Student-Author Interview 9: Caroline Tung Richmond

Welcome to the ninth student-author interview! I’m very excited to feature debut author Caroline Tung Richmond and her fabulous novel The Only Thing to Fear. The Only Thing to Fear takes place in an alternate reality in which the Nazis won World War II, thanks to their genetically engineered “Anomaly” super soldiers. Sixteen-year-old Zara, a stubborn girl of mixed heritage, longs to live in a free America and is eager to join the rebel group that is plotting to overthrow the Nazi leadership. She just might have the power to help bring down the Führer, if she’s allowed to join the rebels and if she can manage to survive.

I tore through the novel this summer and knew it would be a hit with students who like fantasy and dystopian novels as well as students who love history…and it certainly has been! It’s also been a pleasure connecting with Caroline since I read her book because she is such a friendly and generous writer! In addition to her great first novel, Caroline also has a wonderful blog with a very helpful “After the Call” series for agented writers; you can check it out here: http://carolineinspace.blogspot.com/

Now let’s get to the interview! Four eighth grade students–Geno, Casey, Jack, and Rudyard–read The Only Thing to Fear and had some terrific questions for Caroline.

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First, here’s what the students wanted to tell Caroline about what they liked most about THE ONLY THING TO FEAR, with Caroline’s response:

Geno: I liked the fantasy part and how some characters had special powers. It was unexpected but cool. 

Jack: I liked how there were so many plot twists, especially related to Zara’s character. I also liked that Zara is a powerful girl and that females in the book have positions of power. 

Rudyard: I liked how the book was new and fresh. There were places where I thought I could predict what was going to happen or what a character (like Bastian) was going to turn out to be, but then there was a surprising plot twist instead.

Casey: I liked the alternate history. I loved how you thought about what if the Nazis had won WWII because it’s not something that many people would think about. I also liked how you made Zara really powerful, but she wasn’t too powerful and her powers couldn’t magically fix everything because it’s no fun when the main character is too powerful.

Thank you so much, you guys! This makes me so happy to hear, and I’m so glad that you enjoyed the book!

Now for some questions about the book, and about writing in general: 

Casey: What inspired you to write the book? 

Hi Casey! Thank you so much for reading my novel! To answer your question, I’m a big history geek and so I’ve always been interested in alternate histories and asking myself ‘What if?’—like what if Lincoln had lived and was able to oversee Reconstruction? Or what if Franz Ferdinand had never been assassinated before the start of WWI?

Then, back in 2010, I was looking for a new book to read and my husband recommended The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a memoir written by a North Korean refugee. I read the book in one sitting, and afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to live under such a cruel regime? How could someone fight against all of that oppression? I started imagining a girl living in such a place—and wanting so badly to fight back against her government. My imagination sort of went wild from there, and that is how Zara and The Only Thing to Fear were born!

Jack: How long did it take you to write the book?

Hi Jack! Thank you for reading my book too! Gosh, this novel has a strange backstory. I’m usually a very slow writer—my husband’s nickname for me is ‘the baby sloth’!—but I hammered out the first draft of The Only Thing to Fear (back then it was called Revolutionary) in about two months. This was really fast for me. But then it took me a LONG time to revise the novel—over a year!

Geno: How did you think of including Anomalies with special powers in the book? Did the book always have Anomalies with special powers, or did you add that part in later on in your writing process?

Hi there Geno! Thank you for your question! I’m a big fan of X-Men, and ever since I was in elementary school I’ve dreamt about having a super power. (I’d pick telekinesis! How about you?) And so, I’ve always envisioned having Anomalies in this book because I thought it’d be fun to write about people with super powers.

Rudyard: What process did you use to design the alternate history? Did you go back and make a chart of all the things that would have happened if the Nazis had won and then make a timeline for everything, or did you do something else to figure out the alternate history setup? I create alternate histories myself, and I use charts and timelines.

Wow, if I write another alternate history, maybe you can give me some advice on using charts and timelines, Rudyard! :)

To answer your question, I’m far less organized than you are! I wish I had created a cool chart but mostly I just jotted down notes in a Word document to keep track of dates and events. When I was revising the book with my editor at Scholastic, we also created a timeline to make sure that everything made sense and that the events fell in a logical pattern.

Jack: We don’t remember much about the concentration camps in the book. In your vision of this alternate history, what happened with the concentration camps?

In an earlier draft of the book, there were a few mentions of a “work camp” where people were sent if they did something that the Nazis didn’t like. But as for concentration camps specifically, I’ve envisioned that they existed very much in the same way in Zara’s world as they did in our own—with the Germans setting up camps like Auschwitz and Dachau where they killed so many innocent lives. Ultimately though, I ended up deleting the mentions of the camps to streamline the story, but now that you bring it up, I wish that I had kept them in because it’s an important point to address.

Casey: Did the book always have a romance element, or did you figure out that you wanted to add some romance partway through writing the book? Have you thought about what happens with Zara and Bastian after the ending, and would you ever write an epilogue or a second book to tell about what happens? 

Yes, I always wanted there to be some sort of romantic element in the book! I had a lot of fun writing the kissing scene between Zara and Bastian—and my editor made sure that it wasn’t too mushy. Haha.

I’ve actually thought quite a lot about what happens to Zara and Bastian after the story ends! Originally, I had envisioned this book as the first in a trilogy. The second book would center around Zara and the Alliance pushing the Nazis out of the Eastern American Territories; and the third book would focus on Zara traveling to Germany to help Bastian stamp out the Nazis for good. So yes, the two of them do meet again, at least in my brain! There aren’t any plans to write a sequel for now since my publisher only bought The Only Thing to Fear, but maybe one day I will finish Zara’s and Bastian’s story!

Jack and Geno: Was Zara based on you in any way? Were any of the events in the book based on anything that happened to you?

Ah, that’s such a great question! I’ve never thought about Zara in that way before. I would say that I didn’t purposely base Zara on me—for one thing, I think she’s much braver than I ever could be!—but I do think we’re similar because we’re both stubborn and we don’t like people telling us what to do. :)

As for the second part of the question, I didn’t base any events in the book on my life either but I wouldn’t mind having a cool super power and using it to fight evil.

And finally, some questions about when Caroline was in middle school:

Casey: When you were in middle school, were you part of a writing club or anything like that?

Unfortunately, my middle schools (I attended two middle schools because my family moved between my sixth and seventh grade years) didn’t have a writing club, but I think I would’ve joined one if it had been available to me! My mom did send me to a writing camp one summer though. Does that count? :)

Jack: Were you ever bullied?

I was teased and made fun of at times from elementary school to high school, but I consider myself lucky because it didn’t happen to me too often. I think bullying has gotten worse since I was in school, maybe because cyber bullying is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Have you ever felt bullied? Do you have any advice on how to counteract bullying? I have a nine-month-old baby daughter, and I’ve already started worrying about sending her to school because I know bullying can be a big problem! Maybe you can give me some pointers to give her when she’s older?

Casey and Rudyard: Did you like history class when you were in middle school? Did you like WWII history, specifically?

Yes, I’ve always loved learning about history! One of my favorite classes in high school was Ancient History because I loved learning about people who lived thousands of years ago. I’ve always been interested in WWII history too, because it’s one of those rarer instances in history where there definitely was a Good Guy versus a Bad Guy. I also admired the courage and bravery of the men and women who fought against the Axis powers—from soldiers to nurses to everyday people who fought however they could.

My new book is set in Occupied France (when the Nazis overtook a part of France during WWII) and it focuses on a group of spies who uncover a top-secret German operation that can turn the tide of the war. It was very much inspired by the courageous men and women I learned about in my history classes!

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Caroline! Your new book sounds fabulous and we can’t wait to read it! For anyone looking for holiday gifts for readers who are history buffs or who enjoy action-packed fantasy novels with fascinating premises and great characters, we definitely recommendTHE ONLY THING TO FEAR! 

Bigger Isn’t Always Better (but “big” books can be pretty great)

Last week, a couple of other teachers and I took the seventh grade to an author event with Holly Goldberg Sloan, the author of three fabulous middle grade and young adult books: Counting by 7s, I’ll Be There, and Just Call My Name. The event was part of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s amazing Teen Author Series, a program that’s funded by the extraordinarily generous Field family. Seventh to twelfth grade classes at schools in the area can reserve seats for these events. Participating students get their own copies of an author’s book, and then they hear the author speak and get their books signed.

When I found out that Holly Goldberg Sloan was going to be a part of this fall’s Teen Author Series, I was eager to sign up for her event. Some students had read Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s over the summer, as part of my summer reading book pair, and they loved the funny, poignant, and sweeping story as much as I did. I knew those students would love getting to see the author in person, and I had a feeling that many other students would enjoy the book, too.

When we’ve attended Teen Author Series events in the past, we’ve gone to the Central Branch of the library, but this event was at a different branch, a little bit farther away from our school. Because the events at the Central Branch have had such large audiences, I warned my students that if the event was too crowded, we might not be able to stay long enough to get our books signed. “If there are too many people in line ahead of us, we’ll have to leave our books instead of waiting in line,” I told them. “But don’t worry–I’ll go back to pick up the signed books later.” And I didn’t want them to be disappointed if they didn’t actually get to talk to Holly, or if they didn’t get a chance to ask a question during the Q and A, so I tried to keep their expectations in check. “There will probably be hundreds of people there,” I explained. “But it will still be great to hear her speak!”

So imagine my surprise when we made it to the other branch of the library and were guided into a small room that was completely empty except for around 50 chairs and a table at the front. It ended up being just us and the students from one other school! My students refrained from asking me what the heck I’d been talking about, but they were delighted when Holly perched at the edge of the table in front of the room and talked to them–just casually, personably told them stories and talked! They got to ask all of their questions, and they each got a special moment with Holly when she signed each book. The larger library events we’ve attended have also been wonderful (I mean, you really can’t argue with a free author event that includes a free book for every student!). But I loved the intimate tone of this smaller gathering.

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Counting by 7s is a big, ambitious book, both in terms of its length and in terms of the scope of the story. There are many point of view characters whose ages span many years, and the story begins with a big, devastating event. Holly Goldberg Sloan was a screenwriter before she became a novelist, and Counting by 7s is going to be a movie; reading it, you can see how the cinematic story will work beautifully on the big screen. Holly’s YA books are similarly big and sweeping.

But during Holly’s informal talk, she not only talked about writing screenplays and novels, but she also spoke about how she enjoys poetry. She mentioned that the titles of her books can lead to some great book spine poetry and encouraged students to find books and stack them in different orders, to create small poems with the titles. She explained that sometimes, with an activity like book spine poetry, the small scope of the task (you only have book titles to work with) can lead to a lot of creativity.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m a fan of giving students structured creative writing assignments because an assignment with tight, clear instructions can often yield amazingly creative results. I left the event thinking about the benefits of small events and small, tightly focused writing tasks and the awesome power of big programs like the Teen Author Series and big stories like the ones Holly tells.

What Works…and What Doesn’t

The first quarter of my school year ended recently, so I’ve been talking to my seventh grade advisees about how things are going so far in their classes: what they’re proud of so far this year; how they learn and work best; and what strategies they might try out in this next quarter to improve their homework, test-taking, proofreading, class participation, etc.

Those conversations have led me to do some reflection of my own. I’m currently working on the first draft of a new novel, and while it’s slowly but surely coming along and I’m  excited about it (most days), I know I could find new ways to maximize my productivity and make my drafting process go more smoothly. So I’ve been thinking about how I work best and what new strategies I might try out as fall moves into winter.

One great thing about my MFA program was that I worked closely with four different advisors, and they gave me lots of different writing techniques to try out. As I experimented with various ways of brainstorming and plotting and drafting, I learned plenty of things that work well for me, such as freewriting backstory scenes, determining a character’s controlling belief and vacuum, and figuring out a crossroads scene that my main character is moving towards.

But I also tried out some techniques that didn’t work so well for me. I like to plot out what will probably happen around the midpoint and at the end of a novel, but it just doesn’t work for me to write scenes out of order. I’ve tried to write those midpoint and ending scenes before I get to them, and I can’t do it. I know lots of people swear by writing out of order, but it makes me anxious and gets me stuck. The dynamics between characters are so important for me that I can’t seem to put my characters into a scene if I haven’t accompanied them through every stage of their journey to get there.

Similarly, I have a really hard time pushing forward with a draft if I have a new idea that influences something earlier in the story, or if I’m just feeling disconnected from a character’s voice. In both of those cases, it’s my very strong impulse to go back, re-read from page 1, and rework what’s already on the page before I keep writing new scenes. (I was relieved when I listened to Sara Zarr interview Siobhan Vivian on this excellent episode of This Creative Life and learned that Siobhan Vivian, whom I greatly admire, does something similar!)

There are times when this impulse doesn’t serve me well and I have to fight it. Sometimes I tell myself that I need to reread a bit from the beginning of my manuscript when really I’m just avoiding the next scene. But for the most part, I’m okay with this part of my process.

I’ve been talking to my students about how they learn best, and I think this is part of how I learn. I need to reconnect with the voice I’m going for from time to time, and I’m not able to say, “Oh, when I revise I’ll go back and change that, but for now I’m going to keep drafting as if I’ve made that change.” Some writers are, and that’s great. But I can’t write the later scenes as well unless I’ve had the physical experience of revising the earlier ones first.

I’m glad that I’ve come to understand some things about what works for me and what doesn’t work for me as a writer. The challenge, though, is to make sure I don’t fall into a rut and resist trying new strategies that might be difficult or tiring at first but ultimately really great (kind of like the Pilates classes that I stopped going to when my 10-class card ran out).

I know some writers who are pushing through 50,000 words of a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) right now, and I really admire them. I make modest monthly word count goals when I’m drafting, but it doesn’t feel feasible for me to write that quickly in November because of my teaching workload (and my whole I-need-to-reread-this-from-page-1-again-now compulsion). But maybe I’ll get back into the habit of trying some early morning writing sessions here and there to switch things up, and I’m going to come up with a list of things I can try if I am feeling stuck before I give in to the impulse to reread my draft from the beginning. Things like writing by hand instead, or doing a quick relaxation exercise first, or trying a timed writing sprint.

How about you? How do you work best? What does and doesn’t work for you? What new techniques could you try?

777 Challenge

I’ve been challenged by fellow VCFA alum (and Philadelphia area resident) Nicole Valentine to participate in the 777 Challenge. I’m supposed to share 7 lines of text, 7 lines down, on the 7th page of my work-in-progress. Here’s the link to Nicole’s post, where she shared seven lines from a smart and poignant middle-grade time-travel novel I’ve heard her read from a few times and can’t wait to read in its entirety!

I’m working on the first draft of a humorous middle-grade epistolary novel tentatively titled NOT SOME TRAGIC HEROINE, which features two very different main characters, Juliet and Claire. Claire is a PK (a preacher’s kid), and Jules is the daughter of two artistic parents with an unconventional relationship. Jules and Claire have been best friends throughout middle school, but now, in the spring of eighth grade, their friendship is falling apart. They used to dare each other to do silly things all the time, and in their first big fight, they each dare the other to do something huge, and completely uncharacteristic.

I’ve actually been feeling a bit discouraged and exhausted lately and have let myself take a couple of weeks off of drafting with the hope that I’d start to feel more energized before November, when I want to set a clear word-count goal and make some real progress. Nicole’s challenge came at a good time because I was just feeling ready to turn back to my draft (phew!), and this weekend I’ve been enjoying reading back through what I have so far and asking myself questions about what I want this story to be. Here’s the seven-line excerpt from page 7 (the last sentence cuts off because it continues on to line 8, which felt like cheating, and any of you who know me will know that I am nothing if not a rule follower):

           “But, I mean, it was Lucas’s idea, right?” I asked.

            She sighed and shook her head again. Her neck was probably getting achy. But that’s Claire for you. All about forgiveness. Except when it comes to herself.

            “I knew it was wrong,” she said. “I should have been a better…person.” She paused before person, and I knew what that meant. She wanted to say “Christian,” but she’d censored herself for me, because she knows it weirds me out when she gets all Jesus-y. I’m trying to be less visibly weirded out by that kind of thing, though, because…

I’m supposed to tag other writers, but I’m not sure who’s already been tagged and who hasn’t. So please consider this an open invitation to share seven lines of text, seven lines down, on the seventh page of your work-in-progress if you’d like to!

Student-Author Interview 8: Rebecca Behrens

Last spring, I was browsing online for some new classroom library books to purchase, and 17814086some of my sixth grade students were helping. I had recently happened upon this interview about the story behind the final cover design of Rebecca Behrens’s debut middle grade novel, When Audrey Met Alice, and I thought the book looked like a lot of fun. I showed the kids the interview, and then we checked out the description of the book.

When Audrey Met Alice features two first daughters—a fictional, contemporary first daughter named Audrey, who feels lonely and constrained in her White House life, and a real-life, historical first daughter, Alice Roosevelt. Audrey finds Alice’s hidden diary and finds both solace and inspiration in Alice’s lively, often humorous adventures.

“That book sounds amazing! You have to buy that!” my students said after we read the description. So I did. The book lived up to their enthusiastic expectations, and other students were eager to read it, too. As I began planning interviews for this year, I figured these students, who are now seventh graders, would be just as excited to interview Rebecca as they’d been to read her book. And I was thrilled that Rebecca wanted to answer questions from student interviewers Sophia, Alex, Nyeema, Poli, Sydney, and Olivia!

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First, here’s what the girls liked best about the book, with some commentary from Rebecca:

Sydney: I liked the journal entries from Alice because they were funny. I liked how Audrey felt emotional and cried when she finished reading the diary. The book inspired me to start writing a similar story of my own!

That’s awesome! I love it when a book inspires writing. It was so much fun to write Alice because she was such a witty person.

Alex: I liked how the book is set in the White House. My favorite part was when Audrey got caught on the roof with…something she wasn’t supposed to have.

The roof scene is one of my favorites, too—and probably the one I enjoyed writing the most. Poor Audrey!

Poli: I think the storylines for both Audrey and Alice were really good. I liked when Alice brought the snake to the dinner.

Thanks! The snake, Emily Spinach, might be my favorite character.

Sophia: I liked how Audrey and Alice have a lot of different connections even though they live in different times.

Thank you! Some of the connections surprised me while writing—the things in Alice’s life that seemed very modern, and the ways in which she had more freedom than a first daughter today does.

Olivia: I like how the journal entries show how life as a first daughter was different for Alice than it is for Audrey.

I think about those differences a lot, whenever first daughters are in the news. It seems crazy how Alice got to go shopping on her own and could ride her bicycle around Washington while she was a first daughter—compared to the 24/7 security that a first daughter has today.

Nyeema: I like how you made the book current, like with references to gay marriage and the LGBT movement. I also thought it was funny when Audrey had to hide someone underneath her bed…

Thank you! I wanted to make sure that Audrey could share her voice on an issue that matters to people today. And I thought that scene in Audrey’s room was funny, too—it was another one that I loved to write.

And now some questions about WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE and writing in general:

Poli: What inspired you to write this book?

I was in middle and high school during the Clinton presidency. The idea of a girl my age living in the White House fascinated me. I always wondered what Chelsea Clinton’s life was like, living in such a historic and important place. Sure, she got to go to State Dinners . . . but did she still get to have sleepovers? Was a Secret Service agent sitting in a desk in her classroom at school? Did she still have to change Socks the (first) cat’s litter box? Writing When Audrey Met Alice let me answer some of those questions by imagining what life as a first daughter feels like.

Olivia: Why did you decide to write about a past first daughter in addition to a present-day one?

I knew I wanted to write a book about a girl living in the White House today, but I also wanted to write about Alice Roosevelt. She was a truly fascinating person, and I thought she would be a perfect protagonist. I couldn’t decide which story to write—until I had the idea to combine them by having a present-day daughter find Alice’s diary. (That was partly wish fulfillment—I’ve always wanted to find a hidden diary!)

Sophia: How long did it take you to write this book?

A long time! After a couple of months of research, I started writing a first draft of Alice’s diary. When I was done with that, I wrote Audrey’s story. Those drafts took about six months to write. After I had a complete (but very rough) draft of each girl’s story, I worked on combining them. And I revised the book about eight times before the final, published version. I think I wrote the first words in May 2010, and the book sold to my publisher, Sourcebooks, in September 2012. It made its way to bookstores in February 2014, close to four years after I started writing it. Publishing requires a lot of patience!

Olivia: What is your writing process like? Do you have a writing group?

I like to write first drafts “with the door closed”—an idea that comes from one of Stephen King’s books on writing. That means that when I’m working on a rough draft, I try not to show my writing to other people. Writing that exploratory draft without sharing it helps me feel okay with taking chances and trying new things that might not end up working. I take a little time off after finishing a first draft, and then I revise once by myself.

After that, I am happy to get opinions and insight from critique partners, my literary agent, and eventually my editor. My mom is usually the first person who gets to read a new book—and she is a helpful reader because she used to be an English teacher.

I meet up with a group of writers on Wednesday nights. Sometimes we read one another’s work, but mostly we get together to support and encourage each other—and share cookies. They are good writing fuel.

Nyeema: Was it complicated to write Alice’s point of view?

It was complicated! I wanted Alice’s story to be as close to the truth—the historical details—as possible. I also wanted her voice and opinions to be authentic. But at the same time, I was creating a fictional character. I had to balance when to stick with the facts and when to let myself imagine her feelings. I also wanted to make the language she used be true to her time period, but still enjoyable for a reader today. I spent a lot of time looking up words in the dictionary to make sure I wasn’t having her use slang that hadn’t been invented yet.

Alex and Poli: How much White House research did you have to do? Are all of the facts about the White House, like the chocolate shop, true? Did you get to take a behind-the-scenes tour?

I did a lot of research! There are many wonderful books, programs, and websites about White House history. Reading and watching them helped me imagine the White House. There really is a chocolate shop (here’s a video of the Executive Pastry Chef decorating treats in it: http://whitehouse.c-span.org/Video/ByRoom/Chocolate-Shop.aspx)—and a cookie tray. At the same time, Audrey’s White House world is fictional. One example is that golf carts aren’t used on the grounds for transportation. I added that detail because I really wanted to give her a chance to go driving, but I knew it would be implausible for Audrey to get into a car as a thirteen-year-old at the White House.

I took a private group tour of the grounds of the White House while I was revising the book. It was a wonderful experience, and being able to walk around the gardens and through the building helped me develop the setting. One of the things that surprised me when I was there was how quiet and calm it felt. I expected the grounds to be bustling and noisy, especially on a day with a big tour. But it felt very serene.

Sydney: We go to a Friends school and noticed that Audrey goes to a Friends school called Friends Academy. What do you know about Friends schools? How did you decide to set your book at a Friends school?

The idea for Friends School first came from the school that the Obama girls currently attend, and Chelsea Clinton attended: Sidwell Friends in the Washington, DC area. I didn’t know much about Friends schools before writing, but I had the opportunity to research them while working on the book and I enjoyed learning more about this type of school. I really admire the emphasis on community, spirituality, and social responsibility at Friends schools.

Poli and Sydney: Will there be a sequel? We think it would be cool to have a book with another new first daughter reading Audrey’s journal! If there won’t be a sequel, can you tell us anything about your next book?

I don’t have a sequel planned, although if I ever have the opportunity I’d love to write another book about Audrey or Alice. Alice had a lot of travel adventures that I didn’t cover in the first book . . . But I do have another book coming out, Summer of Lost and Found, which will publish in early 2016. Like When Audrey Met Alice, it blends contemporary and historical fiction. This story is about a girl who travels to Roanoke Island in North Carolina and starts to unravel the mystery of what happened to the Lost Colonists in 1587.

And finally, some questions about when Rebecca was in middle school:

Olivia: Were you bullied at all, the way Audrey is teased at school?

I was very shy throughout school, and rather sensitive. I wasn’t teased much, but I do remember how hard it was to navigate cliques, and sometimes I felt excluded by friends. Those experiences helped me write Audrey—I could empathize with the loneliness she felt in the book.

Poli: When you were in middle school, did you want to grow up to be a writer?

I wanted to be a lot of things when I was in middle school, and while I loved reading (it has always been my favorite thing!) I didn’t think I could be a writer. I enjoyed telling stories and creating characters but writers seemed like superheroes to me, and I was an ordinary book-loving girl. What really changed my mind was getting to meet one of my favorite writers (Sharon Creech) at a book event. She talked about her process for writing, and it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t magic or a superhuman storytelling ability that let her create such great books—it was hard work! After that, I started to believe that someday I could write a book, too.

Nyeema: Did you fantasize about living in the White House?

I definitely did! I could imagine the fancy dinners, having friends over to play in the bowling alley, and getting to do the White House Easter Egg Roll. But I also vividly remember watching the episodes of Saturday Night Live in which they poked fun at Chelsea Clinton, and feeling terrible for her. As much as I was a little jealous of all the cool things she got to do as a First Daughter, I thought it would be hard to live there, too, with all that attention on you.

Sophia and Alex: Was English your favorite subject? Was it your best subject?

English has always been my favorite subject, and probably my best. I was pretty good at math and science, too—I started college as a biology student and was sure that I would go to medical school. But eventually I realized that I really wanted to make books for a living, as an editor and an author. One of the coolest things about writing is that I can still study a lot of different subjects, to write about them.

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Thanks, Rebecca, for answering our questions! We can’t wait for your next book!

Author photo from rebeccabehrens.com.

Student-Author Interview 7: Caroline Carlson

A new school year means…more student-author interviews! I’m thrilled to feature Caroline Carlson for our first interview of the year. Caroline is the author of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy. In the first book, Magic Marks the Spot, Hilary Westfield, who has always wanted to be a pirate, is not deterred when The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates denies her application because she is a girl. Her impossible-to-please father sends her off to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Young Ladies instead, but Hilary and her talking gargoyle manage to escape. Hilary gets a job working for a freelance pirate known as the Terror of the Southlands, but on one condition: she has to find a very famous treasure or else she’ll get sent back to finishing school and she’ll never get to work as a pirate again. Hilary’s adventures continue in the brand-new second book in the series, The Terror of the Southlands, which is out now. My copy arrived yesterday, and there’s already a line of students eager to read it.

Magic Marks the Spot is hilarious, clever, and satisfying, and it practically begs to be read aloud. As a result, I read it aloud to my sixth grade class last spring. Three members of last year’s sixth grade class, current seventh graders Emmett, Max, and Silas, interviewed Caroline about Magic Marks the Spot and The Terror of the Southlands, writing, and middle school. Enjoy the interview!boys with cc books

First, what the boys liked best about MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT:

Silas: I like how funny it is and how it has a major plot twist at the end.

Emmett: I like how it’s kind of steampunk with people traveling by trains, and even the way people think of pirates feels old-fashioned.

Max: I liked the character development. I thought it was funny seeing how the characters’ personalities were developed.

Silas, Emmett, and Max: The gargoyle was funny! 

Caroline: I’m so glad you all enjoyed the book! I agree about the gargoyle—writing his lines always made me laugh out loud.

Now for some questions about MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT and THE TERROR OF THE SOUTHLANDS: 

Silas: About how long did it take to write Magic Marks the Spot? How about The Terror of the Southlands?

I wrote the first draft of Magic Marks the Spot in about 4 months. That’s pretty fast for me—I’m usually a fairly slow writer, but I think different books come at different speeds, and this one was a quick one! I did lots of revision, though, both by myself and with my editor at HarperCollins. The revisions took me almost a year. Then the editors, designers, and artists at the publishing company spent even more time turning the manuscript into a printed book. The total amount of time from the day I wrote the first pages of the book to the day it was published was 2 years and 9 months.

The sequel took me another 4 months to write and another year to revise. I just finished revisions for the third book in the trilogy; that one took me more than 6 months to write, but only 6 months to revise. Every book is different, so I have no idea how long it will take me to write the story I want to work on next!

Max: Where did you get the idea for the plot of this book? Was it prompted by anything specific or did it come to you out of the blue? Which came first: the idea of the plot or the characters?

I have always been interested in pirates, and I knew for years that I wanted to write a book about a pirate treasure hunt. The rest of the story started to come together when I visited an island in the Baltic Sea (off the coast of Sweden) called Gotland. Lots of tourists visit Gotland now, but in the middle ages, it was actually a real pirate stronghold. As soon as I learned that, I decided that my pirate story had to take place at least partly on an island like Gotland. I changed a few things about it (like the pirate statues and all the magic) and turned it into Gunpowder Island.

I love books with complicated, twisty, surprising plots, so my plot ideas usually come first. I didn’t know much about Hilary until I started writing about her. And I didn’t have any idea that the gargoyle would be in the book—he just showed up and refused to leave. Gargoyles are like that.

Emmett: How did you come up with the idea of a magic gargoyle?

The gargoyle was actually part of a story I wrote a long time ago, when I was a senior in high school. He lived over the main character’s bedroom door and liked hearing tales about piracy and true love. I was still learning how to be a writer when I wrote that story, so it wasn’t particularly good, but I always really liked the gargoyle. When I started writing Magic Marks the Spot, I realized I needed a friend for Hilary to talk to, and the gargoyle I’d created all those years ago decided that he would be the perfect character for the job.

Silas: What can you tell us about the sequel to Magic Marks the Spot?

It’s called The Terror of the Southlands, and it begins about a year after Magic Marks the Spot ends. Hilary has been sailing around the kingdom with Jasper, helping him distribute magical treasure—but she’s a little bit bored. To make matters worse, the president of the VNHLP tells Hilary that if she doesn’t go on a bold and daring adventure soon, he’ll kick her out of the League. When a mysterious group of villains called the Mutineers starts kidnapping important people, Hilary decides to stop them and prove to everyone that she’s a good pirate. Claire, Charlie, and the gargoyle all join her on her search for the Mutineers. There are also plenty of explosions, detectives, magical mishaps, ugly ball gowns, and new characters (both good and evil) along the way.

Max: Was Magic Marks the Spot your first book that you wrote? Did you write any other books or have other writing experience?

Magic Marks the Spot is the first book of mine that’s been published, but I wrote a bunch of stories before this. When I was growing up, I wrote the beginnings of five or six different books, but I always got bored and gave up after a few pages. Then, in high school and college, I took some creative writing courses and started thinking seriously about trying to be a writer. I applied to fiction workshops in college, but I kept getting rejected, so I took poetry classes instead. After college, I worked at an educational publishing company, where I wrote and edited textbooks. Finally, I went to graduate school to study writing for children, and I wrote two full novels while I was there. The second of those novels was Magic Marks the Spot.

Emmett: Who is your favorite character in the series and why?

I love all my characters! This question is sort of like asking your parents which of their kids is their favorite. Claire, Jasper, and the gargoyle are all particularly fun to write because they have so many funny lines. I think that if I were going to be a character in the book, I’d be Miss Greyson, because I really like rules and being proper, but I also secretly like adventure.

And finally, some questions about when Caroline was in middle school:

Emmett: What was middle school like for you?

I really didn’t like middle school at all. Kids in middle school can be pretty mean sometimes, and my friends from elementary school decided they didn’t want to hang out with me anymore. I wish I had been confident and brave enough to stand up to them, sort of like how Hilary stands up to Philomena in Magic Marks the Spot, but I was more like Claire: I didn’t know what to do, and I felt awful. I spent half of seventh grade and all of eighth grade without many friends. It wasn’t fun, but I learned a lot about trying to treat people nicely even if you don’t really want to, and since then I’ve tried to be kind to the people I meet because I know how hard it can be to feel alone. Things got better after a couple years—I made new friends, and people were a lot nicer once we all got to high school.

Max: Did you already like writing then?

I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but writing itself seemed really difficult! As I mentioned earlier, I tended to get bored with my stories after only a few pages. I worried that I would never be able to be a real writer since I couldn’t even write a whole story, let alone one that was any good. What I really loved was reading. I wanted to learn to write stories like the ones my favorite authors wrote.

Silas: Did you have any idea that you would become a writer when you grew up?

I hoped that I would be a writer, but I wasn’t ever entirely sure it would happen. Writers didn’t even seem like real people to me then—they seemed sort of like superheroes. I still feel that way about my favorite authors even now. When I get the chance to meet an author whose books I love, I get really nervous and I start saying ridiculous, embarrassing things. I’ll probably keep doing that for the rest of my life!

CarolineCarlson

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Caroline, and thanks for writing such fun and original books!

Photo from carolinecarlsonbooks.com, courtesy of Amy Rose Capetta.

Read-Aloud Recommendations, the Fall ’14 Edition

This past August, like most Augusts, my to-read pile was dominated by a certain kind of book: I was mostly reading new books that I thought might work well as middle school read alouds. I’ve blogged before about why I love to read aloud to middle schoolers and the criteria I use when selecting a good read aloud, so at first I thought I’d already written enough on the topic here on the blog. But then I thought back to when I first started teaching middle school. I was incredibly grateful to find some specific suggestions of books that had worked well as read alouds on The Reading Zone, because not every great book translates into a great class read aloud. In addition, I’ve been noticing recently that even though most of the people I know who read my blog are writers and not teachers, the posts that get the most hits are the ones that delve into specific teaching recommendations. So in the end, I decided to share this fall’s batch of read-aloud recommendations after all. If you’re not looking for books to read aloud to a group of young people, the good news is that these five books are equally fun to read on your own!

1.) Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald18060008

Theodora Tenpenny is grieving for her grandfather and attempting to make do with the $463 he left behind. She has no idea what her grandfather meant just before he died, when he told her to look “under the egg” and said something about a treasure. But after she spills rubbing alcohol on one of her grandfather’s paintings and discovers another painting—a really old, potentially priceless painting—underneath, she sets out to discover where this painting came from and what other secrets her grandfather might have been hiding. I think this book makes a great read aloud because of Theo’s humorous voice, the opportunities for students to make inferences, and a subplot about the Holocaust, which will appeal to young history buffs. On a practical level, it also features a main character who’s going into eighth grade. That’s great for my purposes because it can be hard to get seventh and eighth graders invested in a book about a sixth grader (and there seem to be a lot of excellent books starring sixth graders!). I decided to use this book as my first seventh grade read aloud.

184656052.) I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

During the summer after eighth grade, Lucy is determined to honor the memory of her beloved English teacher by getting everyone in her town excited about his favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. She and her two best friends come up with a very unconventional plan that involves hiding copies of the book and convincing everyone that somebody is out to “destroy the mockingbird.” Thanks to the power of the internet, their plan quickly spirals out of their control.  This is a funny, fast-paced book that will be a lot of fun to read aloud. It’s also a fairly short book with short chapters, which is helpful for a read aloud. (I can only read a bit at a time, so it’s tricky to maintain momentum with long books and to find good stopping points in books with long chapters.) Since we’ll be reading To Kill a Mockingbird at the end of the year, I decided to use this book as an eighth grade read aloud. I’m not sure that it will encourage students to make a lot of inferences, but it will balance out some of the heavier reading we do with something that’s a lot of fun and it will lead to some good discussions about book censorship and the way a topic can go viral.

3.) The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnsonjkt_9780545525527.indd

This book got a lot of well-deserved buzz last spring during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign because of its fabulously diverse cast of characters, and I think it would make a really fun read aloud. Jackson Greene is a reformed troublemaker who returns to his con-artist ways after discovering that the student council election is rigged against his friend Gaby. While it’s realistic fiction, this is the kind of book that requires readers to suspend disbelief in order to accept an incredibly corrupt principal and a group of incredibly talented, enterprising kids. I was more than willing to do that because of the fun tone, the humor, and the cleverly plotted story, and I’m sure middle school students will be, as well. It reminds me a bit of Kate Messner’s Capture the Flag, which was a very popular read aloud a couple of years ago. It’s also fairly short, and readers can make inferences as they piece together what happened in Jackson’s previous cons and guess how how he will pull off his election heist.

205789394.) Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

Eleven-year-old Jarrett has a lot on his plate. He’s struggling through summer school, and he has to help with the foster babies his mom takes in. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, his mom starts taking care of a new baby…and this one has a twelve-year-old brother, Kevon. Suddenly, Jarrett has to share his room with Kevon, a slightly older boy who’s better than he is at everything. I love the way Coe Booth sets up the relationship between these two boys so that readers completely understand why Kevon pushes Jarrett’s buttons so much, but we also see how much Kevon is hurting and how Jarrett’s actions could end up being disastrous. This book has a lot of great suspense and tackles a lot of big issues, so it’s a page turner that will lead to productive conversations. However, it tackles those issues gently and incorporates plenty of humor, so that even sensitive middle grade students will be able to engage with the story. I’m not teaching sixth grade this year, but I think this book would be a perfect sixth grade read aloud.

5.) The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy18769869

This delightful debut features the four funny and endearing Fletcher boys as well as their loving, often frazzled dads. I loved all of the Fletcher kids. The youngest, six-year-old Frog, is adorably hilarious, and I appreciated how the three older boys, twelve-year-old Sam, ten-year-old Jax, and ten-year-old (but younger than Jax) Eli, each have their own satisfying character arc throughout the story. It’s great that this book depicts a modern and diverse family, and it’s also great that the book doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be politically correct. It’s just a humorous, big-hearted family story with lots of great shenanigans. It would be a really fun read aloud for fourth, fifth, or maybe sixth grade.

Happy reading (whether aloud or not), and feel free to weigh in with other suggestions!