Bowling, persistence, "Charlotte's Web," and the opportunity of Houston

"I realized life changed for me when I wrote something"


LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Ms. Allen, your latest books are a middle-grade series featuring (the Magnificent) Mya Tibbs. Please introduce us to Miss Tibbs and tell us about your initial inspiration for her character.


CRYSTAL ALLEN: Mya is a boot-scootin’, yippee-ky-yay, nine-year-old, African American girl who loves friends, family, and everything country and western. I was asked by my publishing company to create an African American character similar to Ramona Quimby. How do you do that? Ramona is Ramona, and the only thing I could pull from Ramona is her independence and loyalty to her friends and family. Once I realized that, Mya popped up in my head and we began to dance. The characters surrounding Mya are fun, and I believe complement Mya throughout the series.


The latest Mya book is The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Mya in the Middle (Balzer + Bray, 2018). Please tell us what Mya is up to in her newest adventure.


In Mya In the Middle, I wanted to address the situation many children face when they become the middle child. Mya seeks attention from her parents, who are extremely tired as they deal with the newest addition to the Tibbs family. In her own way, Mya figures out how to be the best sister she can be to her oldest and youngest siblings, while maintaining her own personality.


Your first book is How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy (Balzer + Bray, 2011), which received a Florida Sunshine State Award Master List nomination and was a Junior Library Guild selection. Please tell us how you came to write your first book and about your first big break in publishing.


I love to bowl. I’ve been on several different teams as a child and adult. However, I hadn’t seen books in the library with bowling as a backdrop for a character. So, I decided to write one!  Lamar was such a fun character to create, and the story evolved over many rounds of revision.


While creating How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy, I traveled to several workshops, conferences, and writing boot camps, including Highlights For Children, First Pages, and conferences organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). When I thought it was ready to present, I realized one of the agents I had chosen to submit to, Jennifer Rofé, was actually going to be at a Houston SCBWI conference. I submitted my first three chapters. She loved them and asked for more. I sent three more chapters via email. Twenty minutes after sending them, she asked for the entire manuscript. Well, in my mind, I began to count my millions of dollars! Woo-hoo! 


And then I didn’t hear from her for weeks. When she finally emailed me, her letter stated she did not feel comfortable offering representation at that time. However, she did give me lots of ideas on how to strengthen my story and left the door open for me to revise. I spoke with my critique partners and decided to give it a try. Two months later, I resubmitted to her, and she rejected me again. This time she praised my revision process, gave more suggestions, and told me she hoped I would submit again.


Okay. I knew where she lived in California, and in my mind, she needed an attitude adjustment. After my critique partners talked me out of purchasing an airline ticket, I got busy on Lamar’s story again. However, this time, I decided I was going to sign up for a conference Jen Rofé spoke at every year. I knew she’d be there. If she was going to reject me for the third time, she was going to have to do it to my face.


I resubmitted my manuscript to her, went to the conference, and on the last day, she offered representation! Holy guacamole! I’ve got an agent! Together Jen and I began to solidify Lamar’s story in a way that gave him a pulse. She forwarded my manuscript to a large number of editors, and it ended up going to auction! I chose Balzer + Bray (a division of HarperCollins) because the editor, Kristin Daly Rens, had the same outlook for Lamar, and my future books, that I had. Jennifer Rofé and Kristin Daly Rens have been the only agent and editor, respectively, that I’ve had.


I’ve read that you were born in Germany because your father was in the US Army, and that you were a reluctant reader and writer, but Charlotte’s Web changed your life. Please talk about how your childhood experiences shape the work you do today.


Being a military kid meant I travelled a lot, and new schools were just part of my norm. However, one school in the Midwest almost completely curbed my desire to be involved with anything related to school. I had trouble making friends—something that I had not experienced in the past. I was in third grade, and the librarian at this new school gave me Charlotte’s Web to read. I believe she gave me that book because it was the closest book in her library that looked like me.


At the time, I was living on my grandparents’ farm, and I immediately related to Fern. She lived on a farm, had brothers, and of course, I would have saved Wilbur had that happened on our farm. I realized E. B. White had told me everything I needed to know about Fern to make her a likeable character. I began to look at my own life and realized the third graders in my class didn’t know much about me. So, I decided to write down everything I could think of that I liked, and I left it in the classroom on a table. Two girls found it and invited me to play with them at recess. It was then that I realized life changed for me when I wrote something. I began to write all the time and have loved it ever since.


You are the mother of two sons. How does being a mother impact your writing? Do your sons’ adventures and challenges appear in your books, and if so, what do they think about that?


I have a special-needs son who was not born that way. He suffered a traumatic brain injury at the age of eight. That catastrophic event weighed heavy on my family as we did what we could to help him regain what he could and figure out what are new normal would be. I am in the process of writing that story, and many of the parts are based on our lives. It will be told through the eyes of the two brothers, titled Between Two Brothers. I don’t have a launch date, but hopefully it will be soon!


Mya’s adventures are charmingly and coolly illustrated by Eda Kaban. Please tell us how that came about and talk about the author/illustrator dynamic for those of us who don’t know how the process works.


I was not given the opportunity to choose my illustrator. She was chosen by my publishing company. However, I had a distinct vision of what Mya should look like and tried to give my readers that same visual. In the early draft illustrations sent to me, Mya’s braids were all wrong. I complained several times. Eda continued to work hard to get them right, but to no avail. Eventually, I made my niece dress up like Mya, had her mom braid her hair the way Mya wears hers, took pictures, and sent them to Eda. So, the illustrations on the covers of the Mya books are actually my niece! LOL!


Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. How did you come to Texas and how do you think the Lone Star State, and specifically the Houston area, shapes your writing and career? Which Texas middle-grade writers would you recommend?


I was in college at Indiana University when I got a call from my sister in Houston that she was getting married and needed me there. She sent me an airline ticket, and once I got to Houston, I absolutely fell in love with the place. The atmosphere was fun, with lots of diversity and opportunity. I chose to leave school and stay in the area. It was one of the best choices I ever made. In Texas, there is opportunity everywhere, to do anything, at any stage in your life. I didn’t begin pursuing a writing career until I was almost fifty years old. I don’t know if I would have taken this life-changing path had I gone back to college.


Now that I’m writing for middle-graders, I enjoy chatting with amazing writers who I would recommend like Tonja Duncan Ellis, Varian Johnson, Lynne Kelly, Christina Soontornvat, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Christina Mandelski, and Jennifer Zieglar. They are just a few that quickly come to mind.


You also present school programs about reading and writing. Please tell us what to expect in one of your workshops and about the Strikewriters Project and Contest.


I love doing school visits. During my interactive presentation, I actually ignite students to write. I show them how to create an amazing story in forty-five seconds or less! The students bring pencil and paper, and I give them an incredibly easy four-step instruction, and then allow them to create during my presentation. Once I’m sure the students have fully understood the four-step instruction, I challenge them to enter my writing contest. I allow the librarian to choose fifteen winning stories and then ask that those stories be emailed to me. Once I receive the stories, I have them posted on my website for a whole year! And then the fun really begins!


I critique all fifteen winning stories and make copies for the winners and the librarian. I return to the school and provide an all-you-can-eat lunch for the winners, using a portion of the honorarium that was paid to me (this second visit is free to the school); give each winner a one-on-one critique of their story during our special lunch; give each winner a card proving they are a member of my Strikewriters’ club; give each winner a packet filled with important tools to raise their level of writing; and the winners are automatically invited to next year’s party as Strikewriter Alumni!


Oh Mylanta! It should be illegal to have that much fun! But we do, and I am so lucky and grateful to be a part of a school visit that proves to students that writing can be awesome!


What books are on your nightstand?


A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramèe, Hope In the Holler by Lisa Lewis Tyre, and In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart


Crystal Allen is the author of How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, which received a Florida Sunshine State Award Master List nomination and was a Junior Library Guild selection. She is also the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novels The Laura Line and the Mya Tibbs series. She currently lives in Sugar Land, Texas, with her husband, Reggie, and two sons, Phillip and Joshua