Teen Librarian Toolbox
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An Interview with Author Sonja K. Solter

Sonja’s debut middle grade book, When You Know What I Know, published March 24, 2020. It is a sensitive, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful novel in verse about one girl’s journey in the aftermath of abuse.

Q: Tell us a little more about yourself.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer when I was younger (though I do remember enjoying writing a poem during an author’s visit in sixth grade). I was a big reader, and you might have thought I wanted to be a librarian because I even made library cards for all of my books! However, I always thought I would go into science and went down a medical science track for a long time before I realized that I wanted to write. I was also a Music Together® director and teacher for a few years, which was great fun! Currently, I live with my husband and two kids in Louisville, Colorado where I write and teach online as a creative mentor with Society of Young Inklings.

Q:  How/when did you become interested in writing Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction?

When I shifted to writing, I also knew right away that what I wanted to write was kidlit. I believe that’s because it had such a deep and broad influence on me growing up, expanding my world with experiences both similar to and different from my own—and, even, expanding the scope of the universe for me, as some of Madeleine L’Engle’s work did.

Q: In the Author’s Note of When You Know What I Know you mention that your main character’s voice (Tori) came to you in the woods. Can you tell you tell us a little more about this experience and your journey of writing Tori’s story?

I’m a very intuitive writer, so most of the first drafts of my manuscripts come to me in chunks of scenes, often out of order. In this case, Tori’s voice came to me with the poem “Believe Me,” and just felt insistent that she wanted to be heard—not just by her mom, as in the poem, but by society as a whole.

Even though I experienced the beginnings of the story this way, however, I also know that much of my writing revolves around certain themes that are some of my ‘big questions’ in life: the human experience, relationships, etc. In this case, I was influenced by my realization from online comments on news articles that many people found it very difficult to understand the experience of trauma survivors. That lack of understanding can decrease empathy and, even, lead to not believing survivors.

Q: I am particularly interested in the variety of ways the people in Tori’s life respond to her revelation of abuse at the hands of a trusted adult. Can you speak more to these responses and how you developed the lives of the characters that circle around Tori?

There is definitely a theme in the novel of adults not responding in the ways they should to Tori’s revelation of abuse. In this book, both Tori’s mom and grandmother at first respond with denial and the assumption that she misunderstood what happened because she’s a child. Her mom realizes the truth far in advance of Tori’s grandmother, but, in both cases, this ties into a bigger question of how adults show up for kids when they need them. The way in which adults’ own issues and challenges lead them to fail kids, even if only in the moment, can apply to kids’ experience in a variety of circumstances. I think it’s important to show this kind of realism so that the fact that Tori can still receive support and be believed down the line also feels true. Tori’s healing journey, including addressing the disturbances to her relationships, is tough–she’s come through something genuinely difficult in a variety of ways–but that also makes it a whole, deep healing process, in which she’s facing what happened and honoring her feelings.

Q: In When You Know What I Know, Tori’s story is both poignant and hopeful. What do you hope your readers will take away from the story?

I hope that readers will continue to break the shame and taboo around the issue of sexual abuse. It’s absolutely appropriate that we all feel upset that sexual abuse happens, but that shouldn’t spill over onto survivors and their speaking out.

I also want readers to take with them the hope that things will get better, no matter what difficulty they are in, even if it doesn’t happen right away. And for them to keep reaching out for support, even if they don’t get it immediately.

Q: What is in your writing future? Are you working on any more ideas?

I always have fiction kidlit manuscripts in various stages of completion and revision—all the way from picture books up through YA. They range from more serious work with trauma to humorous picture books. So we’ll see what makes it into the world next!

Q: Finally, the question I ask all authors, what is your favorite flavor of ice cream?

My favorite flavor of ice cream is pear! It’s pretty unusual here in the United States, but more common in my mom’s native country of Finland, where I used to spend a few weeks each summer when I was little.

Sonja K. Solter traveled extensively with her family as a child and once brought over seventy books on a trip. (Her mother is still trying to figure out how that one slipped by her). Sonja graduated with an interdisciplinary degree in Human Biology from Stanford University and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. Her master’s critical thesis was on writing trauma in middle grade and young adult realistic fiction. She is currently a creative writing mentor to youth with the Society of Young Inklings and enjoys writing poetry and prose for children of all ages.

Is the Truth All It’s Cracked Up To Be? a guest post By Risa Nyman

“Three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.” – Buddha

“I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is a declaration we all know by heart. But if you aren’t on the witness stand, is that a motto you must live by? Are there any gray areas?

When we are children, adults pound it into our developing brains that the truth is sacrosanct. Recently, I watched a funny video of a cousin pressing her four-year-old daughter to explain the origins of some blue marker on a white counter, only to be told repeatedly by the little girl that “the dog did it.” That was her story, and she was sticking to it. Perhaps this sweet, adorable child is a natural born fibber or a natural born secret-keeper.

Then, we grow up, and a new paradigm emerges. We learn that honesty may carry unintended consequences that can take an emotional toll on both the truth-teller and the truth-hearer.

Should you tell Aunt Gertrude she got fat? Does your friend have to know the person she likes doesn’t like her? Or like the mother in my debut novel, can you decide to protect your child from the truth about how his father died?

The decision to keep a family secret is at the heart of my debut middle grade novel, Swallowed by a Secret (published January 21, 2020 from Immortal Works Press).

When twelve-year-old Rocky learns his mother has told him a bogus story about how his father died, he is gut-punched. His misery is compounded when his mother puts the For-Sale sign on the front lawn right after the funeral. She fears that if they remain in their town, someone will blurt out the truth before she’s ready.

Rocky’s mother is desperate to maintain control of the secret, because she knows that once you crack open a secret, it cannot be Humpty-Dumptied again. What she doesn’t anticipate is that Rocky will embark on a journey of risks, eavesdropping and snooping to discover the truth about the father he thought he knew.

In Swallowed by a Secret some of my own secrets are threaded through. As I wrote, I grappled with the knowledge that when this book is published, I would be exposing the hidden elephant crouching underneath the rug in my own life. I kept a visual of a fork in a road in my head that make the choices also clear. One side beckoning me toward the truth and the other to the vault where secrets are locked away.

My own decision to include some of my truths in my fiction piqued my curiosity about what other authors do. Memoirist Dani Shapiro says in her podcast, Family Secrets, that “writing about feelings that are weighing on us helps…it has physical benefits.”

The creation of the hashtag #ownvoices honors the works of so many whose writing is enhancing with the authenticity of their own truths. They demonstrate a commitment to sharing their heritage, ethnicity, disabilities, gender issues and more through their writing.

Real life joins fiction in a powerful way.

In a 2009 interview with Fiction Writers Review award-winning author Maile Meloy said,“I think you have to find an emotional connection to the story, to make anyone else care about it, but I would find writing only what I know to be limiting.”

Choosing to tell or write the truth isn’t always easy or simple, and sometimes not for the faint-hearted. And like Rocky, I have learned, along the way, that secrets are epidemic, and no one’s family is immune.

Risa has been an aspiring middle grade author for about six years after a strange event that involved three pennies led her to take a deep dive into creative writing, which is now a priority and passion ⏤ unless grandchildren are nearby. At other times, you might find Risa reading, exercising or doing therapeutic ironing.

Friday Finds: Special Professional Development Edition

Many of us are currently in a position to take advantage of online learning opportunities while we do our best to quarantine/isolate/distance ourselves in an effort to flatten the curve of Covid19. But where to start?

Free Archived Webinar Sites

Public Library Association


Programming Librarian

Demco Ideas & Inspiration

Maryland State Library Resource Center

Library Connect

Booklist Webinars Archives

ALA List of Professional Development Resources

Public Libraries has a list of 5 free professional development resources to check

Library Blogs

School Library Journal

Show Me Librarian



5 Minute Librarian

New York Public Library Blog Channels

Places to Check Out

PLA Professional Tools

Public Libraries Online

Did I miss anything you love? Chime in in the comments!

“A Place at the Table” a guest post by Akemi Dawn Bowman

I’ve struggled with my mental health for as long as I can remember. Similar to the title character in Harley in the Sky, I was either up or down, and never in the middle. I was often chasing a romanticized version of happiness, and then crashing very suddenly into a void of depression. My family didn’t understand me, and therapy was not something that was available to me as a teen, which meant getting a diagnosis wasn’t an option. 

For a handful of years, I existed in the strange limbo of having a mental illness and living with all its messiness and complications, but not feeling like I was allowed to call it a mental illness. It didn’t matter how much I was hurting, or struggling, or failing to cope—on paper, there wasn’t a word for what I was going through, because I wasn’t in therapy.

As an adult, I had the opportunity to speak to someone, who gave me a formal diagnosis and helped me work through treatment options. But until that point, it had just been me, learning to cope in ways that felt right, and struggling with the balance of not really feeling okay, but somehow feeling like I wasn’t allowed to complain. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Because I didn’t have a label; I didn’t have someone who signed a piece of paper with a list of words that all added up to “mental illness.” And I certainly didn’t have the support or financial means to seek care any earlier than I did.

Making yourself understood in a society that isn’t always understanding towards people with mental illness can be difficult. Some people are simply ignorant. Some people want to make their own rules about which forms of mental illness they’re willing to acknowledge, and which ones they aren’t. And some people seem to think that a diagnosis is what legitimizes a mental illness, and if they don’t have the right label, they’re either attention-seeking or overly-dramatic—or maybe even a liar.

And that’s not what an inclusive space is supposed to look like.

 This kind of gatekeeping leaves people like teen me behind. It forces us out of the important conversations about mental health, and makes us feel like we don’t have a place at the table. Like we haven’t earned it, on the basis that we weren’t professionally diagnosed.

It also fails to acknowledge that therapy—and health care in general—is a privilege.

There are many people in the world who don’t have the access or ability to receive a formal diagnosis. It isn’t affordable to everyone, and teens are overwhelmingly dependent on their parents and caregivers when it comes to seeking professional help for their mental health. If their families aren’t supportive, or therapy isn’t an option financially, then treatment may not be available to them.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a mental illness. It doesn’t mean they aren’t still struggling with depression and anxiety and mood disorders. They may not have the label, but their experiences are real.

As someone who writes for teens and about teens, I always try to center an honest experience of what it felt like to be that age, going through similar challenges, and feeling so alone. My hope is that by talking about it, I can build a bridge for people who are in the same position, who feel left behind and misunderstood. 

There are so many stigmas when it comes to mental health, and if we’re going to break them down, we need to give people space to talk about their mental health in whatever capacity feels right and safe for them. People experience things differently. And I think that’s important too—to show that mental health can vary between individuals, and that there isn’t a single right way to cope, or heal, or process. Therapy and medication can be necessary and life-saving for so many people, while also feeling like the wrong solution for others. If we try to force people into thinking mental health is a one-size-fits-all, we’ll end up creating a space that makes people with differing experiences feel unwelcome. And the fact is, there isn’t a single “right” way to have a mental illness.

Books about characters who go to therapy, take medication, and have a formal diagnosis are important. And so are books about characters with less privilege who are struggling with their mental health and don’t know exactly what to call it. Both experiences are valid, and one isn’t more important than the other.

At the end of the day, the main purpose of a diagnosis is for mental health professionals to come up with treatment plans and coping mechanisms for their patients. Labels don’t exist to box people in, or push them out. And I think if we claim to be advocates of mental health, we need to understand that not everyone’s lived experiences looks identical. What’s right for one person may be wrong for another. And that’s okay. 

There’s space at the table for everyone, label or not. The important thing is to talk about it—the good, the bad, the messy, and everything in between. And remember that whatever you’re feeling, and whatever you’re going through, you are not alone.

Akemi Dawn Bowman is the author of William C. Morris Award Finalist StarfishSummer Bird Blue, and Harley in the Sky. Her upcoming sci-fi series, The Infinity Courts, is set to release in 2021, followed by her middle-grade debut, Generation Misfits. A proud Ravenclaw and Star Wars enthusiast, she has a BA in social sciences from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She currently lives in Scotland with her husband and two children.

You can find Akemi at:
Instagram: @akemidawnbowman
Twitter: @akemidawn

Friday Finds: February 28, 2020

This Week at TLT

Books and Libraries Can Strengthen the Superpowers of Teens With ADHD, a guest post by Kirsten Lambert

RevolTeens: Texas Teen De’Andre Arnold Reminds Us All, Teens Need Fans (by Christine Lively)

The Pros & Perils of Sequels, a guest post by Alexandra Monir

Book Review: The Burning by Laura Bates

Information Literacy: We Need to Be Talking About Deepfakes (and The Burning by Laura Bates)

Sunday Reflections: Reflecting on My Reflections. On a Sunday, of course.

Around the Web

A middle school requires kids to dance with anyone who asks. One mom is fighting for her daughter’s right to say “no.”

Schools Are Embracing Mindfulness, But Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

Who Should Decide What Books Are Allowed In Prison?

“All the Bright Places” Stars Elle Fanning and Justice Smith on How the Film Portrays Mental Illness

Friday Finds: February 21, 2020

This Week at TLT

New Books Alert: Feminist agendas, enchanted wolves, vampires, murders, and more

Cindy Crushes Programming: Mermaid Hair Clips

Book Review: The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid by Kate Hattemer

Thinking About Teen Programming in New Terms: Environmental Impact and Zero Waste Programming

Around the Web

Food Fight: How 2 Trump Proposals Could Bite Into School Lunch

YA Rom-Coms Releasing in 2020

Organizations Rally Library Advocates—Again—To Oppose Cuts in Proposed Federal Budget

Friday Finds: February 14, 2020

This Week at TLT

Writing Whiteness, a guest post by Kate Hattemer

When Fairy Tales Meet Filipino Legends: The Stories That Shaped My Childhood, a guest post by Rin Chupeco

Book Review: The Last Confession of Autumn Casterly by Meredith Tate

My Agenda for Middle Grade Books, a guest post by Greg Howard

Kicky’s Post It Note Reviews: A Teen Reviews He Must Like You, My Eyes are Up Here and Four Days of You and Me

Sunday Reflections: Dear Adults, Please Stop Talking About How Much You Hate Your Body in Front of My Children

Around the Web

To Stop Picky Eaters From Tossing The Broccoli, Give Them Choices

Virginia will eliminate a state holiday honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. It’ll make Election Day a day off instead

Books to Give Your Person on Valentine’s Day

Five Questions for A.S. King about Dig.

Is Your School a De Facto Book Desert?

How ‘To All the Boys’ helped usher in the age of the Asian American YA rom-com

In 2021 Budget Proposal, Trump Once Again Seeks to End Federal Library Funding

More Happy Than Not is being adapted for TV on HBO Max

Friday Finds: February 7, 2020

This Week at TLT

Book Review: The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

Cindy Crushes Programming: DIY Body Scrubs and Face Masks

First Look: Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn

Homeless: Seeing Past the Label to the Person, a guest post by Catherine Linka

Book Review: Pride: The Celebration and the Struggle by Robin Stevenson

Book Review: The Life Below by Alexandra Monir

Around the Web

Number of Homeless Students Rises to New High, Report Says

HBG Buys More Than 1,000 Disney Book Group Titles

Why you shouldn’t censor your teen’s reading

Diverse Editions Pulled Before Release; Author David Bowles, Others, Speak Out Against New Covers of “Classics”

When Things Click: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning

Friday Finds: January 31, 2020

This Week at TLT

Post-It Note Reviews: a girl with Sensory Processing Disorder, a gloomy seaside town, special ed kids, and more

Adult – One of the Biggest Obstacles to RevolTeens, by Christine Lively

#RethinkAmerican: Part three in the Great Stories Club series, by Lisa Krok

Book Review: We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul

Tale as Old as Time: Fairy Tales, Mythology and Folktales Retold – a booklist for the 2020 SRP reading theme

Sunday Reflections: The Curious Case of the Death of Nancy Drew

Around the Web

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village

13 upcoming YA book-to-film and TV adaptations slated for 2020

2020 Rise: A Feminist Book Project committee introduces new name and top ten feminist books for young readers

In the internet era, public libraries are more vital than ever

American Library Association announces 2020 youth media award winners

Friday Finds: January 24, 2020

This Week at TLT

New Books Alert: A Mars mission, art school, a portal fantasy, and more!

Book Review: Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus

Book Review: Layoverland by Gabby Noone

The Billie Eilish Readalike Playlist

Around the Web

Jacqueline Woodson: ‘It’s important to know that whatever moment we’re in, it’s not the first time’

52 Middle-Grade and Chapter Books to Read in 2020