Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Chantel Acevedo

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Chantel Acevedo.

Chantel Acevedo was born in Miami to Cuban parents. She is the acclaimed author of adult novels, including The Distant Marvels, which was a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and she is also a professor of English at the University of Miami, where she directs the MFA program. Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse is her debut middle grade novel. Chantel lives with her personal Muse Squad, aka her family, in Florida. You can visit her online at http://www.chantelacevedo.com.

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Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse just released last week, on July 7, 2020!

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Here is the publisher’s description:

Callie Martinez-Silva didn’t mean to turn her best friend into a pop star. But when a simple pep talk leads to miraculous results, Callie learns she’s the newest muse of epic poetry, one of the nine Muses of Greek mythology tasked with protecting humanity’s fate in secret.

Whisked away to Muse Headquarters, she joins three recruits her age, who call themselves the Muse Squad. Together, the junior muses are tasked with using their magic to inspire and empower—not an easy feat when you’re eleven and still figuring out the goddess within.

When their first assignment turns out to be Callie’s exceptionally nerdy classmate, Maya Rivero, the squad comes to Miami to stay with Callie and her Cuban family. There, they discover that Maya doesn’t just need inspiration, she needs saving from vicious Sirens out to unleash a curse that will corrupt her destiny.

As chaos erupts, will the Muse Squad be able to master their newfound powers in time to thwart the Cassandra Curse . . . or will it undo them all?

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Chantel Acevedo

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

My earliest writing memories are from elementary school. I wasn’t popular, or an athlete, or outgoing. But I could write, and I enjoyed crafting these little stories about my friends, slotting them into superhero roles, or imagining their happy futures. My friends loved seeing themselves on the page, and I loved that they enjoyed it so much. But I didn’t think of writing as a career for a long time. I earned an MFA, published my first book, and even then, didn’t think of myself as a “real” writer, whatever that meant. It took me years to shake that off!

Q: Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

I’ve written four novels for adults before turning to middle grade. Partly, I’d been waiting patiently for the muses to send me a good kid-book idea, but also, I have two daughters who straddle the middle grade age bracket, and so their voices, and that of their friends, were swirling around in my head when I finally dreamed up MUSE SQUAD. I love this age, and these voices so much!

Q: What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

There are too many! Anything by Kate DiCamillo. Anna Meriano’s Love, Sugar, Magic series is such a delight, and I recommend it all the time to parents. I just finished and loved Adam Gidwitz’s medieval story, The Inquisitor’s Tale. And one I’m really looking forward to is Adrianna Cuevas’ The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez!

Q: If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

First, I’d give myself the biggest hug. Then, I’d say, “Be yourself. I know it takes courage, but you’ve got that in spades. Dale, que tu puedes.” I think I hid a lot of myself from others in middle school, thinking the things I liked were too uncool, or “little kid stuff.” I wish I’d embraced what made me different a bit more.

Q: Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

Because middle grade is when that tiny, buzzing, critical voice starts to worm its way into our brains. Middle grade novels can help young readers see that they aren’t alone in their worries, their fears, or their joy. Also, when main characters make mistakes and then problem-solve, readers do so along with them, and hopefully, the memory of these stories will be available to them when facing their own challenges.

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photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

The Road to Publishing: Chantel Acevedo on Landing An Agent

By Chantel Acevedo

Can we all agree that the road to publishing holds its share of intimidating turns? In our last post, Zoraida took on querying, a key lead-in for this week’s revealing and instructive accounts on seeking out and landing agents. We’ll first hear from writer Chantel Acevedo. In Thursday’s follow-up, illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal outlines a different approach. Don’t miss it! 

If you don’t know Chantel, your must-read stack is about to grow by a few inches. You could start with her lyrical debut, Love and Ghost Letters (St. Martin’s Griffin), winner of the 2006 International Latino Book Award, or you could hurry straight to her only novel for young adults, Song of the Red Cloak (CreateSpace Independent Publishing), a dazzling thriller set in the violent world of ancient Sparta. Starring a slave boy and an epic cast of characters, its otherworldly moves will unnerve and thrill you. 

Tamer by comparison, but nonetheless exciting, here is Chantel’s almost-epic quest for an agent.  —Lila & Latin@s in Kid Lit

Song of the Red Cloak   Love and Ghost Letters

Oh, how I love “How I Got My Agent” stories. Some of the most interesting ones read like love stories, replete with missed opportunities, feelings of kismet, and a big, romantic moment in the guise of a contract.

Perhaps I’ve gone too far with that analogy. Even so, finding and landing an agent can feel very much like a courtship, and there can sometimes be lots of angst and anxiety. Even the most successful of agent hunts can feel a little like this. Let me tell you about mine.

I began shopping my novel manuscript in May, just a few weeks before my family and I left for a summer-long trip to the UK. I would be teaching a study-abroad class in London, and thought, for some crazy reason, that my first time in Europe would serve as a distraction and curative for agent-hunting-angst. This strategy totally failed, by the way. Big Ben, trips to Stonehenge, seeing the actual Queen in a parade—none of these things helped me to forget that my manuscript was out there, being judged, just one book in a flood of books, all resting in email inboxes across New York City.

Initially, I’d sent the book out to one agent. It was a recommendation from a very well known author, a mentor and friend I greatly admired. Her agent, a real publishing legend, requested an exclusive read, which I granted. This included signing an exclusive read contract that tied the book down for six weeks. Eight weeks later, after I’d chewed my hands off during the wait, she wrote to say that she wanted revisions before signing me, but would not reveal those revision suggestions unless I also agreed not to send the book out to anyone else. If you think I felt a bit like a hostage at that point, you wouldn’t be far off.

Under other circumstances, with a different book, I might have agreed to this. But the book, I felt, was really polished. It’s my fourth novel, and I had a sense that the book, if not 100% ready for submission, was very nearly there. Legendary agent told me she suspected we wouldn’t speak again, that other agents would want to sign on to the project. I thought, “From your lips to God’s ear, lady,” I thanked her, held my breath, and submitted the book to seven other agents I had been stalking on Google, AgentQuery.com, and Publishers Weekly.

How did I choose those seven? Two were recommendations from other authors. The rest represented authors I admired, and whose books I felt had some kind of kinship with mine. I looked for agents who represented diverse writers, who dug literary historical fiction, and who represented more than one genre.

One agent wrote back within 24 hours of receiving the query to say she’d like to see the full manuscript. Another, incredibly, wrote back within TWO hours to ask for the full. Another asked for the full about two weeks after receiving the query letter. One other turned me down with a form letter. Of the three who first requested the full, one wrote back within three weeks to say she’d like to chat on the phone. This, of course, is the holy grail of all messages, and when we spoke at last, she was complimentary, enthusiastic, and had a plan in mind.

I told her I had to alert the other five agents still in the running to her offer, and give them a chance to respond. This agent seemed a little put off by that, but I chalked it up to her enthusiasm for the project. To be honest, it’s hard to get past that first agent you speak to. It’s like the dam bursts after all those months of waiting, and you just want to say, yes, yes, YES! But, I held my breath again, asked for a week to make my decision. Then, I emailed all the agents who had the manuscript, and everyone else I had queried and not heard from.

Of the two who had already asked for the manuscript, one bowed out, saying it sounded like I’d found a good match. Another asked for a week to read, and three days later passed. That left the three who had not responded to the query. I was so very surprised and happy when all three asked for the full manuscript and for more time to read.  The next day, I got a message from Stéphanie Abou at Foundry Media, saying that she was loving the book and that we would chat after the weekend.

I spoke with Stéphanie for over an hour that Monday, in a pretty unconventional setting. I was back from my trip abroad, and visiting my family in Miami. I had taken my daughters on a water park playdate. While they splashed, Stéphanie and I talked about the novel, about her approach to submission and the author-agent relationship. We talked about my publication experience, and some thoughts on revision for the current project. And she told me about her daughters, and her fabulous background (she studied at the Sorbonne! In Comparative Literature! Be still my heart!), and her interest in diverse authors. She was funny, a straight-talker, smart, and upbeat. All the while, I was scribbling like mad in my notebook and slapping mosquitoes away from my legs. Oh, and I was dripping wet.

I told Stéphanie I’d think about it a couple of days, and we said goodbye. I talked it over with friends and family. I would tell them about Stéphanie and the other offering agent, and the other two potential agents that I had not heard from. They listened patiently as I prattled on, then, one by one, they all told me, “You’re going with Stéphanie because you look all love-struck when you talk about her.”  Was I that transparent?

So, I emailed the other agents, the ones still reading. They both asked for more time, even though the week was up. I thanked them for their interest, and indicated I was ready to make a decision. Others might have granted the time, but I didn’t want to string them along, either. My gut was telling me I’d made a good match. 

The hard part, of course, was emailing the other offering agent, the first one to step up, and tell her thanks, but no thanks. She never wrote back, and I hope whatever thoughts she had about me weren’t too terrible.

Then, came the fun part. Telling Stéphanie I thought we’d make a good team. There was much celebration on either end of the line. There would be some revisions to come, and then the anxiety of going on submission, of course. But above all of that is the feeling that I made the right choice, and that my book has the best champion it can have in the lovely, talented and supportive, Stéphanie Abou.

Image 4Chantel is an Associate Professor of English at Auburn University, where she founded a writing conference, leads a writing program for teens, edits the Southern Humanities Review and somehow finds time to create new fiction.  Her upcoming novel from Carolina Wren Press, A Falling Star, is already an award winner. Learn more on Chantel’s website.