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Frank Morelli’s Playlist for his Novel, On the Way to Birdland

As the release date approaches for my new young adult novel, ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, I keep getting asked: what inspired you to write this book?

The truth is, any time you string close to one hundred thousand words together into a cohesive story, the avenues of inspiration must be innumerable. In fact, there were so many streams of experience, knowledge, empathy, and emotion flowing through me as I wrote the first draft of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to be completely conscious of all of them.

I can tell you, however, that my strongest source of passion for the literature I was composing at the time came in a language many of us may consider universal: the sweet, poetic symphony of music.

To do that I have to take you back a few years to 2005. That’s when I moved from New York City to my adopted hometown of High Point, North Carolina and found out, through some sheer act of fate, that this small, random furniture town in the rural South happened to flow with the same air once breathed by jazz legend John Coltrane. I knew right away I wouldn’t be able to rest until I dove headlong into the history and the music of such an essential, American icon, and I wanted to see if I could understand what it was, if anything, about what at first glance appears to be a pretty bland and generic town that may have inspired an artistic genius to move closer to his creations.

Not only did the process help me gain a visceral appreciation for an artist I now see as nothing less than a musical genius and a modern prophet, but his sound also allowed me to see patterns I never would have noticed before in the collective harmony of American music. And I found solace in the realization that it is in our music where we reflect all of the qualities that make us unique, both for better and for worse.

The following playlist is by no means an exhaustive list or an official soundtrack, but it captures the essence of the music I came in contact with time and again during my process, and that continued to play through my head as I wrote the initial draft of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND. I hope you’ll give it a listen as your eyes peel across the pages of my new novel.

1. Dream a Little Dream of Me – Doris Day

There’s an obvious dreamlike quality to this song that brought me directly into the reeling mind of my protagonist, Cordell Wheaton, a sixteen-year-old boy on a journey to find his estranged brother, Travis, as he struggles to suppress the reverberating memories of a traumatic event.

2. Little Birdie – Vince Guaraldi Trio

As a young boy, I used to roll my eyes every time my father played a song on the radio that was older than two weeks, which included jazz music in any form. Writing ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND forced me to reflect on my own listening experiences with America’s most hallowed music creation, and I realized that the first time I ever recognized a jazz song it was while watching a Peanuts cartoon. Yes, kind of childish, but I was an actual child at the time…and this happened to be the song that welcomed me into the fold of jazz appreciation.

3. Colors – Black Pumas

This is my favorite band to come out in quite a long time, and I think it’s because I love how the Pumas are able to connect through the ages with their music. They provide listeners with a sound that is uniquely suited for the present, while reaching right back into the soulfulness of a Marvin Gaye or an Al Green.

4. My Favorite Things – John Coltrane

This old standard comes to life through the mouth of Coltrane’s saxophone in a way that no other song remake ever can. Compared to some of Coltrane’s later, more experimental music, which takes a bit of a trained ear to truly appreciate, this song grants the casual music-goer with an all-access pass to Coltrane’s musical genius. It also happens to be a song that represents the tight bond between my protagonist in On the Way to Birdland and his missing brother.

5. One More Night – Michael Kiwanuka

Another one of those recent musical artists who seems to be able to reach back into the ages of sound and filter back harmonies that fit the resounding rhythms of the moment.

6. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag – James Brown

The Godfather of Soul has always spoken to me just as much as he seems to speak to one of my favorite characters in ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, a kind-hearted truck driver who goes by the road handle ‘Cowbird’ and helps Cordy Wheaton find a new direction in his life.

7. Crazy – Patsy Cline

Not only did this song help me to empathetically develop the fragile mental state of my protagonist, but it also served as inspiration for the creation of a struggling country music artist named Lula McBride, who’s just one of the many important mentors Cordy Wheaton meets on his journey.

8. Chasin’ the Bird – Charlie Parker

This playlist would be incomplete without a proper tribute to Charlie “Birdman” Parker, one of the greatest jazz artists of all time, a mentor to John Coltrane, and the impetus behind the famous Birdland Jazz Club in New York City.

9. Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton

I love how well this song captures an underlying theme in ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND about the hidden trials and tribulations we all have hidden just under the surface and how our differences actually make us stronger.

10. Bye Bye Blackbird – Miles Davis and John Coltrane

Even if you claim to not be a fan of jazz, I dare you not to like this legendary jazz standard played side-by-side by John Coltrane and one of his most important mentors, the illustrious Miles Davis.

11. On the Road Again – Willie Nelson

This song is Cordy Wheaton’s general anthem as he completes his Odyssey-like journey up and down the East Coast of the United States.

12. Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver

Like most of us, Cordy Wheaton wishes he were anywhere on Earth besides his hometown. But, as Cordy learns on his journey, sometimes it takes a few outside experiences to help us appreciate the treasures we have sitting right in our own backyards. It’s a lesson that just sounds better when John Denver sings it.

13. That Was Yesterday – Leon Bridges

Another present-day musical genius, this Leon Bridges song–both lyrically and harmonically–captures Cordy Wheaton’s ultimate realization as he approaches the end of his journey. To Birdland.

14. A Love Supreme, Pt. 1 – John Coltrane

This is the first part of Coltrane’s most widely celebrated and possibly most enigmatic jazz suite of the same name. It is a piece of music so far-reaching that it once inspired the creation of a church dedicated to its worship, and it remains to be one of the most revered pieces of music of all time as consistently cited by leading scholars on jazz. To me, it signifies the importance of spirituality in John Coltrane’s life, and it provides us with a window into the man’s devotion to studying and appreciating the common threads that bind together most of the world’s religions. It’s a piece of music that cements John Coltrane’s legacy as one of history’s great uniters.

15. Carolina in my Mind – James Taylor

This is the song that kept popping into my mind when I envisioned the closing credits beginning to roll if I’m ever lucky enough to see ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND up on the big screen. It’s a song that brings Cordy Wheaton right back to where he started, but with a new way of looking at the world around him, and a new way of valuing himself.

Meet the author

Frank Morelli is the author of the young adult novels On the Way to Birdland (2021) and No Sad Songs (2018), a YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers nominee and winner of an American Fiction Award for best coming of age story. His fiction and essays have appeared in various publications including The Saturday Evening PostCobalt ReviewPhiladelphia Stories, and Highlights Magazine. A Philadelphia native, Morelli now lives in High Point, North Carolina with his best friend and their four rescued fur babies.

Social Links:

@frankmoewriter on Twitter
@frankmorelliauthor on Instagram
frank.morelli.96343 on Facebook

Frank Morelli’s YouTube Channel

frankmorelliwrites.com – author website

Frank Morelli on Goodreads

fowbooks.com – publisher website

About On the Way to Birdland

Self-proclaimed teenage philosopher Cordell Wheaton lives in a sleepy, southern town where nothing ever happens; not since his hero, jazz musician John Coltrane, left some seventy years earlier to “follow the sound.” Cordy’s life has been unraveling since the night his father and his brother, Travis, exploded on each other. The night Travis’s addiction transformed him from budding musician into something entirely different. The night Travis took his saxophone and disappeared. When Cordy’s father falls ill, the sixteen-year-old vows to reunite the Wheaton family. He embarks on a modern-day odyssey with forty bucks in his pocket and a dream to find his brother and convince him to be Travis again—by taking him to a show at Birdland Jazz Club in New York City, and reminding him of the common bonds they share with their legendary hero. Cordy’s journey is soon haunted by ghostly visions, traumatic dreams, and disembodied voices that echo through his mind. He starts to wonder if the voices are those of the fates, guiding him toward his destiny—or if he’s losing his grip on reality.

ISBN-13: 9781947886056
Publisher: Fish Out of Water Books
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Life-Altering Stories: That book that got us thinking differently about fiction, Featuring Megan Freeman, Kalena Miller, Andrea Wang & Anuradha Rajurkar

We all have that one book. The one that cracked the world open, made you feel seen. The one that showed how inventive, deep, and powerful stories can be. The one got you dreaming about writing your own stories one day.

The Class of 2k Books chatted about that singular title that set us on the path of chasing our writerly dreams. Check out the conversation below with Megan Freeman (Alone), Kalena Miller (The Night When No One Had Sex), Andrea Wang (The Many Meanings of Meilan) and Anuradha Rajurkar (American Betiya, Knopf). 

Megan Freeman: Reading Karen Hesse’s verse novel Out of the Dust was life changing for me. I was teaching middle grade English at the time and was looking for books to include in our curriculum. I had never read a novel in verse before and even though I had been a poet for years, the idea of writing an entire novel in poetry had never occurred to me. I still think of it as a touchstone book and a shining example of how just a few carefully chosen words can have an enormous impact and provide everything a reader needs to enter a world and have their heart broken open.

Kalena Miller: When I finished reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I immediately sat down to write. As a teenager, I was a voracious reader, but it was The Book Thief that made me realize I needed to be a writer, too. The prose itself was so magical and powerful that I was filled with the desire to play with language myself. Over the years, I’ve discovered many books that similarly demonstrate the limitlessness of storytelling (We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng are recent examples), but The Book Thief was the first one that made me realize I needed to write fiction for young readers.

Andrea Wang: The Joy Luck Club blew me away. I hadn’t read a book with so much Chinese and Chinese American representation in it before — and with eight distinct points of view, too! I finally saw that I could be a writer and write about my own life experiences. It also opened my eyes to writing stories about my parents’ generation, about the love and loss they experienced in a different country. I love the idea of intersecting, intergenerational stories where the characters’ lived experiences can both harm and heal each other.

Anuradha Rajurkar: Andrea, The Joy Luck Club was so impactful to me, too, for so many of the same reasons. If I had to choose just one, the book that changed my worldview was Another Country by James Baldwin. The way he wrote about his intersectionality as a gay Black man in Harlem was unpredictably relatable to me, a brown girl of South Asian descent coming-of-age in the 80s in the Midwest. With searing prose and pitch-perfect dialogue and characterization, he handled the betrayals within our closest relationships in a way that made its delible mark upon my soul. This book revealed how to write about love, race, and culture in a way that felt honest, and got me dreaming about writing my own story one day. Another Country will forever be a part of me, undoing me in the very best of ways, even all these years later.

What story impacted your life and got you thinking differently about fiction? We’d love to add it to our TBR!

With love,

The Class of 2k Books

Buy links and more

Anuradha Rajurkar, author of American Betiya

Website: https://www.anuradharajurkar.com/

Purchase: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/607776/american-betiya-by-anuradha-d-rajurkar/

Andrea Wang, author of The Many Meanings of Meilan

Website: https://andreaywang.com/

Pre-order: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/635269/the-many-meanings-of-meilan-by-andrea-wang/9780593111284

Kalena Miller, author of The Night When No One Had Sex

Website: https://www.kalenamiller.com/

Pre-order: https://bookshop.org/books/the-night-when-no-one-had-sex/9780807556276

Megan Freeman, author of Alone

Website: https://www.meganefreeman.com/

Purchase: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Alone/Megan-E-Freeman/9781534467569

HOW CLASSICAL MUSIC PLAYS A VITAL ROLE IN EVERYWHERE BLUE, a guest post by Joanne Rossmassler Fritz

Music often plays a role in MG or YA novels. The music is nearly always new, whether it’s pop or rock or rap. A singer might be mentioned in the text itself, like Beyonce in FAT CHANCE, CHARLIE VEGA by Crystal Maldonado. Or the characters in a novel might audition for a Broadway musical, as in BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle, or a school musical, as in CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY, by Steven Salvatore.      

        

Many novels have a playlist, a list of tunes that inspired the author, music they listened to while writing the book. Afterward, they share the playlist with fans.

My MG debut novel in verse, EVERYWHERE BLUE, takes a different approach.

Twelve-year-old Madrigal Lovato, nicknamed Maddie, loves music, math, and everything in its place. She is growing up in a musical family. Her mother teaches opera, her father is a piano tuner by day and a composer by night. There is always music in the house. And it’s always classical.

In EVERYWHERE BLUE, music represents emotions.

When Maddie’s beloved older brother, Strum, walks away from his college campus and vanishes, Maddie’s well-ordered world splinters apart. Her parents are always distracted by the search for Strum, and her sixteen-year-old sister Aria reacts by staying out late.

Maman stops humming and singing, Daddy stops playing classical records. The house falls silent.

Maddie continues to practice her oboe in her room alone. She plays the oboe in her school orchestra and music is her world. This is why I opened the book with Maddie walking to her after-school music lesson. The story begins in November, when darkness comes on early. Maddie also has seasonal affective disorder, so early darkness makes her sad. The music I mention reflects those feelings.

I tried to infuse every part of my novel with a piece of classical music, including “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg, “Largo” by Antonin Dvorak, “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, “Ode to Joy” from Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig Von Beethoven, and more.

I describe how the music makes Maddie feel, so even if the reader doesn’t know the piece, they’ll know just how it can affect people. Whether it’s “the most haunting music I’ve ever heard” (“Adagio for Strings”) or “the brightest, most jubilant music I know” (“Ode to Joy”), music is a metaphor for Maddie’s emotions.

Readers may not be familiar with all the classical pieces I mention in the book. But many readers should know Peter and the Wolf, a musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. He called it a “symphonic fairy tale for children.” It teaches young people the different instruments in an orchestra, by assigning them to characters in his tale. Peter is represented by the strings, his grandfather by the bassoon, A clarinet represents the cat, a flute represents the bird. And three French horns represent the wolf.

Finally, the oboe represents a duck, because, yes, an oboe sounds a lot like the quacking of a duck.

I played the oboe in junior high school. We even performed a student version of Peter and the Wolf and I had a brief solo. It’s been a long time, but I can still remember the crushed-leaf taste of the reed.

As I wrote and revised EVERYWHERE BLUE, music became more and more important to my theme. I realized the French horns’ forbidding, ominous music in Peter and the Wolf was perfect for Maddie’s concern over her missing brother, Strum, and could also symbolize her undiagnosed anxiety.

With each revision, I drew more and more on this recurring theme. Strum’s disappearance throws the family into chaos. Maddie realizes at one point, while listening to the violins play Peter’s theme, that Strum could be Peter. And she hopes he will escape from the wolf of whatever’s troubling him. 

French horns are mentioned throughout the novel, and they’re always forbidding, until Part 4, February, when Maddie begins to feel there is hope for finding Strum. Maddie longs for more daylight, and by February, the days are becoming longer. As she listens to Ravel’s Bolero, she realizes the French horns in that piece are not at all forbidding. They don’t threaten. They rise and swell. They lift her up.

Near the end of the novel, Maddie is getting ready for the school concert. And the verse and the music are full of hope.

Music in books can be healing. Music can soothe the soul. Music, in fact, can be a form of salvation.


Meet the author

Joanne Rossmassler Fritz grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, surrounded by books and music. She has worked in a publishing company, a school library, and the Children’s Department of a large independent bookstore. She’s been writing most of her life, but didn’t get serious about it until after she survived the first of two brain aneurysm ruptures in 2005. She and her husband live outside West Chester, PA, and are the parents of two grown sons.

Twitter: @JoanneRFritz

Instagram: @JoanneRossFritz

Website: https://www.joannerossmasslerfritz.com/

About Everywhere Blue

A brother’s disappearance turns one family upside down, revealing painful secrets that threaten the life they’ve always known. 

When twelve-year-old Maddie’s older brother vanishes from his college campus, her carefully ordered world falls apart. Nothing will fill the void of her beloved oldest sibling. Meanwhile Maddie’s older sister reacts by staying out late, and her parents are always distracted by the search for Strum. Drowning in grief and confusion, the family’s musical household falls silent.

Though Maddie is the youngest, she knows Strum better than anyone. He used to confide in her, sharing his fears about the climate crisis and their planet’s future. So, Maddie starts looking for clues: Was Strum unhappy? Were the arguments with their dad getting worse? Or could his disappearance have something to do with those endangered butterflies he loved . . .

Scared and on her own, Maddie picks up the pieces of her family’s fractured lives. Maybe her parents aren’t who she thought they were. Maybe her nervous thoughts and compulsive counting mean she needs help. And maybe finding Strum won’t solve everything—but she knows he’s out there, and she has to try.

This powerful debut novel in verse addresses the climate crisis, intergenerational discourse, and mental illness in an accessible, hopeful way. With a gorgeous narrative voice, Everywhere Blue is perfect for fans of Eventown and OCDaniel.

ISBN-13: 9780823448623
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Pages: 256
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Three Novels, Three Responses to Anti-Asian Racism, a guest post by Misa Sugiura

My third book, Love & Other Natural Disasters, is being published this month. In my preparations for launch day, I’ve been thinking about my goals as a writer over the course of my career: what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same. I realized that I’ve unpacked a different version of what it means to be Asian American with each book, always with the goal of offering a new angle into the experience and of pushing back against racist or lazy stereotypes. As a former high school teacher, it has been my constant hope that each book will provide a welcome home for some readers, and an eye-opening education for others.

My first book, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, stuck closely to my personal experience as a child of Japanese immigrants in the Midwest, and as a high school teacher in ethnically diverse Silicon Valley. In it, Sana Kiyohara moves from Wisconsin to California and befriends a group of Asian American girls, which helps her move from ambivalence to celebration of her Asian-ness. At the same time, she falls in love with a Latinx girl and comes to terms with her sexuality. I wanted my book to show Asian kids in ways hadn’t yet been deeply explored in YA: kids who were consciously and unambiguously proud of being Asian American; a teenage Asian lesbian; Asian kids who might be high achievers but who weren’t necessarily nerdy brainiacs who stayed home every night; and anti-Asian racism (and homophobia) as a collection of micro-aggressions that might not seem harmful to others. Kids had conversations about race on the page, and made all kinds of mistakes; my hope was that this would provide readers with a way to talk about race and racism in their own lives.

In my second book, This Time Will Be Different, I chose to dig past the micro-aggressions and directly confront racism (particularly anti-Asian and anti-Japanese racism) on a broader scale: its history and how past injustices like the Japanese American incarceration during World War II can echo through the years in ways that still affect us today. In This Time Will Be Different, CJ Katsuyama goes to a school named after the racist family who used the chaos of the internment decades ago to cheat her family out of nearly everything they owned. To contextualize CJ’s story, I included chapters that stepped outside of the main narrative to educate readers on the history of anti-Asian racism in the United States, and the history of the model minority myth. Because I wanted to push back harder on the stereotype of Asian Americans as the Model Minority, I made CJ an academic underachiever who gets high, has sex, and doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life—because those Asians exist, too! And as before, I had characters openly discuss race and racism on the page so that readers would learn how to talk about it themselves.

Four years after It’s Not Like It’s A Secret was published, we still live in a world where, as a character in that novel joked, “Asians aren’t lesbians!” This is one reason why I decided to add another story to that very small (but growing!) group of books featuring queer Asian girl protagonists. In my third novel, Love & Other Natural Disasters, instead of examining and analyzing Asian and queer identity as I have in the past, I celebrate and normalize it by putting queer Asian girls at the center of a story that leans heavily into popular romantic comedy tropes (Fake dating! Enemies to lovers! Rowboats, bicycle rides, and ice cream parlors!); I’ve focused thematically on personal and family issues, rather than social issues like race and sexuality. And while I’ve steeped the overall plot in broadly popular conventions, I’ve tried to keep the details specifically Asian, so that Asian kids can continue to have the joy of recognizing themselves or their family members in a book.

But wait! There’s more! I’ve written three stories that show three different ways to be Asian American—three different attempts to push back against anti-Asian racism. But Asia is a massive continent, made up of 48 sovereign nations and roughly 2300 distinct, living languages. And there are many Asian authors with an enormous variety of stories to tell. Authors like Randy Ribay and Riley Redgate (Filipino), Lori Lee (Hmong), Thanha Lai (Vietnamese) C.B. Lee and Julie Dao, (Chinese/Vietnamese), Sara Farizan and Abdi Nazemian (Iranian), Sabina Khan (Bangladeshi), Tanaz Bhathena (Indian), and more offer valuable perspectives on what it means to be Asian in ways that extend far beyond my stories. By introducing our kids to this rich diversity of characters and stories, you join the fight against the reductive and destructive forces of racism. I hope that you will consider including all kinds of Asian stories in your collections, regardless of whom you serve, so that your readers—both Asian and non-Asian—will get to see that there are as many ways to be Asian American as there are Asians in America.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Pamela Garfield

Misa Sugiura’s ancestors include a poet, a priestess, a samurai, and a stowaway. Her debut novel, It’s Not Like It’s A Secret, won the APALA Award for YA Literature, and her critically acclaimed second novel, This Time Will Be Different, made the “Best of 2019” lists of the New York Public Library, the Chicago Public Library, Kirkus, and YALSA. Her latest book, Love & Other Natural Disasters, and has been praised in SLJ as “an adorable rom-com” and “a fun romance that engages with deeper issues.” Booklist describes it as “hilariously awkward” and “honestly poignant,” while Kirkus calls it “a laugh-out-loud, tender, and wholly satisfying read.” Misa lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two sons, and three cats.

Links:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/misallaneous1/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/misallaneous1

Website: http://www.misasugiura.com/

About Love & Other Natural Disasters

This delightfully disastrous queer YA rom-com is a perfect read for fans of Jenny Han, Morgan Matson, and Sandhya Menon.

When Nozomi Nagai pictured the ideal summer romance, a fake one wasn’t what she had in mind.

That was before she met the perfect girl. Willow is gorgeous, glamorous, and…heartbroken? And when she enlists Nozomi to pose as her new girlfriend to make her ex jealous, Nozomi is a willing volunteer.

Because Nozomi has a master plan of her own: one to show Willow she’s better than a stand-in, and turn their fauxmance into something real. But as the lies pile up, it’s not long before Nozomi’s schemes take a turn toward disaster…and maybe a chance at love she didn’t plan for.

ISBN-13: 9780062991232
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Publishing is a Journey, a guest post by Claire Andrews

Publishing a novel can be daunting, especially once you realize that writing the book isn’t even the hardest part. There are lots of comparisons between publishing and marathons, and they are pretty correct. The only sprint you’ll find might just actually be in completing the first draft, and that would best be done only when you’re on deadline. Otherwise, take your time and do it right, or you’ll be eating every word you typed up later.

My own publishing journey was definitely of the marathon variety. It felt endless, the goalpost a mere illusion at times. I’m not saying this to deter anyone, but I do feel that it should be said. The stories we often hear are of authors with big, quick success stories, the ones with agents and deals snapped up within months. This isn’t the case for 99% of authors, and it is definitely not my story. But I don’t want to bore you with the details of my slog to the finish line. For reference, here’s my own timeline:

  • First query sent for a (now) shelved project – Summer 2013
  • Finished DoS – Summer 2015
  • First DoS query sent – August 2015
  • Signed with first agent – Spring 2016
  • Left agent – Spring 2018
  • Revised DoS
  • New agent – Winter 2018
  • Went on submission – March 2019
  • Sold DoS – July 2019
  • PUBLICATION – June 2021

That’s EIGHT years to publication. I don’t know about all of you, but most marathons are shorter than eight years. Again, I’m not putting this on the internet to deter you. I am hoping to encourage you when the publishing slog feels eerily similar to Sisyphus and his boulder. Or, because my book is releasing soon, like Daphne’s seemingly endless quest to save Olympus from itself. Poor girl just can’t catch a break.

First things first, the place to start – once you’ve finished writing and revising your novel, of course – is to start drafting that query letter. I’m including my query letter below (which might be embarrassing someday) because it was, ultimately, successful.

Dear Amy,

Seventeen-year-old Daphne has spent her entire life honing her body into a weapon, her heart and mind into stone, to be accepted by the unyielding people of ancient Sparta. When the goddess Artemis holds Daphne’s brother for ransom, she must leave behind her family, friends and Sparta to travel across the dangerous and unforgiving world of ancient Greece. 



In return for her brother’s life, Daphne must find and return mysterious objects stolen from Mount Olympus. With each step of her journey she battles foes from the ancient myths of Greece alongside her guide, the enigmatic and flirtatious god Apollo, who has a secret agenda of his own. Her heart is torn between worry for her brother and a growing attraction to her companion, and her nights are haunted by a shadowy specter seeking to bring her mission to an untimely end. A mere pawn in the games of the gods, the true weight of Daphne’s task to restore the waning power of Olympus is revealed when she uncovers a plot to ignite war between Olympus and the world of men. 

A reimagining of the classic Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, OLYMPUS RISING is a 97,000 word Young Adult Historical Fantasy that explores female empowerment and acceptance, as well as Greek mythology and history. The first in a proposed trilogy, this novel will appeal to fans of Madeline Miller’s unique Greek retelling and determined, self-sufficient heroine in CIRCE, and to those who love the sweeping adventure and ancient folklore of Adrienne Young’s SKY IN THE DEEP. Based on your MS Wishlist, your interest in voice-driven and female-centric historic fiction, and I believe that this novel will pique your interest. 

I would like to be represented by Dystel Goderich & Bourret LLC because your agency strives for quality, has a stellar client list producing excellent literature, and promotes long fruitful careers. I am a graduate of the University of Alaska Southeast with a degree in Social Science, with an emphasis in history, archaeology and anthropology. Inspired by my research as an undergrad, I have sought to breathe new life in the forgotten women of ancient Greece. Below, please find the first 25 pages of my manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Claire Andrews



I had multiple offers because of this query letter, and I think that boils down to three things: a good pitch, doing my research, and following guidelines. What worked in my query letter? The fact that it underwent countless drafts, for starters. Have your friends and critique partners look it over, get opinions. Does it make them want to read the book? That’s the point if they do. If they don’t? Well, time to figure out why not. What else worked? My comps were relevant. I made sure to pick out books that had released recently and were also popular. This showed that I knew both the genre and the market, and that my book had the potential to cater to fans of those books. One thing I cannot stress enough, though, when writing your query: do your research! Make sure you research the agent your querying. How many pages will they want for their sample? What are some of the other books they like and represent? MSWL and Manuscript Wishlist are great sites for really learning what the agent likes and is hoping to read. It’s also important to research what the agent does NOT want. Some agents may be interested in fantasy, but don’t want to read historical fantasy and may only want to read paranormal. Some agents may want fantasy sometimes, but at the time of querying the agent may only be interested in non-fiction. I’d also like to point out the wee grammatical error in the query, which just goes to show that agents are more interested in the big picture things. Don’t stress if you’ve sent your query and realized you made a mistake.

Thus, querying becomes your first of many lessons in persistence. Even when on submission with your agent, there will be a lot of waiting by your phone and obsessively refreshing your phone. This business takes a lot of perseverance, and gumption. There will be times, even after you’ve sold your novel, that you’ll want to crawl under a rock because guess what’s next? More waiting.  But don’t turn away from the process and please don’t let this deter you. I want to read your story, and I know a lot of agents and editors out there want to as well! Just remember to tighten those laces and charge your phone, because you’ve got a long hill to climb and a long wait at the top. In Daughter of Sparta, Daphne is faced with a choice: return to Sparta or continue on her journey and do everything she can to return power to Olympus. There might be times when the finish line seems farther, but you’re a champion for even beginning the race.

Meet the author

Claire M. Andrews was raised in both Alaska and Scotland, but currently lives in Vermont; when not writing, she can usually be found outside swimming, skiing or hiking across the state’s famous green mountains. Daughter of Sparta is her debut novel. She is a 2014 graduate of the University of Alaska Southeast.

Social Media links:
https://www.pinterest.com/cmandrews4/
https://www.instagram.com/cmandrewslit/
https://twitter.com/cmandrewslit
https://clairemandrewsbooks.wordpress.com/
https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/50123234

About Daughter of Sparta

In this thrilling reimagining of ancient Greek mythology, a headstrong girl does whatever it takes to rise up and become the most powerful fighter her people have ever seen.

Seventeen-year-old Daphne has spent her entire life honing her body and mind into that of a warrior, hoping to be accepted by the unyielding people of ancient Sparta. But an unexpected encounter with the goddess Artemis—who holds Daphne’s brother’s fate in her hands—upends the life she’s worked so hard to build. Nine mysterious items have been stolen from Mount Olympus and if Daphne cannot find them, the gods’ waning powers will fade away, the mortal world will descend into chaos, and her brother’s life will be forfeit.

Guided by Artemis’s twin—the handsome and entirely-too-self-assured god Apollo—Daphne’s journey will take her from the labyrinth of the Minotaur to the riddle-spinning Sphinx of Thebes, team her up with mythological legends such as Theseus and Hippolyta of the Amazons, and pit her against the gods themselves.

A reinterpretation of the classic Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, Daughter of Sparta by debut author Claire Andrews turns the traditionally male-dominated mythology we know into a heart-pounding and empowering female-led adventure.

ISBN-13: 9780316540070
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Series: Daughter of Sparta Series #1
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

WE NEED MORE HEROES OF COLOR IN MIDDLE GRADE FANTASIES: A SOUTH ASIAN PERSPECTIVE, a guest post by Payal Doshi

As a kid, any free time I got, I devoured books. I read about kids who traveled to fantasy lands through a wardrobe, carried out investigations as amateur detectives, navigated the politics of school, had crushes and heartbreaks, and became heroes who saved realms with their magical powers. Oh, I loved these books! And yet, not one of them had characters who looked like me: a brown Indian girl.

India alone has a population of 1.3 billion people. Add in the diaspora which is spread across the world and that’s about another 18 million people. When there are so many of us, why do I rarely find South Asian kids on the cover of books especially those who are magic-wielding, realm-saving main characters?

Payal age 11-12

Thanks to initiatives for diverse books, the statistic is changing, and we are seeing more books with South Asian main characters (although there is a long way to go). However, a majority of the books being published center on stories of struggle. These stories delve into important subjects such as the immigrant experience, finding one’s identity in a foreign land, fitting in while sustaining microaggressions, tackling racism, learning the language, or escaping poverty and hardship for a better life. These stories are vital. These stories are needed. These stories open a door into a life many haven’t seen.

But these are not our only stories. The South Asian narrative is multifaceted with myriad, if not a countless, stories.

When I first began writing my debut novel, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, I wrote all 70,000 words of it with white characters who lived in the English countryside. I was an adult, nearly 24 years old when I wrote the first draft. Never having seen myself in ‘happy’, ‘joyful’, ‘adventurous’, or ‘magical’ stories as a kid, my subconscious led me to write about characters who I had read about umpteen number of times doing those exact things, except they looked nothing like me. The plot of my novel was not based on the immigrant experience or rooted in the challenges of living in poverty or war (in the case of historical fiction), so I assumed no one wanted to read a book about a girl like me from India, going on an adventure, discovering she had magic, and being the ‘chosen one’ to save her brother and a magical realm.

I didn’t think my Indian background was interesting enough to be the driving force of an exciting, heroic story. Since I had only ever read children’s books with white characters, it had trained my mind into thinking that those were the stories worth telling. That my own story, one that I hadn’t ever read about or seen portrayed, was not worth telling. Without my knowing it, this diminished my identity, my experiences, my uniqueness, and my self-worth.

When my writing teacher in India asked me with great disappointment why I hadn’t chosen to write about Indian kids (it was clearly not the first time she had come across a young Indian writer who had written about white characters), I felt deflated. I loved my life in India. I loved the food, the culture, the clothes, the deep sense of family, my years of schooling and university. I realized I should be proud of writing about my experiences and celebrating them with the world. If Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, and Nancy Drew can have incredible adventures, why can’t an Indian kid have them too? A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm.

Right then, I knew I wanted to change that. So, I wrote a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture with Indian kids going off on thrilling adventures and becoming heroes. It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself.

Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is a mission close to my heart. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and believe that their stories can be fun, fierce, and empowering too. Themes in children’s books about family, friendship, discovering your identity, the trials of growing up, dealing with complex emotions like grief, loss, death, as well as the exhilaration of escaping into fantasy lands and being a hero are themes every kid can relate to no matter the color of their skin, the location of their home, or their race and nationality.

My hope is for all types of narratives from underrepresented minorities to be brought to the forefront. Kids from marginalized backgrounds shouldn’t have to be typecast into having only one kind of story define their whole existence. We need to see kids from marginalized backgrounds in every avatar: from neurotypical, neurodiverse, queer, to disabled kids being portrayed as heroes, leaders, realm savers, popular kids, magic-wielding rebels with a cause, sci-fi explorers, and those who fall in love.

We, each, have our own hardships, struggles and insecurities but we also want to share joy, feel special, and be the ‘chosen ones’. Only by sharing varied narratives of marginalized groups will we create a world where people see each other without bias against the culture or the color of their skin.



So, let’s break stereotypes. Let’s broaden the perspectives of our young readers. Let’s unshackle our minds from the boxes we put others into without fully knowing their stories.

And until this revolutionary change comes, I’m going to write stories with flawed, fierce, and fabulous South Asian characters who go on adventures, solve mysteries, find love, be heroic, wield magic, and are unapologetically themselves.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Rachel Nadeau

Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing from The New School, New York. Having lived in India, the UK, and US, she noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR, her debut middle grade novel. Raised in Mumbai, India, she currently lives in Minneapolis, MN and can be found daydreaming about fantasy realms to send her characters off into. Learn more at www.payaldoshiauthor.com, @payaldoshiauthor on Instagram and @payaldwrites on Twitter.

About Rea and the Blood of the Nectar

It all begins on the night Rea turns twelve. After a big fight with her twin brother Rohan on their birthday, Rea’s life in the small village of Darjeeling, India, gets turned on its head. It’s four in the morning and Rohan is nowhere to be found. 

It hasn’t even been a day and Amma acts like Rohan’s gone forever. Her grandmother, too, is behaving strangely. Unwilling to give up on her brother, Rea and her friend Leela meet Mishti Daadi, a wrinkly old fortuneteller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling and secret quest. In the shade of night, they portal to an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There with the help of Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, Rea battles serpent-lilies and blood-sucking banshees, encounters a butterfly-faced woman and blue lizard-men, and learns that Rohan has been captured. Rea also discovers that she is a princess with magic. Only she has no idea how to use it.

Struggling with the truth her Amma has kept hidden from her, Rea must solve clues that lead to Rohan, find a way to rescue him, and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can she rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?

ISBN-13: 9781645437635
Publisher: Mango & Marigold Press
Publication date: 06/15/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Shh! We’re talking about a quiet book, a guest post by Tricia Springstubb

In The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, nothing too awful happens. There are some scary parts, including ominous vultures and a possibly haunted turret, but they’re not too scary, and to soothe your nerves there’s also a baby goat, and a thoughtful if troubled best friend. And while I want readers to fly through the pages, anxious to find out what happens next, I also hope they’ll feel as if someone they trust is sitting close, whispering, It’s going to be okay.

I myself am a scaredy-cat. No horror movies, no roller coasters, no casseroles where I can’t identify every ingredient, thank you very much. When I was growing up, in the innocent fifties and early sixties, pretty much every book I read had a guaranteed happy ending. There were no such categories as tween or young adult. Books that dealt with darker themes were reserved for adults, and for years I lived on a diet of Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins, and Nancy Drew. When Beth died in Little Women, it came as a tremendous shock.

Yet little by little, I began to learn that reading was not just for escaping life–it could be for understanding life. One of the first books to help me see that was “A Girl of the Limberlost”, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Elnora has a mother who’s often cold and distant. Her own heart has been broken, and she visits her unhappiness on Elnora. I remember reading this book with a painful sense of wonder. I’d never seen a mother like mine in a book before. When her mother shows Elnora that she does, after all, love her deeply, my own heart swelled so that I thought it might actually be growing. And probably it was–that’s what seeing ourselves in a book, realizing we are not alone, does to us. Our hearts and minds expand. Being understood, we, in turn, can better understand others.

Thank goodness for the many brave, unflinching books young readers have today. I’m so so awed and moved, by novels like Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, Leslie Connor’s The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle, and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies. Books like these, which guide young readers through life’s darkest places and out into the light, were not around when I was growing up.

Yet much as I admire them, I’ll never write that kind of book. I think that, as writers, we discover what we can do, then do that thing as best we can. For me, that seems to be quiet books like The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, whose hero is timid, steadfast Loah Londonderry. While Loah is a homebody, her mother is an ornithologist who often goes off on distant expeditions. When Dr. Londonderry finds evidence that an Arctic bird believed to be extinct may still exist, she embarks on a perilous solo quest to save it. Loah is left alone with her elderly caretakers. When they fall ill, she finds herself truly alone, except for a troubled friend who wants help running away from home, and those ominous vultures.

Does her mother love her work more than she loves Loah? Can Loah be a friend to someone so different from her? Where does a homebody find the courage to do brave, undreamed of things?

Loah embarks on an expedition too. She doesn’t traverse the globe, like her mother or a migrating Arctic tern. Instead, like a Townsend solitaire, she sticks close to home. Yet for me, her expedition, a journey of the heart, is every bit as big and important.

A recurring theme of middle grade and young adult literature is becoming independent –learning to fly–while also craving security and safety–a nest. It’s a theme explored in countless ways, and in The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, I do it through the lens of the natural world. All living creatures depend on one another in ways large and small, a lesson Dr. Londonderry’s work has taught Loah. As she comes to feel her own quiet strength, she reaches out to help others, who in turn support her, setting up a human chain of inter-connectedness that echoes Nature’s own web.

The book’s title comes from naturalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who wrote, “I think that, if required on pain of death to instantly name the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird’s egg.”  A bird’s egg, with its sturdy yet porous shell, is perfectly engineered to protect the growing chick until the day that chick finds the egg too small and confining and begins pecking its way out. An egg is made to nurture and then to give way, and for me this is the perfect metaphor for childhood and growing up. Hatching isn’t easy for Loah, just as for so many kids. I hope readers see themselves in her struggles to find a place in the world. I hope they’ll be reassured that, even when they feel most alone, light and love are never far away.

We turn to books for different things. Some days we want to laugh, some days to weep, some days to shiver in horror and some days to be comforted. Linda Urban, Erin Entrada Kelly, Cynthia Lord, Renee Watson and Sarah Pennypacker are some of my favorite writers whose books can speak monumental truths in small-ish voices. I’m tucking The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe onto their shelf.  

Shh. These are quiet books. They have lots to share, though. Lean close and listen. 

Meet the author

Tricia is the author of many picture books, chapter books, and novels. The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection and has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Before becoming a full-time writer (hooray!), Tricia worked as a library associate in the children’s room of a public library. Librarians have always been her people! She lives in Cleveland, Ohio. 


Contact info: 

website: triciaspringstubb.com

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tricia.springstubb/

instagram: tricia_springstubb

twitter: @springstubb

About The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe

For fans of Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly and The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss, a novel about one unadventurous girl who discovers she is anything but.

Eleven-year-old Loah Londonderry is definitely a homebody. While her mother, a noted ornithologist, works to save the endangered birds of the shrinking Arctic tundra, Loah anxiously counts the days till her return home. But then, to Loah’s surprise and dismay, Dr. Londonderry decides to set off on a perilous solo quest to find the Loah bird, long believed extinct. Does her mother care more deeply about Loah the bird than Loah her daughter?

Things get worse yet when Loah’s elderly caretakers fall ill and she finds herself all alone except for her friend Ellis. Ellis has big problems of her own, but she believes in Loah. She’s certain Loah has strengths that are hidden yet wonderful, like the golden feather tucked away on her namesake bird’s wing. When Dr. Londonderry’s expedition goes terribly wrong, Loah needs to discover for herself whether she has the courage and heart to find help for her mother, lost at the top of the world. 

Beautifully written, The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is about expeditions big and small, about creatures who defy gravity and those of us who are bound by it.

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

ISBN-13: 9780823447572
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Let’s Be Frank: Honest Conversations About Sex in YA, a guest post by Jason June

I get asked a lot what I’d like to see more of in the YA space, and my answer is always, “More frankness around the topic of sex.”

Specifically, more frankness about the topic of queer sex. The need for more YA queer characters to be open about their hormones and horniness is to let LGBTQIA+ teens today know that their same-sex desires, or their nonbinary fantasies, or their sexual attraction to any consenting human are not only completely natural, but part of the beauty of being human.

When I was a gay and as-yet-to-discover genderqueer teen in the early-aughts, this was not the message I received. While my straight male classmates got to openly talk about how hard Stifler’s mom made them, there was no way in gay heaven I would have been able to do the same regarding hot TV daddies. Boners and hard-ons were not for me or queer kids to discuss, and for so many of us on the rainbow spectrum, we were forced to deal with the downward shame spiral of hearing the guys say how they’d like to bone (insert straight-cis-opposite-sex star here) and not relating at all. This was unsettling because whether or not said star wanted to be a part of the boning was rarely brought up, and because if we gay kids brought up our desires or even mentioned two boys kissing, it was met with slurs, sneers, or violence.

Sex-positivity in queer YA is about ending that shame. It’s about making safe, consensual sex for everyone regardless of gender or sexuality the norm so we can end that violence and stigma. IT’S THE AGE OF SEX-POSITIVITY!

Now, let’s not forget an important point: An aspect of sex-positivity that goes hand-in-hand with not shaming anyone for their sexual desires is also not shaming anyone who has no sexual desire. There can be a multitude of reasons for this including being asexual, not being ready yet, or being at different stages of body development. So while I’m all about being a hoorah cheerleader for young adults discovering their sexuality with consenting peers, it’s also important that we normalize the fact there is no “right” way or timeline to figure ourselves out, and no amount of sexual desire you must feel in order to be “normal.”

So what does sex-positivity in YA look like? First, it’s ending the cycle of naming books without sex as “clean.” When a reader or parent asks for a “clean” book meaning one with no sex, they’re implying books with sex are dirty, nasty, gross. Let’s all say it together, “Sex is not dirty.” Sex is so natural! It’s how we got here, it’s how we can show someone we trust them and connect with them on the most intimate level, or it’s how we can let off steam with another pent-up person hoping to let their hair (and/or pants) down. It also has health benefits including less stress, better heart health, glowing skin, and a more positive outlook on life. I totally get that a teen might not want or be ready for a book with sex in it, so when asking for a book without sex, let’s just say that. “Does this have sex in it?” or “I’m looking for a book without sex” work perfectly and don’t label books with sex as unclean in any way. Yay!

Next, let your characters name what’s happening to their body and the type of bodies they are curious about. Wanting to know what a penis or a vagina or both looks and acts like is part of our post-pubescent years for so many of us, so if we act like our sex-ready teen characters never think that, we’re doing a huge disservice to our sex-ready readers. It makes them feel that shame spiral, like these totally common thoughts popping into our head and making themselves clear in our pants are somehow wrong. In Jay’s Gay Agenda, my sex-positive queer rom-com, Jay lets us know regularly what he’s thinking and feeling. It’s really the whole purpose of the titular list! He wants to kiss a boy, get naked with one, see another penis besides his own IRL, and have sex. Jay’s not alone in wanting these things, and by letting our characters think about sex and talk about it in safe spaces, we’re saying bye bye to shame and hello to healthy conversations about how to have sex and how to ask if someone your body is reacting to is down to have sex too.

Delivery in all of this matters, both in how we share these books with readers and how we portray teen characters emotionally and physically expressing their sexual desire. We don’t have to whisper that a novel has sex anymore. Sex isn’t a secret, and by labeling a novel sex-positive, we’re acknowledging the humanity of the act, the gorgeousness of sharing your body with another human when you’re both ready. For writers, when getting into those sex scenes, remember you’re not writing erotica. You don’t have to go into every single nitty-gritty detail. This is for your teen audience, not to act as a turn on, but to acknowledge to those sex-ready readers that doing sexy things like they’re about to read is totally normal and exciting and nervous-making, all of it. Go ahead and make it clear what’s happening, but be sure to do it in a way that’s not gratuitous, that’s about acknowledging desire and curiosity and safe, consensual fun.

I know when I was sixteen, I needed books that had people like me getting to openly talk about their horniness and hormones. I needed to know I wasn’t alone, I needed to know how many teens just like me wanted to see what it was like to have sex with another guy. And I know now from stories of so many friends, every single letter of the rainbow spectrum needs those stories too. So write that sex so teens know they aren’t alone, share sex-positive books in libraries and bookstores so readers of all genders and sexualities can see themselves and understand others and know that even if our sexual partners look different, the need to be linked through our bodies is an experience so many of us share.

Because after all, sex is all about connection.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Ryan Bilawsky

Jason June is a gay, genderqueer, list-making, Virgo Sun, Taurus Moon, Pokémon-playing writer living in Austin, TX. If he had a Gay Agenda, “marry the love of your life”, “be mom to two extremely pampered Pomeranians,” and “get accidentally kicked in the face by Kylie Minogue as an extra in her music video” would all be crossed off. Visit Jason June on social media @heyjasonjune, and on his website at www.heyjasonjune.com.

Twitter: @HeyJasonJune

Instagram: @HeyJasonJune

About Jay’s Gay Agenda

From debut novelist Jason June comes a moving and hilarious sex-positive teen rom-com about the complexities of first loves, first hookups, and first heartbreaks—and how to stay true to yourself while embracing what you never saw coming, that’s perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon and Becky Albertalli. 

There’s one thing Jay Collier knows for sure—he’s a statistical anomaly as the only out gay kid in his small rural Washington town. While all his friends can’t stop talking about their heterosexual hookups and relationships, Jay can only dream of his own firsts, compiling a romance to-do list of all the things he hopes to one day experience—his Gay Agenda.

Then, against all odds, Jay’s family moves to Seattle and he starts his senior year at a new high school with a thriving LGBTQIA+ community. For the first time ever, Jay feels like he’s found where he truly belongs. But as Jay begins crossing items off his list, he’ll soon be torn between his heart and his hormones, his old friends and his new ones . . . because after all, life and love don’t always go according to plan. 

ISBN-13: 9780063015159
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

USING FICTION TO PROMOTE DISCUSSIONS OF INFORMATION LITERACY, a guest post by Sarah Darer Littman

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late”

Political Lying by Johnathan Swift (1710)

A functioning democracy is sustained by healthy, constructive debate about both the issues facing our nation and what policies we should implement to deal with them. However, it’s near impossible to engage in constructive debate if we can’t agree on a common set of facts. That’s why the results of a 2019 study from Stanford History Education Group, Students’ Civic Online Reasoning: A National Portrait were so disturbing.

Researchers gave a six-exercise assessment to national sample matching the demographic profile of high school students in the United States, in order to gauge students’ ability to evaluate digital sources on the open internet.

What they found has grave implications for the future:

  • Fifty-two percent of students believed a grainy video claiming to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries (the video was actually shot in Russia) constituted “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the U.S. Among more than 3,000 responses, only three students tracked down the source of the video, even though a quick search turns up a variety of articles exposing the ruse. 
  • Two-thirds of students couldn’t tell the difference between news stories and ads (set off by the words “Sponsored Content”) on Slate’s homepage.
  • Ninety-six percent of students did not consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility. Instead of investigating who was behind the site, students focused on superficial markers of credibility: the site’s aesthetics, its top-level domain, or how it portrayed itself on the About page.

The inspiration for my novel Deepfake (Scholastic Press, 2020) came as a result of two careers I had on my journey to becoming a YA novelist:  a technology analyst and a journalist. From being an analyst, I learned to look at new technology with a critical eye. As a journalist I tried to uncover and write about the truth, in order to hold elected officials accountable. Accountability is another important foundation of democracy. If we don’t see accountability throughout our justice and political system, we start to lose confidence in our democratic institutions.

When I started reading about deepfakes several years ago, I started to wonder and worry: What happens when advances in technology make it increasingly difficult to know what is true and what isn’t?

In the novel, someone creates a deepfake that purports to show Dara claiming that her boyfriend Will cheated on the SAT, which impacts not only their relationship, but could cause Will’s admission to an elite college to be rescinded.

The characters are forced to use research, reasoning, and analysis —skills our students need to be successful in the 21st Century workplace, and which I see lacking in far too many young people on the college level—in order to solve the mystery of who created the deepfake and why. A teaching guide with discussion questions and activities is available here.

Fiction allows readers to experience the emotional effects of technology and social media along with the characters. It helps them connect things they might have heard about on the news or seen posted online with the how it might impact their lives.

What I wasn’t trying to do with Deepfake is “teach kids a lesson,” a mistake often made by newbie kidlit writers. I know I don’t have all the answers. I’m only human, and I’m as fallible as the next person.

What I do hope to achieve with my storytelling is to encourage young people to think critically about different questions.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash   

Why is this so important? Because it’s their present and their future that’s being shaped by technology platforms and the misinformation that’s spreading on them even more rapidly than the Covid-19 virus traveled across the globe.  

A recent example involves misinformation regarding the Covid-19 vaccines. A study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a not-for-profit NGO that seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation, analyze a sample of anti-vaccine content that was shared or posted on Facebook and Twitter a total of 812,000 times between 1 February and 16 March 2021. Researchers found that 65% percent of anti-vaccine content was attributable to merely twelve accounts, which the center christened “the Disinformation Dozen.”

Once we’ve encouraged kids to think about the questions, our job as educators isn’t to tell them the answers, but rather to empower them to search out the solutions themselves.

That’s why I was so excited that Cindy L. Otis’s excellent non-fiction book True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News came out a few months before Deepfake. Cindy’s book should be in every middle and high school classroom library. This might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not, I assure you.

Cindy spends several chapters discussing the history of fake news, and acknowledges that her former employer, like most intelligence agencies, has employed it for influence campaigns. The best part of her book is that it provides practical solutions that young people can employ right away, enabling them to become part of the solution to our fake news infodemic, rather than part of the problem.

Educators, students, and the general public alike can benefit from the excellent resources provided by The News Literacy Project, a non-partisan national education non-profit dedicated to information literacy. I’m a big fan of their newsletter, The Sift, which provides up to the minute examples of misinformation to share with students.

It’s critical that we get young people thinking about these questions and help them learn the tools they can use to spot and evaluate fake news. As Peter Adams, the senior vice president of education at NewsLiteracyProject said in an interview with CT Public Radio: “If they can’t differentiate between something that’s true and something that’s false, they can’t make good decisions for their lives, for their families, for their futures and for the country.”

Meet the author

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of middle-grade and young adult novels. As well as writing novels, Sarah is an instructor in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University and leads the Children’s and YA section at the Yale Writers’ Workshop.


Socials:

website: sarahdarerlittman.com

Twitter and Instagram @sarahdarerlitt

About Deepfake by Sarah Darer Littman

What happens when anyone can make a video of you saying anything?Dara Simons and Will Halpern have everything they’ve ever wanted. They are the rulers of Greenpoint High’s geekdom, overachieving in every way, and it’s an intense competition to see who will be valedictorian. One the entire school is invested in. That is, until Rumor Has It, the anonymous gossip site, posts a video of Dara accusing Will of paying someone to take the SAT for him.

When the video goes viral, suddenly Will’s being investigated, and everyone’s wondering how he pulled off cheating on the SAT. But Dara swears that she didn’t say any of those things, which seems a little hard to believe since it’s her in the video.

Did Will cheat? Is it Dara saying he did? Who’s lying, and who’s telling the truth? The answer is more shocking than anyone realizes…

ISBN-13: 9781338177633
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Age Range: 12 Years

Historical Fiction in the Making, a guest post by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you told me thirty years ago I’d be writing historical novels, I would have said you were crazy or mistaken.  Back in the 70s and 80s, you could count the number of YA novels on one hand with an African-American female lead.   I found myself in a jam when I needed a book to work with a group of high school girls I was mentoring for my sorority’s literacy program. I ended up using my homework for my master class with author/screenwriter Richard Price.

My mentees’ engagement with my pages told me I was sitting on a gold mine.  Don’t write about the past.  Keep it current. Keep it real.  Imagine my surprise and utter frustration after college when my gold mine of a manuscript didn’t pan out right away.  But at last, some seven years later, I sold the manuscript, titled BLUE TIGHTS.  I had soon after, met with a cluster of teenage girls at a public library in Long Island. They were eager to give their testimonies of being objectified by boys or men old enough to be their fathers and how important it was for them to read a novel about another girl navigating their world.  The girls made me promise to never write about what happened way back in time.  They didn’t have to make me promise.  I was there.

Who knew I’d break my word?  Fast forward some twenty years, and ONE CRAZY SUMMER, my most successful novel, is set in 1968.  Leap forward another ten years and I’m anticipating the release of A SITTING IN ST. JAMES, my historical—what? Yes, my historical novel set mainly in 1860, predicated upon what happened in the 17th century, and then the French and Haitian Revolutions. If I was going to break my resolve, I might as well go for broke.  But did I really break my word to my readers?  I’ve always known that I couldn’t talk about the issues of today without understanding how we got here.  There’s no better way to connect the dots between the past and the present than through historical fiction.

Every novel relies on some research.  A historical novel isn’t reliable without research and A SITTING IN ST. JAMES, demanded total immersion.  I came to this story as a complete outsider.  I was neither white, nor of French descent, nor Louisiana Creole.  To gain the confidence of my readers, I took a year off from writing to do nothing but research: dig, read, uncover, and lastly, vet!  Instead of researching while I wrote, I used the writing hiatus to hunker down in specific subjects: French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, Louisiana history, Louisiana Creole culture and language, sugar cane planting and production, West Point history and culture, mid-19th century portrait painting, among other subjects.

I filled up on mid-nineteenth century literature, to include French, Louisiana Creole and American readings.  I combed through archives of narratives of survivors of slavery for testimonies of freed people from Louisiana.  One gem I found helpful was a collection of Caribbean and Louisiana Creole proverbs from LacFadio Hearn’s GOMBO ZH’BES (green gumbo).  I could see the smirks, the humor, and attitudes of the people. I got a taste of their lives and daily concerns. 

That deep dive into the particulars not only gave my storytelling foundation, it showed me how my plotting could work with the details that I collected.  Here’s a small but important example:  Byron’s West Point lover would travel down to St. James from New York to spend summer furlough with him.  With the open architecture of a typical Creole styled plantation house, the two would never be quite alone.  Enters, research!  On a well-to-do Creole plantation, boys in their teens moved into their own separate apartment near the main house.   This solved the privacy issue. 

Visits to the plantations were invaluable.  At times I had to split myself into two: the empirical fact-gatherer on a mission to know how things worked; and the descendant of enslaved people who witnessed the cruel treatment of her ancestors.  I needed both to write the story, but at some point, the descendant had to step back and let the fact-gatherer get the details that she would later string into meaningful prose.

I spent hours pouring over photographs from the Internet and in books.  One of my favorites was of a woman’s salon—the room where she not only slept, and did her toilette (clean, groom& dress) , but also entertained company.  This one photograph practically painted Madame and laid out how she spent her days.  I mentally collected pieces to place in the salon for the novel.  A footstool near the bed, mosquito netting, a vanity, religious iconography, a hand carved trundle bed, and the rose Queen Anne chair.  One look at a prie dieu (a personal prayer bench) told me instantly that Thisbe, Madame’s personal servant would always knelt in Madame’s stead.

I’m not going to lie.  It was a lot!  When I needed a break from the words, I’d switch media and get crafty.  Scrapbooking a novel or making character sketches as collages can be therapeutic.  Collages let me see vital threads and themes through images when I step away from the writing.  Fun fact: Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong—a scrapbooking collage artist.  

Although the story follows the life of Madame Sylvie, the story’s timeline begins way before her birth, and extends beyond her lifetime.  I drafted historical and personal timelines to keep things in order and to help me avoid anachronism.  Timelines are neat!  They gave me insights into what my characters were aware of, and they kept me factually honest. 

Who would have thought a “keep it current” and a never “way back in time” writer would be seduced by the lure of history? You know you’re in deep when you continue to dig, long after you’ve answered your research questions.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Ferdinand Leyro

Rita Williams-Garcia’s Newbery Honor Book, One Crazy Summer, was a winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award, a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and a New York Times bestseller. The two sequels, P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama, were both Coretta Scott King Author Award winners and ALA Notable Children’s Books. Her novel Clayton Byrd Goes Underground was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the NAACP Image Award for Youth/Teen Literature. Rita is also the author of five other distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, a National Book Award finalist; No Laughter HereEvery Time a Rainbow Dies (a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book), Fast Talk on a Slow Track (all ALA Best Books for Young Adults); and Blue Tights. Her latest book is A Sitting in St. James. Rita Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, New York, with her husband and has two adult daughters. You can visit her online at www.ritawg.com.

About A Sitting in St. James

A tour-de-force from three-time National Book Award finalist Rita Williams-Garcia, this story of an antebellum plantation—and the enduring legacies of slavery upon every person who lives there—is essential reading for both teens and adults grappling with the long history of American racism.

1860, Louisiana. After serving as mistress of Le Petit Cottage for more than six decades, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has decided, in spite of her family’s objections, to sit for a portrait.

While Madame plots her last hurrah, stories that span generations—from the big house to out in the fields—of routine horrors, secrets buried as deep as the family fortune, and the tangled bonds of descendants and enslaved.

This astonishing novel from award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia about the interwoven lives of those bound to a plantation in antebellum America is an epic masterwork—empathetic, brutal, and entirely human.

ISBN-13: 9780062367297
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/25/2021
Age Range: 16+