From the Heartland: Elsa Marston

Considering authors who write about African American, Latino, Arab or Muslim Americans, Native Americans in my state of Indiana has uncovered a true wealth of authors. It’s a bit funny to see such richness in this state when Indiana in YA is usually seen as the last place on earth. But, to those teens who live here, Indiana is the center of the universe. 

Elsa Marston is an Indiana writer who expands the universe of all young readers. She’s very active in the wThe-Compassionate-Warrior-330orld of YA lit, whether she’s hosting a listserv chat, speaking at a local conference or
 writing another book that focuses on the people and cultures of the Middle East. Elsa has written over 20 children’s and young adult books including Santa
Claus in Bahgdad And Other Stories About Teens In the Arab World and Figs
 and Fate: Stories About Growing Up In the Arab World Today.  Her most recent book, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria has won the following awards. 

  • Co-winner of the 2013 Middle East Book Award for best “Youth Nonfiction”
  • Finalist for 2013 Midwest Books Award in the categories “History” and “Young Adult Non-Fiction”
  • Finalist for 2013 Foreword Review “Book of the Year” Award in the category “Young Adult Nonfiction”
  • 2014 Eric Hoffer Award, First runner-up in the “Culture” category
Later this year, she’ll release The Olive Tree. 
A story for all ages, about how an old olive tree in Lebanon caused conflict–and inspired reconciliation. Based on the author’s award-winning and much reprinted short story. With illustrations by Claire Ewart.
Let’s meet Elsa!

Where did you grow up?

I’m a New Englander from way, way back;  I grew up in Newton Centre, Massachusetts; and then my parents moved to a small town on the Massachusetts Dscf0689bw_web-330coast, Duxbury, just north of Plymouth.  It’s a beautiful place, with beaches, marshes, pine woods, and fascinating houses from the 17th-19th centuries.  I still feel steeped in the culture and history of  New England.  One of my current works-in- progress is set on the coast of Maine at the start of the American Revolution.

How did you end up in Indiana?

So I’m not a Hoosier at heart.  But Bloomington has been a great place to live!   I came here with my husband, Iliya Harik, who was Lebanese (I met him when we were students at the American University of Beirut).  He taught Middle East government at Indiana University for his entire career, with occasional leaves overseas. That made it possible for our family to live in such places as Cairo, Beirut, and Tunisia . . . wonderful inspiration for my writing.  But it was always nice to come home to Indiana.  (I have three sons: Ramsay, a secondary-school teacher of religious studies in Austin, Texas—and my first-line reader!  Amahl, proprietor of a fitness-training studio in Providence;  and Raif, a computer guy in Austin.  And grandchildren Savannah, starting health-care studies, and Kahlil, a 2-year-old ball of sunshine.)

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I grew up in a book-filled home—my dad was a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston—so becoming a reader was as natural for me as loving to climb trees. From my very young childhood I remember Barbar the Elephant, and in grade school I loved the E. Nesbit books and Mary Poppins—delightful blendings of fantasy and realism.

What three things would you like to add to a list of world treasures?

Oh my,  I’ll probably have some brilliant ideas tomorrow—but here’s what I’m thinking today.

The coast of Northern California, for the sheer beauty of its long, wide beaches, golden grass-covered slopes, redwood forests…..

Two or three piano concertos by Mozart—although I dare say he’s already on the list.

The translucent alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, every inch covered with tiny hieroglyphs painted  a heavenly blue—for the beauty and sheer amazingness of the thing. (It’s in the Soanes Museum in London.)

What book(s) are you currently reading?

One I read recently that made a big impression on me was Big Fat Disaster by Beth Fehlbaum (Merit Press, 2014).  It’s about a girl in Texas, a compulsive eater, whose dad—a rising politician—has just been hit by scandal;  he abandons the family and they have to move, virtually penniless, to another small town.  So Colby has a lot to feel bad about, and she handles it by gobbling sugar.  What I especially liked  is that Colby is not particularly likable: she’s irritable, irrational.  But we always care about her and hope that eventually she’ll find the strength to become the confident, sympathetic person that’s hiding inside all that baggage. 

When did you realize that you are a writer?

My dad was a writer and a storyteller, who made up bedtime stories for my sister and me.  I think that gave me the idea that I could tell stories, too.   At the age of eight or nine, I started to write two “novels,”  one of them set in ancient Egypt.  Naturally neither got beyond the second page, but I enjoyed them while they lasted.  And discovered, many years later, that my novel The Ugly Goddess, set in a  fascinating period of ancient Egyptian history, was the realization of that very early dream! It may take 40 or 50 years to realize your dreams—but it can happen! 

What stories do you most enjoy telling?

I like to tell stories about young people who face challenges or troubles and somehow manage to end up in a better place.  When I started writing, wanting to use the unusual places I’d had a chance to spend time in (Cairo, Carthage, Greek Islands), I wrote rather complicated mystery/adventure stories about young Americans in those settings.  But at a conference the well-known author Avi once told me:  “I think you should write stories that move people.”  I now feel  that the stories in my collection Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World best express what I want to do and perhaps can do best.  They still have an “exotic” element, being set in a variety of contemporary Arab societies, but my main concern is to depict young people trying to deal with the lives they were given, and make the best of it.

How did you decide to write about the Middle East and North Africa for young adults?

Since early childhood I’ve been intrigued by “other times, other places,” so I always had an international bent.   A Rotary Foundation fellowship took me to the American University of Beirut, and my marriage to the young man I met there—and the combination of his work and my own lifelong interests—led naturally to specializing in that part of the world.

But there’s another reason.  The Arab world is badly misunderstood, rejected, and disparaged in this country—even though Arab-Americans have always been exemplary as an immigrant community.  Since the founding of Israel in the Arab country of Palestine, in 1948, this prejudice has been drastically hardened by political complications, which are harmful not only to Arabs but to the interests of the U.S. and ultimately, I believe, to Israel.  I feel a mission as a writer to counter some of the ignorance and  politically motivated prejudice by presenting the people of the Arab world in ways that Americans can comprehend and relate to sympathetically.

You’ve described the whole Arab/Muslim world as invisible through use of the term “people of of color” and through their lack of representation in children’s literature.  Could you mention a few of the significant events, authors or books in children’s lit relating to books by and featuring Arab/Muslim Americans of which we should be aware?

Until the mid 1990’s there were very, very few books for young people with a positive Arab viewpoint—largely, I firmly believe, because of the prejudice mentioned above.  The door started to open with the publication of two very successful books by an already successful writer, Naomi Shihab Nye:  the novel Habibi and picture book Sitti’s Secrets, both about Palestine.  This showed publishers and writers that it was possible to produce books that give a favorable view of Arabs—without a storm of criticism.  Two other picture books published at about this time, by Florence Parry Heidi and Judith Heidi Gilliland, The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Egypt) and Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Lebanon), were also important “door openers.” 

Since then, we’ve seen a slow but pretty steady increase in accurate, fair, and sympathetic books about Arabs, by British, American, and Israeli authors.  But very few Arab or Arab-American writers!  Although there are many Arab novelists, poets, and essayists, the idea that literature for children is an important and worthy use of literary talent has been slow to catch on.  Books for kids have been published in Arabic for years in such countries as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Kuwait; but they very rarely attract attention for translation and publication in the U.S.  I keep hoping!

I keep a list of recommended books, mostly fiction, mostly about the Arab world,  which I think is as comprehensive a list as you could find, going back to the 1970s.  I’d be happy to send it electronically to anyone who gets in touch with me  (   Besides the ones mentioned above, here are some that I especially recommend:

Ibtisam Barakat, Tasting the Sky:  A Palestinian Childhood

Anne Laurel Carter,  The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (Palestine)

Elizabeth Laird, A Little Piece of Ground   (Palestine)

Zeina Abirached, A Game for Swallows  (Lebanon)

Alalou, Elizabeth and Ali, The Butter Man  (Morocco)

Carolyn Marsden,  The White Zone  (Iraq)

Mary Matthews,  Magid Fasts for Ramadan (Egypt)

Jeanette Winter,  The Librarian of Basra  (Iraq)

Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me;   Does My Head Look Big in This? (Arab-Australians)

Claire Sidhom Matze, The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky  (Egypt, Egyptian-Americans)

Cathryn Clinton, A Stone in My Hand  (Palestine)

Maha Addasi, The White Nights of Ramadan  (Gulf States)

What does diversity mean to you?

Talking about books, I take diversity to mean inclusion of good books about the Arab/Muslim world!  But of course I would include all cultures and countries—and encouragement of good writing and storytelling, that will hold up well in translation and publication in diverse societies.  I also welcome positive attention to all sorts of human conditions.  It’s wonderful to have books that broaden our understanding and appreciation of different experience—whether social, gender, religious, occupational, or virtually any other walk of life.   


Previous Posts From the Heartland



Meet Crystal Allen!

Crystal Allen writes middle grade/young YA fiction that break the mold of what we too often find in children’s literature.  I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing The Laura Line which was released in 2013.

51O8GYjCtrL._AA160_Thirteen-year-old Laura Dyson wants two things in life: to be accepted by her classmates and to be noticed by baseball star Troy Bailey. But everyone at school makes fun of her for being overweight, and Troy won’t give her a second glance. Until their seventh grade history teacher puts Laura front and center by announcing a field trip to the old run-down slave shack on her grandmother’s property. Heck to the power of no way! Her grandmother insists that it’s more than just a shack; it’s a monument to the strong women in their family — the Laura Line. Something to be proud of. But Laura knows better: if her classmates can’t accept her now, they never will once they see the shack. So she comes up with the perfect plan to get the field trip canceled. But when a careless mistake puts the shack — and the Laura Line — in jeopardy, Laura must decide what’s truly important to her. Can Laura figure out how to get what she wants at school while also honoring her family’s past?

Crystal recently agreed to the following interviewing and I have to say it’s been such a joy getting to know her! I’m sure you’ll understand why I say that as you read her interview.


What is one of your most clear memories of being a teen?

I loved theater and drama.  I tried out for every play in middle school and high school.  My first role was the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz when I was in the fifth grade.  When the play was over, all of the first and second graders hated me, so I chased them all over the playground.  It was awesome.

I love the opening line on your blog: “Holy Crackers and Cream Cheese! Oh, Mylanta! You’re here!” What are your favorite snack foods?

I love to snack on almonds, fruit, Twizzlers, or Mexican food, not necessarily in that order.

Which famous person would you most like to have to write a review for your book?

Michelle Obama.

What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?

My definition of “national treasures” is different than what may actually qualify as a national treasure.  But, if I could add three things, it was be these three:

  1. All Senior Citizen Facilities or Nursing Homes. I believe senior citizens are our most beloved National Treasures.
  1. YMCA’s, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and inner city recreation centers .  The importance of these alternatives for youth around the country is invaluable, and has helped deter many from taking wrong paths.
  1. The Houston Astrodome. The Astrodome may already be on the National Treasures list, however, I know there are talks of demolishing it.  The Dome has so much history, and to tear it down would certainly destroy a strong piece of Houston history.

Why would you be up at 3am?  Reflux.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

Panic – Sharon Draper

The Sweet Dead Life – Joy Preble

(Starting soon)  The Great Greene Heist – Varian Johnson

You write fun, middle class stories with a bit of a lesson that any child can enjoy. What authors have inspired your writing?

Christopher Paul Curtis

Sharon Draper

Donna Gephart

Neal Shusterman

The Laura Line is your newest book. That title is so intriguing! Can you explain it, or will that give too

much away?

The Laura Line is about Laura Dyson, a thirteen year old, overweight girl who has dreams of being a model…or a major league baseball pitcher.  Because of her weight issues, students make fun of her to the point that Laura begins to believe that she is all of the ugly things her classmates say she is.  It’s not until Laura ventures into an old shack on her grandmother’s farm and finds a ledger filled with documents from the female ancestors in her history, (all of them named Laura)  that she begins to stand up for herself.  Now, Laura Dyson not only knows who she is, but has evidence of all the wonderful things she can become.+-+191835251_140

Could Laura and Lamar be friends?  Yes!

I love that you’re a Hoosier! (Once Hoosier, always a Hoosier!) What is it about Indiana that made you decide to set Lamar there?

I grew up in a small town in Indiana and I needed Lamar and Xavier to be small town boys.  Once I began drafting the setting, and adding basketball as Xavier’s biggest talent, it was clear to me that Indiana had to be part of the story, especially since basketball is HUGE in Indiana.

Is setting difficult for you to choose when you begin writing or does setting come right along with the character?

Detailed setting comes with my characters, especially after I understand where they plan on spending the majority of their time.

Finally, what does diversity mean to you?

To me, diversity simply means everybody.


author interview: Estela Bernal

Estela Bernal made her debut as an author this past May with Can You See Me Now? (Pinata/Arte Publico). As you get to know her today and find out a little more about Can You See Me Now? you’ll be impressed but, be even more impressed to know that she’s donating 100% of her proceeds to education and animal rights.

Just a little about the book. Kirkus says:

Tragedy strikes on Mandy’s 13th birthday when her father is struck by a drunk driver and killed. Now grief—both her own and her mother’s—complicates the already confusing landscape of early adolescence.

can u see me nowWith her mother working more and more hours in the wake of her father’s death, Mandy begins spending most of her time living with her grandmother. Often the target of bullies, loner Mandy approaches Paloma to be her partner for a school project. Paloma is also a misfit, but she carries herself with a self-assured grace that Mandy finds compelling. As she becomes closer to Paloma, she learns about the practices of yoga and meditation, which are foundational in Paloma’s family. An overweight boy in class, Rogelio, is also touched by tragedy when his family’s home burns down, and Paloma invites him to join their yoga crew. As the three continue practicing together, they each begin to cultivate their own peace amid the chaos in their lives. Though each faces personal challenges, they find friendship and support in one another. Bernal has succeeded in crafting a story that acknowledges tragedy without wallowing in it, placing her emphasis on resilience and personal growth. The quick pace and distinctive characters make for a smooth, well-crafted read.

Middle-grade readers should respond to this tender story of learning to connect with others through open eyes and an open heart. (Fiction. 10-13)

And Estela’s interview!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in South Texas (the Rio Grande Valley).

Estela Bernal

Estela Bernal

Do you have any pets?

I love animals and have had many pets through the years.  I currently have two cats.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I grew up in a home where we had no books.  There were no public libraries in my hometown either.  Despite the lack of age-appropriate reading material, I fell in love with books as soon as I learned to read.  I remember reading the Weekly Reader and whatever else I could get my hands on at school.  Although I don’t remember where I got it, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth was one book I read and re-read.  I’ve always been a dreamer and this book opened up an exotic new and very fascinating world to me. 

Meat or vegetables?

Vegetables, absolutely!  As an animal lover, I volunteered with many animal welfare organizations until I was able to form my own.  Through it I do community education and help provide low-cost spay/neuter services to residents’ pets in underserved communities.  It would be hard to justify rescuing some animals while eating others.  Besides, I find that when I eat a healthy diet, I feel so much better.

Which famous person would you most like to have write a review for your book?

So many famous and not-so-famous people come to mind.  It always makes me happy to hear about celebrities and other public figures who are also great philanthropists and who help raise awareness about some very important issues facing society today.  But there are also many unsung heroes quietly working to help make their communities better places to live.  I sincerely believe we all have the potential to do good and that, after all, is what really matters.   Two of my own favorite causes are education and animal welfare so my choice would have to be someone with similar ideals.

What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?

Although man-made treasures are priceless, I believe that natural treasures are absolutely essential.  I’d love to see all public waterways, land (public, private, agricultural), and all living beings protected and preserved for our well-being and that of future.


Why would you be up at 3am?

Usually, I’m only up at that time if I’m traveling and have to catch an early flight.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

I’m currently making my way through a 100 Greatest Books for Kids list and just started Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León.  I’m also reading my latest copy of Glimmer Train.

What made you decide to write about a teen who discovers yoga?

One of my nephews died accidentally a few years ago.  The accident happened in front of his wife and children and I began to wonder how such a tragic event would affect any family who witnessed such a tragedy. That also got me thinking about how a child, already weighed down by grief, would cope with the additional burden of parental abandonment and being bullied on top of everything else.   Adolescence is tough enough as it is, and adding all this other stress can lead to such despair that anyone could easily be overwhelmed.  I wanted to introduce the idea that there are alternatives to violence, that there is help even when we think there is no safe way out of certain situations, and most importantly, that there are ways to access inner peace. 

When I first discovered yoga, I was going through a stressful period in my life and still remember the feeling of calm and well-being that I experienced when I was able to slow down the thoughts racing through my mind long enough to catch my breath and try to put things in perspective.  The character Paloma seemed the perfect vehicle through which to introduce the topic and Mandy, of course, was the ideal student.

I’m sorry to hear your family experienced such a tragedy. I can definitely see how that experience could inspire your writing.

I haven’t had the opportunity to read Can You See Me Now, but I do know it’s about a thirteen-year-old girl whose father dies in a car accident and her mother blames her for it. At 13 (or there about) to which adult were you the closest?

I was a very shy child and at thirteen I was closest to my mother.  Because I was the youngest child in my family and my parents were old enough to be my grandparents, the fear of losing them seemed to always be in the back of my mind.  If my mother wasn’t there when I got home from school or from playing with my friends, I panicked.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Again, this is a hard question to answer because there are so many authors I admire, but I’d have to say Harper Lee ranks pretty high on my list along with Sandra Cisneros.  Although their work is very different, I find the characters so easy to relate to and the stories so hard to forget.

What’s the trick to writing humor?

I’m sure there is a trick to it and I suppose part of it is to be naturally funny.  I don’t set out to write humor, but because I do write about serious issues which can be hard to address when writing for a younger audience, I try to ease the tension by including bits of humor here and there as I weave the story.  The humor I use is based on things that tickle my own funny bone.

What does diversity mean to you?

Diversity to me is inclusivity.  I try to write about things that all readers can relate to regardless of their racial or social background because, no matter what other commonalities we may or may not share, there are certain things that we all have to experience at some point in life.

Speaking of diversity, I’m glad to see that the need for diversity in children’s literature is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.  Although the need has always been there, it’s great that diversity among the writing population is also changing, however gradually. 

Thanks, Estela! It’s a pleasure getting to know you!

Visit Estela’s website.

Interview: Patrick Flores-Scott

So many people have been commenting about how eager they are to read Jumped In that I thought an interview with author Patrick Flores-Scott might be a good thing. Jumped In is his first novel.
Macmillan, 2013

Sam has the rules of slackerhood down: Don’t be late to class. Don’t ever look the teacher in the eye. Develop your blank stare. Since his mom left, he has become an expert in the art of slacking, especially since no one at his new school gets his intense passion for the music of the Pacific Northwest—Nirvana, Hole, Sleater-Kinney. Then his English teacher begins a slam poetry unit and Sam gets paired up with the daunting, scarred, clearly-a-gang-member Luis, who happens to sit next to him in every one of his classes. Slacking is no longer an option—Luis will destroy him. Told in Sam’s raw voice and interspersed with vivid poems, Jumped In by Patrick Flores-Scott is a stunning debut novel about differences, friendship, loss, and the power of words.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a very small town called North Bend, in the Snoqualmie Valley, just east of Seattle Washington. It’s where the show “Twin Peaks” was shot.
Do you have any pets?
Not yet. My wife and I have two little boys and they have a bunch of stuffed animals. I’m quite certain there will be a dog in our not too distant future.
What do you enjoy watching on television?

My wife and I are seriously amped for the next installment of Sherlock. It’s too long of a wait. We got sucked into the soap opera that is Homeland and we watch Modern Family regularly. It feels like it’s time for something new, so if your readers have suggestions (any genre), we’re all ears.

Meat or vegetables? 
I have to say meat. Both of my grandfathers were meat farmers (sheep and cattle). I was destined to be a meat eater. However, I love grilled and roasted veggies.
Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?
I struggled to finish books as a kid. I could read, but I had some massive concentration issues. However, I loved reading the Sports section and reading sports biographies. I read one about Jim Thorpe and one about Pele that come to mind. I was fascinated by those guys. I had another book that had one or two page biographies of a bunch of American sports legends. I saved up for that one and bought it myself at B. Dalton. I kept it by my bed for a long time.

What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?

I’m totally into How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz, and Blasphemy, Sherman Alexie’s short story collection. I just got through a John Green marathon. I hadn’t read any of his books. Too popular, or something. I finally had to give in and see what the fuss was all about. I read The Fault in Our Stars, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska. I loved all three and they have me fully inspired heading into the re-write of my second novel. 

Would I be correct to assume you’re a big Nirvana fan? Their music played such a huge role in Jumped In.

I love Nirvana. But I didn’t really get into them until I was in my late thirties. I was actually in Seattle attending the University of Washington just as Nirvana was becoming big. I remember one of my best friends going to a show at the student union building dubbed “Four Bands for Four Bucks” and the next day telling me about this incredible band called Nirvana. I thought they sounded like amazing performers, but I just wasn’t into punk or loud music so I didn’t give them a chance. Years later a co-worker gave me Incesticide and that album got me going. I got Bleach after that and was hooked. 

Sam became a Nirvana fan pretty late in the process of writing Jumped In. A lot of editors were passing on the book, saying that they couldn’t connect to Sam. He was just too glum to like. So many kids these days love Nirvana the way kids were into The Ramones and Sex Pistols when I was in high school, so I kept the glum but gave Sam this passion that turned him into a character that folks seem to want to root for. After that re-write, the book sold pretty quickly.

Were you able to share any of parts of the book with your students? If so, what were their reactions?
In the beginning, I was teaching in the middle school that inspired the book. I almost exclusively shared Luis’ poems. I was a theatre major, so I’m a pretty enthusiastic reader of my own writing. I was never sure whether kids were engaged because of the writing or if they were just bemused by a whacky teacher getting all dramatic. 

After the book sold, I worked with elementary kids and did some lessons on accepting feedback. I showed kids my rejection letters and showed them how I took feedback from editors to improve my writing. Kids seemed pretty excited about the whole deal. 

I eventually got the opportunity to read portions of the book to older students again, as well. They had a lot of feedback on details I could add to make Sam more real. It’s neat to read to kids when they know things are still in play and that maybe their feedback might make it into the book. 

If you were to write another book about Sam how would his life change? Would his mom come back? Would he have deeper friendships or perhaps be composing music?

I spent some time feeling bad about what I did to Luis, and I thought that maybe I’d get the opportunity to write a version of the the story in which (SPOILER ALERT)     Luis makes it to the poetry slam and he and Sam are able to go on as friends.

I never really thought it through any more than that.

If I did write a sequel, yeah, I would love to see Sam go through the ups and downs of longer-term friendships with Julisa and maybe even Carlos. It’d be interesting to have him in a band with Rupe and Dave (maybe Julisa would be the lead singer?) and to have them go through the difficult process of rekindling these idealized boyhood friendships after having been apart for so long. There’s a lot to go on there. And I’d love to have song lyrics play a similar role (in this new awesome book you’ve encouraged me to write) as Luis’ poems in Jumped In. And you’re right, mom would have to come back. It’s too messy to not explore that relationship. 

So glad I could encourage you in that way! It is sounding so interesting!I

Is there a real life Ginny and Bill, or are they completely fictitious? As grandparents left to take care of their grandson, they seemed to be giving Sam just about everything he needed.
My sisters and I were raised by loving, present parents. We also had a grandmother who lived close by who was almost like a third parent. I think there’s a bit of her in Ginny and Bill. I wanted it to be difficult for Ginny and Bill to talk to Sam in a deep, emotionally honest way about his issues. At the same time, they are truly there for him. That felt true to my upbringing. I think Ginny and Bill were even more inspired by so many loving grandparents, I see as a teacher, who are raising their grandkids. The generation gap makes communication rough, but so many of them seem to make it work. Not what I envision for my retirement years. Ginny and Bill are thrust into a role that they didn’t choose, but they handle the role with a grace that I guess I would hope to have if I find myself in that position someday. Ginny and Bill, Cassidy, Carter, Luis’ mom, Graves… I admit, they’re all fairly idealized; they’re the kind of grownups I hope I could be someday. 

I couldn’ t help but look at the young man on the cover of Jumped In in that hoodie and think of Treyvon Martin in his hoodie. I think that hoodie is becoming a symbol for young men who we really don’t know, perhaps a generation we’re losing. Do you know how the hoodie got chosen for the cover?

jumpedinWhen writing  Jumped In, I wasn’t thinking of the hoodie as a symbol, but as a practical means for Sam to hide in school. After the fact, I can see it as the symbol the way you describe it, sure. I don’t know if the artist was thinking of Treyvon Martin, but I know that when I made sketches of the cover, years ago (it was looooong process from first draft to publication), it was always Sam and Luis standing there in their hoodies, their faces obscured. No one had heard of Treyvon at that point. I don’t want to hide from the fact that that connection is going to exist in people’s minds. I’m just pretty certain that the cover was based on the description of Sam in the book. 


Luis was there, but not there. Giving him a voice through the poetry really foreshadowed some of the ending. How difficult was it to create this character?
The book I set out to create was going to be a collection of poems written by a kid who has passed away, Luis. In the world of the book, everyone had thought/assumed Luis was a gangbanger and definitely not a poet.  Sam was just going to be the kid who found a box of Luis’ poems and his narration was just going to be, like, “I found this box of poems. They were written by Luis. I was moved by his poetry and the story it tells, and I wanted to share it with the world so you could get to know the real Luis, as opposed to the kid we’ve made all these assumptions about.” I had never written any sort of prose before, so I thought that that would be about all I could handle. Well, I started writing Sam and it turned out I liked writing prose as much as I liked writing the poems and pretty soon, it became clear that I was writing my first novel. At one  point after it had become a novel, there was a poem or two after every single chapter. Then the poems were judiciously trimmed and Luis became this stronger character, somehow. Luis is there but not there, but I still feel like this is his story, as much as it is Sam’s. He sees where his future is headed, and he makes this decision to bust out of the role he’s been playing and the role the community sees him in, and he makes Sam the sidekick that enables him to share his true identity to with the world. 

Luis, as a character, as a voice, came out of a bunch of kids who don’t want to be in gangs, but who don’t have/can’t see a better alternative. Being a teacher, I get the opportunity to see these kids as real, normal people with real, normal hopes and fears. And in the school where I was working, I got to see kids, including wannabe gangbangers and posers, read poetry in Ms. Cassidy and Ms. Christenson’s class poetry slams.

Thanks, Patrick, for such a nice interview! Good luck with Jumped In!

Interview: B. A. Binns

Barbara Binns, the award winning author of Pull , (Westside, 2010) has a new book coming out this month. It is one of only four young adult books written by an author of color that is released this month. (Yes, only four because Leitich-Smith’s and Bruchac’s books are both re-releases.) Here’s a chance to get to know Barbara before you go order her new book!


D77S0049 - 300DPIHi Barbara! Let’s start with a few short questions. Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the south side of Chicago and still live in the Chicago suburbs. Even though I have traveled and resided as far away as Washington D. C., I’ve always ended up returning home.

Then winter arrives, and I wonder what in the world is wrong with me, when I could be in Florida or southern California.

Roxi/aka' Dakarai'

Roxi/aka’ Dakarai’

Do you have any pets?
I acquired a dog over Christmas. I say acquired because she was neither a gift nor a purchase. She had been taken from a shelter by my adult niece as a present for her daughter who decided she didn’t really want a dog. After that she was shuffled to several relatives who all decided a dog was more trouble than they had bargained. I met her as they were deciding to return her to the shelter. To prevent, in my foolishness I agreed to take her for a one-week trial basis. She’s still with me. Honestly, she is well behaved, housebroken, doesn’t chew. She does bark a little too much, and pulls on the leash when we walk (she is strooong!) but, I’ve begun buying doggie toys and treats. We are attached and she has to stay.

What do you enjoy watching on television?
I am into the dramas. I loved the first episodes of The Following and I’m already addicted. I think I’m attracted to the show’s villain because there’s something in me that is fascinated by the idea of a super-psychopath against a wounded hero. 

My real guilty pleasure is the restaurant reality show, Kitchen Nightmares. It’s the only reality show I feel required to watch. I think it must be Chef Ramsey and the way he totally tells it like it is. As a side-effect, every time I eat out I worry about what is happening in the back of the restaurant.

Meat or vegetables?
Come on, meat. I need my protein.

Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?

I was a voracious reader, and I moved to the adult shelves at a pretty young age, so most of my favorites are adult books. I was seriously in love with books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein while still in elementary school.

 What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?
I just finished Holly Black’s curse worker trilogy: White Cat, Red Glove, and Black Heart. Its YA, paranormal, noir—a hero who can curse you with a touch having to decide between working for a mob family, the normal life of a curse worker, and the government which in his world isn’t really much better than the mob.

I’ve just started Strong Deaf by Lynn McElfresh, a story about two sisters, one deaf and one hearing, told in both voices.

 What is Being God about?

I have come to realize that almost everything I write is about family relationships. Theme-wise, Being God is about the effects of multi-generational substance abuse. The protagonist is Malik Kaplan who readiers will recognize as Pull’s villain. Pull showed him as a Being God newbully, with no respect for other people, including his parents and his girlfriend. Being God shows how he got that way.


Malik Kaplan is a former victim of bullies who now “gives back” by pushing others around. The Kaplan men have always been the top dogs at Farrington High School, and Malik is determined to make himself the worst of the worst. He also drinks, encouraged by his grandfather and uncle. Malik’s mother became the ultimate stay at home mother after an accident left her disfigured and unwilling to face the world. His father is an ACOA (adult child of alcoholics), who doesn’t understand boundary issues or how to be an effective parent, so he retreats into his work. Secretly, Malik and his father want to be close, but neither of them knows how.

 As Malik’s senior year winds down he is faced with the price of holding down the family legacy. He goes from the basketball court to a legal court after shouldering the blame for someone else’s crime. (He really didn’t think there would be much of a consequence.) Suddenly he loses his car and his place on the basketball team, and is faced with court-ordered community service shepherding an angry ten-year-old who hates the world. Next comes an “offer he can’t refuse” from the boy’s gang leader brother and an opponent he doesn’t want to fight. Barney, the fourteen-year-old girl from Pull is also in this story. She watched her alcoholic father abuse and murder her mother and now, she wants nothing to do with any bad boy, especially not one who thinks drinking is the way to forget his sins. 

Malik, Barney, and Malik’s father all have to come to terms with the meaning of friendship and of family as Malik spirals closer and closer to a bottom that could cost someone their life.

How did you come up with the title?

Some people have speculated that it’s because Malik is half Catholic and half Jewish (Hebrew Israelite). The original title was Badass, after the kind of person he thinks he wants to be. For a few months, that morphed into BAMF(I think I thought adults wouldn’t get the meaning). Then at some point I realized that part of my young alcoholic’s problem was a need to face his own reality, that he isn’t god, but he’s not the devil either. Both he and his father needed to accept the twelve steps of alcoholics anonymous (and of al-anon). Especially the first three steps:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become


2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to


3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we

understood Him.

The Being God title came to me when I realized the story’s epiphany involved both Malik and his father realizing that their attempts to keep control over their lives—to be God, so to speak—were accelerating their problems and destroying their hopes of a family relationship. As I tell people, Malik has to learn that he’s not God, and not the devil either and, the title stuck.

Pull did so well for you, yet you’ve gone the route of self publishing. What happened?

After my first publisher, Westside books, went out of business, my agent was unable to find a home for the next book. I could not even find someone willing to take a chance on re-issuing Pull, a book that won numerous awards and sold out its first printing. At one point an editor even suggested I change what I write about and make my stories more “commercial,” then they might be more interested. I tried, but changing my style did not seem right.  I write to attract reluctant and at-risk readers. Most big publishers want stories designed to attract the widest possible audience. I decided to found my own company, allthecolorsoflove press, and became a tiny, boutique, independent publisher.

I won’t sacrifice quality any more than I would sacrifice story-line and concept.  I hire editors for my projects, and I have worked with three so far. Eventually I may pick one to have a permanent relationship. I need an editor to call me out when necessary, because self-editing takes me only so far.

It’s not an ideal situation. I have limited distribution and exposure. But I did manage to sign with Follett Library Services and books and eBooks are available from both Amazon and my publishing website,

At least this way my books will get out of my head and into print. Even if they only influence one reluctant reader, I feel I have done my job. But I know I have done more than that. I have donated copies of Pull to a number of schools and libraries. I have just sent copies to a juvenile detention facility and to a local therapeutic day school, because I want to make sure that kids who can really use a good book have access to mine. During February I will be donating copies to a number of Chicago Public Schools. Reluctant readers do not make publishers rich, but they do give me great satisfaction.

Can you give examples of some of the more commercial changes you were asked to make?

There were two areas. First, one group wanted the book from the female POV. They felt that would sell better. Another group asked me to remove references to race, especially from the main characters. Their reasoning was that that way anyone could see themselves in more generic characters.  I listened and understood their reasoning. If this is all a numbers game, those are paths that would probably lead to bigger numbers. But my gut said no.

Now, interestingly enough, and it purely my own decision that it is best for this particular story, my current WIP is being told from an alternating male and female point of view.  But my goal is still to reach out to more than just the eager reader, to appeal to kids – especially boys – who normally see no reason to pick up a book for enjoyment. If that makes me less commercial, I have learned to live with that.

Pull was your first book?! What was it that made you sit down and write this story?

Pull was my first published book, but not my first manuscript.  I wrote two others before Pull, both adult books, both meant to be romances. One of those books featured a grown-up Barney and her overbearing and over-protective older brother, David. A number of my reading partners were curious about what made him the kind of man he was. At the same time, I attended the 2009 AWP conference in Chicago, and sat in on a panel of teens discussing why a lot of teen boys avoid reading.  My brain grabbed the opportunity thinking I could write about the forces that shaped David. By letting him tell his own story in his own voice, he helped attract other young men to read about him.

It seems like now that you’ve started writing, you’ve found a passion. What is it about writing that makes it so necessary for you?

I think it’s the same thing that made it necessary for me to devour every book in sight during my childhood and early adult years.  Reading helped me develop empathy and learn to really care about others, and to understand people different from me. Even more, it took me to places I could not get to by myself, showed me that more was possible, and made me want to strive to achieve it.

Retirement gave me the time and energy to actually create as well as consume.  It rurns out I had a load of stories and characters inside me, sometimes they barely let me sleep with their desire to live out their lives. It was either let them rattle around inside my head, or put them on paper.

It really is a passion. I actually tried putting things away, to give myself a break from writing. One month off, I told myself. Everyone deserves a vacation. That “break” lasted two weeks. Two incredibly long weeks during which I nearly bit my fingers off to keep them from writing. I think now I need to write, whether or not anyone ever reads what I create.  But I am determined to let people read it. That’s where the passion comes from, I want to reach kids, let them see themselves in the pages of a book.

Is there a particularly genre that you haven’t written yet, that is somewhat of a stretch for you, but that you might like to try in the near future?

I admit a yen to try a paranormal. I have been researching African mythologies, and would love to make a break from contemporary realistic to do a non-traditional paranormal story involving that pantheon.

Thanks, Barbara! It was a pleasure! I wish you much success with you new book!