Linda M. Castellitto

Delight the teenager on your holiday list with a fabulous graphic novel or gripping true story guaranteed to make them swoon, giggle or gasp.

The Girl From the Sea

For the reader who longs to be carried away on the waves of a fantastical story

In The Girl From the Sea, author-illustrator Molly Knox Ostertag blends myth and realism to create a story about the things we'd rather keep submerged—and what happens when they surface with a splash.

Morgan Kwon is 15 and part of a power clique at her high school that serves as a frothy diversion from her unhappy family life. She's just biding her time until she can move away from her small island town and finally come out as gay. 

One rainy night at the rocky seaside cliffs that are her favorite place to sit and think, Morgan slips on the wet stones and falls into the water. She's rescued by a mysterious girl named Keltie, who is kind of cute, really, and an awfully powerful swimmer, but the instant connection between them threatens all the secrets that Morgan's been carefully concealing from her friends and family. 

Ostertag (The Witch Boy) is an expert at conveying complex emotions and subtly shifting the mood from one panel to the next. Morgan is part of a group text message thread with her friends, which  includes numerous invitations that Morgan declines, at first because of her feelings of loneliness and depression, and later because Keltie is clearly not welcome among the group, even as she and Morgan are tentatively falling for each other. Ostertag initially depicts Morgan's home life with her stressed mom and angry little brother in stark, silent scenes, but as secrets come to light and Morgan's family reach out to one another, there's a warmth to their time together that lifts off the page.

This graphic novel's narrative flows so smoothly that you might find yourself reading it in one big gulp, and its resolution is bittersweet but hopeful. The Girl From the Sea is a wistful romance that will catch readers by the heart.

—Heather Seggel

Passport

For the reader who has always suspected there was more to their parents than meets the eye

"¿Qué está pasando?" Early in her graphic memoir, Passport, author-illustrator Sophia Glock writes that this phrase—which means "what is going on?"—is her mantra at the Spanish-language immersion high school she attends in Central America. The phrase is a lifeline as Glock navigates the usual challenges of teenage life, but it takes on another meaning when Glock discovers that she is the daughter of CIA agents who have been keeping her in the dark. 

Growing up, Glock lived all over the world because of her parents' ambiguous "work." What work is that, exactly? She has no idea. The more questions she asks, the fewer answers she receives. Just keep your head down, her parents tell her. Stay safe, and if you can, why don't you let us know what your friends' parents do for a living?

When Glock reads a letter that her older sister, away at college, wrote to their parents, the blanks in her life begin to fill in, though she is too afraid to confront her parents directly. Instead, like any frustrated teen, she exercises her autonomy and starts telling lies of her own. Boys, girls, drinking and partying abound while Glock travels through the gauntlet of adolescence and the tension between her ever-accumulating little lies versus her parents' one big lie threatens to boil over.

Glock's depictions of quiet yet consequential moments, such as when she ponders the choices her parents have made, are especially spellbinding. Her sparse, restrained art style evokes the feeling of a memory play, a recollection both real and ethereal. She renders the entire book in only three colors: shades of a reddish pink, a cold blue and white. Her characters aren't always easily distinguishable from one another, and while that can cause some confusion in the story, the overall effect is satisfying. After all, how much does Glock really know about the people around her? ¿Qué está pasando? In her author's note, Glock concedes as much. "These stories are as true as I remember them," she writes. The CIA's publication review board nixed some of the particulars of Passport before it was published, which makes the details that did end up in the book all the more dramatic.

A deceptively spare graphic novel chock-full of depth and beauty, Passport is an unusual coming-of-age memoir that's totally worth the trip. 

—Luis G. Rendon

★ The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

For the reader who loves spooky castles and fears no gothic terror, not even marauding zombie bunnies

Haley is so exuberantly dedicated to gothic romances that her exasperated teacher orders her to stop writing book reports on Wuthering Heights (and no, she cannot do an interpretive dance about it instead!). After school, Haley sets out for home in the rain, and lo! As she stands on a bridge, dramatically sighing, she sees a man struggling in the dark waters below. She dives in to rescue the floundering fellow, conks out after her exertions and awakens abed in Willowweep Manor, attended by a dour housekeeper named Wilhelmina. Have Haley's period-piece dreams come true? 

Turns out, Haley has indeed been inadvertently catapulted into a world much like those in her beloved books. There's a castle (complete with "baleful catacombs" and an on-site ghost) and verdant moors, as well as three handsome brothers—stoic Laurence, brooding Montague and vacuous Cuthbert—who took her in after she saved Montague from drowning.

But Haley soon discovers another side to Willowweep. It's a gasket universe, a liminal space between Earth and an evil dimension laden with a substance called bile that destroys everything in its globby, neon green path. Can Haley help the brothers fend off the encroaching forces of darkness before it's too late? 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is a hoot right from the get-go, but when everyone bands together to defend the manor, author Shaenon K. Garrity's tale becomes ever more hilarious and exciting. Humorous metafictional quips fly hither and yon as the characters take up arms, squabble over strategy and realize they've got to break a few rules (and defy a few tropes) if they want to prevail. 

Christopher Baldwin's art is full-bore appealing. He has an excellent command of color: Brooding browns underlie characters' stress while sky blues highlight Haley's growing confidence. Facial expressions are little comedies unto themselves, including horses who side-eye Cuthbert's silliness, and slack-faced bile-addled bunnies who adorably chant "Destroy." 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor celebrates and satirizes a beloved genre while encouraging readers to defy the rules and become the heroes of their own stories.

—Linda M. Castellitto

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Looking for something to please a choosy teen reader? Look no further than these gripping graphic tales.

Before her dad died, Marigold "Mary" Sullivan lived 10 blocks from the beach in California. There, she basked in the bright yellow sun while her boyfriend, Bennett, surfed and she and her BFF, Nora, excitedly made plans to attend college together at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But nine months after her dad died, Marigold's mom moved their family from California to the cool green woods of upstate New York.

As Kate Sweeney's lyrical and empathetic debut novel, Catch the Light, opens, Marigold is disoriented and lonely in her grief, "feeling like I'm inside a mirage" in which nothing is solid or certain and nobody understands her. Her mom is immersed in work; her younger sister, Bea, is bristling with unresolved anger; and her older sister, Hannah, is away at college.

But although she's contending with an avalanche of change, Marigold understands that life continues apace, so she sets about orienting herself in her new town. She tours her soon-to-be school and shops at the grocery co-op, where she has a heart-fluttering meet cute with dreamy, sensitive local guy Jesse over a tube of beeswax lip balm.

Read our Q&A with Kate Sweeney.

The prospect of new romance is thrilling, but Marigold hasn't resolved things with Bennett, and her efforts to parse his cryptic texts while guiltily swooning over Jesse add a nice frisson of tension to the book. So, too, does Marigold's uncertainty about college in California and her reluctance to come clean about it to Nora. And then there's her biggest secret, which is that she's beginning to forget her father: "I don't remember his smell or the feeling of his skin, and my memories curve around the empty spaces where he would have stood or spoken."

Marigold tries to forget the forgetting, to carry on despite the increasing weight of things unspoken. Thankfully, Jesse inspires her to revisit photography, which ultimately serves as a form of salvation. Indeed, healing through art is a theme to which Sweeney, who is also a singer-songwriter, does beautiful justice. Her expressive prose renders quotable lines on nearly every page of Catch the Light as Marigold opens herself up to inhabiting the new life she's forging after—and despite—her great loss.

Catch the Light is an affecting and affirming case for the painful, transformative inevitability of hope in the face of heartache.

Author Kate Sweeney reveals the personal story behind 'Catch the Light.'

Kate Sweeney’s debut novel about a young woman finding her way through grief after her father’s death makes an affecting case for hope in the face of heartache.

Kate Sweeney's debut YA novel, Catch the Light, is a moving story of healing through art and opening yourself up to a new life after suffering a great loss. Sweeney graciously shares a heartfelt look into her experiences of grief and loss, which inspired the story of her protagonist, Marigold "Mary" Sullivan.

Tell us a little bit about Marigold and what's happened in her life when we first meet her.
Marigold is a white, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual 17-year-old who is about to start her senior year of high school. She has just moved from Los Angeles to rural upstate New York with her mom and little sister. Her father died nine months before the book starts, and she's also just lost so many other parts of her life—her friends, her boyfriend, her home. She's grieving and feeling out of control but also trying to keep things together for her family. On top of that, she's grappling with the fact that she's forgetting her father.

How did this book begin for you?
This book felt like it came to me all at once. I think part of that is because so much of the emotional territory is familiar to me. I experienced a lot of Marigold's journey in my own life. When I started Catch the Light, I hadn't written a word of prose in over 10 years, I was a new mom and a full-time public school teacher, and I was feeling totally underwater, like I was losing myself. And then suddenly I got this feeling like I needed to write this story. It felt kind of like I was bringing myself back from the edge.

"When I lost my father, there was a lot of shame in feeling like I was doing it wrong, that I wasn't feeling enough or showing enough. But it's not something that we really have control over; the only thing to do is just to make space for it however you can."

You started writing when you were 16, five years after your father died. How much did you revisit your own experiences as you worked on this book?
The amazing part of writing this book was getting to relive a moment that, in many ways, shaped my whole life, as an adult person and a parent. I had this dual perspective on the experience: I could be myself and my dad at the same time. I could understand the tension of being an artist and a parent, of wanting to lose myself in my work and forget the world, even as I remembered the feeling of being forgotten. There was a lot of peace in that for me.

Marigold's grief is complex and mutable, and she feels alone in her sadness a lot of the time. What did you hope readers will take away from this aspect of her story?
I think the biggest message in Catch the Light is that grief is messy. When I lost my father, there was a lot of shame in feeling like I was doing it wrong, that I wasn't feeling enough or showing enough. But it's not something that we really have control over; the only thing to do is just to make space for it however you can. I hope that readers can feel validated in whatever their own experiences might be, no matter how imperfect.

There are more than a few secrets bubbling around in Catch the Light, which makes for some delicious suspense and dramatic conflict. What drew you to exploring the consequences of secrecy in this story?
This is actually pretty funny, because I really hate this kind of suspense! Often when I'm reading a book and the main character keeps making bad decisions and telling lies that are going to ruin everything, I can't even finish it. I think it's because I'm a huge perfectionist and grew up really afraid to ever do the wrong thing. But maybe this book is a wish for my younger self, that when everything fell apart in my own family, I would have just been able to mess things up like that. I think there's something healthy about making huge mistakes, especially as part of the grieving process.

Marigold has to adapt to not only a new home but also new ground and sky. You did a wonderful job conveying what it was like for Marigold to long for beautiful "pollution-bright sunsets" even as she grows to appreciate a sky that's "inky black and covered in stars." How did you work to craft such grounded senses of place in Marigold's story?
Growing up, I lived in a lot of different places: Athens, Georgia; Los Angeles; Cambridge, New York; Salt Lake City; and New York City. In a way, it always felt like I was longing for somewhere I'd left behind. The idea of place became very important to me, especially in all of the physical sensations that make a place what it is. I'm always thinking about what the air felt like somewhere or what color the flowers were. I'm just incredibly nostalgic in that way, so when I was writing Catch the Light, I wanted to convey the feeling of longing that I'd always felt.

"There are so many fascinating connections and parallels between photographs and memory, from our desperation to capture moments as they happen to the way we obsess over photographs when someone leaves us."

Marigold's long-distance sorta-boyfriend Bennett is a kind, hunky California surfer she's known forever—and then she meets sensitive, dreamy New York photographer Jesse, with whom she feels an instant connection. What was most fun about writing those romantic storylines?
While many parts of this book were biographical, the boyfriend part was definitely not. I was not cool in high school and people did not want to date me. I didn't have a real relationship with reciprocated feelings until I was in my 20s. 

I'm also a huge romantic. When I'm out in public and I see two people who might be on a date, I can't help but make up a whole story in my head about what's happening there. I just love romance, so creating romantic characters and storylines is one of my favorite parts of writing.

The level of detail about film photography you included was impressive and fascinating, from technical considerations to the characters' favorite shutterbugs. Did you research that element of the book? Are you perhaps also a photographer yourself?
In my early 20s, I was an avid film photographer. When I was writing Catch the Light, I wanted Marigold to be a photographer too, because of what's happening with her memory. There are so many fascinating connections and parallels between photographs and memory, from our desperation to capture moments as they happen to the way we obsess over photographs when someone leaves us. My older sister, Sarah, is a digital media artist, and her work has really inspired me to think about the ways that images can help us remember while simultaneously degrading the lived experience of our pasts.

Read our starred review of 'Catch the Light.'

You've been writing songs, singing and playing music with your band, Magic Magic Roses, for the past 10 years. What is it like for you to transition between creating songs to writing a novel? Do Kate the musician and Kate the author have a lot in common?
Songwriting and novel writing are very similar experiences for me. There is a lot of self-discipline involved for both: You have to keep showing up, day after day. I'm an early riser and a compulsive journaler, and I wrote both my music and Catch the Light by making use of tiny scraps of time I found in between working, being a partner and taking care of a small child. 

For me, the other secret to both is a certain level of truth telling. You have to be willing to put it all out there, to embarrass yourself a little. In my songs and stories, I tell things about myself that I would never reveal to a person that I know in real life.

I love the playlist on your website with songs and artists mentioned in the book. Can you share a little bit about a few of them and why they're special to the characters—and to you?
A lot of the music in the book is from my own childhood. My dad really loved bands like Talking Heads and the Doors, so mentioning those felt like they were for him. The Violent Femmes makes me think of my sister and her roller-coaster teen years, of how amazingly honest and authentic she's always been. 

In general, when I think of memories from being young, music is always at the forefront. It's what keeps me feeling connected to that time and those people.

As you're answering these questions, there's a month to go before Catch the Light will be published. How do you feel? What's something you hope for this book as it makes its way into the world and into the hands and hearts of readers? How do you hope you'll feel a year from now?
At this moment, everything feels very surreal. I'm new to publishing, so it's all a little mystifying. My hopes are very basic. Even just how you describe it, that the book "makes its way into the world and into the hands and hearts of readers," is such an exciting idea and really all I hope for. 

I have another book that I'm editing now and a baby book that I'm working on a little bit every day, and so a year from now, I hope I can just keep feeling this push to create and the magic of getting to share my books with the world.

Author photo © Kari Orvik

This affecting and personal debut novel makes space for the messiness of grief.

Tamron Hall has long been a household name. She's reported on and anchored major news stories for NBC and MSNBC, she became the first Black woman to host "TODAY" in 2014 and her Emmy-winning "Tamron Hall Show" is in its third season. Now she makes her debut as an author with As the Wicked Watch, which introduces readers to Jordan Manning. A savvy and dedicated crime reporter, Jordan is determined to find justice for two young Black girls found murdered in Chicago, despite pushback from the police and ever-increasing danger as she gets closer to the truth. Hall talked to BookPage about life on the crime beat, her transition from TV to the page and why Chicago is close to her heart.


Congratulations on becoming an author! Will you introduce us to the intrepid Jordan Manning?
We follow Jordan, a young woman from Texas, now in Chicago, who becomes obsessed with a case that comes in through a call to her hotline number. Jordan is a complicated and very interesting woman. She's at a critical point in her career where a national network job is looming over her head as an option, but her ties to Chicago and the people there keep her grounded. She started out believing her path would involve forensic science. Through life and her journey, she realized being a reporter and investigating was more for her than being in a lab and analyzing information. 

Did going from telling stories on TV to crafting them on the page feel like a natural transition? What was the hardest, easiest or most fun thing about embracing your inner author?
The most interesting part of this journey for me was piecing together the case in my book and how it would be solved. It was inspired by two cases I covered years ago in which children were not given the justice or care they should have received, whether it was the victims or the children who were accused of a heinous crime. For me, it was a natural transition. I wanted the book to read like a newscast. I wanted it to feel urgent, with the tone and the experience of a reporter. I was able to reflect on personal experience instead of having to interview reporters and get their take on what it's like. 

You've had and are having quite the impressive career, complete with major TV network jobs, talk show syndication, an Emmy win and more. What made you want to add author to your resume?
I've thought about the two cases that inspired this novel—one in Texas and one in Chicago—since the late 1990s, when I covered them. I've always wanted to write a novel, but I didn't know exactly what Jordan's journey would be. In the middle of the night, it started to flood my mind. Perhaps being home more [during the COVID-19 pandemic] and needing a creative outlet in addition to the "Tamron Hall Show" was how this book was born. My experiences as a reporter on "Deadline: Crime" to reporting on the streets of Bryan, Texas, Chicago and New York City are all part of this journey.

"I wanted the book to read like a newscast."

You've worked in morning television for some 25 years and must have that early riser routine down! Did that play a role in setting up your writing routine? Do you have a preferred writing spot, snack, music, etc.? 
Morning TV absolutely helped my routine. I wake up naturally at 4:30 a.m., and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were taping my show later in the day. Every morning I would wake up early, grab a cup of coffee and just start writing. Twenty-five years of this early morning routine definitely allowed me the space to be creative when writing.

As Tam Fam members will note, there are many similarities between you and Jordan Manning, from the cities you've worked in to a particularly fabulous haircut. What are some ways Jordan is different from you?
Jordan is a lot more anxious than I am. Of course, I am eager to do things and I get excited. But I don't think that I have the same level of anxiety as she does. She's also much more noncommittal than I was when I was dating. She is very much about moving past each guy quickly. Not that that's a bad thing, that just wasn't my particular journey in dating. 

Anyone who's seen you on TV knows you have an eye for fashion, and Jordan's also a snappy dresser—including her trademark stiletto heels. Do you have any fashion talismans that help you feel at home no matter where work takes you?
I think for me, it's my hoop earrings. No matter where I am, my hoop earrings ground me professionally and personally. 

Chicago is the vibrant and dramatic backdrop for Jordan's story. What about the city made you decide to choose it as the setting for As the Wicked Watch?
Chicago was a transformational part of my career. It was my first major market; Chicago was the last building block before going to the national news. I also felt the dynamic of policing and community all fit into the landscape. The politics, the policing issues, the fact that the city is so segregated according to those who live there and reported on it—it was a setting that made sense for Jordan's journey. 

"No matter where I am, my hoop earrings ground me professionally and personally."

Jordan contends with racism and sexism on a daily basis. Although she's developed coping strategies, it still takes a major toll. What do you hope readers take away from your book in terms of what it's like to be a woman of color in the newsroom?
I hope that people take away the reality of being in a newsroom. It is ironic that many of the stories about these issues are reported by reporters who are also experiencing them. Imagine being a reporter discussing a company that's gotten in trouble because of a discrimination case, and you are facing that same type of discrimination within your workplace. It was only recently that we started talking about these things within the news industry. That's the challenge for female reporters and reporters of color. 

Jordan has never understood why college journalism courses are lumped in with marketing and advertising courses. "The disposition my job requires is more akin to a surgeon's or a psychiatrist's," she says. Will you elaborate on that a bit for us?
I think what she means by that and why she compares it to being a surgeon is because it is so precise and so strategic. It is a very focused and fine line, and I think that people underestimate that. You can't be off the cuff, you can't go in without a plan. As a psychiatrist, you have to, for lack of a better description, get into someone's mind. For Jordan, being on the investigative team, she has to think like a police officer, she has to think like someone who has done something nefarious, she has to think like a victim and then ask, "How did this happen?"

Your book shines a light on the differences in how criminal cases are treated by the police, the press, politicians, etc., depending on the race, gender, age and other attributes of the victims. Do you think there's hope for improvement or change?
I believe that there is hope, but if I'm honest, there are days when I think there isn't. Whether it's George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice or Breonna Taylor, for every example of progress, you are given the gut-punch realities of injustice. I think this book shows us both.

This is your first Jordan Manning mystery. Do you already have another one in the works? (No pressure!) Is there anything else you want to share in terms of what's coming up next for you?
I'm already four chapters into the next part of her journey. It takes her a little outside of Chicago, and we're already starting to see more reckless behavior from her to show how committed she truly is to solving cases. Is she willing to put her own livelihood and safety on the line?

Is there anyone more qualified to write a mystery starring a crime reporter than journalist and TV host Tamron Hall?

Jordan Manning is a crime reporter at the top of her game, but staying there is proving increasingly exhausting. When she moved to Chicago from her home state of Texas, she hit the ground running in four-inch stiletto heels—which didn't deter her from being first on the scene of a steady stream of crimes in the Windy City. As a Black woman, Jordan is the only woman of color at News Channel 8, and she's the only reporter in her newsroom with journalism and forensic science degrees. Her experience and savvy serve her well, as does her empathy—a trait that isn't always present in the highly competitive news business.

Because of Jordan's empathy, plus her finely tuned intuition, the disturbing case of Masey James—a smart, well-liked Black teenager found dead in a park—just won't let Jordan go. She had already been frustrated by the police's unwillingness to declare Masey missing, and now authorities are in a rush to arrest someone instead of conducting a thorough investigation. Jordan is determined to not only ethically and comprehensively report on the case but also help solve it.

Read our interview with Tamron Hall about her series launch.

As the Wicked Watch is a compellingly realistic and timely first entry in Tamron Hall's new mystery series starring the ambitious and fabulous Jordan, a woman not unlike her creator. Hall was an award-winning anchor on NBC and MSNBC, was the first Black woman to host "TODAY" and now hosts the Emmy-winning "Tamron Hall Show." Her fiction takes on racism, sexism, media ethics and institutional bias, offering a fascinating inside look at the intricate ballet that is a live newscast.

Readers spend much of the story inside Jordan's very busy head. The naturalistic narrative reveals her investigative strategies, conflicting emotions and minimonologues about everything from Chicago restaurants to her quest for a healthy personal life as she works to earn the trust of Masey's family and neighbors, and edges ever closer to the truth about the killer she believes might strike again. It's a dangerous pursuit, but to Jordan it's just part of "a calling and a purpose larger than myself." As the Wicked Watch is a promising start to a series sure to appeal to fans of badass women with mysteries to solve and something to prove.

Tamron Hall’s debut is a promising start to a series sure to appeal to fans of badass women with mysteries to solve and something to prove.

YA author Kate McGovern's first novel for younger readers is the story of a girl who has been keeping a big secret: She can't read very well. When her secret is discovered and she is held back a year, she struggles to conceal the reason from her friends and classmates.

Secrets are an important theme throughout the book: why we keep them, how hard it is to continue them, the effects they have on our friends and family. What drew you to exploring the power and peril of secrecy?
I was interested in exploring the question of how and why we keep secrets from ourselves as much as from other people. Maple obviously knows she has a hard time reading. But she has also been hiding from this reality, by finding tricks to avoid facing her struggles head-on. I think when we don't want to tell other people something about ourselves, it's very often because we are afraid that saying that thing out loud will make it more real—even though of course that isn't usually true! So keeping this secret from other people is really Maple's way of protecting herself from dealing with her own emotions about how hard it is for her to do something that she perceives other people can do more easily.

In your acknowledgments, you note that you've worked in education for many years, including as a reading tutor for young people, and that this book is "the meeting of my worlds." Will you share a bit more about that with us?
I've always loved working with kids. Even as a high school and college student, I gravitated toward opportunities to volunteer with younger kids, to babysit and to work as a camp counselor, that kind of thing. One of my first jobs out of college was with an incredible organization called the Harlem Children's Zone. I should be clear that I was not a certified or even particularly well-trained reading interventionist! But I was hired to help middle school students who were struggling with reading, so that's what I tried to do. And that kicked off a deeper passion for working within education. After graduate school, I spent a year as a teaching assistant at an elementary school in London, and when I came back to the U.S. I started working in education nonprofits. 

For the last decade or so, I've been writing fiction for kids in my "spare time" and working directly with students or writing about education in my "work time." There hasn't been much overlap. With Maple, I've had the chance to tell a story that deals with issues I've been exposed to through work, such as how and why students can get to older grades without fluent reading skills, which is really much more common than you might think.

"I want readers to understand that Maple's experience is truly just one person's experience."

You do a wonderful job of immersing readers in Maple's mind so they can experience her reading challenges, from how words and pages appear to her to her feelings as she struggles to comprehend what she sees. Can you tell us about the research you did that helped to ensure these moments felt true and real?
Since I've been working in education for a while, both in and out of schools, I'm lucky in that I have a lot of colleagues and former colleagues who know a lot more than I do about reading instruction! I started there, just asking them to talk to me about what Maple's struggles might feel like, tricks she might use to hide them, what types of interventions her teachers could use to support her and that kind of thing. There are also a lot of online resources that I found incredibly useful, such as understood.org, which has these great videos that show students talking about what it feels like to have different kinds of learning disabilities. 

Through one of my former colleagues, I was introduced to an amazing reading interventionist named Trish Geraghty, who was generous enough to read the entire manuscript, give me notes and make sure everything rang true based on her and her students' experiences. I also drew on my own experiences with students. I thought a lot about how they were gifted in so many ways, but how often they didn't have a chance to show off those gifts in school because reading had become a barrier. I was really inspired by my former students and how wonderful and special they each were in their own ways.

Learning differences are quite common in children and adults, especially dyslexia. What stood out to you most as you learned about the range and scope of reading challenges?
That's a really important point. I want readers to understand that Maple's experience is truly just one person's experience. We often tend to think of dyslexia as that thing where you flip letters around, but it's much, much more than that. It was eye-opening to me when one of the reading experts I spoke with used the phrase "characteristics of dyslexia" to refer to this huge umbrella of reading challenges. She helped me see it as much more than just a single diagnosis.

Maple's parents are very interested in her life and sincerely care about her happiness, so they're disappointed with themselves when they realize they missed how much trouble she'd been having with reading. Why was it important to you to include their perspective?
I wanted to explore how Maple's parents might have missed this big thing that was going on for their child—not to blame them for missing it, but to show how parents are human, too. We make mistakes, and sometimes we are guilty of putting our own expectations on our kids without recognizing who they really are as their own people.

Maple and her parents refer to her as a "Hin-Jew" because she's Hindu and Jewish, and as "Whindian," white and Indian. You've said that Maple's family reflects your own. Why was it important to you that the Mehta-Cohens reflected your family? Did basing this aspect of these characters on personal reality make writing them easier, or more challenging?
I wanted to write a book that my own kids could (eventually) pick up and see themselves in. It's a wonderful thing to watch children's literature diversifying so rapidly, but biracial and multiracial protagonists and families are still a little bit less common. I especially wanted to write a story in which the family looked like ours, but in a narrative that wasn't all about being a multicultural family, because in our house, our lives are made richer by our mix of cultures, but we have a lot of other things going on, too. 

Using our family as the jumping-off point definitely made the writing process easier. I was able to pull in very familiar details, and I also had readily available readers (i.e., my husband) who could fact-check for me! (I should add, though, that Maple's family isn't exactly ours. They're still fiction! One fun way that we're different is that my family has grandparents raised in four different traditions—Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Jainism. I simplified!)

Read our review of 'Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen.'

Some characters are mean to Maple when they find out she was held back a grade, but Maple's harshest critic is often herself. Will you share a bit about why reading challenges might be so central to her identity and to how she feels about herself?
I think Maple feels conflicted internally because she identifies as a person who loves books and stories, so she feels like she should be able to read well. Her reading struggles don't fit with her idea of who she is. Of course, her challenges with reading independently have nothing to do with her love for great stories and her own gift of storytelling. There's no reason you can't love stories and also have a hard time with reading fluently! But it takes time for Maple to recognize that and to embrace all the parts of who she is.

Will you tell us a little about fifth and sixth grade Kate and who she was as a reader? Do you think your teachers would be surprised to learn that you grew up to become a published author?
I don't think they'd be surprised at all. I was a lot like Maple, actually, although I did not personally struggle with reading fluency. I used to tell myself stories out loud in my room, pacing back and forth. For years and years, my mind was constantly spinning stories. I was and still am very much a nose-in-a-book kind of person.

YA author Kate McGovern’s first novel for younger readers is the story of a girl who has been keeping a big secret: She can’t read very well.

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