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.