Friday, June 29, 2018

Reptile Roundup for Middle Grade Readers and Writers

Middle grade fiction often features familiar childhood experiences - schoolyard rivalries, cuddly pets, and the fanciful creatures that lurk in young imaginations. But some of the best MG stories explore all things creepy, crawly, or scaly. Even those written for girls. It’s true, the stereotypical ten-year-old girl isn’t up to her ears in mud, catching frogs, or begging zookeepers to let her hold the snakes. But who wants to be stereotypical? 

Not me or my two daughters. We’ve put in hours chasing snakes, stuffing our pockets full of rocks, or gazing misty-eyed at anacondas in the reptile house at the zoo. So here’s a roundup of middle grade books featuring reptiles or other creepy crawlies. Following that, I’ve included tips for writing reptiles into your own stories. Enjoy!

Riveting Reptile Reads (amphibians or insects also welcome!) 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay

Charlotte’s Web - An old classic that never fails to inspire

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Just don’t look it in the eyes!

Snake and Lizard - Clever short stories for grades 2-3.

Tips for Writing Convincing Reptiles

  • Know your details. Snakes, for example, do not have eyelids, so you better not have your cobras blink. Reptile eggs have a leathery shell, so they’re unlikely to make a crunching sound when crushed. Here’s a great resource with some basic reptile info. If you want more details, check out this reptile wikipedia page.
  • Observe reptiles in action. Reading about their behavior is simply not enough. Visit a pet store or zoo. At the very least, watch movies featuring your preferred reptile. Notice what sounds they make, the way they move, how and what they eat. If possible, find out how it feels to touch them. Do they feel different after sitting in the hot sun? What do they smell like?
  • Consider why the creature in your story needs to be a reptile. This should not be a random choice, especially if the reptile is more than a simple element of danger. If it is a character, consider how their reptile nature influences the story. What is their place in the plot? 
Enjoy your reptilian writing and reading! 
What are some of your favorite books featuring reptiles, amphibians, or bugs?

Monday, June 25, 2018

Where The Watermelons Grow

Middle Grade Minded is excited to have debut author Cindy Baldwin with us today. Her middle grade novel Where The Watermelons Grow is a tug-at-your-heartstrings story about Della, a twelve-year-old girl determined to heal her mama from a sickness that causes her to hear voices and talk to people who aren’t there. A literary novel with attention to imagery, voice, and character development, this debut has already been named a Summer/Fall Indies Introduce selection and has received  starred reviews from School Library Journal and ALA Booklist. This fabulous middle grade hits shelves on 7/3/18.

And now for our interview with Cindy:
MG Minded: In Where The Watermelons Grow, the main character’s mother struggles with schizophrenia. I loved how you portrayed this struggle as an illness that can be treated through the support of doctors, family, and community. My favorite line in the book is, “No sickness in the world could make my mama’s love for us less real.” What inspired you to write about mental illness? In your opinion, why is it important for middle grade literature to deal with tough topics?

Cindy Baldwin:
The initial inspiration came to me several years ago when I was singing “Down by the Bay” to my then-one-year-old daughter. The idea of a girl running away from home because she couldn't deal with her mama's sickness came into my mind and stayed there! Because of that inspiration, writing about mental illness—specifically schizophrenia, which affects a person's perception of reality—felt natural. 

However, as soon as the idea landed in my brain, I knew that I wanted to write a book about disability that didn't end with the disability being “cured.” Although I don't have schizophrenia, I am also a disabled parent, and in many ways my daughter and I have struggles that are similar to those of Della and her Mama. She's much younger than Della, but has already had a host of her own ideas to attempt to make our family more “normal”! That line in particular, about no sickness making her mama's love less real, is one that I wrote with tears in my eyes, thinking of my daughter. If there's nothing else that she remembers from her childhood, I hope it's that idea.

I think that addressing difficult topics in middle grade is almost more important even than addressing difficult topics in any other age group! Those upper elementary and middle school years are profoundly important in a kid’s life, as they walk the line between childhood and adulthood; in many ways, kids that age internalize and feel responsible for hard things in a way that high school kids don't to quite the same degree because they have a better grasp of the world around them as separate from them. Kids in the middle grades experience really difficult things! When I was eleven, I was hospitalized for the first time that I could remember, and had to stay alone each night as a highly anxious preteen because my parents were busy with my mom's pregnancy with triplets (yep, you read that right!). When I was thirteen, I learned that my disease, cystic fibrosis, is life-shortening, and that I might not live to turn forty. I know so many people who were experiencing some of their most life-defining hardships during that period of time, and I firmly believe that kids need books that can speak to those difficult experiences.

MG Minded: The gardening scenes took me right back to the family farm where I spent many childhood summers. Can you tell readers a bit about your upbringing and what inspired you to write a novel set on a farm in the South?

Cindy Baldwin:
My family has moved a fair bit, but from age seven until I got married, I lived in Durham, North Carolina, about two or three hours from Della's fictional hometown of Marysville (which, if it existed, would be in Bertie County, NC). I spent much of my adult life trying to move back to the South, and while I never managed it, NC will always be my heart's home! I love setting my books there, because it's a way to stay connected to the place I love best.

I modeled a lot of Della's town both on the rural coastal plains region of North Carolina, and on my great-grandparents’ homestead in Hartsville, South Carolina. My great-grandpa was a sharecropper who eventually made enough to buy his own land and then farmed it—sometimes with just his family members, sometimes hiring extra help, much like Della's family—until he retired. I grew up spending part of every family reunion at “The Farm,” and details like the sunflowers lining their long driveway, the taste of fresh butter beans, and boxes and boxes of sweet peaches bought from roadside stands will always be cherished memories! (That farm is also where I became intimately acquainted with the misery of trying to sleep during a Carolina summer night in a house with no AC!!!)

MG Minded: Where The Watermelons Grow is your debut novel. How long have you been writing and working on craft? Any advice to writers pursuing the often bumpy road to publication?

Cindy Baldwin: 
I've been writing stories for as long as I can remember, and got serious about learning how to write novels when I was a teenager. After college, I started querying one of my books. Where the Watermelons Grow is actually the THIRD book I tried to get an agent with, and the fifth novel I wrote. It was a bumpy road indeed, and there were a lot of rejections! There are a couple of things I firmly believe when it comes to achieving writing success:

1. You are never too good to learn more or become better. I spent a lot of years spinning my wheels because I felt like I'd gotten as good as I could and still wasn't achieving success. I had some humbling experiences that showed me just how far I still had to go, and encouraged me that I COULD keep learning and COULD get better if I was willing to check my ego at the door and put in the work. Sure enough, once I did that, I improved, and eventually that work paid off.

2. Success takes tenacity. I do know some writers who sold their first novel, or got an agent quickly… But they're the exception, not the rule! For most of us, that “ten years to overnight success” principle holds pretty true.

3. Besides tenacity, I think the other ingredient required for a writing career—both before AND after you get published—is flexibility. I'd never written middle grade before Watermelons, but when my previous attempts to get published with young adult manuscripts weren't working, I changed my approach and decided to try something new. Often I think it's easy to get stuck in what we WANT to be working, when sometimes being willing to try a new way of looking at things is what it takes. Tenacity plus flexibility is my secret formula!

Great advice! Thank you, Cindy! 

Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, is an Indies Introduce title for summer/fall 2018.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Cover Reveal - RIDERS OF THE REALM: THROUGH THE UNTAMED SKY By Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Today we have an amazing cover reveal for the second book in Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's RIDERS OF THE REALM series titled THROUGH THE UNTAMED SKY.

About the book
Cover artist: Vivienne To
Release Date: March 26, 2019
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Prize for giveaway:  autographed hardcover of book #1 ACROSS THE DARK WATER (to enter please leave a comment to this post answering one of Jennifer's questions after her top ten list, and leave an email or other form of contact)

Cover copy for book #2 “Through the Untamed Sky”
“After winning the wild pegasus mare named Echofrost in a contest, Rahkki Stormrunner becomes an official Rider in the Sky Guard army. But Rahkki is terrified of heights, and Echofrost is still difficult to tame. And with Echofrost’s herd captured by the giants and the growing threat of battle looming over the Realm, the new pair will have to work through their fears in order to fly with the army and free the herd.

Meanwhile, back in Rahkki’s village, rebellion is brewing, and Rahkki learns there is a sinister plot to overthrow Queen Lilliam. But the queen suspects Rahkki’s behind it, and he is under intense watch.
As Rahkki and Echofrost travel to Mount Crim to free Storm Herd, Rahkki fears that the greatest danger may not come from the impending battle against the giants, but from within his own clan.

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez takes readers on another action-packed adventure, where mystery abounds and threats are around every corner—and it will take trust, loyalty, and ultimately the deep friendship between pegasi and humans to survive.”

And now for the awesome cover!

Dear Middle Grade Minded,
Thank you for hosting the cover reveal for “Through the Untamed Sky”, the second book in the RIDERS OF THE REALM trilogy. The artist is Vivienne To and when I saw the cover, I screamed! I love the colors, the dragon, the pegasus, the sweeping sky—it all comes together so well. It’s fun to see my story illustrated in this way. I love writing about horses, especially winged ones! They live in massive territorial herds, they migrate twice a year, and they are fiercely loyal to one another—exciting fodder for writing stories.

In this trilogy, a small herd of pegasi flee their homeland in search of a safer place to live. On the way, they encounter a primitive clan of humans who would like to capture them and train them as flying warhorses. 

The ideas of cooperation versus slavery, love versus dependence, and freedom versus friendship are explored deeply within the trilogy. Pegasi are sentient beings, so “owning” one is more like owning a human than a pet. Most readers, like this author, will root for the pegasi to remain free, but cooperation with the humans will become necessary—and this awkward attempt at a partnership will rock both worlds!

With the long summer stretching ahead, I thought I’d offer a Top Ten list of animal fantasy books for kids to read!
  1. Watership Down, by Richard Adams, this novel about rabbits made me want to write animal fantasy too!
  2. The Warriors series, by Erin Hunter, exciting adventure books about clans of wild cats
  3. The Firebringer trilogy, by Meredith Ann Pierce, a poetic, evocative story about wild unicorns
  4. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, a book about a tame horse that changed horse training forever
  5. Fire Bringer, by David Clement-Davies, immersive story about wild deer and a young buck named Rannoch
  6. Redwall, by Brian Jacques, about a brave young mouse on a quest
  7. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, about a mother mouse who seeks the help of super smart rats to save her son
  8. The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, about a cat and two dogs that trek across rugged terrain to find their owner
  9. The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, about a courageous mouse in love with a princess
  10. The Guardian Herd, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, the origin series about the pegasi of Anok (you don’t need to read this to enjoy Riders of the Realm!
Have you read any of these books? What’s your favorite animal? Let me know in the comments. Thank you for celebrating the cover reveal with me, and happy summer!

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

About the Author
Jennifer Lynn Alvarez received her degree in English literature from U.C. Berkeley. She writes The Guardian Herd series and the Riders of the Realm trilogy. She’s an active volunteer for United States Pony Club, and she draws on her lifelong love of animals when writing her books. Jennifer lives on a small ranch in Northern California with her husband, kids, horses, and more than her fair share of pets.


Friday, June 15, 2018

This is Not a Pasta Spoon: Repurposing Tools of the Trade to Get the Job Done (a post for writers… no, seriously)

Top shelves of kitchen cabinets were not located with short cooks in mind. I can’t reach the top shelves, but I need the storage space, so those top shelves are full of stuff anyway. I’m too independent to rely on the taller members of my family, too stubborn to haul a chair or step-stool across the room every time I need to reach something, and so…the pasta spoon. 

I don’t believe I’ve ever once used it to serve spaghetti, but gosh, it makes an excellent reacher! Those slightly-curved prongs tuck around all manner of packages on my top shelf so I can easily nudge them to the front and let them drop into my waiting hand. Repurposing the pasta spoon is efficient and effective for me.

I’ve repurposed tools of the trade in writing, too, and today I want to share one of those with you, in the hopes you’ll also find it efficient and effective.

The pitch. We writers often don’t consider pitching our story until…well, until we’re pitching it. We write, revise, and polish our manuscript, and then suddenly it’s time to send it out into the world in search of a home, and we realize we need a query letter – which of course is basically a pitch, designed to make the recipient need to read our story. But there’s much to be gained from repurposing the pitch.

What if, instead of using the pitch as a query tool, you use it as a guide. What if, instead of writing the pitch after your manuscript is finished, you write it before. Write it when you’re in that heart-pounding yes, this! stage of discovering your story, to bring focus and clarity to your awesome-but-probably-a-tad-vague idea. Write it then, and use it to keep you on track. Use it to guide you, to keep one hand on the through-line of your story as you work your way toward the end. Odds are, you’ll want to tweak the pitch when you finally get to the query stage, but that’s okay—the time you spend writing a pitch now will save you a ton of time in revisions later.

Depending where you are on the plotter—pantser spectrum, the idea of writing the pitch before writing the story may or may not seem comfortable, easy, or even feasible. Plotters, maybe you already write the pitch first. Maybe you’re saying, hey, I’ve always used the pasta spoon for that. But pantsers, I know it doesn’t feel natural. I know you’re probably thinking but I don’t know until I write the story! I understand…I’m with you. But try it. Really.

If you’ll allow me to throw in a completely different metaphor here... *tosses culinary tools back in the drawer, because who am I kidding, I’m no chef* Imagine you’re driving on the prairies. You can see your destination a long while before you’ll get there. You can drive straight for it, of course, but what if you’re a pantser? What if you want to wander through wheat fields and explore dusty backroads along the way? Keeping your pitch in mind as you write is like glancing up regularly at that grain-elevator goal in the distance, shimmering on the horizon, so whatever route you take, you’re moving steadily toward where you want to be.

Have you repurposed your pitch this way before? Are there other writing tools of the trade you’ve repurposed? I’d love to hear what you’ve found to be effective and efficient for you in your writing. Please share!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Introducing: The Frame-Up and a Giveaway!

My second book, The Frame-Up, is now out in the world!

I'm so proud of this book and the love it has been receiving:

“This chapter book’s most memorable element is also its most unusual: the imaginative conviction that art is alive.” Booklist, starred review

If I am being truly honest, I always assumed that the second book I'd publish would be a sequel to It's a Mystery, Pig Face!

But the publishing gods are wiser and had different plans.

They decided my second book would be a fantastical adventure set in a real-life art gallery, and filled with lovable and interesting characters.

I wrote the first sentence of the first draft of The Frame-Up on November 1, 2015.

It is a NaNoWriMo baby, and at times it seemed as if it were writing itself.

In her book Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the mysterious grace that sometimes assists writers in their work.

The writing process certainly felt like grace to me, although I have often wondered if it wasn't guided by the creative energy of the paintings who live at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

They had stories to tell, and I am fortunate that they decided to share them with me.

And I am even more fortunate that my readers will get to not only engage with those paintings in my novel (and perhaps someday in real life), but also with paintings in their own local art galleries or museums.

The inherent conceit of The Frame-Up is that all original art work is alive.

I have believed that since I was a young child.

The idea that the things we infuse with our creative selves have lives separate and apart from ourselves, is not a new idea, but it is a profound one, which, in my opinion, can't be repeated too often. How many of us see a sculpture and it seems alive to us or hear a song that speaks to our souls?

Dickens characters have long outlived him, and they are as alive as the day he first put ink to paper.

In The Frame-Up, my main character, Mona Dunn, interacts with other residents who in some cases, have lived almost five hundred years behind the frame.  Imagine the things they have seen, the tales they could tell!

Mona Dunn, William Orpen, 1915, Oil on Canvas

In my own small way, I hope that The Frame-Up conveys that magic. It asks us to look again at the art on our walls, to see beyond the one-dimensional surface until we reach the miracle of its creation in our mind's eye.

As the tagline for the book says: Look beyond what you think you see.

Every lover of art, in whatever form, can understand that sentiment.

And so to honour my wild ride since I wrote the very first line: Mona Dunn was late two and a half years ago, I am thrilled to finally be able to share the book with you.

I hope you'll buy a copy of your own or borrow one from the library, but as a thank-you, I'm giving away an autographed copy!

Simply leave me a comment below, telling me what's inspired YOUR creativity lately, and you're automatically entered to win!

Good luck! And I hope you love the world of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery as much as I do!



a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, June 4, 2018

Comparing Your Writing... to Yourself

As writers, we are constantly comparing our work to others despite being told time and time again to not do it. Comparing an early draft to someone's published book probably isn't the best ego boost, especially considering the amount of edits a published book has been through.
So when I jokingly said to a writing buddy that I was going to open up a first draft and take a look, I never expected it to be a great experience. I honestly didn't know what I would find. But what I ended up with was shocking... the biggest ego boost I didn't know that I needed.

While comparing your work to others usually has a negative impact, there is one comparison that I highly recommend you make... a comparison to yourself.
And why did this comparison work? It's a good measure of how things are going, how you're progressing as a writer. Go ahead and look back at old manuscripts or even first drafts of your current work in progress and see how things have changed. Some things you can look for:
  • Have you learned something?
  • How has your writing grown and evolved?
  • How is your worldbuilding?
  • How is your voice?
  • How's your grammar?
  • How's your plot?
  • How's your character development?
Looking at all of these items with respect to prior works can really show you how far you've come as a writer.

Take for example my first draft of the project I'm currently editing.
Note: This dates all the way back to February 2012, so try not to cringe too hard.

“Come on Kaya. Ladies first.” Troy grinned and held out the radio wave generator to me.

I rolled my eyes. “I’ll just watch for now.” Harlow’s friends are such idiots. I can’t believe they are doing this. If it weren’t for Lydia and her crush on Troy, I never would have agreed to come into the woods with my boyfriend and the goons he calls friends. The things I do for my best friend.

“You sure Kaya? It’s such a rush!” Troy waved the small box my face.

I shivered despite the blazing bonfire in front of us. “No I’m good thanks.” Ghosting was the dumbest thing kids did — the ultimate game of chicken. Harlow and his friends liked to see how long they could disrupt their tracker signal before they freaked out. If your tracker goes offline for more than five minutes, they dispatch the authorities to your last known location to check it out, hence the rush.
All right I'll spare you more than a couple paragraphs, because let's be honest, this is a complete mess. But it's a first draft so that's okay. Let's spot the issues.

  1. I started with dialogue. This isn't always bad, but can be problematic because we don't know who is speaking or what their voice is.
  2. There's a verb tense change.
  3. The voice needs some work.
  4. We don't know much about the main character off the bat or why we should follow her. Even worse we seem to know more about her friends than her.
  5. The world is a little confusing
  6. And holy info dump batman!
I'm sure I could go on and on about all the issues in this first draft, but that's why we edit.
Now let's take a look at my current draft.

Note: This is 11 major drafts and 6 years later.

    We were going to get caught. No question about it. Masking your tracker signal got you a date with the authorities at best, and at worst… I didn’t want to think about it. I wasn’t lucky enough to get away with this. I was never that lucky.

    Troy grinned and held out the radio wave generator. “Come on, Kaya. You know you want to.” The black box flirted with me like a bad boy, half thrill ride, half arrest warrant.

    I shook my head. The buzz from falling off the tracker grid—pure silence and vision devoid of popups and apps—wasn’t worth the risk of losing control. If the authorities showed up, brain probing us to check our chips for glitches would be the least of our problems.

    Troy waved the box in my face. “You sure? It’s such a rush!”

    I shivered despite the bonfire blazing in front of us. “I’m good. I don’t need a record.”

    “Wasn’t it just Yom Kippur or something? You should be good on the sin front for a while.”

    “That’s not how it works, jackass.”

    That little box was trouble. Worse than Pandora’s. My muscles tensed. At least if I refused to disrupt my tracker signal, I wouldn’t have to lie about breaking the law.

    Trekking into the woods at the edge of town to watch everyone attempt to beat the record for longest signal disruption was insanity. Why couldn’t we hang out at the fly-in theater instead? Anything other than pursuing a one-way ticket to tracker juvie.

    But they loved the thrill of tempting fate—the ultimate game of chicken. At best, they had about five minutes of interrupted tracker signals before the network alerted the authorities.

    I leaned into Harlow, and he put his arm around me. He’d never ditch me. But most of his friends wouldn’t hesitate to use me as authority bait if the agents showed up. Not if—when.

Let's dive into this draft a little deeper. The first thing you'll notice is the  core of the scene has stayed very much the same, but so much has improved around the outer shell. And the coverage of what is there has greatly expanded.

  1. There's no more random verb tense changes
  2. The language is so much stronger and more engaging.
  3. Information is sprinkled throughout in an interesting way rather than dumped in one or two paragraphs.
  4. We get a sense of who the main character is, what she wants/fears and what's at stake.
  5. We get a sneak peek into this world, but it's not fully flushed out yet (there's more to come as the reader continues on)
  6. And the voice? Well I'd say it's vastly improved. What do you think?

At any rate, I think you can see between the drafts that I've grown as a writer. And this exercise made me realize how far I've come. So if you have some time, I highly recommend you pull out an old first draft and compare it to a more recent one and see how far you've come. It might just be the writing boost you've been looking for.

And if you do this exercise let me know how it goes. Hopefully it helped you as much as it helped me.

Happy Writing!