Posts Tagged middle-grade readers

Interview with Jess Redman, debut author of The Miraculous

There were times when I had to set The Miraculous aside as author Jess Redman’s prose addressed death, grief and the belief that joy exists in the midst of, and often as a result of loss.

We meet eleven-year-old Wunder on the eve before his little eight-day old sister’s funeral. Wunder is a self-proclaimed miracologist. As in, he records stories about residents of his little town with miraculous outcomes. But after the loss of his baby sister, Wunder doesn’t believe in miracles any longer.

Faye, a cape-wearing mascara-making-raccoon-eyes member of Wunder’s Unexplainable and Inexplicable Phenomenon Society swoops into his life. Together they discover a mysterious woman (who just might be a witch) living in an abandoned house near the cemetery. The old woman asks Wunder and Faye for help. She sends them on a mission that leads them to adventure, healing, friendship and a renewed belief in miracles.

Ultimately, Jess Redman’s debut offers “Because there can be miracles even in the midst of unfathomable sadness and anger, even in the depths of grief and confusion. And these, these are the hidden ones, the ones we must search for.”

Jess Redman is a therapist and an adjunct professor of psychology. She currently lives in Florida with her husband, two young children, and an old cat named Soul Pie. The Miraculous is her debut novel.

To learn more about Jess, visit her website, www.jessredman.com

JKR: Thank you so much Jess for your time. I understand you are a fan of the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors! Welcome!

The Miraculous openly addresses death and grief. What have you learned through your experiences as a therapist that you felt were really important for young children to understand through your book?

JR: As a therapist, I think that the middle-grade years—ages 9 to 13—are a very special time. These are the years when kids are beginning to look out and beyond for the first time, years when they are starting to ask big questions and to develop a more nuanced understanding of emotions and life—and death.

By this age, most kids know someone who has died, even if it isn’t a family member or close friend. Yet, many adults are hesitant to discuss grief, and death is frequently seen as scary, forbidden, too intense, and too painful to even bring up. But kids are thinking about and worrying about and trying to figure out these topics anyway.

With The Miraculous, I wanted to tell the story of one young person’s thoughts and feelings and experiences coping with death. I wanted it to be an honest and open look at how the main character, Wunder, moves through grief, while still telling a story full of mystery and magic.

It was important to me that young readers hear that there are many ways to grieve and many ways to express emotions and that their questions, no matter how big or overwhelming, are valid and important. It was also important to me that the story show the power of friendship and community in coping with loss.

JKR: You offered that after sending out ARCs to readers that it was suggested that The Miraculous might help both children working through grief as well as adults. How does this make you feel?

JR: When I wrote The Miraculous, I was very aware of my young audience. I wanted to tell a story that was honest about grief and loss but was also gentle and hopeful and magical. The book has only been in the world for a few weeks, but already I have heard from young readers who have experienced losses of many kinds and who have connected with the story, and that brings me so much joy. When I do school or library visits, young readers will talk with me about their losses because The Miraculous opens the door for that conversation, and it’s an honor to hear those stories.

But what I feel about The Miraculous is what I feel about many middle-grade stories: they are for everyone. Since ARCs started going out, I’ve also heard from many adult readers who have lost siblings, parents, and spouses, and from those who have lost precious children, from devastating miscarriages to the unexpected death of an adult child. It has been an incredible privilege to hear these stories as well and to know that The Miraculous has contributed healing and hope. Adults, I believe, also need stories about grief and loss that are gentle and hopeful and magical.

So to the adult readers of this story who have lost a loved one, I want to say:

I see you.

You are not alone.

And yes, this story is for you too.

JKR: As a bereaved parent, I could so relate to topics including “the wrong things people say but they really just don’t know how to say I’m sorry,” and how we all grieve differently. I can only imagine that children, especially those who have experienced death within their circles, will relate to these passages as well. Can you offer anything on this?

JR: One of my best friends lost her father when we were nine. It was one of the first deaths I really understood, and I remember vividly my own uncertainty when I watched my friend board the bus on her first day back at school. How would she behave? Would she cry? What would I say? How would I comfort her?

I think it’s so important for kids to learn that grieving, like many emotional experiences, is a complex and individual process. There isn’t a wrong way to grieve, and in The Miraculous, characters grieve in many different ways.

I think it’s also important that kids learn how to support a friend who is grieving. In The Miraculous, Wunder’s parents do not talk to him very much about his sister’s death. His best friends don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. Wunder’s loss is compounded by these additional losses until he finds support in new, unexpected places.

To be able to accept someone else’s emotions, to say, “I’m so sorry this has happened” and then to sit with them and allow them to feel without trying to change or fix or explain—that can be really hard. Hard for kids, hard for adults. Yet, it’s what we so often need when we’re hurting.

JKR: I love the term miracologist. How did you come up with this?

JR: When I first started thinking about Wunder, I knew that he would be someone who believed in impossible and magical things, but I wasn’t sure how that would work out on the page exactly. It slowly came to me that what Wunder really believed in was miracles—miracles of all types, from the everyday miracle of sunrise to the inexplicable miracle of a loved one healed from an illness. I love stories that are infused with a little bit of magic, and I love characters that have quirks and unusual hobbies, so miracle-collecting was perfect. And who better to collect and study miracles than a miracologist?  Although I, like Wunder in the first chapter of the story, did try terms like miracler and miraclist before settling on miracologist.

You address friendships, and the challenges one faces as being both an older friend to someone who has experienced loss, as well as a new friend. Can you expand on this theme?

Yes, themes of friendship and community are very important in this story. Wunder has two best friends. Neither are sure how to respond when Wunder returns to school after his sister’s death. Tomas acts as if nothing has happened, while Davy is too nervous to say anything at all. Wunder is left feeling more isolated and confused.

Then he meets a new friend, Faye, who has just lost her grandfather. Faye isn’t the most cuddly, touchy-feely of souls, but she talks to Wunder about his sister. She acknowledges his sadness. As the book progresses, Wunder and Faye’s friendship deepens. It is a friendship forged in mutual vulnerability and shared emotional experiences, which is something I see happen often for clients who are in the midst of loss.

In the end, Wunder’s old relationships shift and change too. Having relationships, old or new, where you can safely and fully express your emotions is so important to mental health, and I hope kids see that in Wunder’s relationships with his friends.

JKR: Finally, what was the greatest takeaway that you hope your readers will experience through reading of Wunder’s journey?

JR:In the story, Faye says something to Wunder that I think sums up the message of the story: “Sometimes the brightest miracles are hidden in the darkest moments…but you have to search for them. You can’t be afraid of the dark.”

I don’t believe in glossing over sadness or just looking on the bright side or forcing ourselves to see the silver lining. But I do believe that we can find joy and meaning and deep relationships and new purpose after and even within great loss. I believe that our pain can be transformative. I believe that there is always light, no matter how dark the darkness. The path to that light is very personal and cannot be rushed or forced, but I believe we can get there, and that we can help one another along.

I understand you have another work coming out next spring. Can you share a bit about your next book?

My second middle-grade book, QUINTESSENCE, comes out on July 28, 2020. In the story, 12-year-old Alma Lucas moves to a new town. She’s lonely and friendless and she begins experiencing panic attacks. And then she sees a star—a star that looks like a child—fall into her backyard. With help from her school Astronomy Club and a mysterious shopkeeper, she goes on a sometimes-magical quest to get the star home—and to find home within herself.

It’s a story I’m so excited about, full of science and mystery and, of course, light and dark. It’s here on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46223313-quintessence

JKR: Is there anything else you care to add?

If you’ve read The Miraculous, thank you so much! It has meant so much to me to have this story that holds so much of my heart out in the world and to know that it’s being read.

JKR: Thank you so much Jess for your time!  Jess has kindly offered a copy of The Miraculous to one lucky reader. For a chance to win,  enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.(For U.S. readers only please!) The winner will be announced August 30. Good luck!

 
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Beyond the Dog Day’s of Summer

I just going to say it. I’m a cat person. Their aloof disdain for my humanness and the general consensus that they are just using me for food and a few scratches behind the ears just makes me love them all the more. They are not needy in the least, at a time in my life when I often feel my nurturing resources are close to depleted.

Despite my cat person-ness, I am a complete and total sucker for dog books. A Dog’s Purpose tied me up in knots and I read The Art of Racing in the Rain in one sitting. With the dog days of summer behind us, why not a cool dog reading list for your middle grade reader? These are some of my favorites. They range from heart pounding to heart breaking to laugh out loud funny.

Take your pick and happy tails, friends.

 

 

Hero, by Jennifer Li Shotz

Hero, a retired search-and-rescue dog, is not prepared for a stray puppy to come into his life. But when he and twelve-year-old Ben find Scout injured and afraid, the new addition leads them down an unexpected and dangerous path.

When Scout goes missing, it’s up to Hero to use his search-and-rescue skills to find Scout and bring him home.

Get ready for a canine adventure full of danger, loyalty, and the unbreakable bond between a boy and his best friend.

(and don’t miss the other titles in this ongoing series!)

 

Rules of the Ruff, by Heidi Lang

Twelve-year-old Jessie is in for a long summer at her aunt and uncle’s house. Her cousin Ann has a snotty new best friend, which leaves Jessie all alone. But Jessie is industrious, and—not content with being ignored all summer—she convinces Wes, a grouchy neighborhood dog walker, to take her on as his apprentice.

Sure, dog walking turns out to be harder than she expected, but she has Wes’s dog-walking code, the Rules of the Ruff, to guide her, and soon she’s wrangling her very own pack. But when a charismatic rival dog walker moves to town, she quickly snatches up most of Wes’s business—and Jessie decides she isn’t going to take this defeat with her tail between her legs.

 

Ruff vs. Fluff, by Spencer Quinn

From the outside, Queenie the cat and Arthur the dog appear to have a lot in common. Both pets live in the charming Blackberry Hill inn. They both love their humans, twins Harmony and Bro. They both have a fondness for sausage.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they are mortal enemies.

Goofy, big-hearted Arthur loves everyone he’s ever met . . . except the snobby, scheming cat who’s devoted her life to ruining his.

Queenie is a bit choosier. And who can blame her? When you’re brilliant AND exquisitely beautiful, you can’t be expected to rub tails with commoners. Especially not slobbery dogs.

But when the twins’ beloved cousin is framed for murder, Queenie and Arthur must work together to clear his name . . . something Queenie finds even more distasteful than inexpensive caviar. Can two enemies put aside their differences long enough to solve the mystery?

 

Wish, by Barbara O’Conner

Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite.

But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is, until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.

From award-winning author Barbara O’Connor comes a middle-grade novel about a girl who, with the help of a true-blue friend, a big-hearted aunt and uncle, and the dog of her dreams, unexpectedly learns the true meaning of family in the least likely of places.

 

Good Dog, by Dan Gemeinhart

Brodie was a good dog. And good dogs go to heaven.

Except Brodie can’t move on. Not just yet. As wonderful as his glimpse of the afterlife is, he can’t forget the boy he left behind. The boy he loved, and who loved him in return.

The boy who’s still in danger.

So Brodie breaks the rules of heaven. He returns to Earth as a spirit. With the help of two other lost souls — lovable pitbull Tuck and surly housecat Patsy — he is determined to find his boy and to save him.

Even if it costs him paradise. Even if he loses his eternal soul.

Because it’s what a good dog would do.

 

Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin

Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms. She’s thrilled that her own name is a homonym, and she purposely gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. Not everyone understands Rose’s obsessions, her rules, and the other things that make her different―not her teachers, not other kids, and not her single father.

When a storm hits their rural town, rivers overflow, the roads are flooded, and Rain goes missing. Rose’s father shouldn’t have let Rain out. Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit Still Relevant

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

When beloved children’s book author Judith Kerr passed away in May at the age of 95, I’d been about two weeks into reading to my two sons her classic and still relevant middle-grade novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

This was a seminal book for me as a child: I read it over and over again and vividly remember parts of it to this day. I had great feelings—and memories— for the book, but never particularly thought about who wrote it. When I moved to London 25 years later however, I discovered that in fact its author, Judith Kerr, is the creator of some 30 picture books. This includes one of the most classic children’s books here in England: The Tiger Who Came to Tea which I had immediately fallen in love with.

Two Sequels

In that first year we lived in London, I made another surprising discovery, at least to me: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit actually has two sequels—Bombs on Aunt Dainty which is more upper middle grade or possibly YA, and A Small Person Far Away, which I would also classify as YA or possibly even adult. They’re all fictionalized versions of Judith Kerr’s own story of being a refugee from Germany as Hitler came to power. 

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit starts when its main character, Anna, is nine, and ends when she is 11 going on 12, which is roughly my own age range when I read this book over and over again. Now an adult myself, it was fascinating to read the continuation of Anna’s life into adulthood. And in essence the three books together are a bildungsroman: the story of the artist as a young woman. But while I greatly enjoyed discovering and reading the two sequels, something held me back from re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as an adult. I think I was probably afraid—what if it didn’t hold up to how I remembered it? And when considering a beloved childhood book to read to my kids there is always the extra risk of them hating it, not getting what’s so great about it, or finding it BORE-ING!

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit Still Relevant

But the story in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which was first published in 1971 and takes place in 1933-36, seems highly relevant right now and I sensed my sons were at a good age for it —at least to try. In any case, I needn’t have worried. The two boys, ages eight and ten, were enthralled. Every night they would literally beg me to read, and read more! In fact, the book not only holds up to how I remember it, but is even deeper.

There were several occasions on reading it—and not ones that I remembered from childhood—in which I was moved to tears. And reading the chapters each night with my sons provoked great questions and discussions. The story is not only so relevant now because of the refugee crisis, but it introduces children to Hitler coming to power and to anti-semitism—as well as the idea of racism—in a forthright and age-appropriate way. It “talks up” to them in a way that both the ten-year-old and the eight-year-old could handle and appreciate.

Pink Rabbit and Writing Craft

But it’s as a writer now myself that I marveled most.

Children's Book Still Relevant Today

I can’t find the cover image I remember from childhood but I adore this one from the edition I read with my sons

Judith Kerr expertly crafted When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit yet with the lightest of touches so it’s only now that I realize what a feat the book is.

She is telling the story of her life and her family’s experiences, but instead of it being a series of “this happened,” “and then this happened,” it is all harnessed to a cohesive story that has a beautiful narrative shape. She writes in an afterward that although she “filled in the gaps with invented detail” and was writing in the third person about a girl called Anna (because she felt that as a middle-aged English woman she was no longer the same little German girl that had fled the Nazis) she decided early on in the project “that all the important things must be true—the things that happened, how I felt about them, what we, our friends and the places we lived in were like.”

I have recently been reading many books on writer’s craft as I work on a major redrafting of my novel, and I am struck and awestruck at how Judith Kerr accomplished this. For one thing, there is an efficiency to each vignette so that no episode is random (even if it might delightfully seem that way at first) and each comes together in service of the greater story or theme—which is that Anna doesn’t feel like a refugee because as long as her family has stayed together that is her home.

For another thing, Judith Kerr has a way of mining the quiet moments for their drama and humor, while what is truly frightening or deeply upsetting (especially read through the eyes of an adult) are handled with a feather-weight dexterity so that they are not made light of but they are not so scary so as to no longer be appropriate for a children’s book. I think a lot of this comes down to her success at seeing everything through a child’s eye and staying true to that perspective. She doesn’t shy away from depressing moments, that sometimes one feels low, or that bad things happen. But through it all there’s a general positivity and the assurance of grown ups.

Overall, re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit with my sons, I experienced both nostalgia for how I felt about it as a child, a re-ignition of my love for it, and an all-new feeling of admiration and aesthetic connection. It gave me great joy to read. I wish I could write like her! I will continue to study her novels and figure out just how she did it. Judith Kerr’s work is a huge inspiration to me and children’s literature is richer for her legacy.