Friday, June 30, 2017

Breathing Room: Or, what the ocean taught me about pacing

If you’ve been hanging around me or my social media sites much at all, you know I love the ocean. One of the things I love about it is how it always changes. Last week on one of my beach-walks, the ocean was quiet. No wind, so no waves – no crashing over the rocks, barely even any noticeable gentle-breaking against the shore. The gulls were strangely quiet, too. Perhaps they’d already had a good feed and were snoozing somewhere while their breakfast digested. In all that absence of noise, the sound I became aware of was the scritch scritch of crabs scurrying about under the rocks.

This was a very different experience than the beach on a stormy day – wind howling past my ears, surf pounding relentlessly against the rocks. The ocean on a stormy day is all about power, and not so much about subtle scritch scritching.

It’s not just the water that changes, of course. Every day the driftwood has been rearranged and new flotsam and jetsam has been offered up. There’s always some new shell or stone or piece of sea glass to catch my eye. And have you noticed how different the air smells at low tide than at high tide? All these things – the changing sights, sounds, smells – keep the beach interesting and make me want to go back again and again (and I do!).

Recently I was thinking about pacing in fiction. And just as a walk by the ocean every single day might get dull if things never changed, if it was predictable, if there was never anything new to grab my attention, so it is with fiction. If scene after scene is the same pace, I’m likely to put the book down. If it's all fast, I get tired; if it's all slow, I get bored. But if it changes, if it has both quiet moments that allow me to discover hidden treasures, and dramatic moments that take my breath away by their power or action or suspense, then I keep reading.

The variety in pacing comes naturally if you use an “action/reaction” or “scene/sequel” structure when you’re writing and revising. If you’re not quite so intentional while you’re first-drafting (like me), just think of pacing as giving readers time to breathe after those scenes that make them hold their breath.

Great pacing = giving readers time to breathe
after making them hold their breath.

Those slower scenes shouldn’t put your readers to sleep, however. You’ve likely heard the advice to “leave out the boring parts”. Think about it – which parts do you skip when you’re reading? Probably excess backstory, or some “set-up” or exposition that somehow missed getting cut during revisions. If it’s not essential, leave it out.

So what can go in the slower scenes? Each scene still has to move things forward plot-wise or character-development-wise, but the quieter scenes likely contain things such as:
  • a character reacting to what just happened
  • the aftermath of an action
  • description or essential backstory
  • introduction or continuation of a sub-plot. 
And of course, the pace can be slowed by word choice and sentence structure. So, conflict and tension, yes – you want the reader to keep turning pages – but vary it. Think breathing room.

If the ocean never changed…well, truth be told, I’d probably keep going to the beach, lol. I just love it that much. But if the pacing in a story never changes – whether it’s constantly fast, or constantly slow – I’m probably going to close the book. Want to keep me reading? Make me hold my breath, then give me time to breathe.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Review and Giveaway: The Doodle Adventures by Mike Lowery!

There is something about an interactive book, isn't there?

When Workman Publishing asked if Middle Grade Minded would be interested in reviewing the Doodle Adventures books, we jumped in with both feet.

Actually, we could have jumped in with both pencils, or crayons, or markers, or... You get the picture!

Three pages in, I was hooked.

We, the readers, are corralled by an incorrigible and long-suffering duck, Carl, to help with an important mission - in this case, flying into space to retrieve a jar stolen by Captain Sleezog, Ruler of K-82, the planet of SLUGS.

Not only do we have to help retrieve the jar, we have to help by illustrating the book, too!

Hello? We get to doodle in the book? We get to draw all over it? Count me, and every other kid who picks up this book, in.

Add in a dash of wit, some laugh-out loud story-telling, and our chance to unleash our inner Leonard da Vinci (or Mike Lowery!), this book is FUN.

Lucky for us, there are two more books in the series:

The whole time I was reading this I was thinking: Man, I wish these books existed when I was a kid!

My second thought was: Man, I wish I had these books when I took my kids on long car trips!

These books are a great way to spark creativity, imagination, and will likely inspire many readers to write and illustrate their own books!

I guarantee these will be a hit with the kids in your life!

Want to learn more about the author? Visit

And guess what? You get a chance to win your very own set of the Doodle Adventures books.  All you have to do is leave a comment below, telling me that you want to win the books and what your favourite thing to doodle was as a kid (I could draw a mean cat!)  and you'll be entered in the contest!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, June 23, 2017

2017 Diverse Middle Grade

Diversity, diversity, diversity! We are living in a time when there are more books about minority people than every before and it's glorious! I love reading about new cultures and perspectives, that's one of the greatest things about books. For a long time books with those perspectives were stifled. But things are changing for the better. These books are becoming more common, they're being marketed more, they're being read by a wider fan base. I want these books to be read, and read a lot.

So I'm putting my money where my mouth is and using my posts here at Middle Grade Minded to post about diverse books (something I've realized we haven't done enough of). This is a list of a bunch of the diverse MG books out or coming out this year. I'm sure I missed bunches, but this should be a pretty good starting point! And next month, I'm planning to start reviewing some of these books. Let's support diversity in a real way. Read them, talk about them!

Have you read any of these? Or plan to? Let me know in the comments!

This seems to have been the most anticipated diverse MG book this year. Lots of chatter all over the place and I can totally see why.  1) the pitch of this book sounds fantastic! It's compared to Jumungi! 2) Putting diversity into fantasy/sci-fi adventures is amazing. Diversity doesn't always have to be an issue or educational book. A cool book with a cool plot that also deals with lots of diversity? Amazing. I'm super pumped to read this book!

Then we have the other side of the coin, a book whose plot is built on issues of race and social class. " A timely and powerful story about a teen girl from a poor neighborhood striving for success, from acclaimed author Renée Watson."
This looks amazing too! 

I've heard a lot of great things about this book too!  This one is #OwnVoices as well. "A girl with Tourette syndrome starts a new school and tries to hide her quirks in this debut middle-grade novel in verse."

Another diverse book with fantasy elements, rooted in Caribbean folklore (how cool!) This book is a sequel to "Jumbies" which came out last year. If you want to check this one out you might want to start there! "Action-packed storytelling, diverse characters, and inventive twists on Caribbean and West African mythology and fairy tales"

"A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel"

"Harlem is home to all kinds of kids. Jin sees life passing her by from the window of her family's bodega. Alex wants to help the needy one shelter at a time, but can't tell anyone who she really is. Elvin's living on Harlem's cold, lonely streets, surviving on his own after his grandfather was mysteriously attacked...."

Another sequel. This looks to-die-for cute! "The most fabulous nine-year-old cowgirl in Texas is back in this heartwarming and hilarious sequel to The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown! Perfect for fans of Clementine and Ivy and Bean."

 "A middle grade novel in verse that tells the story of a Cuban-American boy who visits his family’s village in Cuba for the first time—and meets a sister he didn’t know he had."

"The next person who compares Chloe Cho with famous violinist Abigail Yang is going to HEAR it. Chloe has just about had it with people not knowing the difference between someone who's Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. She's had it with people thinking that everything she does well -- getting good grades, winning first chair in the orchestra, etCETera -- are because she's ASIAN...."

Pssst, this one might be by one of our own MGM bloggers! It looks super cool about a deaf girl who befriends her 86-year-old hearing neighbor  "Macy's mother... sends her next door to help eighty-six-year-old Iris Gillan, who is also getting ready to move―in her case, into an assisted living facility. Iris can't move a single box on her own and, worse, she doesn't know sign language. How is Macy supposed to understand her? But Iris has stories to tell, and she isn't going to let Macy's deafness stop her."

"An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father."

"For ten-year-old Cadence Jolly, birthdays are a constant reminder of all that has changed since her mother skipped town with dreams of becoming a star. Cadence inherited that musical soul, she can't deny it, but otherwise she couldn't be more different - she's as shy as can be."

"The first contemporary novel about a disorder that bends the lives of ten percent of all teenagers: scoliosis."

"Equal parts madcap road trip, coming-of-age story for an unusual boy, and portrait of a family overcoming a crisis." This one has a main character with autism which would be a really cool perspective to hop into! 

"Welcome to Oddity, New Mexico, where normal is odd and odd is normal."

"When two brothers decide to prove how brave they are, everything backfires—literally"

"From debut author and longtime zine-maker Celia C. Perez, The First Rule of Punk is a wry and heartfelt exploration of friendship, finding your place, and learning to rock out like no one's watching. "

Monday, June 19, 2017

On Writers Conferences: Gateway Con

This weekend I attended Gateway to Publishing Conference and Convention. There were writing seminars, pitch sessions, master classes, and even a free reader track that included free reader panels and an author hall where readers could buy books and meet authors. It has been several years since I’ve been able to attend a writers conference and I’d forgotten how rejuvenating they can be.

Learning/Knowledge Sharing
While I’ve hit a point in my writing career where I know a lot of the basics, there is always something new to learn. And at writer’s conferences there’s never a shortage of knowledge from other writers, authors, editors, and agents in attendance. I always find it interesting to hear about other writer’s techniques and learn more about the industry from the pros. Not to mention share things I’ve learned with other writers as well.

Which brings me to….

Conferences are a great place to meet new people, both people who write in your genre and not. I’m always intrigued by what other people are writing, and also happy to find other people who write in the same areas I do. Everyone there has the potential help me learn more about other genres, and new writing techniques, and those within my genre have the potential to make great new critique partners. It’s a win-win all around.

Being able to interact with agents and editors is always great as well. I love getting to know who they are as people, what they like to read, and what they are working on. This always gives me a better sense of who might be good to query and gives me a little more insight into how the market is reacting currently. Plus agents and editors are really cool people. I know they feel untouchable when you see them online sometimes, but every industry pro I’ve met has been fantastic and always willing to offer advice (in the right setting, please don’t corner them in the bathroom).

There’s something about just being around a ton of excited writers that sucks you back in. I’ve been very up and down with my writing career in the last year or two, downright struggling at times to make things happen because life has been crazy. But being in a room full of energized writers makes me feel like a superhero with a pen. It makes me want to jump in head first and continue to move forward. When they hear about the things I write and get excited about it, I’m suddenly back in the game.

I know sometimes writing can feel like a scary rollercoaster of emotions sometimes, but if you can get yourself to a conference or even a small seminar or writing workshop DO IT! You really have nothing to lose. It’s an awesome way to learn, meet new people, and refresh your writing spirit. And if you’re looking for a great conference to attend, I highly recommend Gateway Con. It’ll be back in 2018 in June.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Awesome Author Interview: Jennifer Torres!

It's my pleasure for this post to interview author Jennifer Torres. Ms. Torres is the author of the stellar 2017 debut, STEF SOTO, TACO QUEEN, one of my favorite middle grade books so far this year. If you haven't read it yet, you should slide it to the top of your list. Here's the official blurb:

Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tía Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tía Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family’s livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck’s unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tía Perla.

Here are links to where you can grab STEF SOTO, TACO QUEEN:


DG: STEF SOTO is such a fun, fresh story. What was your inspiration for Stef, her family, and of course Tia Perla the taco truck?

JT: Thanks! Much of the story was inspired by my own Mexican-American childhood. Just like Stef, I grew up speaking and hearing a mix of English and Spanish, and just like Stef (and like many of us, whatever our backgrounds) food is one of the ways my family shares love and tradition. Food brings us back “home,” wherever we are. Stef and I have the same comfort food, too: a warm tortilla with melting butter.
The book and its characters also were inspired by the many first-generation students I spent time with while working as an education reporter, especially one third grader whose dad drove an ice cream truck. She was so proud of him. He had such big, bright ambitions for her. They were this terrific team — and I started to wonder how their dynamic would change as the girl got a little older. Three years later, would she still smile the same when he came to pick her up?

DG: What's your writing background? What made you choose to write middle grade lit?

JT: My writing career began in journalism. I spent almost ten years working as a newspaper reporter, covering education and immigration in California’s Central Valley, and still do some freelance magazine writing. I loved local news because it was a chance to hear and share the often-extraordinary stories of ordinary people. In fact, some of my favorite pieces to write have been obituaries. Obits have taught me that even the most seemingly unremarkable lives are filled with surprising turns and triumphs and truths, and it’s a privilege to be invited into them.
I am still drawn to stories about ordinary people, and still love finding the universal in the particular. I think that’s why I write middle grade. Not all of us have parents who speak Spanish or drive taco trucks, but probably a lot of us have struggled to sort out where we fit in our families and where we fit in our world.

DG: Give us some insight into your writing process: are you an outliner, or a pantser? Why do you think your process works for you, and what is the hardest part for you?

JT: Oh, an outliner, for sure. I am someone who can’t write a second sentence until I have written a first, and outlines help me sketch out a direction. I don’t necessarily need to know what’s going to happen, scene by scene, but having at least a sense of key moments keeps unanswered plot questions from nagging so much I can’t move forward. 
I would love to get better at writing without deadline pressure.

DG: A great MG story, like a great taco, has a satisfying combination of different flavors and components. What do you think are the essential ingredients to a delicious MG read?

JT: Ha! Well, I love characters who are brave in unexpected ways. I love a voice I can hear in my head. I love relationships that are strong even though they are difficult. And I love a setting that leaves me with a sense of place, like I’ve been there for a visit.

DG: If you were going to give an aspiring MG writer a list of must-read MG novels they should read, what would be on the list?

JT: This kind of question is always so tough because I am certain to leave something essential out, so I’ll just list the first three (of many) to come to mind: Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson.

DG: Books aren't really "about" their plot; the plot is kind of just a device the author uses to share the truth they want to talk about. What would you say the story of STEF SOTO is really "about?"

JT: I love this question. I ask it every time I sit down to write something new, whether it’s a news article or a novel: What is this story really about? What makes it more than a list of facts or a collection of scenes? I think STEF SOTO is about identity. In some ways, I think it’s about community too, in that being part of a community – whether a school community, or a family, or a group of food truck operators – means supporting one another and speaking up even when it’s uncomfortable.

DG: What's coming up next for you? Any more awesome books in the pipeline?

JT: I am working on a picture book and revising another middle grade novel. This one is set at a county fair, and the main characters are a rising ranchera star and the daughter of the petting zoo owner. It’s fun!

DG: Last question. I'm assuming that you, like myself, are a real-life lover of taco truck cuisine. What is your go-to taco truck order? 

JT: YES, definitely. My favorite truck is Tacos Manzanillo in Downtown Stockton – I used to go there at least once a week. I’ll take carne asada tacos with lots of cilantro, pico de gallo and a lime wedge.

DG: Thanks, Jennifer!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Blog Tour: The Explorers: The Door in the Alley

Middle Grade Minded is thrilled to be part of the blog tour for Adrienne Kress' wonderful MG book,


The description:

Featuring a mysterious society, a secretive past, and a pig in a teeny hat, The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a new series for fans of The Name of This Book Is a Secretand The Mysterious Benedict Society. Knock once if you can find it—but only members are allowed inside. 

   This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It’s not the one you’re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.) 
   This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and there is a girl looking for help that only uninquisitive boys can offer.
   The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

My take:

A rollicking, loud-out-loud adventure starring the most lovable characters in the most delightful places. You will jump in with both feet with Sebastian and Evie and wonder where the ride is going to take you - some place wonderful and with some thrills along the way. 

Adrienne Kress is hysterical. Kids - and grown ups like me -  are going to love this! A real winner!

A few questions for the author:

Adrienne, this book is hysterically funny! I can t tell you how many times I had to stop to wipe my eyes reading them! I m curious: did you ever have to tone it down or was it full steam ahead?
Thank you so much, I am very happy to hear that! That’s totally the ultimate compliment.

And for me it’s always full steam ahead! But the way I write isn't just about being funny. It’s weird, but I’m not actually focused on “being funny” as I go. I'm more focused on telling a story and making it compelling. The comedy just finds its own way to seep out through the cracks. I think that I generally just find the world so absurd I can’t help but highlight that in my writing. But I do also aim for pathos and complicated other feelings as well. I think for that reason it's rare I'm asked to tone things down because "funny" isn't the goal, it's part of a larger whole. 

What inspired you to write the book?

The concept of the Explorers Society itself. There are actually clubs for explorers out there in real life which I just think is so neat. I just loved this idea of a very cool place, filled with very cool objects from very cool adventures, where very cool explorers got to hang out. Of course, once I had the setting, I realized that maybe I’d also need, you know, characters and a plot. But honestly I love the society so much. I really just want to hang out at their headquarters and have tea up in the tree house. 

Our readers are interested in the writing process. Can you share how long it took you to write The Explorers: The Door in the Alley and how many drafts were involved?

I can't quite remember to be honest. I think it took around 3 months to write the book, but there was a very long break between writing the first half and the second. I had all these other projects to finish first, but my agent kept asking if I was done THE EXPLORERS yet and I'm very glad she kept on me because I finally sat down and got the second half out in around a month. After that I did an edit based on her notes, and, after it sold, probably around two to three more edits with my editor. 

Although I love Sebastian and Evie and can t wait for more adventures, I have to ask: what inspired the pig in the tiny hat and promise me that we will see more of the pig in book two!!

Ha! Yes, he is rather popular and I am very okay with that. You know, it's interesting, I had so many things planned out before I began the book: my characters, the story, the general arc of the series. But when I sat down to start writing, the first thing I wrote was the first line of the book (it hasn't changed). And I stared at it. And blinked a few times. And I asked myself, "Where on earth did that pig in a teeny hat come from??" 

So the answer is: no idea. I have no clue where he came from, but clearly he wanted his story told.  And I was more than happy to oblige.

As for book two, he definitely is in there at the beginning, but alas both Sebastian and Evie go on adventures that send them across the globe and one simply cannot take a pig in a teeny hat along for all of that. I can reassure you though it won't be the last you see of him. 

Thanks Adrienne!