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    Five Questions With Jacqueline Prata

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Feb 12, 2019

    jackie-prataJacqueline Prata is an author, activist, and high school student. When tasked to write an essay in middle school, she had no idea she was planting the seeds for her first publication. At 15 years old, she wrote and illustrated the children’s book Fortune Cookie Surprise! and was involved in every aspect of development. Fortune Cookie Surprise! is the story of a young girl who realizes she is much like a fortune cookie, unique with a special gift inside. The book sends the message that we can all make a positive impact on our world.

    How did you come up with the idea for Fortune Cookie Surprise!?

    “In the seventh grade, my middle school teacher assigned an ‘I Believe’ essay. It required a belief in an unexpected object, and I chose fortune cookies. I compared fortune cookies to people and my role in our family. I worked hard and was proud of the outcome. I sent my essay in to Teen Ink Magazine, a monthly online and print magazine that features teen writers. It was published online and given the Editor’s Choice Award!

    “I always wanted to write a book, and the recognition inspired me to take it to the next level. I decided to make a children’s picture book targeting the 4–8-year-old age group because that was the age that I became interested in reading.”

    Fortune Cookie Surprise! sends the message that all children hold unique and extraordinary gifts worth sharing. Tell us why this message is so important.

    “The biggest lesson that I hope children take away is that each of us is unique with special gifts inside, just like a message inside a fortune cookie. All children complete their families like fortune cookies complete the meal. They can truly impact our world no matter their age, race, gender, or family structure. After going through the publishing process, I hope to inspire children and young readers [to know] that they too can do unexpected and great things—like writing, illustrating, and publishing a children’s book.”

    You volunteer for several local charities. How do you think teachers and educators can empower young people to galvanize their strengths to make a difference? 

    “There are so many ways for young people to get involved and make a difference. Teachers and educators can act as role models by setting a good example. Teens look to them for guidance and advice. They can expose us to new and different experiences and areas where we can make the biggest impact. Many of my teachers, ranging from my lower school art teacher to my middle school English teacher to my high school advisor, were instrumental in the creation of my book. They volunteered their time and expertise and, even more important, they gave me the confidence to pursue my goal.

    “In terms of my volunteering, I was lucky to have found our local Special Olympics chapter from my figure skating coach at a young age. In middle school, I started coaching athletes with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics is more than an organization—it is a family—and one that provides unconditional caring. They cheer each other on in competition and support each other in times of need. My experience with them has given me an added perspective of how fortunate I have been in my life and how we can all be more aware and appreciate our differences. The font style I chose to use in Fortune Cookie Surprise! was one that was ideal not only for early readers, but for those with disabilities.

    “I attended Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation Student Leadership Academy in 10th grade and learned how important it is to raise awareness for childhood cancer and how students could make a difference. I rallied interest at school, started a Lemon Club, and held a lemonade stand raising money for research. I made a documentary film, titled BitterSweet, in my broadcast journalism class that was so impactful it was shown at film festivals around the country and was featured as the lead story on Teen Kid News, an Emmy award–winning, nationally syndicated television show. It has been seen on over 200 stations and educational channels, bringing awareness to over nine million students.

    “Working together with my teachers, coaches, the media, and even local organizations and politicians has taught me that you can do so much more partnering with others than alone. I think Helen Keller said it best: ‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.’”

    What are your future plans?

    “Going through the complete publishing process, from writing and illustrating to printing and marketing, has been so rewarding. I have learned to really appreciate the time and effort authors go through when creating a book and how many revisions and proofs it takes before a final product is produced. I want to continue writing and to learn more about related fields like journalism and public policy to help make an impact in our world. I really just want to make a difference and make the world a better place.”

    What advice do you have for other young, aspiring authors?

    “If you can dream it, you can achieve it! You can do anything you set your mind to.”

    Alina O'Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily. 

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    Five Questions With Megan McDonald (Judy Moody)

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Jul 11, 2018
    Megan Mcdonald

    Megan McDonald has written and published over 60 books for children in 22 languages, including the popular and award-winning Judy Moody and Stink series. She is also the author of three Sisters Club stories, Ant and Honey Bee: A Pair of Friends at Halloween, and many other books for children. She lives in Sebastopol, California.

    Your wildly popular Judy Moody series is nearly 20 years old and has been translated into 22 languages. How does this series transcend generational, geographic, and cultural boundaries? 

    “By being human. Having heart. And holding on to a sense of humor. In this way, Judy Moody stands for childhood, any childhood, anywhere around the globe."

    Where do you find inspiration for your stories and characters?

    “Inspiration strikes in the most fun and funny ways. It can come from a mood ring I wore as a child in the 1960s, a memory, a funny family story, a visit to the aquarium, or an article I read in the paper about a guinea pig rescue or the planet Pluto being demoted. My niece amazed me by winning a stuffed animal at the claw machine three times in a row, and that became the inspiration for Judy Moody and the Bad Luck Charm. Ideas are everywhere, like surround sound; as a writer, I just have to be good listener."

    What do you hope young readers will gain from your books?

    "My hope is that readers see themselves in Judy Moody, with her strong sense of fun and fairness, as well as her flaws and failures. In connecting with Judy and all of her moods, I hope readers discover their own authentic selves. And laugh along the way."

    Before you started writing full-time, you worked as a children’s librarian. During this time, what did you learn about engaging young readers and inspiring lifelong reading habits?

    "Story connects us. The book that makes a reader is very individual. As a reader, I’ll never forget what Harriet the Spy, Ramona, Charlotte’s Web and Little Women meant to me. As a librarian, it was my honor to connect a child with that book, that singular reading experience, that would last a lifetime."

    The theme of ILA 2018 is “Be a Changemaker.” What does this mean to you?

    "Change requires hard work, empathy, and inspiration. To be a changemaker, for me, means to care deeply about something, to take action against unfairness, and be open to new ways of thinking. As a writer, I’m continually trying to find my own voice.

    Find your voice.

    As Judy Moody would say, “Save the World!”

    Megan McDonald will attend the Author Meetups at Children's Literature Day during the ILA 2018 Conference, July 20–23 in Austin, TX. For more information, visit ilaconference.org.

    Alina O'Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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    Five Questions With Elizabeth Partridge

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Apr 24, 2018

    Elizabeth PartridgeElizabeth Partridge was an acupuncturist for more than 20 years before closing her medical practice to write full-time. The author of more than 15 books, she is a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner as well as a National Book Award finalist. Her latest work, Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam, gives readers a linear, multidimensional history of the war through the personal stories of eight individuals.

    Your latest title, Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam, captures one of the most harrowing, complex, and divisive events in history. What inspired you to start writing this book in 2011?

    I was very moved when I visited the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in 2011. Touching the names and seeing the enormous sweep of the wall was overwhelming and I began to cry. I thought, Why am I crying? I don't know these men and women. I decided I wanted to write about the memorial. And the best way was to interview Vietnam veterans who were alive and knew people on the memorial. It was a way for me to explore the Vietnam War, and to honor the dead.

    How has the shifting political and social landscape influenced the final product?

    This is one of those strange cases where life catches up with a book and suddenly makes it more topical. I didn't expect to see our faith in our government shaken again as it was during the Vietnam war. But here we are, with many people out protesting, feeling their voices aren't being heard, that their representatives and senators in Congress are not responsive to their needs. We also have men and women in ongoing military conflicts in the Middle East. What is it like for them to serve in the military? Many of the issues facing our country today were present during the Vietnam War.

    How did you create a narrative that’s accessible and personal to a young adult audience, decades removed? And why is it important? 

    Boots on the GroundI've always loved personal narratives. To get as close as I could to the impact the war had upon people, I interviewed seven veterans—six who fought in combat or served as medics—and a nurse. Realizing that all wars create refugees, I interviewed a woman who managed to get her mother and three of her siblings out of Vietnam just as Saigon fell. I interspersed these narrative chapters with chapters on the presidents and protestors in the United States. I also had another way to make the work immediate, which was to use photographs throughout every chapter. Even though it has been decades since the war, stories of courage and morality and patriotism and fear and conflict are always compelling.

    You’ve expressed excitement about the recent surge in youth-led activism. How do you think educators can best foster civic participation among students?

    Great question, and a huge one. I'd like to mention just one idea I find captivating. I really loved interviewing Vietnam veterans for my book, and found they were eager to talk with me about their experiences. Students in 10th grade and above can interview veterans of any war, using audio or video. The interviews are being collected by the Veterans History Project (a project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress).

    As a writer, what’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received?

    Stick with it. Writing well is a craft, it's not something you are born with. As Jane Yolen famously admonishes, "Butt in Chair."

    What can attendees expect from your panel at the ILA 2018 Conference?

    Can I just say right off the bat, it's going to be awesome? Four highly opinionated women (three panelists and a great facilitator), passionate about connecting teens to all kinds of literature, are going to give this our best shot. Come see if I'm right.

    Elizabeth Partridge will copresent the Putting Books to Work: Older Young Adult (AM) workshop on Monday, July 23, during the ILA 2018 Conference. For more information, visit ilaconference.org.

    Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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    Five 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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