Posts Tagged Sourcebooks

Interview with Christina Collins, author of THE TOWN WITH NO MIRRORS

From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors welcomes Christina Collins, author of THE TOWN WITH NO MIRRORS (Sourcebooks, Feb 2023). Collins is New England born but currently lives in Northern Ireland. Her debut middle-grade novel, After Zero, was an NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts, and she holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast and an MFA from George Mason University, both in creative writing.

Here, Collins chats with MUF contributor Andrea Pyros about the challenges of writing a dystopian story for middle-grade readers, the magic and comfort of reading as a middle-schooler, and what she’s read – and loved – lately.  

Mixed-Up Files: Tell us about THE TOWN WITH NO MIRRORS.

Christina Collins: THE TOWN WITH NO MIRRORS is my second middle-grade novel, set in a modern utopian town called Gladder Hill, where mirrors and cameras are forbidden, words like “beautiful” and “ugly” aren’t in the dictionaries, and twelve-year-old Zailey has grown up knowing every face in town…except her own. There’s no talk of how people look, no body shaming… Sounds good, right? But it might not be as utopian as it seems. And Zailey has questions—as well as a guilty secret that could get her and her grandmother evicted if she were discovered… I’ll stop there so I don’t give too much away!

The Town With No Mirrors by Christina Collins (book cover)

MUF: What inspired you to write this story? 

CC: It all started when I took a fascinating dystopian literature course in grad school a while back. I was a creative writing student, so I had the option to write a short story rather than an essay for my final project. At the time, I was also into fairy-tale reimaginings, so an idea popped into my head regarding Snow White’s “happily ever after”: What if Snow White wanted to ban mirrors from her kingdom as soon as she became queen? After all, she’d almost died at the hands of a mirror-obsessed stepmother.

Then I began to imagine what such a society would be like—one without mirrors or any reliable way of knowing what your face looks like. I wrote it as a short story for the class, but the concept stuck with me. That’s probably because body image was such a personal topic for me (and who hasn’t struggled with body image at some point?). I also read about an interesting trend that had been popular circa 2012, called “mirror fasting.” I eventually scrapped the Snow White angle and started writing about the idea in a way that felt more relevant: as a middle-grade novel with a contemporary setting. This felt right not only because body-image concerns so often emerge in young people around middle-grade age, but also because the modern world presents so many opportunities for physical comparison. The novel grew from there!

MUF: There are some serious themes in this novel, but you’re writing for middle grade readers. Can you talk about how you balance the topics in a way that works for this age group?

CC: Great question. To be honest, it’s not something I thought consciously about while writing the book. As I touched on above, middle school is a time when so many kids (including past me) begin to really compare themselves to others and struggle with body image—for some, it sadly starts even younger—so writing this story for a middle grade readership felt pretty natural.

The key for me was to approach the themes through the eyes of a twelve-year-old; Zailey may not fully understand all of the serious issues pertaining to the mission of Gladder Hill, but she is certainly curious, growing more aware, and asking questions. The topic of eating disorders does come up, but the story didn’t call for explicitly discussing it, only touching on it briefly. While the novel features serious themes, I also wanted to make sure it was an entertaining story with some mystery, adventure, and a sense of hope at the end, which I think helps with balance.

MUF: What makes you enjoy and want to write for MG readers in particular? 

CC: I remember the magic and comfort of reading fiction when I was an MG reader myself. It strikes me as a particularly influential and formative time in a reader’s life, and there’s something so special about being a part of that as an author. Plus, I like reflecting on and writing about the age that hovers between childhood and young adulthood—all the excitement and confusion and wonder of it, chock-full of story possibilities.

Author Christina Collins

Christina Collins. Photo: Kalie Reid

MUF: You were born in Massachusetts but now live in Ireland. Does the experience of being an immigrant inform your writing, and if so, in what ways? 

CC: I drafted my debut novel and got the idea for my second novel all before I moved, so I think the experience hasn’t had too much influence on my first two novels. But now that I’ve been in Northern Ireland for seven years (!), I suspect it will influence my writing more and more.

It’s funny—when I brainstorm new ideas, I often find myself defaulting to a US setting, maybe partly because it keeps me feeling connected to where I’m from, and because writing about home and the familiar can be comforting when you live an ocean away from most of your family and friends. At the same time, I’m finally feeling ready to write about the experience of moving to and living in Northern Ireland; I have some story ideas in that regard and can’t wait to see where they take me.

MUF: What’s your writing process like? 

CC: It varies with each project, but I usually like to get to the end of a first draft on my own, without the influence of any outside feedback. I start by writing a sort of story pitch; this helps me figure out if I have enough of a grasp on what I want the story to be about overall and whether there’s a strong enough hook. From there I flesh it out into an outline, and then I tend to write until I have a complete first draft that I’ve read through and lightly revised at least once on my own, before sending it to my agent for her thoughts and suggestions.

MUF: What are your favorite dystopian novels (for any age)?

CC: Ooh, so many! The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is definitely up there for me; that book blew my mind when I first read it in my early twenties, and it’s one I come back to. Other favorites include the YA novel Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill and the MG novels Alone by Megan E. Freeman and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

MUF: What are some other recent middle-grade books that you’ve enjoyed? 

CC: Girl (In Real Life) by Tamsin Winter, This Last Adventure by Ryan Dalton, and Bright by Brigit Young are all recent reads that I highly recommend. And I’m currently reading and loving Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone by Tae Keller.

MUF:  What are you planning on working on next?

CC: I have several story ideas, so the challenge for me is picking one I feel confident enough to stick with. As I mentioned earlier, I’d love to set a middle-grade novel in Northern Ireland where I live, so I’m hoping to focus on that next.

MUF: Where can people find you online?

CC: You can visit my website at and find me on Instagram and Twitter as @stinacoll, although I don’t use Twitter much these days.

Interview and Giveaway with Jen Swann Downey


It’s our pleasure here at the Mixed Up Files to interview the fabulously funny Jen Swann Downey, author of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS series. The second installment, SWORD IN THE STACKS, has just released from Sourcebooks Jaberwocky. After stumbling upon the secret society of time-traveling ninja librarians, Dorrie has finally joined Petrarch’s Library as an apprentice! One day, she’ll actually go on missions to rescue people whose words have gotten them into trouble. For now she’s taking some interesting classes:
• First and Last Aid: When Nobody Else is Coming
• Spears, Axes, and Cats: Throwing Objects with Precision and Flair
• Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Secrets 101

But on a training mission to 1912 England, Dorrie finds herself dangerously close to a member of the Stronghold – the Library’s biggest enemy. This is her opportunity! Dorrie can spy on the enemy, find the missing key…and become a real Lybrarian!

But if she makes a mistake, Dorrie could lead their enemy right to the very place she’s trying to save…and everyone she cares about.

It’s been a couple of years since the Ninja Librarians first began their adventures. What was the genesis of the idea for this series? I think the seed for the series was planted when I saw the phrase “Petrarch’s Library” scrawled on a notebook I found in our never-very-organized, and always-very-clutterful house. Everyone in the family denied being the scrawler, but the phrase ignited my imagination, especially after I looked it up and found it associated with a collection of books that the 14th century humanist and poet, Petrarch, had carried around with him when he traveled on the back of a donkey. That made me laugh, because the phrase had suggested some sort of grand magnificent library. But then I thought, well, even a small collection of books IS a sort of imaginary grand magnificent place because each of the books is a doorway into a different world of ideas, and knowledge, and story.

Suddenly I was imagining “Petrarch’s Library” as a solid, if sprawling building, made out of library chambers from different times and places knitted together by magic into one incredible super-library.

Since I was a kid, I always had the feeling that librarians were masquerading at doing something mundane while actually doing something incredible, mysterious and magical. It seemed reasonable that the work of librarians who staffed the imaginary Petrarch’s Library would defend and protect the flow of information in shall we say, some additional warrior-ish direct action ways!

Dorrie and Marcus have hair-raising adventures in lots of locations throughout history. Tell us a little bit about your research process. You are so kind to dignify my flailing attempts at understanding and conveying history as “a research process”. : )   I love history. I’m quite sure I don’t do any justice to any standards of academic research, but I love rolling around in the past in any way I can. For these first two books, once I settled on a place and time that would figure in the story, I would spend far too much on used books from Amazon to get a general sense of the “wherein” and then do more particular research as I needed to know more. I stare at paintings and statues, read historians’ accounts, and most satisfyingly of all – read uninterpreted original source material. For instance, parts of SWORD IN THE STACKS take place in 1912 London. I loved reading newspapers from the era to get a feel for the time, and how various sectors of society felt about the suffrage question.

The overarching theme of these books seems to be freedom of speech, a very relevant issue-not just for libraries. What do you hope readers will take away from this series? Since I was a young kid, I’ve been awed by those who have spoken “truth to power” often at great cost to themselves.  I am enjoying, through these fantasy adventures, posing questions about what exactly we mean by intellectual freedom, why it might have value, and what it means to uphold such a principle in every day life.

I hope readers who may not have thought about these things in a while, or lately, or ever, will join me in that questioning. About how for instance, a chasm can exist between theoretical support for the principle of intellectual freedom and the actions we take or don’t take when confronted with speech/writing we find dangerous, stupid, hurtful, or otherwise offensive.  It’s tempting to ignore cases of censorship of viewpoints we don’t share, or viewpoints we actively disagree with.

What are some of the challenges to series writing? Are sequels easier than writing the first book? When I wrote the first book, I chose to devote a good deal of my efforts to world-building. I reveled in (and gnashed my teeth at!) the challenges of making the clear rich fantasy vision of the alternate world inside my head and heart come alive for readers. When I began the second, I felt both tantalized and scared by the fact that the world now existed. My new main job would be to create a compelling story for Dorris and the rest of the Library’s inhabitants to live out WITHIN that world, and I wasn’t sure I could come up with enough story! I felt like a kid who, determined to build a club-house, bends all will to the task, and after much effort succeeds in nailing on the last shingle, but then isn’t quite sure what to DO with the clubhouse!

As I began to imagine Dorris’s story for the second book, it was hard not to think about the possibility of a “disappointing” sequel, which generated Fear and Self-Consciousness. I don’t know about you, but those two cats do not fuel creative flow for me!  I had to take back ownership of the book-writing somehow, and make it a creative act that wasn’t about pleasing others, but myself. Which sounds very vague. My specific strategy was to give myself a specific craft challenge.  I was very aware of the flaws I perceived via hindsight in my first book, especially in terms of plotting. The task I set for myself was to do a better job of plotting. One that I could feel was an improvement over the plotting in book one, even a small improvement. That if I could do that, no matter what else I achieved or didn’t with the book, I could feel good about that.  Somehow that really grounded and motivated me all at once.

You have an amazingly imaginative sense of humor. Please tell us about what kind of kid you were and how you grew to be such a wieldy wordsmith. Oh gosh. What kind of kid was I? I’m sure I was a trial to many neighbors and teachers.  I was a big time pretend kid.  I read a lot. A lot! But I was also loud and boisterous and a tree climber and a creek wader. I was an idiot. I had no sense of perspective. I always had a big plan: Bike to NYC, join the circus, run a restaurant out of our moldy basement.  I lectured the older teens on the block about smoking. I reveled in attics, basements, garages, storm drains, and all the rest of the unclaimed territories in which new civilizations could be erected. I took to writing early, mostly for its usefulness in writing ransom notes. I wrote letters, indignant childhood diary entries, purple poetry, and yearning paeans to each person I fell in love with, but didn’t really write stories until I was deep into matron-hood.

What’s your favorite part of being a children’s author? Writing for people who still believe that anything is possible.

If you could travel back in time to when you were first beginning to write toward publication, what advice would you give yourself or aspiring writers? Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Don’t rush. When you’re sure that your manuscript is in stellar shape, and you’re positive that the very first agent, or second at least, will fall in instant love with it…STOP.  Freeze your computer in a block of ice.  Lock it in a safe and swallow the key. Hire a cadre of badgers to bury it in the forest (wrapped nicely in protective plastic, naturally) but DON’T SEND OUT THE MANUSCRIPT.  Give yourself at least a month. Work on something else.  Another story. A macrame project. Anything. But give yourself time to be able to see the manuscript anew. When you were sure that there was nothing left to improve. Then send it out, and good luck!

Do you have any exciting plans for this summer, or do you do most of your traveling in books? My exciting plans include excavating the garden out of the weeds (I should have it ready to go just in time for the first snowstorm), teaching the family’s new dog not to pull all the arms out of all the family sockets whenever during our walks he sees a squirrel, or a cat, or a popsicle stick, or anything really;  and yes, exploring the Mongol Empire from my book-page origami airplane. You know…just in case Dorris and Marcus and Ebba have to maybe perhaps possibly visit there…..

And finally, what exactly are all seventeen uses for a flaming arrow? Or does one have to become a lybrarian to find out? We denizens of Petrarch’s Library believe in the free flow of useful information and would be more than happy to share:

The Seventeen Uses of a Flaming Arrow

1. Lighting surprise party birthday cake candles.
2. Severing a rope down which your enemy has only made it halfway     down.
3. “Safely” igniting explosives.
4. Illuminating dark archive passages in an exhilarating manner.
5. Beginning a useful stampede at a royal ball.
6. Trimming the hedges.
7. Checking depth of fetid well into which one is about to spelunk.
8. Low-tech signal flare.
9. Simultaneously catching and cooking your supper.
10. Instant wound cauterizer.
11. Encouraging tediously bad actors to exit stage left.
12. Quickly disposing of outdated curtains.
13. Entertainment of small children or easily pleased adults.
14. Testing air quality in an underground cavern.
15. Keeping angry book-burners at bay.
16. Impromptu fondu maker.
17. The ultimate literary exclamation point.  : )
We are giving away a hot-off-the-press copy of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS to one lucky winner! All you have to do is tell us an 18th use for a flaming arrow in the comments below!

JenSwannDowneyJen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. She is the author of the middle-grade novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND. Her second novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS is also now available from Sourcebooks. Jen divides her time between libraries and other places, and will never stop looking for lickable wallpaper.