November LILbooKtalk: “Neurodiversity in Children and Children’s Literature” with Sally J. Pla and Monica Tesler

Hi guys! I am really excited to share with y’all this month’s LILbooKtalk about “Neurodiversity in Children and Children’s Literature” with Sally J. Pla and Monica Tesler, two amazing people and highly talented authors. I am such a huge fan of Monica’s Bounders series, which has a very special place in my heart, and I am looking forward to reading Sally’s Stanley Will Probably Be Just Fine one day. A common thing that unites both Sally’s and Monica’s books is that they feature main characters that are neurodivergent, which means that their brains operate outside of the norm. I am very glad to have both of them here to talk about neurodiversity in children and in children’s literature. I hope you enjoy!


About Stanley Will Probably Be Just FineStanley Will Probably Be Fine

This novel features comic trivia, a safety superhero, and a super-cool scavenger hunt all over downtown San Diego, as our young hero Stanley Fortinbras grapples with his anxiety—and learns what, exactly, it means to be brave.

Nobody knows comics trivia like Stanley knows comics trivia.

It’s what he takes comfort in when the world around him gets to be too much. And after he faints during a safety assembly, Stanley takes his love of comics up a level by inventing his own imaginary superhero, named John Lockdown, to help him through.

Help is what he needs, because Stanley’s entered Trivia Quest—a giant comics-trivia treasure hunt—to prove he can tackle his worries, score VIP passes to Comic Fest, and win back his ex-best friend. Partnered with his fearless new neighbor Liberty, Stanley faces his most epic, overwhelming, challenging day ever.

What would John Lockdown do?

Stanley’s about to find out.

Goodreads

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About Earth Force RisingEarth Force Rising

Bounders have always known they were different, but they never suspected they were the key to saving Earth.

Jasper Adams is excited to join the Earth Force military agency as part of its first class of Bounders, a team of kids training to be elite astronauts. He can’t wait to connect with others like him and learn to pilot spaceships that can travel across the galaxy in an instant.

But when Jasper arrives at the space station, nothing is as it seems. Security is sky-high, and Jasper and his new friends soon realize that Earth Force has been keeping secrets—one of the biggest being a powerful, highly-classified technology that allows the Bounders to teleport through space without a ship. Only Bounders can use this tech, which leads Jasper to a sinister truth—humanity is facing a threat greater than any they’ve ever known, and Bounders are the ones standing between their planet and destruction.

Will Jasper and his friends rebel against Earth Force for hiding the truth or fulfill their duty and fight for their planet? The fate of Earth may rest on their choice.

Goodreads

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LILbooKtalk November 2018.png

(Questions are in bold)

Kester: The first author we have today is the awesome Sally J. Pla, award-winning author of The Someday Birds, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and Benji, the Bad Day, and Me. Would you like to tell us a few things about you and your novels?

Benji, the Bad Day, and MeSally: Hi you guys! I suppose you could say that my mission in a sense is to populate children’s literature with as many characters as I can whose brains just operate a little bit differently than the norm. This is my mission because I am from a neurodivergent family and MY brain operates just a bit differently. Rates of autism these days are one in 59 kids, and with other types of neurodivergence such as ADD, ADHD, etc., there are so many kids out there who need heroes and characters that reflect their reality.

Kester: I definitely agree!! I’m very glad to have you here with us today, Sally, to help you on your mission! Alongside Sally is the amazing Monica Tesler, author of the MG sci-fi Bounders series, which is personally my favorite series of all-time. I had the opportunity to meet her in person at the SE-YA Book Fest! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your books?

Earth Force RisingMonica: Thanks, Kester, for inviting us to chat with you today. You know how excited I am that you’re a fan of the Bounders series! Bounders is a science fiction adventure series for tweens and teens. The stories are about the first class of cadets at the EarthBound Academy, kids who always knew they were different but never suspected they held the key to saving Earth. Similar to what Sally mentioned, I set out to write the Bounders series with the hope that some kids who may not often see themselves in books would see themselves as heroes in these stories. I also come from a family with lots of brain difference, so it’s something that is very close to home.

Kester: I’m very glad to have you, too, Monica, with us today! And I’m very glad to have been able to read your amazing series! (I know I need to read Sally’s books, too!) The characters in the Bounders series, The Someday Birds, and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine are all neurodivergent. For those who may not be familiar with that term, would you mind explaining what neurodiversity is in your viewpoint? Why do you believe it is important to accept neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia?

Sally: I would start by defining terms. In accord with autism advocate Nick Walker’s terms—neurodiversity refers to the broad panoply of brain differences across the human spectrum. Neurodivergence refers to those (including myself) whose brains operate differently due to autism, ADD, ADHD, etc. Differently brained folks add to and enhance the human experience! We are all stars shining with different lights.

Monica: I was typing something… but Sally’s answer more eloquently captures the definition neurodiversity. I do tend to think of it quite broadly as anything not neurotypical. And like Sally mentioned, there is a broad spectrum when it comes to brains.

Stanley Will Probably Be FineSally: That is not to say that there are not certain challenges, and it is these challenges that my books hopefully will help to address. I think Monica must feel similarly. I was recently at a conference called “Love and Autism,” and I met the most amazing, talented, incredible young autistic writers and thinkers and artists and designers and surfers! It made me realize again how much people that society considers “potentially disabled” are actually incredible and full of abilities. They are different, not less. I want to keep writing stories featuring such characters so that we can expand our notion of what being human really means in all of its challenges and joys. Sorry, I am blabbing; I will stop now!

Monica: I love what you’re saying, Sally. I’m trying to figure out the format over here! I’ve written and deleted a dozen times! I’ll get faster, I promise!

Continue reading “November LILbooKtalk: “Neurodiversity in Children and Children’s Literature” with Sally J. Pla and Monica Tesler”

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October LILbooKtalk: “Using the Power of Storytelling to Promote STEM to Students” with Jarrett Lerner and Mary Fan

Hi guys! I am really excited to share with y’all this month’s LILbooKtalk! I have two of my favorite authors ever–Jarrett Lerner and Mary Fan–back on the blog to discuss “Using the Power of Storytelling to Promote STEM to Students.” Since personally I am very STEM-mind and will be pursuing computer engineering in college, this is definitely a topic that I had a lot of fun learning more about. I hope you enjoy!


About EngiNerdsEnginerds

The battle between boys and bots is on in this funny, fast-paced novel.

Ken is an EngiNerd: one of a super-smart group of friends—all nerds—who have been close since kindergarten.

They may be brainiacs, but they’re just like everyone else: they fight with one another, watch too much TV, eat Chinese food, and hate walking their dogs. Well, maybe not just like everyone because Ken’s best friend Dan has been building robots. He then secretly sent one to each of the EngiNerds, never letting them know he’s the mastermind.

At first Ken is awed and delighted: what kid hasn’t dreamed of having a robot all their own? Someone who can be their friend, clean their room, walk the dog, answer homework questions…how amazing is that?

But be careful what you wish for: Dan’s robot, Greeeg, may look innocent, but his ravenous consumption of food—comestibles—turns him into a butt-blasting bot. And once the other robots ‘come alive’ it’s up to the motley crew of EngiNerds to not only save the day, but save the planet!

Goodreads

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About Brave New Girls: Tales of Heroines who HackBrave New Girls 3

Welcome to the sci-fi worlds of brainy teen heroines who hack not just computers, but whatever puzzles come their way. A scrappy mechanic on an oppressed planet builds a device she hopes will be her ticket to a better future. A fledgling chemist uses her skills to catch a murderer. A teen inventor creates a weapon to battle the mysterious beasts attacking her city. A superhero-in-training puts her skills to the test when attackers strike her compound. A self-styled detective hacks an augmented reality game to solve a dastardly crime. Girls who code, explore, fix robots, pilot starships, invent gadgets, build high-tech treehouses, and more. With tales ranging from space adventures to steampunk to cyberpunk and more this 23-story collection will delight, thrill, and enthrall.

Proceeds from sales of this anthology will be donated to a scholarship fund through the Society of Women Engineers. Let’s show today’s girls that they, too, can be tomorrow’s inventors, programmers, scientists, and more.

STORIES BY: Lyssa Chiavari, Jennifer Chow, Russ and Abby Colchamiro, MLD Curelas, Paige Daniels, Kay Dominguez, Mary Fan, Halli Gomez, Valerie Hunter, AA Jankiewicz, Nicholas Jennings, Jamie Krakover, Tash McAdam, MJ Moores, Jelani Akin Parham, Selenia Paz, Josh Pritchett, Jeremy Rodden, Aaron Rosenberg, Jenifer Purcell Rosenberg, Jennifer Lee Rossman, JR Rustrian, and Joanna Schnurman.

Featuring illustrations by Jacob Atom, Brandon Bell, Jo Belle, Lyssa Chiavari, Sharon Emmitt, Ben Falco, Fauzy Zulvikar Firmansyah, Christopher Godsoe, Liana Kangas, John Kovalic, MunkyWrench, Josh Pritchett, Emily Smith, Jennifer Stolzer, and Ronald Suh.

Goodreads

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LILbooKtalk September 2018.png

(Questions are in bold.)

Kester:The first author we have today is Jarrett Lerner, author of the EngiNerds series and an advocate for children’s literature with #KidsNeedBooks, #KidsNeedMentors, and the MG Book Village. Could you describe to us a little bit about yourself and your novels?

EnginerdsJarrett: Sure! I write stories that I hope all kids (and kids at heart) can enjoy, but often write with the so-called “reluctant” or “striving” or “undiscovered” reader in mind — educators have all sorts of terms for these kids who have yet to find books they love. Reading and books changed my life, and continue to improve my life every day. I want every kid to have that experience, and seek to make that happen through my writing, my outreach, and the various projects I work on.

Kester: Thank you so much for everything you do in the kidlit community, Jarrett! Certainly you and your books have changed the lives of readers across the nation. 🙂

Jarrett: That’s very kind of you to say, Kester!

Kester: Thank you! The second author we have today is Mary Fan, co-editor of the Brave New Girls anthologies, in which all proceeds are donated to the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. Would you also like to tell us a little about you and your books?

Brave New Girls 3Mary: Absolutely! I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember, and so naturally, I ended up writing nerdy stories :-). Pretty much all of them are about intrepid heroines in far-off worlds. With the Brave New Girls anthologies, fellow sci-fi author Paige Daniels and I are hoping to encourage more girls to explore STEM careers. Women are still woefully underrepresented in STEM, and even though there’s definitely been more of a push to show girls that they can do anything, we still have a long way to go. Thing is, it’s all cultural. There’s no reason why girls shouldn’t end up choosing math or science or engineering if they want, but years of cultural expectations have created this notion that girls in tech are uncool sidekicks. We’re hoping to change that by releasing these books full of stories about girls who are both into the geeky stuff and the heroines of their own stories.

Jarrett: Hear, hear! And can I just say, Mary, that if you haven’t read the books of Katie Slivensky, you MUST! The Countdown Conspiracy and The Seismic Seven–you would LOVE!

Mary: Thank you! Will definitely check them out! 😀

Kester: I know I need to check out Katie’s books, too! Here’s my first question: In today’s increasingly technological world, there is a huge need for students pursuing careers in the sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Why do you believe it is important to use the power of storytelling to instill a passion for STEM in young students? How do your books accomplish this task?

Brave New Girls 2Mary: Much of who we become is influenced by what the world around us tells us we can be – whether we realize it or not. If every book you read shows people in science and tech as uncool, it’s easy to start believing that’s true in real life too. That’s why it’s important to tell stories where the geeky kid gets to save the day and be the main character. With Brave New Girls, we aim to publish a variety of these kinds of stories so girls (and really, everyone — just because the protagonists are girls doesn’t mean the readers have to be!) can imagine that it’s possible. And once you imagine it, it starts to feel normal in real life too.

Jarrett: I think school tends to instill this idea in kids’ minds (I know it did in mine) that there are these rigid boundaries between subjects–that science is separate from art, which is separate from history, etc., etc. Skills that are used in the STEM fields are directly applicable in the “humanities.” The lessons and truths I rely on as a writer and illustrator are the same ones that guide scientists and mathematicians and engineers. These things are much more linked than we are regularly taught, and by using, say, fiction to explore and celebrate engineering (or “tinkering,” which is the term I use most when discussing my EngiNerds), I am, I hope, breaking down those artificial and unhelpful barriers a bit.

Scientists and engineers are some of the most creative people ever, and there is an art to their work. Plenty of artists approach their work with the mind of a mathematician. The more we break down these barriers and explore these other sides of these subjects, the easier it will be for kids to find their “place” and express their passions in these fields.

Mary: Jarrett–that is so true! There’s this false dichotomy between art and science that we need to break down.

Jarrett: Yes! And I think the more it’s done, the more kids will maybe say, “I’m super creative–I could be an engineer!” (Instead of assuming they have to be, I don’t know, a painter!)

Kester: And you can still do both!! I’m hoping to study computer engineering in college but I still plan on doing as much music, both orchestral and choral, as I can!

Jarrett: There you go! Exactly! I was just at a book launch for Josh Funk, who’s a programmer and a brilliant, brilliant picture book writer!

Mary: That’s awesome, Kester!! One of my best friends is currently a physics post doc… and a classically trained soprano in her local choir. 🙂

Continue reading “October LILbooKtalk: “Using the Power of Storytelling to Promote STEM to Students” with Jarrett Lerner and Mary Fan”

August LILbooKtalk: “Back to School: Instilling a Love of Reading in Students” with Rebecca Donnelly and Jake Burt + Two GIVEAWAYS!

Hi guys! By this time, most schools should be starting school, which inspired the theme for this month’s LILbooKtalk about instilling a love of reading in students. Today’s guests include a middle school teacher and a librarian who not only frequently work with children but also write for them! Please welcome the amazing Rebecca Donnelly and Jake Burt as we discuss turning students into big readers!


About How to Stage a CatastropheHow to Stage a Catastrophe

Sidney plans to be the director of the Juicebox Theater when he grows up. For now, he handles the props, his best friend Folly works the concession stand, and his sister May hangs out in the spotlight. But the theater is in danger of closing, and the kids know they need a plan to save it and fast. When they join a local commerce club to earn money, Sid and Folly uncover some immoral business practices, and it gives them a great idea for saving the theater. That is, if you can call extortion a great idea. Hilarious and heartwarming, the mission to save a failing community theater unites a riotous cast of characters in this offbeat middle-grade novel.

Goodreads

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About The Right Hook of Devin VelmaThe Right Hook of Devin Velma

From the author of Greetings from Witness Protection! comes another unforgettable middle-grade novel about friendship and family.

Devin wants to hit it big on the internet by pulling a stunt at an NBA game–one the entire nation will be watching. Addison can’t turn Devin down, but he can barely manage talking to his teachers without freezing up. How’s he supposed to handle the possibility of being a viral sensation?

Addi’s not sure why Devin is bent on pulling off this almost-impossible feat. Maybe it has something to do with Devin’s dad’s hospital bills. Maybe it all goes back to the Double-Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Doom. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. No matter what, though, it’s risky for both of them, and when the big day finally comes, Devin’s plan threatens more than just their friendship.

With memorable protagonists and a wonderful supporting cast, The Right Hook of Devin Velma is a one-of-kind knockout in middle-grade fiction.

The Right Hook of Devin Velma releases from Feiwel & Friends on September 25th! Pre-order it today!

Goodreads

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August LILbooKtalk

Questions are in bold

Kester: The first author we have today is Rebecca Donnelly, author of the MG contemporary novel How to Stage a Catastrophe and her upcoming book The Friendship Lie. She also works at a public library in northern New York. Could you describe to us a little about you and your books?

How to Stage a CatastropheRebecca: Sure! I’ve worked in public libraries for about 12 years now in different roles, but being a children’s librarian is my favorite. It’s been great training for being a writer, since reading in your field is such an important part of both jobs. How to Stage a Catastrophe published in April 2017, and it was inspired by the time I spent as a middle schooler doing community theater. It’s about a group of kids who try, fail, and try again to save their community theater from closing down, going to great and scheming lengths to do so. The Friendship Lie is a quieter story about fifth grade friends who have fallen out with each other and are trying to find their way back to friendship, with the help of an old diary one of them finds. The Friendship Lie is set to publish August 2019. Both are with Capstone.

Kester: Both of your books sound awesome!!! I hope I’ll be able to read them one day! 🙂

Alongside Rebecca, we have Jake Burt, author of MG contemporary debut Greetings from Witness Protection! and The Right Hook of Devin Velma, which will release in just a few weeks. He is a fifth-grade teacher from Connecticut. Would you also like to tell us a bit about yourself and your novels?

The Right Hook of Devin VelmaJake: Absolutely, Kester, and thanks for having us! Greetings From Witness Protection! debuted last October. It’s the story of Nicki Demere, a 13-year-old girl in foster care who gets recruited by the US marshals to join witness protection; their notion is that she’ll help hide a family by changing up their dynamic. The Right Hook of Devin Velma, out on September 4th, is about one boy’s quest to find out why his best friend punched him in the face. Both are MG contemporary, both are set in middle schools, and there are no vampires in either one. I’ve been told that’s an important distinction to make.

Kester: Thank you, Jake! It’s definitely my pleasure! And haha, that’s good to know about the vampires, especially since I’m about to start on Devin Velma soon!

Jake: Awesome. Can’t wait to hear what you think!

Kester: Thank you! Here’s my first question: Since both of you work frequently with young children and books, how do you promote reading and writing among your students? What do you when you encounter reluctant readers, and how do you turn them into avid bibliophiles?

Jake: Want me to take a swipe at this one first, Rebecca?

Rebecca: Sure, since our roles are a little different!

Jake: Cool. On it! I’ve found that the key to developing confident, invested readers is empowerment. Kids most frequently encounter books (at least, in the school setting) via gatekeepers, whether that’s me, our fantastic school librarians, or someone similar. While that can be a great way to introduce new books to a kid, there’s not a lot of efficacy on the part of the reader there, so students often come to me without a strong sense of how to find and, more importantly, enjoy their own books. So early in the year we work on developing an understanding of how to read for pleasure…it seems strange, but that’s actually a modelable and learnable skill. We talk about being able to quit a book if it’s not grabbing you, about comparing books, about discussing books with friends, and about the value of rereading old favorites. We talk about skipping ahead and watching the movie first and reading more than one book at a time – all the ways adults who have learned to love reading come at their TBR piles.

Rebecca Donnelly
Rebecca Donnelly

Rebecca: I love everything you’re saying here, Jake! I work in a public library, not in a school, so my work with kids is almost entirely around helping them find things they want to read. The piece I’m missing is having the ability to work with them in depth, the way a classroom teacher or school librarian is able to. When I visit schools, or when classes visit me in the library, I try to emphasize the importance of choice, and that browsing is a skill–modelable and learnable, as you say. It’s great to get recommendations from friends, but I love seeing a kid who has the time to browse the shelves and find something new on their own. That’s genuine empowerment! One of my goals is to work with my local school to help them build their community of readers, too!

Jake: That’s vital – the teamwork component. A network of adults, all of whom love books and reading, surrounding a child can do wonders, particularly as far as access is concerned. That’s often one of the first hurdles to developing a love for reading: just not having enough books to promote true choice. It helps so much when librarians can work with teachers and families to fill in gaps and expand availability.

Rebecca: Yes! I got a massive donation from Scholastic this last spring (1300 books) that I gave out to every kid 3-6 grade in three different local schools. I scoured my giveaway books to get enough to be able to give something to every kid pre-k to 2nd grade, as well. One thing we really strive for in public libraries is giving kids access to books over the summer, since their regular school library visits aren’t happening. I give away books as prizes for playing my summer reading Bingo game, when I do outreach visits, and every time I visit the local Head Start. Simply getting books to kids is a huge part of developing readers.

Kester: That’s so awesome to hear!!  The work you’ve done is definitely commendable!!

I’m very curious about this, so what’s your stance on Accelerated Reader? I personally did not like it as an elementary student, but I would love to know your thoughts.

Rebecca: I’ve worked in a library where the local school district used AR, and it was incredibly frustrating to have to help kids find a book at “their level” that a) we owned and b) they were interested in. It seemed to be difficult for everyone, parents and children included.

Jake Burt
Jake Burt

Jake: We don’t use it in our classrooms, but I’ve taught at schools that did. Personally, I’ve never found much use for the data it provides…and that’s what it is, a data aggregation tool. It’s not designed to deepen understanding or enjoyment of reading. If a teacher or school was considering adopting it, I’d challenge them to ask themselves what they’re truly hoping to learn by collecting that data. Is it something they couldn’t get by having a meaningful 5-10 minute reader’s conference with a student?

Rebecca: Jake, you might know this better than I do, but isn’t there a quote from Fountas & Pinnell, who developed another leveling system, saying that reading levels have no place in reading assignments, book choice, or kids’ expectations of themselves?

Jake: Yes; we use the Fountas and Pinnell continuum for literacy instruction in our Lower School. They stress a genre-based approach (heavy on mentor texts and book discussions) rather than levels. It strikes me as a more authentic system, moreso now that I’ve seen things from the author side, too. I don’t write novels with any notion of what “level” it might be. If my character is the type of girl who would use the word “runcible,” she’s gonna say “runcible.” I’m not changing it to “spoon” so that it can fit cozily into a level. And I’ve certainly never gone to the library or bookstore as an adult thinking, “I’m fixing to snag me something at my level.”

Rebecca: Ha! Good point–we put all kinds of pressure & restrictions on kids that we would never put on ourselves, including what makes a “good” book.

Kester: I remember as an elementary student I felt very forced to read at a level higher than my grade… which knocked out many novels that I would have loved. There were so few books I could read that I eventually stopped reading a lot in middle school.

Rebecca: I’m so sorry! But obviously you were able to be a reader on your own terms, which gives every kid hope!

Jake: Yes, so glad you came back around to reading, Kester!

Kester: Thank you!

Rebecca: I was just tweeting with a couple of writer friends today about we all read comics (comic strips, even, not graphic novels) well into middle school. Whatever makes you a reader, makes you a reader!
Continue reading “August LILbooKtalk: “Back to School: Instilling a Love of Reading in Students” with Rebecca Donnelly and Jake Burt + Two GIVEAWAYS!”

July LILbooKtalk: “Finding Your Narnia: Transporting Readers to Magical Worlds” with Christina Soontornvat and K. E. Ormsbee

Hi guys! I am super excited to be sharing with you all this month’s LILbooKtalk! As a fantasy lover, I am always in search of magical and mystical worlds to become lost and entrapped in, away from the harsh life of reality. Thus, I was inspired to revolve this month’s LILbooKtalk theme around the magic of fantasy and the pursuit of Narnia with two wonderful MG authors, Christina Soontornvat and K. E. Ormsbee, both of whom I met in real life. I hope you enjoy this amazing and wonderful discussion!


About The ChangelingsThe Changelings

Izzy’s family has just moved to the most boring town in the country. But as time goes on, strange things start to happen; odd piles of stones appear around Izzy’s house, and her little sister Hen comes home full of stories about the witch next door.

Then, Hen disappears into the woods. She’s been whisked away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to save her. Joined there by a band of outlaw Changelings, Izzy and her new friends set out on a joint search-and-rescue mission across this foreign land which is at turns alluringly magical and utterly terrifying.

Goodreads

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About The Water and the WildThe Water and the Wild

For as long as Lottie Fiske can remember, the only people who seem to care about her have been her best friend, Eliot, and the mysterious letter-writer who sends her birthday gifts. But now strange things and people are arriving on the island Lottie calls home, and Eliot’s getting sicker, with a disease the doctors have given up trying to cure. Lottie is helpless, useless, powerless.

And then a door opens in the apple tree.

Follow Lottie down through the apple roots to another world—a world of magic both treacherous and beautiful—in pursuit of the impossible: a cure for the incurable, a use for the useless, and protection against the pain of loss.
Goodreads

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LILbooKtalk July 2018

Questions are in bold

Kester: The first author we have today is Christina Soontornvat, author of the middle grade series The Changelings. I had the amazing pleasure of meeting Christina at the SE-YA Book Fest back in March! Could you describe to us a bit about your books and your background?

The ChangelingsChristina: Hi! I’m super excited to chat with you. My Changelings series is a middle grade fantasy duology that plays with the Changeling. That myth says that wicked fairies steal human babies and swap them out with shapeshifters. In my books, the main character’s little sister has been snatched away, but there is no Changeling to take her place. So her big sister must both rescue her and solve the mystery of what’s up with the Changelings.

My background is in…mechanical engineering. You know, pretty standard fare for children’s book authors. The Changelings was my first book (2016), but I have always, always been enchanted with fantasy and fairytales. And I have been telling stories to anyone who would listen all my life. And the engineering does come in handy – revising a novel isn’t that different from re-designing a mechanical prototype. Just lots of dedication and elbow grease!

K. E.: I love that, Christina! I was an English major, which I’ve always felt is ye ol’ boring, stereotypical author background. Ha! Also, your books sound so amazing. I was fascinated by the concept of changelings as a kid (and still am!).

Christina: Yes, I get the sense that you also love all things creepy, Kathryn!

K. E.: Haha, I do indeed! I’ve always been a macabre soul.

Kester: By the way, Christina, I’m actually planning on entering as a computer engineering major in college.

Christina: Kester, that’s awesome! The world needs more book-loving engineers.

Kester: It does! I’ll try my best to find the time to continue reading and blogging then!

K. E.: Also, agreed that book-loving engineers are the best! My father is another one of them, and he’s one of the people who first instilled in me a love for reading & writing.

Kester: The second author we have with us today is K. E. Ormsbee, a fellow Tennessean and author of The Water and the Wild trilogy. I also had the lovely opportunity to meet K. E. at last year’s SE-YA! Would you like to share with us a little about your novels and your background?

The Water and the WildK. E.: Sure thing, Kester! I began writing young and got my very first book deal out of college, with that aforementioned English degree. That book was The Water & the Wild, the first in a MG fantasy trilogy, which was inspired by my favorite childhood books and fairy tales, including Alice in Wonderland and The Gammage Cup. TW&TW was followed by The Doorway & the Deep. The final installment, The Current & the Cure, comes out in June. I first wrote The Water & the Wild in 2009, so it’s really wild to be coming up on the decade mark for this book series. Lottie Fiske’s story will always be my first love. This fall, Chronicle Books will be publishing my MG standalone, The House in Poplar Wood—my tribute to all things spooky and autumnal, AND set in Tennessee!

Christina: Oh, The Changelings gets started in Tennessee too! The first chapter is set in “The Jiggly Goat” (basically a Piggly Wiggly).

K. E.: I love that! Clearly, TN is inspiring.

Kester: Kathryn, I actually just got an ARC of The House in Poplar Wood a few weeks ago and I’m super excited to read it!

Kathryn: That’s fantastic to hear, Kester! I hope you enjoy the read.

I also write Young Adult contemporary novels with Simon & Schuster. My first YA novel, Lucky Few, is a Harold & Maude-inspired story set in my favorite city, Austin, Texas. My next YA, The Great Unknowable End, is a dual-POV story of two teenagers living in Kansas in 1977. It’s my homage to my favorite TV series, The Twilight Zone.

Christina: It so is. It’s magical. Especially when you’re a girl from Texas where there are hardly any trees! I feel like we have so many things in common. I live in Austin! I need to read your YA novel now.

K. E.: Wait! Christina, I had no idea you lived in Austin! I just moved here from Nashville back in August. I couldn’t stay away. But yes, I do miss all trees, and the bluegrass from my hometown in Kentucky. There’s no true proper autumn here, alas.

Christina: Crazy! We need to get together and write! Kester, this is supposed to be an interview, but it’s turning into a writing meet-up matchmaking service!

K. E.: It really is! Haha. I’d absolutely love that, Christina. Hurray for connections!

Continue reading “July LILbooKtalk: “Finding Your Narnia: Transporting Readers to Magical Worlds” with Christina Soontornvat and K. E. Ormsbee”

Discussion: Reality Has So Much to Offer, Just Like Reading

Hi everybody! I usually don’t post many discussions, but because it is summer and I’ve had a bit more time to write, I’ve decided to write this little reflection about reading versus reality, especially since I’ve had so many great experiences this past school year and it’s been tough finding the will to read during my “emotional hangovers.” I hope you enjoy this post and maybe ponder over when it’s best to choose between reading and reality.


Sometimes We Need to Choose Reality Over Reading

Reading has always been my escape. When I feel lonely or dejected, burdened or stressed, I just pull out a book and become transported into another world. I want to become amazed by the magic in fantasies, moved by the raw truth of contemporaries, or enlightened by the real inspirations in historical fiction. Stories turn the ordinary of my life into the extraordinary, full of whizzing technologies, majestic creatures, and relatable characters that I would like to befriend in reality.

I have always been an emotional guy. I let my heart take control sometimes. And after undergoing through many amazing experiences in my junior year, it became hard to read at times. When the school year ended and my time in my high school elite choir the Madrigals came to a close, my heart swelled with so many feelings that I could not finish more than a couple of pages in my book. During my time at TN Boys State, I did not want to read since the time I could use to hang out with so many of the awesome delegates there was very limited and precious.

There was even a moment when I doubted myself as a reader. I did not want to read anymore. Thankfully, after my emotional hangovers had subsided a bit, my bibliophilia was restored. I admit, I can be a bit volatile at times—which is why I need to think with my head before I let my heart steer the reigns—but I have learned a valuable lesson from all of these events.

Now I am not trying to degrade reading at all. That is not the point of this essay. In fact, I commend people who can read hundreds, if not thousands, of books a year. I wish I could do that! And I want those who do that to keep on doing that.

But I have learned that sometimes you need to close your book, go out, and take on new experiences. While books are portals into new lives and new places, the real world can be just as exciting. My junior year of high school has been filled with events and memories that I will never forget. I have sung at venues that I would never imagine performing at (from Christmas caroling to All Northwest Honor Chori), toured our nation’s capital, made many friends at Boys State, attended two book festivals, and brought home the coveted DECA glass from SCDC. I have strengthened my current friendships, discovered a second family in my choir, and connected with people from all around the state. I have stood on the very steps where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and witnessed the actual flag that flew at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Those were some of the best moments of my life, and I will cherish those memories forever.

Now not everyone has the same opportunities as I do, but every person’s life is equipped with all sorts of opportunities to fill it with love, with excitement, with awe, with gratitude. Whether it be a bustling city or a quaint small town, there is always something to do and somewhere to go.

However, there are times when we need to read to find consolation and refuge from the trials and darkness of the outside world. When life is tough for me, I often pull out a book to be transported to a new realm where I could feel accepted, or at least connect with characters that are going through troubles that could relate with what I am going through. I credit books with keeping me company when I feel alone in a crowd, calming me when I feel nervous and stressed, and boosting me with hope when I feel dejected. I have learned so many lessons from these stories, and they’ve aroused in me a kinder and more adventurous spirit.

But in order for these novels to truly change our lives, we need to go out and put these lessons and newfound feelings to the test. We need to go out into the world and make new encounters. It is great to read on the beach with the cool breeze in your hair, in the mountains full of peace and quiet, next to the fireplace with a blanket and a cup of cocoa. But don’t forget that those places can make new memories outside of stories, from swimming on the beach, hiking and marveling at God’s glorious creation, and bonding with friends and family on a cold winter’s night. Experience the world around you. There are lots of things to do, places to visit, people to meet, and events to attend. Traveling to a fictional world is an amazing experience that can teach so much about life, but the real world can be life-changing as well.

Yes, George R. R. Martin is right when he says, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads only lives one.” But don’t forget that reality has so much to offer, so much to be explored, so much to be written, so much to be experienced.


Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

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

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Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s Assassination with April’s LILbooKtalk: “Portraying Pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement for Young Readers” with Alice Faye Duncan and Andrew Maraniss

Hi guys! Today is the 50th commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, which took place in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was one of the greatest figures in American history, and to honor his legacy, this month’s LILbooKtalk is dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. Alice Faye Duncan and Andrew Maraniss, two local Tennessee authors, are here today to discuss “Portraying Pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement.” I hope you find this panel insightful.


About Memphis, Martin, and the MountaintopMemphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop

This historical fiction picture book for children ages 9-12 presents the story of nine-year-old Lorraine Jackson, who in 1968 witnessed the Memphis sanitation strike–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final stand for justice before his assassination–when her father, a sanitation worker, participated in the protest.

In February 1968, two African American sanitation workers were killed by unsafe equipment in Memphis, Tennessee. Outraged at the city’s refusal to recognize a labor union that would fight for higher pay and safer working conditions, sanitation workers went on strike. The strike lasted two months, during which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called to help with the protests. While his presence was greatly inspiring to the community, this unfortunately would be his last stand for justice. He was assassinated in his Memphis hotel the day after delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon in Mason Temple Church. Inspired by the memories of a teacher who participated in the strike as a child, author Alice Faye Duncan reveals the story of the Memphis sanitation strike from the perspective of a young girl with a riveting combination of poetry and prose.

Martin, Memphis, and the Mountaintop releases on August 28, 2018!

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About Strong Inside: Young Reader’s EditionStrong Inside

The inspirational true story of the first African American to play college basketball in the deeply segregated Southeastern Conference–a powerful moment in Black history.

Perry Wallace was born at an historic crossroads in U.S. history. He entered kindergarten the year that the Brown v. Board of Education decision led to integrated schools, allowing blacks and whites to learn side by side. A week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Wallace enrolled in high school and his sensational jumping, dunking, and rebounding abilities quickly earned him the attention of college basketball recruiters from top schools across the nation. In his senior year his Pearl High School basketball team won Tennessee’s first racially-integrated state tournament.

The world seemed to be opening up at just the right time, and when Vanderbilt University recruited Wallace to play basketball, he courageously accepted the assignment to desegregate the Southeastern Conference. The hateful experiences he would endure on campus and in the hostile gymnasiums of the Deep South turned out to be the stuff of nightmares. Yet Wallace persisted, endured, and met this unthinkable challenge head on. This insightful biography digs deep beneath the surface to reveal a complicated, profound, and inspiring story of an athlete turned civil rights trailblazer.

Strong Inside: Young Reader’s Edition just released a paperback edition!

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LILbooKtalk 5

Questions are in bold

Kester: The first author we have today is Alice Faye Duncan, a Memphis-based author whose upcoming children’s picture book Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is releasing in August! Would you like to describe a bit about your book and yourself?

Memphis, Martin, and the MountaintopAlice: I am a school librarian who writes books for young readers. Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is the story of the 1968 Sanitation Strike that is told through the eyes of a 9 year old girl, Lorraine Jackson. It is also the story of Dr. King’s last stand for justice and his assassination.

Kester: I’m super excited to read your book, Alice! I can’t wait until it comes out! Alongside Alice, we have Andrew Maraniss, a Nashville-based author whose New York Times bestselling biography Strong Inside has been adapted into a Young Reader’s Edition just last year! Could you tell us a bit about your latest biography and your background?

Andrew: Thanks, Kester! I am really excited for Alice’s book, too. I was just in Memphis a few weeks ago and visited the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. It’s a very important topic for young readers, not just the assassination but the circumstances of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. As for Strong Inside, it’s a biography of Perry Wallace, who was the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. He is someone I first wrote about when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt way back in 1989! I did a paper about him for a Black History class and his story stuck in my mind. Finally I decided to write a book about him. He is so much more than just a basketball player. He was a high school valedictorian, engineering major at Vandy, Columbia University law graduate, National Guard veteran, US Justice Department attorney, and law school professor. He is the most impressive person I ever met.Strong Inside

Alice: Awesome! I now must learn more about Perry Wallace. Great Work, Andrew! By the way, I am a big Lusia Harris Stewart fan. I am working on her biography for children. She is the first woman officially drafted into the NBA.

Andrew: Fantastic! I don’t know much about her. When was she drafted?

Alice: She was drafted in 1977 by the New Orleans Jazz! But she had the Mississippi Blues! She was from the Delta!

Andrew: That’s really cool. I am sitting outside my daughter’s first grade basketball team practice right now. Maybe she’ll be drafted someday, too!

Alice: I am writing my book for your daughter.

Kester: That’s so awesome to hear from the both of you! Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop revolves around the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in it while Strong Inside: Young Reader’s Edition follows Perry Wallace, the first African American athlete to play in the SEC, as he overcomes racism and prejudice throughout his life and his collegiate career. Alice and Andrew, how did you both discover, respectively, the strikes and Perry Wallace? What prompted you to write a book about these people and events?

Andrew: I first learned about Perry Wallace when I was a student at Vanderbilt. A student a year ahead of me wrote an article for a campus magazine about the time Perry first played a game in the state of Mississippi, at Mississippi State University in 1967. He was concerned that he might be shot out on the basketball court, just for being African American. I was a kid who was interested in sports and history and I was taking a Black History class. I asked my professor, Dr. Yollette Jones, if it was OK to write about sports in college. I thought she might say no, that it wasn’t a serious enough topic. Thankfully she said yes! So I called Perry and interviewed him for my paper. It remained the most interesting thing I had ever done. I couldn’t get Perry off my mind. So, 17 years later, I decided I wanted to write a book about him. I emailed him to see if he remembered me and my paper. He did! And he said he thought it would be great if I wrote about him. I didn’t need his permission, but I was happy to have his support.

Alice: Many of the participants in the 1968 strike lived on my street or attended my church, when I was a young child. It is a story that I grew up knowing all of my life.  As a school librarian, I found it odd that there were no picture books about the subject.  So, I set out to write the book, myself. This is my same reason for writing about Lusia Harris.  Not one picture book or adult book addresses her legendary place in American sports.

Andrew: There are so many “hidden figures” who did amazing things who simply haven’t had their stories told yet. Whenever I visit a classroom, I tell the students they can be the ones to uncover those stories.

Alice: Andrew, as I writer, I believe that the story I am seeking is also seeking me.  Perry Wallace was waiting on a “you.”

Andrew: We became very, very close friends and I always felt like it was a special,
“meant to be” kind of relationship. I was born a week before he played his last game in college. Our birthdays were 5 days apart. We both went to Vanderbilt. I arrived when he was first invited back to be honored. He ended up living in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is where I went to elementary school!

Alice: Uncanny, Andrew!

Kester: I definitely agree that there are so many “hidden figures” history that we need to uncover. When I read your book, Andrew, I found myself relating so much to Perry Wallace and loved both him and his story. He’s definitely inspiring and I wish more people knew about him.

Andrew: And your stories seem so tailor made for you too, Alice. I think the passion for your subject always shines through.

Kester: Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is going to be awesome, I know that for sure!

Alice: Thank you, both. We shall see.  It required 10 years from writing it to publishing it.

Andrew: So glad you stuck with it! Strong Inside took me 8 years — I can relate!

Alice: Here is the new discovery that I made.  I have been researching and writing about the Civil Rights Movement as it took place in Memphis since 1993.  Never, once, did I ask thoughtful questions about Coretta Scott King and her specific role in the movement.  Then, two months ago, I picked up her autobiography.  I now suggest that academics and students spend the next 50 years studying her life and activism.  She was astute and able to build coalitions that have given us the Dr. King that children know and love today.

Kester: So what is it like writing for children and younger readers? What are some of the challenges of writing a picture book (for Alice) or adapting a larger biography into a middle school edition (for Andrew)?

Andrew MaranissAndrew: The biggest challenge for me was literally the editing — taking a nearly 200,000 word book and converting it to around 40,000 words. It was important to me that it not lose anything in the process, that the story not be “whitewashed” for young readers. I felt it only did justice to Perry if they learned the same story as adults and felt what Perry felt. That meant confronting young readers with the racism Perry encountered. Thankfully the publisher agreed.

I have loved visiting students and my next book will be for young readers, not adults. I want to try to write the kids of books I would have read as a middle and high schooler!

Alice: Writing picture books is like writing a song lyric. You have to pack a lot of information and emotion in a few words.  It is not a task that comes easily.

My greatest challenge with writing about Lusia Harris and Coretta Scott King is presenting the salient points in a way that is accessible and inviting to the young reader.  The challenge keeps me fighting and engaged.

Andrew: I think people underestimate that about children’s books, Alice! I’ve thought about doing a picture book about Perry and have had a hard time figuring out how to tell the story in so few words!

Alice: Toni Morrison says that she writes the kind of books that she wishes to read.

Andrew: Well, if she says it, then I think it’s a good idea!

Kester: Back in February, I posted a discussion post on why I believe MG has so much power, and that can be attributed to children’s books, too. There’s so much potential children’s and MG books have to change people’s lives, and that power should not be underestimated.

Andrew: I think that’s true, Kester. There is great power in books. I also think students already possess great power and possibilities, as we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks in Florida. Sometimes books can remind them of that and encourage them to act.

Kester: I definitely agree! The best books are the ones that make a tremendous impact on you to where you’re driven to do something or change something.

Alice: Middle Grade books are also still in keeping with classic literature–books of old.  Nothing is really new fangled. For example, there is no foul language and no sex, and the focus is primarily emotional exploration and personal change.  That’s everything found in the classics!

Andrew: That’s a really interesting point and I hadn’t really thought of MG books in those terms before but you are so right!

Kester: My next question is this: Which pioneers and events of the Civil Rights Movement inspire you the most, and how do they impact you in your everyday lives?

Alice: If you had asked me this question two months ago, I would have answered, Rev. Henry Logan Starks, Fannie Lou Hamer or Dr. King.   As of today, they must take a seat behind my new hero–Coretta Scott King from Heiberger, Alabama.

Andrew: As for your question, Kester, Perry Wallace used to say that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Sometimes we think of civil rights figures as these larger than life heroes, but they were just regular people who stepped up in courageous ways. We all have that capability. We can choose to be bystanders or upstanders, standing up for what we believe in or people who are being treated unfairly. In terms of specific people, of course Perry Wallace is the person I have come to admire most, but I will also bring up a name that applies to both Alice’s book and mind: the Reverend James Lawson, who was one of the leading theorists on non-violence. He inspired Perry and the sanitation strike!Alice Faye Duncan

Alice: It was Mrs. King who said, “Struggle is a never ending process.  Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”  In other words, no generation will escape the need to press for equality and fairness.  For always, a struggle will continue.

Andrew: Perry Wallace had a chance to meet Fannie Lou Hamer when she came to speak at Vanderbilt while he was a student and he told me how inspired he was by her. A small woman (in comparison to him at 6′ 5″) who blew him away with her presence!

Alice: Speaking of Mrs. Hamer, it was Coretta Scott King who said, “Women, if the soul of this nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.” Mrs. Hamer carried the soul of her people in every fiber of her being.  She was mighty.

Andrew:  We are seeing that again today.

Kester: Here’s the next question! Since the focus of your books hits very close to home here in Tennessee, why do you believe it is important for children to learn more about their local history?Alice Faye Duncan

Alice: As for young people and activism, since 1964, African Americans and other minorities have leaned on the laurels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  As a entire nation, those of us who love freedom and justice for all, are understanding that we must continue to be vigilant and work toward justice.  The struggle continues.

A child is bolstered and self-esteem is healthy when that child understands she comes from a legacy of resilience and goodness. Thus, it is necessary to know local history and family history, too.

Andrew: Well, I think the best stories have universal themes and can be enjoyed by readers anywhere, but it IS important for young people to understand their own local history. That’s where change begins, for one thing. For another, I think students simply just find it more interesting when they recognize certain names or places in a book they are reading. And if that sparks a greater interest in reading and studying history, then that can stick with them the rest of their lives.

Kester: Certainly! My AP US History teacher (who’s also our county historian) is always incorporating how things or people we’ve learned about relates to my hometown of Paris. There’s so much hidden history that it’s fascinating!

Alice: My book 12 Days of Christmas in Tennessee will be released in October 2018.  It is a travelogue/Christmas book that takes children on a journey to Tennessee historical sites and land formations.  Some of the places visited are the Lost Sea in Sweet Water and Tina Turner’s Flagg Grove School in West Tennessee.

Andrew: That sounds like a really fun book, and a great Christmas present!

Alice: Thank you. I bring it up because it addresses TN History. Like, Andrew Jackson and the Hermitage. We have to take the ugly with the good.

Kester: Both of you chose very different formats to write your stories. Could you describe to us the thought process as you decided to write a children’s picture book or a middle grade biography?

Andrew: Writing narrative non-fiction is the kind of writing I think I can do best. It’s my favorite way to tell a story. I love every part of it, from the interviews and library research to the outlining and writing. And at the most important parts of Perry’s life, he was a teenager. Whether someone cares about basketball or not is irrelevant — he was encountering challenges and trying to overcome them, something all middle schoolers can relate to.

Alice: I don’t really consider myself a poet, but I write in a lyrical style that is conducive to picture books.

My great ambition this year is to write a longer text.  I was excited about writing a YA Novel this year.  And then, I stumbled across the harrowing and courageous life of Coretta Scott King.  She has impeded my progress.  I am presently wrestling with a picture book text about her life.  OH. WELL.  Picture books have chosen me as my favorite genre.

Kester: Before we end this LILbooKtalk, would you both like to share any advice to young readers and writers who are viewing this discussion?

Andrew: Keep reading! And keep writing! My dad used to say there’s no excuse for being bored – you can always read a book.

Alice: After researching the American Civil Rights Movement for 20 years, I have learned 4 important things from the life of Dr. King. In actualizing your hopes and dreams,

  1. Make a plan with the end in view
  2. With your plans, leave yourself open to miracles and chance encounters
  3. Add effective people to your team and cut team members, who hinder you.
  4. And finally, when you do succeed, be sure to help someone else.

Andrew: Great advice! Thank you Kester and Alice, this was a lot of fun! Kester, you are doing amazing work, I admire all that you do to encourage reading. Alice, it was a pleasure joining you for this chat. Hope to see you someday soon!

Alice: Andrew and Kester, this was fantastic! Keep shining your light! Write ON! Write ON! Until we meet in the Real World!!!

Kester: Thanks so much, both of you, for coming back onto the blog! It’s been my honor and pleasure to host this chat!


About AliceAlice Faye Duncan

Alice Faye Duncan writes books for young readers and adults. Her most popular picture book for infants is HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD. It is a mother’s love song to her baby. The lyrical text sings and swings just like music. One must read it aloud with LOVE, JOY and SOUL!

Alice’s book, MEMPHIS, MARTIN AND THE MOUNTAINTOP (The 1968 Sanitation Strike) will debut August 2018. It is a poetic paean for school age students that explores Dr. King’s assassination and his last stand for economic justice in the city of Memphis. The illustrator is Caldecott Honor recipient, Gregory Christie.

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN TENNESSEE is a child’s travel guide across the Volunteer State (GO VOLS!). Two cousins in ugly holiday sweaters visit important landmarks throughout the state, while traveling in a clunky mini-van called the “Reindeer Express.” This book will debut in October–2018. The illustrator is Mary Uhles.

Finally, in celebration of words, the splendor of alliteration and the power of a poetic life–A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS will debut in January 2019. This picture book biography is the life and times of Chicago poet–Gwendolyn Brooks. Miss Brooks was the very first African American writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1950.

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About AndrewAndrew Maraniss

A New York Times bestseller, Strong Inside is the first book by Andrew Maraniss. Andrew studied history at Vanderbilt University as a recipient of the Fred Russell – Grantland Rice sportswriting scholarship, earning the school’s Alexander Award for excellence in journalism and graduating in 1992. He then worked for five years in Vanderbilt’s athletic department as the associate director of media relations, dealing primarily with the men’s basketball team. In 1998, he served as the media relations manager for the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays during the team’s inaugural season, and then returned to Nashville to join MP&F Public Relations. He is now a Visiting Author and Visiting Innovator at Vanderbilt and a contributor to ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author David Maraniss and trailblazing environmentalist Linda Maraniss, Andrew was born in Madison, Wis., grew up in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas and now lives in Brentwood, Tenn., with his wife Alison, and their two young children. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and visit his website at andrewmaraniss.com.

Strong Inside was the recipient of the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award and the lone Special Recognition honor at the 2015 RFK Book Awards. The Young Reader edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies and Top 10 Sports Books of 2017 by the American Library Association.

Andrew has appeared on several national media programs, including NPR’s All Things Considered and Only A Game, NBC’s Meet The Press, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann Show, ESPN Radio’s The Sporting Life, and the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum Show.

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Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

Have you read any of Andrew’s or Alice’s books? What are some of your favorite books that revolve around the Civil Rights Movement?

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

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Discussion: The Power of Middle Grade Novels

Hi guys! I haven’t posted a discussion post written by myself in such a long time, but I finally have one ready for you all! As the blog is rapidly expanding these past few months, I have become acquainted with so many amazing MG authors that have inspired me to become more involved in the MG community. Yes, I am a primarily YA-based author, but there’s so much power in MG novels! I want to give a big shout out to Jarrett Lerner, author of Enginerds, for inspiring me to finally post this discussion. It’s been way overdue, and I hope you enjoy it!


MG Novels

When you think of middle grade novels, what do you think of? Series such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid come into mind. As an elementary school student growing up, I didn’t read those series, honestly–except Harry Potter, which I read all seven books in either fourth or fifth grade. I had the mindset that I did not want to read anything that had a low reading level (what caused it? AR!), and because of that, I ended up reading only classics and Encyclopedia Brown books. This is what caused me to not read at all in middle school–I felt so constrained to classics that I just did not want to read more of them anymore. I focused my free time on Lego’s and video games instead.

As a kid, I always had the misconception that middle grade books had little literary value and were “taboo” since I had a higher reading level than many kids. In seventh grade, I read only ten books. There was a special party for those who read and wrote about ten books, and I crammed A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a weekend (which was too much for me as a non-reader) as the tenth book under my belt. (I completed 91 books in 2017, which I never would have foreseen back then!)

When I became a blogger, I slowly transitioned into being primarily YA/MG-based. Since the moment I first read Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz and Just Like Me by Nancy J. Cavanaugh, I realized the power middle grade novels have not just to the high school student but to adults, too. Middle grade is NOT just for kids–in fact, anyone can learn from its lessons.

Continue reading “Discussion: The Power of Middle Grade Novels”

This Month’s LILbooKtalk!: “The Importance of Historical Fiction for Young Readers” with Linda Williams Jackson and Gwen C. Katz

Hi guys! Today starts off the first full week of school for me, so I’m going to be a bit less active on social media since this semester is going to be hectic. Already, I have my DECA District Career Development Conference next Tuesday, so wish me luck in my competition! Today, I am also sharing with y’all my second ever LILbooKtalk (this will be a monthly post, so look out for February’s soon!), and I am so excited to have Linda Williams Jackson and Gwen C. Katz here to talk about “The Importance of Historical Fiction for Young Readers.” Historical fiction is my favorite genre, so I am super stoked to let you all read this discussion. Enjoy!


About Midnight without a MoonMidnight without a Moon

It’s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and Rose Lee Carter can’t wait to move north. For now, she’s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white man’s cotton plantation. Then, one town over, an African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When Till’s murderers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change and that she should be part of the movement. Linda Jackson’s moving debut seamlessly blends a fictional portrait of an African American family and factual events from a famous trial that provoked change in race relations in the United States.

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About A Sky Full of StarsA Sky Full of Stars

After the murder of Emmett Till, thirteen-year-old Rose is struggling with her decision to stay in Mississippi. Torn between the opinions of Shorty, a boy who wants to meet violence with violence, and Hallelujah, her best friend who believes in the power of peaceful protests, Rose is scared of the mounting racial tension and is starting to lose hope. But when Rose helps Aunt Ruthie start her own business, she begins to see how she can make a difference in her community. Life might be easier in the North, but Mississippi is home and that’s worth fighting for. Mid-Century Mississippi comes alive in this sequel to Midnight Without a Moon

Goodreads


About Among the Red Stars30122938

World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.

Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.

As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.

Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.

Goodreads


LILbooKtalk 2

(Questions are in bold; HF = Historical Fiction)

Kester: The first author we have today is Linda Williams Jackson, who wrote the stunning Rose Lee Carter series, which comprises of Midnight without a Moon and A Sky Full of Stars. A Sky Full of Stars just released last week on January 2nd! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your novels?Midnight without a Moon

Linda: Hi Kester. Thanks for doing this chat. I was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, which is where my novels take place. It is also where the Emmett Till murder occurred. That murder and the swift trial and acquittal of the accused are the historical part of my “historical” novel.

Kester: Thank you so much, Linda! I really loved both of your novels, and I am super excited to have you here today! Alongside Linda, we have the wonderful Gwen C. Katz, who I had the pleasure of interviewing back in October about her debut novel Among the Red Stars. Would you also like to share with us a bit about your book and your background?

Gwen: Hey Kester. Thanks for having me. I’m Gwen Katz and I wrote about the Night Witches, an all-female bomber regiment who served on the front in Russia during World War II. It’s one of those really cool yet inexplicably neglected historical topics and I just wanted more people to know about it.

Kester: That sounds awesome! I’m really looking forward to reading Among the Red Stars! This month’s LILbooKtalk theme is “The Importance of Historical Fiction for Young Readers.” Why do you both believe that it is critical for children and teens to be exposed to history through literature? How do your novels achieve the purpose of enlightening readers on the struggles of the past while conveying themes that could inspire generations?

Linda: I think it’s a more intriguing way to learn about history rather than in a textbook. As far as young readers are concerned, I think they would probably prefer reading a novel over reading a biography or a nonfiction book. HF also lends itself to tell stories that might get overlooked, such as the story Gwen has unfolded in Among the Red Stars. There is only so much space in those history books, so it’s up to us to tell the stories that get left out. And we can do this in an engaging way via HF.

Kester: Right. I definitely agree with you! Sometimes it’s hard to connect with history when I’m reading it from a textbook rather than a fiction novel.

Gwen: I think it’s important to expose young people to historical fiction because it allows them to make a personal connection to history. Historical events like wars and battles are often taught as a dry list of dates and locations and it’s easy for it all to feel very distant. Fiction helps us remember that every one of those war casualties was a real person with their own life, their own family, and their own dreams.

Linda: I love that answer, Gwen.

Gwen: And I definitely agree with Linda that a novel feels a lot more accessible to young people (and, for that matter, readers of all ages). Why shouldn’t learning about history be entertaining as well as informative?

Continue reading “This Month’s LILbooKtalk!: “The Importance of Historical Fiction for Young Readers” with Linda Williams Jackson and Gwen C. Katz”

The First Ever LILbooKtalk!!: “Overcoming Obstacles in Middle Grade Fiction” with Emily Blejwas and Brooks Benjamin

Hi guys! It’s exactly one week until Christmas, and it’s also the first full week for me out of school! I still have a few performances I have to do with my choir today and tomorrow, but then it will all be just resting and relaxation these next couple of weeks! I’m really excited about Christmas this year–I’m going to spend the days before with friends at a few get-togethers and parties and with my family the weekend of. And I am going to try and read as many books as I can before the year ends!

Today I am posting the first ever LILbooKtalk! LILbooKtalks are online discussion panels in which two authors chat about a certain topic that relates to both of their novels. I wanted to try something new because I love going to author panels and I love interview authors, but why not ask questions to multiple authors at the same time? Why not have author panels online for many to access them? This is a new “skit” I’m trying out, so I definitely hope you will enjoy our first every LILbooKtalk on “Overcoming Obstacles in Middle Grade Fiction.”


About Once You Know ThisOnce You Know This

A girl wishes for a better life for herself, her mom, and her baby brother and musters the courage to make it happen in this moving and emotionally satisfying story for readers of Kate DiCamillo and Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

Eleven-year-old Brittany knows there has to be a better world out there. Lately, though, it sure doesn’t feel like it. She and her best friend, Marisol, stick together at school, but at home Brittany’s granny is sick, her cat is missing, there’s never any money, and there’s her little brother, Tommy, to worry about. Brittany has a hard time picturing her future as anything but a plain white sky. If her life is going to ever change, she needs a plan. And once she starts believing in herself, Brittany realizes that what has always seemed out of reach might be just around the corner.

This debut novel by Emily Blejwas is perfect for readers who love emotionally satisfying books. Thoughtful and understated, it’s the hopeful story of a girl who struggles to make her future bright . . . and the makeshift family that emerges around her.

Goodreads


About My Seventh Grade Life in TightsMy Seventh Grade Life in Tights

LIVE IT.

All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition—so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.

WORK IT.

At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren’t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?

BRING IT.

Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor.

Goodreads


 

LILbooKtalk 1

(Questions are bolded)

Kester: Today we are having our first ever LILbooKchat, an online discussion panel with authors from all sorts of genres! The first author we have is the lovely Emily Blejwas, who has recently released her MG debut novel Once You Know This a few months ago. I had the wonderful pleasure to be able to meet with you at Southern Festival of Books back in October! Could you tell us a little bit about your book and your background?Once You Know This

Emily: I grew up in Minnesota and have lived in Alabama since 2004. Once You Know This started with a scene from my work as a domestic violence victim advocate in Chicago, and a lot of the content comes from experiences working with people really struggling to get by.

Kester: Thank you, Emily! Your book sounds super amazing–can’t wait to read it! Next, we have the awesome Brooks Benjamin, whose MG debut novel My Seventh Grade Life in Tights released last year. I also had the chance to meet you at the Southeastern Young Adult Book Fest back in March, and I really enjoyed reading your novel just recently! Could you also share with us a bit about your book and yourself?

Brooks: Sure! I’ve lived in Tennessee my whole life, always tucked back into the woods somewhere. I currently teach 4th grade at the only school in my town. I formed a dance crew back in middle school and we danced exclusively to New Kids on the Block (I know…I know…). That was the inspiration for M7GLiT which is all about a seventh-grade boy who wants to try out for a summer scholarship to a dance studio, much to the dismay of his dance-crew friends.

Emily: I love how you were NKOTB exclusive! That’s commitment!

Brooks: Haha! Right, Emily! We were, if nothing else, quite loyal to those guys.

Emily: Hey, loyalty is critical!

Kester: I definitely wished I knew how to dance like that back in middle school, or even now!

Brooks: You know? I wish I knew how to dance back in middle school, too, haha.

Continue reading “The First Ever LILbooKtalk!!: “Overcoming Obstacles in Middle Grade Fiction” with Emily Blejwas and Brooks Benjamin”

The First Ever LILbooKchat!: What It Means to be a Teen Book Blogger

Hi guys! As you know, I am starting my junior year of high school. That means two more years before college, but it also means one of the hardest years of high school. I know I’m going to be more busy with homework and extracurricular activities, so it got me thinking, “What does it mean to be a teen book blogger?” Because I am starting a monthly discussion bit, I thought this would be the perfect topic for my first ever LILbooKchat! I hope you enjoy!

So what does it mean to be a teen book blogger?

For me, it’s summed up in three words: School, Extracurriculars, and Time.

Continue reading “The First Ever LILbooKchat!: What It Means to be a Teen Book Blogger”