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    5 Questions With Jared Reck (A Short History of the Girl Next Door)

    By Samantha Stinchcomb
     | Jan 03, 2018

    Jared ReckJared Reck's debut novel, A Short History of the Girl Next Door, is a powerful story about friendship and popularity, high school romance, and overcoming tragedy. An eighth-grade English language arts teacher, Reck lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania with his wife and two daughters.

    Do any of the characters or events portrayed in this story mirror your personal experiences with love and life?

    Absolutely. I think all of us understand the feeling of unrequited love—from the earliest unreciprocated crushes of elementary and middle school to the all-encompassing, soul-crushing kind that comes a little later. Good times.

    Matt is very much based on me in terms of interests and personality as a teenager, and I still have an inner-romantic movie director running overdramatic clips of how moments in my life should be playing out. He still sucks, too. So while I never experienced the same loss that Matt does firsthand, I’m pretty sure his reactions—the heartfelt and the heinous alike—mirror what my own would have been.

    What inspired you to write A Short History of the Girl Next Door?

    I wish I could say that [A Short History of the Girl Next Door] came from some big idea, but it didn’t. It really just started with a character.

    I teach eighth-grade ELA, which I run as a writing workshop, and every year we do a pretty in-depth unit on fiction writing. We always start the process by developing a believable main character using a simple questionnaire—about 20 questions answered in the voice of that character, almost like you’re sitting down across the table from your character and recording whatever he or she says to you. (I still start all my stories this way, with about 20-30 pages of character responses before I ever try writing the first chapter.)

    About seven or eight years ago, I’d finished my first short story with my students—a 30-page story about a dweeby eighth-grade orchestra member sitting in in-school suspension—and I loved how it turned out. So when I sat down and started a new character with my students the next year, I ended up loving this kid even more: he was funny, and self-deprecating, and stuck inside his own head all the time, and he lived and breathed basketball. He was Matt.

    So before I ever knew where I was going with the story—before I knew I’d even attempt to turn it into a novel—I had this character, this voice, that I loved. (I’m still not sure I ever figured out plot.)

    In what ways did your students help you to write this novel?

    My students have always kind of been my first readers, little snippets at a time. In my classroom, I never ask my students to do anything I’m not willing to do, too, so I am always writing with them, whether it’s memoir or poetry or fiction or whatever. I model with my own writing throughout the entire process, and, honestly, I’m usually trying to make them laugh. So if I can read a passage and make a roomful of eighth graders laugh, I know I’m on the right track. They’re not always the easiest audience.

    What was the biggest obstacle you faced when writing this novel? Were there any moments in the story where you felt particularly ‘stuck’?

    Ordinary, everyday life.

    Besides teaching full-time, I also worked through a master’s program in educational leadership, I’m an elected member of the school board (in the district where I live, not where I teach), I’m on my town’s recreation board, and with two daughters (one a senior in high school this year), my wife and I are constantly volunteering for the music booster club and the theater booster club and going to concerts and practices and sporting events and Girl Scouts and…yeah. Life.

    Definitely not a struggle—I love being involved in all these things—just full. So, especially with this first book, it was hard to dedicate so much time away from family to work on something that may never go anywhere. And that was one of the biggest challenges—just having the commitment to keep going. To assuage all the crippling self-doubt with the thought that, even if this never gets published, I’ll still be a better human being for having done it—that I’d regret never finishing way more than never publishing.

    What advice would you share with aspiring young authors?

    It’s okay to fake it. Seriously. I just finished writing my second novel, and I still feel like I’m faking it—like I still shouldn’t really call myself a writer. But even if you feel that way—and I bet most of us feel that way—go ahead and pretend like you’re a real-live writer anyway: join an organization like the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, take a class or a workshop, find a writing friend or two, do your research, keep reading and writing, and pretend that you’re already so successful that you can write about whatever the heck makes you truly happy. (I wrote about Nerds, corked wiffle ball bats, and almost inappropriately good gravy.)

     Samantha Stinchcomb is a former intern at the International Literacy Association.

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    Five Questions with...Bridget Hodder (The Rat Prince)

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Aug 10, 2017
    Bridget Hodder is the first-time author of The Rat Prince, a fairytale retelling of Cinderella. Previously an archaeologist, she currently works to help families who struggle with autism. Hodder lives with her family in New England.

    You studied European history and archaeology. How did you use your background to create the imaginary world of The Rat Prince?

    Bridget HodderWhen you've read a sufficient number of antiquated documents (and apparently, I have) it's easy for your mind to slip its moorings in the present and drift back into the remote past. This certainly helped with The Rat Prince.

    The basic story of is told from two points of view: Cinderella's, and that of Char, who is Prince of the Rats of the Northern Realm. Char doesn't know it yet, but he's in love with Cinderella—who's not as passive and cowardly as she appears. On the night of the big ball, Char's changed into a human footman by the fairy godmother. Together, he and Cinderella turn the legend upside down, bring the wicked stepmother to justice, and save the kingdom from a great threat. Besides finding a truly happy ending! 

    Because scholarly accuracy is important to me, I decided to set The Rat Prince in a fantasy kingdom, Angland, rather than in real-life England. This allowed me to weave the settings and customs of wildly different locales and time periods into the story, supercharging the fairytale elements without misrepresenting historical facts. For example, Queen Elizabeth I is glancingly referred to in the book as Queen Lisbeth of Nance...and there's a network of underground sewers in the book that's straight out of the book Les Miserables. (I confess, I haven't seen the play or the movie). 

    Which character resonates with you the most and why?

    There's something irresistible to me about Char, the Prince of the Rats. I admire his wholehearted zest for life, and the sense of humor that coexists with his honor and courage. Heroes don't always have to be serious. 

    I realized quite late in the game—after I'd already written the acknowledgements for the book—that the character of the Rat Prince had been inspired greatly by Reepicheep, the knightly Talking Mouse from the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep disappeared over a mysterious wave into the afterlife, never to be seen again. Apparently, I wasn't ready to say goodbye. Thanks, C.S. Lewis.

    Tell us about your writing journey. What were you doing previously, and what inspired you to write The Rat Prince?

    THE RAT PRINCEI started writing stories when I was four years old, and I never stopped. In fact, writing daily was so natural to me, I didn't realize till well into my adulthood that this was a logical career choice I ought to try. It was a bit like the music that plays in the background of a film—always there, echoing the experience of the main character and sometimes influencing it, but going unnoticed. 

    A Dorothy Sayers character once asked her former Oxford professor a question about how to choose the right path in life and career, "...how is one to know which things are really of overmastering importance?'' 

    ''We can only know that,'' said Miss de Vine, ''when they have overmastered us.''

    The Rat Prince overmastered me, and turned me into a full-time author. In fact, I always say that writing that book was more like spirit possession than inspiration. I literally heard a voice—Prince Char's voice—telling me to write the true story of Cinderella. It was my own heart, however, that told me to sell the book once it was written. When your heart talks, you'd better listen.

    Retellings allow us to subvert the conventions and stereotypes found in some original fairytales. How did you decide which elements of Cinderella to preserve and which elements to make more contemporary?

    The elements that bothered me most about the traditional "Cinderella" were my points of departure. Such as the emphasis on looks and wealth. Or the harrowing passivity of the main character. Or how about the utter lack of any actual romance in a tale that's sold to the world over as "romantic"? (Unless you find it romantic when an abused girl marries the richest, most powerful guy she can find without knowing a thing about him.) 

    There are also some gaping holes in the traditional plot. For example, why on earth would Cinderella's father allow her to be abused by her stepmother like that? Or, why would a handsome crown prince need a ball with all the ladies of the land in attendance in order to find a wife? 

    And, by the way, how come no one ever asks what happened to the wicked stepmother's first husband?

    Don't worry. All these questions have answers, and they're in the book!

    As an author and a former reading and language specialist in the public schools, what would you like to let teachers and parents know about your approach to literacy and learning?

    In our worthy quest to educate and inform, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our strongest ally in the fight for literacy is good, gripping storytelling. Books need to entertain and enthrall, or we lose readers before they can learn. And the best learning is the kind that happens without the reader even realizing they're being taught. I try to put that into practice in the books I write. I weave in teachable philosophy, deep thought and compass points of conscience—they're there if you look—but first and foremost, I aim to write a cracking good read! 

    ....Thank you so much for having me! 
     
    Alina O'Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.
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    Five Questions With... Lynn Joseph (Dancing in the Rain)

    By Lynn Joseph
     | Jul 25, 2017

    Lynn JosephLynn Joseph is a Trinidadian author of children's and young adult picture books set mostly in the Caribbean. Dancing in the Rain follows two Caribbean families, one in the Dominican Republic and one in New York, who find their lives intertwined following the 9/11 attacks. The book was awarded Third Prize in the 2015 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature and was named a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Previous books include A Wave in Her Pocket, An Island Christmas, and The Color of My Words

    Dancing in the Rain was published in 2016, 15 years after the 9/11 events. What inspired you to write the book then?

    I wasn’t inspired to write Dancing in the Rain recently. I began writing the story that became this novel many years ago, probably about three or four years after September 11, 2001, as a means of  coming to terms with the horrific events and circumstances that I had witnessed firsthand. The book is semi-autobiographical as I, too, was a lawyer in New York City, who escaped back to the Caribbean in the wake of the experience. In my case I moved from New York to the U.S. Virgin Islands three months after 9/11 and because of 9/11. The Caribbean was and still is my home and I felt the urgent need to move back to my roots. 

    In the book’s summary, you mention Elizabeth’s vivid imagination. How does her imagination serve her and others in the face of tragedy?

    Elizabeth’s imagination is both a symbol of innocence and a source of power. I believe that by allowing your imagination to develop and have a life, you can access your internal restorative power. So, imagining this story and writing it down allowed me to heal from the post traumatic stress of 9/11. An imagination is powerful when you can recreate your world, the way Elizabeth does when she cannot accept all the sadness around her. Elizabeth’s imagination also feeds her intuition, which is very powerful. 

    I’ve read that most of your books are inspired by your childhood in Trinidad. What elements of Dancing in the Rain are influenced by your own memories and experiences?

    Dancing in the Rain was influenced by the events of my life during and after 9/11. That tragedy opened my eyes to the horrors humans are capable of firsthand. Children today are aware of terrorist incidents worldwide. This book deals with how two children and their families deal with such loss and grief stemming from atrocious acts. It’s a reminder that no matter how bleak and sinister the world may seem at times, it’s imperative to find joy in the darkness.

    Dancing in the Rain takes place both in New York and the Dominican Republic. How do each of these settings influence the book’s major themes?

    Setting the book in New York was necessary to establish the close ties between the characters to the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Moving the story to the beautiful island of Dominican Republic, with its tropical splendor and struggles, represents a new start for one family. For the other family, whose connection to the Twin Towers is more remote, the pain is even harder as they lost a father and husband. Distance does not make the tragedy any easier to bear. 

    This book shows two families’ responses to 9/11. Of all the characters, whose perspective resonated with you the most, and why?

    Of all the characters in the story, I would say that the perspectives of Elizabeth and Brandt resonated equally with me. Seeing the events through their eyes, seeing their hope and struggles to overcome the loss and pain, woke me up and helped me to heal. I am a big believer in shifting your perspective if you can’t prevail in your path. A simple shift, looking at a situation in a totally different way, may be all you need. That’s what Dancing in the Rain represents to me. 

    Alina O'Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.
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    Five Questions With… Tanya Lee Stone (Girl Rising)

    By Clare Maloney
     | Mar 10, 2017

    TanyaLeeStone_220wA companion to the 2013 documentary of the same name, Tanya Lee Stone’s Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time offers an in-depth examination of the social and cultural entrapments that serve as education barriers for girls in developing countries.

    You have a wide range of expertise in a number of areas. How have your own educational opportunities inspired your advocacy for girls’ education?

    Since school is free in this country, I did indeed have a great start! I went through the public school system through high school, and I also attended a magnet performing arts high school (which was also free). I was then lucky enough to be able to attend Oberlin College, where I was an English major. My education at Oberlin shaped me in countless ways that I was likely not even aware of at the time. Oberlin was the first college to grant degrees to women and African-Americans, and that history permeates the culture there. I went out into the world from there a much more aware person.

    How does your book distinguish itself from the 2013 documentary Girl Rising?

    The book was inspired by the film, and the collaboration between me and the filmmakers meant that they entrusted me with their raw video footage of the interviews they conducted with dozens and dozens of girls in many countries. The filmmakers had to condense what they learned into 9 stories, but I was able to include more than 25 girls’ stories. I was also able to take more time to really unpack the major obstacles to education and provide more content for people to be able to sit with and digest and revisit.

    During your research, what has been the most memorable instance of education breaking the poverty cycle in developing countries that you have come across so far?

    There are really so many of them that it’s hard to choose. But just recently, Sokha, from Cambodia, who was literally living on a dump and picking garbage five years ago, is now a college student at Kendall College in Chicago and doing marvelously. Quite incredible.

    GirlRisingCoverWhat kind of impact do you hope your book will have on readers who do have access to educational opportunities?

    The goal is really to educate and increase awareness of these terrible obstacles to education for girls that are happening all around the world—early child marriage and childbirth, modern-day slavery such as trafficking and forced labor, and limited or no access to education—which are all symptoms of poverty and gender discrimination. By increasing awareness of these issues, we hope to inspire more activism as well. The whole third part of the book is dedicated to both large and small ideas to give readers ideas for how they might be able to get involved—and how to connect their own passions to making a difference in someone else’s life.

    Many of your stories incorporate themes of strong, empowering women. Who has been the most inspiring woman in your life?

    I am lucky to have had many inspiring women in my life, starting with my grandmother when I was very young, some very important first female bosses when I was a young editor in New York, and today my closest friends who, every day, are making the world a better place in a myriad of meaningful ways.

    Tanya will be a guest expert at the next #ILAchat, which takes place on March 14 at 8:00 p.m. ET. You can meet her in person at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits in Orlando, FL, where she’ll be taking part in the Young Adult Author Meetup on Saturday, July 15.

    Clare Maloney is an intern at the International Literacy Association. She is currently seeking a BA in English from the University of Delaware.

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    Five Questions With… Dean Robbins (Two Friends)

    By Clare Maloney
     | Feb 28, 2017

    Robbins_300hDean Robbins is an award-winning writer based in Madison, WI. His first book, Two Friends, chronicles a conversation between suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass over tea. With vibrant illustrations and actual quotes from the two historical figures, Two Friends is a heartening tale of friendship that introduces important historical topics in an approachable way for all ages. Be sure to check out the accompanying Reading Guide for instructional ideas.

    The premise of Two Friends was inspired by a statue of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass in their hometown of Rochester, NY. How did you come across this statue, and what about it was so moving to you?

    I’m dedicated to my personal pantheon of heroes, and that involves traveling to their hometowns in hopes of feeling their presence. In this case, I took a road trip to Rochester because I knew that both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass had lived there, making it sacred ground to me. On a tour of the Susan B. Anthony House, the guide mentioned that Anthony often invited her neighbor Douglass to sit in her parlor for tea. The tour also included a look at the statue of the two friends having tea in a nearby park.

    As much as I’d read about 19th-century reform movements, I didn’t know that Anthony and Douglass lived so close to each other and socialized. It was stunning to think that two of the world’s greatest champions of freedom shared ideas, worked together, and supported each other over tea. I’d felt similarly elated as a kid when I read comic books in which Batman and Superman teamed up as an invincible pair. It seemed too good to be true.

    Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, both of whom will be appearing at ILA 2017 this July, illustrated Two Friends. How would you describe the interplay between your text and their mixed media illustrations?

    Two Friends is less a straight biography of Anthony and Douglass than a poetic evocation of their tea party on a snowy day. The friends enjoy a moment of serenity before going out, once again, to face adversity and change the world. With painterly richness, Sean and Selina brought this mood to life. They also included so many lovely details that I discover new ones every time I pick up the book.

    Their masterstroke was embedding words within the images: bits of printed and handwritten text that show up in clothing, trees, snow—even butterfly wings. This design element is visually striking but also thematically relevant. In the book, Anthony and Douglass are always reading, writing, and talking about freedom and equality. The text-drenched images emphasize that Two Friends is a story about the awesome power of words.

    Two Friends is geared toward readers ages 4 to 8. What compelled you to write this particular story for this particular audience?

    Anthony and Douglass are among the bravest heroes in U.S. history. In spite of fierce opposition, they insisted that the country live up to the highest ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s important that children learn about them at an early age, but concepts like abolition and women’s suffrage can be difficult to explain to elementary school students. That’s why I liked the idea of a tea party. If kids have a hard time grasping 150-year-old political issues, I know they can relate to two friends coming together for the grown-up version of a playdate.

    Kids are also very sensitive to unfairness. Two Friends introduces Anthony and Douglass’s egalitarian vision without delving into details that might be confusing for young readers.

    TwoFriends_cover_200wThis book was written long before the contentious 2016 presidential election in the United States, yet could not feel more timely. How has the current cultural climate generated new interest in the year-old publication?

    Two Friends is probably getting this kind of attention because it’s clearer than ever that Anthony and Douglass’s work remains unfinished. They championed the dignity of all people and showed what’s possible when oppressed groups refuse to be dominated. If they were alive, they’d surely try to level the playing field for every citizen. In that sense, they can inspire today’s activists who want to make the United States a better place.

    Which historical figure would you most want to have a tea party with, and why?

    My heroes include Louis Armstrong, Abraham Lincoln, Alice Paul, Emily Dickinson, the Grimké Sisters, and Jackie Robinson, and I’d happily sit down for tea and cake with any of them. But the first names on my fantasy guest list would be Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. There’s little documentation of what they said to each other during their tea parties in Rochester, and I’d give anything to eavesdrop!


    Clare Maloney is an intern at the International Literacy Association. She is currently seeking a BA in English from the University of Delaware.

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