Thursday, January 28, 2016


As the newest member of the Project Mayhem team, I confess I have a soft spot for late bloomers. I was a late bloomer myself (I may still qualify for the term, as I entered an MFA program at age 48!), and I love late-blooming characters. How do I define late bloomers? Late bloomers are not champing at the bit, pushing the envelope, or trying to act older than they are. They are content to act their age (and may even act a bit younger), and they are not in a rush to get to the next developmental stage.

Here are some great examples of late bloomers in recent middle-grade fiction:

  • ·      In Kwame Alexander’s award winning verse novel The Crossover (2015 Newbery Medal winner and Coretta Scott King Honor book), twin brothers Joshua and Jordan Bell are excellent basketball players. Josh feels forsaken as his twin embarks on a first romance, and he frets as the family feels the stress of his father’s deteriorating health. Josh’s feeling of being left behind is captured beautifully in “Second-Person”— “After practice, you walk home alone./This feels strange to you, because/as long as you can remember/there has always been a second person.”

  • ·      In Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger, seventh-grader Bridge is a fragile yet resilient character who suffered life-threatening injuries in an accident when she was younger and was out of school for almost a year due to her recuperation. This figures into her late-bloomer status as she missed out on some milestones in schooling. She dons her cat ear headband in the very beginning of the book: “…the ears became a comforting presence. When she was small, her father would sometimes rest his hand on her head as they went down the street. It was a little bit like that.” Bridge struggles with the social pressures of middle school that test the bonds of friendship with her two best friends, and she has some approach/avoidance feelings about a friendship with a boy that might turn into something more.

  • ·      In Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever, 13-year-old Nate, an aspiring actor with a love of show tunes, often gets teased for being gay. Yet he declares, “My sexuality, by the way, is off-topic and unrelated. I am undecided. I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided by major, and frankly I don’t want to declare anything other than ‘Hey jerks, I’m thirteen, leave me alone. Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food—how would I know who I want to hook up with?’” Nate is firmly staking out his claim that he is not yet ready to deal with sexuality and courtship…which may shift a bit by the end of the story.

As adults who write for and about middle-graders, there is much to consider and respect in the unfolding process of a late bloomer’s development—social, emotional, and physical. By capturing the micro-steps of that unfolding, we can create rich and textured characters that go beyond the popular cliché of the snarky or wisecracking middle-grader who is in a rush to grow up.

There are rich possibilities for conflict in creating a late blooming character:

·      **The awkwardness sparked by delayed puberty, when peers are physically changing and your character is not. (Bridge in Goodbye Stranger is a great example of this.)

**Peers are beginning to pursue courtship, while late bloomers may have ambivalence about this. (The Crossover, Goodbye Stranger, Better Nate Than Ever)

**Late bloomers may resist scripted social situations like dances, Valentines Day, group chats.

**Many late bloomers feel mystified and/or lonely when siblings/friends begin interacting socially in more complicated ways (romantic or otherwise)  (The Crossover and Goodbye Stranger). There can be loss of friendship or feelings of closeness with peers when developmental paths are diverging.

**Late bloomers may not be yet venturing into snarkiness or boundary-testing; they may gravitate more towards home, safety, and rules as their peers are beginning to chafe against those things. (The Crossover and Goodbye Stranger) Late bloomers tend to be rule followers—rich territory for conflict.

**The primacy of family is important to late bloomers and provides an anchor, even as peer influences become more important to most middle-graders. (Josh’s loyalty to his parents in The Crossover is a good example)

**Late bloomers may have a rich inner life/observer status, but they may not always be able to comprehend or analyze what they are seeing; in some cases the reader may know more than the character does.  (Goodbye Stranger, The Crossover, Better Nate Than Ever)

 **Late bloomers may still crave “play” while peers are moving on to other ways of forming social relationships. (wearing the cat ears, the role of basketball, drawing doodles on school work) They may gravitate toward others late bloomers or younger siblings/friends, which can be a comfort or a source of awkwardness.

**The analytical skills of late bloomers are still developing, which might show itself in academic work, social relationships, or problem solving. (Better Nate Than Ever, The Crossover, Goodbye Stranger)

In our hurried world, I believe it’s important to capture the experience of the late-blooming kid in all its micro-steps. This profile transcends race, culture and socio-economics. Many of our avid middle-grade readers fit this description, and writing a nuanced portrayal of their experience will offer a rewarding mirror to them.  Even if our characters are ambivalent about some of the milestones of growing up, there are rich possibilities for complexity and conflict in their meandering yet inexorable path to maturity.

Do you have a favorite example of a late-blooming character in middle-grade fiction? Add it to the comments!

Monday, January 25, 2016


If Mary Poppins had worked at an elementary school she would’ve been a librarian.

Librarians have some magic in them.  They're enchanted creatures.  They turn libraries into tree forts that children climb and explore through the power of their imaginations.

Along with a slew of other responsibilities, librarians organize author visits.  For most of the school presentations I’ve done, the librarian was the liaison.  The presentations often  took place in the library.  Thus I've had the privilege of spending many hours with librarians and have casually observed how they interact with students, have seen unmistakably how beloved they are.  I’ve witnessed the essential role they play by encouraging children to read. 

One of my favorite librarians was a shining star at a school in West LA.  One year after meeting her, I bumped into a parent whose child attended that same school and she informed me with great sadness that the librarian had been eliminated due to budget cuts.  I was shocked, outraged and disgusted.  Apparently the school library still existed and was open to students.  However, there was no one running it, like a ship with no one at the helm drifting aimlessly toward the principal’s office.

It was hard for me to imagine that school without her busy footsteps, without her cheerful voice, without her love and her enthusiasm, her patience and her expertise.  A novel on a shelf without a librarian is a book without a mother.  A school without a soul.

Friday, January 22, 2016

COMING BACK TO THE AUTHOR by Eden Unger Bowditch

Recently, we at Project Mayhem have been talking a lot about literary agents.  These conversations contain vital pieces of advice for many would-be, pre-published, and already-published authors. I know because I am one of them!

This is a true story. Years ago, a friend and I both decided we wanted to write books. We both had burning ideas that excited us to no end. I started writing. She decided to put her time into finding an agent. In a month, she wrote a proposal and I was well on my way with a draft. A few months later, she had an agent on board (she was a well-known journalist so she interviewed many) and I had finished a first draft. Her agent spent months shopping her proposal. I began my own rewrites. And then, an award-winning children’s writer friend took a peek at my manuscript and asked if he could show it to his publisher. The publisher asked for a meeting. I flew back to the US and signed a deal. Meanwhile, my friend never was offered a publishing deal. She had taken time off work to find the agent and work on the book proposal so she shelved the book and returned to journalism.

What is the moral of this story? Well…we can consider that, had I been clever enough to remember one should have an agent, I might have gotten a better deal (though that would be hard for me to imagine, but that’s just me!). We can consider that my friend should have stuck with it and eventually gotten the deal she wanted. Or we can say…wait! The point is, there is a book that needs to be written. Whether you have an agent or not, focus on writing it! The passion you feel for it is what will drive you. Do not stop and wait and hope for an agent. Keep working on your stuff since there is always room in the world for brilliant works of literature. An agent will help you realize some of those dreams but the dreams start with you.

So what is the moral? I guess it’s…WRITE!

If you have an idea, Hurray! But don’t wait! If you have an agent, hurray! If you’ve already written a book, hurray! But never forget, the book is the magic around which all else revolves.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Allure of Arthur by Dianne K. Salerni

It’s EIGHT days until the release of The Morrigan’s Curse, the third book in my Eighth Day series, described by Kirkus as “an exciting blend of Arthurian legend and organized crime.” In honor of this release, today I'm highlighting King Arthur as an icon in middle grade fiction.

Why King Arthur? Why does he hold such long-lasting allure? One of the best places to look for an answer is with author Jane Yolen, who has written numerous Arthurian based children’s literature ranging from picture books, through middle grade, and up to young adult. In an interview at the back of her YA novel, Sword of the Rightful King, Yolen calls herself an Arthurholic and says, “Quite simply, I think it is the greatest story ever told, or more accurately, the greatest collection of stories ever told.”

Professor Sarah Peverley, medievalist and book historian, explains it further: “Arthur is a touchstone for strong leadership and accord, showing what society could achieve, but never does.” Children, with their natural affinity for justice, are drawn to Arthur because he is honest, honorable, and good-hearted. In Arthur’s kingdom, the strong and powerful dedicate themselves to protecting the weak and powerless. What an inspiring change from today’s society in which even children know that the strong and powerful mostly take care of themselves!

Revisit Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot in some of these middle grade works:

The Invisible Tower by Nils Johnson-Shelton – Artie Kingfisher’s favorite video game comes to life when Artie learns that he’s King Arthur reborn and that, along with his sister Kay, he must save the realm of Otherworld. (Goodreads)

Passager by Jane Yolen – In this first book of her Young Merlin trilogy, Yolen explores the childhood of Merlin as an abandoned, feral boy who is taken in by a falconer and re-taught the ways of humans. (Goodreads)

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper – Drawing on Arthurian legend and Celtic mythology, this five-book series relates the adventures of 20th century children who join an eternal battle between Light and Dark. (Goodreads)

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green – An excellent choice for middle grade readers wanting to explore the original legends.  (Goodreads)

The Squire Tales by Gerald Morris – A series of ten novels that start out following the lively and humorous adventures of Sir Gawaine’s squire, Terrance, then branch into an exploration of other characters, many of whom are drawn from obscure mentions in Arthurian literature. (Goodreads)

The Camelot Code by Mari Mancusi – A magical line of game code accidentally brings a young Arthur into the present day world. When he Googles himself and learns his fate, he decides he’d rather play football than be king. (Goodreads)

The Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni – A boy discovers a secret day of the week hidden between Wednesday and Thursday that originates from a 1500-year-old spell cast by Merlin to contain the enemy Kin race. (Goodreads)

And if you’re looking for a King Arthur worth swooning over, try this MG-friendly Young Adult novel:

Sword of the Rightful King by Jane Yolen – What if someone other than Arthur pulled the sword out of the stone? Merlin’s plan to bolster the newly crowned Arthur backfires. (Goodreads)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

7 Ways To Make Your Agent Love You, by Hilary Wagner

Last week, Joy gave us an amazing post on how to part ways with an agent. Today, I wanted to talk about how to have a positive working relationship with your agent. My agent, Marietta Zacker (Nancy Gallt Agency) is destined for sainthood. I'm very blessed to have her as my agent. She's in it for the long haul and she's completely honest about what she likes and doesn't like. She gives it to me straight. Not only does she sell my work, but she educates me on the industry and helps me to be a better writer. All that said, I wanted to give a few tips about working with an agent and how to make things run smoother from day one. If anyone has more tips to add please do!

1. Talk to your agent about how editorial he/she wants to be. Some agents are very hands-on, some do not want to edit at all. My agent is right in middle, which is perfect for me. I know she would be more editorial if I needed her to be, and she has been in the past, but basically she tells me where she thinks a manuscript can use work and I take it from there.

2. Find out how your agent wants you to submit your work to them. Does he/she want the beginning of a manuscript to see if it's something that sparks their attention or does your agent want the whole kit and kaboodle? My agent likes to see the whole manuscript, but if I ask her to read, say, the first twenty pages or so, just to know if I'm on the right track, she absolutely will. This way I have more confidence going into an entire manuscript knowing she gave an initial thumb's up.

3. Find out how your agent works with most editors. Does your agent reach out over the phone, meet them in person, or send an email? Some editors want to be contacted in a certain way by agents, but it's important to find out how your agent generally handles manuscripts that are ready to be sent to editors. If you find out your agent is more the email type vs a phone call or meeting, and you are not comfortable with that, maybe that's something to talk about prior to signing.

4. Understand that your agent is not just your agent, they represent several clients covering multiple genres, so always take that into consideration before diving into that new story. Let's say, for example, your agent represents a bestselling author who writes middle-grade mysteries and now you want to write a middle-grade mystery. You may want to talk to your agent first to make sure he/she doesn't feel it's a conflict of interest. Just like you don't want to offend your agent, your agent doesn't want to offend another client who is very successful in a certain area by taking on another manuscript of the exact same genre. This will not always be the case, but I recommend you check with your agent before diving into a manuscript that your agent might not be comfortable taking on.

5. Agents aren't robots. Realize your agent is a living, breathing human being. Agents have husbands and wives, children, personal matters, and multiple responsibilities other than just representing you. That said, give your agent time to digest a new manuscript you've sent them. It's unusual to get a very fast response on a new manuscript or even a portion of a manuscript. Think about it. Your agent has to set time aside to read it and make notes. Even if it's a mere twenty pages, your agent may have ten other writers who already gave her twenty pages, and she needs to get back to them before reading yours. 

6. Be respectful. When an agent represents you, it's very important to remember, until your manuscript is sold, your agent is working for you for free. I emphasize, FOR FREE. So be respectful of their time and how and when you address them. I'm not saying you have to be all formal or brown-nose in any way. Just keep in mind your agent signed you because you have talent, but they won't make a single penny until they sell your manuscript, and no matter how brilliant your manuscript is that's not an easy thing to do.

7. BE PATIENT or at least pretend you're patient. I can't emphasize this enough. My agent knows I have the patience of a gnat, but she also knows I'm not going to pester her. Sure, I'll ping her once in a while to see if she's heard anything, but I know what her answer is going to be. It's going to be a big fat NO, because she'll tell me the minute she knows anything. Like I stated, agents don't make a penny until they sell your manuscript, so it would be downright silly for them not to get back to you ASAP. It's so hard to be patient, trust me, I know, but you have to learn the art of not peppering your agent with emails and/or phone calls. As simple as it sounds, they don't know what they don't know. I certainly have not learned patience, and I'm sure I never will, but I've learned to put things into my agent's hands and trust that she'll let me know the moment she knows anything good, bad or ugly. That's what a good agent does. :)

Monday, January 11, 2016

On Humming, by Anne Nesbet

Some years ago, probably at Thanksgiving, my wonderful Aunt(-in-law) Kathy suddenly put her spoon down and said, "Anne! I bet you were a very satisfying baby to feed!"

That seemed a little out of the blue. I'm sure I gave her a nice blank stare.

"Because you hum while you eat!"

"Oh!" I hadn't ever noticed any such thing, but once it had been pointed out, I started listening to myself with about half an ear as I went through everyday life, and sure enough, I always seemed to be humming. Not just when eating, but when walking to school, grading papers, reading books . . . . Oh, dear. Embarrassing!

Except that I've decided not to be too embarrassed, after all, because, upon reflection, my humminess is closely related, for better or for worse, to everything that makes me a writer. In fact, in my latest book, THE WRINKLED CROWN, the heroine starts her life as a "hummy baby"; her world sees this as a curse, but it is the kind of curse that is also a gift.

So here are some of the ways humming and writing overlap:

1. Humming as Theme and Variations. Humming (for me) means taking a little bit of music, and running through all the possible ways that phrase could be bent, modified, reinvented. Humming is all about repetition--but it's also about experimentation. I find myself trying little experiments with my hums: accenting the third beat this time, or running up the scale where usually I run down. When I was first learning to play the piano, I fell in love with Bartók's pieces for children, because they experimented (it seemed to me) in a hummy sort of way: a melody would be accompanied by one set of harmonies, and then the next time it came around, all the chords would be quite different, and then a third time with everything slightly transformed all over again.
You may be wondering what this humminess has to do with writing, but in fact I do the same thing with words. I "hum" phrases, trying different words, changing the sound of things here and there, tweaking and repeating. Sometimes I catch myself saying words aloud, trying out different pronunciations and stresses. It is humming without music, but it makes the language of my stories satisfyingly odd.

2. Humming Makes a Gift of a Bad Memory. I hum because I cannot sing, and I can't sing because I can't remember any of the words: I make them up all over again, a little different every time. I've always had a bad memory for names and exact phrasing. I have friends who have hundreds of poems memorized, and I marvel at such skill--I can hold about two poems in my head, and it takes a lot of concerted effort to keep them there. But here's the thing: my brain prefers to experiment; I have trouble remembering the true words for things, but I create variants of every poem and every story. Unable to stick to the path, I strike off into the unknown. If I'm creative, perhaps it's because I can't remember how not to be. That, too, is humming!

3. Humming Gives Courage in Frightening Places. Once upon a time I found myself walking along a perilously thin track above a perilously steep slope in the Himalayas. I am afraid of heights--I am courageous about slogging along trails uphill all day, but I am a coward in places where one false step could be the end of you. I noticed, however, that the people who lived in that part of Nepal chanted mantras as they walked the scary bits. Humming their way across ledges! I tried it--it works like a charm.

4. Everything Hums! The very universe around us is humming! We use "humming" to describe complicated mechanisms--brains, car engines, classrooms--that are functioning well, purring along, thinking deep thoughts, getting somewhere. When a novel is progressing well, it hums. Humming seems to me a very joyful thing. Remember Winnie-the-Pooh's creation in The House At Pooh Corner, a "Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others"; isn't that what a book is, come to think of it?
---A Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others!---