Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Lifting Their Voices, a guest post by Marcia Argueta Mickelson

As a teen, I didn’t have a voice. Well, technically I did, but I didn’t use it. My voice was hidden; it lived in fear of being seen or heard by anyone around it. My voice was so quiet that, in my junior year of high school, a bee stung me during math class, and I said nothing. I didn’t tell my teacher or my classmates. I didn’t ask to go to the nurse. I sat in pain for the rest of the day until I got home and told my mom.

My voice was so scared of being heard that it couldn’t even advocate for my own well-being. This was due to social anxiety or extreme shyness or both. Perhaps I quieted my voice because I always had a sense of not belonging wherever I was. There were loud, overwhelming voices telling me that since my family came to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants, I didn’t belong. So, I quieted my voice even more. One day, I missed school to attend my naturalization ceremony and receive my citizenship. The next day, my teacher asked why I was absent, and I was too embarrassed to tell him the reason. I could have spoken out in celebration of a wonderful experience, but I hid it.

My father, Jose Argueta, is pictured here taking his oath of citizenship. I was able to receive my citizenship a few years after him.

It was in the last year of my teens that I finally found my voice and realized that I needed to use it. This realization came in the form of a transformative book. In a college class, we were assigned to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In Malcom X’s writings, I discovered my voice. His message taught me to be proud of who I am and where I came from. His words inspired me to feel pride in my very small voice, and I became resolved to amplify it to advocate for myself and for others.

One of the reasons I love to read and write about teens is because in these young characters, I see them doing what I could never do at that age—lifting their voices. I see these young characters using their voices to say many important things.

We see young people speaking out to advocate for themselves or for other people all of the time, and I am in awe of their courage. The young people who formed the March For Our Lives movement were compelled to speak out against gun violence. They used their voices to create a huge movement. A young undocumented immigrant used her voice during her valedictorian speech in Texas to advocate for undocumented immigrants. Greta Thunberg, with her very young voice, inspired students all over the world to join her strike for climate change. Today’s young people are advocating for change in a way I could never imagine doing when I was a teen. I lacked their courage.

While I was not courageous enough to use my voice as a teen, I can now create fictional characters who are not afraid as I was or who overcome their fear to speak out.

In my book, Where I Belong, Millie Vargas is the oldest daughter of parents who came to the U.S. from Guatemala as undocumented immigrants. The book begins with Millie keeping her voice small, not wanting people to know that her she and her parents were once undocumented. She lives her life quietly, helping to take care of her siblings when her mother is at work. Millie’s quiet existence gets thrown into the spotlight when her mother’s employer, a Senate candidate, shares their story at a campaign event. He praises Millie’s family as deserving immigrants because of their work ethic and Millie’s straight A’s. The media recognition brings out trolls who denigrate and threaten Millie. At the same time, activists and reporters want Millie to speak publicly, to tell her story and advocate for immigrants. Millie doesn’t like the spotlight and wants everyone to forget about her. Susanna, an undocumented teen from a neighboring city, reaches out to Millie and invites her to a rally. Millie hesitates, but as she sees that Susanna is willing to put herself in danger of deportation by attending the rally, Millie decides to go. She takes the stage at the rally and tells her story.

Millie was scared to use her voice to speak out for the undocumented, but she overcame her fears for a great cause. She was inspired by another teen to use her voice. Although she was hesitant at first, it didn’t take her nearly as long as it did for me to find and use my voice. Even though I am not a teenager anymore and never had the courage to do what I see so many young people doing, I am thrilled that I get to create characters who find the courage to lift their voices.

What a wonderful generation of youth that surrounds us who elevate their voice, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively to uplift, inspire, protest, resist, inform, or advocate.

Meet the author

Marcia Mickelson was born in Guatemala and immigrated to the United States as an infant. She attended high school in New Jersey and then graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in American Studies. She is the author of five novels including Star Shining BrightlyThe Huaca, and Where I Belong. She lives in Texas with her husband and three sons.

Marcia Argueta Mickelson’s Website: http://marciamickelson.com/

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

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/marciamickelson

About Where I Belong

An immigrant teen fights for her family, her future, and the place she calls home.

In the spring of 2018, Guatemalan American high school senior Milagros “Millie” Vargas knows her life is about to change. She’s lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, ever since her parents sought asylum there when she was a baby. Now a citizen, Millie devotes herself to school and caring for her younger siblings while her mom works as a housekeeper for the wealthy Wheeler family. With college on the horizon, Millie is torn between attending her dream school and staying close to home, where she knows she’s needed. She’s disturbed by what’s happening to asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, but she doesn’t see herself as an activist or a change-maker. She’s just trying to take care of her own family.

Then Mr. Wheeler, a U.S. Senate candidate, mentions Millie’s achievements in a campaign speech about “deserving” immigrants. It doesn’t take long for people to identify Millie’s family and place them at the center of a statewide immigration debate. Faced with journalists, trolls, anonymous threats, and the Wheelers’ good intentions—especially those of Mr. Wheeler’s son, Charlie—Millie must confront the complexity of her past, the uncertainty of her future, and her place in the country that she believed was home.

ISBN-13: 9781541597976
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 12 +

Pausing to Check the Weather, a guest post by Tanita S. Davis

The first series I published – on binder paper, bristling with staples – was The Police Academy Chronicles. Protagonist Deenie Brown was Black, book-smart, and at fourteen, the youngest cadet in her police academy – which was apparently like high school, but with adults. Together with sidekick Danny (whose long, thick lashes did nothing to hide his utter lack of characterization), Deenie Brown’s adventures were legion, and heavily derivative of Encyclopedia Brown (and with the amount of cookie baking going on, Trixie Belden). No gangs, drugs, or violence, Deenie’s cases dealt with priceless art theft and missing princes (commonly found in every suburb) and ended with a loud “atta girl” from Danny and the proud gratitude of the community.  These novellas paint a clear (and endearingly awful) picture of my writer’s mind between the ages of twelve to fifteen.

During this same period, I was frequently told I had “an attitude” in the way I interacted with adults. The object of adult speculation in the form of “teasing” about the number of kids I would have or how early I would marry, I was frequently asked by pediatricians – from the age of ten, as I recall – if I was sexually active. I was mortified when my seventh-grade tumbling teacher wouldn’t spot me one day because I was “too much of a big girl now” to necessitate that. Even as I saw myself as goofy and scattered, bookish and unsure, adults around me seemed increasingly able to see something in me which I hadn’t yet seen in myself.

In 2017 the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality released a study detailing what they called ‘adultification bias,’ the idea of Black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers. The study revealed that even as young as five to nine years old, black girls are perceived as needing less nurturing, protection, comforting and care than white girls of the same age, as they’re considered more independent. This bias is strongest in girls ages ten – to – fourteen, which shapes ideas of innocence and experience. Until I read about this study, and the qualitative research conducted in 2019, I had no words for some of the experiences of my tweenhood. Like Deenie and many of my later teen characters, I was not particularly hip or worldly. Even as I leaned into the new requirements and abilities of young adulthood, I was still a child day-dreaming super sleuth adventures and solving imaginary crimes. Mine was not a graceful transition, and I went into teaching determined to grant girls like me more tools to make their liminal stage easier. All we needed, I reasoned, was a pause to check the weather before being expected to face the headwind on a new road.

Most of my first students had criminal records, social workers, parole officers, and a history of truancy. As a very junior teacher, I was to provide one-to-one tutoring and an educational approach that met them at their level, but which wasn’t insultingly infantilizing. With the supervisory support of the County’s independent study teacher, my little group home class struggled toward diplomas and GEDs.  Seeking any enticement to engage them, I hit on reading aloud. My kids would work, and better, urge each other to work, in exchange for a story – despite adultification bias’s claim that they should have “outgrown” that long ago.

We began by reading Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, the story of fourteen-year-old, college-bound LaVaughn, babysitting seventeen-year-old Jolly’s two small children. Resonating with the characters’ fears and intentions, my students listened fiercely as LaVaughn observed, judged, learned and transformed. With her, they were frustrated with, charmed by, and terrified for others. Within the pages of those blank verse poems, my students lived and breathed. The day we finished, my learners, who had listened in near reverent silence, refused to even consider the sequel, voting unanimously that we read it again. They seemed to need to re-immerse themselves in the moments and decisions that led the novel to the powerful hope in its conclusion.

Publishing stories for girls like me, girls who were tender inside, and dreamers, wasn’t as simple. As other Black authors published to well-deserved success, my editors grew disappointed with my work. “She needs to be edgier,” was the most common criticism of my characters. I was encouraged to depict characters with more “street smarts” whose lives were “grittier.” “Your characters are too innocent,” one editor told me bluntly. I couldn’t understand – what did “too” innocent mean? Isn’t every teen, merely by virtue of their age, innocent of a remarkable number of experiences? Despite criminal charges and court dates, my students had limited experience with a world which had already judged them as ‘knowing better.’ When an editor suggested I was more suited to write chapter books for early readers, I was shaken. Much like Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the danger of a single story, I realized that much of publishing had, in essence, defaulted to another single story, that of poverty and pain, a Black girl on the brutal streets, bereft of innocence and old too soon…a story I wasn’t convinced that I was capable of telling.

Still, I reconsidered Partly Cloudy, a book originally featuring a first-year college student, the unwilling subject of a viral video, making a cross-continental escape to her great-uncle’s house on the West Coast. In my rewrite, seventh-grader Madalyn arrives at Papa Lobo’s in a slightly more organized fashion, though she remains conflicted by the push-pull challenges and growth of interracial, intercultural friendships at her new school. How do we make friends with others raised to think and react differently than ourselves? How do we decide what has value, where we should put our energy, what is worth fighting for, and what is best allowed to fade? Junior high friendships can be fast-changing and painfully fraught. In Madalyn I wanted readers to feel nurtured by her relationships, and with her, take a moment to pause and process, to determine what friendships feel like, and to grow deliberately into the adulthood they’re so often assumed to have.

And what comes of such deliberation? Clarity. I see now that like Deenie, I wanted strongly to fix things, and restore what was broken or lost. Like Madalyn, I wanted to safely and honestly navigate friendships, to cut through distraction and find genuine connection. And like them both, I wasn’t gritty and street smart – I’m still not. I had to learn pragmatism and resilience, neither of which come easily, especially if you’re seen as “grown” and not in need of comfort or help.

I hope that this September we welcome tweens of all colors into our learning communities in the spirit of honoring what is within them. We can lend them all our nurture, protection, and comfort. And as Black girls pause among the books to check the weather, I hope we’ll be on hand to give them a loud “atta girl,” as they choose to open the door and step into the storm.

Meet the author

Tanita S. Davis is the award-winning author of six novels for middle grade and young adult readers, including Serena Says, Peas and CarrotsHappy Families, and Mare’s War, which was a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book and earned her a nomination for the NAACP Image Award. She grew up in California and was so chatty as a kid that her mother begged her to “just write it down.” Now she’s back in California, doing her best to keep writing it all down.


Website: www.tanitasdavis.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tanita_s_davis/

About Partly Cloudy

From award-winning author Tanita S. Davis comes a nuanced exploration of the microaggressions of middle school and a young Black girl named Madalyn who learns that being a good friend means dealing with the blue skies and the rain—and having the tough conversations on days that are partly cloudy. Perfect for fans of A Good Kind of Trouble and From the Desk of Zoe Washington.

Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? After a terrible year, Madalyn needs clear skies desperately. Moving in with her great-uncle, Papa Lobo, and switching to a new school is just the first step.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, though. Madalyn discovers she’s the only Black girl in her class, and while most of her classmates are friendly, assumptions lead to some serious storms.

Papa Lobo’s long-running feud with neighbor Mrs. Baylor brings wild weather of its own, and Madalyn wonders just how far things will go. But when fire threatens the community, Madalyn discovers that truly being neighborly means more than just staying on your side of the street— it means weathering tough conversations—and finding that together a family can pull through anything.

Award-winning author Tanita S. Davis shows us that life isn’t always clear, and that partly cloudy days still contain a bit of blue worth celebrating.

ISBN-13: 9780062937001
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

Publisher’s description

At a time when we are all asking questions about identity, grief, and how to stand up for what is right, this book by the author of A Thousand Questions will hit home with young readers who love Hena Khan and Varian Johnson—or anyone struggling to understand recent U.S. history and how it still affects us today.  

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.

Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.

With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Yusuf. And I love this book.

Pakistani American sixth grader Yusuf Azeem is in middle school in Texas. He’s best friends with Danial, one of the few other Muslims in town, and loves robotics and coding. But the year is off to a rocky start with mean notes in his locker. And as the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, tensions in his small town rise. Yusuf doesn’t really know a lot about 9/11. None of the adults in his life seem to want to talk to him about it, it’s hardly discussed in school, and is view by many as “ancient history.” Then his uncle, who was Yusuf’s age when 9/11 happened, gives him his journal. He’s finally able to gain more insight into what it was like for a Muslim in the US at that time, to learn more about what it felt like, how people were reacting, and so many other facts and feelings he just hasn’t been able to wrap his mind around.

Meanwhile, because disgustingly little has changed in 20 years, things in his own town in Texas are not great. The 11 Muslim families in town are working to build a small mosque and find themselves being picketed, challenged at zoning meetings, and harassed mainly by a small group of vocal townspeople called the Patriot Sons. Yusuf and others at school as called “terrorists” and told to go back where they came from, referred to as “the enemy” and sweeping statements are made about “your kind,” not just from the adults in this Patriot Sons group, but by their classmates. Yusuf is hurt and furious. This is their home. And so he starts calling out the bullying he’s witnessing. He doesn’t want to be a hero, but he does want to be a decent person who spreads kindness and protects others—things he sees as his duty as a Muslim. He’s speaking out and standing up, but horrible stuff just keeps happening—a peer’s hijab is ripped off, his father’s shop is vandalized, and, eventually, Yusuf is accused of having a bomb at school and hauled into the police station. He listens to his friends tell him it’s just easier to stay on the sidelines and not get involved, but that’s just not who Yusuf is. Someone has to be brave. Someone has to speak up.

The journal entries from 2001 and Yusuf’s narration from 2021 show the kind of hatred and cruelty that exists. And though Yusuf faces a lot during his sixth grade year, he is also surrounded by so many good people who also stand up for what’s right, who speak up, who are willing to learn and change and grow. This emotional read will give readers plenty to think about—whether because they’re learning to see people and events in a new light, or because they see their own experiences reflected in Yusuf’s. A must for all collections.

ISBN-13: 9780062943255
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: The Jasmine Project by Meredith Ireland

Publisher’s description

Jenny Han meets The Bachelorette in this effervescent romantic comedy about a teen Korean American adoptee who unwittingly finds herself at the center of a competition for her heart, as orchestrated by her overbearing, loving family.

Jasmine Yap’s life is great. Well, it’s okay. She’s about to move in with her long-time boyfriend, Paul, before starting a nursing program at community college—all of which she mostly wants. But her stable world is turned upside down when she catches Paul cheating. To her giant, overprotective family, Paul’s loss is their golden ticket to showing Jasmine that she deserves much more. The only problem is, Jasmine refuses to meet anyone new.

But…what if the family set up a situation where she wouldn’t have to know? A secret Jasmine Project.

The plan is simple: use Jasmine’s graduation party as an opportunity for her to meet the most eligible teen bachelors in Orlando. There’s no pressure for Jasmine to choose anyone, of course, but the family hopes their meticulously curated choices will show Jasmine how she should be treated. And maybe one will win her heart.

But with the family fighting for their favorites, bachelors going rogue, and Paul wanting her back, the Jasmine Project may not end in love but total, heartbreaking disaster.

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was great fun! It was literally on page one that I was already rolling my eyes at Paul, Jasmine’s not-great boyfriend, so I was READY to read a story about her finding out what she really wants in life and understanding that she deserves more than Paul is giving her—and more than she is giving herself.

Jasmine is all set to head to community college and move in with Paul, who she has been with for all of high school. He kind of sucks (he’s mean and manipulative and uncaring), but she puts up that fact and makes herself smaller to fit into the narrower version of who he’s decides she should be. When he hooks up with another girl, he decides that they should take the summer to date other people before moving in together. Right. Because that will go great and certainly seems fair and healthy. Her giant, loving family decides to secretly set Jasmine up with three guys to help show her there are people other than Paul that she might connect with (and, you know, BETTER than Paul. Have I mentioned I don’t like Paul?). Keeping her in the dark, they arrange for her to meet these guys, and things take off from there.

Family group texts (minus Jasmine) tell some of the story, as do notes from her siblings on what’s happening and transcripts from the anonymous podcast about the whole ordeal. Jasmine learns a lot about herself as she navigates this summer. But when she finds out what her family has been up to, and how the guys she’s been hanging out with have kept her in the dark too about what’s going on, she feels so betrayed. What’s even real, now?

While reading this, after a few pages, I thought, okay, this is going to be cute and fun, but I don’t really care if she ends up liking any of these boys, I care if she ends up liking herself better. And she does. She grows a lot over the course of the book. She starts off complacent and playing it safe, never feeling good enough or special. She has learn that it’s okay to want things, that it’s okay to want more. She learns to see herself as worth it, to respect herself, and finally starts to live her own life, the one she envisions for herself. A really great read with wide appeal.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534477025
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

The Ghostly Inspiration Behind Burden Falls, a guest post by Kat Ellis

I’ve always loved the idea of ghost hunting, so I think it was inevitable a group of ghost-hunting teens would find their way into Burden Falls. In the book, siblings Freya and Dominic Miller — rivals of my main character, Ava — and two of their friends make a spooky YouTube show called Haunted Heartland. Ava is totally unimpressed by this, seeing as they’re threatening to expose the supernatural goings-on in her ancestral home, but I think if there’d been a group like them in my high school I would definitely have wanted in on that action. Sadly, there wasn’t, and I had to wait until a few years ago to get the chance to spend a night in a haunted castle.

The first time I went on a ghost hunt, I didn’t see any ghosts. But I might have heard one.

My sister Alex and I had gone to Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales in search of the supernatural. Now I think it’s fair to say that Alex is more of a believer than I am; while I’m open to being convinced, I take creaky floorboards and flickering candles with a pinch of salty skepticism (I’m a little like Ava that way).

But Bodelwyddan Castle looks like exactly the kind of place you’d expect ghosts to hang around. It also has the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the UK. It’s an impressive turreted stone castle, with some parts dating back to the fifteenth century. The kind of place that’s seen some serious history, in other words, and probably more than a few deaths — especially seeing as it was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers back in World War I.

There have been reports of all kinds of spectral sightings there over the years: pale children who’ve been heard playing in the Toy Room and spotted looking out from one of the upstairs windows; a Victorian lady who wanders along the sculpture gallery and disappears through a wall where there was once a doorway; and the Cellar Man — an unfriendly spirit who we were told likes to pinch and tug on the hair of any woman who ventures down into the maze of underground cellars at the castle. Unsurprisingly, given the castle’s history during World War I, there have also been reports of a soldier seen in full military uniform — sometimes walking the castle grounds, and other times in the rooms which were used as hospital wards during the war.

Plenty of creepy candidates for potential sightings, right? Knowing this, Alex and I were braced for some serious spookiness.

There were around twenty of us on our ghost hunt, separated into two groups led by a small team of expert ghost hunters and history buffs. We’d already explored several rooms of the castle, using things like dowsing rods and electronic devices to try to locate any spirits who might be hiding nearby; table-tipping and calling out for the dead to make themselves known to us. But beyond some cold spots and movement behind the curtains — both of which I put down to it being a draughty old castle, in my Scullyish way — I didn’t feel that I had encountered anything particularly unearthly. It wasn’t until around 1am, near the end of the hunt, that I heard the sound that made me pause.

The room we were in was on the ground floor — an elegantly furnished parlor next to a grand hallway with a wide, carved staircase. All the lights in the castle had been out since the hunt began, and the other group were exploring a room at the far side of the castle, one floor up. So, we weren’t expecting to hear footsteps rushing down the staircase just outside our room.

“Did you hear that?” my sister asked me, wide-eyed. And I definitely had; it sounded like someone running downstairs, but with all the lights off, that would most likely have ended with a tumble and a broken neck. The rest of our group had heard it too, and we all hurried out to see if anyone — or anything — was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs.

There was nobody there. We turned on the lights to check, but there was no sign that anyone had been on that staircase a moment earlier.

Our group leader contacted the others upstairs via walkie-talkie to check that it hadn’t been one of them coming to look for us, but they were all still at the far side of the castle, all present and accounted for.

I can’t say for sure that what I heard was a ghost, but I can’t come up with another explanation that makes sense of the sound. So maybe it was the spirit of one of the children, escaped from the Toy Room upstairs. Maybe it was another of the castle’s reported apparitions — a spirit who appears as no more than a pair of disembodied legs wearing white stockings and gold-buckled shoes. Maybe it was just a creaky old building stretching its spine… or maybe I need to go back to Bodelwyddan Castle and try again to catch sight — or sound — of the supernatural.

Although the pandemic put my paranormal adventures on hold, I definitely plan to explore more spooky locations in future. Meanwhile, writing about my ghost-hunting teens in Burden Falls only seems to have increased my appetite for all things otherworldly, so I think there’ll be lots more spookiness in my future writing.

And I’ll always be game to creep through a castle in the dark.

Meet the author

Kat Ellis is the author of young adult horror and thrillers, including Burden Falls and Harrow Lake. She studied English with Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, then spent worked in local government communications and IT for several years before writing her first novel. When she’s not writing, Kat can usually be found exploring the ruins and cemeteries of North Wales with her camera.

LINKS:

Website: www.katelliswrites.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/el_kat

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

Books & buy links: https://katelliswrites.blogspot.com/p/books-buy-links.html

About Burden Falls

Riverdale meets The Haunting of Hill House in the terrifying new thriller from the author of Harrow Lake.

“Cinematic, clever, and creepy, with a main character that leaps off the page, Burden Falls ticks off all my moody thriller boxes.” —Goldy Moldavsky, New York Times bestselling author of The Mary Shelley Club and Kill the Boy Band

The town of Burden Falls drips with superstition, from rumors of its cursed waterfall to Dead-Eyed Sadie, the disturbing specter who haunts it. Ava Thorn grew up right beside the falls, and since a horrific accident killed her parents a year ago, she’s been plagued by nightmares in which Sadie comes calling—nightmares so chilling, Ava feels as if she’ll never wake up. But when someone close to Ava is brutally murdered and she’s the primary suspect, she begins to wonder if the stories might be more than legends—and if the ghost haunting her dreams might be terrifyingly real. Whatever secrets Burden Falls is hiding, there’s a killer on the loose . . . with a vendetta against the Thorns.

ISBN-13: 9781984814562
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/24/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Why we should let girls read, and relate to, morally grey heroines, a guest post by Cyla Panin

I got a text a few days ago from a friend. She’s reading a copy of my debut YA fantasy, STALKING SHADOWS, and she’s been giving me wonderful live updates chapter to chapter. Well, this time her text went like this, “I don’t like what Marie did!”

Ah. Yes. Me either.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that my main character, Marie, definitely made a questionable decision involving someone she’s growing to care for. Her decision might even hurt him, though she’s certain she has it all under control enough that the damage will be mild and temporary. Do I, as a human with a heart, agree with what she did?

No.

So why did I write it?

Because I understand why Marie had to make a bad decision. Her circumstances left her very few choices, and her commitment to protecting her sister, and ultimately herself, has never wavered. She does the best she can with the situation she’s in, and I think that’s more real and relatable than always doing the right and heroic thing.

None of us will always make the best choice, the most selfless or most noble. At least, I have yet to encounter anyone who can claim they’ve always, without fail, done the absolute right thing. That level of perfection rarely exists in the real world, and yet we continually hold our female protagonists up to this unachievable standard. If they fail the test, they might be labelled as unlikeable, or even as an anti-hero that readers have a hard time getting behind.

Fantasy is escapist. We can sink into the world’s authors create and join the characters as they do things we never would—or could. Fighting a dragon, traipsing over mountains and through meadows with a sword at our hip, dancing in a flowing gown in a ballroom, running into enchanted woods at night. The realest thing in any fantasy should still be the characters and their emotions. Their drive. Underneath all of this magic, we should be anchored by what the human lives unspooling through this dark, glittering world.

Girl protagonists have a right to take the drags of whatever awful situation they’ve found themselves in and try to piece together a solution to reach their goals, even if that solution makes some people give them the side eye. Girl readers have the right to see heroines in books be just as angry, brash, impulsive, and determined as any heroes can be. And they have to right to see them not only succeed, but be embraced for their fire and ingenuity.

In Julie C. Dao’s 2017 YA fantasy, FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, the main character Xifeng is faced with embracing darkness or sacrificing the power she could wield. Thankfully, Dao has her protagonist decide grasp whatever power she can. As a reader, I could emphasize with Xifeng and why she made those decisions, even if they sometimes made me uncomfortable. She came from hardship, poverty, and was faced with a beautiful palace and magic—I mean, that doesn’t seem like a hard choice. It was Dao’s skillful character building that showed us her main character’s drive, so readers could emphasize and stand beside Xifeng even when she did things some might label ‘evil.’

There was some outrage about Xifeng being an unlikeable character, though. Certain readers shook their heads and pursed their lips and got on Goodreads to air their distaste. What I didn’t get then is why they felt like they needed to like Xifeng to understand her.

When male main characters do bad things, readers tend to be much more forgiving. We don’t have to look much further than The Darkling in the SHADOW AND BONE series by Leigh Bardugo or Ronan Lynch in THE RAVEN’S CIRCLE by Maggie Stiefvater to find bad boys who have been embraced, and even loved, despite the pain they inflict on others or the ends they go to in order to get what they want. But boys will be boys, right?

Wrong. People will be people. All characters will, with good literary craft, be products of their world and upbringing. They’ll be shaped by the past, as we all tend to be, and they’ll decide whether or not they’re defined by it. They’ll give us enough glances into their hearts that we’ll be rooting for them whether or not we agree with their actions.

The word I think best describes Marie Michaud in STALKING SHADOWS is ‘determined’. She doesn’t much care about being liked, but she sure does care about achieving her goal. I won’t be giving anything away when I say she selects her sister’s victims (because it’s in the pitch.) Marie choses who’s going to die by her sister’s claws. She marks unmoored men, those who aren’t well known in the village, those who are just passing through, those that she forces herself to believe don’t have any family to miss them. She selects these men because, in her mind, it’s better them than someone people will cry over. She elects to destroy one life instead of two or three or four, depending on the size of the family. It’s not right, by any estimation, even hers, but in the confines of her world and the hand she’s been dealt, she does her best. And really, is there anything more relatable than that?

Meet the author

Cyla Panin is an MG, YA and Adult Author who prefers to look at the world through a dusting of magic. Her YA debut, STALKING SHADOWS will be out with Amulet, Abrams Sept. 14. She is represented by Chloe Seager of the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV, and Film Agency. Find her on Instagram at @cylapanin. 

About Stalking Shadows

A gothic YA fantasy debut about a young woman striving to break her sister’s curse and stop the killing in her small French town

Seventeen-year-old Marie mixes perfumes to sell on market day in her small eighteenth-century French town. She wants to make enough to save a dowry for her sister, Ama, in hopes of Ama marrying well and Marie living in the level of freedom afforded only to spinster aunts. But her perfumes are more than sweet scents in cheap, cut-glass bottles: A certain few are laced with death. Marie laces the perfume delicately–not with poison but with a hint of honeysuckle she’s trained her sister to respond to. Marie marks her victim, and Ama attacks. But she doesn’t attack as a girl. She kills as a beast.

Marking Ama’s victims controls the damage to keep suspicion at bay. But when a young boy turns up dead one morning, Marie is forced to acknowledge she might be losing control of Ama. And if she can’t control her, she’ll have to cure her. Marie knows the only place she’ll find the cure is in the mansion where Ama was cursed in the first place, home of Lord Sebastien LaClaire. But once she gets into the mansion, she discovers dark secrets hidden away–secrets of the curse, of Lord Sebastien . . . and of herself.

ISBN-13: 9781419752650
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Talking With Kids About 9/11, a guest post by Saadia Faruqi

Most young people don’t really care about 9/11. It’s not surprising, since the attacks occurred twenty years ago and are considered ancient history by anyone who’s growing up in the age of TikTok music videos. They study about it in schools in a very perfunctory manner, or hear about it from adults on each anniversary of the attacks. If they come from a family that was personally affected, they will pay homage to the victims. Beyond that, 9/11 isn’t really something on most kids’ radars.

Still, I find myself talking and writing about this subject frequently. I discuss it with my own children, a high-schooler and a middle schooler. I write about it in articles and essays. I think about it more than I probably should. The reason: 9/11 wasn’t just the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, it was also a phenomenon that led to a deep change in our society, our laws, and how we view each other. The day after the attacks in 2001, we began to view a group of our neighbors, friends, and community members as suspicious because they shared the religious beliefs of our enemy.

This group, Muslim Americans, were harassed on streets, told to “go back home” and treated like enemies. Our government enacted regulations that targeted us, such as additional security at airports, secret surveillance, and racial profiling. Kids were affected then, and still are today. In fact, those who weren’t even alive during 9/11 still have to live in a world completely shaped by that time period. Think about the movies they watch and the video games they play, where the enemy is always someone who looks like me. Think about the taunts in the cafeteria and the playground, where the targets are always kids like mine. Think about teachers saying grossly inaccurate and even offensive things when they teach World History or World Cultures. This treatment is extended to anyone who is perceived as Muslim: brown people, Hindus and Sikhs, Arabs, immigrants, and more.

These are all the reasons why we need to talk about 9/11 and its aftermath. It’s a much bigger and more nuanced conversation that many adults realize. It’s about who was impacted by government policies, and how prejudice was institutionalized. It’s about how we treat our neighbors and classmates. It’s about which regulations are wrong, and how we can use civic action to make changes.

The good news: kids are very smart. They will understand and analyze this issue in ways that will amaze you. They just need the opportunity to learn and discuss.

In my book YUSUF AZEEM IS NOT A HERO, I explore many aspects of a post 9/11 world and how they affected my community. Yusuf is a sweet, nerdy sixth grader excited about starting middle school, and maybe winning a regional robotics competition. But his small Texas town is preparing for the 20th anniversary of the attacks, riled up by a white supremacist group called the Patriot Boys who want to run Yusuf and his Muslim community out. They bully the kids in school and the adults in neighborhoods, block the construction of a new mosque, and vandalize private property. From calling a kid a terrorist in the school hallways, to accusing another of bringing a bomb to school, the story shines an ugly but accurate light on our society today.

Yusuf learns more about 9/11 from his uncle’s journal, and realizes that the past informs the present and therefore affects the future. That’s what I hope from all my young readers. Learn about history, because how human beings react to events and incidents offers insight about what needs fixing. We need to treat others better, and with more respect. We need to make our communities and schools more welcoming. We need to look at people with love and understanding, not hatred and suspicion. When we start talking about 9/11 and everything that happened after that – politically, culturally, religiously – we will begin healing.

Meet the author

Photo credit: QZB Photography

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and “A Thousand Questions” (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book “Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero” details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children. 

About Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

At a time when we are all asking questions about identity, grief, and how to stand up for what is right, this book by the author of A Thousand Questions will hit home with young readers who love Hena Khan and Varian Johnson—or anyone struggling to understand recent U.S. history and how it still affects us today.  

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.

Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.

With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?

ISBN-13: 9780062943255
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Steven Banks Jumps All Over the Place Because That’s How His Mind Works, a guest post

I love monsters and they scare me. I wondered what would happen if the three classic “biters”; a vampire, a werewolf and a zombie, bit a kid the day before he started middle school. That became my book series Middle School Bites…Tom Marks is a Vam-Wolf-Zom. Any kid who felt different, strange, unique for any reason can identify with Tom. Book #3, Middle School Bites: Out for Blood comes out August 31. 

I don’t write for kids. I write for people. The majority of the people who read the books seem to be smaller and younger than I am. But I also wanted an adult to be able to pick up the book, read it and enjoy it. At some point they were eleven, right? Diary of A Wimpy Kid was originally conceived for adults looking back on their middle grade years.

It drives me crazy when kids don’t sound like kids in books. You must be true to your character’s age and background. I want to gently thrash authors who use sophisticated words and phrases that most kids (unless they were a genius) would never use, in dialogue or first-person action descriptions. It’s very difficult, I have to fight the urge to use more evocative words and phrases. Stephen Sondheim, to this day, regrets having Maria in West Side Story sing the line “It’s alarming how charming I feel” in the song l Feel Pretty. He said he cringes whenever he hears the line sung. She is a young, teenage Puerto Rican immigrant, she is not in a Noel Coward play. 

Big Fat Exception: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. How old is Scout and how is she using all these big ol’ fancy words?…But…The book has sold 30,000,000 copies so maybe you should not listen to me.

I think on paper. What does that mean? I have to write it out to see if something will work or is funny or good. And sometimes the process makes me come up with an idea or phrase I could not have imagined in my mind. Weird. I also like to move around and write in different locations; outside in the garden, the kitchen, living room, bed. For some reason it gives me a “new” and clearer view of things that I wrote at my office desk on the computer. After many years of writing books and scripts, I’ve learned to write anywhere. I wrote some of the Middle School Bites series in my car mechanic’s waiting room, doctor’s office, in my car waiting to get my Covid vaccination shot and at The Hollywood Bowl as I listened to the LA Philharmonic rehearse.

You don’t have to write about what you know. Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan, wrote a first-person narrated book as a middle-aged English butler in high society pre-World War II in Remains of The Day. He didn’t live that life. He did his research. He imagined it.

Write about anything and anyone. Just make it good (the hardest part). Beverly Cleary wrote the first book I adored, Henry Huggins. It’s about a third-grade boy and perfectly captured a boy’s POV. She was not a boy, but she could imagine and write that character. Like JK Rowling did with Harry Potter, or S.E. Hinton did with Pony Boy in The Outsiders (when she was 14! And finished at 15!). Ray Bradbury was not a Martian, but he took us to Mars. Seeing the world through another’s person’s eyes is a great journey and life experience. 

Serious Middle Grade Fiction with heavy themes is terrific…But…There is a lot of it. My goal with my books is to write a fast-moving, entertaining and funny book, suck the reader in, but at the same time, slip in – judiciously! – in tiny bits – some serious ideas, thoughts, philosophy and history. Make ‘em laugh and trick them into thinking. I have Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh appear in my books, via assigned school projects. Tom imagines that if he had a time machine he would go tell them that they become world famous after they died. Tom then tries to buy a painting from Van Gogh, who now wants $85,000,000 for it.

I also slip in a message about doing life, not watching it. Tom goes to a dance and his Dad teaches him some simple moves and tells him to dance, as opposed to being the boys who just lean against the wall and watch, trying to be cool. Participate in life.

No big secret! I made a conscious decision to not have Tom hide the fact that he is a Vam-Wolf-Zom in the book.  Kids hiding their real identity, super power, etc., has been done to death. I thought…What if everyone knows Tom is a Vam-Wolf-Zom? The school’s motto is All Our Welcome and they announce Tom’s “predicament” at an assembly. However, some people do not treat him the way they are supposed to and tease him and make fun of him and call him names. That’s reality.

Why are people bullies? Tanner Gannt is the bully in my books. I wanted to explore the different sides of a bully. Why is he like that? Tom learns more about Tanner when he ends up in his bedroom, as a bat, hiding in his backpack. He also witnesses a poignant Christmas morning with Tanner and his mother. 

I was the head writer of SpongeBob Squarepants for six years. I did seasons 4 through 8. My mantra for the show: simple and silly. I oversaw six of writers and there were also the story board artists who wrote. We wrote what we thought was funny and amused us, but keeping in mind the show was predominantly for kids. It was a huge, collaborative group effort, with chances to “plus” or improve the episode at many different steps. Writing books is a solo flight. Very different. But…also rewarding. It’s a good thing to try different styles of writing, novels, non-fiction, poetry, short stories. You may discover what you’re really good at and you didn’t know it. Playwright August Wilson thought he was going to be a poet, but he became a playwright. And there’s poetry in his plays.

Superpowers! Because Tom is a Vam-Wolf-Zom he has super hearing, night vision, great strength, the ability to hypnotize people (if their wills are not too strong) and turn into a bat and fly or even turn into smoke…In a way, he is a superhero…But sometimes he hears and sees things using his powers that he would rather not…I also followed the “rules” of monsters and try to keep it “realistic”. Tom has to slather on sunscreen, wear hats and dark glasses in the sun, constantly eat to satisfy his zombie hunger (he does not eat brains) and blood, synthetic blood or raw liver smoothies seem to work.

A lot of “bad” things happen to Tom. Arthur Miller, the playwright, said that when he was writing Death Of A Salesman, would think to himself, each day, about his main character: “What can I do to Willy Loman today?” Poor Willy. Poor Tom. I would think the same thing. Get Tom into trouble. Have something bad happen. How does he react? There is your drama. Conflict. Humor. But Tom does have small triumphs along the way and learns things. 

Cliffhangers are cool. At the end of book one, on the last page, Tom meets the vampire that bit him. At the end of book two, he meets the werewolf who bit him and in book three he meets the zombie. 

I put stuff I like in books. I like Emily Dickinson, action figure toys, Monty Python, rabid collectors, good-bad movies and noir detective novels. So….Tom has to do a diorama for history class and uses an old action figure to be Emily Dickinson. He aims to impress a girl he likes, who loves Dickinson’s poetry. The action figure is from the worst super hero movie ever made called Vacuum Girl. She sucks baddies up in her vacuum, but it has to remain plugged in. The toy turns out to be valuable because the figure was a re-purposed toy (Big Jack Jackson) from an old TV show. It was dangerous for kids to play with, so it was recalled. The toy is stolen and Tom must track it in film noir / detective fashion. I wrote those chapters in a kid-styled version of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Tom also imagines the worker who had to re-paint the figure, complaining to his boss that it does not look like the actress in the movie and they are not fooling kids in a John Cleese / Michael Palin dialogue exchange. 

You can’t just put stuff in a book because you like it. You need a dramatic reason! I love Halloween…My brother, Alan, and I used to build a giant maze and walk through in his front and backyard. Filled with monsters (actor friends and neighbors in elaborate masks and costumes), special effects and very scary stuff.  We took three weeks to build it. We’d get over 1,000 people going through on Halloween night….So….Tom loves Halloween, but it is also a rare chance for him to go out in a mask and costume and be “in disguise”, so no one knows who he is. People don’t stare or ask questions. He can also ask other kids, “What do you think of that Tom Marks? So, that’s a good thing…But…Do you want to hear those answers? Meanwhile, the school bully, Tanner Gantt, dresses up like a Vam-Wolf-Zom, to make fun of Tom. 

I base some characters on real people. Abel Sherril is based on three people; My friend, Bill Prady, who co-created The Big Bang Theory, (the TV show, not the theory) read the entire World Book Encyclopedia when he was ten years old and was a Walking Google pre-Google. The fact that Abel wears a suit and tie to school every day is based on another friend, Mark Wheeler, (a geologist and a national champion fencer!) who wore a suit to kindergarten. And I used to bring my lunch to school in a briefcase. I love briefcases. Blame James Bond and Ian Fleming…Zeke, Tom’s best friend, is named after a nickname I called my dad and he is based on a good friend’s son, who is full of life, doesn’t get embarrassed, marches to his own drummer, is super enthusiastic and loyal…Good qualities in a human being. Tom sometimes wishes he was more like Zeke. So do I. 

I love libraries. You get to borrow books for free! The library I went to as a child is still there and not much has changed. It’s a little like going back in time when I go inside. Weird. I also wrote a great deal of a one-person show I did, that you can see on Amazon Prime “Steven Banks Home Entertainment Center” (Shameless plug). 

A good book is a good book, no matter what age it is written for. I pity the people who do not read YA or middle grade or even picture books. Where Is My Hat? by Jon Klassen is a masterpiece. I read the Ramona books as an adult. Ramona is a great American literary figure and I am being 100% serious. Beverly Clearly captured a child’s mind perfectly. 

Book you should read that you might not know about. One of the best new books I have read in the past 15 years is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. A 15-year-old Victorian-era girl becomes a nanny/teacher to three children who were literally raised by wolves. An adult can enjoy this as much as any middle grader. It’s that good and that funny. The writing attains a P.G. Wodehouse level at times. It’s a series of 7 books. Also The Dead Father’s Club by Matt Haig, narrated by an authentic sounding (!) 11-year-old. It’s a modern-day version of Hamlet. You’re welcome. Wait…One more: I wrote a YA novel called King of The Creeps. It’s not about monsters. It’s about a 15-year-old in 1963 who decides to become a folk singer to impress girls, buys a cheap guitar in Greenwich Village, has one lesson, learns one chord and two days later ends up on a big TV show The Ed Sullivan Show.

In conclusion…There is no conclusion. Read!

Meet the author

Steven Banks is the Emmy nominated head writer of SpongeBob Squarepants and wrote on Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius and CatDog. He recently wrote the new animated series Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Steven wrote and starred in the cult classic special, Home Entertainment Center, on Amazon Prime.  His books include the YA novel, King of the Creeps and New York Times Bestseller, SpongeBob Exposed. His new book series is Middle School Bites. TV appearances include Mom, Penn & Teller Fool Us, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Jimmy Kimmel Show. Plays include Love Tapes, co-written with Penn Jillette, Looking at Christmas (NYC PBS) and Shadowland, which he co-created with the legendary dance/theater company, Pilobolus, which has been performed in 40 countries and seen by over one million people. Steven is a drop out of Los Angeles City College and a graduate of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College.

Links:

Middle School Bites on Facebook 

@vamwolfzom 

middleschoolbites on Instagram

About Middle School Bites: Out for Blood

Tom the Vam-Wolf-Zom is back—and so is the werewolf that bit him—in this monstrously funny series about a boy who’s dying to fit in.

Eleven-year-old Tom was bit by a vampire, a werewolf, and a zombie right before the first day of middle school. It was a weird and crazy day. And he didn’t even get excused from sixth grade!

Now he’s being hunted down by the werewolf that bit him. Should Tom join a wolf pack? On the one hand, he could give up school and homework forever. (He really doesn’t want to do his history report.) On the other hand, he’d miss his band, his friends, and Annie, his maybe-possibly-someday girlfriend. He might even miss his big sister, Emma.

Then the vampire that bit him returns with a warning: the werewolf is dangerous. Perhaps Tom should stick with sixth grade—even if it’s mostly talent show disappointments, detention, and chicken-turkey-salami-roast beef sandwiches. 

Created by an Emmy-nominated writer for SpongeBob, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, and CatDog,this hilarious series is illustrated with clever, cartoon-style art on every spread. Perfect for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Last Kids on Earth.

ISBN-13: 9780823446162
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/31/2021
Series: Middle School Bites #3
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Little Choices Can Change Our Stories In Big Ways, a guest post by Ginny Myers Sain

Me and DARK AND SHALLOW LIES as close to the location in Louisiana where it is set as I could get.
Actual spot is about 30 minutes downriver by boat.

Lizzie Borden is looking over my shoulder. She’s holding a sharpened weapon and grinning at me while I write this. And I can almost hear her humming that tune. You know the one. Lizzie Borden took an axe

My friends tell me she’s creepy. They don’t know how I can live with her in the house, but I love bobble-head Liz. I bought her on a trip to the Lizzie Borden House Bed and Breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts, and I count her as one of my favorite possessions.

I like dark stories. Crumbling manors. Deep woods. Foggy lakes. The more haunted and atmospheric, the better. Ghosts. Monsters. Serial killers. Give me all the creepy things that go bump in the night.  And if those dark stories have just a little bit of truth to them, and if they’re mysterious or unsolved or unexplained—like Lizzie’s story—that’s even better.

I often get asked what led me to write DARK AND SHALLOW LIES, my debut novel that’s out this fall. It’s a dark, twisty story, and people seem to want to know where it came from. I know some authors can point to one single moment that shaped them into the writer they would become, but I can’t narrow it down quite that far. I can, however, identify three things in my life that seem completely unrelated but eventually led to a book. It’s funny now, looking back on those three very random and totally unconnected things and realizing how they led me to a reality where I’m a real-live author typing this guest post two-weeks before my debut novel makes its way into the world. And it’s especially weird to realize that, without any one of these events, I might have written a completely different story.

First, when I was six years old, I got the best birthday present I’ve ever received: The Weebles Haunted House. There is no way to explain how cool this thing was. It was so intricately detailed in all its haunted plastic glory. It came with a Weeble ghost. It made real haunted house sounds, whatever those are. And I was hooked. From that moment on, I was a lover of the macabre.

I grew up in a really happy home. I had a lovely childhood with great parents, a younger brother and sister, and lots of friends in small-town Oklahoma. It was always bright. Always sunny. So I had to invent my own darkness. When the county fair came around every fall, I’d wait in line for the spook house over and over while my friends were riding the Scrambler. But the fair was only once a year, so stories were the most readily accessible way to feed my desire for fear. I became obsessed with The Ghost Belonged to Me by Richard Peck and The Ghost Next Door by Wylly Folk St. John.  Then I read everything I could get by Lois Duncan. Stranger with My Face and Down a Dark Hall were my favorites. I devoured stories by Shirley Jackson and Daphne Du Maurier and gothic mysteries by Victoria Holt. I was not a dark kid at all, but those scary stories scratched some deep itch I had. And it all started with that Weebles Haunted House.

Years later, in my freshman year of college, I met a two boys at the President’s picnic on the very first day that I arrived on campus. They were both cute. Both theatre majors, like me. Both were talented and funny. I went out with each of them over those first few weeks of school. One took me to a carnival and bought me ferris wheel rides and won me a stuffed frog. The other took me to dinner in the nearest big town and we tried Thai food for the first time together. It was all very magical, and I liked them each for different reasons. But, eventually, I had to choose. I chose the boy who introduced me to Thai food, and we dated for most of my four years of college.

Louisiana alligator

His family was from south Louisiana, and it was with him that I first traveled down to that part of the country. For a girl from the dry and dusty plains of Oklahoma, it was like traveling to another planet. On that first trip down to the bayou, I tasted crawfish at a place where you ate it right off a table that had been covered in butcher paper. (It was to die for!) I danced to live Zydeco until I almost passed out in a stifling hot bar that was strung up with Christmas lights. And most important, I saw my first alligator crossing the road right in front of our car.  I was in love. Yes, with the boy. For sure. And that was a first, too. But I was also head-over-heels in love with Cajun Country. In the end, that was the love affair that lasted. The boy and I broke up my senior year, and I haven’t seen him since. But the state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans, Zydeco, crawfish, and alligators…those things still call to me. I tell people all that time that I’m from Oklahoma, but it’s the landscape of the swamps and bayous that is truly the landscape of my heart.

Louisiana bayou scene (tree with spanish moss)

And then, years, after that, I was traveling across Florida with my teenage son. We love to take road trips together, and we’ve seen a lot of the United States by car, but Florida is one of our favorite places to visit. On this particular trip, we decided to head up north of Orlando, where we were staying, for a trip to Blue Springs State Park. We had heard that in the winter months, hundreds of manatees came in from the river to seek the warmer waters of the spring. We don’t have manatees in Oklahoma, so we wanted to see them. I think we counted over three hundred of them that morning.

My son on that first trip to Cassadaga (2019)

When we’d seen all the manatees we could see, we still had a half-day to kill. I dug our Florida guidebook out of the glove box, searching for anything else in the area that might be interesting, before we hopped on the highway and headed back down to the theme parks and miniature golf courses of Orlando. That’s how I stumbled upon the tiny little town of Cassadaga.

Cassadaga, Florida, calls itself the “Psychic Capital of the World,” and that sounded like a pretty interesting stop on the way home. Plus it was only fifteen minutes from Blue Springs State Park, so off we went.

Cassadaga’s town square is lined with fortune tellers, astrologists, palm readers, and all sorts of interesting little shops. You can make an appointment with pretty much any kind of spiritualist or mystic to help you find what you might be looking for. There’s a sprawling old hotel, which is supposed to be haunted, and a lovely little park. I was standing on the front porch of the bookstore right in the middle of town when and a question popped into my head. “How do you keep a secret in a town full of psychics?” And that question became a story. Now the story is becoming a book.

Several times over the past whirlwind of a year, it’s hit me that, if just one of those three things had happened differently, DARK AND SHALLOW LIES probably wouldn’t exist.

What if my parents had gotten me the Weeble circus that year, instead of the haunted house? I might not have become fascinated with the dark stories that fueled my imagination as a child and now fuel my passion for writing as an adult.

What if I’d chosen the other boy? He was from Oklahoma, like me. If I’d spent those years with him, I might never have tasted crawfish or fallen in love with the way the bayou sounds at night or developed an alligator obsession that still exists to this day.

And what if my son and I had seen the manatees at Blue Springs State Park, and then gotten on I-4 and headed back to our Orlando hotel, never knowing that I’d just passed the exit where I could have found the inspiration for my debut novel?

DARK AND SHALLOW LIES is a story about psychics, but, for most of us, there’s no way to know what the future holds. Life is full of so many little choices, and it’s both terrifying and wonderful to think that something like choosing to pull a guide book out of the glove box could totally change your destiny. Honey, the grandmother in my book, would probably say it’s fate. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do believe that our stories mostly come to us in the smallest moments of our lives, not the biggest. It’s how we stitch those tiny moments together, day after day and year after year that makes each journey so unique.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Sean Capshaw,
Resolusean Photography

Ginny Myers Sain lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has spent the past twenty years working closely with teens as a director and acting instructor in a program designed for high school students seriously intent on pursuing a career in the professional theatre. Having grown up in deeply rural America, she is interested in telling stories about resilient kids who come of age in remote settings. Dark and Shallow Lies is her debut novel. Follow her on Twitter @stageandpage and on Instagram @ginnymyerssain, or find her on her website at ginnymyerssain.com.

About Dark and Shallow Lies

A teen girl disappears from her small town deep in the bayou, where magic festers beneath the surface of the swamp like water rot, in this chilling debut supernatural thriller for fans of Natasha Preston, Karen McManus, and Rory Power.

La Cachette, Louisiana, is the worst place to be if you have something to hide.

This tiny town, where seventeen-year-old Grey spends her summers, is the self-proclaimed Psychic Capital of the World—and the place where Elora Pellerin, Grey’s best friend, disappeared six months earlier.

Grey can’t believe that Elora vanished into thin air any more than she can believe that nobody in a town full of psychics knows what happened. But as she digs into the night that Elora went missing, she begins to realize that everybody in town is hiding something—her grandmother Honey; her childhood crush Hart; and even her late mother, whose secrets continue to call to Grey from beyond the grave.

When a mysterious stranger emerges from the bayou—a stormy-eyed boy with links to Elora and the town’s bloody history—Grey realizes that La Cachette’s past is far more present and dangerous than she’d ever understood. Suddenly, she doesn’t know who she can trust. In a town where secrets lurk just below the surface, and where a murderer is on the loose, nobody can be presumed innocent—and La Cachette’s dark and shallow lies may just rip the town apart.

ISBN-13: 9780593403969
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Writing Pains: Steps of the writing process that torment us the most, a guest post by Class of 2K21 Books

“Do the thing you think you cannot do.”

–Eleanor Roosevelt

When we picture our favorite authors creating their masterpieces, we envision words flowing like magic from their fingers, vibrant characters leaping off the page, and tension building with slow and steady perfection as light streams through their plant-filled offices.

But when talking to authors, you see that the reality is often punctuated by false starts and hiccups, self-doubt, and lots of caffeine. It means writing over stolen moments amid the juggle of life and deferred showering as deadlines loom. It means fear. The truth is, the writer’s journey is filled with phases of slog, insecurity, and a specific kind of literary torture. 🙂

Below, several Class of 2kBooks authors share aspects of the writing process they find the most daunting, along with ways to overcome those fears in order to unlock the story within. Read on to hear from fab authors Shakirah Bourne (Josephine Against the Sea), Kalena Miller (The Night When No One Had Sex), Jessica S. Olson (Sing Me Forgotten), Sam Taylor (We are the Fire), and Jennifer Adam (The Last Windwitch).

Sam Taylor: For me, the first draft is the hardest part. I always outline and complete quite a bit of research and planning prior to starting, but still it is so, so hard to create an entire book from a blank page! I’ve started keeping my first drafts (or Draft Zero, as I call them) to myself. This gives me the freedom to explore my story and get to know my characters, without worrying about making sense to someone else. I consider Draft Zero a reality-check for my outline. It’s my chance to figure out which of my initial ideas are working, and which need more development. Most importantly, my best and most creative ideas come while I’m working through Draft Zero. Here, I have the chance to explore them. In revision, I can get all those loose threads cleaned up and presentable for my first round of readers.

Jennifer Adam: There are two distinct parts of my writing process that I find deeply challenging. The first is just getting an initial draft done. I struggle with perfectionism that sometimes manifests as a temptation to procrastinate (if I can’t do it perfectly, maybe I shouldn’t do it at all) or as the urge to endlessly fidget with the words I’ve already written rather than just moving forward. I’ve definitely gotten better at pushing through – mostly because there are so many stories I want to tell and I know I’ll never get to them if I don’t get things done! – but that first draft is still such a slog for me. It’s hard to create something from nothing.

The other part I find difficult is diving into any major edits. I LOVE digging deep into a story, tearing it apart and rebuilding it more strongly, adding layers and depth and texture. I love seeing how a story can evolve and take on a clearer, sharper shape. But starting edits makes me so anxious – I’m always scared I’ll break the story or make a bigger mess. It takes me several days of thinking and brainstorming just to get up the courage to start making changes. Once I do, though, I have a marvelous time because it starts to feel like working on a puzzle, and that moment all the pieces click is pure magic.

Jessica S. Olson: The hardest part of the writing process for me is always the beginning. Nailing down an outline and then writing the first draft. Especially now that I’ve written several books, it’s always so daunting to begin, because it’s like staring up at this massive mountain I’ve hiked before and knowing just how difficult it’s going to be to reach the top and just how long it’s going to take. I’ve also learned that so much of what I outline and what goes into the first draft ends up getting changed in future drafts. Rewritten. Altered. Deleted. So every word in that first draft feels pointless sometimes because I know that most of those words won’t make it to the final draft. But these messy first drafts are so vital, and they have to be written! You can’t revise what you don’t have. Every masterpiece has to start somewhere–so we push through!

Kalena Miller: Perhaps I’m unusual, but I love first drafts. Staring at a blank piece of paper is the best part of the process. For me, revising tends to be more difficult. Once I have a complete draft, my brain balks at the idea of messing it up because I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of putting it back together. However, working with an editor on THE NIGHT WHEN NO ONE HAD SEX has really helped me overcome this fear. Getting to work alongside another professional who’s just as invested in my book as I am was an amazing experience. Not that revising wasn’t still an overwhelming process (I definitely cried a few times, but that’s not particularly unusual for me), but knowing my editor shared my vision for the book was the motivation I needed to get it done. 

Shakirah Bourne: I’m pretty sure my version of hell is staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page. Writing a first draft is so painful for me–I feel the weight of irrational expectations, fear of failure, and frustration that the wonderfully-crafted story in my head does not magically appear on the page. I get through it by reminding myself that the first draft doesn’t have to be good, but finished. I also make sure that I have a detailed outline before writing to help avoid excessive procrastination and prevent writer’s block. Some days, drafting is enjoyable and fun, and when I re-read I’m pleasantly surprised that the writing isn’t as awful as I imagined, but to maintain motivation I have to visualise the moment I write the final line in the last chapter. I love doing edits and revisions so I’m always very excited when I get to that stage.

As we can see, writing involves avoidance, stress, and self-doubt. It means carving out time in the dead of the night or the first light of dawn, juggling jobs and family amid fears and expectations. For some of us, anxiety lies in the early blank page stages, while for others it’s the later layers, the developmental reworkings that are most dreaded.

But no matter our kryptonite, we can each find our courage. We dive into the fulcrum of our hearts, that quiet place within where the magic begins. We come to see that in our fears and fallibilities lies strength, a quiet belief that helps us do that thing we thought we could not do.

Thank you so much for being with us here on TLT.  The links to some of our books can be ordered/pre-ordered and added to your Goodreads, so check us out below.

Wishing you the strength to tackle the tough as you work toward your dreams!

With gratitude,

The Class of 2k21 Books

https://www.shakirahbourne.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54776548-josephine-against-the-sea

https://www.kalenamiller.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/56989110

https://www.samtaylorwrites.com/books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43839832-we-are-the-fire?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=VIXztTTGTB&rank=1

https://www.jessicasolson.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53176389-sing-me-forgotten

https://www.jenniferfrancesadam.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/54496121