Posts Tagged new release

Interview with Author Karen Pokras, author of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER, and BOOK GIVEAWAY!

I’m so thrilled to have Karen Pokras on today talking about her newest book, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER! Karen and I met at a writer’s conference many years ago and have since been part of a super cool writer’s group that meets once a week at a café to write alongside each other. It’s been a while since we’ve met up, of course, but even better for readers at From The Mixed Up-Files—we get Karen here today to talk about her new fun, adventurous, and heartfelt story! PLUS you could win a hardcover copy of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER. Just enter the contest at the end of this post. U.S. residents only please.

What’s THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER all about? …

Eleven-year-old Danny Wexler, the only Jewish boy in his town during the late 1970s, is obsessed with the Bermuda Triangle. When a local child goes missing, Danny’s convinced it’s connected to an old Bermuda Triangle theory involving UFOs. With his two best friends and their Spacetron telescope, Danny heads to his backyard to investigate. But hunting for extraterrestrials is complicated, and it doesn’t help that his friend Nicholas’s mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with a Jewish boy. Equipped with his super-secret spy notebook, Danny sets out to fight both the aliens and the growing antisemitism in the town, in hopes of mending his divided community.

Interview with Karen

Donna: The story is rich with family bonds, community connections, and 1970s nostalgia that adds a fun and deeper layer to the story. How much research was involved in writing a story set in this time period and how much of the 1970s references were inspired from your own childhood?

Karen: First, thank you so much for having me on From The Mixed-Up Files today!

In 1978, the year the story takes place, I was ten years old, so there is definitely a lot that is taken straight from my own childhood. At the same time, that was many years ago and I wanted to make sure I was capturing the time accurately. That’s mostly where the research came in, looking up things like what movies were the biggest box office hits (Grease), whether or not nurses wore caps on their heads (yes and no), and what pizza toppings were the most popular (pepperoni.) A couple of other fun facts I learned: the video game Space Invaders came out in 1978 and movie prices were only $2.00. I also put out a crowdsource call on Facebook asking friends to share some of their own favorite 1970s memories. The responses were so fun to sort through.

Donna: Danny is a sweet and endearing character who struggles at times and fumbles a bit in his choices and beliefs, making him very relatable to readers. Is his character based on anyone you know?

Karen: Like most of the characters I write, Danny is a combination of many people I know. I love to mingle real life observations and memories when creating characters. Part of the fun in writing a character like Danny is exploring his fumbles and watching him figure his way through, even if messy. The goal is for young readers to say yeah, I get it, I’ve been there, or I’m going through that, or this is something I want to remember because it’s important and it can help others.

Donna: The story is full of zany adventures for Danny and his friends such as investigating The Bermuda Triangle, aliens, werewolves, and urban myths that young readers will be sure to enjoy. How did you create the idea to blend all these things together in a story?

Karen: As a child, I remember being so curious about the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs. Those were always big topics in my house and among my neighborhood friends. I also had a completely irrational fear of a white van kidnapper. I honestly have no idea where it came from, but to me it was very real. I’m sure my older brother put it my head. (P.S. I’m not at all sure he did, but when I was 10, I blamed everything on him, so we’ll go with that.) When sitting down to write a story that took place in 1978, I knew I wanted all of these elements that were a big part of my own childhood. As for the werewolf, I have no explanation, other than: welcome to my ten-year-old writing brain.

Donna: While a fun adventure, the story also has more meaningful threads of cultural divides, multi-generational relationships, anti-Semitism, and strength of community bonds. What prompted you to combine light-hearted high jinks with these rich and heartfelt threads?

Karen: In 2017, when I’d first started thinking about writing a new story and began brainstorming with memories from my childhood, I knew I wanted to write about a small town in the 1970s with a strong community bond. I also knew the story would have humor and high jinks as that’s where my middle grade voice always tends to land. At the same time, however, I’d been watching acts of antisemitism nationally and locally month after month: Charlottesville, Jewish cemeteries being vandalized just miles away, people finding KKK fliers on their cars in my community. While it all terrified me, I also felt compelled to write about it, and so my focus shifted to make room in the story’s underlying themes, adding in the multi-generational relationship to help facilitate the discussion.

Donna: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism and bullying in many forms are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s—and often go hand-in-hand. Were there any experiences of both from your own childhood that helped drive your writing?

Karen: There definitely were. It’s funny how we keep certain memories buried. The deeper I got into Danny’s story, the more I would remember specific incidents from my childhood, through college and graduate school, straight into adulthood, all of which helped to drive the story. There’s no doubt this was a difficult book to write, particularly the ending, because there is no neat “tie it in a bow” resolution-type ending for antisemitism and other forms of bullying on a wide-scale.

Donna: There are many “what if?” scenarios throughout Danny’s story that add to the mystery and mayhem and will appeal to young reader’s imaginations. Do you use your own “what-if?” process to write books and if so, how does that work?

Karen: I’m pretty sure my brain is on a constant loop of “what-if.”  When it comes to writing books, I absolutely gravitate toward a “what-if” approach. For this book in particular, I spent a good deal of time journaling and exploring my own personal memories and feelings. I had a very, very loose picture with a few random scenes, but really no idea of how to get there or even how these scenes would fit together. I remember early in the process sending chapters to my critique partner with the message “here’s another chapter to the story without a story.” Slowly though things started coming together. So yes, there were a lot of “what ifs” and my critique partner is basically a saint for letting me run them all by her.

Donna: I love Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. Where did this idea come from—and did you have your own secret notebook as a child to record secrets in?

Karen: I wish I had a really cool answer for this one, but I don’t. It’s one of those things that popped into my head at some point during one of those “what if” moments. While I did keep diaries as a child, they were very different from Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. They were the kind with a lock and silver-edged paper, and I was always losing the key. I have no idea what became of them, and occasionally wonder if they wound up in the trash, or if someone has all my secrets stashed away somewhere.

Donna: Can you share what current story you’re working on, and does it explore similar themes in The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler or new ones?

Karen: I have a couple of manuscripts in the works and while both are very different than Danny Wexler, they both have multi-generational relationships, quirky/funny characters, and meaningful underlying themes. The first, about a science-loving girl who moves into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, is on submission, and the other, about to head out on submission, is about ballet and also examines antisemitism, but under very different circumstances. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these stories soon! Thank You, Donna!

About Karen:

Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Always an avid reader, Karen found her passion for writing later in life and now runs all of her stories past the furry ears of her two feline editorial assistants before anyone else. A numbers geek at heart, she enjoys a good spreadsheet almost as much as she loves storytelling. A native of Connecticut, Karen is the proud mom to three brilliant children who still provide an endless stream of great book material. She lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. ​For more information, visit karenpokras.com.

Karen’s social media links:

Website: www.karenpokras.com

Instagram: @karenpokras_author

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/karenptoz

Twitter: @karentoz

 

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Cover Reveal for Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Hope you’re having a good start to the school year! Today, I’m really excited.

Why, you wonder?

Well, it’s because we have a cover reveal!

For those of you who follow me on social media, and by the way, if you don’t, I’m not sure why not, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, if you do follow me, you may recall that a few months ago I mentioned an anthology of Jewish stories that I helped put together, called Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories. As you might be able to deduce from the title, it’s a collection of Bar and Bat Mitzvah tales geared to a middle grade audience, and is coming out next year from Albert Whitman.

I can honestly say that it’s one of the things that I’m most proud to be associated with since I started writing kidlit. At a time when antisemitism is skyrocketing here and around the world, I feel it’s important to have Jewish stories represented in children’s books, and this anthology helps with that.

So, thanks to Henry Herz for helping me put this together and being a co-editor for this special project, my agent, Nicole Resciniti for helping find it a home, Albert Whitman for believing in it, but even more importantly, a special and heartfelt thanks to the lineup of amazing authors who all jumped aboard when asked.

Care to find out who they are?

Well, don’t fret, I’m going to tell you now!

Besides stories from me and Henry, we have ones from:

Sarah Aronson, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Barbara Bottner, Stacia Deutsch, Debbie Reed Fischer, Debra Green, Alan Katz, Nancy Krulik, Stacie Ramey, Melissa Roske, Laura Shovan, and a poem by Jane Yolen!

Thank you again to all these amazing people, and without further ado, here’s the cover for Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories!

 

Thanks for indulging me with this Mixed-Up Filers, and I can’t wait for you to be able to read it! I’d say to be on the lookout for the book, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll remind all of you at least once or twice before it happens.

So, until next time . . .

Jonathan Rosen

An Illustrated Novel For The Spooky Season – NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS – Interview With Kory Merritt

‘Tis the #spookymg season, Mixed-Up Files Family! I’m excited to welcome Kory Merritt, author and illustrator of a super creepy new novel, NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS, for an interview, today.

Willow and HeckbenderMeet Willow & Heckbender ~ Monsters

This is one of the first images I saw related to NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS. Just look at these two character monsters! And they’re reading books. 💚#thud-lud, #thud-lud

Kind of explains the reason I couldn’t resist chatting with their creator, right?

But I must warn you. Be patient as you scroll through this interview for more illustrations await you – even a page or two from within the book. It’s amazingly written and illustrated with all the shrills and shrieks the October season beckons for . . . and spooky readers adore.

Let’s take a peek, shall we?

 

The Book📙Book - NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS

In this spellbinding, lavishly illustrated story that Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney calls “wildly imaginative and totally terrifying,” two unlikely friends face down their worst fears in order to stop their small town—and themselves—from disappearing.

Levi and Kat are about to discover a very dark side to their neighborhood.

Nothing ever seems out of place in the safe, suburban town of Cowslip Grove. Lawns are neatly mowed, sidewalks are tidy, and the sounds of ice cream trucks fill the air. But now . . . kids have been going missing—except no one even realizes it, because no one remembers them. Not their friends. Not their teachers. Not even their families.

But Levi and Kat do remember, and suddenly only they can see why everyone is in terrible danger when the night air rolls in. Now it is up to Levi and Kat to fight it and save the missing kids before it swallows the town whole.

Interview🎩

Welcome to our Mixed-Up Files home, Kory! We’re excited to have you stop by. I have to start by asking you: NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS has all sorts of spookiness oozing from the pages. Did you like spooky stories as a kid? If so, why do you think you did? Any favorites?

Oh, yes! I’ve always loved spooky stories. As a kid, my favorite book characters were always the creatures—Gollum from The Hobbit, the sea-rats from Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. Even as an adult, I still love reading books with strange and imaginative monsters: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Jumbies series by Tracey Baptiste, numerous classics by legends like Stephen King and Tananarive Due. Now more than ever, it’s fun to escape to monster land.

Would you give us a peek into this story in five words?

“Lost kids battle memory monsters.”

Ooh . . . now, what made writing this story spooky and fun, but also important to you?

Much of the story revolves around stolen memories and forgetting—or being forgotten by—loved ones. My grandmother, who died two years ago, suffered from Alzheimer’s, and it was horrific to see the disease steal her memories and entire identity. NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS is mostly creepy-fun (I hope), but there is that memory-loss angle that is a bit deeper, I think. So that was important.

I’m very sorry about your grandmother.Mending Heart I’m sure many families will relate to this.

Did you set out to create an illustrated middle grade book? Did the images come first, the writing, the characters . . .? Briefly share this process, please. We’d love to know!

I used to be an elementary school art teacher, and I wrote and illustrated stories and comics for fun. They were published on a syndicate site called GoComics. The creatures and basic story that became NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS originally appeared on GoComics in 2011 and 2012. I think the creatures came first—they usually do. I was obviously inspired by Stephen King books I’d read as a kid, plus the Neil Gaiman stuff I was reading at the time. I met the amazing superstar agent Dan Lazar through my work with the game site Poptropica and its book series. He encouraged me to try my own spooky kids’ story. So I dug up the old GoComics stories and he and my awesome editor helped me shape them into what would become NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS.

Wow, this is super interesting! What an author/illustrator’s journey you’ve had. It’s well-known that middle grade readers love stories that scare them. But there needs to be more to create a successful story. What’s the more in NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS?

I hope the memory-loss angle hits hard. Family members forgetting you can be a terrifying concept. Also, I like that the two main kid characters, Levi and Kat, are not friends at first—they have issues. Both of them have social trouble, and they both have to work together because of circumstance. They have a lot of difficulties with each other.

There’s plenty of mystery going on in Cowslip Grove, the location of this story. What would you say makes the mystery these kids have to solve unique?🔍

I guess the mystery becomes extra difficult for the kids because no one remembers them, their own town is no longer welcoming and views them as strangers, and familiar faces and places are now strange and untrustworthy. And they are being stalked by bogeys that no one else can see.

Creative FunCrayon

I must go back to the artwork. It’s fabulously done! What is your favorite part of illustrating in general and then for this story?

Thank you! Oh, I love drawing strange creatures, wildlife, old trees, rocks. I tried to squeeze a lot of tiny details into the rocks. Some of the book’s unanswered questions are actually answered (or at least hinted at) through tiny hidden fossils and lichen shapes in the rocks.

(*#Teachers, #Librarians – your students are going to totally fall for this book.) Here’s a few illustrations:

 

Would you please share a little about your main characters and why you believe middle grade readers will relate to them.

The two main kid characters, Levi and Kat, both have a lot of social interaction difficulties. Levi is very introverted and doesn’t like leaving his home or being with anyone but his sister. Kat has trouble controlling her emotions, has outbursts, and frustrates most people around her. They aren’t friends at the start, but are quickly forced out of their comfort zones when strange things happen to their lives. They make a lot of mistakes along the way. They’re brave, but also scared. I think a lot of middle grade readers could relate to one or both of them.

What do you hope readers take with them once they’ve finished the book?

A little strangeness can be a good thing. Appreciate weird creatures. And excessive lawncare is ridiculous—stop using weedkiller.

Haha! Perfect.

For our writing readers, any advice for writing spooky stories?

Read, write, and draw as much as possible! Read lots of books: prose books, books with lots of pictures, books with no pictures. Books by a wide variety of authors. Books outside your comfort zone. Write and draw and try to get things published locally. You’ll write and draw stuff that will be embarrassing in a few years, but hopefully you’ll have developed and honed your style. And have fun! You should love writing and drawing even if only a few people see it.

For scary stuff . . . I don’t know. I guess think about the stuff that creeps you out and try to create your own twist on it?

A silly scenario:
a. You’re in a dark alley with monsters lurking toward you. You notice a small box at your feet. Opening the box, you find chalk in all colors. What do you draw to get you out of this mess?

Oooh! I take out the chalk and start to draw an elaborately detailed cephalopod that will no doubt awe the monsters and inspire them to drop and worship the Supreme Chalk Squid. But as usual, I get carried away with the details, miss my window of opportunity, and the monsters eat me before I finish.

Oh my! This is hilarious. *snorts . . . then apologizes*

Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects you care to share with our readers?

I’m doing another book with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Fall 2021. It’s a follow-up to No Place for Monsters, with some of the same characters, and plenty of new creatures. It’s set in a haunted school. As a former art teacher, I find the school setting easy to write about. Much of it is told through “found footage”—illustrations seen through the view of cameras and phones. Sort of like an illustrated Blair Witch Project. It’s experimental. Hope it works!

This sounds fabulous! Thank you  for sharing your monsters and humor with us. Your wisdom and joy for reading and writing is inspiring.

All the best from your Mixed-Up Files Family.

About the Author

Kory MerrittKory Merritt—a former public school art teacher from Rochester, NY—enjoys drawing and writing (and reading) strange stories, strolling through old forests, and peeking under rocks for weird creatures. Keep up with Kory: Website | Instagram | Twitter

 

 

As Promised . . . two pages from NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS!

Want more illustrated or graphic novels for middle grade readers? Here are a few past posts that will help! LINK & LINK

Share your thoughts on Kory’s new book! We’d love to know.