Monday, August 20, 2018
Here at Project Middle Grade Mayhem we've been doing some summer-inspired soul-searching. When we look back at the past eight years--yes, we've been bringing you the very best of middle-grade for eight, wonderful years!--we see over 1000 blog posts, myriad page views and comments, and an ever-evolving gang of some of the best middle grade writers on the planet.
But we've also noticed a trend. Plainly speaking, blog reading is down. As more short-forms of social media have evolved (think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest), people have even less time to interact with long-form blogging. I mean, who among us really wants to stare at a screen all day?
As writers, it's always a struggle keeping up the social connectivity and working on promotion of our work, and doing what we all love doing best: immersing ourselves in the worlds of our stories. More and more of us feel the tug to take a break from social media, and reconnect with our own creativity. (One of our founding members, Caroline Starr Rose, has written persuasively about this on the blog: Deep Work and a Digital Declutter.)
So basically, we've come to a crossroads, and our membership has decided it's time to put our blog to bed. That's not to say you'll never hear from us again. Our plan is to migrate to Facebook, where we will be setting up a group page where conversations can continue and mayhem can flourish. In essence, we'll be growing our Project Middle Grade Mayhem family as we invite you to share your thoughts, promote your books, and celebrate all the wonderful things about middle grade fiction and nonfiction.
So please stay tuned for things to change in September--and thank you all for your support during these eight magnificent mayhem-filled years. May the Mayhem be with you!
Monday, August 13, 2018
Fall is an exciting time for school librarians. We head back to school, get our space reorganized, put up our displays, plan out what we’re going to teach the kids, and the books we will read to them. Far and away the most fun task – and the most difficult – is ordering new books. There is such a wealth of new middle grade books being published every day it can be hard to discern what’s a necessity versus what would be nice to add to your collection if you had more money. For your consideration today, I offer my list of the top middle grade books that you should add to your library collection. Or buy for your kids. Or offer to the students in your classroom. Or buy for your favorite niece or nephew for Christmas. Or just rush out and read if you love reading middle grade books like I do.
If you have any other suggestions for this list, please share them below!
- Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed – In India, young Amal, who longs to become a teacher, has a social awakening while working as a servant to pay a family debt.
- Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol – In this autobiographical graphic memoir, the author recounts her month at a Russian summer camp where she feels she doesn’t fit in.
- Front Desk, by Kelly Yang – Mia, a Chinese immigrant, ably takes over the front desk at the motel her parents are managing, while dreaming of a future as a writer. (I’ve been hearing Newbery buzz about this one!)
- Smart Cookie, by Elly D Swartz – Frankie lives with her Dad and Grandmother at a bed and breakfast, while dealing with Gram’s hoarding, ghost rumors and trying to find a new wife (and acceptable new mom) for her father.
- Louisiana’s Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo (releases October 2nd) – this companion to DiCamillo’s charming Raymie Nightingale follows the trials and tribulations of Louisiana Elefante. Manages to be heartbreaking, uplifting, and truly funny.
- Saving Winslow, by Sharon Creech (releases September 11th) – Louie doesn’t have a good track record with animal care, but when his father brings home an orphaned mini-donkey, he’s determined to save it. Perfect for E.B. White fans.
- The Dollar Kids, by Jennifer Jacobson – Lowen and his family move to a struggling town where houses are being sold for a dollar to encourage new residents. Various social issues are raised – job loss, class and race divisions, gun violence, prejudices.
- Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson (releases August 21st) – In a talking circle of sorts, Haley and her 6th grade classmates discuss issues such as incarcerated parents, death, families split by immigration, job loss and other daily struggles.
- Cilla Lee-Jenkins, This Book is a Classic, by Susan Tan – In her first book, aspiring author Cilla wrote her memoir. Now she’s working on a classic, and to do so, she focuses on the traditions around her, noting differences in the two sides of her biracial family, and centering on the wedding of her beloved Aunt Eva.
- Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, by Sally J. Pla – Stanley has anxiety and sensory processing disorders, and sometimes gets overwhelmed by crowds, noise and his brother’s pestering. Now his best friend is acting strange and he humiliates himself at school.
- The Science of Breakable Things, by Tae Keller – in the process of a classic egg-drop contest, Natalie is also dealing with her mother’s deepening depression, and a yearning for a deeper connection with the Korean part of her heritage.
- The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras – Set in 13th century Scotland, young Drest embarks on a quest to rescue her father and brothers when they are captured by a band of knights. She has five days to reach Faintree Castle and trade an injured knight for her family’s freedom.
- Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender – Caroline is considered unlucky in her Virgin Islands home, because she was born during a hurricane. Also bullied for her dark skin tone, she is lonely until she befriends newcomer Kalinda. Coming of age novel with LGBTQ elements.
- Just Like Jackie, by Lindsey Stoddard – Jackie has problems. There’s her short fuse, and now her Grandpa, her only family, is starting to become very forgetful. A class project to do a family tree is a catalyst for change and growth in her life.
- A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano – Leonora, youngest of five sisters, discovers that the secret to her family bakery’s wonderful goods is magic. Leo steals a book of magical recipes and her experimentation leads to all kinds of problems. Back matter includes non-magical recipes.
- Me, Frida & the Secret of the Peacock Ring, by Angela Cervantes – On Paloma’s first trip to her father’s native Mexico, she becomes embroiled in a mystery having to do with Frida Kahlo and a missing ring. Despite her low expectations at the start of the trip, Paloma makes friends and has more adventures than she bargained for.
If you have any other suggestions for this list, please share them below!
Monday, July 30, 2018
See this? It's a rejection from my editor Stacey, written in 2008! She didn't buy a book from me until 2013.
I first started writing the summer of 1998. Back then, I was a teacher on break with three months stretching before me. After years of dreaming, I decided it was finally time to dig in and try to write a book.
For eleven years I wrote, submitting my four novels and six picture books almost exclusively to editors.* This was back in the snail mail querying age. Remember the anticipation you experienced as a child waiting for birthday presents to arrive in the mail? That was me for about a decade.
In spring 2009, I won a contest at a local writing conference. At the last minute, I’d decided to send in my middle-grade historical novel-in-verse. It was my best work, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received alongside pieces meant for the adult market.** My prize included a one-on-one with an editor who specialized in fantasy, sci-fi, and women’s fiction, a world apart from my writing. She took one look at my manuscript and asked, “Why don’t you have an agent yet?”
|Part of my very high-tech submission records and some artwork from my son.|
That’s when I started subbing to agents in earnest, sending three to five queries at a time. By May, I'd gotten my first full request. In June I got two more. In July another two. In September, yet another two.
By October, I’d had ten agents request fulls and two ask for partials. One agent liked my story, but felt some significant changes were necessary. I thought through her suggestions but took things in another direction, coming up with an entirely new, stronger ending. In the days I spent revising, two more agents requested fulls, bringing my total to twelve. I contacted the first agent, telling her I’d made changes to the story, though not along the lines she’d suggested. If she was still interested, I told her, I’d be happy to send it, but I also wanted her to know two more agents were reading the newer version. She graciously told me she’d love to see the story if the other two agents passed. One did. One didn’t.
Writing stats from 1998 to 2010, when I signed with my first agent:10 manuscripts (4 novels, 6 picture books)
211 rejections from editors (2 fulls and 1 partial requested)
12 contests/grants (1 win)
75 rejections from agents (12 fulls and 2 partials requested)
With my first agent I sold two books, May B. (novel #4, which subbed to eleven editors and had 3 offers. It was orphaned when Random House closed Tricycle Press. The book was days from its ARC printing. Six weeks later, it was picked up by another Random House imprint, Schwartz and Wade, and went through three more rounds of edits), and Over in the Wetlands (picture book #5, which sold to Schwartz and Wade with zero rejections). After reworking several manuscripts, I officially retired most of them and drafted my verse novel, Blue Birds.
In 2013, I was on the hunt again for an agent. I submitted to three agencies and got two offers. I've been with Tracey Adams of Adams Literary ever since.
Writing stats for the last five years:7.5 manuscripts (1.5 novels, 6 picture books -- 3 of these manuscripts have been officially retired)
5 sales (3 novels, 2 picture books...the second picture book I hope to be able announce soon-ish!)
2 anthology pieces, including an overhauled chapter from novel #2...the one Stacey rejected in 2008!
3 grants / 2 contests (with no wins)
Some thoughtsYou could look at these numbers and get pretty discouraged. 14 years to see a book on the shelf? Regular rejection with 7 books sold? I can look at these numbers -- even knowing things worked out in the end -- and feel the same. I know plenty of people with a shorter apprenticeship. I've got lots of friends far more prolific. All sorts of authors I debuted with in 2012 have published far more than I have. Here's the thing: Your process is yours. Your journey is yours. Each book finds its way on its own.
Two truths kept me going before I sold my first book (and aren't bad to remember now):
- I have something unique to say (even when I'm not sure what that is).
- My work can only improve if I keep at it.
The writing life (and the publication process) is a long-road, long-view, long-term journey. There's no other way to look at it.
So, my friends, if you are on this journey, too, take heart. There is no right way. There's no quick fix. There is no easy road. There is a fair dose of frustration and disappointment. But there is joy and satisfaction, too.
Here's to all the good work ahead. Here's to the next twenty years.
*Because an agent isn’t a necessity in the children's market (but is a REALLY GOOD IDEA), I figured submitting to an agent was an extra, unnecessary step. Perhaps not my smartest move, but it also was not detrimental, as my writing wasn't yet ready for a sale or representation. These were my apprenticeship years.
**I also wasn't sure if anyone would understand what I was trying to do with this verse thing. A few months before I had submitted the first ten pages to an editor at a children's conference. She clearly was unfamiliar with the form and thought it was a rather mature picture book that was missing its ending!
Thursday, July 19, 2018
I’ve been collaborating on a children’s book with a friend of mine for the last six months. I’m the writer. He’s the illustrator. Initially we were in a good groove, meeting once a week for a two-hour session. We have the advantage of living one mile apart. Then we both got busy, our momentum waned and the project stalled halfway to the finish line.
It remained stuck there for several months, a book fraught with potential that might never be completed. We met at a coffee shop to discuss our dilemma. Due to escalating responsibilities, we no longer had two hours per week to devote to the project. We didn’t even have an hour. My friend suggested that we try shorter sessions, with a twenty-minute minimum. We did just that.
I’m happy to report that the book is almost done. We found our groove again through a series of short bursts. I highly recommend short bursts, not just for collaborations, but for writing on your own as well. We’d all love to have three hours each day to write. For most of us, that simply isn’t viable. You’d be amazed by what you can accomplish in twenty minutes. If nothing else, you will keep the pulse of your book alive. That, by itself, is a grand achievement.
Thursday, July 12, 2018
It’s the middle of summer vacation, and many families take this opportunity to visit new places with their children. What better way to learn about the world than to see it firsthand? Unfortunately, that is not in everyone’s budget or schedule. My family did not take many trips when I was a child, but the local public library was right down the street. As a result, I did a lot of “traveling” during my summer breaks, and I continue to see the world through books.
This year alone I experienced a Palestinian wedding in the Middle East through Randa Abdel-Fattah’s moving book, Where the Streets Had a Name, I visited Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico with the exciting Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, by Angela Cervantes, and I saw the heart of Cuba when I read Margarita Engle’s lyrical Forest World.
These are just a few examples of the wonderful middle grade books that take us outside of our country and help expand our minds and awareness. Let’s encourage our kids to step into a book and travel the world. Does anyone have additional recommendations?