Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Q&A with Jen Malia




Jen Malia is the author of the new middle grade Infinity Rainbow Club series, which includes Nick and the Brick Builder Challenge and Violet and the Jurassic Land Exhibit. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing Coordinator at Norfolk State University, and she lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write the Infinity Rainbow Club series, and did you know from the start that you'd be writing more than one book?


A: I wanted to write a chapter book series that featured a lot of different neurodivergent characters to show a full range of brain differences. In my family of five, we are all neurodivergent with different combinations of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), dyslexia, and dysgraphia. 


At least one in five kids are neurodivergent, but it's hard to find positive representations of neurodivergence in books for young readers. In the series, the Infinity Rainbow Club is a place where stims and different communication styles are accepted and celebrated. I want a world like this for my neurodivergent kids and other kids like them.


The concept for the Infinity Rainbow Club--an afterschool club for neurodivergent kids--was always envisioned as a multi-book series. I had originally proposed that each book would be from the point of view of a different neurodivergent character, which is how the series is structured. My agent negotiated the three-book deal with Beaming Books.


Q: How did you create your characters Nick (in book 1) and Violet (in book 2)?


A: Most of my characters are composite characters that draw from real life.


My main character, Nick, in Nick and the Brick Builder Challenge, is closely based on my autistic son. But I also draw on my personal experiences as an autistic kid and those of my autistic daughters.


Some of the scenes in the book where Nick and his sisters are playing with plastic bricks in the playroom are based very closely on real life experiences. We have a rainbow foam padded floor in our playroom with tens of thousands of LEGO. Watching my kids build elaborate brick cities inspired many scenes in the book.


In Violet and the Jurassic Land Exhibit, Violet is a composite character too. While I don't have an OCD diagnosis like my character Violet, I identify as having OCD, especially after going through the diagnostic process with one of my kids.


Violet is based on my own and my older daughters' experiences with intrusive thoughts and anxiety. The compulsions my character Violet has to make lists of sevens and check everything seven times come from my own experience.


Violet and the Jurassic Land Exhibit is an informational chapter book with extensive research on dinosaurs. I had generous summer funding from Norfolk State University, where I'm Professor of English and Creative Writing Coordinator, to carry out research for this book.


I went dinosaur bone hunting with my husband and kids at an active dig site, Dinosaur Park in Maryland. In the book, the first two chapters take place at Paleo Park, a fictionalized version of Dinosaur Park. 


The Jurassic-era dinosaurs in the book are based very closely on the exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. I dedicated the book to my parents and grandma, who took me to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History more times than I can remember.


Q: Do you know how the stories will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?


A: When I wrote the proposal for the series, I included a paragraph synopsis for each book, so I knew how the stories would end before I started writing. I followed the synopses closely when writing the books.


I also outlined specific scenes by putting notecards on a bulletin board. I made some changes to my storyboard as I went by taking out, adding, and modifying scenes. Having a visual map for the stories helped a lot when writing the series. 


Q: What do you think the books say about neurodiversity, and what do you hope kids take away from the series?


A: I wrote the Infinity Rainbow Club series so that neurodivergent kids could see themselves in books. I wrote the books I didn't know I needed, but wish I had, growing up as an undiagnosed autistic girl and the books I wanted my neurodivergent kids and others like them to have now.


I hope neurodivergent kids will relate to the diverse characters in these books. I also hope their neurodivergent peers reading this series will better understand what it's like to have a different brain. 


Above all, the books in the Infinity Rainbow Club series are not so much books about neurodiversity as they are books about kids going about their everyday life and doing fun activities.


In Nick and the Brick Builder Challenge, the club participates in a brick building competition. Violet and the Jurassic Land Exhibit shows the club volunteering at a local natural history museum to work on an augmented reality dinosaur exhibit.


Q: What are you working on now? What's next in the series?


A: The next book in the Infinity Rainbow Club series, Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament, is due out in March 2024. It's told from the point of view of a boy with ADHD. In the book, Connor has to find his focus to test for his Taekwondo black belt and compete in a tournament.


I'm also contributing a poem to No Brain the Same: Young Neurodivergent Activists Shaping Our World, a nonfiction picture book due out from Charlesbridge in 2026. This nonfiction anthology will be edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, and illustrated by Bradley.


My work-in-progress is a middle grade horror novel. While this project may seem very different from my contemporary fiction, I have a Ph.D. with a focus in Gothic literature, so this is the perfect project for me to explore my love of spooky stories.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Infinity Rainbow Club series is illustrated by Peter Francis. I love the way he imagined the diverse characters in this series. His detailed illustrations bring the club kids, their teachers, their classmates, and their families to life.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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