Posts Tagged middle grade debut

Exploring THE PLACES WE SLEEP with Author Caroline DuBois

I have a new guest for you, today! She’s written a tender, moving tale in verse that journeys a young girl through everyday details while living during a time of national crisis. The first words of this story made me pause and take notice. And the rest, poked me right in the heart to the end. The writing is beautiful and real, the story is important, and the growth of the main character is hopeful. I’m very excited to share The Places We Sleep with you and welcome Author Caroline DuBois to share her thoughts about the book.

Hi Caroline! It’s wonderful to have you visit our Mixed-Up Files family. Let’s share your beautiful cover and story with readers first.

THE PLACES WE SLEEP

by Caroline DuBois

A family divided, a country going to war, and a girl desperate to feel at home converge in this stunning novel in verse.

It’s early September 2001, and twelve-year-old Abbey is the new kid at school. Again.

I worry about people speaking to me / and worry just the same / when they don’t.

Tennessee is her family’s latest stop in a series of moves due to her dad’s work in the Army, but this one might be different. Her school is far from Base, and for the first time, Abbey has found a real friend: loyal, courageous, athletic Camille.

And then it’s September 11. The country is under attack, and Abbey’s “home” looks like it might fall apart. America has changed overnight.

How are we supposed / to keep this up / with the world / crumbling / around us?

Abbey’s body changes, too, while her classmates argue and her family falters. Like everyone around her, she tries to make sense of her own experience as a part of the country’s collective pain. With her mother grieving and her father prepping for active duty, Abbey must learn to cope on her own.

Written in gorgeous narrative verse, Abbey’s coming-of-age story accessibly portrays the military family experience during a tumultuous period in our history. At once personal and universal, it’s a perfect read for fans of sensitive, tender-hearted books like The Thing About Jellyfish.

If you would, share with our readers one book from your childhood that has stayed with you, and how can children’s authors in today’s unsettled world achieve this same unforgettable feel?

Mary Norton’s The Borrowers sparked my imagination as a child. My librarian mom introduced it to me. Norton’s world-building of tiny people living in the walls and borrowing from the people with whom they lived was pure escape for me from the big complicated world.

Children’s authors in today’s uncertain world can achieve this same unforgettable feel by either delivering children to a rich land of imagination, or by providing children a story in which they can see themselves. Then they can envision and dream of ways they can be and all the things they can achieve.

What made you decide to write “The Places We Sleep” in verse?

Abbey’s story came to me naturally in poetry, perhaps as a lyrical way to process 9/11 and my brothers’ deployment, but also likely because I’d recently completed my MFA in poetry. It began as more of a character sketch through poems and eventually turned into a story. I wanted to write about how world events have rippling effects on individuals and familial relationships in unexpected ways. The snapshots or scenes that poems allow you to write provided me with the perfect medium.

Your description of poems being scenes is fascinating and also beautiful. It definitely worked. How much of the novel is inspired by your own experience growing up in the South in a military family?

Although I did not grow up in a military family, both of my grandfathers served in the military, as well as both of my brothers, my brother-in-law, and my sister-in-law. Abbey’s story is about being a military child, but it’s also about many other things—identity, loss and grief, creating art in the face of tragedy, tolerance and acceptance, and friendship. It’s about how world events can touch individuals in large and small ways.

That they do. ♥ This couldn’t have been an easy story to write. What was the most difficult part?

I faced two specific challenges in writing this story. One was creating full, round characters through poems. And the other was making decisions about how to approach a national tragedy age-appropriately and sensitively. Having a great editor at Holiday House and a sensitivity reader helped with both.

Why do you think this story is important for the middle-grade audience?

Middle grade students I’ve taught often have had only a fuzzy understanding of the events of 9/11, and the nonfiction texts they’ve typically enjoyed the most in my classroom were almost always couched in a narrative story. I hope Abbey’s story will spark curiosity in young readers about 9/11 and the monumental lessons we learned and are still learning from that tragedy. I hope the book will leave readers with a memorable story about a girl who may not be all that different from themselves. Furthermore, I hope student readers are gently nudged to learn the names of others with whom they share classes and hallways and to act with kindness and dignity to those they may not know or understand. Maybe it will even inspire some young reader to choose to deal with life’s challenges through art or poetry or other forms of creativity.

Inspiring young readers to engage in conversation about the events of 9/11 is a wonderful.

How much research did you do for the story?

I lived through 9/11 and began writing and reading about it immediately thereafter. Additionally, I’ve had various family members in the military as well as taught students who experienced and still experience islamophobia. I conducted research as I was writing the story, as well as mined the living resources around me to create as authentic a portrayal of the historical backdrop to the story as I could.

What can young readers expect from your main character Abbey?

I hope that young readers can see themselves in Abbey as she navigates challenging world events along with the struggles of middle school and adolescence. Currently, teens and children are facing their own difficult world events. I hope readers see how Abbey perseveres and strives to be a good friend, to be kind, and to express empathy and tolerance to others.

All extremely important traits, especially in today’s world. Do you have any advice for librarians and teachers on how to encourage middle schoolers to give in verse books a try?

Books in verse make great shared read-aloud opportunities. You’re never too old to be read to or to enjoy reading aloud to someone else. Another way to inspire and hook a child on the joy of reading is by giving a book talk. Where an educator may not have time to read an entire chapter, there’s always time for a poem or two. And once one student starts reading it, the likelihood is that his or her friends will pick it up too. Books in verse create more white space between scenes as well as playful or dramatic visual messages with syntax, punctuation, and form, which can motivate adolescent readers.

Circling back to my first question, what do you hope stays with your readers after they read this story?

Perhaps The Places We Sleep will spark curiosity in young readers about 9/11 and the monumental lessons we learned and are still learning from that tragedy. I hope student readers are gently nudged to learn the names of others with whom they share classes and hallways and to act with kindness and dignity to those they may not know or understand. Maybe it will inspire some young reader to choose to deal with life’s challenges through art or poetry or other forms of creativity.

Here’s a little bit more about Caroline:

Caroline Brooks DuBois found her poetic voice in the halls of the English Department at Converse College and the University of Bucknell’s Seminar for Young Poets. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, under the scholarship of Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Tate, among other greats in the poetry world.
DuBois’s writing infuses poetry and prose and has been published by outlets as varied as Highlights High Five, Southern Poetry Review, and The Journal of the American Medical Association and has been twice honored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her debut middle-grade novel-in-verse, The Places We Sleep, is published by Holiday House and to be released August 2020.
DuBois has taught poetry workshops, writing classes, and English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. In May 2016, she was recognized as a Nashville Blue Ribbon Teacher for her dedication to her students and excellence in teaching adolescents.
DuBois currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she works as an English instructional coach and sometimes co-writes songs for fun with her singer-songwriter husband. She has two teenage children and a dog, Lilli, and she enjoys coaching soccer and generally being outside.
WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM

Thank you for sharing some of your writing journey with us, Caroline! All the best with The Places We Sleep.

Summer Sweet Treats

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.

Pie in the Sky CoverMUF: 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?Midsummer's Mayhem Cover

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 Author PhotoRemy 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 Author PhotoRajani 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.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Sarah Scheerger on debut OPERATION FROG EFFECT

I just read an absolutely delightful debut called OPERATION FROG EFFECT (Random House), by author Sarah Scheerger. It’s funny, sometimes sad, has a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, and even includes a graphic novel element.  The multi-POV novel traces one transformative year in the life of teacher Ms. Graham’s fifth-grade students. Because of her innovative teaching style, students learn to rely on their own ingenuity, deepen their empathy for each other, and fight for what they believe in. Their story is told through their journal entries and drawings.

As I often do, I drafted my middle-grade son to read with me, and he loved it too, so when I got the chance to interview Sarah, I included some of the questions he had for her as well.

Interview with Sarah Scheerger

The Origins of OPERATION FROG EFFECT

MUF: What inspired you to write this book?

My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Nubling, was innovative. He took risks, he made us think, and he understood when we made mistakes. He had a “growth mindset” before that was such a popular concept. He actually had us build our own model rockets in class and shoot them off on the school fields. (This probably wouldn’t happen today, but this was the eighties.) Mr. Nubling only had four fingers on one hand. One year (not my year), a student accidentally shot off his rocket while Mr. Nubling was still securing it in place. And despite losing a digit, Mr. Nubling continued to shoot off rockets every year with his fourth graders.

When I thought of writing a middle-grade novel, my upper elementary years jumped out at me as the most memorable. My character Emily has the voice most similar to my own fifth-grade voice. I connected with her need to belong and her confusion as her friend group shifts. All the characters in this story are fictional, of course.

MUF: Why did you decide to use a multi-POV approach?

I love the way multiple points of view provide the opportunity for misunderstandings, for unreliable narrators, and for a quick moving pace. I love the use of the graphic novel component (Blake’s voice) for multiple reasons. I see how my own children gravitate toward reading graphic novels, and I wanted a way to incorporate some of that element in this story. I thought perhaps the graphic novel component might widen the potential readership. Plus. . . I love how illustrations can convey emotions. Also, I wanted to create a character who has his own unique learning style. Blake is a student who struggles with writing but loves to draw.

Teaching Tolerance

MUF: I was fascinated by the Whistler/Non-Whistler project. Is that a real teaching model?

My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Nubling, did this experiment with our class. To be honest, my memory is fuzzy, so I’m not sure whether he did an eye color experiment or based it on gender. I only remember my feelings of injustice! I was confused and upset… and that experiment has stuck with me ever since.

When writing this book, I researched the eye color experiment. It originated with a teacher, Jane Elliot. She talked about it on “Oprah” back in the nineties. Here’s a clip. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/02/jane-elliott-race-experiment-oprah-show_n_6396980.html

In my first version of Operation Frog Effect, I considered doing the actual “eye color experiment”. But after much thought, my editor and I decided the point would be most poignant if I selected something entirely random, like the ability to whistle. (By the way, I cannot whistle myself.)

About that Frog…

MUF: Frogs are an important symbol in many cultures – often indicating a need for transformation or cleansing, for a new perspective on life. I can’t help but wonder whether this symbolism tied into your choice of the frog as a class pet? Ms. Graham’s class had an incredibly transformative year!

You’re totally right. This was a transformative year for Ms. Graham’s class.
Sweet Kermit was an addition during my first round of edits. My editor and I were brainstorming titles and ideas for metaphors and themes. We decided that a class pet frog could bring out Blake’s nurturing/caring side, had the potential for fun complications (oops—frog on the loose!) as well as created fun cover art. (My heart melts for the frog on the cover of the book.)

The frog symbolism was important too. You’re right that frogs are an important symbol for many cultures, and my editor and I also loved the concept of making ripples. Frogs make ripples in the water, and my characters made ripples in the world. (I love the ripples on the cover too!)

Writing the Book

MUF: What is your favorite part?

I love Blake’s sections. Gina Perry did a fabulous job. I’m hopeful that his sections will reach kids in a different way than the traditional text. Interestingly, I rewrote all of Blake’s sections for the audiobook. It was a group effort—I worked together with the producer to transform the illustrations back into inner dialogue… what Blake would have been thinking as he was sketching. (This was so fun—the producer and I met for coffee and worked together!)

And the counselor in me loves the little tidbits of social-emotional learning that Ms. Graham shares with her class.

MUF: What was the hardest part of the book to write?

Oh, great question! I did find it challenging to keep track of threads and details across characters. I kept lists and charts. I wanted to give each character equal playing time, make sure they each had their own arc, their own strengths, and their own weaknesses. I wanted to be sure the voices were different enough to be distinct. I also took extra care with the representation of my diverse characters. I had seventeen different authenticity readers! Each reader shared different insights, from his/her own perspective. It was really important to both me and my editor that we take extra steps to be sure we represented each character authentically.

(Cool fact: the audiobook is narrated by nine different diverse voices. This was really important to me, and I’m so thrilled with the end result.)

MUF: How many times did you have to rewrite?

Too many to count! Let’s just say that I started this book when my daughter was born. And now
she’s four and a half!
I do love revisions, though. Once I have the skeleton of the book written, I enjoy going back and fine-tuning.

Writing Multiple POV

MUF: Multi-POV books can be a real challenge in revisions – how did you approach that challenge?

This was definitely a challenge! There were so many layers of revisions with this book. I managed this in a variety of ways, but mostly I followed these steps:
• I went through and revised threads/overall plot
• then went back through one voice at a time, looking carefully at how this specific change impacted each specific character (for example, all of Kayley’s entries, then all of Cecilia’s, etc.)
• And then… I went back through the whole manuscript from beginning to end.

These multi-layered revisions occurred many times throughout the revision process. One change in a single plot point impacted each character in his/her own unique ways. Each time I went through I found more details to change.

MUF: My son and I both had the same comps in mind as we read – BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea, and THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY by Laura Shovan. Did either of those influence your writing or your choice to do multi-POV?

Perhaps on some level, the book Wonder impacted my choice to do Multi-POV. I have a huge author crush on that book. R.J. Palacio reached so many kids, and I’ve enjoyed watching how teachers have incorporated Wonder into their curriculum. Since I’m a school-based counselor, I love it when teachers find creative ways to incorporate social-emotional learning and empathy-building into their curriculum.

I think Because of Mr. Terupt and The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary are great comps too. In fact, you’ll find all these books (as well as tips about classroom activities) in the School Stories Educator’s Guide at the following link: https://images.randomhouse.com/promo_image/9780525644125_5528.pdf

Thank you for reading Operation Frog Effect! Here’s a link to the audiobook clip: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/575577/operation-frog-effect-by-sarah-scheerger/9780525644125/

OPERATION FROG EFFECT, published by Random House, will be on shelves TOMORROW, February 26, 2019.