Interview with J&P Voelkel

A few weeks ago I reviewed J&P Voelkel’s The Jaguar Stones, Book One: Middleworld.  I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to booktalk it this fall.  In the meantime, I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to interview Jon and Pamela, the husband and wife team behind the book.  There are very few books out there about Mesoamerica, and even fewer for teens and tweens.  I can’t wait to get this one in the hands of my readers.  I also can’t wait to share with them the fascinating interview below.

Hello!  Welcome to the blog and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.  As a huge fan of Meso-American culture, I was thrilled to read MIDDLEWORLD. I became interested in Mesoamerica when I began studying monarch butterflies and I share as much as I can with my students each year. How did you become interested in the Mayans?

First of all, we’re honored to meet another Mesoamerican fan! It’s an exciting time to be studying the Maya, because the archaeologists are making new discoveries all the time. There are still thousands of sites to be excavated in Central America, so we always hope that one of the students we meet on our school visits will decide to become an archaeologist and make the biggest Maya discovery of all time!  As to how we became interested, Jon grew up in Latin America and remembers his first visit to some ruins, when he was eight or nine.  I went to school in England where Mesoamerica was never mentioned, so I knew nothing about the Maya until we started on the book.  In fact, when Jon wrote the first draft, the pyramids were just a cool background to a jungle adventure story.  I think we both had a vague idea that the Maya had died out centuries ago.  As we began to research the book and realize the depth of our ignorance, we wanted to learn more and more about this fascinating civilization.  We were also inspired by a chance meeting with a group of Maya teenagers at a site in Guatemala.  They were so excited that children in North America would be reading about their culture, we realized that we owed it to them to get the facts right.

How did you research the mythology and culture in the book? How long did it take you to draft the first book, including research?

First of all we read every book we could lay our hands on.  Then we realized that a lot of the books were out of date and read the new crop of books. A big breakthrough came when Jon did a course at Harvard on reading and writing Maya glyphs.  Through that he met a very cool professor named Dr Marc Zender who agreed to check all our facts for us.  In all, Book 1 probably took about four years to write.  We must have written twenty drafts. Since we began, we’ve made several trips down to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, where we’ve talked to contemporary Maya people, canoed underground rivers, tracked howler monkeys, explored cave systems and visited about 30 Maya sites – so far!

Was the research difficult? I know that when I look for mythology and information to share with my students, it can be difficult to find sources of information. When I do find it, it tends to be in Spanish or a Mesoamerican language. Do you speak Spanish or any of the Mesoamerican languages?

As we’re sure you’ve found in your own research, what makes it difficult is that there’s so much misinformation about the Maya.  The archaeologists have only been able to read the Maya glyphs with any accuracy for the last 30 years – which means that much of what was written before is guesswork and often completely wrong.  The internet is also abuzz with nonsense.  Because the Maya were shrouded in mystery for so long, it seems like people have felt free to project their own perspectives onto them. The only way we’ve found to be sure of using current information is to connect with the archaeologists who are working in the field right now.  We attend lectures and seminars to hear the latest news before it’s published. A great source of information is the annual Maya at the Playa conference in Florida.  And yes, Jon grew up speaking Spanish, so that’s extremely helpful – particularly on our travels in Central America.  Incidentally, we’ve put much of what we’ve learned on a cross-curricular lesson plan CD – free to teachers from

What’s it like to write as a duo?

Good question!  We used to take it in turns to each write a draft, but these days Pamela does most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating. The best thing about working together (and probably the worst thing for our kids) is that we can discuss the plot seven days a week.  We both know the characters so well, they’re like members of the family.  Where other writers have to argue with the voices in their own heads, I get to argue with a real, live person!  Sometimes the arguments get quite heated, but we never settle until we’ve agreed on an outcome we can both believe in one hundred per cent.  I think working as a duo makes the book more exciting because we try to surprise each other by inserting more and more twists and turns into the plot.  I would also say that Jon is more action-oriented while I worry more about the characters’ feelings, so it’s a good balance.

Via Twitter, I saw that you were at ALA this year. What was the best part of being there?

ALA was amazing, a booklover’s dream.  To be surrounded by piles of books and people talking about books was heaven.  Two memorable events were signing our books at the Egmont booth and going out for a huge Mexican dinner with a dozen delightful librarians.  But the best thing of all was that our 13-year-old daughter got to meet her favorite author, Laurie Halse Anderson. LHA sat right down on the floor and chatted with her like an old friend.  It was a life-changing moment.

What is your favorite snack to eat while you are writing?

Pamela eats sweet potato chips; Jon drinks soda and crunches on the ice.

That does sound delicious.  And like Jon, I love to crunch the ice after drinking my Pepsi.  Thanks again for stopping by and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Love, love, love this one! Incarceron (Incarceron, Book 1) was my first venture into the world of steampunk and it was a perfect introduction. This is definitely a page-turner, so don’t pick it up unless you have time to sit down and read it straight though. I found myself on the edge of my seat, couch, and even grass (I read outside for a bit). I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Claudia, Finn, and the rest of the characters.

So why should you read Incarceron (Incarceron, Book 1)?

The world-building is top-notch. It’s steampunk without being annoying. What do I mean? I’ve been hesitant to pick up steampunk because the few pages I read of various books just struck me as too unbelievable. I know, I know- it’s science fiction/fantasy, so what could I be looking for? I honestly don’t know. It just rubbed me the wrong way. But not Catherine Fisher’s world. I loved it from the first page. There are actually two worlds- Claudia’s world in the “Outside” and Finn’s world in Incarceron. Both are intricate but Fisher also allows you to imagine parts of it yourself. A lot of my students complain about authors who are “too into description” and they certainly won’t have that problem with Fisher’s writing.

The characterization is also great. Take Claudia, for example. She is pretentious, annoying, and overbearing. But I still liked her. She has been raised in a ridiculous world and is a product of that world. She has redeeming qualities, of course- she is smart, compassionate, and often made me laugh. Finn, thankfully, is no victim. I liked him a lot, and he is no Edward. (Thank goodness!) He doesn’t know who he is, how he ended up in Incarceron, or where and what Incarceron is. And the secondary characters are also great. I was especially partial to Claudia’s tutor.

I highly recommend this one. A word of warning, though- you will be dying for the sequel. I am so happy that I grabbed an ARC of Sapphique at BEA. ;)

*copy purchased by me

Walking a Mile in a Reluctant Reader’s Shoes

For the past few days I feel like I have been walking in the shoes of some of my more reluctant readers.  As a voracious reader, it is often difficult for me to imagine not enjoying a book.  I read constantly and widely, across many genres.  However, suddenly I am that reluctant reader.  During the summer I enjoy reading some of the adult books that I put aside during the school year in my quest to read the award winners before they are chosen.  This year, one of those books is Justin Cronin’s The Passage. I had heard a lot about this book and downloaded it onto my new iPad after school ended.  I have been attempting to read it for the last week and I feel like I am getting nowhere!

It is such a strange feeling for me, someone who loves reading.  I don’t know how to handle this.  The book is dragging for me.  It’s not that I don’t like the story- in fact, I love the world Cronin builds and the premise is fascinating.  Yet, I drag myself over to the book and have to force myself to read.  Once I read for a little bit I find myself pulled in again, but I also find myself constantly annoyed.  It’s a huge book and despite reading for a week, it’s like I have barely made a dent in the pages.  I am just under page 400 and there are 1400 pages in my ebook.  It’s like it will never end, which is discouraging as a reader.  I love the book and hate it, all at the same time.

As I’m reading I am trying to put myself in the shoes of my reluctant or struggling readers.  Is this how they feel when they are given a book?  How discouraging must it be to read for an extended period of time and feel like the book is never ending and you haven’t made any progress!  A lot of my colleagues and friends have read or are reading the book and I feel like there is peer pressure on me, making me want to finish the book.  But I also feel like I shouldn’t force myself to keep reading!  It’s quite a conundrum.  I also feel like the odd one out, because all the reviews I have read praise the book and refer to the edge-of-your-seat action.  Yet, I have to force myself to pick it up.

I do plan to finish the book, because the plot does fascinate me, even if the execution is dragging on forever.  I want to know what happens at the end!  But I am glad that I have been placed in the position because as teachers, I think it is important that we identify with all of our students.  One of the best ways to do that is to put ourselves in their shoes as often as possible.  I look forward to sharing my experience reading this book with my students once school starts up again.  I feel like it will serve as a bridge between myself and some of my reluctant readers.


Are you looking forward to Book Blogger Appreciation Week?  I am!  I love the community that builds throughout the week and I enjoy blog-jumping, because I always discover awesome new blogs!

Here are some of my favorite posts from the past year!

Junk books vs. “the classics”

An Author Scolding Teachers for Reading Aloud?

Review of Meghan Whalen Turner’s The Thief

Review of Life After by Sarah Darer Littman

Review of The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Reflections on a Year in 6th Grade

At the end of every school year I ask my students to reflect.  They look back on the last ten months and write me a letter where they reflect on what they learned, what is still challenging for them, the best parts of my class, and how I can improve as a teacher.  While many people may think it is silly to ask your students how you can improve, I learn a lot from my students each year.  This year I was especially interested in my students’ viewpoint because so much changed in our school.  I lost half of my teaching time and how to rework my yearly plans.  While I reflected on my practices I was also curious to see how my students viewed the year.

I spent a good portion of my evening reading their letters to me.  Wow!  I wanted to share some of my favorite portions of a few letters.

….I love the read alouds because every one you pick out is amazing.  I love coming to class and hearing you read.

Read-alouds helps me explore more genres.  The genres I didn’t want to read I enjoyed the most.  Books like Also Known as Harper and All the Broken Pieces surprised me that they were good.  This helped me find new good books.  Also, read-alouds helped me relax.

Boom!  That’s right, more vindication from actual. breathing. middle school students.  They are not too old to be read aloud to!  In fact, they enjoy it.  And I am so happy to hear that the read-alouds introduced a few students to new genres that they didn’t think they would enjoy.  Plus, who doesn’t like a little time to relax?

I would like to tell you one more thing.  It is that I hope you continue doing letter essays.  It is great practice for writing essays.  I like telling you about the book I am reading and my opinion on it.  Letter essays are important to me.

Writing the letter essays was one of my favorite activities this year.

Now, I will be honest- there were also many students who suggested that I skip letter-essays next year because they are too much work.  But I figure hey, work is good!  Plus, a few of the more reflective/mature students saw through the work and realized how important the letter-essays were.  A few of them even enjoyed the process.  As a teacher, I love watching them grow as the year progresses.  I also love the chance to correspond with each student one-on-one.  It’s a great way to get to know my students and have deep discussions about books.  Needless to say, letter-essays will remain a part of my class.

The 40 book list was a huge help to get me interested in different types of books.  In the beginning of the year when you hit us with a 40 book list I felt like how am I going to read that many books?!

I had a very huge accomplishment  This was the first year I read over ten books.  Last year I read maybe eight books.  This year I read in the thirties.  I feel like I was pushed to read more by the forty books list.

This year was the first year I instituted the 40 book requirement/challenge.  Previously, I just required my students to read, without giving them any requirement beyond reading at least 2 books from each genre.  I was very happy with how the list worked this year because a lot of my students were very stuck in one genre and the requirement forced them to branch out.  It also gave my more concrete students an actual number to aim for.  However, I’m not sure if I will approach it the same way next year.  I’m working on a few ideas and will be sure to update when I come up with a final draft.

Booktalks are awesome because I really got interested in the book you’re talking about , and I keep thinking about getting that book.

The more you booktalk, the more we read.

That last sentence sums up intermediate/secondary students.  They may think they hate reading, but it’s usually because they don’t know about the books that are out there.  We, as teachers, must be engaged in reading and publishing.  We must be able to share books with our students.  Reading is a social experience, especially for young readers, and under our guidance they can and will find books that they love!

Some suggestions:

- I think next year, at least once every 2 weeks, you should dedicate an entire period to reading.  Most of the time should be spent reading the read-aloud and the rest for reading independently.

-We should be allowed to vote on read alouds.

-More time in-class for reading would be great.  (Independent reading time in school really suffered when I lost half of my teaching time this year and it made a huge difference in my class/teaching).

I highly recommend having your students reflect on their academic year before the school year ends.  It is eye-opening for the writer and the teacher.

Movin’ on Up….

Big news on the personal and professional front here.  As of September, I will no longer be a middle school teacher.  Due to budget cuts and the economic state of affairs here in NJ, I lost my teaching job of the past five years.  Never one to sit around and do nothing, I started sending out resumes as soon as I received my RIF notice.  I also posted my fate on my personal Facebook account.  My high school biology teacher saw my status, got in touch with me about some opportunities, and one thing led to another….

I will be teaching freshman and senior English at my high school alma mater as of September 1st!

(And that, my dear readers, is proof positive of the power of social networking in this day and age.  Had I not posted my news on Facebook, I may not have ended up with my amazing new position!)

This is a big change for me, but one I am very much looking forward to.  No worries, the blog won’t change much.  I will be reviewing a bit more YA but I plan to keep blogging as always.  I will still be writing about language arts/English for intermediate/secondary students.  I will still be reading aloud, still be instilling a love of reading and writing in my students, and I will still be blogging here.


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