Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode · 10 months ago

WB S1E22: Ron Block with Kristin Harmel, James Ponti, and Sarah Miynowski

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK: Ron Block and Kristin Harmel explore writing a book series for Middle Grade Readers with authors James Ponti and Sarah Mlynowski.

The last one. My target was 275-300 pages and it would turn out to be 430 I think so I only missed it by like 50% of my target. So I am greatly thrilled that kids still pick it up and go with it and go with it. Yeah, welcome to the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast for new york times, bestselling authors, one rock star librarian and endless stories join mary Kay andrews, Kristin, Harmel, Kristy Woodson, Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry along with Ron Block as novelists. We are four long time friends with 70 books between us and I am Ron block please join us for fascinating author interviews and insider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world you are in the right place. Welcome to a new episode of Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast on this episode. We're chatting with new york times, bestselling authors Sarah Malinowski and James Ponti, both of whom are hugely popular authors of middle grade series geared more towards kids between eight and 12. Sarah who's also written for adults and teens is the author of the whatever after series. And if you haven't gotten your kids turned onto this yet, they're gonna love it. They're gonna love it. She's also the co author of the upside down magic series which is now a Disney channel movie. James is the author of the framed Dead City and City Spy series as a librarian myself. I can tell you how enormously popular these two authors are with young readers. I see their books fly off the shelves and kids highly anticipating new releases. Were thrilled to have them both today. Talking with us about writing series for middle grade readers. I am round block and I'm Kristin Harmel. I'll add that Sarah and James who are longtime friends aren't just popular with young readers. They're also popular with other writers, booksellers and librarians across the country and across the world because their tireless advocates for getting Children interested in reading, especially in underserved communities, which is such important work. Sarah who hails from Montreal now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. James who grew up in florida is the father of two sons and is now along with his wife Denise, an empty nester living in downtown Orlando. Both are new york times bestsellers and both are kind Extraordinary human beings who are wonderful when it comes to sharing pieces of themselves with young fans. First up today is Sarah, who I've known since 2005 when we were both writing romantic comedies in what feels like a completely different phase of our lives. Welcome to the podcast Sarah, Hi, thank you so much for having me. What a lovely intro. Sarah. First up, can you tell us a bit about the whatever after series and the latest installment, good as gold. We love them, we love that. We love the angle, we love the theme of the mall. How did they get started? Tell us all about them. Of course. Well there are I think there's 17 books and whatever after series now. So in the series Abby and her brother Jonah fall into different fairy tales, mess them up and then have to help the characters find new happy endings. And I started writing this series because I always loved fairy tales as a kid. I used to you know read them all the time, I used to retell them all the time. I used to change little details when I was a kid I would tell the story of the princess and the pea but I wasn't really a fan of vegetables so I would tell you that um that was like yeah here you know so I definitely always change them. And...

...then when I became a mom I started reading my daughter Chloe the fairy tales and what I realized was that well I love fairy tales, I hated the endings of these fairy tales because they were all about princesses being saved by princes. And so I thought well what if I change these fairy tales and give them more empowered endings and I have a regular girl who became Abby falling into these fairy tales fracturing them and then helping these princesses find different endings ones where they don't necessarily have to marry the prince if he's a great guy and they love him fabulous they can get married or they can start meeting. But if he's not or if they want to do something else instead and that they can follow their passions. So that became the idea behind whatever after I love it. Oh, good, thank you. Well, Good as Gold is the latest one in this series and I'm forgetting I'm gonna look at my book, it's book 14 in this series. There are two special editions also and I just finished writing books 17. So in book 14, Good as Gold Abby and Gianna fall into the story of the three bears, Goldilocks and the three Bears. But this is actually the first book where she there's a two in one because when I started to tell authors and other people that I was writing a book called Good as Gold and I asked them to guess what fairy tale, I was fracturing Shannon Messenger on a panel, actually said, oh you must be doing Rumpelstiltskin and I said, no I'm not, I'm doing Goldilocks and the three bears. And so then I thought well if she thinks that maybe other people will do, so maybe I'll have a two in one instead. And so they Start falling into goldilocks and then the story ends up being Rumpelstiltskin as well. So it's the first time in 16 books that they have to fairy tales instead of one bonus bonus time after book 16, I think when did you know that you were onto something with this series because it really has been very popular. Thank you. Well, you know what, I had this idea for so long and I knew what I wanted to do and to play with and I knew I wanted to do something about fairy tales, that as soon as I started writing and I knew I felt it was something different and special, it was also my first middle grade series, but before then I had written about 20 books already, so it's my first time writing for an 8 to 12 audience. I started off in adults as I said before, where Kristin and I used to do romcom stuff together, I believe I even blurred your first book, you did it right on the cover? Absolutely, that was a lifetime ago. Um and then I wrote why? And then I just knew, I also wanted to write for younger kids and I think it really started to take off probably, I think it hit the new york times list with book five, so that's what yeah, that is so it took a, it was a slow build, but then it took off, so that was that was wonderful, congratulate you. New york times was for the first time, I think it was booked 25. So sometimes it takes a long time, awesome. That's interesting. You know, it took me until gosh, how many books in was it 12 books in, but over a decade to to hit the new york times list for the first time. So yeah, you just wait it out long enough overnight sensations. Exactly. And I think because I also, I just had my first movie last year for a different middle grade series that I ran. I ran a series called upside down Magic and there was also like book 40 I finally have a movie hurry which is that was a lot of fun too. So my mind must be right on its way right my movies right around the corner from following the Sarah plan can't wait. So Sarah, as I mentioned, you started off 20 years ago writing romantic comedy for adults, just like I did um can you talk a little bit about your road from that through young adult novels to what you're doing now. Yeah, for sure. Well it's interesting is my 20 year anniversary from my first book, Milk Brown is into this december, so it really is 20 years wow published and of...

...course my life has changed in so many ways. So at the time when I'll tell you a little bit about how I got into writing, I was always a novelist, I always knew I wanted to write but I studied english literature McGill in Montreal and then I knew I wanted to write but I also thought, okay well I need a job that actually pays the rent. So I decided to get into publishing and I I interned at a Children's publisher in Montreal, the only one um Lobster press which I don't think it's still around anymore. And then I moved to Toronto which is the center of Canadian publishing and took courses in publishing and ended up getting a job. Well first at a bookstore, Children's bookstore, Mabel's fables, while I was still taking classes and then I got a job in the marketing department at Harlequin Enterprises which was based in Toronto and I was in the marketing department and I loved my job, I got to come up with you know uh cover concept ideas and marketing plans for all these amazing books with titles such as um The Virgin Bride said wow, I believe that was I ever worked, Virgin. Uh wow was in quotes just in case you're wondering uh but I love the people there, I love the company, I had a great time. And while I was there they were launching a new series of books called Red dress Ink right, which you know Wilkerson. And then um from these books they were looking for 20 something authors to write these books and it was new, it was chick lit, it was Bridget jones Diary Sex in the City and that wasn't what they had published before. So I remember seeing you know everyone talking about these books and thinking to myself this is what this is my in I want to do this. Um this is my chance. So I started writing about my own, you know, bad dates, I was single and 23 I just finished college and I and my then boyfriend had just gone backpacking to Australia and broken up with me and I thought I'm just writing my story about a girl who works at a romance publisher, but I called it Cupid instead. Um and I just started writing about these experiences and of course fictionalizing everything. And when I finished um I sold it to Harlequin under the registering umbrella and then I became, I started writing full time, I got a multi book contract and then I knew I loved writing chick lit, but I always wanted to write for younger readers, that's when I first fell in love with reading, that's what I wanted to capture. That was kind of all, always my my dream. So I started working on bras and broomsticks, which was my first y a novel about a girl who finds out that her little sister is a witch and that she is not and she was not happy about that. Um And then I was writing an adult book a year and 18 book year and I left Harlequin too right full time and I sold that new series to random house and then I just became a full time writer and I ended up moving to new york. My then boyfriend, the same boyfriend by the way who had broken up with me to backpack through Australia, But we got back to wheeler and then we ended up moving to new york and I became a full time writer. That's amazing. And so I know you still, in addition to writing your middle grade books now, you also write for young adults and I know you just had just a boy and a girl in a little canoe come out recently, which is such a great title. What appeals to you about writing for that age group in addition to writing for middle grade readers. Is it kind of stretching different writing muscles when you're when you're writing for each group? Yes, although to be honest, I haven't written another way a right now, I'm really focusing on middle grade. So my last weigh probably came out about two years ago and I haven't written another one since I think I'm really focusing on the younger readers right now. For me, I feel like I'm so far from the y a space and middle grade, I have two kids who are two daughters who are very much in that age range now too and it's a lot of fun for me to stay in that for the first time. I'm dabbling in other things too. And I live in L. A. Now, so I'm playing around with screenplays and you know, other producing stuff and doing other things also. Um and part of...

...me also wants to maybe one day go back to writing adult now that I've had, I haven't been an adult in so long because I went from adult to then doing adult and teen and then I stopped adult tina middle grade and now I'm mostly middle grade, but now maybe I want to go full circle and start writing, you know, mom lit maybe or something like that last round an adult book. I've had, you know, I've got married and had two Children. I've moved twice. I've had all these experiences and I would like to and they're hilarious. But uh yeah, capture them in fiction at some point. So I'm not sure what that is. But I mean, I love all of them and they are different writing muscles, but for me, my voice, I feel like stays very consistent in all of them. And I play with going, you know, in all, in all these different age groups I play with. Um they're all basically fun stories about, you know, girls or women in different parts of their of their lives and the way I think the way that I look at the world is the same in all of them. Kind of, I try to, I try to make them amusing. They're a little venturi um their comic novels about women and you know, as someone as someone who's read you for years and loved your writing for years. I absolutely agree. I mean, you know, you know, when you're picking up one of your books that you're going to get that same kind of journey and, and there's a very Sarah malinowski field to everything you write. Thank you, I guess. Well stretching beyond that, one of the things we wanted to talk to both you and James about today is getting kids interested in reading, which we know can be a daunting task at times. But I think it's the series is really crucial for that because kids get hooked on one and then they want them all. I've seen kids stuff, you know, check out a whole stack of the same thing cause they can't wait and they beat him up so fast. But you're also a co founder of OMG Book fest, a celebration of books that are aimed at the early to middle grade readers. And it brings together commercial and award winning authors with underserved local communities. Can you talk a little bit about that initiative and why peaking the kids interest in books at that early age is so crucial for sure. So that OMG started about five years ago and maybe six years ago at this point and we decided that we really wanted to go into different communities. Bring middle grade authors have fun with these kids and also to work with title one schools to get kids book. So when we would go into, we started actually in columbus Ohio was our first book festival and we partnered with a school there. Um, and we brought in different kids and we were able to get grants in order for every kid in the school to have fun and games with these authors and to meet these authors in real life and then to also take home a book from one of these authors and to get it signed as well. And then as the festival grew, we moved to a different city every year. And so the first, the first year was just a small book signing. And I think 11 authors and the school day event, which was the scent was really the, like the best part, you know, getting in front of all these kids and doing these activities all day. And then the next year the public event group. Uh, you know, to a few, having get in front of a few 100 people and getting in front of, I think it was like 1000 kids in the title one school. And then also we added on an educator day as well. So every year it's grown a little bit and it's just, it's become this amazing experience. Last year we did it virtually, which was different, but we still got to speak to kids across the country, which was, it was different. It was, it was Chicago based. So we catered it to Chicago schools, but other kids across the country well and there teachers were able to tune in as well, Nice, nice and, and it gives so much to those kids who may not have that opportunity any other way. But you really specifically target the underserved communities. Why is it so important to engage those kids in particular? Well, I just think that those kids don't necessarily, I have had the same experiences or have the same access to books over the years. And I think that what we want to do is...

...to make sure that these kids realize that they have a voice and that their voice is valid and they have a story. And these are the tools we teach writing in a lot of these activities as well. So they realize that their voice is important and this is how you use it. And then like these authors, we bring in authors, um, you know, of all ethnicities and we want kids to see themselves in the books and in the author's speaking to them. Nice, that's amazing. It really is awesome, right? It is Sarah, you've also co written a number of books with Lauren Miracle and Emily Jenkins who also writes as E Lockhart. Can you talk a little bit about the upside down magic series and what it's like to write for kids with two of your friends. Absolutely. I have co written a lot of books and it's been a lot of fun. Uh, so we started outside of magic because we wanted to write together, we had written the three of us had written a book called How to Be Bad for teenagers, and we we actually met on Myspace, which some people may remember. Yes. And so we started to talk, we thought we would be really fun to write a book together. And so we would love different chapters at each other. We each had a character and we would yeah, we would each write our character and then thrown adventure towards the next person. Actually, Kristen you took us to Disney. I remembered when we were when we the three of us were researching this book, but a whole section based in Disney at Disney, and you brought us to Disney. And it was amazing when you learned so much in that whole section ended up books. So, thank you for that. Um we enjoyed writing way so much together that we thought we would really right, we would have a great time writing middle grade together too. And we worked with our editor and it's, you know, our structure and how we've done it has changed a few times over the years. When we wrote How to Be Bad, we each had a character was three alternating perspectives, and we would each own that character would each right? And then the next person would, you know, write the story from the other person, the other characters perspective, but with how to be with them upside down magic. When we started it was mainly one character and the way that we did it was that we divided it up so that at first I was in charge of the outline. So I would do all the outlining of the book. Lauren Miracle would do the first draft and then Emily would do the revision so that we each had our own rule and our jobs and that's kind of how we structured it. And then after about book five we decided that we were a little bit bored of that and we met we did it a little bit differently was that we would each do like an hour day. So we would all outlined together, we would all revised, we would all write the first draft so that we just wanted to mix things up to keep things fresh and fun and that was a really fun way to do it too. But we were not all in the same room writing. We've all been in different cities, Emily was in Brooklyn, I've been in L. A. And Lauren was in colorado. So we did it all of the internet and WhatsApp and uh themselves. I love that. Um God, this has been so fun. But finally Sarah, I have one last question for you. We have a lot of listeners who are parents and grandparents, we've talked about the importance of young readers getting hooked on reading. But what are some of the tips or advice that you have for these parents and grandparents to get their kids interested. I would say get them books that they are interested. Do not try to force them to read books that you read when you were a child because they will sit there on the bedside table and never be read some tips and tricks I've learned with my own daughters too is that my older one is a huge you know, she loves audiobooks, that's what she loves to listen to and those are a great way into books and so our graphic novels don't be afraid of graphic novels. I've got a lot of parents are very nervous and uncomfortable with it but honestly it is reading and it will also get kids you want them to get used to reading every night and to love books and graphic novels are fantastic. My own daughter, my little one is reading the Wings of Fire series right now in graphic novels and she listens to them too. And then she'll also read some of the books too. So it's a great way for...

...them to try different things. That's awesome. Great advice. Well Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today. Wait for april when your next whatever after novel. Just Dance hits bookstores. It was so nice chatting with you today, Sarah, thank you so great hearing about your career in books. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Mm Next up we welcome new york times, best selling author, James Ponti to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast James. It is so great to have you with us. It is greater for me this is a thrill of we talk to you guys and I'm very excited almost as excited as we are. But let's start off by you telling us a little bit about your City spies series in general but also your latest installment, City spies Golden Gate. Okay um City spies is a spy series as you might guess from the title, it is about five kids from around the world who have all been adopted by this. Um an M. I. Six agent during his travels on missions that don't want to spoil too much about why he's out there. He comes across kids in need sometimes and he can't turn his back on them. And so he raises them as a family of spies because he knows no better and in my six uses them in situations where adults would stand out you know so it's like a place where You know kids can blend in a little bit better and and that is the ideal of the of the series. The first book took place in Paris with the threat of the virus release which of course I wrote before I knew we were going to have a virus around the world. The 2nd 1 is um Search for City spies. Golden Gate is the most recent one to come out and that is the search for a mole in M. I. Six an investigation of an agent's death that takes us to san Francisco which is really fun and in february, the newest one comes out. It's called city spines, forbidden city. And it takes place in London, Beijing and Moscow and tons of fun writing about these places up in the pelvis. I usually visited all the places and to try to do research and and it's it's really great fun to write and it's been great to connect with kids over these adventures. Yes. And I'll say is a librarian that you think that maybe the books that are this thick are not going to appeal to these kids, but they eat them up and they can't wait for the next one in the series to come out. And I love It. I, you know, I was a very reluctant reader growing up. Um I struggled with this and still to a great degree struggle with the speed of how much I read. And so I always gravitated to short books and it's always my intention to write a shorter book. And when it comes to like the last one, my target was 275, two, pages and it would turn out to be 430 I think. So I only missed it by like 50% of my target. So I am greatly thrilled that kids still pick it up and go with it and go with three characters are so relatable to them and they can find somebody that is like them a little bit whether anyway, it's, they're just amazing, the kids just just relate to them so well and you know, Ron you and I were talking with Sarah a little bit about kids who walk into the library and walk out with a huge stack of books and the nice thing about a book, like what James writes is you don't have to walk out with, You know, 17 books on your baby in your arms, you essentially have a few books within one, they're just such such sweeping plots, they're fantastic. Um so, James you and I had lunch a couple weeks ago, which was such a pleasure. I so enjoyed spending some time with you and you were telling me a little bit about your path into what you're doing now, including working on Children's television shows, which is so cool. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and why you've always felt so drawn to creating stories and engaging content...

...specifically for kids? Um first of all, let me say that I have name dropped you in that once numerous times to get it if we get together, but you know, an actual like grown up writer, writing for grown up readers was just a real thrill to share with them all. Um you know, I was a reluctant reader who always loved writing and so because of that, I gravitated to script writing and as late as my senior year of high school, I was gonna major either in playwriting or I was gonna major in screenwriting and I decided to major in screenwriting, I went to college that it was just southern California and studied film for four years and that was great for me. One of the things I always loved about movies and tv shows was the same length for everyone, so, whereas I was always behind people on books, the movie is the movie and we can all talk about it after. So I started writing, but for whatever reason my, my skill set, my, I was drawn to writing for kids and so I started the Disney channel, Nickelodeon immigrated over to PBS and and did these kids shows and I always loved doing that and um later in a professional, so that was my first professional life and my second professional life, I produce tv shows for like History channel and CNN and NBC sports and and that was, that was fun, but I missed the writing part because I always, so at night I would write and since I had written kids television it just seemed to make sense to write kids books and so that's what I tried to do and amazingly it worked out and now I am just writing for the last year now, I have only been writing books and has been such a thrill um I feel bad because it's at this time when the whole world is shutting down but it was actually the time when I was just moving into my office anyway. So it has been um okay I think what I like about kids writing is that kids love a story more than than any adult. I know and they reread and reread and reread. I had kids tell me they've read some of my books 12 times which seems ridiculous. I haven't read them that I had, I had a kid this past week. Um I just did 10, 10 schools in outside of austin texas a whole week of school visit and as one girl came up to me afterwards and and asked if she could take a picture and if I would sign her books to her and her father because they read them together and the librarian told me that she was a virtual student. So she was only attending school virtually. But when her parents asked if she could come to the in person visit the school said unfortunately she couldn't because of the policies of the district. And so her parents arrived that morning and they enrolled her virtual student for the rest of the year because you can't take it back and then changed it just because she was so hopeful to meet me and talk to me about these books that meant so much to her and I felt really unworthy, incredible of that. But that's why I like to write for kids kids, some kids love the books enough that she was able to talk her parents into changing the decision they had made and it is touching. And it's also, I feel an incredible responsibility to the kids who read the books, knowing what books mean to them, wow, what a story. No, and that's the whole thing right there, that the kind of things that let us know we're doing the right things. Yes. And and and then very much and they take the edge off of a lot of your minor complaints in life. It's like, okay, that's right, this is kind of special work I get to do working with kids and you know, I usually don't get to meet them, but when you meet...

...them, it's special. Yeah, it really is one of the things I was impressed by is how many school visits you actually do. And especially during the last year we have switched kind of your visits to a virtual format and did an amazing job with kids everywhere. Can you talk about why it's important to connect with kids in any way possible, especially virtual and really go ahead. No. Yeah, it is an essential part of being a middle grade fiction author is to visit schools and this is not something, you know, coming into it. It's important for the publishers because the publishers, it's how you get the word out. You know, we don't communicate with kids directly that you go to schools and they come there and but it is so crucial because when it's a two way street when I go I feel like I am an ambassador for the world of kid lit. So we're going to talk about my books but I'm not really talking about my books, I'm talking about Sarah's books are our Friends to our max is I'm talking about books and I'm the representative sent because usually the school will get one author visible here and I'm there to tell them how a life of storytelling has changed my life. The value of reading that took me around the world both imaginatively and figured literally and so that's part of it. But Covid made it impossible. And then all of a sudden Covid opened up all these opportunities we never had before. I was I was able to throw out a contest and say all right so if you want to have a visit to your school, how about a visit with me and Stuart gibbs who write spy school and Beth Mcmullen who writes Mrs smith's School for spies. Girls, you know and all three of us can come together even though we're spread across the country. And so that has been the new take on the virtual visits and then this past week going back in person and I'm gonna try to do a mixture of those moving forward. I think a virtual component is probably in all of our futures because the reach is just so huge. Well you know what else everyone has gotten over, you know, I have to say when it was just Skype and you were trying to re figure out how to do it each time and some of the schools didn't have it somewhere, what has happened with zoom and the fact that we all have to use it and we all have to use Microsoft teams or whatever it is, the different school districts use is we've gotten over that initial phobia and instead of doing the same visit, but now I'm home when you're there, I think a lot of realize, wait a minute you're now in the office where I write. So why don't you just go on my screen, pull up my, my corrections that just came in from my editor and you can read along with me as I show you what she changed or here are the photos that I took on my trip to Alcatraz that were part of the research for that and they can see my screen and they can see them up close and I can show videos and it really has opened up a new way of connecting with kids. Absolutely, absolutely. And we um we talked to Sara a little bit about your involvement with OMG book fest, which is another great way to reach out to kids and to connect with them. Why is it so important to connect with those kids? It is I I think it is always important, but I think now maybe more so than usual is I think there is a lot of separation anxiety going on. I think there's a lot of, you know already middle middle middle school authors are all people who struggle to middle school and the whole point of it is, you know, we're going back and we're revisiting these troubling times in part if we can figure them out. But in part, I'll tell kids sometimes, I feel like our books really are maps of how to make it navigate middle school and navigate these Tween years or early teen years that it can be so confusing...

...and which so much of media is giving them mixed messages are asking them to be older than they should be. And I feel like we, by connecting to them not just on the page but in an environment where we can laugh together or cry together and you know, we used to do all those things that we have a school visit or a virtual visit is that there's a person behind the books and I think that's really the most important thing of that is when I grew up. I imagine that you know, if you were a writer, you went to some fancy school in the northeast and and you live in new york or maybe Chicago or maybe L. A. And I love coming here. I live in Orlando and I'll tell kids, I'll show kids picture of two students I go here are two students that love reading and they say you can relate to them because they live here. And I say the names of the schools they're at and I tell them I go, you know, they go to the same grocery store you go to and oh by the way, this one's name is kate DiCamillo and this one's name is john green. And after they were these kids in your neighborhood, they grew up to be the writers who everyone listens to doing all the same things you do. So if you think that some distant, far off thing because you only see books at a bookstore or a library, I'm here to tell you that it's not the case. There are writers everywhere amongst us and we don't come from fancy backgrounds. Oftentimes it's the opposite. Oftentimes it's the, you know, we come from the background where the fact that we were willing to, it's like an even playing field and we all can do it. And so anyway, I'm rambling. I don't mean to ramble, but you're touching on subjects that are here to buy art and I come through, I want them to feel like whether they want to be a writer or not that their story matters. Their voice matters and they can share that the song they can share in a poem. They can share it on social media. They can share a blog however they want but it matters and this is not the exclusive realm of the 2%. This is the realm of everyone so well said, oh my God, absolutely. You know and James, I think I know the answer to this, listening to you talk about it. But do you think you've grown as a result of having all this exposure to these kids being able to interact with them and realize? Okay, absolutely. And you know, it is, I've grown in some with that lesson that we learn that is so valuable in these age. You know, my books are in theory aimed at 9 to 13 but I think the spread is much bigger than that. But in that eight or 9 to 13 and even through high school, which is we are trying to hide our differences and so many of our problems come from trying to hide our differences and the celebration of writing and creativity is that know the differences are that's the commodity. That's the great thing because you're in an odd way, the more you share your unique. Like I can't believe this silly stupid thing happened to me or that I'm guilty of this. The more people say, wait, I do that I do that and they connect, I did a school visit again last week and it was, it was there was a rough, it was, it wasn't perfect. It was, it was late and the kids were anxious and some were wrapped and some were not wrapped and I talked about, you know, I showed them through my journey through life and how that affects my writing. And you know, I should have a picture of my family when I was little and they all noticed instantly that there's no father. And I said, you know, I've never met my father. I don't know, I don't know if he's alive and he's dead. I don't really care at this point, but I've lived a life without that and I bring that up not to make you feel bad for me, but to know if you read city spies or framed or dead city, you'll notice there are, there are family members missing in all these books. That is...

...just something I'm working out. I'm doing whatever. And the kid who literally had been the most disruptive all through the class came up to me afterwards and said, my dad's been in prison for years and I've never really been with him to talk to him. And so I appreciate that you mentioned that and I said, no, I appreciate that you told and all of a sudden it's like, so that was worth it to me. And so that growth is, there was a part of me maybe earlier on, if I was in front of the group and one kid was acting up, I would probably be like kid is driving me. Uh and here it's like, no, you know, that that kid's got an issue, I bet. And there's a reason. And so I'm just, you know, and then let's meet with love in the middle of like, okay, we have that in common. Who would have thought coming in? Would you? All right? I would've because I've seen it happen. But was your thought coming in that the person who wrote the book that you're about to hear about what on such a base level connect with you and that's just really learn. I I learned a lot. And the other thing I learned, you mentioned these kids check out these huge thick books and I want a dollar. They are so smart. And but I I was I was lucky. I was nominated for the editor a couple of times and I go up and it's a whole week of events and everyone's kind of fascinating is like, well you're right for kids and we all write murder mysteries. I said, well, I don't get to write murder mysteries because you don't kill people and kids mysteries. I go, well, what do you what do you change that? That's the only change that my clients are just as complicated, you know, because the kids keep up with it. They really keep up with it and they're smart and they get so much out of it. And their questions are enlightening and out of left field and you do. I feel like I've learned a lot from them, wow, those connections are so special. Amazing. Yeah, and I think those kids have learned so much from you too. It's it's it's amazing when it can go both ways. I absolutely, absolutely it does. So James we, since we're talking about middle grade series today, I know you've written three series uh maybe have probably have more in you in the future, but so far it's just last week, my hope to be next series exciting. Oh, I can't wait to hear about it. Wait, wait, I know, I'll get another another lunches in order. I say so far you've written the City Spy series which are still working on the frame series and the Dead City series. Why does series appeal to you instead of standalone books for readers at age? I I think it must come from my background in series television. So, so my education was script writing in school and then my edge to professional experience. Education was series writing where the dynamic is really different. You're not setting up a character for the most significant moment of their life, which is maybe how you if you say a movie, but um you are developing characters who can deal with multiple issues over time and the reader is going along with it. So I feel like I think I naturally think in that way um from a business standpoint, it's kind of nice to know when they sign off, it's like, okay, so for the next 23 years at least I'm gonna be working with these characters so I can really get my head into them and research them. And I have found, especially during Covid, there's a sizable portion of our readership that flocks the series. And you know, I think when when panics were kids were at home and it's like, well you like this one, there's three more. I'll get it, you know about these two has nine...

...books in this, in his bicycle series and you know, I'm like, keep going to do you know, I think, you know, lisa Graff is an author who writes standalone books in our age group and they're beautiful and lovely, wonderful and she does that great. And so she she links to that, Renee Watson does that. But you know, so I think, I think it's just kind of a in you as to which path attracts you. Yeah, I wish I could do that. I've always wished that I could write a series and I just, I don't, I don't, I don't have it in me. Maybe I just haven't figured out how to do it yet. But you do it so well and what an incredible thing to do. Well, I'm wondering your books? So do you feel like your basic on real life places? Yeah. Do you feel like they're interconnected. Like in theory they are part of the horrible universe that connects all, you know Roland or or perish or like someone on that train might be that character. You know, I'm actually that is a plot point in my next book. There is a connection to my previous book. So you're right. You know, I like this idea of the harmful universe. Let's, let's a future a well sign me up for any of it. Finally James with the holiday shopping season already in progress. Believe it or not, can you talk to our listeners about why books make such special gifts for the Children in our lives and why getting them hooked now on series like yours and Sarah's can make a big difference in their lives. I would say that First of all, I greatly appreciate anyone that buys one of my books. You know, that's and and then the greatest honor to me is anyone, especially a kid who spends the time necessary to read 350 or 400 big or whatever have a book. But I don't, I don't care if you buy my books and my publishers want to hear that buy books, it's finally the books that are right for the kid because I think we are now and depending on how old the listeners are that if they're old like me, there was little limits that there was a, there were great kids books out. But there was a lot of mediocrity and there was very little representation. Uh, but I'm not just talking about race or religion, but I didn't that one of the reasons I wasn't a good reader was I didn't connect to anything other than star receivers of the NFL because I kind of knew some of their from television. What's great about books is, you know, a book can be shared, A book can be treasured, A book can be saved, A book can be passed along. There's so many things. It's a tangible real thing and a book can take us anywhere. Uh even even when we're trapped inside, even when there's covid, even when there's, you know, listen that you can go anywhere, whether it's some wimpy kid or dork Diaries or graphic novel or a serious topic or a fun adventure or or whatever. They are just incredible that way. When I when I when I used to not sign enough books. Now, luckily now I sell enough books, I just signed my name because there's not enough time when I used to because there's no one else in line. We've got 40 minutes to kill here at the star. I would write the secrets of the universe are in books, read and you can do and be anything and I believe that is so true. And what I do like about what we do and what I aspire to do and try to do is my books have fun and adventure and humor and some real connection. But also there is, I write about real things and when you write in action comedy and all that stuff, you kind of get to slip in real things that matter. And and that's really special. I do a ton of research on my books for the...

...newest book. I think I told Kristen about this. Actually the past director of the C. I. A. His wife is a librarian and he met with me on the phone to discuss all my spy missions to make him angry. But I know that there are 12 year old spies. So I feel like what I owe it to my readers is what they're doing isn't real. But how who they are to each other is straight out of your life with your friends or your enemies and your frenemies or your classmates and it's real and sharing that ability with kids to be able to examine real things while still being entertained to be able to use a present over and over if they want to read it over. It's just you know, it's all I've given for years or books and anyone wants a list of what to go. You know, ask the PS Ron as you know, ask your librarian, ask your independent book. So there's so many people who can help you find the right book. Um we also have another site that Sarah and I are part of If you go to James party dot com, that's my website, has my books, but renegades. A middle grade dot com is a group of 32 middle grade authors. And if you like any one of us, you're gonna like the other 31. I guarantee that it's such a great group and there are so many ideas. So give a book, the male Easy. They there's so much easier to wrap most presents. It really perfect gift. You are absolutely right and green. There is no better note to end on books. Make perfect gifts especially for kids who need to find themselves in those books. So James thank you so much for being with us today. You know, I adore both you and Sarah and we are so excited that readers will have the chance to check out not just city spies Golden Gate, but also your new book in the series which you mentioned city spies, forbidden city which is coming in february. It was so great having you here with us today, James. It's great being here, it's my honor. And one thing you said that I would like to reiterate, there's that saying that people love which is you get lost in the book and I totally disagree. I think you get found in a book. You give a kid that book and they don't get lost, they get found and it's a life forever. I was a kid who never read but I read one book of the mixed up files of mrs basically frank Wyler. That book changed my life forever in here. That book is Amazing. You can do it for $12 paperback in Harappa. Thank you so very much for having me. Thank you. Oh my God, this was great. We can't thank James and Sarah enough both for joining us and for doing the important work of not only writing wonderful exciting series for young readers, but also going that extra mile to engage with those readers as a librarian. I see firsthand both how difficult it can be to engage young readers but also how important and rewarding both James and Sarah are doing more than just writing great books. They're changing lives and helping shape the future. And that's something we can all get behind to all of you out there. We hope that you'll dive into Sarah's whatever after series and James city spies series, both of which make excellent gifts for the young readers in your lives. And both of which you can find in most libraries across the country to you can learn more about Sara at Sarah M dot com. That's S A R A H with an M right after it and more about James that James Ponti dot com and that's P O N. T. I. Thank you all for tuning in to their friends and fiction writer's block podcast. If you're enjoying our conversations, please tell a friend, we'll see you next time. Remember you can always find all the books by every Friends and fiction writer's Block podcast. Guest past and present in the Friends and fiction bookshop dot org. Shop All sales place there helped to fund Friends in fiction. And a portion of each and every sale goes straight into the pockets of indie booksellers nationwide. Since its inception, bookshop dot org has raised...

...more than 16 million for indie bookstores, shops, small shop local from the convenience of your screen with bookshop dot org and tell them friends and fiction sent you. Thank you for tuning in to the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast platform, tune in every friday for another episode. And you can also join us every week on Facebook or YouTube where our live friends and fiction show airs at seven p.m. eastern standard time. We're so glad you're here. Mhm.

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