Friday, June 21, 2019

Dear Writer, Be Healthy

You're a writer. You make time to write even if your life is busy. It's what you do. I applaud you for that. And now it's confession time.

I don't write every day. I don't even read every day.

I'd like to write and read every day. But I don't. Not anymore. These days, I try to give myself a little more balance. I try to keep my personal priorities straight. (God knows with seven active school-age children I'm lucky to not forget who goes where when. I mean, there's dance, baseball, tennis, horseback-riding, Jiu Jitsu, etc...)

Writing and reading are fit into my busy and ever-changing schedule as necessary. Yeah, I'm a slow writer, and tend to knock off chunks of projects at a time when I can. But not at the cost of family time or my own personal health anymore.

I learned that the hard way. Ever since a depression diagnosis a few years ago, I've struggled at times with the things I love.

I've learned, and I hope you will too, that taking care of yourself is the only way you can continue to do the things you love. The only way you can be your best self. The only way you can give yourself a chance to write - or do anything you enjoy.

When my depression took hold, it wrecked my ability to do the things I'd enjoyed. And it took the joy from all the things I did.

Lucky for me, my wife is a physician. She recognized that I was in trouble and she helped me get the care I needed.

Give yourself permission to take a break now and then. Maybe even move your bar a little if you're feeling overwhelmed with the demands you put on yourself. Step back. Be still. Shut out the noise. Then try to listen to yourself. And by all means, reach out for help or guidance if you are uneasy and think you might be in an unhealthy situation.

There is no limit to the number of barriers, obstacles, and distractions that can keep us from writing - or living the life we should live. That will probably always be true. But please, bear in mind what's at stake when your life feels out of balance. Find yourself again. Be you. Be the best you that you can be.

Also, I love you. I hope you write the best book you can write and that I get to read it someday. And I hope you will take care of yourself so that can happen. I'm rooting for you.

Take care,


Monday, June 17, 2019

Five More Reasons to Read CATERPILLAR SUMMER

As writers, we all have books we would like to write someday. Sometimes they’re based around specific ideas we’d like to develop, or certain genres we’d like to explore. Sometimes they might only be an idea for a character, or a setting, or just an overall feeling.

I’ve had a jigsaw puzzle of story elements stashed in my vault for quite some time now: A contemporary story with a timeless feel, when the events aren’t limited to modern day trappings like kids constantly texting each other or spending all of their school nights obsessively playing online games; a quieter story about family and self-discovery; taking place in a smaller community, somewhat contained so the people there are familiar with each other and the main character has relationships with many of them; something set near the water, whether that would mean oceans, lakes, or rivers, with that watery setting important enough to the story that it almost comes alive as a character itself; something where there is just as much attention paid to the craft of the writing as the telling of the story.

We had a Middle Grade Minded post about a month ago, listing five reasons why people should read CATERPILLAR SUMMER by Gillian McDunn. Coincidentally, I had sent a book order home with my students that same week. I noticed CATERPILLAR SUMMER was one of the books available, and I ordered a copy. When the chaos of the final weeks of the school year began calming, I read it. I was pulled in deep from the very first page and only became more and more engaged as the story went on. This book turned out to be one possible version of the kind of book I wanted to write myself. With that in mind, I’d like to add to that original list of reasons to read this book with a few of my own.

*It’s a contemporary story with enough modern flourishes that kids today could recognize and relate to, but it has a mostly timeless feel. Our main character is a girl named Cat. The time she spends walking on the beach with her family and riding bikes with her new friend Harriet are things that could have happened thirty years ago as easily as last week.

*The story is layered around Cat’s relationships with the different people in her family. Her mother and her younger brother Chicken are both loving and frustrating parts of her life. Her father, who had passed away earlier, represents something of a hole in what her life is now. The grandparents she is just getting to know help her understand her parents in ways she hadn’t had the opportunity to before.

*Much of the story takes place on Gingerbread Island, along the coast of North Carolina. People can come and go between the island and the mainland easily enough, but the people who live on the island are tight-knit enough to give Cat and Chicken a good collection of characters to get to know and spend their summer with while visiting their grandparents.

*Maybe it’s because I’ve lived my whole life in a city on the edge of the midwestern prairie, but I almost always find stories set near or around the ocean to be captivating. Cat and Chicken’s grandparents live right along the water, an easy distance for walks along the beach, looking for turtles and shark teeth, or entering local fishing contests. Both Gingerbread Island and the ocean are such important parts of the setting that I’m not sure the story would able to be the same without them.

*The author, Gillian McDunn, is an extraordinary writer. This is a book I know I’ll be revisiting frequently, not only to enjoy the story but to both admire and study how she crafted it. I can’t recommend highly enough that you find yourself a copy of this book and read it. The time you spend this summer on Gingerbread Island will be worth it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The 12 Slogans of Middle Grade Writing

Every writer needs a little direction from time to time. We may need help channeling the voices in our heads - which ones could become useful characters in a novel? Which ones would be better off bound and gagged and tossed in a forgotten room in the depths of our brains? Sometimes we just need a metaphorical kick in the pants. With these and other issues in mind, I've decided to share the 12 Slogans of Middle Grade Writing.

No doubt you've heard at least some of these slogans before. I'm not reinventing the wheel here, but adapting time-tested slogans from 12-step programs to meet the needs of the modern middle grade writer. So grab a pencil and get ready to make post-it notes. You'll want to plaster these slogans all over your writing area. Trust me, it helps.

  1. Keep It Simple. Of course, this should obvious. But we writers are creative. And while our creativity is essential for coming up with story ideas and crafting compelling plots, it can also bite us in the tail if we're not careful. How many of you have come up with super complex (albeit fascinating and creative) writing routines? Or blogging plans? Marketing plans? Plots so creative and complex that even a detective couldn't keep track? I see you, nodding your heads, raising your hands. We've all done it. That's the burden of a creative mind. But I'm telling you right now - Keep. It. Simple. Set simple realistic plans and goals for your writing and author platform. Don't make it so complicated that you can't possibly remember what you're trying to do or that you stare at the plan in confusion (or worse, despair). This principle is just as important when you are writing the actual story, especially for middle grade. Pay close attention to your main plot line as well as the 2 or so subplots you've got going. Make sure your plot is simple, yet compelling. Twists are fine (fabulous, actually), but make sure you know where you are headed or, at the very least, can track the plot through the whole novel when you're done.
  2. But for the Grace of God. Okay, you may be wondering what this slogan has to do with MG fiction that does not have religious overtones. I like to think of this as the darkest moment slogan. This where your main character is in the depths of their trial and learning the hard lessons that will give them the strength to grow and to overcome. This is a vital part of every hero's journey. Another aspect of this slogan is having compassion on others who are suffering. Compassion and understanding are important parts of the developing mind and worth exploration in MG writing.
  3. Easy Does It.  This slogan has so many applications that my mind is about to explode just thinking about it. But I'll try to to "keep it simple." The focus of this slogan is that we don't need to try to force things. When we come up against a plot problem in a story, we will find solutions faster if we set it aside and do something else, preferably something physical, while the issue runs in the back of our minds. Or switch projects for awhile. Or pick up something to read. You'll be surprised how often your sub-conscious can sift through things and present a solution when you're not beating yourself over the head with the problem. This applies to publishing and marketing issues as well. Sometimes the best approach is to change your approach instead of trying to keep forcing a publishing or marketing strategy that isn't working. Don't be afraid to take a step back, take a deep breath, reevaluate your situation, or just let it simmer in the back of your mind.
  4. First Things First. I know it's tempting to set up a rich, interactive online platform for the book you haven't written yet. We creative types love creating. And you've certainly heard you need an online presence, which is true. But hold off on buying ads for a book you've yet to write. For me, first things first means get my booty in the chair and start writing. If your goal is to be a novelist, even blogging should be secondary. Know what your primary goal is and determine what the highest priority steps are to help you reach it. If you're reading this blog, most likely the top priority for you is to write. Just write. Do it. you know you want to.
  5. Just For Today.  This is an interesting slogan. It helps us focus on the here and now instead of dreaming of future accolades or fretting over possible disasters. Ask yourself, what are the most important things for me to do today? As a writer, an employee, a spouse, a parent? Etc. Remember to keep this simple. But the idea is to keep your head in today. Experience today instead of letting it slip away in a rush of dreams or worries.
  6. Let It Begin With Me.  Let me be clear here. Your writing success is up to you. No amount of criticism can stop you. No amount of encouragement can make it happen. It is up to you to believe in yourself, put in the time and work, and develop the tough skin you need for editing and revisions. If you want to be a writer, chase after that dream. Whether you choose to pursue traditional publishing or go the Indie route, there are countless options and avenues for writing success. So let it begin with YOU! And keep on keeping on.
  7. How Important Is It?  Okay, I am certain you are all bright enough to apply this slogan to your writing career - how important is it to you. So you can do that on your own time. What I want to focus on here is determining how important certain plot elements or character/setting details are in your novel. This is where you get to kill your darlings (It's not as violent as it sounds). When you are in the editing phase, you may discover you've included tons of detail that may actually be distracting from the plot or the momentum of the story. Sift through that by considering how important each piece of info is. Does the feather in your character's hair reveal something about his background or personality? Or could it be a vital clue in the plot? Try to only include detail that does double duty, enriching the reader's mental picture while also revealing backstory, personality, or plot. You can apply this principle to whole sections of your book that may need cut or streamlined. Or use it in determining whether a character is a useful part of particular book at all. You can always combine dialogue and actions if you need to eliminate a character that is not pulling their weight.
  8. Think.  I know, we authors think all the time. Sometimes we think ourselves in circles. So, at face value, this slogan may seem unnecessary. However, it is important that in our writing we are self-directed, plotting the course forward rather than simply reacting to whatever feelings we currently have and spewing out nonsense. Now, let me just say, spewing nonsense has its place, especially for writers. This sort of free writing can spawn countless story ideas and can often help a writer sort through their own emotions enough that they can actually focus on what they're trying to work on. So don't stop spewing on account of me. Seriously. But when you're working on your story, it can be helpful to approach it with direction and purpose. Another tip for those of us who are constantly thinking about our stories - keep a notebook. keep it with you all the time so you can record those flashes of brilliance that choose to arrive when you're at the dentist's office. Some people prefer paper. I love Evernote. Mostly because then I don't misplace my brilliant insight.
  9. One Day at a Time.  This is where you recognize that writing, editing, publishing, and marketing a novel is a daunting task. You're halfway into the novel and have lost track of the story line. You're reading up on specialized marketing techniques and realize you don't really know how to use Google Adwords let alone set up a rafflecopter giveaway. And your vision starts to narrow, you break out in a cold sweat. Don't worry. Now is the perfect time to break the mammoth Writing Career into simple (well, simpler) tasks, which can be done One Day at a Time. You don't have to eat the whole elephant at once. This is a fab principle to weave into your middle grade novels as well. Your readers will thank you.
  10. Keep an Open Mind.'re hearing criticism of your precious baby, the work of your heart, your magnum opus. First off, you gotta have thick skin if you're going to be a writer. Be prepared for criticism. Keep an open mind to the possibility that your friend, agent, spouse, frenemy is making a good point. However, don't run back to the computer and make changes just yet. So much of the reading experience is subjective. What one person hates, another loves. So get several opinions before you rewrite anything. See if similar concerns or questions emerge. Then consider making changes.
  11. Live and Let Live. One of the most important things a writer can do is actually live. Experience life. Don't forget your friends and family in favor of the fascinating world you've come up with and are spending several hours a day writing. Try new things. Go new places. Be there for life. You'll be surprised how much you like it and how much new experiences and social interaction will improve your writing. Now for the Let Live part. Cheer on your fellow writers in their efforts and accomplishments. Take joy in their successes. Make room in your life and in your heart for people to be different from you. Make room for this in your writing as well. You will find that you come to understand people better and your writing will grow deeper and richer.
  12. Let Go and Let God. The time will come when you feel you've done everything you can yet are still not getting where you want to go. Maybe you've experienced that many times already. Maybe you're facing rejection from contests, agents, and publishing houses. Maybe you're stuck in your story. Maybe other life struggles have drained you of writing motivation and discipline. If writing is what you love and want to do, don't give up. This slogan reminds us to replace struggle and worry with hope and faith. Whatever your belief system, you can find serenity and courage by letting go of fear and frustration and trusting that the answers will come.
I hope these slogans help you along your writing path! Which ones stand out most to you?

Monday, June 10, 2019

Emily Out of Focus

In Emily Out of Focus by Miriam Spitzer Frankin, 12- year-old Emily flies with her parents to China to adopt and bring home a new baby sister.

Emily is excited but nervous to travel across the world. She's uncertain about the new baby. After twelve years alone with her parents, her life is about to change.

In the adoption trip group, Emily meets Katherine, a Chinese American girl whose family returned to China to adopt a second child. As the girls become friends, Katherine reveals a secret: she's determined to find her birth mother, and she wants Emily's help.

With her parents busy with the new baby, Emily is eager for adventure. But helping Katherine means sneaking out of the hotel to post fliers in the park where Katherine was left as a baby. Emily wants to be a good friend. Plus, she has a feeling that snapping photos of Katherine at her "finding spot", the spot where her birth mother left her, will help her win an important photo contest.

I loved how Emily grows throughout this story. Initially jealous of her new sister, trips to the orphanage and Katherine's "finding spot" help Emily learn to appreciate the meaning of family.

This book is full of rich setting details. The author adopted a daughter from China, and this story overflows with the scents and sights she experienced. Perhaps more importantly, it depicts the intense emotion of international adoption. I was left with the sense that we all have common bonds--adopted moms and dads with their children, adopted siblings with each other, and adopted children with their biological families.

My rating: Five stars

About the author:
Miriam Spitzer Franklin is a former elementary and middle school teacher who currently teaches homeschooled students and is a writer in residence with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and two cats in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Book Review: The Miraculous, by Jess Redman

If you haven't heard the buzz about Jess Redman's beautiful debut yet, prepare for my take, as I was fortunate to read an advanced reader copy recently.

Death is a hard thing. Processing death is a uniquely personal journey, one which often forces us to examine aspects within and about our lives which we'd never before considered. Redman's expertise as a therapist and adjunct professor of psychology are demonstrably clear in the story she's brought forth in The Miraculous. Redman captures the pain and subsequent growth of her young protagonist as he deals with his grief surrounding the death of his baby sister. With accurate yet gentle means Redman crafts a touching and memorable story full of bitter reality but laced together with hope and the promise of more.

As I read The Miraculous, there were times I had to set it aside, as it often brought me close to my own personal struggles. Yet this was not a bad thing. Ultimately, this was a cathartic read for me, and impressed upon me the importance of writing literature for children that is accessible but also deals with difficult themes. Ever since reading Bridge to Terabithia many years ago I've appreciated accurate and skillfully written novels for children which can do what Redman has done with The Miraculous.

The Miraculous releases on 7/30/19 from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (BYR), and were I you, I'd get it preordered right now.

Below are some links for preordering your copy and perusing other reviews. Happy reading! -Rob

Monday, June 3, 2019

Interview with Lindsay Currie

Lindsay Currie, thanks so much for stopping by Middle Grade Minded! 

Thank you for having me! 

Congratulations on your recent big news! Can you tell our readers more about WHISPERS FROM THE DARK? 

Thank you!  WHISPERS FROM THE DARK is releasing September of 2020, so we have a little bit of a wait, but I promise it will be worth it. The book follows the story of Claire Koster - a twelve-year-old scientist - who struggles to deal with her father's very un-scientific obsession with ghosts. His ghost tour bus, "Spirits", is a huge embarrassment to her because it causes rumors at school. Claire is determined to have nothing to do with her father's ghost business. She's a scientist, after all. Scientists don't believe in ghosts. But when her father's bus driver cancels on him at the last minute, not only does he need her to come along on the bus for an evening, but he needs her to help with the tour. It's pretty much Claire's worst nightmare. Unfortunately for Claire, surviving the tour bus is more complicated than pulling a baseball cap over her face and hoping no one from school recognizes her. The stories her father weaves at each location are darker . . . scarier than she anticipated.

When a mysterious boy shows up on the bus, then vanishes with nothing but a tattered piece of paper bearing the number 396 found lying on his empty seat, it sets off a chain of bone-chilling events in Claire's house and she begins to wonder if she brought back more than chilled fingers and numb toes from the tour that night. 

Maybe she brought back a ghost.

Your first book, THE PECULIAR INCIDENT ON SHADY STREET, has been a huge hit with readers, making it on 4 state lists. What similarities and differences can readers expect with your second book? 

Thank you! I've been very fortunate to have PECULIAR INCIDENT resonate with so many readers and educators! In terms of similarities, WHISPERS is spooky and dark and very, very ghostly.  It's also rooted in truth and history and steeped in a hefty dose of local Chicago legend - another similarity to Tessa's adventure. I adored Tessa's journey, as well as the friends she made along the way to solving the mystery of what happened on Shady street, and I'm equally thrilled for you guys to meet Claire! Claire is like many of us - filled with ideas about the world we live in, but occasionally hesitant to explore notions that are unfamiliar or different. Her journey in this mystery is special, and I truly hope her adventure resonates with you as much as it did with me when I wrote it. 

You're a part of the #SpookyMG team over at Can you tell us more about that and how teachers and students can get involved? 

Yes! #SpookyMG is a collaboration between over a dozen authors of spooky middle-grade literature! We host a blog, a YouTube channel, giveaways, and even have an amazing #SpookyMG book challenge that teachers and librarians can use to help find the perfect text for even their most reluctant readers. Our author group is also open to Skype's and spoke to dozens of classrooms all over the country this year! Spooky books can play a role all year long, and we're honored to shine a spotlight on all the fabulous benefits of reading them!

Both of your books feature hauntings. Do you believe in ghosts in real life?

Haha yessssss. Although I've never experienced a haunting personally, I do believe in ghosts. I guess there's a little Nina from PECULIAR INCIDENT in me! Most of my belief in the paranormal stems from the research I've done. There are so many ghost stories out there, and the more you read the more you begin to wonder. And if there's one thing an author loves to do . . . it's wonder. 

Thanks so much for stopping by, Lindsay Currie. You can find out more about Lindsay at: