As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, middle-grade novelists Elizabeth Bunce (How to Get Away with Myrtle), Hena Khan (Amina’s Song), and Angie Smibert (The Truce) discussed their new stories of girls finding their voices and using their wits to solve mysteries, overcome challenges, and bring people together.
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, Book No Further.
“[In Premeditated Myrtle,] a saucy, likable heroine shines in a mystery marked by clever, unexpected twists.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[Amina’s Song is] written as beautifully as Amina’s voice surely is, this compassionate, timely novel is highly recommended for all.”—Booklist, starred review
“Smibert packs a lot into the story… her characters and setting are fully evoked, and her language is both thoughtful and precise. [She] has a talent for ghost stories. A satisfying conclusion to a worthy series.”—Kirkus Reviews
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to Girls in the World: Middle-Grade Fiction, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, Book No Further, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work, at VaBook.org/give. Also, we appreciate the help of our community partners in sharing this event. Thank you.
Now, I’m very pleased to introduce our speakers. Elizabeth Bunce, author of the Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery Series, lives in Kansas City with her husband and their cats. Premeditated Myrtle, is her first book for middle grade readers. Hena Khan, author of Amina’s Song, is a Pakistani-American writer. She is also the author of middle-grade novels, Amina’s Voice and More to the Story, as well as a number of picture books. She lives in her hometown of Rockville, Maryland. Angie Smibert, author of The Truce, lives in Roanoke, Virginia. The Truce is the third novel in her middle grade Ghosts of Ordinary Objects Series. The first book, Bone’s Gift, won a 2019 Whippoorwill Award for rural young adult fiction. She teachers for Southern New Hampshire University’s MFA program, as well as for Indiana University. And our moderator, Hannah Barnaby, is a children’s book author and creative writing instructor. She holds an MA in Children’s Literature, and an MFA in Writing for children and young adults. Her recent books include The Monster and Boy chapter book series. She lives in Charlottesville with her family. Thank you all for joining us today. Hannah, take it away.
HANNAH BARNABY: Thanks Sarah. Welcome, Hena and Elizabeth and Angie. I’m excited to have this chance to talk with you today about your books and about middle grade fiction and about girls in middle grade fiction specifically. It’s, I think, a very strange time to be in publishing, but it’s also, in some ways, a really exciting time especially in writing for this age group. So I’m really excited for the chance to have this conversation. I thought for those who haven’t read your books, or even for those of us who have read your books but haven’t heard you read your books, it would be nice to start with a little bit of reading from each of you, to give everyone a sense of the feel of your book, and who your main character is. Angie, would you be willing to go first?
ANGIE SMIBERT: Sure, I’d be glad to read from my latest one, The Truce. And now, I need to set this up a little bit. It is the third one in a trilogy, which starts with Bone’s Gift and Lingering Echoes. And in this book, it’s set in 1942 in a small coal mining village in the New River Valley. And the main character, Bone Phillips, has this special gift where she can touch an object and see the ghosts inside of it. And she’s using in each book to solve a different mystery, both personal and out in the community kind of mystery. But, The Truce, I’m going to read you the scary bit. This is where she and her friends are out, on a stakeout, and they know that something has happened at a particular spot outside the mine, after a body was found there. So I have to take off my glasses here.
The coal train chugged east towards the port in Norfolk—and the war. The tipple shut down.
Bone elbowed the others awake.
No truck appeared.
Nothing happened for several very long minutes.
The barn owl screeched again.
Then a large black dog the size of a yearling walked out of the shadows. The dog stood directly under the tipple. Its big saucer eyes glinted in the moonlight—and fixed themselves on Bone.
One of the boys gulped hard and someone whimpered.
Bone stood up. She’d never seen a dog like that, black, muscular, with pointy ears, though there was something familiar about it. Was it like the dogs she’d seen in the tag?
The others rose behind her. She took a step toward the dog—and it vanished.
“I really am going to pee myself now,” Clay whispered.
“It was a ghost dog,” Bone marveled. A real-life spirit dog, just like in Uncle Ash’s stories. And in the Swift’s Mine tale. She flicked on the flashlight and motioned for the others to follow.
“More like a devil dog with them ears,” Clay said.
“Do you think there’s some treasure buried here?” Jake asked.
This time, Ruby socked him in the arm.
Bone walked to the very spot the dog had stood.
“This is where we cleaned up that pile of coal last Monday morning,” Clay said, kicking at the spot. There wasn’t any loose coal this time.
Will let out a low appreciative whistle.
Uncle Ash always said spirit dogs would come as a warning, a harbinger of death, or a bringer of justice. Or it could be like that dog in Swift’s Mine story, guarding something precious. Bone had the distinct feeling, though, this dog was trying to tell him something. “Whoever Will found in that shaft had gotten himself killed right here where we’re standing,” Bone declared.
No one argued with her.
A real-life devil dog was guarding the spot.
Here we go.
HANNAH BARNABY: Thanks Angie. Okay. Now we’re going to jump forward in time to Pakistan. Hena, would you give us a couple of pages of… And it’s, is it Amina? Yes?
HENA KHAN: I say Amina, yes.
HANNAH BARNABY: Amina, yes. I appreciated that there was a bit in this story where she corrected someone on the pronunciation for her name and I thought, “Oh, oh, good.” Now I know how to-
HENA KHAN: And I put that in because I took it out during edits in the first book, Amina’s Voice, and then everybody thought it was Amina, which is another way to pronounce the name. And then they’d hear me and feel so bad. So I decided to work it into the sequel, which I’m really excited to share. So you want me to read a few pages?
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. Whichever from wherever in the story you want.
HENA KHAN: Okay. So this is towards the beginning of the book. This is in the second chapter and Amina has visited her family in Pakistan after many years. She’s in a crowded market with her older brother, Mustafa and her cousin, Zora. And they’ve been warned by their mother; Amina and Mustafa had been warned not to eat street food for fear of getting sick. And her brother has just asked for some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.
The man cracks open a few pomegranates that are bursting with deep red seeds and feeds them one by one into a gigantic metal juicer that he turns with the crank. I try not to notice when he rinses the jug with tap water or when he pours the juice into three glasses that are murkier than they should be. Mustafa pays for the juices with the money in his pocket. And doesn’t need to ask Zora for help translating.
As we sip the sweet tart juice through the thinnest straws ever, our cousin says a prayer out loud, “Yah Allah, please don’t let them get diarrhea.”
Mustafa and I groan in disgust and all of us crack up. My insides gurgle a little as we head to where the rickshaws are waiting, but I think it’s nerves. We climb into the worn back seat of one of the three-wheel taxis and Zora tells the driver where to take us. And then I brace myself for a wild ride.
I haven’t gotten used to everyone driving on the opposite side of the road here yet, or all the activity on the streets. Apart from rickshaws and tons of cars, I’ve seen motorcycles with five people sitting on them, rumbling trucks painted in bright flower designs and a bus packed with so many passengers that men were actually hanging off the outside. That was a video clip I sent to my friends and they sent back emojis of shocked faces.
Today, I see the usual bicycles with riders covering their faces with scarves like bandits to keep out the dust, a cart piled high with baskets of nuts, pulled by a donkey and a skinny goat that looks lost.
“Whoa,” I yell as we speed through a roundabout and I grab the handle as the driver swerves to miss a cyclist.
He doesn’t bother to honk, maybe because everyone else on the road already is. We’re also driving on the line separating lanes on the road instead of between them.
When he was here, Baba joked that in Lahore the traffic rules are more like suggestions. The way I feel on the roads is how I’ve felt in general since we arrived in this country. In some ways it’s familiar and works like back home, but in other ways it’s totally wild and different. The result is a mix of fun and frustrating. And no matter how much I want to fit in, sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who’s holding on tight for the ride. Trying not to fall out, get ripped off, or end up with diarrhea.
A little sample.
HANNAH BARNABY: If that’s not middle school life in a nutshell, I don’t know what it is. All right. Thank you, Hena. And Elizabeth last but not least, to be ever our friend Myrtle.
ELIZABETH BUNCE: So my two books that came out simultaneously in October, were the first two books in my, Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery Series. The first one, Premeditated Myrtle, sorry, I don’t know where the camera on this computer is, Premeditated Myrtle, and the second book, How to Get Away with Myrtle. And they are about a 12-year-old girl in Victorian England, 1893. She lives in a fictional village called Swinburne, who is obsessed with the new sciences of criminology.
And in book one, her neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances and she is so excited by the opportunity to solve a myrtle. I’m sorry. I’ve lost the ability to say the word murder, but she’s so excited to solve the crime. And right now in the story, little bit of it from Premeditated, we have, Myrtle’s chief suspect in the crime, is the niece of the murder victim who has come to dinner with her father.
And Myrtle is very concerned that the niece might have designs on her widowed father. And she is not at all the person that she wants for a stepmother. So, the other bit of setup we need is that there is a cat in the story named, Peony. And when Peony meows, it sounds like she’s saying no.
The morbid curiosity about what was happening in that dining room, among Father, Aunt Helena, and Priscilla, felt like ants crawling under my petticoats. I’d stationed myself at the top of the stairs, straining to hear, but could make out nothing useful. Peony perched beside me, serenading the dinner party with an undulating song of woe and betrayal. I thought she was spectacular.
Until Cook stepped into the foyer (dressed tonight as a butler). “The master requests that the cat be removed,” she intoned.
“No,” said Peony.
I gave a sigh and untwined my legs from the balusters. “Yes, ma’am.” I scooped up Peony, who responded with one parting utterance shrill enough to break wineglasses, and carried her into the dark schoolroom. The curtains were still open, and I noticed lights on across the way at Redgraves. Some lights were normal, even with Priscilla over here; no one wanted to come home to an absolutely dark house. But these lights were upstairs, in empty bedrooms, not down in the main areas of the house.
And the lights shouldn’t move. As I watched, one set of windows went dark. A moment later, the adjacent room brightened as someone turned up the gas. I chewed on my thumbnail, trying to decide what to do.
I had three options, two of which were sensible.
One: Notify, Miss Judson. [her governess]
Two: Alert the diners downstairs, one of whom would certainly be concerned by nefarious goings-on at Redgraves. But to whom I owed no duty of care.
Three: Investigate on my own.
Dear Reader, I will allow you to Deduce what choice I made.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I tightened my bootlaces, checked that my skirt hems weren’t likely to be stepped upon, and loaded up my bag. Onto my head went my deerstalker cap. Last, I opened the cabinet and retrieved the key with the fleur-de-lis handle. Peony, watching my preparations, almost gave me away. She twined about my ankles, complaining, and ignored all my admonitions to shush.
“Do you want to come?”
“Yes,” she replied, and trotted out of the schoolroom, down the back stairs, to the scullery door. Thus, we prepared to commit the most egregious transgression of which a Young Lady of Quality is capable. I was about to Go Outside Alone After Dark.
Dear Reader, surely I need not enumerate the dangers posed by my present course of action; they are drilled into every girl from the cradle, by every possible means. I knew all about Spring-Heel’d Jack, the fiend who stalked the pages of the penny dreadfuls. Not to mention Jack the Ripper, the fiend who stalked the real-life streets of London only a few years ago. There were body snatchers and burkers (named for Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare, the notorious Scottish grave-robbers-turned-murders); press-gangs waiting to drug the unsuspecting and ship them off to sea; and all manner of Deviants, ready to Defile the Innocent. I was not certain what this last meant, precisely, except that it was practically guaranteed to occur the instant the Young Lady of Quality touched her bootheel to the moonlit earth.
HANNAH BARNABY: Thank you. So we have three very different girls in three very different situations, but they’re all in peril at the moments that you shared with us. And there are stakes for them in all of their stories, some more obvious than others. But what I found that connected these three girls, even though they’re in worlds apart, geographically, and on the timeline, is that all of them are struggling with distilling their identity and for themselves, but also in the way that other people see them.
So I wondered if you could each say something and I’ll call on Hena first. If you could just say something about how… The title of this panel is, Girls in the World. What particular challenges are there for your name character, for your girl in her world, in the world that she’s in? And that these girls are also traversing multiple adventures in the world, and so multiple settings as well. So whichever one you want to talk about, but Hena, maybe you could just share something a little bit about the inspiration for Amina’s Story, and what she’s navigating in her world.
HENA KHAN: Great. Thank you. The inspiration was really a trip that I took myself when I was around her age, to visit family in Pakistan. And I, like her, I hadn’t been there in many years and wasn’t sure what to expect. In her case, she’s actually a little bit anxious about going because of things she’s heard in the news. And when she gets there, she realizes it’s so different from what she’s expected. And she confesses that she was nervous to be there, but she falls in love with the country.
Of course, as you heard the excerpt, it’s a wild adventure, but it’s so much fun. She gets so much love from family. She bonds with her cousins. Is really sad to leave. And when she’s heading back home, much like I felt when I was her age, she’s trying to reconcile these different parts of her heart and she’s leaving this place that she’s so attached to now coming back to the US and the hometown. She lives in Wisconsin. She’s trying to get back to seventh grade and she makes a promise to her uncle to share the beauty of Pakistan with her peers.
And that’s a struggle that she faces when she comes back, when she realizes that other people, much like herself, hold these very skewed or limited perceptions of what Pakistan is like. And when she sets about trying to change their perceptions, she realizes it’s not as easy as she thinks it is. But she’s also trying, as you mentioned to hold onto these different parts of her and figure out where her heart lives and how to honor all these parts of her identity that make her who she is.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah, thanks. Yeah. I see her really literally bridging two different parts of the world, bridging two different cultures and also bridging who her friends think, who she always has been to them, and then how this trip has changed her, right? So it can be really challenging at this age for real girls, but girls in books as well to be allowed to evolve. And Elizabeth, I see some of that with Myrtle as well. I mean, she’s very headstrong, she’s very sure of what her interests are, but there are a lot of things pushing back against her.
ELIZABETH BUNCE: So, yeah, and that’s very true. And that’s one of the things that, in all of my writing, I think if there’s any kind of message that I want to send to girls or boys reading my books, it’s that there’s not one way to be a heroine. There’s not one way to be feminine. And, right now girls growing up in America are lucky enough to have not necessarily lived in a world where their dreams were impossible, even if there are practical limitations to them achieving it. But part of the reason that I write historical, is to share the understanding that, that wasn’t always the case.
Sometimes there were many factors at play that pushed against your ability to achieve what you were passionate about as a girl in the world that you were living in. But also because even today, you might feel out of step with your peers, even if you see a lot of female forensic scientists on TV and in the world. You might be the only one on your basketball team who is interested in Bones. And so I think even if, you’re not necessarily dealing with the social pressures that limit girls ambitions, you might have peer pressure or just a feeling of, “Why am I not interested in the things that my friends are doing?” And feeling that little thing. And I think that’s where, Myrtle kind is resonating with young readers.
I had, an email from a girl named Helen and the email had footnotes in it. And she wrote to me and she said, “I am 11 years old, and I study Latin and Greek. And I had no idea that there were books about girls like me.” And I said, “Yes, I wrote it for you, Helen. You are the girl that I wrote this book for.” So, I think finding a way to give a voice to as many different characters from as many different backgrounds is vital to share that ability, to dream big and to picture yourself, and our girls aren’t going to be girls forever. And what they might like to find a foothold and stake their claim in the world today.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. I think that’s a great point about girls at this age, especially their identities are really evolving out of the what’s been set up for them, they’re starting to make their own choices about what to do. And, Angie, this sort of brings us really nicely into Bone’s situation in this third book, because she has an actual ability that has shown up in her at a certain point, which is tied a little bit to her age and to where she is in life. And in a lot of ways it’s accepted that she has this ability, but I think I got the sense that she was still learning to navigate it and still figuring out, “What does this mean for me going forward?” And there were still limitations. So maybe you can say a little something about what that has to do with her relationships with other people.
ANGIE SMIBERT: Oh, of course. And Elizabeth, love what you said about Myrtle and the place of girls in the world, because I approach Bone in the same way, because Bone’s gift is she has something that, like there’s a special in her family. There are these gifts that pop-up. Not everybody in the area has these kinds of gifts, but for me, it symbolizes this is her special talent, her identity. And at first it’s very much at odds with who she is, because she starts out the little tomboy, very much like I was as a kid. And she’s negotiating how to be a young woman. I don’t want to say lady, because that’s not the right word.
In 1942, because there were still certain strictures on the way she was supposed to act, and she wanted none of that. She wanted to be; in the first book, her aunt tries to beat some of that into her that she’s got to be the little lady and not explore her gift. And through the series of these books, she’s getting used to, this is who she is really, and how she’s going to embrace this identity and be in the world, and be in her world where this might not be that valued. I mean, it’s valued in her family and among her friends, but the way she is may not be accepted by the greater community.
And so she’s becoming more and more herself in this. I mean, she embraces like how she can have this gift and continue being that engaged, fun-loving girl in the world where… I think even now sometimes when girls hit like 12 or 13 and they start losing some self-confidence and whether it’s speaking up in class or being like, “Oh, they’re not supposed to be interested in Star Wars or Greek and Latin or something like that.” They supposed to be the little ladies, whatever that is perceived at the time. And I think that they lose a little bit of themselves that way, that perhaps they don’t even regain until they’re adults. So with Bone, I wanted her to be able to keep that grain of herself from childhood and still mature. So I hope that answers the question.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s interesting, and it brings up something else that I noticed about all three of your books in your series that you have, really significant adults in the books who support and, who really see the girls for who they are and almost give them a preview or give them a little bit more of that confidence of like, “I know I can see who you are, you just can’t see it yet, but I…” And really encourage them. Amina has her uncle in Pakistan and, Myrtle has her governess, and Bone has her uncle, Ash.
And I remember hearing a quote once about the difference between middle grade. One of the differences between middle grade and young adult, is that in middle grade adults are the lighthouse and in young adult, adults are the rocks. Which I was like, “Oh, wow.” But I don’t know if that’s true across the board, but I’d love to hear a little bit from each of you. Maybe starting with Elizabeth about how do you have adults, like active, helpful adults in a middle grade novel without taking agency away from your main character?
ELIZABETH BUNCE: Well, so it’s interesting. I came to Myrtle, Myrtle was my first middle grade and I didn’t know I was going to ever write a middle grade series or voice. And so for me, the character of Ms. Judson, her governess, felt for me like my entrance, my bridge into that world. And Ms. Judson has gotten older in my head than she was when I first started writing, but I had her pictured as that 18, 20-year-old-ish, just former YA character. But part of her evolution as that character is, she’s a mixed-race immigrant to England, who would have been through all of the training to be a young lady of quality where everything that was not English and middle-class and ladylike and conforming would have been very systematically trained out of her.
And so I think of her seeing Myrtle as a chance to turn that around for herself and for this girl that she has really come to love as a friend, as a sister, as a potential stepdaughter, or just this incredibly close relationship, as two young ladies of quality who are… By which I mean, they’re middle-class English women in the 1890s, and they have this identity that they are supposed to conform to, and neither one of them fits naturally into that mold. And Ms. Judson has been forced into that mold and plays the role very, very well, but she also knows what it’s like to not be born to fit into that shape. And so, while she is gently guiding Myrtle through the challenges such a person might deal with, if you know how to play the game, it’s a little bit easier to skirt the edges.
So she’s trying to offer the benefit of that, while making certain that Myrtle’s spirit isn’t so conformed out of her. So, I think she’s there to ease the path for her. And then in another sense, particularly in book one, in Premeditated Myrtle, that there are mysteries. So the antagonist in the mystery novel is the murderer, but that person is not onstage actively opposing your protagonist’s movements. And so that person, the person who is there to thwart Myrtle’s goals at every step, becomes her father who is very loving and she adores him and they have a very close relationship. But he’s not quite ready to accept this daughter that has sprung up with a passion for criminology. And he’s not, as I’m sure many fathers of 12-year-old girls are, he’s slightly befuddled by this.
And so his efforts to keep her safe and keep her… At one point he says, girls her age should be thinking about ponies and needlework and not dead neighbors. And so he represents the status quo and the… So I would say he’s not the villain of the story at all, but he is the antagonist who Myrtle has to maneuver around. So those are the two main adult characters with her, and that’s the relationship that I envisioned for this threesome.
HANNAH BARNABY: I mean, we know from a craft standpoint, you have to put obstacles in the way of your character or the story won’t be satisfying. And Hena, in your book as well, Amina’s parents are… She’s very close with them. They’re very present in the story, but they’re perhaps not the driving force behind what she’s trying to do. The thing that she’s wrestling with is really more connected to her uncle. And so I would love to hear from you about drawing those adult characters without letting them overshadow her.
HENA KHAN: Yeah. Thank you. So I do think that, that’s something I’m conscious of. I realize that when I write middle grade fiction, my adults, aren’t a friendly supporting cast for my main character. And I think I draw from my own experiences, but also I do think that some kids do like adults, for lack of a better word. I mean, I think of all the television shows my kids grew up watching where they were just these kids that just seemed to be growing up by themselves. And I was like, “Where are the parents or the caregivers in these scenarios?” And I know a lot of-
HANNAH BARNABY: You mean little kids like Max and Ruby, like what-
HENA KHAN: Exactly, they’re always on their own. So for me, I do think there is a lot of that. And so I like writing families and communities. And I think about the books that I loved as a kid like, Ramona Quimby, and her parents were very much a part of the story and they still let her shine, but they were there. And that’s what I tried to do with Amina and her uncle, Amina and her teacher who encourages her love for music, Ms. Holly, even the imam at her mosque, they all play a small role in encouraging her in something, that they, like you said, they see in her a quality that they’re trying to bring out.
So even if it’s the imam giving her tips on how to public speak and admitting his own fears and give her the courage, or if it’s Ms. Holly seeing that she’s got this gift that she’s not ready to share, or her uncle trying to encourage her in different ways. I think the key is really having them there in moments and avoiding things like long lectures. Or I think the problem is sometimes the writers might be tempted to use adults as the voice of reason or their own voice seeping in. And so it’s a matter of, I think, trying to make sure that doesn’t happen, because I think that would be a big red flag for kids like, “I’m being preached to or told what to think.” So I think that’s the balance for me, is trying to bring out the best of my character in a friendly, supportive way.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. Yeah. Your mentioning Ramona reminded me that I wanted to make sure that I asked you about your own favorite girls in books when you were younger. And if there are specific heroines that you keep in mind when you’re writing or that you just still feel connected to. I mean, Ramona was a favorite of mine
HENA KHAN: For me too –
HANNAH BARNABY: …. and there’s a definite pattern of girls who got away with stuff. I didn’t, but so do you vividly remember? Not everyone remembers, not everyone read a lot as a kid. And you can still write for children now, if you didn’t, but, Angie, what kind of stuff did you like reading as a kid?
ANGIE SMIBERT: Well, I liked reading a lot of stuff, and I think being a little bit older too, that we really didn’t have a middle grade/YA category when I was a kid. So I read all sorts of stuff and I learned… But I liked things like Chronicles of Narnia, that it had both boy and girl characters, such you could identify with. And they’re out in a whole ‘nother world doing something and becoming kings and whatever, and queens and princesses. But I wanted something that I think Hena said about the adults taking over a little bit that, and becoming a lecture.
I think when you’re… there’s a temptation of some writers to do that. I, in mine, I see that the adults really are co-equal characters in a lot of ways that maybe there’s some that they serve the purpose of being the status quo. Like my aunt Maddie, who doesn’t believe in… Thinks children should do certain things, but Bone’s grandmother and uncle, very much as you said, see her and they know she has a certain power that is not maybe co-equal to theirs and treats her that way within reason. And so that it is something that she will have a conversation with them, that she might not have with her father or Aunt Maddie, because the father is off to war. But previous to that, he didn’t really see the gifts or he wanted things to be a certain way. So I think those couple of characters help by having, if you treat them as equal to the children characters. I know I got off topic a little bit, but I just wanted to-
HANNAH BARNABY: No, no, no. I think it’s important that you voiced that point, especially for people who might be watching this conversation and haven’t written for children, but want to. Or I think you have to, if you catch yourself casting yourself as the adult in the story, I think you need to take a step back and try and cast yourself as the kid and really tap into, “What is that perspective like?” I need to be in those shoes, so that I’m not as you said, Hena, letting the adults solve the problems, because just from a craft standpoint, it makes the resolution less satisfying. Elizabeth, what books do you go back to as a kid or as your kid self? Elizabeth?
ELIZABETH BUNCE: I had a little glitch there.
HANNAH BARNABY: Audio. Okay. You’re back.
ELIZABETH BUNCE: You’re back too.
HANNAH BARNABY: We’re all back. So what were your touchstone books as a middle grade reader?
ELIZABETH BUNCE: So I grew up reading lots and lots of things. And I always get this deer in a headlight sort of thing, because I forget everything that I read, whenever somebody asks me this question. But when I first started writing and I was writing fantasy, and so I mentioned earlier that, one of my key values as a writer of girl characters is that there are many ways to be heroic. There’s no one right way. And it’s because in so many of, particularly the fantasy novels that I read when I was growing up, that I loved and still love and the authors that I admire so much.
And then now I’m going to point my fingers at them, and in a scolding way, but books like, The Alanna by Tamora Pierce, The Alanna, The First Adventure and then Robin McKinley’s fantasies. There were so many times where, as a young reader, I was told that in order to go on an adventure as a girl, I had to dress up like a boy, pretend to be a boy, act like a boy, and not like anything that was traditionally feminine at all. And for me, the one that grated on my nerves, especially, was the key sign of a girl who cannot be heroic is that she knows how to sew.
You put a needle in her hand and she suddenly forgets how to do anything heroic. And so I understand why those books were necessary for girls of my generation and a little bit earlier, but I wanted my girls to get to wear whatever they wanted. So, Digger, the heroine of one of my fantasy series, wears a dress if it suits her purposes, she wears breaches and a doublet and pretends to be a boy if it suits her purposes. And so those are sort of, I was starting to as a writer, I don’t want to say I was rebelling against that, but I wanted to show another aspect of what a heroic girl looked like.
And, I feel like maybe those characters and those depictions aren’t needed quite as much right now. And as an author, I learned even more myself as an author, that there are a lot of ways in which femaleness, girlness, co-exists with being the lead in a story, being the lead in your own life. So, I would say, I guess that probably answers it. I read a lot of fantasy about strong girls who had to hide their identity, and therefore I write about strong girls who get to be themselves.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. Well, and that goes to show, right? Every iteration of story as a response to something from before. And Robin McKinley was responding to Tolkien and you were responding to her in a way, maybe it’s probably not that direct. But what we read, especially when we’re young has strong influence, and it doesn’t mean that we’re going to mimic it, it might mean that we’re going to push back against it or take another way-
ELIZABETH BUNCE: We’re still embracing the parts that we love so much.
HANNAH BARNABY: It’s informative too. Hena, what about you? What do you remember reading growing up? I think you and I are around the same age and I’m going to take a wild guess and say, there are not a lot of books for us as kids set in Pakistan.
HENA KHAN: There were not. And nor were there stories of Pakistani Americans growing up in the US? And so I grew up not seeing many characters of color at all and certainly no one that represented me. Not that I realized it as a kid I, I devoured everything and didn’t actively ask, “Where am I?” It wasn’t until later in life that I was like, “Oh, I wasn’t anywhere.” But I grew up an avid reader. I loved Ramona Quimby, like I mentioned and I loved Judy Blume. I loved stories that were character-driven and realistic fiction.
I read Tolkien too, but my all-time favorite book was Little Women. And since we have writers here who write in other time periods, I think one of the reasons I maybe identified so strongly with it and actually wrote a Little Women-inspired novel, more to the story, the one right over here, it was because I didn’t see myself in the literature. And I think in many ways the girls in Little Women or the women in Little Women, were similar to me.
I saw myself more in them than I did in contemporary fiction that I read as a child. And that they were in a different time period, of course, but they also had different rules that they were expected to follow than what I saw around me, when it came to gender norms, when it came to even things around dating and what was proper. I grew up very much being told what was proper and how I was supposed to behave. So that felt very familiar and comforting to me. So I wonder now, as I’m older and look back, why that was my all-time favorite book.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. I think that says to me that we don’t always necessarily connect with the characters that we expect to connect with or the characters who are like us on the surface. There are deeper ways to connect with the characters, and discovering a character who doesn’t look like you, but feels like you is, I think, one of the particular magic that books can offer, and that especially middle grade can offer because this age feels so isolating.
I mean, everyone feels different than everyone else, right? Someone told me once, “Middle grade is all about blending in and high school is all about standing out.” And I see that in my own children too. So each of your girls is in a totally different time setting, in a totally different… We have, Victorian England, 1890s, rural Virginia in the 1940s and Pakistan and the American Midwest now, and yet I feel like these three girls would have a lot to talk about. They would have a lot.
They do have things in common. And one thing is that they each have something that they’re really good at. And they’re still discovering it in a way, but I would love to hear you say as a writer, how did you arrive at the gift or the talent that your character has, and what does it do for her? How does it help her navigate the story? Angie, do you want to speak to that?
ANGIE SMIBERT: Sure, since I have a book called, Bone’s Gift.
HANNAH BARNABY: Right there.
ANGIE SMIBERT: Yeah, the idea of what her gift would be is, I wanted her to be a storyteller, because she’s very good at both storytelling and figuring out mysteries, but she’s growing up in a region where storytelling is still an important thing that she’s collected. She, in the very first book, she helps a WPA worker collect folktales. And so she already knows all these folktales and she loves anything that’s not real—like folktales, myths, comic books, movies, any kind of storytelling like that. But I wanted to make it hard on her because you want to make it hard on your character. That her gift, she would get from her fam, that family gift would be the power to see real stories basically that happened to real people, when she touches an object like she touches her friend Will’s dinner bucket that he’s taken down into the mine.
Well, it used to belong to his father, who unfortunately died when he had this on him. So she’s able to see really those real stories as real painful ones. And she’s had enough pain in her life, her mother’s died and there’s a lot of change going on, that she doesn’t really want to embrace that particular gift. But I wanted those two to be paired, but that working against each and that’s how I pick-
HANNAH BARNABY: Like the two sides of the coin.
ANGIE SMIBERT: Exactly. And so by the end of the series, she’s integrated that more. That she’s more at peace with this gift that she has because she figured out she can use this gift to help people, and to help the people that she loves, like uncle Ash and figure out. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with it beyond that, because she’s not going to become like a healer or that, or a biologist like her grandmother, but she’s trying to figure out, “Okay, what do you do with this stupid gift?”
HANNAH BARNABY: What do I do with this?
ANGIE SMIBERT: Yeah. Exactly.
HANNAH BARNABY: So it offers her a chance for connection, but also there’s a cost to it, which is that balance that we have to maintain in constructing a story. And Hena, what about Amina? She’s musical and she acknowledges that she’s good at it. I liked a lot that it wasn’t like, “Oh.” She wasn’t trying to downplay her talent and she embraces it and really revels in it and uses it also to connect with people.
HENA KHAN: Yeah, for me, it was about overcoming, and sometimes we do have these gifts or these talents that we’re afraid to let shine. And in Amina’s Voice, that’s where her struggle is, coming to terms with that and overcoming stage fright and she does manage that. So in Amina’s Song, I was thinking about how she could push herself even further and challenge herself in a new way and think about new ways of sharing her gift. But for me, I think as a kid I, like Amina, was inhibited and shy and was afraid to speak in front of an audience. And I can’t sing, I’m not musical at all, but I thought-
HANNAH BARNABY: I was going to ask if you’re musical?
HENA KHAN: Nope, Nope. But my son is, and it was so fascinating to see that ability as a parent and how innate it was for him. And so that’s why I wanted to capture that. And even though he’s not as much of a singer, he’s more of an instrument player and a music producer. That was really helpful for me in creating Amina’s Song and the character Nico, who helps bring out this new passion of hers. But for me, it was really that whole idea of, how do you push forward in something that you love? How you use it to better the world in some way, and to bring people together and maybe grow as a person and find new things about yourself that you didn’t know you had.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. Great. And Elizabeth, Myrtle has a lot of abilities and a lot of curiosity and they do get her into trouble. So you too, I think, have played with that tricky balance of her gifts being an opportunity, but also potentially trouble.
ELIZABETH BUNCE: Right. And if you ask her father and in fact, Myrtle overhears a conversation between her father and her governess, where he identifies her real gift as a knack for causing disruption. And she takes that as a badge of… She’s incensed first, like, “What does that mean?” But then embraces that sensibility and runs with it. And I think for me, this really goes back to who I was when I was Myrtle’s age. So a lot of books for kids and for adults are about kids finding their own identity and discovering who they are and finding their place in the world. But I was a girl who knew what I was interested in and what I was good at and had that sense of self from a very young age, and know what that feels like to have that when no one else around you really, really does and how having that identity both helps and causes conflict with your peers.
And I wanted to give Myrtle that really strong sense of who she was, what she loves, where she’s going, what she wants, and how having that passionate sense of self has caused her to run headlong into obstacles that she then has to either push out of the way, maneuver around or fall on her bum and have to pick herself up again.
So I think, I think it’s so important to have stories for all kinds of kids and all kinds of readers. Wherever you might fall on a given day when you pick up a book, and to see all of these different ways of being, different ways of navigating, growing up and identity and learning what you love and how to talk about what you love with people who maybe don’t understand your interests or share them. And so I think that’s one of the things that’s so exciting about our panel in particular, that we have so many different kinds of girls who are in different stages of that journey.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. And each one of them finds a different way, I think, to take a leap of faith and say, “I do believe this is who I am and I am going to trust the people in my life and the world around me to catch me after I jump into it a little bit.” And that is really empowering for readers to see girls doing that. Absolutely. Yeah. I wanted to ask … about craft, because writers, too, are watching this, a little bit about point of view and voice. So voices like when I teach writing, voice is something that I get asked about a lot, like, “What is it? How do you do it?” And for me, I don’t think it’s necessarily a choice.
I think we do have just about five minutes left. So this is probably going to be our last question. I’m curious for you as you’re writing, so both Amina and Myrtle’s stories are first person point of view and Bone’s is third person, but I don’t necessarily think point of view is what determines voice. I think there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it. So I’m curious to hear a little bit about, from each of you, about your process and how did you find the voice of your character? Is it a matter of decisions or do you find it more instinctive or how do you get there? Hena, could you say something about that?
HENA KHAN: Sure. Actually, it was something I struggled with. Amina’s Voice was actually my first contemporary middle grade novel, and ironically, the voice was what I struggled with. My first draft was in third person, and I think I was telling myself the story as many, like, I guess, debut writers maybe do. And I had unnecessary detail in there. I think I let the 40-year-old woman writing the book creep in. And so she spent too much time looking at somebody, throw pillows, things that a 12-year-old girl wouldn’t care about. And when I went back and realized something was off and I got that feedback that the voice just wasn’t right. I went back and rewrote the book from the first person perspective and I felt like what I could do then was trim the fat and all this stuff that just didn’t matter.
I could focus in on, like you had mentioned earlier, really her point of view and telling the story from, centering her, and like you said, it was the same story, but just that shift in perspective, and really being inside of her and feeling what she feels and seeing what she sees made the difference. So for me, I think it’s emotions, is this the hardest part? And to get the voice right, I feel like it has to feel authentic and the emotions of the person have to match the age and the circumstance, like for me as a reader. And that took me awhile to figure out and for myself. And I feel like now I understand it a bit better and more intuitively than I did the first go around.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. I think it takes time. It takes time and practice and it’s not the same for every story. Some characters that you think you hear so clearly in your mind, and then others it takes… I have to edit myself out all the time.
HENA KHAN: Yeah.
HANNAH BARNABY: Angie, what about Bone? Did you choose third person? Did it just evolve that way?
ANGIE SMIBERT: Kind of a combination of those? Because I wrote my YA series all in first person, like an alternating points of view, because that seemed like the natural thing to do for those characters, but for Bone, I wanted it to be more of a storytelling persona. And I did start actually in a little bit more in third omniscient, but as I was editing I wanted it to be more of her voice than another narrator voice. So I brought it back down to third limited to be her point of view, but she’s naturally a storyteller. So those are the ways she would tell a story, plus I wanted that more regional feel to it as well, because I interweave Appalachia and folklore throughout the series. And sometimes she’s telling it or sometimes there’s somebody else telling it, but she’s living part of a folk tale also.
So that was a conscious way of building her voice. And also, I studied the Appalachian dialect a little bit. That you don’t want to hit people over the head with it, but just like this little hint of word usage here and there, and not necessarily in the narration itself, in the third-person part, but in the dialogues, but just the touch here to give it that flavor. So it was a conscious choice to do it that way, but also I checked it by hearing it, I’d read it to myself and, “Did that sound right?” That was one of my way to check myself.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah, I do that too. I read aloud a lot, which is very awkward, but it really has to happen. And Elizabeth, was Myrtle always in first person?
ELIZABETH BUNCE: Yes, yes. There was no question that Myrtle in particular was going to be in first person. So far every book I’ve written has been in first-person, which I don’t think was something I set out to do. And I don’t think it’s necessarily something I planned to do forever. But on that subject, I think that it’s easier for a character to have a strong voice, if your character has a strong sense of her identity. And so if you are trying to figure out who you are, and you’re trying to figure out how to write that character, it’s going to be a little harder to find that.
So in that sense, because Myrtle has such a strong personality that comes through, and then other aspects of Myrtle’s voice in particular are that it’s Victorian England, and I wanted it to sound like a Victorian novel, that modern middle graders could find accessible. So she has that style where she talks directly to her dear reader. And she has the capitalization of important words. So whenever she talks about, and it’s usually disdainfully being a young lady of quality, that’s always capitalized.
So we have those touches of Victoriana that also seep into Myrtle’s storytelling voice. And lastly she is almost over well-read, she’s so well-read that she is… I don’t know, if you’ve ever had a group of middle school writing students, 12-year-old writers. They love words so much and their writing feels so erudite and packed with syllables and sentences and big, long words. Yes, and so leaning into that and embracing that. But she also has this passion for criminology and her father is a solicitor, and so she knows all of these legal terms.
And so her dialogue and thought processes are sprinkled with legal metaphors. So if I find a place where I’m writing along and think, “How would Myrtle phrase this?” And so when she’s thinking about her neighbor that she sees that someone has broken into her neighbor’s house and is searching the house, she’s like, “Well, I could tell my neighbor, but I feel I have no duty of care toward her.” She’s like, “I don’t.” That’s her legal phrase for saying, “I have no sense of responsibility for telling Priscilla that her house has been broken into. So I’m just not going to tell her.” And so those are breaking down the components of Myrtle’s particular voice.
HANNAH BARNABY: Yeah. I think that’s a great point, and I think it’s so effective to focus on what your character chooses to notice, and that shows what’s important to them. And that’s a way of distilling character as well. I want to commend all three of you for writing really engaging girls, who are in books that have humor and poignancy and love and the whole package. And it’s a difficult age group in some ways to write about, because it’s such a moving target, but I feel like each of you connected so deeply with your own characters and it shows in your stories.
I want to thank you so much for being here today and for sharing about your work and your stories. And I’m just going read the wrap-up language. So it’s time for us to wrap things up, which I already said. Thanks to our speakers today and to everyone who is watching. Please consider buying these featured books from your local independent bookseller or using the link provided in the chat. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thanks everybody.
HENA KHAN: Thank you.
ELIZABETH BUNCE: Thank you.
ANGIE SMIBERT: Thank you.