The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick – an interview & a giveaway!

ghosts of heaven

I honestly can’t think of anyone in YA who does what Marcus Sedgwick does.  Perhaps this is why I am so entranced by everything he’s ever written.  Sedgwick won the Printz Award last year (that is the highest honor in young adult literature) for Midwinterblood, which remains one of the most atmospheric and overwhelming YA books I’ve ever read.  Since then he also wrote an amazing book about a blind girl who is not defined by her disability but by her will (She is Not Invisible) and created this week’s new release – The Ghosts of Heaven.

ThenGhosts of Heaven is one of my favorite books of 2015.  I know, it’s early.  But I also know that this book is special. I could give you a summary of The Ghosts of Heaven, I suppose.  It’s four stories told in four different styles that can be read in any order or not even necessarily together at all. (But once you read one, you’ll want to read them all, I promise.)  The one thing they have in common is Sedgwick’s unbelievable sense of pacing – this man can wind a story like no one else around. The second story, The Witch in the Water, reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is about a witch hunt and much more and the sense of impending malice and tension in it was so perfectly created that I honestly had to put it down a few times to take a breather from it. The last section, The Song of Destiny is a mystery set on a spaceship sent out to colonize a planet and it was so beautifully crafted it made me cry with joy. Now THAT is some writing.

These Ghost of Heaven is also united by the image of a spiral, which is found through-out all the stories and weaves them together in the smallest and yet also most significant ways. It’s haunting and subtle and just a little brilliant to wind a story around a spiral.  And the use of the spiral is a great narrative device that makes it easy to step into any of the four stories and follow the thread of them.  The spiral is a little creepy, yeah, but also totally beguiling – which is the perfect combination in a book for teens.

Teens – yes, there’s that question you’re dying to ask.  Sure, Sedgwick’s books are smart and LITERARY~~ but, I mean do teens like them?  Yeah, they sure would.  Look, I’m not telling you every reader is going to be on board with Sedgwick’s books – but there’s NO book that “every” reader is on board with, no matter what you’ve heard.  But I don’t even think his writing is just for the NON reluctant reader (one of my favorite concepts) I think there’s something haunting, creepy, compelling, and ENTICING about Marcus Sedgwick’s books.  They whisper of things just out of sight, things in shadows, things you feel dance across your skin in the quiet.  C’mon now – that’s perfect for teens. And for that teen that just keeps BEGGING for something new, something else, something different, something more (you know the one) … Marcus Sedgwick is perfect.

With that, this is highly recommended as a first purchase for libraries. It will appeal to a wide section of teen readers, from those looking for a challenging read to those looking for a quick short story, especially if you give it the kind of booktalk that highlights the mystery and original atmosphere through-out time.

When I had the chance to participate in the book tour for this title, I jumped up faster than Katniss at the Reaping. ESPECIALLY when I was told that I’d have a chance to ask Marcus Sedgwick some questions about the book.  One of the best things about Ghosts of Heaven is that it’s simply meant to be talked about – there’s so much to be discussed!

Not only that, the awesome publishers are giving away a copy – perfect for adding to your library!  All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this entry by January 19. (US residents only)

The whole tour is pretty cool: there are reviews, more giveaways, and more interviews so you should check out the whole schedule to find out more about the book. You can also read a summary and the first forty pages.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE QUESTIONS I ASKED MARCUS SEDGWICK THAT HE ANSWERED IN THE BEST WAYS POSSIBLE THAT MADE ME JUST WANT TO RE-READ THE WHOLE BOOK OVER AGAIN BECAUSE THEY WERE JUST THAT FASCINATING?! Read on!

BLOGTOUR

 

Like Midwinterblood, The Ghosts of Heaven is a book of intertwined stories that COULD be read alone but work together to create a fuller picture. What draws you to writing this kind of narrative?

If it’s a truism to say that all writing is trying to work out what it is to be human, then there are perhaps broadly two ways of doing that – by working from the individual to speak of the universal, or by working from the universal to speak about the individual, because both are part of being human. With these two books I was attempting to look at things on a larger scale than the individual, to talk about large and eternal subjects, and yet, the paradox of that is, as I just said, that the way to do that was by using the individual. By using stories about several individuals across different times, I was hoping to convey a large feeling, an eternal atmosphere.

Can you talk about the specifics of how you wrote this narrative? Did you write it “in order” or create the order after the individual pieces were written?

I planned the four stories (and planning for me is half way towards the finished writing anyway) in bits and pieces, flitting backwards and forwards between the four ideas in my head as I felt like it, or as I found a particularly interesting thing in what I call research, or as something randomly pushed me in one direction or another. Once I had finalized things (as far as I was going to finalize things, at least) in my head, I wrote the stories in the order in which they appear in the book – a physical book being limited in this way of course, and though this order is important, there is another one that I feel is of equal importance, but I’m keeping what that is to myself. I would like each reader to feel for themselves how the story might alter if the four parts were taken in a different order.

I am fascinated by the different narrative forms in the book – including verse to diary entries. Was this a deliberate choice to make each section have an even more unique voice?

Yes, partly, but it also stemmed from a very conscious choice about the section called Whispers in the Dark. Having decided that I wanted to set a story in a Neolithic period, in which we are witness to the very earliest origin of writing, I felt I had a problem. I cringe when I think of certain books and films that try to be authentic with stories set in prehistory. I’m thinking of films like One Million Years BC and so on, where cave men ‘ugg’ and ‘agg’ at each other and all have names with at least one K in them. The view of this stage of our history seems to require that we spoke in harsh and guttural tones. For all we know, we spoke in a mellifluous and beautifully lyrical language. But I would have had no more reason to create a language or accompanying atmosphere in that fashion either. The solution I felt was to write that part in free verse, to distance us somewhat from the world, and give it a remote and foreign feel. It meant I could basically avoid dialogue and direct narrative thought, which I felt would have been inauthentic, no matter what I did. So having one part in verse, I thought I should give each quarter a distinct narrative approach.

What are some literary inspirations for this work? Tonally, the third part, The Easiest Room in Hell, reminded me of Lovecraft and the second section, The Witch in the Water, reminded me of Hawthorne. (Maybe I’m totally off-base, but I loved the way each section seemed to allude to other classic works of literature.)

You’re spot on! Lovecraft was a big influence on the feel of Easiest Room – I’d been making some road-trips through New England, and it brought back memories of reading Lovecraft as a teenager. As an Englishman, I love seeing all the English place names transposed to New England – we have such a shared history and I feel fond of it. Lovecraft of course then did his own thing on top of that, and my character Charles Dexter is a direct reference (for those who know) to Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. That meant I got to write some poetry in the style that Lovecraft might have done, which was great fun. Witch in the Water has a feel of Hawthorne, I see what you mean, but that wasn’t conscious, though may have come through. I was trying to recreate the tone of classic accounts of witch trials – although I set my story in England, Diane Starkey’s fantastic book, The Devil in Massachusetts, captures what is scariest about all witch trials – the combination of claustrophobia and violence that propels their inevitability. I was also driven for this section by an obscure 60s thriller called Ritual, by David Pinner, from which the classic British horror film The Wicker Man was derived (and no, I’m not talking about the Nicholas Cage version!)

You never seem to write the same book twice! Even this book, which shares traits with Midwinterblood is different in pacing, setting, tone, and even theme. Are you consciously trying to innovate in your writing? Do you just get bored easily? 🙂 Where does the constant innovation come from?

Yes, yes, and I don’t know. Perhaps I should elaborate on that a little bit. Yes, I am consciously trying to innovate, and yes, I do get bored easily. That’s a direct way of saying that I’ve been writing for a reasonably long time now and I nearly stopped two or three times because I didn’t know where to go next. I don’t want to write the same book every time, but that makes things hard because there must be a finite number of times that I can do that. But that’s what I really want to do, and it’s important because to keep on doing things this way means I have to continually find something new to be excited about, and some new way of working. But I’m not complaining, I love a challenge when I’m writing and this makes sure that I keep setting myself new challenges. Where does the innovation come from? I’m not really sure, I think the only thing is that I try to be influenced by as wide a range of books, films and ideas in general in order to keep things fresh. So I don’t know what’s coming next. If I can’t set myself a new challenge, there may be no new books at all, but if there are, I can promise they will offer something new, or something new to me, at least.

Here’s me after reading Marcus Sedgwick’s answers and feeling like I understood the book so much more/wanted to read it again/got the literary moods and references right:

Actually, those are just my faces in general when it comes to Marcus Sedgwick’s books. (I could talk for a thousand years about Midwinterblood – perfect choice, my Printz friends.  What a stunner.) If you haven’t read a Sedgwick book, The Ghosts of Heaven is the perfect place to start.  Buy a copy, check it out from your library or recommend they buy a copy or …. leave a comment to enter to win one!

In any case: read it as soon as possible so we can discuss it and you can share it with your teen patrons!

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Stray by Elissa Sussman – a review, an interview and a giveaway!

Stray Cover
I think there’s something primal about fairy tale re-tellings.  I really do.  And I think that they are a staple of YA because of this very thing, because they say to teen readers: you can pull the sword from the stone, you can evade the evil step-parent, you can save the day.  And, yes, you can wear a beautiful dress and fall in love while doing it.  That’s a message worth hearing, and it’s one that I understand teens are drawn to time after time.  So!  If it’s a fairy tale re-telling, IU am on board.  But even if this weren’t a favorite genre of mine, I would have still absolutely adored Elissa Sussman’s magnificent debut Stray.

I love everything about Stray.  I love the fully realized magical world where women have strong magic that their patriarchal society has turned into a tool to shame and control them. I love the blending of fairy tales in a subtle and dark way – there’s a kingdom tangled in thorns and plenty of fairy godmothers but they are not what you remember and they are most certainly not what you expect.  (This is maybe the part I love the best – I am sick of fairy tale re-tellings where it’s a gentle tweak on the story or a happy kind of twist – Stray is unafraid to put sharper, darker edges on things and that makes it not just stand out from the pack but twice as readable as you rush to find out what happens next and HOW.) I love Aislynn the main character, who is not perfect, who makes stupid mistakes. She has more magic than she can manage and lives in a world that tells her that this is her fault and she must be punished for it. What I love the most about Stray is that it asks teenagers to consider if they agree.  It asks teen readers to actually sit down and think about how magic would be handled and who would try to control it and what a society would do to keep it under control.  What I love most about Stray is that it takes these questions about magic and turns them into questions about our world – about female autonomy, about class inequalities, about justice and love.  It makes the magic, it makes the stakes, real.

That’s what the very best fairy tales, re-tellings or not, do.  And that’s what Stray is.

Stray is on-sale now and I recommend it as a first purchase for public and high school libraries. Your fairy-tale fans will love it but I think it also has high appeal to fans of stories with darker edges.  If you can’t afford to buy a copy, recommend your library purchase one.  ALSO…I’M GIVING ONE AWAY! Aw yes!

I was more than excited when Elissa asked me to be part of Stray’s book tour!  “YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES,” I instantly replied.  She agreed to answer some of my burning questions about the larger themes and genesis of Stray and they just made me love it more.

She’s also going to give away a copy of Stray AND a very cool tote bag (tote bag with a fairy tale slogan on it, bestill my heart!) to one lucky reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by October 15th and I will choose a random winner. (US only, please.)

Onto the questions … but first a picture of what you have a chance to win!!

stray and tote

1. The fairy tale influences in Stray are, of course, obvious. But I felt a real Margaret Atwood Handmaid’s Tale vibe, particularly about the subjugation of women, in it. And I loved what you did with the undeniably feminist underpinnings of the story. Am I totally off-base or was this deliberate?

Thank you! I love it when people can see my feminist underpinnings (that sounded dirty). But seriously, yes, it was quite deliberate. I’m a huge fan of THE HANDMAID’S TALE. I think it’s a testament to how little things have changed that so many writers (because there have been several recent, excellent YA books dealing with similar topics) still feel that these are issues that still need to be addressed.

2. But back to those obvious fairy tale elements … there’s a blend of fairy tales and fairy-tale-like elements happening here. What inspired you to weave these particular elements/stories together in this way?

There’s that saying “write what you know”, but I really think it’s “write what you like”. And I really like fairy tales. And feminism. And food. I basically let those things simmer in my brain pot for a few years, occasionally tossing in bits of familiar fairy tales until it turned into the stew that is now STRAY.

3. I know you have a history in animation. Parts of Stray felt, in the very best of ways, like a darker, deeper version of not just classic fairy tales but of the Disney/pop culture variants most teens will be familiar with. Was this intentional? An inevitable byproduct of your work and our culture?

The very first inkling of STRAY was born out of my love for animated movies, and my attempt to reconcile my feminist leanings with my love for a genre that historically has not been very welcoming or respectful of women. I wanted to write a story that addressed the problems I had with most princess movies, while still paying homage to them.

One of the wonderful things about fairy tales is how layered they are. Each new version builds off of the old one. And for me, someone who grew up with Disney films, it made perfect sense to construct STRAY with those pop culture elements.

4. Besides being a genuine pleasure to read – a fairy tale yarn full of action, surprises, strong characters, twists, and a dash of romance – what do you hope teen readers will take from Stray?

I’m a big fan of fantasy and fairy tale retellings, and I find there’s a particular type of heroine that is very popular in these stories. From page one, she has a fully formed feminist identity. She doesn’t want to follow cultural guidelines because she knows they’re restrictive and outdated.

I love those characters and when I was sixteen, I desperately wanted to be them. But I wasn’t. It took a long time for me to understand, let alone verbalize how restrictive the world can be to women, especially ones in their teens. And I’d look at the characters I idolize and wonder “how did they get there?”

There’s a learning curve when you’re that age. You’re just beginning to sort through all the bullshit, trying to figure out who you are and what you believe. Society works really hard to convince young women that sexism is over and that women’s right’s activists are humorless, sexless shrews. Did I prefer to (inaccurately) call myself a “humanist” over a “feminist” when I was in high school? You bet I did.

We expect a lot of young women, both fictionalized and real. I wanted Aislynn to be someone who’s at the very beginning of her journey. I wanted her to be naive, who believes things that maybe she shouldn’t, someone who makes mistakes. Because not all of us have the answer on day one. Or on page one.

5. Can you touch, ever so briefly, on the awesomeness of the title and the levels it works on? What’s the genesis of the title? Also – does this series have a larger name yet and when might we expect the next book? (note how I am politely not asking for any plot details though I crave them wildly!)

The title, as well as the concept of the Path, are inspired by the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and especially by the song “I Know Things Know” from the musical INTO THE WOODS. It’s also where a lot of the wolf imagery originates from – this idea that leaving the path, straying from it, will only lead to bad things.

STRAY and BURN are both Four Sisters Novels, because although each book exists in the same world and often has appearances from familiar characters, each will follow a new protagonist, or in BURN’s case, two new protagonists. It doesn’t have a release date yet, but I am having a really fun time working on it.

(I Know Things Know – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK81Rv65fgQ)

Thank you SO MUCH, Elissa!  You can find out more about Elissa (including more about her history in animation and with Disney, which I alluded to in the interview) at her website.  Also, I follow her on Twitter and she’s just delightful so you should follow her on Twitter!  Comment for a chance to win this awesome book (and awesome tote, screenprinted by Elissa herself, what!) and hurry up and read it so I can discuss it with the world!

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Banned Books Week: an interview with Meg Medina and a GIVEAWAY!

“What kids need and deserve is to feel respected – not just by their classmates, but also by teachers and school leaders who ought to have faith in young people’s ability to read, think, and decide.” – Meg Medina

Yesterday, I wrote a short review of Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and talked about a situation involving Meg  being uninvited from a middle school speaking engagement in Virginia because of the word ASS in the book’s title.  I wanted to know more about the situation, so I reached out to Meg.

I was so happy when Meg Medina agreed to answer a few questions about not only her work and her motivation, but her recent experience with being in the spotlight.

And then she sent back her incredible, thoughtful answers and I was beyond happy!

Below, you’ll find out a little bit more about Meg and her work, particularly the motivation for writing the wonderful Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.  There’s also more information about the situation in Virginia and some really insightful commentary.

Meg Medina

Meg Medina is a Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction. Her work examines how cultures intersect through the eyes of young people, and she brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls. Her books are Milagros: Girl from Away; The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind; Tia Isa Wants a Car; and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She is the 2012 winner of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award. When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her extended family in Richmond, Virginia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Where does it end? When we only allow kids to read books that offend absolutely no one and that offer up nothing that makes them reflect on the uncomfortable realities of their lives?  – Meg Medina

Tell us a little bit about YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS.  What was the genesis of the book?

Meg Medina: YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is the story of 16-year-old Piddy Sanchez who finds herself the target of a school bully at her new high school. Bullying is the main event in the novel but we cross lots of terrain, like cultural identity, relationships between mothers and daughters, sexual relationships, relationships between students and teachers. I based the novel on a shard of truth from my experience with a school bully in junior high school. The impact of that experience was long lasting and awful. I lost my trust of others. My grades dropped, as I cut class and skipped school. And for a time, I experimented with risky people. It took years for me to feel better and get back on track.

At the National Coalition Against Censorship blog, they mentioned that you had been told that your book seemed to “address the inner city“.  I think many people can see this as a thinly veiled racist dog whistle.  What was your reaction to this element of the administration’s response?

MM: It was actually a quote to a reporter who covered the story. Neither the superintendent nor the principal spoke to me at all. http://www.richmondmagazine.com/blogs.php?blogID=3fa19738ea6e1cb340bfc8ee7b35d280

But, in any case, it was a stunner coming from a school superintendent.

Even if she were trying to point out that the novel was set in Queens, New York, it would be a silly reason to dismiss a book. The idea that a reader has nothing to learn from characters that are in different circumstances is ridiculous.

As for the alarming overtones: Kids aren’t bullies because they’re Latino or because they live in a city. Kids who dress in Northface jackets and drive nice cars — or who live in Cumberland County — can be just as awful.

Have there been any updates on the situation in Virginia?  What has happened since the story has become more widely known?  How has it impacted you?

MM: Well, my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with much-appreciated support. This included a post from Judy Blume who has been fighting censorship for decades now.

I’ve received invitations to places as far away as Alaska – and I’ll be part of an anti-bullying community event in Washington, DC next month where I will definitely say the title of my book. Also, I’m proud to say that Richmond City Library, Main Branch, is starting a teen book club this coming spring. YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is one of their first titles on the list.

The biggest impact, though, has been on my willingness to speak up. As a rule, I’m not a person who seeks out conflict. However, I’m now past just shaking my head and quietly “working around” people who feel justified in censoring books for young people – mine or anyone else’s. Where does it end? When we only allow kids to read books that offend absolutely no one and that offer up nothing that makes them reflect on the uncomfortable realities of their lives?

One of the things I love about YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is how effectively you get across that bullying can start over seemingly nothing (Piddy doesn’t even know Yaqui) and then escalate into something that takes over the victim’s whole life.  Can you talk about the process of making the bullying feel so accurate intense? 

MM: Definitely, you can be bullied for the most ridiculous reason. In fact, bullying has very little to do with the victim. It’s mostly about power and about what the bully is trying to work out. The sad part, though, is that kids who get bullied often believe that there is something wrong with them, something that marks them as a loser. That’s where the hopelessness and shame begin.

When I drew Piddy as a character, I drew a normal kid with brains and average looks and people who loved her. She could be anybody. There’s nothing about Piddy that’s “wrong.”

Yaqui was tricky; you could write an entire novel about a girl like that, couldn’t you? But I wanted to tell Piddy’s story, not Yaqui’s. So, as I fleshed out Yaqui, I worked on revealing her only through Piddy’s experience and perceptions. Yaqui started out as a sentence, something that didn’t worry Piddy very much at all. But as each chapter unfolded and as Piddy’s self-confidence eroded, the idea of Yaqui seeped into every part of Piddy’s being until it was all consuming. That overpowering dread felt the most realistic to me.

What lessons about bullying do YOU want young readers, be they bullied, bullies, or bystanders, to take from this YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS? What about the messages for adults who work with or are involved with teenagers?

MM: Researchers will tell you that the reasons for bullying are varied and complicated, and they may be right. But at the core, I think kids savage each other mostly because they want to ease their own insecurities, rage and despair – and because no one has stopped them from doing so.

I don’t know that I have lessons in mind, and I certainly don’t offer easy solutions. What I do have is a story that might help a reader feel less lonely and one that might open honest dialogue in a classroom, a library or at a kitchen table.

I wish adults would stop wringing their hands about the wrong things – like whether it’s okay to say, “ass” in front of 14 year olds. Conversations like that miss the point and cement adults’ reputation as being out of touch. What kids need and deserve is to feel respected – not just by their classmates, but also by teachers and school leaders who ought to have faith in young people’s ability to read, think, and decide.

I love your GIRLS OF SUMMER project as well as how all of your work apologetically concentrates strong female characters!  Why do you think this is so important in books for children and young adults? 

MM: Thanks. I love that project, too. Gigi Amateau and I pick 18 books for strong girls every year and then we spend the summer chatting with the authors of those books on our blog.  We include picture book all the way to YA to reflect the long and challenging journey of growing up a strong girl.

There are other fantastic lists (the Amelia Bloomer Prize, for one), but Girls of Summer reflects our personal favorites, the books we recommended to our own daughters and the newer titles we mention to the wonderful girls we meet every day. We’re picky about finding books about unconventional girls who choose their own path, girls who reflect on themselves and who learn to take charge of their fate.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on next?

MM: I have a picture book due out in 2015 called LORO MANGO (Candlewick Press).  And I’m just lifting off on a Young Adult manuscript for Candlewick Press. It’s also set in Queens, but this time we travel to 1977.  Oh, and heads up. I’m pretty sure someone will say “ass” in that one, too.

Thanks so much to Meg!  Not only did she agree to this interview, but Meg is giving away a signed paperback copy of her last YA novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Winda lovely, ethereal story about (you guessed it!) a strong girl finding her place in the world to one lucky reader.  And since I want to keep my pledge to stand up for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by getting it in as many hands as possible, I’m giving away a copy of that!  

Want to be entered to win these awesome books?  Leave a comment on this blog and I’ll choose a random winner! And since the point of  these blogs is to share this story and Meg’s experience as widely as possible?  You can earn an extra entry by sharing this on Twitter or Facebook.  Just link to your share in your comment and you’ll be entered twice

Let’s honor the battles of Banned Books Week by STILL talking about this; by saying it was wrong and, as Meg points out, symptomatic of a larger problem teens face.  Let’s have faith.  And let’s fight for it.

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