Monday, October 29, 2018

Book Review and Giveaway: THE HOUSE IN POPLAR WOOD

Middle Grade Minded recently received an ARC of THE HOUSE IN POPLAR WOOD by K.E. Ormsbee.

I immediately flung my digital hand up in the air because I am a sucker for any books that take place in the woods because

1) the woods can be creepy
2) the woods can be magical
3) the woods can be soothing

My money was on number 1, though it turns out K.E. Ormsbee managed to include 2 and 3 as well!

What it's About:

For as long as the Vickery twins can remember, Lee and his mother have served Memory, while Felix and his father assist Death. This is the Agreement. But one Halloween, Gretchen Whipple smashes her way into their lives. Her bargain is simple: If the twins help her solve the murder of local girl Essie Hasting, she'll help them break the Agreement. The more the three investigate, however, the more they realize that something's gone terribly wrong in their town. Death is on the loose, and if history repeats itself, Essie's might not be the last murder in Poplar Wood. Simultaneously heartwarming and delightfully spooky, The House in Poplar Wood is a story about a boy's desire to be free, a girl's desire to make a difference, and a family's desire to be together again.

What I thought of the book:

I really liked this book!

I liked the twins' friendship and their longing to be a real family with their parents.

I liked the fact that Death and Memory were real characters, not only known to the children, but also to the rest of the nearby town.

I liked that there was an unbreakable pact, because I am fascinated by how authors come or don't come up with creative ways to break the plot.  K.E. Ormsbee handled this VERY well.

And I loved the character of Essie Hastings, whose dogged determination to make things right for both her family and the Vickery family is both poignant and at times hysterically funny.

I highly recommend this book!

About the Author:

Visit her website here.

Follow her on twitter: @Kathsby

or on instagram: @kathsby

or on Facebook:

How would you like to win the arc? Leave a comment below! All comments submitted by November 3rd at midnight will be put in the draw to win the ARC!

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Why Include Suffering in MG Fiction

Children today already have enough to deal with. News about devastating hurricanes, school shootings, and political turmoil weighs on everyone, but especially on our youth. They’re in the process of figuring out who they are, who they want to become, and what life is all about. Even simple life challenges can be overwhelming. And many kids face problems that are not simple by any stretch. Shouldn’t reading provide an outlet where they can be stimulated by entertaining tales delivered in a safe, nonthreatening way? 

The answer is a resounding NO. 

Suffering and tragedy are part of life. When children read about the challenges their favorite characters face, they contemplate how to handle problems in their own lives. Fictional characters can model how to face tough situations and recover from painful mistakes. They can inspire readers to cultivate similar traits. 

Recently I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I’d heard of it before and had read excerpts highlighting the courageous choices of many prisoners amid horrible circumstances. I’m not recommending this as a book for Middle Grade readers. But it is definitely a must-read for adults and an illuminating text for writers.

You’ve probably heard of character arc. That’s basically a summary of your main character’s growth. For instance, a character might move from fear to strength or from jealousy to self-confidence or anger to forgiveness. But your characters need to go through something for this transformation to happen. 

It’s true, change and growth can happen without major challenges, if we are seeking to change and grow. But there’s nothing more sharply and quickly transformative than serious life problems, if we allow them to change us.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes his years in the Jewish concentration camps during World War II. As a psychiatrist, he sought meaning in the suffering around him, recognizing that if there wasn’t meaning to be found in suffering, especially when the suffering was arbitrary and beyond his control, life could hold no meaning at all. He wrote that suffering can be ennobling, if we let it, and that it can change our perspective, that every choice to be positive and kind can be a triumph as well as an exercise in self-discipline.

Most people will never find themselves in such dire circumstances as Viktor Frankl and the other victims and survivors of the Holocaust. However, we all will find ourselves, at some point, facing challenges we did not choose and cannot easily escape, if at all. Sometimes the only was is through. Sometimes all we can control is our attitude.

When writing stories, there is tremendous value in putting our characters through extremely tough situations. It’s not just because it makes for an exciting plot, although it does. Or because major obstacles can yield major changes in character arc. 

It’s because this is what real life is about, facing challenges that seem insurmountable and triumphing anyways. The external triumphs – reaching the castle, defeating the dragon, saving the princess – are exciting and vital to your plot. 

But what matters even more are the inner triumphs that happen along the way when your characters face their own flaws, correct their own faulty thinking, and rise above themselves to become stronger and more complete.

The images included here are of some of my favorite MG novels whose characters triumph over terrible opposition. Sometimes the challenge is removed once the triumph occurs. Sometimes it isn’t. Either way, there is triumph over self, the most meaningful triumph of all.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Garbage Island, by Fred Koehler

Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew) by Fred Koehler is the kind of book that feels like a throwback to earlier days of middle grade literature and alarmingly contemporary at the same time. Archibald (he prefers to go by “Archie”) is all exploration, creativity, and invention, the kind of character that any STEM student will recognize in themselves.

Archie is a shrew living on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which gives him a seemingly endless supply of resources to tinker with as he invents new objects meant to make the lives of those on the garbage patch a bit better. He shares the patch with a diverse collection of animals who have organized their different cultures and priorities into a workable truce under the leadership of their mayor, a mouse named Mr. Popli. While Archie’s strongest motivation for inventing is to be helpful, he commonly lets his enthusiasm get the better of him, which often leads to problems within this society. One day one of these moments leads to a chain of events that sets Archie and Mr. Popli off on an adventure at sea, one which could also have a lasting impact on the welfare of the citizens of Garbage Island and their home itself.

There were a number of things I enjoyed about this book. It was a lot of fun to read a story with animals for characters, and fully-realized characters at that. Each character or group had their own collection of traits and motivations working together to keep the story moving. The extensive world-building on display here was both amusing and disturbing — amusing because of the way Fred Koehler came up with imaginative ways to introduce everyday items as useful parts of the environment, but disturbing to realize that many of Archie’s abundant resources could likely be found out on the Garbage Patch in real life. The world-building didn’t stop with the physical though, but also permeated throughout the community the different animals had created together, to say nothing of their politics.

Fred Koehler won a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for his illustrations for ONE DAY. THE END. He is the author-illustrator of HOW TO CHEER UP DAD, which received three starred reviews, and he is the illustrator of THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT DRAGONS and PUPPY, PUPPY, PUPPY, and FLASHLIGHT NIGHT. He lives with his children in Lakeland, Florida.

Monday, October 8, 2018

After Zero, by Christina Collins

In After Zero, a debut middle grade by Christina Collins, twelve-year-old Elise finds it hard to utter more than a few words, especially when she is at school. At home, and with her best friend Mel, Elise is comfortable enough to speak freely. But at school, her anxiety takes over. Elise, formerly homeschooled, doesn’t know the “rules” about her new school, Green Pasture Middle. She’s never been in a classroom before, and every time she opens her mouth to speak, she accidentally spills secrets or says wrong answers. It’s easier not to talk. Elise carries a notebook full of tallies, each stroke marking a word spoken. Five tally marks isn’t bad. Two is pretty good. But zero? Zero is perfect. 

At home, things aren’t much easier. When she’s not teaching an online class, Elise’s mother is locked inside her bedroom.One night when Elise can’t sleep, she discovers her mother rummaging through a shed in their backyard. Later, Elise discovers bins full of teddy bears, photographs, and sympathy cards inside the shed—evidence that her father was killed in a car crash on the day she was born. From the cards, it appears that her two toddler brothers survived the crash. When Elise discovers a card from a grandmother she never met, she’s convinced her granny is raising her brothers.

Armed with her grandmother’s return address, Elise sets out to meet her granny and the family she’s always longed for. After a dangerous journey through a forest, Elise approaches a cliff where she sees two boys in wheelchairs, playing violins. A grandmother figure appears and tells Elise that she will be reunited with her brothers on her 13th birthday if she remains silent. If she doesn’t say a word, all her wishes will come true.

Elise, determined to remain quiet so she can be reunited with her brothers, falls further into what she calls her “bubble”. She is silent to the point where can’t even bring herself to cry out for help when school bullies lash out, both physically and verbally.
When Elise can’t tell the guidance counselor why she didn’t cry for help during the abuse, a beloved English teacher encourages Elise to write a letter detailing all that has happened to her in the past few months. In the letter, Elise shares that she saw her brothers and will be reunited with them if she remains silent until her 13th birthday. The school counselor shows the letter to Elise’s mother, who is befuddled because Elise’s toddler brothers died in the same car crash that killed Elise’s dad thirteen years ago. The counselor explains that Elise’s silence, a condition called selective mutism, often co-exists with other types of anxiety. Elise’s sleep deprivation caused hallucinations, making her “see” the brothers and grandmother she wanted to believe were still alive.
And now, for the happy ending...
An epilogue shows Elise two years later, after therapy, entering high school. The word “Quiet” still feels inked into her like a tattoo. But like the mysterious raven that follows her throughout the story, Elise is now ready to spread her wings and fly.
My review: Four stars. Selective mutism is a topic not covered in middle grade literature, and this book will be a helpful addition to the genre. Although the hallucination scene was a bit confusing for me as a reader of realistic fiction, the gripping, fast-paced plot left me rooting for Elise. I appreciated the recommended resources at the end of the book for kids who struggle with selective mutism.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Are Writing Conferences Worth It?

So, you’re an aspiring writer, and you’re considering going to a writing conference. Is it worth it? What should you keep in mind?

1. Do I need to attend conferences to become a professional writer?
No, you don’t. Conferences cost money, and sometimes you just don’t have it. What you do need is grit, a willingness to learn, a broad knowledge of the literature you’re trying to write and an awareness of how the industry works. It also helps to have a supportive group of fellow writers, who share your dreams, will give you constructive feedback on your work and will cry and/or celebrate with you when required. Attending a writing conference or joining a professional group, like SCBWI, can help with many, but not all of those things. If you are looking to learn more about the industry and to join a supportive community of writers, then attending a conference can be a great first step.

2. Will I get an agent or sell a book at a conference?
Maybe, but probably not. You are there to learn and make connections. Be open, ask questions and don’t be afraid to talk to the industry professionals attending the conference. They are regular people just like you. Learn how to give and receive feedback. Many conferences provide an opportunity for attendees to receive manuscript critiques from agents or editors. Don’t stress out. This is a learning opportunity. Make sure to listen and give yourself time to process any critiques before responding or dismissing feedback. Defending your work at first is totally natural, but try not to do it out loud, especially in your one-on-one with an editor or agent  Be open to making changes. Feedback that sounds wrong at first may end up enhancing your story if applied in the right way. Of course, the opposite remains true as well. Not every piece of advice that you receive from a critique partner or professional will improve your work. By joining a regular critique group, you can learn how to parse out which pieces of feedback to apply and which to ignore.

3. Will it be worth my time and money?
In my experience, yes. I always come away inspired and energized to work. I have made excellent friends through my affiliation with SCBWI, and I can’t imagine going on my writing journey without them. Plus, you will get to meet amazing people like these (goose not included):

To learn more about SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, visit or for the Oklahoma chapter.