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On Death, Dying, and Faith in YA Fiction, a guest post by Tara K. Ross

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a doctor. It was an obsession. I voluntarily chose to study over going to parties, ditched shopping with friends to save for tuition and even broke off more than a few relationships. It became an all-encompassing mission. 

Surprise, surprise, the doctor thing never happened. It wasn’t until I sat down to answer the essay questions on the med school application forms that I realized my desire for the Dr. title was only a small part benevolent and a rather large part selfish and fearful.

I thought if I could learn everything there was to know about death and dying, I could live longer, cheat death…at least for a little while, and pretend to be a tiny bit like God. I was petrified of dying and was willing to do anything to keep it from happening. But, those motivations were not going to make me a very good doctor. I needed a different way to tame my fears.  

We’re only here on earth for a flash of time. No one truly knows what happens after the lights go out or the bright light appears. And that’s freaky! It’s a coming of age question that most of us brush against – whether it’s a loved one dying, a global tragedy, or reaching a place in our own life where death seems more appealing than living. When this happens, we begin to ask more questions. When will it happen? Will I still exist somehow? Will the afterlife be better than this? Does any of this matter if we will all be forgotten?

For me, those questions began haunting me in high school. While many teens grappled with bullying, self-esteem, racism, abuse, or betrayal, I only really had to mull over death. My teen years were, from the outside, rather ideal. But somehow, I still managed to create a fear monster out of nothing. That monster became an all-encompassing ticking time bomb that halted my ability to make every day decisions. I never shared my internal woes with anyone. What did I have to feel scared about? Wasn’t my life perfect? No one would care.

Here is the part that really sucked about being in this existential crisis as a teen: no one talked about it. Myself included. Everyone presented their best selfie side, and distracted themselves with their choice of self-medication: sports, academics, social media, video games, binge eating or puking, substance use, addiction, self-harm. Some took the high road and got professional help, but they never shared about it publicly. Only as slightly-more-adjusted adults have we managed to open up about how overwhelmed and afraid we were and honestly, continue to be.

As teens and young adults, we didn’t know what a messed up mental state could look like. We didn’t know that it could lead to generalized anxiety, panic attacks, depression or even suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t part of our health units or a frequent feature in magazines (yup, this was before blog culture or YouTube channels).      

So, I handled it the best way I could through my aforementioned obsession with academic perfection. As a break from cram sessions, also came a passion for escaping into books. When I found stories that tackled the same questions I couldn’t silence, I found company in the confusion.

I read widely. From nonfiction philosophers, like Robert Fulgum and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, to The Diary of Ann Frank and C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Knowing that literary greats struggled with these same questions was comforting, but in many ways, it made me feel even more pathetic. These were people who had lived through extreme hardship. They had a right to question life and death. I was just an average suburbanite teen from a nuclear family, who shouldn’t need to waste her life in worry. 

I kept searching. I wanted to read about someone living through these questions who was like me. Average.

This is when I turned to fiction and young adult stories. Stories written for me and my qualms. I didn’t understand completely in the moment, but it really was like hitting a psychological jackpot—ordinary people asking extraordinary questions within their ordinary lives.  It was me on the page. In a way, I found my own personalized self-help group. But each teen’s self-help group will look different  from my own.

The questions we ask will vary and the answers we seek will require diverse literary experiences. Some readers resonate with characters who share their culture or race, for others it’s the journey toward identity and acceptance. Sometimes, it’s a personal hardship or diagnosis they connect with, or a quest for purpose and meaning beyond themselves. For me, I went searching for stories of death, dying and faith in the great unknown. I know, a little depressing. But the outcome was life-changing. I found that I wasn’t alone. The books themselves, helped me to live beyond the stories on the page. I began to feel less afraid.

I continued to read and my search for stories changed from “what if” questions to “now what?” This second set of questions made me look beyond the physical and psychological and consider my spiritual health and beliefs as well. I went looking for stories of faith and hope and belonging. Surprisingly, they were more challenging to find.  

In recent years, YA fiction has trended toward tackling more diverse and riskier topics. It provides a voice about racism, sexual orientation, gender, abuse, sexism, death, and dying. But less often about the great spiritual unknowns. Why not? Are we afraid to explore these questions of faith?  Are we worried we will share too strong an opinion or come across as preachy? Perhaps, but are the readers not worth that risk? Are they not searching for purpose beyond our flash of time on earth?

I think they are. I know first-hand from working in public schools and youth centers for over ten year that teens are searching for purpose. They want to matter beyond their flash of time on earth and they are desperate for narratives to ground themselves within. If we don’t give them characters in fiction, they will look for it elsewhere.   

My dream would be for writers of all faiths to be welcomed and encouraged to include their spiritual beliefs within their stories. We know that greater than half of all Canadians and Americans consider faith to be an important part of their identity (PEW Research Center, 2019). So why do we shy away from offering this aspect of diversity in our libraries and general book store shelves?

In my debut novel, I tried to share one of these viewpoints, one that impacted my own coming of age journey. Interestingly, the story was too Christian for the general market, but not Christian enough for some faith-based presses. I was fortunate to find people who believed in the story and worked in love to bring it to where it is today. But there are many other writers, who don’t fit into a publishing bubble and even more readers who are searching for characters like them, who have not yet made of their mind on what they believe.  

This is what makes fiction so powerful. Stories give us an opportunity to journey with someone through life, to ask the tough questions. To challenge us beyond “what if’s” and present stories that tackle the “now what’s”. They change who we are, and how we see the world. Whether we choose to take our own life in the same direction as those characters is up to us. But at the very least, let’s give teens diverse stories so they will not feel alone in those choices.

(For more posts about faith and spirituality in YA, check out TLT’s Faith and Spirituality in YA Literature index here.)

Meet Tara K. Ross

Tara K. Ross lives with her husband, two daughters and rescued fur-baby in a field of cookie-cutter homes near Toronto, Canada. She works as a school speech-language pathologist and mentors with local youth programs. When Tara is not writing or reading all things young adult fiction, you can find her rock climbing the Ontario escarpment, planning her family’s next jungle trek or podcasting/blogging at www.tarakross.com.

​FADE TO WHITE is her debut novel.

About Fade to White by Tara K. Ross

Thea Fenton’s life looks picture-perfect, but inside, she is falling apart. Wracked by anxiety no one seems to understand or care about, she resorts to self-harm to deflect the pain inside.

When a local teen commits suicide, Thea’s anxiety skyrockets. Unexplainable things happen, leaving her feeling trapped within her own chaotic mind. The lines between reality and another world start to blur, and her previously mundane issues seem more daunting and insurmountable than ever.

Then she meets Khi, a mysterious new boy from the coffee shop who seems to know her better than she knows herself-and doesn’t think she’s crazy. His quiet confidence and unfounded familiarity draw her into an unconventional friendship.

Khi journeys with her through grief, fear, and confusion to arrive at compassion for the one person Thea never thought she could love.

A deeply transformational novel from an authentic new voice in Christian young adult fiction.

ISBN-13: 9781645262633
Publisher: Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas
Publication date: 05/30/2020
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Past as Present, Present as Past, a guest post by J. Anderson Coats

When I was fifteen, I got busted sneaking into a university library.

The security gate slowed me down, but I looked enough like a college student with my backpack and ratty jeans that I breezed right through—past the information desk, up the stairs, and deep into the stacks.

Ten minutes later, a librarian found me sitting on a stepstool in the medieval history section with a book open on my knees. She asked to see my student ID, and when I told her I’d left it at home, she said I’d have to leave.

“But I’m researching my novel,” I protested, “and you have books here that I can’t get anywhere else.”

She raised one eyebrow in a pointed oh really sort of way.

“No, see, I’ll show you.” I reached into my backpack, pulled out a folder, and fanned out my notes, along with a half-finished chart detailing the particulars of medieval criminal law for a scene in my sprawling, extensively researched but somehow still deeply inaccurate historical novel set in the thirteenth century about a Scottish girl who found herself in Wales and had to figure out her place in the community. A girl who’d had bad things happen to her, but was slowly—slowly—finding her way forward.

“I’m not here to make trouble,” I insisted. “I just need these books.”

The librarian was quiet for a long moment. Then she said, “Today only. It can’t happen again. That’s what interlibrary loan is for. Got it?”

I stayed till the building closed.

By seventeen I’d filled five binders with collected research that fueled six complete novels, including the one about the Scottish girl that ended up at an opulent 400K words. My research into the middle ages had long since expanded beyond any particular novel, though. I wanted to know just for the knowing.

Each binder was rigorously subdivided, organized, tabbed, and coded— region, topic, subtopic, chronological date. I collected maps, drawings, family trees, and accounts, and I made hundreds of charts, graphs, lists, and sketches. No one taught me to do this. Hardly anyone knew about it. But I could and did spend hours paging through what I’d made. Adding. Updating. Minutely rearranging.

I liked worlds I could control.

My interest in the past made me incomprehensible to most kids my age. I liked how they kept a cautious distance, not quite sure how to make fun of me if I already knew I was a freak. I liked how knowing uncommon, arcane things gave me power over almost any interaction I was likely to have. My charts and lists made me feel unusual, mysterious, and untouchable.

Becoming anything is hard. Rebuilding when the pieces are shattered so small is a whole different way of becoming.

I am thirteen. It’s my first week of middle school, and the boy I’m made to sit next to in art class is explaining in vivid detail how he’s going to trap me in the bathroom and feel me up. His language is emotionless and precise. He makes eye contact in the kind of intense, disturbing way that makes me certain he means it.

“I may not stop there,” he says. “I haven’t decided yet.”

The art teacher doesn’t look up from his newspaper. He refuses to let me change seats. He tells me to sit down and do my assignment and stop trying to get attention.

“You won’t know exactly when it’ll happen,” the boy goes on. “It’ll be the best thing that ever happens to a pig like you, though.”

I am thirteen, and I have no idea how to make him leave me alone. The guidance counselor gives me a secret, girls-only smile and says, “It’s probably because he likes you.” My mom reminds me that bullies will find another target if you ignore them.

I am thirteen, and I have no idea how to make them listen. How to make them understand what it costs me to walk into that classroom. Sit in that seat. Let it all happen.

Things just get worse.

Four of my binders have survived. They have endured two transcontinental moves and countless hours of flipping. They have almost—but not quite—been entirely supplanted by the internet.

The best part of the binders now is turning the pages one by one, remembering how each new entry, each photocopied map or genealogy table laboriously typed into some early version of Word is one more step I took out of the darkness.  

It was stories that finally coaxed me to breathe and look up, and because the present was so bleak, I looked to the past, because the past is nothing but stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things that happened.

The binders were a way to step into that past and make it my own. They were a way to imagine a future with something like potential, then construct one through fiction. To that end, I collected everything for my binders, even things I didn’t need at the moment. My research books came from libraries across the country through the magic of interlibrary loan, and I knew I might never have access to them again, so nothing was beneath my notice.

The whispers of Spindle and Dagger are here. Another story about a girl who’d had bad things happen to her, who could slowly—slowly—find her way forward. Tucked away amid the maps and charts, waiting till I was ready to come full circle.

Meet J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats has received two Junior Library Guild awards, two Washington State Book Awards, and earned starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, the Horn Book Review, and Shelf Awareness. Her newest books are Spindle and Dagger, a YA set in medieval Wales that deals with power dynamics and complicated relationships, and The Green Children of Woolpit, a creepy middle-grade fantasy inspired by real historical events. She is also the author of R is for Rebel, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, The Wicked and the Just, and the forthcoming middle-grade fantasy, The Night Ride (2021).

Social:

Web: http://www.jandersoncoats.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jandersoncoats

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jandersoncoats

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jandersoncoats/?hl

Buy Links

https://bookshop.org/books/spindle-and-dagger/9781536207774

https://www.mercerislandbooks.com/book/9781536207774

https://www.eagleharborbooks.com/book/9781536207774

https://www.elliottbaybook.com/book/9781536207774

https://www.secretgardenbooks.com/book/9781536207774

About Spindle and Dagger

This rich literary novel follows Elen, who must live a precarious lie in order to survive among the medieval Welsh warband that killed her family.

Wales, 1109. Three years ago, a warband raided Elen’s home. Her baby sister could not escape the flames. Her older sister fought back and almost killed the warband’s leader, Owain ap Cadwgan, before being killed herself. Despite Elen’s own sexual assault at the hands of the raiders, she saw a chance to live and took it. She healed Owain’s wound and spun a lie: Owain ap Cadwgan, son of the king of Powys, cannot be killed, not by blade nor blow nor poison. Owain ap Cadwgan has the protection of Saint Elen, as long as he keeps her namesake safe from harm and near him always.

For three years, Elen has had plenty of food, clothes to wear, and a bed to sleep in that she shares with the man who brought that warband to her door. Then Owain abducts Nest, the wife of a Norman lord, and her three children, triggering full-out war. As war rages, and her careful lies threaten to unravel, Elen begins to look to Nest and see a different life — if she can decide, once and for all, where her loyalties lie. J. Anderson Coats’s evocative prose immerses the reader in a dark but ultimately affirming tale of power and survival.

ISBN-13: 9781536207774
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 03/10/2020
Age Range: 16 – 17 Years

On Being Old and New, a guest post by Amanda Sellet

In the game of Chutes and Ladders that is publishing, some squares are hard to avoid. “Oops, Your Plot Has a Soggy Middle” for one, or “Womp Womp, Another Form Rejection.”

Other hazards are more personal, lining the unique path each of us takes toward the endgame of A Published Book. For me, one of those was the author photo. 

Plot twist: I’ll be 49 when my debut novel releases this May. Although I long since bade adieu to the fantasy of making a 40 Under 40 list, as a YA author I am conscious of writing for young people when I am … less than young myself.

This is not just a surface-level issue, regrets about skin elasticity aside. The whole idea of being a “debut” implies dewy newness, an awkward fit when your lived experience as a Gen X teen qualifies as historical fiction. My pop culture references are from a different century. Far from being a digital native, I grew up blissfully free from the panopticon of social media. In my day (gather round, kids!), colleges sent acceptance letters by mail, on actual paper – and once enrolled, you were almost certainly indoctrinated into the wrong wave of feminism.

Yet surely something has been gained along with the crow’s feet? For perspective, I surveyed several fellow debuts about stepping onto the kidlit stage as a non-ingenue.  

Home and Away

Although our own childhoods are disappearing in the rearview mirror, many of us live and/or work with kids every day. As parents and teachers, we have a front-row seat for the fears, fandoms, and (in the case of MG readers) fart jokes that drive today’s youth.

“My 12-year-old son is my biggest writing influence. I craft all my stories for him,” said Adrianna Cuevas. The author of THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ, out July 31, also taught Spanish and ESOL to her target audience for sixteen years.

“It’s much easier to have an authentic MG voice when you’re constantly communicating with your intended readers,” agreed Tanya Guerrero, a writer and parent whose first book, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, released March 31. Guerrero’s prior career developing K-12 educational materials also underscored the importance of representation and diversity in writing for kids.

Work Experience

In some cases, an author’s non-writing career doubled as research for their book.

“I spend a lot of time with young women who are recovering from terrible experiences in school mathematics,” said Amy Noelle Parks, a professor of Mathematics Education at Michigan State University. Her debut, THE QUANTUM WEIRDNESS OF THE ALMOST KISS (out January 5, 2021), offers a different vision: a boarding school full of young women who love math and science.

Betty Culley’s work as a pediatric hospice nurse directly informed her debut novel-in-verse THREE THINGS I KNOW ARE TRUE, which Culley described as, “a book I couldn’t have written before then.”  

For Alex Richards, author of the July release ACCIDENTAL, her previous job in TV production “helped bring me out of my shell, talking to strangers, digging deep to find the heart of a story, etc.”

Life Lessons

Off-the-job training can also have a profound influence on writing practice.

“I have two kids, a precocious nine-year-old and a severely autistic non-verbal eleven-year-old who needs 24/7 care, which my husband and I share,” explained Jamie Pacton, author of the May release THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY. “Being these particular children’s mother has taught me a lot about long games in life and writing; how to find joy in small things; it’s grown my patience and helped me think about the struggles other people face, even with small things like communicating basic needs.”

Age can also bring a new sense of determination. After years of working in practical (read: more likely to pay) fields like teaching and journalism, Cathleen Barnhart, author of the recent MG release THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO, made a now-or-never decision. “I had a bit of an emotional freak-out and decided that I needed to walk the writer walk, even if I never published anything. I had to own being a writer.”

For many members of the over 40 club, the passing of time also means greater freedom from expectations. Why write literary short stories when you love middle grade, or try to follow the market if your heart isn’t in dystopian YA?

“The writing I did in my 20s and 30s was largely professional,” said Cuevas, “completely devoid of fart and poop jokes. The horror! I was also writing to satisfy my audience, which often led to inauthenticity. Now, I feel secure enough to write stories I enjoy. I don’t think ‘younger me’ would’ve had the courage to do that.”

On Roads Not Taken

The writing landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. Pacton pointed out how much easier it is to find information about the industry now, not to mention the online access points of pitch contests and social media.

On the other hand, there are only so many hours in a day. Parks was getting a Ph.D. while raising a family; Culley wrote her first novel at 18 then went back to school to finish her degree, followed by years spent homeschooling her children while working nights as a labor and delivery nurse.

“Sometimes I regret that I didn’t ‘honor the gift’ during those years,” Culley said, “but the work I did and the life I lived made me the writer I am now.”

Fortunately for all of us, writing isn’t as physically demanding as gymnastics or even opera. Plenty of writers keep working many, many decades past their teen years.

“One thing publishing at this point in my life has done is help me realize that you have lots of time,” said Parks. “Just because you can’t do everything all at once, doesn’t mean you can’t do it all eventually.”

However old you are, fellow writers, take heart. Age has its compensations.

As for the author photo, I hear they have these things called filters nowadays.

Buy BY THE BOOK and other fine titles by authors of all ages from Amanda’s local indie The Raven Book Store: https://www.ravenbookstore.com/

Meet Amanda Sellet

Amanda Sellet had a previous career in journalism, during which she wrote book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. She has an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU. After a mostly coastal childhood, she now lives in Kansas with her husband, daughter, and cats.

Find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/amandajsellet

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/amandajsellet/

Web site: https://www.amandasellet.com/

About BY THE BOOK

In this clever YA rom-com debut perfect for fans of Kasie West and Ashley Poston, a teen obsessed with nineteenth-century literature tries to cull advice on life and love from her favorite classic heroines to disastrous results—especially when she falls for the school’s resident Lothario.

Mary Porter-Malcolm has prepared for high school in the one way she knows how: an extensive review of classic literature to help navigate the friendships, romantic liaisons, and overall drama she has come to expect from such an “esteemed” institution. When some new friends seem in danger of falling for the same tricks employed since the days of Austen and Tolstoy, Mary swoops in to create the Scoundrel Survival Guide, using archetypes of literature’s debonair bad boys to signal red flags. But despite her best efforts, she soon finds herself unable to listen to her own good advice and falling for a supposed cad—the same one she warned her friends away from. Without a convenient rain-swept moor to flee to, Mary is forced to admit that real life doesn’t follow the same rules as fiction and that if she wants a happy ending, she’s going to have to write it herself. 

ISBN-13: 9780358156611
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

That’s the Thing with the Shots, Right? a guest post by Eve Yohalem

Eve and Jen

I don’t remember a time when diabetes wasn’t part of my life. I was eight and my sister, Jennifer, was thirteen when she developed type 1—what used to be called “juvenile diabetes” because it occurred most often in children. A couple of months after she was diagnosed, Jen read an article in PEOPLE magazine that said diabetes cut life expectancy in half, which meant she could expect to die by the time she was forty. From that moment on, Jen told me, she felt like she was living on borrowed time, scared she wouldn’t live to get married or have children, terrified she wouldn’t get to grow up.

Forty-five years later, Jen is still alive and married with a son and two dogs. Nowadays, thanks to huge improvements in treatments, plenty of people with diabetes live well into old age. But there’s still no cure. And another thing that hasn’t changed? Diabetes is still invisible.

I gave Blue, the main character in The Truth According to Blue, diabetes because I wanted to show what it’s like to have a life-threatening condition you need to think about all day every day that no one else can see. Best friends, teachers, and even sisters often don’t know how dangerous and all-consuming diabetes can be. I thought I knew a lot about the disease when I started writing. After all, I’d lived with my sister my whole childhood, and on top of that, I have borderline type 2. What could I possibly not know?

Turns out, a lot. I was amazed by how much I learned from my sister and other people with diabetes while I was researching. When you have diabetes, you’re never not thinking about it. Everything—and I mean everything—you eat, drink, do, and don’t do affects your blood sugar. And no matter how careful you are, sometimes your body just won’t listen. Or the technology breaks. Or both.

Last Thanksgiving, I sat next to Jen. Just before we started eating, she nudged me. I looked down at her glucose monitor. Her blood sugar was over 300, which is really high. I knew what that meant. You can’t eat with high blood sugar because food makes your sugar go even higher. Which meant Jen had to take insulin, wait fifteen minutes for it to kick in, check her blood sugar again, and repeat the process until her sugar went down to normal. Did I mention Thanksgiving dinner is Jen’s favorite meal?

“What’s up with that?” I whispered. Jen shrugged. “No clue. It’s been like that for two days. I can’t get it down.”

I tried not to show my panic. What if her blood sugar won’t go down? How often does this happen? Her diabetes is getting worse. Meanwhile, no one else at the table had any idea what was going on. Jen must have felt sick, but she looked fine, and nobody except me noticed her pushing some food around her plate and not eating.

That’s what it’s like to have diabetes.

Blue is spending the summer hunting for sunken treasure in a bay off Sag Harbor and dealing with a movie star’s spoiled daughter who insists on tagging along with her. At the same time, she’s monitoring her blood sugar, and feeling dizzy or tired or nauseated or worse when it gets too high or too low. Lucky for Blue, she has Otis, her beloved diabetic alert dog who’s specially trained to smell changes in blood sugar. The picture on the book jacket tells the story: two girls and a dog on a dock, scanning the water, a sunken ship beneath them. Summer fun! Adventure! Mystery! Well, yes, that’s all in the book (or at least I hope it is!). But if you look closely, you’ll see Otis is bowing down, which is how he alerts Blue that her blood sugar is low. He isn’t playing; he’s telling her she needs to stop whatever she’s doing and deal with it. As Blue says, Otis saves her life every day.

Diabetes doesn’t cut your life expectancy in half anymore, but it’s still life-threatening, and it’s still a heavy, lonely burden to carry, especially when you’re a kid. I wish there had been an Otis for Jen when she was growing up. And a book with a girl like her who has diabetes but still makes new friends and goes on big adventures. I wrote The Truth According to Blue because I wanted kids today with diabetes—and their friends, classmates, siblings, and cousins—to have the book my sister didn’t have.

Meet Eve Yohalem

Photo credit: Nicholas Polsky

Eve Yohalem is the author of middle grade novels The Truth According to Blue, Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra De Winter and Bram Broen, and Escape Under the Forever Sky. She is also the co-creator and co-host of “Book Dreams,” a podcast for everyone who loves books and has ever wondered about them. Eve lives in New York City with her family and their two cats.

LINKS

Eve’s website: https://www.eveyohalem.com/

Eve talking about THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO BLUE: https://vimeo.com/394969283

Book Dreams podcast: https://www.bookdreamspodcast.com/

About The Truth According to Blue

A heartfelt middle grade adventure about one girl’s search for sunken treasure, friendship, and her place in the world.

Thirteen-year-old Blue Broen is on the hunt for a legendary ship of gold, lost centuries ago when her ancestors sailed to New York. Blue knows her overprotective parents won’t approve of her mission to find their family’s long-lost fortune, so she keeps it a secret from everyone except her constant companion, Otis, an 80-pound diabetic alert dog. But it’s hard to keep things quiet with rival treasure hunters on the loose, and with Blue’s reputation as the local poster child for a type 1 diabetes fundraiser.

Blue’s quest gets even harder when she’s forced to befriend Jules, the brainy but bratty daughter of a vacationing movie star who arrives on the scene and won’t leave Blue alone. While Blue initially resents getting stuck with this spoiled seventh grade stranger, Jules soon proves Blue’s not the only one who knows about secrets — and adventure.

Will Blue unravel a three hundred year-old family mystery, learn to stand up for herself, and find the missing treasure? Or is she destined to be nothing more than “diabetes girl” forever?

ISBN-13: 9780316424370
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Write What You Know, a guest post by Loriel Ryon

I almost didn’t write this post.

As I’ve grown and changed, my thoughts and understandings of my identity and what that means have evolved a lot over the years. Being a writer means looking into yourself, pulling apart the pieces of what made you, and writing that. So when I started writing, my heritage and cultural upbringing kept coming up. How could it not? When I think back to my childhood years, my family and my traditions were so important to that time. But identity is complicated. Especially when you come from a blended family. And when that family breaks apart, identity gets even more complicated. My understanding of myself and my identity will probably change again. And again. But for now, this is where I am.

Because as the old saying goes: write what you know.

And this is what I know.

I grew up on bluegrass music and pumpkin empanadas. Pig pickins’ and the best southern fried chicken. Jackie Horner pies for birthdays, luminarias and tamales at Christmas, and cascarones at Easter. My childhood was a blend of my parents’ upbringings and traditions: my father, an Irish-English American Catholic southern boy, born and raised in North Carolina; and my mother, a Mexican American Catholic born and raised in south Texas. Their traditions were different from each other, but somehow, they found a way to raise me, my brother, and my sister with a blend of the two.

Sure, my mom loved to tell the story where she asked my dad right after they got married to get tortillas from the grocery store and he brought back corn tortillas in a can. (I’m not kidding. It was a family joke for a LOOONG time.) My grandad would tell us stories about how he wasn’t allowed at the school dance because he was Mexican and had to wait outside. I’m pretty sure my mom had never even heard of bluegrass music until she met my dad.

Spanish was spoken in our house (and it was basic Spanish at best), but not because my mom grew up speaking it. My grandparents didn’t teach their children Spanish. They wanted them to blend in and not rock the boat. Both my parents learned in school and college, and once us kids had learned how to spell, they’d switch to Spanish to keep us from knowing what they were talking about.

The other important thing to know is my parents didn’t stay married. And while that was a very tough thing to go through as a kid, it also really shifted my adult understanding of identity and heritage. Without my blended family intact, which traditions would stay? Would some fall away? How would we raise our own kids when the time came?

The other thing is while my siblings and I have our mother’s dark hair and eyes, our light skin coupled with our English last name affords a lot of privileges that other members in our family don’t have. By looking at us, you can’t really “tell” our heritage and with that comes the doubts.

If I look white and I don’t speak Spanish, can I be Mexican American? If I have a white last name, can I be Mexican American? If every time I tell someone that I’m part Mexican American and they say, “Well, you don’t look it…”, then maybe I’m not.

Questions about my identity carried with me all the way to my debut, INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS. It’s a story about a girl and her sister, both of mixed heritage, as they go on a journey through the desert to save their grandmother’s life. I’d never read a story about a girl of mixed heritage like me. I stubbornly plowed forward, following the advice: write what you know. But even so, I was riddled with doubts. Because when you are straddling the in-between you never quite feel like you are enough. It is a constant battle between hoping you aren’t a fraud to trying to get things perfectly right. Would kids want to read about a girl like me? Would I do the story justice? Was it okay for me to write a story like this? But my Spanish isn’t very good…

I remember when Aida Salazar reached out and asked if I’d like to be part of the Las Musas group, a collective of Latinx authors who support one another. I almost told her no. I stressed over it. How was I going to tell Aida Salazar (who’s book I absolutely admired and adored) that she’d made a mistake? It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be a part of the group. I really did. It was because I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like I wasn’t Latinx enough to be in the group, and I finally found the courage and told her so.

And Aida, the always wise, said to me, “There’s no one way to be Latinx.”

And with those simple words, my view of my identity shifted again. When the doubts come rolling in, I repeat those words to myself. And while I may not get everything perfectly right and I’m sure to make mistakes along the way, I realize my unique viewpoint does matter. Just because it’s not quite like everyone else’s doesn’t mean it’s wrong or not enough. It’s just…mine.

And that is what I know.

For now.

Meet Loriel Ryon

Loriel Ryon is an author of middle grade fiction. She spent her childhood with her nose in a book, reading in restaurants, on the school bus, and during every family vacation. Her upbringing in a mixed-heritage military family inspires much of her writing about that wonderfully complicated time between childhood and adulthood. Also a nurse, she lives in the magical New Mexico desert with her husband and two daughters. Her debut middle grade novel, INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS is out now.

Social Media

Twitter/Instagram/Facebook: @Lorielryon

Website: Lorielryon.com

About Into the Tall, Tall Grass

A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life in this captivating and magical debut that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?

When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.

ISBN-13: 9781534449671
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Age Range: 10 – 18 Years

Little Gangs, a guest post by Lauren McLaughlin

I was supposed to be on a book tour right now for my YA novel, Send Pics. But, like every other author with a book hitting the shelves right now, I’m in lock down. So instead of hanging out with librarians, booksellers and fellow book nerds, I’m hunkering down with my family. Instead of reading aloud to a classroom full of teenagers, I’m homeschooling my ten-year-old daughter (using the loosest possible definition of “homeschooling”).

One of the reasons I was looking forward to getting out into the world and talking about Send Pics was because at heart it’s a story about friendship. Not just one-on-one friendship, but group friendship. It’s about the little gangs we form and how they get pressed into service in surprising ways. Friend groups are often forged in good times through shared interests (choir, sports, partying, etc), but it’s when things go awry that a loose association of buddies becomes a life raft.

Throughout my life, I’ve had a handful of little gangs, from the the neighbourhood kids I played with as a child, to the mother’s group I meet up with for dinner—and mutual support—every month. Along the way, I’ve drifted into and out of little gangs that were of such intense connection and intimacy it seems odd that they’re not all still a part of my daily life. But time, circumstances, and the natural arc of life have their way. It’s not permanence that defines these little gangs, it’s intensity.

So it was interesting, but not really surprising, when, in the midst of a global pandemic, two of my former little gangs reached out for Zoom chats within a week of each other. The first was a group of singers from my high school choir. I’ve kept in loose contact with a few of them over the years, but I haven’t hung out with the whole gang since the eighties! We span three different countries and four time zones. Staring at these familiar faces arrayed in a grid on my laptop, it felt like I was back in the high school music room. I half expected our old choir master to step in and tap on her music stand. We got each other caught up on the basics—jobs, families, etc—but there was no formality,  no politeness. We got straight into the heart of the matter, sharing our fears and frustrations, and looking for ways we could help each other. Lockdown has strained all of us in different ways, and the urge to reach out (even when thousands of miles made it physically impossible) was overwhelming. 

We could have done this at any time over the past ten years. Video conferencing is not exactly new. I think there was something about the pandemic that made us yearn for that connection, for that sense of belonging. We are a social species. For all our talk of American individualism and our tendency to worship lone heroes, we need each other.

In Send Pics, varsity wrestling captain Tarkin Shaw drugs and photographs his classmate Suze Tilman then uses the nude pictures to blackmail her into a sexual relationship. It’s a fictional story, but the crime is common enough. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, the influence of alcohol, and the illusory sense of invincibility conspire to put teenagers (especially teen girls) in a great deal of danger. When I first came up with the idea, I dove into the data on these types of crimes. Time and again, I found parents, teachers, coaches, even law enforcement, rallying around the perpetrators while the victims were blamed, disbelieved, and, in some cases, driven out of town. I wasn’t about to sugar coat my story. It wouldn’t have been realistic to portray the town rallying around the victim when the perpetrator was a popular all-state wrestling champion. But as soon as I decided to pit Suze against the whole town, I discovered that I couldn’t bring myself to leave her completely on her own. Maybe it was a subconscious attempt to protect my own psyche from a story that would have been too dark. But no sooner did I sketch out the foundations of the story, than a little gang emerged. Of course Suze wouldn’t be completely on her own. She’d have her friends. While everyone else is conspiring to discredit and shame her, she finds shelter in her little gang of four. They may be vastly outnumbered but the strength of their bond is equal and opposite to the forces working against them. “Shields up” is their motto, their defiant stance against an unfair, unjust world they’re only beginning to understand. 

As we all hunker down in our social isolation, trying to keep the virus at bay—a virus we still don’t fully understand—don’t we need our little gangs too? I’ve read about people forming Zoom meet ups and WhatsApp groups with neighbours they no longer pass on the street since lockdown began. They just need that sense of connection, of belonging. Last week I Zoomed with my old “Happy Hour” gang, a group of New Yorkers I haven’t hung out with since I moved to London ten years ago. We’ve added spouses and children and a grey hair or two, but for all that’s changed, the group dynamic was the same. We could have been sipping martinis in the East Village. This weekend, I’m Zooming with my choir friends again. Nothing has materially changed since our last Zoom. I doubt anyone will have much in the way of news. But that’s not the point. We’re here for each other. That’s what it’s about. And even if the forces working against us are a gazillion particles of virus we can’t even see, and even if our only defence is our isolation, at least for a little while we can slip back into our little gang and say, hey, shields up. I’ve got your back.

Meet Lauren McLaughlin

LAUREN MCLAUGHLIN is the author of Send PicsThe FreeScored, and Cycler. She has also written the children’s pictures books Wonderful You and Mitzi Tulane Preschool Detective, both of which feature adoptive families. She is an adoptive mother herself. Prior to her career in fiction, she spent ten years in the film business. She produced commercials and music videos for such artists as Nas, The B52’s, the Spin Doctors, and Monie Love, then went on to write several screenplays, including Prisoner of Love starring Naomi Campbell, Specimen starring Mark Paul Gosselaar, and Hypercube (the sequel to the cult favorite Cube). She also produced American PsychoBuffalo 66, and several other feature films. She is a member of the improv comedy troupe Amorphous Horse, which performs in a variety of venues in and around London, UK. 

You can follow Lauren at:

www.laurenmclaughlin.net

Twitter: @LaurenMcWoof

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lauren.mclaughlin.books

Instagram: @laurenmclaughlin3

About Send Pics

At Jonesville High, casual misogyny runs rampant, slut-shaming is a given, and school athletes are glorified above all else. Best friends Suze, Nikki, Ani, and Lydia swear they’ll always have each other’s backs against predatory guys—so when Suze suddenly starts dating wrestling star and toxic douchebag Tarkin Shaw, it’s a big betrayal.

Turns out, it’s not a relationship—it’s blackmail. At first, Suze feels like she has no choice but to go along with it, but when Tarkin starts demanding more, she enlists the help of intelligent misfits DeShawn and Marcus to beat Tarkin at his own game. As Marcus points out, what could possibly go wrong?

The answer: everything. And by the time the teens realize they’re fighting against forces much bigger than the Tarkin Shaws of the world, losing isn’t an option.

ISBN-13: 9781948340267
Publisher: Dottir Press
Publication date: 04/21/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Praise for Send Pics

“A gritty read for a woke generation” — Kirkus Reviews

A relentless and fierce thriller crossed with an incisive story of gender, class and race. It grabs and grabs and never lets go. —CORY DOCTOROW, author of Little Brother and Radicalized

McLaughlin has crafted a compelling novel that is somehow both timely and timeless: a perfect storm of topical issues affecting our society―and especially connected teens―today, but also an enduring lesson in empathy which reminds us that the truth behind the clickbait headlines often is hidden. —E.C. MYERS, author of the Andre Norton Award–winning Fair Coin, Quantum Coin, The Silence of Six, and more

A Moment of Radical Honesty and Talking Frankly about Modern Poverty in THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY, a guest post by Jamie Pacton

I think every writer puts a bit of themselves into the stories we tell and the characters we create. When writing my debut YA novel, THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY, I put a whole lot of myself into Kit. Her humor, her outlook on life, her flaws— all of these are mine. I based her love interest on my husband, and I even included embarrassing moments from my own life in the book (like that time I ended up inside a dumpster I very nearly couldn’t get out of; or, that time I yelled “I know CPR” when a stranger collapsed in a locker room and my friends went running for help). But, even with the amount of Jamie inside Kit’s story, there’s one element of my own life in the book that I struggle to be honest about: Kit’s poverty.

Like Kit, I’ve lived through some very lean times. Growing up, I was the oldest of ten kids, and although my parents both worked white-collar jobs (at least until I was a teenager and my dad lost his job), I’m sure feeding all of us, clothing us, and keeping the lights on was a stretch. I remember visits to food banks and a pantry full of cans long past their expiration dates. (Expiration dates were more of whimsical suggestions in my parents’ house, rather than guidelines for food safety). I also remember visiting friends’ houses and marveling at the toys, clothes, and bedroom space they had. It was all so nice and not second-hand, and I desperately wanted the same things. Even as early as elementary school, I used to beg my parents for a pair of Keds or a Guess t-shirt or every other silly material thing that seemed like it was the thing that would make me feel like I was as good as my friends.

Poverty followed me to college. Yes, I had a full scholarship, but I promptly lost it after my freshman year because I was working two jobs in order to have enough money to stay alive. After college, when I had a BA in English but no real professional skills, I worked sixteen-hour days across four jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet. I’d waitress the lunch shift at one restaurant; then, go nanny for a few hours after school; then, work a dinner shift at a different restaurant; and, finish my day by working overnight at K-Mart. I was perpetually exhausted, smoking too many cigarettes to stay awake, and somehow still poor. Even when I finally decided to go back to grad school, I couldn’t escape the shadow of poverty. I’m always embarrassed to admit this, but my husband and I were on food stamps in grad school because—thanks to the ridiculous notion that grad students can’t work outside jobs— we were both only working as TAs while supporting small children.

These days, although I’ve had many economic ups and downs in the years since my children were born, things are mostly much better. But, I wrote everything I know about being poor into THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY.

Credit: Vicky Chen (@VickyCBooks on Twitter)

My intimate knowledge of food scarcity comes out in the “Cooler of Doom” Kit’s family keeps for storing food when their power is cut off; and, it’s there in the way Kit relies on the food she can get at work to keep herself fed. My awareness of my own economic disparity in relation to my friends is apparent as Kit tries to hide her poverty from her best friends. My struggle with balancing too many jobs and still just barely scraping by lurks in the way Kit and her entire family pool their tips to pay bills. My very real knowledge of the emotional toll that working too much and always being on edge about money takes is present in Kit’s brother Chris, who is just barely an adult, but already weary of working all the time. Even the way I used stimulants like cigarettes to stay awake or to trick my body into feeling full is present in the way Kit’s mom smokes. (I read about this same impulse in Stephanie Land’s MAID and viscerally understood so much she talked about in relation to being part of the working poor).

Some of the praise I’ve gotten for THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY calls it a “frank look at modern poverty,” and that’s thrills me because that’s exactly what I wanted to do in the book. I wanted to be honest about poverty and show a character who might look like she’s economically okay—after all, Kit has a house, a job, her brother has a car, and she’s planning on going to college— but just beneath the surface lies a slippery economic slope that threatens to send Kit and her family toppling.

Even with that intention in mind, however, this is the first time I’ve written about how Kit’s poverty mirrors my own experience. In interviews, I’ve happily talked about the feminism, the romance, the friendships, and even the absurd moments from my life that I wrote into the story. But, as I mentioned above, I’m embarrassed to tell people that I’ve been as poor as Kit (or poorer, in fact). For the longest time, I didn’t want people to know that I’ve lived on the edge and that I’ve fallen off it before. I never tell people that I’ve had government assistance or that I’m always comparing what I have materially (and finding myself lacking) based on my own childhood insecurities.

But why is poverty so hard to talk about? Why is there shame associated with it? Why would I feel embarrassed to say that there have been times in my life when I needed help? Why does saying I couldn’t make ends meet feel like a dirty secret?

I think the answers to these questions lie in the way poverty is talked about in modern America and the discourse of shame surrounding the notion of being poor. Too often, poor people are seen as lazy or they’re treated like their poverty is their fault. Or, even worse, they’re viewed as worth less than others because they don’t have money/stuff/privilege. (This is something I tackle head on in my next book, LUCKY GIRL, where the main character wins the lotto jackpot and grapples with the questions of can money really bring happiness or does too much of it just make people terrible?)

While these myths about poverty abound, most of the poor people I know are working too many jobs, trying to keep their kids alive, and striving to make their lives better. But, they’re laboring within an unfair system that keeps them impoverished (and, it must be noted, this unfair system is consistently kinder to white and/or able bodied people like Kit and myself than others, and that privilege is not negligible). Healthcare is expensive; food is expensive; if you don’t have a car, you can’t get to work reliably; and, the list of ways to stay poor when you’re already there goes on and on. Many excellent non-fiction books have been written about the nearly impossible-to-break generational cycle of poverty in America, and I think it’s important to talk about this in YA fiction as well.

The notion of radical honesty contains many elements, but a core one is that you can bring about change by being honest. I try to be honest in my life and in my fiction, so, I’ll just come out and say it: I have been very, very poor at certain times in my life. I’ve taken back $10 worth of groceries so I could put gas in my car. I’ve not known where my children’s next meal was coming from or how I was going to keep the lights on. It’s okay to admit those things, and stories of modern poverty need to be told so we can battle the stigma surrounding it. I hope THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY contributes in some small way to removing this stigma, and I hope it finds a kid who is as poor as Kit is (or I was) and helps them feel better about their own life, their circumstances, and their prospects for the future.

Meet Jamie Pacton

Photo credit: Greg Pacton

Jamie Pacton is a Young Adult and Middle Grade author who grew up minutes away from the National Storytelling Center in the mountains of East Tennessee. She has a BA and MA in English Literature, and currently teaches English at the college level. While pursuing her dream of being an author, she worked as a waitress, pen salesperson, lab assistant, art museum guard, bookseller, pool attendant, nanny, and lots of other weird jobs in between. Her writing has appeared in national and local magazines, and she spent many years blogging for Parents.com. Currently, Jamie lives in Wisconsin with her family and a dog named Lego. The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly is her debut novel. Find Jamie online at www.jamiepacton.com and on Instagram and Twitter @JamiePacton.

About The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly

Moxie meets A Knight’s Tale as Kit Sweetly slays sexism, bad bosses, and bad luck to become a knight at a medieval-themed restaurant.

Working as a Wench—i.e. waitress—at a cheesy medieval-themed restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, Kit Sweetly dreams of being a Knight like her brother. She has the moves, is capable on a horse, and desperately needs the raise that comes with knighthood, so she can help her mom pay the mortgage and hold a spot at her dream college.

Company policy allows only guys to be Knights. So when Kit takes her brother’s place, clobbers the Green Knight, and reveals her identity at the end of the show, she rockets into internet fame and a whole lot of trouble with the management. But this Girl Knight won’t go down without a fight. As other Wenches and cast members join her quest, a protest forms. In a joust before Castle executives, they’ll prove that gender restrictions should stay medieval—if they don’t get fired first.

ISBN-13: 9781624149528
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/05/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

The Power of Being Vulnerable, a guest post by Kate O’Shaughnessy

I was twenty-one years old the first time I had a panic attack.

Kate, age 21

It was the tail-end of a long weekend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, right after my junior year of college had wrapped up. I was exhausted and ready to go home, the straps of an overstuffed backpack chafing against my sunburned shoulders as I wandered through the airport with a friend.

It came completely out of nowhere. We were browsing in a bookstore when my chest grew unbearably tight, like someone was sitting right on my sternum. My heart began to race and my breathing became shallow. The pressure in my chest was intense, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by an almost-prophetic sense of doom.

Is this how it feels when you’re about to die? I thought wildly. Had I drank too much that weekend? Had I gotten sun poisoning? Had all of that, plus the combination of not sleeping and being stressed about exams, done something terrible to my heart?

Panicked, I left the bookstore. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I went and sat on the floor outside, my back against the wall, desperately trying to get a deep breath. At that point, my vision was starting to go speckled and black around the edges.

“Are you okay?” My friend asked, now kneeling next to me. I must have looked terrible, because I can still remember the worry on her face.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “I think something’s wrong with my heart.”

Within minutes there were other people around me, too. Someone must have called a doctor, or whatever medical staff was on-site, because soon they were kneeling next to me, too, asking all kinds of questions.

My chest still felt scarily tight, but the “I’m about to die” feeling was fading. I’m okay, I said, I just want to go home. But given my symptoms, I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed on the flight and that an ambulance had been called. 

And the ambulance did arrive. With a stretcher. I was horrified. I begged them to please let me walk, that I was starting to feel a little better, but I was told it was a matter of liability and I had to hop on up and let them strap me in.

For years, what I remembered most about this whole experience was the shame. That hot sluice of humiliation as I tried to hide my face from classmates who were watching me roll through the terminal.

At the hospital, the doctor gently suggested that it could be a mild inflammation of my heart’s lining, but that in all likelihood what I’d experienced was a panic attack.

Instead of listening, or asking more about panic attacks or what I could do to avoid them in the future, I clung to the first option, to the purely physical diagnosis, like it was a life raft. I told my worried friends that there was something up with my heart, that it wasn’t too serious, that a short course of anti-inflammatory pills should clear it up. I remember feeling like not all of them believed me. This made me sink deeper into that feeling of shame. I’d caused this whole big embarrassing scene, I told myself, for nothing.

I had more panic attacks after that. I white-knuckled through them. I didn’t talk about it. The embarrassment of that first panic attack had burrowed so deep that I was still ashamed. This went on for a long time.

During the course of all this, life went on. I graduated, traveled a ton, had a bunch of strange and interesting jobs, got married, and started writing.

I played around with a few different manuscripts before I started writing what turned into my middle grade debut, THE LONELY HEART OF MAYBELLE LANE. I started writing it because I’d just moved across the country, away from my family, and I was lonely. But then, I wrote more of myself into Maybelle. I gave her panic attacks, too. 

It wasn’t something I remember actively deciding to do. They were just…one part of her. For her, they started after she and her mom could no longer afford their home and had to move, an event for which Maybelle blamed herself.

Writing the book—no, writing this specific part of her—was deeply cathartic for me. Because no one else in the story judges Maybelle for her panic attacks. There is care, there is love, there is support, but there is no judgement. Because what kind of person would judge an eleven-year-old kid for their mental health struggles? Nobody decent, I realized. So maybe that meant I could stop judging myself.

And so in the process of writing about Maybelle’s panic attacks, I became more open about talking about my own. When a friend mentioned a panic attack she’d experienced, I told her that I got them, too. I started opening up about it; I let myself be vulnerable first in my writing, and then in my real life.

Funnily enough, my memory of that first panic attack started to change. I now remember it with tenderness toward myself instead of self-reproach, because I was essentially just a scared kid who had no idea what was happening to her.

Because here’s the secret: vulnerability can sometimes feel like the end of the world, but what it’s actually the end of is shame.

If you’re in a place of shame about anything, my advice is to open up. Shame dies in the light. Good people will want to support and love you. So rip the curtains aside. Talk about it. Be vulnerable. Be vulnerable in your writing, in your relationships, in your life. It can be scary, but I promise: it’s so worth it.

Meet Kate O’Shaughnessy

Kate O’Shaughnessy writes middle grade fiction. She has been a chef, earned a fellowship with the Yale Sustainable Food Program, and backpacked around the world. She and her husband live in Berkeley, CA. You can read more about her at kloshaughnessy.com and follow her on Twitter at @kloshaughnessy. The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane is her debut novel.


Links:

www.kloshaughnessy.com

www.twitter.com/kloshaughnessy

www.instagram.com/kloshaughnessy

About The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane

This sparkling middle-grade debut is a classic-in-the-making!

Maybelle Lane is looking for her father, but on the road to Nashville she finds so much more: courage, brains, heart—and true friends.

Eleven-year-old Maybelle Lane collects sounds. She records the Louisiana crickets chirping, Momma strumming her guitar, their broken trailer door squeaking. But the crown jewel of her collection is a sound she didn’t collect herself: an old recording of her daddy’s warm-sunshine laugh, saved on an old phone’s voicemail. It’s the only thing she has of his, and the only thing she knows about him.

Until the day she hears that laugh—his laugh—pouring out of the car radio. Going against Momma’s wishes, Maybelle starts listening to her radio DJ daddy’s new show, drinking in every word like a plant leaning toward the sun. When he announces he’ll be the judge of a singing contest in Nashville, she signs up. What better way to meet than to stand before him and sing with all her heart?

But the road to Nashville is bumpy. Her starch-stiff neighbor Mrs. Boggs offers to drive her in her RV. And a bully of a boy from the trailer park hitches a ride, too. These are not the people May would have chosen to help her, but it turns out they’re searching for things as well. And the journey will mold them into the best kind of family—the kind you choose for yourself.

ISBN-13: 9781984893833
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 03/03/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

The power of laughter in a time of crisis, a guest post by Nicole Kronzer

Senior year!

I had the most magnificent high school theater teacher. I was equal parts terrified and in awe of her because she treated teenagers like we mattered. Part of that meant being honest with us.

So when I went to her with my graduation speech, I got halfway through the delivery and she stopped me. “It’s so boring, Nicole. Don’t write what you think everyone wants to hear. What’s something you learned in high school that you think everyone should remember forever?”

I swallowed. “Uh…the power of laughter?”

“Then write that speech.”

So I did. I delivered that speech to a college basketball arena filled with my fellow graduates and the people who loved us. I pointed out fun facts about the number of calories burned while laughing and the endorphins it creates, interrupting the facts with impressions of our teachers and snippets from the song Make ‘em Laugh from Singin’ in the Rain. The crowd, as they say, went wild.

I look back on that speech now, twenty years later, and think: “Brave girl, Nicole.” And also, “You were right about the laughter.”

My very first book, a YA novel called Unscripted, came out April 21st. It takes place at an improv camp in the mountains of Colorado. I’ve been thinking about laughter and the power of laughter in all sorts of ways ever since high school.

This is such a weird time. My young daughters asked me, “What happened during pandemics when you were little, Mama?” and I tried not to scare them when I answered, “Nothing like this has ever happened in my lifetime, sweet peas.” And then I tickled them. And showed them the “Horse with No Name” Rex Chapman tweet. When we were done, they still knew this was a singular time, but also that we could persevere.

Laughter does not distract us from the work we need to do, it fills our cups so we can do the work. So we can be strong for the kids who need us.

There’s all sorts of power in laughter. I knew it when I was eighteen and I wrote that graduation speech that brought the house down, I knew it at thirty-eight when I started writing Unscripted, and I know it today at forty, raising two little girls through a pandemic.

There is a lot that could overwhelm me, but I can handle it after watching Parks and Rec or Key and Peele. I can do hard things after giggling with my friend KC as she tries to tape ear buds into her weirdly shaped ears so we can take our separate runs together over the phone. I can read Crying Laughing by Lance Rubin and disappear for a while, rejuvenated when I close the book’s cover.

When times are difficult, we often deny ourselves the very things we need to survive those times: sleep, exercise, nutritious food, and togetherness. Our physical togetherness is limited right now, but laughter can bring us together, and give us the strength we need to keep going.

My eighteen-year-old self would urge you to take Donald O’Connor’s advice and Make ‘em Laugh. Or be the person who does the laughing. Or recommend books for students so they can laugh. No matter how you slice it, laughter will help us come out on the other side, ready for anything. 

Meet Nicole Kronzer

Photo credit: Dawn Busch

In addition to writing books for teenagers, her favorite people, Nicole Kronzer is a high school English teacher and former professional actor. She loves to knit and run (usually not at the same time), and has named all the plants in her classroom. She lives with her family in Minneapolis.


Socials: Instagram & Twitter: @nicolekronzer
Website: nicolekronzer.com

About Unscripted by Nicole Kronzer

A funny and timely debut YA about the toxic masculinity at a famous improv comedy camp

Seventeen-year-old Zelda Bailey-Cho has her future all planned out: improv camp, then Second City, and finally Saturday Night Live. She’s thrilled when she lands a spot on the coveted varsity team at a prestigious improv camp, which means she’ll get to perform for professional scouts—including her hero, Nina Knightley. But even though she’s hardworking and talented, Zelda’s also the only girl on Varsity, so she’s the target for humiliation from her teammates. And her 20-year-old coach, Ben, is cruel to her at practice and way too nice to her when they’re alone. Zelda wants to fight back, but is sacrificing her best shot at her dream too heavy a price to pay? Equal parts funny and righteous, Unscripted is a moving debut novel that Printz Award winner Nina LaCour calls “a truly special book, written at exactly the right time.”

ISBN-13: 9781419740848
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 04/21/2020
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Local bookstores: Red Balloon, Wild Rumpus, Storied Owl, Magers & Quinn

Links to my book in each of these local bookstores: Red Balloon, Wild Rumpus, Storied Owl, Magers & Quinn

Buy link through my publisher

Not Required Reading, Or How Changing What I Read Changed What I Wrote, a guest post by Polly Farquhar

A TBR stack of one of Polly’s kids!

Anyone who has kids or was once a kid themselves knows that a suggestion from a parent can be the kiss of death, particularly when it comes to reading material.  This was one hundred percent the dynamic between me and my own children.  Casual suggestions didn’t work.  Neither did subterfuge, otherwise known as putting a book I thought they might like in their bedroom and hoping they’ll think they discovered it all on their own.  If one of my kids tells me that a book doesn’t look good to them, they’re sticking with it, and probably more for parent/child reasons than book reasons. 

It took me a while to learn.  As a life-long reader and writer, it was one of my most difficult acts of self-control to not foist books upon my kids.  In the library or the bookstore, I had to restrain myself. Keep my hands in my pockets.  Don’t take a book off the shelf to look at.  It was like playing huckle buckle beanstalk when you don’t even dare to look in the direction of the object you’ve hidden—or, in this case, the book I wanted my child to pick up, check out, take home and read.  Sometimes I’d read the book myself, or read about it, or read other books by the author, and I just felt it in my bones.  My kids will love it!  Spoiler alert:  they won’t even crack it open. 

Another TBR stack from one of Polly’s kids!

I’m not sure at what point I surrendered.  And, honestly, they love to read, so I did not have the worry some parents might have when it comes to how and what their children are reading.  Set loose, my kids soared on without me dragging them in one direction or the other.

One would think I would have figured this out much sooner because of how I had struggled to do the same thing when it came to my own reading.  I always read what I was supposed to.  As an earnest high school writer who took herself very seriously, I read what I thought I was supposed to read—stuff like On the Road and The Catcher in the Rye—which, really, didn’t impress me (sorry not sorry).  But since that’s what I thought I should be reading, that’s what I read.  (Which itself is a whole other topic for discussion.) As a college English major, I read piles of books a week.  And while I did find new writers to admire (Virginia Woolf, Nella Larsen, Angela Carter), it was still required reading.  I headed off to graduate school and read Ulysses (twice!) and, as a student of creative writing, the works of visiting writers, editors of literary journals where I submitted short stories, and whatever books people were talking about on the rickety back porches of their graduate student apartments. 

It wasn’t until I had my first child and we headed off to baby storytime at the local public library that I gave myself the freedom to pick up any book I wanted for the first time since I was very young.  Nothing was assigned.  I wasn’t trying to impress anyone.  I chose anything from displays that caught my eye, or celebrity memoirs, or popular books that were going to be made into movies, or magazines.  I read anything I heard discussed on NPR that I thought sounded interesting, which was how I specifically got into middle grade, when Kate DiCamillo (before I even knew who Kate DiCamillo was) recommended Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, Half  A Chance by Cynthia Lord, The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson, and Under the Egg Laura Marx Fitzgerald.  Books weren’t homework; they weren’t paper topics; they were new worlds and escape and wonder and the soft thunk of child’s head coming to rest on my shoulder as we settled in for our family read each night.  And at some point—whether it was from the joy of reading whatever I wanted, or just reaching a certain age—I decided I would never again feel guilty about not reading what anybody thought I ought to read.

Polly’s TBR pile!

I don’t know where I’d be as a writer if I’d not become a more open-minded and catholic reader.  Before, I judged my work by traditional and canonical standards I wasn’t even interested in but thought I should be, and it paralyzed me.  Before, I didn’t even know what middle grade was, or what great stories could be found there.  If I didn’t know what world my story could land in, how could I have written it?    

P.S.  Meanwhile…in the best example of turnabout is fair play, my kids have been stacking their favorite reads for me in my TBR pile.  (And of course I’ll read them all.)

P.P.S. I’d originally included how one of my kids had discovered all on their own and without my interference one of the middle grade books listed above and has now read it twice.  Hurrah!  But I was informed that she’d only checked it out from the library twice and hasn’t actually read it yet, and because parenting is a learning process, I forgot myself and said, “Read it! It’s great! I loved it!” and…it was a reminder to stay the course.

So much good reading going on at this house!

Polly’s favorite local indie bookstores in central Ohio are Cover to Cover and Gramercy Books.

Meet Polly Farquhar

Polly Farquhar grew up in a small town in upstate New York, graduated from the University at Albany, and then moved to Ohio, earning her MFA in Creative Writing from the Ohio State University.   If she’s not at the library with her kids or reading a book, you can find her baking (or eating) dairy-free, peanut-free, tree nut-free, and sesame-free desserts.  Her debut novel, Itch, is available now.

You can find Polly at www.pollyfarquharauthor.com

Twitter: @PFKreader

About Itch by Polly Farquhar

When everything around you is going wrong, how far would you go to fit in?

Isaac’s sixth grade year gets off to a rough start.

For one thing, a tornado tears the roof off the school cafeteria. His mother leaves on a two month business trip to China. And as always. . . . there’s the itch. It comes out of nowhere. Idiopathic, which means no one knows what causes it. It starts small, but it spreads, and soon—it’s everywhere. It’s everything. It’s why everyone calls him Itch—everyone except his best friend Sydney, the only one in all of Ohio who’s always on his side, ever since he moved here.

He’s doing the best he can to get along—until everything goes wrong in the middle of a lunch swap. When Sydney collapses and an ambulance is called, Itch blames himself. And he’s not the only one. When you have no friends at all, wouldn’t you do anything—even something you know you shouldn’t—to get them back?

Drawing on her own experiences with idiopathic angioedema and food allergies, Polly Farquhar spins a tale of kids trying to balance the desire to be ordinary with the need to be authentic—allergies, itches, confusion and all.

For everyone who’s ever felt out of place, this debut novel set in the Ohio heartland is a warm, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking look at middle school misfits and misadventures. Whether you root for the Buckeyes or have no clue who they are, you’ll be drawn into Itch’s world immediately. This engaging debut is perfect for fans of See You in the Cosmos and Fish in a Tree.

A Junior Library Guild Selection

ISBN-13: 9780823445523
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years