Monday, April 24, 2017

Persistence by Paul Greci

A persistent hunter. (photo by Paul Greci)

There are many examples of persistence in nature because persistence is part of survival. But as humans we have choices about persistence that don’t have to do only with survival.

Several years ago I had knee surgery to smooth out a slightly torn meniscus. With physical therapy I managed over time to continue to do long distance running and still run marathons. I’m certainly slower than I was prior to the surgery; but I’ll keep on running if I can because I love it. With age, injury, and wear and tear, it’s inevitable that the human body slows down, breaks down.

One thing I love about writing is that barring any major physical or mental impairments, you can keep improving forever.

My recipe for improvement has one simple ingredient: Persistence.
For me, persistence means:
  1. Not wasting whatever amount of time I’ve created in my life to write, i.e. showing up.
  2. And, to paraphrase Laurie Halse Anderson: asking how I can make what I’ve written better instead of looking at it and saying this is pretty good.
  3. Even after I’ve done many revisions, be willing to do more. (In other words, keep applying point number two from above.)

I’ve heard a couple of successful writers proclaim the following myth: if you don’t have what it takes to write, i.e. talent, you never will. Quit wasting your time.

In contrast, James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot and Structure, referred to this as the Big Lie. He spent several years of his life believing the Big Lie before he realized that he could learn how to write fiction. Now, as you probably know, he’s published over twenty books. 

Needless to say, I agree with James Scott Bell!

What does persistence look like for you?

Paul Greci is the author of Surviving Bear Island, a 2015 Junior Library Guild Selection and a 2016 Scholastic Reading Club Selection.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book review: Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes, by Mary E. Lambert

"Annabelle has a five mile rule: She must keep her friends from coming within five miles of her home. That's because Annabelle's mom is a hoarder. Their house is full of stuff: canned goods, broken toys, old newspapers... It's everywhere except for Annabelle's spotless room.

Annabelle can't let anyone find out what her house is like. They'll realize that her mom is crazy. They'll make fun of her. Or feel sorry for her. Or try to help.

But when the newspaper piles come crashing down on her sister's head one morning, it kicks off an epic fight between her parents that ends up with her dad taking off -- and her fix-it-all grandmother stepping in.

As Annabelle realizes how bad things have gotten for her little sister, while trying to navigate her first crush, not to mention stay sane herself, she's forced to come to terms with the fact that maybe she can't keep all her secrets to herself. Maybe she can't just throw her mom's things out... maybe she has to let some people in."

Praise for Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes:

"Annabelle's smart, perceptive voice is fresh and realistic. Well-drawn and sympathetic characters (even, eventually, Annabelle's parents) drive this immersive tale. This debut story is a standout."
-- Kirkus Reviews

"This poignant tale with an authentic and memorable narrator will resonate with many young readers–whether they have personal experiences with hoarding or not. Move this to the top of the realistic fiction purchase list in libraries serving middle graders."
-- School Library Journal

"Gutsy and affecting. A believably hopeful ending reinforces the story's call to face problems rather than hide or run from them, and to ask for help from others–especially family."
-- Publishers Weekly

"Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes is a heartfelt exploration of family and friendship, adolescence and sisterhood; it is a touching and real portrait of the beautiful mess that love and life can sometimes be."
-- Dan Gemeinhart, author of The Honest Truth

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes (published in March 2017) is Mary E. Lambert's debut novel. On her website, Mary, a VCFA alumna, writes that she always wanted to write about the complexity of the sister relationship, and that after some suggestions from her graduate program advisors, the idea for this book was born. Mary succeeded in portraying the emotional roller-coaster of not only the relationship between sisters, but also between mothers and daughters. I was fascinated by the component that Annabelle's mom has an out-of-control compulsion to hoard, but more that that, I was profoundly touched by the love that binds this family even though they're facing the worst crisis of their lives. Unlike many other books featuring broken parents, the love that the family members have for each other shines through the page, even when Annabelle's mean to her sister or even her mom. I loved that saving her family is the main desire line of the story, and that Annabelle isn't a traditional heroine in the sense that she solves the family problem. How could she? She's just a kid. But her actions, small when compared to other stories featuring saving the world, send the stone rolling so that her mom can finally get the help she needs. Annabelle's family is her whole world, so true to middle-grade kids. The raw emotion of Annabelle trying to function socially with her friends and the new boy she likes while at the same time she holds this huge secret in her heart make the stakes so high and important.

Annabelles' voice is true middle-grade, full of optimism, but at the same time, her awareness of the family situation makes her sound much more mature than her friends. Her relationship with her friends is another element that I admire of this story. Friendships are so crucial at the age that I was pleasantly surprised that the author gave Annabelle an amazing support group, while at the same time portraying the dynamic among the friends in a realistic and honest way.  

I admire how the author balanced the narrative as she portrayed the relationship between the sisters, the relationship between Annabelle and her mother, and in turns, the relationship of her mother with her own mother and sister, who although never appears on the page, is a looming presence on the story.

The impact of the climax of the story took me by surprise, in the best way possible. Although the story deals with heavy issues (dysfunctional family, sister with anxiety, etc), the narrative is never dark, but there is a sense of contained emotions all the way to the end, when the author executes the conclusion magisterially.

5 stars to Annabelle's story. I can't wait for Lambert's next book. She's an author to watch.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Villains: Rivals, Agents, and Enemies by Joanna Roddy

Antagonists come in many forms: natural disasters, well-meaning friends, or even unwitting coincidence. But I think the most fun to write are villains. 

Project Mayhem has posted some great material about villainy in the past, but I thought I'd revisit the subject with some ideas that have been helpful to me lately.

Many many types of villains have been identified before. But I've noticed lately that there are often three levels of villains that come up within the same novel, especially those with young protagonists. So let's break them down and look at their roles, functions, and pitfalls.

What they are: Rivals are someone on the same level, or close to it, with the protagonist. They may only serve to drive the protagonist forward as a competitor who poses a true challenge, or they may become a bully who actively causes harm. Rivals are not typically the main threat. They are usually unrelated to the true villain of the story; however, they may be conscripted to become an agent of the greater enemy, or used as a pawn. They may also be somehow redeemed before the end, often as a result of their encounters with the protagonist. 

Examples: Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter), Josie Pie (Anne of Green Gables), Boromir (Fellowship of the Ring), Edmund (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Marion Hawthorne (Harriet the Spy)

Function: The Rival creates situations that test the protagonist, calling out and revealing their strengths, weaknesses, and true character. They also serve as a foil to the protagonist, so that readers become more invested in the main character through seeing their virtues in contrast to the Rival's character flaws. They are a training ground for the climactic confrontation with the greater enemy and create try/fail cycles to track the protagonist's progress. In reality-based fiction, the Rival may be the only intentional human antagonist. 

Pitfalls: Like all villains, Rivals need to have a good reason in their own minds for treating our protagonist the way they do. Just being a spoiled brat or the next best competition isn't enough for them to single out the protagonist. Get inside their head and figure out what pressures, insecurities, and prejudices make them the way that they are. Frenemies, former friends, or family members can make for a much more complex kind of Rival who has both love and hatred at play in how they relate to the protagonist.

What they are: Agents are tools used by the true enemy to do their evil work. Often they are secret Agents, posing as allies but actually working against the protagonist. Sometimes they are overtly acting as a representative of a greater evil but are clearly motivated by lesser impulses and desires, which can allow for crueler and pettier torments for the protagonist. Sometimes they are corrupted or possessed by evil, or they may be a henchman. Often Agents are in positions of power or inherent trust, which lends to more surprising revelations and to abuses of that power, amplifying the largeness of the overall threat.

Examples: Wormtail/ Peter Pettigrew (Harry Potter), Barty Crouch Jr./ Mad-Eye Moody (Harry Potter), Professor Quirrel (Harry Potter), Luke (Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief), Saruman (Lord of the Rings), Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Function: Agent villains allow for layers of complexity to the greatest source of antagonism in a novel. They create good plot twists when their motives and loyalties are revealed. They give the reader a sense of the pervasiveness of the evil and the immensity of what the protagonist has to overcome. Agents are often the more interesting villains because their ability to deceive about their true motives gives the reader both good and bad interpretations of their character, heightening the horror of what seemingly good people are capable of. 

Pitfalls: Again, this type of villain needs a strong personal reason for doing what they do. They may believe in the cause of the true enemy, or they may be acting under duress, but their willingness to be used as an Agent has to have that additional personal motivation based on past experiences, beliefs, and circumstances. It can be tricky to keep a secret Agent disguised from your reader while finding that balance of giving them believable flaws, a compelling motivation for what they're doing, and some well-hidden hints before the reveal. Likewise, a too-perfect Agent will automatically be suspect. 

What it is: This is the mastermind, entity, Dark Lord, or true source of evil who will pose the greatest threat to the protagonist, which they must overcome. These are the more traditional villains. 

Examples: Sauron (Lord of the Rings), Voldy (Harry Potter), The White Witch (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), The Emperor (Star Wars), Lex Luther (Superman), Kronos (Percy Jackson)

Function: The Enemy's main function is to pose the greatest threat and bring the protagonist to their ultimate limits as they try to overcome that threat. They personify everything the protagonist must reject, and good Enemies actually do make clear the allure of their perspective, or offer such horrific consequences that the reader would understand why the protagonist would capitulate.

Pitfalls: One pitfall here is having only the central Enemy. As you can see from the above, layers of challenges with lesser villains better prepares the protagonist, and in turn the reader, for the final confrontation with the true Enemy. If you do layer in this way, though, you shouldn't just plunk in the Enemy at the end. Threads of the Enemy should be woven throughout the story, and the challenges the protagonist faces should relate in some manner to the ultimate challenge in the climax. Another major pitfall is to make the Enemy one-dimensional. Remember that every villain is a hero in their own eyes--they are a distortion of what goodness and heroism should be, not necessarily the total opposite of it. Understand why they do what they do.

I hope you find this as helpful as I have! Please let us know in the comments if you've noticed this hierarchy before, or if you think there might be other things to add to the levels of villainy. Now go practice your evil laugh. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

So You Want to Write a Verse Novel by Caroline Starr Rose

April is National Poetry Month -- the perfect time to examine if your manuscript might be right for verse.

The more I write, the more I firmly believe there is no one way to write a book. I have yet to approach any of my manuscripts the same way. Here, though, are some things I’ve learned from both reading and writing verse novels:

Subject matter must be right for poetry

Some topics lend themselves more easily to poetry than others. Some subjects refuse to be written as prose. Many times an author will use verse to mimic the rhythm of the story. Here are a few books that come to mind:
  • Sharon Creech’s HEARTBEAT, about a girl who loves to run
  • Karen Hesse’s OUT OF THE DUST, where the spare language reflects the stark Dust Bowl setting
  • Lisa Schroeder’s FAR FROM YOU, about a girl who sings and and writes songs
  • Kwame Alexander's THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED -- two sports-focused verse novels that move and weave like a kid in motion

I read this dedication and then I died

Protagonists must be right for poetry

Often verse novels are told from a very close first-person point of view. Such writing calls for a lot of introspection on the protagonist's part.  Other times verse is used as a way for multiple voices to be heard, almost like a Greek chorus. Here are some examples:

  • Thanhha Lai’s INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, about a Vietnamese girl’s efforts to understand her new American home
  • Karen Hesse’s WITNESS, where the Ku Klux Klan moves into a quiet Vermont town, and citizens reflect on the change they bring
  • My BLUE BIRDS, where two girls meant to be enemies instead become secret friends

Poems should be able stand alone

Each poem in a verse novel must capture one moment, scene, idea, mark of change in your character's life. Ideally poems should be able to function separately from the rest of the book.

Poems must contribute to the whole

When I worked through my verse novel, MAY B., I kept a quilt in mind, treating each poem like its own square of fabric. Each patch had to be able to function separately while at the same time move the story forward. I trusted that if certain patterns and shades in my story quilt were repeated (think themes or story strands), eventually the interconnectedness would surface -- a much more organic approach than is normally taken with prose.

I also like to think of verse novels as a photo album, with each poem telling its own story as an individual picture would. When the photos are viewed together, an even bigger story is revealed.

Varied poem lengths

Without the structure of chapters, verse novels are simultaneously abrupt and fluid -- poem lengths can be jagged yet aide the plot in moving through scenes swiftly. It is often difficult to find a place to stop reading, as one poem often bleeds into the next.

Varied line lengths

Verse novelists play with key phrases or words they want to bring to their reader’s attention by the way they arrange words on the page. Stanza and line breaks can be used to slow or speed up reading, to draw the eye to important phrases, and to show readers how to best "speak" the poem.

Emotion and structure

The structure of a poem often communicates to readers a character’s emotional state.

How might fear look structurally? A verse novelist might use little punctuation or words tightly packed together. Maybe the language of the poem will unfold in short bursts, reminiscent of a child peeking into a darkened room and quickly slamming the door.

Poetic form

Some verse novelists use specific types of poetry (sonnets, for example), as Pat Brisson did with her book, THE BEST AND HARDEST THING. In writing about Sylvia Plath in YOUR OWN, SYLVIA, author Stephanie Hemphill chose to mirror the format of several of Plath's poems, giving her readers a sense of the poet's style, subject matter, intensity, and character.

The visual and the aural

When I was a teacher, I used to tell my students that poetry should be seen and heard. There is something special that happens when a reader experiences seeing, hearing, and saying a poem all at once -- the fullness of the poem is discovered this way. 

If you ever feel stuck understanding a verse novel, find a private corner and try reading it aloud.

Listen in

Verse novels are stories best communicated through the language, rhythm, imagery and structure of poetry. Is verse right for your story? Listen to your story. It will lead the way. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Chris Eboch on Wrapping up a Story with Bookends

A story can be circular.
Strong stories have a distinct beginning (introducing the main character and problem), middle (where the character tries to solve the problem), and end (where the character succeeds or fails, and possibly learns a lesson).

A story can feel especially satisfying if the end clearly echoes the beginning. Perhaps a character has gone on a journey, and at the end he returns home. Maybe she starts by struggling with some physical task, like hitting a baseball, and at the end she succeeds. Or he’s resisting a change, such as a new sibling, and the story ends with them connecting.

When the final setting or situation is similar to the opening, creating “bookends” to the middle, the pattern feels satisfying. It also ensures that the story is tied together and hasn’t wandered off on tangents.

Carolyn Meyer often uses a prologue and epilogue as bookends for her historical fiction. Cleopatra Confesses (Simon & Schuster) includes a prologue where Cleopatra hears that her enemy, Octavian, is at the gates of Alexandria. The body of the novel shows her remembering her life as she waits. In the Epilogue, Octavian has arrived, demanding her surrender.

An Echo, Not a Copy

While the ending echoes the beginning, it shouldn’t duplicate it. With a few exceptions, a story requires change. Quite likely, a problem has been solved. Hopefully, the main character has grown. The traveler returns with a new appreciation for his home. The girl who thought hitting a baseball was impossible is satisfied with her progress. The boy who wanted nothing to do with the new baby appreciates the advantage of having a sibling. They haven’t just solved the problem; they’ve changed how they feel about the situation.

Bookend scenes may illustrate the changes by using a scene or language similar to, but slightly different from, the opening. If you open with a girl trying to hit a baseball, close with her back at the same park, swinging at a baseball again. Try making the circumstances as similar as possible, with the same weather and other characters present.

The bookend format doesn’t work if you end at a different point, such as with the character at home telling her parents what happened, even if the problem was solved in the same way. You want the echo of a similar scene. This can help you figure out where to end, so you don’t stop too early or drag on too long.

You can also experiment with using similar language, with small shifts to show what’s changed. In the opening scene of Uma Krishnaswami’s The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum), the narrative reads, “Two happy sighs float off the couch....” Of course, something quickly intrudes on this happiness. But after a madcap adventure, the narrative concludes, “There are many kinds of sighs. The one Dini sighs now is wrapped in contentment.”

Nonfiction and Art Bookends

Bookends can work with all kinds of writing, including nonfiction. In Jennifer McKerley’s early reader Amazing Armadillos (Random House), the book begins and ends at the same point in the yearly cycle of the armadillo’s life, but with a twist. The beginning features an adult armadillo, while the end shows her pups in the same situation.

Shirley Raye Redmond’s Pup’s Prairie Home (Picture Window Books) starts with the lines, “Pup and his mom lived in a prairie dog town. Their home was a deep dark hole in the ground.” Although his mother insists this is the best place for him, Pup wants a more exciting home. He changes his mind after a close call with a hawk and ends by saying, “A deep, dark hole is the best home for a prairie dog pup like me.”

Illustrators can use bookends as well. In Robin Koontz’s wordless picture book Dinosaur Dream (Putnam Juvenile), the story begins and ends with the child sleeping in bed, framing the dream adventure with dinosaurs.

Using bookend scenes is one form of showing rather than telling. The reader can see how things have changed, and whether or not the change has satisfied the main character. This typically suggests the theme, so you don’t need to explicitly point out the lesson learned.

Bookends aren’t necessary for every story, but by thinking about bookends, you may find a natural ending point for your story. Don’t end too early, before you’ve had a chance to echo the beginning. And don’t go on too long, traveling past the natural bookend. With bookends, you can illustrate the change in the character or situation subtly but clearly, while using a repetition pattern that’s especially appealing to children.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs

Chris's writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Despair, anger, regret, they stink like manure and are just as useful.  Spread them over your imagination.  Do it carefully, lovingly. 

The manure of the mind.  It will enrich your novel, improve the quality of your vegetables, increase the nutritional value of the phrases. 

Mind manure.

I have a bag for sale.  Want some?  You probably have enough already.  Store it in a ziplock pouch behind your left ear.  Do not throw it away.  I repeat.  Do not throw it away.  Onions and garlic love decomposed sorrow.  So do character and plot.  Fertilize your novel with your misfortune.  Fertilize your novel with your frustration.  Spread a thin layer over the first chapter and watch green shoots sprout and weave together into an opening paragraph.  Deal with the stench.  Just deal with it.

 Mind manure.  All your crap.  Use it, your frustrations, your rejections, your sorrow, your fear and heartbreak.  A good story begins with good fertilizer.  The stench creates the masterpiece. 

Spring of the Imagination. Time to plant seeds.  Time to fling them into the wind.  Time to scatter them across your journal. Cow dung.  Thought dung.  Let all your crap work in the service of your story.  Your anxiety, bitterness, everything you’ve been through, endured, put up with, tolerated, overcome, prevailed against.  All that crap.  My God, what fertilizer! 

Optimize your creativity by loading your wheelbarrow with crap, the crap you’ve been dealing with forever, all that has harassed you, besieged you, kicked you when you were down.  Use it!  Hop on your tractor and get to work.

Monday, April 3, 2017



When I was in third grade, I was “fired” from a volunteer job shelving books in my school library.  It turned out the books weren’t getting shelved because they were being read instead.  As soon as I picked up a book that was new to me, I would lower myself onto one of the library step stools and bury my nose in the dog-eared pages.  Just when the plot was getting good, it would be time to go back to class.

One of my favorite authors, Julia Alvarez, has said that “we come out of a great book as a different person from the person we were when we began reading it.”  This is certainly true of good middle grade books.  Sitting in the stacks at P.S. 132 in New York City with the sounds of sirens wailing and horns honking right outside the barred windows, I learned about life on a prairie, in small cities and towns, and even in another country where eleven year-olds were already thinking about marriage!

I was definitely a different person each time I looked up to see the librarian frowning at the pile of un-shelved books in front of me.

Middle grade books have grown in variety since I was a child, and there are so many great ones out there.  I am happy to see that some of these excellent books challenge readers to ponder topics such as immigration and deportation, oppressive governments, substance abuse, racial injustice, disabilities, deadbeat parents, and other life-altering issues.

I am drawn to middle grade books because I think children should be exposed to thought-provoking themes, and I especially like the fact that most middle grade books have something we don't always find in books for adults: a hopeful and encouraging message.  These stories teach children that tough circumstances are out there, but we can deal with them, and we will emerge different and stronger on the other side.

My first middle grade novel, which is scheduled for publication in 2019, addresses economic and social inequality, the individual decisions we can each make to help others, and the value of family and friends.  My main character is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, lives in New York City, and loves to read.  Although I cherish the knowledge I gain each time I read about people who are different from me, it would have been nice to occasionally see someone a little familiar in one of the books in my school library.  I hope the children who have something in common with me and my main character are pleased to see a glimpse of themselves and their lives in the pages of my book, and that other children learn something new and interesting from those same pages.  Mostly, I hope all children who pluck this book from their library shelves will lower themselves onto a step stool, lose track of time as they read, and come out different, more enlightened, and even more hopeful and positive than ever. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Nothing gets me more excited than a new middle grade novel (well, maybe chocolate does, but I'm trying to be cerebral here.) Recently, I had the honor of a cover reveal for Michele Weber Hurwitz's latest, and decided that I needed to share the love for Michele's new novel with y'all--as well as sharing some other notable upcoming novels. The Mayhem hive mind came to my rescue, and I have a list of five novels, including Michele's, that I'm positively salivating over. Here goes:

Michele Weber Hurwitz's ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP

From Michele's WEBSITE:

ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP will be published on August 29th, 2017 by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, with a sequel to follow in 2018.

Seventh-grader Ethan Marcus is fed up with sitting in school, and one day, enough is enough. He doesn't cause trouble or wander around, he just refuses to stay seated in class. His spontaneous protest doesn't go over so well with his rule-oriented teacher so Ethan is sent to the principal's office, and then is given two days of "Reflection" -- McNutt Middle School's answer to detention. When the faculty advisor suggests Ethan channel his energy into the school's Invention Day, at first Ethan says thanks but no thanks. He's never been a science-y kid. That's his Irish twin sister Erin's department. Except when Ethan and his friend Brian decide to give it a try, they realize they might have something. And it's good. Maybe great. But can they actually pull it off?

Ethan Marcus Stands Up -- narrated by five different kids -- shows how we all may have labels that define us, but that doesn't mean we can't step out of our comfort zone and attempt a new challenge. And, along the way, we may just learn from someone who sees the world from a different perspective.

See my cover reveal post on Middle Grade Mafioso for more fun!

THE DANGER GANG AND THE PIRATES OF BORNEO by our very own Stephen Bramucci, coming August 1st, 2017

Ronald Zupan is a daring master adventurer! But he actually hasn't experienced any grand adventures . . . YET! When his world-traveling parents are kidnapped on his twelfth birthday, Ronald seizes the chance to prove himself with a dazzling, danger-defying rescue operation.

Teaming up with his trusty butler Jeeves, his quick-witted fencing nemesis Julianne Sato, and his pet cobra Carter, Ronald sets course for the jungle of Borneo where his parents were last sighted. If they can crash-land a plane and outrun a hungry snow leopard, surely they can find the secret lair of Zeetan Z, the world's most ruthless pirate! But as their adventure becomes more and more dangerous, can Ronald and his companions muster enough courage to see this adventure through? (From Bloomsbury site)

Visit Stephen's new website!

LEMONS by Melissa Savage, coming May 2, 2017

Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mama always told her: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But Lem can’t possibly make lemonade out of her new life in Willow Creek, California—the Bigfoot Capital of the World—where she’s forced to live with a grandfather she’s never met after her mother passes away.

 Then she meets eleven-year-old Tobin Sky, the CEO of Bigfoot Detectives Inc., who is the sole Bigfoot investigator for their small town. After he invites Lem to be his assistant for the summer, they set out on an epic adventure to capture a shot of the elusive beast on film. But along the way, Lem and Tobin end up discovering more than they ever could have imagined. And Lem realizes that maybe she can make lemonade out of her new life after all. (From blog tour material, Penguin Random House)

Lot of buzz about this one--I will be part of the blog tour on Middle Grade Mafioso, coming soon to a blog near you!

BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA by Lauren Wolk, coming May 1st, 2017

Crow has lived her whole life on a tiny, starkly beautiful island. Her only companions are Osh, the man who rescued her from a washed-up skiff as a baby and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their neighbour across the sandbar. But it is only when a mysterious fire appears across the water that an unspoken question of her own history forms in Crow's heart, and an unstoppable chain of events is triggered. Crow sets out to find her lost identity - and, ultimately, to learn what it means to be a family. (From Penguin UK)

THE GAUNTLET by Karuna Riazi, (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, published March 28, 2017)
When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.

Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, the Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine? (From Goodreads)

I'm so excited to welcome all these novels in the coming months. Please add any novels you are excited about too. I'm going for a Guinness World Record of a TBR list.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Accidental Middle Grade Author by Linda Williams Jackson

There are some writers who know straight away that they intend to write for children, whether it’s picture books, middle grade books, or young adult books. When I first set my heart on writing a book, I had my mind made up that I would pen the Great American Novel—for adults. Everyone who read it would deem me brilliant—a genius—a wizard at wordsmithing—a master at plot twists. When I sat down to write this great novel, I named my main character Joshua Tanner. And he was seven years old. Yep. You read that right. My mc was only seven years old. And his supporting cast? Um, they were all fourteen. And my brilliant, Great American Novel? It weighed in at a hefty 55,000 words. When someone asked me whether I was writing a book for children, I scoffed and said, “Of course not. It’s an adult novel.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. An adult novel can have a seven-year-old protagonist, surrounded by a cast of motley fourteen-year-olds. But my novel was in no way a novel for adults, or a novel just for adults, I should say. I eventually self-published that book about seven-year-old Joshua Tanner and the fourteen-year-old boys who tried to kill him in the woods, and that book became required reading in several middle schools in a few southern states. Thus began my adventures as an accidental middle grade author.
When I penned my next few manuscripts, I intentionally geared them towards a middle grade audience. I also set my heart and mind on landing an agent and a traditional book deal. But my manuscripts faced much rejection. Over two hundred of them, to be almost exact, over a course of six years….
Then came my first attempt at historical fiction. This story, like the others, would be written for a middle grade audience. However, as I thought about some of the themes I wanted to cover in this novel, I decided that perhaps I should write it for an older audience. So I changed my protagonist’s age from twelve to fifteen and set out to write this book for either young adults or adults (depending on who was interested in acquiring it). When I queried the manuscript, I categorized it based on what the agent was looking for. Eventually, the manuscript landed an agent and sold to an editor (after a tiny auction) as a YA novel. But….
The editors who had shown interest in this YA novel had indicated that they thought the novel’s content would be more readily embraced by a middle grade audience rather than a YA audience. I was asked whether I’d be willing to change the protagonist’s age (and a few other things) in order to set the book squarely in middle grade territory. Of course I said yes! And my YA/adult manuscript Becoming Rosa, with a fifteen-year-old protagonist, became my middle grade debut novel Midnight Without a Moon, with a thirteen-year-old protagonist instead.
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books has said of the novel, “Jackson pulls no punches in the characters’ heated discussions and keeps dialogue raw and real.” Some reviewers have even written about the “non-sugar-coating” of the story. Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether the conversation surrounding Midnight Without a Moon would be different had I written it in its entirety with a middle grade audience in mind. Probably so. I imagine I would have pulled a whole lot of punches in the characters’ discussions and the dialogue had I had ten-year-olds in mind as I wrote the manuscript. Dare I admit that I might have even “talked down” to my intended audience and shied away from tough topics had I known, in advance, that the book would be set in the 10-12-year-old age range?
For this reason, I’m glad that I ended up being an accidental middle grade author. Some of my favorite middle grade novels are the ones that were not afraid to go deep with young readers—books where the author was not afraid of—dare I say it—censorship. Had I known, upfront, that I was writing for a middle grade audience, I would have feared those things. And, had I feared those things, Midnight Without a Moon would be a much lighter read than it currently is.
Katherine Paterson is one of my favorite authors, mainly because she doesn’t shy away from the heavy stuff in her MG novels. Jacob Have I Loved is my all-time favorite of Mrs. Paterson’s novels. Some deem it dark and depressing. Yet, I would have welcomed it as a kid because the main character Louise would have made me feel less alone. And of course, there’s Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, a book in which she definitely isn’t shy about Gilly’s crude choice of words. And who can forget the heartbreaking Bridge to Terabithia? Need I say more about tough topics in middle grade books?

What are your thoughts? Did you enter this field knowing you would write for children? Do you tackle tough topics in your writing, regardless of the target audience? And, finally, what do YOU think of Katherine Paterson’s MG novels—too grown-up, or just right for young readers?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What fiction most influenced your childhood and your writing today? by Donna Galanti

My love for writing and reading went hand in hand ever since I was a little girl. I began writing plays and acting them out with the neighborhood kids when I was seven years old. My first play was a murder mystery (no surprise!). At the time, I lived in England, where I attended a Harry Potter-like castle school.

Progressing from plays to stories, my first short story was about a flying ship, wizards, and Dodo birds. I even put in writing (in the “author’s bio” at the end of my story) that I wanted to be an author when I grew up.

At that same time, I vividly recall the first book I fell in love with: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I read the entire Narnia Chronicles in my very-British school, curled up in a nook in my itchy gray and pink woolen school uniform as you can see (bowler hat and tie included!). 

For a time, I would sneak into people’s coat closets when visiting with my parents, hoping to find a Narnia world on the other side. I would huddle in the dark beneath winter coats in hall closets, imagining myself sent to an older world long gone as I hid among musty wool. If I sat long enough would I be transported there?

After that I gobbled up all of Roald Dahl’s books and especially loved Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The tooth fairy brought his books. I still have them all.

I went on real life adventures with Enid Blyton's the Adventurous Four gang. As an only child, it was like having brothers and sisters to join in with. They made me feel less lonely as we explored our world from the sea to the farm. Then it was on to The Phantom Tollbooth and I was a little boy named Milo traveling into The Lands Beyond.

After England, we moved to rural New Hampshire where my parents owned and operated a campground and along came Laura Ingalls Wilder’s the Little House Books. We had barns and hogs and chickens, and how I loved gathering the rotten apples in the orchards to feed the hogs. My mom even made me a prairie dress outfit. I so wanted to be Laura! 

One fall day we rounded up the hogs for slaughter and I dreamt of blowing up the pig’s bladder like a balloon and tossing it about and roasting the pig’s tail – just like Laura did! Although, my mother was not so thrilled with scooping out the eyes to make head cheese as Mrs. Ingalls did!

When I became a teenager, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings came into my life and I was swept away to Middle Earth. One Halloween at school I even dressed up as Aragorn (what I envisioned he looked like at the time long before the movies) and of course no one knew who I was in my cloak, boots, and dirt-grimed face.

As a child, fantasy was my reality. I read fantasy then and created fantasy worlds in my imagination to live out my favorite books, so it’s no surprise that I write fantasy! From that first story about a flying ship to my most recent book, Joshua and the Arrow Realm, fantasy has always claimed me. 

My son has a love for fantasy too, sucking up the Charlie Bone books by Jenny Nimmo (“The best author EVER Mom!” So, he was thrilled when she blurbed my first book, Joshua and the Lightning Road). When my son was younger, he loved to create his own fantasy worlds by extending his dreams. He would wake up and play with his cars and character figures to bring his dream to life again. He kept the story going because he was sad he woke up and it had ended. He found a way to keep it going.

When I was a little girl the woods were my playground. Growing up on a mountain as an only child after we moved to New York, I spent much of my time roaming the forest with my notebook in hand, putting stories on the page in hidden glens and the nooks of trees (and acting them out when no one was around).
The tree house world from Joshua and the Arrow Realm. Illustration by Al Sirois.
My love of the woods and fantasy both fueled the wooded world of Joshua and the Arrow Realm, where Joshua must survive the hunt and discovers a hidden tree world of other kids. 

I wish there was a closet I could huddle in now to travel to my favorite made-up worlds, but my imagination must do. I have all my childhood books on my shelves and know I can visit them anytime. And I don't even need a closet to get there.

What fiction fueled your fantasy world as a child and if you write, does it enrich your stories today? Do you still re-read your favorite books from childhood like me? 

Monday, March 20, 2017


If you write middle grade fiction, it can be difficult to keep track of the ebbs and flows of a middle schooler’s daily life if you are not the parent or teacher of kids this age. I interviewed a middle school guidance counselor (I’ll call her Ms. Counselor) for insights—some granular details ranging from school day schedules to substance use to gender, sexual orientation, and the beginnings of romance. These insights are specific to a community on Cape Cod: a community with a seasonal economy and a wide range of socio-economic status that is majority-white and in a semi-rural setting that requires that kids take buses or get rides from parents to school and activities. These details (some can be generalized while others are specific to our location) may be useful as you craft your middle grade story.

1) Scheduling
Middle schoolers (grades 6-8) don’t sit in the same classroom all day. They change classes for subjects such as English, Math, Social Studies, and Science, and they have different teachers for these subjects. Kids are generally on teams, which enables their teachers to get to know them better. Schools use different methods to coordinate schedules; for instance, one school may use an A day-B day pattern, or a ‘rotating block” system. It can be confusing, especially for sixth graders, but they tend to learn it fast. (The adults may have a harder time catching on than the kids!) Also, they cannot go to their lockers whenever they want: there are prescribed times of day for going to lockers.

2) Substance Use
Sixth graders tend to be rule followers. Most of them will think that substance use is “icky and wrong,” but there are always outliers who will start experimenting on the early side. Ms. Counselor says that seventh graders start experimenting more, trying alcohol or cigarettes over the summer between sixth and seventh. In seventh grade, there are relatively few kids using substances, but they loom large in the consciousness of the peer group, leading to an “everyone is doing it” narrative and a skewed sense of proportion for kids. Finally, substance use increases in eighth grade (dabbling in alcohol, cigarettes, or pot).  Ms. Counselor points out that extra-curricular activities serve as an interesting “zone” in which there might be some of this experimentation going on. It’s a time when parents think kids are being supervised (ie team sports, dance, theater), but these activities are not as rigid and scripted as the school day. This is especially important for writers to consider; these activities can serve as a “gateway,” where a kid might be faced with substance experimentation and accept/reject that option. At the same time, these activities form a social support network of both peers and adults that Ms. Counselor sees as an important ingredient for well-functioning middle-schoolers. As you craft your story, it's important to figure out how your middle graders are getting from place to place, and what activities they might be participating in. This can have a big impact.

3) Cross-gender friendships
In sixth grade, boys and girls generally separate by gender in places like the cafeteria, especially in the fall.  By spring, there is more mixing—there are still all-boy tables and all-girl tables, but lots more mixed tables; this keeps increasing in seventh and eighth grades. (One interesting note from Ms. Counselor: this year, a sixth grade transgender student started a trend of bringing a book to lunch and reading. He was quickly joined by two other boys, and now there is an informal “reading table” in the caf where kids congregate to eat and read quietly.) There are boy/girl friendships that survive the social pressures of middle school. These friendships seem to ebb and flow over the school year in all three grades, indicating cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium in gender-friendship dynamics.

4) Middle school romance
Some use the term “going out” or “with”—“are you still with Laura?” This starts in sixth grade slowly, increasing each year. Ms. Counselor notices that all the social groupings and boundaries seem to blur and morph in the outside-of-school social context of texting and group chats. Kids who don’t seem to associate in school are part of the same group chats/texts outside of school. (Group texts and chats are BIG! A lot happens and there can be lots of drama.) One thing that has not changed is the tension around revealing a crush—that is a very big deal. Disclosing a crush is still huge, and having knowledge of who likes who gives a kid a lot of power and sometimes leads to betrayal and teasing. There is not much PDA (public displays of affection) in middle school. It happens the most in eighth grade, and kids in same-gender relationships seem to be able to get away with it the most.

5) Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity
There is so much more awareness on the part of kids, and more parental awareness and acceptance, when it comes to kids and their sexual orientation and gender identity now. Ms. Counselor runs a gay-straight alliance and it is very active at her middle school. The older generation’s binary thinking about “in the closet/out of the closet” is dated and obsolete. Ms. Counselor says that framework does not apply anymore, “not even close.” Kids talk about their preferred pronouns, and these pronouns may shift week to week. Kids in the GSA consider their identities to be fluid; they identify as bi (bisexual), pan (pansexual), “a” ( asexual), trans (transgender), and gay. This can also shift week to week or month to month. Girls don’t tend to use the word lesbian but will declare that “I like girls.” Ms. Counselor says the kids don’t attach permanence to their labels, saying things like, “I’m calling myself pan right now,” or “I like ‘a’ because I don’t see myself with any specific gender” or “I’m attracted to the person so I’ll go with pan or bi.” There are trans kids in middle school, as young as sixth graders, who are actively working out how they want to present themselves to the world. It can vary day by day, or week by week,  in terms of wearing male- or female-signifying clothing and accessories. All of the trans students who Ms. Counselor has worked with in the past few years have been female to male. There is no “old-fashioned clarity” (as Ms. Counselor calls it) about these labels and identities, and she says that kids are perfectly fine with this fluidity, able to talk and ask about it, while adults are sometimes confused and unsure, trying to understand and do/say the right things.

Finally, Ms. Counselor stuck up for middle schoolers: “People think middle school is horrible, full of drama and hormonal changes.” She says kids at this age turn themselves into “porcupines,” using distancing behaviors like eye rolling and sarcasm to hold adults at bay. They need this distance developmentally in order to individuate and develop. At the same time, “as soon as you step around their defenses, you realize that every kid needs connection. Those defenses are empty. In reality, they need adults.” This is pure gold for writers to consider: how does my character both crave connection and create distance from sources of support as they navigate the bumpy ground of early adolescence? They are dealing with a lot, presented with lots of choices, conflicts, and closeness.  These pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows present endless possibility for the writer creating middle grade fiction.