Ethel’s Song: An Interview with Barbara Krasner

In increasingly Unprecedented Times, we often look to the past to inform our actions as we move into the uncertain future. Historical books, especially books for young readers about people who have thus far had their particular histories unsung, have been and continue to be invaluable to education, not only on the subject of history itself, but on the subject of humanity.
Author and alumnx Barbara Krasner has written one such historical novel–in verse!– about a powerhouse of a woman tried and executed for espionage post WWII in the US: Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems, a Novel in Verse.
Check out our interview with Barbara below and learn more about her and her fascinating new book coming out September 13, 2022!
1.Tell us a little bit about Ethel’s song in your own words.
Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems, a Novel in Verse puts a woman accused of and executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in the context of place and time. Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg was a victim of her circumstances and represents an American tragedy.
2. Who was Ethel Rosenberg and why is her story especially important for young readers right now?
Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg was born in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area swarming with poor Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Whip-smart and talented in acting and singing, Ethel’s hopes to go to college were dashed by the Great Depression and the family’s need for her to go to work. She became active in workers’ rights. When she met Julius Rosenberg at a charity benefit, she met her soulmate. Accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, Ethel dealt with challenges in the American legal system against a backdrop of fear of communism in the post-World War II period and ever-present antisemitism. We still see these challenges today.
3. You chose to write this historical novel in verse. Why was this the best choice to portray Ethel and her story?
I originally drafted this narrative as non-fiction prose. But at a Highlights Foundation retreat, Calkins Creek editor Carolyn P. Yoder suggested I rewrite it as verse. I felt immediately relieved and liberated. Using verse, I could use poetic form to convey Ethel’s emotions (e.g., a villanelle for her despair), repetition to communicate obsession, etc.
4. Tell us a bit about you. What makes you tick as an author?
I write history in a variety of forms–picture books, historical fiction, novels in verse. I have a Ph.D. in Holocaust & Genocide Studies and teach courses in those areas as well as American history.
5. What are some social justice issues that are close to your heart right now?
I am concerned about giving voice to those who either have no voice or have little to no opportunity to get their voice heard. I just read the UN Declaration of Human Rights to my genocide class the other day and that exercise reminded me of how those rights do not exist in many parts of the world, including really our own country.
6. What was something that surprised you while writing this book?
I wanted Julius to speak up for his wife and tell everyone she had nothing to do with the charges levied against them. She was not a member of the communist party, had no code name, and did not pass any secrets.
7. What was the biggest challenge you faced writing Ethel’s Song?
The biggest challenge was sorting through the legalese and getting all the legal points correct. I thank Ethel’s son, Robert Meeropol, for bringing those errors to my attention.
8. You have another project in the works. What can you tell us about it?
Yes, thanks! I’m working on another young adult novel in verse called Camp Nordland. It deals with the unraveled friendship between two Newark, NJ teenagers starting in 1937 when the teen one of German heritage (the other is Jewish) attends a Nazi paramilitary training camp in rural New Jersey. Camp Nordland operated in Andover from 1937 until 1941. It’s due for publication in Fall 2023 from Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers.
9. What do you do to decompress when the ills of the world seem too heavy?
That’s actually not one of my strong suits, unfortunately. I play a lot of Freecell, watch Bravo TV, and lead writing sessions on family history and memoir.
10. What are some social justice resources you can recommend for your readers?
Facing History and Ourselves is a fabulous website I can recommend. I also recommend Echoes and Reflections and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
You can learn more about Barbara and her works at www.barbarakrasner.com

Be Real, Macy Weaver! An Interview With Lakita Wilson

Art cannot exist in a vacuum. This we understand completely at VCFA. Each form of art influences and is influenced by the other art forms, creating the web that connects The Arts (big A.) It’s no surprise, then, that VCFA WCYA alum Lakita Wilson explores and celebrates a separate art (the art of fashion design) in her upcoming middle grade novel, Be Real Macy Weaver, which will be released on July 12, 2022 from Penguin Random House. We got to interview her about writing, fashion as an art form, and capturing the longing for friendship and understanding that is part of the experience of childhood.

1. Tell us about Be Real, Macy Weaver in your own words.
Be Real, Macy Weaver is a novel about a girl who wants more. More love. More acceptance. More support. More friends. But, she’s going to have to discover who she is, what she likes, and what’s best for her to get it.

2. Tell us about your main character. What parts of you or others did she come from? What about her makes you proud?
There are definite similarities between Macy and me as a kid. I desperately wanted to be seen, and I definitely did the most at times. I didn’t always have friends, and I wasn’t always the best at being a friend. But I made it through, and I knew Macy would too, if she just kept going, owned up to her part in the mess, and worked toward better. Roadblocks and disappointments are hurled at us every day. The only thing anyone can do—child or adult— is work to get to a better place the best way they know how.

3. Fashion is a big part of this book. What drew you to fashion and did you have to learn anything new about fashion before writing this book?
I am obsessed with fashion—fashion can be a tool for expressing individuality, or your community as a collective. When I wear a unique piece, I am telling you who I am. When I wear something that symbolizes my collective group—whether it has cultural significance, school gear, or even something that is generation-specific, I am telling you who we are. I think when chosen with care, your wardrobe has the power to say so much without you ever having to speak. I’ve always loved browsing through fashion magazines and looking at what is coming down the runway (even though I could rarely afford the pieces.) Studying fashion, and Haute Couture specifically for this book, forced me to see fashion design as a true art form. The same way I try to give my readers a story, fashion designers tell an entire story in one collection. And I love looking at fashion in that way. What is the story coming down this runway? What does the designer want me to know about what they created?

4. What do you think are some of the things children struggle with when it comes to learning to be their true selves?
Being yourself is so hard when you’re young, because in the short term, it’s so much easier to blend in, and become acceptable by peer and societal standards. But the long term havoc this does to your heart and self-esteem isn’t worth it. So, it’s definitely a struggle, and a social risk to showcase what makes you unique . However, I will say that this generation feels a lot braver than my own. This generation embraces and celebrates uniqueness a lot more. And I find that so refreshing. Maybe our generation saw the emotional damage of masking ourselves to fit in and taught our children better. Or maybe the children today are just smarter.

5. Trying to find a best friend–not just any friend, but a BEST friend–is a theme that shows up often in middle grade. Why do you think the yearning for best friendship is such a big theme for that age group?
I teach early childhood education at a college here in Maryland, and one of the things I teach my students is about the progression of play and friendship—and what that looks like in a child’s development. Children move from parallel play (playing side by side, but not necessarily together), to playing together in preschool, and actually choosing their own friends, instead of selecting friendship based on convenience and proximity. By the time children reach the 8-12 age range, they understand the value of friendship, and how it can really be an asset for the heart. So, the next natural stage of development for them is choosing the best or the favorite. Who am I closest to? Who do I feel comfortable sharing my deepest secrets. Who gets me the most? They are also beginning to think critically about these friendships. “This person is my friend, but they make me feel horrible inside all the time. Is this really my friend? Do friends treat each other this way?” Friendship is a popular theme, because it’s one of the first times children get to make their own choices about what’s happening in their lives and are forced to trust themselves. The best decisions aren’t always made in this stage, but it’s a necessary part of our development so that we can look back on our missteps or mistakes, and choose better next time. I could write ten more books around the friendship/best friendship theme because there’s always something friendship-related going on with this age group.

6. What was the most surprising thing you learned (about fashion, about your characters, or about yourself) while writing this book?
I loved the fact that the original designers of Haute Couture clothing were literally painting designs that had symbolic meaning onto the fabric. The fact that a designer could make this very unique piece, and it be something that can’t be duplicated is priceless. I realized as I studied that, that we had teens in my high school who did the same thing. They would airbrush clothing and sell them, and we called it urban wear. But honestly, they weren’t mass producing it (at least not the ones who were creating stuff in their bedrooms.), they were creating unique pieces to wear themselves or sell off to a classmate. So, technically, they was this renaissance of Haute Couture Urban Wear going on right in my high school, and we all treated it like it was no big deal. Those guys deserve their flowers for having the guts to create on that level!

7. What was something you learned at VCFA that helped you write this book?
When I started VCFA, I had one novel drafted, and I thought I would fix this novel at school, and graduate ready to publish that one work. VCFA turned my “one and done” idea on its head as soon as I arrived. My advisors and the school in general encouraged me to write widely and take risks—to free myself to be as creative as possible while I was there. I shelved the original novel halfway through the program, and started MACY on a blanket in the grass during my third semester residency. I had just attended Evan Griffith’s grad lecture:
Give the Hero a Pet: How Animals Can Reveal and Deepen Human Characterization and I was determined to put what I’d just learned on the page. So, I created this spider as Macy’s friend/pet. And it’s the only thing from those first typed lines in the grass that remained in the final copy of the novel. Thinking about it, I should’ve named that spider Evan. Missed opportunity, lol!
Also, I had a lot of inspiration behind using fashion as a form of expression by just going to residency. I mean, have you seen Ann Cardinal and her uniquely amazing eyeglasses? She’s basically a fashion icon. Will Alexander, and the way he’s used his cane as the greatest style accessory to hit College Hall’s Chapel? Put him on the cover of GQ immediately. I respect someone who goes out of their way to showcase their individuality. I recently saw Amy King on the cover of School Library Journal in her trademark ripped jeans, and the joy it brought me is unexplainable. Because, Amy brought herself to that cover. It’s brave and fun to see.

8. What was the most challenging part of writing Be Real, Macy Weaver?
The most challenging part of writing BE REAL, MACY WEAVER was finding the emotional foundation that ultimately led to many of her choices. Macy needed so much character development at first. For so long, when I would write scenes in novels, I would include a lot of action. Things were always happening. And I could make something humorous. But, I never looked inside my main character’s heart, and I believe this is what made it so hard to get an agent at first. I would always get feedback from agents saying, “This is fun concept, but it lacks emotional resonance.” One time I got this same feedback three times in one week from agents who had rejected me, so I knew I had to work on elevating my craft. For BE REAL, MACY WEAVER, I had to sit down, and really think about how I’ve felt in similar situations, or how I might feel in the situations my characters were in. Then I started rebuilding my characters from the inside out. This is when I really got to know Macy and her friends.

9. You’re also writing a young adult book. What was the most stark difference for you in writing YA and writing MG?
I am very childlike at heart, so middle grade is naturally easier for me to write. I remember my childhood angst very well. I remember the feelings of not belonging, of being too much, of not being enough. YA is completely different for me. I spent so much of my teen years, expertly pretending not to care, that it’s harder to remember how I truly felt during those years—making it harder to put those feelings on the page. You also have to be so much more romantic in YA and for a person who would rather tell a fart joke than say “I love you”, this is extremely hard. However, longing for more/better for yourself is a theme that has no age limit, so regardless of MG or YA, I always start there.

10. Do you have any advice for other middle grade authors?
Find your inner child, and spend lots of time getting to know them again. Technology changes throughout the years, but wants, needs, hopes and dreams don’t. They find their way into children’s hearts throughout the generations. You may have written a pen pal using a letter and snail mail. Your children may leave comments under a friends post on social media. Both of you still want(ed) the same thing. A connection. A friend. To find someone that gets you. Write from your inner child, and you will find readers that can relate to your story.

 

Lakita Wilson is the author of several novels and non-fiction projects for children and young adults, including What Is Black Lives Matter?, a part of the New York Times Bestselling HQ Now series; Be Real, Macy Weaver, a coming of age middle grade friendship story; and a few other secret projects she isn’t allowed to tell you about yet.

You can learn more about her and her books at www.lakitawilson.com

Interview with Alum Robin Kirk on Two New Releases!

There seem to be two schools of thought on what to read during Unprecedented Times: fantasy to indirectly inform as one escapes reality, and nonfiction, to prepare, learn, and inform about the world in which we live. But with her two new releases, the middle grade nonfiction Righting Wrongs 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World and the final book in her young adult fantasy trilogy, The Mother’s Wheel, Winter 2014 alum Robin Kirk has readers of both schools covered.

In addition to being a children’s book author, Kirk is also on the faculty at Duke University, where she serves as Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology, Faculty Co-Chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and a founding member of the Pauli Murray Project. Her lived and academic experience in this field has served to deepen and inform her writing, helping it to ring true in increasingly unpredictable times.

You have two very different books to discuss today! Righting Wrongs: 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World and The Mother’s Wheel, Book Three in your YA fantasy, The Bond Trilogy. What can you tell us about each of these books?

In my life, I’ve written in virtually every format: essays, op-eds, poems, fiction (novels, novellas, short stories, and flash fiction), press releases, technical reports, etc. I even drafted an opera based on my neighborhood list serve! For me, format is a choice that leads to the audience you are seeking as a writer and what effect you hope to have. But in all of these formats, my theme is very much the same: justice. In Righting Wrongs, I wanted to highlight that rights are envisioned, then won, then defended. Human rights were always something people had to think up, then work to achieve. I want kids to know about the people who did that on women’s rights, the laws of war, animal rights, and much more. In The Bond Trilogy, I use story to explore how rights work in an alternate world. My heroine, Dinitra, is raised to believe that men are inherently violent and should be eliminated. That’s one of the real-world ways of thinking that leads to genocide. In the course of the series, Dinitra comes to question everything, even the idea that animals and mutants—mixtures of animal and plant—don’t have rights equal to hers. The main character in The Mother’s Wheel is a mutant, Sil, who ends up saving her and creating a found family that is just as loving and intertwined as any purely human one.

 

You’re one of the rare authors who writes fiction and nonfiction, and who writes for multiple age groups. What were the different challenges you faced writing these two books?

I think writing both is actually more common than people realize. One of the great examples of this is Margaret Atwood, who is so talented in so many genres (including picture books, a format I admire and very much hope to ad to my list). I think one challenge is to ensure that nonfiction is as gripping as fiction. People and especially kids learn through story. In Righting Wrongs, I was challenged to make sure that the sometimes messy lives I was working with had a coherence and theme that kid readers would find interesting. At the same time, I wanted to reflect that these heroes also went through times of doubt and uncertainty, as do we all.

 

Fantasy can be such a great tool for self-discovery. Where did the inspiration for The Bond Trilogy come from? What did you learn while writing it?

I had just finished the draft of an adult novel and was pretty sad. I was on vacation with my family and ended up walking down a mountain largely by myself (everyone was ahead of me). I’d just finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and was so impressed by how he tackled the incredibly difficult theme of humanity in the midst of the Holocaust. Doubly impressive that he did this with kid readers in mind. I wanted to do something in the same spirit in a fantasy world. So I thought, ‘What group of people would most of us say has damaged the world the most – and who many would then believe should be controlled or even eliminated?’ The answer was easy: men. And that’s the seed of The Bond, where Dinitra has been taught that it’s not only natural to confine men. Getting rid of them entirely is the best and most ethical way to protect the world. What I learned is EVERYTHING. This early draft was what I sent as part of my application to VCFA. Looking back, it was TERRIBLE from start to finish and in every way. But it became the template that helped make me a better writer, good enough, at least, to turn this idea into a publishable book.

 

Righting Wrongs is such an important book for these increasingly unprecedented times. Did anything from your personal or work experience motivate you to write it?

The idea was very much born in the classroom. I teach human rights to undergraduates. Again and again, I understood that they thought of human rights as something everyone got, kind of like a driver’s license, and that was consistent through time. This is in part a huge failure of the US educational system, but it goes further than that. My students simply couldn’t see that real people were behind the rights they took for granted. And real people are also constantly pushing at the boundaries of ideas of rights to include more people—women, children, LGBTQIA+, the disabled, even animals. I wrote this book not only to highlight the very real people behind human rights, but also show them, these new generations, that human rights now belongs to them and they get to continue to expand these ideas.

 

 

Tell us about your characters in The Bond Trilogy. What made you realize you HAD to tell their story?

I was inspired by Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series to shift point-of-view leads for each book. I love series that do that since the reader gets a new perspective with beach one and the author gets to explore the themes from different backgrounds. Dinitra is the main character in The Bond. I really wanted her to be that character that helps the readers walk through a reality that isn’t so far from our own in terms of how the logic of genocide works. She comes to see males as human and realizes she’s been lied to. The Hive Queen is from the perspective of the warrior she falls in love with, Fir. His struggle is different: how can you be free when all you’ve known is bondage? He wants to free his brothers but make serious mistakes and has to live with the consequences and still figure out what it means to be free. Sil is the main character in The Mother’s Wheel. In her case, she’s the only one of her kind since she was a failed genetic experiment. Can she ever have a family—or love someone and be loved back? I loved telling these stories since they all had to do with justice in different ways. They are all a piece of me, and I learned a lot about myself in writing the story.

 

What surprised you about writing these three books?

When I finished the first draft of The Bond, I thought that was it, that I was done with these characters and this world. But my son, about 10 at the time, said to me, “Boys love series. They want to know what they’re getting into. You should write a series.” I immediately dismissed this. Then gradually, I started to see how rich this world could be. The Hive Queen was terrifying to write but also so satisfying. I’d completed The Mother’s Wheel when the original published canceled the contract (in the midst of COVID). So I was faced with a choice–leave the story as is or find a way to complete the trilogy? I realized that I couldn’t leave the story behind; I needed to finish. Otherwise, I realized, this world, these beloved characters, would be no more. I HAD to finish.

 

What are some challenges you’ve encountered in publishing a trilogy during Covid?

Having the publisher bail on the project was a real blow. But for a number of reasons, I came to see that I was much better off. I got to commission new—AND FABULOUS—covers that more accurately reflect the books. I also redesigned the interiors, a creative task I really enjoyed.

 

Which of the human rights heroes’ stories in Righting Wrongs were you most excited to share with your readers and why?

If I had to choose one, I’d say Judith Heumann, a champion of disability rights. At the time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed to in 1948, there was no recognition at all of the rights of the disabled. This is despite the fact that the person who chaired the effort, Eleanor Roosevelt, had lived with a disabled person, her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (he died on an unrelated cause in 1945). Like FDR, Heumann contracted polio. She began to use a wheelchair as a young girl. At seemingly every turn, she was faced with discrimination. Instead of giving up, she and other disabled activists fought back, often very creatively. It’s largely due to their persistence that we have many accessible buildings, close-captioning, accommodations in the classroom and work, elevators, and so, so much more. Heumann is constantly reminding people that we all face potential disability because of life, especially as we age. Acknowledging and defending the rights of the disabled is good for us all.

 

How do you see your body of work evolving in the future? More fantasy? More nonfiction? Or maybe branching out into other genres and age groups?

I am so excited about the future! I have a number of projects lined up: more stories in the world of The Bond Trilogy, a space opera, picture books, even a middle-grade novel. And I hope there will be a second volume of Righting Wrongs. There are so many heroes to write about!

 

What advice can you give new VCFA students and recent alums for keeping the joy in your writing life despite uncertainty? 

Find a way to be at peace with the uncertainty.

You can learn more about Robin and her books at her website, www.robinkirk.com

Manatee Summer – An Interview with Alum Evan Griffith!

As the summer gets underway, our thoughts often turn to fun in the sun and frolicking on the beach, hoping for an encounter with sea creatures like dolphins, or, in VCFA alum Evan Griffith’s case, manatees! We were able to interview Evan about his middle grade novel, Manatee Summer. Learn more about this delightful book here!

1. Tell us what the story is about in your own words.

It’s the last summer before middle school for 11-year-old Peter and it’s a time of head spinning change. As Peter and his best friend, Tommy, try to complete their Discovery Journal—a scientific catalog of all the animal species they can find in their central Florida town—Peter must also take care of his grandfather, who has rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s, while his mom works to salvage her real estate career. Then, on the same day, Peter discovers a manatee injured in a boating strike and learns that Tommy is moving to Michigan. As Peter scrambles to save the injured manatee, take care of his grandfather, and somehow keep Tommy from leaving, his summer becomes a breathless race to fix everything that feels broken in his world.

2. This story centers around wildlife conservation, specifically manatees. What inspired you to write a story about manatees?

I grew up on the Indian River on the east coast of Florida. A group of manatees lived in the canal that ran into my neighborhood, and I used to sit on the banks and watch them swim slowly through the water. There was something about the gentleness and steadiness of such large creatures that stuck out to me. I knew that manatees are a vulnerable species and I remember seeing manatee zone signs posted in the waterways—a reminder to boats to go slow. It was my first exposure to wildlife conservation issues and the conflict between the natural world and the manmade world. After leaving Florida at age 18, I realized that manatees seemed otherworldly and almost mythological to people elsewhere in the country, and those childhood memories by the canal became more precious and nostalgic to me as time went on. So, when I became broadly interested in wildlife conservation as an adult and wanted to explore it in fiction, it made sense to return to my first exposure to it: manatees.

 

3. In Manatee Summer, your protagonist, Peter, finds himself taking on the responsibility of caring for his grandfather. Why was this an important aspect to include?

So many kids find themselves in positions of caretaking for parents, grandparents, or other adults in their lives. I wanted these kids to find themselves in this story. I wanted to honor kids’ natural caretaking instincts but also the overwhelming sense of responsibility these situations can cause, and the way that a reversal of the caretaker relationship can force kids to grow up too quickly. That moment in childhood when you start to realize that the adults in your life are vulnerable and fallible—that’s always been interesting to me, and it plays out in Peter’s relationship with his parents, too.

4. Your protagonist seems like the type to take on a lot of responsibility to fight against things that are largely outside his own control. What else can you tell us about this character?

Peter has a big heart and big feelings. He cares so deeply about the people and the animals he loves that it often hurts. He has a strong sense of injustice, and his temper flares when he sees it. He’s excitable, quick to act and quick to anger, but he has a hard time connecting with sadness, grief, and fear—the feelings that make him feel vulnerable and out of control. So part of his journey is learning to make room for these feelings, too, and finding a way to accept what he can’t control. Peter was so much fun to write—he’s always concocting ambitious plans and he sees himself as a leader, so he has lots of agency and really drives the story.

5. What surprised you about your characters while writing this book?

I was most surprised and delighted by Tommy, Peter’s best friend. I didn’t know much about Tommy when I started writing the book, so there was a real journey of discovery for me there. I was moved by how much of a steadfast friend he proved to be—he loves Peter unconditionally, and he’s such an anchor when Peter is spinning out. At the same time, he has his own challenges to overcome—exploring how he faces and overcomes his many fears was rewarding. We all need a friend like Tommy!

6. What can we do to help in the fight to help endangered animals?

As Peter says in the book, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when confronting the countless struggles and injustices that animals across the world are facing at our hands—and when that overwhelm happens, it helps to pick one one cause to devote your time, attention, and resources to—at least as a start. While the Florida Manatee Society in my book is a fictional organization, it was inspired by the Save the Manatee Club, which does fantastic advocacy and conservation work. I recommend checking out their work and donating, if you can. Of course, there are many more organizations out there devoted to different species, so if there’s an animal that you’re passionate about, see who is working to protect them and how you can get involved. On a larger scale, we all have to reckon with climate change and widespread environmental devastation—politically, culturally, ethically. My hope for kids like Peter is that they get to witness the human race making a concerted effort to move back into balance with the natural world. Kids—and all the animals of the world—deserve better.

_ _ _ _ _

Evan Griffith is the author of the middle-grade novel Manatee Summer (Quill Tree, 2022) and the picture book biography Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist (Clarion, 2021). He studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

He worked for several years as an editor at Workman Publishing, where he specialized in non-fiction for children and adults, and he continues to edit books on a freelance basis. Through his role as the youth programming specialist at The Writing Barn, a creative writing education center, he also teaches online writing classes for kids.

He lives in Austin, Texas with a mischievous tuxedo cat and several overflowing bookshelves.

You can learn more about Evan and his books at www.evangriffithbooks.com.

The Hike to Home – Jess Rinker (’14) on her Upcoming Release!

VCFA WCYA (Summer ’14) Alum Jess Rinker is set to release her fifth book on July 5th, 2022! Get the inside scoop on her middle grade adventure, The Hike to Home, here!

1. Tell us a little about The Hike to Home in your own words.

The Hike to Home is about a girl who sets out to find her own adventure. It was sold on proposal, and then switched imprints when my initial imprint closed. When it changed hands, it also changed editors and vision, which turned out to be a wonderful thing because my new editor really pushed me hard in developing my idea into a more complex, heartfelt story. But what didn’t change was what I knew I wanted to write about from the beginning: a story about kids hiking the AT on their own, an unconventional mother/daughter relationship that was still full of love, and a girl who knew a ton about nature but not so much about kids her own age. There are a lot of autobiographical elements in this story.

2. Tell us about your characters. Were they inspired by anyone you know or knew growing up?

Lin, the protagonist, is based on me, but with major changes in life experience/situations. We both grew up somewhat isolated from our peers and pop culture, but for very different reasons. Learning the names of flora and fauna everywhere is the constant that binds us. As a young person I devoured wildlife identification books and I’ve always had some kind of wonder and satisfaction at knowing the names of the little creepy crawlies as well as big beautiful blooms and more majestic creatures. I also had a TON of freedom as a kid to explore the woods, so I really wanted these kids to find adventure in their backyard like I used to. Tinsley is based largely on my expressive, creative daughter. And Leo really represents the smart, sweet boys I’ve known in my life, the boyhood that exists before it’s crushed by toxicity.

3. Finding a castle in the woods sounds like a great adventure. What motivates these characters to try to look for it? What does it symbolize for them? What did it symbolize for you (if anything?)

Lin is desperate for a grand adventure like she’s used to having, so when she lands in NJ she thinks there can’t possibly be anything exciting there, which just compounds her grief of missing her mom who was always her adventuring partner. (Mom isn’t gone, just away for a bit) When she makes new friends and learns of the legend of the castle, she thinks it’s exactly the kind of adventure Mom would have taken her on, so she sets out to prove she can do it herself, with a bit of revenge motivation. Besides, it’s just New Jersey, what could go wrong? The other two are not used to having the same kind of adventures or freedom that Lin has had, so they are pretty enchanted by her, which leads them all into some sketchy situations.

I think the castle mostly represents any goal or dream, honestly. Without castles, we don’t climb mountains. Without climbing mountains, we don’t know how strong we really are.

4. What draws you to middle grade as an age group?

Initially I wasn’t drawn to it, to be honest. I didn’t think I could get myself in that mindset because my own middle grade years were pretty fraught with chaos and dysfunction, and so when I channel myself back that’s where my brain first lands. It takes a lot of work to sift through that to get to the heart of a twelve/thirteen year old. It’s a wonderful age and now that I have landed in that category, I really love it. It’s become easier to separate my own traumas, and sometimes cynical outlook, and focus on the beauty of that age, how it straddles this amazing brink of childhood and adolescence where kids are still imaginative and dreamy, and yet becoming much more responsible and self-aware. I get to write stories that I would have read at that age–little escapes and adventures with a bit of life-lessons and hard knocks. There are resounding themes of friendship, feminism, and allowing girls to explore their world in all my middle grades books, and it’s really fun writing to those themes without knocking my readers over the head with didactic messages.

 

5. What were some of the things that inspired you to write this story?

Honestly, I wanted to write an adventure story that was set in an unexpected place–New Jersey. Most people don’t think of New Jersey as having particularly natural topography, but it is the Garden State for a reason! There might only be a small portion of it preserved, but that portion is completely gorgeous. And a small section of the Appalachian Trail does go through the northwest corner so it’s based on a real area. I wanted to showcase the small, sweet Delaware river towns I have lived in (Newbridge is a fictional amalgamation of them) along with the vast wildlife and beauty that might not be consistent with some people’s ideas of New Jersey.

I also wanted to show a family that looks very different from the nuclear example that tends to get put on a pedestal. Although Lin’s family is somewhat nuclear, they don’t live suburban, stationary lives. They are on the road almost all the time, Lin has never attended public school, and at the start of this story, her mom has gone away for a year, which Lin is very unhappy about initially. A big part of the story is Lin coming to an understanding that her family can change how it looks, but still be close and loving, and that dependable friends can also become family. It doesn’t all have to rest on Mom’s shoulders!

6. Tell us something cool about yourself! What have you done recently that you’re proud of?

Well, no big adventures for me lately, but I did recently learn how to blow glass and make actual functioning pieces. I’m working for a brand new glass studio in Wardensville, West Virginia, and learning the craft was part of the perks of onboarding. The fact you can walk into the shop, and come out with a vase is mind boggling. I never thought it was something just anyone could do, but anyone can do it! Doesn’t mean you’ll have a beautiful piece, but you can have a working piece.

A professional glass blower creates a beautiful work of art in Mallorca.

The really cool thing is that it’s such a different creative process than writing in that you cannot be in your own head. You must be fully present, aware of your surroundings, and in the moment. There’s most definitely a mindfulness that’s required to work with glass, something I don’t stretch that often because I’m usually on a computer. Anyway, it’s really fun, and challenging, and I’m super excited to be working there and to witness other people learn the trade.

7. Do you have a favorite urban (or rural) legend? If so, what is it?

I think the castle legend is my favorite. I mean, I made it up for this story, but it’s based on real abandoned castles which exist on the east coast, often Scottish or Irish replicas and usually built by rich white men, maybe trying to duplicate home? I’m not sure. But I love the idea of trekking through the woods in search of ruins and in fact this story initially sparked when my husband and I once did exactly that. We literally hunted down a castle through small-time explorer’s blogs and Google earth, and it was SO FUN. But I can’t disclose the castle name or location because technically it was trespassing. (Shhh!) But here’s a glimpse:

(Shhh!)

8. What area of the world would you most like to explore?

I would love to visit a lot of places, but lately the Scottish Highlands have been on my mind. I pretty recently found out I’m nearly half Scottish, which was surprising because I think I look more like my Italian family and have mostly identified with them. But I’ve also always lived on the Appalachian trail, be it in NJ, PA or now in WV, which isn’t actually on the trail, but certainly Appalachian, and where Scotch Irish settled. I’ve learned so much about the history here, and Appalachian history is my own history, so now I’m dreaming of going to the origin of that ancestry. This book explores a teeny-tiny bit of that, with the legendary castle and the creation of the Appalachian mountains, but I don’t want to give too much away…

9. Do you think the physical act of exploration enriches the childhood experience or may be a necessary part of the coming of age experience?

100%. Whether a child lives in rural and small town areas as I have, or urban, or anything in between, a little bit of freedom goes a long way. I worry that that freedom gets harder and harder for parents to grant because it seems like we live in scarier times than the 80’s when I was growing up. When my own children were growing up, I tried to give them as much freedom as I could but it was definitely a lot less than what I had. Freedom also means sometimes taking away things that kids enjoy, which is sometimes challenging. For example when my kids were little I would unsubscribe from cable service every summer to help enforce more outside time. (Cable? God that makes me sound old) But they became so used to it, it was never an issue, and all three of them have a strong appreciation for the natural world now, which makes me very happy. I think it’s really important to not always hold the reins too tightly and to push your kids towards self-entertainment.

10. As someone who has moved around a lot, experienced the loss of a home to a fire, and finally settled in a rural area surrounded by forest, what do you hope your readers learn about the meaning of home?

Home is, and always has been for me, the people I am with. I have moved dozens of times in my life, so I have never become overly attached to a building or even a place (although NJ has a special hold on my heart), but my true home rests in my children and my life-partner (even when that partner has changed) and my closest girlfriends. I’d like for young readers to know that surrounding yourself with the right people is what builds a real family and home. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s life, it just needs to be what you need/want. And I think the idea that “adventure is everywhere” echoes this in the sense that we can find wonder and mystery anywhere, if we look for it. It doesn’t have to be some grand world exploration, it can literally be in your backyard, or small town, or city.

You can find more writing from Jess at www.jessrinker.com!

Wild Things x Elisa Zied: WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY Erica George (Current Student)