Saturday, March 28, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 66: Author Anne Bustard

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Anne Bustard and I discuss her newest book, BLUE SKIES, and its 20-year journey from a picture book to a middle grade novel. She tells me about her life as a perpetual student, earning a BS, MLIS, PHD, and an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as devising her own learning program utilizing WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass. We talk about her time as an elementary school teacher and a bookstore owner, how attending a writing workshop taught by previous guest Kathi Appelt changed her life, and so much more.

Born in Hawaii, author Anne Bustard is still a beach girl at heart. If she could, she would walk by the ocean every day, wear flip-flops, and eat nothing but fresh pineapple, macadamia nuts and chocolate. Growing up, Anne took years of hula lessons and spent many happy hours wearing a facemask and breathing through a snorkel. Her small sea glass collection from childhood is one of her most treasured possessions.

Anne loves school. And she has a lot of degrees to prove it. Three came from the University of Texas at Austin (BS, MLIS, PhD). Her most recent one, and she believes her last, is an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Children’s books have always been central to her life. When she taught in elementary schools and universities, she always used literature. Anne co-owned Toad Hall Children’s Bookstore in Austin, Texas, too. As a bookseller, she loved opening up new boxes of books, telling others about them and running a summer writing program for children.

Anne is the author of several works for young readers including award-winners Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers) and Anywhere but Paradise (Lerner).

In Spring 2020, her next middle grade novel, Blue Skies (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers) and RAD! her first fiction picture book, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman (Abrams Books for Young Readers) will be published.

Anne recently married her college sweetheart and divides her time between Ontario and Texas.

Ten-year old Glory Bea Bennett believes in miracles. After all, her grandmother—the best matchmaker in the whole county—is responsible for thirty-nine of them so far.

Now, Glory Bea wants a miracle of her own—her daddy’s return.

The war ended three years ago, but Glory Bea’s father never returned from the front in France. Though he was lost on Omaha Beach, deep down in her heart, she believes Daddy is still out there.

When reports that the Texas boxcar from the Merci Train (the “thank you” train)—a train filled with gifts of gratitude from the people of France—will be stopping in Gladiola, Glory Bea just knows daddy will be its surprise cargo.

But miracles, like people, are always changing, until at last they find their way home.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 65: Author Anna Meriano

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Anna Meriano thrills with tales of full contact quidditch, including the time she broke her pelvis, and teases her upcoming book on the subject. We primarily discuss her series LOVE SUGAR MAGIC and the release of its third installment, A MIXTURE OF MISCHIEF. She talks about eating the right cheese at the right time, which introduced her to Cake Literary. She walks me through her interview process and securing a book deal. We also chat about creating rules of magic, keeping track of a large group of characters over a series, inserting joy in diverse stories, parallel universes, and so much more.

Anna Meriano grew up in Houston, Texas, with an older brother and a younger brother but (tragically) no sisters. She graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in writing for children from the New School in New York. She has taught creative writing and high school English and works as a writing tutor. Anna likes reading, knitting, playing full-contact quidditch, and translating English song lyrics into Spanish and vice-versa. Her favorite baked goods are the kind that don’t fly away before you eat them.

Anna Meriano’s unforgettable family of brujas returns for one more serving of amor, azúcar, and magia, in this breakout series that's been called "charming and delectably sweet." (Zoraida Córdova, award-winning author of the Brooklyn Brujas series)

It’s spring break in Rose Hill, Texas, but Leo Logroño has a lot of work to do if she's going to become a full-fledged bruja like the rest of her family.

She still hasn't discovered the true nature of her magical abilities, and that isn’t the only bit of trouble in her life: Her family’s baking heirlooms have begun to go missing, and a new bakery called Honeybees has opened across town, threatening to run Amor y Azúcar right out of business.

What's more, everyone around her seems to have secrets, and none of them want to tell Leo what's going on.

But the biggest secret of all comes when Leo is paid a very surprising visit—by her long-lost Abuelo Logroño. Abuelo promises answers to her most pressing questions and tells Leo he can teach her about her power, about what it takes to survive in a world where threats lurk in the shadows. But can she trust him?

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 64: Author Avi

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Avi and I discuss his career publishing more than 80 books since 1970, winning more awards than I can list, including the Newberry AND two Newberry honors. He tries to convince me writing is just a job and walks me through his process of writing intuitively. He talks candidly about his dysgraphia and gives excellent advice for writing historical fiction, including specifics about language and layering research in narrative. He even reads part of a brand new book he’s currently writing, premiering the passage for the first time anywhere exclusively on the Middle Grade Ninja podcast. Oh, and he tells me about the time he saw a ghost.

Avi is part of a family of writers extending back into the 19th century. Born in 1937 and raised in New York City, Avi was educated in local schools, before going to the Midwest and then back to NYC to complete his education. Starting out as a playwright--while working for many years as a librarian--he began writing books for young people when the first of his kids came along.

His first book was Things That Sometimes Happen, published in 1970, and recently reissued. Since then he has published seventy books. Winner of many awards, including the 2003 Newbery award for Crispin: the Cross of Lead (Hyperion), two Newbery Honors, two Horn Book awards, and an O'Dell award, as well as many children's choice awards, he frequently travels to schools around the country to talk to his readers.

Among his most popular books are Crispin: The Cross of Lead, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, the Poppy books, Midnight Magic, and The Fighting Ground.

In 2008 he published The Seer of Shadows (HarperCollins), A Beginning a Muddle and an End (Harcourt), Hard Gold (Hyperion) and Not Seeing is Believing, a one-act play in the collection, Acting Out (Simon and Schuster). Crispin: the End of Time, the third in the Newbery Award-winning series, was published in 2010. City of Orphans was released in 2011, receiving a number of starred reviews. Learn more at Follow Avi on Facebook,, where he shares an inside look at his writing process.

Avi lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and family.

Newbery Medalist Avi brings us mud-caked, tent-filled San Francisco in 1848 with a willful heroine who goes on an unintended — and perilous — adventure to save her brother.

Victoria Blaisdell longs for independence and adventure, and she yearns to accompany her father as he sails west in search of real gold! But it is 1848, and Tory isn’t even allowed to go to school, much less travel all the way from Rhode Island to California. Determined to take control of her own destiny, Tory stows away on the ship. Though San Francisco is frenzied and full of wild and dangerous men, Tory finds freedom and friendship there. Until one day, when Father is in the gold fields, her younger brother, Jacob, is kidnapped. And so Tory is spurred on a treacherous search for him in Rotten Row, a part of San Francisco Bay crowded with hundreds of abandoned ships. Beloved storyteller Avi is at the top of his form as he ushers us back to an extraordinary time of hope and risk, brought to life by a heroine readers will cheer for. Spot-on details and high suspense make this a vivid, absorbing historical adventure.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 63: Author Sayantani DasGupta

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Sayantani DasGupta and I discuss her series, KIRANMALA AND THE KINGDOM BEYOND, celebrating the release of its third installment, THE CHAOS CURSE. She shares information about being involved with WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS. We discuss the importance of representation and how a lack of mirrors can give the misguided impression of a monster, not unlike a vampire. We chat about narrating her own audiobooks, using humor and absurdity to make observations about the world in middle grade fiction, plotting vs pantsing, writing while cooking, in-depth editing, the qualities of a great writers critique group, the glory of knowledge, and so much more.

Sayantani DasGupta is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed, Bengali folktale and string theory-inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond books, the first of which—The Serpent’s Secret—was a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, a Booklist Best Middle Grade Novel of the 21st Century, and an EB White Read Aloud Honor Book. Sayantani is a pediatrician by training, but now teaches at Columbia University. When she’s not writing or reading, Sayantani spends time watching cooking shows with her trilingual children and protecting her black Labrador retriever Khushi from the many things that scare him, including plastic bags. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books, and can be found online at and on Twitter at @sayantani16.

Creating order out of chaos has frightening consequences in this New York Times bestselling series!

Kiranmala must leave the Kingdom Beyond and travel to her hometown of Parsippany to save Prince Lal, who has been spirited to the unlikeliest of places — a tree in the yard of her best-enemy-for-life. She also faces evil serpents (of course!), plus a frightening prophecy about her role in the coming conflict between good and evil. Most troubling of all, though, is the way reality all around her seems to waver and flicker at odd moments. Could it be that the Anti-Chaos Committee’s efforts are causing a dangerous disruption in the multiverse?

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 62: Author Kaela Noel

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Kaela Noel and I discuss in detail how she trained to become an author, found a literary agent, rewrote her book until it was salable, and is now celebrating the release of her debut novel. We talk about worldbuilding and the pigeon research required to add authenticity to COO, as well as creating compelling characters in the story and the surety of being age 10. I ask her thrilling questions about the design and print layout of her book. We agree that both libraries and flying saucers are important and awesome.

Kaela Noel was born in San Francisco and raised in New Jersey. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York where she works as a proofreader and editor. Coo is her first novel.

In this exceptional debut, one young girl’s determination to save the flock she calls family creates a lasting impact on her community and in her heart. Gorgeous and literary, this is an unforgettable animal story about friendship, family, home, and belonging. For readers who love books by Kate DiCamillo and Katherine Applegate.

Ten years ago, an impossible thing happened: a flock of pigeons picked up a human baby who had been abandoned in an empty lot and carried her, bundled in blankets, to their roof. Coo has lived her entire life on the rooftop with the pigeons who saved her. It’s the only home she’s ever known. But then a hungry hawk nearly kills Burr, the pigeon she loves most, and leaves him gravely hurt.

Coo must make a perilous trip to the ground for the first time to find Tully, a retired postal worker who occasionally feeds Coo’s flock, and who can heal injured birds. Tully mends Burr’s broken wing and coaxes Coo from her isolated life. Living with Tully, Coo experiences warmth, safety, and human relationships for the first time. But just as Coo is beginning to blossom, she learns the human world is infinitely more complex—and cruel—than she could have imagined.

This remarkable debut novel will captivate readers from the very first line. Coo examines the bonds that make us family, the possibilities of love, and the importance of being true to yourself. Fans of Katherine Applegate, Kate DiCamillo, and Barbara O’Connor will devour this extraordinary story.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 61: Author Barbara Shoup Returns

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My friend Barbara Shoup returns to the podcast to share lessons from her writing life and her new book about writing, A COMMOTION IN YOUR HEART. She talks candidly about struggling with depression, finding joy in writing even when it doesn’t lead to great fame and fortune, and the challenge of bringing forth something as ethereal as a story using only language. We chat about author estate planning, learning from writers you don’t like personally, ethically basing characters on real people, the cruelest editor rejection ever, and so much more.

And make sure you see Barbara Shoup face the 7 Questions, hear her first podcast interview, and read my review of Looking for Jack Kerouac

Barbara Shoup is the author of eight novels for adults and young adults, most recently An American Tune and Looking for Jack Kerouac, and the co-author of Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process. Her short fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous small magazines, as well as in The Writer and the New York Times travel section. The recipient of the PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship and grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, she is the Writer-in-Residence at the Indiana Writers Center and a faculty member at Art Workshop International.

For writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, autobiography and memoir, and from amateurs to professionals, this book about the creative process is a book for writers everywhere interested in learning more about the craft of writing. A perfect gift for writers of all ages and levels of experience, A Commotion in Your Heart: Notes on Writing and Life takes the reader from the author's childhood dream of being a writer through the ups and downs of publishing. She tells her story with highly relatable vignettes that focus on her own personal moments of clarity about what writing is (and what writing isn't), sharing the pleasures and lessons of more than 40 years of experience teaching writing.

Part memoir and part writing workshop, A Commotion in Your Heart: Notes on Writing and Life offers writing inspiration and practical advice for authors at every stage of their writing journey. 
With short, easy to read chapters, A Commotion in Your Heart: Notes on Writing and Life will inspire veteran authors as well as beginning writers just getting started. And when writing is especially difficult, or when writer's block sets in, award-winning author Barbara Shoup is full of encouraging wisdom.

A Commotion in Your Heart: Notes on Writing and Life is for anyone who understands that writing isn't just a hobby... It's a necessary part of living fully.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 60: Author Catherine Linka

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Catherine Linka and I discuss the art world and teen homelessness as both are featured in her new novel, WHAT I WANT YOU TO SEE. Catherine shares how she became an author through first being a bookseller, which led her to query only two literary agents, both of whom offered representation. We chat about crucial tips for writing young adult novels, mentoring other authors, writer critique groups, the magical moment a character comes to life, practical book marketing, and so much more.

Catherine Linka has been immersed in books her whole life, most recently as a writer and bookseller. She’s the author of the young adult novel WHAT I WANT YOU TO SEE as well as the dystopian duology A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. Catherine lives in Southern California and watches hawks and hummingbirds when she should be writing.

Winning a scholarship to California’s most prestigious art school seems like a fairy-tale ending to Sabine Reye’s awful senior year. After losing both her mother and her home, Sabine longs for a place where she belongs.

But the cutthroat world of visual arts is nothing like what Sabine had imagined. Colin Krell, the renowned faculty member whom she had hoped would mentor her, seems to take merciless delight in tearing down her best work—and warns her that she’ll lose the merit-based award if she doesn’t improve.

Desperate and humiliated, Sabine doesn’t know where to turn. Then she meets Adam, a grad student who understands better than anyone the pressures of art school. He even helps Sabine get insight on Krell by showing her the modern master’s work in progress, a portrait that’s sold for a million dollars sight unseen.

Sabine is enthralled by the portrait; within those swirling, colorful layers of paint is the key to winning her inscrutable teacher’s approval. Krell did advise her to improve her craft by copying a painting she connects with . . . but what would he think of Sabine secretly painting her own version of his masterpiece? And what should she do when she accidentally becomes party to a crime so well plotted that no one knows about it but her?

Complex and utterly original, What I Want You to See is a gripping tale of deception, attraction, and moral ambiguity.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 59: Author Jillian Boehme

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Jillian Boehme shares tales of being Authoress Anon and running one of the best author resource websites of all time, MISS SNARK’S FIRST VICTIM. We chat about her new novel, STORMRISE, how being a musician influences being a writer, how faith in God can aid the journey to publication, worldbuilding and language in fantasy novels, and so much more in a delightful conversation between long-time… people who blog and like each other’s blogs? Blog-leagues? Blog buddies? Whatever, enjoy the show.

Jillian Boehme is known to the online writing community as Authoress, hostess of Miss Snark's First Victim, a blog for aspiring authors.

In real life, she holds a degree in Music Education, sings with the Nashville Symphony Chorus, and homeschools her remaining youngster-at-home.

She's still crazy in love with her husband of more than thirty years and is happy to be surrounded by family and friends amid the rolling knolls of Middle Tennessee.

A combat warrior will risk everything to awaken the dragons and save her kingdom in Jillian Boehme's epic YA Fantasy debut, Stormrise, inspired by Twelfth Night and perfect for fans of Tamora Pierce.

If Rain weren’t a girl, she would be respected as a Neshu combat master. Instead, her gender dooms her to a colorless future. When an army of nomads invades her kingdom, and a draft forces every household to send one man to fight, Rain takes her chance to seize the life she wants.

Knowing she’ll be killed if she’s discovered, Rain purchases powder made from dragon magic that enables her to disguise herself as a boy. Then she hurries to the war camps, where she excels in her training―and wrestles with the voice that has taken shape inside her head. The voice of a dragon she never truly believed existed.

As war looms and Rain is enlisted into an elite, secret unit tasked with rescuing the High King, she begins to realize this dragon tincture may hold the key to her kingdom’s victory. For the dragons that once guarded her land have slumbered for centuries . . . and someone must awaken them to fight once more.

“Martial arts, a bold girl, a kingdom under attack, magic everywhere―I devoured it in one sitting! This book is one wild ride!” ―Tamora Pierce

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

NINA STUFF: A Great Writer

Esteemed Reader, I'm deeply saddened. A mentor has passed away. The world is far poorer for it.

If you knew Jim Powell or if you read him, you already know this. More likely, since this blog is read by an audience far outside of Indiana and focuses on a type of fiction Jim Powell didn't write, you didn't know him.

But let me tell you about him because I have a point I think is universal and will be worth your attention. I may be just a little more somber on this occasion than my usual joke-y posts with superhero talk (Jim Powell was quite adamant that Batman was not great literature despite my many attempts to convince him otherwise).

I wasn't close enough to Jim Powell to deliver a full eulogy. I don't imagine I'd be his first, second, or even fortieth choice for that honor. And that's not what this is. I had a very specific relationship with him as evidenced by the fact that he asked me to call him Jim, and I'm still not entirely comfortable not adding the Powell.

Our relationship was often adversarialmostly my doing. Not only did Jim Powell not feel Batman qualified as literature, he was scandalized (and annoyed) that I considered Stephen King to be our greatest living writer. Obviously, a man who failed to appreciate the genius of my unassailable literary opinion could NOT be a great writer.

I alone could be trusted to render this verdict because I wasbrace yourself, Esteemed Readera great writer... or I was going to be.

And yet, this man, who was not a great writer, was tremendously passionate for literature. Clearly, he thought he knew something about great writing even though he was wrong. And that struck me as curious.

I should explain. I was 19. And an a**h***

I grew up in a small Indiana town where most everyone had also been wrong and I'd just that year made my first-ever real friend who didn't live in that town. Caesar was also on his way to being a great writer and he also knew everything in a way only very young men can be assured they do. We sat together in Jim Powell's writing workshopmy firstand rendered our superior verdicts on the stories of lesser writers. And we interrupted Jim Powell on a regular basis with our writing wisdom and were, generally speaking, obnoxious.

Despite that, Jim Powell mostly chose to be amused by us. I know this because he hung around with us after class to tell us to talk about writing. Oh, he yelled at me a few times and though I took it personal then, I've taught some workshops since. In retrospect, I admire his restraint. I wouldn't have wanted young me in my workshop.

"You've got some talent, Kent," he said to me once, and that perked me upmaybe Jim Powell's opinions weren't all wrong. "But your taste is terrible and your attitude is worse. If you don't get serious, your writing isn't going anywhere and neither are you."

That's not an exact quote21 years have passed since thenbut it's pretty close and that was the gist of it. He wasn't wrong. He also kicked me out of his office on multiple occasionsI definitely don't remember exactly why, but I have no doubt the cause could be traced back to my being insufferable. However, he always let me come back and I can't remember a time he didn't make time for me.

But let's not get all misty-eyed yet.

First, I need to tell you about a thing I wrote. I don't have any copies of the story now, thank God, and I can't remember exactly how terrible it wasmost of what I wrote then was terrible. But it was stuffed with shock content because I lacked the tools and the confidence to attempt to move my readers by any other means. This was shortly after I'd completed screenplays for Horror House, Horror House 2: The College Years, and Horror House 3: In Space. So, ya know, that's where my head was at (older, wiser me still thinks that terrible pun is amusing).

Caesar assured me my shocking story was brilliant. He was the first to speak up during the workshop and compliment me on my bravery for having written an edgy piece that said the important things that needed saying by someone important. He was a good friend and I'm sorry I haven't seen him more in the intervening years. We were wrong a lot, but we were wrong together, and we had a good time doing it.

Tragically, I can't confer with Jim Powell about exactly what he said, but I remember the gist of it. One doesn't forget one's first epic take down. He did not agree with Caesar.

"The problem with your story," he said, or something to this effect, "is that it doesn't mean anything. The language is sloppy throughout and unconsidered. This story was intended to shock and it doesn't. You meant to disrupt my workshop, but you haven't, so this story hasn't accomplished anything. You can do better, Kent, so do better."

"You know, Jim actually makes a lot of good points," Caesar admitted. Thanks, buddy. Heavy sigh.

I'd love to tell you I wrote an even better story and triumphantly returned to the workshop. I didn't. Not then. What I did was decide that 1. Jim Powell hated me, probably because he was jealous of my genius. 2. I had no business listening to Jim Powell anyway because he was not a great writer like I was destined to be.

After that semester, I decided college wasn't for me because I didn't have the objectivity needed to realize I wasn't yet right for college. I took a series of terrible jobs, mostly waiting tables, and got my first apartment and promptly missed enough rent payments to nearly get evicted. But I read a lot of books and I kept writing.

A couple years later, after becoming a travel agentanybody remember thoseI went back to college part time and then full time. An English department is only so big and I majored in creative writing and literature because I had my eyes on the big money:) I had Jim Powell for several classes, most of them with Caesar. And the two of us were still obnoxious, but less so, probably because I was (mostly) paying for school myself then, which was an attitude adjuster.

The two of us were also on the staff of the school's literary magazine, which was led by Jim Powell. There was a girl on that staff who I won't name, but I thought she was, ahem, super hot. And she thought Jim Powell was the most brilliant man she'd ever met. It's amazing how an attractive person's perspective changes things for a young man:)

I wanted her to find me brilliant, so I started paying a lot more attention to Jim Powell. And you know what? He was kind of brilliantnot about Batman or Stephen King, maybe, but about a great many other things. The super-hot girl found a boyfriend who wasn't me and then another, but the damage was done. I recognized Jim Powell was far more brilliant than I'd given him credit for. When I stopped talking over him, I learned quite a bit about writing and publishing.

When you treat a person with respect, they treat you the same way. I don't remember everything that transpiredit all seems simultaneously so long ago and like it just happened. But one day, I remember looking around to realize that Caesar and I were the seniors and Jim Powell was relying on us to help keep the magazine going. Who'd have seen that coming?

Jim Powell invited everyone to a party at his house and it's a favorite memory of mine. The super-hot girl was there. So was an even more super-hot girl who later became Mrs. Kent. We stayed late, far later than I ever expected. It turns out Jim Powell was an excellent party host for a guy who preferred poetry to horror stories.

Many, many libations were had and we talked long into the night and he told Caesar and I that he was proud of us. He told Mrs. Kent, who was then my let's-just-see-where-this-goes girlfriend, that I was a good guy. As he told her mostly nice things about mehe didn't leave out the times I'd caused him stressit finally occurred to me that Jim Powell liked me and had for some time.

A semester after that, the future Mrs. Kent and I graduated. I got a job as a stockbroker, because it paid the bills and I wanted to stay in Indiana to see how things worked out with this girlfriend of mine. I'd see Jim Powell at different events and a few times at the Blockbuster video because all of this takes place a long, long time ago, I guess. But he was always happy to see me and we always had a nice chat.

Life went on. I saw college friends less and less, and then Mrs. Kent and I had a baby and I lost touch with a lot of people for a while. Children are time vampires, but cute ones. Writing also requires a lot of time alone, not to mention this blog turned podcast, which is also a time vampire, but a fun one.

Jim Powell disappeared with so many others into that category of people I used to know and Blockbuster disappeared as well. I worked with a lot of other writers and other mentors. One day, Barbara Shoup invited me to teach at the Indiana Writers Center and she kept inviting me, so I kept doing it.

I'm writing this portion of the post sitting in the Indiana Writers Center before the arrival of my newest fiction workshop. The format of the class is a modified version of Jim Powell's workshop, and that's appropriate enough. He founded the Writers Center the year I was born.

I didn't know this until October 25, 2018. I know the date because I learned it on the podcast. You can hear and/or watch me learn it. You can also hear about the Indiana Writers Center and all the good it does in the world:

You heard Barb Shoup explaining about all the outreach programs the Indiana Writers Center does for the community. How many lives has that organization improved (including mine)? You heard her talking about the then upcoming 40th anniversary party for the IWC, featuring Jim Powell and his book, Only Witness.

Mrs. Kent and I went to that party. We got a sitter and took showers. And Jim Powell was thrilled to see us, still together. And we were thrilled to see him. He told me how excited he was that I was teaching at the IWC and he got to meet a few of my students, who were happy to see me. I didn't get to talk to him for long, however. He was the star of the show and surrounded by most of the Indiana writing community.

I saw former professors, some famous authors, and lots of people I didn't know, but who were very excited to see Jim Powell. And I was excited for him. It's inspiring to see a man so celebrated by the community he nurtured. 

Mrs. Kent and I got some food and had a married-people-desperately-happy-to-be-out-of-the-house-and child-free-for-a-few-fleeting-hours date. I received my new copy of Only Witness and later read, really read what Jim Powell had written. And this, by the way, is the only quote of his in this post that I know is verbatim:

 To Rob - engaged and challenging student who has made good! I am touched by your work for the Writers Center and your interest in my work. I hope you enjoy these stories. Jim 3/8/19

By virtue of this blog, I have a lot of signed books by a lot of great writers I admire. But that signed copy of Only Witness is my favorite and it sits in a place of honor. No, you can't borrow that one. Get your own.

Jim Powell and I connected on social media after that night, so I know he was amused by the podcast and this website. I also knew he had some health issues, but I figured when they were behind him, we'd probably see each other at the IWC or other events and get to talk again, even if I had to get him on the podcast to do it.

But it wasn't to be.

What makes a great writer? Great writing helps, of course. Observe this opening from Jim Powell's story, "Little Jungle": The bottle broke against the boulder and gasoline spread flames onto the dry grass, then slow-burned toward the brush and trees at the clearing's edge, more fire than Matt had expected.

What else makes a great writer? Do they have to be the world's bestselling novelist, like Stephen King? Do they have to be a household name in the country they live in? The state? Do they have to be painted larger-than-life on the side of a building like Kurt Vonnegut?

There are other, less-obvious memorials to great writers all around us, if you know where to look. That night at the IWC 40th anniversary party, I saw a very different sort of memorial built in the minds of all the writers and lovers of literature Jim Powell touched over a lifetime. 

God knows how many minds hold another portion of that memorial I couldn't see. God knows how large a footprint one man left in his wake, a footprint so great I can't even see the shape or the size of it because I'm a part of it.

Goodbye, Jim. It was an honor to have known so great a writer.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 58: Literary Agent Allison Hellegers

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Allison Hellegers and I discuss her twenty-plus years of experience in publishing as a literary scout and a foreign rights director, as well as her newest role as a literary agent. We talk about the types of projects she’s looking to represent and the ways she envisions serving authors over the course of their careers. This is another enjoyable conversation packed with insights about the publishing industry.

Alli first fell for books as a way to escape her two brothers, who were obsessed with football (think 'Friday Night Lights' in Ohio). So, Alice in Wonderland, Tuck Everlasting, The Diary of Anne Frank and anything by Judy Blume or Lois Duncan were her refuge, but Alli didn't discover books as a career until after college at UW-Madison, where she received her degrees in Journalism and Women's Studies. She also spent a semester abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris and was thrilled when her jobs as Literary Scout and Foreign Rights Manager would take her back to France (among other countries). Alli also volunteered with the non-profit Girls Write Now, and empowering teen girls became one of the biggest drivers in her career. After working with the YA packager, Alloy Entertainment, Alli spent the last 10 years as Foreign Rights Director with Rights People. She also co-agents picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels on behalf of foreign publishers and agencies (international, British, and Australian) to represent authors in North America. Therefore, her taste leans towards books that have film/TV and/or translation appeal and take the reader on a journey. Alli loves nature, music and spending time with her friends, husband, young son (a new reader!), and her rescue mutt in Brooklyn.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 57: Author Jennifer Voigt Kaplan

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Jennifer Voigt Kaplan and I discuss her award-winning debut novel, CRUSHING THE RED FLOWERS, set in 1938 Germany. We examine research techniques for writing historical middle grade fiction, including interviewing members of an author’s own family, and the importance of taking emotional breaks when focusing on grim subject matter. We also talk about writing contests, setting up a book launch, building an author website, challenging young readers to think for themselves, and more.

Jennifer Voigt Kaplan is an award-winning author of children’s fiction. Her debut children’s novel, Crushing the Red Flowers, was recognized in six literary contests before its publication, including earning a Letter of Merit for the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant and winning the middle-grade category of Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize for Fiction. Jennifer was born in Germany, raised in Philadelphia, and now resides in the New York City area. She holds degrees from the Wharton School of Business in marketing and from the London School of Economics in social psychology.

Outside of writing, Jennifer founded The Public Arts Council, her town’s first organization dedicated to public arts. When she’s not inventing people in her head, she’s painting murals on underpasses, wishing she had more time to watch sci-fi movies, and arguing that there should be no limit on the number of garden gnomes that are considered socially acceptable. She lives with her husband, three children, and a cheeky beta-fish named Bubbles, who thinks it’s hilarious to play dead.

"Germany in 1938 comes alive and will be unforgettable to young readers in this powerful debut novel, Crushing the Red Flowers."--James Patterson

What if the person you are supposed to hate is the one person who can save you?

Crushing the Red Flowers is the story of how two ordinary boys cope under the extraordinary circumstances of Kristallnacht. Emil Rosen and Friedrich Weber couldn't have less in common, but in the summer of 1938, they must both deal with the changes steamrolling through Germany. Friedrich struggles with an uncle in jail and a cruel Hitler Youth leader, while Emil does his best to avoid the blistering anti-Semitism that's threatening his family. As the rules of yesterday no longer make sense, both boys find comfort at a private spot along the Leine River. Then in the late hours of November 9th, their world explodes, and the two boys are forced together in a race against time that requires Friedrich to risk his life in order to save Emil and his family.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 56: Author Shauna Holyoak

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Shauna Holyoak and I discuss her KAZU JONES series with tips for writing middle grade mysteries, rewriting a story until it's right, and writing about a protagonist that's a different race than her author. Shauna tells the tale of how she landed her agent, previous guest Carrie Pestritto, and how she started her literary career after becoming a parent by writing a regular column. We also chat about book marketing, school visits, actively working to transition from a pantser to a plotter, and so much more.

Shauna has been telling stories long before she could ride a bike, and some of them are even true! She writes for kids and teens and thinks it’s kinda the best job ever. Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers is her debut novel, and it was released by Disney-Hyperion in April, 2019! She lives in Idaho Falls, ID with her husband, six of their seven children, and two naughty dogs.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “In this spirited debut, Holyoak introduces an indefatigable heroine whose distinct voice and loyal canine companion contribute to her considerable appeal. The diverse allies, plot twists, and delightful dogs make this a memorable beginning for Kazu and her friends.”

KIRKUS: “Holyoak creates a well-paced mystery with approachable characters and issues. The dognapping case and the go-get-’em attitude of Kazu provide just enough suspense and action without being too scary. Holyoak sprinkles in topics of growing up, including friendship, relationships with parents, mean people, and telling the truth.   A not-too-scary, diverse mystery for those who love action, dogs, and spunky heroines.”

Packed with high stakes mystery and tons of heart, this first installment in a new series introduces Kazu Jones-a spunky, scrappy detective who's this generation's Harriet the Spy.

When a string of dognappings grips her Denver neighborhood, Kazu Jones vows to track down the culprits. She can't stand to see more dogs go missing-especially once her neighbors' beloved pet is taken because of her gigantic mistake.

With the help of her gang-including her best friend and expert hacker, March; and her ginormous, socially anxious pup, Genki-Kazu uncovers evidence that suggests the dognapping ring is bigger than she ever imagined. But the more she digs, the more dangerous her investigation becomes. The dognappers are getting bolder, and Genki could be next...

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 55: Author Erin Bow

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Erin Bow shares stories about winning the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award with her debut novel, working at the CERN laboratory, being a science writer for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and having just won the Governor General’s Award. I impress her with my knowledge of RICK AND MORTY and TINY TOONS. We have a wonderful conversation about writing for spite, transhumanism, her writing shed, a creepy cabin story, a fear of squandering talent, the joy of winning awards, and so much more.

Erin Bow is a former physicist who currently writes speculative fiction young adult novels. She studied particle physics in college, eventually working at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. She then decided to leave science in order to concentrate on her love of writing.  Originally from Nebraska, Bow came to Canada in 1997. She is the author of the YA novels Plain Kate, The Scorpion Rules, The Swan Riders and Sorrow's Knot. Plain Kate won the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award in 2011. Bow has also written poetry under her maiden name Erin Noteboom.

An exquisitely written, uplifting middle grade debut by acclaimed author, Erin Bow, about a young girl who defies her family’s expectations in order to save her brother and become an eagle hunter, perfect for fans of PAX.

It goes against all tradition for Aisulu to train an eagle, for among the Kazakh nomads, only men can fly them. But everything changes when Aisulu discovers that her brother, Serik, has been concealing a bad limp that risks not just his future as the family's leader, but his life too.

When her parents leave to seek a cure for Serik in a distant hospital, Aisulu finds herself living with her intimidating uncle and strange auntie—and secretly caring for an orphaned baby eagle. To save her brother and keep her family from having to leave their nomadic life behind forever, Aisulu must earn her eagle’s trust and fight for her right to soar.  Along the way, she discovers that family are people who choose each other, home is a place you build, and hope is a thing with feathers.

Erin Bow’s lyrical middle grade debut is perfect for fans of original animal-friendship stories like Pax and Because of Winn Dixie.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Six (2019)

The headline of 2019's Author Year-in-Review post is this: the Banneker Bones trilogy is finally coming to a close. I've still got some work ahead of me, but Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy will be available May 15, 2020.

I can't reveal many details as saying much of anything about this third story will spoil bits of the first two. But I can reveal Steven Novak's glorious third cover and I can say that I can't wait for you to read this final-ish adventure (there will hopefully someday be a fourth, fifth, and sixth book, but not for a while, and this third book is an ending for the series).

Happy New Year, Esteemed Reader! I know I've done more podcasting than blogging in 2019, and truthfully, I anticipate more of the same in 2020. Every episode of the Middle Grade Ninja podcast feels like I won a contest to chat with someone I admire. I frequently sound awkward and dorky on the show, which isn't really a surpriseI AM awkward and dorky, on and off the air. Even so, I appear to be getting away with this thing so far and I'm having fun. Traffic numbers tell me Esteemed Audience is getting something out of the show as well.

If you haven't heard the podcast yet, the archives await you, friend. If you've read this blog ever, you're into writing and reading and you'll probably enjoy listening to writers and publishing professionals chat with me about writing and reading. The most recent clip show is a good place to start. The previous one was excellent as well.

The podcast sucks up most of the time I used to devote to blogging (and more), so I've been posting less frequently. But I look forward to these author year-in-review posts as they require me to read the previous ones and evaluate my performance. In 2019, I feel I did some things better than I ever have, I could improve on some things for 2020, and I did one colossally stupid thing I'm still beating myself up over as I'm getting a little old to have made such a childish mistake. But I'm also old enough to know that mistakes are part of life and I certainly took a lifelong lesson away from the experience. That mistake (neveryoumind the details) and a funeral aside, 2019 was a mostly excellent year.

As in previous years, I'll spend the first half of this post rambling about the things other people made in 2019 that I loved. I won't even attempt to sum up the decade, although Middle Grade Ninja is ten years old this year. In the second half of the post, I'll ramble about the things I made, some lessons I learned, and my plans for the future.


You regular Esteemed Readers know I never list my favorite books for the year because 1. I'm too slow a reader to have kept up with the whole market, so I can never know for sure. 2. I like having writer friends:) 3. Each book is its own unique experience I'm almost always happy to have had regardless of other experiences.

That said, in a world where old-time favorites frequently let us down, two books that were amazing were The Institute and The Testaments. They weren't necessarily my favorite books of the year, but they were each rich and rewarding reading experiences. It's inspiring to see two literary giants who've been at the top of their game for decades knock it out of the park yet again, despite the probability of their later work crumbling against the weight of fan expectations. King and Atwood are two of the best around and a reminder that a writer's career can be a long one. An author's best work isn't behind them until they decide it's so and I'll put their senior works toe-to-toe with their freshman efforts any day.


El Camino was something truly special that Mrs. Ninja and I loved together and made us yearn for more Better Call Saul. This year's superhero movies I loved alone. It goes without saying that Marvel killed it with Avengers: Endgame and Spider-man: Far From Home, and Captain Marvel was mostly charming, with points off for Nick Fury's unsatisfying eye-patch origin. Shazam did DC proud by being an absolute charm factory. Joker was... I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

2019 was quite the year for horror. Brightburn had me smiling from start to finish. My favorite movie of 2019 should be Us (any other year, it would be). Us is a well-crafted thing of beauty. From the performances to the cinematography to the music, this is a superior horror film that makes me want to buy an opening ticket for every Jordan Peele movie that's ever going to be made (he also got the biggest laugh in Toy Story 4). I can't remember the last time a movie so terrified me that I had nightmares for a week afterward. Get Out was amazing, but I like Us even more. And I still occasionally glance at my driveway expecting to see me and Mrs. Ninja at the end of it.

I loved Us so, so much, but there's another movie I love even more: Crawl, my favorite movie of the year, and one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life. This flick understood exactly what I wanted from it and over delivered. For me, it's a dream movie, a wish my heart made, about folks getting chased by alligators.

It's masterfully plotted and terrifying with characters you care about who are properly tortured. For every time I've been let down by a supposedly scary movie, Crawl reminds me why I keep coming back to this genre. It's the rare gold I've been mining for. I'll watch another 20 not-so-good horror flicks because every so often you get a Crawl that makes the search worth while.

I saw Crawl twice in the theaters, once when I bought my digital copy, and again this very week. That last viewing was a post Christmas afternoon with my in-laws who hadn't seen it before. They were both on the edge of their seat and shouting at all the best parts, so the movie was fun in a whole new way.


Often better than the movies these days are the TV series, and there were several extraordinary seasons of television in 2019. My favorite series of the year is a three-way HBO-driven tie between Chernobyl, season two of Big Little Lies (has Meryl Streep ever been better?) and Watchmen, with an unfair advantage for Watchmen. 

That last was something Mrs. Ninja and I enjoyed together and discussed at length between episodes. I loved those conversations about Watchmen as much as the show. I'm guilty of binging the occasional series and it can be fun, but the weekly release of episodes gave us time to speculate about the many mysteries and read about the history referenced in the show, as well as go back and reread Alan Moore's almost-but-not-quite-as-good-as-The-Dark-Knight-Returns masterpiece.

Other series I really loved in 2019 were The Boys, Veep (going to miss it), Mindhunter, BoJack Horseman (realizing Todd was performing Brokeback Mountain with sock puppets for a two-year-old might be the hardest I laughed all year), and F is for Family. And the first five episodes of Rick and Morty's 4th season were better than entire series runs of other shows.


2019 was a slow year for video games, or it may just be that I've been too busy to play many of them. I loved the final season of Telltale's The Walking Dead. It was a satisfying ending to Clementine's journey and one of the better zombie stories I've enjoyed across any medium.

The remaster of the Ghostbusters game made my day. I played the original, of course, but I lost my copy in a robbery. All these years later, I was thrilled to play it again. That game is the fulfillment of the childhood wish of most 80's children, and even though Nintendo has since improved its game play in their Luigi's Haunted Copycat series, nothing tops being a recruit with the actual guys. An experience like that is something only a videogame can deliver.

And then a miracle happened. Mrs. Ninja gave me a Switch Lite for Christmas. Few things have brought me so much joy. I've finally experienced Super Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8, and the beginning of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (I'll probably still be playing that massive game this time next year), because I took time off to relive another childhood favorite: Zelda: Link's Awakening.

If all's well that ends well, 2019 had a very happy ending indeed, so it must've been a good year:)


Despite my many hours spent watching television and playing videogames, I did a lot of reading in 2019, which you can hear me talking about in the 53 episodes of the podcast I produced. My writing wasn't quite as steady as I would've liked in 2019 (it never is), but I published a book and got another most of the way toward publication. The Banneker books never come easy, and as much I love that world, I'm glad to be stepping away from the series for a while, probably for years, until I hear the Song of the Turtle calling me back to The Dark Tower.

I led three six-week fiction workshops in 2019, which kept me busy critiquing student work, and I taught at a bunch of one-off courses. I was even invited to speak at the Indiana Comic Convention, which was an enormously enjoyable experience, and I addressed a bunch of wonderful audiences. I love meeting writers, so I'll keep speaking at events for them so long as I keep receiving invitations.

Banneker Bones and the Alligator People has been extremely well received by readers (the ones I've heard from), which makes me so, so happy. I love that book. My life is better for having written it.

Going into 2020, I'm as in love with writing as I've ever been, though the relationship has matured.


I had some incredible experiences in 2019, many of which I recorded so you can enjoy them as well. Talking to former National Teacher of the Year Sharon M. Draper, in addition to being an absolute once-in-a-lifetime thrill, convinced me I needed to spend more time around young people. So I signed up to be a substitute teacher.

I've been interacting with middle grade readers on a regular basis and it turns out most teachers have prep periods that can be used as extra writing time. It's the perfect job that works around my kid's schedule and helps improve my school visits and my writing.

As an example of the things I'm learning, one day I was teaching fifth graders and a boy wore a t-shirt with Jason and Freddy fighting on it with a bunch of blood, so I gave him my honest opinion: "cool shirt." And it was. But later, when the class was lining up in the hall, he went up to another teacher and proudly proclaimed, "See, Mr. Kent likes my shirt." And so she reminded him and me that no, that shirt was not appropriate for the fifth grade, and I had to be all, oh yeah, right, right. Whoops:)

I usually don't mention my writing to the students when I'm teaching because that's not why I'm there.  I do ask all of the kids what books they're reading and which are their favorites. On one occasion, however, a child observed me putting away my new book and asked about it and I was all like, I Am An Author, spoken as though admitting to being an Avenger.

The child then threw a barrage of questions at me that boiled down to, "How rich and famous are you and why are you at my school?" I then explained that though I love every reader I have, I'm not especially rich or even all that internet-famous:) The vast majority of writers aren't either, even the ones I imagined would be before I met them. The child looked at me skeptically and asked, "are you really an author?"

That interaction bummed me out for a day, but then I had a thought that's kept me smiling ever since. Being rich and famous for writing 1. Probably has as much downside as upside and won't, by itself, make anyone forever happy and content 2. Is a child's idea of what it means to be an author.

And so I said to myself, Ninja, do you love your life? Mostly, I do. I love my family and my Nintendo and I've gotten to chat with a lot of my heroes and I've written some books that might yet change the world, but have certainly changed mine. So if you love your life and you're happy, why are you letting a child's idea of what your author life should be bum you out? 

I'm not saying I couldn't stand to be richer, though I'm about as famous as I want to be, and I don't want to fall so deeply into contentment that I lose my drive to keep expanding my talent and my audience... but, honestly, life is pretty great just the way it is.


2019 was another year of Oh-God-is-America-over-is-this-how-it-ends-and-if-so-does-anything-else-matter panic on a daily basis and it weighed on me as I'm sure it's weighed on you, Esteemed Reader. And it's not over. I don't expect it to be over for some time to come.

I wonder how wise it is for me to keep paying attention to national politics, honestly. Saturday Night Live did an especially poignant sketch I'm going to share below in case you missed it. In the sketch, three American families bitterly discuss politics at Christmas, and at the end, the snow person narrator informs us, "they live in states where their votes don't matter."

I watched the Mueller testimony live. I watched much of the impeachment hearings. And yet, I don't know that I'm accomplishing much by being so well informed. I've protested and voted and I'll keep voting, but why am I giving so much head space to events I can't impact? If the apocalypse is coming either way and I can't stop it, why am I wasting my last days thinking about Donald Trump?

As a teenager, I knew the names of all the producers and directors and screenwriters of my favorite films, but after deciding film school wasn't for me, I mostly stopped memorizing the resumes of famous people I don't know and am unlikely to work with. I feel like that portion of my mental capacity has been replaced with the names of politicians, and I don't know that the change is for the better or that the knowledge is in any way more usefulknowing the names of movie people at least helps me decide what movies to watch.

Red Dawn actually happened and if the good-ish guys are the ones who write history, we'll have to acknowledge that the Republican party has been infiltrated by Russia to a terrifying degree, the full extent of which we may never know, and some Democrats have surely been bought and compromised as well. All of that demands my attention...

On the other hand, I think about how angry I was and still am at the bankers who decimated our economy, took their bonuses, and crept away to their evil lairs to laugh at us and never be brought to justice. What difference did any of my anger make? Paul Ryan is laughing at us, and it's hard for me to believe he won't be joined by Mitch McConnell so they can high five and chuckle at how they brought America to its end, the bad guys win, credits.

I can't imagine Trump in jail, and certainly not all his enablers who belong there with him. And in the end, the Emperor-Palpatine-level villain I'm so furious with ends up looking like this:

I seriously doubt the billionaires of the world care that I think they shouldn't exist. The only person affected by my hatred of those evil bankers, in the end, has been me. And so it will probably be with evil politicians. Life is short and appearing shockingly shorter with every year that passes. How much of my energy should I waste on impotent hatred?

But lots of great stuff happened in 2019 and relative to most of human history, it was a great time to be alive. In 2020, I'm going to make a conscious effort to focus less on national politics and more on things happening in my community I can actually impact.


As I said, the biggest change in my author life in 2019 has been hosting and producing the Middle Grade Ninja podcast, which has had its ups and downs as I'm still learning on the job how to do it successfully. But it's been mostly ups, so I plan to record more podcasts in 2020.

Even if, for some reason, the whole thing comes to an end and I quit podcasting forever, I'll still feel the episodes produced thus far are an absolute good and I'll be forever grateful for every one of the conversations I've had and the many, many things I've learned.

I'm still figuring out a successful work/life balance to keep the podcast goingand that's a struggle I expect to continue. Fortunately, I've recorded a bunch of episodes so I'm taking most of January off to give myself a break before I burn out. I don't want to complain because talking with so many wonderful people and sharing those conversation is a privilege, and I don't want the huge amount of work involved to lead me to ever take it for granted.

That said, every episode takes hours of work before it's recorded, both in arranging the episode and researching for it ahead of time. And though I try not to do much editing of the actual conversation except when requestedwhich is why you hear all my ums and awkward transitionsthe editing of each episode into clips and a final product takes a lot of time as well. That's mostly good as listening to each episode a couple times 1. Ensures I absorb the advice of my guests (maybe Esteemed Reader learns something, but I definitely do) 2. Helps me improve as a host for the next interview.

Still, all that work is probably why I went off on a publicist who was extremely rude not long ago. I'm not proud of this, but this particular publicist emailed me once about potential dates for her client, never followed up for over a month, and then emailed me the week before demanding that I drop everything and conduct the interview over the holidays, blaming me for her failure as though I were out to hurt her author.

Check out my site, friend. I won't deny I've had some interactions with authors over the years that could've gone better (you try running this blog for a decade and do everything perfect every time), but I feel I've been pretty consistently helpful to the writing community on a mostly volunteer basis over the last ten years. This irritating publicist (not one of the fine and noble publicists who's appeared on the show) and a few other unpleasant interactions left me grumbling.

But the podcast is extremely popular in a way that has really surprised me. People all around the world are tuning in to the show every week and in rapidly growing numbers, though the audience was already horrifyingly huge. I'm aware they're tuning in more for the guests than for me, which makes perfect sense, but I take pride in so far not dissuading folks from listening to the show by appearing on it:)


In 2020, I anticipate writing more things that are not Banneker, parts of one thing that very much is, and hosting more podcasts. I'm going to do more public appearances and read new and interesting books and beat Breath of the Wild. This time next year I hope to have a whole bunch of great things to tell you about, so I'm going to get busy doing some great things now as to not let either of us down. I hope you have a great 2020 as well, Esteemed Reader.