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Interview with Amalia Hoffman, author of MY MONSTERPIECE
Nov 30th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links: B & N | Amazon

About My Monsterpiece:

A celebration of imagination, creativity, acceptance, and art that will delight children of all ages.

A kid-artist wants to frighten family members and friends by creating the scariest, meanest, most terrible monsters ever. A green tongue, pointy horns, sharp teeth, and terrible claws are sure to make everyone scream!

But what happens when rather than running away in a fright, they smile, laugh, and absolutely LOVE the monsters?

Join the frustrated artist on this hilariously hair-raising journey where the scary and not scary meet and mingle, embarking on an adventure that reveals that overcoming fear and prejudice can lead to a wonderful friendship.

With hand-drawn cutout illustrations, incorporating materials that kids actually use while making art, and a perfect mix of shivers and giggles, this bold, energetic picture book celebrates the power of a child’s imagination and appeals to a child’s love of the scary and the fun. This unique monster story touches on stereotyping and the fear of what is different in a way that young readers will relate to. It demonstrates that it’s possible to overcome bias, and helps children understand that acceptance and diversity make our lives far more colorful and enjoyable.

More photos:

Coloring Pages/Activity

Interview:

Question: What was your inspiration to create this picture book?

Answer: My inspiration to create the book was my many years of working with kids. I’ve conducted many teaching programs in Westchester County, NY . During these programs, I encouraged kids to experiment with mixed media. Just like the illustrations in My Monsterpiece, we used paper plates, yarn, bits of paper and anything fun we could glue on, like buttons, fruit loop — you name it! I noticed that kids love to touch and smear paint. They don’t just use color; they feel it. That’d why many of the illustrations in my book were not painted with brushes but with my fingers. I wanted to create a book that will celebrate a child creativity and imagination. I also noticed that kids are problem- solvers and so I was inspired to write from a point of view of a narrator who solves his or her problem after realizing that no one is scared of the “monster” they have created.

Question: Share a behind-the –scenes secret. Something readers would never know just from picking the book. 

Answer: Apparently, I was a very temperamental child. When I got angry with my mom and dad, I used to punish them by tearing the greeting cards I created for their birthdays and anniversaries.  Years later, when I visited my parents who lived in Jerusalem, I found an envelope with all the bits of torn art that my father saved. When I created My Monsterpiece, I showed the kid’s frustration by creating one spread that feature the kid’s torn monsters.

I remember that when I was about 8, I entered a contest, sponsored by a children’s magazine, to draw a scary witch. Apparently, mine wasn’t scary enough because I didn’t win…

Question: When you’ve critiqued other people’s work, what’s the most common mistake you’ve see and what advice would you give to avoid it?

Answer: One of the most common mistakes writers make is what I describe as, “over-writing.” By that, I mean – repeating what was already clear in the text and not trusting that their readers will understand the story. Also, writers often try to describe emotions with language such as: “She was sad, very sad…” or: “He was very angry…” Such descriptions tell, rather than show the emotional state of their characters. 

To avoid “over-writing” read your story aloud as if you were reading it to someone else. If you notice repetitions, revise and delete. Try not to “fall in love” with every word you typed in your first draft. In picture books, trust the illustrator to fill in descriptions that might be better conveyed in pictures than written words.

To avoid “telling” try to show emotions by describing the feelings in a more enduring way. How did the girl behave when she was sad, what did the boy do with his fists and legs when he was angry, etc.

Bonus:

My favorites:

Favorite music: I love classical music. I also love Israeli music and any Middle Eastern music because I grew up in Jerusalem, Israel and was surrounded by such tunes. I must have something beautiful to listen to as soon as I get up in the morning and, of course, when I work. 

Favorite vacation place: Well, I often dream about going to space… Is that unrealistic???

But for as long as I am restricted to this planet, my favorite place is Jerusalem. I can smell my childhood in the olive trees, the stones, rocks; the falafel stalls in the crowded streets.

Favorite Jewish food: Chicken soup (I’m pretty good at making it) with matzo balls. But it has to have fresh dill sprinkled on top!. I’m also a sucker for Arabic  and Middle Eastern foods: fatush,  falafel, humus, tahina.

Favorite holiday: Hanukkah. I have wonderful memories of celebrating Hanukkah with my sisters and parents when I grew up, watching all the menorahs in the neighborhood. Once, it snowed in Jerusalem on Hanukkah. I ran out and built a snow menorah. We brought latkes down from our 4th floor walk up apartment and celebrated outdoors.

About Amalia Hoffman:

I grew up in Jerusalem, Israel. My first drawing was black crayon 
smeared over the entire page. My mom asked me what it was and I said, “that’s a chicken coop.”

“Where are the chickens?” she asked.

I said, “They are all asleep and it’s dark.”

Since then I have been drawing, painting, sculpting and cutting paper constructions. After graduating from Pratt Institute and NYU, I began showing my artwork in galleries and museums

Gene Moore, display director for Tiffany & Co. loved my paper constructions and invited me to create displays for all his windows in New York. I started creating innovative displays for many prominent
store windows and I was thrilled to see kids with their nose stuck to the glass, as they gazed at the scene in the window.

Writing and illustrating children’s books is, again, a window into a child’s fantasy and imagination. It’s also a wonderful way for me to connect with my own childhood and early memories like the chicken coop drawing.

Interview with Joanne Levy, MG Author of FISH OUT OF WATER
Nov 4th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Link

My ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review!

I choked up several times reading this beautiful middle grade book. Perfect for reluctant readers, this novel conveys a very important message on gender bias, taking on social norms for activities that are deemed for girls and for boys. I’d love to see this shared in classrooms, read to students out loud.

Definitely put this on your MUST READ list!

About the novel from Goodreads:

Twelve-year-old Fishel (Fish) Rosner doesn’t like regular “boy” things. He hates sports and would prefer to read or do crafts instead of climbing trees or riding dirt bikes with his friends. He also loves to dance. But all his interests are considered “girly.” Fish doesn’t get why that’s a bad thing. He’s just interested in different things than other boys. When he asks his Bubby to teach him to knit, she tells him to go play outside. When he begs his mom to take him to Zumba, she enrolls him in water polo instead. Why does everyone else get to decide what Fish should or shouldn’t do?

Interview:

Question: I love the title for this novel. Did you come up with it or was it a suggestion from someone else? From what I’ve read, it fits perfectly for your book. How does being a “fish out of water” fit your main character?  

Answer: Thank you! I love the title too, though I have to admit it came about in a pretty boring way. I didn’t have a set title when I pitched the story to my editor but my working title was ‘The Mitzvah Project’ though he book was about more than that and I wasn’t at all sure the title would stick. My pitch did include the phrase ‘fish out of water’ sort of as a joke in reference to the character. My editor said she quite liked it. As did I and it felt right, so there it is.  I think readers will figure out very quickly that Fish–the main character–feels exactly like a fish out of water and why. He knows that in some ways he’s not like other boys in the activities he enjoys and the ones he definitely doesn’t. He’s a little afraid of admitting it and it becomes clear that his fears are justified. 

Question: Share with us some book secrets, things that no one would know about this book just from picking it up and reading it.

Answer: I love giving characters unique/meaningful names and Fish was no exception. I often search baby naming websites for HOURS just trying to find the perfect name for a character. Fishel popped out at me and I loved it immediately. I thought it would be so fun to have a kid named Fish in a book. It also feels vindicating because I once wrote a book where there was a kid (nick)named Cabbage and I’m still sad that the book never sold and thus Cabbage never saw the light of day. But alas, now we have Fish. Also, the character of Fish was inspired in part by the son of a good friend of mine. He is SUCH a character and I love his clever and unique way of looking at the world. I didn’t quite do him justice in this short plot-driven book, but I dedicated it to him so he knows that he had a hand in it. Also, his mom is a fabulous knitter and I think her talent (of which I am in awe) was another (albeit unconscious) inspiration for the book. 


Question: Fish Out of Water is your fourth novel and you have two more coming out next year. What have you learned through this process that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?

Hmm. I’m not the type of person to look back. Everything I’ve done, even the mistakes, are learning moments. I feel like I should say: Don’t be in a rush to publish. But the truth is, I still struggle with this – I’m so impatient! But if you send out books that aren’t ready, you may be hurting yourself and your potential for a great career. We all need practice and time for our work to mature and percolate. No one writes perfect books out of the gate. No one. We need time and distance to see our writing objectively and putting it out too early can come back to bite you in the butt. You never want to have regrets or be embarassed about your early work because when it’s out there, it’s out there potentially forever. Get lots of help – a critique group or beta readers who aren’t related to you and who will be honest – to make your work sparkle and shine before you start sending it out. Can someone please remind me of this when I finish my next draft, though?  

Bonus Round:

What do you prefer?
Books to read: romance, thrillers, historical fiction, picture books, YA, MG, sci-fi, non-fiction, fantasy, horror, fiction, biography, other?

ROMANCE. I do read a lot of kidlit books because: author of kidlit, but my go-to for pleasure reading is always romance. Historical particularly because I look at screens all day and I like my romances to be far away from modern themes like online dating, or texting or blech, anything computer-related.  

Winter, spring, summer, or fall?

Two part answer: 40% Summer/60% Fall – Summer because I love our pool and just being while I float out in there (again, getting away from screens) but on its own, I love how Fall appeals to all my senses. Plus: sweater weather and being able to sleep.

French fries, onion rings, potato chips, popcorn, rice cakes, sweet potato fries, other?

ALL (except rice cakes). I don’t actually eat much in the way of carbs anymore for dietary reasons, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. They ALL have their place in my fantasy meals. In fact, just a giant platter of all of the above, thank you very much.

Chanukah, Sukkot, Rosh Hashana, Passover, Simchat Torah, other?

Chanukah, or, as it’s spelled in my home, Hanukkah. And mostly because of latkes (you mentioned fried things above, so…). 😉 Truthfully, I like all the holidays that bring my family together. As I get older, I realize that’s more important than anything, so I’m not fussy about what holiday it is, as long as it’s filled with the people I love (food is a given at pretty much all of them, so…).  

About Joanne Levy:

Joanne Levy’s love of books began at a very early age. Being the youngest and the only female among four children, she was often left to her own devices and could frequently be found sitting in a quiet corner with her nose in a book.

Since she left the corporate world in 2013, Joanne spends her non-writing time helping other authors with their administrative needs as a virtual author assistant. 

Joanne can usually be found at her computer, either creating spreadsheets (sometimes just for fun) or channeling her younger self into books. She lives in rural Ontario, Canada with her husband and kids of the furred and feathered variety. You can follow Joanne on Instagram or find her on Facebook

In her non-writing time (ha!) Joanne enjoys working with wool to make felt creatures. Check out her Esty store to see some of her current items for sale.

Find more information on Joanne’s website!


An Interview with Erica Perl, Picture Book Author of THE NINTH NIGHT OF HANUKKAH
Sep 17th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links: Bookshop|B & N IndieBound|Amazon

About The Ninth Night of Hanukkah from Goodreads:

A heartwarming picture book with a fresh twist on a Hanukkah celebration: celebrating a ninth night with new neighbors and friends!

It’s Hanukkah, and Max and Rachel are excited to light the menorah in their family’s new apartment. But, unfortunately, their Hanukkah box is missing. So now they have no menorah, candles, dreidels, or, well, anything! Luckily, their neighbors are happy to help, offering thoughtful and often humorous stand-in items each night. And then, just as Hanukkah is about to end, Max and Rachel, inspired by the shamash (“helper”) candle, have a brilliant idea: they’re going to celebrate the Ninth Night of Hanukkah as a way to say thanks to everyone who’s helped them!

This book is not only a heartwarming and fun story, it’s also an invitation to join in a beautiful new Hanukkah tradition!

Interview:

The premise for The Ninth Night of Hanukkah is so clever. Share with us some book secrets, things that no one would know about this book just from picking it up and reading it. It could be an inspiration, reasons why you named your characters etc.

One Hanukkah, my daughters observed that the shamash works hard every night helping to light the other candles, but never gets a night of appreciation. The idea stuck with me. And then I thought about all the people who help others, yet so often go unappreciated (and sometimes even unnoticed). I realized how great it would be if we could honor the shamash as well as people who give of themselves and share their light with others. This led me to write The Ninth Night of Hanukkah.

What was it about the holiday of Hanukkah that made you want to create a picture book about it?

I love the feeling of togetherness that comes with Hanukkah. And I was excited to write a book that creates a new Hanukkah ritual in honor of helpers and helping. To me, although it is brand new, it is a natural outgrowth of existing Hanukkah traditions. We all help each other, and helping is more important now more than ever. Just wearing a mask is a great way that you help those around you every day! So, it makes sense to set aside a day to celebrate helpers at Hanukkah time. And the shamash is the perfect symbol because it is the hardworking yet unsung hero of Hanukkah.

I looked at Goodreads and your blog, and if I counted correctly, The Ninth Night of Hanukkah is your twenty-eighth book. Mazel tov on such an incredible accomplishment!!! What writing or publishing wisdom have you gained through your journey that you wish you would have had when you first started out that might be helpful for other writers?

Thanks! It’s actually my thirty-first published book. I have two pieces of advice. First, read constantly and critically – not just in your genre, but widely and inclusively. There’s so much we can learn from other writers, about the world as well as about the craft of writing. Second, be open to revising beyond the point when you think a piece is “done.” I often find that beneath the surface of a “finished” project is something more, which – if I’m lucky – I’ll unearth through additional revision. That was definitely true of The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, which benefitted from some wonderful editorial feedback along the way. 

Fun bonus round. Feel free to explain if you’d like.

What do you prefer?

Favorite Hannukkah treats: Chocolate gelt (coins), Potato latkes (pancakes), donuts, a different type of latke like zucchini or sweet potato? Other?

I am a bit of a chocolate gelt snob – it has to be 100% milk or dark chocolate. My favorites are made by Lake Champlain chocolatesSee’s Candies, and Trader Joe’s. I also like traditional potato latkes with sour cream, salt and pepper. My husband is the best latke-maker on the planet and I am not biased in the least.

Books to read: romance, thrillers, historical fiction, picture books, YA, MG, sci-fi, non-fiction, fantasy, horror, fiction, other?

I read a lot of picture books as well as realistic middle grade, YA, and graphic novels, though I am always excited when I read something excellent that’s outside my comfort zone (like A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers, which I read on my daughter’s recommendation – who knew I could love sci fi?).

Desert, rainforest, beach, marsh, urban park, forest, other? 

All of the above. I love the great outdoors! 

Winter, spring, summer, or fall? 

I’m a fan of summer, with a sweet spot for autumn in New England (where I grew up… I miss those early fall apples the most!).

About Erica Perl:

Erica S. Perl is the author of popular and critically acclaimed books for young readers.

Her most recent middle grade novel, ALL THREE STOOGES, won the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and the Sydney Taylor Award Silver Medal. Erica’s novels for young readers include WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU O.J. (Sydney Taylor Award Notable Book, ALA Notable Book, P.J. Our Way, multiple state book award lists), ACES WILD (NPR Best Book of the Year, P.J. Our Way), and THE CAPYBARA CONSPIRACY: A NOVEL IN THREE ACTS (innovative script format).

Erica also writes picture books – including CHICKEN BUTT!, GOATILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS and FEROCIOUS FLUFFITY – early readers, transitional chapter books, and chapter books – TRUTH OR LIE!, ARNOLD AND LOUISE, and the CRAFTILY EVER AFTER (written as “Martha Maker) series.

Erica is a crowd-pleasing presenter at schools, libraries and community events. She honed her skills working as a trial lawyer in New York City, and also worked for many years for First Book, the national non-profit organization that provides books to children in need.

She lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.

Find Erica: Website | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

Interview with Tziporah Cohen, Debut Middle Grade Author of NO VACANCY
Sep 9th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links:

Canada: Mabel’s Fables | Indigo

US: Bookshop | Amazon | Audible

International: Book Depository

About No Vacancy From Goodreads:

Buying and moving into the run-down Jewel Motor Inn in upstate New York wasn’t eleven-year-old Miriam Brockman’s dream, but at least it’s an adventure. Miriam befriends Kate, whose grandmother owns the diner next door, and finds comfort in the company of Maria, the motel’s housekeeper, and her Uncle Mordy, who comes to help out for the summer. She spends her free time helping Kate’s grandmother make her famous grape pies and begins to face her fears by taking swimming lessons in the motel’s pool.

But when it becomes clear that only a miracle is going to save the Jewel from bankruptcy, Jewish Miriam and Catholic Kate decide to create their own. Otherwise, the No Vacancy sign will come down for good, and Miriam will lose the life she’s worked so hard to build.

Interview:

1. Was there anything that surprised you while writing this novel? If so, what?

What surprised me most was how much I learned writing it. I started the novel during my MFA and continued to work on it for several years afterwards. While I learned tons during my MFA, I now understand how much of writing you learn while writing. Even in the final editing stages, my editor pushed me to dig deeper, and showed me how the tiniest of tweaks could bring the characters and setting even more to life. The characters and plot of the book also evolved a great deal over the many drafts. I started the manuscript in the summer of 2013 and it was acquired in spring of 2019. Miriam, my main character, went from age nine in the first draft to eleven in later drafts. Kate, her new friend, took on a much more important role. The tone of the book went from a bit slapstick to more serious, with humor still an important part. And all this needed time. You can’t rush the creative process, even if you want to.

2. Any novel secrets? Something that readers wouldn’t know just from reading your book like special inspirations, places or people you interwove into the text? 

I did weave in a few little secrets and will be curious to see if anyone notices! A few times throughout the story, Miriam squeezes her mother’s or brother’s hand—one, two, three—to say “I love you,” which is something my grandmother taught my mom and she taught me. I know this is something that other families do, so I hope it feels like a gift just for those readers too. Rabbi Yael is named after a friend who is the rabbi at one of the large synagogues in Toronto. (She’s just as wise as the Rabbi Yael in the book.) Miriam is only supposed to eat sugar cereals on Shabbat morning, which is a rule my husband and I made for our own kids (though I know they cheat from time to time!)

On the less pleasant side, Miriam’s mom talks about having pennies thrown at her when she was a kid—an anti-Semitic act. This happened to me in the hallways of my junior high school many years ago. Like Miriam’s mom, I remember feeling ashamed. I wish I could redo that moment by confronting the person and—best case scenario—educating them about the hateful origins of that stereotype. And I would have liked to have felt proud rather than ashamed.

3. What inspired you to write a novel set in a rundown inn?

The inspiration came from spending a couple of nights in a tired motel on vacation one summer. There was a young boy hanging around, asking us questions, and I eventually learned he had moved there with his family and they were running the place. I was doing my MFA and needed an idea for a novel, and thought, what better setting than a motel for a middle grade novel? I didn’t know any other novels for kids set in a motel (Kelly Yang’s wonderful Front Desk, hadn’t come out yet) and I realized there would be unlimited opportunities for interaction with guests. I started the novel during that vacation. Luckily, my MFA advisor loved it and encouraged me to keep working on it. (Thank you, Sarah Ellis!)

Bonus round: 

Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, water, sparkling water, juice, other?

Tea – more specifically, mint herbal tea. I can’t write without it.

Winter, spring, summer or fall?

Spring. I love watching the plants and trees come back to life. It gives me hope.

Fries, onion rings, potato chips, pretzels, popcorn?

Onion rings, but the kind made from slices of onions, not the chopped-up-and-reconstituted-into-rings kind.

Ideal vacation: Beach, major city touring museums and landmarks, national park, skiing, staying at home?

National park, hands down. 

What do you prefer to read in your spare time? Fiction, memoir, romance, young adult, middle grade, fantasy, sci-fi, biography, historical fiction?

I’m pretty eclectic in my reading and pick up different types of books depending on my mood (and my book group.) Picture books of all kinds and middle grade contemporary fiction are high on the list, since that’s what I write, but I love diving into adult fiction and non-fiction to exercise other parts of my brain.

Favorite “Jewish” food? Matzah ball soup, potato kugel, noodle kugel, gefilte fish, brisket, challah, bagel, bagel and cream cheese, bagel with cream cheese and lox or other?

Matzah ball soup! 

About Tziporah:

Tziporah Cohen

I was born and raised in New York, spent eighteen years in Boston after college, and then landed in Toronto, Canada, where I live with my husband, three kids, two cats, and one dog.

I studied French and Theater Arts at Cornell University, where I was one of a lucky handful of Chimesmasters who performed chimes concerts in the campus bell tower three times a day. I was sure I was going to be a veterinarian from the time I could talk, but then decided to be a people doctor and went to medical school. About ten years after graduating from Harvard Medical School, I took my first course in writing picture books, which led some years later to an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Now I split my time between working as a psychiatrist and writing, interspersed with mom duties and walking the dog.

Find Tziporah: Website | Twitter | Facebook

An Interview with Evan Wolkenstein, Debut MG Author of TURTLE BOY
Aug 13th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links

It’s my honor to have Evan Wolkenstein on my blog. See my five star Goodreads review to learn more about what I thought of this incredible debut MG novel.

From Goodreads, About Turtle Boy

This middle-grade debut, which will surely appeal to fans of Wonder, explores self-image, friendship, and grief, while highlighting the importance of taking chances. It will make you laugh and cry, and you will be eager to share it with someone you love.

Seventh grade is not going well for Will Levine. Kids at school bully him because of his funny-looking chin. His science teacher finds out about the turtles he spent his summer collecting from the marsh behind school and orders him to release them back into the wild. And for his bar mitzvah community service project, he has to go to the hospital to visit RJ, an older boy struggling with an incurable disease. Unfortunately, Will hates hospitals.

At first, the boys don’t get along, but then RJ shares his bucket list with Will. Among the things he wants to do: ride a roller coaster, go to a concert and a school dance, and swim in the ocean. To Will, happiness is hanging out in his room, alone, preferably with his turtles. But as RJ’s disease worsens, Will realizes he needs to tackle the bucket list on his new friend’s behalf before it’s too late. It seems like an impossible mission, way outside Will’s comfort zone. But as he completes each task with RJ’s guidance, Will learns that life is too short to live in a shell.

A strong debut novel about grief, loss, and coming out of one’s shell.” —School Library Journal

“Turtle Boy–both boy and book–is a winner.” —Booklist, starred review

“A beautiful debut that wears its heart on its sleeve” —TheNerdDaily

A masterful mingling of deeply resonant themes, including self-esteem, loneliness, loss, and the rewards of improbable friendships.” —Publishers Weekly

“A satisfying arc, from sadness to dawning hope and strength.” —Kirkus Reviews

Interview:

Share a novel secret or secrets about your book. It could be anything that readers would never know just from reading it like your inspiration for a name, the reason why you chose the setting, something humorous that took place while writing.

Turtle Boy began as a kind of therapeutic art project – I’m an amateur illustrator and a fan of comics and graphic novels, so I drew an autobiographical comic called How I Learned to Love My Face about growing up with a facial difference, the process of having it corrected, and how the echoes of that experience still reach me, three decades later, in unexpected ways. 

I’ll also mention that the entire book was written with a single musical soundtrack on my headphones. Music for Cats. Yes, a musician-composer named David Teie wrote a gorgeous album of music intending it to be listened to by cats. Apparently, it also soothes my inner writing feline. Okay, and before you laugh, try giving it a listen. Seriously, it’s peaceful and lovely and also, David is a really nice person. I emailed him to thank him for writing the music that helped me write a novel and he was very, very gracious. 

You narrated your own audiobook, which received a starred review from Booklist. I am in awe. Tell us why you wanted to do the audiobook and what that experience was like.

I’m an auditory person – I sing constantly, drum on every available surface with my hands (it drives people crazy), and experience the world through music and rhythm. For that reason, music and rhythm play significantly into Turtle Boy – from the rock beats Will learns from RJ, to the chanted Jewish prayers. I wanted those sounds to reach the ears of my listeners authentically – from the “Boom-Pack Boom-Boom-Pack” of RJ’s homemade drum set to the Aramaic mourner’s prayers. Beyond this, while Turtle Boy isn’t pure autobiography, it is heavily influenced by my past, and sharing the story with my own voice meant a great deal to me. 

Bonus round: What would you prefer?

Chanukah, Passover, Purim, Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, or Shabbat, other?

I love this question – every Jewish holiday I love, because they’re so close to me. There are also things I dread about them! In that way, they are like family members whom you adore to pieces… but they also get under your skin! That’s part of having a life-long connection to anything — the relationship is always deep and ambivalent and nuanced. I start worrying about Yom Kippur a month before it happens, I get anxious about my own preparation, but year after year, I reach some deep, deep spiritual places when surrounded by the songs and prayers of my people. And Passover, sharing the taste of Matzo Brei with my two year old is delightful, the themes of liberation – so powerful. Then again, the physical effects of that much processed flour? Not great. Still, these are my holidays, my memories, my nostalgia, and my family identity. I need it all. That said, I’m experiencing every holiday through my little girl’s eyes – and so Shabbat, which comes every week – plays a bigger and bigger role, as does the puppet we use to add joy to Zoom Shabbat services. 

Writing, revising, reading?

REVISING. Writing is painful, painful, painful. Every new scene feels like an exercise in imposter syndrome. BUT! The best feeling is when you take a couple of scenes that are limping along, remove some baggage, sharpen the language, lash them together and then there’s the VROOOM!!! as they supercharge each other and start driving off in a cloud of dust…and you type and type and type to keep up with them! So exhilarating! 

Introvert, extrovert or ambivert?

Ambivert. I love being with students, in a crowded synagogue, chatting with colleagues, and I’m drawn to the spotlight. But it depletes me. I also need a lot of quiet time — me and my writing, a comfy chair with a nice view, a mug of coffee. Noise cancelling headphones. And no, you can’t join me! Get out!

Matzoh ball soup, bagels, cream cheese (with or without lox), brisket, gefilte fish, challah, noodle kugel, chummus, pastrami or corned beef (on rye), other?

Oh, wow. That’s a great menu. As a kosher-eater in Marin county, a hot pastrami sandwich is impossible. And the stuff out of packages isn’t great. But the bigger problem is that there’s a platonic sandwich already floating around in my mind. 

I was vegetarian until I was about 35. One day, on a trip to NYC with some students, I brought a group to 2nd Ave Deli. I ate some vegetarian thing – who knows what it was – and after all the students got their pre-ordered sandwiches, there was one leftover hot pastrami on rye that no one claimed. It seemed silly to let it go to waste, so I took a bite and was immediately shlorked into a dream world of magical pastrami-eleves who danced around me singing Hava Nagila. Once we left the deli, the spell wore off. And since that fateful day, I’ve been chasing the Kosher dragon.

Actor, stage crew, director, or audience member?

ACTOR/DIRECTOR: As a gemini (I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but hey, I’m gonna start with that), I inhabit two roles: I find deep joy in sharing my voice with the world. It’s what drove me, year after year, to write and complete a novel. That’s my actor side. But in my work with students, I frequently take on the role of director: supporting, focusing, guiding and cheerleading my students as they perform various feats of talent and daring – sometimes at their desks and sometimes on actual stage. It’s deeply meaningful to me. I’m not sure I could sustainably do one without the other.

About Evan Wolkenstein:

M. Evan Wolkenstein is a high school teacher and author of YA novel Turtle Boy (Random House, May 2020). He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Hebrew University, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. His work can be found in The Forward, Tablet Magazine,  The Washington Post, Engadget, My Jewish Learning, and BimBam.

He lives with his wife and daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

Find him on:

Twitter @EvanWolkenstein, Instagram EvanWolkenstein, Goodreads or at EvanWolkenstein.com

From Evan’s autobiographical comic, How I Learned to Love My Face

Little kids are like the first humans in the Garden of Eden. They don’t know about good or bad, beautiful or ugly. When I was little, I got lots of attention for my long eyelashes and pinchable cheeks. I didn’t know or care what the fuss was about. I loved stuffed animals and Pac-Man. 


Interview with KayLynn Flanders, Debut YA Author of SHIELDED
Jul 23rd, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links

About Shielded from Goodreads:

For fans of Sorcery of Thorns and Furyborn comes a thrilling new fantasy about a kingdom ravaged by war, and the princess who might be the key to saving not only those closest to her, but the kingdom itself, if she reveals the very secret that could destroy her.

The kingdom of Hálendi is in trouble. It’s losing the war at its borders, and rumors of a new, deadlier threat on the horizon have surfaced. Princess Jennesara knows her skills on the battlefield would make her an asset and wants to help, but her father has other plans.

As the second-born heir to the throne, Jenna lacks the firstborn’s–her brother’s–magical abilities, so the king promises her hand in marriage to the prince of neighboring Turia in exchange for resources Hálendi needs. Jenna must leave behind everything she has ever known if she is to give her people a chance at peace.

Only, on the journey to reach her betrothed and new home, the royal caravan is ambushed, and Jenna realizes the rumors were wrong–the new threat is worse than anyone imagined. Now Jenna must decide if revealing a dangerous secret is worth the cost before it’s too late–for her and for her entire kingdom.

Interview:

Share with readers a novel secret—something that readers will never know just from picking up the book.

Awesome question! Okay, here are some fun behind-the-scene details for Shielded:

  • I chose Turia’s kingdom colors to be brown and gold because those are the school colors of my husband’s high school. 
  • Jenna’s eye color is based off my daughter’s.
  • Cavolo, a curse used in Turia, means cabbage in Italian.

What drew you to writing a fantasy novel?

I’ve always loved fantasy novels. They were the books that sucked me in when I was a teenager. And while fantasy novels are pretty complicated with worldbuilding and magic systems, etc., it was a lot of fun to put Jenna in some fantastical situations and see what happened next.

What have you enjoyed the most about the publishing process?

The people! My agent is extraordinary, my editor is a complete champion of my book and me, authors and bloggers have reached out and given guidance and support, and it’s all been amazing. Book people are the best.

Bonus round: (Feel free to explain if you would like)

Dancing, walking, sailing, running, ice-skating, snowboarding?

Ice skating! I took lessons when I was little, and can still skate backwards and do a *very* little jump.

Soups: chicken noodle, egg drop, French onion, lentil, split pea, tortilla, other?

Tortilla! I love Latin food (even if it’s not authentic). I used to speak Spanish fluently, but it’s been a lot of years since I spoke the language daily. 

Concert, movie, musical, play?

I’ve been social distancing since Feburary—can I choose all of the above? 

Music: Classical, hard rock, soft rock, hip hop, jazz, country, other?

I listen to a wide variety of music, but my favorites are usually alternative or soft rock—my favorite band is Keane. Since becoming a parent, I mostly listen to Disney soundtracks with my kids. 

About KayLynn Flanders

KayLynn Flanders has a degree in English Language and editing, and has been a freelance editor and book designer for over twelve years. Her debut novel, a YA fantasy, will be published by Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House) July 21, 2020. KayLynn and her family live in Utah between some mountains and a lake, and she is directionally challenged without them. She loves reading, writing, traveling, and volleyball, and thinks there’s
nothing better than a spur-of-the-moment road trip.

Connect with KayLynn on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

Interview With Claire Swinarski, Debut Middle Grade Author of WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Jul 17th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links

About WHAT HAPPENS NEXT from Goodreads:

In this heartfelt and accessible middle grade novel perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish, a young girl throws herself into solving a local mystery to keep from missing her older sister, who has been sent to an eating disorder treatment facility.

Astronomy-obsessed Abby McCourt should be thrilled about the solar eclipse her small town of Moose Junction is about to witness, but she’s not. After her older sister Blair was sent away for an eating disorder, Abby has been in a funk.

Desperate to dull the pain her sister’s absence has left, she teams up with a visiting astronomer to help track down his long-lost telescope. Though this is supposed to take Abby’s mind off the distance between her and Blair, what she finds may bring her closer to her sister than she ever thought possible.

Q &A:

1. Was there anything that surprised you while writing this novel? If so, what? 

Something that surprised me was how easily the characters voices were able to come to me. I’ve written plenty of stories, but these characters felt so real to me that this was the easiest writing project I’ve ever done! 

2. Any novel secrets? Something that readers wouldn’t know just from reading your book like special inspirations, places or people you interwove into the text?  

The town of Moose Junction is based heavily off of Boulder Junction, a northwoods resort town that my family has a home in. Many of the small places mentioned, like the Cranberry Patch Gift Shop and the Ice Shanty, are real! Sadly, I’ve never actually been to the library–ha!

3. What do you love about your cover and how does it connect to your story? 

Pascal Campion is the illustrator who made the cover, and I’m absolutely obsessed with it. He drew the main character, Abby, looking at the stars, which makes sense–she’s a total astronomy nerd and there’s a solar eclipse happening during the story. Abby can frequently be found with her telescope, so I love that the cover captures her in her natural habitat, and the feel of a summer night just buzzes through the illustration! I can almost smell the s’mores just looking at it. 

Bonus round: What do you prefer?

Coffee, Tea, or Hot Chocolate?

Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall

Fries or onion rings? Neither–cheese curds! I’m a Wisconsin gal through and through! 🙂 

Movie at a theater or watch a movie at home?

Ice cream: Chocolate, Strawberry or Vanilla?

About Claire Swinarski:

The short version: Claire Swinarski is the author of multiple books, including What Happens Next (coming in 2020 from HarperCollins) and Girl, Arise: A Catholic Feminist’s Invitation to Live Boldly, Love Your Faith, and Change the World. She’s also the founder of the Catholic Feminist Podcast, a top-ranked spirituality podcast with half a million downloads that discusses the intersection between faith and women’s issues. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Seventeen, Milwaukee Magazine, and many other publications. She lives just outside of Milwaukee, WI with her husband and two kids.

Find Claire: Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram

Interview with Ellen Birkett Morris Author of LOST GIRLS: Short Stories
Jul 9th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links:

B & N | Carmichael’s Bookstore |Amazon

About Lost Girls: Short Stories, From Goodreads:

“A dazzling collection of stories that showcases Morris’ impressive ability to hide devastating truths within seemingly small moments.” —Jenny Offill

Lost Girls explores the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future, and say goodbye to the past. A young woman creates a ritual to celebrate the life of a kidnapped girl, an unmarried woman wanders into a breast feeder’s support group and stays, a grieving mother finds solace in an unlikely place, a young girl discovers more than she bargained for when she spies on her neighbors. Though they may seem lost, each finds their center as they confront the challenges and expectations of womanhood.

PRAISE for LOST GIRLS

“The stories in Ellen Birkett Morris’s collection, Lost Girls, are memorable for the way they see the lasting truths that reside within the familiar. These stories are full of imaginative leaps that capture the wildness that lies beneath our seemingly ordinary lives. Morris is a writer of extraordinary talent. With elegance and precision, she can turn a story into something luminous and unforgettable.” —Lee Martin, author of Pulitzer Prize Finalist The Bright Forever

“Ellen Birkett Morris is a skillful literary pointillist. In Lost Girls, her debut collection, each spare sentence is as considered as a poem; step back a little way, and you behold a world.” —David Payne, author of Barefoot to Avalon

“This collection of stunning and original stories kept me turning the pages, eager to meet the daughter who eats the sins of others, the 30-year-old virgin who rents a breast pump, the bereft mother drumming away her grief. Ellen Birkett Morris’s Lost Girls draws us so close that before long, we are inhaling the same air, making the same unexpected discoveries, and deeply longing for each of these girls and women to find their private rainbows.” —Masha Hamilton, author of 31 Hours and The Camel Bookmobile

Interview:

1. Explain why you wanted to write this collection. 

I was working on another collection about a male photographer traveling through the south that was getting interest from publishers, but no bites. I started wondering why I kept writing about this guy. 

I realized then that I had written and published a lot of stories about women. Quirky stories about women finding their way in the world and trying to be seen. The voices of those women wouldn’t leave me alone. The young woman creates a ritual to celebrate the life of a kidnapped girl, an unmarried woman wanders into a breast feeder’s support group and stays, a grieving mother finds solace in an unlikely place, and a young girl discovers more than she bargained for when she spies on her neighbors. 

These women were flawed and wonderful, just like the women in my life. I couldn’t wait to put the stories together and see if they worked as a collection. The stories dealt with struggles but also finding your way, surviving, thriving. Lost Girls was born. 

2. Share a story secret, something readers wouldn’t know about this book just from picking it up. It could be a name you gave to a character, research you did, setting.

There are so many story secrets. The title story “Lost Girls” was inspired by a kidnapping in my community and a desire to honor the memories of girls who have gone missing. 

Inheritance was sparked by my frustration with the politics of the day and the way people without resources are exploited. 

As far as character names go, I often use the names of friends and family for my characters, and it doesn’t mean there is any real connection between them and the way that character behaves. 

Bonus round: What do you prefer?

Brisket, matzoh ball soup, potato kugel, gefilte fish, blintzes, bagels (with or without lox, cream cheese), or other?  Nothing like lox and bagels with cream cheese and tomatoes to get my day started just right. 

Desert, rainforest, beach, marsh, urban park, forest, other?  The forest because it is lush, quiet and full of secrets.

Movies, musical, play, ballet? Movies. I love sitting in the dark watching something moving on the screen. I love the collective nature of it. How alone/together we are. 

Laundry, dishes, dusting, vacuuming? I love to cook, so I’ve grown used to dishes. I think back to when I was a kid and pretended it’s fun to play in the water. 

About Ellen Birkett Morris:

A native of Louisville, Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of LOST GIRLS (June 26, 2020), a short story collection, and SURRENDER, a poetry chapbook. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Queens University – Charlotte. Her short stories have appeared in Antioch ReviewShenandoahSouth Carolina Review, Upstreet, and elsewhere.  

Connect with Ellen:

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest | LinkedIn | Goodreads

Interview with Anna Solomon, Author of THE BOOK OF V.
Jun 29th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links on Anna Solomon’s Website

About THE BOOK OF V.—

Anna Solomon’s kaleidoscopic novel intertwines the lives of a Brooklyn mother in 2016, a senator’s wife in 1970s Washington, D.C., and the Bible’s Queen Esther, whose stories of sex, power and desire overlap and ultimately converge—showing how women’s roles have and have not changed over thousands of years.

Lily is a mother and a daughter. And a second wife. And a writer, maybe? Or she was going to be, before she had children. Now, in her rented Brooklyn apartment, she’s grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires while also trying to manage her roles as a mother and a wife.

Vivian Barr seems to be the perfect political wife, dedicated to helping her charismatic and ambitious husband find success in Watergate-era Washington D.C. But one night he demands a humiliating favor, and her refusal to obey changes the course of her life—along with the lives of others.

Esther is a fiercely independent young woman in ancient Persia, where she and her uncle’s tribe live a tenuous existence outside the palace walls. When an innocent mistake results in devastating consequences for her people, she is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king, in the hopes that she will save them all.

Following in the tradition of The Hours and The Red TentThe Book of V. is a bold and contemporary investigation into the enduring expectations and restraints placed on women’s lives.

Q & A:

1. What made you decide to write inspired by The Book of Esther?

I’ve been fascinated by Queen Vashti since I was a girl. She’s banished early on in the The Book of Esther and never mentioned again, and in traditional tellings of the story, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, she’s depicted as being very bad. But it was never clear to me how she was bad. And then as I grew up I became more interested in the question of what bad even means, and whether these categories we often apply to female characters—bad, good; wanton, virtuous; aggressive, meek—reflect actual women, or just our ideas of women. I decided to explore this by playing around with the original Esther story. I wanted to rewrite it, and also to bring it into the heyday of the second wave women’s movement in the 1970s, and then also into the present. So I wound up with these three different timelines, and I made them converge.

2. Please share any novel secrets—something behind-the-scenes that readers won’t know just from picking up the book.

There’s this embroidery sampler that plays kind of a big role in the book. It says, “A Well-Kept House is a Sign of an Ill-Spent Life” and one of my characters, Lily, grew up with it hanging on the back of her bathroom door. Her mother hung it there and the message of it kind of hangs over Lily, who has become, in part, a homemaker. And late in the book the sampler also leads to a plot revelation, which I won’t share here. But I will share this: My mother hung the same sampler on the back of our bathroom door, and like Lily, I must have read it thousands of times. I didn’t know how much I had to say about it, though, until I started writing this novel. 

Bonus round: What do you prefer?

Fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy? Dairy. I mean, I like all these things, but I especially love cheese, ice cream, butter, and whipped cream.

Dancing, walking, ice-skating, skiing, running? Dancing. I don’t dance enough but when I do it makes me so happy.

Movies, musicals, plays, books? Books. All of these things are excellent but there is nothing like entering the private world of a book and losing myself in an alternate reality. 

About Anna:

Anna Solomon is the author of three novels—The Book of V., Leaving Lucy Pear, and The Little Bride—and a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize. Her short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, One Story, The Boston Globe, Tablet, and elsewhere. Anna is the recipient of awards from MacDowell, Yaddo, Bread Loaf, the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, and The Missouri Review, among others, and her short story “The Lobster Mafia Story” was chosen as Boston’s One City One Story read. Anna is co-editor with Eleanor Henderson of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers. Previously, she worked as an award-winning journalist for National Public Radio’s Living on Earth.

Anna is a graduate of Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches writing at Barnard College, Warren Wilson’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center. 

Anna was born and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts and lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children.

Find Anna on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and her website

An Interview With Rocky Callen, Debut YA Author of A BREATH TOO LATE
Jun 26th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links

About A BREATH TOO LATE from Goodreads:

For fans of Girl in Pieces, All the Bright Places, and Girl, Interrupted comes a haunting and breathtaking YA contemporary debut novel that packs a powerful message: hope can be found in the darkness.

Seventeen-year-old Ellie had no hope left. Yet the day after she dies by suicide, she finds herself in the midst of an out-of-body experience. She is a spectator, swaying between past and present, retracing the events that unfolded prior to her death.

But there are gaps in her memory, fractured pieces Ellie is desperate to re-assemble. There’s her mother, a songbird who wanted to break free from her oppressive cage. The boy made of brushstrokes and goofy smiles who brought color into a gray world. Her brooding father, with his sad puppy eyes and clenched fists. Told in epistolary-like style, this deeply moving novel sensitively examines the beautiful and terrible moments that make up a life and the possibilities that live in even the darkest of places. Perfect for fans of the critically-acclaimed SpeakI’ll Give You the Sun, and If I Stay.

Q &A:

1. Share with readers a novel secret—something that readers will never know just from picking up the book. It could be a place you included in the novel, a name you gave to a character inspired by another person, special research you did.

Answer: What a wonderful question! There are lots of little subtle things that are in the book that have significance. Let’s focus on the names! Ellie’s mother’s name (Regina) means Queen. We see Regina’s power get stolen, bit by bit, from her abusive husband. We also see her, bit by bit, take it back. The idea of a throne and crown lost and reclaimed. I think it is important that we always understand that our lives are choices made minute by minute and so many of them are decisions to give our power away or take it back.  Ellie’s name means Light. I gave her a name with that meaning for many reasons. She was a light to her mother. A light to her best friend. A light in her own life. A light in the dark. And ultimately, like the candlelight at a vigil, a person lost who will be remembered. We are all bits of light in this world and I wanted Ellie’s life to be a reminder that even in the darkness, even when we can’t see it, there is hope. 

2. You wrote this book in a unique way. Can you share what inspired you to write it in an epistolary-like style?

Answer: The structure chose me and this story. I really didn’t have much say in it. From the very first page, it tumbled out as letters. Letters to life, to death, to Ellie’s mother and father and best friend, her depression, to so many things/people in her life. I wanted there to be an intimacy with the reader by using “you” and I wanted the reader to understand on a subconscious level that they could be anyone in Ellie’s story–the friend, the bully, the light, the pain–just like they can be anyone in their own. I also feel like last letters embrace all of the words we never get to say. These are Ellie’s final words and even though no one will ever hear them, they matter to us and to her. 


3. Suicide is a tough topic to write about. What message do you want readers to take away?

Answer: Books that grapple with this cannot ever be everything an author wants it to be, but I hope A BREATH TOO LATE is this:a reminder that even on the hardest, most devastating days, there is a life full of possibility worth fighting for. 

Bonus round: What do you prefer?

Type of music: Classical, R&B, hip hop, soft rock, hard rock, punk, jazz, musicals ? ALL of it! Just depends on my mood. 
Banana, orange, kiwi, pomegranate, apple, pineapple, cantaloupe? Toss up between bananas and oranges 🙂
Walking, jogging, ice-skating, sledding, dancing? Walking (it is very meditative to me) and DANCING. I dance every day. In PJs. When no one is looking. 
Potato chips, tortilla chips, popcorn, rice cakes, bean chips? I don’t really eat snack-y things but tortilla chips would be the winner (but only with salsa:).  

A Breath Too Late BOOK CHAT with the Rocky: https://youtu.be/eKzx2OS8oHU

About Rocky Callen:

Rocky Callen, the daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant, has long lived a life of service ever since she was a 13-year-old advocating for the undocumented immigrants in her community. She interned at NASA at 12 years old, started lobbying congress at 13, and wrote and produced student radio stories at NPR at 14. She was a behavioral therapist for over ten years. She received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, daughter, and baby boy. Rocky founded the Bleed Ink Foundation, a creative hub and resource center for writers, and the HoldOn2Hope Project, which unites creatives in suicide prevention and mental health awareness. A Breath Too Late is her debut novel. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram or visit her website.

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