Posts Tagged New Releases

Author Spotlight: Christine Kendall… plus a GIVEAWAY!

Let’s give a warm Mixed-Up welcome to Christine Kendall, the NAACP Image Award–nominated author of the MG debut, Riding Chance (Scholastic, 2016). Christine’s sophomore novel, also published by Scholastic, The True Definition of Neva Beane, came out in September and was lauded by Lesa Cline-Ransome as “an inter-generational story written with humor, heart, hope—and the power of self-discovery.

Here is a summary of Neva Beane:

Being twelve isn’t easy, especially when you’re Neva Beane. She knows she’s beautiful and smart, but there are so many confusing signals in everyday life about, well… everything, including the changes taking place in her preadolescent body; her relationship with her best friend, Jamila; and her admiration for the social activist on the block, Michelle.

Mom and Dad are on tour in Europe and Neva and her brother, Clay, are left at home with their traditional grandparents. The household descends into inter-generational turmoil and Neva is left with what comforts her most—words and their meanings. While the pages of her beloved dictionary reveal truths about what’s happening around her, Neva discovers the best way to define herself.

And here’s a summary of Riding Chance:

Troy is a kid with a passion. And dreams. And wanting to do the right thing. But after taking a wrong turn, he’s forced to endure something that’s worse than any juvenile detention: He’s “sentenced” to the local city stables, where he’s required to take care of horses. The greatest punishment has been trying to make sense of things since his mom died, but through his work with the horses he discovers a sport totally unknown to him—polo. Troy’s has to figure out which friends have his back, which kids to cut loose, and whether he and Alisha have a true connection.

Q&A with Christine Kendall

MR: So glad to have you with us, Christine. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files!

CK: Thanks so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

MR: I can’t tell you which of your novels I enjoyed more, Riding Chance or The True Definition of Neva Beane. They are both wonderful in such different ways. I know you wrote Riding Chance because you were inspired by a story on NPR (more on that later), but what prompted you to tell Neva’s story? Were you like Neva growing up? 

CK: It warms my heart to hear you enjoyed both books as I consider them companion novels. They’re both coming of age stories that take place in current-day Philadelphia. The True Definition of Neva Beane isn’t memoir but, like Neva, I paid a lot of attention to words as I was growing up, and I came to understand their power pretty early on.

One of the things that prompted me to write the book is my fascination with how young girls are seen, and how those notions about who they are may or may not align with how they define themselves. This is important because the period in a girl’s life when she moves from early childhood into adolescence is magical, but it can also be very confusing. People read girls differently as their bodies develop and often make judgments about them based purely on their physical selves. I wanted to explore those issues. Once I had the Neva Beane character I thought about other issues she may be confronted with in today’s world. That led me to think about her political awakening and various ways a person can make a positive contribution to their community.

Body Positivity in MG Fiction

MR: Speaking of Neva, it’s clear from page one that she has a strong sense of self, particularly when it comes to her changing body. She feels beautiful in her first bra, a “glorious white cotton status symbol,” and admires herself in front of the mirror until she’s “dizzy.” I love this scene because it’s such a gorgeous display of girl power and body positivity. Was that your intention when you wrote the scene—to encourage tween girls to take pride in their changing bodies? If so, what role does body positivity play, or should play, in MG fiction?

CK: I’ll confess that I wrote Neva Beane’s “mirror scene” based on memory. I was eleven years old and, unbeknownst to me, I was seen admiring myself in front of a mirror by one of my brothers. Well, of course, my brother almost died laughing and I was humiliated. I spent hours trying to figure out why I felt that way before I realized there’s no shame in acknowledging your own beauty. I just hadn’t expected to be seen in that moment by anyone else. I think many young teens have experienced moments like that and I wanted them to know that I see them and their beauty. Body positivity is an issue for boys as well as girls and MG fiction is a good place to explore it.

What’s the Good Word?

MR: As above, Neva Beane is obsessed with words and finds great comfort in them. In fact, her most beloved possession is a Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. What is it about words that fascinates and comforts Neva—and maybe you, too?

CK: Words have power. Neva Beane is fascinated by them because she sees how they can be used to elevate or to wound. I share that fascination and wanted to show how Neva’s ability to analyze words brings her comfort especially when she is in the midst of confusing situations. I also wanted to provide a concrete example of how a person can use words to elevate. Neva chooses that path at the end of the book.

Work to Ride Program

MR: Turning our attention to Riding Chance, I know you wrote the book because you were inspired by a story on NPR about a program called Work to Ride, where inner-city kids work with horses and learn how to play polo in exchange for stable chores. Can you tell MUF readers a bit about the program and how it inspired you? Also, what kind of research did you do in order to make the polo-playing scenes realistic? I’m guessing you weren’t a horseperson prior to writing the novel…?

 CK: You’re right about my not being a horseperson before I wrote Riding Chance. I hadn’t planned on writing a novel. I was simply inspired when I heard the wonderful story about how kids in a mentoring program in Philly won a polo national championship in 2011. It was such an incredible story about what can happen when young people are given opportunities to explore and develop themselves in new ways.

I had to do a lot of research including taking horseback riding lessons, studying the game of polo, going to polo matches, and learning about the powerful bonds between humans and animals. I was fortunate in that there were a couple of horsepeople in the critique group I was a member of who were more than happy to offer constructive criticism. I learned quite a bit and really enjoyed the process.

Themes in Christine’s Books

MR: I noticed that loss and abandonment is a theme in both of your novels. In Riding Chance, Troy is grieving the death of his beloved mom; in Neva Beane, Neva feels as if she’s been cast aside by her best friend, Jamila. Neva also misses her musician parents while they’re on tour in Europe. What is the message you’re trying to convey? Resiliency? Grit? Something else?

CK: You hit the nail right on the head with resilience. I think it is such an important skill for young people to develop. Life can be difficult at times and we need to believe we can work our way through tough situations. One of the ways people develop resilience is by not being afraid to take reasonable risks. We will not always succeed at everything we try but even our failures provide opportunities to learn and to become more confident.

Ch Ch Changes…

MR: Before writing Riding Chance, you were in the legal profession. What prompted you to make the switch from the law to writing? Can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers about your path to publication? Was it a steady canter or a wild Headless Horseman-style gallop? (I know… 🙂)

CK: I like the visual of a Headless Horseman-style gallop especially since my path to publication was somewhat unusual. As you mentioned, I had a career before I became a writer. I worked with large law firms in the areas of  attorney recruitment, associate relations, and diversity and inclusion. I enjoyed my legal career but I got to the point where I wanted to do something more creative. I had always loved books and reading so I took a big step, talk about taking a risk, and left my job to focus on writing.

After about a year of sitting at home by myself struggling with picture book manuscripts I took a writing workshop with an editor from Scholastic, the amazing Andrea Davis Pinkney. She saw my fascination with Philly kids playing polo and encouraged me to use that as inspiration for a novel. It took me three years to research and write and revise but, in the end, she wanted the book.

This Writer’s Life

MR: What your writing process like, Christine? Do you have a specific routine? Writing rituals?

CK: I don’t have a specific writing routine, but I often need something like music to move me from real life into the fictive world. I love jazz so I may listen to that while I’m working. I also read my work aloud as I go along and I write with my whole body. What I mean is I get up and sometimes act out what my characters are doing so I can describe their actions accurately. Needless to say, I write at home. I don’t think people would put up with me in other places.

MR: Finally, what’s next on your writing agenda, Christine? Care to share a bit about your latest project?

CK: I’m working on another MG novel. I wrote a short story a few years ago that doesn’t feel like it’s finished even though it’s been published. I’m expanding that story into a longer work.

MR: Oh! Last thing…

No MUF interview is complete without a LIGHTNING ROUND!

Preferred writing snack? Popcorn.

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or Oxford English Dictionary? Merriam-Webster.

Favorite word? Milieu, although I don’t think I used that word in Neva Beane.

Mister Ed or Mister Rogers? Mister Rogers.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay.

Superpower? Ability to find humor in most any situation.

Favorite place on earth? Mashomack Nature Preserve on Shelter Island, New York.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? A book, my eyeglasses, and a flashlight.

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Christine—and congratulations on the publication of The True Definition of Neva Beane. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too.

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a copy of The True Definition of Neva Beane, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win! 

CHRISTINE KENDALL grew up in a family of artists, the fourth of six children, where everyone studied the piano along with one other instrument. She still feels sorry for the neighbors. They woke up one morning and found themselves living next door to a flute, two clarinets, a French horn, a cello, a set of drums, and always, always somebody on the piano. Christine wasn’t any good on the piano or the clarinet, but she loved writing. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and her debut novel, Riding Chance, was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens. The True Definition of Neva Beane is her second novel. Christine lives in Philadelphia where she co-curates and hosts the award-winning reading series, Creative at the Cannery. Learn more about Christine on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Plotting Puzzles and the Necessity of Silence: An Interview with Jennifer Gennari

I jumped at the chance to interview author Jennifer Gennari as soon as I heard about her newest book, Muffled. As a special education teacher, I’m always excited for stories that portray exceptional kids with honesty, humor, and strength. Muffled does it beautifully, and as it happens, Jen is just as insightful and honest as her main character, Amelia.

Jennifer Gennari

CL: Hi, Jen! Thanks for chatting with me! Let’s start with how the idea for Muffled came about – can you tell us about it?

JG: Thank you, Chris, for inviting me to the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors! Like many writers, I keep a story file of ideas. For more than fifteen years, I had a note about a blizzard from my childhood: “I’ll never forget that snowstorm. The silence without cars. What would happen if all the noises stopped?” It wasn’t until much later that I saw a way to approach that idea. I realized that for many people, including my husband, silence isn’t just beautiful, it’s something they need to recharge, to be able to participate in our very noisy world. And that’s how Amelia’s story began.

CL: And the story is set in Boston – any particular reason you chose that city?

JG: I lived in Boston when I was the age of Amelia, and it was important to me to show a family that depends on public transportation. Many children who live in cities don’t have cars, and I wanted to reflect that reality. I love Boston, for its Public Garden (and Make Way for Duckling statues), the stately, amazing library in Copley Square, and the Red Sox. Like Amelia, I grew up riding the green line!

CL: It’s so cool to have that personal connection! How about research, then? Muffled seems like a super realistic portrayal of life with sound sensitivity—did you have to do any research for the book? 

JG: Researching is an integral part of writing. I didn’t rely on my memory of Boston—I looked at images of the library’s lions, transit maps, and apartment buildings. To develop Amelia’s character, I read The Highly Sensitive Child and spoke to a therapist and special education teachers. Researching also means empathizing, an important skill for writers. I notice people’s emotions in certain situations, and try my best to get those details right. Stories introduce young readers to different ways of being, something I take seriously. Readers will always find hope and connection in my books.

CL: Muffled is your second traditionally published book. I’ve heard that second books can be harder to write…was that your experience?

JG: Yes! I’m glad you asked. I wrote three books between My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer and Muffled. Each one was beloved but the stories, in the end, were not viable. I think of those manuscripts as plotting practice: I got better at increasing tension, giving characters a satisfying arc, and rewriting scenes that didn’t work. For all those aspiring writers out there, know that persistence and a willingness to revise are key to success!

CL: That’s a great way to think about it! You actually mention on your website that plotting a story is a bit like a puzzle. Could you explain that?

JG: I am a big fan of jigsaw and crossword puzzles—especially during this pandemic! When you first start a jigsaw puzzle, all the colors and details are scattered. You have to organize the pieces, and see what picture emerges, just like the details and scenes of your manuscript. And to carry the metaphor on, revising is like doing the same puzzle twice—it’s still hard but memory helps you find the path forward to complete a story without any holes.

CL: I love that! So if it wasn’t obvious already, you’re also an editor and writing teacher yourself, right?

JG: My career began as a reporter, and later, I became a news editor of a weekly paper. If your article doesn’t fit on the page, it will be cut! I discovered I’m good at preserving voice and intent and excising the fluff. When I studied for my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I understood even more completely that every word choice matters. Now, through The Highlights Foundation, I teach others how to edit their own manuscripts. It’s an essential skill and I love teaching writers!

CL: So cool! Okay, Jen – now it’s time for the lighting round! Favorite place to write?

JG: Surrounded by shelves of kidlit books with a cup of tea nearby!

CL: Favorite authors?

JG: Jacqueline Woodson, Kate DiCamillo, Erin Entrada Kelly to name a few!

CL: Best dessert?

JG: Any homemade pie!

CL: Do you have any pets?

JG: No, but I love watching shorebirds from my home.

CL: Favorite elementary school memory?

JG: Like Amelia, I often snuck off during recess to find a cozy place to read. 

CL: And lastly – favorite piece of advice for other writers?

JG: Read, read, read!

Jennifer Gennari is the author of MUFFLED (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a Junior Library Guild selection, and MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), a Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year selection, and an American Library Association Rainbow List title. An engaging speaker and teacher, she has presented at the Writing Barn, SCBWI workshops, and Highlights Foundation. She serves as Marin County Co-Coordinator for the SF North and East Bay Region of SCBWI. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives on the water in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @JenGenn and more at www.jengennari.com.

Many thanks to Jen for taking the time to talk to me! Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of Muffled!

See you next time!

Author Spotlight: Summer Rachel Short… plus a Giveaway!

Today, let’s give a warm Mixed-Up welcome to Summer Rachel Short, author of the debut middle-grade novel, The Mutant Mushroom Takeover.

Described by Kirkus as “Packed to the gills with fun,” and by School Library Journal as “A fun debut novel with an action-packed climax that will leave readers eager to scope out the weirder side of nature,” the book is out now from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

About The Mutant Mushroom Takeover

Ever since Magnolia Stone’s scientist dad left Shady Pines to find a new job, Maggie’s been stuck in her gramma’s mobile home with her grumpy older brother, Ezra. Now she’s on a mission to put her family back together by winning the Vitaccino Junior Naturalist Merit Award.

When Maggie and her best friend, Nate, a wannabe YouTube star and alien conspiracy theorist, scout out a rare bioluminescent fungus, Maggie is certain she’s a shoo-in to win. But after animals around town start sprouting unusual growths and Ezra develops a bluish glow and hacking cough, Maggie wonders what they’ve really stumbled onto.

As things in Shady Pines become stranger and more dangerous, and conversations with her dad get complicated, Maggie must use her scientific smarts and Nate’s impressive knowledge of all things supernatural to put things back in order and prevent these peculiar glowing mushrooms from taking over their home.

Q&A with Summer Rachel Short

MR: So glad to have you with us, Summer. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files!

SRS: Thanks so much for having me! I’m so glad to be here!

MR: So, I stayed up late into the night reading The Mutant Mushroom Takeover and it really gave me the heebie-jeebies! It also made me rethink my love of mushrooms. 🙂 What inspired you to write about bioluminescent fungus–and the “weird” side of nature–in the first place?

SRS: Thank you! I do hope you’ll be able to resume your love of mushrooms–once you’ve given your produce a solid once over, of course!

Things that are a little weird have always fascinated me, because they spark my curiosity and make me ask “how” and “why.” One of my first inspirations for this book was an old documentary on fungi that I stumbled upon on YouTube. There was an ominous voiceover, creepy soundtrack, and time-lapse video of fungi unfurling and spewing their spores on unsuspecting hosts. It was all so bizarre, and such an unknown world to me, that I wanted to know more. I kept researching, and eventually the bits and pieces coalesced into a story idea.

Maggie and Nate: The Dynamic Duo

MR: The novel’s protagonist, Magnolia “Maggie” Stone, is a STEM-savvy eleven-year-old aspiring naturalist. She’s brave, smart, and committed to discovering the truth about the mutant fungus. Her best friend, Nate, a wannabe YouTube star and alien conspiracist, is loyal to Maggie’s cause and hysterically funny. What allowed you to create such nuanced—and incredibly realistic—characters as Maggie and Nate? Also, do you have a favorite?

SRS: Thank you for saying that, Melissa. I love all my characters, particularly the main pair, Maggie and Nate. But in terms of who was the most fun to write, it’s probably some of the side characters, like Nate, and my villain. One thing I focus on when creating characters is paying attention to their dialogue. I read it out loud and then play it back to myself using the text-to-speech function on my computer. It gives me a feel for how the characters may sound to others.

MR: In the novel, Maggie’s older brother, Ezra, displays weird symptoms after coming into contact with the bioluminescent fungus. When Maggie and Nate go into the forest to investigate, they wear hazmat suits made from garbage bags, and wear protective goggles, to keep themselves safe. This sounds eerily similar to precautions taken during the coronavirus. Am I reading too much into this?

SRS: I didn’t know about coronavirus at the time I wrote those scenes, but there are some similarities in how the problem is tackled. Since the kids don’t have access to fancy hazmat suits, they improvise and create their own makeshift suits using household items. It was fun to brainstorm what a couple of kids without a lot of money could come up with on the fly to protect themselves from mutant spores.

Extra, Extra! Read All About It!

MR: Before writing The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, you were a science reporter for a newspaper, covering such diverse topics as nanotech tweezers, poultry farm pollution, and the nighttime habits of spiders and snakes. What was the strangest story you ever covered?

SRS: The nanotech tweezers is still one of my favorites. The professor I interviewed was working on a project at NASA at the time and was very excited about all the possibilities in the field of nanotechnology. The project focused on the creation of laser tweezers that would allow scientists to manipulate things like atoms and molecules without damaging them. It’s been a number of years, so I’m sure the science has continued to grow. It would be interesting to find out what can be done with nano-particles in 2020. Perhaps something that could end up in a middle-grade mystery?

MR: Can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers a bit about your path to publication? Smooth sailing or bumpy terrain? Or something in between?

SRS: It’s probably somewhere in between. I started writing fiction many years ago, in college, with hopes to one day write a novel. But then I started my professional life, had kids, and life got busy. I put the dream on the back burner for a long time. Then, about five years ago, it was like a switch flipped and I started writing again; this time with more intention and focus. I felt determined to see things through, and approached the goal with more drive than I’d previously had.

It took about two years of writing–including finishing and querying a different manuscript–before I got the idea for The Mutant Mushroom Takeover. I entered an early draft of the manuscript into a writing contest called Pitch Wars, and selected to be a mentee in the fall of 2018. Boosted by the advice from my mentors, I spent that winter revising the book. In early 2019, I landed my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, and that summer we sold the book to Simon & Schuster. Now, about a year later, The Mutant Mushroom Takeover is out in the world!

Tips for Multitaskers

MR: I read that you have three kids. How do you balance your parenting responsibilities with your writing? It must be a herculean feat, especially in these difficult days of Covid. Any tips to share with other multitasking writers? 

SRS: It can be challenging at times. When I’m on deadline, I try to squeeze writing in whenever I can–early mornings, afternoons, late at night. Otherwise, when I’m drafting or working at a more usual pace, I carve out a window of a couple of hours most days and head to a quiet room in the house to work. Thankfully, my kids aren’t tiny anymore so they’re able to be independent for a bit.

The process isn’t always picture perfect. My house gets messy and sometimes our meals aren’t as great as I’d like. But the busyness comes and goes in waves, so I try to have grace with myself and not feel too guilty about dusty furniture or laundry in need of folding.

MR: What’s next on your writing agenda, Summer? Care to share a bit about your latest project?

SRS:  I’m currently revising the sequel to The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, which is set in Yellowstone National Park and features a brand new mystery for Maggie and Nate to solve. I won’t say too much, but there are large reptiles involved! The book is slated to release Fall 2021, and I hope to do a cover reveal in the next few months. (I’ve seen a sneak peek and it’s gorgeous!)

MR: Oh! Last thing. No MUF interview is complete without a…

Lightning Round!

Preferred writing snack? Dark chocolate.

Coffee or tea? Coffee with cream and cinnamon.

Favorite mushroom? Shiitake.

Favorite song? “West Coast” by Imagine Dragons.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay, unless they’re the really slow kind.

Superpower? Snap my fingers and the house cleans itself.

Favorite place on earth? The Redwood Forest.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? Well, my husband is building a boat in our garage, so if I can take that then I’ll just make it a relaxing day trip to the island and have my other two items be a book and a snack.

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Summer—and congratulations on the publication of The Mutant Mushroom Takeover. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

SRS: Thanks so much for having me!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a copy of The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win! A winner will be chosen at midnight EST, 10/30. Good luck… and may the best mushroom win!

SUMMER RACHEL SHORT Summer lives in North Texas with her charming husband, three hilarious kids, a fluffy kitty, and a big yellow dog. Before spinning tales about mutant mushrooms, she once worked as a science reporter for her university’s newspaper, where she wrote on topics like nanotech tweezers, poultry farm pollution, and the nighttime habits of spiders and snakes. For fun, she enjoys exploring new places with the family, playing tennis, and dreaming up ideas for her next book. Learn more about Summer on her website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.