Monday, March 19, 2018

Dear Middle Grade Minded: How to Write for Middle Grade

We had a reader send in a question not long ago. It seemed like a great opportunity to remind people if they want to send in questions, we’re more than happy to try answering them.

Hello -- Can you recommend an online writing class for me? I have a good idea for a middle grade book but no experience in writing for this age group. Thanks

First of all, congratulations! Having a good idea is at least half the battle. However, this does lead me into a few rhetorical questions that hopefully will give you some helpful things to think about:

How familiar would you say you are with middle grade literature? Why do you think this is a good idea for middle grade?

When we were discussing the original question, Shari Green brought up an excellent point: “I've no idea if there are any decent classes, but of course the best ‘class' for learning to write middle grade is reading lots and lots of middle grade!” This is one of the most fundamental rules out there about writing, period: You have to know the audience you’re writing for. Middle grade is much more than just books with characters in a certain age range. Middle grade literature has to have something that will capture the attention of a kid growing up in a screen-infested world. It needs to have elements the reader can relate to. It needs to entertain them on their level, but without talking down to them. This isn’t always an easy balance to achieve. The more familiar you are with the books that successfully make all of this happen, the more informed you’ll be about how to approach your own story.

How much writing experience are you starting with?

Are you looking for a writing class as a first step in learning how to write a book? Do you want some guidance on how to write something more specific to a middle grade audience? Unfortunately I don’t have any list of classes to share (maybe someone else will and might post ideas in the comments), and I’m certainly not discounting writing classes, online or otherwise, as a good way to learn about the craft. However, the big truth about writing is the best way to learn how to do it or to get better at it is to WRITE. Young Michael Jordan practiced basketball for endless hours. When Bruce Springsteen was starting out, he played show after show after show. Stephen King probably used up more typewriter ribbons than he could count before he made his first professional sale. Everyone has to start somewhere, and has to put in the time to developing their skill, and, in the case of writers, finding their voice. Whether or not you ever find the type of class you’re thinking about, go ahead and start writing that book! Put that idea to work. Find out there are parts of it you love and parts you hate, then keep working at it and making it better. That’s all any of us can do.

I don’t want to leave you hanging without anything more than the “read more/write more” tips, so I do have a few suggestions. There are hundreds of books about writing out there, which can be more than a little daunting to consider. Here are three writing books I would personally recommend:

ON WRITING by Stephen King

I know a lot of writers who refer to this one as a favorite. I think it’s fair to call it essential.


Another thoughtful writing manual/memoir that I’ve always found similar to ON WRITING. They’re both helpful on their own, and they complement each other well.


I was assigned to read this in a college class. Even though we were meant to read it from the perspective of improving academic writing, I found it incredibly valuable beyond that. Most real writing happens during revision, and this is one of the most thoughtful books about the mechanics involved I’ve even encountered.

I’d also suggest to dig deep into Twitter, and follow different authors, agents, and editors who post threads about craft and process. You can find some interesting points to consider if you keep your eyes open.

Good luck!

Friday, March 16, 2018


A Place for You by Tim Fox is an intelligent, folksy middle grade tale perfect for cat lovers as well as youth struggling to find their place in life. 

Brimming with practical, down-home wisdom that flows easily with the narrative, this story tugs at the heartstrings and prompts readers to contemplate weighty questions in a style well-suited to the middle grade audience.

The spunky main character, Tracy, loves to run. Fox captures the intense joy and sense of being alive that running gives Tracy. 

Her enthusiasm made me want to take to the trails myself, so I, too, could feel the freedom of wind rushing through my hair. What a wonderful image to impart to young readers in this day of videos games, computers, and social media: Move—you’ll love it.

Tracy’s compassion for a sick stray cat and her struggle to relate to her great aunt whom she has recently moved in with form the underpinnings of this coming-of-age story. She is haunted by the heartaches of her original family and trying to find a place that will really be a home to her, somewhere safe where she can flourish.

This story deals with issues of parent neglect and addiction, which may be difficult for many middle grade readers. However, those who face these issues themselves—and there are too many—will take courage in knowing they are not alone and that there are ways to find peace and to succeed despite serious life challenges. Good lessons for all of us.

In an interesting twist, the author takes us into the minds of a pet cat and a female cougar. 

The interplay between their perspectives and Tracy’s heightens the tension while deepening the meaning of the story. 

Based in part on true events, this tale of Tracy’s encounters with the mountain lion and her cubs will leave readers amazed and wishing for more.

A Place For You is available on Amazon.

Author Tim Fox lives in Wisconsin with his family and several rescued cats. He is also the author of Journeys: An Ice Age Adventure.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Hello Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

After Erin Entrada Kelly's Hello, Universe won the 2018 Newbery Medal for outstanding contribution to children's literature, I immediately requested the book from my local library. (My dog Cooper could tell this one was going to be good!)
Told through alternating points of view, Hello Universe is the story of four kids: Virgil, a shy, misunderstood boy; Valencia, who is as stubborn as she is clever; Kaori, who tells fortunes and reads the stars; and Chet, the neighborhood bully. The four kids aren’t friends. They don’t go to the same school. But when Chet pulls an unthinkable prank on Virgil and Virgil’s pet guinea pig, the lives of these middle schoolers collide in unexpected ways.

The Newbery judges called Hello Universe a “modern quest” that “shimmers with humor and authentic emotion.”

I call it masterful storytelling.

Here’s why:

1. Alternating points of view
Not only is each chapter told from differing viewpoints, but they are written in different tenses. Valencia’s chapters are in the present tense. (“I walk up to the well. Sure enough, the mouth is wide open. Someone’s been goofing off. And here’s evidence: a small pile of rocks, neatly placed.”) Yet Virgil’s story is written in the past. (“He flinched, the same way he did when teachers called on him even though he hadn’t raised his hand. Virgil covered his ears. He pressed his palms against them until it hurt.”) As a writer, this is extremely difficult to pull off. Yet Erin Entrada Kelly did so seamlessly, weaving the story together without pause.

2. Amazing plotting
When I started reading, I didn’t see how the four kids’ stories would weave together. But, sure enough, the lives of these children collided in a surprising way. As a writer, I know this was carefully planned and plotted, perhaps over the course of many years.

3. Gorgeous writing

"The darkness had teeth that snapped and clenched, and here was Virgil, sitting at the bottom of its throat.”

“The voice breezed through the well like steam drifting from a cup of hot chocolate.”

“Ruby sighed. The sound traveled like a curl of invisible smoke.”

"He couldn’t breathe, either. His lungs had been stolen by the darkness.”

4. High-stakes adventure
Spoiler alert: One of the kids gets stuck in the bottom of a well. There’s no light or food, and only a limited amount of air. Talk about a page-turner!

5. Humor
Kaori is a self-proclaimed psychic. The texts between Valencia and Kaori made me laugh out loud:

Kaori: I know everything about dreams. I’ve studied Freud. Would you like an appointment?

Valencia: How old are u? how do I know ur not crazy killer?

Kaori: I’m 12 and don’t be ridiculous.

Valencia: U don’t sound 12

Kaori: That’s because I’m the reincarnated spirit of a 65-year-old freedom fighter.

Hello Universe most definitely deserves the highest of accolades. Middle grade readers are in for a treat!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Middle Grade Favorites

This week, I thought I would put together a list of some of my middle grade favorites. So many choices, so little time!

1. Favorite Book with a Unique Format
Goblin Secrets by William Alexander. Told in the format of a play, this ingenious fantasy tells the story of Rownie, a boy trying to rescue his brother in a land where plays have been outlawed. You've got goblins, a creepy Baba Yaga character and plenty of adventure.

2. Favorite Book Told from a Unique Perspective
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. So many ugly tears! Need I say more? Told from the perspective of Ivan, a captive gorilla, you cannot help but be touched by his struggle for freedom.

3. Favorite Frame Story
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Each of the layered stories in this novel is fantastic, and more than one will bring you to tears. Pick it up immediately if you are interested in writing middle grade literature.

4. Favorite Sneaky Sci-fi
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Yes, it's a friendship story, but it's so much more. Prepare to be dazzled by Stead’s effortless interweaving of the fantastic and the everyday.

5. Favorite Family Secret
Tangerine by Edward Bloor. Do you love the kind of suspense that bubbles up slowly page by page, seeping in through the crevices and turning everything you thought you knew on its head? Cool, then you will love this book. If you haven't done so already, check it out now.

Friday, March 2, 2018

In which I tell the truth—the whole truth

Recently my Facebook “memories” told me I’d signed the contract for my first middle-grade book exactly two years ago. A couple months from now, my third middle-grade book will make its way into the world. Three books in a little over two years. Whew! In the midst of all the writing, revising, waiting, celebrating, stressing, promoting, doubting, and hoping, I’ve been thrilled and humbled to have my books land on some good lists and even win an award. It’s been a whirlwind. An amazing, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening whirlwind. But here’s the thing:

If Facebook were to tell the whole story, you’d also know that just over two years ago, none of this had happened. Just over two years ago, I’d acquired an impressive and, truth be told, daunting number of rejection letters. I’d been dropped by my agent. I’d been in the “zero request club” in PitchWars. I’d wrestled with separating writing from publishing, so the roller-coaster ride of being in this industry wouldn’t completely crush my creative spirit. I’d had to dig deep in my battle-worn heart and answer the question, Is this worth it? I’d had to decide whether or not I had it in me to keep hoping.

That hard stuff doesn’t tend to make it onto Facebook. Yes, I’m guilty of putting forth a curated life on social media. (I have my reasons, but I’m not sure they’re good ones.) And so those who look, see part of the truth. And it’s not only with the writing side of things – it’s personal stuff, too. You see the celebrations, the sunny days, the happy-moments snapshots. But I don’t often share the less-great things – the devastating news, the loss and grief, the stress and hurt and disappointment. Truth is, these past two years have had all that in the mix, too.

Where am I going with this? I’m not even sure. But I’ve been thinking lately that social media, with all its good news, yay-hooray curated snippets of people’s lives, can sometimes have the unintended result of discouraging others. So today, in telling the whole truth about my journey (albeit in a very abbreviated form), I hope to say this: Hang on. Keep hoping. The road can be long and hard, but your good news might be around the next corner, or the one after that (but in the meantime, hey--did you see that sunrise? notice that weird twisted tree?). 

Embrace the journey that is uniquely yours, with its mountaintops and dark valleys, long hard paths and surprising vistas. Connect with others who are walking a similar road--we're in this together! Celebrate together, weep together, share the load. Trust that the journey is worth it, and don’t give up.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla - Interview and Book Giveaway!

Many of you will be familiar with author Sally J. Pla.

Her debut middle grade novel, The Someday Birds, was one of the most highly acclaimed MG novels of 2017.

Now she's back with her latest novel, STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE, and I'm quite sure kids and the adults in their lives are going to be equally enamoured with this story!

I recently caught up with Sally to talk to her about the book, but first, some background:

Nobody knows comics trivia like Stanley knows comics trivia.
It’s what he takes comfort in when the world around him gets to be too much. And after he faints during a safety assembly, Stanley takes his love of comics up a level by inventing his own imaginary superhero, named John Lockdown, to help him through. 
Help is what he needs, because Stanley’s entered Trivia Quest—a giant comics-trivia treasure hunt—to prove he can tackle his worries, score VIP passes to Comic Fest, and win back his ex-best friend. Partnered with his fearless new neighbor Liberty, Stanley faces his most epic, overwhelming, challenging day ever. 
What would John Lockdown do?
Stanley’s about to find out.

My Interview with Sally:

As a former anxious kid (and a sometime anxious adult!), I was wondering how much research you needed to do for this book? Stanley is so realistic!

I definitely had (and have) deep firsthand experience on poor Stanley's nervewracked quality of life! I've suffered varying degrees of social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and sensory processing issues since I was a kid. Sensory processing disorder is like living in a "too-intense-world." Everything's too bright, too loud, too tight, and generally overwhelming, so it's easy to get overload. I never fainted during a safety assembly, the way Stanley does, but my anxiety and sensory stuff definitely impacted my childhood in significant ways, and it certainly informs the character of Stanley.

Why comics? Where did the idea come from? Were you a comics kid yourself? 

My brother and I argued all the time about whether Batman could take Superman, or whether Spiderman would take them both. I liked Spiderman best. Peter Parker's high school angst resonated with me in some weird way. I remember debating it through the thin wall between our bedrooms, late at night, until my grandmother would yell, "GET TO BED!"  So yeah, I guess we were comics kids in a way. Mainly we read Archies and MAD magazines our cousin or neighbor would slip to us, and of course we watched all the movies and shows on TV. 

I think that, especially if you tend to be a fearful kid, the notion of a strong, benevolent champion who's there to save you - a superhero - is tremendously appealing. Especially when the adults in your life are not stepping up. 

But the beginning seed of the idea for writing a book for kids about comics -- about comic trivia -- came from watching pretty much every Marvel movie with my own son, and having him educate me. It blew me away, how much he knew. It was a fun thing to share with him and I really got into it for a while. Then I did a lot of research to get up to speed. It was super fun. I still don't really know squat, though. I'm a mere acolyte, a debutante. Still learning.

I love how Stanley is able to articulate his fears through the John Lockdown comic, but he’s also able to take back some control. Did you know there would be a John Lockdown comic from the very beginning of plotting the book?

YES! "John Lockdown" is the name of a special school-safety superhero comic that Stanley invents -- and John Lockdown has a real-life origin-story... 

In our old elementary school, the principal would announce intruder drills by saying, over the PA, in a hushed and kind of intense voice: "John Lockdown is now in the building!" That was his  code phrase!  

It kind of creeped me out. But I have to admit, my sons weren't too concerned - they'd actually play this James-Bond-style cop-and-robber game, where "John Lockdown" was the good guy.  I knew there was just too much potential in this name. I had to fictionalize this John Lockdown character. 

My sons' game, and the name of John Lockdown itself, it's indicative to me of how we process fear. And that's fascinating to me. How do we take what's potentially terrifying, and turn it into something we can handle? How does that process work -- for kids, for all of us? What happens when it doesn't work? And which way is healthier, more realistic? 

Stanley’s relationship with Joon is fraught throughout most of this book. Was it hard to find a way to make Joon a sympathetic character, too? Because he really is!

Yeah, "ex-best-friend" Joon's not a bad kid. Stanley is understandably hurt and angry, but I think he also realizes, on some level, that it's the way of the world for Joon to want more out of life, now they're getting older. Bantering about comic trivia in Stanley's room won't cut it anymore. Maybe not even for Stanley. Clearly, he mourns this. And knows something got to give -- even for himself.

Liberty is such a spark in this book and yet she’s dealing with her own problems. What I loved was how neither she, nor Stanley, want to be defined by their problems, even with everyone else around them wanting to define them. Was it a challenge to write supporting characters that sometime struggled themselves with the issues faced by Liberty and Stanley?

The adults in this story revolve around the main characters like moons. Stanley has worry-issues; Liberty has health issues. The adults hover, both over-involved and under-involved, too close and too distant, clueless and overbearing. In other words, typical, I think. None of the adults really see the kids for who they are (with a couple of exceptions), or fully understands what they're going through. And I think that's par for the course when you are twelve. The adults who once seemed to know everything, now know nothing. The whole world is a stranger. You're on your own.

Except for maybe John Lockdown. Ha.  

and finally:

Marvel or DC?

My son, disgusted at a gaffe I made, once remarked, "Mom. Mixing up Marvel and DC is like confusing Buddha and Mohammed." 

HEY! I'm not perfect! Also, like them both. However, I do have to express a preference for Marvel's movie adaptations (although I loved Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman). And now that Marvel's part of Disney, I think things are going to get even more interesting, there. 

But films aside, in terms of the long history of their written comics, it's apples and oranges. Both houses are filled with wonderful, iconic, incredible characters. 

Also, this would have been a great question for my brother and I to debate through the wall back when we were ten!

Thanks Sally!

To learn more about Sally or to get links to where you can buy your own copy - the book is in bookstores NOW, visit

Win Your Own Copy!

Sally has kindly given us an Advanced Reader Copy of Stanley Will Probably Be Fine to giveaway and you could win it!

All you have to do is leave a comment below and tell us what your favourite comic was growing up!

a Rafflecopter giveaway Good Luck!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Finding Your Perfect Agent Match

I always thought I knew what people meant when they said wait for the agent who is the right fit for you, the one that gushes over your manuscript, and has the right vision for your work and your career. It seemed like a simple enough concept and yet for just over 5 years (5 years and 1 day to be exact) I wondered why I hadn’t found that right fit yet, why finding an agent was so difficult. Something about this idea of the prefect agent match didn’t fully click until I recently signed with my agent.

Getting an offer from an agent can be tough. It comes with a lot of rejection, A LOT. I had around 150 rejections over two manuscripts. It also comes with a lot of work. Writing, then editing, then having critique partners weigh in, followed by more editing. And once you start querying you may pull back, revise your submission package or your manuscript as feedback comes in. And through all that you wonder if that yes will ever come, the yes I want to see more, and even better that yes I want to represent you.

But even while you’re querying, there’s things you can do to prepare yourself for that moment when an agent says they want to offer you representation.

Figuring Out Your Priorities
What do you want in an agent? No really. We all want someone that can represent our work, and sell it to publishers, but what do you really want from your agent?

Are you looking for a hands on agent that is editorial, or would you prefer to take care of that on your own?

What kind of communication style are you looking for? Do you prefer to talk on the phone or via email? How frequently do you want to communicate with your agent?

What kind of publishers are you ultimately trying to attract? Does the agent’s submission strategy and industry connections match your writing career goals?

Those are just a few short examples, but the list goes on and on. Figure out what your strengths are, and what things are nonnegotiable when finding your perfect agent match. Then start assembling a list of questions to ask. I had been compiling questions I saw on twitter and blog posts for literally years. When it came time to have THE CALL, having all those resources plus reaching out to other writers for thoughts definitely made it easier to prepare and a lot less frantic.

The Importance of THE CALL
Going into the call I knew what I wanted. I wanted an editorial agent who would work with me to hone my craft. I wanted an agent with wide submission strategy that included bigger and smaller houses. I wanted someone that kept me in the loop throughout the process because I hate surprises and ultimately hate just waiting forever. I want to know the instant there’s something to tell. I also prefer virtual communication but see the value in getting on the phone from time to time when necessary. And lastly I want someone who would represent my career not just this book, someone that liked the other things I was working on.

Based off what I wanted I was able to pick and choose what questions would help me best understand the agent and how they would approach my work and career.

What I ended up with was two very different conversations. Both were good, but it quickly became clear that one agent would be better for my career than the other. Not that either were bad agents, just that one was a better fit for my needs and what I was looking for in an agent.

Here’s a quick rundown
Agent 1 I had met at a conference. We got along well, and her ears perked up when I mentioned the logline for my manuscript. When I talked to her on the phone she mentioned that she wasn’t overly editorial but was happy to look at changes or bring in outside help if necessary, but in the case of my manuscript felt it was pretty clean and ready to go. She also mentioned she liked to get involved in the marketing side of things and assist her authors with promotions and blog tours. We got along great and have a lot in common. She mentioned she was open to communication via phone and email but preferred email.

Agent 2 had requested an R&R and had already sparked some great ideas and pushed me in ways I didn’t think possible. When I talked to her on the phone, she mentioned she preferred email but was happy to talk on the phone as well. She expressed that she was very editorial and explained what she liked about my story and what she thought needed work. Her submission strategy included sending to small groups of editors and spreadsheets to update with what material was out there and current progress and responses.

By the end of the conversation Agent 1 felt like she would be a really good friend, and Agent 2 felt like she was someone who would push me outside my comfort zone and help me continue to grow and develop my writing career.

So can you guess which agent I picked?

If you guessed Agent 2 you would be correct. I really loved Agent 1 and will continue to reach out to them and be their friend, but at the end of the day, I wanted someone who would work with me to improve my craft and my stories. And if I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted ahead of time, in the heat of the moment I may have made a decision that wouldn’t have taken my writing career in the direction I wanted. It's important to note that I didn't pick the person who would be my friend, I picked the person that was best for my writing career. And because I had spent so much time considering what was important to me, the decision that was best for me became clear pretty quickly.

So for all of you hopeful writers out there looking for their perfect agent match, keep working, keep pushing, and keeping thinking about what you want in an agent. And when the time comes you’ll be ready!