Tag Archives: Illinois

Author Q&A with Maybe There Are Witches Author Jude Atwood

Author Q&A with Jude Atwood

I recently learned about a middle grade book called MAYBE THERE ARE WITCHES. In the book, a girl learns an ancestor of hers was hanged for being a witch. She finds her great-great-great-grandmother’s diary in the basement. Bad things start happening around her, things predicted in the diary. I’m generally a fan of intergenerational stories, so I’m super intrigued by this setup. When I learned author Jude Atwood was available to answer some questions about the book, I couldn’t resist hosting a Q&A. Here’s what I learned.

I find that a story was often inspired by a question. Was there a question that inspired you to write MAYBE THERE ARE WITCHES?

I think a lot of writing decisions are inspired by questions. For me, these questions often take the form of “What if?” I keep a lot of lists, and the seed that would become MAYBE THERE ARE WITCHES was in a list, years ago, of ideas for horror movie scenes. It was something like, “What if a woman found a very old diary in her house, and as she read it, she realized it was written to her?” Later, as I started thinking about writing a novel, I thought, “What if the woman was a girl? What if the book was written by an ancestor of hers?”

It looks like the story is set in rural Illinois. What is it about that setting that makes it perfect for your book?

I grew up on a farm in rural Illinois. Since then, I’ve lived in small cities like Peoria, Illinois, and bigger cities, like Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles. Now I live in Orange County, where multiple cities form a sort of suburban megalopolis. There are plenty of things to love about all of these places, but I’m fascinated by their differences, and the misconceptions we often have about other regions. For example, where I grew up, I never skipped school, because even if I’d wanted to, there was no place to go—anywhere I went, whoever I saw would have said, “Jude, why aren’t you in school?” On the other hand, many of the college students I work with in Orange County have wild stories about skipping high school, even though some have never left the state.

I wanted to write about a girl who moves from Orange County to rural Illinois, so she can undergo a bit of a culture shock, but can also go through the very human experience of trying to find a sense of community in a new place, trying to figure out who “gets” you, and who you can trust and open up to.

For a writer, there are also practical reasons to choose a setting with a small population, especially for a scary story or a mystery. It’s easier to keep track of a limited group of characters, and there’s more of a sense that you can’t get away.

Who is your favorite character? Are there things about your favorite character which couldn’t be included in MAYBE THERE ARE WITCHES?

My official position is that I love all of my characters equally. And the easy answer is that I love whoever I’m writing at the time. But if I had to pick one, I’ll say that I really loved trying to work out the character of Chris Beck, who begins the story as a sort of backwoods loner who marches to the beat of his own drum.

The book was pared down quite a bit during the editing process, because my editor and I wanted to focus on the supernatural mystery elements of the story. Chris lost a few good lines, but not as many as the adult characters did.

Is there a scene or moment in your novel that really sticks with you? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

There’s a scene in the first half of the novel where two of the main characters, Clara and Gary, visit Chris’ house for the first time. He takes them to the basement to show them a dead coyote in his family’s chest freezer. When I was writing it, I thought of it as a funny, if slightly odd, scene, but I’ve since had a conversation with a blogger who thought the idea seemed too over-the-top/gory for a middle-grade book. That surprised me, because it came straight out of my childhood. We often had some kind of wild animal in our freezer, either for a bounty or for food.

My life’s a little different today. Now my freezer just has a bag of ice, a frozen pizza, and some blueberries and bananas for smoothies.

What was your favorite part of the process of creating MAYBE THERE ARE WITCHES? What was the most fun?

I’m a fairly slow writer, probably because I’m enamored with all of the aspects of writing a novel that don’t involve actually writing. I love to brainstorm ideas, and jokes, and scenarios—stuff that I may or may not use. As I mentioned earlier: I keep a lot of lists. I also really like doing research. The main characters in this book compete on their middle school scholastic bowl team, and as I researched, I learned that scholastic bowl has changed a bit since I competed years ago; the questions now have a very specific structure. So I got a kick out of trying to create a whole packet of potential scholastic bowl questions that might sound realistic, even though only a few ended up in the book.

What do you most hope that readers take away from your book?

It’s a story with a witch and a villain—although they may not be the same person. But it’s also a story about the stages of friendship, and the ways that we try to understand the people we meet as we get to know them better. I hope the book inspires a few readers to think about how there’s more to everyone than what we think we know.

What is one question about your novel you are often asked by readers?

The question I get asked most often is, “Are there witches?” But that’s probably because many of my early readers have corny senses of humor.

About Maybe There Are Witches

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“I can’t think of a better fate for young readers.” -Steven T. Seagle, co-creator of Ben 10Big Hero 6, and Camp Midnight

After moving to the tiny village of Biskopskulla, middle school student Clara Hutchins discovers that her family has a history in the region: one hundred forty years ago, one of her ancestors was hanged as a witch from the white oak tree on the edge of town. When Clara finds a mildewed diary in the basement, she’ s even able to read the rambling thoughts of her long-dead relative.

But when the book’ s predictions about Clara’ s own life start coming true, she wonders if those 19th-century villagers had a point: maybe her great-great-great grandmother really did have unearthly abilities. Now, a break-in at the tomb of the town’ s founder means a great evil has returned to Biskopskulla. Clara and her newest friends— two of the weirdest boys in school— must join forces to decipher the messages of a murdered witch and stop an unnatural catastrophe. But as they quest through historic cemeteries, backcountry libraries, and high-octane scholastic bowl tournaments, something sinister is lurking, watching, and waiting…

About Jude Atwood

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Raised on a farm in rural Illinois near the Quad Cities, Jude Atwood treasured the long drives into town for groceries and library books. The small towns in the region were brimming with opportunities for kids to be creative. The library hosted poster contests; the newspaper had a kids’ cooking feature. Once, Jude took youth summer classes in Parody, Movie Appreciation, and Latex Mask-making at the local community college. He wrote songs about garbage bags, learned about Alfred Hitchcock, and made a shrunken head.

He got his first job at fifteen: detasseling, pulling the reproductive parts off of corn plants for a seed corn company making hybrid varieties of corn. At Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Jude competed in intercollegiate forensics, where he learned the value of a well-timed joke and the fact that your audience always has something to teach you. He moved to Orange County, California, where it hasn’t snowed in over seventy years, and earned his M.F.A. in Film from Chapman University. In Hollywood, he worked very briefly as an assistant in the office of a man who is now famous for throwing things at assistants.

After that, Jude became a full-time community college professor, a vocation that continues to this day. He spent several years coaching the college speech, debate, & theater team, and he now devotes much of his energy to teaching mass communication and media literacy classes. He’s made many friends and (he hopes) very few enemies. In his career as an educator, Jude received a commendation from the city of Santa Ana for his work with students, and was honored with the Legacy Award from the American Readers Theater Association for contributions to the art of readers theater. His writing has appeared in Unfortunately, Literary Magazine and Plainsongs, and his first novel, Maybe There Are Witches, won the 2021 Kraken Book Prize for Middle Grade Fiction.

Jude lives in California with his boyfriend and his dog.

Review: This Place is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian

This Place is Still Beautiful
XiXi Tian
Balzer + Bray
Published June 7, 2022

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About This Place is Still Beautiful

Two sisters. A shocking racist incident. The summer that will change both of their lives forever.

Despite having had near-identical upbringings, sisters Annalie and Margaret agree on only one thing: that they have nothing in common. Nineteen-year-old Margaret is driven, ambitious, and keenly aware of social justice issues. She couldn’t wait to leave their oppressive small-town home and take flight in New York. Meanwhile sweet, popular, seventeen-year-old Annalie couldn’t think of anything worse – she loves their town, and feels safe coasting along in its confines.

That is, until she arrives home one day to find a gut-punching racial slur painted on their garage door.

Outraged, Margaret flies home, expecting to find her family up in arms. Instead, she’s amazed to hear they want to forget about it. Their mom is worried about what it might stir up, and Annalie just wants to have a ‘normal’ summer – which Margaret is determined to ruin, apparently.

Back under each other’s skins, things between Margaret and Annalie get steadily worse – and not even the distraction of first love (for Annalie), or lost love (for Margaret) can bring them together.

Until finally, a crushing secret threatens to tear them apart forever.

My Review

I love sister books. THIS PLACE IS STILL BEAUTIFUL gives us both sister’s points of view, which I absolutely loved. I’m sure there are other books that have done this, but I can’t think of any right now.

Margaret and Annalie are so different from one another, and we really get to see that in action as we go back and forth between their perspectives. But we also get to see something the girls seem (especially at first) unaware of: the way they admire each other’s strengths.

They grew up in a mostly white southern Illinois town, feeling different, and responding to it differently. We watch them reflect on moments they faced racist or prejudiced comments or behavior. We learn why they reacted so differently when someone painted a racist slur on their garage door.

Watching both girls navigate the aftermath of that night really gripped me. I think it might be easy for some readers to dismiss what happened as not serious, as some of the characters in the book do. But walking in Margaret and Annalie’s shoes gives us the chance to sidestep our own prejudices and listen. Really listen. If we do that, we hear a story that resonates with us all: two girls who have a right to feel safe, respected, and loved in their community.

Though the plot centers around uncovering the truth about the graffiti on the door, THIS PLACE IS STILL BEAUTIFUL offers so much more. It is part love story, part tribute to a rural small town, and part story about finding your voice and discovering who you want to be and what that means.

All in all, I am a huge fan of this book, and I am really excited to see what XiXi Tian writes next. I think fans of Rachel Lynn Solomon’s YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE or YOU’VE REACHED SAM by Dustin Thao will love this book.

Content Notes

Content warning for use of a racial slur, some racist comments and behavior and teen drinking.

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Annalie and Margaret are Chinese on their mom’s side. Annalie’s best friend, Violet, is Filipino. Margaret’s ex-boyfriend Rajiv is Indian. Other characters are white.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. In one scene, it’s clear the boy wants to have sex, and the girl stops him because she isn’t ready. In another scene, a boy and girl kiss, collapse into his bed and the scene cuts to later, after they’ve had sex.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content
A racist slur appears spray-painted on the front of Annalie and Margaret’s garage. In one scene, Annalie confronts a boy who charges toward her aggressively before they are interrupted.

Drug Content
Teens drink alcohol at a party. Annalie gets drunk. References to Margaret drinking alcohol while away at college.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of THIS PLACE IS STILL BEAUTIFUL in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Misfit in Love by S. K. Ali

Misfit in Love
S. K. Ali
Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads
Published May 25, 2021

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About Misfit in Love

Janna Yusuf is so excited for the weekend: her brother Muhammad’s getting married, and she’s reuniting with her mom, whom she’s missed the whole summer.

And Nuah’s arriving for the weekend too.

Sweet, constant Nuah.

The last time she saw him, Janna wasn’t ready to reciprocate his feelings for her. But things are different now. She’s finished high school, ready for college…and ready for Nuah.

It’s time for Janna’s (carefully planned) summer of love to begin—starting right at the wedding.

But it wouldn’t be a wedding if everything went according to plan. Muhammad’s party choices aren’t in line with his fiancée’s taste at all, Janna’s dad is acting strange, and her mom is spending more time with an old friend (and maybe love interest?) than Janna.

And Nuah’s treating her differently.

Just when things couldn’t get more complicated, two newcomers—the dreamy Haytham and brooding Layth—have Janna more confused than ever about what her misfit heart really wants.

Janna’s summer of love is turning out to be super crowded and painfully unpredictable.

In this fun and fresh sequel to SAINTS AND MISFITS, Janna hopes her brother’s wedding will be the perfect start to her own summer of love, but attractive new arrivals have her more confused than ever.

My Review

Janna is hilarious and awkward and completely adorable. I love her. Every time I sat down to read for a few minutes, I got pulled straight into this story and its big, quirky family and all the drama of getting ready for the wedding. I love the way Janna has this community of women surrounding her and building her up. She also spends some time asking herself really hard questions about love and forgiveness, and I love that the story pursued those threads, too. It was fun getting to revisit some of my favorite characters from SAINTS AND MISFITS and adding some new characters to the mix.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy faith-positive stories like this one so much is that I feel like I can really easily connect with a character whose faith is deeply important to them. I guess I just feel like I really connect with characters whose faith drives a lot of their everyday decisions and motivates them to try to be a better person to others. I’m glad to see faith-positive stories in young adult literature.

I think fans of HENNA WARS by Adiba Jaigirdar or TODAY TONIGHT TOMORROW by Rachel Lynn Solomon will enjoy this book.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Janna and many of her friends and family members are Muslim. A few minor characters are Black. Janna’s dad is Indian and her mom is Egyptian.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Strong profanity used very infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Janna has feelings for a boy, but doesn’t pursue physical contact with him because of her faith. She believes that dating should be focused on preparing for marriage and chaperoned by a companion.

Spiritual Content
Scenes show Janna and others rising early to pray and praying together at other times in the day. Janna’s faith governs her behavior toward boys, too. She covers her hair with a hijab. She wears a burkini to swim. She doesn’t have physical contact with boys. She also edits a question and answer page on her mosque’s website, and browses some of those questions and answers in one scene of the story. Some other precepts of Islam come up, like the importance of caring for the environment and the value of loving others.

Violent Content
In SAINTS AND MISFITS, Janna was assaulted by a family friend. She mentions the assault a couple of times, but it’s not described in any detail.

Janna also confronts a loved one about anti-Black behavior and wrestles with how to handle having a relationship with that person going forward.

Drug Content

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