Monday, February 27, 2017

Book Review and Book Giveaway - MARY BOWSER AND THE CIVIL WAR SPY RING

Workman Publishing has shared a copy of MARY BOWSER AND THE CIVIL WAR SPY RING with Middle Grade Minded, the first in its new SPY ON HISTORY series.

The Publisher's Description:

Now introducing a unique interactive series for middle-grade readers: SPY ON HISTORY! Inside, precocious readers will uncover an unknown nugget of history with the added opportunity of solving a mystery as they read. This exciting series kicks off with Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring (Workman Publishing; January 10, 2017; ages 10 & up; $12.95) about real-life Mary Bowser, a free African American woman who worked as a maid within the Confederate White House during the Civil War to spy on Jefferson Davis.

As readers delve into the details of Mary’s heroic story—from her close calls when she almost gets caught to how she uses her photographic memory to “steal” top secret documents—they will also learn about the inner workings of the spy ring coordinated by Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew, the firsthand effects of Abraham Lincoln’s groundbreaking Emancipation Proclamation, and the sacrifices so many made to bring an end to slavery. 

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book! The story is compelling, and the interactive aspect of the book is well done and fun. At the beginning readers are given the tools they need to crack the code - a replica Civil War cipher wheel, documents, special red plastic filter - and clues are peppered throughout the book in both the illustrations and the text to help them figure out what happened to Mary's diary.

But apart from the fun interactive part of this book, this is a compelling story that shares an important piece of American history - the important role African Americans played during the civil war in gathering vital intelligence for the Union side. 

A great line in the historical notes sums it up: 

Stories like Mary's leave us with a lot of questions, not just about her, but about how history is written and who writes it.

The book does a wonderful job of immersing its readers in the tense world of the Civil War and what it was like to be a spy. Even as we are learning a wonderful history lesson, we are also reading a real thriller. We can't stop turning the pages because we need to know what happens to Mary!

I also loved that the books in the series are being written by what Workman describes as "a secret cadre of authors" under the nom de plume of Enigma Alberti. 

There is so much here for kids, their parents, and especially teachers to work with that I can imagine this series becoming a go-to for social studies teachers everywhere!

The second book in the series is due this fall: 

Spy on History: Victor Dowd and the WWII Ghost Army!

If the second book is as good as this one, I'd say Workman has hit on something wonderful and educational!

Want to Win a Copy?

Follow the instructions (be sure to leave a comment!) and this wonderful book could be yours!

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Author Interview: Linda Williams Jackson!

It's a real honor and privilege to be interviewing author Linda Williams Jackson for today's blog post. Linda is the author of MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, a book that I recently devoured and absolutely loved. It's a stunner of a debut: gripping, emotional, nuanced, unforgettable. Here's the book's official description:

    It’s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and Rose Lee Carter can’t wait to move north. But for now, she’s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white man’s cotton plantation.
    Then, one town over, an African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When Till’s murderers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change . . . and that she should be part of the movement.  
    Linda Jackson’s moving debut seamlessly blends a fictional portrait of an African American family and factual events from a famous trial that provoked change in race relations in the United States.

Trust me, this is a book you'll want to read. Linda Williams Jackson was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book and her writing...enjoy!

DG: MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON deals with, among other things, the murder of young Emmett Till - a crime that still resonates and haunts us today. What gave you the idea to weave in that historical tragedy, and how did you approach blending historical fact with your fictional story?

LWJ: I was born and raised in a small town in the Mississippi Delta, about 50 miles from Money, the town where Emmett Till was visiting that tragic summer. When I decided to write a piece of historical fiction centered around my own family’s experiences as sharecroppers, I knew that the Emmett Till story was an important part of the story. So I purposely set the time of the story in 1955, and the place within a few miles of the town where the tragedy occurred. Since Emmett Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, was a tenant farmer, it was a natural fit that the grandfather in MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON could possibly know him. Hence, the fictional and the factual meet.

DG: The setting of MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON - rural Mississippi in 1955 - is so important to the story (and so vividly drawn) that is really almost another character in the story. How familiar were you with that setting before beginning the story? Do you have personal connections to that setting, or did you have to do a lot of research?

LWJ: I had to do a lot of research on the Emmett Till story, what life was like in 1955, and what was happening as far as the pre-civil rights era, specifically the events occurring after the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. On the other hand, I did not have to do a ton of research for the setting. The house that Rose lives in, the cotton fields, the dialect, the church scenes, the whole atmosphere surrounding the setting—these are things in which I was already familiar due to my own upbringing on cotton plantations in the 1970s. Not much had changed from 1955 to 1975 in rural Mississippi as far as living conditions were concerned, so the setting came naturally.

DG:. I read somewhere that every writer, whether they know it or not, makes themselves the main character of their books. Your main character, Rose Lee Carter, is such an unforgettable heroine. I absolutely fell in love with her, and I know she'll stick with me for a long time. In what ways are you and Rose Lee alike, and in what ways are you different?

LWJ: Thank you for saying that. I will note that I did not become Rose, but I did try to put myself in her shoes. One thing I did do, however, was take many of my own experiences and give them to Rose in order to add authenticity to her story. Without giving away spoilers, here are a few of those experiences: dreaming with the Sears catalog, the opening lines of the funeral scene, the northern visitors, the outhouse incident, chopping cotton, the mourners’ bench, the baptism, the skin lightening, and, as I have already stated, the setting itself. One of the biggest differences between Rose and me is that I was raised by my mother, not by my grandparents. I also have eleven siblings (not including the “half’s”). Rose only has one sibling.

DG: We talk about books being "mirrors" (showing readers a reflection of their own lives) and "windows" (giving readers a view into a life very different from their own). As you were writing MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, did you ever think about that idea? Did you ever think about a young reader seeing a bit of themselves in your story, or learning about perspectives and experiences different from their own? Did this have any impact on your writing?

LWJ: The only thing I had in mind as I was writing MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON was to give readers an authentic portrayal of the life of a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta based on my own experiences and based on the stories I had heard growing up. I also wanted to give readers a bird’s eye view of the type of environment young Emmett Till came into the last summer of his life. Keep in mind, too, that this all happened one month after his fourteenth birthday. So, basically, he was just shy of being a thirteen-year-old when he was lynched. I also wanted to show the fear that the Jim Crow system had instilled in a majority of African Americans living in the Delta during that time.

DG: How was your path to publication? Did you spend years in the querying (and rejection) trenches? What advice would you give to writers who are still on that journey to getting published?

LWJ: My path to publication was unnecessarily long and treacherous. Six years. But I say to writers on the journey: “Yours doesn’t have to be.” For me, I got stuck on one manuscript. I queried and rewrote that thing to death. I should have moved on after the first year. Instead, I spent five years trying to make someone love my ugly baby. If a manuscript doesn’t land you an agent or an editor after a year, move on. Please. You can always go back to it. Just don’t get stuck on it.

DG: So, your debut novel came out less than two months ago. How have these two months been? Does having your book published feel like you expected it to, or have there been some surprises?

LWJ: Um, not sure what I expected. But I do know that I was nervous. I think the biggest surprise for me is seeing the book in so many libraries. It’s also a delight to randomly come across an article where someone mentions the book. That’s totally cool.

DG: For now you should definitely enjoy and bask in the glow of the success of MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, but I can't wait to read more and I'm dying to know: what's up next for you? Any more books on the horizon, anything exciting you're working on right now?
LWJ: Well, the sequel, A SKY FULL OF STARS, is coming out on January 2, 2018! But, right now I’m trying to focus on promotion for MIDNIGHT and taking care of my family. Hopefully, by the time spring officially rolls around, I’ll be on to writing something new. I’m ready to write again.

Thanks so much, Ms. Jackson. I can't wait to read A SKY FULL OF STARS!

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Today we have an AWESOME cover reveal for Kim Harrington's GAMER SQUAD #1: ATTACK OF THE NOT-SO-VIRTUAL MONSTERS!

What happens when your cool virtual-reality game . . . becomes REAL?
Pokémon GO meets The Goonies in this action-packed middle-grade series.

Monsters Unleashed—where you catch virtual-reality monsters on your cellphone—is one of the hottest mobile games around, and Bex and Charlie just can’t stop playing. They even check out an old map in Charlie’s grandfather’s attic in hopes of discovering some forgotten places in town where the rarest monsters might hide. But they find a strange machine up there too, and after Charlie switches it on, the WiFi goes down . . . and Bex’s entire catalog of monsters vanishes! And that’s not the worst of it: all the creatures she’s collected on her phone escape into the real world. Can the friends nab the beasts before they become monster lunch?

Pre-order links:

My links:

Check out this first book in a planned three-book series from Sterling Children's Books. It releases on August 1, 2017 but is available for pre-order now. Grades 3-7.

And now for the moment you've all be waiting for...

The AMAZING cover....

That's one SUPER cool cover! So make sure to check out this awesome sounding book on August 1, 2017 and pre-order it now!

Kim Harrington is the author of Clarity, Perception, The Dead and Buried, and Forget Me for teens and the Sleuth or Dare and Gamer Squad series for kids. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son. When not writing, she's most likely reading, watching one of her favorite TV shows, or fantasizing about her next vacation. Join her on Twitter ( or Instagram (

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why I Write Middle Grade

A Wholesome Escape 

When I was growing up, C.S. Lewis regularly lured me into Narnia, all the way through high school. Every finals week, in fact. Battles with witches and hags involving grand forces of good and evil really broke up the monotony of studying.

Middle Grade fiction has a great capacity to draw readers in and entertain them for the rest of their lives. We all nurse a soft spot for our favorite early novels. They provided an escape from the sometimes harsh realities of life and an introduction to new places and ideas.

I'm a kid at heart and easily relate to 8-12 year olds. They’re fun, silly, inquisitive, and apt to pop off with unexpected comments and connections. When I teach creative writing to 4th and 5th graders, their insightful questions and wild imaginations always keep me on my toes. The middle grades are a crucial time of development, where tweens are discovering their interests and trying out new aspects of their personality. I love working with and writing for this age group because it’s a chance to help them see themselves as brave, courageous, loyal, and strong.

Middle Grade Fiction Inspires

My favorite MG novels taught me to believe in myself. If Karana could use her wits and courage to survive alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, I could use mine to solve drama between friends. If Meg from A Wrinkle in Time managed to save her father and brother from an evil telepathic brain, I could build love in a family torn apart by divorce.

I still relish the wonder found in MG novels, how they tackle tough issues in ways 8-12 year olds can understand. And frankly, the rest of us, too. Who hasn’t cried their way through Bridge to Terabithia, only to find peace at the end?

This is what I hope to create as a MG writer, books that enchant young readers, drawing them into a lifetime of reading. Books that inspire and motivate, opening their minds to whole new worlds.

Middle Grade is a time of wonder, a time of discovery, where our understanding of the world expands. What better time to explore fictional worlds as we’re struggling to understand our own? And who ever outgrows that struggle?

When I first started writing, I experimented with various genres, trying to find the right fit. Then my husband said, “Why don’t you write what you love?”

Well, now I do and I couldn’t be happier.

A Little About Me

My pen name is R. H. Roberts, but you can call me Renee. I'm Mom to seven awesome kids who don't mind eating burnt pizza when I'm writing (or so they say). I love cats, monsters and the sea, but not necessarily all together. Whenever I can, I SCUBA and snorkel to research for my upcoming underwater fantasy novel. I'm thrilled to join the blogging team here at Middle Grade Minded! Come say hello at my blog.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cover Reveal: Molly in the Middle, by Ronni Arno

Middle Grade Minded is excited to reveal the cover of Molly in the Middle, a hilarious middle grade novel by Aladdin M!X author Ronni Arno.

Twelve-year-old Molly Mahoney is in the middle of everything. She’s in the middle of her parent’s impending divorce. She’s in the middle of her rebellious older sister and her lazy younger sister. She’s in the middle of her class, ranked at exactly 143 out of 286. Even her name (first and last!) places her right in the middle of the alphabet. And after a morning where her parents forget to drive her to school, and the field trip she was supposed to be on leaves without her, Molly decides it’s time to figure out how she can finally be in the spotlight—and stop being invisible.

But her new, outlandish ways put her in a different middle altogether. She now finds herself in the middle of her new, popular group of friends, who think the New Molly is amazing and bold, while her old BFF, Kellan thinks the New Molly is mean and aloof and headed for trouble. What’s worse, Kellan doesn’t hide his feelings. Faced with a probable future in a wheelchair, Kellan doesn’t understand why Molly would risk getting in trouble just to be popular. So when Molly has to choose between going to the year’s biggest party with her new pals, or participating in the Muscular Dystrophy Walk with Kellan, she’s stuck in the middle once again. Can Molly reconcile the Old Molly with New Molly—and figure out the best way to make her mark?

Molly in the Middle releases August 29, 2017. It is perfect for kids in grades 4-8.

The cover alone makes you want to pick up a copy.The amazing cover art is by Ashleigh Beevers.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Characterization from a Googly-Eyed Perspective

One morning last week I was walking into school when something caught my attention. It was a moment that provided a window into the world where middle grade stories come from that was too perfect for me to overlook. 

There was one big googly eye lying on the sidewalk, looking up at me.

Someone had likely dropped it during dismissal the day before, which itself wouldn’t be noteworthy since a large percentage of elementary kids tend to leave a trail of belongings behind them everywhere they go. But this solitary googly eye caught my sense of humor at the right angle, and in that moment it seemed absolutely hilarious. My writer brain immediately started asking questions about it, as well as the kid who could have left it behind: Why was it at school in the first place? What was it once attached to, if anything? Why wasn't it securely zipped inside a school bag where it would have been safe from being dropped? What happened to its counterpart? How would the owner react once they realized their personal googly eye inventory was now one short?

By the time I reached the front door, I was playing with the idea of making a character in my current work in progress into someone who collects googly eyes just to randomly stick them on things. Soon I was brainstorming how I could work that idea into a plot point, where the kids in the story would develop a secret code based around googly eyes that the adults in their community wouldn’t understand. 

Having taught in an elementary school for as many years as I have means I can say with some authority that silly is a big part of the real-life middle grade world. The conversations I overhear every day range from the innocently mundane to the profoundly goofy. These are the moments I try to capture when writing middle grade dialogue: the proclamations about favorite books, TV shows, or video games kids use to define themselves; the multi-directional ping-ponging banter between five people all struggling to be the funniest in the group; the way one kid can say or do something completely absurd while another will react to it as if nothing about it is out of the ordinary.

One of the biggest points of differentiation I have between what works in a middle grade book and what doesn’t is authenticity. Even if the story is based on some level of fantasy or set in an exaggerated comic universe, the world still needs to be grounded in enough reality for the readers to find their way in. Characters need to speak and think and behave in ways that not only serve the story, but will also ring true from the perspective of a middle grade reader. A kid who collects googly eyes might seem foolish to adults, but a middle grade reader could encounter that bit of characterization in a story and think, “Oh yeah, I know a kid who does that kind of thing.” 

None of this is to say the only way to reach authenticity is to make your population of characters into over-the-top goofballs. Not every kid gets to live a life of carefree abandon where building an impressive collection of googly eyes would be a priority. However, one of the things that lets kids relate to each other so readily is a need to smile. For some, it’s the biggest part of who they are. For others, it might only be a momentary escape from a life almost too challenging to bear.

As you’re thinking about how to construct those believable characters, remember how much more they’ll stay with your readers if you give them well-rounded personalities. There’s a reason why the description “one-dimensional” isn’t usually seen as a compliment. We need to have multifaceted characters populating our stories if we want the kids out there to read them. Make sure yours do what’s required to play the roles you’re assigning them, but also remember they need to be more than that. They need their motivations and quirks and anxieties. They need to have consistent behavior patterns, except for the times when they’re called on to be inconsistent. They need to learn about the world around them and the people they’re becoming.

Sometimes, they’ll also need an occasional laugh. Even if it comes from googly eyes.