Getting to Know: Meg Eden Kuyatt

 

When I learned that Meg Eden Kuyatt had written a middle grade novel-in-verse about a girl navigating her neurodivergence in middle school, I knew it was going to be special. And I was right! GOOD DIFFERENT just released from Scholastic and I know it’s going to be beloved by many. I caught up with Meg to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your awesome middle grade debut! GOOD DIFFERENT is an intimate portrait of a middle school girl’s growing awareness and acceptance of how and why her mind works in the ways it does. What inspired you to write this touching story?

Meg: Thanks so much, Jonathan! Selah’s poems came out in the worst of COVID lockdowns, when my autism and anxiety had no more places to hide. I felt so overwhelmed, attacked and scared, and as I wrote, I dug up an old memory of a classmate braiding my hair without my consent. But then the speaker was no longer me but this other girl, Selah. And Selah took action. She hit her classmate! I was in shock, but then also I knew I needed to write a novel to figure out why she hit her classmate and what would happen from there.

Me: When I first met you, you were debuting your YA novel POST-HIGH SCHOOL REALITY QUEST (pictured below), and you’ve also published poetry. Were there any interesting differences or challenges in writing middle grade?

 

Meg: I thought there would be more challenges, but I’ve been finding writing middle grade so freeing! Selah’s story just burst out from me, if I’m honest. In some other MG projects I’ve been playing with, I’ve been having to be careful to not write past what my character understands, sees or perceives of a situation. Sometimes it’s easy to write how I’m seeing the situation now as an adult, but have to remember: would my twelve year old protagonist be that aware yet? What would she see?

Me: Though your book isn’t illustrated, the element of design to a novel-in-verse is very important. Can you tell me a little about how you decide to design a poem or page?

Meg: This is such a great question! My main focus for design is what will reinforce the content. If I want you to slow down, I might have a lot of white space and space between stanzas. If I want you to feel the frantic panic of my character, I might do one big stanza with long lines and no punctuation. There are so many great tools for verse to allow the page to really make us feel what the character is feeling.

Me: I didn’t notice any references to geography, but can you hint if Selah and her family lives in a certain state that you and I may live in? (Rooting for the home state here!)

Meg: Yes, I imagined this set in Maryland!

Me: Can you share what you’re working on now?

Meg: I’m drafting a new middle grade novel in verse, and have a couple things in the pipeline I’d love to see on shelves, but we’ll see. So much of this process is completely out of my control. The main thing I can do is write the next thing and be patient. Stay tuned on my website for any updates!

Me: Can’t wait! In the meantime, wishing your book much success!

Meg: Thanks so much, Jonathan!

To learn more about Meg and her books, please go to Meg Eden (megedenbooks.com).

Getting to Know: Olga Herrera

I’m excited to report that fellow Maryland kidlit creator Olga Herrera is about to release her author/illustrator picture book debut, THE UNWELCOME SURPRISE (Feiwel and Friends, April 18, 2023)! Olga runs a fun illustration podcast with Sunny Duran, Illo Chat. Be sure to check it out! I caught up with Olga to learn more about her new book.

Me: Congratulations on your awesome picture book debut! How did you get into creating children’s books?

Olga: Looking back, I realize I should’ve always leaned into creating children’s books, but it was later in life (past the age of 40) that I figured that out. I was first an illustrator, and the love of writing came later. Both are forms of storytelling, and now I am lucky enough to use both.

Me: THE UNWELCOME SURPRISE is certain to resonate with any kids about to experience that big change. What inspired you to write this touching story?

 

Olga: Originally this story was about my dog reacting to something new, our piano. But after having a brainstorming session with the acquiring editor, we changed it to a new baby. The anxiety and conflicting emotions Bongo goes through remain the same. And the ultimate message of love, acceptance, and calming down an overreacting mind applies to any unexpected situation.

Me: What was your illustration process?

Olga: I was strictly digital for this book; even the original concept sketches are on my iPad. Usually, I have a few napkin drawings here and there, at least. But staying digital with this project was very helpful with my family schedule, ease of communication with the publishing team, and ability to make quick changes. I used procreate and photoshop.

 

 

Me: Are we going to see more of Bongo? What are you working on now?

Olga: For now, Bongo is only in this book, but I have a couple more storylines for him. I hope to bring him back to a book.

Since finishing THE UNWELCOME SURPRISE, I have written a few more dummies and manuscripts that will be going on submission.

I am also reworking my portfolio. As time passes, I get bored of the same style and begin exploring new techniques, so I am excited to dive more into revamping my portfolio soon.

 

Me: Can’t wait to see what you come up with. Thanks so much for talking, and wishing your book much success!

To learn more about Olga and her work, please visit her website at: Children’s Books Illustration | Olga Herrera Author Illustrator

Getting to Know: Jasmine Warga

 

October 4, 2022 is National Rover Book Day! Maybe not officially, but when I learned that acclaimed author Jasmine Warga (OTHER WORDS FOR HOME) also has a book for young readers releasing on that day featuring planetary rovers I suddenly feel on the cusp of a trend (are rovers the next vampires?!?) Though mine is a humorous graphic novel and Jasmine’s is a heartfelt middle grade novel, I’m in no way surprised we each chose as our heroes these mechanical explorers that inspire us so much in real life. I caught up with Jasmine to learn more about her wonderful book, A ROVER’S STORY (Balzar + Bray):

Me: What sparked you to write A Rover’s Story?

Jasmine: I was first inspired to write A Rover’s Story while watching the launch of Perseverance in July 2020 with my daughters. As we watched the rocket carrying Perseverance shoot into the sky, my oldest daughter clapped, but my younger daughter looked concerned. She asked, “Mama, do you think the robot is scared?” And that’s when I first got the idea for the book!

Me: Res is modeled on actual rovers but also self-aware. How did you pull off that balancing act and develop his distinct voice?

Jasmine: Recently, I heard a quote from an educator (and I forgot who said it, but if anyone knows the attribution please tell me!) that said something like, “Non-fiction is learning through facts, and fiction is learning through imagination.” To me, that’s what this book is all about. I took real-life, amazing scientific facts, but made them come alive through imagination. It was so fun to imagine what Res’s voice might sound like—taking what I knew about rovers and then letting my imagination run wild.

Me: You obviously did meticulous research. Did reality get in the way of how you wanted to tell your story? Learn anything especially cool?

Jasmine: I think the coolest fact I learned was that NASA always makes two identical rovers. One rover goes to space, and the other stays back here on Earth, to be a model to help troubleshoot problems. To me, there’s so much narrative tension in that premise, and I love that it’s a real life fact!

Me: I love space stuff, but would probably freak out sitting in a small space capsule on the ground. Once they start sending people back to the moon and to Mars for the first time, and they find they need poets, artists and novelists to express the experience, are you likely to volunteer?

Jasmine: I think so! I love a good adventure 😊.

Me: Can you share what you’re working on now?

Jasmine: Yes! I’m working on another middle grade novel. It’s a family story with a lot of humor and a bit of mystery. It’s in early stages so I can’t say too much about it now, but I’m having a lot of fun working on it.

Me: I can’t wait to see it! Thank you so much for appearing here, I’m wishing great success for A Rover’s Story.

Learn more at Jasmine Warga

photo by Lillian Warga

 

 

Getting to Know: Megan Hoyt

 

One of my favorite picture books of 2021 is BARTALI’S BICYCLE (Quill Tree Books), written by Megan Hoyt and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. It follows the true story of Gino Bartali, the Italian Tour de France winner who secretly helped rescue 800 Jews in WWII by smuggling papers in his bicycle frame (for a great adult book about this, check out ROAD TO VALOR).

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero: Hoyt, Megan, Bruno, Iacopo: 9780062908117: Amazon.com: Books       Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation: McConnon, Aili, McConnon, Andres: 9780307590657: Books: Amazon.com

 

I was recently excited to learn that Megan has a new historical picture book coming out this July 5th, THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL: HOW ISAAC STERN UNITED THE WORLD TO SAVE CARNEGIE HALL (Quill Tree Books, 2022, illustrated by Katie Hickey), and I caught up with Megan to learn more about this compelling story.

Me: How did you get into creating children’s books?

Megan: I started out making up bedtime stories to tell my children, and when I got my first laptop computer I used to get up at 5 am and write. It was quiet me time with nothing but the dim morning light, my imagination, and a chocolate-y mocha latte! My first stories were horrible. I remember I once wrote a 3800 word picture book when the industry standard is around 500 words for fiction and 1000 for non-fiction. I clearly knew nothing about the actual business of writing picture books when I started out. But then I met a group of authors at an SCBWI Schmooze in Davidson, North Carolina, and we formed a critique group. We called ourselves the Mudskippers. If you’ve never heard of a mudskipper, it’s a fish that can actually walk on land! We wanted to encourage ourselves to believe that we could do anything we poured our hearts into. I think five of us ended up published authors and one is now an agent. But we will always be Mudskippers!

What inspired The Greatest Song of All?

My parents met playing violin and viola in the pit orchestra at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and I always thought their story was so charming. Their first date was for cheesecake at Carnegie Deli. I wanted to dig into the time period when my parents lived in New York—to see what life was like back then. They were older by the time I came along, so this was the 1950s and 60’s. As I researched, I came upon a photo of a ballet dancer leaping across Broadway at a protest, and I thought that was so interesting! I’d never seen a ballet dancer dancing in the street, much less protesting in dance clothes. It was Valerie Harper, who later became a famous tv sitcom actor.

The more I read about how everyone came together to save Carnegie Hall, the more I wanted to let children know that they, too, can get involved and help save both buildings and people. Where I live now, city officials recently destroyed a “tent city” that was housing homeless families uptown. The families were to be moved to hotel rooms for eight months, and after that, hopefully, they would find housing. Well, the plan backfired when they discovered they had more homeless people than hotel rooms! I saw that and wondered how a city manager could so mishandle a situation, just like Robert Moses did when he forced out thousands of people from their San Juan Hill neighborhood in New York. I realized it’s up to the citizens to take care of one another. We can’t just depend on a city planner or organizer to handle it all, especially someone who does not have a vested interest in the issue. If no one had taken action in New York, Carnegie Hall would be gone, replaced by a giant glistening high-rise office building. It took a concert violinist, ballet dancers, famous musicians from around the world, and millions of dollars, collected from donors, young and old, to come together and save Carnegie Hall.

 

 

What was the most challenging part of your research?

The most challenging part was telling such a complicated story with lots of twists and turns in only forty pages! A few times along the way, I stopped and set it aside, thinking there were just too many details to the story for a young audience to grasp. But it tugged at my heart as sort of a tribute to my parents, so I went to the Hall and met with the archivists to get a better sense of what facts had to stay in and which ones might be okay to leave out. That was tough! There’s a whole back story to how Carnegie Hall was built in the first place that is so interesting—a musician met Andrew Carnegie on a cruise ship while the Carnegies were on their honeymoon and convinced him New York needed another concert hall. Well, that whole bit had to be cut for space. A few other details are not in precise chronological order because there were so many meetings and two different committees. Oh, and I had this whole spread where Isaac Stern talks to the Mayor at a Passover Seder and convinces him to help save Carnegie Hall. There was just no room for it, even though I wanted to be able to focus a bit more on Isaac Stern being Jewish since that is why they left to come to America to begin with.

 

 

Katie’s illustrations are amazing. How did you get paired with her?

The publisher always chooses the illustrator, but they did show me samples from three different artists to get my feedback. I already loved Katie’s work on Jess Keating’s book, Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret, so I was very excited. I think her vivid colors really bring the story to life.

 

What are you working on now?

Right now, I am working on a biography of author Marguerite Henry, who is also near and dear to my heart, since I grew up riding bareback in Texas. I met her at an author visit at my school when I was around eight years old. I still have my autographed copy of Justin Morgan Had a Horse!

I also have two more books coming out with HarperCollins’ Quill Tree Books: A Grand Idea: How William Wilgus Created The Grand Central Terminal and Kati’s Tiny Messengers: Dr. Katalin Kariko and the Battle Against Covid-19. And I have a soon-to-be-announced picture book coming out with a Jewish publisher, Apples and Honey Press. I’m working on two middle grade novels as well.

Wow, Megan, your plate is full! I can’t wait to check out those new titles. Thank you so much for answering my questions!

To learn more about Megan, go to www.meganhoyt.net.

Getting to Know: Terry Catasús Jennings, part 2

 

When I saw that author friend Terry Catasús Jennings had a new book releasing, I knew it was time to rekindle the Getting to Know the author interviews. While I’ve featured Terry before, The Little House of Hope is a special new picture book (releasing June 14 from Neal Porter Books) and I wanted to learn more.

Me: Congratulations on your beautiful, touching new book! How much of the Little House of Hope mirrors your own experiences?

Terry: Hi, Jon, thank you so much for hosting me on your blog. I’m glad you’re back in business. The answer to how much The Little House of Hope mirrors my own experience is: most of it.  When we came to the United States my uncle, my father’s brother, had been in the United States for more than year.  They had rented a house (a little house) and they opened that house to us when we came with nothing but fifty dollars for the whole family and a suitcase each.  They also opened up that house to my aunt’s brother, his wife and baby—they lived in the garage. I slept with my two girl cousins. We shared two twin beds and a cot—took turns on the cot—which was really a generous thing to do, because they could have made me take the cot all the time. And no one complained. I think my parents slept on the pull-out couch. We only took in family, so that’s a difference, but really just about everything else is true, down to making collages to decorate the walls.

 

Me: Though the story has obviously been with you for a long time, when did you realize it would make a good picture book? Did anything stand out about the writing process for this work?

Terry: Well, it wasn’t with me that long. I got mad at a realtor who said that “Mexicans” lived four families to a home and trashed a house, and then I remembered that for about a year after we came to the United States, the first part of that statement applied to us. We lived three families to a house.  Fourteen people on weekends when my aunt’s other nephews came to stay with us. I think, at first, it was more of having to get the story out, than realizing it would make a good picture book. As the story took shape, though, I thought it could be special. I wanted to turn it  into a good message for young readers, and maybe even the adults who read to them, that immigrants don’t come to the United States on a whim, it’s a gut wrenching decision and it is a very tough life. What stood out in the process was how quickly it came together and how few revisions it went through.  And oh, I just heard it is a Junior Library Guild selection. I’m really stoked about that.

Me: Raúl Colón is an amazing illustrator and his illustrations for your book are stunning! How did you end up working with him?

Terry: He is amazing, Jon. Neal Porter, the editor of the book picked Raúl and I couldn’t be happier.  He knows Cubans (he’s married to one). His style is so unique. I think anyone who picks up the book is bound to open it to see the rest of his illustrations. You can’t ask more than that.

 

Me: There have been a couple more books in the Definitely Dominguita series come up since the last time I interviewed you. Can you briefly tell us about those, and your Pauli Murray biography?

Terry: Well Dominguita went on two new adventures since we last spoke. In All for One, she and the crew pretend to be musketeers and save a quinceañera party—a debutante party Latinx style—from the dastardly Bublassi clan.  They arm themselves with toilet plungers, instead of musketeer swords that could poke their eyes out, but I have to say the toilet plungers are award-winning toilet plungers. It’s a big part of the plot. I bet you can tell what Dominguita and her crew are in Sherlock Dom, they work on the mystery of the Lost Goat of Tapperville, which could be vaguely, vaguely reminiscent of the Hound of the Baskervilles.  Pauli Murray, The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist is a biography in verse about the person who figured out the strategy that would win Brown v. Board of Education and desegregate schools. She didn’t get the credit, though, because she was a woman. She was also responsible for including gender as a protected category in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and getting equal pay for equal work for women. But she was so much more. She wrote, to anybody that could help the cause of human rights, including Franklin Roosevelt, and the First Lady. She and Eleanor became great friends. She also wrote beautiful poetry and a history of African Americans in the United States which was focused on her family but chronicled the journey of Black Americans until that time. She was so much, and she was so humble. She never stopped fighting. I collaborated with her niece, Rosita Stevens Holsey in writing it.

 

Me: What are you working on now?

Terry: I have two books out on submission right now, one is a picture book biography of Pauli Murray and the other is a book about a young boy and his grandfather, on a day when grandpa doesn’t feel so well and the roles are reversed. It’s a sweet story. I hope both of those become books. And I have two other mg novels in the final editing stages. I hope they’ll go on submission this summer.

Jon, thank you so much, again for hosting me. I can’t wait to see your new books. You know you’re my grandkids’ favorite author.

Me: Aw, second favorite, I’m sure. Wishing The Little House of Hope much success!

To learn more about Terry and her books, go to TerryCJennings.com and on Facebook: Terry Catasús Jennings, Twitter: @TerryCJennings, Instagram:  Terry.C.Jennings