Native American Literature for Young Readers


Happy Indigenous People’s Day! As the wind turns from humid to crisp and the leaves begin to change colors, we can’t help but think about Thanksgiving and our mixed feelings about this celebration. My education about Native Americans as a child was woefully inadequate and wrong for the most part. Understanding that our childhood views of colonialism were misrepresented is important to our history, our culture, and our humanity and the best place to begin fixing our misunderstanding is to make sure that the books we read are representative of Native American culture.

To celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, we’ve been busy reading to create a list of recommended books that should be in our classrooms, home libraries, or reading stacks this fall and all year. Yes, you should read Sherman Alexie’s books too, but there are many other fine Native American authors who are often overlooked. We’ve chosen to shine a light on them.

 

We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp and illustrated by Julie Flett

A perfect book for new parents welcoming baby into the world. A lovely rhythmic read aloud, beautifully illustrated.

Board book, ages 0+

 

My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Julie Flett

What makes your heart fill with happiness? Holding hands? The sun on your face? This little board book does a great job of reminding us to cherish these moments. Beautiful, happy illustrations, alluring to the eyes.

Ages 0+


Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith and illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu

A joyous story filled with details about the traditions associated with the dresses jingle dancers wear. Young Jenna gets help from her family and community to give her dress its own voice. Beautiful, lyrical text with traditional Indian phrasing. Warm, inviting illustrations.

Ages 6+

 

The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz and illustrated by Sharol Graves

Originally published in 1977, the 40th edition of this book of truth about Indigenous People and colonization will be published in October. If I had to purchase only one book for my library for the fall, this might be the one. Clearly expressed text quickly explains the lives of Indigenous people as America was discovered by the Spanish and the population exploded as more settlers came here.  Ages 6+

 

Shin-Chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim LaFave

This story about Shi-shi-etko and her little brother Shin-Chi’s journey to an Indian residential school shines a light on one of the darker moments in our country’s history.  The author’s note provides additional historical context for the story, context that many of us missed in our history lessons and can share with the next generation through this sweet book. Ages 6+

 

Saltypie  by Tim Tingle and illustrated by Karen Clarkson

Saltypie tells the story of a grandmother through her young grandson’s eyes. Filled with wisdom and tenderness, this story of a woman who lived a life of adversity without losing her good humor and warm heart has a surprise at the end that’s worth a read. The author notes include additional historical context and some lovely family photos.  Ages 6+

 


Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson and Illustrated by David Shannon

Hiawatha, a brave Mohawk warrior, is angry. He wants revenge when his family is killed in a battle of warring tribes. But everything changes when he is visited by the Peacemaker, a prophet who wishes to end the warring and changes Hiawatha’s mind and heart. Hiawatha’s story is a timeless tale, important for all humans for understanding unity, cooperation.

Ages 8+

 

Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Native Americans Ray Halfmoon and his Grampa live in Chicago, which is much different from life in Oklahoma where Grampa grew us. The fun, interrelated short stories are heartwarming and help young readers understand what life is like for many present-day Native American.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

 

Soft Rain: The Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears by Cornelia Cornelissen

Nine-year old Soft Rain’s inspiring story illuminates an important part of our American history, one that should not be forgotten–the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The author’s voice is perfect for helping young readers understand the impact of being torn from your family and forced to relocate.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

The Warriors by Joseph Bruchac

Twelve-year-old Jake Forrest has spent his whole life living on an Iroquois Indian reservation. He must leave the life he loves when his mother graduates law school and lands a job in Washington, DC. Jake, who has always been a star lacrosse player, struggles to adjust to the spirit of the game off the Indian reservation. Through this story, we learn that the origins of lacrosse are tribal. There are just enough lacrosse scenes to satisfy fans of the game, but at its heart this is a realistic story about the struggles we all feel trying to fit in. The Warriors deftly grapples with issues such as racism, violence in sports, and cultural misappropriation.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle

This. Book. Will. Keep. You. On. The. Edge. Of. Your. Seat. Unlike anything I’ve ever read and full of surprises. A story about a young Choctaw who doesn’t survive the Trial of Tears, told by his ghost. Each chapter a cliffhanger, this is a terrifically compelling tale of resilience and unity with surprisingly humorous moments.

Ages 8+

 

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by James Marshall III

Learn about Crazy Horse through a modern child’s eyes in this stunning novel. Full of the beauty of oral tradition, family heritage, and road trips, this one is perfect for you and your middle-grade reader.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

This story, and the others in the series, has the feel and tone of Little House on the Prairie and other pioneer-era stories but with a more sensitive and historically accurate portrayal of Native people. Follow the adventures of two young brothers as they navigate childhood in a rich historical setting. Novel, Ages 8+

 

Fire in the Village, by Anne M Dunn

A collection of fables, legends, and creation myths from an Anishinabeg-Ojibwe elder living on the Leech Lake Reservation. The seventy-five stories in this beautiful collection capture a piece of history that might otherwise have been lost.

Short-story collection, Ages 12+

 

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

Wonderful story about reservation life, friendship, racism, poverty, family and something that binds all of us: music. Prepare to cry with this one, folks. It will break your heart and make you mad at points, but the journey of emotions is well worth the ride.

Novel, Ages 12+

 

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson

Did you know that native Alaskans were given radioactive drugs without their permission to study whether their bodies were biologically more resistant to the effects of cold weather? Powerful, factually-based narrative about the difficulties Alaskan Native Americans children faced when they were uprooted from their families and culture and sent to a school where they were punished if their native language slipped from their lips. Multiple POVs give the reader a broad picture of the range of their struggles, all delivered in an intriguing, relatable story that would be a great classroom read for ages

Novel, Ages 12+

 

Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac

The importance of the Navajo Code Talkers during WWII was so secretive many historians don’t even know about it. Thanks to Joseph Bruchac’s family connection we can now all read about these brave men who helped keep troops safe during the war by using a code based on Navajo language, the same language they were forced to suppress as they were educated in schools designed to make them fit into white culture. Infused with Native American history and  culture, Code Talker helps us understand what it must have felt like to be in young Ned’s situation as he went from life on a reservation to working the front lines as an American soldier in WWII.

Novel, Ages 12+

 

Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon

This murder mystery follows 19-year-old Cash as she revisits family history on a journey to help her friend investigate the murder of a Native man on a neighboring reservation. Anyone who loves good crime fiction will appreciate this novel.

Novel, Upper YA/Adult

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

When the Robot War ignites, our government crumbles. Human resistance is led by small organized groups. The Osage Nation in Gray Horse, Oklahoma is one of these groups. Despite decades of oppression, these small tightly-knit tribal mini-nations remain strong, the perfect fighters against the collapse of humanity  This book is a sci-fi thriller written in the style of World War Z  by a Cherokee citizen who also has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon and Masters degrees in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.  This gripping story is perfect for upper YA (high school age) and Adult.

 

These are all books that we can personally recommend, but don’t stop there. There are many resources for finding authentic and accurate books written by Native Americans.

Debbie Reese’s AMERICAN INDIANS IN LITERATURE BLOG

Kara Stewart’s blog FROM HERE TO WRITERNITY  We’d like to give a special thank you to Kara who helped us hand-pick some of the titles we’ve reviewed!

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Blog

And checkout/subscribe to our Native Writers Twitter List.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

 

 

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Fall Releases on Our Radar!


Fall makes me long for crisply cool, slightly overcast days. Why? On days like this, I enjoy exerting myself in the yard, cleaning up my summer gardens and preparing the cool season garden, and then hopping in the hammock with a book. Here are a few new releases for fall that have caught my attention.

Picture Books

Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote

By Margarita Engle and illustrated by Raúl Colón

One of my favorites for this fall, definitely an award contender. It’s a fictionalized first-person biography in verse about Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, father of the modern novel. As a child, his vivid daydreams of daring knights provided refuge from his family’s troubles and inspired one of the world’s most influential books, Don Quixote. Gorgeous pen and ink illustrations perfectly contrast Miguel’s dreams with his reality, speaking to the power of story in our lives. A beautiful and engaging book to treasure.

Releases October 1, 2017

Brave by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

This book celebrates BRAVE kids and reminds us that all kids have the power to be brave and kind…

–when they face new challenges

–by helping others

–by speaking up

Great inspiration, reminding us to follow our hearts and find courage to do what is right, even when it’s hard, and showing us that there’s a little superhero in all of us.

Releases October 3rd, 2017

After the Fall by Dan Santat

From the New York Times–bestselling and Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator, Dan Santat, we finally find out what happened after Humpty’s tragically famous fall. When his beautiful paper airplane lands on that dreadful wall he’s been trying so hard to avoid, his paralyzing new fear of height haunts him. Stunning illustrations carefully balance whimsy and the gravity of his situation. My favorite thing about this book is the story behind Santat’s dedication. Watch the video where he shares why this story is a love letter to his wife.

Releases October 3rd, 2017

Red and Lulu by Matt Taveres

A pair of cardinals becomes separated when their lush, shady home is cut down and sent to New York City to become a Christmas Tree. Such a beautiful, poignant story about miracles. Because of this and the dazzling watercolor illustrations with amazing perspectives, my family may have a new holiday favorite.

 

 

Middle Grade

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Red, the ancient oak who’s been watching over the neighborhood for about two hundred years, is known as the wishtree because every year locals tie notes with their wishes to Red’s branches. You would think Red’s seen it all, but then a Muslim family moves in to the neighborhood. Red has to take things in his own hands to protect the family’s young daughter when a community member makes them feel unwelcome. With interesting, fun characters, this beautiful story of hope, friendship, and community,  is guaranteed to make you laugh and cry both happy and sad tears. Beautiful!

Releases October 3rd, 2017

 

Greetings from Witness Protection! by Jake Burt

Thirteen-year-old orphan and pickpocket-extraordinaire, Nicki Demere, has been chosen by the U.S. government to join a mother, father, and son who are being protected by Witness Protection from dangerous mobsters. Are her tough-girl skills enough to keep the family safe? Though the plot may seem unbelievable, this fast-paced, captivating story with relatable characters and fun family dynamics will make for some very fast page turning. Highly recommended!

Releases October 3rd, 2017

 

Young Adult

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Fifteen-year-old Will’s older brother Shawn was just murdered. He knows what he must do. He must follow The Rules, which means that Shawn’s killer must die…by Will’s hands. He hops on the elevator on his way to get revenge. But on each floor, a new passenger gets on. A passenger that is in some way connected to Shawn. 7 floors with 6 visitors.

This book is BRILLIANT. Told in free-verse, every word is precisely chosen to grab your heart and mess with your head. This is a book to be shared and talked about. IT WILL CHANGE LIVES. I love a lot of books, but this is my favorite read of 2017 so far. Buy it and share it. There should be several copies in every high school in America, so donate one if you can. I predict this one will win multiple awards, and it will deserve every single one. To be devoured again and again.

Releases October 17th, 2017

 

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m starting today! My daughter tore through it in two days and said, “Mama, you’re going to love this book.” Then she handed me a box of tissues. “And you’ll need the whole box.” I do love books that make me think and feel, and she has assured me it will do both. It’s the story of three siblings who were given up for adoption at birth. When the middle sibling, sixteen-year-old Grace, gives her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family and discovers that she has siblings. This story about family, relationships is on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People along with Long Way Down (above) and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (below). There are so many great books on the longlist this year, so please check them out.

Releases October 3rd, 2017

I am not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

I haven’t read this one yet either, but it’s up right behind Far From the Tree. I normally read all the books on the longlist and have yet to be disappointed by any of them. This is the description on the back of the book: “From debut author Erika L. Sanchez comes a laugh-out-loud and poignant novel about losing a sister and finding yourself.” It’s about Julia, a girl who dreams to be a writer and refuses to let her family’s expectation get in her way.

Releases October 17th, 2017

We’d love for you to share your fall favorites in the comments!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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MYC: Writing “Other” with Sensitivity

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the Power of Metaphor. This week, we’ll discuss writing “other” characters.

What is writing “Other”?

It simply means writing characters that are not like yourself.

Some writers are terrified to try this. If you’ve ever witnessed arguments about writing diversely or seen Twitter posts “dragging” authors who make mistakes when they tried to do so, you probably understand why!

But, it’s important that the stories we craft represent the world we inhabit. This post at Lit Reactor by K. Tempest Bradford sums up the importance of diversity in our writing and our reading pretty well, especially this paragraph:

 

Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.

 

So hopefully, you’ve included an interesting variety of people from different cultures, beliefs, or abilities in your masterpiece. And if not, this is a great time to tweak a few characters to give your story depth and sparkle.

 

But…

And this is a REALLY BIG BUT

Don’t do it unless you’re invested in doing it well.  

There are a few steps to that process.

Ask Yourself Why????

Why are you writing this “other” character?

Maybe you have a unique perspective. For example, you may have adopted a child of a different ethnicity or maybe your child has a disability and you want the world to see life through her eyes. Maybe your nephew has recently “come out” and you want (with his permission) to use his experiences to help others. Having a personal connection to writing “other” automatically puts pressure on you to get it right.

But maybe your reason is just because you feel it’s important to show that a gay, black, hearing-impaired boy can have exciting adventures. That’s okay too. BUT, you’re going to have to work extra hard to make sure your character is authentic and realistic for your reader. Put yourself in the shoes of the gay, black, hearing-impaired boy who might be read your story. Will he like it? Will he relate to the character? Will he recommend it to his friends?

After you’ve answered why, the real work begins.

Research!

A lot of it. Thoroughly. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But if you care about your readers and you want to make fans, you’ll do it. If you don’t approach your characters thoughtfully, you may do more harm than good and lose readers in the process. One of the worse things you can do is to write stereotypical characters.

Examples: the blind person who can “see” visions, the crippled evil villain, the savage Native American, the gay male who loves theatre, the sassy black girl…

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

As we mentioned in our post about Writing Cross-Culturally, not only are those stereotypes unrealistic, but––especially in kid lit––they do harm. Just like there are millions of different behaviors of a “typical” white girl, the same is true of every character regardless of religious beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, bodily abilities…

Make all your characters real people. (For more details about how to do this see this post on character development and this one on supporting characters.) Understand what makes them tick, their beliefs, their concerns, their limitations, and their special abilities. This is important even if your “other” character isn’t the main character.

One great way to research is by reading books written by #ownvoices authors. Check out this Kirkus post by Cynthia Leitich Smith for more info.

See below for a list of resources about writing a variety of “other” characters.

Sensitivity Readers!

Yes, you’ll need them. Several in fact. If you don’t know what that is, read this or this. You may have a person in your life who can serve as a sensitivity reader for the “other” that is in your story, but I’d also suggest finding a reader that you don’t know. A reader who doesn’t know you personally will be more comfortable with being completely honest with you and will be able to provide a deeper insight to make your story more authentic. Heads up: If you haven’t employed a sensitivity reader before you submit to an agent, sometimes they will ask you to find one. Sometimes your editor will do that, but you should be prepared to pay a sensitivity reader for their time and experience. And here’s the most important part: LISTEN TO YOUR SENSITIVITY READERS!

One recent example of a book about “other” is Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. The story is about a girl who was born without arms. But Dusti has arms. How could she possibly write this book? She did her homework and followed up by reaching out to someone who knew first-hand what it was like to live without arms. Check out this Publisher’s weekly post to find out what inspired Dusti to write this book and this interview for more info about her research and sensitivity reader.

Here’s a database for finding sensitivity readers: Writing In The Margins

Own Up to Your Mistakes!

This may be the most important step. Hopefully you’ve taken the first three steps very seriously and done all your homework. But no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes because you are human. The best thing to do is to very clearly apologize to all those who you’ve offended. (Please note: True apologies do not contain the word “but”.) Accept your mistake(s) and learn from it. Do not blame anyone, not your friend readers, your betas, or your sensitivity readers. It’s yours. Own it. Move forward graciously.

General Resources:

Twitter Handles You Should Follow:

@writingtheother

@diversebooks

@disabilityInLit

Race and Ethnicity:

Gender:

Sexual Orientation:

Disability:

Be brave in your writing, but sensitive to your readers.

Let us know about other resources in the comments! Thanks for reading this week and come back next week to read our discussion about Writing Openings That Hook Readers and Endings That Turn Them Into Fans.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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Meet Jada Jones! New chapter books by Kelly Starling Lyons

Happy Birthday to Jada Jones! She’s a “rock” star and a good citizen in two new chapter books released September 19th by Kelly Starling Lyons and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goodreads: Rock Star                                                           Goodreads: Class Act

“Jada Jones thinks there’s nothing cooler than rocks. So, when her teacher gives the class a group project on rocks and minerals, Jada knows she’s going to rock the assignment. Her only problem is finding a group of friends to work with. For Jada, rocks are easier to find than friends. Or are they?” –back cover of JADA JONES ROCK STAR

These five sentences sum up my entire childhood. I was always the kid who liked things no one else liked—slime mold, rocks, microscopes, math homework. But Jada has skills I didn’t have. Not only does she “rock” science, but in JADA JONES ROCK STAR she figures out how to “rock” friendships too. What I would have done to have a friend like Jada while growing up!

This chapter book wins 5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 stars from me for being fast-paced and easy-to-read with relatable, interesting characters including BFF to all, Jada Jones❤️. Add to this Jada’s love of science and Vanessa Brantley Newton’s gorgeous illustrations––and BOOM! This becomes a book I’m excited to recommend to all my young friends. I can’t wait to feast my eyes on CLASS ACT because it’s about another topic near and dear to me:  being a good citizen!

But don’t take my word for it! Kirkus and School Library Journal think these are top-notch reads for young readers too!

Hurry to your local bookstore to ask for them.  Indiebound   Barnes & Noble  Amazon

I’m honored to have Kelly Starling Lyons here to talk with us about Jada Jones and writing. Kelly is the award-winning author of many books for young people including ONE MORE DINO ON THE FLOOR, HOPE’S GIFT, ONE MILLION MEN AND ME, ELLEN’S BROOM, and one of my favorite’s TEA CAKES FOR TOSH. She is also a member of The Brown Bookshelf, which you can learn more about in Kelly’s interview at From the Mixed Up Files. What I love most about Kelly’s stories is they’re always about special moments, the perfect antidote for our fast-paced world. Not only do her stories linger with you, but I often find myself reflecting on my own memories after reading one of her books. What a beautiful gift to readers!

Welcome, Kelly! Thank you so much for taking time out to talk with us at The Winged Pen!

You’re the author of several picture books including ONE MORE DINO ON THE FLOOR, ONE MILLION MEN AND ME, and many others including one of my favorites, TEACAKES for TOSH. How was the process for writing a chapter book different from writing a picture book?

Thanks so much for your support, Michelle. You have to write tight with a picture book. You want to create visual scenes that open up illustrative possibilities for the artist who is your storytelling partner. Lyricism and rhythm are important, because picture books are often read aloud.

Writing a chapter book meant I had more space to tell the story. I could include more description and dialogue. Kids would be reading these stories mostly on their own, so I needed to end each chapter with a little hook to keep them turning the page. My first book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal, was a chapter book. It was cool returning to that genre.

Jada Jones loves rocks in book one, runs for class representative in book two, and is overall a great role model for citizenship and navigating the friendship woes that most of us have experienced. Do these experiences come from your own childhood?

 Jada is mostly inspired by my daughter and girls I’ve met during school visits. But there’s a bit of me in her too.  I collected rocks as a kid. My favorite was a hunk of quartz I found when visiting an aunt in Eden, NC. Like Jada, I cared a lot about friendships. Her experiences in the books celebrate the bravery and resilience of smart, big-hearted kids I know.

It was important to me to center an African-American girl. We need more chapter books featuring kids of color. I’m proud that Jada will help kids see themselves and their friends.

The illustrations from Vanessa Brantley Newton gives me the same happy, warm feeling that the text does. Have you worked with her before? Did you have any input in the illustrations?

Vanessa is my sister-friend. I’ve always been a big admirer of her art, but I haven’t worked with her before. I feel so blessed that she’s the illustrator for the Jada Jones series. She captured Jada’s joy, brilliance and sensitivity in such a lovely way. The final decisions regarding artwork are up to the art director, illustrator and editor. But my editor did share Vanessa’s wonderful sketches with me and gave me the chance to share thoughts.

Will there be more Jada stories? I hope so. If kids really like the first two books, that could bring the chance for more. Crossing my fingers.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now? I’m working on a picture book biography of an unsung African-American trailblazer and a forthcoming picture book that celebrates family coming together to honor their heritage and land.

Whoa! Those books sound awesome! Here goes the Lightning Round? Hands Kelly a chocolate bar for strength!

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Healing

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden pencil.

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Sweet or salty?  Both. I love chasing something salty with something sweet like popcorn with chocolate.

Dog, cat, or other?  Dog.

Plotter or pantser? Both.

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there? The best advice I received was years ago at the Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. Editor Patti Gauch told us to “write the story only you can tell.” Dig deep and find stories that celebrate children and are informed by who you are. Another piece of advice I give to emerging authors is don’t let rejections get you down. All it takes is one yes.

Thank you again, Kelly! Happy book birthday to you and wonderful Jada!

Kelly Starling Lyons is an award-winning author,  a writing mentor active in SCBWI, and a member of The Brown Bookshelf, a group dedicated to spreading “awareness about the myriad of Black voices writing for young readers.” Visit her website to learn more about her. And Jada has a website too! 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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NYTimes Author Alan Gratz talks about REFUGEE and BAN THIS BOOK

Three gutsy protagonist, three continents, three different time periods. How’s that work? Well, you won’t have to wait much longer to discover how middle-grade author Alan Gratz weaves these interconnecting stories together in a way that Kirkus Reviews has called a “feat nothing short of brilliant.” REFUGEE hit bookstore shelves in July 2017 and made it to the NYTimes best-sellers list for middle grade fiction twice in August. BAN THIS BOOK released on August 29th!

We are delighted to talk with Alan Gratz about REFUGEE, BAN THIS BOOK, and writing.

 

AmazonBarnes and NobleGoodreadsIndiebound  |  Malaprops (ask for a signed copy!)

Welcome, Alan! Tell us about your inspiration for REFUGEE.

The idea for Refugee came from a number of different places, over the course of many weeks. It began with the story of the Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis. I was looking for a way into that story when my family and I took a vacation to the Florida Keys, and we woke one morning to find a raft on the beach that refugees had used to come to America. We had no way of knowing where the raft had originated, or if the people who set out in it had made it to safety, but it got me thinking about how so many people are risking their lives every day to have what I and my family have.

I wanted to tell the story of the MS St. Louis, but now I also wanted to write something about Cuban refugees coming to America by raft! And then—this was in early 2016—we came home every night to reports on the news and the Internet about the Syrian refugee crisis. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, I wanted to write a book about Cuban refugees coming to America, and now I wanted to write a book about the plight of Syrian refugees! Finally I realized—what if I wrote a single book about all three, linking the families across the ages and across the globe? That’s how Refugee was born.

You often write about young people tacking adversity head on. What do you hope readers will take away from REFUGEE?

I want young readers to see refugees. My family and I knew refugees were risking their lives to come to this country officially and unofficially every single day, but because we don’t live on the front lines of that struggle, we didn’t see it every day. Out of sight was definitely out of mind. I hope that Refugee does for young readers what that raft on the beach in Florida did for me and my family: make the invisible visible again.

I also hope that young American readers understand that, unless their family is Native American, we are ALL immigrants. Whether their families came over on the Mayflower, or came here on a raft last year, we’re all Americans, and it’s that immigrant melting pot that made this country great, and continues to do so.

Whew! In 2015, 2016, and 2017 you’ve released two middle-grade books each of those years? How?? Magic, time turning? You’ve gotta share your secret. Okay, maybe you don’t have to tell us, but you’ve obviously figure out some strategy to getting words on a page. What tips do you have for us on making time to write?

Did I? Oh, wow. I guess so! Pardon me while I go pass out… Seriously though, I’m not happy unless I’m writing. I’ve been doing a lot more school visits of late—I think I did more than a hundred last school year!—which also takes away writing time. So the first thing I had to do was say no travel for six months out of the year: December through February, and June, July, and August. (I still break that rule all the time, but I do TRY to hold to it.)

Then, for those six months, I’m working on new books all the time. For my historical novels, I do about a month of heavy research for each, where I’m doing nothing else during my “writing” time but reading books about my subject and taking notes. Then once I’ve got enough research to build a rough story, I’ll start working up an outline. I’m a big proponent of outlining. It takes me another month to create a detailed outline, where I lay out what happens in every single chapter.

During this time, I’ll also work on character creation and do fill-in research for parts of the story my first round didn’t cover. Then, once all that pre-writing is done, I can usually write a first draft in about a month, at the rate of about two chapters a day. That’s my three month block! I turn the book in, and my terrific editor takes over. She’ll get the book back to me while I’m on the road visiting schools again, and then I’ll begin the revision process when I get back.

All the traveling I’m doing now may knock me down to one book a year, but that’s probably better for my sanity in the long run. But I learned to be a disciplined writer doing non-fiction advertising and marketing work before I was a novelist, so when it’s time to get writing done, I just sit down and do it!

Your other 2017 middle-grade novel, BAN THIS BOOK has a main character, Amy Anne, who is a girl after my heart. Tell us something about the story that will make us want to add BAN THIS BOOK to our Must Order and To Be Read ASAP List.

Well, I’ll give you the elevator pitch first: Ban This Book is the story of a fourth grade girl who goes to a school where a parent start banning and challenging books. As a protest, Amy Anne takes those books and hides them in her locker and starts checking them out to other students in secret as a Banned Books Locker Library. And all the kids’ books that are banned in the story have actually been banned in the last couple of decades in America! It’s (what I hope is) a funny, heartfelt story about the issue of book banning, as well as my love letter to middle grade novels.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

When I visited Japan seven years ago, I met a man who had been a young boy on Okinawa when the Americans invaded in 1945, toward the end of World War II. He told me that the Japanese Army pulled him out of school, lined him up with the other middle school boys, and gave them each a grenade. Their instructions: go off into the forest and don’t come back until you’ve killed an American. That’s the first chapter of the new book I’m writing, which I’m calling Grenade. That will be out in late summer/early fall of 2018.

Buckle up for the…Lightning Round (*hands you a slice of pepperoni pizza for strength)

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Super speed! The Flash is my all-time favorite super hero.

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Always wooden. I never got the hang of mechanicals.

Coffee or tea? Coca-cola!

Sweet or salty? Always salty! If I could live on French fries, torilla chips, and popcorn, I would. Or maybe I already do…?

Dog, cat, or other? I’ve had both, but the answer is dog. Mine’s name is Augie. He’s a rescue mutt.

Plotter or pantser? Plotter! (As you now know!)

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

You’ll hear this from a lot of professional authors, but that’s because it’s true: talent matters, but what really gets you published is persistence. I’ve met so many writers who give up after one or two rejections. You have to keep sending your stuff out, and keep getting rejected until someone says yes. And while you’re sending out one book, start writing the next. And the next. And the next.

I was still subbing (and getting rejection letters for) the first two YA novels I’d written when I wrote Samurai Shortstop, which would ultimately become my first sold and published novel. I’ve never sold those previous two manuscripts—they just weren’t good enough. Write, write, write, submit, submit, submit, and get better at what you’re doing with every attempt. Then, if you stick with it long enough, you’ll break through.

 

Photo credit: Wes Stitt

What an inspiring interview! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! And best of luck with both of your new books!

Alan Gratz has been putting kids in fictional danger since 2006. You can find out more about Alan and subscribe to his newsletter by visiting Alan’s website.

 

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology will fund scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. 

 

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