Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Book Review: The Usual Suspects by Maurice Broaddus

First Paragraph(s): Life is all about timing.
Once the homeroom bell rings at 8:15 a.m., there'll be a five-minute lag before students are marched to the auditorium to gather for morning assembly. Nehemiah Caldwell and I get there before any administration types do. We slide under the curtain beneath the stage and crawl over to the stereo cart.
This is going to be epic.
"You got it?" Nehemiah asks.
I pat my pocket. "Yeah. You got what you need?"
"I'm like a Boy Scout up in this mug."

Esteemed Reader, if you check in with the blog regularly, you know I don't really write reviews that often anymore (note, I'm calling them "reviews" these days and not my "book of the week"). I'm still reading just as much as I ever was, but the time to actually sit down and write a thing that requires greater focus than an email has become much harder to come by now that I'm living with a 5-year-old Little Ninja. 

If I can sit and concentrate for a period greater than an hour, which these reviews require, I really need to get my own books written. So know that my sitting down to write this review at all means I really love this book and I want people to know it exists. I may not review another book this year, but something as awesome as Maurice Broaddus' first middle grade novel doesn't come along every day.

Full disclosure: Maurice is a friend and one of the most amazing writers I know (and I know a lot of amazing writers). You can hear our first ever conversation in the video below when we were on an author panel together. I liked Maurice from the start. He's a horror author who also writes middle grade and science fiction and who also occasionally teaches at the Indiana Writers Center. And he gives me great advice most every time I see him.

Lots of great things have been happening for Maurice. He's currently featured in Kirkus, where he recently received a starred-review. He's got multiple books out now and has had some high-profile book deals, so we can look forward to more of his excellent writing in the near future. And he's appearing in lots of amazing venues. Wouldn't surprise me if one day Maurice is painted on a building in Indianapolis just like Kurt Vonnegut. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Sometimes publishing can seem random and unfair. Probably because it's often random and unfair:) But occasionally, the universe lines up and things work out for someone genuinely deserving. When that happens, it restores faith to see hard work and dedication rewarded.

And few are dedicated as Maurice Broaddus. I've seen him in writing mode and his laser focus is intimidating. Maurice is also a very gifted social organizer, which is a superpower in a writer:) He hosts multiple events to promote writers and writing in the Indianapolis area, including a conference that takes place partly in his home. Maurice believes deeply in the written word and in creating a community of Indiana writers. The world is a far better place because Maurice Broaddus is in it and he's the sort of writer I want to be when I grow up.

I can very much hear Maurice's voice in The Usual Suspects as his essence is all through it. I'm thrilled that this book now exists and that it comes from my beloved Hoosier state. Esteemed Reader, get yourself a copy of The Usual Suspects and prepare for a wonderful read. Request it from your librarians and if you're a teacher, get a copy for your classroom.

This book is a middle grade crime thriller that is always engaging and never pedantic, beginning with the crime itself. This is isn't the case of the missing school trophy or a cookie caper. Broaddus is writing about some real stuff: a gun has been found in a park near school where our heroes hang out with other kids and everyone's a suspect... except that mostly the teachers suspect Thelonius Mitchell and his friends because they're, wait for it, the usual suspects. To clear their name, Thelonius and his friends must discover the true culprit (it's probably Keyser Soze).




Like the best Elmore Leonard fiction, which the author makes clear in his notes he's emulating, The Usual Suspects is all about a classic crime set up populated by compelling characters, beginning with our main character, Thelonius Mitchell:

So I'm back in the principal's office once again. Due to "my escalating antics" I'm here a lot. Some teachers float the idea that I have oppositional defiant disorder (sometimes I think they just say that about kids who say no to whenever adults tell them to do something, in which case, I have a severe case of it, as does every middle schooler I know). Some keep trying to say that I have bipolar disorder (because my shnanigans are so over-the-top). None of them is a doctor and just wants to sweep me and my issues under the rug. Moms scheduled an exam for me to get tested, but with our insurance, it's over a month out. Until then, I have to spend the rest of the quarter in the Special Ed room.


Thelonius is clever and insightful. He's good at understanding relationship dynamics and how to manipulate them, yet he's far from a criminal mastermind:


Whenever I try to polish my voice like Pierce, I always sound like a con artist on the prowl. Adults grow suspicious and know I am up to something, but they have no proof and need to see whatever I am up to play out. I might as well be a thief sending a note daring the cops to stop me from robbing a joint.

Thelonius is our perspective character, naturally, as this is a story told in the first person present tense, but my favorite character is his friend, Nehemiah Caldwell. Nehemiah also has some issues, including a whole lot of pent up anger, but he made me smile in most every scene he's in. Everyone agrees that Nehemiah couldn't have been the one to leave the gun in the park because if he'd had a gun, he'd have waved it at everyone. Also, Nehemiah's distrust of Teddy Grahams might be my favorite character detail in the book:

Nehemiah bounces his Teddy Grahams package off my chest. He hates them because he "never trusts anything that smiles all the time."

There are a lot of excellent characters populating this story. We're not going to go through each of them one by one, but I would mention just a few more. We'll talk about Marcel in a moment, but first I want to talk about the teachers in this book. Thelonius knows better than to trust any of them, even Mr. Blackmon, who appears to be the most trustworthy. After all, T tells us, "Lying to adults is how we breathe."

But Thelonius does know how to work his teachers: Teachers are like people: if you annoy them, by the time you need something they'll automatically say no just to spite you. Do what they want or make their job easier, they are quick to reward you.

The teachers in this story aren't monolithic villains. In fact, Broaddus goes out of his way to show that in some ways, they're as trapped by the social system of control put in place as the boys are. But they do demonstrate villainous qualities on occasion:

Mrs. Horner rarely comes at things directly. She keeps things vague, saying that she doesn't want to limit our creativity. It's more likely that she wants us to accidentally tell on ourselves.

Mrs. Fitzerald has a swagger to her. A bit of a gangster vibe. She wanders the halls with a beaming smile, but she has a resting teacher face with her eyes narrow like unflinching lasers.

The teachers range from honestly trying to make a positive impact in their students' lives to completely disengaged (one of them is on her phone checking Facebook all day) to outright hostile toward the students and our heroes. Broaddus' observations about teachers are probably based on his years of experience working in education, and that honest look at teacher student dynamics is one of the strongest aspects of The Usual Suspects.

There's one other character readers are going to love and no review would be complete without mentioning her:

Her dad, a black dude, is a scientist who often visits her class to talk about his work. Her mom, a white lady, is the president of the PTA who also bakes a mean batch of brownies come school fund-raising season. If Marcel came from money, she never acted like it. Marcel always received straight A's. By all reports, she was the best-behaved kid in the class. But I know better. The quiet ones are the ones everyone really has to watch out for. You see, an obvious stickup thug might get a wallet or two. Put them in bankers' suits and they were robbing folks for millions on Wall Street.
Marcel was strictly Wall Street.

Marcel is a cool customer. I can't tell you a whole lot about her without spoiling some specific plot details, but readers are going to find her fascinating. And more interesting to me at this moment is the first two lines of her description, which are about her parents. To the best of my recollection, Marcel's mom is the first "white lady" in the story.

Not every character's race is specified, but most of the character's who's coloring is mentioned are described as having skin "the shade of sunbaked cinnamon," or "the color of rich sepia," or "the complexion of milk with a dab of butter in it." The effect of this is that "not white" becomes the readers' default assumption about which race each character is, a refreshing change of pace, especially for a middle grade novel coming out of Indiana (former home of the head of the Klan not nearly long enough ago).

The Usual Suspects isn't about race, exactly, but it's not not about race. Just like it's not strictly about kids with special needs, but it's not not about them: 

Moms explained what she has, something about being on the autism spectrum. I hear so many labels placed on me and my friends, I tune them out. 


On its surface, The Usual Suspects is a fun middle grade crime novel with memorable characters and a quality mystery to be solved. Esteemed Readers looking for a good story well told will absolutely find it here and will join me in hoping Maurice Broaddus publishes more middle grade novels right away. We need as many of them as we can get.

But The Usual Suspects is really about multiple intersecting social dynamics and how they can trap and label all of us, not just the kids perceived as troublemakers, but also their teachers, their parents, other children in the neighborhood, and so on. Because all of us have assumptions made about us based on the broad categories society has placed us in. All of us are suspect.

Do yourself a favor, Esteemed Reader, and get yourself a copy of The Usual Suspects. It's themes are universal and you will be captivated by Broaddus' style and structure and his ability to present authentic characters in relatable situations.

More, if there's a problem child in you life, they need to read this book. I wish this book had been around when I was an adolescent and automatically suspected of wrongdoing by some of my teachers (I wasn't always a fine, upstanding Ninja). I don't know that it would've necessarily changed much for me (young me was pretty committed to being troublesome), but sometimes it's enough to know that someone else understands the experience and can relate. 

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Usual Suspects:

I catch myself as my hand moves to my chest to protest my innocence. That kind of theatricality would be insulting to both of us.

That girl can't find a maternal bone in a cemetery of mothers.

"I'm better than his momma. I'm actually here." Moms lets that line sit in everyone's ear for a minute, like she wants it to travel the neighborhood, before she continues. 

Some still go on about the hottest Pokemon cards. They are so sixth grade.

Twon knocks over another chair like Superman casually tossing a tank.

One kid lingers by the pencil sharpener opposite from us. Marquees Neal. "Kutter" to (what few people he called) his friends. His hair is a crown of twists, nesting baby snakes poised to strike. His eyes seem perpetually narrowed, like jagged scars.






STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

An Afterword for BANNEKER BONES AND THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE

I love all my published works, Esteemed Reader (you never get to read the ones I don't love), but Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is my favorite. I've never made a secret of that. It was a love story I wrote for my wife when we were younger and I've got a lot of pleasant memories tied up in the writing of that book. But I also just plain love the characters and the story and there are several jokes that always make me laugh.

That said, I think I love Banneker's second adventure as much as his first. They're different parts of the same story and I'm looking forward to completing Banneker's third adventure. I love this world and am always happy to check in on the residents of 221 Garrett Street.

I'm going to share with you some of my experiences writing the novel, and some of them will include SPOILERS, because this is an afterword, to be read AFTER you've read the book.

The nice thing about a sequel is that I don't have to spend as much time defining the characters and their universe. This means:

1. We can hit the ground running after a brief recap of the first book, which ended on a dramatic reveal (my favorite sort of ending). This second book opens with the momentum of our characters already in direct conflict with the villain.

2. I had some nifty plot ideas and suspense techniques that could only be done in a second book, and only with these particular characters. I don't know how many Banneker books I'll get to write before I'm done, but I'm not saving anything for later. I've tried to make the best use of all the toys at my disposal in the Latimer City universe.

3. Since we've previously been introduced, we can really get to know these characters this time around. Ellicott Skullworth is still our perspective character, but Banneker is much more the proper, front-and-center hero of this second book with his name in the title. Because he decided to terrorize Ellicott for much of the first installment, we didn't get to spend as much time with Banneker as I would've liked, though he's always been my favorite. His decision was also responsible for delaying the planned appearance of the alligator people from the first adventure to the second.

4. I can get up to some of my favorite tricks from the first book. There are plenty references to Mrs. Kent's childhood black history flashcards, just as there were in the first book, and plenty of references to Batman, though by far my favorite reference is to an obscure line from Jurassic Park (I always credit the stories I owe and, of course, the Formula Eighty Six is this world's version of a lysine contingency).

Stories are magical thingssometimes, they're also a lot of workbut sometimes ideas seem to magically find authors at just the right moment. Sometimes stories involve magic is going to more or less be the thesis of this afterword.

Therefore, I should clarify that "magic" is a word I may very well be substituting for "strange neurological processes occurring entirely within my mind that strike me as magical because I have only my own brain with which to interpret them." I may be making that substitution. Sure feels like magic.

It strikes me that it was during the campaign for Barrack Obama that I first began to imagine this story about an interracial family having adventures in a more hopeful comic-book universe. I started this second book shortly after I finished the first and the main plot points haven't varied much. However, I didn't seriously sit down to write Banneker 2 until after the "election" of Donald Trump.

For a while, I thought I might not write Banneker's second novel. In 2016, a wealthy egomaniac protagonist obsessed with what the media thinks about him struck me as significantly less funny than it had in 2014. And I hated that thought almost as much as I hated Mr. "Fine People On Both Sides." Maybe Donald Trump got to ruin America, but he didn't get to ruin my book or my love for Banneker.

I think I needed Banneker Bones more than he needed me this time around. The worst depression I ever suffered was probably in middle schoolthank God I don't have to go through adolescence againbut a very bad depression took hold of me after Trump took office and American death eaters came crawling out of the woodwork. Something else happened I don't feel at liberty to discuss, but it led me to spend quite a bit of my time researching autism spectrum disorder and becoming more depressed.

The long break between Banneker's adventures was a blessing in disguise (a magical blessing?), because I didn't yet know what I needed to know to write the second book. What I discovered in studying ASD is that both I and Mrs. Ninja are somewhere on the spectrum. Many of my painfully awkward social interactions throughout my childhood started to make more sense.

Banneker is sort of a cartoonish version of young me (if I'd been more Batman-esque, and I really, really wanted to be). I also identify strongly with Ellicott, though they're both of them their own thing and I see a version of myself in every character. I just see more of myself in these two boys.

The word "autism" doesn't appear in this book and that's intentional. The definition of ASD is an evolving one and I firmly believe that if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. But as I was doing my research on neurological divergences, it occurred to me that Banneker was most certainly not neurotypical. And he never had been.

It amazed me to realize something about my character I hadn't known when writing his book, but it was staring me right in the face years later. The mystery of how Banneker's mind works is what finally pulled me back into his world and out of my depression. 

Because it was time for me to return to Latimer City. Because I needed Banneker to give me hope. Because I needed to know neurologically divergent people can do anything they want. They can even be heroic detectives who do battle with alligator people. Of course they can.

My original desire in writing the first Banneker was (in part) to write about an interracial family and not have it not be a thing. In this second book, I'm writing about two such families and it's still not a thing. I want to do the same for neurological divergence. Yes, there are all sorts of different people in this world," I want Esteemed Reader to say, "but who cares about that. Get on with the alligator people chases and the over-the-top comedic adventures."

I hope Banneker's fans are pleased with his second adventure, but this was a book its author needed more than anyone. I have a lot of writer friends (I'm always looking to make more). A few of them talk money every time I see them, and that's cool (I like money). But if it's money we're  primarily after, why aren't we speculating on bonds instead of writing books? 

Personally, I get more excited about readers and finding more of them. The experience of this book in particular reminded me that the act of creation is its own reward. If Banneker Bones and the Alligator People was never read by anyone and never made any money, the act of creating it would still be one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.

Writing fulfills something vital in me; its compensation is considerable.

That said, Banneker 2 was a very hard book to write. Here's an entire post about how difficult I found its writing and editing to be. One Banneker Bones novel took me almost as much time to write as five volumes of The Book of David. Partly, that was because I was also plotting Banneker Bones 3, but mostly it was because I, a fellow who insists on calling himself a Middle Grade Ninja, was relearning how to write middle grade.

I've always thought All Together Now: A Zombie Story reads like a horror story written by a middle grade author because it was my follow-up to Banneker 1 and some other as-of-yet unpublished middle grade works. Banneker 2 reads a little like a middle grade book written by a horror author, as this description makes clear:

     Ellicott flew in the opposite direction, the headlights from his jetpack leading the way until they caught on the corpse of an animal laying on the cement walkway. The animal was too long dead for Ellicott to know what it had been.
     A rat perched atop it, the dead animal’s decayed eyeball lodged in its mouth. The rat tugged against the cords connecting the eye to its socket to break their hold the way Ellicott might've bitten a cherry from its stem. When the jetpack’s beams swept across it, the rat leapt into the river of sewage with a panicked squeak and swam away to enjoy the eyeball elsewhere.
     Ellicott swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and flew past the animal.

For the record, author Laura Martin tried to convince me to cut that selection. But a description like that one would've endeared a writer to my heart at age eleven, so it stayed in as did some other creepy stuff (children like to be scared as surely as adults do, which is one reason The Witches was my favorite book growing up).

I loves me a scary monster. I often joke that the way I decide whether what I'm writing middle grade or adult fiction is by the scariness of the story's monster. That's not entirely true as giant robot bees remain the monster that most scares me, but it's not not true. Alligator people are monsters I've been imagining/dreading since I was a child and Banneker's world is one of the only places I can play with them. Bonkers monsters benefit from a bonkers world to inhabit.

But we were discussing magic in writing and I find I encounter it the same when writing for adults as surely as when writing for a broader audience. If you're reading this afterword before reading the book, I'm operating under the assumption that you're either never going to read it or you don't mind spoilers, which is good, because here comes a huge spoiler:

I always knew I wanted to have a countdown to build suspense around the big death at the end of this story. I love plot puzzles, and few have so intrigued me as the one featured in the second season of Breaking Bad. Several episodes in that season open with black and white epilogues of strewn wreckage without context, most notably a one-eyed pink bear. The epilogues all come together and make sense only after the season finale. It's one of the finest story-telling devices I've ever seen deployed with expert precision and I've been looking for a place to re-purpose (steal) it ever since.

Banneker Bones 2 was the perfect spot for this as 1. The story has a dramatic ending worthy of being built up to with non-sequitur flash-forwards. 2. Much of Banneker's age-appropriate audience hasn't seen Breaking Bad, so this will be new to them and I'll appear smarter than I am:)

I knew going in that I was going to write flash-forwards of Banneker's smoldering clothing being recovered across Latimer City after a devastating explosion. I also knew that the date I was counting down to was Halloween, because you can't pick a more distinct date for a  middle grade monster story. Banneker is the best character I've written to use for this plot puzzle as he has the most distinct costume. Halloween is a good date. I patted myself on the back as it was a good plot device well deployed.

I was more than halfway through my first draft when it finally occurred to me that Ellicott should dress as Banneker for Halloween. It made sense as Ellicott doesn't have a costume otherwise and it's the perfect suspense accelerate, because if both Banneker and Ellicott are dressed alike, there's no way for the reader to know which of them gets blown up and has their clothes strewn about in the flash forwards. A second set of the same clothing also makes sense because Banneker has multiple sets of the same outfit and this also takes care of other nagging plot questions not otherwise addressed.

It is, I'm pleased (perhaps overly so) to say, the perfect plot device perfectly suited to this story and no other.

This is, for me, both the thrill of writing and the horror of functioning on my brain for all other activities:) Dressing Ellicott as Banneker to heighten suspense in the third act is very exciting. It's also a very obvious maneuver, but apparently not to me. You have nothing to go on but my word, Esteemed Reader, but I assure you, it never occurred to me to dress our heroes alike until I'd already written more than half the book and several flash forwards.

It really seems like the idea should have come whole formed as all its elements are clearly of apiece. But that's not what happened. It could be my subconscious mind had already outlined the story and my conscious mind needed to catch up. Or it could be the secret, invisible muse hadn't whispered the additional plot details in my ear until I needed to know them. Or it could just be that my mind plays tricks on me due to atypical wiring that allows me to complete an entire novel, but apparently not understand it beforehand (or always remember to pay my power bill, which is why Mrs. Kent is in charge of that).

What I'm saying, Esteemed Reader, is: that's weird, right? Maybe even a little magical. I honestly don't have much else to say on the subject. I'm both pleased to know I can trust my writer's mind to produce a story on blind faith and know that it will work when I'm finished, and horrified that I didn't put my puzzle together until shockingly late in the game.

And that's about it for this afterword, I think, except for two things: I really, really like Bob Dylan. If you also like Bob Dylan, you probably picked up on that while reading the book. For many years, I didn't cop to this fact because I hate how cliché it feels: oh, you're a writer type with a liberal arts degree in an interracial marriage who goes to farmers markets, has a mostly dormant cigarette habit, and you listen to Bob Dylan? Do you also like Tom Waits and Tori Amos and Kurt Vonnegut while wearing glasses with distinct writer-ly frames you walking cartoon character?

As a matter of fact, I do like those things. I'm going to be 40 this year and I don't care what others think so much anymore. I love Bob Dylan, I think his music is the right vibe for this story, and if that makes me a cliché, I'm at least a happy one:)

I also really love Batman (and hate the writing of Ayn Rand), which I've admitted to previously. But I think these two things are even more apparent in this second novel than they were in the first (Ayn the pug originally appeared in an early draft of book one). I'm still a Bob Kane fan (I wore all black the day he died), but I've had to reevaluate my admiration of the man since the many revelations of how integral Bill Finger actually was in the creation of my favorite fictional character have come to light since I wrote the first Banneker. Thinking about Kane screwing over his partner struck me as a perfect metaphor for this story and something I think more Batman fans should be aware of.

And that's it until the next book. I love this story and if you loved it too (you must've to have read this afterword), I love you also, Esteemed Reader. Thanks so much for allowing me to tell you my story. I hope you're interested in a third Banneker Bones adventure, because I sure am. Hopefully, we'll be talking about it here sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

BANNEKER BONES RETURNS

New book alert!!!

This post isn't a review or an interview or even an afterword (coming soon).

This is a post with the sole purpose of letting you that Banneker Bones and the Alligator People is now available for you to purchase here. (note: the paperback will become available later in the day in some regions)

If you haven't read the first book in the series, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is available to purchase here (the ebook is free to download).

What's that you say, Esteemed Reader? You want to hear me read the book to you? No, I'm not goinokay, fine, but just three chapters. You can hear me read my book in the links below.

And now, so you won't feel like you wasted your click, here's some information about the book:

Eleven-year-old cousins Banneker Bones and Ellicott Skullworth are back in their second adventure. Picking up where Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees left off, our heroes are soaring through the air on jetpacks, as they do, when they spot a half man, half alligator that’s all terrifying. Naturally, they follow the alligator person deep into the sewers and are nearly eaten for their trouble.

Worse, no one believes the boys were attacked. Not the kids at school, not their parents, not even Banneker’s faithful robot butler. Banneker and Ellicott must prove the existence of alligator people to both vindicate themselves and once again save Latimer City from certain destruction.

For as Banneker warns TV reporter Chip Lieberman, "I don't want to alarm your viewers, Chip, but we may all die. This is the start of the alligator people apocalypse!"

Banneker Bones and the Alligator People is a humorous, science fiction adventure for readers of all ages written in the spirit of a comic book.



     It was dark, so Ellicott saw more of a shadow outline than an actual figure, but he saw enough. The creature had two thick legs and two arms, lean with leathery muscle like a dinosaur’s arms. He too was the size of a large man, but there was nothing human about his face.
     He raised his hideous head and opened his mouth wide, wider than any person ever could. In that long crack Ellicott glimpsed the jagged points of sharp teeth. The creature snarled and shook his snout.
     Something thick and scaly rose behind the creature’s back and whipped to the right, smashing another pane of glass the size of a four-story house.
     “He has a tail,” Banneker said, a grin spreading across his face. “Cool.”
     The first two security robots rolled into the street, each the same height as the creature. Their eyes lit up flashing red as they spoke. “Attention citizen, you’re vandalizing private property.”
     The creature roared, deep and guttural, and twitched his muscular tail. Now Ellicott could see he was dark green and looked more like an alligator walking upright than a dinosaur. The alligator person rounded on the robots, preparing for a fight.
     “This is going to be awesome!” Banneker cried.
     Ellicott groaned. “Why didn’t I stay in bed?”






Friday, May 10, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja TV 21: Author Jessica Lawson

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.

The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Jessica Lawson and I chat about writing and the strange quirks of being a writer. We discuss each of her books, where she gets her ideas, and her best writing practices. She doesn't sing a song about lost socks, alas, but she does talk about her editorial process and her best tips for successful school visits. Jessica and I have been online friends for years and it was a pleasure to finally have a conversation in person. I learned a lot and you will as well.

Click here to see Jessica Lawson face the 7 Questions.




Jessica Lawson enjoys living in Pennsylvania, where she and her family spend weekend hours hanging at the local orchard, pretending to be on Top Chef Junior, building with magnet blocks, making up new holidays, and reading plenty of books. She likes pizza. A lot.

She is the author of The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, a book that Publishers Weekly called “a delightfully clever debut” in a starred review, and Nooks and Crannies, a Junior Library Guild Selection and recipient of three starred reviews. Her 3rd book, Waiting for Augusta, won the Colorado Book Award for Juvenile Fiction, and was also a Junior Library Guild Selection. Of her latest book, Under the Bottle Bridge, School Library Journal says: "Beautifully written, with vivid characters, this exploration of family and friendship shines from the first page."

She fell in love with storytelling at an early age, and is a sucker for Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, Linda Sue Park, RL LaFevers, Charles Dickens, Karen Cushman, Barbara Park, Amy Tan, Maryrose Wood, Barbara Cooney, Anne Ursu, Christopher Paul Curtis, Gail Carson Levine, Rita Williams-Garcia, Arnold Lobel, Isabel Allende, Sharon Creech, Eva Ibbotson, Shannon Hale, Maeve Binchy and many, many, many other wonderful authors and illustrators.

She writes middle grade fiction, lots of to-do lists, and songs about lost socks.



"Beautifully written, with vivid characters, this exploration of family and friendship shines from the first page."
- School Library Journal

"Lawson creates an engaging cast of characters."
- Kirkus Reviews

"Minna’s coming-of-age story is as solid and well-crafted as the furniture made by her uncle, and the bottle-message mystery is engrossing…truly poignant. Hand this to fans of Turnage’s Three Times Lucky.”
- Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books

In the weeks leading up to Gilbreth, New York’s annual AutumnFest, twelve-year-old woodcraft legacy Minna Treat is struggling with looming deadlines, an uncle trying to hide Very Bad News, and a secret personal quest. When she discovers mysterious bottle messages under one of the village’s 300-year-old bridges, she can’t help but wonder who’s leaving them, what they mean, and, most importantly…could the messages be for her?

Along with best friend Crash and a mystery-loving newcomer full of suspicious theories, Minna is determined to discover whether the bottles are miraculously leading her toward long-lost answers she’s been looking for, or drawing her into a disaster of historic proportions.


Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja TV 20: Literary Agent Elana Roth Parker

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.

The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Literary Agent Elana Roth Parker and I discuss her career as an editor and a literary agent (and a few other jobs). We talk about how authors should evaluate agents as well as how she evaluates potential clients, including what one author did to rule themselves out during a potential offer call. Bonus: you'll get to hear about a possible close encounter. This is a wonderfully informative conversation with a seasoned expert you don't want to miss.

Click here to see Elana Roth Parker face the 7 Questions.





Elana Roth Parker is a Detroit-based creative type of the word variety.

Elana has a few college degrees that explain where she came from and where she is now: one in English literature from Barnard College and one in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The magic happened when she lucked into her dream internship at Nickelodeon Magazine—a career in children's content was born. Book publishing followed, and over the next 15 years Elana went from editor to agent, with some stops in marketing and content strategy along the way. A literary agent for 10+ years, she currently represents children's book authors and illustrators at Laura Dail Literary Agency.

After 17 years in New York City, Elana and her creative director husband relocated to her native Michigan, where she now drives around their two sons in a minivan.




Thursday, April 25, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja TV 19: Editor Alison S. Weiss

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.

The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Editor Alison S. Weiss and I discuss her career in publishing and her editing expertise. We cover a little bit of everything from how she got her start in the business to recommendations for those who want to establish careers in publishing. We go through the services she provides to writers and her tips for tightening pacing, creating non-stereotypical characters, making your prose read like music, finding the right ratio between dialogue and action in a scene, and whole lot of other great stuff. This is a highly informative episode you'll want to listen to more than once.

Click here to see Alison S. Weiss face the 7 Questions.






Alison S. Weiss has been in publishing for more than ten years. She currently is an editorial consultant at Alison Weiss Editorial. Prior to that, she was Editorial Director at Sky Pony Press, where she works on picture books through YA including William C. Morris Finalist, Devils Within by S.F. Henson, the Project Droid series by New York Times bestselling Nancy Krulik and Amanda Burwasser, illustrated by Mike Moran, and the popular Timekeeper trilogy by Tara Sim. In 2016 she was named Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree. She’s been trying to live up to the title ever since. Find information about her services at alisonweisseditorial.com and follow her on Twitter @alioop7. 





Monday, April 22, 2019

Thoughts On God

A polite person never discusses religion or politics, Esteemed Reader, but as you've no doubt noticed, I'm not always polite:) If you're hoping to read a post that validates your own religious experiences, you may not find it here. I'm going to watch my language as always, but by necessity there will be some adult content in this post.

This blog will soon be consumed with posts about Banneker Bones and the Alligator People and Banneker Bones and the Untitled Third Adventure. There's no traditional religion in those books because I am, at this point in my career, uncomfortable with the responsibility of discussing religion with impressionable readers. I'm seeking out authors of middle grade books with religion in them for podcast conversations in the hopes of becoming the sort of writer who can be trusted to do the same.

Because I'm having those public conversations and because parents of children who are reading Banneker Bones may be reading The Book of David and my zombie stories (I haven't a single reservation about discussing religion in books for teens and adults), I feel it's important to have this post in place so readers will know where I stand on God and religion as of its writing (if I've stopped evolving my thoughts, I must be dead, and so afterlife speculation may no longer be necessary).

Enough people have emailed me about flying saucers (which I believe in), I've found it useful to have written this long post about them. I'm hoping to similarly use this post for folks who want to know my thoughts on God.

I'm not an atheist, but it's fine with me if you are, Esteemed Reader, so long as you don't get all smug about it. You can't know for 100% certain there's no God and no afterlife, so maintain a little humility, please. I don't have a firm understanding of God and I can't tell you The Truth, only my truth... thus far. But I have experienced miracles large and small and when you've had such experiences, atheism is off the table, frustrating though that can sometimes be.

I was raised mostly in the non-denomination denomination of the Christian church, but I also moonlighted as a Baptist, and have since attended a wide variety of religious services for multiple religions. I don't have all the answers, but I've yet to be convinced anyone else does either. 

Some religious ideas feel more true than others, but we may as well be ants speculating about what lies at the bottom of the ocean; as opposed to bipedal mammals with a relatively short life span attempting to understand the nature of God.

There are only so many ways to report the same information and so rather than restate what I've said more eloquently elsewhere, I'm first going to present spoiler-free passages from the afterword for All Together Now: A Zombie Story and my post on diversity in children's literature. If you've already read those posts, feel free to skip ahead to where I'll be relating a couple of those miracles I experienced firsthand.

The older I get, the more I believe in something greater in the universe beyond ourselves. I've read Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens, and they're all very smart guys. Hitchens, in particular, wrote and spoke in a manner that makes me long for such an apt capability in my own work (not likely).

I can see the appeal of the strict atheist view of the world: We live, we die, and because there is no us after death, it's not something to be worried about. There's Nobody in the sky watching out for us, sorry to say, but we don't have to answer to Him/Her/It either, so you take the good with the bad. Things happen because of human action and natural action and that is all. The universe is random and does not care. If it seems otherwise to you, you might be slightly mentally ill, and the poor atheist has to contend with life among the vast majority of us who may appear to be suffering varying degrees of mental illness:)

I could hold with the atheist view if life didn't get weird every so often. But it does and I'm not the only one who's noticed. It could be I get weird and every time a coincidence happens, I go off thinking the universe is trying to tell me something because it's all about me, baby. Could be.

I submit to you that if I'm suddenly struck dead, all consciousness gone in an instant, and I believed kooky stuff right up until that moment, it's not going to bother me one bit as there will be no me to be bothered. And if my kooky beliefs helped me in this life more than they hindered me and I didn't use them as a pretext to harm others, I don't see the problem.

But a whole lot of people feel the presence of Something in this world and I've felt It as well. Refusing to acknowledge that because of a belief it's not possible is as much of a dogma as actual dogma. I'm perfectly willing to say I don't know how the universe works, and it doesn't bother me since there's way more stuff I don't know than stuff I do.

I've always loved the story of the elephant as a metaphor for the world's religions: Seven blind men from seven villages are gathered in secret to learn about a great beast. Each man is allowed to feel a different part of the elephant, then they're sent back to their villages to tell of what they felt. The seven men tell the people seven very different stories about the same beast, and they're all telling a different version of the same truth. The moral of the story: if you want to know what an elephant looks like, don't send a blind guy. Google it:)

I grew up in the church and I appreciate it. The folks who brought me up were kind and friendly and they kept me from turning out to be a total jerk. I have fond memories of mountain backpacking with Christians, spelunking, going to church camp, and eating homemade meals at my minister's table. He and his wife are awesome. I would hate for old Sunday school teachers of mine to read All Together Now or The Book of David and think I don't appreciate the hard work they put into raising me. I love them and I'll forever be grateful for their kindness and decency. 

But I remember reading Pet Semmetary on a long bus ride home from a missions trip and being told to put it away and instead read the Bible. Later, I was again told to put down a nonfiction book of science and instead focus on a dubious book of magical fairy tales. I was forced to sing songs programming me to think and act in a way deemed acceptable by others, and told horrific tales of hell way scarier than anything I've written to frighten me into submission. I was told these tales as a young child.

And I got off light. I had friends who were treated in unspeakable ways in the name of God. My family donates to Indiana Youth Group, an organization that provides shelter to LGBTQ kids who've been kicked out of their homes, usually for religious reasons. Religion is capable of turning parents against their own children in the name of interpreting the will of God, and any social tool with that kind of power should be approached with caution and skepticism. 

Much of life is flat and straightforward: get up, eat, go to work/school, go home, eat, sleep, repeat. If I step on a tack, I will bleed, and it isn't a supernatural occurrence. The tack isn't out to get me, it wasn't destined from its creation to stab me (probably). It was simply in my path. Had I walked elsewhere, or paid more attention to where I was walking, I might not have stepped on it.

And yet, I believe I have experienced direct divine intervention at least twice (and probably far more often in subtler ways) that saved my life on both occasions. I don't want to get too far off course, so let me just say that both events could be written off as coincidence or even mental illness (common enough in writers). They will not convince the true skeptic. But I personally experienced the events and I know something greater than myself got involved to directly influence the course of my life.

And that's all I know.

I'll assume many of you Esteemed Readers have had one or two events of high strangeness in your life. They're common enough that most everyone has at least one in a lifetime, even if they insist on denying it or calling it something else.

After a genuine supernatural event, life has a way of getting on much the way it did prior to the event: get up, eat, go to work, etc. And the event is just there, dangling, something that does not add up, does not conveniently fit in the otherwise logically structured narrative of life. If I had formal religious beliefs, I suppose I could accept that Jesus was looking out for me, and so long as I continue to have faith and live in a particular way, He'll keep it up. But at this point in my life, I'm not interested in formal religion and there was nothing in either experience that suggested to me with any certainty the identity of my Divine Intervene-r (who was that masked Entity!?!).

Nor do I have any insight as to why keeping the author of Pizza Delivery alive is apparently a priority over aiding the many starving and diseased children of the world. Beyond the fact of the events' occurrence, I have no knowledge of the why or even full details of the how, only speculation.

And speculating about the intentions of the Almighty is a good way to eventually end up in a compound surrounded by my own cultwhich, be honest, Esteemed Reader: part of you always knew was where this blog about reading and writing middle grade novels would eventually lead:)

I like to imagine that after death, we awaken in an arcade, having just achieved a high score on an extremely realistic game Rick and Morty style videogame. We grab a drink, maybe a piece of pizza, then get some quarters to try another game. Maybe we come back here as a shark (heck yeah!), or maybe we go someplace else and play a different game. I think that sounds more fun than streets paved with gold and a crystal sea in an exclusive club where only fundamentalist are hanging and most of my writer friends are kept someplace else (you know which of you I'm talking about).



But once again, I could be wrong and the afterlife is much different (maybe it's like Beetlejuice). Or again, there could be no existence beyond death and none of us will be bothered as we won't exist. I think we go on, hopefully to a better place where there are more Batman stories than I could ever read, or perhaps we go on to our next life aided by the knowledge we gained in this one. We could indulge in endless speculation, but my brushes with the Divine have given me no verifiable knowledge of the afterlife.

Enough teasing. I promised miracles, so let's get to them. 

I could list various events of individual synchronicity that have led me to the conclusion that there's an unseen order to the universe, but I won't.  There have been a number of times things have come together in my life that felt guided by a Higher Power, leading me more and more to the conclusion that life isn't exactly what it appears. Last year, my family fell on some hard times and we got some amazingly good news at the last possible second that saved us from ruin. Since then, I've worried a little less as it served to remind me God's still looking out for us, even though I sleep in on Sundays.

That story's too fresh and could be attributed to coincidencenot by me, but by othersso I'm not counting it for our purposes. Nor will I count the time I fell off a cliff that should've killed me, but I prayed on the way down and walked away with only a few bruises. I was eight at the time and don't trust my memory. Nor will I count that time I got an acceptance letter from a literary agent after years of rejection the EXACT SAME DAY I'd lost my day job of four years and was feeling incredibly low and hopeless.

There have been a number of times things have come together in my life that felt guided by a Higher Power, leading me more and more to the conclusion that life isn't exactly what it appears. I also believe I've come dangerously close to inhuman evil, but that's another blog post and something that drives my horror stories. The world is a strange place, and I'm figuring out my way through it as best as I can just like the rest of you. If reality isn't a simulation, it sure does a good impression of one every so often.



MIRACLE ONE

For our purposes, I'm going to focus on two experiences, the first of which I wrote a fictional account of in The Book of David. When I was learning to drive, I was behind the wheel on a trip from Chicago back to small town Indiana. I got overly nervous at a car's brake lights because I was driving too close to them.

I panicked and slammed my brakes while traveling at 65 miles-per-hour. My father was in the passenger seat, my brother was sleeping in the back, and we all screamed as the family roadster spun around in the center of the highway, doing two full spins, a car passing usa car that should've hit and killed us, but instead narrowly missed us as though we were engaged in a high-speed vehicle ballet.

Our car came to a stop in the median and cars continued to speed by. After several deep breaths, I waited for a break in traffic, than drove us to an exit so my Dad could take over and drive us the rest of the way home, all of us properly petrified.

People get lucky, it's true. YouTube has multiple videos of near collisions and I've had a few since, though none so dramatic. If someone told me this story happened to them, I'd believe it happened, but the bit about the Divine intervention would strike me as me an open question. Because I was behind the wheel, I know I didn't save us.

I felt a deep sense of calm when our vehicle started spinning. I turned the wheel in just the precise way to navigate the car where it needed to go despite the chaos. I say 'I' because it was my hands on the wheel and my foot on the brake, though I felt as though Something other than me was moving them.

Could be Dr. Sam Becket quantum leapt into me to set right what once went wrong. SOMETHING HAPPENED that I can't explain and 24 years later I still remember the feeling of serenity that the Kent men would not die that day because it was the will of SOMETHING greaterpossibly saving one or both of the others and bailing me out simply as a means to an end for all I know.

Perhaps you're thinking: if this is your definition of a miracle, it's pretty flimsy. I never promised I parted the Red Sea, Esteemed Reader:) This second miracle is a bit more pronounced, but wouldn't count as empirical evidence for people who aren't me.

In the case of the first miracle, some of you Esteemed Readers may be inclined to think I'm merely mistaken, however well-intention-ed. To discount this second miracle, you'll have to think me a liar.



MIRACLE TWO

What I tell you next ACTUALLY HAPPENED:

My heart's racing as I prepare to write this because I know how it will soundmakes me wonder how many strange happenings we might hear tell of if the experiencers could get over their nerves. So give me some confidence, Esteemed Reader. Imagine yourself and your fellow readers singing and clapping your hands in robes and possibly one of you is slapping a tambourine and you're all singing: Testify, testify, step up, Ninja, and testify...

Oh, okay then, if y'all insist:) I'll take the podium.

Starting now, this ACTUALLY HAPPENED:

As a man of 20, I decided to go back to school and get my degree even though I'd flunked out of film school and had been working a decent gig as a travel agent (they let me read books at my desk). I'd already collected some rejection letters for my first novels (fair), so I decided to study literature and creative writing for as long as I could get my employer to reimburse me. It was pretty sweet and without that program, I probably wouldn't have been encouraged to finish school.

I'd already started my first week of classes when I finally got my reimbursement deposit, without which I couldn't afford the semester's tuition. Instead of paying the school right away, I was headed to hang out at my friends' house in a rougher part of Indianapolis when I was in a minor car accident. 

Two extremely tough-looking gentlemen turned tight enough toward my crappy car in their crappy car that I T-boned them. Later, I read that this is actually a fairly common scam, but in that moment I was certain the accident was my fault.

And I didn't have insurance.

No problem, the tough guys assured me, grimly assessing the damage to their crappy car I was 80% certain had been there before our "accident." They'd settle the whole thing just between us for 4k. I told them I couldn't do that, there had to be another way. 3k? Couldn't do that either. But 2k? That I could do.

I'd just received my tuition reimbursement. Who needs to worry about college if you get caught in a car accident without insurance?

Both our cars were drive-able, so they followed me to an ATM, me not believing my good fortune that they were willing to settle this without calling the police, and the one time I had more than $200 bucks in my account!

We pulled up to the ATM machine, I whipped out my card, patience fellas, let me just give you all my money to make this go away, sorry it's taking so long, let me try again...

The tough guys were getting impatient...

I should explain: The night before I'd rented a couple videos using this same ATM card because I'm old enough to remember when you went to Blockbuster when you wanted to watch a movie and you didn't have a cell phone to call for help when you were in an accident.

But Blockbuster is not where I went. I'm telling you the absolute truth, Esteemed Reader, so help me, Whomever, and the truth is I rented my movies from an adult video store (ye without sin may cast the first stone), one on 86th Street and Michigan Road in Indianapolis, to be exact. The ATM machine I visited the next afternoon was at Keystone Avenue and 46th Street.

No matter how many times I punched in my ATM key, I couldn't access my account, and the two rough-looking fellas behind were getting more impatient and using rough language.

The issue, of course, was the dirty, mean-looking man who ran the register at the adult video store. He made several snide comments and ran my card not once, but twice, and I didn't like that. Not one bit.

The next day I went to work and did my travel agent-ing, all the while thinking about that dirty smut peddler (I was a righteous smut consumer). What would a dirty smut peddler like him do with my ATM information? Could I trust such a fellow? Probably, but then again...

I was still bothered by these thoughts, after work and driving toward school on Michigan Avenue and somewhere between 86th and 76th Street, when...

...and this ACTUALLY HAPPENED...

A voice spoke to me.

It was a male voice, but not my voice, and it said three words: Cancel. Your. Card.

And that's all it saidnothing so edifying as "hey this is the One True God, so circumcise your babies and eat fish on Fridays and don't get any tattoos or piercingsjust those three words. There was no one else in the car to verify the words were said. I was perfectly sober, but of course, the only person who can verify that is the same lone witness to those spoken words.

I tell you, I heard those words spoken aloud. And they freaked me out. To prove it, here's what I did next:

I turned around and drove to my bank, even though it made me late for class. I stood in line, cursing myself the whole time for being so stupid and paranoid, and I told the teller I'd lost my ATM card even though it was in my wallet. "Are you sure?" she asked.

"Apparently so," I said through gritted teeth and withdrew $60.00 so I'd for sure have enough money to get through the next two days until my new ATM card came in the mail.

I went to class, annoyed with myself, but feeling strongly that when you hear a voice like freaking Samuel in the Old Testament, you'd best comply. After class, I drove to my friends' house, again, alone after dark and with no witnesses, when two fellas struck me...

Though it had only been a few hours, I couldn't get any money out of my account no matter how hard these two tough guys glared at me. I explained the situation that I'd had to cancel the card, but if they gave me their contact info, I could get the money to them in a day when the bank was open. I gave them the $60 I had and we exchanged phone numbers.

At this point, one of the fellas pushed me toward their car and showed me they had a hand gun and said, and I swear this is actually what he said, "I don't play." It sounded really tough and intimidating and I nodded fearfully and promised to call them the next day.

We got into our separate cars and I drove a fake way to my friend's house and I never called them, of course, and I never saw them again. For all I know, they joined the military and helped to take out Osama Bin Laden. Or maybe they took over an orphanage and have improved the lives of countless children. Perhaps one of them is discovering the cure for cancer as we speak.

I can't know about their story, but every last word of my story is true.

What might've happened if my ATM card hadn't been canceled earlier that day? They might've shot me. I might not have finished my degree, which means I might not have met Mrs. Ninja. I can't know the course of events that might've been set into action, only that they were apparently bad enough that Divine Intervention prevented them from happening.

I don't know what happens when we die, but there doesn't seem to be a way out of dying, so let's hope it's something agreeable. The world is vast and full of wonders and don't ever believe the person who says it isn't.

There is a higher order to reality I can't fully perceive and I don't expect others to perceive It either. But It's there. And sometimes It says something helpful like, "Cancel your card."

In a world where something as strange as that can happen, who knows what else is possible? For me, discounting the existence of God, whatever That is, would be intellectually dishonest.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja TV 18: Literary Agent Holly Root

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.

The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Literary Agent Holly Root and I discuss her career in publishing from working in the mail room, to making a name for herself as an agent, to now running her own agency. She also takes us through the cycle of a published manuscript from the time it starts out as a query in her inbox, to the time she negotiates its contract, to guiding its author through launch and onto their next book and the rest of their career. And she makes a JURASSIC PARK reference, so you know she's awesome. Prepare to learn a lot about publishing and to be inspired.

Click here to see Holly Root face the 7 Questions.





Holly Root began her publishing career as an editor in her hometown of Nashville, TN. Prior to joining the Waxman Literary Agency in 2007, she worked at the William Morris Agency and Trident Media Group. Holly has launched over two dozen New York Times bestsellers before founding Root Literary in 2017. The agency's clients benefit from its agents' proven skills in identifying talent, negotiating advantageous deals, and advocating for its books all the way from submission to publication. They offer their clients broad-based industry insights as well as individualized strategic thinking to empower each author to define and pursue their own unique path to success.

Holly's wishlist:

general fiction: I'm particularly interested in upmarket execution of commercial concepts. I love book club fiction; I want to read the book you'd recommend to all the women on your favorite group text. I'd love to work on a page-turning domestic suspense (my taste leans more on the domestic end, a la Liane Moriarty--I find the interplay of human relationships, when well done, every bit as potent a story driver as espionage). I like structural conceits (whether in the form of timeline, a la One Day, or an epistolary novel like Attachments, or anything surprising). Open to speculative elements within general fiction, too.

middle grade fiction: I love books that respect their kid readers. I like humor, great settings, and books as weirdly wonderful as the minds of their intended readers--whether they're realistic contemporary or high fantasy. Open to most genres within the category.

SF/F: I love very accessible, five-minutes-in-the-future grounded SF...but also I grew up reading anything and everything with a dragon on the cover, so this category is often determined by voice for me. I'm open to science fantasy, SF, and fantasy.

In all areas, I love a good high-concept hook.


My nonfiction list is smaller, and therefore a little harder to define a wish list for. The projects I'm most likely to pursue pair a distinctive voice with a strong platform to match.




Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Middle Grade Ninja TV 17: Author Padma Venkatraman

To watch new episodes of Middle Grade Ninja TV as they air, go to YouTube and subscribe.

The audio from each episode is available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunesPodbeanPodblasterRadioPublicblubrryListen NotesGoogle Play, and many other fine locations.

Padma Venkatraman and I discuss her new middle grade novel, THE BRIDGE HOME. We discuss everything from her childhood in India to her becoming an oceanographer and now an award-winning author. We also discuss religion, spirituality, writing about them for the middle grade market, and, of course, flying saucers. This episode is filled from end to end with fascinating insights about writing and storytelling, as well advice for living.





Padma Venkatraman is the author of 4 novels: THE BRIDGE HOME, A TIME TO DANCE, ISLAND'S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS, all of which were released to multiple starred reviews (for a total of seventeen stars so far). Her latest, THE BRIDGE HOME, was released this February to five starred reviews (in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal and School Library Connection), won an Audiophile Magazine Earphone Award, and is the 2019 middle grade Global Read Aloud. Her previous three young adult novels have won several awards (South Asia Book Award, Paterson Prize, Boston Authors Club Julia Ward Howe, Rhode Island Book of the Year etc.) and received numerous honors (including the ALA Notable, ALA BBYA, Kirkus BBYA, Booklist Editor’s Choice, NYPL Top 25 and Bank Street Best Books).




When Viji and her sister, Rukku, whose developmental disability makes her overly trusting and vulnerable to the perils of the world, run away to live on their own, the situation could not be more grim. Life on the streets of the teeming city of Chennai is harsh for girls considered outcasts, but the sisters manage to find shelter on an abandoned bridge. There they befriend Muthi and Arul, two boys in a similar predicament, and the four children bond together and form a family of sorts. Viji starts working with the boys scavenging in trash heaps while Rukku makes bead necklaces, and they buy food with what little money they earn. They are often hungry and scared but they have each other--and Kutti, the best dog ever. When the kids are forced from their safe haven on the bridge, they take shelter in a graveyard. But it is now the rainy season and they are plagued by mosquitos, and Rukku and Muthu fall ill. As their symptoms worsen, Viji and Arul must decide whether to risk going for help--when most adults in their lives have proven themselves untrustworthy--or to continue holding on to their fragile, hard-fought freedom.