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Nikki Grimes: From Foster Child to Famous Author and Poet

Nikki's childhood photoNikki Grimes may now be a New York Times bestselling author and noteworthy poet held in high regard, but as a child, she faced significant family challenges and was in and out of foster care for years. Quite a rough beginning for such an accomplished author, but she found solace in books, pen, and paper.

“I could no more stop writing than breathing, so I knew I had to figure out a way to make a living as a writer.”

“I often say that reading and writing were my survival tools,” shares Grimes, “and the library was my sanctuary. I needed a safe place because my childhood was rife with challenges. Reading and writing were my preferred techniques for coping, and so I became an avid reader early on.”

Though an ardent reader, Grimes did not have ready access to books outside of the library or school. “As for homes full of books, that’s another story. I grew up in and out of foster homes, and I didn’t have access to books of my own until high school. By then, I was already an avid reader, having made excellent use of school and public libraries.”

Grimes at 16

Grimes at 16

When she was just six, Grimes began composing her own poetry. A few years later, she was giving public poetry readings. “I was 13 when I gave my first public reading, but I don’t remember the first poem I recited. The Countee Cullen Library was holding a reading of young poets, and my father signed me up. I was the youngest, by far. You might say I was a little nervous. I thought the entire universe could hear my knees knocking as I approached the microphone! My father, though, had told me to focus on him alone, and I did precisely that. I think he believed this experience would be confidence-building for me, and it was.”

Grimes with foster brother Kendall Buchanan

Grimes with foster brother Kendall Buchanan

Grimes’ father has long served as her cheerleader. In fact, it was he who encouraged her not only in poetry but in other creative pursuits and interests, including singing, dancing, photography, painting, and mixed-media creations. “I was very lucky when I was young. Rather than worry about me becoming distracted, my father told me, no matter what creative field I explored, nothing I learned along the way would be wasted. Once I finally settled on my medium of choice, he assured me I would be able to incorporate all that I’d learned in that chosen specialty, and he was right.


“Every artistic discipline, every medium, impacts my writing in some way.”

“My exploration of music formed the basis of the lyrical quality of my poetry. My dive into theater laid the groundwork for my understanding of character development, dialogue and voice—elements reviewers have most often remarked upon in works like One Last Word (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2017), Jazmin’s Notebook (Puffin Books, 2000), and Dark Sons (Jump at the Sun, 2005). My more recent forays into visual art helped me to see in new ways and led me to try my hand at illustration for the first time. Every artistic discipline, every medium, impacts my writing in some way. Like I said, Daddy was right!”

Grownin'For Grimes, writing is about communication, so she is always writing for an audience. To reach that audience, she sought out opportunities for publication early on. “I began publishing in high school journals and went on from there. As far as a career goal, I thought in terms of writing and—writing and teaching, writing and photography, writing and acting. Writing was always in the mix. I could no more stop writing than breathing, so I knew I had to figure out a way to make a living as a writer, whether part time or full time.”

Grimes admits the road to seeing her books published was lengthy and bumpy. In fact, her debut novel, Growin’ (Dial Books, 1977) wasn’t published until she was 27 and her first book of poetry, Something on My Mind (Dial Books, 1978), was published a year later. “I could have easily papered a room with all of the rejection slips I received before I got that first ‘yes.’ I pressed on, though, because I knew I had genuine talent. James Baldwin saw promise in me, Julius Lester saw promise in me, and later Toni Morrison saw promise in me. Their faith kept me going.”

Nikki with Katherine Paterson

Grimes with Katherine Paterson

With a goal to form an emotional connection with her readers, Grimes is very deliberate about including real-life feelings in her books. “We are all human, no matter our station in life, or our race, culture, or religion. What we have to offer one another exists at the deepest level of our emotions. It is at the intersection of our emotions that we are able to share joy, impart hope, and help heal. The heart is where we meet, and so I am always chasing that point of connection in my work. And yes, that means allowing myself to feel the feelings I wish to convey—shame in A Girl Named Mister (Zondervan, 2010); Jazmin’s fear of mental illness in Jazmin’s Notebook (Puffin Books); Ishmael’s sense of abandonment in Dark Sons (Jump at the Sun); laughter in Planet Middle School (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2011); and loneliness in The Road to Paris (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006). It’s not about self-therapy, though. Ultimately, it’s about art. It’s about making art to stimulate thought and to stir the heart.”

Books3Readers and critics agree Grimes easily hits her target; they feel connected through her work. With more than 50 books published for children and adults, Grimes has a large and still growing fan base of readers in every age bracket. She has also received many prestigious honors and awards.

“Awards always bring welcome attention to the titles connected with them,” says Grimes, “and that’s always appreciated. An award can mean that a book stays in print longer, or that it enjoys added sales, or that it goes to paperback, or that a teacher or librarian finds a book he or she might not have, otherwise. Or it can mean all of the above. More than anything, though, it means that more children or young adults will have an opportunity to read our work.”Awards

Nikki at Wilder Awards Ceremony

Grimes at Wilder Awards Ceremony

Of all the awards Grimes has received, she places the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal at the top because it honors her entire body of work. “It confirms for me, personally, that I have made the substantial contributions to children’s literature that I had hoped for. Second on that list of top awards would certainly be the Coretta Scott King Award for Bronx Masquerade (Dial Books, 2001). It was the first major award I ever won for my work. Both awards confirmed and challenged me to continue to raise the bar, as I write, and to keep striving for excellence. I was also pleased to receive the Armin R. Shultz Literacy Award because its focus is on books that promote social justice.” Grimes is not one to rest on her laurels. She continues to write and has several books that will be available within the next few months. The Watcher (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017), Grimes’ latest book, will be published this month. It is illustrated by Brian Collier and inspired by Psalm 121. February 2018 is the publish date for her young adult novel, Between the Lines (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2018). It is a companion to Bronx Masquerade (Dial Books). And later, Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, featuring illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon will be available.BronxMasq_PB_CVR_release.indd

Creating a Love of Poetry in Kids

“Most people believe they dislike poetry because the genre was introduced to them in a way that was distasteful. If you present poetry as if it were caster oil, no one will like it. That’s what happens when the entire focus is on dissection and memorization, and the poems chosen for study come from a short list of ‘shoulds,’ as in poetry one should learn.

“Children and teens simply want good stories, characters to whom they can relate, and adventures that will have them laughing, crying, or even scared out of their wits from cover to cover.”

“Given this approach, there’s zero chance that readers will fall in love with the genre. They haven’t been given the opportunity. But if, on the other hand, you begin with poetry that speaks to them, poetry on topics of interest, written in a way that’s accessible, if you offer poetry that you, yourself, like first of all—because your young charges will pick up on the attitude you bring to the work you’re presenting—then there’s an excellent chance the students will love that poetry, too.

Garveys Choice“Today’s book market offers a variety of poetry. There are poetry collections on virtually any theme you can imagine. Do you have children who love sports? There are baseball poems and poems about soccer. Are your readers into history or geography? There are poetry collections that address those subjects. School supplies? Yes. Nature? Of course. Astronomy? Absolutely. Math? You bet! Science? Oh, yeah! Presidents or First Ladies? Yep. In other words, there are poems out there that speak to the interests of nearly every child, poems that tug on the heart, and others that are laugh-out-loud funny.

“And there are wonderful novels-in-verse, to boot. By the way, nothing will pull a reluctant reader in like a novel-in-verse. They see all that white space, and they immediately feel less intimidated by the prospect of reading an entire novel. For many, a novel like Garvey’s Choice (WordSong, 2016), or Words With Wings (WordSong, 2013), or Planet Middle School (Bloomsbury) is the first novel they’ve ever completed.

“When it comes to teaching poetry, begin with what interests the reader. Allow them to get hooked on the genre, itself, before you launch into dissection and memorization and the like. My fan mail is full of letters from young converts to poetry!”

The Benefits of Diverse Books

“I’ve been a voice for diverse literature from back when the terminology was ‘multicultural books for children.’ The movement is not only warranted, but critical. We live, after all, in a multicultural society and it behooves us to know one another if we’re serious about communicating in meaningful ways, and if we truly intend to move beyond our preconceived notions of ‘the other.’ We are more alike than we are different, and diverse literature can help us understand that.

“My goal, first and foremost, is always to make an emotional connection with my readers.”

“Books by and about each ethnic group need to be read by every other ethnic group. We need to meet on the page so that our heads and hearts have a chance to open up to one another, and books offer us the safest, least intimidating environment in which to do that. A story can puncture a mental or emotional barrier like nothing else. While we’re caught up in the web of a story’s wonder or adventure, we’re most likely to open up to someone different for the first time.

Words with Wings“That’s how diverse literature can help to heal our nation’s divide. Seeds of empathy and compassion are embedded in the stories we tell. If we’re not giving all children access to all of these stories, that enormous benefit is lost.”

Writing From Experience for Everyone

“Because I am Black, no matter what I write, the assumption is that I’m writing about the Black experience. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s simply an incomplete description of my work.

“Daydreaming, the theme of Words With Wings (WordSong), is not a uniquely Black experience. Puberty, the subjectPlanet MS of Planet Middle School (Bloomsbury), is not a uniquely Black experience. The foster child story in The Road to Paris (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) is not uniquely a Black experience. That said, I do often write from the Black experience because it is mine, and I understand the importance of creating literature in which children of color can see themselves authentically, and in a positive light.

“I take issue with the notion of writing books that are only intended for Black readers. A book should be chosen because it is well written, its story is one to which children can relate, and because it is age-appropriate. Period.

“You would think it absurd if someone were to suggest that Charlotte’s Web (Harper & Brothers, 1952) was only to be read by white children, especially those who lived on farms, or that The Diary of Anne Frank (Doubleday & Company, 1952) should be read exclusively by those who are Jewish, or that Arabian Nights (1706) should only be read by Arabs. These books should be read by all children, because they are good books, they are good stories, they have something of light and hope and beauty to impart to all readers, no matter their ethnicity. The same needs to be true for books featuring characters of color.

Nikki in Office“I write stories that are emotionally true and, as such, my stories speak to a wide audience, a human audience of readers who are Asian and Latino, Native and Caucasian, African and African American. I spent the balance of my childhood in New York City, but my readers live on farms, in suburbia, in mining towns, in the South and the Midwest, in hamlets from New York to California, and all points in between. Some of my readers even live beyond the borders of the U.S. But that should come as no surprise. Emotions are universal, and all of my stories have that emotional component in common.”

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Remembering 9/11 with Author Jewell Parker Rhodes

For those living when the Twin Towers fell, it was a day that will never be forgotten. Yet, as difficult as it may be to believe, there is now a generation that is unfamiliar with the horror and tragedy of that event. Award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes decided to address that lack of knowledge with her 2016 novel Towers Falling (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Here she discusses why she wrote the book and why she felt it was time.

“Kindness, compassion, empathy and joyful living honors all those who died.”

It has been 16 years since the Twin Towers fell, yet it still seems like a fresh wound for many. Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the horrific events of September 11?

When the Twin Towers were attacked, I was sleeping at home in Arizona. My husband woke me and the two of us were shocked and distraught watching the television images. I felt so vulnerable, sad, and outraged by the attack and the enormous loss of life. Months afterward, my depression still hadn’t lifted. Reading stories and viewing pictures of the victims who had all been unique, vibrant people with families, dreams, and hopes, made me feel an even greater obligation to live my life well. How dare I take living for granted? Kindness, compassion, empathy and joyful living honors all those who died. Writing diverse stories, teaching about humanity is an expression of my Americanness.Towers_Falling

While some still are unready or unable to talk about the tragedy and trauma of that day, you chose to write Towers Falling. Why do you believe it is important to tell the story? Why tell it now? And why tell it through fiction to a middle-grade audience?

I think if I had witnessed the 9/11 horror firsthand, I may not have been able to write about it. When my editor suggested the subject, I immediately said, “No, no way. Too hard emotionally, too hard narratively.” Yet, for months afterward, I kept thinking about the children born post-9/11 who didn’t know how our country had been impacted and changed by that day.

It has always been my highest ambition to be a children’s author. I felt I had a responsibility to try and write a novel that wouldn’t patronize kids but would also serve as an antidote to Internet images that will forever show the towers being attacked and falling. Fiction and three-dimensional characters can express how friendship, family, love of country, and commitment to America’s founding principles can help move our nation forward.

I love fifth graders! In eight years these young people will be old enough to vote and defend our country. They need to know America’s history, past and recent. Because adults are traumatized by 9/11 memories, we have steered conversations away from this pain. But we need to be strong and engage children. Kids need to be nurtured and educated as citizens—the world depends on informed generations. Teachers are my heroes. I feel they are my secret weapon, the lead explorers helping to make 9/11 understood emotionally, historically, and intellectually for our youth.

“Kids need to be nurtured and educated as citizens—the world depends on informed generations. Teachers are my heroes. I feel they are my secret weapon, the lead explorers helping to make 9/11 understood emotionally, historically, and intellectually for our youth.”

Towers Falling has had an incredible reception. Readers rave about it, and the book has received numerous honors and awards in such a short time. What were your hopes for this book when writing it and when taking it through the publishing process? Did you expect this level of success?

I felt terrified, hurt, and challenged while writing Towers Falling. My editors, Alvina Ling and Allison Moore, were important touchstones. We all felt the obligation to get the story right. If I failed, we agreed, the novel would never be published. I also wanted to honor the multi-disciplinary teaching of P.S. 146. This school inspired me to write the story as recent history. The novel isn’t just about the day of the attack but about the response, the lessons to be learned, and how every American is connected to every other American. For me, teachers teaching my book is the highest honor. Visiting and Skyping with schools, [and] meeting Castleton Elementary students, teachers, and parents at the 9/11 Memorial are all heartfelt memories.

Towers Falling’s success helped me say “yes” to another hard project—the killing of young black children. Ghost Boys will be published in April 2018. I love all the books I’ve written for adults and children. But these last two novels—Towers Falling and Ghost Boys (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)—felt more like a calling. An obligation.

In addition to September 11 and your Ghost Boys project, you have also written about Hurricane Katrina. What is it about these terrible events that draws your attention and makes you want to write?

I love Louisiana—the people, the food, and the landscape. Ironically, the day Katrina hit, I was celebrating the publication of my Louisiana adult novel, Season(Washington Square Press, 2011). Two weeks later, my publisher sent me to New Orleans and I got to see some of the devastation firsthand. I immediately thought: What about the children?

Ninth WardMy family experienced the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Our two-year-old son stopped speaking, our five-year-old daughter trembled during aftershocks. Family love and warmth kept us all together. As adults, we sometimes discount how children have to be resilient during disasters, too. My love of Louisiana and my experience as a young mom merged. I was inspired to write my first children’s book. Smart, spiritual, and strong, my character, Lanesha in Ninth Ward (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010), heralds the glory I see in today’s children. As adults, we know bad things happen. Kids know it, too. I mirror for children how they are called upon to stand up, spread love, survive, and be resilient.

In your books you seem to weave a lot of issues into the storylines. For example, in Towers Falling alone, I saw issues of diversity, racism, poverty and homelessness, terrorism, family relationships, and friendship. Is this something you intentionally do? Why?

Capturing the complexity of life has always been my goal as a novelist. I write in layers—one draft, then another, adding layer after layer to make what I hope will be a novel worthy of kids and for study in the classroom.

I’ve experienced many hardships—the worst of them happened during infancy, elementary, and middle school. Having said that, I did think Ninth Ward was a YA novel but my publisher convinced me I was writing middle grade. Certainly, I’m writing books I wish I could have read when I was a kid.

“School was where I soared…Librarians and teachers empowered me. Is it any wonder I became a professor?”

When you were a middle-grade young person, what were you reading and what issues were you facing? When you write to that age group now, are you writing from personal experience or writing to current issues and interests?

Thanks to school librarians and teachers, I read constantly as a child. Though there weren’t characters of color in my books, I, nonetheless, learned through character-driven fiction about empathy and common humanity.

SugarMy mother abandoned me as an infant and I was raised by my grandmother in an impoverished Pittsburgh neighborhood. I read Heidi (1881), Black Beauty (Jarrold & Sons, 1877), The Borrowers (J.M. Dent, 1952)—lots of classic stories. What I loved most were the Classics Illustrated comics. Books were too expensive to own but if I collected pop bottles and redeemed them for pennies, I could buy comics to keep. My favorite was about Prince Valiant. From this comic, I adopted a life mantra: “I want to be valiant. To live valiantly.”

I was a shy, sad child and when my mother returned for me at eight, my life went from bad to worse. By 14, my mother had kicked me out of her California home; by 15, I’d figured out how to graduate high school and leave my father’s and stepmother’s inhospitable home.

My books express some of my childhood struggles, but I try to stay aware of young people’s struggles today and I write for them, their future. I consciously honor children from diverse backgrounds. Not seeing myself in books, made me think only white people could write books! Celebrating uniqueness and common humanity is our key to the future.

While I felt isolated and lonely as a child, my characters are not based on me but inspired by the beauty I see in today’s youth. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, the parent and grandmother in me, but I am very aware that the child today will shape tomorrow.

Because of my childhood, I think my skill as writer is, in fact, to write about the harshness of life. Embedded in my words though is the promise that I will guide the reader through the tale safely and soundly, and shower them with love and triumph.

With such a difficult childhood, where were you exposed to books and literacy on a regular basis?

School was where I soared. My grandmother never finished third grade; my parents never graduated high school. All my relatives struggled to make a living. Librarians and teachers empowered me. Is it any wonder I became a professor? “Teaching through dramatic stories” is how I write. Historical fiction offers a rich landscape to explore.

Bayou MagicWhen did you know you wanted to be a writer? And when did you know you were a writer?

I always wrote stories, poems throughout my childhood. But it wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I realized black women wrote books. It was a revelation. I switched my major to English. It took 10 years to write my first adult novel, Voodoo Dreams (St. Martins Press, 1993). (Louisiana had already captured my imagination!) Finishing that novel made me feel successful. Writing helped me heal so many childhood wounds. I had survived. It took three years for Voodoo Dreams to be published, but I had already learned that it’s not publishing per se that matters. It matters more to accomplish what is meaningful and hard. It was this lesson that prepared me for writing Towers Falling and Ghost Boys. Yes, the stories are hard but worth being told and risking failure. I’m glad I wrote these two books, in particular, even though, at times, the psychic and emotional cost was high.

What are you working on currently and what can readers look forward to seeing from you soon?

Here is the description for Ghost Boys:
Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real
threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing. Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey toward recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father’s actions.

This story sounds bleak. But in a poem, the ghost boy, Jerome, writes:
Only the living can make
the world better.

Live and make it better.

Wow! It just occurred to me that this is my personal call—another way of expressing my desire to be “valiant.” Maybe this is why it took so long for me to fulfill my dream to be a children’s author? I had to survive my childhood pain. By living, loving, I’ve made my life better. My writing seeks to remind everyone—but especially children—that no matter how hard life seems to be, they can and should “live and make it better.”


Jason Reynolds: From Reluctant Reader to Award-Winning Author


Jason’s childhood photo

Jason Reynolds has been deemed one of the most promising young adult novelists today. He has received prestigious accolades and awards including several Coretta Scott King Awards and Honors, the Kirkus Award, being named a National Book Award finalist, and becoming a New York Times bestselling author. Additionally, he is on the faculty at Lesley University for the Writing for Young People MFA program. Yet, he was not always interested in books. Here Mackin’s Amy Meythaler asks Reynolds to share insights into his background and how he discovered his love for poetry and prose.

Where did you grow up and what was your home life like?
I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., with mainly my mother and older brother, though my house was the house everyone lived in at one point or another. Aunts, cousins, my father. Always people there.

GhostWere books, libraries, reading, and writing important in your family?

It’s weird to look back on it all now, only because books were everywhere in our house, though I don’t recall seeing anyone actually reading. They were there, though. And the collection of books—at least my collection—was growing. Every year for Christmas my aunt would give me a classic. And every year I tossed it aside. I mean, seriously, who wants books for Christmas? Especially the classics?!

Apparently you gave up reading books when you were quite young. What happened?

“I wish teachers back then let us read anything. I wish they understood that my life, my personhood, would be strengthened by literacy, not just literature. So had I been allowed to read rap lyrics in school, or video game cheat code books, or whatever I was interested in, I would’ve been better off.”

The entire medium was something I was uninterested in. Well, I take that back. It wasn’t that I was uninterested as much as it was that I felt disconnected from it. School, back then, discouraged whatever relationship I could have had with books by not providing me, and kids like me, with options. All I needed was something familiar. A family like mine. A neighborhood like mine. Language like mine. But it’s unfair for me to just say teachers didn’t try. Some of them, I’m sure, were working to figure out how to crack the code. But it’s hard to do when the options for the books I needed were so scarce. Today, fortunately, there are more options. There are contemporary stories, layered and authentic. There’s a creativity, an irreverence, and a growing inclusivity that makes reading more palatable. More accessible. More fun!


Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

I wish teachers back then let us read anything. I wish they understood that my life, my personhood, would be strengthened by literacy, not just literature. So had I been allowed to read rap lyrics in school, or video game cheat code books, or whatever I was interested in, I would’ve been better off. I know being a teacher is difficult because of all the red tape and bureaucracy, so I don’t want to pretend that implementing this kind of thing is easy. But it’s worth trying.

About the same time you lost interest in books, you discovered poetry. What inspired you to take up reading and writing poetry? And how do you suggest educators help the young people they work with find an appreciation for poetry as well?

I found poetry through rap music. I think it’s MUCH easier to get kids interested in poetry if you break down the barrier between the poets in their textbooks and the poets in their ear buds, which immediately gives credence to some of the poets in the classroom. There are always kids who rap. Who sing. They’re poets. Dissect Kendrick Lamar lyrics. Dissect Tupac. Lorde. Taylor Swift. Whoever.

“School, back then, discouraged whatever relationship I could’ve had with books by not providing me, and kids like me, with options. All I needed was something familiar. A family like mine. A neighborhood like mine. Language like mine.”

I know there are some poetry snobs out there turning their noses up at this idea, and that is precisely the issue. Shakespeare was brilliant, but not because he was over people’s heads. He was brilliant because he could bring raucous stories to everyday people, and its sophistication had everything to do with his ability to connect and poke fun using metaphor and entendre. That’s rap music. That’s poetry.

The other thing about poetry, for me, was that it was short. It was punchy and immediate and far less daunting than prose. Less words on a page was enough for me to try to write it and read it.

All American Boy As Brave as You Boy in the Black Suit When I Was the Greatest

Obtaining a degree in English seems highly unlikely for someone who gave up reading. How did your choice of a college major come about? And did your lack of a rich reading background hinder you at all?

“It’s much easier to get kids interested in poetry if you break down the barrier between the poets in their textbooks and the poets in their ear buds.”

It was a struggle. I loved to write poetry and was determined to be a successful (read: famous) poet since I was a kid. So the English degree didn’t seem that far-fetched for me. But I was completely unprepared because I hadn’t read anything. As a matter of fact, I started as an English major but changed it several times to Education, Journalism, Communications, and eventually landing back on English. But I also started reading, and, therefore, played catch up. But I never wavered from what I wanted—to be a poet. That’s it. Not a teacher. Not a lawyer. Not even a novelist. A poet.

Reynolds Reflects on the Power of Literacy and Story

Jason Reading to Kids

Reading to students

“I never wavered from what I wanted—to be a poet. That’s it. Not a teacher. Not a lawyer. Not even a novelist. A poet.”

“We all need to know how to read. Our children need to know how to navigate language because with words we can bolster self-confidence and cut down on violence and almost every other interpersonal conflict. For example, when I was young and I would get upset but couldn’t find the words to express my anger, I would break things. That’s human. Had I been able to wrangle my language and articulate my feelings, I would’ve, perhaps, been able to let some of the air out before bursting. And in terms of the importance of stories…well, imagine if I had never known that I wasn’t the only kid on earth who got mad enough to break his own toys? Imagine the loneliness and insecurity that might set in. Stories are the imaginary friends that do real things. That actually throw the ball back.”

Jason speaking at Twin Cities TLC

Keynote address at Twin Cities Teen Lit Con

To what do you attribute your success today? Having received so many honors and awards so early in your career, do you now feel pressure to keep being successful?
You know, when it all comes down to it, I attribute my success to my intuition, my work ethic, and an incredible support system. I write from the gut. I put it on the page in a way that feels good to me, even if that means I have to break a few rules. And I’m relentless. Obsessive, even. Every book is treated like the first. And I’m super lucky to have an agent and an editor to push me and tell me it’s okay when I’m falling apart. And I do fall apart sometimes.

Do I feel pressure? Sure. But not because of the awards. I’m just always in competition with myself to make sure that everything with my name on it is as good as I could’ve possibly gotten it at the time. I put the pressure there to keep me grounded, to keep me focused. Shiny things can shatter thoughts. I have to remind myself everyday what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s what keeps me driven.

Speaking of driven, you will have three books published this year: Patina (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2017), Long Way Down (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2017), and Miles Morales: Spider-Man (Marvel Press, 2017). In addition to being an author, you are also a speaker and a teacher. How do you find time to do everything?
I don’t sleep. I write on planes and in airports. I edit the manuscripts of my students in hotels. I do whatever needs to be done. Like I said, obsession. It’s tough but it ain’t boring, so I’ll take it!


Milo Morales_ Reynolds


Miles Morales is a bit of a departure from your usual writing subjects. Was it a challenge to write a Spider-Man novel?
The books all come out of me, out of my experiences, so I have an equal connection to all of them. But, of course, writing about a superhero was different. But only in the sense that I didn’t want to write a “superhero” book, but instead, a book about a kid who happens to also be a superhero. It was a nice stretch, and a lot of fun, and still me.

“I have to remind myself everyday what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s what keeps me driven.”

Miles Morales aside, your other characters and stories focus on the black experience. Are you writing for black people or for everyone?
I write about black people. But the misconception is that stories of black people aren’t for everyone, when the truth is, the stories of black people are the stories of America. My stories are contemporary, but there is nothing about today that is not about yesterday. My stories are also human, therefore, at the core of each are the things that connect us. But yes, I write about black people. And I’m unashamed and unafraid to do so. As a matter of fact, I’m honored to do so.

Jason with Faith Erin Hicks and Neal Shusterman

Panel discussion with Faith Erin Hicks and Neal Shusterman

The We Need Diverse Books movement is very active. As a younger writer and someone who writes for a young adult audience, how long do you think we will need formal structures to increase diversity in publishing? Do you think this will ever be a non-issue because there will be so much variety available?
I’d like to believe so. But I also think that would display a bit of naïveté and even some hubris on behalf of us all. There is never a time where things aren’t changing, and with change comes discomfort, dissent, pushback, and ultimately, if we have the necessary channels in place, growth. But I think those channels have to be there.

It seems that our country is going through a time of growing discomfort, dissent, and pushback, especially in regard to race. How do you feel your books and other diverse literature can help?
Books are empathy machines. Art, in general, has a way of tearing our egos down. Chipping at our walls. There has never been a time of unrest in this country when literature hasn’t been a valuable weapon against oppression. It allows us to see the landscape as it is as well as imagine a better world. It also creates capsules for posterity. James Baldwin said that he knew he wouldn’t be the marcher. He knew he didn’t have it in him to take up a sign and chant in the streets. But he still believed he had a role. He knew there would have to be someone to document these moments—that there would have to be a scribe so that generations to come could know of the shoulders on which they stand.

As a scribe for this generation, what can readers look forward to seeing from you soon?
Let’s just say, lots of things!

The Curriculum Guide to The Boy in the Black Suit

The Curriculum Guide for When I Was the Greatest

A Reading Group Guide to All American Boys

A Reading Group Guide to
As Brave As You

A Reading Group Guide to
Track, Book One: Ghost


Kurtis Scaletta: From Avid Reader to Award-winning Author

Because of The Velveteen Rabbit (George H. Doran Company, 1922), a young boy became an engaged reader. And because a second-grade teacher cared, an award-winning author was born.

“I write middle-grade books because of how much I needed books when I was that age.”

Kurtis Scaletta grew up surrounded by books and models of others reading, so it was only natural he would take up reading as well. “We had loads of books,” says Scaletta. “One book I really remember is The Velveteen Rabbit, which wasn’t the first book I read by a long shot, but maybe the first book that made me cry, that felt weighty and important, that made me feel like I was a better person for having read it. And around that time, I decided writing stories was what I wanted to do. But one pivotal moment came in second grade when we had to write and illustrate our own books. My teacher took me aside to say mine was the best … she didn’t want to say it in front of the other kids. I was used to being kept after school because I was in some kind of trouble, so it was a huge thing to get some positive attention for a change.”

Rooting for Rafael Rosales

When Scaletta entered college, he did not need time to figure out his educational direction. In fact, in the course of a few years, he had earned several degrees including two master’s degrees—one in English and one in education. Amazingly, though, he did not become a published writer or even write for his work for several years. “My day job for the last 20 years has been in educational technology; first developing educational multimedia, then as a faculty consultant at the University of Minnesota, and now managing the online education program at the Loft Literary Center. At least the last one involves creative writing!”

Today, in addition to his “day job,” Scaletta is an accomplished, award-winning author. Known especially for his highly acclaimed break out novel, Mudville (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009) and his series of baseball-themed Topps League books (Harry N. Abrams), one would likely expect Scaletta to have spent his childhood and youth involved in sports. That would be false. “I was not a good athlete or even a big sports fan as a kid. I did play sandlot ball and played basketball for the YMCA clubs. Kind of funny that’s the sport I picked since I was the shortest kid in my class every year.”


As a military kid, Scaletta spent his childhood moving around a lot. But the rich experiences he gained provided details for his work. “My father was in the Air Force until I was about 13, and then joined the foreign service, so there was a lot of moving, including to other continents. I loved living in England as a kid, for the candy, excellent television (including kids programs!), and interesting history in the region. We lived in an area where both Roman and Paleolithic/Mesolithic sites (e.g., Stonehenge) were close by, which took hold of my imagination. Liberia was more challenging, but was the most interesting place to live.”


Scaletta’s first book debuted in 2009. It was met with high acclaim and received honors such as being shortlisted for the Mark Twain Readers Award. “I didn’t really appreciate how good Mudville did because like a lot of debut authors, I kind of thought all the good things would happen: bestseller list, movie deal, major awards. Then when a couple of other books came out I realized, hey, I did pretty good with the first one getting as much attention as it did!”

Tanglewood Terror

It was living in Liberia that inspired his second novel, Mamba Point (out of print). The book is full of autobiographical details with everything being true except for the snake. “Linus lives in the same apartment building and has the same day-to-day life as I did,” shares Scaletta. “When I lived in Liberia, even though the culture transition was hard, I knew it was something special and worth writing about.”

In Scaletta’s subsequent books such as The Tanglewood Terror (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011) and The Winter of the Robots (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013), he has included elements of mystery, fantasy, and humor. Yet, underlying everything is a vein of realism. Scaletta doesn’t shy away from the tough issues that concern young people today. That is especially apparent in his latest book, Winter of the Robots  Rooting for Rafael Rosales (Albert Whitman and Company, 2017).

“I want my books to stick with readers for a while.”

“I’m more of a realist,” acknowledges Scaletta, “and those quieter things—family issues, kids growing up, kids worrying about the future—that’s really what drives me to write. When I grew up that stuff was the norm, and I still haven’t shaken the idea that it’s important that kids discover themselves through books, connecting with characters from emotions and experiences that are familiar, and by showing the character go through something, the reader can learn from it. And I feel like honesty is the best way through. I think I did that best with Maya in Rafael Rosales. She’s right about the bees, but she’s in a place where she can take a lot of things for granted. And the kind of things she wants to do mean real sacrifices. I didn’t want it to be easy.”

Sometimes it is easy for writers to become preachers trying to get messages across to their readers. Not Scaletta. “I don’t have model heroes and avoid moral certainties,” he says. “I don’t want books to tell kids what to believe, but I want to show kids being reflective, and coming to decisions carefully and with empathy. I think that’s one element in all of them. Even the way Jim rationalizes all of his crimes in Winter of the Robots shows a kid who’s grappling with what the right thing to do is. And I want my books to stick with readers for a while. Even if they don’t think, ‘Hey, this book was a hoot,’ maybe weeks later they’re still thinking about it.”

Kurtis with his cat, Torii

Kurtis with his cat, Torii

With five novels and six chapter books to his credit, Scaletta has a growing, eager fan base. So what can readers look forward to seeing from him next? “Nothing soon,” admits Scaletta, “ I cannot write as much as I used to because of my son, and my pace has slowed a lot as a writer, but I do what I can on lunch breaks and weekends and after he goes to bed, though by that time I’m usually too beat to do anything. However, I’m working on something new but am not quite prepared to go public with it … I’ll just say mysteriously that it’s about the power of art and has a dual narrative, like Rafael Rosales.”

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

“Everybody in my family was an avid reader. My mother read a book a day, and there were shelves packed with her paperbacks and stacks of books on every surface. On top of that, both of my parents would read two or three newspapers cover to cover every day and a number of magazines. My brothers and I would often pass books around that we liked. It was one of the few things we could share that didn’t lead to fights.”

Kurtis with his son, Byron

Kurtis with his son, Byron


“I love the Topps books. I wrote them so fast I didn’t appreciate them until I read them to my son; it was like reading them for the first time. I don’t know how I did it. The plotting is really good, great characters, good humor. They were work for hire and belong to Topps and they decided six was enough, but I’d love to do something else like that series again.”

“The best way to reach out to me is email, I used to have a PO box and loved getting the snail mail, but since I dropped that, email is the only reliable way to contact me. I answer all emails and letters except for ones that are asking for help with book reports.”


Caren Stelson: A Passion for Promoting Peace


On August 9, 1945, six-year-old Sachiko Yasui was living in a world that was suffering the effects of World War II. But that morning was different. It was life-changing for Yasui. For on that day, an atomic bomb was dropped on her hometown of Nagasaki, Japan. Her family and friends died, and she was ostracized for being a bomb survivor.

On August 6, 2005, Caren Stelson was living in relative peace, though the world was filled with plenty of war and unrest. But that morning was different. It was life-changing for Stelson. For on that day, an atomic bomb survivor named Sachiko Yasui spoke at a ceremony in Minneapolis, Minnesota, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eleven years later, Stelson’s  factual account of Yasui’s experience, entitled Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda Books, 2016), was published. And since that day, many readers’ lives have been changed as they discover the horrors of war through this firsthand account, and learn how transformative messages of peace can be shared.

In less than a year, Stelson’s book has garnered fans from around the world. It has also been named a Minnesota Book Award Finalist, a Robert F. Sibert Informational Honor Book, and Sachiko received the 2017 Jane Addams Award for Older Children. Further, it was long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Here, author Stelson shares her insights and experiences surrounding the writing and publishing of this timely nonfiction title.

It seems this book all started with your attendance at the WWII commemoration ceremony more than 10 years ago. Why were you at the event?

I can say that one of the beginnings of my Sachiko journey was at 8:00 am, August 6, 2005, at the Lyndale Park Peace Garden ceremony in Minneapolis. As other participants, I came to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the end of WWII.

Lyndale Park

That morning, my mind was not on Hiroshima; I was thinking about my father. At that time, I was deep into researching my father’s WWII military history. I thought I would be writing about him. My father was a highly decorated soldier. During the war, he was also a very young captain in the infantry, fighting his way through Germany.

As many veterans, my father rarely talked to his children about his war experiences. In May 2005, I went on a battlefield tour of Germany with surviving members of my father’s company, now old men, to listen to their stories and meet German veterans who had fought on the other side. At various points along the tour, German veterans welcomed us to their peace ceremonies. It was my first experience witnessing the power of peace and reconciliation between former enemies.

“Peace is not a noun. Peace is a verb. Peace is action. Peace takes courage.”

This battlefield tour could be considered a starting point for my Sachiko journey. But the year I lived in England (2001-02) could also be considered a starting point. That year I explored the art of oral history and interviewed British men and women who had as children of WWII survived wartime bombing. I wondered how the war impacted them as children and as they grew into adulthood.

Who carried hate, fear, and anger with them as they aged? Who internalized the experience of war and turned that experience into a force for good? How did and does this transformation happen? These questions were at the back of my mind at the Lyndale Peace Park on August 6, 2005.

When Sachiko was introduced, I realized her story may be the ultimate story I was searching for. I can still hear my thoughts whirling in my mind, “She survived the atomic bomb. How was that possible?”

Why did you believe Yasui’s story needed to be told more broadly through a book?

That’s an easy question to answer and a hard one. The easy answer is to say, I’m a writer and my mind goes to books. With little effort, I saw Sachiko’s story as a book. The harder question to answer is what possessed me to think I could write this book?

Caren Stelson and Sachiko in Nagasak

Caren Stelson and Sachiko Yasui in Nagasaki

Although I had been immersed in the European theatre of WWII, I didn’t know that much about the war in the Pacific. Why? I’m a history major. Why didn’t I really know what happened to people who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

As Americans, we’ve read about the experiences of those who survived the concentration camps in Europe. We know Anne Frank’s Holocaust story. What of Japan? Yes, we have Sadako’s story of her thousand paper cranes, a story from Hiroshima. But what child speaks for Nagasaki? More importantly, why as a nation, were we not more aware of the hard consequences of the decision to drop the atomic bombs, short term and long, given that our government was responsible for that decision? These became slow burning questions that kept growing hotter and hotter in my mind.

When did you decide to turn those questions into actions?

It took me five years before I decided to reach out to Sachiko and ask if we could work together to write her story for young people in the United States. By this time, I had finished a MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University.

Caren presenting Sachiko to the mayor in Nagasaki along with Lerner employees

Caren presenting “Sachiko” to the mayor in Nagasaki along with Lerner employees and others involved in the book.

As a writer for young people, with my teaching experience, my work in school publishing, and my interviews and oral history experiences, I thought I had the ability to capture Sachiko’s story—perhaps even an obligation to bring this story to light. I had no idea how challenging writing this book would be. If someone had told me up front what it would take to write Sachiko and how long, I probably would have been too scared to try.

How did the process of writing this book affect you?

To write Sachiko’s story, I traveled to Nagasaki five times to walk through nuclear war with her. I imagined living in the aftermath. I had nightmares when I returned home. I interviewed other hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors, read as much as I could, both narratives and history from various perspectives, and discovered events more complicated, controversial, and painful than I had expected.

As we moved through Sachiko’s unfolding story, I found I needed to heal from the writing of this difficult story as Sachiko needed to heal from her experience. By following in Sachiko’s footsteps, I studied the works of Helen Keller, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other peacemakers; as I did, I found myself stronger, more resilient, and more focused on my own pathways to peace.


So in your search for personal healing and peace, did you find inspiration in the life or words of specific individuals?

We live in turbulent times. As an adolescent, I grew up in turbulent times—the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations, the civil rights movement, the marches against the Vietnam War. The world felt very unstable to me then, too.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great inspiration to me as a teenager as he was for Sachiko. I read or reread nearly all of King’s speeches as I worked on Sachiko. His words ring as true now as they did in the 1960s.

“Don’t lose sight of people who inspire you, and you won’t lose sight of the person you hope to become.”

Today, I am a great admirer of Congressman John Lewis. The award-winning March: Book 3 (Top Shelf Productions, 2016) captures Lewis’s bravery. His call for justice from the halls of Congress makes it clear that the work of peace and justice is never done. Lewis reminds us that peace is not a noun. Peace is a verb. Peace is action. Peace takes courage. Peace is sweat and effort to bring justice to our homes, neighborhood, country, world. As we know so well today, there is much more peace and justice work to do.

What advice or counsel do you have for those growing up now?

Several years ago, I came across a quote from Newbery Award-winning author Katherine Paterson. She wrote, “I was already wise by the time I was eleven. There was no way my parents could have protected me from the world as it was. I had already seen too much. What I needed was not an outer guard, but an inner strength. I needed to know one could endure the loss of paradise.”

Sooner or later, we realize we need the inner strength to become the person we want to be in the world. I would say to young people, develop your inner strength for the work ahead. Study. Read widely. (Ask your librarian to suggest titles of life-changing books.) Feed your curiosity. Test yourself. Open yourself to friendships. Reach out in service. Don’t lose sight of people who inspire you, and you won’t lose sight of the person you hope to become.

Since Sachiko was published, it has received numerous accolades including being long-listed for the prestigious National Book Award. Did you ever expect your book to receive this response?

I’ve been totally caught off guard by the awards and accolades given to Sachiko and totally humbled by all of them.

The publishing process with Carolrhoda/Lerner Publishing Group was so intense; I didn’t have time to think about what would happen once Sachiko stepped out into the world. What I learned was that an award-winning book happens when the editor and designer bring as much passion to a book as the author.

Interior Spread of Sachiko

Interior Spread of “Sachiko”

My fabulous editor Carol Hinz and I continued to refine the manuscript right up until the last moment. I had final discussions with Japanese history professors to check facts. I had last minute SKYPE phone calls to Sachiko in Nagasaki to verify small details. My Minneapolis translator, Keiko Kawakami, helped us with the Japanese glossary, a decision at the end of the process. All the while, insightful book designer Danielle Carnito worked to add the visual presentation to deepen the story.

When Sachiko was first published, my greatest hope was that the book would do justice to Sachiko’s life and my readers would draw strength and inspiration from her story. My second hope was to reawaken my readers to the existential danger of nuclear weapons. No one should forget the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What are you working on now and what can readers look forward to seeing from you soon?

I’ve been spending much of my time talking to schools and various groups about Sachiko. My audiences have been from ages 10 to 90. Grandmothers for Peace was as eager to hear about Sachiko’s story as were fifth graders.

I’ve also been volunteering for the nonprofit organization, World Citizen. World Citizen’s mission is to “empower communities to educate for a just and peaceful world.” I continue to support the Saint Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee, an organization crucial to my research in Nagasaki. I also created the Sachiko Scholarship for Peace with portions of the proceeds from the book to fund student exchanges between Minnesota and Nagasaki.

All these activities are gratifying, but I’m also eager to get back to my writing desk. Unfinished manuscripts are calling—and so is a brand new grandbaby in Boston.


Explore Space and STEM with Author Andrea Beaty

For someone who never even thought about becoming a writer until she was about 30 years old, Andrea Beaty’s books have been enjoyed and shared by countless readers around the globe and even in outer space. Yes, outer space! Beaty’s book, Rosie Revere, Engineer (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), was an official selection of the Story Time From Space program.

“To see astronaut Kate Rubins read Rosie Revere, Engineer from the International Space Station is so far beyond my wildest dreams! It came about because I met astronaut Alvin Drew at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in D.C. I gave him a copy of Rosie Revere as a thank you for all he has done to help our country and the world via his work. He is actually one of the founders of Story Time From Space, and he shared the book with the others in the program. It’s a great program that shares videos of lots of books plus videos of astronauts performing experiments that can be done by classrooms and families as well. Combining literacy and space is a brilliant way to get kids excited about both!”

Beaty_BookCovers copy

Beaty is no novice when it comes to combining literacy with science. As a child, she grew up in a house filled with books and spent much of her time reading and exploring the outdoors. “We didn’t have cable TV then and certainly not the Internet. So while I watched more than my fair share of TV, most of it was public television. Through PBS and wandering the fields and forests around my town, I learned about the natural world and grew to love science. Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ was a big influence on me and James Herriot’s All Things Great and Small series of books tipped the scales for me.”

“I was raised in a very small village of about 300 people. My father was a coal miner who was a big believer in education as a great equalizer and my mother was a voracious reader. I was a big reader as a kid and devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and Agatha Christie, and I wanted to be a spy or a detective!”

When it came time for Beaty to go to college, choosing her major was easy. “I studied biology and computer science which was a fairly new area of study back then. I loved them both. I didn’t really think about writing until many years later when I had kids and was reading picture books. They were so amazing compared to the bulk of books available when I was a kid. That set me on a whole new path and one that has been delightful!”

Beaty has written across genres but always seems to insert humor even in the most serious of books. “I don’t really think about writing different genres, I just write the book I have and explore the characters which intrigue me. I love humor and have been very pleased that it has worked in my writing. It’s a tricky thing to do. Mostly, I just write what cracks me up. Luckily, I am easily amused.”

In addition to having a knack for including humor in her writing, Beaty also has a talent for writing in verse. “I think of writing a rhyming book as writing a song. I use a dictionary, a book called a Flip Dictionary which helps find terminology on various topics, and a rhyming dictionary. Overall, though, rhyming does come naturally to me.”


Ten years ago, Beaty combined her love of science, writing, humor, and verse to unintentionally create the first of a series of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) books featuring students from Miss Lila Greer’s second-grade class. “I never set out to write STEM-related books or write books about specific careers. I wrote Iggy Peck, Architect (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007) because my son loved building things. I wanted to write a book that explored a kid’s consuming passion for something. So I think of that book as a book about passion.”

“I think that all kids are naturally creative and strong. They get so deeply pulled into their play and it becomes real to them. It is their work (as someone I can’t remember once famously said and which I famously just misquoted). Adults too often fail to give kids credit or think of their ideas as real or important. That annoys me. I find kids far more interesting than adults because for kids, anything is possible. I love that optimism and I think I share it, too.”

Teaming up with illustrator David Roberts, Beaty went on to write Rosie Revere, Engineer as well as Ada Twist, Scientist (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016). “I tried to figure out more about those kids from clues in David Roberts’ amazing illustrations in Iggy Peck. So I AM finally a detective after all! Rosie is about persistence, and Ada is about curiosity. They are coincidentally about engineering, science, and architecture, too, and that has been a lovely thing. We need books that can inspire kids to get interested in STEM because we have a lot of problems to conquer in the world that will need STEM-capable people to fix!”

So what is next? Will there be more books featuring students from Miss Greer’s class? “I don’t know if there will be a book for every kid in Miss Lila Greer’s class. I will write stories as the kids reveal their personalities to me and as long as it’s fun. My new book is Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017). Iggy Peck will have a similar book in the fall. They are fun projects and all about brainstorming and getting creative about engineering and architecture. Also, we have created an initiative to help educators and parents help kids become more critical thinkers. To that end, we have created a series of posters to inspire kids to “Read. Question. Think.” They are available for a free download on my website.”



“Illustrator David Roberts is a magician and a wizard and a genius. He sneaks so many hidden gems into all his illustrations. He does it without telling anyone so it’s always a great treasure hunt when illustrations arrive at my door. I love it. I have found dozens of hidden connections among the books. Iggy’s parents make a cameo in Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014). Iggy’s cat shows up in Ada Twist, Scientist. All the hats in Madame Chapeau are based on real hats by famous designers and also ones that David designed. There’s more about that on my website.”


Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg: From Haunted Houses to Hamelin in Piper

13 Reasons Why - Movie Tie In13 Reasons Why_original Cover

Jay Asher is best known for his page-turning debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why  (Razorbill, 2007), which has recently been adapted into a 13-part Netflix series. The book regularly appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers list and has been published in 25 countries. Accolades for Asher’s work continued with The Future of Us  (Razorbill, 2011), a book he co-authored with Printz Honor-winner Carolyn Mackler. His most recent release is What Light  (Razorbill, 2016), a feel-good, holiday romance novel.

Jessica Freeburg has worked here at Mackin for about a year and a half. Freeburg is also an author of paranormal fiction (Living in Shadows, 2015) and narrative nonfiction (Monsters of the Midwest, 2016), and founder of Ghost Stories, Inc., which is a group who performs paranormal investigations for creative inspiration. When this “paranormal” person went looking for a “normal” job after her youngest child went off to school, she wanted it to be at a place that loves books, and Mackin certainly fits that bill. She is likely the only author/ghost hunter/book annotator on staff.

In this interview, Asher and Freeburg tell us about their new collaboration, Piper  (Razorbill, October 2017), and share their thoughts on writing, history, ghosts, and more.

Piper Interior Spread

Piper Interior Spread


Asher and Freeburg ‘s new collaboration, Piper

How did your collaboration on a graphic novel retelling of the Pied Piper come about?

Jessica: Initially, when we started working on stuff together it was just screenplays and that was actually what Piper was before it became a graphic novel. Screenplays and graphic novels are very similar in the way they’re written. We finished the screenplay and thought we might have better luck seeing it onscreen if we sold it as a book first. So, we approached the editor with it and he liked it. Jay had the idea about the Pied Piper initially and I love scary stuff. I said I’ll totally write that with you!

Jay: When I first met Jessica, I knew she liked scary and paranormal things, and I’ve always kind of liked that, too, although I had never written it. So, it was like, “Let’s write about what we are both fascinated by.” The Pied Piper story was one that had creepiness, as well as great history and legend to it.

Book in Germany with the fitst mention of the Pied Piper

German Book with the first mention of the Pied Piper

Jessica: It was so fun researching that and finding the historical basis of it.

Jay: Yes, there’s a fan of Thirteen Reasons Why  from Germany that I have kept in contact with for years. When we needed to get some information we were having trouble finding or translating, he did that for us. We went back and looked at the original legend; legends change over time and the details can change, but in all of the versions we found there were these unanswered questions that no one ever tried to answer. So we decided to do our adaptation and stay true to the legend but still be historical, while adding characters and filling in the gaps to try and find out how the Germany of that time would have affected the story. We felt that all of the changes we made had to be accurate to the time period.

Jessica: We’re experts now in medieval everything!

Jay: (laughing) When I was in seventh grade I remember learning about feudalism and thinking, “I’m never going to need to know this.” So, I had to relearn it as an adult in order to make this story make sense.

How was writing a graphic novel different than writing a narrative novel, and how did you go about co-writing Piper?

Jessica: Ever since we started working on screenplays together I’ve always used a screenplay outline because I thought it was super-efficient. So, it was similar to writing what I normally write because we started with the screenplay outline and we would send it back and forth until we got to a place where we were both happy with the story arc and everything was where it should be in terms of timing.

Jay: It almost seemed like one of us was always more excited than the other about a specific scene so whoever really wanted to write that scene would do it.

Jessica: He was always excited about the love scenes and I was always excited about the scenes where people were dying!

Jay: I think that’s what makes a really good collaboration. We have very similar interests but there are certain things that you’re excited about writing. I’ve always liked reading creepy paranormal stuff, but whenever I would try to write it, I could just never go there and I knew you (Jessica) wouldn’t hold back.


Jessica, you have a deep interest in the paranormal, and paranormal fiction is a very popular genre right now. Why do you think readers gravitate towards the paranormal?

Jessica: I just think that everybody is fascinated with things we cannot explain. It’s human nature to think that we can understand everything, so there’s a real fascination in trying to find an answer to the paranormal. That’s why we have all these shows on TV with guys hunting ghosts. I go ghost hunting, which is totally embarrassing to say out loud. For me, it’s not at all about the science or trying to prove anything, it’s just a childlike fascination with the things that go bump in the dark and being inspired by the history of the locations. I took Jay ghost hunting in New York and we went to the Morris–Jumel Mansion. That place was so fascinating to me not because it had a really strong history of ghosts, which it does, but I got really emotional and actually cried when I was standing in the bedroom where George Washington slept because I’m such a history nerd.  For me, it’s all about the history and the inspiration I take away creatively.

Future of Us

What Light

What are the challenges of retelling or adapting a classic tale like the Pied Piper?

Jessica: That was the big discussion when we first started saying, “Okay, this is the idea we’re going to work on next, but what perspective do we tell it from to make it different and unique?” That’s where we came up with Magdalena and the fact that she’s deaf. It also is where the love story between Magdalena and Piper was born.

Jay: The love story is really a big part of the book—everything that happens in the town is because of their relationship. He sees how she is being treated by the townspeople, and that gives him an attitude about the people in the community. She sees how he gets under the skin of the people who have been tormenting her all of these years.

Magdalena and Piper are both outsiders in their own way. Why do you think the theme of being an outsider resonates today?

Jay: Even the most popular people, at some point, feel like an outsider, at least in terms of thinking that people don’t really understand them. When I speak in schools, it’s sometimes the most popular girls that tell me they feel the least understood, like they have to put up a certain image. But that doesn’t let them be themselves. The Pied Piper is kind of the ultimate outsider because he knows that with his abilities, people are not going to trust him for long.

Lightning Round

Bigfoot … real or not?

Jessica: Totally real.
Jay: We’ll see.
Jessica: We’re going to go Squatchin. He’ll find out.


Last TV show you binge-watched?

Jay: Homeland.
Jessica: I am watching Stranger Things right now.

The food you could most binge-eat?

Jay: Pizza.
Jessica: Cheetos.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Jay: An astronaut.
Jessica: An astronaut!

What author throughout history would you like to meet?

Jay: Stephen King.
Jessica: Yeah, ditto.
Jay: In astronaut suits!

Describe your high school self in three words or less.

Jay: Shy, annoying, and creative.
Jessica: You’re like the same person today! My answer: Loud, annoying, but friendly.

What’s the best thing about where you live now?

Jay: (California) The weather.
Jessica: (Minnesota) Totally not the weather, but my mom lives five blocks away.

Do you have any advice for anyone who feels like an outsider today?

Jessica: My advice is to wave your “freak flag” because it can pay off! Find people who have the same interests as you and get your core group who builds you up and makes you feel okay with who you are.

Jay: With all the negatives about social media, one of the positives is that outsiders can connect with people who live in other places, who share their interests. There are always ways to connect with other people, even if you may not feel that way at school. Acknowledge who you are and don’t shy away from that even if other people want you to, because then you just don’t feel authentic.

Piper Manuscript Page

Piper Manuscript Page

Is it difficult to write in an authentic teen voice?

Jessica: I taught high school for five years and I have three kids. I am always observing the kids around me and the way they interact with their friends. I’m always in the background listening. I think there’s a part of me that really resonated with being a teenager, so it’s really easy for me to write in that age.

Jay: I have developed this philosophy that I don’t think there’s much of a difference between teens and adults or between men and women. We are similar in how we initially feel about things happening to us. We want similar things in our lives and are affected in similar ways. In Piper, which is set in the 13th century, we kind of assumed the same thing. When somebody is mistreated in a way they don’t deserve, they’re going to be frustrated and there are different ways to handle that frustration. Both the Piper and Magdalena have different ways they respond to that frustration.

How do you think readers will feel about Piper?

Jay: All of my books have different feels to them and I’m proud of each in certain ways. Piper is just a cool story. I’m just as proud of it as anything I’ve ever written. Just like my other book, What Light, people may just see it as a light love story, but they can also get a lot of other things out of it and go much deeper with it. When we talk about Piper we talk about these really deep aspects of it. We really got into the history of Germany and how people of different classes were treated back then. We definitely put additional layers in there.

Tell me a little bit about the illustrator and how he was chosen for this project.

Jay: His name is Jeff Stokely. We were both looking in comic book stores for a certain tone for the book. We definitely had in our minds a certain look to the story. We wanted to give our publisher some idea of what we had in mind. I went to my local comic book store owner and talked about the premise of our story because he knows what’s out there more than I do. I didn’t want to overlook somebody who would be absolutely perfect. He said there was this local guy, Jeff Stokely, who might be perfect. He showed me one of his books and it was exactly what we were thinking about. Right away, he was our first choice.

Finally, do you respond to fan mail and what is the best way for readers to contact you?

Jay: Readers can contact me through all of my social media sites. I used to respond to absolutely everything, but now I get so much mail, I feel guilty if I pick and choose. Sometimes I do respond; usually on Twitter I’ll give a quick response.
Jessica: You need an assistant. I’ll do it!

  Learn More About Jessica                                    Learn More About Jay










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Celebrating National Poetry Month with Marilyn Singer

Marilyn_officeAs the inventor of reverso poetry and the author of numerous books of poems, Marilyn Singer is a poster child for National Poetry Month. “Usually, when April rolls around, I get to celebrate poetry by doing interviews, Skype visits with schools, and sometimes bookstore appearances,” the award-winning author and poet says.

Singer has been writing poetry since third grade. Often she will recite one of her first poems, “My Ocean Fright,” when making presentations. “I think that even with its problematic grammar, it gives an indication of some of my early interests in language, humor, love of animals, and imagination.” That love of language, nature, and imagination grew as the years passed, and Singer became an English teacher in order to share her appreciation of language with young people.

“My parents read poetry and sang to me, so I developed an appreciation at a young age. I loved the musicality and I loved the words.”

“I taught high school English,” shares Singer, “which involved both literature and composition. Poetry was a major part of my curriculum. I used both poems and lyrics frequently, and I always read those aloud. I think that appreciating poetry starts with hearing it.”

Though she does not believe a love of poetry can be “taught”, Singer is a strong proponent for encouraging an appreciation of poetry by modeling it. “Teachers and parents can become more comfortable with poetry by reading it themselves and finding the poems that sing to them—and that includes a lot of works written for children. Then they can read these to their students and children and encourage the kids to read or recite them back. Parents and teachers can and should be playful with poetry. On my website is a piece I wrote for School Library Journal entitled “Knock Poetry Off the Pedestal” which includes a variety of ideas for using poetry in classrooms and can also be adapted by parents.”

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Follow Follow

Mirror Mirror

Mirror Mirror

“Today, I’m still moved by how poems get to the heart of the matter (and often the matters of the heart). I really appreciate the specificity of language and the capturing of perception and emotion in a small space.”

These days, poetry seems to come in all forms. But what makes a good poem? For those who are learning to appreciate poetry, Singer has some counsel: “Poetry is not always easy to define. If it rhymes, it’s a poem—but it may not be a good one. And, of course, not all poems need to or do rhyme. Recent Wilder Award-winner Nikki Grimes once said about verse novels that if you read ‘page after page after page without once encountering a metaphor, a simile, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, meter, or any other poetic element,’ it’s not poetry. That’s not saying those books are bad—just that they’re not actually verse. Not only do I agree with that, but I think it tells you something of what a poem is. It needs those elements. Again, though, the elements alone don’t create a good poem. A good poem, whether narrated by a character or by the poet her/himself, uses words wonderfully, and it uses them to capture specific moments in a fresh way, a way that makes the reader exclaim with delight, ‘Yes, that’s it! That’s right!’”

Mirror Mirror_Resized

Mirror Mirror


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Echo Echo_Resized

Echo Echo

As many teachers, librarians, and parents can attest, not everyone loves poetry. In fact, there are some who think they despise it. Singer has advice for these readers as well. “To those who are convinced they ‘hate’ poetry, I say you just haven’t found the poetry you like yet. One of my good friends thought he disliked poetry until he read my book, Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse (Dutton Children’s Books, 2010). He, his wife, and her family took turns reading it around the dinner table. He said he’d never enjoyed poems before. Heaven only knows which ones he’d encountered before, but I do think he is now more willing to look at other poetry collections with a less-jaundiced eye to discover what he does, in fact, like.”

“Poetry is a reflection of the imagination—a combination of seeing things in a new way, wondering about those things, and appreciating that wonder. It pairs beautifully with all studies. It’s fun to compare what fog is scientifically and how a poet views it, or to read a prose piece on a president and see how that person is presented in a poem, or to discover how a myth can be turned on its head or to put into words the feeling you get when you hit a home run. Poetry can make you think, and through its music, it can also aim straight for the soul.”

Singer’s first collection of poetry, Turtle in July, was published by Simon & Schuster nearly 30 years ago. However, in the early 2000s, she accidentally discovered a new form of poetry she later called reverso poetry. “One day I was watching my cat snuggled in a chair and this popped into my head:

A cat                        Incomplete:
without                   A chair
a chair:                   without
Incomplete.           a cat.

“That little poem got me excited and I wondered if I could write more like it. So I did. The poems were on a variety of topics, but quite a few of them were based on fairy tales. I called the poems ‘reversos,’ but it was my wonderful husband, Steve Aronson, who actually came up with the word. Before that I was calling them ‘up and down poems,’ but he said we needed something better, and presto, the word ‘reverso’ was born!”

Writing reversos is not as simple as it may seem. There are strict rules to follow which qualify poems to be included in this poetry category.

1. Each reverso consists of two halves.
2. When the lines of the first half are reversed, they can have changes ONLY in punctuation and capitalization.
3. The second half must say something completely different from the first half.

Feel the Beat

Feel the Beat

Echo Echo

Echo Echo

“I’ve spoken with school groups and have been delighted to discover that kids of all ages have been trying to write reversos, sometimes with really fine results. Some published poets have been writing them as well. Jon Arno Lawson published several good ones in his book, The Hobo’s Crowbar (Porcupine’s Quill, 2016).”

Of course, Singer also has several collections of reversos to her credit with Mirror Mirror being the first. “I don’t yet know when or if I’ll be writing more collections of reversos, but I have been slipping single poems into other poetry books of mine. For example, there’s a reverso about Richard Nixon in Rutherford B., Who Was He? (Disney-Hyperion, 2013), illustrated by John Hendrix, and there’s one in my forthcoming book of poems about New Year celebrations entitled Every Month Is a New Year, which will be published by Lee & Low this coming fall (2017) and illustrated by Susan L. Roth. I intend to keep sneaking them into other books as well.”


Rutherford B. Who Was He?

In addition to writing reversos, Singer continues to write poetry books, picture books, and even a novel. “Coming out next year are Have You Heard About Lady Bird? (Disney-Hyperion), poems about our First Ladies, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter; I’m the Big One Now (Wordsong/Boyds Mills), poems about seminal moments for five- and six-year-olds, illustrated by Jana Christy; and my sixth picture book about Tallulah, a young ballet student, Tallulah’s Ice Skates (Clarion), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Currently, I’m working on another poetry book about presidential pets for Disney-Hyperion and, heaven help me, a middle-grade novel, which is a ghost story.”

“Poetry can make you laugh, as well as cry, think, get angry or happy!”

And what is Marilyn Singer doing for National Poetry Month? “This year, to kick off the month, I’m having a party/signing to launch my latest poetry book, Feel the Beat!: Dance Poems that Zing from Salsa to Swing (Dial, 2017), illustrated by Kristi Valiant. It’s a series of poems in the rhythms of social dances and it includes a CD of me reading the poems to original music by Jonathon Roberts. There will be readings, demos, and, oh yes, dancing!”

Marilyn at podium_Mirror_Mirror


By Marilyn Singer, Age 8

When I was walking on the ocean floor,
there were many sights to adore.
But one sight gave me a fright.
It was a whale with a long tail
that I simply drat,
and I went so close that with his tail
he went spat, spat, spat.


By Marilyn Singer

  1. Pay attention to the world around you—little things, big things, people, animals, buildings, events, etc. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, feel?
  2. Listen to words and sentences. What kind of music do they have? How is the music of poetry different from the music of songs?
  3. Read all kinds of poetry. Which poems do you like and why?
  4. Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? How could it sound better?
  5. Ask yourself: does this poem have to rhyme? Would it be good or better if it didn’t? If it should rhyme, what kind of rhyme would be best? (For example, 1st and 2nd lines rhyme; 3rd and 4th lines rhyme—“Roses are red/So is your head/Violets are blue/So is your shoe”; or 1st and 3rd lines rhyme; 2nd and 4th lines rhyme—“What is your name?/Who is your mother?/This poem is quite lame/I should try another.”
  6. Ask yourself: does this poem sound phoney? Don’t stick in big words or extra words just because you think a poem ought to have them.
  7. A title is part of a poem. It can tell you what the poem is about. It can even be another line of the poem.
  8. Before you write, think about what you want your whole poem to say.
  9. If you end up saying something else, that’s okay, too. Poet X.J. Kennedy says, “You intend to write a poem about dogs, say, and poodle is the first word you’re going to find a rhyme for. You might want to talk about police dogs, Saint Bernards, and terriers, but your need for a rhyme will lead you to noodle and strudel. The darned poem will make you forget about dogs and write about food instead.”
  10. Go wild. Be funny. Be serious. Be whatever you want! Use your imagination, your own way of seeing.