Thursday, May 17, 2018

ASK A LIBRARIAN: WHAT ARE MIDDLE-GRADERS READING? by Mary E. Cronin



What are middle-grade readers reaching for these days? Insights from two librarians may give middle-grade writers the courage to try a new form or the confirmation that they are on the right track!

Brittany Thurman is a writer and Children's Specialist at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. 



Joanna Marple is a writer, blogger, and bilingual school librarian at the French American School of New York. 



They have much food for thought to offer! Let’s dive in...

Question 1: What middle-grade books do you see readers drawn to lately?

Brittany:  There's something about graphic novels that kids cannot get enough of, especially those reading on a middle-grade level. Raina Telgemeier has become a hit with Ghosts, a graphic novel about Catrina, who moves to a new town where its residents are obsessed with...wait for it....ghosts. A question that I receive more than once a week is, "Where are the Raina Telgemeier books?" 

El Deafo is another popular favorite, about Cece who is hearing impaired, and one day realizes that her hearing device allows her to hear EVERYTHING in the school. What a superpower! Both of these graphic novels feature relatable characters and situations, so I can see why kids are drawn to them. I have to be honest, I've jumped on the graphic novel bandwagon too and eat these books up like candy. I think that another reason why kids are drawn to middle-grade graphic novels is that not all kids are comfortable reading a 400-page book. When parents come in asking, "What can I give my struggling ten-year-old?" I'm more than happy to suggest a graphic novel. 





Graphic novels aren't the only middle-grade craze to walk through our library doors. Picture book author Peter Brown's middle grade The Wild Robot has sparked not only calls about if it's on our shelves, but many patrons come in asking for the book and its sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes.

I can't finish answering this question without mentioning the Warriors series by Erin Hunter. This is a go-to series for middle-grade readers, and like the Raina Telgemeier books, kids come in asking for books in this series multiple times each week. I haven't read them myself, but they are a hit with the kids here at our library. 


Joanna echoes the thirst for graphic novels:

Joanna: If I had to pick one genre my middle-grade readers are drawn to, I would say graphic novels such as, Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova or any of Raina Telgemeier's books. I recently added the Lumberjanes series to our large collection of graphic novels, and that is proving popular too. There are perennial favorites like Wimpy Kid for the 6th Graders or any of Rick Riordan's for the 7th and 8th graders. We have over 50 nationalities represented in our school so diversity has to be a huge focus in my acquisitions. I am always happy when I see more than one student pick up books like Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart or The First Rule of Punk by Celia Perez. And every student I have given Brown Girl Dreaming by Jackie Woodson has adored it and asked for more by her. I do try and rotate my books on display regularly as I find students will often pick one of those up and give it a try. 



Both Joanna and Brittany spoke about aspects of diversity in response to question 2: What middle-grade stories would you like to see, or see more of, to meet the needs of readers?

Brittany:  A while back I had a young patron come in and ask, "Do you have any books about girls like me doing magic?" I was at a loss because I knew of all of the books featuring boy protagonists doing magic or being part of a magical world, but one with a girl protagonist who was also African American? At the time the options were slim pickings. That's what I would like to see more of: African American protagonists living in amazing fantasy worlds, doing what they do in those out-of-the-ordinary worlds: making magic, slaying dragons, creating potions, halting monstrous wizards in their tracks, being demigods and then going to their 5 pm swim meet. This is one of many lacks that exist on library and bookstore shelves and frankly, I'm sick of it. While things in terms of representation on bookshelves have improved over the past couple of years, it's not anywhere near where it should be. When a child comes in and asks something as simple as, "Where are the books with kids like me doing cool things?" I should be able to provide an answer. 


Joanna: I lose more LGBTQIA+ books than any others in the library, and honestly, I don't mind, and am happy to replace them each year. I would love to see more books like Star Crossed by Barbara Dee and The Other Boy by M. G. Hennessey for my middle school library. My queer shelf is expanding well for the high school, but those fabulous questioning and coming out years of middle school need to see far greater representation in my mind, especially with female protagonists.


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Thank you to librarians extraordinaire Joanna Marple and Brittany Thurman for sharing their thoughts on what is sought after by middle-grade readers, and what is needed. You can connect with and read more about Brittany and Joanna here:


Brittany J. Thurman is a Children's Specialist at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. She conducts story times for babies, toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children. She is a graduate of Kingston University, London, England where she studied Theatre, and holds a Master of Fine Art in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University.  When she's not at the library, she is more than likely reading. When she isn't reading she is writing, which she should always be doing since she is a writer. Brittany writes pictures books, middle grade, and young adult. 
You can find out more about Brittany at www.brittanythurman.com 
Twitter: @janeebrittany
Instagram: @britjanee 



Joanna Marple is a European nomad. During her work, study and trips across the continents (she currently resides just north of NYC), she has discovered a passion for storytelling that unites us and helps make sense of our world. She writes books for children and young adults that offer readers mirrors and windows.  She believes that equity and empathy should be at the core of our actions and words. She is also a bilingual school librarian at the French American School of New York, and gets a kick out of book matchmaking. Joanna has a lively blog called Miss Marple's Musings where she has become known for her interviews and book reviews, always with an emphasis on diversity. She is subbing an #ownvoices conversion therapy YA manuscript right now called, CAMP OUT.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Writing for the Right Age: #KidLit #Writing Tips from Chris Eboch

This is adapted from chapter 16 of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The full book is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Writing for children is different from writing for adults in a few important ways. One issue is the need to consider reading level. The grade level or reading level needs to fit the audience. Most fifth-graders cannot read material written at a high school level. This means a story aimed at elementary children can look quite different from one aimed at teenagers.

If you are using Microsoft Word, you can get an idea of the grade level of your work. It’s simply a matter of having grammar check turned on along with spell check. Search for “readability” in the Help menu for instructions. You can check a complete story or article, a paragraph, or even a single sentence.

This is a great way to explore how changing your wording changes your reading level. Write a paragraph and check the grade level. Then edit the paragraph and check the grade level again. In general, simpler vocabulary and shorter sentences will make the reading level lower. Play with the language to see if you can simplify it even more. Do this over and over, and see how things change.

Let’s try an example. Here’s a made-up sentence for an imaginary fantasy story:

She barreled down the lengthy hallway, staggering to a stop in the rotunda, where an enormous mythical creature was ascending from a gaping chasm.

A lot is wrong with that sentence, including too much action packed into two lines. The main point for this example is that it comes out at a 12.9 reading level. (That’s means it’s appropriate for the ninth month of 12th grade.) Let’s try to simplify it. First, I’ll simply break it into two sentences:

She barreled down the lengthy hallway and staggered to a stop in the rotunda. An enormous mythical creature was ascending from a gaping chasm.

That brought it down to an 7.7 grade level. The first sentence is at a 6.7 reading level, and the second sentence is at 9.5. That’s fine for a young adult novel, and probably all right for a middle grade novel, so long as the entire book isn’t written at such a high level. But what if the target audience is younger, or you simply want to make sure that even weaker readers will be able to follow your plot? Let’s try some more changes.

She barreled down the long hallway. In a large, circular hall, she staggered to a stop. A giant mythical creature was rising from a gaping crack in the ground.

Overall, that’s now at a 4.4 reading level. The first two sentences are easy enough for early middle grade, or even upper elementary. In the last sentence, replacing enormous, ascending, and chasm with simpler words brought it down to a 6.7 grade level. It’s a few words longer than the previous version, but crack in the ground is easier than chasm. I tried replacing mythical with fairytale, but that didn’t change the grade level. Replacing creature with animal made it worse.

Of course, maybe I could figure out what kind of mythical creature it is, and name it or describe it in simple detail. That would not only get rid of the challenging words, but would also create a clearer picture.

Worrying about reading level might sound restrictive, but in reality, simpler writing is often clearer, and therefore more effective. Trying to find a simpler way of saying things can often encourage you to choose more vivid and precise language.

You don’t need to mention the grade level when you submit work, unless the publisher specifically asks for it. Publishers don’t usually care about the computerized grade level, unless books are targeted at the school and library market. Still, checking your grade level is a good way to get an idea of the complexity of your work. If you are trying to write stories for middle grade children, but your writing is coming out at a college grade level, you may have a problem.

Of course, regardless of your readership age, you want your stories and articles to be fun and engaging. This usually means straightforward language and relatively simple sentences. Forget the dry, academic language you may have learned in college or on the job. Look for lively, active verbs, language that paints a clear picture, and a good mix of action and dialogue, with just enough description to set the scene. In addition, try to keep your sentences short and simple, but with enough variety that the story does not sound clunky. Reading the work aloud is a good way to check this.

Another great exercise is retyping a published story, article, picture book, or a few pages of a novel. By typing the words yourself, you get a feel for appropriate language for that audience. For a picture book, you also get to see how the story would look in manuscript format, without illustrations and page breaks.

You can also use the Children’s Writer’s Word Book to check which words are at what reading level, and to find suggestions for alternatives.

There’s another advantage to keeping your writing relatively simple. One of the keys to writing well for children is writing “tight,” with no unnecessary words. Most magazines have a limit on the length of story or article they will accept, and often the word count can’t be very high. You need to pack a lot into a small space. You’ll have more flexibility with novels, but the pacing should still feel fast. Tight writing is typically more interesting and fun to read. Try to say things in the fewest words possible, as long as you can still be clear and interesting. That will keep your story moving, and often help your grade level suit the audience as well.
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You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.


Chris Eboch is the author of over 50 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. Her 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 https://chriseboch.com/ or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense involving outdoor adventures amidst Southwestern landscapes. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows a treasure hunt in New Mexico. Whispers in the Dark involves intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. Counterfeits starts a series about art theft. What We Found is a mystery with romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Cover Reveal: THE DANGER GANG AND THE ISLE OF FERAL BEASTS by Stephen Bramucci

The Mayhemmers are doing a lot of cover reveals recently, which is excellent news. The latest in our merry band is the new one from Stephen Brammuci, the sequel to The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo. Look out for this one--it publishes on October the 2nd, 2018!

What It's About:
Ronald Zupan, his quick-witted fencing partner Julianne Sato, and his trusty butler Jeeves are off on another adventure. This time, they're trying to rescue the movie star Josh Brigand--who was kidnapped from his latest film premiere by the dreaded Liars' Club.

As the Danger Gang races to save their friend, they face off with a poisoning poet, a band of Roman candle-wielding thugs, and thousands of feral foxes. When their skills of deduction are put to the ultimate test, will Ronald and his pals be able to stick together long enough to rescue Josh and defeat the Liar's Club once and for all?


Fully illustrated by picture book talent Arree Chung, this hilarious, high-action series is a must-have for all adventurers.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Cover Reveal: THE BOOK DRAGON, by Kell Andrews

Beware the Book Dragon!

When I joined at Project Middle-Grade Mayhem, I was (of course) a middle-grade writer. I didn't imagine then that my next two books would be picture books, or the I would love writing for this age group that much.

But I do! And that brings me to today, revealing the cover of The Book Dragon (Sterling, October 2, 2018), whimsically illustrated by the wonderful Éva Chatelain.

Here's the beautiful front:



And the equally inviting back:



And here's what it's about:

The Book Dragon, by Kell Andrews, illustrated by Éva Chatelain

Reading is tiresome in the village of Lesser Scrump because the only words allowed must be written in dirt or scratched onto bark. Books are forbidden because the Book Dragon snatches them away at night to add to her massive hoard. But Rosehilda isn’t afraid of the Book Dragon, and she has a better idea for what to do with the Book Dragon’s stash.


Are you a book hoarder too? Confess in the comments.