Monday, January 14, 2019

What Books Top Your To-Be-Read List in 2019?

I recently asked some of my favorite middle grade authors what books they're most looking forward to reading in 2019. The rules: they don't have to be published in 2019 to make the list. In fact, they don't even have to fit in the MG category. Anything goes!

Gwendolyn Hooks
THE PARKER INHERITANCE by Varian Johnson is the next book I plan to read. I love mysteries and this book has received a lot of praise. Horn Book gave it a starred review and said “Johnson’s narrative revels in its puzzle-story elements.” I loved Varian’s, THE GREAT GREENE HEIST, so I know this one will be an intriguing read.

A picture book biography that’s been on my To-Be-Read list is HARLEM'S LITTLE BLACKBIRD -- THE STORY OF FLORENCE MILLS by Renee Watson. It was published a few years ago, so I have no excuse for not reading it sooner. But 2019 is its magical year. Florence’s parents were former slaves. I think that heritage made her strong and determined to succeed in her musical career on Broadway during the 1920s. How did she do it?  I plan to read it and learn exactly how she accomplished her goals.

S.A. Larsen
Like most every reader, my to-be-read pile is ever-growing. But, for 2019, I'm determined to finally read BOB by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead. Why? Because the whole idea of a creature not letting you forget about a childhood promise you made a few years back (& you're still a kid!) totally intrigues me! We won't talk about how fascinated I am that this greenish creature also dresses in a chicken suit.

I'm also stoked to read GHOST SQUAD by Claribel A. Ortega out in 2019! Firstly, I've read a few of her comments, and she seems super sweet. When I first read the blurb for the story, all I could think of is how alike Lucely (GS's main character) and my main character Ebony are. They both are a bit clumsy with their 'spells', but their hearts are golden. I'd also love to see Ebony running around with Lucely, trying to catch all the ghosts Lucely accidentally let loose!

Sarah Cannon

Author of ODDITY

First, I cannot wait to read Gabrielle Byrne's RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON. I've been swapping manuscripts with her for years, and I know her to be an imaginative, action-driven author. I am going to pounce on my copy this August!

I'm also itching to own DRAGON PEARL. Penned by Yoon Ha Lee, an author who's already racking up accolades in the adult SFF world, you can bet this Korean mythology-inspired space opera is going to be amazing!

Last, I plan to devour JUST SOUTH OF HOME, by Karen Strong-- if I can get my hands on it! My 12 y.o. spent half his summer bingeing Blackish, so if he realizes JSOH is pitched as Blackish meets Goosebumps, I'm going to need two copies or a locked hideout.

Sally Pla

Susan Adrian's ARC of FOREVER NEVERLAND, THE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, and SANITY AND TALLULAH by Molly Brooks! Right now finishing adult novel ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS PERFECTLY FINE which I picked up because the title sounded so much like my STANLEY IS PROBABLY FINE, and I love Eleanor. Like Stanley, she is quirky. Quirky is my everything.

Patrick Moody

This will be a busy writing year for me, and while I’m writing I usually stick to non-fiction (don’t know why, that’s just the pattern I’ve fallen into). But I’m half through all the Spookies’ books and will hopefully get to the other half in the next couple months! Other than that, I have biographies of Subodai (one of Ghengis Khan’s generals aka very scary dude), Edward I, and William the Conquerer that I’m really looking forward to!

P.S. If you're not familiar with 'the Spookies,' we're a group of spooky middle grade authors hanging out over at! Jan Eldredge, author of EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU, is also looking to read every #SpookyMG book in 2019!!! Whoa! Here's a complete list:


Kim Ventrella (hey, that's me!)
I'm most looking forward to reading THE AFTERWARDS by A.F. Harrold. It's the story of best friends Ember and Ness. When Ness dies suddenly, Ember travels to the Afterworld, determined to bring Ness back. I absolutely adored THE IMAGINARY, also written by Harrold and illustrated by the amazing Emily Gravett.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Resolving Not to Set Writing Goals for Myself in 2019

Every new year I set writing goals for myself.

But not this year.

I had an a-ha moment at the end of 2018.

2018 was a great year for me writing-wise: I published my second novel, I received positive reviews, the book sold pretty well.

I created specific goals for myself: finish revisions, write and revise at least one new book, do tons of school visits, get to at least one conference.

So why did my writing life feel tortured?


Then it hit me: I was trying too hard.

It's a wonderful thing to have goals, but not at the expense of enjoying the trip along the way.

Last year, when I didn't meet a goal—be it word count, finished product, whatever—I'd beat myself up.

My goals, which were supposed to move me forward, actually sucked the thrill of of writing from my life.

I forgot that to really succeed at anything, there must be joy.

And for me, a Capricorn who has a tendency to want to get things done, my goals impeded the joy.


This morning, I'm in the throes of final revisions to my WIP. They're due next week. And guess what? I'm having fun.

Why? Because I'm not worried about anything but the task at hand.

Instead, I trust that other books will get written, schools will be visited, stuff will happen. People will love the book or they won't.

My only focus is to love what I'm doing right now. I trust that the rest will sort itself out.

For many of you, goal setting is the thing that will propel your work to publication. I salute you.

But promise me you won't beat yourself up if you miss a deadline or don't reach your goal within a certain time frame.

Promise that you'll focus on loving your work in progress and enjoying the journey. Because that love is what will propel your writing forward.

To every writer and reader out there: I wish you a 2019 filled with magic.

It is magic that we can conjure stories from thin air.

It is magic that the stories we read let us live a thousand lives during our short time on this wonderful planet.

I have no writing goals for 2019. But something tells me I'll find a lot of magic along the way!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Follow Your Path

More than once in the past two months, I’ve asked myself in the most unofficial and discreet way I could, if all of this effort I put into writing is anything but a waste of time.

This somewhat dark point of view came from mostly good places. First of all, I had a great professional opportunity present itself. Career-wise it would have been a lateral move, but one that could have brought me some new and thrilling experiences. In the end I decided not to pursue it; after having a lot of long talks with many trusted people and thinking things over, I knew it wasn’t right for me.

At about the same time all of this was just beginning, I had what felt like legitimate reasons to get excited about possibly having something happen with a manuscript on submission. This could have meant there would be a tiny overlapping space in the Venn diagram between Professional Life and Writing Life, and I began to wonder if that was something to consider as I began looking into this opportunity.

Those seemingly legitimate reasons to become excited about my submission soon revealed themselves to be imaginary. The bad news here was that even though I had resisted letting my hopes build up before anything concrete happened, I had started hoping, and it was a pretty hard punch in the gut when I realized nothing was there. The good news? I didn’t let my hope get any more out of control than it did. That might seem pessimistic, to look at pursing a dream as a writer as something that requires you temper you hope, but when I stepped away and realized I was letting that hope influence decisions about the established career I have, I knew I had let it go too far.

There was nothing I could do to advance that hope, so I decided to stop and let it die off, at least that thread of it. I stopped writing so I could center myself again after taking what had felt like a pretty solid disappointment. Luckily I have a career that not only allows for but requires a great deal of creativity, so I redirected that energy into my work, which led to the beginning of some new ideas that are already paying off in dividends.

It makes me wonder though, if creativity is as much a finite resource as it is a need. I know if I’m not doing something creative for too long, I become mentally distracted and agitated. When this happens, making the time to sit down and work on a story can be soothing and centering. However, the same is true for anything else creative I produce, and if I put so much effort into finding new approaches to bring to my work, I don’t feel the need, or the itch, or whatever you want to call it — the drive that makes writing so necessary for many of us.

I’ve got some time off from work over the holidays, and I’m not sure what direction I’m going follow when that drive catches up to me again. I’ve got story ideas in the vault I want to pursue, half-finished drafts to continue, and finished manuscripts needing revision, not to mention all the new ideas constantly coming to life. But knowing I’ve made the career choice that I did, I’m also feeling a pull toward the direction I chose. I know I’ll wake up on the morning after Christmas with time on my hands, and I’m still not sure what I’ll want to do with it.

I guess in the end it’s a lucky problem to have, to have tangible things I can work on that will produce immediate results, and a way to feed the creativity for the time being without letting the hopes I have about writing fade away. The writing will always be there when the stories demand the time for it.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Review:Thomas Wildus and the Book of Sorrows by J. M. Bergen

Ever wonder what it might be like to live in a world of hidden magic? A world of secrets and dangers you only have glimpses of while you wonder, could it possibly be true? 

This is the dilemma of Thomas Wildus, a twelve-year-old boy whose father’s last words to him are “Magic is real, Thomas. No matter what happens, always remember that magic is real.”

This coming of age story begins with a modern boy’s quest to find out, once and for all, if magic truly exists. Problem is, everyone just laughs him to scorn. Until one day, in a mysterious bookstore, someone doesn’t. Instead, the proprietor entrusts Thomas with an ancient book, saddled with a pack of promises. 

The more Thomas reads, the more the book changes. Strange things start happening and peculiar people pop up in his life. Soon Thomas finds himself in the middle of an epic battle, with a destiny he didn’t ask for, but is desperate to fulfill. 

Throughout this story, we see Thomas’s interactions with his closest friends, a racially and socially diverse cast of characters who add richness to the story. The author’s tone captures the attitude of upper middle graders – a compelling mixture of playfulness amid life-or-death stakes, whether in a doodle war between friends, a volleyball match, or when facing down a mortal enemy.

The importance of practice and training in personal and magical development is highlighted, along with the motto: Progress, not perfection, which is a key concept for readers of any age. The author also explores philosophical questions like, What happens if I gain power, but lose control? Bergen guides readers in discovering their own views of power and what matters most in life. 

Thomas Wildus and the Book of Sorrows is an enchanting foray into a fantasy world where stories can become realities, science and magic intersect, and crystals hold the power to destroy. If you're looking for an enthralling and thought-provoking read, this is the book for you!

Watch for its release in February 2019! 

About the Author:

J.M. Bergen graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in creative writing and a minor in business. Over the years his writing has appeared in a variety of publications under a variety of pen names.

J.M.’s debut series originally started as a bedtime story for his oldest son. The story turned into a saga, and one book turned into five. The first book in the series, Thomas Wildus and The Book of Sorrows, is scheduled for release in February 2019. The second, Thomas Wildus and The Wizard of Sumeria, will be published in late 2019, with the remainder of the series released before the end of 2021.

When J.M. isn’t working on the Thomas Wildusbooks, you can find him playing with his kids, splashing in the ocean, or dreaming up new adventures. If you ever meet him and can’t think of anything to talk about, you might ask about Herman the Shark, the Kai and Eli stories, or why Riddle-Masterby Patricia McKillip is his all-time favorite book. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll have questions and stories of your own (if you do, he’ll think that’s far more interesting). To learn more and connect online, visit 

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Gift of Writing Time

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes, but in my opinion, the very best present for the writer in your life is the gift of time.

This past summer, I attended the Middle Grade and Young Adult Whole Novel Workshop at the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, PA. For a week I lived in this woodsy cabin, where I worked on a total rewrite of my 2017 Pitch Wars novel.
When I wasn't meeting with my mentor, attending workshops, or exploring the beautiful surroundings, I was writing at this desk:
The handmade quilts in my cabin reminded me of the quilts my grandmother used to make. Yes, this place felt like a home-away-from home.
Delectable farm-to-table food was served three times a day. Don't even get me started on the yummy snacks and drinks, available 24/7.

A grant from the Ohio Arts Council made my trip to Highlights possible, but the week away was also a gift from my husband. I left during a hectic time. School was starting for my youngest daughter and we were in the process of selling our home. But my husband insisted my writing take top priority. He would handle my usual home tasks. My job was to pack my suitcase and fly away to pursue my dream of becoming a middle grade author.

Quiet, interrupted writing time is indeed a gift.

I'm thankful for it, whether I'm writing in the woods or simply holed away at my home desk, immersed in story.

More information about the Highlights Foundation workshops can be found here:

Monday, December 10, 2018

Spooky Holiday Reads

What better time of year than the dark of winter to pick up a great spooky read? I asked a few of my fellow #SpookyMG authors from to recommend spooky books that are great to read during the holiday season. Here's what they said:

"If you’re looking for a fun, spooky, action-packed read for the holidays, you’ll want to check out Jonathan Rosen’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES, in which twelve-year-old Devin Dexter must wage battle against the season’s hottest new toy that ends up going bad. Very, very bad.

"If you’re a fan of mildly-spooky mysteries, you’ll enjoy GREENGLASS HOUSE by Kate Milford. Set in the quirky Greenglass Inn during a very snowy Christmas, it’s a tale filled with legends, secrets, and strange ghostly happenings."


"During this season of giving, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is the perfect Holiday story. It is the story of an unexpected gift--a brand new playground--and the pandemonium the gift unleashes upon the children of the neighborhood.

"The commercialization of December has drummed into our heads the need for more, more, more! We want gifts, more gifts, and even more gifts! But not all gifts are created equal. Dr. Fell is a morality tale of the danger of just accepting each and every gift flung your way. There is a price for everything, even things which appear to be free.

"So this Holiday season, give your children the one gift that serves as both a glorious present and a life lesson. Give them Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom. :)"


This holiday season, I'd like to recommend two of my favorite spooky reads. First, THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE by Joan Aiken. It features a grand old house set in a remote wintry wood, man-eating wolves, an evil governess, a mysterious stranger, a cruel orphanage owner and three plucky children who struggle to outwit them all. I love the book so much, I even made a video about it! Watch it on the #SpookyMG YouTube Channel

Another all-time favorite of mine is CLOCKWORK by master storyteller Philip Pullman. This book features a storyteller weaving tales in a tavern on a wintry night, characters that come to life, a bargain with an evil doctor, a boy made from clockwork, a killer knight, murder and true love. Truly, a masterpiece of storytelling that unravels like clockwork.

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Time for Every Story

In recent months, I’ve come across a few excellent posts and twitter discussions about the importance of including sad or difficult stories in children’s books (including one here on MG Minded), and I agree 100%. The world needs these stories. Kids need these stories, so much. I love the “windows and mirrors” metaphor for books – the idea that books can be both windows that offer a glimpse into worlds very different from our own, thereby increasing empathy, and mirrors that reflect something of our own experience, making us feel less alone. Both types of stories are so very important, and both types often, and necessarily, include sad, scary, or otherwise difficult topics.

When my daughter was diagnosed with cancer a couple years ago, I was thrown into depression for the first time in my life. Not that I hadn’t faced difficult situations in life before…of course I had. But depression was new for me. Having a kid with cancer was new for me. It was easy to feel alone in my sadness, even though I wasn’t. 

Books have long been for me places of refuge, and they have been comforters, escapes, eye-openers, entertainers, heart-breakers, and heart-menders. So naturally, when life gave me lemons, I opened a book. (Wow, way to mess up the clich├ęd metaphor there, Shari.) However, instead of craving mirror books – books that reflected what I was going through – I found such stories traumatizing. I would've thought they'd ignite a spark of hope for me, as I witnessed a character I related to find their way through difficult times. But instead, mirror stories often struck too close to the wound. As a self-protective measure, I refused to read any more sick-kid books. Many of the books I missed out on probably have a good measure of hopefulness tucked into the story, but I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) immerse myself in the heartache long enough to get to the hope.

I’m better now, but I still find myself intentionally avoiding sad stories. And you know, that’s okay. Sad and serious books are often called important books, and they are. But happy, silly, funny, “light” books are important, too. Some days I need light. Some days I need silly or sassy or ridiculous. Some days, when I look at the state of our world, I simply need happiness and hope, and I expect I’m not alone in this.

Writers, keep writing the serious stories. Keep tackling the tough topics. We need those books. But if the stories that call you are of the lighter variety, then please, write them. Don’t ever tell yourself you’re not doing important work. We absolutely need happy books, too. To misquote completely rip off and rewrite a famous passage from Ecclesiastes: To every book, there is a reader, and a time for every story under heaven.

We can trust kids to put down books that aren’t right for them emotionally. We can trust them to know when they need to read the stories that reflect the harsh realities of their lives or their world, but we can trust them, too, to know when to put such books down and pick up lighter fare. Trust them to know when their heart needs Archie comics or rom-coms or fart jokes, and never think such reading is unimportant. Because truly, there is a time for every story.

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[ETA: Just stumbled across a wonderful art piece by Jarrett Lerner - "kids need books of all kinds". Check it out! Free download on his site.]