Monday, August 14, 2017

Author Interview: Things That Surprise You

I had the wonderful opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of THINGS THAT SURPRISE YOU, a new middle grade contemporary from Jennifer Maschari, the author of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price. This story of sisters, friends, and family is bursting with heart. It’s an important novel for middle schoolers searching to find their own way. Here’s the synopsis:  

Emily Murphy is about to enter middle school. She’s sort of excited, though not as much as her best friend, Hazel, who is ready for everything to be new. Emily wishes she and Hazel would just continue on as they always have, being the biggest fans ever of the Unicorn Chronicles, making up dance moves, and getting their regular order at the Slice.

But things are changing. At home, Emily and her mom are learning to move on after her parents’ divorce. Hardest of all, her beloved sister, Mina, has been in a treatment facility to deal with her anorexia. Emily is eager to have Mina back but anxious about her sister getting sick again.

Hazel is changing, too. She has new friends from the field hockey team, is starting to wear makeup, and has crushes on boys. Emily is trying to keep up, but she keeps doing and saying the wrong things. She wants to be the perfect new Em. But who is that really?

Author Jen Maschari was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book, which will hit shelves on August 22:

Jen, can you tell Middle Grade Minded readers a bit about your inspiration for this book? Did you go through any of Em’s family/friendship issues when you were in middle school?

I knew I wanted to write a story about sisters and also the difficult years of middle school. In some ways, I feel like I’ve never left middle school. I write about it, and I am currently a 7th and 8th grade teacher! I did go through some of the same friend issues Emily faced. I was not part of the group that was considered “cool” and I remember those middle school years being pretty tough (especially my 8th grade year). But like Emily, I also found friends who were the right fit: people who accepted and valued me for who I was.

I loved the metaphor of Em’s science project, showing the movement of the changing Earth over time as it connected with the shifts in Emily’s own life. Did you think of this correlation ahead of time, or did it evolve as you drafted the novel?

Thank you Stefanie! This correlation definitely came later as I worked my way into the story. Maybe it appeared in draft three? The heart of this story was always the same – the bond between sisters and finding out who you are – but the story itself changed dramatically during revisions. It started as a camp story (spoiler: there’s no camp anywhere in the finished book) but evolved into a book about facing all kinds of change. I’ve always been fascinated with science and thought the evolution of the changing Earth and Emily’s journey went well together. (and, growing up, I loved school projects so I thought it would be fun to put one in the book)

Your debut, The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price, received a starred review from School Library Journal. What was the road to publication like for your second novel? How was it different/similar from your first book?

The writing of this book was very difficult. Between drafts two and three, I scrapped all but approximately 12 pages. It was daunting but needed to be done; it resulted in a much better story! With CHARLIE, I was writing that on my own time, while teaching. With THINGS I worked faster, but I sometimes didn’t allow myself the necessary thinking time I needed in the early drafting stage to work out plot and character knots. I learned a lot of good lessons from writing a second book that I will hopefully apply to my third!

Thanks so much, Jen!

To order Things That Surprise You, go here:

To learn more about Jen, go to:


Monday, August 7, 2017

Giveaway + Author Interview with Melissa Roske

I'm so excited to chat with Melissa Roske today, author of the new middle grade novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean. Melissa has worked as a journalist in Europe, an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine and she's even a certified life coach.

Thanks for stopping by, Melissa!!!

Kat deals with a lot of issues familiar to kids. What was your inspiration for Kat?

Like Kat’s mom, my dad has OCD. His compulsions are the opposite of Kat’s mom’s, though, because my dad is a hoarder who keeps everything. (I recently found a datebook in his apartment from 1973!) He’s also a checker, which means he must check the front-door locks, and the gas jets on the stove, multiple times a day. I too have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, including the need to have my window shades fixed at a certain level, but I wouldn’t say they impede my life. They’re just extremely distracting—to my family, and to myself.

Kat Greene Comes Clean releases on August 22nd!!! How are you going to celebrate?

On the actual day, my daughter, Chloe, and I will have a leisurely lunch and then visit as many bookstores as humanly possible—to gawk, and to sign books. A week later, I’m having a launch party at The Corner Bookstore, a wonderful little shop on Madison Avenue and 93rd Street. There will be an after party, too!

What advice do you have for young aspiring writers?

Don’t give up! Writing is hard work, and it’s likely you will encounter many stumbling blocks along the way—including crushing rejection. But rejection can be overcome. Giving up on a dream cannot.

Finish the sentence:

Kat is the perfect book for…Readers who like some funny with their serious.

You should have asked me…To demonstrate my archery skills. Surprisingly, it’s one of my hidden talents!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Melissa! I can't wait to buy my copy of Kat Greene Comes Clean!!!

To find out more about Melissa and Kat, visit Melissa online at:
Or follow her on Twitter: @MelissaRoske

Win a Copy of Kat Greene!!!

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Breaking up is hard to do

There's something to be said for discipline, for pushing through on writing projects even though they're hard, and even though they're's so not fun anymore. You know...when the going gets tough, and all that. 
Okay, there's a lot to be said for that approach. That approach gets things done. That approach finishes things, and finishing, as we know, is a pretty critical part of any writing project. But there's also something to be said for quitting.

Yeah...I should probably explain. 

I recently trunked a manuscript after months of working on it. Usually if I'm fighting with a project, it means I'm coming at it from the wrong direction. I need to find a new way in, a fresh approach to the story. Other times, it's not that my approach needs reconfiguring; it's that I need a good kick in the pants, preferably of the metaphorical kind. 

But sometimes after I've tried all my just-do-it tricks and my new-approach tricks, I find I'm still fighting with a project. This usually means it's time to let it go, to "break up" with the project for one of a few reasons:
  1. It's not you, it's me. It's a good project, but for whatever reason, it's not the project for me. 
  2. I'm just not ready for a relationship. It's a good project, but it needs more time percolating before I pull it out and give it another go. 
  3. Yeah, it's actually you. It's actually kind of a stupid project, lol. What was I thinking? 
At this point, I think my trunked project falls into category two. Time will tell. If it keeps pulling me back, I'll definitely re-visit it. 

Deciding to set that project aside was a tough thing to do. I wanted to love it, and I'd worked hard on it. But here's the thing: once the decision was made, it was like opening the windows on my creative spirit and letting a cool breeze rush in. So refreshing! So light! So...hopeful. It was only two or three days later that a Shiny New Idea took hold, half a notebook was filled with excited scribbling, and my new project took root. 

When you're fighting with a writing project, here are a few options to consider...

  • New Approach: Maybe you're coming at the project from the wrong direction -- starting in the wrong place, using the wrong POV, missing the mark voice-wise (or, as has happened to me, the character isn't YA-age as you'd first thought, but rather MG!). Try talking it out with critique partners, or brainstorming possibilities, or free-writing about the story. Try writing non-linearly (if you're excited about the ending, or the fight scene, or whatever, write that scene). Try different points of view (whose story is it, anyway? and would it work better in third-person? etc). Try putting the project away for a month, and then taking a fresh look at it. Usually some combination of these things will ensure I find my way into a story.
  • Just Do It: Sometimes, procrastination wins. Sometimes laziness does. At that point, we have to do whatever it takes to get words on the page. A self-imposed deadline, if a "real" deadline doesn't exist; bribery or rewards; accountability (tell your critique partner or your entire social media audience that you're going to do it by X date). If it's distraction that's keeping you from finishing a project (squirrel!), even distraction by way of brilliant new story ideas, try lists -- jot things down to free your mind of them. I have an idea notebook for great ideas with poor timing, lol; they get duly noted before being ushered out the door to wait their turn. Do whatever it takes to just do it.
  • Move On: Unless you're contractually obligated to finish a project, don't be afraid to set it aside if it's not coming together. You may find your creativity flourishes when freed from "ought to" projects. Explore something new. Re-fill the creative well. Take joy in playing with words, ideas, stories. No, you shouldn't make a habit of giving up when things aren't going well -- we learn so much by pushing through and finishing a project! But if you step back and objectively see that it's time to move on from something that isn't working, it's okay. Be kind to yourself. But hey, finish the next thing, okay? ;-) 

Happy writing. :) #thisdaywewrite

Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review and Interview with Danielle Davis, Author of Zinnia and the Bees, and a BOOK GIVEAWAY!

I am thrilled to review Danielle Davis' debut middle grade novel, Zinnia and The Bees today!

I got a chance to read an ARC of this book and adored it!

The Story:

Talk about having a lousy day. While Zinnia's seventh grade classmates are celebrating the last day of school, she's cooped up in the vice principal's office, serving detention. Her offense? Yarn bombing a statue of the school mascot. And when Zinnia rushes home to commiserate with her older brother, Adam, who also happens to be her best friend, she's devastated to discover that he's left home with no explanation. Just when it looks like Zinnia's day can't possibly get any worse, a colony of frantic honeybees mistakes her hair for a hive and lands on her head! Told from the alternating perspectives of Zinnia a humorous young loner and knitter and an unintentionally comical hive of honeybees, this quirky, heartfelt novel will strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt alone, betrayed, or misunderstood as it explores the challenges that come with learning to trust yourself and the often messy process of discovering the true meaning to home.

My review of the book:

I loved the book so much I read it in one sitting. Zinnia is having a terrible summer. Her beloved older brother Adam left home in the night to get away from their overbearing mother (whom Zinnia refers to using her formal name Dr. Flossdrop, she's on the outs with her best friends, her mom's just rescued the creepiest dog, and a strange boy has moved in next door. Oh yeah, and bees have nested in her head! A wonderful story about dealing with unresolved pain and fear, and learning to trust, this book, beautifully written by Danielle Davis, is sure to be beloved by all middle graders who read Zinnia's story. A true delight!

The Interview:

Q1. One of the rawest things about the book is Zinnia’s brother, Adam, taking off. We don’t often see a sibling doing that in MG fiction. Can you speak about sibling bonds in MG fiction?

I think in middle grade fiction, siblings can often be found on the sidelines as main characters navigate their way in the world outside the home, in friendships and new experiences. But I’ve read some wonderful books recently in which sibling relationships are key, providing both conflict and, ultimately, connection and heart. In Karuna Riazi’s The Gauntlet, Farah’s little brother provides the impetus for Farah to play a dangerous game in order to save him. In Elana K. Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat (though more of a chapter book), Bat’s older sister serves as both antagonist and ally and adds realism to the story. And Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest, Hello, Universe, has one character whose little sister is a constant part of her world, her partner, with all the nuance that entails. And in her earlier book, The Land of Forgotten Girls, Soledad is also an older sibling, looking out for her little sister in the midst of a very difficult situation.

In terms of story mechanics for my book, Adam, Zinnia’s best friend and older brother, leaves her high and dry because I needed Zinnia to be reeling and feel like everything was out of her control. The bees arriving on her head after Adam departs are almost a metaphor for that out of control feeling (and what it can feel like for many kids as they navigate the sometimes itchy, new, uncomfortable, and out-of-control process of growing up).

Adam striking out on his own independent journey feels to Zinnia like she’s lost him forever. But in the end, the sibling bond changing doesn’t equal its permanent loss. It stretches and flexes in order to allow for growth.

Q2. Another brilliant thing about the book is that Zinnia isn’t always easy to get along with and struggles with friendships. Did you decide early on that was Zinnia was experiencing would also be experienced by the bees?

This book was seven or eight years on and off in the making, so it’s hard for me to remember the origin of my decisions, but I checked some of my oldest drafts and the bees’ narrations were in fact there since the beginning! At the time, Colony Collapse Disorder and the bee disappearance were in the news a lot. I’d also heard a story of industrial bees, which is a real thing. Beekeepers travel with bees that are used to pollinate fruit and vegetables all over the country. Amazing, right? I was drawn to the idea of personifying a fictional group of them who are looking for something more in life, a home and a lifestyle like the bees who roam on their own. And I hoped the bees had potential as the collective character I envisioned—communal, overly dramatic, existential, and hilarious without meaning to be. (I really love those bees!)

I think in terms of Zinnia and the honeybees having a parallel experience, that’s something that developed naturally. The bees are literally stuck, searching for a home and without much hope of finding a new one (and blaming poor Bee 641 for scouting such an improper hive on Zinnia’s head!). At the same time, Zinnia feels stuck with the bees and is searching for her own home in a more figurative sense. She’s looking to feel at home with herself and others, and to trust herself as well as the people in her life.

Q3. A theme that really resonated with me in the book was that of control. Zinnia’s mom, Dr. Flossdrop (brilliant name BTW!) tries to control her world by marching through it in an almost mechanical, demanding way, Zinnia almost recreates the same thing by not sharing that a hive of bees is nesting in her hair. I love when kids discover that their parents are also fallible - how did you know just how far to take your characters before they would have been cartoon-ish?

I am an admirer or fairy tales, as well as fiction that has strangeness or a little bit of magic. Aimee Bender is one of my favorite writers, for example. I was introduced to her work (she’s an L.A. writer) when I worked as a teacher’s assistant at a nearby community college, and her stories were a big influence when I started writing. Shaun Tan’s picture books have also been hugely influential. So, I really like elements of the bizarre in stories while simultaneously trying to portray real, true emotions. I guess I wanted to write a story that was whimsical and a bit larger than life but felt relatable too. And the same goes for the characters that populate it who are, yes, pretty zany, especially the supporting characters. There’s birdwatching Birch, France-obsessed, baker Aunt Mildred, and neighbor and ergonomic coach Lou. And also useful Dr. Flossdrop who presents perfectly on track to everyone else, but who, we come to find out, feels fairly lost herself. One of the joys of middle grade is having fun while creating—so I had a lot of fun dreaming up these characters! And I’ve always seen the story as an animated film in my head, so that might’ve had something to do with the zany factor as well.

Q4. What’s next??

I’m currently working on a chapter book, and I have some picture book projects too. And I’m soon to return to another middle grade manuscript that I’ve been away from for a few years to see if it still feels tangible for me after all this time.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you about Zinnia and the Bees on Middle Grade Minded!

Where to find Danielle:

At her website
on Twitter

The Giveaway!

Capstone Publishing has graciously offered to give away a copy of Zinnia and the Bees! Leave a message below, between now and Friday, sharing your own experience with bees!

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Most Common Query Flaws I See as a Pitch Wars Mentor

If you don’t know what Pitch Wars is, you probably should! It’s a contest that hooks querying authors up with established authors and editors to help their books become “publishing” ready. Read more about it here:

My job? First, I get emailed a bunch of submissions from people who are interested in me as mentor. They come in very much like a query to an agent. Query, and first chapter. I read through all my submissions and am allowed to choose ONE to mentor. The amount of submissions vary year to year, category to category and mentor to mentor but so far I’ve averaged around 80 submissions. That’s 80 query and chapters to read through in a couple weeks, and that’s not including the full manuscripts I’ll request. And honestly? The hardest part is choosing only one.

No, not kidding. I’m convinced that the quality that comes in through Pitch Wars is higher than the average slush pile (not that I can compare, I’ve never peeked inside and agents inbox but I’ve heard stories!)

So how can you stack the deck? How do you make sure your query is on my list of "Yesses!"? How I pick my "THE ONE!" is honestly pretty personal, just whichever story I connect with for whatever reason. But you can do a lot of things to make sure you're at least one of the stories I agonize over not picking. So here are some of the most common issues I see in my submissions. You may noticed they go a bit beyond the basics, because, like I said, the qaulity in Pitch Wars is pretty high!

1) Confusing query

Some books are easier to pitch than others, that’s a simple truth. I’ve written books nearly impossible to write a great query for and others that just flow from my little typing fingers like honey. To you, as the author, it all makes sense. You know this story in and out—but I don’t. Sometimes it’s really hard to take a step back and look at it through fresh eyes to see the gaps in logic. It probably makes perfect sense in the book, but in this tiny one page summary… it doesn’t. The solution? Other people need to read your query and not just your critique partners. You need fresh eyes, someone who knows nothing about your book (also, preferably other writers. Non-writers just don’t quite understand what is expected out of a query) that can point out places they get confused. 

2) The story is missing the “why?”

 I’ve noticed this a lot, I remember tweeting about it as I read my submissions last year. Most of you understand that you need “stakes” in your query, but stakes aren’t quite so powerful if we don’t understand why _______will happen if your character doesn’t ______. How does it connect? One big one is, why YOUR CHARACTER needs to be the one to do it. What are his personal stakes in this? Why was he chosen? Why not someone else? If there are 100 people out also trying to save the world, well, if your character fails, someone else may succeed. That sucks out the tension.

3) Confusing first pages

One part of this are pages that don’t fit the query. This can get tricky with multiple POV books but if your query hooked me, I want to start reading that story, not a different one. Make sure they feel connected. Another part is trying too hard to hook with high intensity but not grounding the reader. It’s VERY important that we understand the surroundings, characters and their immediate goals right away. 

4) Overlooking character

Plot vs Character is an old debate and personally, I’m hooked by great ideas. I love concepts. What ifs. Something new and exciting! But if I don’t care about the people involved in those great ideas? It’s all for not. I won’t keep reading. Personally, I don’t think plot and character should be fighting each other, they should be working together. You need BOTH. Personal stakes are just as important as external stakes. 

5) Pages that require the query to make sense

Something is stated in the query then it’s just assumed we’ll know that in the pages. Your pages must stand alone. Don’t look at them like a pair, look at them individually. Will my pages hook a reader if they haven’t read the query? Will my query hook a reader without knowing anything about the story? The story is the important part, the query is just a tool used to convince people to read your story.

6) Not showing us what’s special

This is honestly the number one reason a query goes in my no folder. There have been millions of books published. There are thousands upon thousands of books being queried right now. If your book doesn’t stand out, if you don’t show me something, anything new, for me to latch onto, it’ll get buried alive. It won’t stand out on a book shelf, the same way it won’t stand out in the slush pile. Often, we find trends in our queries. Not publishing trends, just things that for whatever reason, several people decided to write at once. You’ll hear mentors talking about these, “A lot of red heads in my queries this year.” “Wow, that’s the fourth friendly ghost story I’ve seen so far”. Those things don’t mean the kiss of death. One of those friendly ghost stories might be AWESOME because it has something super unique about it that the others don’t. It might be an *amazing* voice or writing style that flows with the story (my very first mentee was like that. About a girl who sees a boy’s spirit. Not overly unique. But her setting and voice and atmosphere was THROUGH THE ROOF and I couldn’t get it out of my head). But not everyone has that kind of writing style (I don’t) so you find another way. A twist, a unique setting, an unexpected tone. 

So think about this, just assume, for arguments sake, that there are several other books being entered into Pitch Wars with a similar story as yours. How will yours stand out? You wrote a mystery with a whodunit, why will I choose yours over the other 5? You wrote a romance. Why is yours the one I’ll remember over the others? No, you don’t need to add in Cyclopes clowns to make me remember you. Make it something real. Something engaging. Something that gets my mind spinning through the possibilities. What will engage and hook one mentor will be different for another, so don’t worry about that. Not everyone will love your work. Just make sure, somehow, it stands out. Show me what is special about your story. Show me how your future publisher will market you. 

If you can stand out, explain the story in a way I can understand, include compelling emotions in your characters,  with decent writing and it all fits into my wishlist, you'll very likely find yourself in my (much too long, I'm sure) want pile!

This year, I'm mentoring YA with the lovely Rebecca Sky, you can find out more about the submissions we're hoping to receive here:

Good luck Pitch Warriors!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: The World's Greatest Adventure Machine by Frank L. Cole

Trevor (the troublemaker), Devin (the internet star), Cameron (the genius), and Nika (the reserved) just won the Castleton's contest to be the first to ride the World's Greatest Adventure Machine, a new, state-of-the-art roller coaster. As the adventure unfolds, the four winners begin to suspect there's more to their fellow participants than meets the eye. And if trusting their fellow riders isn't enough, the ride seems to have a mind of it's own, putting Trevor, Devin, Cameron, and Nika on an wild and twisted adventure they couldn't imagine in their wildest dreams. But as they embark on their journey it seems the adventure machine has other plans for them and if they aren't careful they might never get off the ride.

The thing that stood out for me the most in this story were the characters. Each were unique and fun to follow in their own right. And as the reader learned more about them, it was easier to fall deeper and deeper into their story. It was fun to see what would come up in the adventure next and watch how the characters would react and affect how the story unfolded. It was also incredibly endearing to watch the characters get to know themselves better through interacting with each other through their experiences on the ride.

This story also had many great, entertaining, and unexpected moments. It kept the reader guessing about the characters and the plot as things progressed. It was almost impossible to predict what would come up next on the ride but was fun to experience it as the characters did.

This is an exciting story that middle grade readers will get lost in and love to follow Trevor, Devin, Cameron, and Nika through their adventure. There's humor, danger, and twists and turns to keep any young reader engaged from beginning to end. I recommend this for any Middle Grade reader looking for a fun adventure.

*ARC generously provided by Penguin Random House Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath

When I was a kid, my favorite books and movies were often stories about characters bored with their ordinary lives who were suddenly pulled into adventuring through exciting and potentially dangerous worlds they hadn’t known existed. The characters had to learn how to navigate these new worlds as the story went on, even as they pressed forward to solve whatever problems had dragged them there in the first place.

The book HYACINTH AND THE SECRETS BENEATH, by Jacob Sager Weinstein, reminded me a lot of those stories. Boiled down to its core, this book is a chase that only momentarily lets up long enough to let another part of the chase begin. It’s told in first person by a strong main character with a healthy dose of snark in her voice, and an even greater willingness to roll with all of the strange things happening around her.

Hyacinth is the type of girl who confronts the problems and changes that happen in her life, preparing herself for what may come by learning as much as she can. Someone in her family is an unreliable DIY worker? She teaches herself plumbing basics in case she has to fix things. She and her mother are relocating from America to live with her aunt in London? She reads about her new city to familiarize herself with its extensive history. 

The problem is that after settling in at her aunt’s home, she quickly learns that almost everything she thought she knew about the city and its extensive history is completely wrong. There’s an enormous separate world filled with magic in the sewers just beneath London that drives and connects the fate of the city above. When Hyacinth learns she has unwittingly put the entire city in danger, she’s guided into this world to both try and repair her mistakes and rescue her kidnapped mother. She meets up with a collection of strange creatures and even stranger people throughout her adventure, many of them being not what they first seem. 

The mystery that begins the adventure starts in the first pages of the book and continues relentlessly to the very end. I've seen too many students in the past few years abandon books because they weren't captured by the story in the very first pages. This would be a good book to match with readers looking for something imaginative and exciting that hits the ground running.