Friday, December 20, 2013

End of 2013: reading & writing reflection, by Yahong Chi

This is Project Mayhem's last post of the year, and yes, there really are only 11 days left in 2013. Looking forward and anticipating the year ahead is always a tonne of fun, but it's important and useful to think back on the year that was, too.

Writing-wise, you can start with the big, general questions: how many complete drafts did you write? Did your revisions go the way you wanted? And if you made writing goals at the start of 2013, did you meet them? Writing is an art, and like all arts—like anything in life, really—you want to be constantly improving. Setting goals is a good foundation in building steps toward improving, and it's only one third of the equation; checking whether you met those goals is the last third. (The hardest third is actually writing enough to meet the goals!)

While you're all nostalgic for the year that has gone by and feeling fuzzy and warm with holiday spirit, this is also an opportunity to reflect on the personal growth in regards to your writing, the interior aspect of it as opposed to simply the words on the page. I find it fascinating to look over the stories I've written in the past year and remember my mindset at the time of writing. It's a bit of insight into my own character, the way I thought then and the way I think now. Writing is highly reflective of oneself, and sometimes it's good to reflect on the reflection and consider what it says about yourself.

Reading-wise, this is a good time to check that list you've been updatiing of all the books you read this year. And even if you don't keep track, a general look-back over the books you read can help you spot any trends in your reading, and decide whether you want to consciously make adjustments in your reading. For example, if you write fantasy, but find your past reading rather lacking in the fantasy department, then you can actively seek out fantasy titles to read in the new year. Embrace the To-Be-Read pile!

You can also identify trends in the books you've read. For example, it's pretty evident that sci-fi is dominated by male authors (check out this illuminating and thoughtful discussion). So if you've been struck by a Shiny New Idea that has decided to categorize itself as sci-fi (like my latest MG SNI is!), then perhaps you decide to check the gender balance in your reading list, in the interest of ever-diversifying your reading and thus your writing.

One last word: remember to use your winter break to read as much as you can! As a student, I get how difficult it can be to find time to read. Writers are readers first.

Do you reflect on your reading & writing, and do you set new goals for the new year?

Wishing you happy holidays from us here at Project Mayhem!


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holiday Gift Guide and Giveaway: GHOST STORIES by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is either reading or going to a production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is one of the greatest names in literature, and the ghosts who teach him a lesson totally rock.

I've always had a soft spot for specters (in fact, my current ms has a couple of them.) In the spirit of the season, therefore, I'm giving away a couple of my fave phantom tomes. Here's a bit about them:

A GHOST ON THE STAIRS (by Project Mayhem's own Chris Eboch):
Thirteen-year-old Jon and his eleven-year-old sister, Tania, are typical kids—except Tania can communicate with ghosts. Their parents also happen to be the producers of a ghost-hunter television show—and have no idea one of their own kids can see ghosts. In The Ghost on the Stairs, the brother-sister duo join forces to help reunite a newlywed couple from beyond the grave. 

When twelve-year-old Florence boards the crowded horse-drawn coach in London, she looks forward to a new life with her great uncle and aunt at Crutchfield Hall, an old manor house in the English countryside. Anything will be better, she thinks, than the grim London orphanage where she has lived since her parents' death. But Florence doesn't expect the ghost of her cousin Sophia, who haunts the cavernous rooms and dimly lit hallways of Crutchfield and concocts a plan to use Florence to help her achieve her murderous goals. Will Florence be able to convince the others in the household of the imminent danger and stop Sophia before it's too late?

I'm trying a Rafflecoptor giveway--feeling so brave and modern here. Hopefully it will work as planned. If not, just leave a comment to enter, and let me know if you tweet etc. for an extra entry. The giveaway will end on Friday the 20th, and I'll attempt to ship the books out to the winner so they can be "Epiphany" presents. (Yet another tradition in my gift-loving family--read all about it here: All About Epiphany)

Question: What are your favorite books starring ghosts, phantoms, and specters?

a Rafflecopter giveaway

P.S. Our winner, drawn by Rafflecoptor, was LORI EASTEP. Congratulations to you, Lori--the books are on their way.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday Gift Guide: Adventuresome Boy Books with Matthew MacNish

A couple of weeks ago, we here at Project Mayhem started discussing the possibility of having a holiday gift giving guide, with different categories of books or writing goodies. Since we are independent types who are about as herdable as cats, we decided to let everyone do their own thing. But keep an eye out this month for occasional gift guides!

With very little deliberation, I decided to write about Adventurous books for boys! Most of these books will feature boy protagonists, but some of them will have girls in the lead, and strong, brave, hilarious boy sidekicks. Regardless, they will all be full of adventure, whether in space, a magical fantasy realm, or even a mostly contemporary small town Iowa.

All of them are recommended for boys, primarily those age 8-12, who love a great adventure story.

You Can't Have My Planet, but Take My Brother, Please, by James Mihaley

Thirteen-year-old Giles is the last person anyone would expect to save the planet. he's not as charming as his little sister, and not as brainy as his goody-goody older brother. But when Giles witnesses an alien realtor showing Earth to possible new tenants, he knows he'd better do something. With the help of an alien "attorney" and the maddest scientist in middle-grade fiction, Giles just might save humans from eviction from Earth. Let's hope so. The alternatives are...not so hospitable.

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, by Nathan Bransford

Jacob Wonderbar is used to detentions, but when a spaceship crashes near his house, he finds himself in a whole new level of trouble. After swapping a corn dog for the ship, he and his two best friends, Sarah Daisy and Dexter, take off on a madcap adventure. They accidentally cause an epic explosion, get kidnapped by a space pirate, and are marooned on planets like Numonia and Paisley, where the air smells like burp breath and revenge-hungry substitute teachers rule. And that's only the beginning . . . It turns out that there's an entire colony of space humans, and Jacob's long-lost father just might be one of them.

The first book in debut author Nathan Bransford's hilarious space adventure series has dynamite friendships, peculiar planets, and nonstop action. You'll never look at the stars the same way!

The Mostly True Story of Jack, by Kelly Barnhill

When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his strange aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for quite a long time.

When he arrives, three astonishing things happen: First, he makes friends -- not imaginary friends but actual friends. Second, he is beaten up by the town bully; the bullies at home always ignored him. Third, the richest man in town begins to plot Jack's imminent, and hopefully painful, demise. It's up to Jack to figure out why suddenly everyone cares so much about him. Back home he was practically, well, invisible.

The Mostly True Story of Jack is an eerie tale of magic, friendship, and sacrifice. It's about things broken and things put back together. Above all, it's about finding a place to belong.

Nightshade City (Nightshade Chronicles Book One), by Hilary Wagner

Deep beneath Trillium City, a modern metropolis, lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of rats of extraordinary intelligence and ability. The once peaceful and democratic colony has become a harsh dictatorship ruled by the High Minister Kildeer and his henchman, Billycan, who runs the Kill Army and collects weekly Stipend from the terrified subjects. The two of them rule with iron fists. With most of the adult rats wiped out in Killdeer's Bloody Coup and the subsequent great flood, orphaned young male rats are forced into the army and the females into servitude or worse. But change is coming. . . .

Two orphan brothers, Vincent and Victor Nightshade, sons of a hero killed in the Bloody Coup, manage to escape from the Kill Army and meet up with Juniper Belancourt, leader of a rebel group seeking to overthrow their oppressors and restore peace and democracy in a new city. The brothers are quickly caught up in Juniper's cause: "We survive by cover of night. We live in the shadows, waiting for our redemption! Our name must symbolize our burning spirit. . . . Tonight and forever, we are Nightshade City!"

Juniper's plans are complicated by many factors. His lovely young niece Clover has been picked by Killdeer to be his next Chosen One, so the rebels and their allies the Earthworms must work fast to save her. Can the rebels locate their enemies' War Room? Can Juniper's former love, now holding a position in Killdeer's Ministry, be trusted? Will the rebels be able to execute their plans without the aid of a young Topsider (human)? And how will Vincent and Victor fare in battle will they honor their father's legacy of courage?

The Kindling (Middle School Magic Book One), by Braden Bell

All thirteen-year-old Connor Dell wants to do is pass pre-algebra, play lacrosse, and possibly kiss Melanie Stephens, but when a run-in with the school bully ignites strange powers inside him, Connor's normal teenage life goes up in flames. Now he'll need his new powers to defeat the Darkness that's coming for him. Fast-paced and original, this book's guaranteed to keep you guessing!

Storybound (Storybound Series Book One), by Marissa Burt

In the land of Story, children go to school to learn to be characters: a perfect Hero, a trusty Sidekick, even the most dastardly Villain. They take classes on Outdoor Experiential Questing and Backstory, while adults search for full-time character work in stories written just for them.

In our world, twelve-year-old Una Fairchild has always felt invisible. But all that changes when she stumbles upon a mysterious book buried deep in the basement of her school library, opens the cover, and suddenly finds herself transported to the magical land of Story.

But Story is not a perfect fairy tale. Una’s new friend Peter warns her about the grave danger she could face if anyone discovers her true identity. The devious Tale Keeper watches her every move. And there are whispers of a deadly secret that seems to revolve around Una herself....

With the timeless appeal of books like A Wrinkle in Time and the breathtaking action of Inkheart, Storybound has all the makings of a new classic. Brimming with fantastical creatures, magical adventure, and heart-stopping twists, Storybound will leave readers wishing they too could jump through the pages into this enchanting fairy-tale world.

The Atomic Weight of Secrets or the Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black (The Young Inventors Guild Book One), by Eden Unger Bowditch

In 1903, five truly brilliant young inventors, the children of the world’s most important scientists, went about their lives and their work as they always had.

But all that changed the day the men in black arrived.

They arrived to take twelve-year-old Jasper Modest and his six-year-old sister, Lucy—he with his remarkable creations and she with her perfect memory—from their London, England home to a place across the ocean they’d never seen before.

They arrived to take nine-year-old Wallace Banneker, last in a long line of Africa-descended scientists, from his chemistry, his father, and his New York home to a life he’d never imagined.

Twelve-year-old Noah Canto-Sagas, already missing his world-famous and beloved mother, was taken from Toronto, Canada, carrying only his clothes, his violin, and his remarkable mind.

And thirteen-year-old Faye Vigyanveta, the genius daughter of India’s wealthiest and most accomplished scientists, was removed by force from her life of luxury.

From all across the world, they’ve been taken to mysterious Sole Manner Farm, and a beautiful but isolated schoolhouse in Dayton, Ohio, without a word from their parents as to why. Not even the wonderful schoolteacher they find there, Miss Brett, can explain it. She can give them love and care, but she can’t give them answers.

Things only get stranger from there. What is the book with no pages Jasper and Lucy find in their mother’s underwear drawer, and why do the men in black want it so badly?

How is it all the children have been taught the same bizarre poem—and yet no other rhymes or stories their entire lives?

And why haven’t their parents tried to contact them?

Whatever the reasons, to brash, impetuous Faye, the situation is clear: They and their parents have been kidnapped by these terrible men in black, and the only way they’re going to escape and rescue their parents is by completing the invention they didn’t even know they were all working on—an invention that will change the world forever.

But what if the men in black aren’t trying to harm the children? What if they’re trying to protect them?

And if they’re trying to protect them—from what?

An amazing story about the wonders of science and the still greater wonders of friendship, The Atomic Weight of Secrets or the Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, the first book of the Young Inventors Guild trilogy, is a truly original novel. Young readers will forever treasure Eden Unger Bowditch’s funny, inventive, poignant, and wonderfully fun fiction debut.


That's it for today! Please feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yummy Stocking Stuffers . . .

 Every stocking needs candy, Right?

Here are a few fun sweets for 
filling stockings . . .


What if there were a place where you could get magical candy? Moon rocks that made you feel weightless. Jawbreakers that made you unbreakable. Or candy that gave animals temporary human intelligence and communication skills.

Four young friends, Nate, Summer, Trevor, and Pigeon, are befriended by Belinda White, the owner of a new candy shop on Main Street. However, the gray- haired, grandmotherly Mrs. White is not an ordinary candy maker. Her confections have magical side effects. Purposefully, she invites the kids on a special mission to retrieve a hidden talisman under Mt. Diablo Elementary School.

However, Mrs. White is not the only magician in town in search of the ancient artifact rumored to be the Fountain of Youth. She is aware that Mr. Stott, the not-so-ordinary ice cream truck driver, has a few tricks of his own.

6645867 Blurb: 

Twelve-year-old Isabel is dying to get out of her small town of Willow, Oregon, and travel like her best friend, Sophie. But when Isabel's mother decides to open up a cupcake shop across town, Isabel is once again stuck in Willow for the summer; until she learns of a baking contest where the finalists get an all-expenses paid trip to New York City to compete in the final bake-off. 

But Sophie is also entering the contest, and Isabel's mother has reservations. Can Isabel finally realize her dreams of leaving Willow without hurting two of the most important people in her life?


Four children have been chosen to compete in a national competition to find the tastiest confection in the country. Who will invent a candy more delicious than the Oozing Crunchorama or the Neon Lightning Chew?

Logan, the Candymaker's son, who can detect the color of chocolate by touch alone?

Miles, the boy who is allergic to merry-go-rounds and the color pink?

Daisy, the cheerful girl who can lift a fifty-pound lump of taffy like it's a feather?

Or Philip, the suit-and-tie wearing boy who's always scribbling in a secret notebook?

This sweet, charming, and cleverly crafted story, told from each contestant's perspective, is filled with mystery, friendship, and juicy revelations.


With the help of a little girl, a mysterious stranger tells the story of the candy cane to the people of a small prairie town during Christmas time at the turn of the century.


On her eleventh birthday, Halo Nightly receives a mysterious collection of candy jars from her Aunt Pandora. The sweet treats inside fuel her with the powers of fire, water, earth, and air! As the worlds newest sugar hero, Halo must defeat the evil sour-villains who threaten to rid the world of fun and flavor!



John midas loves chocolate. He loves it so much that he′ll eat it any hour of any day. He doesn′t care if he ruins his appetite. He thinks chocolate is better than any other food! But one day, after wandering into a candy store and buying a piece of their best chocolate, John finds out that there might just be such a thing as too much chocolate. . . .


17349058 Blurb:
The New York Times bestselling author and artist of Pinkalicious, Victoria Kann, brings Pinkalicious fans the first Pinkalicious cookbook, and it's filled with cupcakes galore! Pinkalicious loves pinkatastic cupcakes—and now readers can make all their cupcakes Pinkalicious cupcakes. The Pinkalicious Cupcake Cookbook features more than 20 cupcakes straight from Pinkalicious's world. Bake everything from a classic Pinkalicious cupcake with a cherry on top to a princess cupcake and castle, a snowman cupcake, or a cake pop flower! There are cupcakes for every occasion—birthday parties, Valentine's Day, Christmas, and more—and tips to help get kids into the kitchen.

 And what stocking would be complete without this favorite candy classic?!


Willy Wonka's famous chocolate factory is opening at last!

But only five lucky children will be allowed inside. And the winners are: Augustus Gloop, an enormously fat boy whose hobby is eating; Veruca Salt, a spoiled-rotten brat whose parents are wrapped around her little finger; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum-chewer with the fastest jaws around; Mike Teavee, a toy pistol-toting gangster-in-training who is obsessed with television; and Charlie Bucket, Our Hero, a boy who is honest and kind, brave and true, and good and ready for the wildest time of his life! 

Now, let's fill those stockings with the yummiest candy on earth . . .


Friday, December 13, 2013

'Tis the Give Them Monsters!

‘Tis the holiday season, and with that in mind, I’ll refrain from seizing upon this opportunity (it’s Friday the 13th! ) to share quirky, bizarre stuff and an otherwise creepy, twisted, middle-grade related, spooky post….

Ok, no I won’t. Sorry, I tried.

What I will give you is permission to put darkness in your middle-grade fiction. Give ‘em monsters, and lots of ‘em. It’s the gift that keeps on giving…because while your young readers may insist on sleeping with a Nerf katana, or ask you to sweep the bedroom perimeter one more time, they are (in general) utterly fascinated with the creepy crawly, shadow slinking, mystery of the monster. They might not admit that they’re scared (they're too old for that, maybe), and they may not even understand that they enjoy that fear. That it’s exciting and necessary.

Necessary? Yep.

The monster represents everything they don’t understand. Everything they fear and worry about. Christopher Vogler, a veteran Hollywood story consultant and writing teacher, calls these monsters, this darkness, the Shadow. In his book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Vogler says that the Shadow “represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something.” Middle-grade readers struggle with A LOT. Depending on the scale of the middle-grade spectrum, we could be dealing with puberty, adolescence, moving, divorce, abuse, relationships, emotions, identity, friendship, and the list goes on and on.

Stories need conflict and often that conflict comes in the form of the monster. Monsters offer wonderful personifications of the Shadow. The Shadow, as a monster, allows the writer to create a story in which he or she addresses those relative conflicts in the confines of the narrative. The monster allows for more traditional storytelling, offering an obvious vehicle for conflict, while providing an entertaining book. Percy Jackson is not battling kittens! He is fighting Medusa and Harpies and all sorts of monstrous creatures.

Middle-grade readers want to be entertained. They want a story they can relate to and enjoy and that offers excitement. What’s more exciting than a good monster to battle? Roald Dahl gave us The Witches, not The Unicorns. In his book, BFG, Dahl gives us flesh-eating giants. Flesh. Human flesh. The giants eat people. They crunch on people’s bones. Dahl certainly didn’t flinch at putting these horrors in the hands of definitely middle-grade readers, and I think these giants personify every seemingly impossible obstacle middle-grade readers face and the gatekeepers they fear stand before them. R.L. Stine didn’t build a reading empire on the back of his Feather Tickle series. No! Goosebumps. And it’s a slight understatement to say they did rather well.

But, to be fair, not every monster has to be big, or scary, or ugly, or have fangs and tentacles. Look at our own beloved Charlottes’s Web. You don’t think that when Charlotte says “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” she sees her father as a monster, at least in that scene? And what does she do? She runs out there to confront him. To face the monster. To do battle. And she wins. She saves Wilbur’s life. She beats the monster.

So, whether you have thought about it or not, whether you realize it or not, monsters, the Shadow, are an integral part of our middle-grade fiction. They give our readers a symbolic representation of their own fear and uncertainty in an exciting and entertaining medium: The Monster.

If you still doubt that there is any room to discuss monsters and holidays, consider The Nightmare Before Christmas in which monsters meet Santa….and kidnap him. Or look to the Germanic lore of the Krampus. American kids get coal if they’re bad. Germanic children get stuffed in a sack and get taken back to the Krampus’ lair to be eaten. I’ll take the coal.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want you to give the gift of darkness to your readers. Give them the Shadow. And I want to give you, as writers, permission to box up your unicorns and rainbows, pack away your puppies, and shush the critics who say “today’s fiction is too dark,” and let the mayhem loose.

Give them monsters this year. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Why Write Middle Grade?

Since the holiday season is the perfect time for reflection, I thought I’d use my December post to reflect upon why I write middle grade. I get asked this question from time to time. Most people are genuinely curious, although sometimes the question comes, unfortunately, with a hint of condescension. (Why would you want to write something like middle grade when you could be writing more substantive and important works like adult literature?)

For me, the decision to write middle grade was an especially easy one. My middle-grade years were when I first fell in love with reading, and when I first learned to appreciate everything a good book had to offer. I was a military brat, and when I look back on my middle-grade years, I have to confess, they were kind of lonely. My family moved every two years or so. I was always the new kid at school, and I was never able to have lasting friendships. It didn’t help that I was painfully shy, so it wasn’t exactly easy for me to make friends in the first place. Usually, just about the time I started to feel settled some place, just about the time it started to feel like home, it was time to move again.

I didn’t have any siblings at home, so after school and on weekends, I often found I had to find ways to entertain myself. I quickly learned what wonderful company books could be. I had an affinity for the classics. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, and Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain swept me away with their magic and made me love fantasy and adventure.  My copies of all these favorites followed me wherever I went, whether my family moved to the other side of the country or the other side of the world. I still have them today, a little worse for wear but still much loved. They’re actually gazing down on me from the top shelf of my bookshelf as I type this now.

And then there was the feeling I got every time I walked into the local library. A great sense of excitement always washed over me—all those wonderful stories right at my fingertips!

If, as a writer of middle grade, I can give young readers that same sense of excitement, offer them stories and adventures they can get lost in, that can make them feel a little less lonely or help them forget their real-world worries for an hour or two, I consider that a worthwhile endeavor indeed.

Please share. Why do you write middle grade?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

MG Novels and Relationships

I was reading reviews of middle grade novels the other day, and I noticed that certain phrases appeared more than any others: epic adventure, fast paced, action packed. Judging by these descriptions, you’d think successful MG books are all about the plot and non-stop, roller-coaster action.

Of course, some copy-writers had glommed on to that other aspect of a MG novel that is so important: friendship. I found that little addition tacked on to several novel descriptions: “but in the end, the adventurers discover the most important treasure of all, friendship” – or some lip-service drivel like that.

The fact is, the relationships in a MG novel are far more important than the plot. No one doubts that J.K. Rowling created a complex world and a delightfully tangled plot. But it’s the relationships in Harry Potter that make readers read the books over and over again.
And sorry, copy-editors. It’s not just friendships. There are siblings. And parents. Rivals and enemies. Mentors and protégées.

Characters worth reading about are complicated and flawed, and their relationships are multi-dimensional. Friends occasionally disappoint us. Rivals sometimes take our side. Mentors can turn out to be less than we thought, but also more than we imagined. Parents are strong, but also vulnerable. Even an enemy might sometimes have to collaborate with us for a common goal.

Yes, MG readers want action – but they also want relationships that help them navigate the complexities of real life. Chances are they will never tame a gryphon, battle a Cyclops, or find a lost treasure, but they will experience broken promises, unexpected friendships, betrayal, and random acts of kindness.

A MG novel also needs to focus on the right relationships. My upcoming MG novel features three main characters: the protagonist, a 13 year old boy, and two YA characters, an 18 year old boy and a 16 year old girl. In my original manuscript, the 13 year old protagonist had a crush on the 16 year old girl, and I thought that was central to the plot. But my editor wanted me to take the crush out.

I fought against that change. Puppy love is allowed in a MG story, I insisted. And yes, it is. But what I was failing to consider was whether it was right for my story. In the end, I reluctantly removed my protagonist’s romantic interest in this older girl – and I did so as a compromise, to save another aspect of the story that I wanted to preserve even more.

What happened in revisions was a surprise and a learning experience for me. When I removed the crush from the story, I opened the door for a much more important relationship – the one between the two boys. Without the girl coming between them, the 13 year old and the 18 year old were free to develop what had been lacking in the earlier version – respect, mentorship, trust, and eventually, brotherhood. Only when the new draft was completed did I really understand that I’d missed the boat the first time. It was far more important for my protagonist to develop a solid relationship with his 18 year old guardian than to get his little heart broken.

So, whether you’re crafting your own MG novel or choosing one to read, let the connection between the characters be your guiding light.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Holiday Gift Guide - Outdoor Adventure Books

It's snowing where I live today. I love snow, but I'm dreaming of a beach at the moment, and thinking out a plot that involves an adventure set in such a beautiful location. Anyway, to get to the point of this post, I do quite a few Skype visits with classes reading my outdoor adventures, and often teachers will ask me for recommendations of other books set in the outdoors. HATCHETT by Gary Paulsen is the classic, but they usually already have that book and are looking for others. So here are a few of my recommendations:

Clare Vanderpool

At the end of World War II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his mother's death and placed in a boy's boarding school in Maine. There, Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great black bear in the nearby mountains. Newcomer Jack feels lost yet can't help being drawn to Early, who won't believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school, they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear. But what they are searching for is sometimes different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters, each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel, while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others in their lives.

Amy Timberlake

In the town of Placid, Wisconsin, in 1871, Georgie Burkhardt is known for two things: her uncanny aim with a rifle and her habit of speaking her mind plainly.

But when Georgie blurts out something she shouldn't, her older sister Agatha flees, running off with a pack of "pigeoners" trailing the passenger pigeon migration. And when the sheriff returns to town with an unidentifiable body—wearing Agatha's blue-green ball gown—everyone assumes the worst. Except Georgie. Refusing to believe the facts that are laid down (and coffined) before her, Georgie sets out on a journey to find her sister. She will track every last clue and shred of evidence to bring Agatha home. Yet even with resolute determination and her trusty Springfield single-shot, Georgie is not prepared for what she faces on the western frontier.

THE EMERALD QUEST (The Noah Winter Adventure Series)
Renée Pawlish

Thirteen-year-old Noah Winter, the son of sea-exploring treasure hunters, dives the San Isabel shipwreck with his parents in search of a mysterious treasure map lost in the murky depths off the Florida Keys over a century ago. The map reveals the hiding place of the priceless De La Rosa emerald. But before the Winters can find the map, a wealthy treasure-hunting rival kidnaps Noah’s parents. Now Noah must match wits with a dangerous adversary, not only to discover the treasure map first, but to rescue his mom and dad before it’s too late.

Cynthia DeFelice

Erik is preparing for his first-ever hunting trip when he learns that his parents are being deployed to Iraq.  A few days later, Erik is shipped off to North Dakota to live with Big Darrell and Oma, grandparents he barely knows. When Erik rescues a dog that’s been stuck by a porcupine, Big Darrell says Erik can’t keep him. But Erik has already named her Quill and can’t bear to give her up.  He decides to run away, taking the dog and a shotgun, certain that they can make it on their own out on the prairie.

And here are my two books:

Dee Garretson

This is Stefan’s big break. He’s on location in the mountains far from home for his first movie role, filming a blockbuster sci-fi adventure. The props, the spaceships, and the trained wolves on set should add up to a dream job, but acting turns out to be much tougher than he ever imagined, and he feels like his inner loser is all that’s showing through. From the way his famously stuck-up co-star, Raine, treats him, he’s pretty sure she thinks so too. And worst of all, no one will believe his claim that there are wild wolves haunting the forest around the set.
When a blizzard strikes, isolating the young co-stars and bringing hungry feral wolves into the open, Stefan must take on his biggest role yet—working together with his co-stars to survive. With no second takes, they only have one chance to get it right.

A Scholastic Book Club Selection, nominated for three state awards lists.

Dee Garretson

The president's retreat, Camp David, is one of the safest places in the United States. So why can't the President's son, Luke, and his friends Theo and Callie stay there without Secret Service agents constantly hovering over them, watching their every move? And yet, when an earthquake sets off a raging wildfire, causing a chain reaction that wreaks havoc at Camp David, they are suddenly on their own.
Now Luke needs a plan:
To override the security systems
To save those who were supposed to save him
To get through an impassable gate
To escape Camp David

A Junior Library Guild Selection, nominated for seven state awards lists.


~ Dee Garretson

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Paradoxical Extremes of Middle Grade Students: A Holiday Memory by Braden Bell

To write middle grade fiction, it is critical to understand the age group. However, that is tricky because children at this age are changing very quickly in just about every developmental domain.

Consequently, they are contradictory in many ways, jumping back and forth from extremes that would cause emotional whiplash in adults. Paradoxes incarnate, young adolescents are capable of great kindness or cruelty. They can be apathetic or driven, responsible or negligent—sometimes in the same incident.

I'll talk more about these paradoxes in future posts. But today, I want to recount an experience that presented these paradoxes in high relief and taught me some important lessons about middle grade students.

As a middle school choir director, I’m on the front lines of adolescent developmental changes. Changing voices, extreme self-consciousness, constantly shifting social dilemmas, apathy, the need to appear cool—these are only a few of the challenges.  

Every year, we work and try and do the best we can. But often, as we perform, things fall apart. Someone starts laughing and touches of a conflagration of giggles. Otherwise outgoing and voluble children suddenly freeze up and compete to see who can produce the least volume. Voices crack or get pitchy. On and on. It’s middle school and is to be expected.

But still, it stings a bit. We finish the song, and I turn around and face the audience with a tight smile, acknowledging their polite applause, wishing things had been different.

I really want to sound good. I long for a performance that is truly beautiful, not merely “good for middle school.” I crave a song that sounds so good that when I turn around to acknowledge the audience’s applause, I can smile back, nod, and think, “Yeah, this one was really good.”

With that confession, let me tell a story. Last year, my 8th graders were very talented vocally—one of the strongest groups of singers I’ve ever had. They were also flaky and silly. Prone to chatting and goofing off, they fit the cliché of immature adolescents.

Knowing their potential, I chose “White Christmas,” as one of the songs for our winter concert. One of my all-time favorites, I have a beautiful choral arrangement of this song and really wanted to see what we could do. 

As we practiced, their sheer talent impressed me. I began to hope that this year, my students might sing the song I’ve yearned for all these years. The song that would let me face the audience with a genuine smile. The song that would be truly excellent.

We practiced with single-minded determination, spending entire class periods trying to master a single phrase or singing a single chord correctly.

However, I soon realized I could practice over and over in class, but until they took ownership and practiced on their own, we wouldn’t make any lasting progress.

As the concert drew even closer, their attention wavered and weakened. A week or two before the concert, we had an especially discouraging rehearsal. At the end of class, I asked them to listen. They were hyper and inattentive, anxious to get to lunch.

“Guys, I need to talk with you,” I said. “As soon as I’m done, I’ll excuse you. But you’re not leaving until I’ve said what I want to say.” That got them quiet. “I’ve taught you for three years. I’ve been patient with your changing voices, social awkardness, hyperactivity, and your minimal attention spans. I’ve tried to be patient, kind, and treat you with respect. I’ve had generous policies in my classroom and have tried to make your lives a little easier and better, at least in chorus.”

They knew what I was saying was true. Though far from perfect, I always have tried to realize how much power for good or bad a teacher can have on the daily lives of students.

“Every year, we practice and practice and then we get up and you sing somewhere between ‘marginal’ and ‘painful’. And then, every year, I have to turn around and face your parents, trying to smile and put the best face on it.”

They seemed genuinely shocked to discover that they had not been wonderful at all times.

“I know some of you really don’t care about chorus. Fine. But this is my job. This is my life! And, just once, I would love to have a group perform well—really well. Well enough that the applause is real, not polite. Well enough that people say, ‘Wow! That was good!’ Maybe you don’t care, but I do! So, I’m asking for a personal favor. I only want one thing for Christmas. I want one song that is so genuinely good, I can turn around and smile back at the audience for real. That’s what I want for Christmas. Just in case you wondered. You are dismissed.”

Unrepentant and apathetic, they ran out to lunch. I sighed. Oh well. Another year perhaps.

I didn’t see them much after that because exam week came and the schedule of classes changed considerably.

The concert came and I faced it with stoic resignation. We sang our first song, and it went pretty well. Better than usual. Our second song went well, too. And then it was time for “White Christmas.”

The accompanist played the intro, and I brought the choir in on the verse. To my surprise, their first notes were at exactly the dynamic level I had requested. The boys and the altos divided out of the melody, splitting into an unresolved chord on “palm trees sway,” then resolving into a beautiful, clear chord.  

I realized that they were really trying. And then, as I looked more closely at them, I realized something else. They were sincerely trying to give me a gift. I could see it in their eyes. At that point, they all got blurry as my eyes misted over.

As we finished the verse they executed a quick decrescendo, beginning the familiar chorus with a warm, rich hush that gave me chills. It got better and better as we went on. We hit the high point, “May your days be merry and bright.” We sustained that note—a luscious, full chord—three different notes sung in perfect balance. I heard the descending notes from the boys, heard the altos go down a minor second to resolve the chord, heard the clear, sustained note of the sopranos. Together, they faded out slowly on, “And may all your Christmases be white.” They even enunciated the final "t"sound while avoiding a long hiss on "Christmases."

It was so perfect. So heartbreakingly gorgeous. Flawless. I was so caught up in the music that it took me a few seconds to realize that they were looking up at me with hopeful expressions that clearly asked, “Did we do it?”

I blinked tears away as I mouthed, “Thank you. Thank you.” They broke out into enormous smiles.

There had been so many times in the past I hadn’t wanted to turn around to face the audience. On that occasion, I didn’t want to turn around, but it was because I didn’t want that moment to end. I wanted to savor the genuine beauty of the song, and the even greater beauty of their sweet, unabashed gift. 

Those egocentric, inattentive, squirrelly students had transcended all their adolescent goofiness, pushing themselves to do truly excellent work. Somehow, they decided to give me the only gift I really wanted. More importantly, they had pushed themselves to the fullness of their potential. They had cared, tried—and succeeded in a magnificent way.

That’s the thing about middle school students. They are extreme. They are contradictory and paradoxical. But sometimes, those extremes are absolutely breathtaking. Middle school students can be simply magnificent. 

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's Your #UNselfie for 2013? Post and Win!!

So, some of you may have noticed, we've become a picture happy society of late, especially when it comes to snapping pics of ourselves. Nothing wrong with that, but in the dawn of the Selfie (taking a pic of yourself), I thought maybe we could all get in the holiday mood by posting an Unselfie, hashtag of course being #unselfie. This all started yesterday on twitter, so I say, let's keep up the good will!

In the spirit of the #unselfie, we post a picture on twitter of something that is not just us, something charitable, something generous, something showing we care about something other than...well...ourselves. :)

I know we all care, but sometimes, just reading my own tweets, I realize I could use a swift kick in the pants when it comes to caring versus sharing.

So, here's the challenge. Post your own #unselfie anytime now through December 17th. It could be of anything. A charity you think deserves more notice, a kind reminder to those you love, a link to a worthwhile cause. Post it and add us to the post on twitter @ProjectMGMayhem and later we will choose a winner who will receive two classic books, one old classic, and one soon to be classic, a copy of Kenneth Grahame's beloved children's book (and my personal favorite) The Wind in the Willows and the newly beloved classic, The One and Only Ivan. Now that's a gift worth giving...or keeping for yourself! 

Please post your #unselfie by December 16th or sooner and please be sure to include @ProjectMGMayhem and #unselfie in the post, so you will be entered in the drawing. We will mail the books to the winner on the 17th, ensuring fast delivery and an extra gift for you or your loved one this holiday season! 

Thanks for your continued support of Project Middle Grade Mayhem in 2013 and happy holidays to all!