Monday, February 15, 2021

Guest post by Jen Petro-Roy, author of Life in the Balance AND GIVEAWAY!

We’re all Real People 

When I was in kindergarten, I thought my teacher lived at school. It made sense, didn’t it? That was the only place I saw her—when I got there in the morning, she was there, setting up the classroom, putting out the toys, and greeting me with a smile on her face. When I left, she was still at school. So she obviously lived there….right?

I don’t remember all the details, but I apparently was utterly in shock after running in to my teacher at the grocery store. Why was she…away from the school? Did she…have her own home? Was she…her own person?

It’s not just kindergartners who struggle with this fact. Growing up, it was often hard to reconcile the reality that adults weren’t just there to discipline and take care of me. I wasn’t selfish, but I was self-centered in that little kid way, where my reality was central to my mind. I didn’t always understand that the authority figures around me—my parents—were their own people, too. They had their own history, their own problems and struggles. 

In my new book, Life in the Balance, Veronica is confronted with the reality that her mother has a problem. Veronica’s mother is an alcoholic, and after struggling for a long time with her addiction, she’s decided to enter a treatment center. 

Sadly, there are so many kids dealing with this same reality. Veronica is lucky in that her mother doesn’t protest toohard—she doesn’t fight back against the truth that she needs additional help—but Veronica is still affected by the turn her family has taken. After dealing with her mom’s addiction, the missed softball games, the late nights “out for drinks” with colleagues, and the lying, Veronica now has to come to terms with the fact that her mother will be leaving for an extended period of time.

That her mother has to take care of herself before she can take care of Veronica.

Adults are people, too, and I think the middle grade fiction is such a wonderful place to explore this reality. I love writing for middle schoolers because of where they are in life—that beautiful, confusing middle zone where they’re still so reliant on family members but also starting to define their life outside of the home. Where they’re clinging more tightly to friends and trying to establish their identity but still want that closeness with their parents.

In Life in the Balance, Veronica isn’t sure exactly what that identity is yet—she’s always played softball but is now starting to fall in love with singing. She wants to be close to her family but her mom is drifting away. And her best friend doesn’t understand the depth of Veronica’s anger at what is going on.

Kids get angry. Kids feel.

Because just like adults are humans, kids are, too. We all interact with each in a complicated dance. And that’s what the best books show—the difficulties of being human and of being in relationships. The way we all affect each other, in good and bad ways.



Jen Petro-Roy writes "honest books with heart," about kids who are strong, determined, unsure, struggling to fit in, bubbly, shy, and everything in between. She is the author of P.S. I MISS YOU, GOOD ENOUGH, YOU ARE ENOUGH, and LIFE IN THE BALANCE (out February 2021), all from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends.

When she isn't writing, Jen can be found reading, playing board games, belting out songs in the car to embarrass her two daughters, and working as an eating disorder awareness advocate.


Twitter: @jpetroroy

Instagram: @jpetroroy



Leave a comment below between February 15th and February 20th and you'll be entered to win your own copy of Jen's wonderful new book!

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Saturday, January 30, 2021

How (and Why!) to Dress Your Characters

As your characters wend their way through their novel, bravely facing the obstacles you throw at them, you may ask yourself - what should they wear? And does it really matter?

Well, yes, it does. And here's why. You can pack a ton of information into your characters' wardrobe, from backstory to mood to carefully placed plots elements. Plus, in real life, people wear clothes. Don't neglect this important part of setting and characterization.

Setting, you may ask? How in the world can clothes influence the setting of a book? J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. Without the wizard robes and pointed hats, Hogwarts would be a very different place indeed. 

Uniforms with Purpose

Uniforms serve several functions in story writing. They provide the reader immediate clues about what type of story and world they've entered. A book packed with characters in army clothes will be quite different from one featuring ball gowns.

Uniforms can create unity among characters and highlight differences between groups. This is also clear in the Harry Potter books where Muggles dress very much like you and I but wizards cannot seem to figure out the intricacies of normal Muggle attire. Rowling also uses the standard wizarding world uniform to accentuate the times Harry and the other characters are away from the magical setting. 

Uniforms can also provide simplicity for both the reader and the writer, who won't need to rack their brains for distinctive, character-consistent outfits. Instead, small differences between similarly dressed characters can reveal their traits and mood. A rumpled outfit vs. a sleek, well-maintained one. 

Again in Harry Potter, Lupin's shabby robes reveal a great deal about his backstory, while Professor Lockhart's garish ones accentuate his narcissism. Ron Weasley's ancient dress robes contrast with Harry's new ones, highlighting Ron's poverty and providing an opportunity to show how each boy feels about it. Even Parvati Patil's butterfly hair clip - not the standard dress code - gives us information about who she is in contrast to those around her.

Dressing for the Weather

Casting characters in big bulky coats versus shorts or swimsuits establishes the type of weather and climate they are in. If they are missing a much-needed coat or sunhat, that creates potential problems for the character to work through. Similarly, when a character chooses a bright yellow raincoat, are they shaking their fist at mother nature, expressing a need for attention, or simply choosing from their limited options? The clothing begs the question. As the author, you decide how much to answer.

When dressing your character, consider how the weather changes throughout the day in your setting. Consider changes across weeks or months and adapt your characters' wardrobes accordingly. 

Clothing Sets the Mood

Perhaps you've heard the phrase, "Let me slip into something more comfortable," often given with a wink and a sly grin. There's no doubt that clothes set the mood for a given situation. Clothing choices often indicate characters' hopes or their anticipation of how the day may progress. They can also reflect characters' moods or their attempts to disguise how they really feel. Clothing can indicate the general mood of a place, like the gray clothes often featured in stories about orphanages.

Time and Fashion

Here's a few examples:
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis features girls wearing dresses, typical of 1940s England.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card features characters wearing futuristic battle gear.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan dresses its characters in modern clothes.

Clothing Reveals Character

We've all heard it before, you can't judge a book by it's cover. This is meant to prevent hasty, ill-informed opinion making. However, as an author, you can use clothing to reveal a lot about your character. Or lack of clothing - consider The Emperor's New Clothes. 

Cassandra Clare, author of The Mortal Instruments series and its many spinoffs, uses fashion to great effect. Her descriptions of clothing and accessories is so seamlessly woven into the story (pun intended!)
that it doesn't slow the momentum. Instead, it becomes part of what the reader looks forward to enjoying. In the list below, note the contrasting traits that are revealed by the clothing of each character.
Isabel - long dresses, tight clothes, high heels, and an electrum whip wound around her arm
Clary - jeans and tennis shoes, T-shirts or tank tops, a backpack
Alec - dark clothes, including old sweaters
Magnus - flashy clothes with sequins, leather, and plenty of glitter

Whatever your story, put some thought and effort into dressing your characters. Your readers will thank you!

Monday, January 18, 2021

Amari and the Night Brothers Review

When Amari gets kicked out of school for fighting with a kid who teased her about her missing brother, her mom has no idea what she will do for Amari's education. While Quinton’s disappearance is mysterious, most people think he got involved in something illegal and is probably long dead. Amari knows her brother was too smart to do anything like that but no one believes her. Until a magical briefcase shows up and has a message for Amari, from her brother.


The cryptic message leads her to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, a secret organization that trained Quinton and hired him to investigate supernatural happenings including chasing down evil magicians. Amari is eager to join the Bureau with the sole purpose of using her time to investigate her brother's disappearance and find him. But when her initial evaluation yields an unexpected result, she is thrust into another situation that makes her painfully aware of how hard it is to be different, and from a background that isn't appreciated. Amari struggles to prove herself, so she can continue to look for clues to save Quinton while navigating an unknown environment with an evil magician bent on punishing the supernatural world. But if she can't solve the mystery of Quinton's disappearance before her training runs out, she'll be back home with her memory erased and no closer to rescuing her brother.


Amari and the Night Brothers contains a magical and imaginative world with a wonderfully diverse cast that you want to dive right into and never stop turning pages. Amari is a strong main character who has been brought up in a world where the system is stacked against her. She is painfully aware of the hurdles in front of her because she is poor and black. Despite the constant roadblocks, Amari rises to the occasion and even when she wants to quit she reminds herself what her brother would do in that situation. She continues to push ahead even when tempted by a seemingly easy road that would sacrifice her internal moral compass and lead to terrible path. Ultimately nothing stops her from standing up for what she believes in. And it’s wrapped up in a story filled with surprises and intrigue at every step along the journey. The themes are so beautifully woven into the adventure and mystery and the story demonstrates the importance of having role models and allies along the way.


This is the first book I’ve read in a while that was hard to put down. I can’t think of anything that I didn’t like about the story other than it ended far too soon. Amari and the Night Brothers is the next big thing. It will be a HUGE series for young and not-so-young readers alike. Make sure you get your hands on it ASAP, because everyone will be talking about this book. I can’t believe I have to wait a whole year for the next installment because I’m ready to dive into this world all over again.



B. B. Alston started writing in middle school, entertaining his classmates with horror stories starring the whole class where not everyone survived! After several years of trying to break into publishing, he had just been accepted into a biomedical graduate program when a chance entry into a twitter pitch contest led to his signing with TBA, 20+ book deals worldwide, and even a film deal. When not writing, he can be found eating too many sweets and exploring country roads to see where they lead.


B. B. was inspired to write AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS because he couldn’t find any fantasy stories featuring Black kids when he was growing up. He hopes to show kids that though you might look different, or feel different, whatever the reason, your uniqueness needn’t only be a source of fear and insecurity. There is great strength and joy to be found in simply accepting yourself for who you are. Because once you do so, you’ll be unstoppable.


Friday, December 25, 2020

5 Tips for Including Holidays in Fiction

Holidays are an important part of every culture, and as such, can play a meaningful role in your fiction. There are several issues to examine when incorporating holiday traditions into your plot. 

1. Does the holiday function as setting or an essential plot element?

This helps determine how much weight to give the holiday in your descriptions. Does it paint a background for more important characters and events, adding richness to the story? Or is the holiday almost a character itself, perhaps returning with a vengeance throughout the years of an epic novel.

Of course, some holidays are central to the story. Think of Frosty the Snowman or The Polar Express. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a great example of a holiday representing more than simple background to the story.

On the other hand, in The Harry Potter Series, while Halloween and Christmas both appear in almost every book, they add richness, rather than being essential to the plot.

2. Does everyone in your novel celebrate this holiday? 

Is this holiday a local celebration like the Grand Lake Pelican Festival?  Particularly if you are writing a regional tale, including local festivities can add flavor to the novel. Researching them can also spark ideas. 

Keep in mind that not everyone takes part in holidays that are celebrated on a much larger scale, particularly if they originate from a specific religion. Consider how individuals or families might react to the upcoming holiday in your novel. This could be a source of tension or a spur for greater understanding among people who differ in many ways.

3. Is this holiday unique to a culture you are unfamiliar with?

If so, do as much research as possible. Read books that feature that holiday within its native culture. Study up on it through online searches. 

Perhaps most importantly, ask people who regularly celebrate that holiday for details about foods, traditions, and the meaning of the holiday within their family and larger group. This will lend authenticity to the holiday and prevent errors or assumptions that could be offensive.

If you don't know anyone who celebrates the holiday, try searching the name of the holiday on facebook or other social media. You'll likely find groups who'd be happy to answer your questions! 

I tested this with National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. Turns out in the USA, it's celebrated on the last Monday of January every year. Who knew? I can think of a few kids who would love to celebrate that!

4. How can you apply holidays to fantasy novels?

With fantasy novels, you have one major question to consider before incorporating holidays. Is this novel set in the real world? If so, then it's logical to include real world holidays, provided the fantasy subculture isn't too isolated. 

If it's set in a totally different world, you still need traditions, including holidays and other commemorations. But it will be up to you to invent them. Consider what types of celebrations would likely emerge within each culture and religion in your fantasy novel. This is a very useful exercise as it will provide greater depth to your cultures. 

Are there celebrations that conflict with each other? What foods, decorations, and other traditions are linked to each holiday? Are they widely celebrated or more regional? Is it difficult to obtain the items needed to celebrate? Are the holidays illegal in some places? If so, why?

5. Questions to ask yourself about holidays you've invented: 

How often is this holiday celebrated? What are its origins? Does this holiday originate in a faith tradition or is it commemorating something else, such as seasons changing, the discovery of light speed travel, the end of a war or freedom from dragon oppression?

It's your holiday. Make it as big, small, serious, or goofy as you like. But also consider the role it plays in your novel. 

Happy Writing and for those who celebrate it - a very Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Spooky Winter Writing Ideas

Winter is the perfect time to cozy up by a roaring fire and write some truly terrifying tales. Sure, Halloween offers some fun frights, but there's no spookier sensation than being snowed in on a long winter night. So pop some marshmallows in your hot chocolate and settle in for these spine-tingling snippets of winter inspiration.

Here Kitty, Kitty by Bats Langley

Do you know about the Yule Cat? According to Icelandic folklore, this massive feline lurks in the countryside, waiting to viciously devour anyone who hasn't received new clothes by Christmas Eve. Whoever said sweaters and socks make boring gifts better think again. 

Krampus greeting cards

We all know Krampus, the chain-wearing half-goat, half-demon, who hits naughty children with sticks, before stuffing them in his sack to be drowned, eaten or dragged off to Hell. Delightful. Of course, his greeting cards may not cater to everyone's tastes. But winter is the perfect time to give this murderous fellow a modern twist. Why not create your own winter monster to knock Krampus off his hellish throne?

Yuki-onna (ゆき女) from the Hyakkai-Zukan by Sawaki Suushi

The Yuki-onna is a spirit or yokai from Japanese folklore, often referred to as the snow woman. She appears on snowy nights, leaving no footprints, and can disappear into mist or a wisp of snow if threatened. Some say this beautiful spirit started life as a woman who perished in the cold. Now she uses her icy breath to kill unsuspecting travelers, lead travelers astray or occasionally suck the life force of weak-willed men. Variations and legends abound, but this powerful figure could certainly inspire a few shivery tales.

Figures of Grýla and her husband on the main street of Akureyri, Iceland

Forget about Krampus. Let's head back to Iceland to meet Gryla, aka the Christmas Witch. This resident of the hinterlands loves to steal misbehaving children to add a little spice to her winter stew. Gryla, which translates loosely to growler, has been described as Iceland's first feminist, doing whatever she wants, including eating her husband on one especially boring winter afternoon. Read more on Smithsonian Mag's website, and let Gryla serve as some gruesome inspiration for you this holiday season.

That's it for our stomach-turning tour of winter terrors. I hope you've found a little inspiration for your next spooky tale, or simply another reason to stay safe by the fire over the long winter months.


KIM VENTRELLA is the author of the middle grade novels The Secret Life of Sam (Fall 2020, HarperCollins), Hello, Future Me (Aug. 2020, Scholastic), Bone Hollow and Skeleton Tree, as well as a contributor to the middle grade horror anthology, Don’t Turn Out the Lights. 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 person 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 her on Twitter and Instagram @kimventrella.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Writing Mentors

As 2020 comes to a close, I've been thinking a lot about the people in my life who have mentored me in my writing life.

2020 has been a rough year. 

To get myself through some of the darkest days, I have tried hard to count my blessings.

And in terms of my writing life, those blessings are about the people who've mentored me. 

Some of them know they have, others may suspect they have, and some have no idea, but they have all had a positive impact on my writing life, either through their support, how they inspire me, or by telling me the truth about how things could be better. 

It's important to reflect on those people who've helped us along the way, for it reminds us that we can mentor others in the same way.

So here's my list. I'd love to hear about yours!

My family

My mother and sister and cousins encouraged me to write, even when I forced them to read such amazing books as BlueTop Orphanag. Where is the e? Who knows? I was nine years old!

We need our families to support us on this journey, and the family I was born into, and my current family (a husband and two kids) surely do that for me!


I must have tortured my poor language arts teacher, Mrs. Garnett.

Every day I showed up with a new story, a new poem, a book I wanted to talk to her about.

And every day, she listened patiently, gave me constructive criticism, and told me to keep going.

I did.

Meanwhile, down the hallway, our school librarian, Mrs. Smythe, allowed me to bring way more books home with me than should have been allowed. The town librarian did the same. I was a voracious reader, and tried to write a version of almost every book I read.

The magic of encouragement by someone who isn't your family is invaluable to a budding writer, and Mrs. Garnett was so important to me that I made her a character (with her permission) in my first book, It's a Mystery, Pig Face!

Other Writers

Every book I read influences me in some way.

And the books I love best, inspire me to up my game.

I've been fortunate to get to know many writers over my writing journey and every single one of them has made a huge difference in my writing.

These authors may not know that they've mentored me, but their kindness, and great books, have taught me SO much about writing! This isn't an exhaustive list, but contains some special people who often go above and beyond.

Agents and Editors

How would I describe my agent? She is the VOICE OF REASON. She helps me cull ridiculous ideas and build on those that are worthwhile, all while being stunningly optimistic. Everyone should have such a wonderful being in their writing life!

On the other hand, editors are the voyageurs, the intrepid adventurers who guide you and your book through hostile territories, pushing you onwards until you reach the real essence of the story. Miracle workers, really, they are equal parts Drill Sergeant and Truth-Teller, the kick in the pants you don't want but are lucky to get.

My agent and my editors have taught me so much, and have lead me through the jungle on MANY occasions!



Finally, some of my greatest writing mentors have been the children who read my books.

Their enthusiasm, and their truth-telling, makes me want to improve every day!

My happiest moment is when they come up with a suggestion or question that blows me away. 

They are the giver of ideas, and my inspiration!

Writing often feels like such a solitary pursuit, but when I think of my mentors, I am reminded that every book is lifted up by a whole team of supporters who inspire, guide, cajole, and ultimately celebrate my writing journey.

Oprah Winfrey once said: "A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.”

I wish you the best in 2021 and that you find the hope you need to keep going on YOUR writing journey!