Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls by Beth McMullen

When Abigail's mother tells her she's sending her to boarding school, Abby thinks she's being punished. When she finds out the school uniforms have little blue whales on the skirt, her life is over. But what Abby didn't expect was to learn her school is really a front for a secret spy ring that trains young girls. And, as one of the center's top spies, her mother is in on the whole thing. But when Abby's mom goes missing, the headmaster wants to use Abby as bait to find her mom. With little spy training, Abby faces one villain after the next, all in an effort to get her mom back. And something that seemed crazy at first, quickly becomes a game of life and death for Abby and her mom.

The voice of Abby is the first thing that grabbed me and reeled me into this story. Abby is such a fun character to follow around. But beyond the voice of the story is an adventure full of action and surprises that keeps the reader guessing at every turn. In addition, Abby has fantastic cast of supporting characters. There's everyone from her school friends who she has to lie to about becoming a spy, to the stern headmaster, to the nerdy boy Toby, who is a tech wizard and unlikely ally to Abby.

The story overall is great journey in learning who Abby can trust and how to power through new experiences in unconventional ways. Abby is such a strong character. She leaps off the page and into your heart. You can't help but want to be friends with her.

All in all, this story was so fun and engaging. I enjoyed it so much I couldn't put the book down, but I also didn't want it to end. This book was so amazing, I hope to see more stories with these characters in the future. I highly recommend this to readers who enjoy action-packed, fast moving stories with butt kicking heroines and a small side of sass.

ARC generously provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Guest Blog: Christina Soontornvat on Oral Storytelling

Telling Tales: Strengthen Your Novel Using Oral Storytelling
by Christina Soontornvat

I can’t write a book until I tell it out loud to someone else first.

As with many of my odd habits, my kids are to blame. I have two daughters who have always hated being in the car. I quickly discovered that the best way to keep the whining to a minimum on our commute to school was to tell them a story.

When they were little, I told classic fairytales like The Three Little Pigs or Rumpelstiltskin. But as they got older they wanted something longer and more interesting. And so one day, when I had run through every fairytale and folktale I could think of, I started telling them a story of my own.

That story was the seed for my first novel, THE CHANGELINGS. At the time, I had only written the
first draft. As first drafts go, it was a complete mess. There were too many characters, it was too long, and the plot was all wonky.

When I told the story out loud to my daughters, I found myself fixing those problems in real time. I was killing off characters, adding tension, cutting unnecessary backstory, and I was doing it all on the fly. It was magical. I still had a ton of rewriting to do (like, years’ worth!), but much of what eventually got published was ironed out during those car rides to school.

Since that experience, oral storytelling has become my go-to tool for drafting and doing early revisions on my novels.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve found to using storytelling as part of my writing process:

  • The stakes are low. The story exists between me and my listener, and nowhere else. That means that if it completely stinks, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to move 1,000 words to the trash folder on my laptop (gut-wrenching!). Just forget about it and move on.

  • Those low stakes give me the freedom to be more creative. Holding back, self-editing, second-guessing: all of these things kill my creative spirit during the drafting process. But when I’m talking out loud, I don’t have time to edit myself. Words and ideas flow. I have had my wildest, most interesting ideas while I’m telling a story because I’m in a purely creative zone, and not fussed about writing the perfect sentence.

  • I get instant feedback of what works and what doesn’t. If my daughters start singing and looking out the window while I’m talking, I know that part is pretty boring. Similarly, if they’re wide-eyed and asking questions, or cringing, or screaming out, “Oh no!”, I know that we’ve gotten to an exciting part.

  • I’ve learned so much about pacing, plot structure, “cliff-hangers”, and plot twists by having to utilize them in real time. These elements are a story’s rhythm and heartbeat and it’s easier for me to explore and understand them when I’m speaking than when I’m staring at a jumble of words on a screen.

But what if you don’t have two kids and a long commute? Or what if you’re not ready to tell your own story out loud?

  • If you’re not ready to tell your own story, tell someone else’s. You can learn so much by narrating a favorite middle grade book (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes for a killer retelling) or a favorite movie. My daughters are too young to see Wonder Woman, but man did they love hearing about it. And that film has a seamless 3-act structure that I didn’t recognize until I told it out loud in the car!   

  • If you don’t have young (or old) listeners in your life, try recording yourself telling your story (this is different from reading what you’ve written out loud!). Even if you are the only person in your audience, you can still get many of the benefits of switching off your inner editor, learning the rhythm of your story’s structure, etc.

  • All writers have heard that we’re supposed to read widely in the genre we write in. But I have also found so much inspiration from experiencing other forms of storytelling as a member of the audience. Music, film, theater, dance – experiencing any of these will strengthen your storytelling muscles.

The thing I love most about storytelling, though, is more primal and less practical than what I’ve mentioned so far. There was a time when human beings learned everything about their history, beliefs, and culture, from stories passed down person to person. Storytelling is a craft and a hallowed art form still practiced in much of the world. As novelists, we’re part of this remarkable tradition, but most of the time we don’t get to share in the experience with our readers. Our writing and their reading of it are usually separate things. And so I love the human connection that happens when I tell a story out loud. And if it makes a long car ride more bearable, that is even better.

About Christina:

Christina Soontornvat is a middle grade and picture book author who lives in Austin, Texas. Publisher’s weekly called her middle grade fantasy, THE CHANGELINGS, “both magical and terrifying”. The sequel, IN A DARK LAND, releases in October 2017 from Sourcebooks. Learn more about Christina at and follow her online at @soontornvat.

Monday, August 21, 2017


There’s a long tradition of middle grade stories in which characters find themselves needing to work together to solve their problems without the help of adults. Some of these stories are grounded in reality, and some are defined by exaggerated silliness. Many open up readers to unexplored realms of fantasy.

BEYOND THE DOORS by David Neilsen aims to be a part of that last category. A new middle grade fantasy coming in at just over 350 pages, it's a book for voracious readers looking for a story they can spend time inhabiting.

The main characters are four siblings — Janice, Zach, Sydney, and Alexa. It’s hard to call any one of them a main character since the author changes perspective from child to child. As the story shifts between them, the written voice is personalized just enough to reflect the perspective of each in turn. Just like real siblings, the four kids constantly rotate between being great friends and completely angry with each other.

When disaster strikes the family, the kids find themselves moving in with their eccentric aunt Gladys, to live in her even more eccentric house. The only way in is through a drawbridge-type entrance. The only food is boxes upon boxes of her favorite cereal. The only doors found anywhere are found in piles, with none mounted to keep the rooms separated. Not long after moving in, the kids discover their aunt has some unusual habits and activities, and even apparel, as she seems to disappear for lengths of time and is seen walking around in what looks like a beekeeper’s outfit with heavy gloves. Once they discover their aunt’s secret room, the one place where a door is actually intact, they get caught up in adventure (some more willingly than others) that not only threatens the state of their family but puts the personalities of themselves and the ones they love in serious jeopardy.

With its quirky comedic voice, relatable characters, and layers of fantasy elements, BEYOND THE DOORS is the kind of book the will appeal to readers who enjoy stories that activate the imagination.

Friday, August 18, 2017

6 Strategies to Encourage Reading (bonus: 2 MG booklists!)

Summer is almost gone (summer break, anyways). In some places, it already is. My kids started up school this past Wednesday. And with the excitement (dread?) of a new school year, new schedules, and the gearing up of sports and music practice—not to mention homework—recreational reading can easily take a backseat.

So here’s a list of some great MG reads to tempt even the most reluctant readers, along with strategies for fitting reading into the busy lifestyle of the modern middle grade reader.

Classic MG Faves 

These timeless tales invite readers into amazing new worlds, whether through fantasy, harsh wilderness, futuristic society, or the depths of Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each weaves deep meaning into an entertaining narrative, leaving readers grappling with questions and inspired to triumph in their own lives.
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    The Chronicles of Narnia
    Bridge to Terebithia
    Island of the Blue Dolphins
    Jonathon Livingston Seagull
    The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
    The Giver
    Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
    The Borrowers

Modern MG Faves

These modern favorites entice readers with wizardry, magic, action, and adventure, yet at the same time, provide a surprising amount of intellectual stimulation and fascinating facts.
    Harry Potter series (of course)
    Percy Jackson series (and spinoffs - The Heroes of Olympus, The Kane Chronicles)
    Diary of a Wimpy Kid series
    Big Nate series
    Septimus Heap series
    Fablehaven series
    The Sisters Grimm
    A Series of Unfortunate Events
    I Survived series 

Strategies to Encourage Reading

To wheedle, bribe or beg? Whatever the approach, we all know reading is important. Some kids take to it like fish to water, but others require a little convincing.
    Let them see you read. This may sound simple, and it is, but kids are great imitators. When they see the enjoyment their parents and older siblings find in books, that can intrigue them and help them view reading as a fun, interesting activity. At the very least, their curiosity will be piqued. Our family unofficially adopted a young boy a couple years ago. He detested reading. As the months have gone by, he has grown interested in books and often asks me about what I’m reading. He has blazed through the I Survived series, and though he is still somewhat reluctant, he is much more open to the idea of reading than before.
    Read to them. This one is a no-brainer for young children, but I’ve found that reading to my family (even teens!) is a great way to promote family unity as well as to spark their interest in fiction. A great MG book that spans all ages is Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. Take turns reading it or just let them sit back and listen. Either way, you’re nurturing a love of reading, feeding your family’s creativity, while carving out precious family time in your busy schedule.
    Visit the Library. There’s nothing more empowering for kids than choosing their own reading material and checking it out with their own library card. What’s more, libraries often have special reading challenges and programs to entice people into the world of reading.
    Provide lots of options. I’m a big fantasy fan. Much to my shock, some of my family are not. Some of them are not even fans of fiction. My nephew, even at a young age, preferred reading nonfiction. One of my adoptive sons would only read about football. Several of my kids light up over factual information about dinosaurs, space, or sea creatures. One of my sons inhales comics. Whatever their preferences, they’re reading and learning. Once they find a series or genre they enjoy, it’s a lot easier to keep them going.
    Treat Reading as a Family Requirement. Some things are required in our family. Learning to read, learning to swim, learning to ride a bike. Of course, there’s more. And every family will insist on slightly different skills and habits. But recreational reading can be one of these. Insist on a little reading before any screen time or friend time. Or set aside dedicated reading time in your schedule.
    Beg, wheedle, and bribe. Yep, we’re back to that. Create fun incentives to encourage reading. This can be special time set aside with Mom or Dad. Enlist friends or extended family, too, if that helps. It could be ice cream, a sleepover, a new book, or a new app. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. Remember, sometimes the best reward of all can be sharing a new interest along with your encouragement and approval.

What are some of your favorite MG reads? How do you encourage reading in your home or classroom?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Author Interview: Things That Surprise You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much, Jen!

To order Things That Surprise You, go here:

To learn more about Jen, go to:


Monday, August 7, 2017

Giveaway + Author Interview with Melissa Roske

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

Thanks for stopping by, Melissa!!!

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

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

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

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

What advice do you have for young aspiring writers?

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

Finish the sentence:

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

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

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

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

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Breaking up is hard to do

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

Yeah...I should probably explain. 

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing. :) #thisdaywewrite