FEARLESS FRIDAYS – Abi Elphinstone holds a… hamster!

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I go through phases. Sometimes I can be pretty brave – I’ve bungee-jumped into a ravine, hang-glided over Rio De Janeiro and cliff-jumped 50 feet into a river. But then there are the other times. The times where I’m so frightened I make these weird, high-pitched strangled sort of sounds from the back of my throat. And they tend to tumble out when I’m faced with a shark, snake or HAMSTER. Hamsters are the worst though – their tiny pattering feet completely terrify me.

But a little girl I teach, Tesa (the younger sister of the girl who played my main character in The Dreamsnatcher trailer!) has a hamster called Caramel and apparently he hasn’t bitten anyone for a whole month now. How comforting. Here goes…

When she’s not zooming around Burma on a motorbike or hang-gliding over Rio de Janeiro, Abi Elphinstone can be found in London, in her writing hut at the bottom of the garden. Her debut MG children’s book, THE DREAMSNATCHER, has been described as ‘Pullman-esque’ and follows gypsy girl, Moll, and her wildcat as they fight back against a witchdoctor’s dark magic. It will be published by Simon & Schuster on 26th February 2015.

FEARLESS FRIDAYS – Mike Grosso faces his fear of heights

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“FEARLESS FRIDAYS is something new for 2015. During our big scary debut year, many of our members will be facing their biggest fears and posting about the experience on Fridays.”

Most of my fears connect to an event. A huge spider para-trooping onto the back of my neck at age four, for instance, gifted me with eternal arachnophobia.

My fear of heights, however, connects to nothing. I’ve never been attacked by a mountain or dangled out of an airplane to get me to spill the beans.

My fear of heights is without reason. It does not negotiate.

It cohesively fits the medium of nightmares. Take any awful thing your brain can imagine during the twilight hours, and top it off by strolling off a ledge and waking up in a cold sweat. A perfect ending to a horrible narrative.

It ruins a lot of fun things, like roller coasters and pretending to be tough. I’m forty-five minutes away from Six Flags Great America, but I’ve only been on the Giant Drop once, and only because my friends made me. My eyes were closed the entire time, except for a peek at the Chicago skyline the moment my plummet began and my horror movie scream shot across the sky.

“Man, did you hear that girl screaming her head off?” one of my clueless friends said. I’ve never forgiven him.

The good news is taking on your fear of heights (AKA acrophobia) is surprisingly fun, especially when you’re an El ride away from the Sears Tower (I won’t call it Willis) and its terrifying Skydeck.

It didn’t help that I’d read an article about the protective coating cracking.

It didn’t help that I had no change of pants, and Macy’s on State Street doesn’t have a bargain bin.

It didn’t help that 103 floors up (1,353 feet) is really freaking high, enough to make the world turn upside-down in my head.

But I did it anyway… because writers need to be brave.

Becky Wallace is up next. Her amazing debut, THE STORYSPINNER, releases in March, but she’ll be scaring herself silly much sooner than that – two weeks from today, on Friday, January 16, to be exact.

Mike GrossoMike Grosso writes, teaches, parents, and plays a variety of instruments at all hours of the day for all possible reasons in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son. He loves coffee, teaching, writing, reading, and making lots of noise with whatever objects he can find nearby. His debut contemporary middle grade novel, I AM DRUMS, will be released by Egmont USA in September 2015. Until then, you can follow his journey to publication at mikegrossoauthor.com or by following him on Twitter.

ALL FOUR KIDS: An Interview with Ami Polonsky, author of Gracefully Grayson

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Mike Grosso at the blog wheel today, thrilled to be interviewing Ami Polonsky, author of the wonderful 2014 debut GRACEFULLY GRAYSON, a book that will speak to any middle grade reader with a secret that threatens to crush their soul.

Here’s the specifics on GRACEFULLY GRAYSON:

gracefullygrayson

What if who you are on the outside doesn’t match who you are on the inside?

Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection, or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher’s wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit?

GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is available today at Indiebound | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-MillionAmazon | Powells | Book Depository

MG: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview! GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is a particularly brave angle for a middle grade book. I imagine it would require a special agent/editor. Did it have any trouble finding a home?

AMI: Thank you, Mike. And thanks so much for interviewing me! Gracefully Grayson actually found a home fairly easily. I attribute this good fortune to a) the fact that times are finally changing and the world seems ready for a middle school-aged, transgender protagonist and b) the fact that my agent and editors recognized this. I queried my agent, Wendy Schmalz, in August of 2012 and by early October, we had a book deal. Of course, this was fabulous for me on a personal level, but on a larger scale I think it’s a clear sign that transgender children are finally starting to get the positive attention that they deserve. So yes, Gracefully Grayson does have a very special agent, and it also has two very special editors—Lisa Yoskowitz and Stephanie Lurie at Disney-Hyperion. I am forever indebted to all three of them for standing behind me and my book.

MG: There are many readers out there who will identify – both openly and secretly – with Grayson. What is the most important message you’d like them to hear?

AMI: I think that the middle school and high school years can be really difficult times to remain true to who you are. I was a total conformist during those years and I really regret that. I think our world would be a better place if we all had the courage to let our unique qualities shine. My message to others would be to get to know who you are, love who you are, and let others see the real you.

MG: On the other side of that coin, some readers may have trouble accepting someone like Grayson.  The book has many great examples of characters that either bully or are afraid to speak up against those who bully. What message are you hoping they will get from the book?

AMI: While this may sound simplistic, I’m really hoping that people who read Gracefully Grayson will come to like Grayson. I want them to view her as someone they’d want to get to know further. I think that we often stay away from people who we view as very different from us because we’re afraid of differences. I tend to focus on similarities between people rather than differences. There are so many common threads between all of our experiences as human beings, and we can find a common ground with almost anybody. I hope that people who might be inclined to bully or shun a transgender person will get to know Grayson well enough to recognize that her struggles are universal struggles—she wants to be true to herself, and she wants her community to know her for who she really is.

MG: I really loved the way GRACEFULLY GRAYSON confronts gender and sexual orientation as two separate things. Other than the taunts of a few bullies, Grayson’s sexuality is kept largely ambiguous while his gender identity is quite clear. How would you respond to a reader who is curious about Grayson’s sexual orientation?

AMI: That’s an interesting question, and I’m usually reluctant to answer the unanswered questions in Gracefully Grayson. Now that I’ve sent the book out into the world, I really feel that it’s not mine anymore. But…I’ll answer just this one unanswered question! I’ve always viewed Grayson as a straight female. 

MG: As a fellow educator, I was intrigued by your background as a former language arts teacher and literacy coach. How did your teaching experience help form Grayson’s story?

AMI: It helped form it in so many ways! I never would have become an author if I weren’t a teacher first. During the six years that I taught, I never once dreamed of becoming an author. It literally never crossed my mind. But during those years I read so many middle grade novels, and I read each one so many times. First off, I was completely blown away by how good the books were. I love coming of age stories in general, and middle grade books of all genres almost always contain a coming of age component. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those six years of reading and discussing middle grade novels with my students had imprinted a map of the middle grade novel in my mind. Five years after leaving the classroom, I sat down to write Gracefully Grayson. I was able to activate this map and it led me through the writing process.

MG: I have to mention the excellent blurb from James Howe (author of BUNNICULA, and, more recently, THE MISFITS). How did that come about?

AMI: I was blown away by that blurb. It literally left me speechless. I didn’t know James was reading Gracefully Grayson until I got a call from one of my editors, Lisa Yoskowitz. She read the blurb to me over the phone. Hyperion had contacted him, unbeknownst to me, so it was an utter surprise. I have a vivid memory of sitting with my little brother on his bed—I was probably ten—and reading Bunnicula to him. My brother was, at that time, what you might call a “reluctant reader,” but he was completely entranced by the vampire bunny. James Howe was such a fixture during my childhood, and the fact that he blurbed my book is just incredible. I hope to meet him in person someday and give him a big hug.

MG: And because this community is fearless, what’s something you’re afraid of and something you’re not afraid of?

AMI: Oh, how I would love to be fearless! Okay—I’m petrified of sharks for absolutely no good reason. I’m not afraid of anything that lives in or near a lake, though—bugs, slugs, leeches—I can handle them all. On a larger scale, I’m terrified of dying, kidnappers, cancer, heart disease, dogs getting lost, car accidents, fires…(how many pages can I use?!) but I’m not afraid to stand up for myself or the people I love.

MG: Thanks again for agreeing to this interview, and for sharing Grayson’s story with the world. I can’t wait to see what you write next!

 authorphotoAmi Polonsky (www.amipolonsky.com) is a reading and writing tutor, mother to two young children, and author, among other things. A former Language Arts teacher and literacy coach, Ami remains passionate about guiding children towards a love of books and helping create lifetime readers. Ami lives outside of Chicago with her family. This is her first novel.

Visit Ami Polonsky’s website at http://amipolonsky.com.

Mike GrossoMike Grosso writes, teaches, parents, and plays a variety of instruments at all hours of the day for all possible reasons in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son. He loves coffee, teaching, writing, reading, and making lots of noise with whatever objects he can find nearby. His debut contemporary middle grade novel, I AM DRUMS, will be released by Egmont USA in September 2015. Until then, you can follow his journey to publication at mikegrossoauthor.com or by following him on Twitter.

ALL FOUR KIDS: An Interview with Jessica Lawson, author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

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Mike Grosso here at the blog wheel, and today I’m excited to interview Jessica Lawson, whose debut takes the world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and spins it in wild and unexpected ways through the lens of Becky Thatcher. She’s no longer a minor love interest anymore. Now she’s the star of her own mischievous book, and what a book it is.

Here’s the specifics on THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER:

Becky Thatcher

Becky Thatcher has her side of the story to tell—and it’s a whopper—in this creative spin on Mark Twain’s beloved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, complete with illustrations.

Tom Sawyer’s and Huckleberry Finn’s adventures are legendary, but what about the story you haven’t heard? In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher is the new girl in town, determined to have adventures like she promised her brother Jon before he died. With her Mama frozen in grief and her Daddy busy as town judge, Becky spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her.

But the theft doesn’t go as planned, and Widow Douglas ends up being unfairly accused of grave robbing as a result. So Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow’s name. If she pulls it off, she might just get her Mama to notice her again, as well as fulfill her promise to Jon in a most unexpected way. That is, if that tattletale Tom Sawyer will quit following her around.

THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER is available today at Indiebound | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-MillionAmazon | Powells | Book Depository

MG: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview! I really enjoyed Becky’s story! There are a lot of unique characters in Twain’s universe, but your book does something bold by shining the spotlight on quite a few side characters. Why did you feel Becky Thatcher was the one who needed a bigger story?

JESSICA: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a classic and I love, love, love the book exactly as it is, so I would never say that she needed a bigger story. I think it was a matter of me always relating more to Tom and Huck, and thinking that it would be neat if Becky Thatcher got to have a little fun as well. I had written several manuscripts before this one, so I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be snatched up. It was more that I got a spark of an idea and when I went to explore it, this different version of Becky had a voice that…well, she had a lot to say J

MG: Becky’s “relationship” with Tom is much different in this version of the story (to put it lightly!). What do you see as the main reason they don’t get along?

JESSICA: He’s a tattletale, which is just about the worst thing a kid can be (in Becky’s eyes). In her mind, his loyalties lean toward adults rather than fellow kids, which is unforgivable in the miniature Kingdom that kids create for themselves. I felt a little bad for Tom when writing the story, because there are times when Becky is pretty harsh with him. I thought about softening a few key phrases, but that just wasn’t true to her character.

MG: Speaking of relationships, Becky and Amy have a fascinating friendship rather than a rivalry. What made you feel these two needed to bond?

JESSICA: Adventures are always more fun when you have a co-pilot. Tom had Huck, and my version of Becky Thatcher has Amy Lawrence. It started out as a little joke—in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Amy is the girl who Tom was “engaged” to before Becky, so their relationship was one of jealousy (on Becky’s part). In my version, their mutual dislike of Tom Sawyer is one of the things that brings them together. Also, both girls have parental absences and that serves as something that draws them together and makes them fast friends.There are departures from the original story sprinkled throughout my novel, and this was one of my favorites to develop. I love how, at certain ages, best friends can be formed almost instantaneously, with loyalties declared and fiercely guarded.

MG: You’ve nailed Twain’s voice and setting perfectly. How did you go about creating such an authentic feel for the book?

JESSICA: That’s incredibly generous of you to say—thank you! It was the kind of voice that came fairly naturally to me, maybe because I know Tom Sawyer’s story well. But I hadn’t read the actual novel in several years when I got the idea. I actually made a point not to re-read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer right before drafting the story because I was concerned that I’d try to emulate Twain’s voice too much, which would have been an epic fail on my part. Instead, I just listened to this lively liar who had a big heart and wrote down what she had to say. My dad grew up in southeastern Missouri, and the accent and vernacular for my Becky T. is probably a combination of voices I heard in my childhood while visiting grandparents and fictional phrases that popped into my head. The setting is one that is so well-known, so I wanted to keep my own descriptions light. My version of St. Petersburg is a smaller version than Twain’s, but I hope it has the same general feel.

MG: As long as we’re on the subject of how authentic your book reads, it’s worth mentioning that a lot of familiar faces (many of which I did not expect) manage to pop up in Becky’s tale. Which of Twain’s characters was the most fun to include?

JESSICA: I’d say Mr. Dobbins, the teacher. Meanies are always fun to write, especially in an ever-so-slightly exaggerated style.

MG: Becky Thatcher works wonderfully as both a standalone novel and a companion to Twain’s stories. Why do you think a reader unfamiliar with Twain’s work should still read your book?

JESSICA: Well, I hope it’s a fun read. I tried to write it so that any glimpses of the original (and nods to other works by Twain) would be noticed by anyone familiar with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that wouldn’t detract from the narrative or confuse readers who hadn’t read Twain. I think I was kind of aiming for something like those inside jokes in Pixar movies—some people get the jokes and appreciate them, but they don’t diminish the experience or slow down the movie for those who don’t necessarily realize that there’s a specific reference behind a joke. And I think maybe the grieving element makes it a different sort of novel that might be a good match for certain readers who haven’t connected with Twain’s work yet.

MG: I noticed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have new covers that match up with yours. All three of them look fantastic! It also looks like readers will have the option to purchase Becky Thatcher as part of a boxed set. How did the idea of packaging Becky Thatcher with Twain’s books come about?

JESSICA: I wasn’t privy to conversations about that—it was an idea/decision that came completely from the good people at Simon & Schuster. If I were to guess, I would say that it’s because Mark Twain’s classic books are in the public domain (meaning publishers have free reign to print new editions) and they are always going to be popular (particularly those two). My book was a nice reason for them to release shiny new editions with gorgeous covers and illustrations by artist/illustrator Iacopo Bruno. Since Becky Thatcher is a beloved part of Tom Sawyer’s world, I think they decided it would be neat to have a three-book set, each book featuring one of those key beloved characters (even if my version puts a spin on things). Trust me, I never thought I’d see my name on a boxed set with Mark Twain. My husband and I have gotten similar questions about the collection and have joked that I was the one who approached the publisher with:  “Listen, I’ve got an idea. Let’s put my book in with Twain’s books. And then I’d like to be in a boxed set with Dickens, or maybe Hemingway.”  We get a good laugh about that. But really, it’s a very unlikely, amazing, cool thing to happen and I’ll definitely be buying a couple of sets to pass down to my kiddos one day.

MG: And because this community is fearless, what’s something you’re afraid of and something you’re not afraid of?

JESSICA: I’m terrified of those Pillsbury biscuit/pizza dough cans that tell you to pull the label strip until it pops open (or to press a spoon against a dotted line until it opens). Those things freak me out like crazy. And I’m not afraid of spiders~ if I find one in the house, I always capture it and set it free outside.

MG: Thanks again for agreeing to this interview, and sharing some of your insight into how THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER came to be. I’ll be waiting to see what you write next!

bioshotJessica Lawson enjoys living/playing in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and children. She has to seasonally inform the landlord about bear damage to the trash bin at the end of her driveway and regularly sees a fox family trotting around the neighborhood (which makes her feel like she’s in one of her favorite Roald Dahl books). She fell in love with books at an early age, and is a sucker for Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, RL LaFevers, Charles Dickens, Barbara Park, Maryrose Wood, Barbara Cooney, Anne Ursu, Gail Carson Levine, Arnold Lobel, Sharon Creech, Eva Ibbotson, Dave Barry, Shannon Hale, Fannie Flagg, Maeve Binchy and many, many, many other wonderful authors (and illustrators). She writes middle grade fiction, lots of to-do lists, and songs about diapers.

Visit Jessica Lawson’s website at http://jessicalawsonbooks.com

Visit Simon & Schuster’s Becky Thatcher webpage.

Mike GrossoMike Grosso writes, teaches, parents, and plays a variety of instruments at all hours of the day for all possible reasons in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son. He loves coffee, teaching, writing, reading, and making lots of noise with whatever objects he can find nearby. His debut contemporary middle grade novel, I AM DRUMS, will be released by Egmont USA in September 2015. Until then, you can follow his journey to publication at mikegrossoauthor.com or by following him on Twitter.

Mike Grosso Introduction

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I was the kid who never sat still. Not in the sense that I was productive, or had intelligent things to share with the class, or that I dreamed of traveling to faraway places. I was the kid who sat in a chair and tapped his desk, wiggled his toes, or clucked his tongue in rhythm. Reading was an unlikely hobby for me because I honestly didn’t have the attention span for it. I was more likely to harbor a hidden talent for knocking over science projects or stringing up popsicle sticks with rubber bands so I could strum them like a guitar.

I thought about a lot of things. About cool monsters, and music, and about instruments that didn’t exist because I was going to create them. I was like my main character, Sam Morris, in that way – my imagination was filled with things I couldn’t communicate without a headphone jack for people to plug in and listen.

It wasn’t all fidgeting and music, of course. I somehow settled myself long enough to both read widely and think deeply about books. They were my anchor, really. My chill out activity. A way to keep my brain focused on one thing for an extended period of time. I brought my growing love of books with me through every experience I had, until the day came when I found myself in love with teaching upper elementary school kids. Through them I learned about the world of middle grade books, works of fiction that helped kids understand those mysterious feelings that only imaginary headphone jacks in their head can explain.

When I made the decision to write in the voice of a twelve-year-old girl who literally thought in music, all I really had to do was remember. Sam’s a girl, but I didn’t set out to write a girl character so much as write a character who happens to be a girl. How did this girl feel while she spent hours awake at night with the soundtrack of her imagination playing on repeat? What did it feel like to annoy the kids around her with the patterned collision of eraser against notebook during language arts (try it sometime — it makes a perfect imaginary kickdrum, especially if you press your ear against the desk).

If anything, I hope Sam lets kids know that it’s okay to be passionate about things other people don’t seem to care about. It’s okay to be weird, and laugh at jokes no one else finds funny. And it’s okay to want to rock harder than anyone else, so long as you’re willing to work your heart out getting there.

I truly believe Sam’s story has found a perfect home, with a perfect agent, editor, and publisher. I’m both scared and excited for you to meet her when I AM DRUMS hits shelves in the fall of 2015.

Mike GrossoMike Grosso writes, teaches, parents, and plays a variety of instruments at all hours of the day for all possible reasons in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son. He loves coffee, teaching, writing, reading, and making lots of noise with whatever objects he can find nearby. His debut contemporary middle grade novel, I AM DRUMS, will be released by Egmont USA in Fall 2015. Until then, you can follow his journey to publication at mikegrossoauthor.com or by following him on Twitter.