Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath

When I was a kid, my favorite books and movies were often stories about characters bored with their ordinary lives who were suddenly pulled into adventuring through exciting and potentially dangerous worlds they hadn’t known existed. The characters had to learn how to navigate these new worlds as the story went on, even as they pressed forward to solve whatever problems had dragged them there in the first place.

The book HYACINTH AND THE SECRETS BENEATH, by Jacob Sager Weinstein, reminded me a lot of those stories. Boiled down to its core, this book is a chase that only momentarily lets up long enough to let another part of the chase begin. It’s told in first person by a strong main character with a healthy dose of snark in her voice, and an even greater willingness to roll with all of the strange things happening around her.

Hyacinth is the type of girl who confronts the problems and changes that happen in her life, preparing herself for what may come by learning as much as she can. Someone in her family is an unreliable DIY worker? She teaches herself plumbing basics in case she has to fix things. She and her mother are relocating from America to live with her aunt in London? She reads about her new city to familiarize herself with its extensive history. 

The problem is that after settling in at her aunt’s home, she quickly learns that almost everything she thought she knew about the city and its extensive history is completely wrong. There’s an enormous separate world filled with magic in the sewers just beneath London that drives and connects the fate of the city above. When Hyacinth learns she has unwittingly put the entire city in danger, she’s guided into this world to both try and repair her mistakes and rescue her kidnapped mother. She meets up with a collection of strange creatures and even stranger people throughout her adventure, many of them being not what they first seem. 

The mystery that begins the adventure starts in the first pages of the book and continues relentlessly to the very end. I've seen too many students in the past few years abandon books because they weren't captured by the story in the very first pages. This would be a good book to match with readers looking for something imaginative and exciting that hits the ground running.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Using Music to Spark Your Muse

Stuck staring at a blank page (or screen)? Feel like life has squeezed the creativity out of you? 

Believe it or not, the answer is in your iphone. Or wherever you store your favorite tunes. Music is a fab tool for overcoming writers block and fueling your imagination. 

Research shows that when people listen to music (especially songs they enjoy), their creativity and problem-solving abilities increase. Music can enhance abstract thinking and allow listeners to enter a mind-wandering mode, which is known to promote creative thought.

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Listen to a wide variety of genres

This trick takes your brain down new, exciting pathways. Branch out from your standard playlist and try out a song that might usually make you cringe. If that cringe-worthy feeling is enough to send shudders down your spine, just think of the emotion it could elicit in your readers. 

You may also find yourself enjoying a whole new style of music, once you give it a chance. Use the new lyrics and beats as springboards for your imagination. Study the style and ask yourself why it works. What about this song made it good enough to be played on the radio? Studying the rhythms and ideas of a wide variety of music can help generate ideas in your own work. 

Use music as a writing prompt

This is a fun way to stir up those creative juices. Choose a song at random from your playlist (or alternatively, turn on the radio!). Think of one of your main characters. Then listen to a 10-30 second clip of the song, with that character in mind.

See what new images, conflicts, and inspiration arise when you link the character to the feelings or words of the song. Then do a timed free write. Why timed? Because pressure can really stimulate your imagination. But if pressure shuts you down, turn the timer off. Either way, you’ll have plenty to write about.

Play inspiring tracks in the background while you write

Inspiring doesn't necessarily mean uplifting. Instead, choose music that reflects the rhythm of the scene you are trying to write or that elicits the same emotion you intend to evoke. 

For instance, the soundtrack from Pirates of the Caribbean is great to listen to when you’re writing fight scenes. It’s quick-paced, intense, and laced with a sense of danger. On the other hand, Taylor Swift’s Love Story might inspire just the right emotions for a tender-sweet romance.

Do you listen to music when you write or use it for writing prompts? If so, share some of your fave writing tunes below!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Best. Night. Ever. ARC Giveaway

  Top Seven Reasons To Read Best. Night. Ever. (On sale 8/15/17) :
1. Seven points of view and seven (yes, seven!) authors:  (Rachele Alpine, Ronni Arno, Alison Cherry, Stephanie Faris,
Jen Malone, Gail Nall, and Dee Romito)

2. A soapy plan to sabotage the Heart Grenade teen band


 3. A quacking, locker room duck parade and a wild-goose-slash-duck chase

4. An adventurous ride on a lawnmower known as “The Munchinator”


5. A creek that’s colder than an iceberg mixed with a Popsicle mixed with the look Mom gives when you threaten to slam the bedroom door in the middle of one of her lectures.

6. Third grade twins who own a forty-seven-thousand-button remote, but no curling iron.

7. A guy who makes a HUGE mistake—saying yes to two girls. (Spoiler alert: He may or may not turn into a frozen, sputtering, multicolored glitter statue.)

For a chance to win an ARC of this epic middle school adventure, leave a comment and your email below. A winner will be drawn at random.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Interview with Alexandra Ott + Giveaway

I recently got the opportunity to speak with the amazing Alexandra Ott about her debut middle grade novel, RULES FOR THIEVES. It's the story of twelve-year-old Alli Rosco, an orphan who's forced to join a legendary band of thieves in order to try and save herself from a deadly curse. And, in honor of her new release, I'll be giving away a free copy of the book!!!

Rules for Thieves is a story about curses, thieves and life-or-death adventure, so…is it based on real life?

Alli’s story is entirely fictional. After all, I’m not a magically cursed member of a secret band of thieves in real life . . . as far as anyone knows. ;)

What drew you to writing for middle grade readers?

I loved reading middle fiction as a kid (and still do). It’s so fun, and full of adventure as well as heart. It was middle grade fiction that really made me fall in love with reading when I was younger. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for RULES FOR THIEVES came from—thinking about the stories I loved as a kid and how I might write one of my own.

What has been the most surprising part of becoming a real-life big time author?

The most surprising thing about being published, for me, is how much time I have to spend doing things other than writing. I always used to imagine being an author would mean spending all day typing at my keyboard, but I do lots of other things too. Some of them are boring business-related tasks, but others are fun--like this interview, for instance!

What advice would you give to young people interested in writing?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Love what you write. Don’t give up.

Bonus: Please tell me more about your canine overlord.

My canine overlord is a nine-year-old Lhasa Apso named Penny. She likes to assist with my writing process by sitting underneath my desk and giving me sad looks when I spend too much time paying attention to the computer instead of her. She’s fluffy and adorable, so she knows I can’t resist. :)

Thanks so much Alexandra for stopping by!!! And now for the contest!

If you'd like to enter to win a copy of Alexandra's amazing book, RULES FOR THIEVES, please respond to the following question in the comments by 7/15. What rule do you most enjoy breaking? Good luck!

More About Alexandra Ott

Alexandra Ott holds a B.A. in English from the University of Tulsa. She currently lives in Oklahoma with her tiny canine overlord. Rules for Thieves is her debut novel. Visit her online at and on Twitter @Alexandra_Ott.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Breathing Room: Or, what the ocean taught me about pacing

If you’ve been hanging around me or my social media sites much at all, you know I love the ocean. One of the things I love about it is how it always changes. Last week on one of my beach-walks, the ocean was quiet. No wind, so no waves – no crashing over the rocks, barely even any noticeable gentle-breaking against the shore. The gulls were strangely quiet, too. Perhaps they’d already had a good feed and were snoozing somewhere while their breakfast digested. In all that absence of noise, the sound I became aware of was the scritch scritch of crabs scurrying about under the rocks.

This was a very different experience than the beach on a stormy day – wind howling past my ears, surf pounding relentlessly against the rocks. The ocean on a stormy day is all about power, and not so much about subtle scritch scritching.

It’s not just the water that changes, of course. Every day the driftwood has been rearranged and new flotsam and jetsam has been offered up. There’s always some new shell or stone or piece of sea glass to catch my eye. And have you noticed how different the air smells at low tide than at high tide? All these things – the changing sights, sounds, smells – keep the beach interesting and make me want to go back again and again (and I do!).

Recently I was thinking about pacing in fiction. And just as a walk by the ocean every single day might get dull if things never changed, if it was predictable, if there was never anything new to grab my attention, so it is with fiction. If scene after scene is the same pace, I’m likely to put the book down. If it's all fast, I get tired; if it's all slow, I get bored. But if it changes, if it has both quiet moments that allow me to discover hidden treasures, and dramatic moments that take my breath away by their power or action or suspense, then I keep reading.

The variety in pacing comes naturally if you use an “action/reaction” or “scene/sequel” structure when you’re writing and revising. If you’re not quite so intentional while you’re first-drafting (like me), just think of pacing as giving readers time to breathe after those scenes that make them hold their breath.

Great pacing = giving readers time to breathe
after making them hold their breath.

Those slower scenes shouldn’t put your readers to sleep, however. You’ve likely heard the advice to “leave out the boring parts”. Think about it – which parts do you skip when you’re reading? Probably excess backstory, or some “set-up” or exposition that somehow missed getting cut during revisions. If it’s not essential, leave it out.

So what can go in the slower scenes? Each scene still has to move things forward plot-wise or character-development-wise, but the quieter scenes likely contain things such as:
  • a character reacting to what just happened
  • the aftermath of an action
  • description or essential backstory
  • introduction or continuation of a sub-plot. 
And of course, the pace can be slowed by word choice and sentence structure. So, conflict and tension, yes – you want the reader to keep turning pages – but vary it. Think breathing room.

If the ocean never changed…well, truth be told, I’d probably keep going to the beach, lol. I just love it that much. But if the pacing in a story never changes – whether it’s constantly fast, or constantly slow – I’m probably going to close the book. Want to keep me reading? Make me hold my breath, then give me time to breathe.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Review and Giveaway: The Doodle Adventures by Mike Lowery!

There is something about an interactive book, isn't there?

When Workman Publishing asked if Middle Grade Minded would be interested in reviewing the Doodle Adventures books, we jumped in with both feet.

Actually, we could have jumped in with both pencils, or crayons, or markers, or... You get the picture!

Three pages in, I was hooked.

We, the readers, are corralled by an incorrigible and long-suffering duck, Carl, to help with an important mission - in this case, flying into space to retrieve a jar stolen by Captain Sleezog, Ruler of K-82, the planet of SLUGS.

Not only do we have to help retrieve the jar, we have to help by illustrating the book, too!

Hello? We get to doodle in the book? We get to draw all over it? Count me, and every other kid who picks up this book, in.

Add in a dash of wit, some laugh-out loud story-telling, and our chance to unleash our inner Leonard da Vinci (or Mike Lowery!), this book is FUN.

Lucky for us, there are two more books in the series:

The whole time I was reading this I was thinking: Man, I wish these books existed when I was a kid!

My second thought was: Man, I wish I had these books when I took my kids on long car trips!

These books are a great way to spark creativity, imagination, and will likely inspire many readers to write and illustrate their own books!

I guarantee these will be a hit with the kids in your life!

Want to learn more about the author? Visit

And guess what? You get a chance to win your very own set of the Doodle Adventures books.  All you have to do is leave a comment below, telling me that you want to win the books and what your favourite thing to doodle was as a kid (I could draw a mean cat!)  and you'll be entered in the contest!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, June 23, 2017

2017 Diverse Middle Grade

Diversity, diversity, diversity! We are living in a time when there are more books about minority people than every before and it's glorious! I love reading about new cultures and perspectives, that's one of the greatest things about books. For a long time books with those perspectives were stifled. But things are changing for the better. These books are becoming more common, they're being marketed more, they're being read by a wider fan base. I want these books to be read, and read a lot.

So I'm putting my money where my mouth is and using my posts here at Middle Grade Minded to post about diverse books (something I've realized we haven't done enough of). This is a list of a bunch of the diverse MG books out or coming out this year. I'm sure I missed bunches, but this should be a pretty good starting point! And next month, I'm planning to start reviewing some of these books. Let's support diversity in a real way. Read them, talk about them!

Have you read any of these? Or plan to? Let me know in the comments!

This seems to have been the most anticipated diverse MG book this year. Lots of chatter all over the place and I can totally see why.  1) the pitch of this book sounds fantastic! It's compared to Jumungi! 2) Putting diversity into fantasy/sci-fi adventures is amazing. Diversity doesn't always have to be an issue or educational book. A cool book with a cool plot that also deals with lots of diversity? Amazing. I'm super pumped to read this book!

Then we have the other side of the coin, a book whose plot is built on issues of race and social class. " A timely and powerful story about a teen girl from a poor neighborhood striving for success, from acclaimed author Renée Watson."
This looks amazing too! 

I've heard a lot of great things about this book too!  This one is #OwnVoices as well. "A girl with Tourette syndrome starts a new school and tries to hide her quirks in this debut middle-grade novel in verse."

Another diverse book with fantasy elements, rooted in Caribbean folklore (how cool!) This book is a sequel to "Jumbies" which came out last year. If you want to check this one out you might want to start there! "Action-packed storytelling, diverse characters, and inventive twists on Caribbean and West African mythology and fairy tales"

"A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel"

"Harlem is home to all kinds of kids. Jin sees life passing her by from the window of her family's bodega. Alex wants to help the needy one shelter at a time, but can't tell anyone who she really is. Elvin's living on Harlem's cold, lonely streets, surviving on his own after his grandfather was mysteriously attacked...."

Another sequel. This looks to-die-for cute! "The most fabulous nine-year-old cowgirl in Texas is back in this heartwarming and hilarious sequel to The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown! Perfect for fans of Clementine and Ivy and Bean."

 "A middle grade novel in verse that tells the story of a Cuban-American boy who visits his family’s village in Cuba for the first time—and meets a sister he didn’t know he had."

"The next person who compares Chloe Cho with famous violinist Abigail Yang is going to HEAR it. Chloe has just about had it with people not knowing the difference between someone who's Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. She's had it with people thinking that everything she does well -- getting good grades, winning first chair in the orchestra, etCETera -- are because she's ASIAN...."

Pssst, this one might be by one of our own MGM bloggers! It looks super cool about a deaf girl who befriends her 86-year-old hearing neighbor  "Macy's mother... sends her next door to help eighty-six-year-old Iris Gillan, who is also getting ready to move―in her case, into an assisted living facility. Iris can't move a single box on her own and, worse, she doesn't know sign language. How is Macy supposed to understand her? But Iris has stories to tell, and she isn't going to let Macy's deafness stop her."

"An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father."

"For ten-year-old Cadence Jolly, birthdays are a constant reminder of all that has changed since her mother skipped town with dreams of becoming a star. Cadence inherited that musical soul, she can't deny it, but otherwise she couldn't be more different - she's as shy as can be."

"The first contemporary novel about a disorder that bends the lives of ten percent of all teenagers: scoliosis."

"Equal parts madcap road trip, coming-of-age story for an unusual boy, and portrait of a family overcoming a crisis." This one has a main character with autism which would be a really cool perspective to hop into! 

"Welcome to Oddity, New Mexico, where normal is odd and odd is normal."

"When two brothers decide to prove how brave they are, everything backfires—literally"

"From debut author and longtime zine-maker Celia C. Perez, The First Rule of Punk is a wry and heartfelt exploration of friendship, finding your place, and learning to rock out like no one's watching. "