Monday, November 28, 2022

Q&A with Kimberly Garza



Kimberly Garza is the author of the new novel The Last Karankawas. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Copper Nickel and DIAGRAM. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


Q: What inspired you to write The Last Karankawas, and how did you create Carly, Jess, and the rest of your cast of characters?


A: The first kernel of the story came when I visited my family in Galveston in late 2008, only a few months after Hurricane Ike devastated the island. I was driving down Broadway with my uncle and he pointed out that the tops of all the trees, beautiful live oaks that lined the highway, were brown—they were dead.


I couldn’t get that image out of my head, along with many others from that day there: trash heaps, debris, boats tossed on the sides of the road. When I sat down to write a new story, I started with place—Galveston, post-Ike—and I worked backwards to figure out the characters.


Carly came first, and her grandmother Magdalena after that, and then Jess. The story kept building over the years I worked on it, and the rest of the cast evolved at different times along the way. I was motivated to write not just a novel about Galveston and Hurricane Ike, but one of this neighborhood, the places and the types of people you can find on the island as well as in other corners of Texas.


Q: As you mentioned, the novel takes place in Galveston, Texas, during Hurricane Ike in 2008. Can you say more about how important setting is to you in your writing?


A: Setting is crucial to me. I often start there as an access point into a new story. I sit in a space, think of all of the nuances of a place and setting—geography, landscape, weather, specific details. And from there, I think of characters—the kinds of people found here, for whatever reason, and what their lives and desires and fears might look like.


It was that way when I considered Galveston for this novel, which is a place made up of both locals and tourists at any given moment. So many origin stories of the people who find their way there.


Q: The Booklist review of the novel says, “Written in lyrical, nearly hypnotic prose that makes the reader feel the Texan humidity, this is a brilliantly plotted, startling, and richly rewarding exploration of the myths that bind people together, generational traumas, and the remarkable adaptability of humans.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m honored by this description, and so many good ones I’ve received! I was genuinely concerned with the idea of “history” in this novel—whether that’s history of record or the kind passed down through family, and how much of our histories are comprised of myth as well. Where do we draw the lines there? How much of our ancestors’ history is bound up in us, and do we have a responsibility to that?


And most of all, I love knowing that this book spotlights the many ways people adapt—to weather and environment, to migration, to loss and love. How we survive.


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The novel is told in stories, and I got the title story’s name from a dear friend, writer and poet Sebastián Páramo (the original story was called “The Warriors”). But when I sat down to title the novel, I didn’t hesitate to name it after this story.


Not only is it central to the narrative—in that it concerns Ike, and Carly and Magdalena and Jess, the main three characters—but I love the way it plays with truth. In Magdalena’s mind, she and Carly are the last Karankawas. But Carly has her own doubts, and in reality, the Karankawas are not extinct or wiped out at all. So I like that this title signifies some of that shifting “truth,” mythology and history. It can be read with an asterisk or a question mark!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m at work on my second novel, a story about two American adult sisters who have become estranged from each other and their larger family in the years following the death of their mother. But when they learn they have inherited ancestral land in the Philippines, they have to travel together and reconnect with their mother’s family on the islands, to decide what to do with the land.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Erika Hayasaki




Erika Hayasaki is the author of the new book Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family. She also has written the book The Death Class. A journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine. She also is a professor in the University of California, Irvine's literary journalism program, and she's based in Southern California.


Q: What inspired you to write Somewhere Sisters, and how did you research the book?


A: I was inspired to write this book after I had my own twins in 2016. And I was introduced to a twin researcher in Southern California who runs a twin studies center. I was doing some research around nature versus nurture. And I eventually wrote a story about twin studies.


I was introduced to various twin pairs around the country and I met these two twins who were born in Vietnam, and separated at birth. Their names were Hà and Isabella, and I became interested after meeting them and learning more about their story. I eventually interviewed them in person and I spent five years interviewing them as well as their family members around the world.


And so the story, while it began as one that looked at nature versus nurture, evolved into a story that really delved into the complicated history of adoption, particularly transnational and transracial adoption. And that became also a big focus of the book and I tried to also center the experiences of adoptees and their voices as much as possible.


So I spoke to experts who were adoptees, who have either been studying critical adoption studies or who are psychologists or who are working in spaces of activism to understand some of the issues around adoption.


And then much of the book is driven by the narrative of the family, particularly the sisters, the two twins and a third young woman who is also adopted into this family.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “Hayasaki weaves their [the sisters’] reflections about belonging, heritage, and identity...with a broad consideration of adoption and twin studies that aim to shed light on the extent to which genes and environment shape human behavior, personality, and development.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right balance between the focus on the sisters and the larger picture?


A: I think that is a good description of the book.


I felt like the sister stories are the heart of the book and I wanted their voices to be front and center. And I wanted them to express their feelings and thoughts throughout the book as honestly as possible.


But I also knew that the stories of adoption are misunderstood in our culture. And I especially learned that from doing a lot of research and speaking to all the experts, so it became increasingly important that I needed to intersperse some of the history and context and these voices from outside between the stories that are more narrative and personal.


Because without those stories, you don't necessarily have the social context. The big picture is really important whenever you're going to talk about adoption, and I learned that from this five years of reporting.


And the same goes for the twin research. It’s not centered in the book as much as the stories and also as much as adoption, but it is important because we have historically looked at twins to understand how much genes play a role in shaping who you become, versus the environment. And that has led to some really ugly studies and outcomes and history.


But it’s also important for us to understand that history and to try to think of our own relationship to genes and environment. And ultimately, I do come to understand that there's an interplay at work between the genes and the environment, and it’s a combination of both forces.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The book's title was always sort of advocated for by my editor, so I didn't have a lot of say in the title.


I wish it didn't have a subtitle, actually. I thought that this book is actually so complex, and there's a lot of issues that I'm getting out here, that no title could really encompass what I was trying to say in just a few words, but I really didn't want a subtitle at all. And I still don't love it, but it's there because that was beyond my power.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the “nature vs. nurture” issue?


A: I think the common misconceptions about nature/nurture are that it's one or the other or that genes matter above all...But there's wiggle room in that the environment, going back even to inside of the womb, can have an impact on how your genes turn on or turn off. That's addressed in a field of study called epigenetics, which I do talk a little bit about in the book.


And there's also the randomness of chance, and gene mutations, for example, that are not predictable. So while genes may play a role…there's also a role that destiny plays, and the environment, and the choices that we make, choices that are sometimes made on our behalf, and the randomness of chance that can make a difference in the direction a life takes.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I am working on a story for a fellowship that I just completed. I spent a year working on a project considering intersections between Black and Asian Americans in Mississippi. And it's really is also a kind of family history that is personal narrative for the people involved. But it also explores these larger questions about race, racial hierarchies, and identity and mixed experiences in America. It will eventually be a magazine article. And hopefully that'll be out in the next couple months or a year.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you so much for reading and engaging with the book. I hope that it was interesting to you.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robert P. Crease




Robert P. Crease is the author, with Peter D. Bond, of the new book The Leak: Politics, Activists, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The book focuses on a 1997 leak of radioactive water near Brookhaven, on Long Island, and the aftermath. Crease's other books include The Great Equations, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. He is Professor in and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University.


Q: Why did you decide to write about the leak at Brookhaven National Laboratory?


A: It’s about now. Activists spread fake facts. People decide to believe only science that fits their agendas. Politicians cave. Conspiracy theories damage people and institutions. The book shows the damage that such a toxic environment does to society. Oh, and I also loathe politicians and celebrities who advance their causes with lies, manipulation, and dishonesty.   


Q: What created the “loss of trust” referred to in the book's subtitle, and what impact did it have?


A: Different groups of people lost trust in others: politicians, administrators, scientists, reporters – and even community groups lost trust with each other. Activists then set out to deliberately undermine public trust in responsible institutions.


The lab was not innocent; it didn’t detect a leak which it should have, and so it made sense to ask, if it screwed up on that what else might it have screwed up on? But the leak was of no consequence to anyone, and activists and politicians blew it all out of proportion for their own agendas.   


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: It was a pandemic book. It was out of the question to interview people in person, but I discovered that people loved to talk on the phone or by Zoom. I had already gathered the necessary documents, but the conversations were enlightening.


What surprised me were the funny bits. Activists told a newspaper that they were going to chain themselves to the lab fence, giving reporters a terrific photo-op – and a lab scientist destroyed the pretense by showing up to point out that the lab had no fence, but that he would quickly make a section of one so the activists could have their photo-op as planned.


A newspaper editor wrote that the lab was creating dinosaurs, 40-foot spiders, and a UFO, then realized that not enough of his readers were getting that he was spoofing the media and activists. If only I had enough imagination to dream up those things!


Q: Robert Birgenau, former chancellor of UC Berkeley, said of the book, “Anyone who wants to understand why more than one million Americans have died of COVID should read this brilliant book. It dramatically describes a titanic clash between world-class science, dishonest activists and celebrities, amoral politicians, and the federal bureaucracy.” What do you think of that description, and how would you compare the events surrounding Brookhaven to those surrounding the Covid pandemic?


A: It's hard to put it better. In both cases, reputable scientists were smeared. Effective and trustworthy institutions were undermined. Politicians postured. People with agendas lied. Most of all, our public health suffered because activists were blaming diseases on the wrong causes for their own purposes.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The episode got me interested in how important the relationship between science and society is, and how easily it's damaged.


Many philosophers of science work on technical things – data and theory, structure of theories, and so forth – but I think how science is received by politicians and society is critical. The key issues facing the planet today – things like climate change, epidemics, pollution, rising seas – all depend on trusting science. We’ve got to learn how to do that better.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: So why did I write a book about a 25-year old event? Because it forces us to confront whether this is the way we want decisions about our health and welfare to be made. We don’t. We’ll destroy ourselves if we entrust those decisions to celebrities and agenda-driven people with the loudest voices, biggest media contacts, and richest war chests. Don’t you agree? 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Katie Otey




Katie Otey is the author of the new children's picture book Every Other Christmas. She lives in Illinois.


Q: What inspired you to write Every Other Christmas?


A: I’m divorced from my children’s father and it was my year to spend Christmas with the kids. I was so excited! I bought so many gifts and was in the middle of wrapping them when I got sick. It was the flu which triggered a massive asthma attack. On Christmas Eve, they admitted me to the hospital, where I stayed for almost a week. I missed Christmas and was feeling horrible about it.


But my kids showed up and they were so happy to see me. They were a bit rambunctious, and we got talked to at least once about the noise. That’s when I remembered that the biggest hope that I’d had was for them to be happy. And they were. Even if everything didn’t look as I’d planned. We were having a fun time, and we loved each other, so it counted.


I also realized that when I, as the parent, can’t spend every Christmas with them, as long as they’re okay, that’s what matters most. Every Other Christmas was written from my hospital bed that year but it and it warms my heart that the story resonates with so many people.


Q: The author Jessica DelVirginia said of the book, “Every Other Christmas highlights a modern family that is dedicated to keeping tradition alive. In this heartwarming story, we see that no matter where the main character is for the holidays, love from their family and love for their culture is always there.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think the description is spot on. Both parents love their child. They each have wonderful, heartwarming traditions that mean a lot to the main character as he alternates celebrating with his African-American mother’s side of the family and his Colombian father’s side.


Co-parenting is a very real way of life for many families now and a mix of cultures is also common. Every Other Christmas blends all of this together by not overtly calling attention to this. It’s simply a way of life for this child. You can tell from the voice as he tells the story that he appreciates the differences in their celebrations. He doesn’t have to choose. He’s a part of both. And he loves them just the same.

Q: What do you think S.J. Winkler’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Oh, the illustrations add a rich, beautiful, warmth to the story that definitely enhances every scene. She took photos of my family and home and of my time in Colombia and incorporated all of it into the story. The result is an authenticity that elevates the story in a way that the text alone would be hard to achieve.


I have many favorite spreads within the book but one of my favorite elements is what she did with cousin Tess and the stroller. I won’t spoil it but it’s been a huge topic of conversation within my family and a favorite for others as well.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: I hope kids who read this book get a sense that whatever their life looks like, whatever their culture, their language, their family structure, it’s all okay. It’s all relevant. I hope they think about what makes Christmas with their own family special and enjoy it even more.


But, most of all, I hope they enjoy this story for what it is, a fun look at Christmas with a special family, full of love, full of joy, full of tradition, just like their own family.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve written 10 books for kids so far and am currently on submission. As for what I’m writing, I’m working on a fantasy YA. It’s a book I shelved years ago because I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to take it in. I’ve since grown as a writer and I’m ready to tackle this story with all that I’ve learned over the last decade.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I founded an independent publishing company, Phoenix Media & Books. Our debut title is a picture book entitled Sister, which is a foster to adoption story told from the family’s daughter’s point of view.


My goal is to open up opportunities for more people to tell amazing stories while also providing a mentoring experience for them. So, there will be many debut authors and illustrators, a plethora of unique stories and ideas, and authentic representation throughout.


I think every one of us have value and our lives and experiences should be reflected in the media we consume. I’m only one person but I’m steadfast in my belief that all of us humans have more in common than the differences that sometimes divides us. What better way to show the world than within the pages of a book?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 28



Nov. 28, 1904: Nancy Mitford born.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Q&A with Katie Hickman




Katie Hickman is the author of the new book Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West. Her many other books include She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen. She lives in London.


Q: You write, “Women's experiences are the very core of any true understanding of the reality of the American West.” What inspired you to write Brave Hearted, and how do you think your book challenges some of the perceptions of the “Wild West”?


A: I think most of our perceptions about the American West are still so dominated by what you might call the “Hollywood” version of people and events. And of course, that is extremely male – you know, the kind of thing, gunslingers, outlaws, bandits, etc. 


But in fact, when it came to putting down permanent settlements in the West, it could not be done without women. It is really interesting to note that the great westward migrations that began in the mid-19th century were very much family affairs.


Q: The writer Emma Donoghue called the book a “vivid, fascinating rag rug of cultural history that braids together stories usually kept apart.” What do you think of that description?


A: I really loved Emma Donoghue’s description, and I think it’s pretty accurate. The sources that I was using – I mean the scholarship of other historians – really tended to concentrate on just one aspect of the period. 


For example, studies of Black settlers, the Chinese presence in San Francisco, or histories of a particular Native tribe. Sometimes they were even more specialized. I’m thinking of a marvelous book I came across about the role of laundresses in the US Army – fascinating but pretty “niche.”


They were all really wonderful in their own way, but it was surprisingly hard to find anything that gave a really good overview – so I guess this is what I was trying to do. 


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I did almost all my research in the British Library here in London, which has an extremely good collection of “Americana.” The sources that I was most pleased and surprised to find were the ones written by Native American women – since most Tribes preferred to use oral history to record their past, much of their version of events has been lost. 


My best discovery was of the work by an amazing half-Irish, half-Hunkpapa Lakota historian, Josephine Waggoner. Her vast history of her people, Witness: A Hunkpapa Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakota (brilliantly edited by an independent scholar called Emily Levine), was only published 70 years – 70 years! – after her death. I have my own copy, and I treasure it. 


Q: Can you say more about the women whose stories particularly stand out for you?


A: Two of the Native American women who wrote their stories down: Josephine Waggoner (mentioned above) and Susan Bordeaux, who wrote another extraordinary account about growing up biracial (her mother was a Brulé) on the Laramie Plains. 


I loved the story of Biddy Mason, an enslaved woman who fought for her freedom through the California courts – and won; and I also very much enjoyed spending time with Louise Clappe, a highly educated, middle-class woman who lived in two tiny mining communities during the Gold Rush and wrote down her experiences (not at all what you would imagine).


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Brave Hearted is my 10th book to date, and I’m having a rest!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The story of the westward migrations to the American West is truly one of the great epic tales of all time – I could not be prouder that I got to write this book. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Shirin Yim Bridges




Shirin Yim Bridges is the author of the new children's picture book, Eat Your Peas, Julius!: Even Caesar Must Clean His Plate. Her many other books include Go to Bed, Ted!. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Q: What inspired you to write Eat Your Peas, Julius!?


A: A few years ago, I wrote a book Agrippina, Atrocious and Ferocious, about one of the first Roman empresses. That nonfiction book featured, among many other things, a sidebar on what the Romans liked to eat. When I read that book at schools and libraries, this sidebar would elicit gasps and giggles from all the kids.


I always thought I'd like to come back and do more with this topic that was obviously so fascinating to children. So, years later when I was looking for a third book to follow Go To Bed, Ted! and Get Up, Elizabeth!, Eat Your Peas, Julius! naturally jumped to mind.


Q: How did you research Julius Caesar's life and times, including all the fascinating things Romans ate?


A: I already knew a lot about Roman history, and specifically about Julius Caesar, because I've always been a history nerd and Roman history was one of several topics of special interest for me. Then, of course, researching Agrippina's story led me to more rich material.


When it came to what Romans ate at banquets, there is a cookbook from roughly that period that still exists: The Book of Apicius. It's actually more like a menu collection. It mentions the names of the dishes and what went into them, but didn't give the measurements and recipe details you'd expect in modern cookbooks.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book called it “An entertaining, giggleworthy blend of gastronomic history and fiction.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right mix of history, fiction, and humor as you worked on the book?


A: Well, I've written both historical fiction and creative nonfiction in my time, and there is, to my mind, a subtle but clear distinction between the two. I wanted this whole series to be historical fiction, which means to me that you imagine the individual, but you set the character in, as much as possible, an accurate historical context.


My goal was to have my young readers imagine with me what it might have been like to be a young Julius Caesar, confronted with Roman banquet foods that many of us might find a bit alarming—and the joke, based on the old chestnut that kids won't eat their peas, is that Julius is so alarmed that he wants to just eat his peas instead.


I wanted the giggles, because I believe you learn more when you laugh. What we find funny, we find memorable. Think of all those people who can recite Monty Python or Seinfeld. And I wanted kids to enjoy the read, to laugh about it, and then to be so fascinated by glimpses into a very different life that they don't realize they're learning a little history.


Q: What do you think Fiona Lee’s illustrations add to the book?


A: I love Fiona's illustrations. I think they are full of the warmth and humor that I myself felt while writing. Plus, I love her palette, and she added in some clever touches, also.


In Get Up, Elizabeth!, there's a little mouse hidden on every page. In this book, there's an owl, and what the owl is doing in the background is often very funny in the context of what you're reading. So, when Julius is being told about all the birds that are being served up for dinner, the owl is flying off the page as fast as it can!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm not working on a children's book, at the moment. I'm working on two historical novels for adults. There's still a long road ahead of those, so I'm all tied up in the adult world for now. But you never know when I might be back.


On the other hand, my first book, Ruby's Wish, launched 20 years ago. We celebrated its anniversary this year. So, it's been a nice long run, with a total of 21 picture books published in that time. It probably is time I took a break.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My favorite book as a child was People in History. I still have it on my bookshelf. So I'm very satisfied that so many of the books I've written have been about exactly that!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Shirin Yim Bridges.

Q&A with Suzy Senior




Suzy Senior is the author of the new children's picture book Who Will Kiss the Crocodile?. Her other books include Octopants. She is based in the UK.


Q: What inspired you to write this new version of the Sleeping Beauty story, and why did you choose a crocodile as the main character?


A: Writing this book was a bit unusual, as the storyline and characters were all inspired by the title! Usually, I’ll have an idea, write the story, and we’ll pitch it to publishers along with a snappy title. However, in this case, the publisher already had a title in mind - but no story to go with it!


It was the “kiss” bit which made me think of Sleeping Beauty, and the rest just fell (slowly) into place. The story was such fun to write - I’m very glad their team liked it!


Q: What do you think Claire Powell's illustrations add to the book?


A: Isn’t Claire amazing? One of the things I love most about picture books is the way that words and pictures have to work together to make a whole. I send off the words, then it’s always incredible to see how it takes shape once the illustrations are underway.


I especially love the way Claire chose the two different eras to illustrate either side of the 100(-ish)-year sleep. We see a glorious Victorian party at the beginning, then a brilliant ‘80s disco at the end. I adore the way Claire has illustrated the Handy Grans and their van too. You can tell just from looking at them that they will get things done!

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the original Sleeping Beauty and your own take on the story?


A: It felt important to keep enough of the original for it to feel familiar and echo the original “shape” of the story. However, we already had a crocodile in the mix, and that led on to wondering who might be brave enough to kiss that crocodile. . . so there was plenty to play around with!


Often in fairy tales, the princesses are characters who things “happen to,” so alongside the fabulous Handy Grans, we wanted to ensure that Princess Liss is a strong, active, character (despite being asleep for much of the time). As you’ll see, it's Liss who puts things to rights at the end of the story!


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: Most of all, I hope they’ll enjoy it – have a giggle at the funny bits, love being read to or reading for themselves, and have a great time exploring all the fab artwork!


It will be wonderful if children are inspired to create their own mixed-up fairy tales too. They’re a great starting point for creating your own stories – even just changing one thing from a traditional story, and seeing where that might end up!


I bet some grown-ups will enjoy the ‘80s nostalgia along the way, too!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on more rhyming picture books with animal characters, and a couple of Christmas books. It’s all very exciting, and keeping me pretty busy!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I chose the name Princess Liss, not only because it rhymed with kiss (helpful!), but also because I liked how it sounded a bit like the scientific name for crocodiles, “crocodylus.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzy Senior.

Q&A with Kristin Wauson




Kristin Wauson is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Mr. Thatcher's House. She is based in Austin, Texas.


Q: What inspired you to create Mr. Thatcher's House, and how did you create your main character, Mr. Thatcher?


A: Mr. Thatcher’s House was inspired by my father-in-law, Steve, who has been remodeling his own house in his spare time for over two decades. He and my husband run our family’s construction business, and one day, there was a discussion over lunch about the magic that can come from combining your passions. 


Later that evening, it occurred to me that nearly every classic story I remembered from childhood had a house problem. What if I created a character who could help? That same night, I quickly wrote out a manuscript and it wasn’t long before Mr. Thatcher made his first appearance in my sketchbook. 


Q: How did you choose the classic tales to incorporate into the book?


A: Once I knew the story was going to be about characters who had been driven from their homes for one reason or another, I began brainstorming stories I remembered from childhood that featured houses. 


Some of them were obvious, like The Three Little Pigs, but with others like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I had to come up with a reason why the bears would need to abandon their house. 


It turns out, it’s not hard to find, or invent, a house problem for most classic storybook characters: Rapunzel is lonely and bored to tears in that tower; Snow White is tired of cleaning up after all of those men; and even the wolf from The Three Little Pigs needs a place to live after blowing down every house in his neighborhood. If you look on the dedication page of the book, you’ll actually find some of the characters who didn’t make it into the story. 


Q: Did you work on the text or the illustrations first--or both simultaneously?


A: I wrote a draft of the manuscript first. But after that it was a back-and-forth process of revising the words while trying to visually create the world Mr. Thatcher lived in. There are over 30 characters in the story and the house and its interior are pretty elaborate, so it took a while to piece everything together. And during that time, there were many revisions to the manuscript.


Q: The School Library Journal review of the book says, in part, “This charming tale improves on the theme of what makes a house a home with some very familiar characters and one curmudgeonly rabbit.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: I was really pleased with the SLJ review of Mr. Thatcher’s House. To elaborate on the above, the thing that makes a house a home is the family you share it with. And in the case of Mr. Thatcher, it’s found family. I want kids to know that families can be made up of anyone you choose, not just those you are biologically related to. 


But it’s also a story about perfection and letting go of expectations. Mr. Thatcher gets so wrapped up in his goal of making his house perfect that he isn’t able to see the beauty of what’s going on around him. So I hope kids pick up on that and also leave with an understanding that even when things don’t go according to plan, the outcome can sometimes be better than what you imagined.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Recently, I finished a dummy for a Christmas book that just went out on submission. When I’m working on a book I don’t have time for anything else. Even though I’m doing art every day, I don’t get to play around in my sketchbook, or journal or be inspired. That kind of exploration is really important because it’s often where new story ideas are born. So I’m excited to have a little time to do that and recharge my creative bank account.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love hearing from people who have read Mr. Thatcher’s House, and getting photos with your kids. Even if you haven’t read it, feel free to reach out to talk about art, or picture books or just to say hi! 


You can find me on social media:






I also have art prints available in my shop:


Thank you so much, Deborah, for inviting me on your blog!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 27



Nov. 27, 1936: Gail Sheehy born.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Q&A with Briana McDonald




Briana McDonald is the author of the new middle grade novel The Secrets of Stone Creek. She also has written the middle grade novel Pepper's Rules for Secret Sleuthing. She works at Columbia University, and she lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write The Secrets of Stone Creek, and how did you create your character Finley?


A: I’ve always wanted to write a mystery in a secluded setting where all the characters were potential suspects - so in a way, I created the setting of The Secrets of Stone Creek and the rest followed! And through the protagonist, Finley, I wanted to explore the light and dark sides of what it means to create a legacy.


Finley is desperate to be a great adventurer like the real female explorers (from history and present) who are featured throughout the book. But she’s heavily motivated by a feeling she needs to achieve something great in order to earn the love or respect of those around her.


It was important to me to explore and challenge how that kind of pressure to be perfect in order to be deserving can look great on the surface - like the way Meggie’s epic, lasting legacy appears to be - but can have really detrimental effects internally. 


Q: How would you describe the relationships between Finley and her various family members?


A: Complicated! Finley’s father left the family a few years back and it has a significant impact on the family dynamics. Her mother is always turning to her older brother, Oliver, when she needs things, so Finley feels overlooked by her mother and micromanaged by Oliver.


Finley tends to treat her younger brother, Griffin, the same way she feels Oliver treats her, but she really struggles to break out of that pattern because she’s so focused on regaining the control she feels her mother and Oliver are taking from her. 


Finley’s relationships with her brothers and mother are one of the most central parts of the book. She’s forced to try and get along and compromise with her brothers because they’re working together to solve the mystery - but spending so much time together leads to a bit of tension as well. Still, at the heart, the story is really about Finley discovering herself through coming to understand and reconcile with her brothers.  


And then there’s the fact that they’re staying with an estranged cousin during their time in Stone Creek - one that Finley creates a bond with, but who is also a prime suspect in Meggie’s disappearance! 


Q: The novel is set in a town in Vermont--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Setting is always important to me in my stories, but it takes on more of a life of its own in The Secrets of Stone Creek than in my previous work. I approached writing the story with the thought that Stone Creek itself was a character, made up of the town’s history and the way its residents have responded to - and, oftentimes, warped it - over the decades.


In a way, the town itself goes through a character arc of its own as the sensationalized mystery surrounding Meggie’s disappearance is explored and critiqued over the course of the novel.


And, of course, the remote, woodsy setting allows plenty of fun opportunities for Finley and her brothers to go exploring!


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I had a general idea of how the story would end - particularly around the mystery, and what Finley’s emotional arc would look like as well. But through writing the story and fleshing out the various characters and layers of internal and external conflict, the ending definitely evolved.


I see plot as a tool to fuel character development, so these changes added a bit more emotional depth to not just Finley’s arc, but her brothers’ and Jeff’s as well. I’m grateful for the feedback from my agent and editor that helped me push deeper into the characters’ arcs and the setting of Stone Creek in order to reach the ending found in the final version of The Secrets of Stone Creek


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on my third book with Simon & Schuster BFYR, which is another middle grade adventure…but this time, set in space! I can’t say too much yet, but I’m very excited about this story and can’t wait to share it with readers soon. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christina Uss




Christina Uss is the author of the new middle grade novel A Few Bicycles More. It's a sequel to her novel The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle. She lives in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.


Q: A Few Bicycles More is a sequel to your novel The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle. Did you know when you wrote the first book that you'd be writing a sequel, and do you think your character Bicycle has changed at all from one book to the next? 


A: I hoped with all my hoping that I’d get a chance to write a sequel to The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle, as I felt like my character still had so many adventures left in store.  


I was really inspired to write A Few Bicycles More after receiving many letters from readers asking where Bicycle’s family was—I wanted them to know Bicycle wasn’t an orphan, but a beloved child who just got seriously misplaced. I’ve had an image in my head for over a decade of her sisters seeing her for the first time across a road while they’re all eating chocolate bars. Now that image is finally in the new book! 


I do feel like Bicycle is the same intrepid, independent soul she was in the first story. She still won’t back away from a challenge, wants to do her best for the people she cares about, and thinks a lot of problems can be solved if she can hop on the seat of her bike. 


Q: How would you describe the relationship between Bicycle and her bicycle, the Fortune? 


A: Bicycle and the Fortune are best friends. They trust each other, have fun together, and even when it’s not easy, they make room for each other’s quirks. 


Q: The Kirkus review calls the book “A heady rush of girl power paced by the delights both of biking and bringing out the best in oneself and others.” What do you think of this description? 


A: I love this description! I do think cycling is one of those activities that brings joy and a sense of powerful independence to everyone who does it. It brought me joy to write about Bicycle introducing her family to cycling. And a major theme of the book is how belonging to a family does not mean changing yourself to fit in; the true meaning of family is helping each member be the best version of their innate selves.  


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story? 


A: First, don’t be afraid to be who you already are. Second: adventures come in all shapes and sizes! While I highly recommend pedaling 4,000 miles if you can swing it, fabulous things will likely happen when you ride your bike anywhere: to a friend’s house, or the pie-eating contest, or karate lessons.


In the words of the Fortune, “Sometimes you choose your own adventure. More often than not, though, your adventure chooses you.” 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I’m in the thick of a new novel filled with madcap midnight mayhem. It’s got a girl who stops needing to sleep, her new friend who’s a trouble magnet, adorable nocturnal animals, and cheese fries. 


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: My bike and I have the MOST fun doing school visits, and we’d love to come do a bike-to-school day author visit at every school across the U.S. if we could! I think there’s only 100,000 of them or so. How many miles of biking would that be? Maybe that could be the plot of the next Bicycle book…


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Charity Alyse



Charity Alyse is the author of the new young adult novel Other Side of the Tracks. She lives in New Jersey.


Q: You write that the idea for Other Side of the Tracks first appeared as you were walking on your college campus. How did that initial idea turn into this book, and how did you create your characters Capri, Justin, and Zach?


A: That is correct! I’d just walked out of my afternoon Creative Writing Children’s Stories course. The campus was bathed in its usual February snow and ice and I remember everyone complaining about how miserable it was.


I never thought so. With my piping hot white peppermint mocha burning warmth into my palms, I couldn’t complain about the cold nipping at my cheeks and nose. With how beautiful the old and haunted buildings were on campus, it always felt very romantic-esque.


Still, I felt so alone. I didn’t have many friends and I think that’s where a lot of the inspiration for Other Side of the Tracks was birthed from. 


My professor gave our class a 10-page assignment to write a story targeted for the young adult audience about anything. I walked across campus trying to figure out if I’d write something new or submit something I’d already had on my laptop. (I was knee deep in assignments for other classes and didn’t know if I’d have time to do another.)


I was feeling down during that time about all of the protesting due to racism on the news and my mom said this, “When life gives you lemons, write book!” I laughed at it when she said it but thought I could try to place my feelings into the short story assignment. I thought maybe it would help me feel less lonely. 


Immediately, as I was walking across campus I got an image of a Black girl in my mind who was standing far off from her peers in an icy football field. They were huddled together crying, mourning the loss of a fellow student who was killed by a police officer.


I immediately went to the library and found the spot furthest from everyone. I took out a pencil and paper and started asking myself questions about this girl. Why was she alone? She has very little friends and feels guilty about mourning a boy she’d never spoken to. How did the boy die? He was killed by a police officer who worked on the white side of town and she also feels guilty because she’s in love with someone from that town. Someone she’s forbidden to see. 


From that point, the character of the love interest was born named Zach. A boy who feels more connected with the Black culture than his own. The girl, who eventually got the name Capri, had an older brother who was best friends with the boy who passed. What happens when he finds out his sister is in love with a boy from the town who killed his best friend? How does he manage the stress when his girlfriend is pregnant?

Things just went from there. My class read the story and they were in tears. We’d started having conversations about social equality, teen pregnancy, BLM, and so many of them were so invested into this story as if it were real life. I was blown away. My professor pushed me to expand the world and turn it into a novel. I wrote for nine months and had a finished product that I titled Other Side of the Tracks.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Through the characters’ distinct and lingering alternating perspectives, this emotionally raw volume juggles interracial dynamics and themes of appropriation, identity, and systemic racism.” What do you think of that description?


A: When I read this review, I was so happy that Publishers Weekly described OSOTT this way. It is a novel told from three points of view, so it gives the reader a chance to empathize with each character. Within the alternating perspectives, it does tackle raw subjects like those listed above. It can be heavy at times but there is humor and romance sprinkled in which mellows it out a bit. 


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Because it started off as a 10-page story, I knew the ending, which helped a lot. It was complicated working to expand what felt already so finished. Taking the story and working to stretch is wasn’t easy by any means but it was worth it. It allowed me to get to know each character better along with their history and home life.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: My hope is that readers learn to embrace the world around them, to love their families deeper, stretch their hands to the needy around them, and provide hugs for those who are mourning whether we know who they lost or not.


I also hope that readers gain empathy for those around them and the rougher neighborhoods they walk or drive through with muttered prayers of safety on their lips.


Lastly, I hope readers discover their dreams aren’t as far as they believe and that all things are possible if they push hard for what they believe in. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on another YA contemporary and thriller mixed based on a short story by one of my favorite Black authors of the Harlem Renaissance.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Other Side of the Tracks is a book worth taking a chance on and perfect for bookclubs, classrooms, and reading groups! It’s also available on audio with three amazing narrators and a #booktok anticipated release! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb