Posts Tagged interview

Author Spotlight: Christine Kendall… plus a GIVEAWAY!

Let’s give a warm Mixed-Up welcome to Christine Kendall, the NAACP Image Award–nominated author of the MG debut, Riding Chance (Scholastic, 2016). Christine’s sophomore novel, also published by Scholastic, The True Definition of Neva Beane, came out in September and was lauded by Lesa Cline-Ransome as “an inter-generational story written with humor, heart, hope—and the power of self-discovery.

Here is a summary of Neva Beane:

Being twelve isn’t easy, especially when you’re Neva Beane. She knows she’s beautiful and smart, but there are so many confusing signals in everyday life about, well… everything, including the changes taking place in her preadolescent body; her relationship with her best friend, Jamila; and her admiration for the social activist on the block, Michelle.

Mom and Dad are on tour in Europe and Neva and her brother, Clay, are left at home with their traditional grandparents. The household descends into inter-generational turmoil and Neva is left with what comforts her most—words and their meanings. While the pages of her beloved dictionary reveal truths about what’s happening around her, Neva discovers the best way to define herself.

And here’s a summary of Riding Chance:

Troy is a kid with a passion. And dreams. And wanting to do the right thing. But after taking a wrong turn, he’s forced to endure something that’s worse than any juvenile detention: He’s “sentenced” to the local city stables, where he’s required to take care of horses. The greatest punishment has been trying to make sense of things since his mom died, but through his work with the horses he discovers a sport totally unknown to him—polo. Troy’s has to figure out which friends have his back, which kids to cut loose, and whether he and Alisha have a true connection.

Q&A with Christine Kendall

MR: So glad to have you with us, Christine. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files!

CK: Thanks so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

MR: I can’t tell you which of your novels I enjoyed more, Riding Chance or The True Definition of Neva Beane. They are both wonderful in such different ways. I know you wrote Riding Chance because you were inspired by a story on NPR (more on that later), but what prompted you to tell Neva’s story? Were you like Neva growing up? 

CK: It warms my heart to hear you enjoyed both books as I consider them companion novels. They’re both coming of age stories that take place in current-day Philadelphia. The True Definition of Neva Beane isn’t memoir but, like Neva, I paid a lot of attention to words as I was growing up, and I came to understand their power pretty early on.

One of the things that prompted me to write the book is my fascination with how young girls are seen, and how those notions about who they are may or may not align with how they define themselves. This is important because the period in a girl’s life when she moves from early childhood into adolescence is magical, but it can also be very confusing. People read girls differently as their bodies develop and often make judgments about them based purely on their physical selves. I wanted to explore those issues. Once I had the Neva Beane character I thought about other issues she may be confronted with in today’s world. That led me to think about her political awakening and various ways a person can make a positive contribution to their community.

Body Positivity in MG Fiction

MR: Speaking of Neva, it’s clear from page one that she has a strong sense of self, particularly when it comes to her changing body. She feels beautiful in her first bra, a “glorious white cotton status symbol,” and admires herself in front of the mirror until she’s “dizzy.” I love this scene because it’s such a gorgeous display of girl power and body positivity. Was that your intention when you wrote the scene—to encourage tween girls to take pride in their changing bodies? If so, what role does body positivity play, or should play, in MG fiction?

CK: I’ll confess that I wrote Neva Beane’s “mirror scene” based on memory. I was eleven years old and, unbeknownst to me, I was seen admiring myself in front of a mirror by one of my brothers. Well, of course, my brother almost died laughing and I was humiliated. I spent hours trying to figure out why I felt that way before I realized there’s no shame in acknowledging your own beauty. I just hadn’t expected to be seen in that moment by anyone else. I think many young teens have experienced moments like that and I wanted them to know that I see them and their beauty. Body positivity is an issue for boys as well as girls and MG fiction is a good place to explore it.

What’s the Good Word?

MR: As above, Neva Beane is obsessed with words and finds great comfort in them. In fact, her most beloved possession is a Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. What is it about words that fascinates and comforts Neva—and maybe you, too?

CK: Words have power. Neva Beane is fascinated by them because she sees how they can be used to elevate or to wound. I share that fascination and wanted to show how Neva’s ability to analyze words brings her comfort especially when she is in the midst of confusing situations. I also wanted to provide a concrete example of how a person can use words to elevate. Neva chooses that path at the end of the book.

Work to Ride Program

MR: Turning our attention to Riding Chance, I know you wrote the book because you were inspired by a story on NPR about a program called Work to Ride, where inner-city kids work with horses and learn how to play polo in exchange for stable chores. Can you tell MUF readers a bit about the program and how it inspired you? Also, what kind of research did you do in order to make the polo-playing scenes realistic? I’m guessing you weren’t a horseperson prior to writing the novel…?

 CK: You’re right about my not being a horseperson before I wrote Riding Chance. I hadn’t planned on writing a novel. I was simply inspired when I heard the wonderful story about how kids in a mentoring program in Philly won a polo national championship in 2011. It was such an incredible story about what can happen when young people are given opportunities to explore and develop themselves in new ways.

I had to do a lot of research including taking horseback riding lessons, studying the game of polo, going to polo matches, and learning about the powerful bonds between humans and animals. I was fortunate in that there were a couple of horsepeople in the critique group I was a member of who were more than happy to offer constructive criticism. I learned quite a bit and really enjoyed the process.

Themes in Christine’s Books

MR: I noticed that loss and abandonment is a theme in both of your novels. In Riding Chance, Troy is grieving the death of his beloved mom; in Neva Beane, Neva feels as if she’s been cast aside by her best friend, Jamila. Neva also misses her musician parents while they’re on tour in Europe. What is the message you’re trying to convey? Resiliency? Grit? Something else?

CK: You hit the nail right on the head with resilience. I think it is such an important skill for young people to develop. Life can be difficult at times and we need to believe we can work our way through tough situations. One of the ways people develop resilience is by not being afraid to take reasonable risks. We will not always succeed at everything we try but even our failures provide opportunities to learn and to become more confident.

Ch Ch Changes…

MR: Before writing Riding Chance, you were in the legal profession. What prompted you to make the switch from the law to writing? Can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers about your path to publication? Was it a steady canter or a wild Headless Horseman-style gallop? (I know… 🙂)

CK: I like the visual of a Headless Horseman-style gallop especially since my path to publication was somewhat unusual. As you mentioned, I had a career before I became a writer. I worked with large law firms in the areas of  attorney recruitment, associate relations, and diversity and inclusion. I enjoyed my legal career but I got to the point where I wanted to do something more creative. I had always loved books and reading so I took a big step, talk about taking a risk, and left my job to focus on writing.

After about a year of sitting at home by myself struggling with picture book manuscripts I took a writing workshop with an editor from Scholastic, the amazing Andrea Davis Pinkney. She saw my fascination with Philly kids playing polo and encouraged me to use that as inspiration for a novel. It took me three years to research and write and revise but, in the end, she wanted the book.

This Writer’s Life

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

CK: I don’t have a specific writing routine, but I often need something like music to move me from real life into the fictive world. I love jazz so I may listen to that while I’m working. I also read my work aloud as I go along and I write with my whole body. What I mean is I get up and sometimes act out what my characters are doing so I can describe their actions accurately. Needless to say, I write at home. I don’t think people would put up with me in other places.

MR: Finally, what’s next on your writing agenda, Christine? Care to share a bit about your latest project?

CK: I’m working on another MG novel. I wrote a short story a few years ago that doesn’t feel like it’s finished even though it’s been published. I’m expanding that story into a longer work.

MR: Oh! Last thing…

No MUF interview is complete without a LIGHTNING ROUND!

Preferred writing snack? Popcorn.

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or Oxford English Dictionary? Merriam-Webster.

Favorite word? Milieu, although I don’t think I used that word in Neva Beane.

Mister Ed or Mister Rogers? Mister Rogers.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay.

Superpower? Ability to find humor in most any situation.

Favorite place on earth? Mashomack Nature Preserve on Shelter Island, New York.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? A book, my eyeglasses, and a flashlight.

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Christine—and congratulations on the publication of The True Definition of Neva Beane. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too.

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a copy of The True Definition of Neva Beane, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win! 

CHRISTINE KENDALL grew up in a family of artists, the fourth of six children, where everyone studied the piano along with one other instrument. She still feels sorry for the neighbors. They woke up one morning and found themselves living next door to a flute, two clarinets, a French horn, a cello, a set of drums, and always, always somebody on the piano. Christine wasn’t any good on the piano or the clarinet, but she loved writing. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and her debut novel, Riding Chance, was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens. The True Definition of Neva Beane is her second novel. Christine lives in Philadelphia where she co-curates and hosts the award-winning reading series, Creative at the Cannery. Learn more about Christine on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Giveaways & Interview with Author Lindsay H. Metcalf

I’d like to welcome Lindsay H. Metcalf to the Mixed-Up Files blog to celebrate the launch of her MG, Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices.

Photo credit: Anna Jackson

Credit: Anna Jackson

Lindsay H. Metcalf is a journalist and author of nonfiction picture books: Beatrix Potter, Scientist, illustrated by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020); Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices (Calkins Creek, 2020); and No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, a poetry anthology co-edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, 2020). Lindsay lives in north-central Kansas, not far from the farm where she grew up, with her husband, two sons, and a variety of pets. You can reach her at lindsayhmetcalf.com.

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This is such an amazing, unique, and emotional story, Lindsay. I’ll never look at food the same way again. How did you come up with the idea for Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices and did anything surprise you along path to publication?

Family combine at corn harvest

Family combine at corn harvest

Thank you! I suppose this is the story I was meant to write. I grew up on a farm in Kansas. During wheat harvest, my mom would drive a grain truck with me and my little brother fighting over who had to straddle the gear shift in the middle. We would chop weeds out of the soybean fields and lay irrigation pipe along the corn fields. I know I complained, but looking back, I see a family working together, leaning on one another.

The photo that sparked FARMERS UNITE! came via text from my dad:

Here I was, someone intimately connected to agriculture through my family, and I’d never heard the story of the farmers who had driven their tractors cross-country to Washington, DC, to demand action from Congress. They were losing their farms because market prices had bottomed out, and they needed to get the attention of the public, who relied on the farmers to eat.

A lot surprised me along the path to publication—namely how many forms this story took. During the course of my many revisions, everything changed, including the main character, length, target audience, tone, title, and illustration style. At its core, this story was always about a group of hardworking people coming together to seek a change that would improve their lives and the lives of those they served. It’s about a grassroots group of people working together, leaning on one another, just as my family does out in the field.

 

Wow! I love hearing about your connection to this story. I’m so glad your dad texted you that photo. It’s amazing how much changed during revisions, but now that I read it, I can’t imagine it any other way.  

What type of research did you have to do—and do you have any research tips to share with our readers?

You know I love research! I read everything I could find on the tractorcades. There was one self-published book on the topic, which helped me understand the timeline. I also conducted interviews myself, read oral histories transcribed by a small-town library, and scoured newspaper archives. Then, when Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek bought the story, I had to start the research process again. She had seen some dynamic archival photos of the tractor protests and thought they should illustrate the book. Oh, and she wanted me to find them. I found that idea intimidating, but by the end of the process, I was having fun.

During my research, I had to reconcile two opposing perspectives. On one hand, the newspaper stories and national photo archives focused on a handful of days in which the farmers’ protests on the National Mall turned sour. The American Agriculture Movement had driven thousands of tractors into DC during rush hour, snarling traffic. Police literally penned them in by ringing the Mall with buses, police cruisers—any city-owned vehicles they could find. Some of the protesters got upset and lit an old tractor on fire. What I learned from reading oral histories and actually talking to people was that the vast majority of protesters had come to speak with lawmakers and earn their respect. So my advice is to keep researching until you have a good idea of the full picture. Each source is created from a certain perspective, and it’s the researcher’s job to root out the gaps in information.

 

Thanks for your amazing tips, Lindsay! I feel like I just took a research workshop. And I love the tractor protest photos you found.

Do you have any favorite quotes in the book? One that jumped out at me is: These first “tractorcades” energized farmers for the next step—to remind lawmakers in Washington, DC, that food doesn’t grow in grocery stores.

Oh, thank you! Many of my favorite quotes came from the farmers themselves, so when Carolyn suggested I add more, I couldn’t help myself. Some advice that’s always stuck with me since journalism school: Quote someone only when you can’t say it better yourself. Behold…

“You bet we started crying in our milk.” – Marjory Scheufler, a Kansas farmer

“We’re going to stay here (in Washington) until the snow stops and the songbirds go to singing.” – Gerald McCathern, a Texas farmer

“It’s just as silly for a tractor to be in the streets of Washington as a skyscraper in my cornfield.” – Leonard Cox of Kansas

 

What are some of the differences between middle grade and picture book nonfiction?

This book is kind of a genre buster. Traditional middle grade nonfiction is sometimes novel-length and goes into a lot more detail. You’re going to laugh, but you know I wrote FARMERS UNITE! as a picture book for young readers because you critiqued it! After acquisition, Carolyn and I worked through a couple big revisions, and she encouraged me to make the story more “vivid.” I didn’t hold back and included details about tear gas and the fallout of financial troubles facing farmers. Those themes, plus the longer text, at 2,000 or 2,500 words, pushed the audience into middle-grade territory. We also included 12 pages of back matter.

 

You’re right—I did laugh. I was surprised when I first found out your picture book morphed into middle grade, but it was such a fantastic decision. Your book and discussion and activity guide are perfect for grades 3 – 7! In addition to those amazing questions and activities, do you have a writing or research exercise to share with our readers?

I do! I just created a handout for a National Council of Teachers of English presentation this month. With the questions provided in my “Detecting Bias in Sources” handout, students can test the credibility of each source and discover ways to deepen their research. These are techniques I use as a journalist as well as an author. Readers can also go to my website to browse some of the sources I used in the book — oral histories and images of the tractorcades from the Smithsonian.

 

What’s something unique people don’t know about you?

I was a cheerleader in high school. I surprised my mother-in-law with this fact when it came up in conversation today. I surprised myself with the realization that I had never told her this in the 17 years that I have known her. So there you go.

 

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

This story went through 27 drafts, plus or minus a couple, before we arrived at the polished final version. I say we, because so many people had a hand in the process, including you, Mindy, as one of my critique partners. Say it with me: Writing is revising.

 

Writing is revising! You do such an amazing job with both of those—and you’re a research queen. Thank you again for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files to celebrate your launch with us, Lindsay.

Thanks for having me, and thanks for helping me bring the farmers’ story to young readers!

You’re welcome. I’m sure they’ll love the farmers’ story as much as I do!

 

Enter this Rafflecopter for a chance to win a copy of Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices (US Only).

In the late 1970s, grain prices had tanked, farm auction notices filled newspapers, and people had forgotten that food didn’t grow in grocery stores. So, on February 5, 1979, thousands of tractors from all parts of the US flooded Washington, DC, in protest.

Author Lindsay H. Metcalf, a journalist who grew up on a family farm, shares this rarely told story of grassroots perseverance and economic justice. In 1979, US farmers traveled to Washington, DC to protest unfair prices for their products. Farmers wanted fair prices for their products and demanded action from Congress. After police corralled the tractors on the National Mall, the farmers and their tractors stayed through a snowstorm and dug out the city. Americans were now convinced they needed farmers, but the law took longer. Boldly told and highlighted with stunning archival images, this is the story of the struggle and triumph of the American farmer that still resonates today.
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Enter this Rafflecopter for a chance to win a 5 page middle grade or picture book critique from Lindsay H. Metcalf! (Lindsay’s critiques are amazing!)

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Winners will be announced on Thursday, November 19. Good luck!

Plotting Puzzles and the Necessity of Silence: An Interview with Jennifer Gennari

I jumped at the chance to interview author Jennifer Gennari as soon as I heard about her newest book, Muffled. As a special education teacher, I’m always excited for stories that portray exceptional kids with honesty, humor, and strength. Muffled does it beautifully, and as it happens, Jen is just as insightful and honest as her main character, Amelia.

Jennifer Gennari

CL: Hi, Jen! Thanks for chatting with me! Let’s start with how the idea for Muffled came about – can you tell us about it?

JG: Thank you, Chris, for inviting me to the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors! Like many writers, I keep a story file of ideas. For more than fifteen years, I had a note about a blizzard from my childhood: “I’ll never forget that snowstorm. The silence without cars. What would happen if all the noises stopped?” It wasn’t until much later that I saw a way to approach that idea. I realized that for many people, including my husband, silence isn’t just beautiful, it’s something they need to recharge, to be able to participate in our very noisy world. And that’s how Amelia’s story began.

CL: And the story is set in Boston – any particular reason you chose that city?

JG: I lived in Boston when I was the age of Amelia, and it was important to me to show a family that depends on public transportation. Many children who live in cities don’t have cars, and I wanted to reflect that reality. I love Boston, for its Public Garden (and Make Way for Duckling statues), the stately, amazing library in Copley Square, and the Red Sox. Like Amelia, I grew up riding the green line!

CL: It’s so cool to have that personal connection! How about research, then? Muffled seems like a super realistic portrayal of life with sound sensitivity—did you have to do any research for the book? 

JG: Researching is an integral part of writing. I didn’t rely on my memory of Boston—I looked at images of the library’s lions, transit maps, and apartment buildings. To develop Amelia’s character, I read The Highly Sensitive Child and spoke to a therapist and special education teachers. Researching also means empathizing, an important skill for writers. I notice people’s emotions in certain situations, and try my best to get those details right. Stories introduce young readers to different ways of being, something I take seriously. Readers will always find hope and connection in my books.

CL: Muffled is your second traditionally published book. I’ve heard that second books can be harder to write…was that your experience?

JG: Yes! I’m glad you asked. I wrote three books between My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer and Muffled. Each one was beloved but the stories, in the end, were not viable. I think of those manuscripts as plotting practice: I got better at increasing tension, giving characters a satisfying arc, and rewriting scenes that didn’t work. For all those aspiring writers out there, know that persistence and a willingness to revise are key to success!

CL: That’s a great way to think about it! You actually mention on your website that plotting a story is a bit like a puzzle. Could you explain that?

JG: I am a big fan of jigsaw and crossword puzzles—especially during this pandemic! When you first start a jigsaw puzzle, all the colors and details are scattered. You have to organize the pieces, and see what picture emerges, just like the details and scenes of your manuscript. And to carry the metaphor on, revising is like doing the same puzzle twice—it’s still hard but memory helps you find the path forward to complete a story without any holes.

CL: I love that! So if it wasn’t obvious already, you’re also an editor and writing teacher yourself, right?

JG: My career began as a reporter, and later, I became a news editor of a weekly paper. If your article doesn’t fit on the page, it will be cut! I discovered I’m good at preserving voice and intent and excising the fluff. When I studied for my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I understood even more completely that every word choice matters. Now, through The Highlights Foundation, I teach others how to edit their own manuscripts. It’s an essential skill and I love teaching writers!

CL: So cool! Okay, Jen – now it’s time for the lighting round! Favorite place to write?

JG: Surrounded by shelves of kidlit books with a cup of tea nearby!

CL: Favorite authors?

JG: Jacqueline Woodson, Kate DiCamillo, Erin Entrada Kelly to name a few!

CL: Best dessert?

JG: Any homemade pie!

CL: Do you have any pets?

JG: No, but I love watching shorebirds from my home.

CL: Favorite elementary school memory?

JG: Like Amelia, I often snuck off during recess to find a cozy place to read. 

CL: And lastly – favorite piece of advice for other writers?

JG: Read, read, read!

Jennifer Gennari is the author of MUFFLED (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a Junior Library Guild selection, and MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), a Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year selection, and an American Library Association Rainbow List title. An engaging speaker and teacher, she has presented at the Writing Barn, SCBWI workshops, and Highlights Foundation. She serves as Marin County Co-Coordinator for the SF North and East Bay Region of SCBWI. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives on the water in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @JenGenn and more at www.jengennari.com.

Many thanks to Jen for taking the time to talk to me! Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of Muffled!

See you next time!