the outset, asking them what marketing and publicity plans they intend to engage in when the book publishes. I’ve had auction situations with my clients that presented us with options like: a higher advance here, but no marketing plans yet; or, a lower advance there, but a fully dedicated team and set of criteria aimed at marketing the book in a great way. In the end, we’ve gone with the lower advance, but with the publisher and editor we feel the most confident in.

That’s having your eye on the long-game. And having an agent to discuss these choices and decisions with is essentially just career managing. When you don’t have these options it of course gets much tougher, and ultimately, I work with my clients to help them make the best work they can so we can get to that place.

How editorial are you as an agent? Can you give us an example of the kind of editorial advice you might offer a middle grade debut author? What kinds of traps or mistakes do you see new authors making/falling into most often? What kinds of editorial work do you think you’re particularly good at or suited to?

In THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL, internationally bestselling author Amy Ephron takes readers to London at Christmastime, where a fantastical journey awaits.

Once at an SCBWI event I was critiquing an excellent opening chapter. I told the writer to please send me the full manuscript after the conference. When she did, I realized the rest of the novel needed substantial work. But I loved the ideas she had and, more than anything, the character’s voice was stunning. So we spent about 9 months going back and forth with edits, working on the novel act by act. I’m happy to say it eventually sold to a major publisher.

So that’s the advice I would give: break the book down to its parts. Map the project out with index cards; storyboard it. Scene by scene. And always, always, read the book out loud to yourself. It helps fine tune the characters voices, and shows you trip-ups in the prose.

You seem to really get around as an agent, particularly since you worked in the foreign rights department for Trident. Two questions: What qualities make a middle grade book likely to be picked up by foreign publishers?

Foreign publishers are looking for the same thing domestic publishers are looking for; stories their readers will connect with. If you have a novel about baseball, for example, it’s going to be difficult to convince those editors to buy a book about a sport their audiences know nothing about. However it’s all relative. A country like Japan though, would be interested in baseball! But the UK? Not likely. Meanwhile, genres like the Western actually do work in places like Germany!

Anyway, it’s a fun part of the business. Overall, foreign publishers love irresistible characters, like everyone else. And indeed, some foreign publishers are a lot slower in adding necessary diversity to their lists, but they usually follow the lead of American houses, so that is changing.

And: I’m assuming you hear a fair amount of juicy gossip. What’s the hot topic of the moment for people in the kidlit industry worldwide?

I’m hearing that vampires are back, pass it on.

Author Tim Grove tells the little-known and inspiring story behind the national anthem and the stars and stripes.

Tell us about some of the new and debut books your clients have coming out in 2020. What do these books have in common—or rather, what’s the thread that connects your sensibility to the books you acquire?

A book that just published, and was mentioned previously is FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks. I’m very proud to represent this important and timely novel about systemic racism, criminal justice, and cupcakes. Also out soon is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT by Claire Swinarski, which is a beautiful middle grade debut about sisters, secrets, and astronomy.

And STICK WITH ME by Jennifer Blecher will be out later in the year (cover to be revealed). It’s her second book, and it continues to discuss bullying and finding your voice during those difficult middle grade years. Personally, all these books share a strength of narrative voice that makes me gasp with how alive the characters feel, and with how permanently they etch themselves onto my heart.

Anything you’d like to elaborate on that I haven’t asked you? How’s life treating you?

Life is great, thank you! Our son Miles just recently turned one, and while my reading pile is getting backed up these days, my peek-a-boo skills have never been sharper.

Follow Alex’s infrequent tweets @abuckslater.