Monday, October 21, 2019

Halloween Round-Up

It's that time of year again! Get out the jack-o-lanterns and plastic skeletons, because Halloween is almost here. Today, I thought I'd share a few fun Halloween-related discoveries. You'll learn about a ghoulish new podcast for kids, a website focused on putting stories into trick-or-treat bags and another website all about connecting spooky middle grade authors to classrooms across the county.

1. The Creeping Hour is a new podcast for kids co-created by Elie Lichtschein and public media broadcaster WGBH. Elie sums it up this way, "The Creeping Hour is a podcast of scary stories hosted by three horror obsessed friends who listened to too many spooky stories and turned into monsters. The stories themselves are about creepy music that you can never unhear, diabolical orthodontists, flying beach monsters, haunted houses, and more…" It's the perfect podcast for kids (ages 8-12) who love to be scared. Read my full interview with Elie at

2. Trick or Reaters is a website that encourages people to put stories in trick-or-treat bags every Halloween. Their site features a wide variety of spooky stories, arranged using their new Scare-o-Meter, which allows kids to select stories based on scare level. Adults can print out helpful PDFs to stick in trick-or-treat bags. The PDFs direct readers to the website, where kids can then discover the full library of spine-tingling tales. To read more, check out author Janet Fox's full article at

3. Spooky Middle Grade is a website that I co-founded last year, along with a group of amazing 'spooky' middle grade writers. Our mission is to show that spooky stories have value all year round. We love connecting with classrooms through our free digital visits. Each Skype or Google Hangouts session features 3-4 spooky authors. We spend thirty minutes answering students' burning questions about the writing and publishing process. To learn more, or to schedule your free Skype, head over to

I hope you've found these Halloween resources useful! If you have a resource to share, tell me about it in the comments :)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Study Your Way to Published!

How do you get published?

That is the big overarching question for all authors, and it’s no different for those of us who write middle grade. You have an amazing story that you want to tell the world. 
HOW do you get that idea onto paper and into the hands of kids who will love it?

I have the answer!




There are no shortcuts in writing great children’s literature. Just like any other profession it takes time and practice to learn how to be a great writer. But one great way to shorten the journey is to study with experts. Just like an engineer or accountant needs to go to school to learn from other professionals, a writer needs to take lessons from master writers. 

Fortunately, with today’s technology, it doesn’t always mean you must give up your day job and enter an MFA program. There are some great online courses available for middle grade minded writers. And if you can spare the time and resources there are also some short onsite retreats and workshops that allow you to network with other authors and writing professionals.

You don’t have the time? Writing is a skill that must be developed over time with practice. You will get better FASTER with a teacher. You will SAVE TIME by taking a class.

No money? Yup. I understand that. But there are some free courses available and many low-cost classes, AND several places provide scholarships. As for retreats and onsite workshops – they are still way less expensive than paying for college.

The truth is – a serious writer needs to budget time and money for professional development. You owe it to yourself and your writing career.

Take a look at the list I have compiled of great learning opportunities for 2020. Which one will you choose to help your writing career flourish?

Online Classes

How to Write MG and YA that sells – online ½ day class with prolific author Jessica Burkhart. This class is great for new authors who want to learn more about the craft and will include topics such as outlining, creating characters, and strong chapter endings. Sponsored by the Writing Barn. January 11.

Middle Grade and YA Novel Mentorship – Opportunity to work with Sarah McCabe, associate editor at Simon and Schuster on a novel project. Zoom meeting format limited to 16 applicants with one-on-one feed back and written notes. Applications open October 20. Class – November 12- March 1
WOW – Writing Middle Grade and YA fiction – six-week online course for authors who are ready to start a new project. Includes a critique of the first two chapters of your novel. Start Date – January 21, 2020 or March 31, 2020.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel with Jessica Brody – online 2.5-hour workshop that walks authors through the renowned SAVE THE CAT story structure. Learn how to create compelling character arcs and unputdownable novels.

Writing the Middle Grade Book – Learn how to create characters kids can relate to, develop a strong plot, and the keys to successful revision. Eight session online course. Open for enrollment any time.

Children’s Books 101: Writing for the Right Age Group – an introduction to the children’s book market and how to write for different ages, including middle grade. Online 10-day course with lessons delivered to your email box -for FREE!

DIY MFA – This FREE program gives you all the books and information that you need to chart your own study course. You will also be able to connect with other writers who are working to hone their writing skills.
In Person Workshops and Retreats

Getting to Know Your Novel – Online course plus onsite retreat – February – May 2020 Highlights Foundation – work with veteran authors Sarah Aronson, Tiffany D. Jackson and Melanie J. Fishbane to make your children’s novel a kidlit masterpiece. Includes online class sessions, individual support a 50-page critique and a retreat at the Highlights Foundation May 30 – June 3.

VCFA Writing Novels for Young People Retreat – Montpelier, VT – a retreat for experienced writers who want to take their manuscript to the next level. March 27-29, 2020.

Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop – North Falmouth, MA – A chance to be mentored by two industry professionals, receive one-on-one feedback, and learn from the best in the industry. Sponsored by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. May 8-10, 2020.

Whale Rock Literary Workshops – Concord, MA - Work with renowned professionals Gary Schmidt and Patti Lee Gauch during a week of craft classes, mentoring sessions and, workshops. May 31-June 6.

From Premise to Pitch – Highlights Foundation – Work with literary agents Jennie Dunham and Gina Maccoby to get your novel ready to pitch to agents and editors. This workshop includes individual critiques and hands-on-exercises. May 7-10.

Monday, October 14, 2019


First of all: I adore a good time traveller book.


There is just something SO satisfying about the thrills, conundrums, and opportunities afforded by a time travel thriller.

So when I got the opportunity to read Liesl Schurtliff's second TIME CASTAWAYS book, THE OBSIDIAN COMPASS, I jumped at it!

The Description:

Mateo, Ruby, and Corey Hudson have lost their friend Jia to the villainous Captain Vincent’s clutches, and now they’re determined to bring her back to safety. But the Hudson kids don’t have a way to time-travel without the Obsidian Compass, until Mateo figures out the secret component to get his own homemade compass working. 
Soon the whole family—plus their wacky neighbor, Chuck, and his rusty orange bus, Blossom—are swept up in another epic journey. 
With their own time-traveling vehicle and some help from history’s most famous young markswoman, Annie Oakley, the Hudsons think they’re prepared to sneak onto the Vermillion. Unbeknownst to them, Captain Vincent already knows they’re coming. In fact, he’s counting on it…

My Thoughts:

First of all, you DON'T need to read the first book to enjoy this story, though of course it helps! Shurtliff does a wonderful job of recapping what happened in book one and making sure we understand the stakes straight away.

The story is a page-turner from the get-go, giving us some important (and thrilling!) backstory that we're going to need later in the story.

From there, we jump from time to time, place to place, person to person, in a dizzying display of an author having VERY good control over her plot. (it isn't as easy as it looks!)

All of the characters are well-developed, and we care what happens to them, in this time and in other time periods...

Better yet, the kids have real agency in this story; their problem-solving skills, creativity, and engineering abilities make this a story where kids can imagine themselves solving issues in a proactive way, too. There are lots of "What would I do?" moments, as well as "What a great idea!", both of which are critical in making this kind of book thrilling.

Best of all, there are surprises galore. And plenty of stories left to tell....

About the Author:

Liesl Shurtliff is the New York Times bestselling author of Rump: The True Tale of Rumpelstiltskin, other books in the (Fairly) True Tales series, and the Time Castaways series, beginning with Time Castaways: The Mona Lisa Key. She was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, the fifth of eight kids. She now lives in Chicago with her husband and four kids, where she writes full-time. Find her online at

Want to win a copy?

Leave a message below telling me what year you'd like to travel to and you'll be entered into a draw to win a hardcover copy!  Contest starts October 14th and runs until October 18th!

Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, October 11, 2019

Fall Hashtag Challenges for Readers and Writers (Or, Ways to Ensure you will Never Leave Your Burrito Blanket Again!)


Dark and chilly fall days can make you want to curl up in your burrito blanket and eschew all human contact and activity forever. Because GACK! *small talk* and EERK! *doing things*! 

Yes, these shorter days can suck the motivation right out of one’s soul. And for writers, lack of motivation may elicit painful bouts of writing dialogue as stale as the Lucky Charms marshmallow I found in my shoe yesterday.

Don’t ask.

But there is help out there for the seasonally-challenged reader or writer...participating in a Twitter-community challenge! It may not cure your acute case of writerly SADD, but it can give you a swift kick in the motivation caboose, along with all the feels of a virtual group hug. Even if you're not on Twitter, you can search out the prompts to use on your own or participate via host websites. These challenges also allow you the flexibility to participate just one day or every day. So, JUST SAY NO when sloth-like tendencies set in or the Harry Potter movie marathon airs again. And again. Here are several legit hashtags (and one fake) to consider following this fall:

#MGbooktober, hosted by MGBookVillage: Follow this hashtag for quirky daily prompts to get you thinking about your favorite middle grade characters and storylines, as well as to find recommendations for some new great reads!

#finishurbookfall: An accountability hashtag for writers who don’t care about spelling “you’re” like “ur” (*fans face, swallows antacid*), this one keeps you honest about your writing productivity and may even push you towards finishing a current project by December 21st.

#anodetocandycorn: For those who live for the day when these triangular conglomerations of pure sugary joy are finally put back out in stores each year, this is the hashtag to follow for writing 250-character poems, stories and odes to the nemesis of dental hygiene!

#inktober2019, @inktober: This tag is actually for illustrators -- encouraging them to whip up new creations each day from a one-word prompt. However, readers and writers may enjoy this one, too. As someone who has trouble drawing a recognizable smiley face, I follow along just to witness the sheer daily genius, which acts as an added dose of inspiration!

#writethewait: Originally created for those individuals submitting work to Pitch Wars (a contest which matches writers with author mentors, which is happening NOW) this hashtag can be used any time you're "writing through the pain" of waiting for responses from contests/editors/agents/critique partners or even for the Friends reunion movie to finally be a thing. (Please?!)

#mgspookytober via Spooky MG: Chime in here about your favorite middle grade villains and creepiest sleepover stories! You can also visit the corresponding website year-round, because "Spooky books aren't just for Halloween anymore!"

#turtlewriters, @turtlewriters – Are you a speed-impaired writer even on your best autumn days? Follow this handle or hashtag for weekly prompts and endless encouragement. Truly, these writing turtles are always supportive (and never snappy)!

#nanowrimo: Finally, most writers know about National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write 50K words during the month of November (which BTW, is a perfect amount for MG writers!). But this organization sponsors writing challenges and chats, and provides prep and pep squads year-round. 


There are literally dozens/hundreds/quad-million other reading and writing hashtag challenges to follow (not to mention those found on Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms), but hopefully one or more of the above will encourage you to begin unraveling yourself from your doldrum cocoon. And if you guessed that #anodetocandycorn was the fake hashtag…Congratulations! (But don't you wish it was real?) Happy fall, all!

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sad Books

The Bridge to Terabithia was the first book I read that really made me understand empathy, although at the time I couldn't have told you what empathy was. I connected deeply with the characters and my fifth grade world crashed when certain events happened. I was ripe for this story. You see, when I was in elementary school, a boy in the grade below me (third, I think) had a baby brother drown in the stock tank on the ranch his family managed. Less than a year later, a boy in my class lost his father in a single engine plane crash.

It's true that childhood trauma stays with a person.

It's also true that books can help the healing process.

For this post, I'm going to suggest some recent titles I've read which deal with sadness, and more specifically, the death of someone. Please know this is not a comprehensive list. It only represents the middle grade books I've recently read and recall that deal with the death of someone. I read and loved them all, and if you know a young person affected by the death of a loved one, please consider a gift of one or more of these books.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Lost in the Sun, by Lisa Graff
The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin
Summerlost, by Ally Condie
The Miraculous, by Jess Redman
The Light in the Lake by Sarah R. Baughman

If you know of others, I hope add your suggestions below and tweet them to me at @Robertpolk2.

Thanks for reading and writing!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Writing Naysayers: A Guide for the Perplexed

“How’s your writing going?” Depending on the speaker, it’s either a stock small
talk question or a pot shot. 

It’s the 900 lb elephant in the room we in the writing community don’t discuss:
The family/spouse friends who Just Don’t Get It - and in some cases will actively work
to sabotage your writing. 

Not only do I have two kids in a space (software applications development) where most
of my female coworkers have Margaret Sanger bobbleheads on their desks, but now I think I
can write books too?
I want this sign for my writing alcove. 

It’s made for some teary, angry conversations over the years.

Kelly wants to write books because...  
I’m selfish. 
I’m ungrateful for my education and career. 
I think I’m too good for a traditional job. 
I don’t love my kids enough if I need something besides them to feel fulfilled. 

Kelly should stop writing because… 
Middle Grade is not a real genre because kids change so much from eight to twelve.

There is “too much competition” and I can’t possibly be a good enough writer if I got
a job doing something else.

I’m invading the space of stay at home moms (let’s ignore that I was one when I started

My book probably sucks if the first draft wasn’t a bestseller already.*  

My health insurance covers (albeit very poorly) counseling for these alleged delusions.

For some time, I internalized all this somewhat. I caved to the pressure and tried to please
the friends and family speaking. 

Spoiler alert: It didn’t help my writing. 

There truly is something about being hit by a truck and having many of the people around
you concerned about how much work you’re missing instead of your
physical and mental well-being, to make you question your choices up to this point. 

In fact, some were absolutely furious with me - how dare I put my health before my job? I've
lost friends and many family relationships over that choice; yet I'm likely still alive as a result
of it.

Given the new backdrop, their objections seemed less about doubting I’d succeed in a highly
competitive field, and more about “How dare you pursue success and happiness on your
own terms”?

It’s probably a hybrid, to be honest. Personally, I can’t emotionally afford to put myself into
haters’ heads. Your mileage may vary; I’m in INFJ and we’re weird.

Obviously, I strongly recommend you do everything in your power to avoid getting hit by a

Thanks to I suspect this is the root of naysayers' beef. Not just in writing.

But looking back, here’s how I would have managed the message and consequently, others’

Remember writing/getting published is a non-linear process.
It’s not an industry most people understand, which makes “SMART” goals… impossible.
Nobody outside the factory wants to see or hear how the sausage is made.

Don’t promise overnight success. To anyone.
While there are exceptions, there is a 99% chance that your first several years of writing,
your book will suck. You’re still finding your voice, learning the craft. According to my mentor
Joyce Sweeney (who’s helped 60+ writers become authors, hopefully most of them less
angsty than I) you can be looking at ten years to see your book published.

Go to as many SCBWI meetings as you can.
Whether you’re into mirror neurons, karma, or “You are the Average of the Five People
You Spend The Most Time With”, you need your squad of nerdy, eccentric writer friends
who understand the process. Get a mentor, get a critique group, get on writing Twitter.
These may be the only people who get it. 

Don’t engage with those calling writing “your little hobby.”
The stereotype of a writer is a mashup of Guy in Your MFA and some talentless but loaded
social media influencer. Ten bucks says nobody would be saying that if you were taking steps
toward more boring career goals, say, studying for your CPA or something. 
Visualize throat-punching them, exhale, and move on. 

Remember most people hate their jobs.
85 percent if Gallup is to be believed. Their crabs-in-the-bucket failure to look for
professional fulfillment for themselves, is their problem. 

Trust your gut and know your own value.
Writing is a landscape where perseverance is the most important skill, and you have to be
in it for the long game. If you stick with it, you’re probably writing because you have to just
as much as you have to breathe. Honor it. 

Last but not least: Don’t quit your day job.
Just don’t get caught up in its tunnel vision if writing is what you really want.  Protect your
writing time. Invest your extra cash, into developing your craft and into a nest egg for if/when
you do start writing full time. Hire an IP attorney (contact your state Bar Association; this is
out of my league) to look over current and future employment agreements no matter what
you do for a living right now. 

I will say people can come around. Since getting a substantial scholarship to a Highlights
Foundation workshop and getting selected as a Cybils panelist, I’ve heard less skepticism.
Either I've worn people down, or they're getting that somebody has to succeed, even in
the face of stiff competition.

But don’t wait for feathers in your cap to pursue your dreams. Boo to the haters. You’re
worth it. The world needs your words. 

How do you combat the naysayers? 


*Fine, my first draft really bit. But fast forward a few years and a few revisions, and I’m
knee-deep in an R&R, so… there! 

Friday, September 27, 2019

25 Writing Prompts for Middle Grade Readers

It can be tough persuading young people to write. Most would rather play video games, surf social media (even if they’re “officially” too young), watch netflix, or snap selfies. Yet writing is an essential skill that translates into increased knowledge and understanding of the world, better, more secure jobs, and higher income. When people write, they also improve their ability to think, to articulate their beliefs, needs, and goals. 

But simply telling middle grade kids how important writing is won’t get them writing. You’ll need a bit more persistence (require them to write 😏), motivation (bribes…ahem, rewards…are always welcome), and inspiration (writing prompts!). Here's a few themed prompts to stir up those creative juices. Use them for flash fiction, stories, poetry, or even journal entries.


  • When the leaves start changing colors, so do you.
  • Why does your family pick pumpkins at midnight, under a full moon?
  • Only one person showed up to your Halloween party, and it's a ghost.
  • Your parents make you wear a weird Halloween costume.
  • When you make Halloween cookies, they come to life - are they friends or foes?
  • Your school field trip to an apple orchard takes an unexpected turn.
  • What happens when your school lunch tries to eat you?
  • Write ten things you are grateful for and ten ways you could make life better. 

 Travel Tales

  • Your family moves to a foreign country where you don't speak the language.
  • You take a trip to Disneyland and end up in a movie.
  • Your train trip is hijacked by circus performers.
  • You swim in the ocean for the first time and find . . . 
  • You take a hot air balloon ride with 3 strangers.
  • What happens when you go ziplining in the jungle?
  • When you go down a covered slide, you come out somewhere you've never been before.
  • You learn to fly a rescue helicopter and save....who?

Animal Antics 

  • A dragon moves into your bedroom.
  • You bring a mouse to school in your backpack.
  • Your neighbor gets a pet monkey.
  • Lizards invade your classroom.
  • A frog offers you three wishes.
  • Your pet goldfish teaches you how to breathe underwater.
  • Your neighbor's cows end up in your back yard.
  • You bring a pig to school for pet day.
  • A stray dog has puppies in the crawlspace under your house, but you're not allowed to have pets.
And if that's not enough, here's a few resources for even more prompts!
Journal Buddies
Fun Writing Prompts for Kids
Writing Prompts for Elementary Children
Writing Prompts for Elementary and Middle School Students

Enjoy all the new stories your middle graders write!