Monday, April 16, 2018

Two Can't-Miss Middle Grades

Family Game Night And Other Catastrophes, by Mary E. Lambert

Annabelle has a secret. A secret so big she won’t let her friends come within five miles of her home. Annabelle’s mom is a hoarder. Her house is overflowing with toys, newspapers, aluminum cans, linens, milk cartons—you name it.

When a stack of newspapers falls on Annabelle’s sister, and her mom cares more about the newspapers than her own daughter, it sparks a fight between her parents—a fight that causes Annabelle’s dad to move out and Annabelle’s grandmother to move in. Grandma Nora is determined to clean up the mess, but after she moves in, things go from bad to worse. Annabelle’s mom has to want to change, and strange as it seems, she finds comfort in her massive collections of garbage, canned vegetables, and broken toys.

This book broke my heart, especially when Annabelle’s sister became physically ill from living in such a dysfunctional environment. But this story also put my heart back together again. Woven between the piles of garbage are family members who love each other. I love how Annabelle’s family supports each other in the end. Their problems aren’t over, but they are going to be okay.

My rating: Five stars. A heartfelt story on a topic not often covered in MG literature.

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade, by Jordan Sonnenblick

In sixth grade, bad things can happen to good kids. Bullies will find your weakness and jump on it. The kids who joke the loudest can drown out the quieter, nicer kids. 

But Maverick wants to change all of that.

Armed with a toy sheriff badge his late father gave him when he was little, Maverick sets out to make school (and his home) a better place for everyone…even if that’s an almost impossible thing to do. Maverick proves that you don’t have to be big or loud to be a hero. When he stands up to his mother’s abusive boyfriend, I cheered out loud. When he steps in to keep a classmate from getting beaten up, I cheered even louder. I love how everything isn’t tied in a neat bow by the final page. Life is messy, and this book shows kids how to deal with the messes and emerge a hero, even when things don’t work out quite like they expect.

My rating: Five stars. This is Sonnenblick at his best. Spot-on middle grade voice. Maverick is one hilarious kid. I read this book in one day.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

As an author, people often ask me where I get the ideas for my stories. Usually, what they're really wanting to know is how do you go from a cool concept to a fully fleshed-out story. An awesome 'gee whiz' idea can only take you so far, and the key to making it work has more to do with depth and character than it does with the initial idea.

Getting Started--How to Generate Ideas

The method I use for generating ideas often depends on the specific book or story that I'm working on. One of my favorite methods is covered in depth on one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses, and it focuses on the formula: familiar + familiar = strange. Basically, this is how you can be inspired by the creative works that you love, while still creating something original. Let's say you love Harry Potter, and you'd like to write something with a similar feel. That's great. Pick one element of Harry Potter that you'd like to focus on re-creating in your work. Let's choose an obvious one: kids with magical abilities. Now, choose another familiar element to add to the first one. Let's say you'd like your story to take place on an isolated island, kind of a Swiss Family Robinson type of thing. So, now we have kids with magical abilities who are stranded on a desert island. That's pretty good, but why don't we add at least one more element to the mix? Let's take something else familiar, like ghosts. Maybe the island is populated by the ghosts of all of the creatures who've died there. As you can see, we’ve taken three elements that have been used in a lot of different stories and combined them into something that is more unique.

Adding Character and Depth
As I've mentioned, the concept is not the same as the story. One way to bring our disparate ideas together into a story is to add in a character. Since we’re talking about middle grade, our story will probably focus on one main point-of-view character. When choosing this person, ask yourself who will be in the most pain, have the most difficult struggle and/or have the most agency within the world you’ve created?

In order to know that, we need to add more depth to our story elements by asking questions to build on our world. For example, what magic system are the students using? What is the basis of their power? If their magic is generated by pairing up with another person and harnessing their combined energy, then perhaps our main character is forced to pair with her arch enemy (which introduces ample opportunities to explore her emotional plot). If we choose that route, then we’re clearly setting ourselves up for a friendship story where the two enemies find a way to come together and tackle the ghost problem in the end.

On the other hand, what if the basis of their magic is something entirely different, say, they use their memories as fuel, so they have to be willing to forget their past in order to be powerful in the present. Perhaps the main character just lost someone she loves and is afraid to burn those memories, thus introducing an entirely different character arc.

As you can see, fleshing out your ideas has a huge impact on your story. There are so many things we don’t know: 'Why are all of the ghosts centered on this one island?,’ ‘Was it a coincidence that the students shipwrecked there?,' 'If animal ghosts have appeared on this one island, is it possible that they might appear elsewhere in the future?,’ etc. Don't sell your story short by stopping when you get your first neat idea and not delving any deeper. You may end up chucking many of your initial ideas for ones that come later, and, even when you do settle on an idea, you still need to unravel as many layers as you can to make it engaging for readers.

Start Writing

Now it's your turn. Try the exercise outlined above to generate your own story idea. Once you have the basics, ask yourself what character will be affected most by the world I've created. Flesh out your idea by asking as many what, how and why questions as you can. Remember, it's not so much the cool concept that keeps people reading, it's how your characters are hurt by and respond to the world that you have created.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Beauty and Magic and Power: the perks of reading poetry

April is National Poetry Month (yay!). How could I pass up this opportunity to visit the intersection of middle grade books and poetry?  

In the past, I’ve shared some of my reasons for writing verse, but what about reading verse? Why read poetry? Why read novels in verse? While I’m far from an expert on literacy or education, I have learned a thing or two along the way, and it turns out, there are plenty of great reasons for middle-graders to spend time with poetry. Beyond the magic of story, beyond the beauty of words, verse has much to offer.

Here are some of the perks for readers, offered by five different elements of poetry and novels in verse:

1. rhythm, rhyme, and repetition
  • aids comprehension and retention
  • helps readers anticipate words and meaning, nurturing a sense of competence

2. white space on the page
  • invites reader into the text (the page is not visually overwhelming)
  • invites reader into the story (encourages reflection and response)

3. word play, imagery, and figurative language
  • builds vocabulary and language skills
  • entertains and enlightens (keeps reading fun!)
  • encourages creative thinking

4. emotional impact
  • builds empathy
  • allows readers to explore difficult topics without being overwhelmed (the dark/heavy can be more accessible and more palatable when balanced with spare or “lean” storytelling and white space)

5. economy of words
  • increases sense of accomplishment, confidence, and competence (verse novels are often “quick reads”, which means less enthusiastic readers manage to reach The End)
  • improves readers' own storytelling skills (the lean storytelling common in verse novels models the importance of choosing words and details with care)

With all these benefits (and this isn’t an exhaustive list), how wonderful it is to put verse into kids’ hands! And there are so very many choices – something for every taste: historical and contemporary, nonfiction and memoir, diverse voices, own voices, silly, serious, sporty, nerdy, and even celebrations of poetry itself. 

Challenge yourself to spend time reading something in verse this month, and if possible, share it with a young reader. 😀 Don't know where to start? You can find excellent lists of middle grade verse novels and poetry online -- check out author Sarah Tregay's website and the sneak peek lists on the Poetry for Children blog (home of Poetry Friday). Still unsure? Feel free to get in touch via the comment section if you'd like some specific recommendations. 

Happy poetry month!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cover Reveal: Emily Out of Focus, by Miriam Spitzer Franklin

Twelve-year-old Emily is flying with her parents to China to adopt and bring home a new baby sister. She’s excited but nervous to travel across the world and very aware that this trip will change her entire life. And the cracks are already starting to show the moment they reach the hotel—her parents are all about the new baby and have no interest in exploring.

In the adoption trip group, Emily meets Katherine, a Chinese-American girl whose family has returned to China to adopt a second child. The girls eventually become friends and Katherine reveals a secret: she’s determined to find her birth mother, and she wants Emily’s help.

New country, new family, new responsibilities—it’s all a lot to handle, and Emily has never felt more alone.

From the author of Extraordinary and Call Me Sunflower, Emily Out of Focus is a warm and winning exploration of the complexity of family, friendship, and identity that readers will love.

Release Date: February, 2019
Publisher: Skypony Press

And now for the beautiful cover:

Miriam Spitzer Franklin has been sharing her love of reading and writing with her students for years as an elementary and middle school language arts teacher. She lives with her husband, two daughters- one who was adopted from China- and two pampered cats in Charlotte, NC. Emily Out of Focus is her third middle grade novel. 

Twitter: @miriam_spitzer


Monday, April 2, 2018

The challenge of writing a series that extends from Middle Grade to Young Adult: An Interview with John Owen Theobald, Author of the Ravensmaster Trilogy

I've never written a series, but have always wanted to. 

I adore a series, not just because a three+ novel arc allows a greater story to be told, but because we really get to know the characters.

And I've always thought that the most challenging must be taking a character from a young age to young adulthood; think Harry Potter, the Besty-Tacy Series, L.M. Montgomery's Anne and Emily books, The Penderwicks.

Well, let me introduce you to another author, John Owen Theobald, and his fantastic Ravenmaster Trilogy!

About the Books:

At the height of the Blitz, 12-year-old Anna Cooper is sent to live with her uncle, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, and discovers that the fate of the kingdom is in her hands. Book 1, These Dark Wings, is available now from Head of Zeus, UK.

In Book 2, What the Raven Brings, the Blitz is over but the war rages on, and Anna Cooper bluffs her way into the glamorous - and dangerous - world of female war pilots. 

In Book 3, A Kingdom Falls, the dramatic conclusion to the Ravenmaster Trilogy, Anna Cooper must find the strength to face her greatest fear in Britain's darkest hour.
I devoured these books, both for their attention to detail and their unforgettable characters.
But I was also intrigued, for Theobald ages his character through the series in the best, and most believable way. You believe that the Anne in book three is simply an older version of the Anna in book one, which is no mean feat.
So I had to interview John and ask him to share some of his secrets with us!

About the Author:

Born and raised in Eastern Canada, John moved to the UK to study the poetry of Keats, and in 2009 received a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. He lives in London, England.
Visit John's website:

The Interview:

First of all, I loved the Ravenmaster Trilogy! What made you decide to set the novels in World War II and specifically at the Tower of London? 

Thanks so much! I really enjoyed working on this series – both the research and the writing. I’ve always been fascinated by World War II, and I blame my family. My father is a history teacher, and my grandfather was in the Canadian Army – he landed at D-Day in a Sherman tank. But it was actually my grandmothers who inspired The Ravenmaster Trilogy. 

My British grandmother was the inspiration for my main character, 12 year-old Anna Cooper. She actually lived in London throughout the Blitz, so I grew up listening to her stories about it all – the fear and sadness, but also the excitement and the mischief, and I wanted to one day write a story that captured those elements. 

For Books 2 and 3, when Anna becomes a pilot, I took inspiration from my other grandmother, who was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and one of the toughest people I ever knew. 

The Tower of London came separately. Ravens and crows are another fascination of mine, with all their accompanying myths and legends. I knew about the legend of the ravens at the Tower (‘If the ravens leave the Tower, Britain will fall’), and when I was daydreaming about story ideas, the two ideas merged – what better point in history to see this ominous legend play out than the Blitz, when the British lived in real fear of a German invasion? So I knew Anna would have to become responsible for them – and therefore the fate of the kingdom. 

The first book in the series, These Dark Wings, is a middle grade novel. How did you approach dealing with the war and significant losses for this age group? 

The novels change and grow as the main characters do. Since the story is told in first person POV, I had to stay very close to their thoughts and emotions. In Book 1, Anna Cooper is 12 years old, so the world of that novel is the fears and concerns – and grief – of a 12 year-old. In Book 2, Anna is a teenager, and her world – and the world of the novel – is shaped accordingly. By the end of the series, the two main characters are 18.

Loss and grief affects Anna throughout the series, and her understanding and awareness of loss is coloured by her age and her experience of growing up during the war.

I think a great error for authors is to ‘talk down’ to younger readers about issues like loss and grief – no one likes being patronized. So I tried my best to approach the material just as I would for any reader, albeit through the lens of the POV. 

Like other wonderful series (Hello Harry Potter), the Ravenmaster Trilogy switches from middle grade to young adult in books two and three. How did you handle that in the plotting, the writing style, the kinds of subjects you could explore?

The story changed to reflect the age of the POVs, but of course this enlarged the kinds of subjects I could explore as the author – particularly love, desire, and sense of self. 

This changed the plotting because as the characters age they become involved in more active roles, volunteering and flight training in Book 2 and actively leading other pilots and soldiers in Book 3. 

Although I never deliberately set out to do this, the writing style changes to match the change in the characters – shorter sentences, stronger verbs – but I think this developed naturally with the story. 

What advice would you have for authors who are interested in writing series that span the two genres?

My only advice to authors looking to span genres in the same series is to enjoy it. There is something fascinating in being able to chart the growth and transformation of the same characters over multiple books. (As a kid watching The Simpsons I always found it sad that Bart had to stay in Grade 4 forever.) 

I’ve never attempted spanning genres while using the more traditional 3rd person POV, but in a series like Harry Potter you can see a gradual darkening of tone (and thickening of book).

I know you’re Canadian like me – any chance of future books set in Canada?

am Canadian like you! Yes, I am currently working on a very Canadian novel, about Tom Thomson and the early Group of Seven. 

I am constantly shocked that no one has made a novel about the unsolved death (murder?) of Canada’s most famous artist – so I figure it’s time to throw my hat in the ring. We’re currently shopping it around, so hopefully the novel will be available in 2019. (Not MG or YA, but fascinating stuff.)  

In addition to the Tom Thomson novel, I am writing a new trilogy of books for Head of Zeus, who published the Ravenmaster Trilogy. The new trilogy is set in Britain’s distant past – way outside of my comfort zone (by about 5000 years). So I'm very excited to dive into all this new (to me) material. (Book 1 is published Fall 2020.)

Thanks John! And trust me - this series is wonderful! You can buy it from all the usual spots and you will be glad you did!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Tales from the Slush Pile

When I volunteered to mentor for Author Mentor Match, I was excited to help other writers. But I never imagined I'd learn so much about writing in just a short amount of time. What is Author Mentor Match you ask? It's a mentorship where agented and/or published writers offer to mentor one writer who has a completed manuscript and is looking to query. The mentor can help with everything from developmental edits, to line edits, to setting up an agent list to query, basically anything the pair agree to work on together. Mentees apply to work with four possible mentors and then the mentors read all the submissions and decide which mentee they want to pick. For those curious how to get involved check out the link above. The submission window for this round is closed, but there will likely be another window in the fall if you are interested in entering.

Over the last week and a half I've been slush diving through the Author Mentor Match submissions. I've seen some amazing things in there. Writers are seriously talented and creative people. But I also have a new understanding for agents sifting through their slush piles. When you read query after query and opening page after opening page, some common issues tend to arise. And not that these are things that can't be fixed, but they can prevent you from getting that yes I want to see more.

In the spirit of mentoring other writers, I'm going to share some things I noticed.

With respect to querying:
Queries are hard. It's so hard to take a 50-100K manuscript and boil it down to one page that not only gives the reader insight into your book but also entices them to read more.

You want to make sure you have enough information so the reader knows what is going on in your story, but not so much that they get bogged down by all the details. This can be hard to find on your own, so make sure you have people who have read your manuscript and some that haven't, read your query for clarity. In addition to balance, you want enough detail to show what makes your story unique and stand out is a crowd. How does your story about the topic differ from every other story on that topic out there? This is especially important for topics that are considered hard sells or overdone.

Capital Letter/Name/Word Soup
What is this? Too many names ,made up words, or terms etc. I see this more often in sci fi and fantasy, but it can also occur in other genres. When writing a query you want to focus on your main character and the character or thing preventing your main character from getting what they need. From there you may throw in one side character that helps them achieve their goal or an important setting but you really don't want much more than that. If you world has a lot of made up elements, sometimes it's easier just to describe the element in your query rather than putting the formal made up name to it. The reader can learn the language of your world in the manuscript itself. The more proper nouns in a query the more confusing it can get. So focus on your main character and the conflict.

At the end of your query, you always always always need stakes. What is stakes? What happens if you main character can't face the challenge and/or achieve their goal. And maybe also what happens if they do? Do they stand to lose anything if they accomplish the goal? Stakes in your story is what takes the conflict from the point of oh that sucks to OMG this is nuts I have no idea how this character will accomplish their goal with those things in their face. It's what makes the reader want to read more and find out what will happen.
Now that I've talked a little bit about queries I want to shift gears to opening pages.

This is a tricky one because it's hard to see if you have it in your own work. But this is usually what initially draws the reader in. Finding your voice can be tricky, but I'm a firm believer that everyone has their voice in their manuscript somewhere, it's usually just hiding. The trick to finding your voice is going to those couple scenes that you had an absolute blast writing, that you found super easy, and that just came pouring out of you. Usually there's something super special in those scenes and something that really draws the reader in. See if you can find those scenes in your manuscript, study them, and try to replicate how they sound throughout your story.

Right after voice comes connection. The voice pulls a reader in initially, but if there isn't a character the reader can relate to and connect to right off the bat then it's hard to stick around. This is why starting with dialogue, weather, or lengthy descriptions can be really tricky. It may be interesting, but the reader doesn't have a story to follow or a character to latch onto. Without a something to invest in and sympathize with, or generate some feelings around, no one will keep reading. So what helps with connection? Voice of the character is one thing. But beyond that, help the reader understand what the character is thinking. It's not just about how the character is reacting to things, but also what is going on internally. Why are they reacting the way they are? What underlying things are going on that's making them maybe think one way and react another? That juxtaposition can make for a really dynamic, interesting read.

After finding a connection with a character whose story you want to follow, you need tension to continue to pull the reader in. Sure you can give the reader this character they've started to find interest in, but what is happening to that character that keeps the reader invested? This is where you start to pull the conflict thread. In your opening pages you may not be directly linking to the main conflict yet, but find something that is in the way of the main character or is causing them problems or concern and weave in that tension. If there is a struggle or something at odds or a tense feeling to sympathize with then you've likely hooked the reader in long enough to make them want to stick around.

Less is More
This last one actually applies to both queries and opening pages (and overall stories). I saw a lot of submissions that likely in an attempt to be unique, threw everything and the kitchen sink at their novels. There was romance, and technology, and magical elements and paranormal elements etc and on and on. And in a query and opening pages this can get confusing really quickly. The reader needs to understand how elements build on each other and move toward the ultimate conflict. Not a million things that can muddy the conflict and detract from the overall goal.

For the sake of an overall story, and especially in the opening pages, it's often better to reduce things down to one or two major plot elements and get rid of the rest. Why? Because then that gives you the real estate in your manuscript to dive deeper into those couple of elements and really connect the characters to them rather than throwing a lot of things at the story, not being able to explore them, and thus confusing the reader. I know it's fun to do all the things, but it's a lot more engaging to really focus on one or two and develop them fully in a unique way. Too many elements can turn a reader off. And too many elements in the query can make the reader not want to continue to your pages because they are lost in what the story should be about. And this goes back to item number 1, finding the right balance between unique elements and detail and too much that makes the story confusing.

So there you have it. Common issues I saw in queries and opening pages. And now you know them too. Go forth and polish up your queries and opening pages so you can turns those no's into yes's. I know I'll be rooting for you.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Dear Middle Grade Minded: How to Write for Middle Grade

We had a reader send in a question not long ago. It seemed like a great opportunity to remind people if they want to send in questions, we’re more than happy to try answering them.

Hello -- Can you recommend an online writing class for me? I have a good idea for a middle grade book but no experience in writing for this age group. Thanks

First of all, congratulations! Having a good idea is at least half the battle. However, this does lead me into a few rhetorical questions that hopefully will give you some helpful things to think about:

How familiar would you say you are with middle grade literature? Why do you think this is a good idea for middle grade?

When we were discussing the original question, Shari Green brought up an excellent point: “I've no idea if there are any decent classes, but of course the best ‘class' for learning to write middle grade is reading lots and lots of middle grade!” This is one of the most fundamental rules out there about writing, period: You have to know the audience you’re writing for. Middle grade is much more than just books with characters in a certain age range. Middle grade literature has to have something that will capture the attention of a kid growing up in a screen-infested world. It needs to have elements the reader can relate to. It needs to entertain them on their level, but without talking down to them. This isn’t always an easy balance to achieve. The more familiar you are with the books that successfully make all of this happen, the more informed you’ll be about how to approach your own story.

How much writing experience are you starting with?

Are you looking for a writing class as a first step in learning how to write a book? Do you want some guidance on how to write something more specific to a middle grade audience? Unfortunately I don’t have any list of classes to share (maybe someone else will and might post ideas in the comments), and I’m certainly not discounting writing classes, online or otherwise, as a good way to learn about the craft. However, the big truth about writing is the best way to learn how to do it or to get better at it is to WRITE. Young Michael Jordan practiced basketball for endless hours. When Bruce Springsteen was starting out, he played show after show after show. Stephen King probably used up more typewriter ribbons than he could count before he made his first professional sale. Everyone has to start somewhere, and has to put in the time to developing their skill, and, in the case of writers, finding their voice. Whether or not you ever find the type of class you’re thinking about, go ahead and start writing that book! Put that idea to work. Find out there are parts of it you love and parts you hate, then keep working at it and making it better. That’s all any of us can do.

I don’t want to leave you hanging without anything more than the “read more/write more” tips, so I do have a few suggestions. There are hundreds of books about writing out there, which can be more than a little daunting to consider. Here are three writing books I would personally recommend:

ON WRITING by Stephen King

I know a lot of writers who refer to this one as a favorite. I think it’s fair to call it essential.


Another thoughtful writing manual/memoir that I’ve always found similar to ON WRITING. They’re both helpful on their own, and they complement each other well.


I was assigned to read this in a college class. Even though we were meant to read it from the perspective of improving academic writing, I found it incredibly valuable beyond that. Most real writing happens during revision, and this is one of the most thoughtful books about the mechanics involved I’ve even encountered.

I’d also suggest to dig deep into Twitter, and follow different authors, agents, and editors who post threads about craft and process. You can find some interesting points to consider if you keep your eyes open.

Good luck!