Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Q&A with Sara Davis


Photo by Andria Lo

Sara Davis is the author of the new novel The Scapegoat. She has taught creative writing in New York City and in Detroit. She lives in Shanghai, China.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Scapegoat, and for your character N?


A: The starting point for The Scapegoat was without a doubt the narrator, N’s, voice. That was the first thing that I had. A male voice, not young, spiteful but by the same token easily offended, a little pedantic and a little whiny. And, as Nabokov says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”


At the beginning I had no idea what the plot was going to be, I only had the voice.


Q: The novel takes place at a Stanford-like campus. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: For this book, very important! My parents have worked at Stanford since before I was born, so in a lot of ways it’s like a second childhood home.


The picture that they put on the postcards, of the long aisle of palm trees leading to the Memorial Church, with the foothills and the blue, blue California sky above it, is pretty bewitching. Stanford also has an interesting history—it was founded by the Stanfords in honor of their only child, who had died several years before the University opened.


In terms of my writing in general, everything seems to be set in California so far, which is not intentional. I am hoping to branch out!


Q: You've said that The Scapegoat was not your first suggestion for the book's title. How did you choose it, and what does it signify for you?


A: Indeed, this title emerged late in the publication process. I did not think I would be allowed to choose it because it is already the title of a great book by Daphne Du Maurier, one of my writing idols.


To me the main character of the novel quite literally becomes a scapegoat. He’s punished by this shadowy group for crimes he did not commit (the crimes were committed by his father, and more broadly, by early European colonization of the Americas).


Also, the Biblical scapegoat is such an interesting story, the ritualized laying of sins on to a live animal who was then sacrificed.


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


A: I definitely had no idea how it would end when I started writing it. Quite the opposite. For the first two or three years of writing it, the book ended with N turning into a literal scapegoat, i.e., a goat. That is no longer the ending! Many, many, many, many changes…


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel about an undead Mary Shelley.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! You should know, if you don’t know about them already, that there are these excellent books by Hazel Holt that have been my saving grace during the pandemic.


They are mysteries, the amateur detective is a nice widow named Mrs. Malory, and she’s always baking a Victoria sponge or dealing with her pets in between solving the mystery (the murdered person is always someone who was very unpleasant anyways). Enjoy! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dana L. Church


Photo by Stephen Kingston


Dana L. Church is the author of The Beekeepers: How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees, a new middle grade book for kids. She is based in Waterloo, Ontario.


Q: What initially intrigued you about bees, and why did you decide to write this book?


A: One summer when I was in university, I got a job as a research assistant for a professor. She studied bumble bees and kept some in her lab. It was my job to look after the bees and run some experiments with them.


I was terrified. I thought, “What was I thinking, applying for this job?” But I was desperate for summer employment. I thought I would get stung every day.


But I quickly learned that bumble bees will only sting you if they feel threatened; they will let you watch them for as long as you want if you don’t get too close.


Once I started running some experiments, I realized how quickly they can learn and they can learn some pretty complex stuff for an insect with such a small brain.


And watching their activity in the nest was fascinating. I saw “undertaker” bees carrying dead bees out of the nest, and I saw new bees hatch, chewing their way out of their wax cocoon, emerging with silky, gray fur. I became so intrigued and attached to bumble bees that I ended up studying them for my Ph.D.! And I was never stung.

As for the book, I always wanted to write my own book ever since I was a little girl. People kept telling me I should write a book about bees, so I did!


But originally the book featured a fictional character whose mom was a professor and had a bumble bee lab. My editor at Scholastic, Lisa Sandell, suggested, “Why don’t you write a book about the relationship between humans and bees?”


I started doing some research and realized the enormous impact humans have had on bumble bees and the dire situation wild bumble bees are in. I saw that I had a huge opportunity to help people realize the state of wild bumble bees and that people can help in big ways and small.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about bees?


A: I think it is quite common for people to think of wasps, honey bees, and bumble bees as all the same animal: bees. I was guilty of this, too. But they are all very, very different insects.


People also expect bees to sting. Bees will only sting if threatened. So if you swat at them, sure, they might sting. But if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone, too. Like I mentioned, bees will let you watch them if you don’t get too close. (They don’t like us breathing on them. The blasts of carbon dioxide from our breath is irritating.)


A more recent misconception is that people think if they set up honey bee hives in their backyard they are “saving the bees.” Honeybees can spread disease and take resources away from wild bees.


It is much, much more likely that some species of wild bumble bees will go extinct well before honey bees, so, as I talk about in my book, instead of setting up a honey bee hive, it is much more helpful to do things to support wild bees. This includes planting nectar-rich wildflowers wherever you can and avoid using pesticides.


Q: The book's subtitle is "How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees." What are some of the most important changes?


A: Some of the main changes are mass producing some species of bumble bees for pollination services, taking over huge swathes of habitat, and using deadly pesticides, especially neonicotinoids. Unfortunately, these have all been very negative changes for bumble bees. But as I write about, there is much we can do to try to turn things around.


Q: In the Author's Note, you write, "One thing I hope I didn't do was make you feel discouraged about the future." What do you hope readers take away from the book, and what do you see looking forward for bees and for their relationship with humans?


A: After reading my book, I hope readers feel a new sense of respect and awe for the natural world. Bumble bees are so small but they can do so much, they are so impressive, and they are such an important part of the ecosystem.


I hope readers realize that they themselves, too, are part of the ecosystem, and that they can make positive change even with small steps like planting a garden of native, nectar-rich wildflowers.


Looking forward, I think it will certainly be an uphill battle for some of the more threatened species of wild bumble bees to survive. We humans continue to take over habitat and use deadly chemicals for our crops and lawns.


However, I am also very hopeful, because there is a growing awareness of our impact on the environment and a growing awareness and respect for bees. This is seen in organizations such as Bee Cities that have been popping up all over the U.S. and Canada. This is very encouraging.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I’m having lots of fun researching and writing my next book about the lesser-known aspects of monarch butterflies, such as the rivalry between some scientists, barfing blue jays, and how it is that monarchs in eastern North America manage to migrate thousands of miles each year to Mexico. This book, also with Scholastic Focus, will be released in the fall of 2023.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Check out my #BeeFactFriday on Twitter! You can find me at @DanaLChurch.


Thank you so much for featuring me and my book, Deborah! It was such a pleasure.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Tracy Brown


Photo by Shane Macomber

Tracy Brown is the author of the new children's picture book Sarah's Solo. She lives in Vail, Colorado, and Charlotte, North Carolina.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sarah's Solo?


A: Sarah’s Solo was loosely based on a true story about my friend’s daughter missing her dance recital to attend a family event. It is also based a bit on my own children missing many games, meets, and sleepovers for family and religious events.


Q: What do you think Paula Wegman's illustrations add to the story?


A: I absolutely love Paula’s illustrations. The colors are so vibrant and the expressions on Sarah’s face are just as I envisioned! As this is my debut picture book, I was thrilled to see it come to life at Paula’s hand.

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


A: In writing this book, I wanted children to see the value of celebrating cultural and religious events. While Sarah is understandably let down when she can’t perform the solo at her dance recital, she does the right thing by showing up for her cousin. 


Judaism puts a high value on joyously celebrating life-cycle events like weddings and bar mitzvahs, Shabbat, and holidays, and that is what Sarah ultimately does. 


Every Jewish child has been told the story of the Dodgers baseball player Sandy Koufax who famously chose not to play in Game 1 of the World Series in 1965 when it fell on Yom Kippur. If Koufax could miss a World Series game, we tell our children, surely you can miss your t-ball game. 


My own kids have missed countless soccer and softball games, cheer meets, and the like to attend synagogue for the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to celebrate a friend’s bar or bat mitzvah, and to observe the Jewish Shabbat—it was tradition in our home to stay in on Friday nights to light candles, eat challah, and have family dinner.  


Q: How did you first get interested in writing children's picture books?


A: I have always loved writing. I graduated from Brown University in 1986 with a degree in English and planned to be a writer (that didn’t happen until much later--I went to law school instead!).  


I have always had a great love of children’s picture books. When my own children were growing up, I collected books with their names in the title or as characters in the book. 


I was lucky my kids had common names—Sammy, Annie, and Katie—and hit the jackpot with The Diggingest Dog which featured a main character with my son’s full name, Sammy Brown. 


About 15 years ago, I started teaching preschool and just for fun wrote books to share with my students. I didn’t take this hobby seriously, however, until I became an empty nester and went back to school and received a Fellowship in Children’s Literature from Stony Brook University. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have several books in the works. My two favorites are one about a child who goes on a nature walk with his Grandpa and one about a squirrel family that becomes homeless after a big storm.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am now represented by William Morris Endeavor and there are plans in the works to bring many more of my stories to children everywhere soon!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Judith L. Pearson


Judith L. Pearson is the author of the new book From Shadows to Life: A Biography of the Cancer Survivorship Movement. Her other books include The Wolves at the Door. A cancer survivor, she is based in Phoenix, Arizona.


Q: You write that you "want every cancer survivor to appreciate how the survivorship movement has changed our collective lives." What impact has the movement had on you personally as a cancer survivor, and why did you decide to write this book?


A: In 2021, it’s difficult to imagine the level of medical discrimination that occurred with regard to cancer.


We now know that it isn’t contagious, and although the medical community knew contagion wasn’t a factor prior to the movement launch in 1986, the myth persisted in some circles until the end of the 20th century.


Had it not been for the survivorship movement working to dispel that myth, I would be much less likely to be talking about my own survivorship. And in that scenario, I probably would not have written this book.


My enthusiasm for the project came as a result of discovering the intrepid group of ordinary people who came together, ultimately founding the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS).

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about surviving cancer?


A: How much time do you have! Absolutely the number one misperception is that once treatment is over, a person will return to exactly the same as they were pre-cancer.


Even if you took away scars, missing body parts, and physical challenges as a result of harsh treatments, there is a host of other issues facing survivors. Those might include poor self-image, loss of relationships and fertility, fear of recurrence, financial toxicity and PTSD from the entire saga.


But equally interesting is that many survivors (myself included) find healing in helping. That was certainly the goal of the NCCS founders.


Q: How did you research the book?


A: I write biographies in a narrative nonfiction style. In other words, I want readers to know the subjects of my books, and feel as though they’re living through the subjects’ experiences too.


This is a group biography, following the stories of several individuals. Interviews are an important vehicle, but for those who have died, finding their words in print is essential.


To that end, I scour libraries and archives. I have a subscription to a newspaper database that allows me to see not only what people said, but what other things were going on around them on any particular day. I guess I wear the title “Research Junkie” proudly!


Q: What do you see looking ahead for the survivorship movement?


A: We’ve come a long way in the 50 years since President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, and declared war on cancer. His $1.3 billion pledge for research has – happily – resulted in more survivors. But much work remains for the survivorship movement. 


Lung cancer survivors (the vast majority of whom never smoked) still face the stigma that they caused their cancer. In rural communities and in cultures removed from the cable and internet highways, isolation still exists for all the issues I listed above.


And just as we’ve kept vigil for those quarantined because of COVID, we need to remember to check in with cancer survivors who are unable to be social.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m beginning research on the story of a most remarkable woman. Imagine the crossroad of science and high society; and then picture Meryl Streep playing the part in the movie version (as I do in my dreams). Stay tuned for more details.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One of the blurbers for my book described From Shadows to Life as history, biography, science, intrigue, and drama, all wrapped into one.


He went on to say that the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Emperor of All Maladies was about cancer and science. From Shadows to Life, he said, is about cancer and people. I love that description because its exactly what I felt as I was researching and writing.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 3



March 3, 1926: James Merrill born.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Q&A with Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

Megan Wagner Lloyd


Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter are the author and illustrator of Allergic, a new middle grade graphic novel for kids. Megan Wagner Lloyd lives in the Washington, D.C., area, and Michelle Mee Nutter is based in Boston.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Allergic, and for your character Maggie?


MWL: Like Maggie, I'm allergic to animals with fur or feathers. When I started visiting schools to share my picture books, I found that kids were really interested in this fact about me--and a lot of kids had allergies of their own. It made me think there might be a place for a book that dealt with the difficulties of living with allergies. In creating Maggie, I wanted to make a character who was full of love and enthusiasm, but who struggled to figure out how to translate that into the realities of her everyday life. 


Q: How did you create the illustrations for the book?

Michelle Mee Nutter

MMN: For most of my work, I use a mixture of traditional and digital mediums. To start, I sketched the whole book with pencil and then scanned everything to ink and color digitally. That process helps me think on the page and I always love the energy initial sketches have and I try my hardest to keep that feeling at all stages. Allergic was my first graphic novel, so my process was always changing until I found what felt right.  


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


MWL: I hope kids are inspired by Maggie's resiliency. And that kids with allergies will feel a little more seen and understood, and those without will understand a bit more about the challenges of living with allergies. 


MMN: I hope kids will see themselves or someone they know in our characters. Representation matters so much and I hope kids who have allergies see themselves in Maggie’s story and those who don’t, can see a new perspective. 


Q: What first got you into creating children's books?


MWL: When I was 8 years old, I wrote in my Little Mermaid diary that I wanted to write books for kids when I grew up. And I just kept writing! I wrote my first novel in 2004 (it was awful), and, after many, many practice manuscripts, my first book, a picture book called Finding Wild, came out in 2016.


MMN: When I was a kid, books always felt so magical, especially Christmas books. I started drawing because I was so inspired by other people’s art and never stopped. I think I’ve always wanted to illustrate children’s books, even when I was scared to admit it. 


Q: What are you working on now?


MWL: Michelle and I are making another graphic novel together! (It isn't a sequel to Allergic; it's a standalone.) We can't wait to share more about it in the future!


MMN: Megan and I are working on another graphic novel and I’m so excited. More to come on that soon!


Q: Anything else we should know?


MWL: Thanks for spotlighting us and Allergic! We are so excited for everyone to read it.


MMN: Thanks so much for featuring Allergic and I can’t wait for readers to step into Maggie’s world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Terry Catasús Jennings


Terry Catasús Jennings is the author of Definitely Dominguita: Knight of the Cape, the first in a new middle grade series for kids. She lives in Reston, Virginia.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Definitely Dominguita?


A: The idea for a series about a kid who loves to act out the classics came not long after the idea for Dominguita herself.


Once I had the plot for the first book, in which Dominguita tries to prove that girls can be knights, it wasn’t hard to jump to writing books in which she dresses and acts like characters in other classics.


The thing I had to figure out was whether I could come up with a contemporary adventure that she could have within the framework of other classics.


The idea appealed to me because it was a way to introduce children to the classics I enjoyed, and it was also an excuse to reread some of the books that were such a part of my childhood. I was very much like Dominguita, a child who preferred to read to anything else.


As I was writing book one, I began thinking about possible other books, rereading them, and making notes about possible adventures.


The plot for book two came fairly easily because it is one of my all-time favorite books and it lent itself to a modern adventure without having to sail in a submarine or travel around the world. By the time I’d finished writing and revising The Knight of the Cape, I had six possible additional titles. I’d even started on book two.


The name, Definitely Dominguita, came, literally, from the dictionary. I looked at every D word, but when I got to Definitely, I stopped. That was it. Dominguita is definitely one of a kind. It had to be Definitely Dominguita.

Q: Why did you choose Don Quixote as the first story Dom chooses to follow?


A: It happened while I was weeding, and it was more like Don Quixote chose Dom, rather than her choosing him.


My father was a huge fan of Don Quixote. One of my favorite mementoes from him is a little wooden statue of Don Quixote. I think Don Quixote was in my DNA already.


And that day, as I sweated and grunted over some impossibly resistant weeds, I realized that Don Quixote and I have a lot in common. We both set out to conquer things that have a very low success rate—weeding, writing—still, we carry on.


Another thing that came into play in Dom’s birth was the fact that I read so much as a child, that my mother worried about me. I needed more socialization in her eyes. So much so, that she talked the Mother Superior at my school into trying to tell me not to read so much.


Nuts, right? But Mother Superior was more than glad to accommodate her. In no uncertain words Mother Superior told me to stop reading Jules Verne because he’d been excommunicated. I suspect that’s the only thing she could hang her hat on, because, really, how do you tell a kid to not read?


As I weeded, this boy character took shape. A reader who loves Don Quixote gets told not to read (like Don Quixote was told). He came clothed in a cape instead of an armor, since armors are a tad unwieldy. He would be Don Capote. Don Quixote was the knight of the sad face, Don Capote would be the knight of the cape. (Capote means cape in Spanish.)


Fortunately for all of us, when I ran the idea by my daughter, she was scandalized. Why a boy? Can’t a girl be a knight? Of course that was my story. A girl who has to prove herself a worthy knight.


The first draft had the whole thing where the teacher says you can’t read, but my librarian friends and my agent talked me out of it.


It was replaced with the idea that Dominguita’s grandmother had read the classics in Spanish to her for bedtime stories. But now Abuela was getting forgetful and couldn’t live with Dominguita’s family anymore. Reading the classics was a way for her to be close to Abuela.


When she’s reading Don Quixote during recess, she ends up on the wrong end of a dare and sets out to prove that indeed, girls can be worthy knights. She is joined in her endeavor by Pancho Sanchez, her also worthy squire, and a freckled, redheaded girl named Steph.


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


A: Even as a young immigrant, I always wanted people to think of me as normal, human, not different. It’s so interesting how, where you come from puts you into a different category.


I often found myself telling other kids, “You know, we had big buildings in Cuba.” I was always trying to prove that I or those who, like me, came from “away” were not inferior, not even different.


What I hope kids take away from this story is that Dominguita and her sidekick Pancho are both second generation Cuban-Americans and they are regular kids who live in regular homes who just happen to have black beans and rice for dinner more often than other kids.


Their lives are no different than the third child, other than that child, Steph, has a grandmother who makes killer chocolate chip cookies.


I hope they can identify with Dom’s love for her grandmother.

Of course, I hope that their curiosity about Don Quixote and other classics is piqued.


Q: What do you think Fátima Anaya's illustrations add to the book?


A: I loved Fátima’s illustrations. Actually, when I saw the first cover, I cried. Dominguita was exactly as I had pictured her.


In the first inside sketch, Fátima catches Dominguita reading at recess, alone, but not lonely. Kids are playing all around her, but she is oblivious. She has all she needs—her Abuela’s book. In the last sketch, and I hope I’m not giving anything away here, I love Dom’s face as she is ready to attack a windmill.


Q: This is the first in a series--what's next for Dominguita?


A: Captain Dom’s Treasure comes out on the same day as Knight of the Cape, March 2, 2021.


Dom finds a real map in a copy of Treasure Island. Using problem solving skills, the threesome figure out what the treasure is and to whom it belongs. The question is whether they’ll be able to find it and return it to its rightful owner before the smooth-talking Juan Largo claims it as his own. 


In September, two more books will round out the series.


In All for One the threesome fights the dastardly Bublassi brothers who are trying to ruin a quinceañera party. In The Lost Goat of Tapperville, Sherlock Dom and her crew go in search of a lost goat on a mire . . . by a moor . . . where the creepy howls of a hound . . . well, I can’t give it all away.


Those are the books that are already scheduled for release.


I have notes on least half a dozen more plots of other classics. The Martians are Coming, Around Mundytown in Eight Hours, an Agatha Christie mystery and more. I have to convince my editor that she wants to publish those.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: While the kids’ adventures are contemporary and they only take on the personae of characters in the classics, there were some books that I thought would work, at first, but in the end didn’t pan out.


I couldn’t talk myself into doing Robinson Crusoe. The way he treats his man Friday definitely gave me pause. There’s just way too much water in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of my all-time favorites. 


On the other hand, at first read, I discounted The Three Musketeers—lots of killing, lust, infidelity, and in the end, a woman is beheaded—but I couldn’t resist the idea of kids wielding chocolate-covered toilet plungers as their swords. Of the four books coming out this year, I think it’s the most fun.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb