Posts Tagged #mgkidlit

WNDMG Wednesday – M. K. England Guest Post

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Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday is thrilled to host author M.K. England this month. M.K. wrote a fantastic post for us exploring themes central to their writing–themes that consistently create connection and validation, which is the connective tissue of what diverse kidlit is all about. Thank you so much, M.K.! And congratulations on Player vs. Player — so excited for this book!

Guest Post, by M.K. England

My work as an author is a bit all over the place. I started out in YA sci-fi/fantasy with The Disasters and Spellhacker, skipped to adult sci-fi with Guardians of the Galaxy: No Guts, No Glory, then hopped to YA contemporary with The One True Me and You, which just came out on March 1st. Now, after all that, I’ve finally found my way to middle grade—and what a joy it is to be writing the Player vs. Player trilogy.

Two Consistent Features

What in the world could possibly connect all of those very different books, other than the fact that they all lived in my brain? There are two consistent features of everything I write:

  • Strong, loving, supportive friend groups that treat each other like family, and,
  • A reading experience that I, the queer nerdy Star Wars loving gamer child, would have felt validated by.

It’s dangerous to go alone!*

In the Player vs. Player trilogy, both of those features are fundamental to the story. We get to see the formation of my hallmark friends-as-family group in action as four kids come together to bond over their shared love of a video game called Affinity. Book one, Ultimate Gaming Showdown, is like a video game version of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, where four kids team up in a virtual tournament to do battle for an amazing prize package. They play well together… but there are whole heaps of loneliness and isolation (and maybe a few secrets) keeping them from playing their best and coming together as a team—and as true friends.

  • Josh’s family moves around a lot for his mom’s job and just wants some friends to game with.
  • Hannah struggles in school and plays alone at the public library every evening while her mom works a second job.
  • Gaming is banned altogether in Larkin’s household, and she’s got a million other things going on in her life—but her heart and dreams are filled with video games.
  • Wheatley struggles to relate to other kids and has an overbearing father… and a secret that could wreck the whole team.

Player v Player cover art

I loved getting to design the video game these kids play together, and writing the action of the tournament was a blast. It’s the process of getting these kids together as a team, as friends who trust and care about each other, that ultimately propels the book forward though. There is such incredible power in finding the people who see you and validate the things you care about, something all of these kids desperately needed. To many people, video games are a waste of time, something shameful that kids should avoid. To these kids, gaming is a critical lifeline, a source of purpose and pride… and maybe even a future career.

Of course, as we’ll find out in PvP book two, it’s not all smooth sailing once you’ve found your people. Staying friends, especially when you’re on a team together? There are… challenges.

* – A classic Zelda reference that the kids in this book would totally not get. I embrace my status as an Elder Millennial Nerd.

Gamers are cool now, right?

The second constant in my writing, a reading experience that validates my queer nerdy young self, is baked right into the core concept. I loved video games a lot as a child. It’s the earliest thing I remember being very into, starting with button mashing on our old original Nintendo as soon as I could get my hands around the controller.

However, when I was the same age as the kids in PvP, it was the late 90s. Being a gamer at that time wasn’t especially cool for anyone, but definitely not if you weren’t a boy. Things have improved, but gaming is still a boy’s club in a lot of ways. For example, the vast majority of the top streamers on Twitch are straight cis white guys. Meanwhile women, BIPOC folks, and queer people get harassed right off the site. We clearly still have a long way to go.

For adult me, a queer non-binary person who grew up as that weirdo “gamer girl,” the opportunity to write this story is healing. The gaming team in PvP includes two girls competing at the highest level in eSports—and as a kid, I would have been obsessed. PvP is a book I would have read until the paperback had gone soft and fuzzy, full of creases and little torn off chunks missing from too much time spent in a backpack or wedged between the bed and the wall. Though there weren’t books for kids and teens back then that mentioned the word nonbinary (that I knew of), I gobbled up anything where I saw kids like me—girls who didn’t fit, who dared to ferociously love unexpected things, who chafed against their boxes. If there’d been a book series about girls in video games? Game over.

((Also into gaming? Read this archive STEM Tuesday interview with Janet Slingerland, who wrote VIDE GAME CODING))

Press start

 It’s been fascinating to me, writing characters who are just beginning to discover who they are. Characters in YA are doing the same thing, but they’re much further down the path. In middle grade, kids are just starting to take those first steps to differentiate from their families and embrace who they’ll become.

For some queer, trans, and gender-expansive kids, by the time they hit that 8-12 range, they’re already well aware of their identities. For others, like me, it takes longer. Maybe it was just the lack of representation in media and the “tomboy” label I was saddled with as a kid, but it wasn’t until high school that I really started to understand and embrace some aspects of who I was, and the full picture didn’t come into focus until my early 30s. Before that, it was much more subtle. Blushing glances, that awkward blend of curiosity and embarrassment, experimenting with clothes to see what felt right. While I’m sure I’ll write a more overt middle-grade story later, for right now I’m enjoying writing this subtle growth into queerness that so reflects my own experiences while the characters put 99% of their brainpower into their gaming goals.

It’s an honor to be writing directly to and for the next generation of gamers, who I hope will create a much more open and welcoming gaming culture in the years to come. I’ll still be here, controller in hand.

 

Headshot of MK England - background stars and galaxies

M. K. England grew up on the Space Coast of Florida watching shuttle launches from the backyard. These days, they call rural Virginia home, where their house is full of video games, dogs, plants, Star Wars memorabilia, and one baby human. MK is the author of THE DISASTERS (2018), SPELLHACKER (2020), THE ONE TRUE ME & YOU (2022), and other forthcoming novels. Follow them at www.mkengland.com.

Stay connected:

Twitter: mk_england

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A Serendipitious Interview and Giveaway

Code Name: Serendipity CoverI recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Amber Smith’s middle grade debut Code Name: Serendipity about a misunderstood girl  named Sadie who discovers that she can hear the thoughts of a stray dog that she finds in the forest behind her house. In her quest to rescue the dog, Sadie finds that Dewey, the dog, can hear her thoughts as well, and a friendship forms between them. Soon, through her rescue efforts, Sadie is making more unlikely friends. This is a book to hand to anyone who loves animals and who has ever felt misunderstood. So, when an opportunity to interview the author arrived, I jumped at the chance. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Amber.

MUF: Tell us about Code Name: Serendipity?

A: Code Name: Serendipity tells the story of eleven-year-old Sadie, a lonely misfit whose life seems to be going all wrong lately — she can’t get along with her older brother, her best friend moved away, and it seems no one understands her. That is until she meets a stray dog and realizes that they have a very special connection: They can communicate telepathically. Sadie sets out on a mission to rescue the dog, but in the process, she might just rescue herself too.

MUF: You’ve written several great young adult novels, and Code Name: Serendipity is your first MG? How was the experience different?

A: In terms of process and structure, it wasn’t too different to switch from writing YA to MG. But I found that it took me quite a while to find Sadie’s voice. As I was drafting, I struggled to balance her youth and maturity in a natural way, one that was so different from the older characters I have been writing for years now. Once I found it, though, the pieces of the puzzle just started falling into place!

MUF: Your bio says that Code Name: Serendipity was inspired by your own experiences rescuing animals. Are there any particular animals that inspired Dewey? Are there any stories from your time rescuing animals that particularly inspired this story?

A: Definitely! My wife and I are both huge animal lovers – we currently have seven rescues (two dogs and five cats). There are little pieces of each of these sweet furbabies threaded throughout the story, but the one who really inspired it was a third dog, Darwin. I rescued him from a shelter when he was still a puppy and he was with me his whole life, up until he was a senior, and eventually passed. I always refer to him as my “soul dog” because we had such a close bond that at times, it really did feel as if we knew what each other were thinking. Not quite telepathy, like Sadie and Dewey, but pretty close! So, I started writing this book in memory of him, and how much joy and love he broughtDarwin, the inspiration for Dewey in Code Name: Serendipity into my life.

MUF: Not gonna lie, I really wish that I had Sadie’s power not only with my own cats but also the cat that I TNR’d. (Trapped, Neutered, Released) Have there ever been animal rescue experiences where you wished that you had Sadie’s power?

A: First, I love that you participate in a TNR program!

This is how we have ended up with the majority of our rescue cats. Former members of feral colonies, who, when brought in for spay/neutering, were found to have health issues that prevented them from being re-released back into their feral colonies. These kitties can have such weird and sometimes aggressive behavioral issues that prevent them from being (or staying) adopted — after all, they’ve never been a part of a household or family. So, my wife and I have become known as the “crazy cat ladies” the shelters call to take the cats who have run out of options. I have definitely wished I could telepathically communicate with some of these cats (we have five of them currently) to explain what it means to transition from feral-to-house cat. They get it eventually, but it would be so much easier if we could just talk it out!

MUF: Code Name: Serendipity deals with some weighty issues with Sadie’s grandfather’s illness, her LD, and also what could happen to Dewey if she’s not rescued from the shelter. How do you approach writing about these topics for MG. Is it different from how you’d approach writing them for YA, and how so?

A: My YA novels have all dealt with some pretty heavy, hard-hitting topics that sometimes get into dark places, and while I definitely wanted to touch on serious real-world topics in Code Name, I was very conscious of not wanting any of Sadie’s problems and challenges to ever feel insurmountable. One of the ways I tried to achieve this was to show her finding tools, help, and allies along the way – so there was always a light at the end of every tunnel.

Amber Smith with DarwinMUF: Why does Gramps call Sadie Sassafras?

A: Gramps has a lot of what Sadie refers to as “Grampsisms” – or his own unique made-up expressions – old-timey sayings, but with a twist! When I was brainstorming nicknames he might have for Sadie, I kept thinking he’d probably want to express his admiration for Sadie’s spirited (or, some might say, sassy) nature. I thought at first, he could call her “Sassy,” but I wanted it to be something a bit more endearing and special, so in true Gramps style, Sassy became “Sassafras.”

MUF: Your descriptions of food in this story are awesome. I ended up buying a box of Uncrustables because I was craving PBJ after this. Were there any foods that you wrote, that you were hungry for after describing them?

A: Yes, I ate many a late-night PBJ sandwich while writing this book – and I still don’t know whether it was my snack that inspired the recurring PBJs in the book or the book that made me crave the recurring sandwiches. Also, Sadie has a penchant for French toast and big weekend breakfasts with her family, which is something I always looked forward to as a kid!

MUF: Sadie’s very gifted with art. I loved the scene where she’s drawing out the word problem. Do you draw? Or do origami like Macy? (Fun side note, I tried to learn origami in Japanese class in college because we did this whole Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes thing, and I literally made one sad, pathetic paper crane because like Sadie, I cannot figure it out.)

A: I actually do have a background in visual art – I went to college for Painting and grad school for Art History, so I love to incorporate creative and artistic themes in my books. I honestly don’t practice art too much these days, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as my first creative love. (Side note: I probably logged at least 100 hours of YouTube tutorials on origami while writing this book because I wanted to get the descriptions of Macy’s creations just right!)

MUF: Also, in a similar vein, throughout the story, we see Sadie working on her graphic novel. Are you a fan of graphic novels? If so, what are your favorites?

A: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an illustrator, but my wife is the true graphic novel aficionado in the family, so I borrowed that interest of hers for Sadie.

MUF: What are your favorite books?

A: I have too many to name (and the list is always growing), but on the middle-grade side I love anything by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Kate DiCamillo – Because of Winn-Dixie has been a long-time favorite of mine, and definitely inspired Code Name!

MUF: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the beginning stages of a new middle-grade novel that I’m super excited about (all I can say right now is that it involves another special animal – this time, a cat).

How can readers find you online?

A: I love connecting with readers! You can find me online at www.AmberSmithAuthor.com, @ambersmithauthor on Instagram and Facebook, or @ASmithAuthor on Twitter.

Thanks for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

Code Name: Serendipity is out now, and here at Mixed-Up Files, we’re giving away a copy to one lucky reader.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Sound of Violets

Welcome to the Violets Are Blue Blog Tour!

To celebrate the release of Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee on October 12th, blogs across the web will be featuring exclusive guest posts from Barbara as well as 5 chances to win a signed copy all week long!


The Sounds of Their Voices 
by Barbara Dee

I’m an auditory writer, not a visual writer. By that I mean I rarely write descriptions of landscapes, or even the way characters look. I’m much more interested in the way characters sound, especially as they interact with each other in conversation. And as I write dialogue, I keep in mind that adults need to sound like adults, kids need to sound like kids—and that they all need to have distinct voices.

So I ask myself certain questions about the characters’ speaking styles. For example: Do they speak in long sentences, or short ones? Do they ask a lot of questions? Do they interrupt? Do they pause or hesitate or trail off? Do they use slang or formal speech? Do they have favorite expressions, especially those they use in moments of anger, frustration, excitement? What’s their tone—sarcastic, sympathetic, tense, calm? Is their voice hoarse, sharp, quiet, shrill, musical?

To get a grip on my characters, I don’t need to see their faces; I need to hear them speak. Sometimes as I’m writing I’ll read a manuscript aloud to hear how my characters are sounding. What I’m listening for most of all is natural, authentic speech—no elevated diction (unless it’s in character). This is essential, because middle grade readers have sharp ears exquisitely attuned to authenticity.

I remember how, when my daughter was about eight or nine, she abruptly abandoned a popular series, so I asked her why. “Because the characters never use contractions,” she told me. “They say ‘I cannot,” and ‘I do not,’ and that’s not how kids talk.”

If you’re writing middle grade fiction, nothing is more important than sounding like a kid. The challenge is not to overuse kidspeak. You need to keep in mind that certain expressions will sound fresh as you’re drafting your manuscript, but may become passé by the time the book is published. As I learned from my daughter,  if you get the voice even slightly wrong—if you sound dated, or, even worse, if you sound like an adult– you’ll turn off your readers.

And here’s the funny part: Although I know my characters are working when I can hear how they sound, I know my plot is working when I can see where they live. For every book I write, I develop an almost architectural blueprint of the main character’s house. In Violets Are Blue, I have a strong sense of the layout of the townhouse: the door leading into the kitchen, the living room next to it, the staircase, and the two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. All of this detail is significant to the plot, so it’s important to get straight how characters travel from one room to the next.

And of course how you can hear, or overhear, their voices throughout the house.


 

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

“Barbara Dee has done it AGAIN! She tackles tough topics with such great care. She is to middle schoolers today what Judy Blume was to me in the 80’s. I give Violets Are Blue ALL the stars and thumbs up.”
– Amanda Jones, 2021 School Library Journal Co-Librarian of the Year

“[F]requently poignant… With flawed, realistic characters and dynamics, this reconciliatory novel is a believable balm for young people at the mercy of adult choices and scenarios.”
Publishers Weekly

From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

Learn how to create the mermaid makeup effect from the cover!:

 

 

Follow Barbara: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Barbara Dee is the author of twelve middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including Violets Are Blue, My Life in the Fish Tank, Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews, have been shortlisted for many state book awards, and have been named to best-of lists including the The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

GIVEAWAY

a Rafflecopter giveaway
 

  • One (1) winner will receive a hardcover of Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee with a SIGNED bookplate
  • US/Can only
  • Ends 11:59pm ET on 10/24
  • Enter using the Rafflecopter above
  • Check out the other stops along the tour for more chances to win!

 

Blog Tour Schedule:

October 11th – Pragmatic Mom
October 12thImagination Soup
October 13thFrom the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors
October 14th – YA Books Central
October 15thGood Choice Reading