Posts Tagged Middle-Grade Fantasy

Meet The Dark Lord Clementine by Author Sarah Jean Horwitz

I love many elements of reading and writing middle grade literature, but one of my favorites is how creative and genius the titles are! And The Dark Lord Clementine is no exception.

Let me introduce you to the girl herself. *the bugle blares

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Isn’t she amazing?!!

Here’s a little more information about Clementine’s world before we meet her wonderful creator.

The new face of big evil is a little . . . small.

Dastardly deeds aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when one hears the name “Clementine,” but as the sole heir of the infamous Dark Lord Elithor, twelve-year-old Clementine Morcerous has been groomed since birth to be the best (worst?) Evil Overlord she can be. But everything changes the day the Dark Lord Elithor is cursed by a mysterious rival.

Now, Clementine must not only search for a way to break the curse, but also take on the full responsibilities of the Dark Lord. As Clementine forms her first friendships, discovers more about her own magic than she ever dared to explore, and is called upon to break her father’s code of good and evil, she starts to question the very life she’s been fighting for. What if the Dark Lord Clementine doesn’t want to be dark after all?

Clementine is being published by Algonquin Young Readers and will meet bookshelves everywhere on October 1, 2019.

Let’s give a warm hello to the author of this wonderful book, Sarah Jean Horwitz.

It’s wonderful to have you visit us, Sarah. Now I was fortunate enough to read an ARC of this book, so I know Clementine is a strong and bold middle grade character  – loved her! – but she also has vulnerabilities that might surprise readers.

Clementine has had a very unusual and sheltered upbringing under her father, the Dark Lord Elithor. (Yes, readers, you read that correctly. He’s an Evil Overlord!)

Her upbringing is one aspect of her world that I felt very intrigued by. It drew me in.

She’s been raised with some pretty negative and unhealthy habits when it comes to interacting with others. She hasn’t learned how to trust people or foster any sort of compassion, kindness, or community. She’s been taught that she’s better than everyone else, and that the only way to survive in the world is to make people fear her. And so Clementine has a lot of privilege to acknowledge, a lot of unhealthy habits to unlearn, and a lot of healing to do as she discovers there’s a different way to be in the world.

What is your favorite part of Clementine’s world, why, and why do you think readers will relate to it?

My favorite part of Clementine’s world is the bureaucratization of the pretty traditional, Western fairytale and epic fantasy-inspired story world. For example, there’s an official Council of Evil Overlords that gives Clementine’s father his Dark Lord designation, and there’s open acknowledgement in the book of professional classifications of Heroes, Good Witches, etc. I love playing with tropes and (gently!) poking fun at genres I enjoy, and the idea of all this administration, standardization, and red tape functioning in a fairytale setting just tickles me. I hope readers will recognize all the fantasy tropes I’m playing with and get a chuckle out of it, too.

I also hope to draw a bit of attention to the ways in which evil is firmly embedded in our own institutions, and how we sometimes take that – and the suffering of others – for granted. When the oppression and pain of others is built into a system that benefits us, just as Clementine benefits from being a Dark Lord’s daughter, it can be easy to turn a blind eye, or to accept this as just “the way things are.” But just as Clementine realizes that her status quo situation is not normal and rejects the lies she’s been taught about how the world works…so must we.

This is so important! I’m glad you touched upon it.

Favorite thing about Clementine is and why? What’s your least favorite?

My favorite thing about Clementine is that despite her isolated childhood, the emotional abuse she’s been subjected to by her father, and the terrible lessons she’s internalized over the years about her place in the world…she is still able to make room in her heart for beauty, love, and forgiveness.

See . . . love her.🖤

She has to work at it, but she gets there, and she finds out a lot about herself along the way. That takes a tremendous amount of strength. Of course, my least favorite parts of Clementine are the behaviors she learned from the Dark Lord and relies on heavily in the beginning of the book – her tendency to use bullying, intimidation and snobbery to try and get her way. Fortunately, she learns those aren’t exactly the best ways to make friends!

If you were Clementine’s sidekick what sort of things would you do? Talk about?

I’m pretty scared of heights, but just once, I’d like to hitch a ride on a broomstick. That seems like an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. I’d probably make Clementine talk about her feelings a lot, because she’s got a lot of issues to unpack…which would probably annoy her enough to get me magically transfigured into something unfortunate!

Bahhh! So true.

One question for our reading-writers out there – The book is written from different and alternating perspectives. How did you go about organizing all the information you knew readers would need to keep reading?

I make detailed outlines before I start writing any project, so that helps. Sometimes I color-code them by point of view to keep things straight. Then as I revise, I try to read as if I’m just another reader who knows nothing about the book, and that helps me see if I’ve planted enough information in the correct order. Of course, lot of stuff still slips through the cracks, and so my great critique partners and editor will point out any slip-ups I missed.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing this book?

I learned that my sense of humor is even darker than I realized (seriously – a few jokes got cut from the book because they were just a bit too much!) and that I tend to write about characters with chosen families. I also learned a lot about the medical consequences of getting sideswiped across the face by a unicorn horn! Yikes.

*Oh, the visuals.*

What do you hope young readers take with them from Clementine’s journey?

As cheesy as it sounds, when I think of Clementine’s journey, I think of that famous Tennyson quote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” It’s often quoted out of context and used to talk about romantic relationships, but the poem is actually about the death of one of Tennyson’s close friends. And I just think the sentiment from those two lines is very applicable to this book. Clementine puts her heart on the line (literally, at one point!) and takes a risk by trusting people and building new relationships. And it doesn’t 100% work out! She gets hurt, and she hurts people, and none of it is perfect. But the rich rewards of opening her heart to love are worth the possible disappointments. I hope that’s something readers remember.

Sounds perfect! Thank you for stopping by and for sharing Clementine’s wonderfully fantastical story with our Mixed-Up Files readers. 

Sarah Jean Horwitz grew up next door to a cemetery and down the street from an abandoned fairy-tale theme park, which probably explains a lot. She currently lives near Boston. Find her at sarahjeanhorwitz.com.

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Dear Readers, are you ready for The Dark Lord Clementine?

New Middle-Grade from Reka Simonsen at Atheneum

Reka Simonsen is Executive Editor at Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. She loves to work on books all across the age range, though she has a real soft spot for middle-grade novels, especially those that can turn kids into lifelong readers. She looks for believable, engaging characters whose voices she can’t forget, and stories with that special blend of humor and heart. Find out more about Reka at https://simonandschusterpublishing.com/atheneum/our-team.

Hi Reka, thanks for chatting with us. You’re publishing two new middle-grade novels from my 2019 cohort by Jamie Sumner and J. Kasper Kramer. Can you talk about what originally sparked your interest and made you want to acquire their debut novels?

Well, if a manuscript opens with a reference to The Great British Bake Off, of course I have to read more! Though it was the main character Ellie herself who made me want to acquire Roll with It. Ellie is smart and funny and she refuses to fit into the “sunshine and cuddles” stereotype that the world seems to expect of her as a kid who uses a wheelchair. That combination of grit and humor in the face of daily challenges, especially as she fights to be seen for who she really—that spoke to me, and I think it will speak to many kids who don’t get to see themselves in books very often. Ellie is determined to tell her own story, not the story others expect from her.

Jessica’s novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told, is also about the power of storytelling. It explores the way that stories—and who gets to tell them—shape what people think. From the start, I was intrigued by the setting, and loved that Jessica was weaving folklore and history together into one narrative. But that’s a tricky thing for even an experienced writer to pull off, much less a first-time author, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then I got swept up in Ileana’s story as she navigates a dangerous world where any neighbor could be a spy, and any loved one could be disappeared by the government for even thinking something that’s critical of the government. Jessica captured what it felt like to live in those circumstances, and wove in the folklore so beautifully that I thought it must be a very personal novel based on her own life. It’s not!

Both novels seem like they might present specific challenges to edit. Jamie’s book, ROLL WITH IT, is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy; Jessica (J. Kasper)’s novel, THE STORY THAT CANNOT BE TOLD, is set in Romania during the Communist revolution, told through the eyes of a 10-year-old. Can you talk about your approach to editing middle grade fiction dealing with subject matter that may go well beyond your first-hand experience?

Many of the books I work on go beyond my own first-hand experience. That’s probably true of many editors, and of many readers. For me, the entry point for working on a middle-grade novel is to find the places where I have an emotional connection to the character, so that even if I haven’t personally experienced her exact situation, I have felt what she is feeling. That common ground is what will allow a young reader to connect with a story, and hopefully to empathize with a character whose life is very different from anything the reader herself has experienced.

Middle-grade kids are at an age where most of them probably haven’t encountered many people whose lives are significantly different from their own, so the books we create for them are an opportunity to let them meet people of different abilities, ethnicities, religions, and experiences than their own. I want those first meetings to be ones that allow young readers to see the commonalities among us, as well as the challenges that they themselves may not have had to face, but others do. So I always edit with an eye to helping make the characters as relatable and believable as possible. Then when it comes to the aspects of a story where I don’t have first-hand knowledge, I work with the author to make sure that those aspects are as authentic as possible. Sometimes that involves getting authenticity readers to vet the story. Jamie and Jessica were on top of this from the start, even before the manuscripts came my way.

I know all too well that there are a lot of pitfalls in writing historical fiction. What makes middle grade historical fiction successful— first, artistically, and second, in terms of marketability? What general advice do you most often give middle grade authors who write historical?

Artistry is what makes or breaks historical fiction, as far as I’m concerned. A lot of people who want to be writers but don’t know where to start try their hand at historical fiction. I suspect this is because research is something concrete and familiar; they feel more confident in their ability to find some interesting moment in time and build a story around it than in their ability to make up something brand new from whole cloth. The result is that editors see a lot of historical fiction that is factually accurate but boring as can be (or worse). It has also been one of the most heavily published genres in kids’ books, so there are already thousands of middle-grade historical novels out in the world creating competition for any new one that hopes to make it into print. To be honest, although historical fiction is a mainstay of children’s publishing, it’s not seen as a highly marketable genre, more of a slow and steady.

So to stand out, a book has to have a terrific, fresh voice and point of view, especially if it’s about a time and place that has already been written about a lot, such as World War II. More than that, though, it has to feel relevant in some way to readers today—obscure moments in history might interest some nerdy types (like me), but unless the story includes some themes and issues that we are still dealing with today, it’s not likely that a book will resonate with many contemporary readers.

You’re also editing Joy McCullough’s new middle-grade, A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST (April 2020). Joy’s Young Adult verse novel, Blood Water Paint was published to a lot of well-deserved acclaim last year. What do you see as the challenges for authors who switch genres/age bands on their second book? Does this present any branding or marketing issues for a relatively new author? Do you ever advise authors you work with to stick to one genre?

We didn’t publish Joy’s YA novel in verse, so there’s no pressure from our marketing team to follow it with something similar. There used to be a concern within the industry that an author’s audience would get confused and not follow her if she switched genres. I think it’s far less of an issue now for writers to change age ranges and genres from one book to the next; the kids’ book world as a whole has gotten more comfortable with the idea that writers might have talent in more than one area. It’s not a bad idea for an author early on in her career to have her second book be something that the audience of the first book would enjoy, since building a readership, especially with middle-grade readers, can take more than one book. But I don’t think it’s a necessity.

What’s the most intensive editorial project you’ve ever worked on?

That’s nearly impossible to say! There have been so many projects that were intensive in some way, and the ways in which they are intensive can vary so much. I’ve worked on some fantasies that took incredible amounts of thought on my part and the part of the author to make the worldbuilding as clear and solid as it could be. Other books are intensive because there’s a lot of factual information to condense and shape into an engaging story—for instance, figuring out how to narrow the amazing and long life of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who just turned 101, into a book for middle-grade readers was a bit of a challenge. And still others are intensive because I signed up the project based on something really special, but other aspects might not be working—structure, age range, whether it’s first person or third, or present or past tense—and an overhaul is called for.

What unique talents or perspectives do you think you bring to the table as an editor for middle-grade?

I like to joke that my bad memory is my great editorial strength. In reality I don’t have a bad memory so much as selective one; I can reread mysteries after a few years because I rarely remember whodunit, since what I love about a good mystery is the mood and the rich characterization. In all seriousness, though,

this does allow me to reread manuscripts with somewhat more of a fresh eye than I might otherwise have had on that third, fourth, or fifth read. And that is a real help, because we editors have to reread manuscripts so many times that the risk is high of familiarity allowing our eyes and minds to auto-correct something, rather than catching that it could use more thought.

What’s the number one thing a new middle-grade author can do, pre- or post-publication, to help boost sales of his or her books?

If we knew the answer to this, every book would be a success! My best advice is for authors to make friends with people at their local indie bookstores and libraries and attend events there, and try to get to know other authors in their area. It’s always helpful to build connections within your local literary community, where you can help support one another and build the word about your own books and those of other writers in your community.

What’s an under-represented middle-grade genre or topic that you’d like to see more of?

I’d love to see more books about kids struggling with financial insecurity. We live in one of the richest countries on earth, yet nearly half of our children are living below or dangerously close to the poverty line. Yet even as we’re entering a time when realistic slice-of-life stories are trending again, so few books deal with the issues of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether your family will be kicked out of their home, or whether you’ll be taken from your parents because they can’t care for you.

Do you have other forthcoming or new middle-grade novels you’d like to introduce us to?

Of course! In a completely different vein but also absolutely wonderful: The Green Children of Woolpit by J. Anderson Coats is a deliciously creepy, spine-tingling fantasy based on a British legend about two children with green skin who mysteriously showed up in a small village. Jillian has brilliantly interpreted this story as a dark fantasy involving a strong-willed young girl and the dangerous fairy folk from English legend.

On the younger end of middle-grade is The Very, Very Far North by Dan Bar-El, an utterly charming novel about a sweet and curious young polar bear named Duane who befriends an array of animals as he discovers where he belongs. It really feels fresh and new, yet it has all of the classic appeal of Winnie the Pooh, or of Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomintroll books, which are favorites of mine.

And one to look forward to next summer is The Great Pet Heist by Emily Ecton—which is what would happen if you cast Oceans 11 entirely with animals, complete with reconnaissance rats named Marco and Polo, a brains-of-the-operation bird, the coolest of cats, and a decoy dachshund named Butterbean. It is the funniest book I’ve read in ages.

Thanks so much for your time, Reka!

THE ODDMIRE: Book I Changeling & All Sorts of Magic!

We have another amazing author visit today here on The Mixed-Up Files!

Despite being a debut author in the middle grade arena, this author might already be familiar to you. It’s William Ritter, the author of the New York Times bestselling Jackaby series, which deserves a major round of applause. But he’s here to share his intriguing #mglit tale of vanishing magic, the Wild Woods, goblins, and more! And to top all this newness off, William shared with me that this is the first time his own illustrations are being used in one of his books. Super cool!

Hi William, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you again. We’re very excited to have you here. Tell us, what books did you find most memorable as you were growing up?

I loved so many books growing up. As a teen, I liked the witty language of PG Wodehouse and the silly situations of Douglas Adams. When I was a middle-grade reader, the standout was probably Patricia Wrede’s fantastical Dealing with Dragons.

Do you think they’ve influenced you as an adult? As a writer?

The stories I loved as a kid are deep in my bones now—and they definitely influence the books I write. Wrede’s series, set in the Enchanted Forest, borrows all manner of classic folktale tropes, turning them on their head and reimagining them in clever, playful ways. My MG debut, The Oddmire, is set in the Wild Wood, and it is absolutely following in Wrede’s literary footsteps.

Speaking of THE ODDMIRE, let’s show the readers your book.

Magic is fading from the Wild Wood. To renew it, goblins must perform an ancient ritual involving the rarest of their kind—a newborn changeling. But when the fateful night arrives to trade a human baby for a goblin one, something goes terribly wrong. After laying the changeling in a human infant’s crib, the goblin Kull is briefly distracted from his task. By the time he turns back, the changeling has already perfectly mimicked the human child. Too perfectly: Kull cannot tell them apart. Not knowing which to bring back, he leaves both babies behind.

Tinn and Cole are raised as human twins, neither knowing what secrets may be buried deep inside one of them. Then when they are twelve years old, a mysterious message arrives, calling the brothers to be heroes and protectors of magic. The boys must leave behind their sleepy town of Endsborough and risk their lives in the Wild Wood, crossing the perilous Oddmire swamp and journeying through the Deep Dark to reach the goblin horde and discover who they truly are.

In this first book in a new fantasy-adventure series, New York Times bestselling author William Ritter takes readers on a journey of monsters, magic, and discovery.

 

Love this cover! And the story sounds like a non-stop race and adventure. What was your favorite part of writing this story?

Making my own kids laugh. I have two boys (the inspiration for the Burton twins in The Oddmire). MG readers are a very discerning audience with little patience for boring prose—so when I read my drafts to my boys and they laugh at the funny bits or demand to hear the next chapter, it makes my heart happy.

Okay, this answer just made my heart all squishy. Was there anything that surprised you while writing The Oddmire?

There are always tiny ideas that grow into huge elements as a book evolves. The character of Fable wasn’t even in my earliest outlines, and I can’t imagine the story without her now. The Queen of the Deep Dark similarly began as a simple boogeyman, but the more I explored her character, the more depth I found.

*Note future writers: this is a teeny peek into what it’s really like to develop characters. And it is so much fun! What do you hope readers find within the pages of this story?

Having a family that looks different or comes together in an unconventional was is not a bad thing. Family can be messy & difficult, but real family is about love, not about clean, simple genealogy.

Gosh, this is truth and such a wonderful message for kids to grasp. Okay, we know this is a series. Any sneak peeks into what’s to come?

Changeling is centered around the Burton twins. They meet many fun characters along the way, but in the end, it’s their story. The Unready Queen bring the twins back, but turns its focus toward the enigmatic Fable, a girl from the Wild Woods. It’s her turn.

*flails Kermet arms* This is very exciting! It will be great to get to know Fable even more.

For our reading writers, what’s the most valuable writing advice you’ve ever received?

E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web) once said: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Truth! Sometimes you’ll feel truly inspired—other times you’ll have to drag each word out. Sometimes you’ll write in a clean, tidy office—other times you’ll be sitting on the back seat of a city bus. Sometimes you’ll write in the quiet morning light on a vintage typewriter with a steamy cup of tea beside you—other times you’ll poke letters into a cell phone notepad in the middle of the night because you woke up to a screaming baby and then got an idea for a new story. Readers will never know which passages were written under “ideal” circumstances and which you scraped out of the muck. Just let yourself write.

Such wonderful advice, William. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your work with us. Looking forward the The Oddmire’s release on July 16! Your friends at The Mixed-Up Files will be cheering you on.

Reports of William Ritter’s birthplace are unreliable and varied, placing his hometown either in a series of mysterious Catacombs in Malta or in a quiet town in Oregon. His parents, it can be confirmed, raised him to value intelligence, creativity, and individuality. When reading aloud, they always did the voices.

At the University of Oregon, William made questionable choices, including willfully selecting classes for the interesting stories they promised, rather than for any practical application. When he wasn’t frivolously playing with words, he earned credits in such meaningful courses as Trampoline, Juggling, and Seventeenth Century Italian Longsword. These dubious decisions notwithstanding, he regrets nothing and now holds degrees in English and education with certificates in creative writing and folklore.

He currently teaches high school language arts, including reading and writing, mythology and heroes. He is a proud husband and father. When reading aloud, he always does the voices. Find out more about William – WEBSITE | TWITTER

Readers, do you like fantasy middle grade like The Oddmire? If so, what do you like about fantasy?