Fall 2020 edition
Highlights from Virtual NCTE 2020
Our love of book-talking and connecting with educators and librarians is stronger than ever; thank you to all who connected with us in our virtual NCTE booth! If you're spending more time in the booth over the next few weeks, don't forget to explore the Spring 2021 egalleys that are available to request, and check out all of our other resources.
Build Your Stack with Simon & Schuster and author Emma Otheguy!
Make your way to the virtual Build Your Stack hall to listen to Michelle Leo and Sarah Woodruff from the ed/lib team book talk a selection of Spring 2021 titles, with special guest Emma Otheguy, author of the upcoming picture book A Sled for Gabo, available in both English and Spanish.
Adult Books for High School (or College!) Classrooms
View our picks for fiction and nonfiction books that best engage students in stories that resonate and spur discussion, perfect for literature circles.
Meet the Author
These middle grade and YA authors came by to chat in the Simon & Schuster virtual booth. Catch up on the conversations here! Click on the colored bars on the boxes below to reveal each author's Q&A.
A Conversation with Hena Khan, author of Amina's Song
I'm super excited about Amina's Song, the sequel to Amina's Voice, and to having readers share more of Amina's journey. It's been amazing for me to see the response to Amina's Voice over the past three years, and to hear such great feedback from readers. I also got a lot of questions about the story, and realized that I definitely wanted to revisit Amina, her family, and her community and address some of them! I always thought it would be wonderful to have the chance to write more about Amina, from when I first came up with the idea of her, and the story about her life. I knew that I wanted her uncle, who she calls Thaya Jaan, to be a big part of her life. And I thought it would be cool to have Amina and her family finally take that trip to visit him in a follow up book. So the book opens with Amina in Pakistan, during a summer visit where she is staying with her uncle and his family, and taking in the sights and sounds and tastes of this country, which is both familiar and new to her. Amina's experiences were largely based on my own, including some of her conflicting feelings and feeling a bit out of place, but still loving it all so much.
Q: In spending more time with Amina in this new book, did she surprise you in any ways?
A: I think Amina did surprise me in some ways. I wanted her to stay the same sweet, thoughtful girl that we get to know in the first book. But at the same time, I wanted her to continue to grow and evolve. And I think that compared to my initial outline, I found that she is more bold in some ways than I expected. And maybe a bit more mature, in ways that you might hope! It was also really fun for me to write Soojin, Emily, Rabiya and Mustafa. So many readers loved Mustafa, Amina's older brother, and wanted to know what happens with him. I loved being able to share more of him and his relationship with Amina in this book.
Q: What advice do you think Amina would have for kids about celebrating and sharing their cultures and experiences? What do you hope kids will see in Amina's story?
A: It's so complicated for kids who share another culture, especially one that isn't well understood. And if you add misperceptions or misinformation and complex geopolitics that kids don't care about on top of that, it can get tricky! I think so often when we celebrate culture, we focus on what's different—because a lot of those differences are fun. Things like foods, fashion, dance, crafts and so on. And I think that is all really lovely and important things to bring and share. But I also think it's important for us to emphasize the commonality among all of us--and to make sure that people understand that there are universal values and similarities across culture and a common humanity that we shouldn't lose sight of. And there is also the danger of the "single story" and deriving all ideas about a place from a very limited experience or point of view. So I think it's important to highlight the diversity within a culture as well. I think it's hard to speak up when you feel misrepresented, or that people don't quite get it, or are generalizing, or being dismissive. But I hope Amina gives kids the courage to see that you can gently guide people to open up their minds!
Q: For her school project, Amina chooses to do a presentation on Pakistani hero Malala Yousafzai. Who would you have chosen when you were Amina's age?
A: I was big reader as a kid, and books were my refuge. I'm guessing that if I had to give a presentation on a historical figure, I would have chosen an author like Mark Twain. I say that because I remember doing a presentation about him as a kid! And I remember being so surprised to learn that he was a humorist and known for his wit, when I only knew him as the author of Tom Sawyer. It's amazing to think about the ways I researched, compared to kids today! I made sure to have Amina use books in her research and have the teacher mention that Wikipedia alone would not cut it!
Q: What other books were some of your favorites to read as a kid?
A: My very favorite book of all time is Little Women, which is why it inspired my middle grade novel More to the Story. But I also loved Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and books about the every day lives of kids.
A Conversation with Kara Lee Corthon, author of Daughters of Jubilation
Daughters of Jubilation is about the youngest member of a long line of Black women with supernatural powers going back to the time of slavery and beyond. 16-year-old Evvie is a pretty typical teen girl: she loves a party, she’s falling in love, and her little sisters get on her last nerve. At the same time, she’s discovering that she has intense magical powers that she doesn’t understand. She also happens to live in South Carolina in 1962—not a hospitable place for a Black girl—and an ominous stranger starts terrorizing her. Evvie must learn how to use her unusual gifts if she wants to protect herself and her loved ones from the very real danger coming for her.
Q: Why did you decide to interweave magic into a Jim Crow South setting? Why 1962?
A: There were many different factors that led me to writing this book and setting it where and when I did, but I think the magic connection specifically relates to giving earth-shattering powers to a Black girl in South Carolina in '62—the last person anyone would suspect of having such power at that time. It's tricky for me to pinpoint why that year exactly, though I was drawn to it historically because it sits between two of the most volatile years of the civil rights movement and during a time when most Americans were waiting to see if the Soviets would blow us up. But one of the personal reasons for me is because this time period is when my mom was around Evvie's age.
Q: What kinds of conversations do you think your book will spark with teachers, students, and readers?
My hope is that the book will stir up discussions about power and responsibility. Like if you could wreak havoc on the world with just a thought, would you? Or more crucially, SHOULD you? I also think it would be interesting to discuss just how much Evvie's world doesn't differ from our own. I've thought this many times, but if I could've given the power of Jubilation to Breonna Taylor for instance, I would have without a thought.
Q: You weave history, fantasy, and magic into the novel. Why did you feel it was important to tell this story?
Like I mentioned above, the world Evvie's living in isn't that far removed from the one we all inhabit right now. Because I'm a fan of history, I'd loved the idea of being able to marry the past with the present (which literally happens a few times in the book). But also I have to say: Evvie is a DOMINANT protagonist. What I mean by that is that when she began talking to me, she made it VERY clear when and where her story was set. I knew better than to argue with her.
Q: Going back to a comment you made above: "But one of the personal reasons for me is because this time period is when my mom was around Evvie's age." Does your family influence and inspire your writing, and what has been their reaction to your books?
A: I think they always influence me to at least a small degree, but in this case, it was more potent. And I didn't realize it consciously until I'd finished writing the book. My family is a complicated animal. Sadly, my mother passed several years ago so I wasn't able to share the book with her. But my sister—and one of my best friends—LOVES the book.
Q: What kind of books did you read as a teen, and what are some of your favorite books now?
A: When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with Judy Blume, The Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley Twins. In high school, I was into The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, and The Bell Jar. What I didn't know I wanted so badly was to find myself or someone like myself in a book, and I didn't until college. It's one of my motivations for writing YA, aside from just loving the genre.
Q: Do you remember what book it was in college in which you first saw yourself?
A: The Bluest Eye. And for a while, I thought there was a necessary literary connection between Blackness and tragedy. It's a long journey.
Q: Kirkus Reviews described Daughters of Jubilation as a "A compelling story of first love." Why did you choose to weave romance into the plot?
A: That was because I wanted Evvie to experience some joy! And, speaking to representation, I wanted to give the world a swoon-worthy Black boy in Clay.
Q: Who are some YA writers you admire today?
A: So many! I love Elizabeth Acevedo, Nicola Yoon, Nova Ren Suma, and vintage John Green, to name a few.
A Conversation with Barbara Dee, author of My Life in the Fish Tank
My Life in the Fish Tank is my eleventh book—all of which have been published by S&S! It's about a family of four kids. The oldest is diagnosed with bipolar disorder—and when the parents tell the three other kids to keep this private, it causes chaos, especially for twelve-year-old Zinny. My Life in the Fish Tank is another one of my “tough topics” middle grade novels—but it's also got plenty of humor. And science experiments with crayfish!
Q: As you‘ve mentioned, My Life in the Fish Tank explores mental illness; Your last book, Maybe He Just Likes You, discusses #metoo. Why do you feel it important to bring these kinds of topics to the middle grade space?
A: These topics are already in the middle grade space. We need to acknowledge it—and help kids to navigate this space, provide insight, and offer hope. If we don't offer books that reflect the lived reality of many kids, we turn these kids off so-called “realistic fiction”—and reading in general, especially in the upper middle grade years. Also, we lose perhaps our last chance to shape the conversation.
Q: Speaking of complexities and important conversations, in My Life in the Fish Tank, Zinny and her family members all deal with her brother's mental health diagnosis differently. Can you tell us a bit about your process in creating characters and these relationships?
A: I always start with voice. Once I can hear my characters speak, I need them to interact. I find out most of what I learn about characters and relationships through dialogue—my favorite thing to write! I always tell kids that every character needs to have a different voice. Kids need to sound like kids, adults need to sound like adults—and they all have to sound different from each other. So as an author you try to listen for favorite words, favorite expressions, vocal tics, pauses, emphasis…all of which help you to "show,” not "tell,” the character.
Q: Did you always write that way, or have you seen your process change as you've written more books?
A: I used to be more of a “pantser.” With Star-Crossed I became a “plotter,” relying on Romeo and Juliet as an outline. Since then I've become more of a hybrid plotter/pantser. I think you listen to the book you're writing and respond to what it needs from you. But I've always loved writing dialogue best. When I'm stuck, or need a break, I like to read screenplays of my favorite movies. Hearing those voices helps me to unblock my own writing.
Q: You mentioned crayfish earlier, which is such a great element in the book. Zinny loves science and spends time observing her class's crayfish with her favorite teacher, who encourages her to apply for a marine biology summer camp. What was your favorite subject in school? Did you have any memorable teachers who encouraged you?
A: Haha, I always felt like I faked my way through science and math. My favorite subject was always, always, always English. One teacher who stands out was my seventh grade English teacher, who for some reason handed me a copy of Pride and Prejudice to read. At first I thought she was joking—it seemed like a foreign language! But I read the whole thing…and realized I LOVED it. And thought it was funny! To this day it's probably my favorite novel.
Q: That is such a great story! Did you ever go back to tell that seventh grade teacher how much Pride and Prejudice ended up meaning to you?
A: Ah, no. Sadly! She'd be pretty happy, I bet.
Q: Hopefully the story is an inspiration to other teachers out there.
A: Yes—you never know how a book will resonate with a kid, even if they're reluctant at first. And you never know how a simple gesture—like handing a kid a book outside the curriculum--will tell a kid that you see something about them. I always needed that kind of validation from my English teachers in particular. Meant everything to me.
Q: I love the “tough topics” as you've mentioned in helping kids get to have important conversations, paired with interesting elements like crayfish, or memorable friendships.
A: I always weave in other threads to my “tough topics.” Middle grade readers need a break from the intensity of these topics--so I always include friendship problems, crushes, school stuff--and plenty of humor.
Q: What kind of books were you reading as a kid?
A: As a young kid, I read everything. As a middle schooler, I was a bit lost—there weren't any upper middle grade books then! I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and not getting much of it (even though I loved the voice). And I read Pride and Prejudice, as I said. I also got into Agatha Christie. Oh and I adored A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Q: I’m sure there are many avid young readers who can relate!
A: We have a great opportunity to reach these neglected readers who aren't quite ready for YA, but who have outgrown the kids' section of the library. I'm proud and delighted to be a part of the growing genre of Upper Middle Grade.
A Conversation with Chloe Gong, author of These Violent Delights
My debut novel, These Violent Delights, is a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, about the heirs of two rival gangs who must set aside the blood feud between their families when a monster rises in the city and starts killing their people.
Q: These Violent Delights is such a cool take on Romeo and Juliet. I'm wondering if you can tell us more about the book's setting. Why did you choose that time and place?
A: These Violent Delights takes place in 1926 Shanghai, right before the Chinese Civil War starts to rumble along in 1927. This was such an interesting era in history because the Roaring ‘20s has its whole glamorous, beautiful aesthetic, but it was also a time of social upheaval and Western imperialism all around the world. Because Romeo and Juliet has so many interesting themes about hate and love, I decided to mash it up with 1920s Shanghai and explore some of that in a new context!
Q: The mix of politics, social upheaval, and glamour definitely creates a complicated and vivid setting. With rival gangs and a kind of contagion at play, the world you created is also rich in feuds and politics. Can you tell us a bit about the Cai and Montagov families? What influenced you to write a story like this?
A: The Cai and Montagov families started out as adaptations of the Capulets and Montagues, and initially I had only been planning them as rival families. But then the more the book evolved, the more that I realized there was so much potential in a setting with so much social upheaval and Shakespearean inspiration! Shakespeare's original play centered around a blood feud and meaningless hate; I realized I had the potential to build the Cais and Montagovs to be a direct reflection by taking inspiration from true history. The Cais are native to Shanghai and ethnically Chinese. The Montagovs are Russian emigrants who fled civil unrest a few generations ago. As far as their places in the city go, they are equal in power, and fight each other for no reason except to draw forward interesting thematic questions about the role of hate and the origins of hatred! (With that, it made it all the more interesting as a contrast when the Cai and Montagov families have to deal with the British or French in the story, because then suddenly the hatred does have a reason!)
Q: What was your research process like while you were writing? Had you researched 1920s Shanghai a lot in advance, or did you find yourself fact checking throughout? Was it difficult to interweave fact and fiction?
A: I knew a little! I pulled a lot about the culture and the way of life from the stories I had heard from my parents, who are from Shanghai. And because so many of my relatives live there still, I visited the city often and really had a sense of the city's atmosphere! I paired that up with some technical research about the historical facts by going to my school library and flipping through all the books on 1920s China, and used that as a starting basis to write! I would definitely run a lot of Google searches here and there too while drafting for little things like, “Wait…did cars have trunks in the 1920s?!” (The answer is yes, they did in China) It was absolutely hard at times to try keep the historical accuracy while telling a fictionalized story, but once I made it click, it all ran smoothly!
Q: Could you share a little bit about your writing process? You’re also a student at the University of Pennsylvania—how do you find the time to write?
A: I block out my calendar very carefully! I allocate my schoolwork time and my writing time, but then I also like to let my ideas percolate in my head before I do sit down and write. I plan a lot in advance and once I think I can envision the scene while I'm multi-tasking something mundane like buying groceries, then I sit down and try get everything down as productively as possible! It's a technique that absolutely helps when there are only 24 hours in a day!