Keep Calm & Scary On

Today’s #middlegrademonday brings you an interview with author Cynthia Reeg.

3 Questions about From the Grave

What three words would you use to describe your book?

Horror, humor, heart

Your previous books are such different genres, how did you step into the fantasy/monster writing genre?

I have many writerly interests from picture books to middle grade, from poetry to short stories, from fiction to nonfiction. I love luring readers in with action, adventure, and quirky characters. As a former school librarian, I know that students can never get enough spooky stories. So a monsterly MG seemed a perfect fit for both me and my readers.

There are a lot of interesting monster names and words in the book, how did you come up with the vocabulary for this book?

I say I create magic one word at a time, and I truly mean it! Words are my delight. Again, in my experience with young readers, I know how much they delight in words too. For my monster world, I wanted words that appealed to the five senses; creepy and kooky. Words that were fun to read out loud. I would make lists of vocabulary words. Often, I’d play with a word to make it a monster word–like taking the name “Gilbert” and making it into “Ghoulbert” for the main character’s brother. Or switching the word “cafeteria” to “barfeteria,” or “horrorcane” for “hurricane.”  



3 Questions about You

If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be and why?

I was a librarian before I started writing seriously for children, and I loved doing that. If I couldn’t work in a library, I would work in a bookstore. I can’t imagine a life without books or without sharing books with others.

What is one book that has stuck with you since you’ve read it?

I am a great fan of Kate Di Camillo. When I read her book, “Because of Winn Dixie,” I thought it was a perfect combination of heart, interesting characters, and compelling story. It’s a book that leaves a sweet spot in your heart. I hope I can write some books like that.



What is one item in your fridge that tells us about you?

Hot Fudge sauce. I do need a little chocolate on a fairly regular basis to keep the words coming! 🙂

To learn more Cynthia Reeg checkout her website or follow her on twitter & instagram

Advertisements

Happy Book Birthday to…Refugee

Refugee is amazing…Refugee is significant…Refugee is thought-provoking…Refugee is unbelievable but surprisingly historical fiction!

Alan Gratz, author and creator of Refugee, was kind enough to step away from his very busy schedule of moving, writing his new book, getting ready for the launch of Refugee, raising his 14 year old daughter and hosting the last local pub trivia game after 7 years to hangout with Storymamas for an hour to discuss Refugee.

According to Alan, in three words, Refugee is:

  1. Action-packed (he decided to make it a hyphenated one-word word)

“I write books I don’t want kids to put down.”

  1. Important

He really didn’t want to use this word to describe his own book, he’s very humble, but he said it’s  because supporting refugee children is important to him, important for kids to know what is happening today and what has happened in the past, important to bring attention to refugees. So important, in fact, that Alan has tried to volunteer his home to host refugee families, but he lives in the ‘boonies’ and it’s better for refugees to live in bigger cities where there are more opportunities and a larger support system. So instead he gives money to causes like Save the Children and UNICEF. He’s such an amazing author and person he’s even giving a portion of the proceeds made from the book sales of Refugee to UNICEF to support refugee children around the world. Is that not enough reason to buy the book and read it, if not for our words of love for this wonderful book?! 😉

  1. Harrowing

This book focuses on some pretty scary stuff. When Alan does school visits he asks thought-provoking questions to help kids imagine life as a refugee child, and the answers to these questions are harrowing:

-Who of the three characters would you be?

-When you leave your house, where do you go?

-If you leave your country, can you get out, will other countries let you in, where would you go?

-What will you put in your backpack?

-What 10 things that fit in your backpack would you take with?

-When you get to the new place you’ll live, are you going to walk into the same grade level classroom or will you have to go back to 4th grade at the age of 14 because you don’t speak the language?

Harrowing!

The Birth of Refugee

Interestingly enough Alan wasn’t planning on writing this book, he was planning to write a story about the youngest kid who joined the navy, but when presented to the sales department he was told this book was already being written. WHAT?! Can you imagine being an author, having an idea, doing preliminary research and being told your idea is already being written?! But nonetheless, he’s a dedicated author and this didn’t deter him. He had to come up with a new idea, a new book. He thought the story of the MS. St Louis, a boat carrying Jewish refugees from Germany during WWII heading to Cuba, was an interesting one but that there wasn’t enough there for an entire book. Then during the late winter of 2015, he went on vacation with his family to the Florida Keys. One morning he went for a walk on the beach and saw sitting there in the sand, a raft. Not the raft you are probably imagining, a life raft full of air, but this raft was made of metal roofing from a shed wrapped around sideways, 2 by 4’s, a motorcycle engine and inside were sitting wet clothes, 2 liter bottles of water and candy they had used on their journey.  Alan and his family were changed from that moment on thinking about how when they were sleeping in their comfy hotel, refugees came to America. While they were sitting by the pool reading books, this family was trying to survive on a makeshift raft. Alan went home, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the scene on the beach.  

Then walking his dog one day, back from vacation, a story, a novella as he called it, started to be born based on his knowledge of the MS St. Louis, the visions of the raft in the Keys, most likely from Cuba, and the constant, terrifying news stories about Syria. It left him feeling like he needed to do something, something needed to be written, and so once he ended his travel he outlined, researched and began to write Refugee.

Alan admitted when writing, he works the hardest on creating characters, writing interesting, impactful characters. The plot, no problem, he loves writing the plot, he’s a “plot junky”, but when he needs to create characters he writes more than just an outline, he writes a character sheet for each one. He knows how imperative it is to write characters who the reader can connect with, characters who the reader understands. So with Refugee he knew he needed to create the three characters: Mahmoud, Josef and Isabel on and off the page. He needed to share their background stories, those ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories, answer the question who are they now but really, what made them that way?

He wants readers to wonder and think deeply about his characters. He wants readers to think about:

*Why is Mahmoud invisible? Why does he want to be invisible? Why does he embrace that?

*Why does Josef want to grow up to be an adult all of the sudden?

*What are Isabel’s hopes and dreams? Why is she scared of the water? What happened with her grandmother, how does that haunt her and maybe hold her back from what she needs to do?

But developing these stories took a lot of work, research and thought. Because Alan was writing a book about three different characters, in three different time periods, his research was different. The research about Josef, the Jewish refugee, was done in a more traditional research method of checking out books and taking notes. But the stories about Isabel, the Cuban refugee, and Mahmoud, the Syrian refugee, he explained, were much more difficult since these two stories are more recent. While the characters are fictional, everything that happens to his characters were real accounts taken from current reporting resources like magazine and newspaper articles, so finding those stories took a lot more time and effort.

One quote Alan goes back to often when talking about this book is by Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children,  “Every war is a war against the child.” Children are the ones paying the price for war, whether it’s war or famine. His book is less about why they had to leave and more about what they do to survive and thus he developed characters who showed bravery even in a time of huge sacrifice and challenge. He also wanted to give each character ownership over their journey because in a time of tragedy, a time of suffering, kids are the ones who suffer the most since they are unable take action, unlike adults. Once you meet his characters and hear their stories, you will be forever changed, forever empathetic, and maybe like us you will wonder if you were in these situations what you would have done, could you have survived all they endure?

The Process of Writing

Alan, like many authors, has a system for writing and it goes something like this; a month of researching, a month of outlining, a month for his first draft and then a long process of drafting and editing, drafting and editing and finally publishing. He usually takes every three months off from traveling to do author visits and such so he can do the actual writing of his books.

The way Alan outlines his books is very interesting. Here’s a sneak peak of his ‘book board’.

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 11.01.51 AM

Each notecard is a chapter in the book. We were curious about where the notecards and outlines go once he is done with the writing. He is too much of a sentimentalist to throw them away and what’s really cool is that a lot of universities collect author’s work. He gives his work to the University of Central Florida in honor of one of his beloved professors who taught him to use YA in the classroom, Tedd Hipple. So if you’re curious you can head to the university, read his book and look at his process for Refugee as well as his other books and those of other authors.

Who is Alan Gratz?

A new career…Interestingly enough if Alan wasn’t an author he would be a game show host because he loves game shows. He grew up watching them and with his trivia hosting gig he probably would make an amazing game show host!  

An influential book….One book that has stuck with Alan through the years is Tuck Everlasting because it tackled the topic of death as being a natural part of the cycle of life. As a kid he was so afraid to die, he was preoccupied with his own death. He hadn’t read about death in this context before and so in 7th grade this book had a large impact on him. While he doesn’t reread books often, this one has been reread many times and he even read it to his daughter.

The fridge….Something very interesting we learned about Alan was that he has very little in his fridge. If you looked inside every day would be the same. You would find a round glass bowl with pizza dough in it, because every night for dinner, since 8th grade, he eats a cheese pizza. According to his math he has eaten about 30,000 pizzas in his life. Sounds delicious! So if you ever invite Alan to eat with you, make sure there is pizza at the restaurant!
Storymamas were changed by Refugee and we highly recommend picking up a copy today!

To learn more Alan Gratz checkout his website or follow him on twitter & instagram

Perfection in Finding Perfect

We had the Opportunity to meet with Elly Swartz, creator and author of the book Finding Perfect, and the not yet released Smart Cookie, coming out January 2018. All three storymamas agree Finding Perfect is a book that will stick with us forever. Elly chatted about her book, her journey as an author and what you might expect to find in her refrigerator.

THE BOOK


Finding Perfect is a story about Molly who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It is a story about her difficult and emotional journey trying to navigate through middle school with this disease no one knows she has, including herself.

One of the many reasons we fell in love with Finding Perfect was because it’s a book filled with  emotion through Elly’s words and her development of characters. Elly describes her book using three words: heartfelt, authentic and informative. As non-writers we can only imagine how difficult it must be to write a book with such feeling and emotion, but Elly explained that it wasn’t really an easy or hard book to write, just that it was emotional. Many times she would be writing through tears because the emotions her characters were experiencing were her own. While she doesn’t have OCD, she has friends and friend’s children who do have OCD, and she explained in order to create authentic characters it is important to allow the emotions in your own life to guide your writing. While writing this book she would go back to the places in her own life where her heart was hurting. She went to the difficult or dark places in order to create authenticity.

Elly’s hope after writing this book was for it to become universally relatable, and in our opinion, it completely is. As readers, teachers, and mothers, we were able to connect and feel for Molly throughout the book. This is one of those books that makes you gain a better understanding of not only someone struggling with OCD, but also feel empathy for those struggling with any type of anxiety or stress, which is a part of everyone’s life. Children and adults are constantly looking for how to connect with others and when there is a disconnect it can be very scary. Elly explained that there are moments when we all think, ‘What’s going on with me? I’m so scared to find out, scared to actually know and scared to tell anyone there is something going on.’ We all have to overcome hard and difficult things that can feel scary and Elly wants to make sure kids know they aren’t alone in that journey. She wants kids to know nobody’s perfect and no one’s life is untainted by difficult moments.

THE AUTHOR

When Elly writes she usually has a morning routine that goes something like this…

  1. Walk the dog
  2. Workout
  3. Shower
  4. Get dressed
  5. “Put her brain on”

But when she’s really in it, there are times she doesn’t get out of her pajamas, has her coffee, and the next thing she knows she has missed lunch because she’s in the zone.

However, just like other writers, Elly can sometimes get stuck. When she does, her trick is to go somewhere she usually doesn’t associate with her writing, like a coffee shop or to head to the doctor’s office an hour early. This way she says no one sees her and no one sees what she’s doing and there is no pressure.

After talking with Elly for over an hour we learned she is a very dedicated and persistent person, in all the best ways possible. Fifteen years ago her writing journey began, she had read Mick Harte was Here by Barbara Park with her then 4th grade son, and while reading, she felt so many emotions; she was so moved that she decided she wanted to be a storyteller. She started writing, writing, writing. Young writers would be very surprised to know that her journey to getting Finding Perfect published was a long and hard one. Finding Perfect wasn’t her first book, it was actually the 5th book she wrote and it took 8 years to write. Talk about persistence! Even after getting the book sold she spent four years working with a pediatric specialist to make sure her story was authentic and relatable. She wanted to get it right and it was imperative to do so out of respect for the OCD community.

Interestingly though Elly has had many other jobs as well as being a writer. She’s a lawyer and for twenty years she wrote and edited law books with her father-in-law and her husband. Six years ago she started a business to help families navigate the college entrance process. She has a love for helping kids in such a pivotal time in their lives. But she’s been writing all along.

ADVICE

One would think with the very long, and what sounds like a difficult, journey to publish her first book, she would give up, but no. Like we said, she’s extremely persistent. She has a very strong support system and that helped when she wasn’t getting published. Even with the rejection she said, “I love writing more than I hate rejection.” She would give herself 48 hours to be mad or sad but every time she’d end up back in her chair writing. Elly compares writing to the switchback trails in hiking saying, “you see a lot of gems along the way that you wouldn’t have seen if you went straight down”. During the fifteen year journey of writing this book she was fortunate enough to be a part of a writing community where she learned a lot about herself and met some of her closest friends who helped her writing along the way.

When we speak to our students during their own writing, some advice Elly gives is to use your senses in your writing because it helps create authenticity. How does something taste, feel, smell, etc. But they don’t have to be huge moments, they can be “the little slivers in life.” Use what you have; the emotions you’ve experienced to write. Even as simple as the best pizza ever!

THE FRIDGE

Inside of Elly’s fridge you can find:

  • Vanilla Coffee-mate because she always starts her day with a humongous cup of coffee
  • In the summer a bottle of white wine because that is how she ends her day
  • Lots of green vegetables, salads
  • Something yummy that she will cook that night because she likes to cook
  • Twizzlers (not in the fridge but around the house all over) because she love them and so does Molly, and she can eat them because of her allergies.

Storymamas highly recommends Finding Perfect and we hope you will pick up a copy because it is truly amazing. It will make you feel so many emotions while reading. It will make you want to hug Molly, the main character. It will make you want to read her next book too Smart Cookie.

Check out Elly’s website http://ellyswartz.com/ to learn even more about her.