Episode 85: A Love Letter to Venice | Into the Lion's Mouth by Nancy McConnell

On this week’s dose of book recommendations, library love, and literary enthusiasm, our guest is Nancy McConnell, the author of Into the Lion’s Mouth. It’s a middle grade historical fiction novel set in 1498 Venice. This is her debut novel but she has several other manuscripts in the works, including a graphic novel in collaboration with her daughter, Rebecca. She’s also a mother and an educator. We have a great conversation about her reading and writing life and swap some wonderful recommendations for both children and adult books. 

Listen to today's episode here or on your favorite podcast player! 

 Visit www.nancymcconnell.com or connect with Nancy on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you're looking for seasonal book recommendations or middle grade reads, she's a great person to ask! You can purchase Into the Lion's Mouth on Amazon, Bookshop.org, or Immortal Works. (And of course your local indie bookstore can order it!)

Books from today's episode are on the Library Laura storefront on bookshop.org

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Into the Lion's Mouth

Nancy Mcconnell didn't see herself as a children's book author. In fact, the story in her debut middle grade historical fiction novel kind of chased her down. It all started when their daughter took a study-abroad semester in Italy and they seized the opportunity to vacation with her at the end of that semester. Part of their itinerary was a visit to Venice. While there, the city totally captured her heart and imagination. Upon returning home, she began to research the city and its history, reading many historical documents (as long as they were in English, not Italian!), and continued to fall in love with Venice. 

Both of her main characters in Into the Lion's Mouth were inspired and informed by historical documents she read. While reading these documents, she found the story about how an orphan would be chosen to help in one part of the selection process for each new Doge of the city. Suddenly her middle grade story had a main character firmly grounded in the history and setting of Venice in 1498. Likewise, Lisabetta's name was inspired by a book of letters from parents to children who were being cared for in the orphan hospitals. The parents wrote that they couldn't take care of their daughter, explaining the circumstances, and asing that she be looked after at the orphan home until such time as they could afford to take her back. Nancy knew she had to include this little girl's name in her story, and to give her a happy ending.  

Reading Nancy's book, Into the Lion's Mouth, reminded me of being that homeschooled kid doing the Sonlight Curriculum and reading a bunch of great middle grade historical fiction that taught me about different times and places in history. I felt like I got to travel to Venice in the footsteps of  Specifically, it reminded me very much of The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (Bookshop | Amazon), which is set behind the scenes of the Globe theater where a boy must steal one of Shakespeare's plays, and then Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher, set in the world of Scheherazade's tales and the Arabian Nights (Bookshop | Amazon

Writing for Middle Grade

When it comes to why Nancy chose to write for the middle grade audience, she explained, "I just had such a good time reading middle grade books when I was in middle grade; I don't think I ever grew out of it!" Books for that 8-12 year old range are some of the ones that have left the biggest impression on her as  reader. Because she's also a teacher, children's literature is just her favorite. She actually started trying to write picture books at one point, thinking that because they're shorter they would be easier. She quickly found out that's not the case! But she knew she definitely wanted to write for children. 

Nancy's first writing was a family newspaper that she created weekly when she was a kid. She progressed to writing cheesy romance novels for her friends in high school. When her children were in grade school, she joined a writer's group at her local library. She wrote about 6 novels and a dozen picture books, several of which she submitted to publishers, but wasn't successful in getting picked up for publication. That's adds up to about 15 years of pursuing writing seriously. "As an aside to all who are trying, don't give up! I could show you a list of close to 100 rejections on various things," she said, as an encouragement to other writers who are pursuing publication. 

"It's a labor of love. If you want to do it, you just do it," she said about the whole writing and publishing process. Into the Lion's Mouth was novel 5 out of 6. The fourth book she wrote got picked up by and agent and submitted quite a bit. But it didn't sell. That agent wasn't really on board with submitting Into the Lion's Mouth, so Nancy started submitting it herself. She was thrilled when Immortal Works was interested in the story, especially since she'd previously been told there wasn't much interest in middle grade historical fiction.

Graphic Novels 

Nancy recently finished writing a graphic novel, THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW EXISTED, in partnership with her daughter, Rebecca McConnell, who is an illustrator. It's a little bit sci-fi, with a bit of magical realism in a contemporary setting. It's about two sisters who discover their mother's old comic books. There's an advertisement to mail order for a rocket ship, so they send away for it. What comes back is unexpected and takes them on quite an adventure. (This is inspired by Nancy's own experience as a kid of wanting to order everything she saw in the comic book mail order advertisements!).  That is currently being sent out to agents. She's just starting a new novel that involves a girl and some lost magical keys. 

Nancy wouldn't have gotten into graphic novels except for her children's influence. But now that she has, she's really enjoying them and thinks they're awesome! As a teacher and a parent, she loves how much these books can inspire reluctant readers or those for whom reading is more challenging. They're also great as adults in a fast-paced world; to be able to pick a graphic novel up and read it in an afternoon is  delightful. 

Two series I mentioned -- Wings of Fire and The Last Kids on Earth -- combine elements of graphic novels and chapter books. (There's also a Netflix adaptation of the Last Kids on Earth.)

Nancy's Reading Life

Nancy credits her parents for encouraging reading. She was a quiet child, so it was good to have reading time to escape into other worlds and experience exciting things. As a child, she remembers books being around the house and being read to by her mother. When she was pretty young, her mother read aloud The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.  It was creepy and fun. (Bookshop | Amazon

Her mom also was a school librarian at the grade school. Whenever it was her library day, there was a table in the front hallway with a stack of books for Nancy and her sister. She had great taste! "I don't know if I would have been more excited if it was candy!" she said, describing the thrill of having new books to read. Nancy still has her mother's copies of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery from back in the 40's.  She also enjoyed books with magic and fantasy, like the Edward Eager's Half Magic series (Bookshop | Amazon) and C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. 

 "Sometimes I go to the library and I leave with a whole stack of kid books and I think, They just think I have kids at home, they don't know these books are for me," said Nancy. I relate, because it's the same way for me! 

When she's looking for a book to read these days, Nancy considers several things. She looks at the covers and can be enticed by an exciting looking cover or something that catches her eye. She also enjoys reading seasonally, so she looks for summer books in the summertime, winter books in the winter. Characters are very important to her, especially if they are an awkward kid. She prefers mystery to romance. She was currently reading a book that at the time wasn't out yet: Blue Shadows Fall by Lenore Stutznegger, as was I! (I interviewed Lenore on Episode 81 of the podcast!)  She had just finished reading Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, which she really enjoyed. She'll be looking for more of his books in the future. Before that it was Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.  

All time favorites of Nancy's include the works of L.M. Montgomery and Edward Eager, as we've previously mentioned. She also really likes the books by Mary Stewart, which includes a series about Merlin and King Arthur that starts with The Crystal Cave and also a series of lighthearted adventure books, with a side of romance, starting a British protagonist who solves mysteries such as The Stormy Petrel

We discussed loving audiobooks, and I mentioned the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre adaptations of several classics, such as Narnia, The Secret Garden, and one about the Legend of Squanto that we listened to on road trips. Nancy and her children listened to many books on drives to and from Montreal. We are both so glad that audiobooks are so popular right now, because they open up yet another way to enjoy books! 

Book Recommendations 

(Links to books are affiliate links for Bookshop and Amazon and as an affiliate I may earn from purchases made through these links. Thanks!) 

The Anne of Green Gables Graphic Novel adapted by Mariah Marsden - this was low-hanging fruit as Nancy loves graphic novels and Anne of Green Gables. (Bookshop | Amazon) She's always a little wary of adaptations (she's a bit of a purist) but is willing to give it a try. The same author just did a Secret Garden adaptation, which I also liked pretty well. 

The other graphic novel I wanted to mention was When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamad (Bookshop | Amazon). Nancy has already read it! But it's a beautifully told story of a boy and his brother who are Syrian refugees in a camp in Kenya. She also wrote Roller Girl and All's Faire in Middle School.

The Vanderbeekers series by Karina Yan Glaser  (Bookshop | Amazon) starts out with a four book sequence that take place during Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall respectively, which would be perfect for Nancy's enjoyment of seasonal readings.  The fifth book, The Vanderbeekers Make a Wish, is a departure from this seasonal theme, but sets up for a grand road trip in book six, which I'm super excited about!! 

Speaking of books set at Christmastime, Nancy just recently read the Greenglass House by Kate Milford, which is a middle grade mystery she really enjoyed and recommended to me (Bookshop | Amazon). It's set in a family-run hotel in Nantucket. Suddenly a bunch of strange people show up and they're snowed in and there's a mystery to be solved. This is the first in a series, which is set on the East Coast and features smuggling.  I took a photo of this book at Parnassus books this summer because it looked interesting, and since recording I read this book. I enjoyed it and talked about it on my October reading episode 80

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus would be a perfect choice given Nancy's appreciation for libraries, historical fiction, and Narnia. Don't miss the list of books in the back of the book. (Bookshop | Amazon

Given her interest in Arthur and Merlin,  I thought she might enjoy Stephen Lawhead's novels, such as the Pendragon Cycle series. My dad read this aloud to me and my sister because he is a big fan.  

The other author I wanted to mention is Margaret Peterson Haddix. She's prolific and really lovely.  I got to meet her when we lived in Ohio when I was a teenager! I really like her books for middle grade and YA readers and I think nancy would too. Her most recent series is the Greystone Secrets and I also enjoyed the Shadow Children series (starts with Among the Hidden) when I was a kid. 

 A book that it's weird to say is considered "historical fiction" because it takes place in 1986 is We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly, which is a middle grade book about some school children during the launch of the Challenger shuttle. I don't know if Nancy would enjoy this book, but found it worth mentioning given our conversation about middle grade historical fiction. (Bookshop | Amazon

Connect with Nancy! 

 Visit www.nancymcconnell.com or connect with Nancy on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter. If you're looking for seasonal book recommendations or middle grade reads, she's a great person to ask! You can purchase Into the Lion's Mouth on AmazonBookshop.org, or Immortal Works. (And of course your local indie bookstore can order it!)

Podcast and Baby Miller Update 

I hope you had a blessed holiday season and I’m wishing you a happy New Year full of great stories. I’m also happy to announce that we had our son on December 5th. He surprised us by coming three weeks early, but he’s happy and healthy and doing great. I’m recovering well and reading lots of books while nursing him. We are so in love and grateful for our little family. 

Stay tuned for more podcast episodes as I continue get my new-mom feet under me. It’s an adventure, but I have some great content pre-recorded that I should be able to find time to edit over the next few months, as well as some ideas for future podcast guests. And of course I’ll keep you updated on what I’m reading in some monthly reading updates! 

As always, I'd love to hear from you in the comments, via email, or on social media! (There will be baby pictures 😍)

With lots of literary love from my library to yours, 

~ Laura 


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Library Laura
Laura is an avid reader who is happiest when surrounded by books, tea, blankets and/or friends. Host of the Library Laura Podcast.


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