Posts Tagged Family in Middle-Grade

Middle-Grade Fantasy story featuring strong South Asian Characters: Interview and Giveaway with Payal Doshi


Today, we are delighted to have with us, Payal Doshi, author of Rea And The Blood Of The Nectar (Mango & Marigold Press, 2021) with us.

Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Payal!     

Thank you so much for having me!

Tell us about Rea and the Blood of the Nectar. What was your inspiration for the story?                                                                                                                                                     

           Rea and the Blood of the Nectar is the story aboutRea Chettri, an introverted but curious girl from Darjeeling, India, whose life gets turned on its head on the night of her twelfth birthday. After a fight with her twin brother Rohan, Rea discovers that he has gone missing. Her Amma is distraught and blames Rea for his disappearance. So, Rea along with her neighbor Leela visit the village fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling quest to find Rohan where they must solve riddles to portal into an enchanted realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy! There, Rea must battle evil creatures, confront a ruthless villain, and find out why Rohan has been captured. But the heart of this adventure story lies in Rea’s relationships with the people in her life. Her brother who she was once inseparable from is now the popular kid in school and spends most of his time with his friends. Rea, on the other hand, has always struggled socially, but in her mission to find Rohan she must learn to trust others, find the courage within her, and understand the meaning of friendship and family.

I was inspired to write this story because as a kid, I loved to read but I never saw myself in books. A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm. I wanted to change that. So, I decided to write a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture that had kids from India who went off on thrilling adventures and became heroes! It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself. This book has all the elements I loved reading about as a kid—there’s a mystery that needs solving along with an exciting quest, a ticking clock, dark family secrets, unforgettable friendships, a fantastical world, and my favorite, magic!

Could you share your publishing journey with us?

My road to publication was long and winding! I began querying in November 2018. At first, it was great. Most of my queries turned into full manuscript requests. But by mid-December, the rejections started to come in. One of the criticisms I kept hearing was that my book was too long for middle grade. Typically, the word count for middle grade novels is between 50,000-70,000 words while mine was 91,000. I was heartbroken. I had a choice to make: continue querying or pull my book out, edit it down by 20,000 words, and then give it another shot. If I chose to edit the book, I would have to significantly rewrite parts of it since I had to remove one of three POVs. Adding to the daunting prospect of a massive revision, I was pregnant!

         As hard as it seemed, I knew it was the right thing to do. During the last two months of my pregnancy, I cut down 23,000 words and rewrote large sections of the book. Once my baby arrived, I sent the manuscript back to my beta readers to see if the new revisions maintained plot, pace, and character growth. After I emerged from that newborn haze of hormones, sleepless nights, and baby cuddles, I dove back into my beta readers’ feedback and by September 2019, I began querying again. Long story short, I signed with my publisher on January 2nd, 2020! My publishing journey ends with the ever-important lesson: No matter how hard it gets, don’t give up.

What was your research process when you set the story in the foothills of the Himalayas and when you created the fantastical world of Astranthia?

When I was thinking about where to set the ‘India’ part of the story, I knew right away that I wanted to portray a region of India that was beautiful and underrated with respect to its landscape and people. The city of Darjeeling is a stunning hill station in the northeast part of the country ensconced within hills, the view of the majestic Himalayas, and rolling tea plantations. There was just so much beauty to be inspired by in terms of its landscape and culture. Since I had never been Darjeeling, I relied on online research especially the official government website for Darjeeling to get details about which trees, birds and animals could be found as well as tourist accounts on blogs and reputed travel websites. I bought books on Darjeeling to get an idea of the local cuisine and day-to-day life, I peered over every aspect of Google Maps to understand the topography of the land and keep it authentic to the story. After double and triple checking the details from my research, I felt pretty confident that everything I had included about Darjeeling was factual. However, it turns out it wasn’t all accurate! I’m so glad I decided to visit Darjeeling before sending my manuscript to agents because I found several inaccuracies in my descriptions and details and it was only after seeing the city, talking to the locals, and driving around that I was able to correct the inaccuracies and record factual details. So, my top tip for any writer who is writing about a place they have not themselves visited is to visit that place before submitting their work for publication!
Simultaneously, as I was inventing the realm of Astranthia, I wanted to capture that same lushness that Darjeeling exuded. When researching Astranthia, I drew inspiration from nature, the changing seasons, online research from fantasy illustrations and Indian and Celtic mythology. I love reading books in which the world feels like a character in itself and I wanted both settings of Darjeeling as well as the fantastical land of Astranthia to feel immersive, verdant, and magical. I find that descriptions of plants, leaves, trees, flowers, and animal life add greatly to the atmosphere of a place and make the reader feel like they are right there with the characters.

About Rea’s family and sibling relationships …

It was important for me to show Rea coming from a small, nuclear, and broken family – it’s just her mother, her grandmother, her brother, and herself. Stereotypically, Indian families are known to be big, joint families and rarely do we hear about divorce or unconventional family units. I wanted to change because the reality is that there are all kinds of family units and structures in India and as we have begun to talk more openly about it, we are seeing that there are so many kids who come from family structures that are different from that ‘one big, happy family’ narrative. Similarly, I wanted to shake the stereotype of the Indian mother as one who is always selfless, always generous, always making you and your friends eat, and just being wonderful and gregarious. Rea’s Amma is not that at all! She is aloof, cold, and battling her own demons, which Rea does not know about or can fully understand yet. Her relationship with her mother is strained and Rea craves the love and attention from her which she does not get. With respect to Rea and Rohan’s relationship, I based a lot of it on mine and my sister’s dynamic! It amazes me how siblings can be so different from each other, and I loved exploring those opposite qualities in Rea and Rohan. Rea has her insecurities but is a fierce girl who is on the hunt for answers to questions that plague her while Rohan is extroverted and the popular kid in school. They get compared all the time (as so many of us have experienced with our siblings!), much to Rea’s disdain. And as they’re growing into their own people, Rea and Rohan who used to be close as children, are now going their separate ways. I wanted to capture that sibling dynamic of rivalry, jealousy, envy but also fierce love, loyalty, and pride for each other.

Why was it important for you to write Rea’s story?
It was important for me to write Rea’s story because I wanted South Asian kids see themselves as main characters in books and know that they are worthy of going on exciting and joyful adventures as well as being heroes.My first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside. It was only when my writing teacher pointed out my lack of Indian characters did I realize how much the books I had read growing up had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking those were the only types of stories people wanted to read. I wouldn’t change the books I read as a kid, but I sure would have loved to read books with characters that looked like me. This is why representation is important. Underrepresented kids should see themselves in books, see themselves as complex characters, and should grow up knowing that their stories are equally important and wonderful. Similarly, I want kids from other cultures and countries to relate with my characters and see that despite their different backgrounds, they share the same hopes, dreams, and fears.

What are some things you hope children will takeaway from Rea’s story?
South Asian representation is incredibly important to me and it has been my mission and passion in writing this book. What I most hope for is that young readers from all backgrounds see my book as an exciting fantasy story (not one only meant for South Asian kids) filled with characters that can relate to and hopefully love reading about. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and know that their stories deserve to be celebrated. At the same time, I wanted to write a story that all kids would enjoy regardless of color, race, nationality, and culture.

Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The New School, New York. Having lived in India, the UK, and US, Payal Doshi noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become her first children’s novel. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, you can find her nose deep in a book with a cup of coffee or daydreaming of fantasy realms to send her characters off into. She loves the smell of old, yellowed books. Rea and the Blood of the Nectar is the first book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit her website,, or follow her on Instagram @payaldoshiauthor and on Twitter @payaldwrites.

Want to own your very own signed copy of Rea And The Blood Of Nectar? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below! 

You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on July 16, 2021 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US only) to receive a signed, personalized book.

AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY: Interview with Author Cliff Burke & #Giveaway!

Welcome to my interview with author Cliff Burke and his heart-warming story AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY!

This title spoke to me from the moment I read it. I’m sure it can stir all sorts of family memories and thoughts; I know, it did in me. Let’s have an introduction to the book and then we’ll move on to the author’s thoughts on his adventure writing it. Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom to enter for your chance to win a copy of this #mglit book!



by Cliff Burke

Gordon Korman meets The Great Outdoors in this funny and moving debut about a boy who goes on a disastrous family vacation (sweltering heat! bear chases!) that ends with a terrible surprise: his dad’s new girlfriend.

There are zero reasons for Theo Ripley to look forward to his family vacation. Not only are he, sister Laura, and nature-obsessed Dad going to Big Bend, the least popular National Park, but once there, the family will be camping. And Theo is an indoor animal. It doesn’t help that this will be the first vacation they’re taking since Mom passed away.

Once there, the family contends with 110 degree days, wild bears, and an annoying amateur ornithologist and his awful teenage vlogger son. Then, Theo’s dad hits him with a whopper of a surprise: the whole trip is just a trick to introduce his secret new girlfriend.

Theo tries to squash down the pain in his chest. But when it becomes clear that this is an auditioning-to-be-his-stepmom girlfriend, Theo must find a way to face his grief and talk to his dad before his family is forever changed.


Hi Cliff! It’s wonderful to have you stop by. Tell us: when did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Like most writers, I’m first and foremost a reader and grew up believing that ‘real writers’ were a special, untouchable group of people. Even though I majored in English in college and did some creative writing then, it wasn’t until more recently that I thought I might have the ability to write a full-length book that could be published. Specifically, I was inspired by my students’ creative energy and how involved they got during our writing units. I began writing short stories to serve as mentor texts for assignments, mostly just trying to get laughs (while still teaching the fundamentals of building characters, dialogue punctuation, setting the scene, etc.), and went from writing short sketches for my classes to drafting a book that is soon for sale!

Fantastic! Love that your writing evolution included your students’ fervor for their writing assignments. Very inspiring!

Tell the readers a bit about your main character Theo.

Theo is a thirteen-year-old budding comic book artist whose first graphic novel, The Aliens who Eat People But Never Get Full, was a big hit with his three friends. He is a Pisces who mostly goes with the flow and often serves as the peace-keeper between his bickering older sister and Dad. Something hinted at but not explicitly detailed in the book is Theo’s desire for, but difficulty with, connecting to other people.

Theo’s first comic book title is so great! Oh, the visuals.

Why did you want to tell Theo’s story?

I wanted to tell Theo’s story because I think it is a fairly common one. Many middle grade main characters take action, or are brash, or have strong personalities that lead them to a big change. But just as common (and just as interesting) are kids who are more reserved, and whose unique characteristics only become apparent once you get to know them better. The difference between what Theo communicates directly to the reader and what he outwardly communicates to the people in his life make him different from chattier or more outward-facing main characters.


The quote by Tolstoy that opens the book ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, screams volumes of what is to come on the pages of this story.

  • What defines this family’s happiness and unhappiness?

Without giving away too much of the story, I’d say the family’s unhappiness comes from the truly difficult experiences the family has gone through in the years before the book starts, and their inability to communicate openly about their feelings. Their happiness comes from the core of genuine care they have for each other despite their challenges in expressing this directly.

  • How do you think young readers will see their own families within this?

I am trying to reflect the reality of my own experiences growing up, and hope that even if readers don’t identify with the specific ways in which this family is imperfect, they can appreciate the importance of all imperfect families.

Grief, life changes, and acceptance are underlying themes throughout Theo’s story. What was one of your hardest scenes to write, which incorporated these? Which was your favorite?

The final scene, without giving it away, was one of the hardest to write because I wanted to strike the balance between writing a scene that was hopeful and satisfying to the reader, but still honest in showing that people (and families) do not change overnight.

My favorite scene that incorporates these themes also takes place towards the end of the book, when the family is sitting under the stars of the Terlingua desert and speaking to each other honestly for the first time.


Why will young readers relate to Theo?

In a general sense, readers can relate to Theo as someone who is shy in public but inwardly bursting with creativity, as a younger sibling, as someone torn between allegiances to his sister and his Dad, as someone who loves his friends but also wishes they were a little different sometimes, or as someone forced into a car on a family vacation to a place he has little interest in visiting.

More specifically, I also hope he is relatable as someone who has gone through a major event in his life (the death of his mother) without understanding how to really talk about his response to it. He outwardly projects that he is doing fine and has everything under control but would like to let his true feelings to someone who would listen without judgement.

As we’ve pointed out, the book does deal with serious life emotions and events, it does also have a very humorous side. Care to share an example?

Thank you for pointing this out! One of my favorite parts of writing is finding ways to incorporate humor into the story. A scene that was particularly fun to write was Theo and his family’s encounter with French nudists in a public hot springs who reject the Dad’s insistence that they follow the “bathing suits recommended” park policy.


What would you like young readers (and their parents) to leave Theo’s story with?

I hope readers will take whatever they would like from the book. There is a lot of info about Big Bend National Park and the history of Texas, observations on older sisters,

bumbling fathers, overzealous young influencers, amateur birders, and bear attacks. There is hopefully something in that list that will linger with readers, along with the above-mentioned message that expressing even the most difficult emotions can be very healing.


For our writing readers, share a piece of writing advice that you’ve found valuable throughout your writing journey.

I’ll offer this, from George Saunders’s recent A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – “doing what you please (i.e. what pleases you), with energy, will lead you to everything – to your particular obsessions, your particular challenges, and the forms in which they’ll convert into beauty…We can’t know what our writing problems will be until we write our way into them, and then we can only write our way out.”

I’m very guilty of trying to construct the perfect story in my head and flagging every possible problem rather than sitting down and starting to put words together. I’ve also talked to many people who have the best idea for a story but still need to write it. So my advice is just to start writing and see what happens.


Cliff Burke grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He worked as a house painter, a parking lot attendant, and a sign-twirling dancing banana before graduating from the College of William and Mary. He currently teaches English in Austin, Texas.

Can’t thank you enough for joining us and for sharing your new book with us, Cliff! Best wishes from the entire Mixed-Up family.

Interested in more books about spending time with family? Check out this POST!

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All in the Family

As we shoot past the holidays into the orbital path of a new year, I am reminded of the recent time spent with family. Family…for better or for worse. Spending time with family can be one of the best, or most trying, of endeavors. Either way, I think most people will agree we can look at our functional and/or dysfunctional family unit as a central influence in most of our lives.

The value of a functional or dysfunctional family in middle-grade literature is one of its most inherently attractive parts of this age. The interplay between a MG protagonist and the family unit creates a dramatic backdrop that pulls us into the story. The reader can relate to the struggle of the MC as they move forward toward discovering who they are. They relate to the sometimes awkward struggle of the middle-grade years when kids have one foot anchored in the safety of the family while the other one steps in the direction of independence.

Families offer a selection of great creative tools for the middle-grade writer. We can use the family to set up plot, conflict, emotion. It provides familiarity. The family can help define the main character, the setting, and the backstory. As you can see, the family unit in middle-grade lit is powerful. The magnetic power of the family is like a tractor beam pulling us toward the story mothership.

In thinking about families as an integral part of the story landscape, what attributes do you like the best?

  • A loving, supporting family group like the Weasleys?
  • A despicable family unit like the Wormwoods in Matilda?
  • Maybe an attribute of not being a real family at all, but a “family-by-choice” family, like Tupelo Landing’s Mo, Ms. Lana and the Colonel?
  • Even animal families can get into the act. For example,  Bingo, J’miah, the raccoon brothers and True Blue Scouts of the Sugarman Swamp, along with their parents, Little Mama and Daddy-O, are one of my personal favorite animal families.
  • How about a supernatural non-traditional family like Nobody Owen’s ghost family in the graveyard? Or the Other Mother and Other Father that Coraline Jones was tempted to choose over her real parents?
  • Perhaps a sweet and kindly custodial relative like Count Olaf?

When you read your next middle-grade book, take notice of a family influence on the character and story arc. The family dynamic is powerful in all our lives; it helps mold the who we are, positively or negatively. The power of the family dynamic holds true for fictional characters, as well, where it also helps to mold the story.

In the true spirit of family, here is your chore for the day. Kind of like homework done around the family table, but a lot easier than algebra. Think about those favorite middle-grade books you have and share some of your favorite middle-grade lit families in the comments below.

Finally, as Dorothy Gale says in the Wizard of Oz film as she taps her ruby slippers, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like…”

Henri Gascar_John_III_Sobieski_with_his_family_1693

John III Sobieski with his family by Henri Gascar, circa 1693