Monday, May 6, 2019

Caterpillar Summer

Top Five Reasons To Read Caterpillar Summer, by Gillian McDunn: 

1. A main character named Cat who loves and protects her younger brother Chicken when they end up spending three weeks of their summer with grandparents they’ve never met. 

2. Cat’s mom, because she is a children’s writer!!! 

3. Cat’s grandparents, especially Macon, her grandpa. At first, he seems cold and uncaring, but there are reasons behind his actions. Like all well-rounded characters, he grows and changes through the story.

4. The setting: Gingerbread Island, NC. Think sand, surf, and sea turtles. Made me want to escape to the beach! 

5. A fun fishing contest where Cat aims to win the top prize and reunite her mom with her grandpa. 

This book is perfect for readers who love emotionally resonant family stories. I highly recommend this feel-good summer story about Cat, her brother Chicken, and the summer they will never forget.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Cover Reveal - I Am Drums by Mike Grosso, paperback edition

Have you read I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso yet?

If you have, good for you. If you haven’t, you should. And how lucky you are, since there is a brand new paperback version making its way into the collective circulation of middle grade literature! Today we’re happy for the opportunity to host the cover reveal! Look at this thing of beauty:

Colorful, eye-catching, just enough nods to the story to get the middle grade readers of the world either curious about what that story might be about, or to draw them back in a second or third time if they’re already familiar with an earlier edition. (If you’re interested in seeing more work from the artist, Risa Rodil, visit her web page at )

The story follows Sam, an strong and independent character looking to build an even deeper bond with her love of music, and particularly playing the drums. You would think the author of such a story would need to have a musical background. Mike Grosso is all over that. He answered a few questions about his writing experiences and love of music to help us launch the new cover:

Congratulations on the paperback release! What have been some of the most memorable things you’ve experienced going back to when the book first came out?

The most memorable was definitely the book launch party at Magic Tree Bookstore. It’s a tad bittersweet since Magic Tree is gone now, but they threw the best I AM DRUMS party I could’ve hoped for. They were so excited when I pitched the idea of the Grosso Brothers Rock Band performing songs from the I AM DRUMS soundtrack. People loved it so much more than I expected!

It has also been great getting to know my fellow middle grade authors. We’re a tight knit community and we care deeply about one another. Princeton Book Festival and NerdCampMI have been some of my favorite hangouts these past few years!

Sam’s interest and discovery clearly show your own interest in and deep background knowledge about music. Do you see themes related to music having a part in any future writing ideas you want to explore?

Definitely. I have a proposal almost ready to go for a nonfiction graphic novel about weird instruments. It’s based off a blog series I ran the month following I AM DRUMS’s release -- it featured instruments with particularly inspired designs. One of my favorites is the theremin, an instrument controlled by proximity sensors so you don’t have to touch it to play it. I own a theremin now, and I’ve had a blast bringing it to school visits.

If Sam stayed with drums for another ten years or so after the end of the book, who would be her five favorite players?

She’d definitely discover and feel a kinship with Cindy Blackman Santana. She mixes jazz and rock so well, and those are two huge influences on Sam. She’d also have embraced Carla Azar from Autolux and Janet Weiss from Sleater Kinney, and she’d still harbor a sweet spot for Jon Bonham since his drum solo in Moby Dick was what launched her passion. Buddy Rich would be on her list, too, but I suspect it would’ve developed into a love/hate thing after learning what a jerk he could be.

Do you know any good drummer jokes?

I know a few!

Did you hear I’m rewriting I AM DRUMS in the style of Dr. Seuss?

How late does the band play?
About a half beat behind the drummer.

How can you tell if a drummer is at your door?
He doesn’t know when to come in.

How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb?
Five -- one to change it, and four more to talk about how much better Neil Peart could’ve done it.

Good luck with the release, Mike!

Monday, April 29, 2019

Magical Realism in Middle Grade

Magical realism is a flourishing sub-genre of middle grade literature, but what does it mean, how is it different from standard fantasy and why is it so appealing to young readers and not-so-young authors alike? My first introduction to magical realism came in college when I became enamored with the works of Congolese author Sony Lab’ou Tansi; although, at the time, I wrote a paper outlining how his brand of magical storytelling differed from the classic magical realism tradition of Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Nowadays, my thoughts on the subject are not quite so lofty.
Middle grade authors have developed their own version of magical realism, which, of course, varies just as much as previous iterations. Today I’m going to share my specific understanding of the sub-genre and how I have used everyday magic as a tool to develop my characters’ emotional journeys.
First, a definition. I like to define magical realism in middle grade as a story that takes place in an everyday setting with just a hint of magic. However, we need to take the definition a few steps farther to really understand magical realism, especially if we want to differentiate it from contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy, which are also fantasy stories that take place in everyday settings. One of the key differences here is that with contemporary or urban fantasy, the fantasy element is generally a force that characters must strive to overcome. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the beasties are primarily there to drive the plot forward and give Buffy landmarks on her hero’s journey.
In magical realism, the fantasy element serves a different purpose. It is generally there in order to spark or highlight an emotional change in the main character. Think of the magic as a spiritual guide, leading the character on a journey of self-discovery. The magical element is often symbolic of a larger idea. For a concrete example, let’s take a look at my first book, Skeleton Tree.
In Skeleton Tree, the main character, Stanly, discovers a finger bone in his backyard. He hopes to dig up the bones and photograph them in order to win a contest, but the bones have other ideas. They start to grow, first into a bony hand reaching up into the sky, and then into a full-sized skeleton that only children and a few special adults can see. The only person who doesn’t find the skeleton creepy is Stanly’s little sister, Miren. She wants to be best friends with the skeleton, that she names Princy, but when she starts to get sick more often than usual, Stanly worries that maybe the skeleton isn’t as friendly as Miren thinks.
Spoiler alert:  as you probably guessed, Princy represents Death in the story. As Stanly’s relationship with Princy changes and grows throughout the course of the book, so does Stanly’s understanding of Death. By the end, he realizes that, “maybe death [isn’t] all worms and nothingness. Maybe, sometimes, there [is] mystery and whimsy and dancing shadow puppets, too. The kind that [need] both light and dark to be seen” (154-155 Skeleton Tree). The magic serves the purpose of guiding both the character and the reader on an emotional journey that might be more difficult to conceptualize without a physical manifestation of a complex topic, in this case Princy as the physical manifestation of Death.
This is one of the reasons why I think magical realism works so well in middle grade. Not only can it give young readers a concrete way to visualize and understand fuzzy existential topics, but, using light magic, often with a big dose of whimsy, is also a great way to ease readers into a conversation about dark or difficult topics, like death in Skeleton Tree or homelessness in Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw.
Another characteristic that differentiates magical realism from contemporary or urban fantasy is that authors of magical realism usually make no attempt to explain the magic. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, we learn an entire mythology surrounding slayers and demons that, while still fantastical, explains the world in a way that viewers and characters in the show are willing to accept. On the other hand, in magical realism, the author makes little or no attempt to explain, because it’s not about developing a larger fantasy world or a plausible system of magic, it’s about taking the character on a specific emotional journey. Once the journey is over, the magic often disappears or goes away until it is needed by a future character looking to undertake a similar emotional journey.
Hopefully this article has given you a greater understanding of magical realism in middle grade literature and has inspired you to go out and read, or even write, some magical middle grade in 2019.

Kim Ventrella is the author of the middle grade novels SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW. Her short story, ‘Jingle Jangle,’ will appear in the NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK anthology releasing in 2020. Her works tackle tough topics with big doses of whimsy, hope and, of course, magic.

Friday, April 26, 2019

ALL OF ME by Chris Baron

I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review an ARC of Chris Baron's forthcoming middle grade debut, ALL OF ME.

 find ALL OF ME on
Ari has body-image issues. After a move across the country, his parents work selling and promoting his mother's paintings and sculptures. Ari's bohemian mother needs space to create, and his father is gone for long stretches of time on "sales" trips.

Meanwhile, Ari makes new friends: Pick, the gamer; the artsy Jorge, and the troubled Lisa. He is also relentlessly bullied because he's overweight, but he can't tell his parents―they're simply not around enough to listen.

After an upsetting incident, Ari's mom suggests he go on a diet, and she gives him a book to help. But the book―and the diet―can’t fix everything. As Ari faces the demise of his parents' marriage, he also feels himself changing, both emotionally and physically. Here is a much-needed story about accepting the imperfect in oneself and in life.

Ari’s voice pulled me right in – the story, written in free verse, is compulsively readable. Ari’s struggles, including body image, bullying, and family instability, are raw and achingly real, but moments of joy and growth throughout the story balance the heartbreak with hope.

I briefly worried that this was shaping up to be an “and then I lost weight and life was great!” story (which I would’ve really had a problem with), but no – Ari’s transformation is about so much more than physical change. His internal change is far more significant, as he grows comfortable in his own skin, so to speak, realizing he is all he needs to be.

I loved Ari’s character, and also especially loved his friend Lisa. Both were wonderfully complex and sympathetic characters. I did miss Pick when he disappeared midway through the book (off to Australia); I suspect this was somehow necessary for Ari’s character development, but I missed the reasoning behind it. 

The intensity of emotions in this story make it well-suited to the verse format. A powerful story, beautifully told. Highly recommended.

ALL OF ME, by Chris Baron
ISBN: 9781250305985
Feiwel and Friends, June 2019

Monday, April 22, 2019

Why Everyone Seems to be Writing the Same Book You're Writing

It happens to every writer.

You're toiling away, writing the world's most amazing novel, when you discover that another author has

a) written about the same subject
b) even worse, written a bestseller about the same subject (!)
c) and/or already used your title

It's like when you're pregnant: Suddenly everyone in the world seems to be pregnant!

This didn't happen to me when I wrote It's a Mystery, Pig Face!, but it sure happened when I wrote The Frame-Up. I'd finished my novel, the central tenet of which is that all original artwork is alive but they don't want us to know they're alive.

Granted, paintings coming to life is NOT a new idea, so it can hardly be surprising that other writers would mine the same subject.

But when my book was published last spring, two other similarly-themed books came out at about the same time that, had I know they were being written, might have intimidated me into not writing my own. And oddly enough, they were also written by Canadian authors. Was there something in the arctic air back in 2016 or so that seeped into our bones and told us we needed to write about paintings?


Fortunately, I did not know they were being written, and it turns out there is more than enough room for different takes on an old story.

But it got me to thinking: Why is this a not infrequent occurrence?

Last year, I had the brilliant (to me) idea of writing a Miss Marple book for middle graders.

I got forty pages into the task when I abandoned the project. It just wasn't coming naturally to me. And no matter how much I tweaked the plot, I wasn't in love with the story. And I don't know about you, but I need to love the story if I'm going to work on it for months (and months and months...)

Fast forward to March 2019, and I am browsing in my local Indie bookstore.

A wonderful cover catches my eye:

Yup - the talented Lena Jones had not only beat me to the punch, she'd done a much better job of it than my poor effort.

I felt relief when I read it for two reasons:

  1. It was good and I really did want to see an Agatha Christie Miss Marple-is series for kids come to life
  2. I hadn't spent months pitching it only to discover this already existed. The world has plenty of room for multiple zombie/witches/abandoned orphans/paintings/fill-in-your-own-blank stories, but two Miss Marple series for kids is a little too close for comfort I think.

So what are we to do as authors? And why does this even happen anyway?

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the concept of multiple discovery, "a term used in the scientific community whenever two or more scientists in different parts of the world come up with the same idea at the same time". 

I didn't steal my Agatha Christie idea from Lena; we just had the same wonderful thought at about the same time: wouldn't the world benefit from this kind of story (and the answer is yes, it would, and you should definitely read the Agatha Oddly series!).

If the idea truly compels you, you're going to write about it regardless. You're going to write it even though you know you there are already seven billion alien books out there.  Because you're compelled to write it.  I wasn't compelled to write my Agatha Christie book, but I couldn't NOT write The Frame-Up, just like I couldn't NOT write my next book, The CopyCat

Any maybe, just maybe, there's room for seven billion and one alien books because you've found the twist that no one thought about before and that we've all been waiting for.

It seems to me that coming up with ideas for what we're going to write about is the most mystical aspect of writing.

Becoming enthralled with a story idea is the jet fuel that launches months of hard work, sleepless nights, and great joy.

Even if our book is never published (I have a thick folder of projects that will never see the light of day), we know that this book wants us to write it. 

It's our twist on an old idea, our gift to the grand creativity of this world.

But what if I had written that Agatha Christie for kids series? 

Well, I like to think mine would be so different that there might have been room for two such books. I'll never know, thank goodness. 

But the reality is, we don't know what other people are working on at any given time. We can only write the best book we can write. And hope for the best.

Perhaps when you abandon a book (because you likely will at some point) you will soothe yourself with the idea that this story was NOT yours to tell.

The next time you feel like someone else has beat you to an idea or published a similarly-themed book, remember: You are not alone. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Reading to Middle Schoolers - A Substitute Teacher's POV

Hi all. It's great to be back with MGminded!

Along with my busy schedule as parent and writer, I substitute teach in our local public middle school. I'll share an experience recently where I subbed all day for a Family and Consumer Science Teacher. This itself is unremarkable. Lessons were prepared ahead of time and classes went smoothly, except for the period I had to kick two kids out of class, but that's another blog post entirely.

The last class of the day for this teacher was a sixth grade ELL class, which stands for English Language Learning, and I'd brought my recently purchased copy of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez.

At the beginning of the class, I explained their lesson and told them if they worked quietly, I'd read some of the book out loud during the last part of the class period for them.

Wow did they work quietly. For twenty-five minutes or so, they worked, without a sound. Just so you understand me here, I'm in a room with twelve or thirteen sixth graders. Sixth graders, at the end of the day! Do you understand me here?

When their assignment time was up, I began reading to them. I thought they'd start messing around, making noise, getting up out of their seats, perhaps tossing pencil lead or something, but no. They sat so still and quietly as I read the first chapter, I couldn't believe it.

Throughout that whole first chapter, I had ZERO interruptions from them. As I contemplated reading on, I asked the class if they liked it and wanted me to continue reading aloud, or if they wanted to play one of their games or something else for the remainder of the period.

You guessed it. I was peppered with "Keep reading!" "Don't stop!" and all kinds of variations of these comments.

I read for the rest of the quiet period, and when I texted their regular teacher the following day about how it went, here's our text message exchange.

I think these students connected with the characters on several levels - aside from the fact that the writing grips and engages the reader (and listener.) Perhaps the response wouldn't have been so strong had I read from Tom Sawyer, but I'll never know.

What I do know, is from now on, I will take a few of my favorite books with me to school when I substitute teach in case there arises an opportunity to read to kids such as this.

Happy reading,
Rob Polk

Monday, April 8, 2019

THE COLLECTORS by Jacqueline West

One of my favorite middle grade reads of the past year has been THE COLLECTORS by Jacqueline West. In middle grade circles, she’s probably best known as the author of the New York Times bestselling series THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, the first book of which I’ve used as a read-aloud title in my classroom. When I saw THE COLLECTORS was being released last fall, it was one of those books that I pre-ordered and counted down the days remaining until I’d be able to read it.

I’ll let the text from the cover speak for itself:

Look closely.

Do you see that marble in the grass? The tiny astronaut with one arm raised? The old-fashioned key in the gutter?

Van sees them. Van notices all sorts of things. But usually no one notices Van. He’s small, and he’s always the new kid, easy to overlook. Then one day he watches a mysterious girl and a silver squirrel dive into a fountain to steal a coin.

And—even more strange—they notice Van.

Suddenly, the world changes for Van. It becomes a place where wishes are real. A place where wishes can be collected, just like his little treasures. A place where wishes can come true.
But that’s not always a good thing.

Not all wishes are good, you see, and even good wishes can have unintended consequences.
And Van is about to find out just how big those consequences can be.

Like THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE series, THE COLLECTORS revolves around a main character who has found a way to bridge between his mundane everyday life and a hidden, magical realm barely removed from the world he knows. He encounters a variety of characters, both human and non-human, trying to claim his loyalties. With so many strange things happening to him all at once, the decisions Van has to make and the stakes he faces become increasingly complicated.

West tells her story in THE COLLECTORS with a mysterious and slightly menacing tone, along with humorous touches throughout, in a voice reminiscent of Neil Gaiman. The work she has put into creating a fantastic world with relatable characters and thoughtfully crafted figurative language makes this book one that will feed the imagination of any middle grade reader.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen

Welcome to a mystic world of witches and shape-shifters, amulets and magic berries, where unlikely friendships persevere across continents, through foreign towns, and into forests thick with thorns, thieves, and horror. Welcome to Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen. 

In this delightful coming-of-age novel, the title character, Libby Frye, embarks on a journey to discover about the truth of her family, their secret magical past, and more importantly, the stunning truth of who she is and who she can become.

This story is a delightful read, rife with details and culture from Germany. The author, J. L, McCreedy, dovetails the story with tales of classic literature from the legendary Brothers Grimm, drawing the reader on a fantastic journey through their homeland and the town of their birth.

The fantasy elements of Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen are sure to delight. For instance, in a story where family trees are real, living things, with long memories and a flair for detail, family takes on a whole new level of meaning.

This novel is sprinkled with splendid insights, woven naturally into the narrative.

"...when your mind is full of ideas, you're never really alone."

"You have a strength about you that gives you courage."

"...sometimes sheer force of will can compensate for what nature doesn't give you."

Order your copy of Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen at amazon. And if you enjoy this first installment, be sure to check out the next two books in the series, Liberty Frye and the Sails of Fate, and Liberty Frye and the Emperor's Tomb.

J.L. McCreedy first learned a love of writing (and developed and incurable condition of wanderlust) while growing up in Southeast Asia as the child of missionaries. She holds a B.A. in English and a law degree, freelances as a writer and consultant for charitable organizations, and whenever possible, drags her splendid husband across the globe on ill-planned, shoestring adventures.
She is currently living in Borneo where she is working on her next novel. Find out more about her writing and her travels at

Monday, April 1, 2019

GOOD ENOUGH, by Jen Petro-Roy

I was lucky to receive an advanced copy of Jen Petro-Roy's GOOD ENOUGH, a middle grade book that tells the story of 12-year-old Riley's treatment for anorexia. 

Told through diary entries, this is the story of Riley's time at a treatment center for kids with eating disorders. Rather than showing a character with an eating disorder pre-treatment, this book begins with recovery and shows Riley's journey throughout the process.

Life at the treatment center isn't easy. Riley is lonely. She misses her friends. She wants to recover, yet she's scared to eat. She misses running on the track team, yet realizes she turned running into something harmful.

When Riley starts to recover, her hospital roommate starts exercising in the middle of the night. Her behavior triggers Riley to slip back to her old, destructive behaviors. Recovery is hard. Riley isn't sure she'll be able to stay healthy once she's released from the treatment center. Will she be able to deal with her dieting mom, her gymnastics-star sister, and the school bully who picks on her weight and food choices?

My rating: FIVE STARS.  I could not put this book down. I felt deep empathy for Riley and her journey toward recovery. Young readers will come away with a deeper understanding of the complexities of eating disorders. The author, an eating disorder survivor and an advocate for recovery, lived this reality. There is heart in this story. And truth. This is a must-read for middle graders and teens.

For a chance to win an ARC of GOOD ENOUGH along with Jen Petro-Roy's You Are Enough, a middle-grade nonfiction book designed to help young readers as they begin to recover from eating disorders, over-exercising, and body image issues, leave a comment and your email address below. A winner will be drawn at random.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Interview with Angie Smibert

Hi Angie, so happy that you could stop by Middle Grade Minded! Welcome! 

First, can you tell us a little bit about the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series and your latest book, Lingering Echoes?

Certainly! The Ghosts’ series is a bit history, a bit mystery, and a bit fantasy. It’s set in a small coal mining camp in the Southwest Virginia at the beginning of World War II. Bone Phillips (12) discovers she has a Gift, that in fact several members of her family have the Reed Gifts as her grandmother calls them. Bone’s Gift is the ability to see the ‘ghosts’ inside ordinary objects. People leave imprints on objects, particularly in emotionally charged moments of their lives. With a touch, Bone can see that moment—whether it’s good or bad. And she’s not terribly happy with her Gift. In fact, she loves stories that are not real!

In the first book—aptly called Bone’s Gift—she has to use her Gift to find out what really happened when her mother died. Meanwhile, he father gets drafted, a WPA worker comes to collect folktales in the area, and Bone has to go live with her dreaded Aunt Mattie. The latter does not end well.

In this new book, Bone’s best friend, Silent Will Kincaid, brings her a jelly jar to read. It was in his father’s dinner bucket, which Will inherited when he went to work in the mines. The jar has a peculiar power of its own: it can catch sounds. Bone has to figure out its mystery—and whether or not it has something to do with Will losing his voice after his father died.

Lingering Echoes is set around Halloween, so it also involves pranks, ghost stories, graveyards, jack o’lanterns, and, of course, Appalachian folktales. Did I mention that the series has many App folktales interwoven into it?

This series mixes history and fantasy in an intriguing way. What drew you to this type of story?

First of all, I love stories that mix genres, particularly history and fantasy. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, for instance, is one of my favorite books (so far) of this century. The Night Circus. The Golem and the Jinni. The Diviners. I could go on… They all mix history and fantasy in really interesting ways.

Mostly, though, the Ghosts’ series begged to be a mix of history and magic/magical realism. I started out exploring the place and its history. (Big Vein is loosely based a real place where my grandfather and his brothers were miners!) Then I came to realize our region (Appalachia) has its own magic born out of its history, people, nature, folktales, and so forth.  And I wanted the stories to have fairytale / folklore feel to them.

I didn’t realize that you teach young adult and speculative fiction for Southern New Hampshire University’s creative writing M.F.A. program. How cool is that? Regale us with your knowledge, pretty please. What’s your top tip for aspiring YA or MG speculative fiction writers?

The program is fairly new, so I have only been teaching YA fiction for a couple of terms. So far, I’ve noticed aspiring writers—whether in the program or elsewhere—have trouble grasping the idea of “show-don’t-tell.” And it’s actually a really tricky thing to learn and even trickier to explain or teach. How do you sink your readers into the POV character’s head so that you’re showing them the story rather than telling it? Nalo Hopkinson has a fantastic TED Ed lesson about it—and it’s probably the best explanation of ‘show-don’t-tell’ (although she doesn’t call it that) that I’ve seen yet. I defer to her for my top writing tip:

Another tip? Read a lot—in your genre and outside of it. You never know what might inspire you.

Now on to the most important topic of all: tell me about your dog. I hear he’s named after a telescope? (photo please :)

Yes, he is. Hubble is a nearly three-year-old black-lab mix. Oh, and a foster fail. ;) I fostered (and adopted ) him the summer I attended Launch Pad astronomy camp for writers. Even before the camp and even before I worked at NASA’s Kennedy Space, I was a space nut. And the Hubble Space Telescope—once the problem with its mirror was fixed on orbit—has been one of the most fantastic telescopes ever. It has produced some of the most exciting and breath-taking glimpses of our truly awe-inspiring universe so far. Hubble the dog, though, is a goofy, sweet boy who loves playing fetch, walking the neighborhood, and going to Starbucks for a pup cup.  My nicknames for him are Hubblepuff (yes, he would be a Hufflepuff if sorted) and Big Tasty (because he reminds me of Barry from the Goldbergs). 

Thanks so much to Angie Smibert for stopping by Middle Grade Minded! To find out more about Angie, visit her at

Monday, March 4, 2019

BONE HOLLOW by Kim Ventrella

Today we're presenting an interview with one of our contributors, Kim Ventrella, about her new MG book BONE HOLLOW!

What can you tell us about BONE HOLLOW without giving too much away?

At its heart, BONE HOLLOW is the story of a boy and his dog, but it’s so much more! It also features one ornery chicken, a candlelit cottage in the woods, friendship, mystery and big doses of heart and hope.

Here’s a teaser:

In retrospect, it was foolish to save that chicken. On the roof. In the middle of a thunder storm. But what choice did Gabe have? If he hadn’t tried to rescue Ms. Cleo’s precious pet, she would’ve kicked him out. And while Ms. Cleo isn’t a perfect guardian, her house is the only home Gabe knows.

After falling off the roof, Gabe wakes up in a room full of tearful neighbors. To his confusion, they’re all acting strange; almost as if they think he’s dead. But Gabe’s not dead. He feels fine! So why do they insist on holding a funeral? And why does everyone scream in terror when Gabe shows up for his own candlelight vigil?

Scared and bewildered, Gabe flees with his dog, Ollie, the only creature who doesn’t tremble at the sight of him. When a mysterious girl named Wynne offers to let Gabe stay at her cozy cottage in a misty clearing, he gratefully accepts. Yet Wynne disappears from Bone Hollow for long stretches of time, and when a suspicious Gabe follows her, he makes a mind-blowing discovery. Wynne is Death and has been for over a century. Even more shocking . . . she’s convinced that Gabe is destined to replace her.

One thing that struck me about your first book, SKELETON TREE, was how it came across as a scary mystery at first, but revealed an emotional resonance by the end. How would you compare the two books?

Readers of BONE HOLLOW should expect much the same! It’s part contemporary fantasy, part mystery, but with a strong emotional core. As a writer, I’m always looking for those moments of emotional catharsis and connection. Part of the fun for me is to take something very light and whimsical, and twist it in such a way that it reveals those deeper layers. It’s about playing with reader expectations, and also about exploring those darker topics while never losing the sense of playfulness and hope.

Where did the idea for BONE HOLLOW come from? Did you come up with this after SKELETON TREE, or was it an idea you've been developing for a longer period of time?

I came up with BONE HOLLOW after I wrote SKELETON TREE, as a way to explore the same theme from a new point of view. Although it is a stand-alone, readers who are familiar with SKELETON TREE will see how BONE HOLLOW plays with and expands on the fantasy world that I created in my first book.

My hope is that readers will come away from these books with a new perspective on life or, in this case, death. In both stories, I’ve tried to create an engaging fantasy world filled with humor, whimsy and many light touches, but I’m also wanting to explore darker topics to show that there can be light and beauty there as well. Loss is one of those things that even very young children encounter, often with the loss of a pet or grandparent, and one of my goals in both books is to help young readers develop a framework for processing their feelings surrounding death that acknowledges the sadness, but also opens the door to hope. BONE HOLLOW expands on this theme, but tackles it from the perspective of Death, rather than the other way around.

Both books have strong supernatural themes to them. I know this is something of an interest of yours. Would you like to be known for writing this type of book, or are you interested in working with other genres at some point?

For me, spooky stories are all about possibility. About discovering a magical world beyond the mundane, and I think this is why I love writing spooky. I am a terrible cynic in real life. I don’t believe in anything fun, like ghosts, magical skeletons or an afterlife, but in fiction I can explore all of those things and create a world in which unlikely possibilities really do happen.

So, yes, I LOVE writing stories featuring magical or supernatural elements, but I’m also very interested in expanding into other genres. Writing stories without fantasy elements is a huge challenge for me, and I’m ready to learn, explore and grow, while never straying too far from my spooky roots. J  

When you're writing something you know will be scary, do you have any self-imposed limits on what content you'll include? Were there any ideas you wanted to use in the story that, at some point in the book's development, you were convinced to take out because of content?

Not for BONE HOLLOW or SKELETON TREE, but I am forever being told that my stories are too creepy. Imagine that! I have a very scary short story coming out in the NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK collection releasing in 2020, and I did have to cut some for that--but just one line. The editor, Jonathan Maberry, wrote, “I mean, there are some really gory descriptions, but I would have loved them as a kid.” Best feedback ever, and I was definitely that kid who would say, ‘Bring on the scary!’

That’s one of the great things about scary stories. You can always close the book if it gets to be too much.

How do you see the role of scary stories in middle grade literature?

I think scary stories have a hugely important and positive role to play in middle grade literature, but first I should probably make a distinction. I like to think of SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW as spooky, rather than scary. They certainly have macabre elements, but they fit much more in the arena of magical realism or contemporary fantasy than horror. I love to sprinkle a little spookiness into heartfelt, sometimes sad, stories that focus on characters going through difficult times, but ultimately coming out with a renewed sense of hope in the end.

That being said, scary, spooky and generally creepy stories are so important. They give kids the opportunity to confront and overcome their monsters within the safe space of a book. They grab kids’ interest and have the potential to turn reluctant readers into avid readers. So, so many benefits, but I also think that using a spooky or fantastical story framework can be a great way to ease kids into a discussion of real-life difficult issues. The fantasy world adds distance between the reader and the real-world issue, creating a buffer or safety zone between the reader and difficult topics like death.

KIM VENTRELLA is the author of the middle grade novels Skeleton Tree (2017) and Bone Hollow (2019, Scholastic Press), and she is a contributor to the upcoming New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology (2020, HarperCollins). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Kim has held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff at a women’s shelter, but her favorite job title is author. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Find out more at or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram: @KimVentrella.

Friday, March 1, 2019

How to Make Scary Stories Come Alive

“Scary, Mommy, it’s scary.” 
“Ok, honey, just a minute. Go back upstairs.”

Not exactly one of my parenting triumphs. At this point, Jessie’s pretty young, my hubby’s out of town, and I’m on an urgent family conference call. She’s seen Jurassic Park before and enjoyed being “scared.” She’ll be fine watching the sequel upstairs with her siblings. Right? Wrong.

I’d forgotten the dreaded picnic scene. You remember the one, where a little girl wanders away from her family and is mauled by tiny dinosaurs? That was too much for my little girl. But it was an excellent scary scene.

How to Write Scary

There’s lots to know when writing scary scenes, such as what type of scene you’re shooting for, how to write it for maximum effect, who your audience is, and why you’re writing something scary in the first place. 

Know the Types of Scary Scenes

Suspense: These are scenes that provoke a sense of anxious uncertainty. Readers feel brought to the edge of their seats. These are great cliffhanger scenes that keep your audience reading. Another example of a suspense scene is when the reader knows something the character doesn’t (that there’s a monster in the closet, for instance).
Spooky: Spooky scenes can include humor or poke lighthearted fun at fear. Think Casper the Friendly Ghost, Ghostbusters, or Goosebumps movies and books.
Terror: Terror scenes provoke intense fear in the reader. These may keep readers looking over the shoulder or jumping at odd noises.
Horror: Very similar to terror, these provoke an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. Horror scenes may or may not include gore.
Fantasy/Paranormal/SciFi: These are any type of scary scene with supernatural or futuristic elements
Psychological: Of course, there is an element of psychology to every scary scene. But in this case, psychology is the main factor. Examples: when the fear is all in the characters’ head, split personalities, social anxiety.

Consider Your Audience

Genre standards and audience preferences should influence how you write your scary scenes, how much gore to include, how light or heavy-handed to be with the frightening elements. In middle grade fiction, story elements can be frightening and suspenseful, but are usually not graphic. Ease your readers into frightening scenes by first having scary things rumored or happening to friends of the main characters. If you write too graphically or intensely for a younger audience, they may be too frightened to finish the book. Gatekeepers such as parents, teachers, and librarians will likely screen the book out.

Make Them Care

Scary scenes are ineffective if the reader doesn’t care what happens to your character. Create relatable characters. Show them being kind. Show their flaws. Show what matters to them, and why. Show their dreams and aspirations. Then threaten all that. Your readers will shudder.

Use Concrete Details to Make it Real

Concrete details ground readers so you can tap their emotions. Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of this in Mockingjay, the third of the Hunger Games trilogy, which is obviously YA, not MG, but still. An amazing example.

I’m referring to the scene of the girl in the yellow coat. 

Katniss is trying to blend into the crowd. A girl notices her. The reader absorbs the image of a little girl in a lemon yellow coat. Sweet. But possibly a threat, since she’s noticed Katniss. But a little girl. A lemon yellow coat. Sweet. But danger. Hmm…reader is feeling anxious.

Gunfire rips through the crowd. Katniss next sees the little girl, screaming beside a motionless woman. We are riveted, gut-punched, and feel the girl’s pain. Then bullets mow her down, too. 

These concrete details make the scene come alive on an emotional level and heighten the reader’s horror at the situation overall, as well as our fear for Katniss, in particular.

Use Setting to Heighten Emotion

Use setting elements to highlight the frightening aspects of your scene. Even a sunny courtyard can have shadows, strangling vines, and blood-red flowers. Better yet, use aspects of the scene to remind the character (and your reader) of what’s at stake. Do forget-me-not blossoms remind her of her brother's eyes? What about when the flowers are trampled and dying?

Examine the Purposes of Your Scary Scenes

Are you trying to force your character to their breaking point? If so, why? Are you showing the character develop a new strength or skill? Will this fearful situation break your character or will they triumph? Will they stick to their values or violate them? What are the mental and physical consequences of how they react?

Scary Writing Resources

Back to Jessie and Jurassic Park. I’m happy to say she suffered no permanent damage for her early exposure to something scary sans Mom. She’s an avid reader and doesn’t shy away from horror films or life’s adventures.

What are your fave scary writing tips or MG horror novels?

Monday, February 25, 2019


I was lucky to read an early draft of THE CARNIVAL OF WISHES AND DREAMS, by Jenny Lundquist, author of Plastic Polly, Seeing Cinderella, The Princess in the Opal Mask, The Opal Crown, The Charming Life of Izzy Malone, and The Wondrous World of Violet Barnaby.
This sweet friendship story offers a happy ending that School Library Journal says "tweens will gobble up". THE CARNIVAL OF WISHES AND DREAMS is the story of three girls who each receive notes asking them to meet the anonymous sender at midnight at the carnival Ferris Wheel:

Audrey McKinley can’t believe someone would ask her to ride the Ferris Wheel. Everyone knows she’s afraid of heights and the last time she rode the Ferris Wheel it ended with a panic attack. But ever since her dad lost his job after a factory fire, he’s been working too little. The carnival gives him a chance for seasonal work, and she plans to spend the evening checking up on him and making sure he does his job.

Grace Chang isn’t supposed to go to the carnival. It’s too close to the burned remains of the factory where her firefighter father lost his life. They always rode the Ferris Wheel together, so that’s also something Grace isn’t supposed to do. But since her mom announced they’ll be moving away from town the day after the carnival, Grace is sick of only doing things she’s supposed to do. She’ll be at the carnival, and she is definitely riding the Ferris Wheel.

Harlow Cohen is surprised anyone would want to ride the Ferris Wheel with her. Harlow used to be popular. But ever since her grandparents’ factory burned down and so many people lost their jobs, many of the kids at school blame her—and her rich family—for their own parents’ worsening economic situations.

I loved how these girls' stories came together! Told in alternating chapters from each girls' perspective, this book is sure to be a tween favorite!

For your chance to win an ARC plus some great book swag, leave a comment below. (Be sure to include your email address.) A winner will be chosen at random.

For more information about the author: 


Twitter: @Jenny_Lundquist,