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The Secret Sea Blog Tour – Interview with Barry Lyga

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Author Barry Lyga has a new middle grade novel, The Secret Sea, coming out August 23. It is a complex and fascinating story of three friends who travel to a parallel universe. From the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Zak Killian is hearing a voice. Could it be a guardian angel? A ghost? No, that’s crazy. But sometimes the voice is so real. . . . It warns him of danger.

One day Zak is standing on the subway platform when the tunnel starts to fill with water. He sees it before anyone else. The voice warns him to run. His friends Moira and Khalid believe this is more than a premonition, and soon all three find themselves in an alternate universe that is both familiar and seriously strange. As Zak unravels the mystery behind the voice, he faces decisions that may mean the end of their world at home—if they can even get home!

In his most propulsive and heartfelt book yet, acclaimed author Barry Lyga explores the depths of friendship, the bonds of family, and the nature of the universe itself.

I really enjoyed this book and would recommend its purchase for the Middle School audience. Today, as a part of his blog tour, Barry joins us to answer a few questions.

You’re back to middle grade! How is it after writing your YA novels? Do you find one or the other easier or more rewarding, or is the writing experience fairly similar?

Neither is any easier or more rewarding than the other, but the experiences are different. There’s more of a reader reaction to YA, since middle grade readers don’t always have social media accounts or access to email, for example. Each has its own complexities and difficulties that may be different, but in the end, they still add up to roughly the same sense of “Can I really do this?”

The Secret Sea is a very complex novel with many societal issues being addressed. Do you find that people are surprised by the complexity of your writing for middle grades?

It’s funny you ask that — there were a couple of conceptual and vocabulary issues in the book that I worried would be too much for the age range, but my editor didn’t flag a single one. I think she knew better than I did that the kids attracted to this book would be the ones who could either handle that stuff or look it up and keep following along. I really try not to write down to readers of any age, but especially in middle grade — these kids can totally sense when you’re doing that and they’ll never forgive you for it!

How long have you been interested in the concept of parallel universes, and what made you want to write a story featuring them?

I’ve loved parallel universes since I was a little kid reading Justice League comics co-starring the Justice Society from Earth-2! (And then they would team up to fight the Crime Syndicate from Earth-3 — bliss!) I’ve been obsessed with parallel universes since then; I absolutely adore a good alternate world story. So, I’ve wanted to write my own since forever, really, and I finally sat down and did it with The Secret Sea!

9781250072832You delve into a lot of gender equality issues in this novel. Did you do a lot of research for this, or was it prompted by any particular experience?

There was no particular experience, other than just living in this world of ours and observing its steps toward a theoretical future of gender equality. I wanted the alternate universe to seem like the best place ever to be lost as a kid, with a dark side that isn’t immediately obvious. And I have to admit: I love the idea that the alternate universe has all this amazing technology and sophistication… and their worst nightmare is a super-smart, fiercely independent 12-year-old girl.

Do you have any particular memories of middle school you’d like to share with our readers?

I didn’t have a great time in middle school, honestly, but I met my best friend there, so that worked out all right! :)

 

#LastListEgmont: Jaguar Stones, Pirate Adventures, and a New Publisher, Matt Myklusch and Jon and Pamela Voelkel interview

Matt Myklusch and Jon and Pamela Voelkel first met on a panel at the Texas Library Association. At the time, the Voelkels were promoting their action-packed Jaguar Stones series, and Matt was doing the same for his superhero adventure books, The Jack Blank Adventures. Now, a couple years later, with Jon and Pamela Voelkel releasing The Lost City, the epic Jaguar Stones conclusion, and Matt launching Seaborne, the first book in a new series of his own, the three of them caught up to talk about their new books… and now, a new publisher too.

MATT: Congratulations on wrapping up the Jaguar Stones series! Finishing a book, just by itself, is a huge accomplishment. Finishing a series is massive. How does it feel to be done?

J&P: Hey, Matt, congratulations to you too! As we’re sure you found with Jack Blank, it’s bittersweet to finish a series. In our case, it’s a delayed ending because the Jaguar Stones was planned as a trilogy, but the story took on a life of its own. Now with the fourth and final book, The Lost City, we end exactly where we always wanted to be. (We wrote the very last paragraph way back when we were working on Middleworld, the first book in the series.) So we’re elated that everything worked out, but we’re sad to say goodbye to characters who’ve become part of our family. It’s been fantastic to hear from readers who’ve stayed with us through the four books and get their take. Happy to say that no one predicted the ending!

MATT: I know that feeling! Personally, I felt tons of pressure when I was writing the final book in my Jack Blank trilogy. Did you guys feel anything different while you were writing this one?

J&P: For us, we probably felt most pressure for The End of the World Club, which was the second book. Middleworld – the first Jaguar Stones book and the first book we’d ever written together – got great reviews and we wanted to make sure the follow-up lived up to it. Moreover, our local children’s librarian had told us in no uncertain terms that she expected a proper story with a beginning, a middle and an end – not just a bridging book. By the third and fourth books, the story was writing itself. All we had to do was keep up with the characters.

MATT: I’m sure the series goes out with a bang. Tell me all about The Lost City.

J&P: By the end of the third Jaguar Stones book, The River of No Return, our readers have been on a wild ride through the Maya rainforest. Our two main characters – Max, a fourteen year old boy from Boston, and Lola, a Maya girl of about the same age – have failed once again to save the world from the ancient Maya Lords of Death. The forest is being destroyed, the wildlife is endangered, and Max has received an invitation to his own funeral.

For The Lost City, we turn everything on its head and journey from Central America via New Orleans to a Native American city on the Mississippi River. The bad guys have realized they can’t take over the world without mastering social media, so they trick Max and Lola into helping them. Meanwhile Lola, who used to be the brave one, loses heart, so Max has to step up to the plate. Literally – because the final showdown takes place in Fenway Park.

It was so much fun to write, and we hope our readers will agree that it’s the fastest, funniest, most  fantabulous Jaguar Stones book yet. The Lost City has everything: a parade of Maya monsters, a phantom riverboat, an alien spaceship, a howler monkey on rollerskates, the triumphant return of Thunderclaw the Chicken of Death, and the legendary Boston Red Sox!

MATT: I’m a Yankees fan, but I won’t hold that against you. It sounds a fun ride. Congratulations again on realizing your grand vision!

J&P: Thank you. We’re sad to say goodbye to the Jaguar Stones, but excited about our next project. You’re ahead of us in that respect, so please tell us what to expect! After pouring so much energy into your first series, how did you feel about starting something new?

MATT: On one hand, I was fired up to be flexing new creative muscles. I had lived with the characters of the Jack Blank universe, and been consumed by their story for so long, it was refreshing to turn the page and do something completely different.

On the other hand, I was starting from scratch again for the first time in years. I suddenly remembered what a giant task it is to create a whole world from the ground up. You need to figure out the rules of your world. What’s possible? What’s not possible? When you are writing the second or third book in a series, you go in with that infrastructure already built. With Seaborne, I had to get to know new characters again, each with their own voices, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. I had to figure out the right tone and voice for the story too. I’m always worried I’m going to ruin a great idea, so when it came time to start writing, I had a few false starts. It took me a little longer than usual to find my groove.

J&P: Now we’re intrigued! Tell us more about Seaborne. And by the way, we LOVE that cover!

MATT: Thank you! Me too. Matt Armstron, the illustrator, did a terrific job.

Seaborne is the story of a boy raised by pirates and forced into a life of crime. 13-year-old Dean Seaborne is a spy for One-Eyed Jack, the ruthless Pirate King. His job is to sneak onto ships and find out what they are carrying, or infiltrate crews before raids. Dean’s great at what he does, but he hates doing it. He feels like the angel of death, delivering ships into the hands of One-Eyed Jack’s men.

When Dean gets caught trying to run away, he nearly ends up fed to the sharks. One-Eyed Jack only spares his life because he’s got a line on the greatest treasure in all the Caribbean— an island where gold grows on trees. Dean infiltrates the island posing as its legendary lost prince. What he doesn’t know is, he might be exactly who he’s pretending to be.

J&P: Sounds amazing! We saw the National Theatre production of Treasure Island in London over the holidays and Seaborne has that same feeling of danger, thrills, and classic adventures. Was it easy for you to plunge into the pirate world? How was the writing process? Did you do anything differently this time around?

MATT: I learned to trust myself and my voice, for one thing. This book is set in the early 1700’s— the golden age of piracy. For some reason, that led to me writing the first draft in an “old timey narrator” voice that wasn’t my own. When people read it they felt like something was missing, and that thing was me. I got 100 pages in before I realized I was doing something wrong, but I think I got it right in the end.

Also, this was the first book I had to do a lot of research on. My earlier books had completely imaginary locations from start to finish. I had to educate myself for this one. Not too much, but more than I’m used to. You guys do a ton of research. Tell me about the background work you did for Jaguar Stones series.

J&P: In fact, we fell into the massive research project by accident. We’d originally planned a wild adventure story about a city boy lost in the jungle – with Maya pyramids as a cool background. Jon had grown up in South and Central America, so he already knew the terrain. We went down to Belize with our kids for one week, so Pamela could get a feel for it too. And that changed everything. We learned so much about the ancient Maya and met so many modern Maya people that they took over the story.

After that, we went down to Belize or Guatemala or Mexico every year. Sometimes twice a year. We became the kind of people who hang out at archaeology conferences. Jon even took a course at Harvard to learn how to read and write Maya glyphs. In our minds at least, the Jaguar Stones became more than an adventure series; it became the story of a boy from Boston and a modern Maya girl who are trying to understand each other’s worlds.

For Book Four, The Lost City, we followed the Mississippi from New Orleans to an ancient American city called Cahokia, just across the river from St Louis. It’s an amazing place and it’s hard to understand why it’s not as famous as, say, Mount Rushmore or Plymouth Rock. It was fascinating to look at the parallels between the pyramid builders of North and Central America. We’ll really miss researching the Jaguar Stones books because they’ve taken us to places we could never have imagined. Book Four also took us to the legendary Fenway Park. Neither of us knew the first thing about baseball before writing the book, but now we’re both diehard Red Sox fans!

MATT: Again, I’m going to let that slide ;]

The only field trips I did for this book were to a resort in Turks and Caicos, but I did do some reading. I know nothing about sailing or ships, so I had to research that kind of thing. I wanted to get the lingo down right, but I decided not to bother learning which empires controlled which islands in the Caribbean back in 1704. It was easier to use fictional islands like St. Diogenes, and port towns like Bartleby Bay. No one can tell me I got the facts wrong about places that don’t exist.

I guess it’s not surprising that I still made some mistakes. For example, I thought a “league” was six feet, but it’s actually about 3 miles. (This was not a problem until I had my main characters swimming a league or two underwater in cave). One of my readers caught that error in an ARC that Egmont sent out. We corrected that in the final version.

J&P: Good catch! And now that our mutual publisher, Egmont, has been bought by Lerner, how are you feeling about the future? What does this news mean for Seaborne?

MATT: I know it means that Book 1 will have a home with a fully operational, US based publisher who has been putting out quality books for over 50 years. That’s a very good thing. There’s a much better chance that the Seaborne series will continue now. There are no guarantees, but the good news is that I approached this series the same way that Indiana Jones is a series. Each story was meant to be a standalone adventure, so whatever happens with Book 2, it’s going to be okay. The people who pick up this book are going to get a complete story with no loose ends.

My hope is that Dean Seaborne will keep sailing for adventure. I’m going to miss working with the Egmont team, but I’m very excited about the opportunities at Lerner.

J&P: What’s been astonishing is how Egmont authors have rallied together to promote each other’s books under the #lastlistegmont – and how much love we’ve all got from the publishing world. Speaking personally, we’ve been blown away by the support from bloggers, booksellers, librarians and booklovers we’ve never even met!

MATT: Absolutely. I love the way we banded together to help each other’s books succeed. And, we all got to share the great news about Lerner too. That was a nice moment. Speaking of the Last Listers, (or maybe now the Last Lerners?), anyone reading this can get information on all our books at egmontslastlist.tumblr.com. I would urge everyone to check out those books, and also visit JaguarStones.com and MattMyklusch.com for more on The Lost City and Seaborne: The Lost Prince. It’s been great talking to you guys again!

J&P: Maybe see you in Turks and Caicos next time!

MATT: Deal

Meet Our Guest Bloggers:

Matt Myklusch is a middle-grade fantasy/adventure author and the creator of SEABORNE (Egmont USA), and THE JACK BLANK ADVENTURES (Simon & Schuster, Aladdin). When he’s not busy writing about kite-boarding pirates, superheroes, and robot-zombies, Matt hosts THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY PODCAST, speaking with other authors about their creative process and path to publication. Matt lives in New Jersey with his wife and family, where he is always hard at work on his next book.

Jon and Pamela (J&P) Voelkel are the author-illustrators of the Jaguar Stones series; Pamela does most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating. Their books tell the story of a city boy and a jungle girl – a mirror image of Jon’s wild childhood in Latin America and Pamela’s altogether tamer upbringing in an English seaside town. The Voelkels met in London, where they both worked at the same advertising agency, and now live in Vermont.

To research the Jaguar Stones, they and their three adventure-loving children have explored over forty Maya sites in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico; canoed down underground rivers; tracked howler monkeys in the jungle; and learned to make tortillas on an open fire. Jon’s most frightening experience was being lost in a pitch-black labyrinth under a Maya pyramid. Pamela’s most frightening experience was being interviewed by Al Roker on Today.

  • Twitter: @pvoelkel @jaguarstones
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/JP-Voelkel
  • Website: www.jaguarstones.com

 Publisher’s Book Descriptions:

The Lost City (Jaguar Stones book 4)

The epic conclusion to the exciting Jaguar Stones series and a rip-roaring adventure into the heart of America!

With his parents in jail and the Maya Death Lords in possession of all five Jaguar Stones, fourteen-year-old Max Murphy is pretty sure that he’ll never get to leave the rainforest. But the Lords of Death have a problem–a new king calling himself Great Sun claims to have the Jaguar Stones, too. And they want Max to prove the guy’s a fraud. Or else.

Now, Max, and Lola, the mysterious girl who befriends him, are off on another wild adventure that will take them from Central America to New Orleans and up the Mississippi to the lost city at the heart of America’s past.

But one thing Max should have learned after all of this dealings with the Death Lords — they never keep their promises.

Seaborne #1: The Lost Prince

Middle-grade adventure readers will love this fresh take on classic pirate tropes. Fans of Percy Jackson and The Chronicles of Egg will enjoy Dean Seaborne’s adventures on the sea.

Dean Seaborne is thrown off his ship by the Pirate King and given one last chance to redeem himself before he meets Davy Jones’s locker. He has to spy on the Pirate King’s biggest rival, Gentleman Jack Harper, and find the treasure hidden on the mysterious island of Zenhala.

Once on Zenhala, Dean finds that the inhabitants of the island think he is the lost prince who went missing 13 year ago. In order to fulfill his mission for the Pirate King, Dean undergoes intense and fantastical trials to prove he is the lost prince. But the longer Dean stays on the island, the more he questions his mission.

In My Mailbox: Looking for Middle Grade Fiction that Deals with Sexual Violence

I often get emails and comments in regards to The #SVYALit Project asking about Middle Grade titles that deal with sexual abuse and violence of pre-teen kids. And each time I get a question, I go looking for some great recommendations. I have even tried to ask author and Middle Grade champion Anne Ursu and she too has had a hard time coming up with some good examples. She found this great list, but it is short on Middle Grade fiction as well.

One of the titles, however, that gets mentioned frequently is I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson. I read this title a long time ago, and it is written with a beautiful tongue, as all Jacqueline Woodson novels are. And it is, of course, heartbreaking. The topic is heartbreaking.

“Death happens,” Woodson told Samiya A. Bashir in Black Issues Book Review. “Sexual abuse happens. Parents leave. These things happen every day and people think that if they don’t talk about it, then it will just go away. But that’s what makes it spread like the plague it is. People say that they’re censoring in the guise of protecting children, but if they’d open their eyes they’d see that kids are exposed to this stuff every day, and we need a venue by which to talk to them about it and start a dialogue. My writing comes from this place, of wanting to change the world. I feel like young people are the most open.” (from Woodson’s Wikipedia page)

The brief publisher synopsis reads like this: Marie, the only black girl in the eighth grade willing to befriend her white classmate Lena, discovers that Lena’s father is doing horrible things to her in private.

As two girls become friends, the other begins to realize that one of them is being sexually abused by her father. The process of getting to know one another and share these types of secrets, and then what do you do once you know the truth, is covered with sensitivity and grace.

“When I took these things from the house:
some tapes, some books, my winter clothes,
I did not know that these would become the
things I own.”

Jacqueline Woodson, I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This 

 
Lena’s story is continued in the follow-up title, simply Lena. In this, Lena and her little sister run away from her father and are searching to find safety, they hope, by seeking out their mother’s relatives. But being a runaway with no money is dangerous, but these girls will go to great lengths to try and find a safe place to lay their head.

“It seemed like someone was always leaving someone, like that’s the way the world worked—people were born and people died, people left and people came. It was like the world was saying you can’t have everything you want at the same time.”
Jacqueline Woodson, Lena 

Woodson is a fabulous and gifted author and she has written eloquently on this topic, you’ll definitely want to read these. And if you know of more middle grade titles that can help adults talk about these tough subjects with middle grade readers, please leave us a note in the comments.

In addition to the topic of sexual violence, Woodson tackles inter-racial friendships, racism and discrimination, runaways, poverty, and more. Definitely check them out.

Book Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Publisher’s Description:  

Galileo. Newton. Salk. Oppenheimer.
Science can change the world . . . but can it go too far?

Eleven-year-old Ellie has never liked change. She misses fifth grade. She misses her old best friend. She even misses her dearly departed goldfish. Then one day a strange boy shows up. He’s bossy. He’s cranky. And weirdly enough . . . he looks a lot like Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist who’s always been slightly obsessed with immortality. Could this pimply boy really be Grandpa Melvin? Has he finally found the secret to eternal youth?

Karen’s Thoughts:

After reading a ton of titles for the #SVYALit Project, a little bit of a lighter read was definitely needed and this middle grade title fit the bill perfectly. Recent stats have shown that younger girls show an interest in math and science but as they get older, around middle school age, the interest begins to wane. So while there are currently more females enrolled in college, I think the statistic I saw yesterday said 60%, there are more males enrolled in science and tech fields in college. So I loved the emphasis that this title placed on science and how our main character, Ellie, developed a slowly budding interest in science.

Born to very theatrical parents, Ellie has grown up in a house that emphasizes the arts. Her grandfather, however, is a scientist. In fact, her grandfather may very well be the teenage boy on her doorstep who claims to have found a way to reverse the aging process. The only problem is, the key to his research is now locked away in a lab that he can’t get access to, because people don’t really let teenagers wander around high tech labs doing that type of research.

The two of them, aided by a new friend, repeatedly try to break into the lab to steal a key part of the research while they navigate middle school and eat a lot of Chinese food.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a great, fun read about finding yourself, allowing yourself to be open to change, family, and friendship. And along the way, there are some interesting science facts sprinkled throughout the story. The humor of the story is balanced with some very real and deep questions, including questions about the ethics of science (just because you can do something does it mean that you should?) and thoughts about death, change, and allowing others to be who they are. I love that it is Ellie who grows in wisdom and challenges her grandfather to ask what would happen in the long run if nobody ever grew old.

This is a really great read. Touching, humorous, thoughtful and fun, Holm introduces us to characters that are a delight to spend time with. It is a sheer delight to see this wise, intelligent scientist wrestle with things like acne and the cafeteria while spewing out his cynical, scientific rhetoric.

The Fourteenth Goldfish comes out later in August 2014 from Random House Books for Young Readers. It has already received several starred reviews, including stars from Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly and Holm has an established reputation – she is a repeat Newbery winner – and fan base. You can’t go wrong with this title. Read it together as a family if you can. ISBN: 9780375870644

Check out this list of YA titles that highlight girls in STEM sciences

2 New GNs Coming Your Way, and a look at Scholastic’s GRAPHIX imprint

This is how things go at my house . . .

Me: Whacha doing?
The Tween: Reading
Me: Oh, you’re reading SMILE again.
The Tween: Yep

So when news came out that there might be ARCs of SISTERS by Raina Telgemeier at TLA, I tweeted Christie: “Our one mission is to get ARCs of SISTERS at TLA and be heroes.” We did not get ARCs of said book. We are not heroes. The tween just keeps her copy of SMILE on the floor by her bed, and occasionally she will say to me, with those puppy dog eyes, I really can’t wait to read the next one.

There’s not a lot out there yet about SISTERS. Goodreads doesn’t even list a release date or ISBN at this point. Another source, however, says 8/26/14 with the ISBN: 9780545540599. So just in case you need to be someone’s hero, I want to make sure this is on your radar. And if you haven’t read SMILE yet, the Tween really recommends you pick it up. It is, after all, a Will Eisner Award winner.

Graphic novels have long been popular in my YA area. And more and more I am getting requests from Middle Grader readers for GNs. Scholastic has the GRAPHIX imprint to help fulfill this need. There is even a fun Create Your Own Comic activity there you can share with your tweens and teens. BONE by Jeff Smith is perhaps the most popular; I have readers come in almost weekly and ask for this series by name. Some other popular titles include Amulet, Cardboard, Chickenhare and Pandemonium.

And here’s a new one coming your way . . .

Cleopatra in Space: Book One, Target Practice
by Mike Maihack

Actually, this title came out in April, so it is brand spanking new.  Here’s the publisher’s description:

“When a young Cleopatra (yes, THAT Cleopatra) finds a mysterious tablet that zaps her to the far, REALLY far future, she learns of an ancient prophecy that says she is destined to save the galaxy from the tyrannical rule of the evil Xaius Octavian. She enrolls in Yasiro Academy, a high-tech school with classes like algebra, biology, and alien languages (which Cleo could do without), and combat training (which is more Cleo’s style). With help from her teacher Khensu, Cleo learns what it takes to be a great leader, while trying to figure out how she’s going to get her homework done, make friends, and avoid detention!

It was a pretty fun read. I mean, of course Cleopatra belongs in space. If you ask me, everything is better in space. We are big Doctor Who fans, and it was kind of fun to read this after watching the episode Dinosaurs on a Space Ship which guest stars – you guessed it – Cleopatra. This is book 1 and we are looking forward to reading more in the series.

And I want to end by talking for a moment about reading and re-reading books. As I mentioned above, the Tween reads SMILE a lot. And last summer she kept reading The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books a lot. This drove The Mr. crazy. At one point he started to storm into her room and tell her she needed to read something different, anything, just something different. So we talked about it and I said things like this:

1. It’s okay to read books over and over again, don’t worry. Each time she’ll pick up something new.
2. She’ll read something different when she is ready.
3. Don’t turn reading into a war between you and her. Don’t fight about it. Don’t put your rules and expectations on it; if she enjoys reading books multiple times then let her do that, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Don’t take the joy of it away from her. If you make reading become a battleground, you will lose this war and she will lose because she will lose her love of reading.

I personally am not a huge re-reader. Except that I have read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin probably once a year every year since the 5th grade. I really love that book. But every time she reads Smile it makes her happy, I just can’t find anything bad about that.