Posts Tagged Middle Grade

Author Spotlight: Interview with Hena Khan

Three years before the pandemic hit, I had the great luck of sharing a train ride with Hena Khan, the award-winning author of Amina’s Voice. Hena and I were headed home from #nErDCampLI, and I remember feeling wiped out—and talked out—from the conference. But once I sat down next to Hena and started chatting, my weariness evaporated and an instant connection was formed. For the next 60 minutes, we talked about writing (we were both debut authors); parenting (Hena’s two sons were in middle school; my daughter was a senior in high school); and countless other topics that newfound friends on a train often discover.

Since Amina’s Voice came out in 2017, Hena has gone on to publish multiple MG novels, including Amina’s Song (2021), More to the Story (2020), and the Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series. She is also the author of seven picture books and has contributed to six children’s anthologies, including Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices. A popular guest speaker in classrooms, school auditoriums, and libraries across the country, Hena’s latest MG novel, Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure, is out now from Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Here’s a brief summary:

Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure

Zara lives for bike rides with her friends—so, when her shiny, brand-new bike goes missing from the park one day, she’s crushed. After her parents insist she earn the money for another bike herself, Zara’s determined to start a business. But what kind? A lemonade stand? Not profitable enough. Selling painted rocks? Not enough customers.

Zara’s starting to get discouraged when she and her friend Naomi finally come up with the perfect idea: The Treasure Wagon, a roving garage sale that unloads knickknacks from the Saleem family basement and makes money all at once! But when a mix-up gets Zara in hot water again, will she have to give up everything she’s earned toward her new bike?

The Interview

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Hena! I’m so happy to have you here. I can’t believe it’s been five years since our paths crossed!

HK: I know! But it’s so nice to reminisce about that lovely train ride and our instant friendship! Thanks so much for inviting me to talk about my newest book.

MR: Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure is the second of a trilogy. (Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun came out earlier this year; Zara’s Rules for Living Your Best Life pubs on March 21, 2023.) What was the inspiration behind the series?

HK: I came up with the idea during the pandemic while listening to children playing outside in droves and thinking about my own childhood. I adored Beverly Cleary’s books, characters like Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, and reading about their clever antics (anyone else want to stomp around on coffee can stilts too?). I wanted to write a series that similarly makes kids wish they were part of the neighborhood and imagine themselves joining in the fun, just like I did.

MR: Zara has two loving parents, a cute-but-sometimes-annoying little brother, Zayd, a strong bond with her extended family, including her grandparents and her uncle, Jamal Mamoo, and a crew of caring, fun-loving neighborhood friends. Is this reflective of your own childhood? What are the main similarities and differences?

HK: The crew of neighborhood friends is very much based on the children I grew up with, and the Goldsteins are inspired by my lifelong friends who lived across the street. The extended family, however, is more reflective of my children’s experience and vantage point as third-generation Pakistani American Muslims. I’m fascinated by the way my kids interact with their grandparents (Naano and Nana Abu are essentially my real-life parents), aunts and uncles, and the way they relate to the culture. They find it alternately cool and hilarious and don’t have the same type of pressure, expectations, or awkwardness that I felt as a child of immigrants. I also didn’t get to grow up around many relatives, and always wished I had been as fortunate.

Trash and Treasure

MR: One of the main themes of Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure is our emotional attachment to possessions. This resonated with me deeply, because I recently had to clear out my mom’s apartment, which contained 60 years’ worth of stuff. (The task was daunting, to say the least.) What made you focus on this theme? And where does Marie Kondo fit into the picture?

HK: Oh wow, my heart is with you—I’m sure that was incredibly difficult! I grew up with parents who saved everything, and we had a storage room much like the one I describe in the book. They were reluctant to part with anything, in the hopes that it could be useful in the future. I wanted to tackle the topic because it’s something I still wrestle with, both in terms of finding the right balance between saving, donating, and recycling my own things, and convincing my mother to part with her “junk.”

I thought a lot about the idea of trash versus treasure, why we value the things we do, sentimental value, and what really matters. And it felt both cathartic and wishful to write some of the scenes. I’ve heard a lot about Marie Kondo, particularly the controversy around getting rid of books (the horror!), and thought it would be funny to include her although I’m not a disciple . . . at least not yet!

Viewing Life from a Younger Lens

MR:  Compared to some of your previous MG novels (Amina’s Voice, Amina’s Song, and More to the Story), the Zara’s Rules trilogy skews younger, ages seven-10, with shorter chapters and numerous illustrations. What’s the main challenge when writing for a younger audience? What’s the most fun?

HK: I’d say the biggest challenge is having less space to fully flesh out characters and plots, which is very important to me even in a shorter book. But it’s so fun to be able to jump right into the action, and to examine the world through the lens of a 10-and-three-quarter-year-old. Kids at that age are very aware and engaged with the world but still so earnest and innocent, and I love to explore the things that I’m thinking about now from that perspective.

Series Versus Stand-alones

MR: In addition to the Zara’s Rules trilogy, you’ve written the Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series, with six books in total. What’s it like to work on a series as opposed to a stand-alone book?

HK: The biggest difference is that you get to know your characters deeply, so it feels like getting to play with old friends in each story. I never really believed authors who talked about their characters deciding what happens in a story, but I kind of understand that concept now. When characters become so fully developed in your mind, you have an idea of what they would say or do in a situation, and it becomes easier to write them. At the same time, it’s critical to keep the stories fresh and interesting and avoid repetition. I love making passing references to former books as little surprises to those who have read them all.

Picture-Book Love

MR: You also write picture books, including the acclaimed Under My Hijab. Is it tricky to switch from MG to picture books—and from picture books to MG…?

HK: It’s not too hard to switch back and forth between the formats since they use very different writing muscles. I generally don’t work on two middle-grade projects at once, but often turn to a picture book during breaks. I love the economy of words and the way one sentence can make or break an entire book. It forces you to be a sharp editor and pay attention to every syllable.

Celebrating Diversity

MR: Your books are lovingly infused with elements from your Pakistani heritage, and your characters are ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse. What can authors—and publishers—do to increase the visibility of authentic, diverse characters in kidlit?

HK: Thank you! The people I love inspire so much of what I write. But it’s important to remember that I represent only one subset of the Pakistani American Muslim community, which also has diversity within it—in terms of level of cultural assimilation, socioeconomic status, religious observance and more. And then, of course, the American Muslim community is even more diverse. I think it’s wonderful to see more diverse representation in kidlit, but we need a bigger variety of stories and characters in all genres. Also, while it’s wonderful to have books to celebration diversity, culture, and traditions, I hope to see more stories where identities aren’t necessarily emphasized but are simply woven into the background like in Zara’s Rules.

Plotter or Pantser?

MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have a particular schedule? Also, are you a plotter or a pantser?

HK: I wish I had a routine, but I don’t. I write at all times of the day, sometimes every day for a while and then not for weeks. But I’d like to find some discipline someday! Overall, I’m more of a plotter than a pantser.

The Secret to Success

MR: You’ve written 13 (and counting!) middle-grade novels, seven picture books, and stories included in six anthologies. What’s the secret to being such a prolific author?

HK: Well, I’ve been at it for a while now, and sometimes it feels like I’ve published a lot, and at other times I think I could have done more! I think the key to staying engaged and motivated is to keep challenging myself to improve my craft, to try to reach audiences in different ways, and to only write about what genuinely excites me.

What’s Next?

MR: What are you working on now, Hena? Enquiring Mixed-Up Files readers want to know…

HK: I’m excited to be starting on my second graphic novel, finishing up a new middle-grade novel, and editing an anthology that hasn’t been announced yet. I’ve also got some new picture books on the way! Please connect with me to get updates on my new titles.

Lightning Round!

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

Preferred writing snack?

I prefer cookies but settle for nuts or kettle corn.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee all the way! I drink espresso with a little bit of milk.

Marie Kondo: Yea or nay?

Nay, can’t do it!

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

If I had to choose an apocalypse, it would be the one.

Superpower?

I’d have to go with invisibility.

Favorite place on earth (besides Seville, Istanbul, and Seattle)?

Turks and Caicos is just incredible.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?

My husband and two sons. Or if they count as one family, then ice cream and my laptop.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Hena—and congratulations on the recent publication of Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure!

Thank YOU!

Bio

Hena Khan is an award-winning author of picture books and middle-grade fiction. Her middle-grade novel Amina’s Voice launched Simon & Schuster’s groundbreaking Salaam Reads imprint and was named a Best Book of 2017 by the Washington Post, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and others. The sequel, Amina’s Song, won the 2021 Asian/Pacific Award for Children’s Literature. Hena wrote the popular Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream series, and More to the Story, a novel inspired by her all-time favorite book, Little Women. Hena’s acclaimed picture books include Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Under My Hijab, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, Night of the Moon, and It’s Ramadan, Curious George. Learn more about Hena on her website and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

(For more on Hena Khan, check out this MUF interview by Jonathan Rosen!)

All the Fall Feels

As a society, haven’t we all fallen hard for fall in recent years? Perhaps our interest in autumn emanates not just from sweater weather, football games, and fall food favorites, but from the amazing array of emotions that comes with fall. It’s a strangely paradoxical season when you think about it: summer ending, school beginning; energetic colors that burn fiercely before a quick fade; the beginning of the end of another year.

No matter the weather, temperatures, or number of pumpkins in fields near to you, fall in our hemisphere signifies the passage of time; so all those autumn connotations can hold plenty of meaning. No wonder we all want to stroll through leaves and reflect with our you-know-what-spice latte in hand. Thankfully, autumn gives us the ways and means to mindfully reflect on seasons and transitions. For example, we might have a little more home-time with longer stretches of dark. Families settle more deeply into the routine of the school year. And a chill in the air helps along a more meditative feel as we cozy up in hoodies and fleece.

Middle graders are at an excellent age developmentally to take on some of that mindful reflection. They still have a festive appreciation for changing leaves and upcoming holidays, but they are also developing daily their sense of how time passes (as evidenced in their connection to school planners and bell schedules).

For all those reasons, the atmosphere associated with autumn can be inspirational, and you might use that vibe to incorporate some middle grade fall-themed celebratory reflection, writing, and reading in your ELA or homeschool classroom or in your library.

Fall Reflection

  • If permitted to so in your educational setting, students might benefit from experiencing a guided walk outside looking for evidence of the change of seasons.
  • If not, consider video and audio that encapsulates images of seasonal change pertinent to your region—or explore what fall means in other places.
  • If your setting permits independent reading or research into themed topics, consider investigation into the historical importance of the harvest to community and society, the cultural history of Halloween, the notion of “playing” with time in the interest of more daylight, and why pumpkins hold the cultural significance the do. Here are some reads for student interest:

An article with explanations and examples of hygge ; ideas and images for fall based on hygge

Cool facts about and images of pumpkins

A discussion on why we “fall” back and reset clocks in November

An article on the origins and history of Halloween

Fall Writing

Sensory imagery writing is a natural choice for fall; weather, clothing, meals, the look of the light and landscape all set the senses astir. Take students through some imagination activities or pose leading questions about the feel of cold air in the nose, the sound of geese flying south, the surprising heaviness of a jacket after warm days turn chilly. Put imagination generation to work with prompts, discussion, story starters or setting descriptions.

Some autumn-themed quotes for prompts or reflection:

  • “Of all the seasons, autumn offers the most to man and requires the least of him.” – Hal Borland (American writer, journalist, and naturalist)
  • “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” – L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
  • “No spring nor summer hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.” – John Donne, English poet and scholar
  • “Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.” – Emily Bronte, English novelist
  • “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • “Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.” – Stanley Horowitz

 

Fall Reading

Cozy up with some sustained silent reading (or individual listening via audio device) afternoons over the next several weeks in your classroom or library. If permitted in your setting, consider allowing students to bring blankets, warm cocoa, apples or other autumn snacks, or other small comfort factors to enhance the hibernation vibe (without the actual hibernating, of course!) Relaxing with a great book might benefit MG readers ready to experience all the fall feels.

Here’s a varied mix to make the most of fall—some set in autumn, some that feature the passing of symbolic seasons of life, some with reflection and gratitude themes:

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner – Gianna’s chances of attending a cross-country tournament depend on her successful completion of a science project requiring the collection of 25 fall leaves.

Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein – Introverted 7th grader Will Levine is inspired by RJ, a boy with a terminal disease whom Will meets during his bar mitzvah service project, and takes up RJ’s “bucket list” of adventures.

  Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper – In the autumn season of her 11th year, Stella Mills confronts racism while navigating the challenges of school, family life, and friendship.

Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby – Sixth grader Fig contends with her father’s mental health challenges during hurricane season in their beach town. (Scholastic notes this book as having mature content.)

October October by Katya Balen – Autumn imagery abounds in this novel featuring 11-year-old October, a girl raised in the woods by her father but compelled to join her mother in busy London after a fateful accident.

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor – Mason Buttle lost his mom, his grandfather, and his family orchard–along with his best friend Benny. When his current best bud Calvin goes missing, Mason faces loss, harassment from local bullies, and other challenges with pluck and gumption.

Alone by Megan E. Freeman – Twelve-year-old Maddie wakes to discover that her Colorado town is inexplicably abandoned. She must keep her wits and find the courage to survive as the months pass.

Enjoy, and please share your cozy, contemplative MG reads in the comments!

 

Author Interview with New York Times Best-Selling Author Jennifer Chambliss Bertman and Book Giveaway!

Photo by Analise Lawson

Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the New York Times best-selling author of the Book Scavenger
Series, fun and exciting middle-grade mystery stories.
Her latest, The Sisterhood of Sleuths, a stand-alone novel, walks readers through the mysteries of
friendship with none other than the original girl sleuth, Nancy Drew, and her history, central to
the plot.
Maizy is excited about working together with her friend, Izzy on a school project. The two
partners-in-crime have been creating movies together since they were little kids. Maizy envisions
their latest endeavor for the assignment will feature “Shellfish Holmes” as the main character.
But Izzy, who now prefers Isabelle and the company of class clowns Ben and Link, isn’t as
enthusiastic. Maizy and Izzy separate over their difference in creative vision for the project.
Meanwhile, a box of old Nancy Drew books is dropped off at Maizy’s mom’s antique store.
Even more curious, the box includes a picture of Maizy’s grandmother and two other women,
dated April 16, 1993.

Who are the other two women? Were they friends? Why is the photo in the
box of old Nancy Drew books? Did her grandmother leave the books outside the store?
The answers unfold as Maizy maneuvers through the changes in her relationship with Izzy by
renewing her friendship with Nell, her first real friend. Maizy and Nell partner with a classmate
Cam, on a different take for the assignment, leading them to the mysterious history of Nancy
Drew and those who created her.

Do Maizy and Izzy make up and become friends? Does Maizy discover who the two other
women are in the photograph? And how does Nancy Drew fit into the mystery?
The Sisterhood of Sleuths is an engaging mystery that reveals secrets of friendship and Nancy
Drew.


Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors Jenn!
Congratulations on the creation of The Sisterhood of Sleuths. How did the idea for this
mystery come to you?
Thank you so much for having me!
I’ve long been interested in the history behind the creation of the Nancy Drew series, so that was
part of my inspiration. I also wanted to write a funny mystery and thought the concept of
combining the original Nancy Drew character with a modern-day girl had a lot of potential for
humor, while also being an interesting way to explore the theme of friendship and the role Nancy
Drew has played in popular culture over time.

Friendship is at the heart of The Sisterhood of Sleuths. Maizy is struggling with how her
best friend, Izzy, is changing, and ultimately, growing away from their friendship. Yet, in
turn, Maizy re-establishes her friendship with Nell, who she grew apart from several years
before. And, then ultimately, Maizy’s grandmother also separated from a friend years ago.
Could you share with readers the inspiration for these storylines?

The inspiration largely came from thinking about the Nancy Drew series, actually. When I think
back on what I remember about the books, what I loved as a child reader and have held onto in
my memory, it’s not the events of the plot or details from individual stories. It’s Nancy’s
relationships with women. I admired her steadfast friendships with Bess and George and the
mother/daughter-like connection she has with Hannah, the family housekeeper. So, I wanted to
explore the theme of friendship but in a more realistic way. One that feels more authentic to my
own experiences.
I also was thinking about how I discovered Nancy Drew in the 80s when I was a kid handed
down books that had been read by an earlier generation, and how when I visit schools today as
an author and talk about books from my childhood, many kids are still familiar and enthusiastic
about Nancy Drew. Showing how she has been a common thread through so many different
generations was also important to me.

The secret and storied history of Nancy Drew and her creators are central to the plot. Have
you always been a Nancy Drew fan? How old were you when you learned the truth about
Carolyn Keene?
I discovered Nancy Drew when I was 7, so I suppose I’ve been a fan most of my life. I can’t
remember exactly when I learned Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym—I might have been told that
as a young reader. But in my early 20s, I read The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and The
Hardy Boys by Carol Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman and was fascinated by the history behind
the two series. I don’t think I’d given much thought to the creation of books before—I’d thought
plenty about the craft of writing, but I mean the actual business of producing books and
marketing. That was the beginning of my interest in the history of Nancy Drew and I continued
to read books and articles as I became aware of them. (Like your great book, Missing Millie Benson!)

Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist - Rubini, Julie K.

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson was the original ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew Mystery
Stories. Through your research for your novel, what did you find most interesting/inspiring
about Millie?
I admire so much about her. Her work ethic and resilience were especially inspiring. I’m
thinking in particular of the chapter in your book that delves into the period in Millie’s life when
she had a young child, a very ill husband, the country was at war, and yet she continued to work
diligently at her writing and career.

Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories would create plots
and outlines for the ghostwriters to follow for the series. Do you create an outline for your
stories, or do you allow the story to take you in its own direction?

I do a bit of a mix. I typically have a general sense of how a story might begin and end (although
that can and does change as I get deeper into a project), and outlining often helps me organize
my ideas. But I usually get too excited about the scenes I’m imagining and want to dive in and
start writing. Then, when I reach a point where I’m not sure where the story is going or what
happens next, I’ll return to brainstorming and outline my ideas again until I get excited about the
scenes and jump back into the writing.

It was refreshing to see both of Maizy’s parents present in the story. Maizy’s mom’s
antique store plays an important role in the discovery of the old Nancy Drew books, to her
dad’s endless attempts at building the next great invention. How do these role models
impact Maizy?
I think her parents provide Maizy with stability. I knew she was going to be someone who had a
a lot of things changing in her life all at once, so I tried to make her parents realistically imperfect,
but also something consistent in the background for Maizy as she tries to make sense of
everything around her that doesn’t feel steady anymore.

Sixth grade can be such a transitionary year for kids. Many school systems begin middle
grade that year, in a new, separate building, often bringing in students from other feeder
elementary schools into one. Some children, like Maizy, want to hold onto traditions of the
past, whereas others, like Izzy, jump into new interests, ready to grow into what lies in
store. I think you did a fabulous job representing these changes in The Sisterhood of
Sleuths. What do you hope readers will take away from these two characterizations?

Thank you! I appreciate that. What I hope is that Maizy and Izzy feel real and relatable to
readers. I think the girls represent two different sides of growing up—we have phases where we
want to hold onto what is familiar and comfortable, and we have phases where we step out of our
comfort zone for new experiences, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance. We all
go at our own pace, and we’re all unique individuals, and sometimes there is friction if our
personal goals and a friend’s personal goals no longer align.

You explore a variety of emotions in the storyline, from embarrassment, disappointment,
sadness, joy, grief, and prevailing hope. I thought your scene with Maizy wearing the lobster costume, while riding her bike to the park to meet with Izzy was incredibly relatable. Do you have a favorite scene that explores emotion in the story?
That exact scene that you mentioned, when Maizy is in the lobster costume, is definitely one of
my favorites. It grew out of my own embarrassing childhood memory of a bike-riding incident
(in normal clothes, not a costume), and then I asked myself, “How could I take what happened to
me and make it even more embarrassing? And funny, too, while I’m at it?” It was quite
therapeutic to take my own embarrassing moment, turn it into a humorously horrific series of
events, but then have Maizy endure the embarrassment and rise above and triumph in the end.

You have some awesome photos of your writing space on your website,
www.jenniferchamblissbertman.com Could you share your writing process with our
readers?
My writing process is not anything straightforward. Sometimes I start with an idea for a
character, sometimes I start with a premise, and sometimes I visualize one scene in detail and write it
down but I don’t know anything else about the story. And then I bumble along from wherever I
started, asking myself questions as I go. If I begin with a character, I might look at the things I
know about him or her and ask myself what would really challenge them? With Maizy, someone
who had a very steady and predictable and comfortable life, what challenged her was that some
of those steady and predictable and comfortable things changed. Her best friend is acting
differently. Her brother moves away. Her grandmother is being secretive when she’s never been
like that before. Once I have ideas for what challenges the character might be up against, I
brainstorm how they could be most interestingly conveyed in scenes, and how those scenes could
be built into a compelling plot . . . It’s a lot of trial and error, writing and revising, moving
around scenes, and changing my mind. I also have trusted critique partners and their feedback
helps me as I go along too. Eventually, I find my way to the end of a draft.

Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to join us for this interview. The
Sisterhood of Sleuths was released on October 4, and may be found at your favorite local
bookstore, or you may order your copy here.

Jennifer has agreed to give away a complimentary copy to a lucky random winner. To enter the contest, click here.