Author Interview: Sara Bennett Wealer

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Sara Bennett Wealer’s Grave Things Like Love is set in a funeral home in an old mansion rumored to be haunted. But the issues it covers are very much part of living: friendship, taking risks, figuring out who you really are even when that goes against family expectations.

Here, the author answers questions about the book and what’s up next for her.

Are parts of “Grave Things Like Love” drawn from your own experiences?

Music plays a big role in the story, and that’s definitely a big part of my personal experience. Elaine plays piano for funerals and accompanies her friends in the school choir. As someone who grew up singing in church, school choirs and community musicals, I know the joy that can bring—and also the pressure! Elaine’s friends are getting ready to audition for the school musical and for college music programs, which brings back very specific memories for me.

The Midwestern, small-town setting is another aspect of life I know well. I grew up in a small college town in Kansas, so my childhood wasn’t as rural as Elaine’s, but my parents and much of my extended family are from just the kind of town that Elaine hails from. Dodson, Illinois, feels very familiar to me, and I hope it will to others who know a place like that.

What inspired you to add a supernatural element to your latest novels?

I enjoy stories that have a little “something something” extra in them—an element that isn’t full-blown paranormal or fantasy but that is still a little “out there” without being the sole focus of the story. When I sprinkle those elements into my own writing, I purposefully try not to explain too much about what is happening and why. That’s because I like the idea that the strange can be a part of everyday life. Sometimes things just are, even if we don’t understand them.

What do you want young readers to take away from “Grave Things Like Love”?

It’s very easy to think we have to have everything figured out by a certain point in our lives—especially when we have family traditions and expectations weighing in. That kind of stress is understandable and natural, but I want to show that there’s a bigger picture, and it’s OK to take a little time, explore the broader world, and not have it all set in stone according to someone else’s timeline.

While we’re talking about the big picture I think that applies to death as well. I wanted to show that, while it’s a huge mystery and something most people fear on some level, it’s also a part of everyday life. Elaine’s dad talks about “the juxtaposition of the Universe,” which he defines as joy in the face of pain. “Grave Things Like Love” has a decent amount of the comic and absurd, even as it takes place in a funeral home. I like that we can hold joy, pain and more within ourselves, all at the same time. To me, that’s a big part of what makes us human.

Why was it important to you to write a main character with anxiety? What do you hope your readers will learn from Elaine?

Anxiety (along with its often-BFF depression) has always been part of my life. I live with it, as do several members of my immediate family. And when I look into the past, I can clearly see older family members who experienced it at a time when society wasn’t as open or accepting about mental health issues, which led to a lot of pain and dysfunction that could possibly have been lessened with proper treatment.

I’m fortunate that my anxiety is something I can manage with strategies like exercise, mindfulness, proper nutrition, and medication from time to time. I know others for whom anxiety is a much more disruptive part of their lives. For all of us, though, it’s something we do have to live with, and that’s what I wanted to portray in this book. The way Elaine experiences and deals with anxiety is reflective of how I experience and deal with it, and that was something my editors liked—that anxiety is simply a part of her life and not the sole focus of her story.

What is next for you in your writing career?

I have a dream to write a puzzle box story inspired by my favorite sci-fi series, “Dark,” on Netflix. (I’m on a personal mission to get more people to experience this show! Watch it now! It is so so SOOO good!!!) I’m not sure I can pull it off—I’m working up my courage to get started. In the meantime, I’m dusting off some older projects, re-imagining them and, I hope, transforming them into something that will sell. These are stories that have stuck with me, and as my writing has evolved and improved, I’m finding that I’m able to take them to a level I might not have been able to back when I did those initial drafts. I’m also getting an itch to try short stories. All of this is a long way of saying I’m in the mood to experiment and evolve!

Book Review: Still Mine by Jayne Pillemer & Sheryl Murray

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Talking to young children about death when they lose someone they love—a family member, friend, or someone else—can seem impossible. Yet, children often need to talk to find comfort in tragic situations. A new picture book called Still Mine can help foster those conversations in an age-appropriate way.

Written by Jayne Pillemer and illustrated by Sheryl Murrary, Still Mine reassures young ones that even though they can no longer see or hug the person or pet who is gone, they can still love them.

The illustrations evoke comfort, with curving lines and soft edges and muted colors. The book is joyful at first, showing relationships between children and parents, grandparents, friends, and pets. Then it turns wistful with the lines:

still mine interior pages

Now you are gone and I can’t come along. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

Then questioning:

What will I do if I don’t have you?

Who will make your special treat?

Who will nuzzle noses?

Finally, the book shows how memories can bring comfort, and knowing that the lost loved one will stay forever in the heart. It’s a sweet and gentle concept that may bring comfort to grief.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Drawing Outside the Lines by Susan J. Austin

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Architect Julia Morgan overcame barriers and blazed the way for women in the profession. In the early 1900s, she was the first woman admitted to study architecture at the École de Beaux Arts in Paris and the first woman in California to be granted an architect’s license.

Author Susan J. Austin has imagined the life of a young Julia Morgan and how she persisted against the norms of society to pursue her dream in the novel, Drawing Outside the Lines. Julia’s real life family and friends also appear in the novel, some of whom were well known in their own right.

Austin brings that time in American history to life, revealing how women were routinely discouraged from choosing education and career over marriage, and the ways they had to excel to be taken seriously. Julia knows she is held to higher standards, but her desire to create is strong, and she is not willing to give in to expectations.

Drawing Outside the Lines is an inspirational read for anyone who dreams about following their hearts to achieve the unexpected. I recommend it for readers aged 10 to 13.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Nothing Interesting Ever Happens to Ethan Fairmont by Nick Brooks

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Ethan Fairmont likes to invent things. His newest project is a robot to help his elderly neighbor clean her home. But when the robot goes haywire, he takes it to the abandoned, closed-down factory building where his dad used to work. He’s got a stash of odds and ends there to help him tinker. But Ethan is shocked to discover an alien and his crashed spaceship in the factory. Can he and his friends figure out how to help fix the ship before the authorities find it and their new friend Cheese?

Nothing Interesting Ever Happens to Ethan Fairmont by Nick Brooks is a fun adventure story about new friends, old friends, visitors from far away and helping out those in need. Ethan has to confront his bully, repair his relationship with his old friend, and navigate issues at home. An undercurrent involves wariness among people with black and brown skin to interact with police and the authorities. It’s a fraught relationship with a long, troubled history.

Author Brooks handles deep issues with a light touch, making points about them without losing track of the story he’s telling. Ethan Fairmont is a compelling read that should appeal to boys and girls aged 9 to 12.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Grave Things Like Love by Sara Bennett Wealer

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Elaine is tired of being the responsible one, the one her parents call on to help out with their funeral home business whenever they need an extra hand. They even expect her to cancel other plans she has with her friends, something that doesn’t go over so well when others count on her. But when Xander arrives in town, she can’t stop thinking about his big brown eyes and sandy hair. And when those eyes are turned on her, she suddenly doesn’t want to be the responsible one, always at the beck and call of her parents, anymore.

Grave Things Like Love by Sara Bennett Wealer may take place in an unusual setting, a funeral home in an old mansion rumored to be haunted, but the issues it deals with are familiar to many teens. How do you balance being a good friend and meet the expectations of your parents at the same time? How do you find the path you want to pursue after high school when others are pushing you in a certain direction? When do you take risks to figure out who and what are important to you?

With Xander, a paranormal investigator, Elaine finds herself agreeing to things she never would have before. When that inevitably leads to trouble at home, she has to decide how to push past her comfort zone and assert her true feelings without sacrificing what and whom she truly loves.

I recommend Grave Things Like Love for mother-daughter book clubs and any reader aged 14 and up.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Graveyard Girls by Lisi Harrison and Daniel Kraus

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Whisper, Frannie, Sophie and Gemma bond over their love of creepy stories. Every month they get together for sleepovers and scary tales. They also experience frights of the every-day kind, like bullies at school and troubles at home. As their community of Misery Falls, Oregon, gets ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the execution of the town’s most famous criminal, the foursome welcomes a new member to their group, popular kid Zuzu. Together they face their scariest adventure ever.

Graveyard Girls: 1-2-3-4, I Declare a Thumb War by Lisi Harrison and Daniel Kraus is delightfully creepy and mysterious. The girls wonder if the ghost of Silas Hoke, the long-ago criminal, is out to get them. They even brave the cemetery where he is buried and the abandoned prison where he was executed to find out more. At the same time, they deal with issues familiar with many a middle schooler. The back and forth between the two story lines is fun to follow. And the story-within-a-story, Whisper’s horror tale of detached thumbs, is an interesting play on modern technology.

This first in a series is sure to delight readers aged 9 to 12 who like their stories just a little bit scary and creepy.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Meet the Moon by Kerry L. Malawista

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At 13, Jody Moran wants what most girls her age want: pierced ears, getting a bra, kissing a boy. But when her mom dies suddenly in an accident that severely injures her younger brother, her whole world is upended. Suddenly she and her older sister are caring for three younger siblings and helping out more around the house while their dad adjusts to being a single parent. Plus Jody wonders: If she had been a better daughter would this tragedy have happened?

Meet the Moon by Kerry L. Malawista is a coming of age tale that explores family relationships, especially through grief. Jody has a lot of questions about her changing body, pushes the limits of what her dad allows her do, and thinks her grandma moving in with them will make life feel more normal. When things don’t turn out the way she expects, she turns to books for answers about deep concepts, like love, marriage and death. But reading without talking about the issues can sometimes be confusing. Ultimately, she gets through the uncertainty with the help of her family and friends.

With its references to the culture of 1970 (when the story takes place), its humor, its questions about the endurance of family in the face of tragedy, and the way it matter-of-factly addresses questions many young teens may have, Meet the Moon makes a great book for discussion in a mother-daughter book club or as individual reading for ages 10 to 14.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Quest Kids and the Dragon Pants of Gold by Mark Leiknes

quest kids and the dragon pants of gold cover image

Quest Kids and the Dragon Pants of Gold follows the adventures of Ned and his rag-tag team of would-be questers in search of their first successful challenge. There’s Ned, who just wants his parents to understand what he’s good at, Terra, an elf kid who’s left elfdom behind, Gil, a wizard in training, Boulder, the rock troll who likes to cook, and Ash, a sorta pig, sorta dog, who has flatulence issues.

The team creates a problem for a village by trying to pants a dragon. When the dragon threatens to burn down the village in retaliation unless he gets a sweater made from the fur of a golden beast, the quintet sets off to make things right. When they inevitably run into trouble along the way, they will each need to use their unique set of skills to keep the quest going.

Author Mark Leiknes spins the tale with humor and wit. The graphics along with the narrative keep the story moving along briskly. Reluctant and avid readers alike will find something to love in this first in a series. I recommend it for readers aged 8 to 12.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

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