Posts Tagged #middlegrade

Interview with Molly and the Machine author Erik Jon Slangerup and Giveaway!

Welcome, Erik! 

Thanks for having me! Big fan of the Mixed-Up Files!…and all things mixed up.


I can say that I knew you when, as we hosted you at Claire’s Day way back in 2006! I am so excited for the release of your latest, Molly and the Machine  a heart-warming novel for middle-grade readers.

Ha, yes, it’s been a minute! But that festival is such a great memory for me. I recall a moment stepping out of a tent, and seeing some kids skipping along in these fantastic, colorful costumes, one holding balloons, and another blowing bubbles, and I thought: wow, this is really magical…books are magical.



Tell us a little bit about your journey as a writer…

Oh man, as I look back to way back when, it really does feel like a journey now, ha! For 25 years, I was lucky enough to make my living as a creative writer in the ad business—as many do—while writing some picture books on the side. It was lots of fun, and helped hone my craft, but a few years ago, I felt like time was growing short, and decided to make the side gig the main one. Shortly after that, I had a serendipitous coffee with an amazing writer friend, Bryan Hurt, who put me in touch with Elizabeth Rudnick, another amazing person, who eventually became my agent. Prior to that, I’d already been shopping my manuscript for “Molly and the Machine,” but Liz helped me beat it up, expand it, and make it much better. Revising was a very long process, because I’m a slow writer. But after that, things moved fast, and we sold it in an exclusive first look over a weekend, which I can now appreciate is pretty crazy.

 When did you start writing Molly And The Machine?

The kernel for Molly and the Machine actually began as a sketch, a little more than ten years ago—told you I was slow! I like to draw as well as write, so that’s sometimes how I initially capture an idea. (I have that sketch framed in my office now.) I grew up watching old monster movies, like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and was always terrified of being eaten by some giant creature like the cyclops. So I channeled that fear into a story about a giant robot who swallows children.

The young protagonist is Molly McQuirter, an eleven-year-old girl who is navigating the grief from her parent’s broken marriage, her dad’s broken heart, all the while dealing with an annoying young brother. Molly is inventive, creating Rube Goldberg-like chain reaction machines, and she escapes her reality by taking off on her bicycle, Pink Lightning. How did the character of Molly come to you?

What a great description. Isn’t Molly great? Like all characters, I suppose she’s an amalgamation of many people I know—my Mom, my daughters, maybe even a little of myself. I’m the oldest of four, and I think there’s always this feeling of responsibility that comes with having younger sibs. But I was really attracted to the idea of taking some of the traditional gender norms in literature, like “knight rescues damsel,” and flipping them. So, among other things, this is a story about a girl who sets out on a quest to rescue her brother. Girl saves boy.

At the heart of the story is love. Which relationship in the novel was your favorite?

I’m so thrilled that comes through—even between all the explosions and mishaps. Most of all, I love the dynamic between Molly and her beloved “Gruncle” Clovis, because for me its representative of the kinds of bargains we all strike among those we love to meet people where they are in life, and accept the gifts they’re able to offer, even when it falls short of a “model relationship,” whatever that might be. That’s life—being stuck in a room filled with weird, wonderful, incredibly flawed people, and figuring out how to love them.

Grunkle is quite a character and brought to mind Hagrid from Harry Potter. Would you say the same?

That hadn’t occurred to me! Unlike some younger debut authors, I only experienced Harry Potter as a parent, so while I love that universe, it doesn’t occupy quite the same space in my heart and mind that it does for, say, my oldest son, Dalton, who remains a huge fan to this day. But now that you mention it, I can see the similarities! Both Hagrid and Gruncle are very well-intentioned, but sort of bumbling their way through everything, aren’t they? Oh, and of course, they both have these monster motorcycles with sidecars! (Gruncle’s “Blue Thunder” is a refurbished bike from World War II—with some James-Bond-like gadgets—like Molly’s “Pink Lightning.”) And although Gruncle is far from half-giant stature, he does have a very big personality!

The setting, the Hocking Hills area of Ohio is a character in itself. Why did you choose to use this location for the background?

Yeah, those hills to play a big role in the story. Ohio is filled with all kinds of little tucked-away treasures like this. Aside from it being one of my favorite getaways, I chose Hocking Hills because I love exotic locales. This might sound strange to someone born and bred in Ohio, but for a Californian transplant like myself, the landscape here is so lush and green, it feels like another world. And that’s just the feeling I wanted to convey. (The woods also made the perfect hiding spot for a ten-story-tall robot.)

The novel is set in the 1980s, a time before many of the conveniences and distractions young readers have today. Offer a bit about your experiences in growing up during this time frame and how that transferred into your novel.

My generation was much more feral. We were pre-cellphone, pre-internet, pre-GPS. Who knows, maybe less of us survived intact, but the ones who did have good stories to tell! The environment that young people grow up in today can present a different set of challenges. It’s what drew me to the idea of an enormous robot that swallows children. On one level, the robot can be seen as a metaphor for all the ways technology envelopes us—and has the power to make us feel more connected, or more isolated. And navigating that can be really complicated. So, I hope this story invites more conversation and reflection on that.

What do you hope young readers take away from Molly And The Machine?

I hope readers come away with the sense that are real adventures out there to be had—and sometimes the outcomes might depend on how they apply their own wits and grit.

 I understand you are already working on a sequel to Molly’s first story. Can you share a bit about this new adventure?

Absolutely! Right now, I’m deep into revisions on “Molly and the Mutants,” the next book in the series. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll share that the resolution at the end of book one inadvertently winds up causing the problem that arises in book two… and that problem takes the shape of some very large—and very hungry—amphibious creatures that require even more ingenuity on Molly’s part to save everyone in Far Flung Falls from becoming something’s lunch. (As you can see, I’m tapping into my fear of being eaten again.)

Thank you, Erik, for your time and for offering insights into your writing journey, and the creation of Molly and the Machine.

Oh, it’s my pleasure, Julie! Love chatting books!

The publisher, Simon & Schuster has graciously offered a complimentary copy for a giveaway, to one lucky winner. To enter, click here






Twenty years of celebrating young readers!

May be an image of person and child

On July 5, 2000, I gave my 10 year-0ld daughter, Claire, “just one last hug,” before she skipped off with newfound friends at camp.

Little did I realize it would be my last hug from Claire, ever.

Claire died of a combination of a misdiagnosed heart condition and lack of care at the camp.

Our little reader was gone.

My husband, Brad, and I felt compelled to not only honor Claire in a way that was true to her, but to honor our relationships with each other and our daughter, Kyle, and son Ian.

I’m happy to share that we’ve accomplished both goals, and then some.

We established Claire’s Day, a children’s book festival, in Claire’s honor.

At the 2nd annual Claire’s Day, May 2003.

On Saturday, May 7, and Saturday, May 21, the 2oth annual Claire’s Day festivities will take place at the Main Library, Toledo, and the Maumee Branch, Maumee, respectively.

Yes, you read that right. Claire’s Day isn’t just a day anymore. We impact over 25,000 children and their families through our programs, including our school visit outreach program. In the past, over 40 schools have partnered with us, hosting our guest authors and illustrators as they share their magic with their students.

One of the highlights of the festivities is our C.A.R.E. Awards program. Teachers from throughout the greater Toledo area nominate children from their classes who are the most improved readers. Each child selected receives a personalized certificate and a coupon to choose their very own book at the festival, and then have it personally signed by our guest writers and artists.

We have recognized over 10,000 children over the years. 10,000 children who typically do not receive academic accolades have been lifted through the experience.

A proud family of one of our C.A.R.E. Award recipients!

Claire’s Day features prolific, traditionally published children’s book authors and illustrators from throughout the Midwest.

Our 20th year features some fantastic authors and illustrators in our lineup. For the full listing for each festival, click here.

Several of our contributors to the blog will be with us, including Michelle Houts and Tricia Springstubb!

Other middle-grade authors and illustrators joining us include Beth Kephart, Mary Winn Heider, Mary Kay Carson,

and Louise Borden.

When I gave that last hug to Claire, I could not have even imagined what my life looked like moving forward. We have been incredibly blessed to have our family, friends, an entire community lift us up through our grief journey. We are blessed by amazing relationships as a family, a tribute to Claire as well.

At the Jefferson Awards in Washington, D.C., being honored for our work through Claire’s Day.

We hope that you can join us for this significant celebration of our little reader gone too soon. We hope you can join us as we celebrate young readers. We hope you can join us as we Celebrate Life, Authors, Illustrators, and Reading Excellence.

We hope you can join us for Claire’s Day.




Interview with Newbery Author Donna Barba Higuera


Interview with Newbery Author Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera won the Newbery award this year! I recently had the immense pleasure of speaking to the story’s author about this beautiful and powerful book.


Newbery Award Winner

Winning the Newbery

APP: Congratulations Donna !! How does it feel to win a Newbery award as a Latinx writer?


Donna Barba Higuera

DBH: How does it feel? I mean, my initial reaction was shock!  Having a story like this represented as a Newbery, where they’re looking at all books, and all cultures is huge to me. I never thought that a book like this would get noticed because it does represent my culture and kids like I was who need to see themselves in books. But I also think that a reason that it’s important to me is because kids from outside cultures can pick up a book that is not about their culture and they learn something. So I love that this book will allow some children to do that.

APP: I agree, it’s such an important book for the Latinx community but also for those outside of the community to learn something about it, including some Spanish sprinkled throughout. Can you give us a quick summary of your book for those who haven’t read it?

DBH: Basically It’s about a girl, Petra, who is leaving Earth for the last time, and has to choose something to take that is most important to her. For her that’s story. But story is threatened to be erased by people going into the future. What it means to be human, Earth’s folklore, history, and mythology are all threatened. Petra, is trying to protect that.  I hope that this book is one that kids will pick up and say, okay if I was leaving Earth for the last time, what would I do if I were Petra? What would I take with me?

Overcoming Challenges

APP: Yes, I’m sure kids will wonder what they would take with them, I know I did. Petra is an interesting character because she is very smart and capable but also has a major vulnerability. She has a serious vision challenge. Why did you decide to integrate that into her character?

DBH fam

Mother, Father, big sis and Donna

DBH: My mother had retinitis pigmentosa, it’s a degenerative eye disease, and I’m an eye doctor. But I also wanted to show that someone like Petra, or my mother, are not defined by their disease. Just because Petra had a visual dysfunction that did not deter from her journey, or what she wanted to do.

It presented a challenge at times but I wanted to show a character who lived with that like my mother did. I wanted to show kids who are reading this that they may have challenges but they can overcome them. It’s okay to have challenges, we don’t have to fix everything. Challenges are part of who we are as humans.

The Power of Stories

APP: That is so true, and also so hard to accept sometimes. It is great to see a character that has a trait that can’t be fixed and has learned to live with. Like you, Petra is a storyteller. She tells cuentos (stories) told to her by her Abuela. In a way this grandmother, Lita, is on the journey as well though she is left behind on Earth. I felt that you were telling us that we can carry our history, the people we lose, and ourselves through stories. Is that something you were trying to do?

DBH & abuela

Donna and her Abuela

DBH: Yeah, that makes me very emotional. The opening scene was absolutely me getting to say goodbye to my grandmother. The things she taught me when I was younger, it wasn’t just about cooking and culture, it was the stories she told me. Some of them were incomplete. She didn’t remember or didn’t know them fully. They had been told to her as well. She stopped going to school when she was ten or eleven years old. Much of what she knew was through the tradition of oral storytelling.

I carry the stories and the things that my grandmother taught me throughout my daily life. This story allowed me to go back and revisit that, and what my grandmother meant to me, and the gifts that she gave me. Oftentimes, it was while she was cooking, or we were working in the yard, that she would tell her stories. Everything had a story. I look back on that and I think that  storytelling isn’t always what we think of in the western way of telling stories. It isn’t always sitting down with a book, or a teacher telling a story that is very structured. A lot of storytelling in cultures happens naturally throughout life.

((Enjoying this interview? Read more from Donna Barba Higuera))

Difficult Choices

APP: That is so true, and I think that is a very common experience in many Latin American families. Our stories are part of what holds our families together. We carry our grandparents stories throughout our lives, even after we lose them. That is such an important and beautiful message in your book where the people who leave Earth have to leave so much behind. How did you decide what each person would take with them for your book, and what would you take if you had to make that choice?

DBH father and grandmother

Donna’s grandmother and father

DBH: You know, that’s such a good question. I decided I wanted to show people’s
personalities. They had a small amount of space, they could only take one or two things. I wanted to show based on people’s personalities, what they valued and what was important to them. Petra’s brother, Javier, brings his book. That was what was important to him. Petra brings a pendant from her grandmother. Her father brings a rosary. It wasn’t just about religion, he had made that rosary with his own hands, and with his daughter. He had made every single bead.

For me, it would be books. I would have to figure out a way to bring them all. I worry about getting older and losing my memory. Maybe this book is about getting older and losing your memories and my fear of losing my memories, and stories, and wanting to hold on to them. I’d be like Petra. She panicked and I would panic if I was going to lose all my stories. And of course, for Petra, the worst thing happens to her, which is probably my biggest fear. People lost their memories. What if that had been her, and she had lost her memory of love of story and the things she’s passionate about?


APP: It’s really scary to think about! And there is so much more going on in this book, it’s hard to talk about it all without giving it away. One thing I wanted to ask you about that intrigues me was the weaving of Javier’s picture book Dreamers into the narrative. How did you decide to use this book and did you talk to Yuyi Morales, the author, about using her book as an element in your story?

Dreamers PB

Award winning picture book

DBH: Another great question, I don’t think anybody’s asked me this. Originally, I started writing my book before I’d read Dreamers and had another placeholder book in that spot that didn’t quite fit the narrative of what I wanted. Then when I read Dreamers I thought, this is the book.

We had to make sure that the lines that I used were the ones I felt were most powerful for this book. You can’t just use the whole thing, we had to get permission. My editor got permission from her publisher to use those lines.  Now people  who hadn’t read Dreamers before are discovering it and finding it is so powerful and so emotional. I wanted to show things without feeling preachy, or trying to teach someone.  I’d rather have a child read and they determine what message they can get from a story on their own. I know Yuyi Morales and am a fan of her writing. This is a tribute to her wor


APP: Absolutely, I love her book, and it was definitely the perfect choice for Javier. Your book is  about adventure but also about love, family, and loss. How did you balance all of those big topics and did you worry that it would be too much for an MG audience to handle?

DBH: Yeah, I will say, I think that there are some readers where it may be too much. It’s an emotional book and it’s an emotional journey. I believe that when you have a message that may be sad or difficult to hear, you have to try and balance it with moments where you can take a breath. You need a slow scene, a family moment or humor. A moment where you can laugh and feel it’s okay again, a reset. It is difficult to write.

When I go back through revisions, I will go wow, that’s a lot! I need to dial it back a little bit. It’s a lot for middle grade and we debated moving it up to YA. The irony is that the YA audience has found it, and are reading it. Ultimately, I think it’s a book for all ages. People will get different messages from the reading at different ages. I remember when I was a kid reading Where The Red Fern Grows and just weeping. There are books like that. We need books that make us cry too.

What it means to be human

APP: Yes, often those are the books we remember the most because they have such an impact. We really care about the characters. In your book, I was very much drawn to the character of Voxy and his need for connection through cuentos. He will probably face a greater challenge than anyone as the story ends. Without giving away any spoilers, let’s talk about him for a minute.


HS Yearbook Editor

DBH: I love that character. What I wanted to show is that you can change humans in certain ways, but you can’t breed the curiosity and wonder out of a child. He’s kind of like this little trickster guy, he sneaks around to hear the stories. I wanted to show that. He was willing to take big risks so he could hear these stories. But I wanted to show his innocence too. Even though he’s part of this ‘Collective’ that seems so structured and so driven, he is a human. He has his own feelings, and emotions and curiosity. I wanted to show that.

Sibling Love

APP: I love Voxy, and how he reminds Petra of her little brother and his antics back on Earth. That sibling relationship between Petra and Javier is so meaningful. Both before and after they get on the ship. Their relationship turns into something we would never experience in the real world. I won’t delve too much into what happens between them, so as not to give it away, but how did you come up with that idea? I was completely taken by surprise.

DBH: It was in the very beginning when I was thinking of the story itself and dealing with time.  That idea came to me. I said, oh my gosh that would be the most horrific thing to happen, and then I thought I had to do it.  It was one of those things where my weird imagination was at work, probably while driving in my car. There were a few scenes that were really difficult to write, including that last scene with Javier.  That was a very hard scene to write. I think a lot of the scenes in the book relate to the separation of families and how it just feels out of control. I wanted to show the horror of what happens when families are torn apart. It came about in a way it had to be told, but it was very difficult to write.

Family Separation

Abuela and Tias

Storytellers in the family: Abuela & Tias

APP: Yes, family separation is such an important and timely topic among many Latinx families. This book feels like a story within a story within a story. I loved it. Let’s talk about the ending. We are left wondering what will happen to characters as the story ends. The final sounds we hear leave us with a feeling of hope, but without a certainty of what will happen. I’m thinking (hoping) there will be a sequel, am I right?

DBH: So, I think so. I’ve already written what happens next, we just chose not to use it in the novel. My editor was right. He said, that’s you as a writer needing closure and clarity on what happens to the characters. I do think it will come. I’m working on a different project right now but I do think there will be a sequel someday. I don’t know when. I wrote two or three more chapters, but not enough that’s formed into a book. I have different ideas of what a sequel would be. We could go in all different directions.


APP: That is so true, and I can’t wait to see where you will take this story as well as many other writing projects to come. Thank you so much for talking to me and sharing this beautiful book with all of us! And now for a giveaway! Donna has generously agreed to give away a copy of her award winning book to one lucky MUF reader. US entries only please!

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