Ronald L. Smith's debut novel Hoodoo, also the name of the main character, is about a 12-year-old African-American orphan living in Alabama in the 1930s. Hoodoo was named as such because of his birthmark which was taken as a sign of his inheriting the family’s magical talent. Despite the mark, Hoodoo is incapable of casting a spell. His lack of skill doesn’t stop him from being drawn into the supernatural world in this spooky story enhanced by historical details of rural life during the Great Depression. Get to know the author as he shares his inspiration for the story, tips for young writers and living in Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Hoodoo is set in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. You do an amazing job of bringing that time and place to life. Can you share some of your research? Why Alabama? Why the 1930s?
Ronald L. Smith: Thank you.
Well, my parents are from Alabama and we took trips there when I was a kid. I fell in love with the flora and fauna, the food and people. It’s a place full of history and tall tales. When I started looking into my family history, I began to wonder about that time and what it must have been like to live in that era. My parents were a great resource, and they told me much about their early lives.
BTC: Some have said that this novel is a meeting of Zora Neale Hurston and Stephen King. I think this is a perfect description. Was it challenging writing horror for a younger audience? Why did you want to share the history of folk magic?
RLS: Well, I didn’t really set out to write a book like this. As a lot of writers would probably tell you, ideas just come to you, and if they stick around long enough, you just have to put it on the page. Once the story began to take shape, I started thinking that I might be on to something special.
I wasn’t challenged by the horror aspect of the book. I just wrote for myself, as something I would have liked to read. Of course, I was aware that the book would be geared towards young readers. My editor and agent weighed in and I think we found a good balance.
BTC: Hoodoo’s voice is genuine and appealing. How did you get in the head of a 12-year-old living in the south during the Great Depression?
RLS: I guess a lot of it is drawing from my own childhood: the way you feel as a kid, the way your parents talk to you, the way you look at the world. It all just came out in a kind of fugue state, if that makes sense. I used to write literary fiction until I discovered that my voice was a better fit for children’s literature.
BTC: This is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
RLS: It has all been very exciting! It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life. The most exciting aspect of the adventure was when my agent called and told me the book was going to auction. That’s something I’ll never forget. Getting support and input from my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was also fantastic. It’s truly been a wonderful experience.
BTC: Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to complete your first novel? What’s in store for readers next?
RLS: Well, writers will tell you there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsters. I am of the latter, which means I fly by the seat of my pants when I write. I have tried outlining, index cards, Scrivener — all to no avail. I start with an idea and see where it goes. Once I have a few thousand words, the story begins to take shape. I always go back and add whatever is needed, once I know where the story is headed.
Hoodoo is my third novel, and the one that got me an agent. The first one I wrote took a few years and is on a file on my computer where it will remain! It was good practice, though. The second book is still close to my heart, and I would like to see it published someday.
After Hoodoo comes The Mesmerist, another middle grade, [which] takes place in Victorian England! Expect plagues and scary monsters!
BTC: What authors, books or ideas influenced you? What are you reading now?
RLS: That is a good question and I could fill several pages, but I’ll spare you.
I like children’s lit that is smart and assumes the reader will understand the concepts and themes of the book. Authors like M.T. Anderson, Philip Pullman, Holly Black. I’ve always been a big sci-fi and fantasy buff. I like dark movies and films. Not horror, specifically, unless it is done very well. I’m more interested in the supernatural aspects.
As for recent reads, I recently finished Lee Kelly’s City of Savages, which was quite good, and have also read the first book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy.
I am also re-reading the Harry Potter books. I’ve pretty much forgotten what happens in each, as it has been so long since first reading them. I’m watching the films immediately after I finish each book.
BTC: What would you tell young people interested in becoming writers?
RLS: They’ve probably heard it before, but read. And then read some more. Read everything that interests you, and also pick up books that you might at first turn away from: history, anthropology, biographies of historical figures. Share the things you write with people you admire: teachers, parents. Once you feel comfortable, join a group where you can all share your writing to get feedback.
BTC: You grew up in army bases all over the world and are now settled in Baltimore. How long have you lived here and what made you stay? Tell us some of your favorite things about Baltimore.
RLS: Well, my wife and I moved to Baltimore after living in Chicago for 13 years. We wanted to be closer to family. We’ve now been here for about six years. Baltimore is a strange little place. Not quite a big city, but too big to be a small town. I like its oddity, its accents and one-of-a-kind characters. The creative people that live here truly love what they do. They work hard and play hard. After living in Chicago for so long, I’ve come to appreciate Maryland’s green spaces, its beaches and rivers. Everything is here or a short drive away.
Also, crab cakes.
John David Anderson's The Dungeoneers is the story of Colm, a young boy trying to help his family. Unfortunately for Colm, he's a thief. Fortunately for Colm, he's given the chance at riches beyond his wildest dreams. All he has to do is join Thwodin's Legion, the world's premier dungeon raiding guild. Oh, and he has to survive those same dungeons, full of deadly traps, murderous monsters and, of course, a couple hundred other adventurers in training, starting with his own team. Lena is a fighter hoping to become a barbarian, with a phobia of seeing her own blood. Quinn is a mage with a speech impediment under stress and a bottomless pit for a stomach. Selene wants to make friends with all the creatures they meet in the world's most dangerous places, as long as they aren't any bigger than spiders.
Thwodin's Legion is basically Hogwarts for the kids growing up with World of Warcraft and Minecraft. Everyone fits into a fantasy archetype, from the wizards to the rogues, and while they may not move far from their base, these archetypes are classic for a lot of reasons. Everyone gets roles for their place in a dungeon raid. “Stay behind the big one.” “Don't steal from your partners, unless it's okay.” “Never let the big guy do the sneaking.”
Anderson is a master of throwing kids into situations that are so vividly detailed that they feel believable but utterly fantastic at the same time. He has also turned out the superb Sidekicked and Minion, books about kids who grow up in the battle between superheroes and supervillains. No matter how out there the world, it's grounded in day-to-day life. Colm steals because his family is poor. His family doesn't accept this because they are moral people. This book is about how a thief becomes more than just a thief, and figures out how to do the sort of right thing in a complicated world.
Reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt is a delightful, charming fantasy perfect for the middle grader.
Penelope is an overscheduled young writer who has run out of ideas as well as time to write. One day, Penelope's calendar is completely clear and she is elated! Her mother, however, quickly tries to rectify the mistake. Penelope runs away and falls into "the Lost Track of Time" and discovers the Realm of Possibility where she begins her quest to find the Great Moodler. Being careful to avoid the Clockwatchers, the Naughty Woulds and Wild Bores, she relies on getting Inklings and following Hunches to find her way to Chronos City. Meeting interesting and imaginative creatures along the way, Penelope must use all of her cunning and wits to defeat the evil Chronos, free the Great Moodler and get her writing ideas back.
Filled with wonder as well as fabulous illustrations, The Lost Track of Time will touch a nerve with today’s overscheduled world. It is beautifully written with wonderful wordplay, adventure and excitement. Beautiful drawings by illustrator Lee White enhance the already delightful story. Grownups and children alike will adore this novel. Fans of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis will also enjoy this book.
In the battle of the pranksters, there can be only one winner. In The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John, prankster Miles Murphy, already disgusted at having to start a new school in a tiny little town famous for cows, is dismayed to find there is already a reigning school prankster. When Miles discovers the current practical joker is really quite good, he challenges himself to outdo the unknown perpetrator and sets about creating elaborate tricks, only to be thwarted at every turn.
Admitting defeat, he joins together with his nemesis to form the Terrible Two. They take the Prankster’s Oath and plan the greatest caper in the history of Yawnee Valley! Barnett and John have teamed together to create a wonderfully fun book about friendship, creativity and cows. Hilarious illustrations are provided by Kevin Cornell. An added educational component includes numerous fun facts about cows. Did you know cows can climb up stairs, but not down?
A fast, funny read, The Terrible Two is the first in a planned series of four books and has already been optioned for a movie. Fans of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of Wimpy Kid and Tom Greenwald’s Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading will devour this series.
Navigating the trials of fifth grade is tough enough: tough teachers, difficulties with friends, avoiding bullies and trying to stay “cool” in front of all your peers. In Jennifer Richard Jacobson’s new novel Paper Things, 11-year-old Arianna Hazard has all these complications coupled with the fact that she and her 18-year-old brother Gage are currently homeless.
Ari prefers to think that their situation is temporary; Gage had promised when they left their guardian’s house that he had an apartment lined up just for them, but that was over two months ago. Ari has to spend her nights wondering whose couch they will crash on next or where she can hang up her school uniform. Ari had promised her dying mother that she would get into Carter Middle School, a school for gifted children. Unable to find quiet places to study, she’s behind on her schoolwork and hasn’t even touched her application. Instead, she’s trying to ignore the comments from her classmates that her hair is greasy and that she smells bad.
Can Arianna find any stability in a world where she needs to protect her cherished folder of cutouts from catalogues amidst a shelter of preteen girls? Will she gain the trust of the teachers at her school enough to earn a leadership position to get into Carter, even when she’s failing her classes? Will she and Gage get what they want most — a home of their own?
Parents and teachers looking for a good resource for children in difficult circumstances will find this novel to be a great teachable moment about empathy, kindness and perseverance. Two other great novels that shed light on homeless children are Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan and Almost Home by Joan Bauer; both would make great companion pieces to read along Paper Things.
Earlier this year, we lost one of the greats. Terry Pratchett was a satirist worthy of being commented on in the same breath as Mark Twain. The only British author to outsell him was J.K. Rowling. Pratchett wasn't always huge though, and that's how you arrive full circle at The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett. It is a collection of the short stories that Sir Terry first published when he was just a starting journalist for the Bucks Free Press.
Most of Pratchett's infamy comes from the Discworld, a world carried on the back of four elephants which naturally stand on the back of a massive turtle. The Discworld gave birth to Rincewind, the least magical wizard ever, an orangutan librarian, a kind but often confused Death, witches, watchmen and dozens upon dozens of novels — and wordplay so brilliant that no one can catch every nuance on the first reading. (Fortunately there's enough in every book to make multiple readings an entirely enjoyable venture.) The Discworld exists as a satire of the world we live in, covering everything from holidays, feminism, religion and a million other sacred cows poked with both anger and understanding. Pratchett came to be known for fantasy that hit close to home. The Dragons of Crumbling Castle is far closer to home.
Meet corrupt small town politicians cooking the local egg dancing competition. There is a pet tortoise that only wants freedom. The book has wacky races and the enduring question of what Santa Claus would do if he wasn't Santa Claus. (Apparently, nothing well.) Two of the stories here went on to lead to Sir Terry's first novel The Carpet People, about tiny, tiny people who live amongst the strands of the carpet fiber and are forced to move when the Fray gets too close. It turns out that even when he was young, Pratchett understood that the world was more than slightly mad. These are light enough stories that I'd recommend them for parents reading to their children, and the entire book has been enthusiastically illustrated by Mark Beech.
We're not done with Pratchett yet. He has at least two more finished books coming out this year.
Victorian London was a nasty place to be if you had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the economic divide. It gets worse, however, if you're stuck in a part of town where there's a bogle – nebulous, unpredictable monsters who eat children left alone. Get stuck while sweeping a chimney? There might be a bogle there ready to eat you. Go down to fetch something from the cellar? Better hope that if you're alone, you're really alone. There is only one way to hunt bogles, and that's to bait a trap with a child who must sing with their back to the bogle until the bogle is exposed enough to be killed by a poisoned weapon. As bogles descend upon London, Catherine Jinks has woven a light but effective bit of period horror in A Plague of Bogles.
Jem Barbary has his sights set on the prestigious job, at least by the level of unlucky London, job of bogler's boy. He wants to be the bait for Alfred Bunce, London's only remaining bogler, semi-retired. After the events of How to Catch a Bogle, Jem has decided to give up crime. He used to be a pickpocket in a Fagin ring, but he hasn't given up playing whatever angle he can think of. Unfortunately, that seems to involve a whole lot of lying and leading publicity back to people who'd rather keep their heads down. He's also out for revenge against his former mistress, Sarah Pickles.
Like a good ghost story, A Plague of Bogles is both scary and fun. London is full of colorful characters trying to survive on a few cents a day. Street patter is used so fluidly that there's a large glossary at the end of the book just to make the dialogue clear. Jem Barbary and all the supporting cast are great characters, wildly flawed but determined. The standout passages, though, go to the bogle hunting. Every single time is a slow boil, impending, but certain, doom creeping up until just the last moment when everything snaps like a mousetrap.
“Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.” — Mr. Daniels quoting “a wise person” in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
In Hunt's new novel, sixth grader Ally is one such Fish in a Tree. Because her father is in the military, Ally has transferred to her sixth school, where she is already known as a troublemaker. She will do anything to get out of reading or writing, including defiantly drawing on the desk right in front of the teacher. When she gives her pregnant teacher a sympathy card at her baby shower, her teacher and principal are horrified. The reader, however, knows the truth: Ally can’t read.
Expertly portraying the reality of a learning disability and the impact it has on a child’s academic and social life — as well as her self-esteem — Hunt delivers a heartfelt, beautiful story about school, friendship and hope. Ally’s savior is her new substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels. Besides figuring out her secret, he convinces Ally that she is smart and that he can help her. New friendships with other “outcasts” boosts her morale and brings a little more happiness to her life.
This is an overall great read with believable characters the reader will cheer for. Fans of Hunt’s other book, One for the Murphys, and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will enjoy this book for its characters and theme of overcoming an obstacle to survive in middle school.
Stanley the beagle's family is awakened throughout the night by what they believe are his normal ‘handydog’ activities. As each of the four children go to their parents' room to investigate the strange noises they hear, their father assures them that It's Only Stanley. But this is no ordinary night. Author Jon Agee's usual over-the-top events and humorous illustrations will appeal to the intended audience.
Although Mr. Panda seems apathetic when offering colorful donuts to his black-and-white animal friends, he has a method to his madness. One by one, those who want a donut are refused, until a bright-eyed lemur remembers the magic word. A manners book that isn’t preachy, Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony is a perfectly silly reminder to young children. Stark but inviting illustrations match the minimalist text.
In Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, CJ and his grandmother leave church every Sunday and wait for the bus. But this Sunday CJ, has a lot of questions for his caregiver, wondering why they don’t have a car, why they have to go to church and why a blind man cannot see. Each time his grandmother answers with the wisdom of experience and age. Christian Robinson’s bright and child-friendly illustrations are a perfect match for the urban setting of this contemporary and diverse tale.
Marlin Rackham comes from a proud lineage. His father is one of the great explorers, the conqueror and defender of the jungle of South America. Ronan Rackham owns The Zoo at the Edge of the World, a collection of jungle animals built on a temple in British Guiana. Unfortunately for Marlin, he has a severe stutter and can only clearly speak to the animals around him. When his father brings a jaguar out of the jungle, suddenly the animals are able to talk back. Author Eric Kahn Gale asks big questions while crafting a story that is more Heart of Darkness than Doctor Dolittle.
Marlin's life isn't easy. His brother is an unmitigated bully. His father is a legend. Everyone thinks he's an idiot because he can't speak. When a powerful duke brings his family to the zoo and a man-eating jaguar is captured for exhibition, Marlin gets caught in the middle of British colonial politics. What is a boy to do when he can't speak, but understands entire sides to the conflicts that no one else is even aware of?
The tour program is interspersed regularly, providing a counterpoint to what actually happens in the story at any time. As the zoo goes farther and farther off schedule, the attempt to write puff pieces becomes ludicrous. This is a delightfully dark children’s book recommended for readers of Kipling's The Jungle Book. It's frightening and realistic, and follows the implications of its magic through. In a world where animals can talk across species lines, they still need to eat each other.