Back Porch Book Chat: Karina Yan Glaser, author of the Vanderbeekers series

Our series of Back Porch Book Chats are casual conversations with book-lovers like ourselves: authors, booksellers, reviewers, bloggers, moms and dads. Today we’re delighted to welcome Karina Yan Glaser, whom we met over her first novel, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street! Met virtually, that is, although I (Janie) had the pleasure of meeting her in person during the 2019 Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri. Her latest standalone novel, A Duet for Home, has been collecting starred reviews (including one from us), so we’re delighted she’s taking time to chat.

First of all, do you have a back porch? If we were having a quiet sit-down on a lovely spring afternoon, where would we be sitting? and what would be your beverage of choice?

Thank you so much for inviting me to chat with you! Unfortunately, I don’t have a back porch but it has always been a dream of mine to live somewhere that does have one. I live in a cozy apartment in New York City, and you are welcome to have tea with me at my kitchen table any time.

I’d love to take you up on that! Tell us a little about your family–do your girls enjoy reading? Do you have any tips on encouraging children’ to read? 

I have been married for sixteen years, and my husband and I have two kids ages twelve and fourteen. My kids love to read. Our conversation over dinner tonight was actually about how great they would both be at selling books because they read so widely and they love talking about books! (I sometimes call my younger child my “publicist”!) I can imagine them having a wonderful time working at the local independent bookstore when they’re in college.

Ah—I worked in the bookstore at my small junior college for one year. Loved opening boxes of new books—mostly boring textbooks, but they all had that lovely clean smell. Going back to when your girls were little, how did you encourage them to read?

I think giving kids lots of access to books at an early age is critical. I even read to my older daughter when I was pregnant – before she was even born! When my kids were little, I would put baskets of board books on the floor so they could crawl over and look at books whenever they wanted to. I would pack a bag full of books for the subway rides and read to them as the train rumbled down the tracks. We would go to the library once or twice a week and check out dozens of books at a time. Even now, their room is probably sixty percent books!

I like the idea of scattering books around—especially baskets full of board books! Do you still review books for Book Riot? What are some titles you and/or the family have especially enjoyed over the last year?

I still review books for Book Riot! Some of my new favorites include The Aquanaut by Dan Santat, Infinite Hope by Ashley Bryan, All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat, and On the Horizon by Lois Lowry. My younger kid (who loves to reread books over and over) enjoys The Keeper of the Lost Cities books by Shannon Messenger, Starfish by Lisa Fipps, the City Spies series by James Ponti, and the Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs. 

We have some of the same favorites! I’ve just finished The Aquanaut and plan to review it soon. We’ve given high marks to All Thirteen, Starfish, and On the Horizon, and I believe Betsy will get around to reviewing the City Spies series (nudge, nudge). For the others, I’ll have to check them out (we love getting recommendations).

Let’s talk about A Duet for Home. In your Author Note at the beginning, you describe your own experience working with the homeless in New York City–particularly encouraging kids to read. What were the most rewarding aspects of that work?

So much was rewarding about that work. I loved reading to the kids every week and giving them individualized attention. I loved seeing their reading skills and reading comprehension improve as time went by, and I loved being able to give them books to keep. Many of the kids I worked with had never owned a book before.

That’s hard for a book-lover to even imagine? What were your frustrations?

I don’t think I found anything frustrating, but at times there were very heartbreaking aspects to the work. Sometimes a new kid would come in and not be able to read at all, even though he was in fifth grade. A lot of these kids had gone through constant transition and never received the support they needed to learn how to read. 

One thing I especially appreciated about A Duet for Home is that you communicate deprivation without degradation. Some of the characters may strike readers as weird or eccentric, and some are frustrating, but they all have integrity and agency. Like Tyrell’s mother—we gather she’s made some bad choices, and now she’s failing to make good ones. She could almost pull Tyrell down with her, but June helps him realizes that he can make his own choices, both now and in the future.

One of the things I think about is how people are multi-dimensional. No one is all good or all bad. I try to convey this in all of my books, and A Duet for Home is no exception. 
Agreed. You probably get this question a lot, but I have to ask: are any of your characters based on people you knew in the shelters? 

Tyrell’s personality is very much inspired by a young person I got to know very well when I taught in the shelter’s after-school program.

As we might guess from the title, music plays a big part in the story, most obviously with June’s attachment to the viola her father gave her. (I was so afraid something bad was going to happen to that viola!) What part does music play in your family’s life? Did you encounter any musically-gifted children in the shelters during the years you worked there?

Music is a big part of my family’s life. My older daughter plays the violin, and every day we are gifted with the sounds of her practicing. She plays with the New York Youth Symphony orchestra, and the music they make is breathtaking. My work in the family shelters focused predominantly on literacy, so I don’t recall ever having conversations about music. But we did fundraise so we could hire local artists to perform for the kids, and that was always a huge hit!

Ah—that reminds me how Tyrell falls in love with classical music after being exposed to it in school. What would you like more fortunate young readers to take away from A Duet for Home

Books are one of the best tools to build empathy, and I hope more fortunate readers will have a better sense of the barriers that some children – maybe even children in their schools or communities – face. I hope this in turn will encourage more fortunate readers to reach out to those in need in kind and thoughtful ways.

I agree with you about using books to build empathy. What are some ways families can reach out to those transitional people in their own (not necessarily urban) communities?

Every community has different needs, so I always recommend contacting your local homeless shelter or soup kitchen to see how you can help. My family volunteers at our church where we help prepare food for the weekly community meal. We also volunteer to pass out winter clothing during the holidays, and this experience gave me a much better idea of what types of clothing some of our community members needed so we could donate items more thoughtfully. Each community is unique, and I think volunteering in some capacity always gives you a better idea of how to help.

You’ve given us some good ideas already. One more question: have we seen the last of the Vanderbeekers? or do you have plans for further adventures? (Please say yes!)

There is a new Vanderbeekers book (the sixth one) coming out in September 2022, and the final book in the series will release in fall 2023!

We’ll be sorry to see them go, but at least we have two more books to look forward to. Thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us!

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Get the information you need to make wise choices about books for your children and teens.

Our weekly newsletter includes our latest reviews, related links from around the web, a featured book list, book trivia, and more. We never sell your information. You may unsubscribe at any time.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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