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Four Little Words – Changing the Narrative, a guest post by Abigail Hing Wen

As a student rising through elementary and middle school in Ohio, I’d always wanted to join one of the amazing productions put on every year by the high school theater group. A part of me worried that my Asian Americanness would get in the way. After all, there were no Asian Americans in Oklahoma! or Guys and Dolls. Would casting me detract from authenticity? Could the directors overlook my Asian Americanness so that in spite of my face, I could join the chorus?

Abigail in dance squad.

My freshman year, I auditioned for the fall play. When the cast list posted, I wasn’t on it. But freshman were rarely cast for any roles but the chorus, and with the winter came a special class of one-act plays, directed by seniors. They were smaller and less prestigious; an opportunity for freshman, though still difficult to land.

During auditions, the seniors sat in the front row of the auditorium while we hopefuls huddled on the floor before them. They challenged us: how far would you go? would you run naked across the stage?

I can’t remember my answer, but I remember the attitude that dominated that room: whatever they threw at us—a crazy dance routine, a passionate stage kiss—we were game.

I auditioned along with dozens of other hopefuls.

When the cast list posted, I pressed forward with the mob, anxiously scanned the list, read deeper and deeper—and there I was!

In a one-act play called “Four Little Words,” I had been cast as the Sixth Actress of seven actresses.

When I arrived for rehearsal, I could scarcely contain my excitement. Two senior guys were directing. There were about a dozen of us actors—I had joined an exclusive little club.

Eagerly, I flipped through the thin blue booklet we were given, searching for my role. It was a story of a director trying to cast for the role of a maid who only had four words in the whole play: “Your taxicab is waiting.”

He proceeded to audition one egotistical actress after another. Each prima donna embellished on the four little words, refusing to stay in character, while he grew more and more despairing, exhausted by these women who wouldn’t shut up.

Meanwhile, the sixth actress—me—sat at the end of the line without speaking. The seventh actress burst onto the scene, large than life.

And then when the director was about to tear out his hair, my character finally spoke.

“Vosh naya. Skoogoo. Urr-urr. Saltzey. Kcki-icki skaya. Woozey.”[1]

The office boy turned to the director and said, “Gee, boss! She can’t talk English!”

The poor exhausted director came to life.

“She’s hired!” he cried. “I never want to hear English again!”

I was suddenly, intensely aware I was the only minority in that auditorium. The words weren’t even a real foreign language. They were a made up language, the kind of talk random people occasionally babbled at me when they passed me on the street.

I had been cast not despite my Asian Americanness, not even for it, but because of the perception of it.

Abigail in show choir.

In the weeks that followed, I never breathed a word about the play’s contents to my parents or my friends. I told my parents they didn’t need to attend, though, since I missed the bus for practices, my mom dutifully picked me up late after school every day.

We actresses sat in a row each rehearsal. I sat in silence, my head bowed, as my role called for, until the cue for my four little words. Each time I spoke those lines, I died a little with the shame of it. But I’d been cast. I got a role when so many others didn’t. I’d agreed with all the other hopefuls that I was game for anything. How could I rock the boat now and appear ungrateful?

“Is that Chinese?” the fifth actress asked me one afternoon.

I was born in the United States. English was the only language I spoke at home. I had studied French for two years and that was my second language. When people complemented me on my excellent English skills, it had been a point of soreness, but also irrational pride.

I don’t remember what I answered. But I remember the feeling.

I started leaving rehearsals early. One time, I skipped, making some excuse. The next day, after I recited my lines, the fifth actress said to me, “You know, Bob (not his real name, but the one-act’s real-life director) played your role yesterday and he was hilarious. Why don’t you ham it up more?”

Until I wrote this piece and my critique partner pointed it out, I didn’t recognize that the hamming up of the role was probably a racist caricature, as much as the role itself was. Instead, I felt like a failure. Of course Bob was hilarious. And I couldn’t be. For so many reasons I couldn’t in that role.

A good friend, one of three other Chinese Americans in the grades above me, came to the one-acts. I didn’t know he was in the audience until he came up afterwards and congratulated me with a huge grin.

Not until three years later, when he and I were both students at Harvard, that I confessed how ashamed I’d felt to play it.

“I was actually really mad when I saw the show,” he admitted.

Why had we never talked about it? Why didn’t I have more self-confidence to refuse the role? I doubt it even went on my college application. It was something I endured and buried away. I simply didn’t know better. Those student directors and the supervising theater directors and faculty may not have realized what they were doing, although I think they did in hindsight—I walked in on an argument in which the director was trying to convince the play’s leading man to take his bow with me on his arms and he was refusing. Not wanting to be the cause of a fuss, I quickly offered to take my bow with the other actresses.

As I’ve explored film options for Loveboat, Taipei, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Asian American producers who have struggled to get their work made in the United States or to gain traction in Hollywood. They have been told there are not enough qualified Asian American actors.

“That’s because they don’t have a chance to practice,” one discouraged director told me. “They’re not cast as leads in high school plays or musicals.” And in an already fiercely competitive market, with so few roles for Asian Americans, what actor could go into it with any real hope?

But I am also told there is incredible talent out there. I’m running into it. My hope for a Loveboat, Taipei film someday is that its cast of over 30 Asian American characters will open up opportunities for this talent to come forward and shine on the screen. I want to see new stars discovered, and to see them move into other lead roles in Hollywood in which race doesn’t matter.

With Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Farewell and Ghost Bride, we are starting to see changes. We still have a ways to go, but I am honored and grateful to be playing a part in this new world.

Meet Abigail Hing Wen

Photo credit: Olga Pichkova

Abigail Hing Wen holds a BA from Harvard and a JD from Columbia. She also earned her Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Like Ever, she is obsessed with musicals. When she’s not writing stories or listening to her favorite score, she is busy working in venture capital and artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Loveboat, Taipei is her first novel. Visit AbigailHingWen.com.

About Loveboat, Taipei

Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen, and praised as “an intense rush of rebellion and romance” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Garber, this romantic and layered Own Voices debut from Abigail Hing Wen is a dazzling, fun-filled romp.

“Our cousins have done this program,” Sophie whispers. “Best kept secret. Zerosupervision.

And just like that, Ever Wong’s summer takes an unexpected turnGone is Chien Tan, the strict educational program in Taiwan that Ever was expecting. In its place, she finds Loveboat: a summer-long free-for-all where hookups abound, adults turn a blind eye, snake-blood sake flows abundantly, and the nightlife runs nonstop.

But not every student is quite what they seem:

Ever is working toward becoming a doctor but nurses a secret passion for dance.

Rick Woo is the Yale-bound child prodigy bane of Ever’s existence whose perfection hides a secret.

Boy-crazy, fashion-obsessed Sophie Ha turns out to have more to her than meets the eye.

And under sexy Xavier Yeh’s shell is buried a shameful truth he’ll never admit.

When these students’ lives collide, it’s guaranteed to be a summer Ever will never forget.

ISBN-13: 9780062957276
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/07/2020


Escaping from Reality Shows Us How to Change It, a guest post by Ryan La Sala

REVERIE takes place in our world. Connecticut, to be specific. It’s a version of Connecticut you’d recognize, even if you’ve only seen postcards. We have old mills and slow rivers and vibrant autumns. The usual stuff. There is, however, one major difference. 

In REVERIE’s imagining, Connecticut is slowly being warped by a strange magic that mines the secret, subconscious worlds people build within themselves, and manifests those worlds in our reality. The characters refer to these phenomena as reveries, because that’s what they are: fantasies that superimpose themselves over our reality. Fantasies that entrap, and refuse to dislodge themselves from reality until they are appeased. 

I developed the concept of the reverie around the idea of inverting escapism. Dreams are common territory in fiction, but usually as an act of solitary, inward exploration (or prophecy, if we’re being uncanny). I love those stories but my goal with REVERIE wasn’t to dig into fantasies that one could simply wake up from. I wanted fantasies that were aggressive, and moody, and dead-set on surviving once they’d been manifested. So I created a magic that gives material form to belief, and I created a magic system that gives power to those typically rendered powerless by reality. 

Why?

By explanation, let me start with Kane, the unlikable hero of REVERIE. Kane uses escapism as a form of self-preservation. He is lonely and disenchanted with a reality that has been unkind to him, as reality often is to young queer. Kane withdraws into books, movies, and anything that provides a realm other than our own. And he’s content with this, until the sudden inheritance of power—and the ensuing responsibility—reveals to him how ill-equipped he is to navigate relationships, leadership, community, and other hallmarks of a hero. 

With Kane, I wanted to show how a person can become so insulated by daydreams that they forget how to manage the world around them. When we withdraw, the world only notes our absence for so long. It then continues on without us, and often the things that forced us to withdraw get the luxury of continuing unchecked, as we drift further into ourselves. 

Do I fault Kane for using escapism as self-preservation? Absolutely not. Fantasy’s function as refuge is very important to me. His reaction to reality is not his fault. But his inaction eventually is his fault, especially as he learns about his own ability to affect the reality around him. Eventually, running away means abandoning people he could otherwise help. Eventually, running away is not an option. 

I like this journey for Kane. His path out of himself contrasts well with his adventures into the interior worlds of other people. I think his point of view enables him to be an effective narrator to drive home an important lesson. 

Escapism isn’t always bad. Reality is a harsh place, and no one should be faulted for wanting a break. But there are people among the escaping ranks with power. People like Kane, who has the advantage of privilege, and stability, and—sure—magical reality bending magic. Maybe you don’t have Kane’s magic, but you do have his imagination. Lots of writers and bookish people share that. They spend hours in other worlds, analyzing system of magic, fantastical machinations, and mind-boggling world building. They — really we— are practically trained on both imagining a more fantastic world, but also manifesting it through bravery, heroics, honesty, and determination. 

So escapism has its educative uses, doesn’t it? From the negative of the world, it creates a technicolor solution to the reality that necessitates it. My argument, if I have one, is that escapism can be a harbinger for change. As a reaction to reality, escapism can be the exercise of deconstructing our reality’s faults, experimenting with their improvement, and ultimately devising actionable ways to create that change in our material world. The last part, the action part, is what Kane needs to learn. As a person with power, it’s up to him to find a way to bring his reality and his dreams together; to bring his dreams home, because ultimately it is reality where he must live.

A reverie is a fantasy imposed upon reality, borne from a person’s interior world. Often that interior world is much more hospitable than the world that inspires it. Reverie’s make me think of safe spaces, of shelters, of refuge. They make me think of gay bars full of pride, and libraries full of wonder. Places where the fantasy of what the world could be like kiss against the partition of what it is.

So I don’t discourage dreaming. Ever. I support escapism with my whole heart. Whether for indulgence, or comfort, or thrill, I see escapism as not just necessary, but deeply practical. Because it’s escapes that help us feel safe, and coax us towards dreaming.

And, ultimately, it’s escapes that show us the work that needs doing once we’re ready to wake up.

Meet Ryan La Sala

Photo credit: Lauren Takakjian

RYAN LA SALA grew up in Connecticut, but only physically. Mentally, he spent most of his childhood in the worlds of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess, which perhaps explains all the twirling. He studied Anthropology and Neuroscience at Northeastern University before becoming a project manager specialized in digital tools. He technically lives in New York City, but has actually transcended material reality and only takes up a human shell for special occasions, like brunch, and to watch anime (which is banned on the astral plane). Reverie is Ryan’s debut novel. You can visit him at ryanlasala.com or follow him on Twitter @Ryality.

About REVERIE

Inception meets The Magicians in this wildly imaginative story about what happens when the secret worlds people hide within themselves come to light.

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember anything since an accident robbed him of his memories a few weeks ago. And the world feels different—reality itself seems different.

So when three of his classmates claim to be his friends and the only people who can tell him what’s truly going on, he doesn’t know what to believe or who he can trust. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident, and only he can stop their world from unraveling.

ISBN-13: 9781492682660
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 12/03/2019

Healing Is Not a Journey We Take Alone, a guest post by Bree Barton


(Content warning: this post talks about sexual assault.)

If you eavesdrop on a bunch of writers talking about writing, you might think they’ve just returned from the boxing ring.   

“This book is going to destroy me.” “That scene has beaten me to a bloody pulp.” 

The second book seems to hit especially hard. “Boob 2 is killing me,” an author typed in an online support group I’m a part of, a typo that spawned a delightful series of Boob 2 memes.

When my novel Heart of Thorns debuted last year, I was struggling under the massive weight of Boob 2 myself. Tears of Frost is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I’m fiercely proud of it, but the process was excruciating. What I didn’t say in my online support group was why it was so hard.

I’d been drafting for under a month when my little sister was raped. I share that with her permission, because she’d like our culture to be able to talk more openly about rape and sexual assault.

My sister and I are very close. I dedicated my first book to her. I would burn the world to the ground to protect her. After she was raped, I wanted to.

So I did what any furious writer would do. I poured every ounce of rage into my book.  

I’d had a vague sense that I wanted to write about assault in the sequel to Heart of Thorns. After all, I’d built my entire magical system on an imbalance of power and a history of oppression, specifically against women’s bodies. How could I not write about assault?

After my sister’s rape, I grew braver. I was ready to tackle the messy, contradictory, enraging realities of trauma and its aftermath. I felt both angry and helpless, so I made my main character a fighter, someone who channeled her anger with her fists.

Meanwhile, my sister took a weeklong leave from high school. I brought her out to Los Angeles where we watched YouTube videos of Krav Maga, jujitsu, and street fighting, then practiced our new moves in my living room. We laughed together. We cried. We felt strong and powerful.

Sometimes, that isn’t enough.

One year later, during a trip to Morocco to research Book 3, I was assaulted in my hotel room by a hotel employee. 

Processing what happened has been an ongoing journey. My Tears of Frost copyedits were due the week after I left Morocco. I was reading, at a very close level, a book that dealt overtly with sexual assault. At best it was surreal. At worst, impossible. 



Here’s the kicker: the following week I flew to Portland to moderate a panel at a literary conference. The subject of the panel?


Girls and Sexual Agency. 



Oh, dramatic irony, my old friend. 

My story is not unique. Most of my friends have been harassed or assaulted, many far worse. I know, rationally, it wasn’t my fault. I’ve said this to my sister dozens of times, and I say it to her still. Yet the same questions continue to plague me. Was it because I smiled in the lobby? Were my pants and long-sleeve shirt too form fitting? Why was I naïve enough to open my hotel room door? 

When my mind wanders down those familiar furrows, I do my best to coax it back. Rape and sexual assault cannot be traced to smiles and clothes and open doors. It’s always about power. In Morocco, my power was taken away from me.  

And yet. I survived. I’ll tell you why.



Other women

After I was assaulted, our tour guide led me down a dark back hallway of the hotel to confront my assaulter so that he could “apologize” and keep his job. I knew this wasn’t right—I was absolutely terrified—but I was in too much shock to be able to stop what was happening. When the women on my tour found out? They LEAPT into action. They ensured that the employee was fired and off the premises immediately. They took me into their rooms, their dinner tables, their train cars. They comforted me through the mental fog that descended after the adrenaline wore off. These women became my sisters, my mothers, my friends. They walked beside me through the streets of Morocco, and they walked with me through the tortuous labyrinth of blame, fear, and confusion inside my own brain.



When I think of that time now, these women emerge out of the dark haze like warm beacons: with jokes, snacks, courage, and compassion. I don’t know how I would have survived without them. That’s not me being weak. That’s me being human.



I have felt so many things these past months. Frightened and frozen, hopeful and lucky, incandescent with rage. I was okay, and I wasn’t okay, and telling the whole story over and over made me feel exhausted and exposed. When a friend asked, “Will you travel alone again?” I didn’t know how to respond. Traveling solo brings all the best parts of me to life. The thought of losing that was so painful I had to put it in a box and shove it onto the tallest shelf, until I was ready to take it down. 

Six months later, an opportunity came to take it down.

I met a woman who was curating a book of letters by Arab women. She offered to fly me to Bahrain, a tiny archipelago in the Persian Gulf, to help her conduct interviews. I said yes.

I could write whole books about the women I met. The badass lawyer who’s fighting the patriarchy on a daily basis, whether it’s representing women pro bono or hiring an all-female team of other badass lawyers. The founder of a nonprofit that empowers and develops youth and women. The blogger who was incarcerated for posting on Instagram about female anatomy and women’s sexual pleasure. Since coming home, I’ve gone to sleep every night thinking, There is so much to fight for. And there are so many women fighting for it. 

That is why I wrote Tears of Frost. It’s why I poured so much of my heart into crafting a story about two young women who are in a dark, isolating place—and how they crawl, claw, and fight their way back to one another. The book became a way for me to reflect on larger themes of assault, power, and ultimately, healing.

I don’t believe healing is a journey we take alone. I believe we need friends, communities, sisters. We need guidance and support from people who have walked this path before, which is why it was important to me to include an author’s note at the front of my book, and resources at the end.

My Boob 2 is not a perfect book by any means. But it’s a book in which I chose to fight for something.

Sometimes, that is enough.

Meet Bree Barton

Bree Barton is author of the Heart of Thorns trilogy, a fierce feminist fantasy series about three girls with dark magic—and even darker secrets. The second book, Tears of Frost, comes out from KT/HarperCollins on November 5th, 2019. Bree’s novels have been published in seven countries and four languages, three of which she cannot speak. 

When she isn’t crafting a story, Bree teaches Rock ‘n’ Write, a free dance-and-writing class she created for teen girls in LA. You can find her on Instagram @SpeakBreely, where she posts fan art, book giveaways, and the occasional picture of her melancholy dog. 

About Tears of Frost by Bree Barton

This captivating second book in Bree Barton’s Heart of Thornstrilogy deftly explores the effects of power in a dark magical kingdom—and the fierce courage it takes to claim your body as your own. This feminist teen fantasy is perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo.

Mia Rose is back from the dead. Her memories are hazy, her body numb—but she won’t stop searching. Her only hope to save the boy she loves and the sister who destroyed her is to find the mother she can never forgive.   

After her mother’s betrayal, Pilar is on a hunt of her own—to seek out the only person who can exact revenge. All goes according to plan until she collides with Prince Quin, the boy whose sister she killed.

As Mia, Pilar, and Quin forge dangerous new alliances, they are bewitched by the snow kingdom’s promise of freedom…but nothing is as it seems under the kingdom’s glimmering ice.

ISBN-13: 9780062447715
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Series: Heart of Thorns #2
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Water, water, everywhere, a guest post by London Shah

Designing my own functioning submerged world proved the most challenging, indulgent, and creative journey I’ve ever taken. Bringing a long dreamt about world into being proved more satisfying than I could ever have envisioned. World-building is definitely challenging though, and you must be prepared to put in a significant amount of time and energy. Whilst your imagination gets to run wild, your every decision must remain plausible. I feel these limitations only push you further creatively though, and should never be a deterrent in building your vision. To fully grasp how London might function in conditions that appear implausible to us now, I had to consider and research extensively.  

There were several time-consuming stages to approaching how our world could function after an event as staggering as cataclysmic worldwide flooding. I began by looking at our society today and considering how each aspect might evolve by 2035 (date of the floods). I had to then understand how we might approach the sudden news of impending worldwide flooding, a disaster so catastrophic it would leave any survivors submerged deep beneath the waves. The challenges posed by such a drastically different environment would be pervasive and every aspect of society would need examining.  

There is of course the basic infrastructure of the city to consider—homes, civil buildings, energy, food production, transport, et cetera. And specific civil services to ponder, such as law and order. How would a police force operate deep undersea—would holding cells and prisons still be feasible? Would providing an education outside of the home be worth the trouble of getting our children into submersibles and out there every day? Were there currently any scientific and technological predictions for the future that might render hospitals unnecessary? The advancements in technologies would no doubt replace many of our current civil services.  

How might such cataclysmic change affect our psyche? There’s no precedent for transformation on such a scale for humanity, and so I had to seriously consider how such a change could potentially impact our well-being. A change that is expounded by my story world’s obsession with everything Old-World (pre-floods). I came to the conclusion it wouldn’t be improbable for many of us to suffer from some sort of malaise specific to this particular situation. 

What about our faith and beliefs in the face of such a shocking event? I had to consider how such monumental change might affect them, how they might shift and in which direction. Would the new world bring rise to new religions? It’s highly unlikely that a global change on such a scale would not have any lasting impact on our philosophical outlooks. 

Language is constantly evolving, and naturally it would soon also reflect the environment. I had great fun adapting current phrases and creating new ones to express both the setting, and our love for indulging in nostalgia. I believe we’re living in an age of extreme nostalgia, engaging in it in all areas and more than ever before. The past is familiar and a safe place, yes. But we also live in a society where what we wore last season is now already “vintage”, and astonishingly nostalgia is often created around events and pop culture while we’re still experiencing them. And in my story world, as it very often is in the real one, our tendency for nostalgia is used as a tool by those who seek control. While we’re busy looking back though, time only moves forward. 

At first our most basic needs would take priority. But eventually, as history shows, even in the direst of situations and settings we gradually adapt, thinking up ever-inventive ways in which to makes the best of things, to survive. I imagine in time we would relax a little, and gradually evolve into fully functioning societies. We would discover new ways to enjoy the arts, keep connected, and partake in leisure activities. This is reflected in my story as it’s set several decades after the global change. 

Most of my research, at least two thirds of it, was conducted online, on scientific websites and countless forums that discuss and predict future technologies. I also watched a never-ending stream of underwater documentaries, turned to oceanic encyclopaedias, chatted with marine biologists and oceanographers, discussed specific scientific ideas with research scientists, and contacted companies designing and manufacturing deep-sea vehicles. I was even very kindly taken through a mini submersible driving tutorial on Skype. And throughout it all I gained a new admiration and respect for all SFF writers—most especially anyone working in science-fiction. Science will always both fascinate and absolutely frustrate me no end. I’m totally hopeless with it—especially technology. And the sheer amount you have to grapple with in sci-fi is mind-boggling. So yes, I’m more in awe of science-fiction writers than ever before. But without the slightest doubt, building a world is an overwhelmingly thrilling journey to take, and a deeply satisfying one to complete.  

To anyone who has ever entertained the idea of creating their own world or re-imagining our current one, but never quite took that first step, I say go forth and bring your world to life. See any limitations as creative challenges, and enjoy discovering ways around them. And above all, have as much fun as you can with it!

Meet London Shah

Debut author London Shah is a British-born Muslim of Pashtun ethnicity. She lives in London, via England’s beautiful North. If she could have only one super power, it would be to breathe underwater. She is the absolute worst at providing a bio. 

 GOODREADS: http://bit.ly/GoodreadsLight 

WEBSITE: https://www.londonshah.com 

SOCIAL: https://twitter.com/London_Shah

https://www.instagram.com/london.shah/ 

BUY LINKS: http://bit.ly/INDIEBOUNDLight

http://bit.ly/BARNESNOBLELight

http://bit.ly/AMAZONUSLight

About THE LIGHT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD

ARTIST: MIKE HEATH
DESIGNER: MARCI SENDERS


In the last days of the twenty-first century, sea creatures swim through the ruins of London. Trapped in the abyss, humankind wavers between fear and hope-fear of what lurks in the depths around them, and hope that they might one day find a way back to the surface.

When sixteen-year-old submersible racer Leyla McQueen is chosen to participate in the city’s prestigious annual marathon, she sees an opportunity to save her father, who has been arrested on false charges. The Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. But the race takes an unexpected turn, forcing Leyla to make an impossible choice.

Now she must brave unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a guarded, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If Leyla fails to discover the truths at the heart of her world, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture-or worse. And her father will be lost to her forever.

ISBN-13: 9781368036887
Publisher: Disney Press
Publication date: 10/29/2019
Series: Light the Abyss

With Her Nose Stuck in a Book, a guest post by Jessica Burkhart

Reading has always been my thing. When I was six, my parents were barely able to get me out of my “Belle” costume. I didn’t want to wear the fancy yellow ballgown, no. I was all about the casual blue and white dress that Belle wore as she walked through town and carried a book or two in her basket. I didn’t dream about turning the Beast into a handsome prince, but I did daydream about living in a castle with an expansive library. What more did a girl need?

My love of books propelled me through my elementary school days and I devoured every horse book I could get my hands on, since I’d started riding horses in second grade. My favorite series were Thoroughbred by Joanna Campbell and Bonnie Bryant’s The Saddle Club. If it was a horse book, I’d read it or had it on my list to read.   

In middle school, I relied on books to help me hide from my peers. And I really did want to hide. I’d developed a case of severe scoliosis and even spending 22 hours a day in a back brace didn’t slow the growing hump on my back. I had to stop riding because I couldn’t move without pain and had trouble taking a deep breath. After a spinal fusion in eighth grade and during the long, painful recovery, I devoured Harry Potter.

In high school, I obsessed over YA and romance novels. I adored works by Megan McCafferty and Meg Cabot. Works by these authors helped me feel less alone as a homeschooler who was already a bit isolated from my peers.

By college, I’d written my first book, TAKE THE REINS, and soon landed an agent. My middle grade novel, about equestrians at an elite boarding school, drew inspiration from books that I’d loved as a kid and young teen. While writing the bulk of my series, the books I’d drop anything to read were Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard and Kate Brian’s Private.

My own writing career had taken off and I was living and breathing books. If I wasn’t talking about them with friends, I was blogging or Tweeting about them. I spent one day a week walking down to my Brooklyn neighborhood’s Barnes & Noble and combing the shelves for new reads or discovering old favorites that I’d forgotten. I bought as many bookshelves as my apartment could handle and even then, they weren’t enough to hold all my books.  

But one night, reading stopped being fun. I’d open a book and be flooded with anxiety. It kept happening no matter what kind of book I tried to read. I thought I’d take a break, catch up on some Netflix and the feeling would surely go away.

It didn’t.

I didn’t want to open a book or keep track of new releases or chat with my friends about the huge plot twist in the latest installment in our favorite series. I stopped visiting Simon & Schuster’s office and loading up my backpack with new reads. Everything I’d loved about books was gone and all I could feel was shame. In my eyes, I was broken. I was an author and books were not only my hobby, but also part of my job. I couldn’t tell anyone about being filled with dread if I so much as even thought about reading. So, I quietly muted all my bookish friends on social media. I deleted the Goodreads app. I stopped going to the bookstore.

It took over a year for me to realize that this wasn’t my fault. My severe anxiety and depression that had robbed me of any desire to read were to blame. I considered myself fairly well-versed in mental health topics, but I hadn’t recognized it in myself.

This pushed me to organize an anthology, LIFE INSIDE MY MIND: 31 AUTHORS SHARE THEIR PERSONAL STRUGGLES. I wanted to gather stories from other authors who had struggled with mental health because I didn’t want another person to experience the shame and feelings of worthlessness that I’d struggled with.

The book sold and hit shelves and I was still just coming around to reading. Books still felt daunting and since I couldn’t stop comparing myself to other writers, I fell into fanfiction. I spent almost a year reading nothing but fics written around my then favorite shows—ONCE UPON A TIME and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.

Last fall, I picked up a book and started reading. Maybe four or five hours later, I looked at the clock and did a quick check in with myself. Sweaty palms? Nope. Fast heartbeat? No. Nausea? Also, nope. Bookish Jess was back and she has been for almost a year.

I’m reading a book every couple days now. If a book doesn’t grab me, I put it aside and start a new one. I’m thoroughly enjoying the feeling of wanting to stay up all night reading, so I don’t try and slog through any books I don’t like. The Goodreads app is back on my phone and my current “want to read” list sits at 1,045 and it grows each week.

If you lose interest in what you love, you’re not broken. You may be depressed. Do what I should have done: talk to someone. Confide in a trusted friend and seek help. You don’t have to be ashamed of your feelings because it’s very likely that you’re not alone in them. A couple of years ago, I thought I’d never read another book and now, I can’t stop. It took a long, long time, but a combination of medication and therapy helped me find my groove again. If you’re missing yours, there is hope. I promise.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to my book.

Meet Jessica Burkhart

Jessica Burkhart is the author of the Canterwood Crest series, the Unicorn Magic series, WILD HEARTS and LIFE INSIDE MY MIND: 31 AUTHORS SHARE THEIR PERSONAL STRUGGLES. She’s sold over 1.5 million books worldwide. Jess is passionate about mental health. She’s teaching classes online next year with The Writing Barn and hopes you’ll sign up. Visit Jess online at www.JessicaBurkhart.com, Tweet her @JessicaBurkhart and follow her on Goodreads.

The Building Blocks to Change, a guest post by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones whose parents told them that they could do anything, be anything, and accomplish anything. Perhaps, when you were a kid, you were picked first for every team in gym class, never went through an awkward stage, and sailed through high school, college, got your dream job, dream guy or gal or dog, and created a rose-colored universe, all without any hurdles or roadblocks. But I’m guessing that didn’t happen… because even if life seems easy for someone on the exterior, inside there are always challenges. And it’s those challenges, when shared that help shape self-perception and the views other people have of us.

I recall a gal in high school named Beth who was a cheerleader, great student, and very popular. I thought she had the world by the tail. But she was living with an alcoholic mother who was verbally and sometimes physically abusive. One night, I went to dinner at Beth’s house and her mom was so drunk she slurred, fell down, and made us a moldy frozen pizza for dinner, insisting we finish every bite. After that I saw Beth in a different light. She’d let me into her world and I realized she was thriving despite enormous challenges. She was a survivor.

Nancy in high school.

Here’s a different kind of example. Bill was in my freshman high school class and had epilepsy. Everyone knew and most of the kids didn’t tease him, but they did avoid a friendship. One day we were summoned into a general assembly and that boy stood on stage in front of 400 students and did a presentation about epilepsy, how it had affected his life, his fears, hopes, and what we could all do to help him. It was so incredibly brave. More than that, he opened a window to his interior world, allowed us to understand and sympathize… and that opened the door to friendships. After that day, Bill was a warrior to us and we did everything possible to help him navigate his condition.

People only care deeply about people they know. And part of being known is sharing experiences, successes, failures and fears. By sharing and allowing others to truly understand you, and to mirror what they see, versus what you believe, self-perception can also change for the better. 

Nancy and a very good dog.

This idea is what led me to write The Speed of Falling Objects, my new young adult novel (HarperCollins/Inkyard Press Oct. 1, 2019). The story revolves around a timid young woman named Danny who believes she’s defective, inferior and an embarrassment because of an accident when she was seven, and her parents’ subsequent divorce. When her estranged father, a famous TV survivalist, invites Danny to join him and his guest, a teen movie idol, for an episode of his show being filmed in the Amazon Rainforest, she jumps at the chance to renew their relationship. But their small plane crashes in the Amazon and all three must face deadly perils, dark secrets and discover hidden strengths to survive and find their way home. Danny’s perceptions of who she is and who she wants to become changes dramatically as she shares her fears, sees herself in others’ eyes, and embraces her unique abilities.

Authors write what they know. I have always believed that I’m inferior and defective. I’m not looking for sympathy! My path was winding and filled with obstacles, but today I have a great husband, dream job writing books and a life that exceeded my expectations. I just want to share that the things we believe, or were told about ourselves early in life may not be true, but we still carry them somewhere inside. And it’s the heavy baggage we can’t actually see that will, in reality, lead us to sink or swim unless we’re willing to unload it.

Here’s my story in a nutshell.  From a young age I was told I could accomplish some things, be some things, but not everything. My parents weren’t cruel, they were just a product of their own parents, came from small towns, and didn’t believe the entire world was there for the taking… just a little slice. So the message, for me, was that there were things beyond my grasp, impossible things. I took that to mean that I was inferior—incapable of achieving all my dreams. In addition, I’ve had some health issues over the years. My back is tricky… meaning I’ve had ruptured discs and a few surgeries. That led me to believe my body was defective.

Nancy catching air while kitesurfing.

So how did I become someone who lives to ski, kitesurf, and cycle? How did I become an author? How did I find the courage to put myself out there and write novels? Part of the reason is that I’m stubborn. I truly believe I’m defective and inferior to this day! But I refused to miss out on the life I want to live. So I shared my story, my fears, my dreams, with friends I trusted. And what I saw reflected in their eyes was someone who was braver and tougher than she believed… and had some writing talent. I took those building blocks and created a ladder that allowed me to climb past my perceptions and insecurities.

Nancy riding Mt. Ventoux.

It’s HARD to share your doubts, to open yourself up to people who might not always be kind. But no situation is a failure if you’re being authentic. By doing so you discover strengths you never knew you had, and also come to realize that your own struggles and story can actually help other people overcome their hurdles in life.

Here’s the takeaway: Don’t allow negative self-perceptions and vulnerabilities to prevent you from opening a door or window into your life.  One day you will realize that your early beliefs are just steps on a road that must be climbed in order to achieve your dreams. 

Meet Nancy Richardson Fischer

Photo credit: Kelley Dulcich

Nancy Richardson Fischer is the author of When Elephants Fly and The Speed of Falling Objects ((HarperCollins/Inkyard Press Oct. 1, 2019). She has authored multiple sport autobiographies and Star Wars books for LucasFilm.

Visit her website at www.nancyrichardsonfischer.com

Twitter: @nfischerauthor

Facebook: @nanfischerauthor

Instagram: @nanfischerauthor

Bookbub: @nancyrfischer

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/98412.Nancy_Richardson_Fischer

About The Speed of Falling Objects

From the author of When Elephants Fly comes an exceptional new novel about falling down, risking everything and embracing what makes us unique. Don’t miss this compulsively readable novel about the most unlikely of heroes.

Danger “Danny” Danielle Warren is no stranger to falling. After losing an eye in a childhood accident, she had to relearn her perception of movement and space. Now Danny keeps her head down, studies hard, and works to fulfill everyone else’s needs. She’s certain that her mom’s bitterness and her TV star father’s absence are her fault. If only she were more—more athletic, charismatic, attractive—life would be perfect.

When her dad calls with an offer to join him to film the next episode of his popular survivalist show, Danny jumps at the chance to prove she’s not the disappointment he left behind. Being on set with the hottest teen movie idol of the moment, Gus Price, should be the cherry on top. But when their small plane crashes in the Amazon, and a terrible secret is revealed, Danny must face the truth about the parent she worships and falling for Gus, and find her own inner strength and worth to light the way home.

ISBN-13: 9781335928245
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Publication date: 10/01/2019

Maybe He Just Likes You: #MeToo Comes to Middle Grade, a guest post by Barbara Dee

MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU begins with a hug. It’s the seventh grade recess, and as Mila celebrates her friend’s birthday, suddenly the  “basketball boys” are surrounding them, locking arms, singing “Happy Birthday” way too loudly.

Friendly, right? Sweet but extremely awkward– basically what you’d expect from middle school boys.

Except the hug continues a few seconds past the ending of the song. And Mila feels squeezed, like she can’t breathe.

Afterwards, there’s more unwanted contact–all targeting Mila, all of it happening when adults aren’t around. Bumping, grabbing, sitting too close. Then comments about her body. Jokes that aren’t really jokes at all. Finally a “scorecard” that turns contact with Mila into a team sport.

 

As the boys’ behavior escalates, Mila feels humiliated and confused. When she tells the boys to stop, they just laugh and continue. She doesn’t know how to ask for help; she doesn’t even know how to talk about it.  Because what is this behavior, exactly? It’s not just teasing (as a male guidance counselor, lacking all the details, suggests ). It’s not just bullying, at least not like the kind Mila witnessed in elementary school. And she rejects her friend Zara’s argument that one boy is “flirting” because he “just likes her.” To Mila the behavior feels aggressive, even threatening. And shouldn’t flirting feel better than that? On both sides?  

In her gut, Mila knows she’s encountering something new. But she doesn’t have a way to conceptualize what’s happening to her. She doesn’t know words like micro-aggression or sexual harassment. Or, for that matter, consent and boundaries.   

And how would she? Those words are rarely included in the middle school curriculum–and I think it’s time for that to change. Because even if middle schoolers are squeamish and uncomfortable, even if in some ways they seem too “immature” for these topics, we can’t postpone talking about concepts like consent and boundaries until high school (or even college). As many recent studies prove, middle school is where sexual harassment begins. So if we’re going to stop the behavior,  we need to address it at inception.

The difficult part is how. I’m not going to lie–writing MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU was one of my biggest challenges as a middle grade author. I’ve explored some sensitive topics before.  Eating disorders in EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT YOU. Pediatric cancer in HALFWAY NORMAL.  A girl’s crush on another girl in STAR-CROSSED. In all of those books, I felt I could treat the topic directly, as long as I wove in other plot threads and plenty of humor.

But the topic of sexual harassment is different, because for many gatekeepers, acknowledging the sexuality of middle schoolers is taboo. So I had to strike a very delicate balance with this book: I had to keep the harassment PG-rated, but at the same time do justice to Mila’s sense of violation.  I had to make it clear that this was a particular kind of aggressive behavior that homed in on her growing sense of selfhood.  And because Mila was a seventh grader struggling with the self-consciousness and confusion of puberty,  it affected her in a way she couldn’t articulate–not to friends, teachers, or even her mom.

Also, it affected others.  One thing I learned from interviewing a middle school guidance counselor for this book was that when sexual harassment happens in middle school, it violates not  just the student being targeted, but the whole school community.  In MAYBE, some of Mila’s harassment occurs in isolation, under the radar of both adults and other kids. But enough of the behavior is witnessed– confusing, embarrassing and threatening not just Mila, but also her friends and classmates.

If I were writing a YA, the harassment might reach a crescendo, some act that was clearly criminal. (I’m thinking about Deb Caletti’s beautiful, brilliant A HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD.) But the whole point of MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU is that this behavior does, in fact, occur in the safe, wholesome world of MG–and so for the purposes of this story, it needed to be resolved in a MG-appropriate way.  Without spoiling too much of the ending,  I’ll just say that Mila makes mistakes, but learns to stand up for herself, partly by studying karate. She discovers several surprising allies, both adults and kids. There’s a scene of restorative justice in which the boys come to understand Mila’s perspective.  And the teachers take responsibility, initiating a schoolwide program about Consent, Boundaries and Sexual Harassment.

I never want to write one-note books, so like my other middle grade novels, MAYBE is also about family, and the constantly-shifting dynamics of middle school friendship. I hope it’s entertaining, even funny at times. I’ll confess that Mila’s bratty little sister made me laugh.

But the subject– sexual harassment in middle school–is one we need to take seriously. I’m hoping MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU starts that conversation.  

Meet Barbara Dee

Barbara Dee is the author of several middle grade novels including Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have received several starred reviews and been included on many best-of lists, including the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Star-Crossed was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

https://BarbaraDeeBooks.com
@BarbaraDee2
IG: barbaradeebooks

About MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU

Barbara Dee explores the subject of #MeToo for the middle grade audience in this heart-wrenching—and ultimately uplifting—novel about experiencing harassment and unwanted attention from classmates. 

For seventh-grader Mila, it starts with some boys giving her an unwanted hug on the school blacktop. A few days later, at recess, one of the boys (and fellow trumpet player) Callum tells Mila it’s his birthday, and asks her for a “birthday hug.” He’s just being friendly, isn’t he? And how can she say no? But Callum’s hug lasts a few seconds too long, and feels…weird. According to her friend, Zara, Mila is being immature and overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like?

But the boys don’t leave Mila alone. On the bus. In the halls. During band practice—the one place Mila could always escape.

It doesn’t feel like flirting—so what is it? Thanks to a chance meeting, Mila begins to find solace in a new place: karate class. Slowly, with the help of a fellow classmate, Mila learns how to stand her ground and how to respect others—and herself.

From the author of Everything I Know About YouHalfway Normal, and Star-Crossed comes this timely story of a middle school girl standing up and finding her voice.

ISBN-13: 9781534432376
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/01/2019

NaNoWriMo Helps Kids Jump into Writing with ‘Brave the Page,’ a guest post by Rebecca Stern

My belief in the transformational power of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) began well before I joined the organization’s staff; it started back in 2011 when I was an English Language Arts teacher. The school where I taught used project-based learning, so every August, I did what most teachers who have some curricular autonomy do: I spent days upon days wading through the sometimes lush but more-often-than-not dry pastures of the Internet in search of brilliant ideas that I could adapt into engaging and thoughtful writing projects for my fifth- and sixth-grade students.

I still remember the moment I came across NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program (YWP). It was an especially hot day, and sweat dripped down the side of my face as I stared at my computer. Every website was a mix of the same: grammar worksheets, personal narrative activities based on summer excursions, boring ideas for getting your students to nail a five-paragraph essay…

Anxiety crept into my stomach as the minutes ticked by and my teacher plan book remained blank, without a single lesson for the entire year. And then, just when I was about to give up for the day, I saw it: a creative writing program that challenged kids to write an entire novel in the month of November. My first thought was, “How did I not know about this before?” Followed immediately by, “This is definitely happening.”

That year, and for several subsequent years, our school’s librarian and I collaborated on a NaNoWriMo novel-writing project. Here’s what we noticed: our fifth- and sixth-grade students came into class eager to write—and excited to talk about their own characters and plots as well as their observations about books they’d read or were reading—and by the end of November, each of them had written more than they’d ever written before. In addition, our kids came out of the program with better time-management skills; stronger writing fluency; and more confidence in their writing abilities in all subject areas, not just in ELA. (These same results were reiterated to me years later by many other YWP educators when I was NaNoWriMo’s Director of Programs.)

Throughout the writing process, my students read each other’s novels and gave feedback. I was blown away by their thoughtful comments and desire to support their peers:

The Young Writers Program is easy to implement thanks to the plethora of free resources NaNoWriMo provides, including Common-core aligned lessons for educators; engaging workbooks that are printable or available as hard copies; motivating classroom kits that come with a progress chart, a creative writing poster, stickers, and buttons; and a robust website with a novel-writing space, virtual classrooms, inspirational pep talks written by well-known authors, and forums for teachers and teen writers.

To further support students and educators, I’m thrilled to announce the publication of a new NaNoWriMo book, Brave the Page (Viking Children’s Books), which is a NaNoWriMo primer for young writers. Partly a how-to guide on the nitty-gritty of writing, partly a collection of inspiration to set (and meet) ambitious goals, Brave the Page champions NaNoWriMo’s central mission that everyone‘s stories deserve to be told. The volume includes chapters on character, plot, setting, and the like; motivating essays from popular authors; advice on how to commit to your goals; a detailed plan for writing a novel or story in a month; and more! (Available for preorder now and in stores and online on August 27.)

As the Kirkus Reviews starred review put it: “a wonderful instruction guide for writers of any age.”

Here’s an excerpt from Brave the Page on what to do if you start to hate your story idea after you’ve already begun writing:  

Week 1’s Motivation Station: Help! I hate my idea!

You know the idea for your story? The one that seemed so brilliant in Week 0? At some point during Week 1, that scintillating idea might begin to lose its luster. It might even fade into a seemingly terrible and stupid idea that will never, ever work.

Unfortunately, self-doubt is one of the most dangerous roads to travel when you’re writing a novel. If you continue down this road for too long, your writing—and your novel—will hit a wall and come to a complete halt.

Of course, starting over is an option. But if you allow yourself to start over now, there’s a good chance you’ll want to start over again tomorrow or in a week. And then guess what will happen? You’ll keep doubting your ideas and starting over, and then a month will go by and you’ll have a whole lot of beginnings but not one complete draft.

So if you find yourself questioning your idea, stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly. Then try the following strategies:

Give yourself permission. Give yourself permission to doubt your ideas. All writers, at one time or another, have doubted their ideas, so why shouldn’t you? Give yourself permission to write a “terrible” story (which is probably way better than you or your Inner Editor think it is). Give yourself per- mission to sit with the discomfort of doubting your ideas—a moment that often leads to a creative breakthrough—and then give yourself permission to get back to your writing. Look at this draft as a way to practice writing, rather than as a way to produce the perfect book. (And you never know, you may end up writing a great book in the process!)

Give your idea room to breathe. Instead of spend- ing time trying to make your idea better, put it in a safe place, walk away, and spend an hour or even a day doing something else. Do the moonwalk. Meet up with a friend. Practice hanging a spoon on your nose. And then go back to that safe place, grab your idea, and start writing.

Give your idea some new flair. Sometimes all it takes to make an idea interesting again is a little spice, a little more flavor. Give your protagonist a new problem to tackle. Or introduce a new charac- ter who’s full of self-doubt. Or move the story to a different location, like Mustafar or the Emerald City.

Here’s a helpful tip from a fellow NaNoWriMo writer:

If you start to hate your story idea, it probably has to do with an element of the story idea rather than the story idea itself. Maybe it has to do with one of your characters, or a particular occurrence that you had planned that isn’t working out.

Don’t be afraid to stop and think it through! —Ailun, age 16

The Young Writers Program changed the way I taught writing—and even inspired me to participate in National Novel Writing Month on my own (something every English teacher and librarian should do!). When I decided to leave the classroom, I knew exactly where I wanted to go: to NaNoWriMo, the organization that inspires people of all ages to achieve ambitious creative goals and believes everyone’s story matters.

Meet Rebecca Stern

Rebecca Stern has experienced NaNoWriMo from every angle: she had her students participate in the Young Writers Program when she was a teacher, did a victory dance in the 50K winner’s circle, served on the organization’s Associate Board, and then was Director of Programs. Prior to working for NaNoWriMo, Rebecca was a teacher for a decade and a Senior Digital Editor at Pearson Education. She also co-edited an anthology of essays for kids called Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Delectable Essays. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son.

About BRAVE THE PAGE

The official NaNoWriMo handbook that inspires young people to tackle audacious goals and complete their creative projects.

Partly a how-to guide on the nitty-gritty of writing, partly a collection of inspiration to set (and meet) ambitious goals, Brave the Page is the go-to resource for middle-grade writers. Narrated in a fun, refreshingly kid-friendly voice, it champions NaNoWriMo’s central mission that everyone‘s stories deserve to be told. The volume includes chapters on character, plot, setting, and the like; motivating essays from popular authors; advice on how to commit to your goals; a detailed plan for writing a novel or story in a month; and more!

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that believes in the transformational power of creativity. They provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds–on and off the page. With its first event in 1999, the organization’s programs now include National Novel Writing Month in November, Camp NaNoWriMo, the Young Writers Program, Come Write In, and the “Now What?” Months.


ISBN-13: 9780451480293
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/27/2019

Sparking Summer Reading, a guest post by M.G. Hennessey


“That looks like work,” my son said skeptically, eyeing the copy of Catcher in the Rye that I was offering him.

“Are you kidding? You’re going to love this. Trust me, give it twenty pages. If you hate it, you can read something else,” I said (quite reasonably, I thought).

After emitting the standard teen heavy sigh, he took the book and slumped off to his room with it.

Getting teens to read at all is a challenge; getting them to read something other than dystopian fantasy romances, even more so. Every time we sit down with my son’s summer reading list I’m reminded of this, as his top picks are almost exclusively thrillers.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with reading a good thriller (I’m a huge fan myself), and as one of my friends who is a librarian said, getting them to read at all is half the battle. When I was fourteen, I spent a summer tearing through everything Agatha Christie had ever written. But as a parent, I want to make sure that my son also reads books that challenge him intellectually and broaden his world view. So how to make that happen?

The good news is that YA and MG social issues books are experiencing a bit of a renaissance right now. It was much easier to get my son to read The Hate U Give when he knew a movie version was coming out; same with Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. But I can’t rely on every social issues book being made into a TV show or film, right?

Here are a few tricks that have made a difference:

Start a family book club. Sometimes it’s just me and the kids, and other times we manage to wrangle a larger circle of family members, including cousins who live on the opposite coast. It’s been a treat to revisit some of the classics I read when I was his age- and to discover some new titles about current issues that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. Plus, it’s become the older version of me reading them bedtime stories, and what’s not to love about that? It was fascinating to reread To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult. Due to the subject matter (opioid addiction), I was initially a little reluctant to dive into Mindy McGinnis’s novel Heroine; but reading it together elicited some of the most in-depth conversations about the dangers of addiction that our family has ever had.

Focus on a single issue. My son’s class studied the civil rights movement last year, and consequently he was interested in reading more books about civil rights both then and now. Thanks to that, getting him to read Brown Girl Dreaming and One Crazy Summer was relatively easy. After reading The Diary of Anne Frank, my daughter delved deep into other books about WWII and the Holocaust, including the excellent Code Name Verity and The Book Thief (both still two of my all-time favorite reads).

One of these, one of thoseWhen going through his summer reading list this year, I let my son choose one “fun” book for every more serious one he tackled. Mind you, I hate categorizing books this way, because it implies that social issues books can’t be fun (they can and should be – I know I certainly always try to make mine feel that way), and conversely that most YA fiction isn’t worthy of deeper discussion (much of it is). But I do think he’s less likely to develop analytical reading skills with books that have a dragon on the cover (ducks for cover).

Audiobooks. We have a couple of long car trips lines up this summer, and what better way to pass the time than with an audiobook the entire family can enjoy? I’m planning on introducing my kids to 1984 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time en route to visiting relatives; and I’m bringing along copies of each book so that if they want to keep reading on their own, they’re able to.

So those are my tips for not only getting kids to read over the summer, but hopefully also encouraging them to dive into some meatier topics and texts. And who knows, this might spark up your summer reading too!

Meet M.G. Hennessey

M.G. Hennessey is the author of The Echo Park Castaways, a social issues book about four foster kids in L.A. who create their own found family. She also wrote The Other Boy, about a transgender boy and the challenges he faces long after transitioning. M.G. mentors teens at the Lifeworks program/LA LGBT Center, and volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for L.A. foster kids. She’s also the dean of Camp Transcend Family Camp. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.  She/Her/Hers

Website: www.mghennessey.com

Twitter: @mg_hennessey      

Instagram: @ m.g.hennessey

Facebook: @mghennesseyauthor

About The Echo Park Castaways

From the author of The Other Boy comes a poignant and heartfelt novel that explores what it means to be a family. Perfect for fans of Counting by 7s.

Nevaeh, Vic, and Mara are veterans of the Los Angeles foster care system. For over a year they’ve been staying with Mrs. K in Echo Park. Vic spends most of his time living in a dream world, Mara barely speaks, and Nevaeh is forced to act as a back-up parent. Though their situation isn’t ideal, it’s still their best home yet.

Then Child Protective Services places Quentin in the house, and everything is turned upside down. Nevaeh really can’t handle watching over anyone else, especially a boy on the autism spectrum. Meanwhile, Quentin is having trouble adjusting and attempts to run away.

So when Vic realizes Quentin just wants to see his mom again, he plans an “epic quest” to reunite them. It could result in the foster siblings getting sent to different group homes. But isn’t family always worth the risk?

ISBN-13: 9780062427694
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/02/2019

Writing Myself a New Story, a guest post by Jasmine Warga

I first met my uncle Abdalla when I was four-years-old. Up until the moment he got off the plane, walked straight toward me and picked me up off the ground with a twirl, whispering in rapid-fire Arabic to me, my uncle had only existed in stories that my father told me.

I didn’t understand most of what my uncle was saying when he greeted me—I was only familiar with a couple of Arabic phrases—but I also felt like I understood every word. That’s how it always was with Abdalla. I understood, and if I didn’t, he made sure that I did.

My parents had asked him to come to America to take care of me during the birth of my baby brother and the subsequent hectic weeks that would follow. I think their hope was that I’d be too distracted by my new uncle to resent the fact that I was no longer the baby of the family. It worked. My uncle and I spent the weeks leading up to my brother’s birth trading stories. He would tell me about Jordan—my great-aunt with a temper like a snake, my grandmother who believed deeply in otherworldly things, and a whole city made of a rose rock that he would show me when I visited. My uncle is the one who first taught me the true power of storytelling. He rendered Jordan so gorgeously and evocatively that I was desperate to visit.

I finally got the chance to visit when I was eight-years-old. My uncle greeted us at the airport, pulling me into a hug, and telling me, “Welcome home” in both Arabic and English. At first, Jordan didn’t feel at all like home. Jordan was people eyeing me with curiosity, confused that my name was Yasmine Nazek, but I didn’t speak smooth and confident Arabic. Jordan was hilly roads that made me slightly nauseous as we drove up and down them. Jordan was open windows at all times, and the sound of the call to prayer at dawn. It was pomegranates that exploded in my mouth. It was big family dinners of mansaf and crowded rooms filled with people I’d never met but who loved me and I loved them. It was playing soccer with local neighborhood children in an empty lot that would soon be filled with luxury condos.

One of the last nights of the trip, I sat with my uncle outside on his patio, and told him through tears that I was going to miss Jordan so much when I went home. That I didn’t want to go home because this was home, could be home. My uncle took my face in his hands, and told me that I could come visit whenever I wanted because, “Jordan belonged to me.”

Jordan belonged to me.

The thing about diaspora kids like me is that it is hard to believe that any place belongs to us.

Not our homes in America where we are othered, sidelined, and marginalized. And not the countries of our ethnic origin because how can you muster the audacity to lay to claim to a country—a culture—that still feels foreign to you, no matter how much you want it to be familiar.

I was always told how lucky I was to have two homes—and I know I am—but it’s also deeply lonely to feel like a stranger in both worlds.

When I got back from that first trip to Jordan, I did a presentation for my third-grade class about it. My dad came in to help. We served the class hummus. This was before everyone in America knew what hummus was. Most of my classmates were excited to try the strange dip in front of them, but you can probably imagine the look on some of their faces—a puckering of the lips, declarations of “weird!” and “ew!”

I remember going from a feeling of surging pride—having just shared an incredible photo of Petra—to deep shame. This is one of my first childhood memories of really feeling different from my classmates and wanting not to be. I’m sure I’d had those moments before—I’d must have—but none stand out to me as clearly as this one. Sweating in my hand-embroidered thobe that moments ago I’d been so delighted to wear. Running to the school bathroom to pull it off; and making excuses about why I needed to change that instant.

I was eight years old then. I never talked about Jordan at school again until I was seventeen.

As more and more people begin to read Other Words for Home, I’m being asked if Jude is a stand-in for me when I was twelve. I always pause at this question. The differences are obvious to me. They are almost as wide and daunting as the ocean that Jude crosses in the book. The most glaring of which is, while we are both Arab, Jude is Syrian-born, and I am American-born.

It is not lost on me that the character in the story who I most identify with is the novel’s main antagonist—Jude’s American-born cousin, Sarah. Sarah is hurting on the inside—feeling lost and lonely in a way that she doesn’t even have a vocabulary for—and so she lashes out at others.

I believe so much in positive representation. I used to parrot this idea that our job as writers was to write the world exactly as it is, exactly as we experience it—an academic idea I’d stolen from older white male authors who I’d seen talk about their books. I thought that repeating it would prove that I, too, was hip, educated, and literary. That I deserved my seat at the proverbial table.

But the older I get, the more I believe that books give birth to the world we live in. Media representation shapes actual perceptions, and so instead of writing sad, lonely brown girls, I decided to write a girl like Jude. A girl who has pride in her family, her culture. A girl who, of course, makes mistakes, but is sure of her heart. Growing up, I never saw a character like Jude. If I encountered a self-assured heroine, she was always white, and beautiful in a way that every media outlet had led me to believe was the only way to be beautiful—fair skin, light hair, a nose completely unlike mine.

Jude does not exist to help Sarah to grow. I want to make that very clear. She has her own story and agency. But one of my very favorite things about the book is the way in which Jude’s confidence in her identity begins to influence the way Sarah sees herself. We can all learn from one another, and the way Sarah learns from Jude, and in turn, the way Jude learns from Sarah, are particularly meaningful to me.

When I was sixteen, and visiting my uncle in Jordan for the summer, I remember whining to him that I didn’t want to be Arab or Muslim anymore. That everyone in the world hated Arabs and Muslims. When I told Abdalla this, memories from my childhood came flooding back to me—desperately wishing to look like my white American girl doll in fourth grade, lying and saying I was Italian instead of Arab in ninth grade, staying silent even though it turned my insides to acid when I heard ignorant things said about Islam. I also thought of the deep shame I felt about not posting a single picture from my visit on Facebook that showed one of my hijab-wearing relatives. Instead posting a series of photographs of the westernized cafes that had recently opened up in Amman.

My uncle didn’t get upset or angry at my declaration. He simply smiled at me in a knowing way. He told me that I only thought that because of the story the American media was telling me. “But Yasmine habibti, you’re a writer, yes? Write another story.”

My uncle Abdalla died before I finished the first draft of Other Words for Home. He never got to read it. But I still like to imagine that somewhere he’s smiling, knowing that I did write myself another story.

Meet Jasmine Warga

Photo credit: Braxton Black

Jasmine Warga is the author of the middle grade novel Other Words for Home (Balzer + Bray; May 28, 2019), as well as several teen books: Here We Are Now, and My Heart and Other Black Holes, which has been translated into over twenty languages. She lives and writes in Chicago, IL. You can visit Jasmine online at www.jasminewarga.com.

About Other Words for Home

A gorgeously written, hopeful middle grade novel in verse about a young girl who must leave Syria to move to the United States, perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds and Aisha Saeed.

Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.

At first, everything in America seems too fast and too loud. The American movies that Jude has always loved haven’t quite prepared her for starting school in the US—and her new label of “Middle Eastern,” an identity she’s never known before.

But this life also brings unexpected surprises—there are new friends, a whole new family, and a school musical that Jude might just try out for. Maybe America, too, is a place where Jude can be seen as she really is.

This lyrical, life-affirming story is about losing and finding home and, most importantly, finding yourself.

ISBN-13: 9780062747808
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/28/2019