Sunday, April 20, 2014

“Middleview” Interview with Debut Author Jen Swann Downey

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Jen Swann Downey is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Jen’s debut middle grade novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky , released on 04/15/2014! Congratulations, Jen!

author Jen Swann Downey
Here is a bit about Jen:

Jen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. Her debut novel, The Ninja Librarians, will leap onto bookstore shelves in Spring 2014. Jen has never visited a library in which she didn’t want to spend the night. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband and three children and feels very lucky they have not yet fired her.

Here’s a description of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS:

Just a little story about your average sword-swinging, karate-chopping, crime-fighting ninja librarians.

Dorrie Barnes had no idea an overdue library book would change her life. When Dorrie and her brother Marcus chase her pet mongoose into the janitor's closet of their local library, they accidentally fall through a passage into Petrarch's Library -the headquarters of a secret society of ninja librarians who have an important mission: protect those whose words have gotten them into trouble. Anywhere in the world and at any time in history.

Dorrie would love nothing more than to join the society. But when a traitor surfaces, she and her friends are the prime suspects. Can they clear their names before the only passage back to the twenty-first century closes forever?

Here are the links to Jen online: Website, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook

Now it’s time to hear from our guest:

Smack Dab Middleview with THE NINJA LIBRARIANS author Jen Swann Downey
1. In a nutshell, what does your main character, Dorrie want, and what is in her way?

*clears throat ostentatiously* If I may quote from THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, my own and only published work (Don’t worry, I checked and the quote does fit into a nutshell if you dunk it in a vat of Woolite’s evil twin and then toss it in a high heat dryer for a day or two. The quote not the evil twin. Also it helps to use a shell formerly occupied by a coconut) *Sips water. Adjusts microphone so that it squawks in a mildly ear-splitting way*

Dorrie wants to find a way to oppose the villains of the world with her beloved if fake sword. “…though [Dorrie] wanted to wield a sword against evil, modern evil had no intention of making itself available for spearing. Not in the cooperative way it used to once upon a time, at least according to the books she liked to read. Not in the form of a scar-faced villain in a black cloak with a nicely obvious fiendish laugh that she could corner with a piece of dazzling sword-work.

No, modern evil was…complicated, and its spectacularly vile, wicked villains—the ones who really knew how to brew up trouble, the ones who invisibly lurked in the radio’s news stories about war and hunger and poisoned rivers—were masters of disguise.” --

2. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?

The VERY first inspirational seed for the story came out of a scribbled entry in my journal about an imagined moment between several imaginary characters at the imagined creation of the first ever written alphabet – all of which I realize sounds irritatingly mysterious and oblique – but I have to be cagey because that moment became the imagined pivotal last scene of the last book in the five-book series I hope I’ll have the privilege of completing – the first book of course being, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS.

Soon after that, I knew I wanted the story to physically center on a library with wings that stretched out into various times in history. More slowly into focus came Dorrie, her sword, and her predicament; and finally, the secret book and writer protecting society of warrior lybrarians called the Lybrariad.

3. Was THE NINJA LIBRARIANS always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel?

Always and forever and completely and utterly for the any-age enjoyer of middle grade books! Middle grade books have always been my favorites. Well, not every one. Perhaps its more accurate to say: A great many, even most, of my perpetually favorite books are ones with protagonists in the 10-14 year old range, written by authors in such a particular way that you don’t have to be 10-(1)4 to enjoy them. Some of my favorites are Understood Betsy, Mistress Masham’s Repose, A Wrinkle in Time, Which Witch, Maurice and his Educated Rodents, The Penderwicks.

4. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers?

Hard to say what’s best or worse because I’ve never written any stories for adults. (Or for boulders, or robots for that matter!) I did write one short play for adults. About what happens when an on-the-lam criminal attempts to take the attendees of a PA (Procrastinators Anonymous) meeting hostage. It doesn’t go well for the would-be hostage taker. You wouldn’t believe how long it can take a committed procrastinator to get around to responding to a hostage-taker’s orders. And it’s a miracle the play didn’t go on…and on…and….

But whether its best or worst or just the heart of the matter for me in terms of writing for middle graders. A true middle grade novel must – and I have to thank my father for the metaphor - represent a forward pass. A young person is not standing still. Such a person is in big motion barreling with every blooming disappearing day towards new understandings and experiences, and ultimately towards the adult he or she will become. You have to lead such a receiver, tossing the ball further than the spot the runner has already reached, but in the direction they are most certainly running.

5. Is there one question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself.

Do you ever wish you could thank that one English teacher who taught in the tiny Anchorage Public School, in Anchorage, Kentucky, for maybe one year in 1979 whose idea of teaching writing consisted of one day sitting a gourd on a tabletop and inviting us to describe it, another day dropping the record player arm down on a pop-scratchy Dan MacLean singing “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)”, and inviting us to write whatever came into our heads, and never saying a critical word no matter what you did or didn’t put down, and dealing out a whole bunch of days like that with nary a word said about topic sentences, and three supporting statements?

Why, yes I do.

Thank you for joining us on Smack Dab in the Middle Blog, Jen. Again, congratulations on the release of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Screenplay vs. Novel (by Kristin Levine)

I've never done a book trailer for my novels, however, my first book, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, actually started life as a screenplay.  Here's an excerpt:

There is something about telling a story in different formats that seems to capture children's imaginations.  When I do school visits, I often have students read this one page aloud, acting out the different parts.  It's always fun and silly and gets us thinking about how stories change when we tell them different ways.

Another question I often get is, are you going to turn your books into a movie?  My answer is always, Yes, I'd love to!  Do you know anyone in Hollywood?  And then we start talking about how when The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had  was a screenplay, I kept hearing the same criticisms over and over again.  It's a great story, but we don't want to do a movie with kids as the main characters.  Kid actors are too hard to work with.  Or You've got great characters, but it's a period piece.  Unless you're Steven Spielberg or Oprah, period pieces don't make money.

Looking back, the producers that told me these things were on to something.  I think The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had really was better suited to be a book than a movie, and it was when I finally changed that story into a novel that my writing career finally got started.  So I'm grateful to those criticisms for making me consider something I hadn't before.

But the truth is, I'd still love to see one of my books as a movie!  One of these days.  I've got my fingers crossed.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Luddite’s (Last-Ever?) Lament by Claudia Mills (April theme)

          Our Smack Dab theme this month is book trailers. I have never made a book trailer for any of my books. I almost wept the other day when I heard that one librarian told an author friend of mine that the kids at her school no longer want to listen to book talks before they read a book; for them, it’s a book trailer or nothing. “No, no, no, no, no,” I wailed.

            I still write my books the old-fashioned way: long-hand, with paper and pen, leaning on my extremely worn clipboard that lost its clip some decades ago. I still do my school visits the old-fashioned way: no PowerPoint, no slides, not even a microphone unless the gym is very big. What do I do instead? I stand there and talk to the kids; I tell them stories; I do my famous Ape Dance. I sent exactly one tweet on my now-defunct Twitter account. I don’t know how to text on my (non-smart) phone; I asked my college students once to help me switch the phone from ring to vibrate.

            Sometimes I feel like Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Minniver Cheevy,” born too late. In the poem, Robinson is scathing about poor Minniver and his dreams of medieval romance, Minniver whose failure to engage in the actual world of his own life and times leads him to spend his days in endless thinking and thinking and thinking, and endless drinking, as well.

So I’m vowing here and now: I’m not going to let myself be Claudia Cheevy. 

Once upon a time I vowed I’d never give up typing my manuscripts onto my IBM Selectrix typewriter: “I like having to retype the entire manuscript for every round of revisions; it’s good to be forced to rethink every single word, really it is!” That is one tune I haven’t sung for several decades. I am an email addict, scornful beyond all reckoning of a writer colleague who served on an awards committee with me and refused to conduct committee business by email. I adore Facebook. Heck, I found out that my own son had gotten married by going on Facebook (a story for another day). When social-media-phobic friends complain that they’ve missed out on big news from me, news that I plastered all over Facebook, I think, Get with the 21st century, buster!

So this to say that I’m grateful to my fellow Smack-Dabbers for helping me think that it might be possible for me to make a book trailer sometime. (Not quite yet, but sometime. Soon. Or soon-ish.) Just this week I did my first-ever Skype school visit, thoroughly modern Millsie that I am becoming. I wish it had been an in-person visit; it was so much less satisfying than talking with the kids face-to-face. But it was also so much more satisfying than no visit at all.

I’m still a Luddite at heart. But I’m no longer going to be a loudly complaining Luddite, an annoying geezerette who brandishes her cane as she rails against these darned newfangled gadgets and gizmos. The horseless carriage is here to stay, and so is Skype, Twitter, and book trailers – at least until they’re replaced by the next new thing that I’m not going to be complaining about. 

Maybe I’ll go reactivate my Twitter account and tweet about that right now.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

True Serendipity

I am a definite fan of book trailers.  In our digital media-rich world, it's important to use anything we can to get kids to pick up a book.

The strangest thing happened yesterday.  I was getting to work on this month's Smack Dab blog post, when I saw a tweet from library media specialist, Lori Kirtley, with a link to a book trailer that she and her fourth graders had done for my first book, ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER.  It took serendipity to a whole new level.  Seriously, what are the chances of that happening?

I direct messaged Lori to get permission to post it, so here it is:


Thank you, Lori!

In making the video for my second book, A FINDERS-KEEPERS PLACE, I called upon cheap child labor, also known as my daughter, Holly.  She has a cameo in the video, but she may not appreciate my telling everyone.  Also, she may be huffy about her paycheck which is apparently still "in the mail".  Please click below:

Book Trailer for A FINDERS-KEEPERS PLACE by Ann Haywood Leal   


I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC of THE SUMMER I SAVE THE WORLD...IN 65 DAYS by Michele Weber Hurwitz...I absolutely fell in love with this read (as my questions for Michele reveal).  I'm a sucker for realistic, contemporary reads, and this one's a gem.  A breath of fresh air in a sea of magical or fantasy-based MG reads...

Where did the idea come from?

I wove many thoughts together for this story. First, we hear so much about paying it forward and random acts of kindness, but sometimes the amount of problems in our world overwhelms me, and I wondered -- does doing good really do any good? Is it making a difference? Second, I wondered how people truly react when random good comes their way. Is it always positive? I also worried about how technology has altered family life and neighborhoods, and how we live in this era of a sort of "disconnected connection." Lastly, I read about a class at the University of Iowa where the professor had students write down each day three positive events or experiences -- no matter how big or small -- and how this changed their perspectives. I started doing that too. We tend to focus on the negative, or what goes wrong, instead of recognizing small, good things that go right every day.

Did your own grandmother have a set of STs (simple truths)?

While Nina's grandmother isn't based on anyone in particular, my grandmother was a very no-nonsense type of woman. She never wore makeup or had her hair done. She lost her husband very young and worked in a factory, then later, as a bank teller. She certainly had a number of beliefs that she felt strongly about. Most had to do with not wasting money and living a sensible life. And keeping a very clean home :)

In this era of iPhones, iPads, etc, we’ve become more isolated.  Is that true of your own neighborhood?  Would your own neighbors call the police at the sight of a good deed?  Is the neighborhood of your adult years different from the neighborhood where you grew up?  Do you still have any girlhood friends from your old neighborhood?

I actually do live in a cul-de-sac, but it's only four houses, as opposed to the eight houses in the book. There definitely has been a shift as the kids in my neighborhood have gotten older. You see people outside less, but I do think that also has to do with our i-world. It's really strange, when you think about it, that I will email my neighbor who lives two houses away, instead of walking over. I do have a nostalgic fondness for the neighborhood I grew up in, as many people do. I remember kids and parents being around more, and just knowing each other more. One of my best friends lived on the block behind mine, and we're still close, although we don't live near each other now. The idea for the book about one panicky neighbor calling the police after a few of Nina's good deeds actually did come from real life! There was an item in my local paper's police blotter about a woman calling the police when a girl she didn't recognize was distributing homemade cookies in her neighborhood. So it definitely can happen!

Nina describes her family as being “separated” but also living in the same house.  Do you think this is typical today?  Do you think this also makes for a greater desire for kids to find someone who “gets me,” as Nina says?

There are some things going on with Nina's family that result in the separateness that Nina describes, but yes, I think families can easily slip into that type of pattern, especially as kids reach their teen years. I have actually texted my younger daughter to come downstairs for dinner! (She had her headphones on, okay?) With the Internet, people answer emails around the clock, and kids are online at night. Because of this, there probably isn't the same family time of years ago. As for friendship, I think that's such a universal desire -- to connect with someone who "gets" you. Don't we all long for that kind of friend?

Where did the Kumiho, or nine-tailed fox idea come from?

My writing desk looks out on my backyard, and a few years ago, two red foxes ran into my yard. I live in a regular suburban neighborhood so this was pretty unusual. I remember just stopping what I was doing and staring out the window. I was transfixed by their beauty and wildness. The idea for the fox in the story came from that encounter, even though I wasn't even writing TSISTW back then.

Nina is called an “old soul”—a phrase I haven’t heard in a long time.  People have said as much of me.  Who in your life has been referred to as an “old soul”?

Well, me. An astrologer once told me that. I'm not sure if I believe in those kinds of things, but I do think there are certain people with a deeper sense, a heightened understanding. I'm glad to meet another old soul :)

The suspicious Mrs. Millman is quite a character.  Is she based on anyone?

I have to admit there was a neighbor on my block growing up that all the kids were scared of. It seemed she was always peeking out her window, waiting for us to do something wrong. My little brother wrote his name in chalk all the way down the sidewalk to her house, and she called my mom about it! My mom always joked that she wanted to pretend it wasn't him, but there wasn't anyone else in the neighborhood named Joey, especially one who wrote his name with a backward J.

In this era of “princessification” of young girls, I really loved the fact that  you depicted a girl who was more concerned with her actions than her looks.  Was that a conscious choice as you built Nina, or just part of creating a fully fleshed-out character?

It was a conscious choice, but also, I happen to love girl characters who are interested in things other than clothes and makeup. I'm happy to see girls and women speaking out now about how photo-shopped images of models can undermine self-esteem and send a damaging message, and how strength and leadership should be encouraged in girls. I hope we continue to see more dynamic, intelligent girl characters in middle grade novels.

The story builds beautifully—the ending becomes a page-turner.  Are there more Nina stories to come? 

I'd love to write another Nina story! It's hard to say goodbye to a character after you turn in that last draft. We'll see...

You masterfully weave your 65 deeds into Nina’s extraordinary summer.  What’s 66?

I guess we'll have to find out number 66 if there's a sequel :)

How would Grandma have summed up Nina’s summer?

Grandma would be so proud of her, no doubt about that. And I think Grandma was right there with her the whole time. If she summed it up in a Simple Truth, it probably would have been: You get back what you put in, so make it count.

One of my favorite scenes is Nina planting the forget-me-not seeds.  It seems that in writing this book, you’re also planting a few seeds in your readers’ minds.  What do you hope readers take away from this story?

I hope readers will realize that small good things are much bigger than they seem. And, that doing good doesn't have to be about raising tons of money or spending a Saturday cleaning up a park (although those efforts are certainly wonderful). But more just about being a good person. Cliché, I know, but ask kids or teens what they like best about their teachers. Invariably, they'll say: "she's nice." Ask yourself what stuck with you from your day. Maybe someone held a door open for you when your arms were full of grocery bags, or shared tomatoes from their garden, or made you laugh. That's what is important in the long run. We all know it. We just have to do it more.


Michele Weber Hurwitz is also the author of Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011), which was named a Best Book by the Bank Street College of Education and was nominated for a 2014 Bluestem Readers' Choice Award. She lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband and three children, and loves to walk and eat chocolate (not at the same time). Find her at and on Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz.

Michele has also provided a signed copy of her fantastic book for our readers.  US / Canadian residents are encouraged to fill out the form below; the contest runs through Monday, April 28.

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