Author Interview: Q&A with Rhonda Roumani and Nadia Roumani, Authors of Insha’Allah, No, Maybe So

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Sally Morgridge, editor at Holiday House, interviewed the creators of Insha’Allah, No Maybe So to look at their process, purpose, and product:

  1. Discovering the real meaning of “Insha’Allah” seems to be a bit of a rite of passage for Muslim and Arab kids around the world. Do you have a specific memory from your childhood where you finally put the pieces together? Do you have memories of your own children going through the same thing?

RHONDA: I don’t have a specific memory. I think my parents were especially good at saying no, so we didn’t quite experience the word insha’Allah as no from our own parents. I have experienced the “no” part of Insha’Allah more with my own kids, when they challenge me and my husband when we say it to them—and within our community. I do love hearing people’s stories about how they thought insha’Allah meant “no” growing up. It’s a sort of cultural bond because whether the person is religious or non-religious, whether they are Arab or from a part of the world that uses the word insha’Allah, there’s a moment of recognition, of a common lived experience with a simple word. When my sister-in-law was a little girl, she once asked her mom when her dad would be returning home from his trip. When her mom responded, “tomorrow, insha’Allah,” she burst into tears. When her mom asked her why she was crying, she responded, you said insha’Allah, that means baba isn’t coming home!” That one might sound a little dark, but we laugh when we tell these stories. They’re small moments of misunderstanding, of acknowledging we see each other, that we are experienced similar things growing up. And there’s often a lot of laughter associated with those moments.

NADIA: From a very early age, I really took the idea of insha’Allah to heart. This might be a bit dark… but my father was the only physician on both my dad’s side of the family and my mom’s.  So when someone would get sick on either side, many times they would stay with us for a while as their health plan was sorted out. When we were young, we had two cousins, who lived in the Syria and Lebanon, who came to the states to get treatment for cancer.  Watching them both go through treatment, and both ultimately lose their lives to cancer at such a young age, really impacted me and my understanding of life and uncertainty. So early on, I really believed in the idea of insha’Allah, that we do not have control of what happens to us, and we need to live each day as a gift.  We need to make exciting and ambitious plans, but know that in the end, God may have other plans for us.

  1. How was the process of co-authoring a book with your sister?

NADIA: Simple and complicated at the same time.  Simple in that our story came together quickly.  Although we ended up going on some exploratory tangents with new characters and other plot lines, we came back to our original script, which is the one we both loved.  I had brought the initial idea of the book to Rhonda after I tried to explain the concept of insha’Allah to my newborn. I shared the line that appears in the book about “you were my insha’Allah” with my daughter, and then quickly relayed that to my sister as possibly the start of a children’s book.  Shortly after that Rhonda had a clear idea for a story line with Ranya’s debating with her mom and somehow those two pieces fell together quickly and effortlessly.

Thankfully Rhonda was already an author and had done the hard work of finding an agent. So I didn’t have to worry about any of that – as Rhonda liked to remind me. 🙂

The complicated part is that families are messy, and working with family, as I’m sure almost all siblings who work together can attest to, can be challenging because the line between your work and your relationship is blurred.  What might be a harmless debate over an edit, or scheduling time to speak, can turn into a heated conversation about how you “didn’t let me borrow your hairbrush when I was 10”… But that is family – the loving, the joyful and the messy.

Unfortunately we live on opposite sides of the country and we still have not had a chance to truly celebrate the book’s release together! We are hoping we will have a chance to do that this summer.

RHONDA: It was fun and frustrating and eventually very gratifying. We are very different and our work environments are also very different. Nadia usually runs meetings and leads large groups of people—so she’s used to being in charge. I usually work on my own as a writer—or maybe with an editor. So my work is more solitary. So just like we put two concepts together, we had to figure out how to also work on something so personal together, while respecting each other’s spaces and ways. It was a learning process. We might have had a few arguments along the way. But I think we both learned a lot about each other during this process. I didn’t think that was even possible at our age.

  1. Publishing a book for children is very much in the spirit of the word “Insha’Allah,” as a book is like a concrete, tangible expression of your hopes and dreams. What do you hope that children take away from Ranya’s story?

NADIA: Uncertainty is such a complex concept for children – for adults too! We hope this book helps open a conversation with children about uncertainty, and why we can make the best plans, but sometimes they may fall through. We also hope that it opens a playful conversation between kids and parents about making earnest intentions, even if uncertainty is part of life – especially by putting parents on the spot about their true intentions when they say insha’Allah.

RHONDA: What Nadia said! I hope kids also understand that as parents, we don’t mean to deceive them. Sometimes we don’t know the answer, so we say insha’Allah. I also hope we remind parents of the beauty of this word and that, if we want to say no, we should just say no. The word Insha’Allah isn’t supposed to be a “get out of the question” free card.

  1. As relatively new picture book authors, it must have been an interesting experience to sit back and watch an illustrator bring your beloved characters and their world to life. What is your favorite illustration in the book?

RHONDA: This is a hard question because there are so many details that I absolutely love. I love the spreads of Ranya as she presses her mom with questions. I think my favorite spread is the two-page spread of them walking home, as they pass the MARKET PLACE. It reminds me of how my own kids can talk and talk and talk – and press and press and press about something– and I’m just trying to do something simple, like get home. It just felt so real. But the final picture of Ranya is just perfect. She’s such a za’ara – a rascal—and that last illustration captures her perfectly.

NADIA: It was such a fascinating process. I was so surprised to learn that you hand over the script, without any illustration notes or direction, and then the illustrator takes it from there. But now having been through the process, that makes so much sense. The illustrator brings their imagination, vision, brilliance and ideas to the book and makes it their own as well.  Olivia did just that and more. Their illustrations captured Ranya’s spunky personality and her loving interactions with her mom. It is so hard to pick just one illustration, but I’ll share my favorite ones, and the reasons why

– I laughed out loud when I saw the way she illustrated Ranya’s parents standing next to one another. I giggled at their height difference and their facial expressions, and didn’t know if that is how Olivia imagined they might be in reality or simply in Ranya’s mind. Either way, I loved that one.

– I adore the full two-page spread of Ranya and her mom walking in front of the marketplace. The colors, the details, the surrounding activity, the colors and the warmth.

– I love the spread of Ranya and her mom baking cookies.  I now bake with my 2.5 year old daughter and this spread felt so familiar – it was just missing the cookie dough on her fingers and nose 🙂

– and I absolutely love the cover! It so beautifully captures a mother-daughter’s special connection.

Published May 14th, 2024 by Holiday House

About the Book: A sweet and playful picture book about a common Arabic word for life’s uncertainties that will ring true for all families.

Ranya wants to go to the park. “Insha’Allah,” her mom tells her.

But doesn’t that just mean no? Ranya’s mom says “Insha’Allah” when Ranya asks to make cookies. She says it when Ranya wants to sleep over at Jayda’s house. She says it when Ranya begs to go to Disneyland.

This might sound familiar to parents and caregivers . . . It’s hard to know what to say when you can’t promise anything! Sometimes grown-ups say “Maybe” or “We’ll see.” And in millions of Arab and Muslim homes around the world, families use the phrase “Insha’Allah” when talking about the future.

So, what does “Insha’Allah” really mean? In this warmly illustrated picture book, Ranya and her mom tackle the meaning of the powerful phrase and ponder the best way to talk about their hopes and dreams—and maybe, sometimes, the things they want to put off. (Like cleaning up toys!)

Cozy art and joyful, loving characters make this a perfect family read aloud.

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

About the Authors: 

Rhonda Roumani is a Syrian-American journalist who has written about Islam, the Arab world and Muslim-American issues for more than two decades. She is the author of the middle grade novel Tagging Freedom and picture book Umm Kulthum: Star of the East. Visit her at www.rhondaroumani.com.

Nadia Roumani is a social entrepreneur, coach, consultant, and co-founder of the University of Southern California’s American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute and Stanford University’s Effective Philanthropy Learning Initiative. She is also a Senior Designer with Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

Thank you Sally, Rhonda, and Nadia for this fun & insightful interview and sharing your book!

Student Voices: Author Reflections from Susana N., 7th grader, and Meghan K. & Ricardo D., 8th graders

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Author Reflections

“Four Authors I’d Love to Meet” by Susana N., 7th grade

I will love to meet Jenny Han. The books of hers I have read are amazing. I want to keep reading all her books. I love how she keeps the readers interested in the book. I will love to meet her and have a book with her autograph. The Summer I Turned Pretty is, for me, in my top two in all the book I read in this whole school year, and I hope keep reading all her book.

I have read almost all of Raina Telgemeier’s books; they are very good, and I love all of them! They are all so funny, and I recommend them. I want to meet Raina Telgemeier because when I first read Smile, almost the whole school was talking about it and when I first read it, it was really good, and I knew I had to read the other ones by her, and they were really good she a very good author.

When I first read Sunny Rolls the Dice, it became one of my top books of all the books I have read. Since I liked it, I knew I had to read all the series. All the books are so good. I need to meet Jennifer L. Holm. Her books always put a smile in my face. All her books are very good, if I could read a book again and again, it would be these.

I read the first Baby-Sitters Club book when I was in 6th grade, and it was so good! I knew I had to read all the books. Then I found out there was a series on Netflix, andand the series is as good as the book. I want to meet Ann M. Martin because her books are nice and always have a message of the story. They are more than just good book, they are really good books. I will always love these books.


“Author Spotlight: Ann M. Martin” by Meghan K., 8th grade

Get to Know Ann M. Martin

Ann M. Martin is the author of many books and series. One of her most famous series The Baby-Sitters Club. The Baby-Sitters Club has sold over 180 million copies. Even though Baby-Sitters Club is a popular series in her collection, that does not mean it’s the only one. She has written many different books, like Slam Book, On Christmas Eve, Rain Reign, and many more. Ann M. Martin has great books, and they teach great life lessons and give messages to whoever reads them. Ann M. Martin is a great author, I think, because she relates her books to some of her own life experiences and childhood memories or feelings. Ann M. Martin has made a name for herself in children’s and young adult fiction. She is a full-time writer and published her first book in 1985 while working for Scholastic as a children’s book editor. 

I chose Ann M. Martin to spotlight because her books and series are very inspiring and interesting to read. I loved her series The Baby-Sitters Club throughout middle school. They are one of the only books I would read because they kept me interested, as well as Baby-Sitters Little Sister. If anyone asked me for an opinion on her books I would recommend for them to read them. 

Resource: The Baby-Sitters Club Wikipedia & Ann M. Martin Wikipedia


“Reflection on Akira Toriyama’s Passing” by Ricardo D., 8th grade

Akira Toriyama — The Legendary Mangaka, No More | by Jijo George | Medium

Manga creator Akira Toriyama passed away on March 1st 2024. The cause of his  passing was due to an acute subdural hematoma, which is when you injure your head severe enough to cause pooled blood to push on the brain. His death was not announced on March 1st, it was announced on the 8th due to his family’s request. He still had a lot of projects he was working on when he passed as well. I found out late at night when a friend called me out of nowhere and told me about it. Dragon Ball is my favorite anime and his death happened before they even animate the moro arc, which is tragic.

What caused his death?

A few weeks before his death, Akira Toriyama said he wasn’t sure he could keep going. “I am not sure how much more I can do, as I am not very confident about my health, probably due to my lifestyle when I was younger…”. It is not confirmed what he meant by lifestyle, but it is assumed that he is referring to his smoking habits, poor diet, and stress early in his career. He spoke many times about how deadlines were getting to him and that he would smoke several packs of cigarettes a day, hair loss due to stress, and sleepless nights for days. If it’s like that for other manga artists, worrying about deadlines and stress, that’s just too much.

Who will be Akira Toriyama’s successor?

Despite his death, Dragon Ball Super will continue. His student and apprentice Toyotaro will write and also draw the manga. Toyotaro himself was a massive Dragon Ball fan since he was little. His drawing style and skills caught the attention of Akira and ended up working closely with him. I think Toyotaru could continue Dragon Ball but it’s not going to be the same, art style sure but, writing-wise I don’t think so. Toyotaru’s drawing skills are good but I don’t think he has much experience writing manga.

Other manga creator’s thoughts

Eiichiro Oda, known for making One-Piece, and Masashi Kishimoto, known for making Naruto both wrote eulogies about Akira Toriyama. Oda stated that it was too early, that sadness washes over knowing he would never see Akira again. Kishimoto wishes his family well and feels lost like Oda. It’s sad that we probably will never know what he was working on, nor the finished result.

Impacts on me

I grew up watching Dragon Ball when I was younger, I liked it so much that I even watched Dragon Ball GT. Most people think GT isn’t good and whatnot but I liked it. I also watched Dragon Ball Z Kai which is just Dragon Ball Z but improved. Once I found out about Akira’s death I couldn’t believe it. He usually didn’t speak publicly much so people knew little about him but he made the show I and millions of people watched every day in the morning. These news made everyone that watched the show feel down, including me.

Sources: https://thedaoofdragonball.com/blog/news/akira-toriyama-last-message/#google_vignettehttps://screenrant.com/one-piece-naruto-akira-toriyama-tribute-dragon-ball/https://www.marca.com/en/lifestyle/tv-shows/2024/03/08/65ea8bc622601d0e068b4575.html


Thank you so much to my student voices today and their reflections on favorite authors!

Exclusion and the Chinese American Story by Sarah-Soonling Blackburn

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Exclusion and the Chinese American Story
Author: Sarah-Soonling Blackburn
Published: March 26, 2024 by Crown Books for Young Readers

Summary: Until now, you’ve only heard one side of the story, but Chinese American history extends far beyond the railroads. Here’s the true story of America, from the Chinese American perspective.

If you’ve learned about the history of Chinese people in America, it was probably about their work on the railroads in the 1800s. But more likely, you may not have learned about it at all. This may make it feel like Chinese immigration is a newer part of this country, but some scholars believe the first immigrant arrived from China 499 CE–one thousand years before Columbus did!

When immigration picked up in the mid-1800s, efforts to ban immigrants from China began swiftly. But hope, strength, and community allowed the Chinese population in America to flourish. From the gold rush and railroads to entrepreneurs, animators, and movie stars, this is the true story of the Chinese American experience.

Review: I am so glad that this book exists. It tells the Chinese American experience from the very beginning—more specifically, from the first moment that a Chinese person came to America and the racism that Chinese Americans have experienced for centuries. The chapters are dense and filled with incredibly important information. I read a chapter each night to help me digest and think about each one of the topics and time periods covered. I especially appreciated the questions at the end of the chapters. This book is important for readers of all ages. 

Tools for Navigation: I wish more books like this one were taught in history classrooms. It’s imperative that young people don’t get a white-washed, sanitized version of US history. The Race to the Truth series (and this book, in particular) allow young people to read from many different perspectives to understand the truth about our country.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Which information did you find most surprising? Most interesting?
  • How has racism evolved across the centuries for Chinese Americans?
  • How can you use what you learned to share truths with others?

Read This If You Love: History books, conversations about equity, nonfiction

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Barbara at Blue Slip Media for sending me a copy of this book for an honest review**

Alterations by Ray Xu

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Alterations
Author & Illustrator: Ray Xu
Published January 30th, 2024 by Union Square & Co.

Summary: This funny yet poignant middle-grade coming-of-age story highlights the struggle of feeling invisible while yearning to be seen by all.

Kevin Lee is having a really bad week. Although he lives in a crowded Toronto apartment above the family’s alterations and dry-cleaning store, he mostly goes unnoticed. School isn’t exactly an oasis either—being one of the few Asian kids makes for some unwelcome attention. But when Kevin’s class plans a trip to Thrill Planet, a spectacular theme park, will he finally have a chance to turn his life around, or will it just be another day for Kevin Lee?

Fans of middle school graphic novels exploring identity and self-esteem will appreciate the poignant yet humorous journey of finding one’s place in the world, and readers who are looking for Asian representation in books will connect with Kevin’s story of racism, bullying, and the immigrant experience. With its mix of family relationships, friendships, and a thrilling amusement park climax, this inspiring read is perfect for fans of humorous middle grade fiction with diverse characters overcoming obstacles.

Praise:

This is an excellent debut middle grade graphic novel, both funny and full of heart, depicting the lives of an immigrant family.” —Book Riot

“A funny and heartfelt story that beautifully communicates the honest and awkward relationships we have with life and our immigrant parents.” —Dan Santat, Caldecott Medal winner and creator of A First Time for Everything

“Charming, relatable, nostalgic. Love Xu’s subtle and scraggly drawing style paired with his understated, yet deeply affecting storytelling. Brings me back to being a lonely Chinese kid in Toronto.”—Academy Award–winning director and screenwriter Domee Shi (Bao, Turning Red)

“Themes of sacrifice, survival, and love abound in a multidimensional story of navigating the bumpy terrain of family tensions and resilience across generations.”—Horn Book Magazine

“[A] moving depiction of a multigenerational immigrant Chinese family trying to sew themselves back together.”—Bulletin Center for Children’s Books

About the Author: Ray Xuis a Toronto-based story artist for television and feature films. His recent work includes the 2021 Netflix animated hit The Mitchells vs. The MachinesTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem; and more. He invites you to visit him online at raymond-xu.com.

Review: This book is about so much more than it seems at first. Is it about Kevin navigating middle school, definitely, but it is also about so much more. Set in the 1990s, Kevin finds himself in the middle of his parent’s divorce with his mother working all the time and his grandmother newly moved into their small apartment where he finds himself fighting with his sister and mom more than being happy. This unsettled feeling bleeds into school where he doesn’t fit in with the primarily white school population and finds himself being picked on for his differences and getting in trouble when he’s truly not doing anything wrong.

It is only through drawing that Kevin finds solace, and we, as readers, get to experience a story he is creating with his favorite superhero. This story runs parallel with Kevin’s life and is how he deals with the conflict surrounding him.

Readers will find empathy for Kevin throughout his story and will want to keep reading and rooting for Kevin to trudge his way out of the bumpy road he is navigating.

(Keep an eye out for some fantasy elements at the end of the book! I found it to be figurative more than literal magic to symbolize just one other way Kevin felt–you’ll have to let me know what you think!)

Tools for Navigation: This book will be read and loved by your graphic novel memoir fans. Although it is not a memoir, it fits in with Sunny Side UpMexikid, Smile, and other memoirs set in similar time periods.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How were both Kevin and his sister valid in how they were feeling?
  • How did Popo both help and add tension to the Lee household?
  • What does the roller coaster on the cover of the book symbolize?
  • Do you think it is fair that Kevin is called to the principal’s office for the egg and the basketball incident?
  • Why do you think Lily stopped being Kevin’s friend? What happened to make her reconsider?
  • How was the comic Kevin was writing reflective of what was going on in his life?
  • What do you think is the purpose of the fantastical element at the end of the book?

Flagged Spreads: 

Read This If You Love: Graphic novels about school and family dynamics

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Union Square for providing a copy for review!**

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #IMWAYR 6/24/24

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?
For readers of all ages

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is a weekly blog hop we host which focuses on sharing what we’re reading. This Kid Lit version of IMWAYR focuses primarily on books marketed for kids and teens, but books for readers of all ages are shared. We love this community and how it offers opportunities to share and recommend books with each other.

The original IMWAYR, with an adult literature focus, was started by Sheila at Book Journeys and is now hosted by Kathryn at The Book Date. The Kid Lit IMWAYR was co-created by Kellee & Jen at Teach Mentor Texts.

We encourage you to write your own post sharing what you’re reading, link up below, leave a comment, and support other IMWAYR bloggers by visiting and commenting on at least three of the other linked blogs.

Happy reading!

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Tuesday: Discussion Guide for The Lilies by Quinn Diacon-Furtado

Thursday: Sofia’s Kids’ Corner: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Friday: Student Voices: Favorite Characters from Dhivya R., Hajirah Q., & Omayma H., 7th grade, and Azuri, 8th grade

Sunday: Author Guest Post: “Guide Them like Lighthouses to the Shores of Success” by Preston Norton, Author of The House on Yeet Street

**Click on any picture/link to view the post**

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Kellee

Today is my day off from IMWAYR, but you can learn more about any of the books I’ve been reading by checking out my read bookshelf on Goodreads.

Ricki

Middle Grade

I am so excited to share the Race to the Truth series book Exclusion and the Chinese American Story by Sarah-Soonling Blackburn this Thursday!

I adored Wagnificent: The Adventures of Thunder and Sage by Bethanie Murguia and will be reviewing it in a couple of weeks!

Adult

I have been wanting to read Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano for a long time. When I saw it on the bestseller shelves at Barnes & Noble, I snagged it. This book felt like an epic story in the way that it spanned decades. The sisterhood bond in the book took my breath away. It’s unforgettable.

I don’t ever read the backs of books or the book summaries. If a publisher or friend recommends a book or I like the author, I just start reading. I thought this book was going to be young adult because it was by Nicola Yoon, but it is her debut adult novel. It is sort of like The Stepford Wives meets Get Out. I felt extremely uncomfortable reading this book, and I think it will give readers a lot to talk about. There were portions that felt anti-Black, but when I was reading these sections, I felt like Yoon did this very intentionally to make her point. I think this comes across in a way that feels incredibly painful to read. I am looking forward to unpacking this book with a colleague in the next week to hear her thoughts. I need to think through this one, and I must admit that I am still thinking through this and need more time to process the book’s purpose.

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Ricki

Reading in Print: The Bletchley Riddle by Ruta Sepetys and Steve Sheinkin

Listening on Audio: The Color of a Lie by Kim Johnson.

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Tuesday: Alterations by Ray Xu

Thursday: Exclusion and the Chinese American Story by Sarah-Soonling Blackburn

Friday: Student Voices: Author Reflections from Susana N., 7th grader, and Meghan K. & Ricardo D., 8th graders

Sunday: Author Interview: Q&A with Rhonda Roumani and Nadia Roumani, Authors of Insha’Allah, No, Maybe So

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Link up below and go check out what everyone else is reading. Please support other bloggers by viewing and commenting on at least 3 other blogs. If you tweet about your Monday post, tag the tweet with #IMWAYR!

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Author Guest Post: “Guide Them like Lighthouses to the Shores of Success” by Preston Norton, Author of The House on Yeet Street

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Guide Them like Lighthouses to the Shores of Success

When I was in second grade, I considered myself to be the dumbest kid in my class. I came to this rather tragic realization when my teacher instituted a math exercise where we would be given a sheet of fairly simple math equations and a time limit. Those who finished the series of equations before the time was up received a sticker that was placed in front of our name on a very pretty poster board display. Every successful completion within the time limit resulted in another sticker. Some of my classes finished every single math quiz within the time limit and had the unstoppable line of stickers to prove it. Other kids missed the occasional day, but overall, had a fairly mean lineup of stickers. There were other kids still who struggled but achieved the occasional sticker, and I’m sure the few they possessed meant a great deal to them.

And then there was poor, dumb Preston who had not a sticker in the world.

At this point, my teacher must have realized her error because she began the practice of “skipping” days. Whenever she skipped a day—and we did not have one of these timed math quizzes—everyone got a sticker. I finally had my sticker. There was only one problem: I knew I hadn’t earned it. As the school year progressed, more and more of these “skip days” occurred, and before I knew it, I had enough stickers to hide from the untrained eye the fact that I had not earned a single one of these on my own. None of my second grade peers made fun of me for how few stickers I had. But that didn’t change the fact that I had earned a tremendous new bully: myself. Nothing tanks one’s self-esteem more than knowing you’re the dumbest kid in the class and having the stickers (or lack thereof) to prove it.

I wish I could tell you that this was the origin story of how I went on to become the world’s greatest mathematician. Alas, this is not that story. I wager my math skills to this day are only marginally better than the fifth graders to whom I teach (environmental science). Math is not something I was born to be good at. This is not to say I think one needs to be born good at something in order to succeed at it. But I do think we are born with innate interests and desires. And the sooner we can key into what these things are, the sooner we can unleash a world of potential, either in ourselves, or—in the case of teachers—from these young minds whom rely so deeply upon the light of our learning. As teachers, we can—and should—guide them like lighthouses to the shores of success. Now I realize, as a children’s author, that I am a somewhat biased source, but I can think of no better beacon than the power of literacy and books.

Flash forward to the Scholastic Book Fair.

As a second grader—even one with zero stickers (real ones anyway)—the allure of the Scholastic Book Fair was powerful. Born into a relatively low-income family, I had enough money to buy one book—a single book—and as such, I had to make it count. The book I settled on was one about dinosaurs. I was probably eight years old. Of course, I liked dinosaurs. This purchase was made purely on the appeal of the cover with absolutely no understanding of the sort of book I was walking into. And that was nonfiction. Now, as someone who adores nonfiction, I can tell you with certainty that I was ill-equipped with the literacy required to tackle such a read. What essentially happened was I would “read” the words on the page and have zero comprehension of what I’d just read. It was the most surface level act of reading with none of the understanding behind it. This could have been a relatively painless failure, if not for my cousin Tobin—in the same grade as me—who bought the exact same book as me. And let me tell you, he was simply gushing with newly learned dinosaur facts. Hey, Preston, did you know that a stegosaurus was roughly 30 feet long, weighed 11,000 pounds, but only had a brain the size of a dog’s? Oof. I suddenly felt a terrible kinship to stegosauri.

Needless to say, I felt pretty defeated. The thought occurred that if couldn’t even understand a book someone else my age was reading for enjoyment, I might never amount to anything. This is a terrible thing for an eight-year-old to feel.

I may have been my own worst enemy, but I did have someone in my court: my mom. As a lover of books and even writing, she knew I had the desire to read—even if I hadn’t found the right book just yet. With that said, she’d heard a thing or two about this spooky book series called Goosebumps. And so, as I entered the third grade, to a brand-new school, a new start, and a slightly lower than normal self-esteem, she hooked me up with my very first one: Goosebumps #2: Stay Out of the Basement.

Holy f***ing s***! What the f*** was I reading? I had no idea—it was weird as s***—and I was here for it. Their dad was a f***ing plant monster thing? Hell yeah! And thus, I fell down the slippery slope of a book series with just way too many books and where every chapter ends on a cliffhanger.

I wasn’t long before my mom had realized her child’s sudden new hobby was about to get expensive. And so, without further ado, she introduced me to the library. While there were plenty of Goosebumps to spare, I burned through these faster than a teenage boy burns calories. At a certain point, I was forced to redirect my attention elsewhere. I had a great science fiction run with the works of Bruce Coville. But perhaps no chapter book had a greater impact on me than Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery (1979).

The premise is this: a family called the Monroes has a pet dog, Harold (the narrator), a pet cat named Chester (a vaguely paranoid orange tabby who loves literature and milk), and a brand-new pet rabbit—the titular Bunnicula—who may or may not be “sucking the life” out of vegetables. I can tell you the exact moment when this novel changed my life. Keep in mind that this is a recollection of events from the nostalgia-fueled memory of a thirty-eight-year-old, who has not reread the novel since they first read it as an eight-year-old (give or take). Picture this: Chester, jealous of all the attention the family bunny has been receiving of late, is contemplating an attempt on Bunnicula’s life. After reading that vampires can be slain by pounding a stake through their heart, Chester interprets this murder weapon as a juicy slab of steak, which he removes from the fridge, proceeds to throw on top of the bunny, and then hops on top of it, attempting to somehow pound it through this poor rabbit’s heart.

“I think it’s supposed to be sharp?” Harold asks (according to my memory).

“Of course, it’s sharp,” says the version of Chester who lives rent-free in my head. “It’s sirloin.”

Somehow, someone had forgotten to pass on the memo to me that books could be funny. This was undoubtedly the funniest thing I had ever read. To this day, it might still be! And it was in this moment, when a moment of humor conveyed through written word irrevocably tripped a dopamine neurotransmitter in my brain, flooding it with hysterical euphoria, that I came to a life-altering realization: I wanted to write.

When I was maybe eleven years old, I attempted to write my first novel. It was about a dog and a cat who get lost in Australia and befriend a dingo. I maybe wrote a chapter or two before I quit. Whether or not it was a good chapter or two is inconsequential. What it was instead was an important chapter or two—perhaps the most important chapter or two I’ve ever written—because it taught me one of the most powerful lessons that eleven-year-old me could learn: I could write. I could tell a story. I had stories inside of me that I wanted to tell.

When I was fourteen years old, I made another attempt, this time in the fantasy genre, of which I was growing quite fond. I got further this time; wrote more pages, more chapters. Did not finish.

I made another attempt again when I was sixteen years old, and this was an important one. Because I did not stop. I kept writing. Maybe on and off, but I kept on going, even when I turned seventeen.

When I was eighteen years old, I finished the novel that I started when I was sixteen: a high fantasy novel called The Mark of Mekken, starring a young protagonist named Aidan Cross. Once more, whether it was good or not is far less consequential than how important it is to me. Amidst my (failed) attempts to publish it, I asked for publishing advice in a fan letter I wrote Christopher Paolini, of whom I was a big fan at the time. Paolini’s success at such a young age was endlessly inspirational to me. To my surprise and delight, Paolini wrote me three pages of letters back in encouragement. Oh, and he also recommended me to his agent, Dan Lazar, who would keep an eye out for my manuscript! I’ll spare you the suspense: Dan Lazar did not sign on to represent my novel. But he did write me the most encouraging rejection letter I have ever received, particularly in regard to my protagonist, Aidan, whom he hoped would succeed on his journey.

Some eagle-eyed readers might recognize that my major middle grade debut, a queer ghost story called The House on Yeet Street—to be published August 27, 2024 by Union Square Kids—also features a protagonist named Aidan Cross. This is not by coincidence. The House on Yeet Street might be middle-grade horror—perhaps not so distant from the Goosebumps stories that inspired it and, indeed, changed my life—but it is also a story about creativity and identity and how closely the two intertwine. In The House on Yeet Street, my thirteen-year-old MC, Aidan Cross is writing a fantasy love story starring a fictional version of his best friend, Kai Pendleton—reimagined as a merman named Kai Pendragon—and a genderbending version of himself named Nadia (Aidan spelled backwards). When I originally pitched this MG book idea to my agent and editor, it was with three other ideas, two of which I was convinced would be selected over it. Not only was I surprised that The House on Yeet Street floated to the top, but I was also elated, especially as it has easily turned into the personal favorite and possibly most personal of all my novels. It has also caused me to reflect on the version of Aidan Cross I wrote all those years ago and the queer subtext I may or may not have fully understood in his story and my own.

I know what you’re thinking: what does this have to do with teachers? To which I would reply: everything! I would also pose the question: who is a teacher? Or better yet: who can be a teacher? To which I would reply: everyone. A teacher can be a mom, an author, even a literary agent. I believe a teacher can even be a book—even one about monster plant dads and vampire bunnies. What better teacher than the one who is born inside a child’s mind? There is a reason evil and ignorant people across the nation are organizing to ban books—of all things—from children, even as the whole entire internet sits at their fingertips. It is much easier to stop a child from becoming literate and learning to think independently—by carefully censoring and curating their access to literature and ideas—than it is to stop a young person from thinking for themself once they have learned how to do so.

To teachers, to librarians, to every adult with a child in their life: don’t stop shining your light. These children see you. These children need you.

The future needs you.

Publishing August 27th, 2024 by Union Square & Co.

About the Book: A hilarious ghost story about a group of thirteen-year-old boys whose friendship is tested by supernatural forces, secret crushes, and a hundred-year-old curse.

When Aidan Cross yeeted his very secret journal into the house on Yeet Street, he also intended to yeet his feelings for his best friend, Kai, as far away as possible.

To Aidan’s horror, his friends plan a sleepover at the haunted house the very next night. Terrance, Zephyr, and Kai are dead set on exploring local legend Farah Yeet’s creepy mansion. Aidan just wants to survive the night and retrieve his mortifying love story before his friends find it.

When Aidan discovers an actual ghost in the house (who happens to be a huge fan of his fiction), he makes it his mission to solve the mystery of Gabby’s death and free her from the house. But when Aidan’s journal falls into the wrong hands, secrets come to light that threaten the boys’ friendship. Can Aidan embrace the part of himself that’s longing to break free…or will he become the next victim to be trapped in the haunted house forever? 

About the Author: Preston Norton teaches environmental science to fifth graders. He is the author of Neanderthal Opens the Door to the UniverseWhere I End & You Begin, and Hopepunk. He is married with three cats.

Thank you, Preston, for this reminder that we are guides to the kids in our lives!

Student Voices: Favorite Characters from Dhivya R., Hajirah Q., & Omayma H., 7th grade, and Azuri, 8th grade

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Favorite Characters

“Twenty Book Characters That I Want to Meet in Real Life” by Dhivya R., 7th grade

Jameson Hawthorne- Jameson is one of the four Hawthorne Brothers from the Inheritance Games series. I would want to meet him because he is super smart, adventurous, and always up for a challenge. 

Grayson Hawthorne- Grayson is another one of the brothers from the Inheritance Games series. I want to meet him because he will always help his family and friends that need it, and like his brother, he is always ready for a game. 

Juliet Grayson- Juliet is a character from the Inheritance Games series that you will meet in the 4th book, The Brothers Hawthorne. She is super sweet and lively, and will never fail to make you smile. 

Phineas Smith- Phineas, or Finn, is one of the main characters from the book If He Had Been With Me. I would want to meet him and be friends with him because he is described as one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He always puts other people before himself and will always be ready to lend a hand. 

Jack Murphy- Jack is one of the three characters POV that If Only I Had Told Her is told through. Jack is one of Finn’s best friends, and he would do anything for him. If you were one of his friends, you would know that you could always count on him for anything. 

Minho- Minho is the Keeper of the Runners from The Maze Runner series. He is a super hard working person and will always push you to do and be your best.

Daniel Wing (Day)- Day is one of the two main characters from the Legend series. He would do anything for his family and friends, no matter the cost. He would always put his friends first, and is not afraid to take on a challenge. 

June Iparis- June is the other main character from the Legend series. She is a hard working leader and does not ever give up. She is also really sweet and seems like a really nice person to be friends with.  

Peeta Mellark- Peeta is the male tribute from district 12 in the Hunger Games series. He will do anything it takes to protect Katniss, and he is super sweet as well. 

Primrose Everdeen- Prim is the younger sister of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games. She is the most kind hearted, caring person and would always be able to put a smile on your face. 

Katniss Everdeen- Katniss is the female tribute from district 12 and the main character of the Hunger Games series. She is full of confidence and bravery, doing everything she can to protect her family and friends. 

Lucy Gray-Barid- Lucy is the district 12 tribute in the 10th hunger games from The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes. She is a very strong and determined person, and just a really kind person overall. 

Ally- Ally is one of the four main characters from I Know Your Secret. She is a very quiet and shy girl, but will take the lead when it comes to her family’s animal sanctuary, doing anything that she needs to do to keep it open. She will take initiative when she needs to, and will help her friends do everything they need to protect what they love as well. 

Marcus O’Mara- Marcus is the main character from the Surrender the Key series. He is really brave and will always try to do the right thing, even if it comes with a cost. 

Cassandra Hobbes-Cassie is a profiler from The Naturals series.  She will not stop until she gets what she is looking for, doing whatever it takes. She is super brave and courageous as well. 

Dean Redding- Dean is the first profiler accepted by the Naturals program from The Naturals series. He is really smart and will try to protect his friends whenever he can. 

Parker Jimenez – Parker is a hacker that was befriended by Katrina in Concealed. He helped Katrina find the truth about her identity and her family, even if it meant that he would have to make some sacrifices. 

Drew Ellis – Drew is one of the few kids of color at the private school in the New Kid series. He is brave and always stands up for himself and the other kids of color in his grade, even if it means he has to break the rules. He always does what is best for him and his friends, helping them and getting help as they go.

Omar Mohamed- Omar is the main character from When Stars Are Scattered. His main priority is always taking care of his brother, putting Hassan’s needs before his own and doing whatever he needs to do for his little brother. He is a hard worker, never giving up even when times get tough and making his way through life while also trying his best to follow his dreams. 

Fred and George Weasly- Fred and George are twin brothers from the Weasly family in the Harry Potter series. They are super funny and will never fail to put a smile on your face. They always put each other before anything else and would do anything and everything that they could dream of together. 


“Characters I Would Want to Be Friends With in Real Life” by Hajirah Q., 7th grade

Xander from The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I would be friends with Xander in real life because his personality is to try and make people feel. But he can also be serious and supportive when he wants to be. He tries to make Avery feel at home and comfortable even when no one seems to trust her.

Kenji from Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi:
I would want to be friends with Kenji in real life because he jokes around a lot with his friends and has a funny personality. Even when things seem to be out of sorts, he thinks of a way to cheer everyone up. But in serious situations, he always tries to think of a way out of whatever case they’re in. 

Taylor from The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han:
She can sometimes be a little annoying and self-centered but she helps Belly whenever Belly needs it and is a great friend. And even though they fight with each other often, Taylor still tries to be a perfect friend.

Susannah from The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han:
She is such a sweet person and cares for Belly like a mom. When Belly doesn’t want to tell her mom something, she knows she can tell Susannah. Even though Belly likes one of Susannah’s boys’, whenever Belly tells her about them, she always gives motherly advice.

Chris from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han:
Even though she’s wild and does her own thing, she still takes time to care for Lara Jean whenever she needs it. If Kitty can’t make Lara Jean feel better, she makes sure to help Lara Jean get better in whatever way.

Lauren from A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson:
Even though she’s not as close to Pip, she still tries to be a great friend. She knows she’s not as close to Pip as Cara is, but she still tries to be there for Pip when she can, and when Pip lets her be there for her.

Cara from A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson:
Even though Pip is not telling her things, she tries to be a magnificent friend. Even when she herself is feeling down, she makes sure to be there for Pip when she knows Pip needs as much help as she can get.

Abigail from I Hope This Doesn’t Find You by Ann Liang:
Even though she hurt Sadie, she was trying to help her and did it out of the goodness of her heart. She is a great friend through Sadie’s ups and downs. And she listens to Sadie about all her problems and whatever drama is going on in her life.

Easton from Check and Mate by Ali Hazelwood:
She is a great friend to Mallory. Even though she has to move away from Mallory, and doesn’t get in touch with Mallory for a while, she surprises Mallory to make sure Mallory understands they are still friends. Because she knows Mallory could be worried about Easton not wanting to be friends with her anymore.

Bee from Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins:
She cares about Harper and loves her like a sister. And she tries to be an excellent friend to Harper. Even when Harper doesn’t tell her everything, she still forgives her and tries to be great friends with Harper.


“Top Five Favorite Book Characters” by Omayma H., 7th grade

Books are fun to read but you want to know what makes them better? The Characters! So here are my top 5 favorite book characters and why! (Note: These are not in order! I can’t choose between them all)

1. Sophie Foster from Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Sophie Foster is the Protagonist in the series The Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger and I think she is amazing! Sophie Foster was born in the human world but she is an elf! When she finds out and is taken to the Lost Cities (That’s what they call all the cities) her life completely changes. She makes friends and lives with a wonderful family. Sophie Foster is one of my favorite characters because she never gives up, Always tries her best, Cares TREMENDOUSLY about her friends and family, and she is brave! The book definitely would feel wrong without her (and not because she is the main character)! 

2. Keefe Sencen from Keeper Of The Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Keefe Sencen is one of the main characters in The Keeper of the  Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger. He is one of Sophie Foster’s closest friends and the most supportive of all of them. Even though he has his own problems you can notice that he ALWAYS puts Sophie before himself (and for specific reasons too!!!!!!!). Sophie tends to go to him A LOT whenever she has a problem and I think it is ADORABLE!!! Keefe is the “Clown” in the friend group. He is always making jokes and pranks to make everyone laugh. I think Keefe is one of those characters that all readers like and enjoy having in books. He makes everything better and happier for his friends and everyone around him. Keefe DEFINITELY makes the book more fun!

3. Dex Dizznee from Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Dex Dizznee is one of the main characters in the series. He is Sophie Foster’s adoptive cousin and best friend. He was one of the very first elves Sophie met after she moved into the Lost Cities. Before Sophie arrived, Dex had no friends. He ate lunch all by himself and was always bullied but that never stopped him from being funny and kind! Dex’s character is one of those funny kinds and he LOVES to play pranks on people using his mad alchemy skills! Dex’s personality fluctuates often, ranging from pushy and competitive to kind and gentle.  He is a really good friend and I really can’t imagine the story without him!

4. Kestra Dallisor from The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen                               

Kestra is an independent woman who just wants to do the right thing. Kestra’s mother died when she was little and her dad is the evil king’s closest advisor. I think what I like best about Kestra is that she never gives up no matter what. She always tries to do the right thing and has to go through a lot. During her Journey she is forced to make, Kestar is forced to be accompanied by  Simon (A boy who used to be her friend until she betrayed him) and Trina ( A girl who doesn’t want to be anywhere near Kestra) and I just think that without that part of the story, the story just won’t be complete! What I mean by that is during the story Simon and Kestra fall in love and it creates a romantic tone in the story. Also Trina and Kestra become friends and understand each other better. 

5. Moonwatcher from Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland

Moonwatcher (Moon) Is one of the students at Jade Mountain Academy (An academy for dragons from every tribe to come live and learn together). Moon is a really nice dragon and cares for people’s privacy except there is one problem she has that prevents her from keeping people’s privacy to themselves. She can read minds! How? Well before the dragonets of destiny (Clay, Glory, Starflight, Sunny, and Tsunami) Nightwings claimed that they had mind-reading and prophecy-receiving/vision powers, but after the war was over the night wings revealed that they didn’t have those powers anymore. But Moon was different. That’s what I liked about her! She was born in the rainforest under a full moon which granted her the powers.


“My Top Ten Favorite Book Characters” by Azuri Z., 8th grade

Pippa Fitz-Amobi from A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder
I honestly love this book/series and the missions Pip goes on! Pip has to be one of my favorite characters because she is fearless and is not afraid to do what is right to save her friends. She has sacrificed many things in her life just for her to solve midden mysteries. She has also uncovered mysteries and long-lost secrets that not even the police can crack!

Joe Sylvester from Save Me a Seat
Save Me a Seat is one of my favorite books ever and Joe is the best character in this. He has really good metabolism and struggles with APD. He teams up with another kid in his class, Ravi, and comes up with a clever way to trick his class bully with an epic prank! The way he talks makes me laugh, and he has a great story to tell in this book!

Jen from Stepping Stones
Jen is kind, brave, and can draw very well. She is getting used to her new stepsisters and her annoying stepdad. I can relate a bit to how she feels sometimes, which is another reason why I like her character. She is adventurous, outgoing, and an excellent artist.

Kristy from The Baby-Sitters Club
I would love to meet Kristy from The Baby-Sitters Club because she is extroverted, funny, nice, and has great leadership skills! I feel like she would be a fun person to be around. She loves sports and has the greatest ideas. I love the Baby-sitters Club books, especially the ones where it’s about Kristy, Like Kristy and the Snobs or Kristy’s Big Day. She always knows how to make the story interesting and fun to read!

Bristlefrost from Warriors: The Broken Code
Bristlefrost is a Thunderclan warrior and lives in the forest with the rest of her clan. She has to be in my top 5 because she is courageous, sweet, and always puts her friend’s needs in front of hers. She has saved many lives of her friends and even gave her life to save everyone. I would absolutely love to meet Bristlefrost and I 100% recommend these books!

Jacky from Jacky Ha-Ha
I love these books and Jacky’s point of view. She is talented, fun, and hilarious. She is smart and has sisters. She loves to sing, perform, and tell jokes. She is a great friend and not afraid to stand up for her friends, and what’s right. I think she would be a cool and funny person to be around, and we would get along super well.

Jules from Maybe A Fox
I love this book so much; the story was amazing and so well written. Jules is such an awesome character in this book. She is smart, kind, and collects things like I do. When her sister Sylvie, who always had to be faster than fast, goes missing, Jules is devastated and just questions herself always why Sylvie had to run fast. I would love to get to meet Jules.

Gabe from Wayward Creatures
Wayward Creatures is such an amazing book that I would reread over and over and over again. Gabe is nice and I can relate to him sometimes. In an attempt to impress his friends who have no time for him anymore, Twelve-year-old Gabe sets of fireworks in the woods and causes a huge forest fire that burns acres of woodland. He comes across and helps an injured coyote named Rill who is tired of her family.

Nat from the Nat Enough
This book/series is hilarious and have a good story. Nat is sweet, funny, and smart, and never feels like she is enough. She loses her best friend from elementary when she goes into middle school and tries her hardest to get her back. As she tries to get her best friend back she learns more about herself and her natural talents and realizes she is more than enough just the way she is.

Antonio from Puppy Love
This book was… Uh- interesting. Antonio was the main character’s best friend, and he basically kept the story together. Antonio is hilarious and a good friend. He plays the piccolo and says the funniest things. I think he would be a fun person to be around and it would be really cool to meet him.


Thank you so much to my student voices today and their look at favorite characters!