Posts Tagged middle-grade readers

Author Spotlight: Joy Jones… plus a GIVEAWAY!

For today’s Author Spotlight, I’m pleased to interview Joy Jones, author of the debut middle-grade novel, Jayla Jumps In (Albert Whitman, 2020). Plus a giveaway!!!!

About the Book:

When 11-year-old Jayla finds out that her mother used to be a Double Dutch champion, she’s stunned. Who knew her mom, who’s on doctor’s orders to lower her blood pressure, could move like that? Jayla decides to follow in her mom’s footsteps, thinking that maybe Double Dutch can make her stand out in her big, quirky family. As she puts together a team at school and prepares to compete, Jayla finds that Double Dutch is about a lot more than jumping rope—and it just might change her life, in ways she never imagined. Full of hilarious family dynamics and plenty of jump-rope action, Jayla Jumps Infollows one girl’s quest to get her mom healthy and find her place in her community.

And now, without further ado, let’s jump into the interview! 

Interview with Joy Jones

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Joy! First and foremost, I need to tell you how much I enjoyed your book. It’s filled with heart, humor—and, of course—Double Dutch. What was the impetus for writing this novel?

JJ:  I’m so glad you liked it! I want the reader to have fun. I always feel great when I jump Double Dutch; I’m hoping the reader gets to feel a little bit of that joy–and maybe even decide to actually try it!

When I first came up with the idea to jump Double Dutch, I was trying to lose ten pounds. Now, I’m trying to lose twenty. Hmm… the weight loss has been a little tricky but I gained a great deal of creative capital. I got a stage play and a book out of the deal.  So what happened? Well, some co-workers and I were talking about losing weight and I suggested we jump Double Dutch during lunch. Everyone said they were already too fat to exercise so we never did it. But I thought it was a pretty good idea. Since I didn’t get to do it in real life, I did it in my imagination and wrote a play called Outdoor Recess about a group of adult women who form a Double Dutch team. When I was promoting the play, someone suggested that I actually get some women together to jump rope–and I did. That’s how DC Retro Jumpers got started. {Check out this video of the Team in action!}

Years later, I would talk to my agent in passing about the various exploits of DC Retro Jumpers. “You should write a middle-grade novel about Double Dutch,” she said. But because I had already done a play on the theme, and as the team’s founder who was often promoting our activities, I didn’t think I had anything more to say about Double Dutch. But she brought up the idea again, and this time I decided I’d try writing on that theme. That’s how Jayla Jumps In was born.

Combatting Loneliness

MR: Speaking of your book, Jayla, the 11-year-old protagonist, often feels lonely, despite being part of a large extended family. As an only child myself, I can absolutely relate to this. Did you experience loneliness as a child as well? If so, how did it affect you—and how did you cope?

JJ:  I’m the oldest in my family so there were a few years when I was the only child. My way of coping was to inform my parents that I wanted a baby sister. When I was seven, they delivered what I requested–practically on my birthday! My sister, Lorraine, was born on November 22nd; I was born on November 23rd. (I think that was the last time my parents gave me what I wanted. ) I also have another younger sister, Vita, who is an August baby. But was I lonely as a child? No, I always had a book at hand whenever I wanted company, or was feeling bored, or had nothing to do and nobody else was around. Sometimes I preferred a book even when people were around.

A Jump on Health

MR: The importance of exercise and healthy eating factors heavily in Jayla Jumps In, when Jayla learns that her mom suffers from hypertension, a health issue that affects 1 in 3 Americans. If not treated, uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk of serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke. What prompted you to focus on this particular health issue? What is the message—and ultimate takeaway—for your middle-grade audience?

JJ: Being physical is such a wonderful thing! All you couch potatoes, stop rolling your eyes. A physical body was made to be physically active! You’re zoned out on the sofa only because you haven’t yet discovered the activity that’s right for you. When you move, you stimulate your endorphins–the ‘get-high’ hormones in your body. Vigorous movement feels glorious! It’s not work, it’s pleasure. You do like to feel good, don’t you? As I like to say, not everyone likes to exercise but everyone likes to play.

Too many people spend too much time padlocked to a screen, watching somebody else do something fun. For many adults, we have childhood memories of being outdoors, playing a game that doesn’t require batteries or using our imaginations to entertain ourselves. But too many young people haven’t experienced the fun of physical movement, of outdoor play, or of at least actively exercising their own imaginations, rather than passively consuming someone else’s creativity that’s been packaged for sale.

I also do yoga, take frequent walks, swim, and dance–my favorite physical activity. I hope by reading Jayla’s story, young readers get motivated to try some old-school, screen-free fun. I’m not at my goal weight, but I am convinced that my good health is in large part due to being physically active. My mother has hypertension–she’s 89–and although sometimes we have to nag her about being consistent with her medication,  she regularly exercises and is in pretty good shape. She can still fit into the wedding dress she wore in 1952!

Team Spirit

MR: You founded the DC Retro Jumpers, an adult Double Dutch exhibition team, in 2004. What was your motivation for forming the team? Did you jump as a child, or are you relatively new to the sport? Also, what is it about Double Dutch that appeals to you most? I’m guessing it’s more than exercise.

JJ:  Yes, I jumped rope as a child, but single rope more than Double Dutch. Although I enjoyed it hugely, I think I get even more enjoyment now. Jumping Double Dutch gives a rush that’s both easy and exciting at the same time. Plus, my ego gets stroked because often people are surprised–and impressed–to see someone old doing it. During DC Retro Jumpers demonstrations, I love it when someone comes forward to jump. Usually, it’s been years since they jumped or they never learned how. But once they start jumping and they find the rhythm, the joy that suffuses their whole being is gratifying to witness. People on the sidelines are cheering them on, and cell phone cameras are recording their triumph. The experience hits all my pleasure centers: fresh air, having fun, helping others, ego strokes.

Renaissance Woman

MR: In addition to being a middle-grade author, you are a playwright, a poet, an educator, a journalist, a trainer, a motivational speaker, and you write non-fiction for adults. You’re also active in the DC Retro Jumpers. How do you juggle so many balls—and keep them in the air? Also, what does your writing routine look like? Enquiring minds want to know!

JJ: Some years ago I was working a job that sapped my energy, and my soul. I wanted to quit and spend my days lazing around in bed and reading novels. But my wallet said, “No, Joy, that won’t work!” So I started saving money aggressively. I managed to accumulate a nice stash that allowed me to leave my full-time job for part-time work. I landed a job at DC Public Library (an ideal place for a writer!), working 20 hours a week. This allowed me to have time for my creative pursuits.

My writing routine? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Even now that I’ve got a less stressful schedule, the writing happens catch-as-catch-can. I used to believe one needed long stretches of time to get writing done. That’s nice, but life seldom accommodates me in that way. Usually, I write in stolen snatches of time. I always keep a journal with me, so I can write while in a waiting room, on the subway, during slow moments at work. If you keep doing a little bit of writing, eventually the bits and pieces become pages–and then the pages become books. I begin in longhand, with pen and paper for the first draft, then go to the computer to edit and refine.

Question from Jonathan Rosen

MR: Oh, and Joy? MUF member Jonathan Rosen has a question for you, so I kind of feel obligated to pass it on…

JR: Hi, Joy! Which version of the song “Double Dutch Bus” do you prefer—the original 1981 hit by Frankie Smith or the remake by Raven-Symoné, as featured in the 2008 movie, College Road Trip? (I should mention that “Double Dutch Bus is my go-to karaoke song.) <MR: Sadly, it is.>

JJ:  Shhh… I don’t normally reveal this, but I can’t stand that song. I cringe any time it is played when we’re doing a demo. But I’m sure when you sing it on karaoke night you rock the mic. <JR: Yes, people have noted my rockstar quality…>

And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Fruit.

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Cat or dog? Traditionally, I’ve preferred cats, but over time dogs have become more appealing. But I’m too lazy to keep a pet myself.

Favorite song? (And certainly not “Double Dutch Bus”! I’m partial to R&B oldies. Too many favorites to single out just one.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay. Unless you count the way everybody is glued to their screens like zombies. In that case, the zombie takeover has already happened.

Superpower? I’m a pretty good listener; especially at hearing what’s not being said.

Favorite place on earth? Muir Woods in California. When I’m among those majestic redwood trees I feel like I’m in God’s living room, basking in His company.

Signature Double Dutch move? Pop-ups. That’s when you propel yourself straight up in the air while jumping. I never could do that as a child, so it’s been especially exhilarating to learn how to do it as an adult. Old dogs can learn new tricks!

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A library, a dance partner, and a box of Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies.

MR: Thank you for chatting, Joy—and congratulations on the publication of Jayla Jumps In. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

And now… a fabulous

GIVEAWAY!!!

Joy has generously offered to gift a lucky reader with a signed copy of Jayla Jumps In. Just comment on the blog (and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account) for a chance to win! 

JOY JONES is a trainer, performance poet, playwright and author of several books, including her MG debut, Jayla Jumps In (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020). She has won awards for her writing from the D. C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, and the Colonial Players Promising Playwrights Competition, plus awards from both the D. C. Department of Recreation & Parks and the D. C. Commission on National & Community Service for outstanding community service. She is the director of the arts organization, The Spoken Word, and the founder of the Double Dutch team, the DC Retro Jumpers, which has led exhibitions and classes throughout metropolitan Washington and abroad. Joy often leads workshops on creative writing, communications and black history. Learn more about Joy on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Interview With Janet Fox, Author of The Artifact Hunters

The Artifact Hunters is one of my favorite books of 2020. So I immediately called dibs on an interview with Janet Fox for MUF. This sequel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE combines historical fiction and magic in a fast-paced adventure full of twists and turns.

Let’s get to it!

1. Tell us about The Artifact Hunters.

My main character, Isaac Wolf, is a 12 year old boy living in Prague in 1942, when his parents suddenly send him away alone with a talisman (a pendant in the shape of an “eternity knot”), a mysterious box containing…, and instructions to find Rookskill Castle in Scotland. When he arrives at Rookskill he discovers the Special Alternative Intelligence Unit where gifted children learn to harness their magical powers to support the Allies’ cause. Isaac has to learn that he, too, has magical powers, but to harness and use them he must hunt for a series of magical artifacts that are scattered throughout the past. And what is inside the mysterious box? How can he find those artifacts? And who – or what – is actually hunting him, as he unlocks the answers to these secrets?

2. How did you come up with the idea?

All of my Rookskill books have something to do with time.

In the first book, my protagonist Kat (who is also in this book) knows how to fix clocks, which gives her the ability to defeat the antagonist (there’s a bit of a steampunk element). In this new book, I wanted to play with time travel and the dangers inherent in time loops, time warps, and so on. I also wanted in this book to touch, albeit subtly, on how societies rise and fall and the nature of conflict.

But the real touchstone for me was when I happened upon an article about something called a Death’s Head Watch, which is a totally creepy real thing. https://janetsfox.com/2020/07/the-deaths-head-watch/

3. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!

Actually…no. My characters come to me, begging to be written. I’m not kidding.

Of course, there is an element of me in each of them. Kat is especially close to the kid inside me. But I try to enrich them by playing at opposites, at something I would never do or say or think, even if I share their fears or dreams. Each time I start a new story I start with the character first, and build the story around him or her.

4. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?

When I write I do a lot of research, and my favorite kind of research is travel (which is a little hard to do right now, sadly.) For The Artifact Hunters, I went to Prague, where Isaac is from, and for Charmed Children I visited Scotland. A sense of place is really important to everything I write, so if you look carefully at any of my books you’ll see that they are set in places I’ve lived or visited.

I also have a master’s degree in science (geology), and so science plays a huge role in my work.

5. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing?

My all-time favorite books as a kid were the Narnia books. And yes, they profoundly influence everything I write. I try to invoke that same sense of wonder and magic, and the kid relationships Lewis developed. My first three books are YA novels, and I have one picture book out, but I feel now that my sweet spot is middle grade, and that’s probably due to my love of Narnia.

6. What are you working on now?

I have a third Rookskill novel in proposal stage with my publisher (Viking), so we’ll see whether that’s a go or not. It may depend on how well The Artifact Hunters does, as all things in this business.

I have another book, Carry Me Home, coming out with Simon & Schuster next summer that is really different for me – a contemporary middle grade story about a homeless girl. I really, really love that book and can’t wait to see it out in the world.

But I’ve also been working hard on a “Covid” book, another middle grade fantasy that’s set in contemporary times but with a parallel universes theme. It’s tentative title is The Book of Weirds and Wonders.

7. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’ve been a pantser forever but I’m trying really hard to plan more, and am finding my way to a technique I really like (that I’m teaching as part of my coaching business https://janetsfox.com/book-coaching/ ). I love pantsing but it makes the work so much more difficult. I’m working on this new in-between strategy called the inside-outline.

https://montana.scbwi.org/events/webinar-a-new-way-to-outline-with-author-janet-fox/

8. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Don’t give up.

It’s so amazing to me to think that I’ve written and published as much as I have. I remember too well the early days, the rejections, the disappointments, the thinking I’d never make it, never publish anything, never be read. There’s only one real reason I did make it – I didn’t give up.

Oh, sure, I studied craft. I have my MFA in writing. I work hard. I’ve been lucky. But honestly, there are many ways to reach your dreams and only one thing that will really get you there and that’s to Never Give Up.

Buy Now!

 

 

Family Book Club: Middle Grade Books That Can Be Enjoyed by ALL

As I write this I am preparing to leave New York where we’ve been for the summer and return to London (where we live during the year) in time to quarantine for 14 days before school starts. I am kind of freaking out about what I am going to do with my kids in quarantine, but probably like most people with children or who are around children, the theme of this summer has certainly been “unstructured time.” My kids are currently 15, almost-12, 9.5, and almost-6. And thinking back to lockdown, one of the things that worked well was spending some time a few days a week listening to an audiobook while we colored or just relaxed. Okay, the 15-year-old did not involve herself in this, but for the rest of us it was nice. And when I would be reading a middle grade book to the 11 and 9 year old before bed, she would often casually come in and listen, or if we were discussing a book she’d read or I’d read to her when she was younger, she would happily weigh in.

How about a Family Book Club, in whatever shape that might look like to you?

So, for other people struggling with how to fill the last weeks of kids’ summers with something other than screens and devices, I thought I’d make a list of middle grade books that family members of different ages and genders would all enjoy reading (or listening to) and could then discuss.

I’m thinking middle grade books that work on a number of different levels—understood even by little ones not quite reading chapter books to themselves, hit the sweet spot of middle grade readers (either to be read out loud to or to read themselves), might interest your teen if they’ll deign to participate (boredom works in interesting ways), and sophisticated and nuanced enough to be truly enjoyed by adult readers too. 

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea—this moves quickly because of short chapters narrated by different voices. The classroom dynamics are realistic and I found it wise in a way that I, as an adult, have taken the subtle lessons, for example how to handle a “girl wars” bully. There are now 3 additional sequels.

 

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo—written deceptively simply, this one is funny and moving and heartwarming—an all-round winner for everyone every time I’ve read it. I’d say ANY Kate DiCamillo is a good choice for family book club: as Ann Patchett writes, some people like the magic animals ones (her) and some the realistic childhood ones (me) but they all “crack you open and make you a better person.”

  All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor—written in the 1950s about a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, this one just never, ever, feels dated. We are working our way through the sequels now.

 

 

Fudge books, in particular Superfudge by Judy Blume—laugh-out-loud funny and relatable about 6th grader Peter and the antics of his irrepressible 5-year-old brother Fudge. (My teen daughter’s suggestion was Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great).

 

Fortunately The Milk, by Neil Gaiman—madcap storytelling that’s fun for all ages.

 

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White—honestly, I hadn’t read this since I was a kid and pretty much remembered nothing from it. Reading it to my almost-6 year old this summer, the writing blew me away as well as the story. Garth Williams’ illustrations are a delight for everyone. A classic for a reason.

 

The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary—again, funny and relatable situations that make moving drama out of everyday circumstances and relationships. These have been a big hit over and over again and provoke great discussions about relationships and difficult situations. My personal favorites are Ramona and Her Mother and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

 

All of the above are available as audiobooks too. And speaking of audiobooks, a special mention for How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell narrated by David Tennant because on the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group someone queried if people had recommendations for an audio book for a long car ride with an 8-year-old that everyone else in the car would enjoy, and this was the overwhelming favorite.  

An important note:

When I looked at my list above I realized that it had no real diversity or POC in it. While many of the books we’ve enjoyed as a family do (see below), I couldn’t think of one that worked as well with my criteria of working for young children too—please, if anyone has any suggestions please add them in the comments.

 

Books next on my own family to-read list that I think will work well:

George by Alex Gino

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

Babysitter’s Club, the original books by Ann Martin—I loved this piece in the New York Times recently about boys reading these and my sons have devoured the graphic versions, not to mention that all of us are LOVING the fabulous Netflix series. Thought this might work well for us in audio. The first 5 are narrated by Elle Fanning.

 

Family Book Club for Middle Grade Readers and Up:

Graphic novels abound with moving stories and are great for reluctant readers or for kids ready for sophisticated themes but aren’t at a reading level for more advanced MG novels. They don’t work as well for the littlest members of the family, but if that’s not your situation, these books sparked lots of conversation and good book discussion in our family recently.

New Kid by Jerry Kraft —code switching and discomfort in either world when middle schooler Jordan changes schools, but instead of art school where he’d wanted to go, his parents send him to a prestigious academic school where he is one of the few kids of color. My kids have each read this several times and have asked a lot of questions sparking great discussion.

 

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed—family love, education, and a Somali refugee’s story as told to graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson. Both my sons devoured this. My 9-year-old described it as about “a boy with a brother who can’t speak. Really sad but really good.”

 

Other MG books on my (older) Family Book Club list:

One Crazy Summer trilogy—The first book, the story of 3 sisters joining their estranged mother in tumultuous 1960s San Francisco, has been a big hit with all my kids over the years and coming late to the party I’ve just discovered that there are two sequels which I can’t wait to try.

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman—“Imani is adopted, and she’s ready to search for her birth parents. But when she discovers the diary her Jewish great-grandmother wrote chronicling her escape from Holocaust-era Europe, Imani begins to see family in a new way.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough—I think my boys will be ready for it this year and really look forward to reading it with them. I also gave it to my older daughter’s best friend who loved it and I hope my daughter will read it too!

High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson—this just won the prestigious Waterstones Book Prize in the UK and I’m excited to read it with the kids. 

If mysteries are your family’s thing, check out some of these.

 

Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein. I just finished this and want to hand a copy to everyone I know. In a portrait of contemporary Jewish life, this book explores self-image, grief and friendship and is a wonderful, wonderful, thoughtfully-written debut.

Middle Grade for All

In truth, minus needing to encompass a little one’s needs, to me the perfect Middle Grade book is written in a way that absolutely resonates on many levels and to many ages. My list includes a lot of obvious ones–classics and award-winners. But there are thankfully untold numbers that are amazing for a Family Book Club. In addition to the ones mentioned above, here are some suggested by friends of mine who said these worked well for different-aged readers in their families:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (for fans of The Westing Game)

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds (have just ordered this for myself)

Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, adapted for young readers edition

And Finally, In Her Own Words:

One of my favorite middle grade readers, who was in a neighborhood mother-daughter book club with her mom, recommends these (and her mom endorses them too 🙂

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A Drop of Hope by Keith Calabrese

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Jennifer Choldenko

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt 

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

 

Happy Reading, Everyone!

Let me know how you get on with any of these, and please write more Family Book Club suggestions in the comments. With fears of a second Covid-19 wave and another lockdown looming (and who knows what will be with school), we all might have a LOT of time on our hands. But I can think of worse things than spending it reading and discussing great children’s books. Stay safe and Happy Reading! 

 

All books can be bought on MUF’s Bookshop.org affiliate program or wherever fine books are sold.