Thursday, July 30, 2015

2015 Must-Read Mid-Grades: August Edition

There are so many incredible middle-grade titles releasing this year, I decided to dedicate my posts these next months to sharing as many as I can with you. My list is not exclusive and is actually just the tip of the iceberg. I hope these glimpses get you excited enough to ask your library to purchase a copy or buy one yourself. All descriptions are taken from

Happy Reading!

Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith (Sept 1)

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can't seem to cast a simple spell.  

When a mysterious man called the Stranger comes to town, Hoodoo starts dreaming of the dead rising from their graves. Even worse, he soon learns the Stranger is looking for a boy. Not just any boy. A boy named Hoodoo. The entire town is at risk from the Stranger's black magic, and only Hoodoo can defeat him. He'll just need to learn how to conjure first.  

Set amid the swamps, red soil, and sweltering heat of small town Alabama in the 1930s, Hoodoo is infused with a big dose of creepiness leavened with gentle humor.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (Sept 8)

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future. 

Inspired by her own grandmother’s journal, Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.

The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB by Adam Shaughnessy (Sept 8)

“What is the Unbelievable FIB?” 

That’s the question eleven-year-old Prudence Potts discovers on a baffling card no one else in Middleton--except ABE, a new kid with a knack for solving riddles--seems to see. Then a mysterious man asks for ABE and Pru’s help investigating mythical beings infiltrating the town, and that’s just one of the things Pru finds hard to believe.

Soon Pru and ABE discover another world beneath the surface of their quiet town, where Viking gods lurk just out of sight. They must race to secure the Eye of Odin, source of all knowledge--and the key to stopping a war that could destroy both human and immortal realms.

Author Adam Shaughnessy draws from classic lore to create a new world where uncertainty opens the door to magic and the last thing you should do is believe your own eyes. Fans of Rick Riordan and Diana Wynne Jones will delight in the charming characters, abundant puzzles and plot twists, and sly humor of this first novel in a new series.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Sept 22)

A stunning debut about how grief can open the world in magical ways.

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy's achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe...and the potential for love and hope right next door.

Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre (Sept 29)

Debut novelist Lisa Lewis Tyre vibrantly brings a small town and its outspoken characters to life, as she explores race and other community issues from both the Civil War and the present day.

Lou might be only twelve, but she’s never been one to take things sitting down. So when her Civil War-era house is about to be condemned, she’s determined to save it—either by getting it deemed a historic landmark or by finding the stash of gold rumored to be hidden nearby during the war. As Lou digs into the past, her eyes are opened when she finds that her ancestors ran the gamut of slave owners, renegades, thieves and abolitionists. Meanwhile, some incidents in her town show her that many Civil War era prejudices still survive and that the past can keep repeating itself if we let it. Digging into her past shows Lou that it’s never too late to fight injustice, and she starts to see the real value of understanding and exploring her roots.

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon (Sept 29)

Archer B. Helmsley has grown up in a house full of oddities and treasures collected by his grandparents, the famous explorers. He knows every nook and cranny. He knows them all too well. After all, ever since his grandparents went missing on an iceberg, his mother barely lets him leave the house.

Archer B. Helmsley longs for adventure. Grand adventures, with parachutes and exotic sunsets and interesting characters. But how can he have an adventure when he can't leave his house?

It helps that he has friends like Adélaïde L. Belmont, who must have had many adventures since she ended up with a wooden leg. (Perhaps a crocodile ate it. Perhaps not.) And Oliver Glub. Oliver will worry about all the details (so that Archer doesn't have to).

And so Archer, Adélaïde, and Oliver make a plan. A plan to get out of the house, out of their town entirely. It's a good plan.

Well, it's not bad, anyway.

But nothing goes quite as they expect.

What new books are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What Do You Write? – by Jim Hill

I’ve just returned from my first stint as a graduate assistant for the Writing for Children & Young Adults summer residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and it was fantastic. Ten days of lectures and readings from the top-notch faculty and graduating students (Yay, Craftographers!). Not to mention the after-hour socializing with like-minded folks who live and breathe children’s literature. Truly, it’s like a Fantasy Writers Camp for (alleged) Adults. My brain is still buzzing with the stories and ideas I heard. So good.

But there’s that one question that comes up again and again when meeting another writer for the first time (not just at VCFA but at conferences or any gathering of writers).

“What do you write?”

Record scratch. Silence.

As crazy as that question makes me, I’ve asked it as many times as I’ve been asked. It’s a natural opening line. It’s a veritable Sorting Hat for Scribes. And I find it nearly impossible to answer succinctly.

Don’t get me wrong, I can give you a pretty decent elevator pitch for my current WIP (or three other projects sitting in the drawer), but somehow the question begs a bigger response. It tugs at my philosopher’s soul. It’s one of the few times I want to go deep and not glib.

What do I write?

I used to toss out the sound byte answer “middle-grade boy humor” and that generally satisfied whoever asked. And maybe that’s all that’s needed, but that answer rings in my ears like the sound of a prison door slamming. I just locked myself up and threw away the key. Where’s the parole board? Do I get a phone call? A cake with a file? Because the truth is I write so much more than that, and I hope I always do.

I started down the kidlit path as a former computer game artist looking to make picture books (PSA: Picture books – the Gateway Drug of Children’s Literature™). I wrote a bunch of manuscripts, and then one morning I started a middle-grade book because… well, because the character came to me and wanted out. And he didn’t fit into a picture book. I’d tried that. Marshall’s story was bigger than a picture book, and his sister was meaner.

The Gateway Drug had worked. It turned me into a wannabe novelist.

I still wrote picture books on the side. And poems. I attended conferences (the Cape Cod Writers Conference, NESCBWI, SCBWI, and the Big Sur Writing Workshop). My ambitions grew along with my reading list. My favorite authors didn’t limit themselves to one story format. Why should I?

I admired the way Adam Rex jumped between picture books, middle-grade, and young adult. M.T Anderson’s range was staggering. From Whales on Stilts to Feed to Octavian Nothing. Maybe my hubris was only outstripped by my naiveté, but I didn’t think that writing across formats was a bad thing. How did I come to that idea? Two reasons:

Write the story you want to read.
Write the story that’s begging to be told.

I sat down that fateful morning to work on a picture book and this sentence popped out instead:

“I didn’t know it, but M.Alice had already ruined my life by the time I got to the bus stop that morning.”

Nope. Marshall’s story wasn’t going to be a picture book, and there was no turning back.

When I wrote the (then) opening lines for the Age of Supers, I knew it wasn’t a middle-grade boy humor book. 

“I slap the door open, hit the sidewalk and accelerate. I don't know why I want to run, I just know I have to get away from school. I'd have ditched early, but last time they said they'd flag my chip if I did it again, and then I'd have nowhere to go anyway. Unless I want a one-way trip to the 'claves. Which I definitely do not.”

Harper was a seventeen-year-old-girl on the run from something. Maybe it was from preconceived notions of genres and manic pixie dream girls. I knew there was only one way to find out.

Write the story you want to read.
Write the story that’s begging to be told.

So what do I write? A lot of things. YA novels, MG novels, poetry, picture books, scraps of dialogue, funny titles, the odd character name filed away for future use, and way too many Facebook updates.

What do you write?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review and Giveaway: MOLLY PEPPER AND THE NIGHT TRAIN, by: Courtney King Walker

Hi Mayhemers! Marissa here. :)

Today, I'm happy to introduce you to a new middle-grade book from Courtney King Walker. Here is the summary from the back cover of MOLLY PEPPER AND THE NIGHT TRAIN:

"Hidden somewhere in the fog of the San Francisco bay lies Blue Rock Island, home to the bay area's two best-kept secrets: Bell's Bluff, the old, abandoned prison on one side of the island, and the Night Train, a mysterious train ride on the other.

When twelve-year-old Molly Pepper receives a secret invitation promising a night of magic and adventure aboard the Night Train, she is skeptical. In her experience, most promises prove too good to be true. The fact that she lost her mom is proof enough.

Still, Molly gives hope another chance. Together with her loyal friend, Noah Wonderly, they sneak out of the house and follow a string of clues leading tot he Night Train. But when the train stops at Bell's Bluff, Molly discovers the real reason she was invited. There, she starts to wonder if hope and magic not only fix broken promises but make you believe in them again."

And a little bit about the author: " Courtney King Walker grew up in the San Francisco bay area
building rocketships and rafts out of cardboard, hoping to make it to the moon or at least Niagara Falls. But a trip across the border to Tijuana was as exciting as it ever got, so she decided writing was the next best thing. She now lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and four children and still dreams of flying to the moon."

This humorous adventure-mystery hits the right mark for middle-grade: a plucky heroine, a winsome best friend, and a magical setting with plenty of adventure. I liked Molly's independence and curiosity and Noah's journey to conquer his fears. Full of tasty foods from doughnuts to cinnamon candy and fun adventures at carnivals and on the night train, the plot carries readers along with Molly as she explores her feelings about her mom's death and learns to regain hope in family and friends.

So if you or the young reader in your life is looking for a fun summer read, pick up MOLLY PEPPER AND THE NIGHT TRAIN. Better yet, enter Project Mayhem's giveaway for a signed paperback. All you have to do is make sure to follow Project Mayhem and then leave us a comment sharing one of your favorite summer reads.

This giveaway is for US addresses only and will be open until Friday 8/7 when I'll post the winner selected by

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Writing Great Kid Lit Scenes Using Dialogue and Thoughts, by Chris Eboch

To celebrate the release of my new book, You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, I’m sharing an excerpt from a chapter on dialogue and thoughts: 

A good scene typically has a mix of action and dialogue, with some thoughts and enough description to help the reader picture the setting. Some scenes are going to be mainly action. Others are going to be mainly dialogue. If that’s appropriate to reality, that’s fine. For example, people don’t usually stop in the middle of battle to have conversations. Or you might have a character who is alone for a stretch of time, with no one to talk to. But in general, a story will be more entertaining and flow better if it has plenty of action and dialogue. Watch out for scenes that are all description, with no action, or all action, with no dialogue.

Thoughts as Dialogue

You can also use thoughts in place of dialogue. This helps keep the action from seeming like just a lot of stuff happening with no emotional reaction. Here’s a scene from my middle grade Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, where there’s no dialogue. The main character, Seshta, has just dropped down from the roof after spying on people. I’ll italicize the things that come across as her thoughts, to make them obvious. However, they were not italicized in the actual book. Also notice that I don’t need to say “she thought.” Because we are in her viewpoint, it’s clear this is what she is thinking.

            She paused under a willow tree to calm and arrange herself. She moaned as she smoothed her dress. Dust and little tears marred the fine linen, with one big rip in the hem. How would she explain the ruined dress to the priestess? She tried to cover herself with the shawl.
            Most of the party guests still lingered at the far end of the garden. Musicians on lutes, reeds, and drums had joined the harpist. Seshta trudged past the pond. What should she do next? She wanted to hear what Prince Penno said to Meryey, but they would be on their guard to make sure Miw’s father didn’t spy on them.
            Why was Miw’s father there? What did the prince mean about “the other girl?” They hadn’t said anything yet about Reya; she had to focus on him, whatever other strange things happened.

Notice how thought is woven in with action to show her reaction. In a battle scene, you might have fewer thoughts, but there could still be some, even if they’re brief:

            Richard is in trouble. Got to get to him.
            That came close.

Don’t Forget The Reaction

In real life, we don’t always know why things happen. In fiction, we should. We expect story events to follow a logical pattern, where cause leads to a reasonable effect. If you show a cause without an effect or an effect without a cause, you confuse your readers.

This goes beyond the cause and effect of major plot action. It includes a character’s internal reaction to the external action. Yet I often see manuscripts where action is followed by action with no internal reaction, so we don’t understand the character’s motives. No matter how great the action, the reader is confused and skeptical.

This has ghosts for sure!
Within each scene, you need to show not only what your main character does, but also why. Don’t assume people can read between the lines. In one manuscript I critiqued, the main character heard voices. Ghosts? The narrator never identified them as such. Did the boy think the voices had another source? Had he not yet decided? Maybe they weren’t supposed to be ghosts after all. The writer may have assumed that readers would interpret this properly, but by not putting the narrator’s interpretation on the page, she left this reader confused.

In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon suggests using this pattern: stimulus – reaction/emotion – thoughts – action. In other words, something happens to your main character (the stimulus); you show his emotional reaction, perhaps through dialogue, an exclamation, gesture, expression, or physical sensation; he thinks about the situation and makes a decision on what to do next; and finally he acts on that decision. This lets us see clearly how and why a character is reacting. The sequence may take one sentence or several pages, so long as we see the character’s emotional and intellectual reaction, leading to a decision. You can vary the pattern, but make sure you include emotions and thoughts so your character’s behavior is clear.

An Example from The Eighth Day

Dianne K. Salerni’s shares an example from her middle grade fantasy adventure, The Eighth Day. First, here’s the excerpt with action, dialogue, and description, but no thoughts:

           Jax rode his bike into the center of town. The streets were empty. The traffic lights were on, but frozen green, red, or yellow.
            “Oh, crap!” Jax yelled, braking.
            It took three tries for Jax to break through the glass doors of the Walmart with a concrete parking block. He filled up a shopping cart with supplies he’d seen people grab before snowstorms or hurricanes and during zombie movies.

Without including thoughts, Jax’s action doesn’t make sense. Some readers might be able to guess why he’s doing what he’s doing, but others might be baffled, or they might guess wrong. Here’s the actual scene (slightly edited for brevity), with thoughts:

            Jax rode his bike into the center of town. The streets were empty. The traffic lights were on, but frozen green, red, or yellow. (Stimulus: what he sees)
            He thought about zombies.
            He thought about alien abduction.
            He thought about the old movie where Will Smith and his dog were the last creatures on earth. (Thoughts)
            “Oh, crap!” Jax yelled, braking. (Reaction/Emotion)
            Will Smith and his dog had not been alone in that movie. There’d been other creatures that lurked in dark places and came out at night to kill. (Thoughts)
            It took three tries for Jax to break through the glass doors of the Walmart with a concrete parking block. He filled up a shopping cart with supplies he’d seen people grab before snowstorms or hurricanes and during zombie movies. (Action)

Now the reader knows what Jax is thinking, how he’s interpreting the situation, so his actions make sense. The scene is also more dramatic, with more emotion.

What's he thinking?
Writers often forget to include the character’s emotional reaction and decision-making. We are so familiar with our characters that it’s obvious to us how they would feel and why they would do what they do next. You just have to remember to put what you know on the page. My first draft of a scene often focuses on the action and dialogue. I read back through it intentionally focusing on the reaction, the character’s emotional response, using both physical sensations and thoughts.

Make sure you’re using action, dialogue, description, and reaction, possibly in the form of thoughts. Then you’ll have vivid, believable scenes building a dramatic story.

Find much more advice on story development in You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, which is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Chris Eboch’s novels for children include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and Bandits Peak, a survival story. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children and Advanced Plotting

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Suspension of Disbelief (Part 1) by Dianne K. Salerni

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term “suspension of disbelief” in 1817, and it refers to a reader’s willingness to enjoy a fictional story as if the events are really occurring. It applies equally to realistic fiction and speculative fiction, although one might argue that introducing fantastic, magical, or science fiction elements in a believable way adds an extra challenge for the writer. (I’ll address that in Part 2 of this topic next month.)

In all works of fiction, maintaining point of view is essential for suppressing the “disbelief” that pulls a reader out of the story. For instance, first person narratives should not break into long expository paragraphs where the only purpose is to convey information to the reader that the narrator already knows – and therefore has no reason to explain. Almost as bad are “As you, know, Bob …” dialogues in which characters tell each other information they both already know.

Third person narratives should not contain info dumps from the author that hijack the story – unless that’s the intention, such as in The Series of Unfortunate Events, where the narrator “Lemony Snicket” is as much a character as any other in the book. His repeated interruptions to define a word for the reader or moralize about the behavior of a character are part of the charm and humor in these books. Likewise, in A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, Jules Feiffer writes as a self-aware story-teller, directly engages with the reader, and even complains about his characters not sticking to their planned roles. By contrast, unintentional info dumps and expository passages stand out to the reader as a clumsy means of conveying back story that should instead develop organically within the plot.

From A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears:
an example of intentional (and humorous) interruption

Head-hopping is another mistake that breaks suspension of disbelief and jars readers out of the book. An omniscient point of view should be carefully planned by an author, and the same goes for multiple points of view. When this is done correctly, the reader immediately picks up on the idea that he/she will know the thoughts of many characters – or that different passages will be seen through the eyes of various characters – and this becomes part of the suspension of disbelief. Head-hopping, on the other hand, is when we’ve been following Mary’s viewpoint for fifteen chapters and suddenly there’s a paragraph where we know what John is thinking about Mary. This never fails to derail me from my immersion in a story as I wonder: How do we know that?

To sum up, suspending the disbelief of the reader and providing immersion in the story requires a careful attention to point of view and presenting information through action, dialogue, and internal thoughts that always make sense in the context of the story and never in a way that calls the author out of hiding the way Toto pulled the curtain away from the Wizard.

Next month – How to present fantasy and science fiction elements while maintaining that suspension of disbelief.