Are you looking for great summer reads? Do you like sweet treats and delicious desserts? Then, check out Pie in the Sky and Midsummer’s Mayhem, two summer mg debuts that feature kids who make delectable treats. Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai came out on May 14. It’s the story of two brothers, Jingwen and Yanghao, who secretly bake cakes that their father had dreamed up when their family moves to Australia following his death. Midsummer’s Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca is retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream about an aspiring baker whose attempts at wining a local baking competition cook up some magical consequences. It comes out on June 11th. We sat down with the authors and asked them some of our most burning questions.
MUF: What was the inspiration behind your stories?
Remy: For a long time, I had an image of two boys, brothers, secretly baking. When I finally figured out that they couldn’t speak English, the story that would become PIE IN THE SKY clicked into place. From there, I borrowed things from my childhood, of immigrating and having to learn English.
Rajani: Although there are fantastical characters in my story, it’s really about 11-year-old Mimi struggling to understand her place in her super-talented family and in the world. I tried to channel the humor and whimsy of Shakespeare’s play while centering it on a real-world kid with familiar real-world problems…that then get even more complicated when magic gets mixed in!
MUF: This question is for Rajani. Why A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Rajani: I first read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 6th grade, and it remains one of my favorite Shakespeare plays of all time. At its heart is conflict and competition between people who love each other – a daughter and father; two friends who used to be as close as sisters; the royalty of Athens; and the king and queen of fairies. It’s about who we love, and why; what loyalty means, and what it costs. But it’s all wrapped up in a confection of an adventure told in gorgeous language with magic, mischief, and mayhem in the woods, where people emerge transformed. My novel is a riff on that tale of mortals caught up in a fairy feud.
MUF: Can you talk about your writing journey? How did these books come to be?
Remy: I’ve been writing, with the goal of being published, for a loooooooong time. I first wrote PIE IN THE SKY as a graphic novel, but I felt that the format wasn’t the best for this particular story, so I changed it into prose, at which point I realized it needed the pictures, too, hence the hybrid format.
Rajani: I’ve loved books forever, but my first ambition was to be a doctor. I wrote creatively quite a bit during high school and college, but then the demands of medical school and motherhood meant that writing took a back seat for a while. Several years ago, when my medical practice was going well and my kids were in school, I started taking some writing classes to foster my creativity again. In 2014 I drafted Midsummer’s Mayhem. I spent 2015-2017 revising it and working on many picture books. In 2017, I was chosen for Pitch Wars, and I revised my novel with the help of my marvelous mentor, Joy McCullough. I signed with my amazing agent Brent Taylor in late November 2017, and in 2018 we sold Midsummer’s Mayhem and several picture books that will be coming in 2020-2022!
MUF: Remy, that’s a good point. Your novel is a unique mix of prose and illustration. How did you decide what scenes and ideas needed to be illustrated? What were your favorite scenes to draw, and what were the hardest?
Remy: In early drafts, I “chose” mainly by intuition. But in later drafts, with the help of my editor, I started to analyze things deeper and realised that I made my decisions mainly for pacing, for how effective a scene would be in words or pictures, and how much fun a scene would be to draw.
The hardest thing to draw was all the scenes with Jingwen’s dad, because I’ve lost mine. My favorite scene to draw was the one of the brothers fighting.
MUF: In a similar vein, this question is for both of you. Can you describe your writing process?
Remy: It’s different with all stories. PIE IN THE SKY came to me as a single scene of two brother secretly baking. Other stories came to me in the form a particular character appearing in my head over and over again. Sometimes the premise comes before the characters.
Rajani: I would describe my writing process as iterative. I usually write a terrible first draft, and that’s what takes me the longest. I do go back and revise pieces even before a whole draft is finished, and that helps me refine the voice and weave in elements as I go. When I’m really stuck, I love to talk out loud – either to myself or to a friend.
To me, revision is my happy place. I love stepping back and thinking about how to make each scene lead naturally to the next, to tighten plot and dialogue, and to write toward theme. One interesting note: I often know the last line of my book when I first start writing (I did for Midsummer’s Mayhem!), but the first line doesn’t usually emerge until a lot of revision has happened.
MUF: What is the best piece of writing advice that you’ve ever received? What writing advice would you give young writers?
Remy: Stephen King said, “Writing is about getting happy.” I’d advise young writers to have fun while writing.
Rajani: During a talk at a writing retreat, a brilliant editor said to “lean into your weird.” That brought into focus what I’ve been doing in my writing: taking things I love, things that fascinate me, even things that hurt me, and putting them into my writing so that even fiction has emotional truth at its heart.
My advice for young writers? None of us write because it’s easy; we write despite its challenges. But there’s a lot of joy in writing and in connecting to the writing community, especially in kidlit. My advice is to find that joy, to revel in it during good times, and hold onto it like a talisman during difficult times.
MUF: What do you hope that young readers will take away from your stories?
Remy: That if you’re ever in Jingwen’s position, of being in a new place where you feel like you don’t belong, that things will get better. You will be okay.
Rajani: First, I hope readers have fun reading about Mimi’s wild summer adventures with some rather unusual visitors to her town.
I hope Midsummer’s Mayhem shows readers that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be stuffy, boring or confusing. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s beautiful words when I was a kid, and I hope my novel sparks young readers’ interest in The Bard’s work.
I hope readers see themselves in Mimi’s struggles. In many ways, Mimi’s story parallels my story about getting started in publishing. Mimi has big goals that she’s not sure she’ll ever reach, and she worries she’ll never be talented enough to achieve her heart’s desire. I hope kids who read Mimi’s story recognize that although setbacks are part of the journey, they each have something special to give the world, and they should keep striving for their dreams.
I hope readers finish Midsummer’s Mayhem feeling that anything is possible, and that magic can be found all around us, especially in those we love.
MUF: This is a question that I always ask writers, but what is one question that no one has asked you that you’d like to get asked?
Remy: I get asked this by readers, but not in interviews (yet): why do I love the word “booger” so much? One of the reasons this word is used multiple times in PIE IN THE SKY was because when I was a kid learning English, I was often fascinated by particular words and would try to use them in any occasions I could. Sometimes these words fascinated me because they were used the same in way in different languages, or maybe how the same word would be used in a different way in different words. Sometimes those words just felt nice rolling off my tongue.
Rajani: I rarely get asked about the challenges and advantages of writing both long form (novels) and short form (picture books). I love writing both and having multiple projects going at once. In particular, picture book writing forces me to boil a story down to its essence and to make every single word count. Novel writing allows me to delve deeply into character development and nuanced plots. When I get sick of one, I can work on the other, and that way my brain gets a break but I’m also moving forward on something.
MUF: And, finally, the question that is on everyone’s mind. There are SO MANY delicious descriptions of sweet treats in these books. Have you made any of these desserts? If so, which are your favorites?
Remy: I have made all the cakes at least once. The chiffon cake is probably the one I can eat the most of. I tend to prefer light, fluffy cakes, though I wouldn’t say no to the richer cakes either.
Rajani: I have made all the desserts mentioned in the book! It was very difficult research, but someone had to do it! My favorite changes from day to day, but I have to say that the chocolate-chunk thyme cookies with citrus zest are mighty scrumptious…and the recipe’s in the book!
MUF: Thank you for you, ladies.
Remy Lai writes and draws stories for kids.She lives in Brisbane, Australia, where she can often be found exploring the woods near her home with her two dogs, Poop-Roller
and Bossy Boots. More information about Remy and her books can be found here.
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, she spends her time writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine, and baking too many sweet treats. Her debut middle grade novel, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, is an Indian-American mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking. She is also the author of several forthcoming picture books. More information about Rajani and her books can be found here.