You know how there are friends in your life who you’re fond of, but who drift away for one reason or another? And then, years later, serendipity intervenes. You reconnect and that friend becomes an important person in your life.

For me, that person is debut author Naomi Milliner.

We’ve known each other for more than a decade but, due to circumstances, our friendship really cemented about seven years ago. There was a very memorable road trip to the Eastern PA regional SCBWI conference and critique fest, when vast quantities of Indian food were consumed. (No regrets! We happened upon an amazing buffet.) There was commiseration and feedback as we both continued working on, and querying, books we’d already committed years to writing and revising.

Highly recommended! Find Super Jake on IndieBound.

This month, Naomi’s debut novel, SUPER JAKE AND THE KING OF CHAOS, became a real thing that people can buy, and hold in their hands, and read! I could not be more excited for my friend.

If you are interested in pairing this book with a poem for kids, you’ll find two suggestions at the bottom of this post.

Here is the description of SUPER JAKE from Goodreads:

A debut contemporary novel about 11-year-old aspiring magician Ethan, who discovers that heroes come in all sizes, and real magic can be found in the most unexpected places.

When life revolves around stressed-out parents and ER visits for his special needs little brother Jake, eleven-year-old Ethan escapes to a world of top hats, trick decks, and magic wands. When he hears of a junior magic competition where the top prize is to meet and perform with his hero, Magnus the Magnificent, Ethan is determined to do whatever he needs to get there–and to win.

His dedication and hard work pay off, and he makes it to the top five finalists: his dream really could come true! Then Jake falls dangerously ill and Ethan’s hopes and plans are in jeopardy. As he searches for any sort of magic that might save Jake, Ethan learns what is truly important . . . and what real magic is.

Another magical thing about Naomi is that Ethan, Jake, and their middle brother Freddy are based on Naomi’s own family. You can read about the real Jake here.

Naomi’s launch featured a real magician! Vick Dias Gisin wowed the kids in the audience (and the adults too).

Naomi, thank you so much for stopping by my blog today. Here are your five questions!

1. I loved the way that you incorporated your sense of humor into Ethan’s voice. What role does humor play in the story?

Thank you! Unlike other parts of Super Jake, the humor came easily – and I knew it was crucial to balance the sadder, heavier parts of the story. Luckily for me, just as Jake’s limitations and fragile health were very real, so were his big brothers’ antics. My oldest son Jeremy (who Ethan is loosely based on), had – and has – a very quick wit and terrific imagination. He really did turn a benign teddy bear into “Ninja Bear” to help Jake move his arms! And my younger son, Jesse (who inspired alter ego Freddy) truly was a sweet, joyful kid, who lightened the mood every day.

2. Let’s talk about the title. Super Jake gets top billing, even though Ethan is the narrator. What was the process of making that decision?

That’s a very perceptive point, Laura, and goes a long way in explaining why it took SIXTEEN YEARS from first draft to publication! I wrote the first draft two months after Jake died, because I wanted his brothers (7 and 11 at the time) to remember him. So, in my mind, it was always first and foremost about Jake; it still is. But many years, drafts and critiques later, I finally understood that, despite Jake’s importance both in the book and in real life, it had to be Ethan’s story. He is the first-person narrator, and his 11-year-old voice is the one readers will (hopefully) identify with and care about. I think Jake and Ethan share “top billing,” and that’s as it should be. I just feel bad for Freddy. But I guess that’s the classic middle child syndrome, right?

3. Many authors turn to memoir when they are writing about a personal or family experience. What made children’s fiction the right genre for this story? How did you decide which elements of your own experience to incorporate and what to fictionalize?

I had already written several middle grade novels, so I was comfortable writing for that age group,  plus it was my sons’ story, so it came naturally to write their voices. I had, and have, no desire whatsoever to write a memoir! As for which real-life elements to include and which to create… that was definitely challenging (did I mention it took SIXTEEN YEARS?) Pretty much all of the Jake parts happened: the therapists; the ER visits; the hospitalization; the limitations – and, most of all, his sweetness and the love we felt for him.

The magic element began because Jeremy did perform at parties, but it took on a life of its own the more Ethan needed a story line that belonged exclusively to him. Also, there was no bully, and Dad was never an assistant principal. Many of the other characters (The Todds, Tina, and the grandparents) are based on real people. Any similarities to the mom are purely coincidental – unless she’s your favorite character, in which case it’s strictly autobiographical.

4. Ms. Carlin is a teacher who Ethan has a special relationship with. Let’s talk about the importance of adults who are not a child’s own parents at this middle grade age — whether those adults are mentors or simply offer a broader view of how to be a grown up in the world.

Ms. Carlin is an homage to all the wonderful, compassionate teachers out there. She is kind and patient and funny and wise and always has time (and chocolate bars!) for Ethan, unlike his overextended parents. Ethan is fortunate (as we were) to have a “village” to support him and his family: neighbors across the street; grandparents; an older “brother” and an older “sister”… I think all kids can use someone to confide in, look up to and count on in addition to their parents.

5. Sibling dynamics are an important part of your book. It’s unusual to see a boy or brother portrayed as nurturing, especially to a male sibling, in fiction. Can you talk about the deep love that Ethan has for Jake, especially in contrast to the annoyed fondness he expresses toward Freddy.

It’s funny. Jeremy was so amazing with Jake, that when I portrayed Ethan the same way, my critique group insisted no one could be that much of a saint. (For some reason, I never heard that complaint when it came to the mom, who was not even close to perfect.) So I added a bit of jealousy here and a bit of resentment there to make Ethan more believable. I think it’s important to show kids with, and without, siblings who have special needs how much love they (the special needs kids) can give and receive. They are not a burden; they are a gift. I hope that comes across in Super Jake.

Thanks, Naomi! It does come across. What a beautiful book. Ethan shares so many insights — sweet and difficult — about the life he shares with Jake and their family.

Naomi Milliner’s love of literature led her to an English degree at the University of Maryland; her love of cinema led her to the University of Southern California, where she earned an MFA in Screenwriting. After ten years in Hollywood, her fear of earthquakes (especially hiding under a kitchen table with her baby) led her back to Maryland, where she happily resides with her husband and sons Jeremy and Jesse. Her debut middle grade novel, SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS, was inspired by the chaotic – and magical – goings-on when her youngest son, Jake, was alive.

I went in search of a poem to pair with this book, if you’re reading it with a child or classroom. Surprise! There aren’t a lot of poems about stage magic written for kids, let alone poems about kid magicians. Luckily, Kenn Nesbitt came to my rescue with a funny poem. I also found a great, heart-felt poem, “Real Magic,” by David Alexander on the Poetry Soup site.

My Hat Is Full of Rabbits

My hat is full of rabbits.
My cape is full of doves.
A playing card is up my sleeve,
and some are in my gloves.

A wand is in my pocket
with handkerchiefs and flowers.
My coat has things like ropes and rings
with mystifying powers.

I have my staff and juggling clubs,
my mirrors, cups, and dice,
my crystal ball, my smoke machine,
and fancy dancing mice.

I’m ready for my magic show.
There’s just one problem here…
My elephant is on my lap
and will not disappear.

–Kenn Nesbitt

Copyright © 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Be sure to read Kenn’s “About This Poem,” which talks about his days as a kid magician, just like Ethan!

Real Magic

Unlike a magician
          real magic I weave
It's not a trick	
     nothing up my sleeve

No abracadabra
           no sleight of hand
No vaudeville act
       or stunt preplanned

No mumbo jumbo
                  no hocus pocus
No smoke and mirrors
            to make eyes lose focus	

No prestidigitation
            no attempt to deceive
No optical illusion
           or make believe

Real magic exists
            it's not hard to find
Just close your eyes
          and open your mind

Copyright © David Alexander | Posted 2018

Both poems shared with permission of the authors.

David and I are having a side chat about poetry. Be sure to check out his work at Poetry Soup and at the Illinois State Poetry Society (click on “ISPS Member Poems” to find David’s work).

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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