June LILbooKtalk: “Never Losing Hope in a Future of Uncertainty” with Dana Middleton and Alyssa Hollingsworth

Hi guys! I am really excited to share with y’all this month’s LILbooKtalk! The theme is “Never Losing Hope in a Future of Uncertainty,” a theme that is present is most Middle Grade novels. That is one of the biggest reasons why I love MG because they certainly boost my hope whenever I feel overwhelmed or sad. Today, I have two wonderful authors here to discuss this topic, Dana Middleton and Alyssa Hollingsworth, and they both provide some amazing insight into the worlds of MG and contemporary. I hope you enjoy!

About Open If You DareOpen If You Dare

Like Birdie Adams didn’t have enough problems this summer. But Birdie’s Birdie. And if a long-buried box has “Open if you dare” written on its lid, then Birdie and her best friends, Ally and Rose, are going to open it.

And now, along with everything else that’s going on–Ally’s pitching slump, Rose’s banishment to Britain, and Birdie’s annoying younger sister being, you know, annoying–the best friends are caught up in solving a mystery planted by a dead girl forty years ago.


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About The Eleventh TradeThe Eleventh Trade

From debut author Alyssa Hollingsworth comes a story about living with fear, being a friend, and finding a new place to call home.

They say you can’t get something for nothing, but nothing is all Sami has. When his grandfather’s most-prized possession―a traditional Afghan instrument called a rebab―is stolen, Sami resolves to get it back. He finds it at a music store, but it costs $700, and Sami doesn’t have even one penny. What he does have is a keychain that has caught the eye of his classmate. If he trades the keychain for something more valuable, could he keep trading until he has $700? Sami is about to find out.

The Eleventh Trade is both a classic middle school story and a story about being a refugee. Like Katherine Applegate, author of Wishtree, Alyssa Hollingsworth tackles a big issue with a light touch.

The Eleventh Trade releases from Roaring Brook Press on September 18th, 2018! Pre-order it today!


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LILbooKtalk August 2018

Questions are in bold

Kester: The first author we have today is Dana Middleton, MG author of Open If You Dare, which released last year. I was able to meet Dana at the SE-YA Book Festival back in March, also! Could you tell us a bit about your latest book and your background?

Dana: Hi Kester. So great to be here! My latest book is called Open If You Dare. It’s set in Atlanta (in the real neighborhood of my youth). It’s a mystery but it’s mostly about three friends during their last real summer together. I live in LA now but most of my MG fiction takes me back to my childhood in the South.Open If You Dare

Kester: Thank you for joining us today, Dana! I certainly loved Open If You Dare!Alongside Dana, we have Alyssa Hollingsworth, whose MG debut novel The Eleventh Trade is set to release in September of this year. Would you like to share with us a little about your book and yourself?

Alyssa: Sure! Thanks for having me. The Eleventh Trade is a contemporary story set in Boston about an Afghan boy who loses his last heirloom from home and goes on a quest of trades to get it back. I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old, got my master’s in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, and seem to have accidentally landed in the niche of MG books with fun plots and an underbelly of humanitarian themes.

The Eleventh TradeKester: I am really excited to read The Eleventh Trade! I’m glad that you’re here with us!

Both Birdie in Open If You Dare and Sami in The Eleventh Trade are faced with great challenges, such as dealing with one’s best friends moving away or trying to buy back a prized possession, that require a lot of hope and perseverance to overcome. What is the central message that you want young readers to take away from your novels? How do you want your book to help readers who are going through similar trials?

Alyssa: Great question! Boiled down to its very basic core, The Eleventh Trade is about how loss opens us up to community (friendship/belonging), and how community brings healing. I hope that readers will see the book as an opportunity to be aware of others’ struggle and actively jump in to give help and hope.

Dana: I agree with Alyssa. When a reader can identify and/or become aware of others’ struggles, the world becomes a smaller and kinder place. As an author, I feel like it’s my job to step into the skin of my protagonist. Birdie, in this case, is a lot like me and a lot different, too. She feels deeply about the impending loss of her friends (one is moving away and the other will go to a different school next year) but she also grows to understand that she can stand on her own and that the future can be different and good at the same time.

Alyssa: “Different and good” — I love that!

Dana: Right? I think I still struggle with that as an adult!

Kester: I definitely agree with the both of y’all. It’s very important to foster empathy in readers so they could make the world a better place.

Dana: In all fiction, but perhaps especially in middle grade fiction, it’s all about empathy and showing readers a variety of experiences. I’m excited to read The Eleventh Trade, partially for that reason. And also because it sound really good!

Alyssa: 🙂

Kester: Both Open If You Dare and The Eleventh Trade tackle big issues such as being a refugee, having mixed parents, facing huge changes, and being a good friend. How do you tackle these themes in your novels? What effect do these have on the overall story?

Dana: For me it starts with character. What does my main character want and what is she afraid of? After that came to me in the mysterious writer way that it does, the rest of the story could be built around it.

Alyssa: My answer is similar to Dana’s. I started by thinking: Who is my main character? I’ve had exposure to Afghans (and specifically Pashtuns) for the past ten years or so, and have absolutely loved their culture from afar nearly as long. I wanted to write a story that was character-driven, that contained a larger issue but focused in on this specific case with this specific boy. Trade has never been an “issues” book, and I think that’s a huge strength in stories like this. You tell a good story, and the sincere emotion of an issue will follow. I feel like that’s much harder to create authentically in the reverse.

Dana: Can I add something here?

Alyssa: Do it! (I might add something too.)

Dana Middleton
Dana Middleton

Dana: I feel the same away about an issues book. You want to have compelling “issues” or themes in your book but it’s got to be buoyed by a good story about real people. Birdie happens to be biracial because she came to me that way. There are many biracial children in my life and I’m sure that influenced it. So, it’s a part of who she is but also, I wanted her to just be a girl who was going through this unique summer, who was tenacious and smart and full of feelings without her color taking center stage.

Alyssa: Yaaaas! I think it’s also important to not box your character into a single specific identity. Sami is a refugee, but more than that he’s a proud Afghan, a musician, a loyal friend, a grieving kid, and a Hufflepuff to the max. It would be so limiting if the story was just about him being a refugee.

Dana: Absolutely!!

Kester: That is so true. Often times, as readers, we get annoyed by characters that are not fully fleshed, that are one-sided and focused on just one characteristic.

Dana: I’m facing that right now in my next book. Came to a writing roadblock when I realized I hadn’t fully fleshed out one of my characters enough. Oops!

Alyssa: Happens to everyone! 😉

Kester: Haha it’s totally okay! I know you’re going to do great with it! 😉

Dana: Thanks for the encouragement! Right now it feels a bit alarming. 🙂

Kester: What inspired you to write Middle Grade contemporary? Why do you love the genre, along with all of Middle Grade in general, as both an author and a reader?

Dana: You go first, Alyssa.

Alyssa: So I originally actually had *no* intention of writing MG contemporary–and, in fact, I wrote the synopsis for Trade in a writing assignment to “write a synopsis for something so far out of your comfort zone you’d never write it.” Before Trade, I wrote only YA fantasy (and I hope to go back to that someday). But when I gave my agent my first chapters and notes for Trade, she came back and asked me to write the rest… so I did. In the process, and as I’ve dived very deeply into the MG contemporary world, what I’ve learned to absolutely love about this age range is the amount of depth and wonderful you get to pack into short, clear sentences. Katherine Applegate (I think that’s her name—I’ll check in a second) made me weep with how beautifully she wove hard truths into clear, concise, deceptively simple prose. It’s just amazing, and something I think isn’t always appreciated in people who don’t read MG. (Also, it CRACKS ME UP when I give really stellar MG to my boss, an ex-literature professor who reads the most complicated stuff, and he comes back raving about how engaging and beautiful and deep the MG is. I’m like, “No duh!”)

Kester: That is awesome, Alyssa!!! I love it!! And I definitely agree–I wrote so many pages in my essay about how MG has so much literary depth that rivals those of the classics (and quoted you in it).

The Infinity Year of Avalon JamesDana: Katherine Applegate is right. I had the pleasure of meeting her last year and she is so inspiring! For me, I didn’t know I was going to write for kids for a long time. I moved to LA to work in TV and film production and on the side, I played around writing screenplays. It was while writing a fantasy screenplay about two 11 year olds while reading Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Desperaux that I thought – wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be amazing to try this? (not meaning writing something like Desperaux which would be impossible but just writing a story for kids that came from me). So I did and my first book went no where but I was thrilled that I actually finished it and then I wrote The Infinity Year of Avalon James and, well, that was my heart. I just love contemporary MG because it is so cutting edge, alive, hopeful and fun.

Alyssa: (I’m going to sit over here and stew in jealousy that you got to meet Katherine Applegate.)

Dana: You should, haha!

Kester: I still need to read one of her books, haha.

Alyssa: YES! Do it.

Dana: They’re making The One and Only Ivan a movie right now – which I hope will serve the book justice.

Alyssa: For real??? That’s exciting! But also the book is sooooo good.

Dana: My real frustration with middle grade fiction is there is so much really quality work to read and I always feel behind!

Kester: I know, right? At least they’re short and easy to read–you can pack more of them in a smaller amount of time!

Alyssa: That’s the gospel truth!

Kester: How have your personal lives impacted the creation of your books? Are there any aspects of the stories—including conflicts, characters, and settings—that are based off your own experiences?

Alyssa: Go for it, Dana!

Dana: Always! Whenever I do school visits, I tell the kids that a short cut to writing is to pluck from real life. I do that a lot and then exaggerate it like crazy. It’s said that authors are thieves and I think that is absolutely right. When I was Birdie’s age, my family moved and I left my two best friends behind. It wasn’t until after I had finished writing the book that I realized how much sadness I must have felt over this. I even set the story in my childhood neighborhood.  And then there are things that are totally made up. Like Rose and her violin. But she’s British — and so is my husband so I guess that bled in there as well.

Alyssa Hollingsworth
Alyssa Hollingsworth

Alyssa: Isn’t it cool how writing sometimes gives us a voice to grieve with/for things we as adults have tried to shrug off? There were a lot of things I found overwhelming while I wrote because my character is so different from me (Afghan, Muslim, soccer-player, boy, public schooler… the list goes on). But the amazing part was discovering how much he and I have in common, too, especially when it comes to the difficult process of learning to hope again (a process which was ironically mirrored in my drafting experience). I have learned so much about trauma and surviving and healing alongside Sami, and it’s been a blessing to put nuggets of that in the book for readers. There are also a few specific scenes that are lifted almost directly from firsthand accounts of loved ones in Afghanistan, with some details shifted around.

Dana: Yes, that was the surprise for me as a middle grade writer. All that un-resolvedness that I must still be grappling with which shows up on the page.

Kester: That’s what I love about MG fiction — a lot of the experiences in the novel can relate to things we’ve all gone through. I’ve connected so well with Open If You Dare, even though I haven’t personally gone through a move, that it moved my heart. I’ve endured many of the same feelings that Birdie went through. That’s why I’m so excited for The Eleventh Trade.

Dana: That’s so cool to hear, Kester. I love that Birdie moved you. xo

Kester: Thank you! Could you describe to us how you began to write from a child’s perspective? What was the biggest challenge you faced as you wrote this kind of narration, and how did you overcome it?

Dana: Go Alyssa! 🙂

Alyssa: I didn’t find it particularly challenging, actually. One of my tutors said, “We write for the age we truly are.” That made sense to me. In YA, I was writing about 16/17 year olds and in MG I write about 12 year olds–and both times are periods I remember very vividly. My hardest part of writing is actually getting emotions in–I grew up fleeing emotion for the safety of logic, and that’s something I’ve had to unlearn as a human and a writer. My first drafts normally contain a lot of very logical small adults who start to look a lot more kid-like on the second or third revision.

Dana: Well said, Alyssa! It comes pretty naturally for me, too I think because I’m a big kid. And I don’t have kids – which puts me at an advantage and disadvantage when writing for them. When I write, I become that middle grade age in my mind so I don’t write down to anyone. Kids can smell that a mile away. They’re so smart and savvy and full of feelings and I want to represent that in my stories as truthfully as possible.

Kester: Before we end this LILbooKtalk, do you have any advice you would like to share with young readers and writers reading this discussion?

Dana: If you’re a reader, keep reading. Forever. And find what you want to read. Don’t let anyone tell you that comic books aren’t reading, for instance. And for writers, same advice. Keep writing. Forever. And write your way. From your heart. Because those are the kinds of stories that people will want to read.

Alyssa: That’s great! For readers, I’d say do a lot of experimenting–read books you might not normally pick up, but also… super secret here… you don’t have to finish a book if it hasn’t really grabbed you by page 100. There are too many good books in the world to waste your time on one that’s not catching your fancy. For writers, challenge yourself to write for different age ranges, different genres, and different audiences. You might be surprised where you end up.

Dana: Yes! Don’t finish books sometimes! Good writing advice, too, Alyssa. I think I’ll take that to heart!

Kester: Thank you so much, Alyssa and Dana for joining me today in this LILbooKtalk! It was so great chatting with the both of you! 🙂

Alyssa: Thank you for having us!

Dana: Thanks so much for having us, Kester! And great to have the conversation with you both!


Thanks so much to Dana Middleton and Alyssa Hollingsworth for joining this month’s LILbooKtalk! Please go check out their books!

About DanaDana Middleton

Dana Middleton grew up in Georgia before moving to Los Angeles to work in film and theatre. She produced an Academy Award-nominated short film and won an Ovation Award but writing for kids is what she loves most! Her middle grade novels THE INFINITY YEAR OF AVALON JAMES and OPEN IF YOU DARE were inspired by her Georgia childhood which she writes about from her sunny Los Angeles home.

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About AlyssaAlyssa Hollingsworth

Alyssa was born in small-town Milton, Florida, but life as a roving military kid soon mellowed her (unintelligibly strong) Southern accent. Wanderlust is in her blood, and she’s always waiting for the wind to change. Stories remain her constant. Alyssa received her BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Berry College and her MA with honors in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. In 2013, she won a prize from the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity for her creative non-fiction essay, Naan in the Afghan Village. She is represented by Amber Caraveo at Skylark Literary. Her debut THE ELEVENTH TRADE will launch Fall 2018 with Macmillan (U.S.) and HotKey (U.K.).

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Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

What are your thoughts on this LILbooKtalk?

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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4 thoughts on “June LILbooKtalk: “Never Losing Hope in a Future of Uncertainty” with Dana Middleton and Alyssa Hollingsworth

  1. I loved this post. I enjoy reading interviews with advice on reading, writing, idea generation, as well as presenting to kids.


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