The Gauntlet & The Battle - MODERN DAY JUMANJI

I remember the first time I read The Gauntlet and I was so impressed. A modern day twist on a tale that I grew up loving, Jumanji, yet this time I could relate to it so much more.

When I found out Karuna was writing a sequel I had to beg and plead for book 2, The Battle, but her publisher was amazing and sent an early copy to me.

When kids ask for adventure - I send them to The Gauntlet and then follow up with The Battle.

Lisa, Karuna's publicist, was able to get the interview set up and accomplished for us and even thought it was months ago when she sent them ( I am so glad to finallllly post the interview with Karuna!!!!

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself as an author and everyday person? What are your likes/dislikes?
A: As an author and an everyday person, I just recently found an accurate model of who I am. If you Google the anime Nichijou – one of those cutesy, slice-of-life series about middle school students and their surreal adventures – and look up their homeroom teacher, you’ll be able to see it for yourself: a constantly smiling but anxious-faced educator wondering if she’s approaching things in the right way and doing the best for the kids she writes for and teaches.

That is me to a T: always trying to do the best I can and feeling like I’m constantly learning something new along the way. I’m a high school English teacher, current student in Hamline University’s spectacular MFAC program (proud to be part of the summer 2021 Inside Jokes cohort!) and freelance writer.

I like tea, reading, video games, the color yellow, sunny days, fuzzy sweaters, teaching, and doing my best to make sure that, with every book I write and every student I teach, I am supporting the next generation and reminding them that every one of them has the right to seeing themselves in the media they consume in positive and reaffirming ways.

I dislike rainy days, injustice, wet socks, the patriarchy, grading, bigotry and jackfruit. There’s a whole history there, but I hate it. Maybe there will be a picture book out of that one day!

Q: When did you know you had a gift of writing?  
A: I still, to this day, hope that I have a gift of writing! But in all seriousness, I’ve been writing and playing around with words since I was very young. I was homeschooled and my mom gave me a great deal of time to indulge in the stories I love. When I was just five, I wrote a whole picture book and she hand-bound it. The story was about a little girl who sees a rabbit in her yard and feeds it carrots from her fridge. Obviously, it was Caldecott material.
Q: I have LOVED sharing The Gauntlet with students and telling everyone it’s a “modern day Jumanji!” How would you describe the Gauntlet to students?   
A: Usually, my log line for it is very close to your awesome one for your students – it’s an inverse Jumanji with Middle Eastern and South Asian flair, where the kids get to go into this awesome, creepy board game instead of the game coming out into the real world! There’s a lot of cool stuff in it like mechanical spiders, a souk where you can buy talking fish and flying carpets, and palaces spun out of sand!
Q: Did you think The Battle was something that was going to happen when you were writing The Gauntlet?  
A: No, and that just makes it even more special! Usually, you sell a sequel along with the first book. The Battle was made possible by all the reader support and enthusiasm for The Gauntlet. With so many readers clamoring for more, my editor – Zareen Jaffery – thought it would be a great idea to revisit the world!
Q; Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind The Gauntlet and The Battle?  
A: Before I started working with Zareen Jaffery, I had a brainstorming session with my bosses at diverse book packager Cake Literary – Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton – where we discussed how to best put my own voice and Muslim representation into a fun, adventurous MG that would have soothed the ache of not seeing myself in books I experienced as a middle schooler myself. When we were talking about what I loved at that age, Jumanji and board games came up a lot so that was the enthusiasm we went with!

With The Battle, we looked to the official Jumanji sequel – Zathura – and decided to do homage to the original books by following that sequence but with video games instead of the space opera aspect Zathura originally has.
Q: I am so impressed with these story lines and I love how even more relatable The Battle is for kiddos with devices – what was the difference in writing both?  
A: I think for me, both books set me on a track of “constantly doing firsts in whatever I’m writing”! The Gauntlet was my first time ever writing a book with Muslim characters, and it was wonderful and nerve-wracking because of the awareness of the weight of that representation for my community and concerns about reception and what I could possibly get wrong. There was also a lot to emotionally unpack about how I used to self-cancel in terms of my own representation as a kid, fearing that stories about girls like me would either be weaponized against me (in the typical way the Muslim community is often villainized) or would not be considered normal or interesting enough to make it in mainstream publishing. (As an aside, I’ve been so glad to be proven wrong.)

With The Battle, there was the new adventure of writing a male protagonist for the first time and trying to get into that brain space (while also realizing that it is easier to play a video game than describe the mechanics of a video game in words!), plus an external change of circumstances: previously, I was writing as an undergrad student, and right after The Gauntlet published, I graduated and started teaching. I had more obligations, less time and the added worry of getting a bunch of (dear but very, very mischievous) 7th graders through the day alive, happy and without any injuries.

So, a lot of firsts for both books, but I’d say The Battle really proved to me what I’m made of: that I can face all these external obstacles and get through to the other side with a finished book.

(Also, shout-out to my 7th graders, now my 9th graders, for being an excellent class, modelling middle grade boy behavior to me in the case of my guy students, and explaining how a Switch worked to me since I was still on a Nintendo DS!)
Q: How do you get started on your writing, and what advice would you give to middle grade students who are writing?
A: Usually, an idea comes to me and I try to turn it over in my head for a while. Once I have characters, and maybe even dialogue or scenes, then I start thinking about outlining and coming up with a plan for where that story will go and how it should look. After I have an outline, I usually feel confident enough to launch into the first chapter and see how it goes. One of my problems that I would tell middle grade students to nip in the bud right now: don’t think everything has to be absolutely perfect and the stars need to be aligned for you to start on a new project! Do not get hung up on the perfect first sentence when it’s the first draft. It’s the first draft. Have fun and blurt everything out, and then go back and build from there.
Q: Can you describe your revision/editing process for students? Also, do you start writing on paper/computer/etc?
A: After I finish a draft, I put it out of sight for myself for a while. Being on a deadline, whether it is to an editor or an advisor at school, also helps – because while I’m waiting for feedback, I don’t have to look at it if I don’t want to! Once I get that feedback, I glance over it and then let it sit so I can get over any initial emotional response or nerves. And then, I make a rough to-do list for myself and start breaking it down into chunks! I always tell my high school students to remember that everything has to be done one bite at a time. If you stuff too much in your mouth, you can choke – and, translating that over to the writing process, you can burn yourself out fast, get exhausted, find yourself running out of time and panic…It’s better to come at it with a plan!

In terms of writing, I used to hand write everything in high school and am trying to explore that again in the future. Nowadays, I start brainstorming on paper, take that over to the computer and stay there until it’s done!
Q: Future projects that you are currently working on? 
A: I am currently working on projects for my MFA program and trying to get back into the habit of writing things for the fun of it and not worrying about the industry market or what is “on trend.” That’s harder than it sounds!
Q: What else would you like teachers and young readers to know?
A: You guys are great and I would not be out here doing what I’m doing – any of it – without great educators and great kids cheering me on every step of the way.  Also, now, more than ever, I hope educators remember to value and nurture every voice of every student in their classrooms and remind themselves of the value of their stories – no matter how different they look from another child’s in the classroom. To young readers: once I was the kid in the crowd with a raised hand and not the educator/teacher at the front of the room! If this is your dream, please keep that in mind and know that you can make it here. Dreams do come true, and you have every right to have it happen for you, and you absolutely deserve to be heard and share your stories with the world.

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