Friday, August 18, 2017

6 Strategies to Encourage Reading (bonus: 2 MG booklists!)

Summer is almost gone (summer break, anyways). In some places, it already is. My kids started up school this past Wednesday. And with the excitement (dread?) of a new school year, new schedules, and the gearing up of sports and music practice—not to mention homework—recreational reading can easily take a backseat.

So here’s a list of some great MG reads to tempt even the most reluctant readers, along with strategies for fitting reading into the busy lifestyle of the modern middle grade reader.

Classic MG Faves 

These timeless tales invite readers into amazing new worlds, whether through fantasy, harsh wilderness, futuristic society, or the depths of Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each weaves deep meaning into an entertaining narrative, leaving readers grappling with questions and inspired to triumph in their own lives.
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    The Chronicles of Narnia
    Bridge to Terebithia
    Island of the Blue Dolphins
    Jonathon Livingston Seagull
    The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
    The Giver
    Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
    The Borrowers

Modern MG Faves

These modern favorites entice readers with wizardry, magic, action, and adventure, yet at the same time, provide a surprising amount of intellectual stimulation and fascinating facts.
    Harry Potter series (of course)
    Percy Jackson series (and spinoffs - The Heroes of Olympus, The Kane Chronicles)
    Diary of a Wimpy Kid series
    Big Nate series
    Septimus Heap series
    Fablehaven series
    The Sisters Grimm
    A Series of Unfortunate Events
    I Survived series 

Strategies to Encourage Reading

To wheedle, bribe or beg? Whatever the approach, we all know reading is important. Some kids take to it like fish to water, but others require a little convincing.
    Let them see you read. This may sound simple, and it is, but kids are great imitators. When they see the enjoyment their parents and older siblings find in books, that can intrigue them and help them view reading as a fun, interesting activity. At the very least, their curiosity will be piqued. Our family unofficially adopted a young boy a couple years ago. He detested reading. As the months have gone by, he has grown interested in books and often asks me about what I’m reading. He has blazed through the I Survived series, and though he is still somewhat reluctant, he is much more open to the idea of reading than before.
    Read to them. This one is a no-brainer for young children, but I’ve found that reading to my family (even teens!) is a great way to promote family unity as well as to spark their interest in fiction. A great MG book that spans all ages is Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. Take turns reading it or just let them sit back and listen. Either way, you’re nurturing a love of reading, feeding your family’s creativity, while carving out precious family time in your busy schedule.
    Visit the Library. There’s nothing more empowering for kids than choosing their own reading material and checking it out with their own library card. What’s more, libraries often have special reading challenges and programs to entice people into the world of reading.
    Provide lots of options. I’m a big fantasy fan. Much to my shock, some of my family are not. Some of them are not even fans of fiction. My nephew, even at a young age, preferred reading nonfiction. One of my adoptive sons would only read about football. Several of my kids light up over factual information about dinosaurs, space, or sea creatures. One of my sons inhales comics. Whatever their preferences, they’re reading and learning. Once they find a series or genre they enjoy, it’s a lot easier to keep them going.
    Treat Reading as a Family Requirement. Some things are required in our family. Learning to read, learning to swim, learning to ride a bike. Of course, there’s more. And every family will insist on slightly different skills and habits. But recreational reading can be one of these. Insist on a little reading before any screen time or friend time. Or set aside dedicated reading time in your schedule.
    Beg, wheedle, and bribe. Yep, we’re back to that. Create fun incentives to encourage reading. This can be special time set aside with Mom or Dad. Enlist friends or extended family, too, if that helps. It could be ice cream, a sleepover, a new book, or a new app. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. Remember, sometimes the best reward of all can be sharing a new interest along with your encouragement and approval.

What are some of your favorite MG reads? How do you encourage reading in your home or classroom?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Author Interview: Things That Surprise You

I had the wonderful opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of THINGS THAT SURPRISE YOU, a new middle grade contemporary from Jennifer Maschari, the author of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price. This story of sisters, friends, and family is bursting with heart. It’s an important novel for middle schoolers searching to find their own way. Here’s the synopsis:  

Emily Murphy is about to enter middle school. She’s sort of excited, though not as much as her best friend, Hazel, who is ready for everything to be new. Emily wishes she and Hazel would just continue on as they always have, being the biggest fans ever of the Unicorn Chronicles, making up dance moves, and getting their regular order at the Slice.

But things are changing. At home, Emily and her mom are learning to move on after her parents’ divorce. Hardest of all, her beloved sister, Mina, has been in a treatment facility to deal with her anorexia. Emily is eager to have Mina back but anxious about her sister getting sick again.

Hazel is changing, too. She has new friends from the field hockey team, is starting to wear makeup, and has crushes on boys. Emily is trying to keep up, but she keeps doing and saying the wrong things. She wants to be the perfect new Em. But who is that really?

Author Jen Maschari was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book, which will hit shelves on August 22:

Jen, can you tell Middle Grade Minded readers a bit about your inspiration for this book? Did you go through any of Em’s family/friendship issues when you were in middle school?

I knew I wanted to write a story about sisters and also the difficult years of middle school. In some ways, I feel like I’ve never left middle school. I write about it, and I am currently a 7th and 8th grade teacher! I did go through some of the same friend issues Emily faced. I was not part of the group that was considered “cool” and I remember those middle school years being pretty tough (especially my 8th grade year). But like Emily, I also found friends who were the right fit: people who accepted and valued me for who I was.

I loved the metaphor of Em’s science project, showing the movement of the changing Earth over time as it connected with the shifts in Emily’s own life. Did you think of this correlation ahead of time, or did it evolve as you drafted the novel?

Thank you Stefanie! This correlation definitely came later as I worked my way into the story. Maybe it appeared in draft three? The heart of this story was always the same – the bond between sisters and finding out who you are – but the story itself changed dramatically during revisions. It started as a camp story (spoiler: there’s no camp anywhere in the finished book) but evolved into a book about facing all kinds of change. I’ve always been fascinated with science and thought the evolution of the changing Earth and Emily’s journey went well together. (and, growing up, I loved school projects so I thought it would be fun to put one in the book)

Your debut, The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price, received a starred review from School Library Journal. What was the road to publication like for your second novel? How was it different/similar from your first book?

The writing of this book was very difficult. Between drafts two and three, I scrapped all but approximately 12 pages. It was daunting but needed to be done; it resulted in a much better story! With CHARLIE, I was writing that on my own time, while teaching. With THINGS I worked faster, but I sometimes didn’t allow myself the necessary thinking time I needed in the early drafting stage to work out plot and character knots. I learned a lot of good lessons from writing a second book that I will hopefully apply to my third!

Thanks so much, Jen!

To order Things That Surprise You, go here:

To learn more about Jen, go to:


Monday, August 7, 2017

Giveaway + Author Interview with Melissa Roske

I'm so excited to chat with Melissa Roske today, author of the new middle grade novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean. Melissa has worked as a journalist in Europe, an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine and she's even a certified life coach.

Thanks for stopping by, Melissa!!!

Kat deals with a lot of issues familiar to kids. What was your inspiration for Kat?

Like Kat’s mom, my dad has OCD. His compulsions are the opposite of Kat’s mom’s, though, because my dad is a hoarder who keeps everything. (I recently found a datebook in his apartment from 1973!) He’s also a checker, which means he must check the front-door locks, and the gas jets on the stove, multiple times a day. I too have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, including the need to have my window shades fixed at a certain level, but I wouldn’t say they impede my life. They’re just extremely distracting—to my family, and to myself.

Kat Greene Comes Clean releases on August 22nd!!! How are you going to celebrate?

On the actual day, my daughter, Chloe, and I will have a leisurely lunch and then visit as many bookstores as humanly possible—to gawk, and to sign books. A week later, I’m having a launch party at The Corner Bookstore, a wonderful little shop on Madison Avenue and 93rd Street. There will be an after party, too!

What advice do you have for young aspiring writers?

Don’t give up! Writing is hard work, and it’s likely you will encounter many stumbling blocks along the way—including crushing rejection. But rejection can be overcome. Giving up on a dream cannot.

Finish the sentence:

Kat is the perfect book for…Readers who like some funny with their serious.

You should have asked me…To demonstrate my archery skills. Surprisingly, it’s one of my hidden talents!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Melissa! I can't wait to buy my copy of Kat Greene Comes Clean!!!

To find out more about Melissa and Kat, visit Melissa online at:
Or follow her on Twitter: @MelissaRoske

Win a Copy of Kat Greene!!!

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Breaking up is hard to do

There's something to be said for discipline, for pushing through on writing projects even though they're hard, and even though they're's so not fun anymore. You know...when the going gets tough, and all that. 
Okay, there's a lot to be said for that approach. That approach gets things done. That approach finishes things, and finishing, as we know, is a pretty critical part of any writing project. But there's also something to be said for quitting.

Yeah...I should probably explain. 

I recently trunked a manuscript after months of working on it. Usually if I'm fighting with a project, it means I'm coming at it from the wrong direction. I need to find a new way in, a fresh approach to the story. Other times, it's not that my approach needs reconfiguring; it's that I need a good kick in the pants, preferably of the metaphorical kind. 

But sometimes after I've tried all my just-do-it tricks and my new-approach tricks, I find I'm still fighting with a project. This usually means it's time to let it go, to "break up" with the project for one of a few reasons:
  1. It's not you, it's me. It's a good project, but for whatever reason, it's not the project for me. 
  2. I'm just not ready for a relationship. It's a good project, but it needs more time percolating before I pull it out and give it another go. 
  3. Yeah, it's actually you. It's actually kind of a stupid project, lol. What was I thinking? 
At this point, I think my trunked project falls into category two. Time will tell. If it keeps pulling me back, I'll definitely re-visit it. 

Deciding to set that project aside was a tough thing to do. I wanted to love it, and I'd worked hard on it. But here's the thing: once the decision was made, it was like opening the windows on my creative spirit and letting a cool breeze rush in. So refreshing! So light! So...hopeful. It was only two or three days later that a Shiny New Idea took hold, half a notebook was filled with excited scribbling, and my new project took root. 

When you're fighting with a writing project, here are a few options to consider...

  • New Approach: Maybe you're coming at the project from the wrong direction -- starting in the wrong place, using the wrong POV, missing the mark voice-wise (or, as has happened to me, the character isn't YA-age as you'd first thought, but rather MG!). Try talking it out with critique partners, or brainstorming possibilities, or free-writing about the story. Try writing non-linearly (if you're excited about the ending, or the fight scene, or whatever, write that scene). Try different points of view (whose story is it, anyway? and would it work better in third-person? etc). Try putting the project away for a month, and then taking a fresh look at it. Usually some combination of these things will ensure I find my way into a story.
  • Just Do It: Sometimes, procrastination wins. Sometimes laziness does. At that point, we have to do whatever it takes to get words on the page. A self-imposed deadline, if a "real" deadline doesn't exist; bribery or rewards; accountability (tell your critique partner or your entire social media audience that you're going to do it by X date). If it's distraction that's keeping you from finishing a project (squirrel!), even distraction by way of brilliant new story ideas, try lists -- jot things down to free your mind of them. I have an idea notebook for great ideas with poor timing, lol; they get duly noted before being ushered out the door to wait their turn. Do whatever it takes to just do it.
  • Move On: Unless you're contractually obligated to finish a project, don't be afraid to set it aside if it's not coming together. You may find your creativity flourishes when freed from "ought to" projects. Explore something new. Re-fill the creative well. Take joy in playing with words, ideas, stories. No, you shouldn't make a habit of giving up when things aren't going well -- we learn so much by pushing through and finishing a project! But if you step back and objectively see that it's time to move on from something that isn't working, it's okay. Be kind to yourself. But hey, finish the next thing, okay? ;-) 

Happy writing. :) #thisdaywewrite

Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review and Interview with Danielle Davis, Author of Zinnia and the Bees, and a BOOK GIVEAWAY!

I am thrilled to review Danielle Davis' debut middle grade novel, Zinnia and The Bees today!

I got a chance to read an ARC of this book and adored it!

The Story:

Talk about having a lousy day. While Zinnia's seventh grade classmates are celebrating the last day of school, she's cooped up in the vice principal's office, serving detention. Her offense? Yarn bombing a statue of the school mascot. And when Zinnia rushes home to commiserate with her older brother, Adam, who also happens to be her best friend, she's devastated to discover that he's left home with no explanation. Just when it looks like Zinnia's day can't possibly get any worse, a colony of frantic honeybees mistakes her hair for a hive and lands on her head! Told from the alternating perspectives of Zinnia a humorous young loner and knitter and an unintentionally comical hive of honeybees, this quirky, heartfelt novel will strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt alone, betrayed, or misunderstood as it explores the challenges that come with learning to trust yourself and the often messy process of discovering the true meaning to home.

My review of the book:

I loved the book so much I read it in one sitting. Zinnia is having a terrible summer. Her beloved older brother Adam left home in the night to get away from their overbearing mother (whom Zinnia refers to using her formal name Dr. Flossdrop, she's on the outs with her best friends, her mom's just rescued the creepiest dog, and a strange boy has moved in next door. Oh yeah, and bees have nested in her head! A wonderful story about dealing with unresolved pain and fear, and learning to trust, this book, beautifully written by Danielle Davis, is sure to be beloved by all middle graders who read Zinnia's story. A true delight!

The Interview:

Q1. One of the rawest things about the book is Zinnia’s brother, Adam, taking off. We don’t often see a sibling doing that in MG fiction. Can you speak about sibling bonds in MG fiction?

I think in middle grade fiction, siblings can often be found on the sidelines as main characters navigate their way in the world outside the home, in friendships and new experiences. But I’ve read some wonderful books recently in which sibling relationships are key, providing both conflict and, ultimately, connection and heart. In Karuna Riazi’s The Gauntlet, Farah’s little brother provides the impetus for Farah to play a dangerous game in order to save him. In Elana K. Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat (though more of a chapter book), Bat’s older sister serves as both antagonist and ally and adds realism to the story. And Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest, Hello, Universe, has one character whose little sister is a constant part of her world, her partner, with all the nuance that entails. And in her earlier book, The Land of Forgotten Girls, Soledad is also an older sibling, looking out for her little sister in the midst of a very difficult situation.

In terms of story mechanics for my book, Adam, Zinnia’s best friend and older brother, leaves her high and dry because I needed Zinnia to be reeling and feel like everything was out of her control. The bees arriving on her head after Adam departs are almost a metaphor for that out of control feeling (and what it can feel like for many kids as they navigate the sometimes itchy, new, uncomfortable, and out-of-control process of growing up).

Adam striking out on his own independent journey feels to Zinnia like she’s lost him forever. But in the end, the sibling bond changing doesn’t equal its permanent loss. It stretches and flexes in order to allow for growth.

Q2. Another brilliant thing about the book is that Zinnia isn’t always easy to get along with and struggles with friendships. Did you decide early on that was Zinnia was experiencing would also be experienced by the bees?

This book was seven or eight years on and off in the making, so it’s hard for me to remember the origin of my decisions, but I checked some of my oldest drafts and the bees’ narrations were in fact there since the beginning! At the time, Colony Collapse Disorder and the bee disappearance were in the news a lot. I’d also heard a story of industrial bees, which is a real thing. Beekeepers travel with bees that are used to pollinate fruit and vegetables all over the country. Amazing, right? I was drawn to the idea of personifying a fictional group of them who are looking for something more in life, a home and a lifestyle like the bees who roam on their own. And I hoped the bees had potential as the collective character I envisioned—communal, overly dramatic, existential, and hilarious without meaning to be. (I really love those bees!)

I think in terms of Zinnia and the honeybees having a parallel experience, that’s something that developed naturally. The bees are literally stuck, searching for a home and without much hope of finding a new one (and blaming poor Bee 641 for scouting such an improper hive on Zinnia’s head!). At the same time, Zinnia feels stuck with the bees and is searching for her own home in a more figurative sense. She’s looking to feel at home with herself and others, and to trust herself as well as the people in her life.

Q3. A theme that really resonated with me in the book was that of control. Zinnia’s mom, Dr. Flossdrop (brilliant name BTW!) tries to control her world by marching through it in an almost mechanical, demanding way, Zinnia almost recreates the same thing by not sharing that a hive of bees is nesting in her hair. I love when kids discover that their parents are also fallible - how did you know just how far to take your characters before they would have been cartoon-ish?

I am an admirer or fairy tales, as well as fiction that has strangeness or a little bit of magic. Aimee Bender is one of my favorite writers, for example. I was introduced to her work (she’s an L.A. writer) when I worked as a teacher’s assistant at a nearby community college, and her stories were a big influence when I started writing. Shaun Tan’s picture books have also been hugely influential. So, I really like elements of the bizarre in stories while simultaneously trying to portray real, true emotions. I guess I wanted to write a story that was whimsical and a bit larger than life but felt relatable too. And the same goes for the characters that populate it who are, yes, pretty zany, especially the supporting characters. There’s birdwatching Birch, France-obsessed, baker Aunt Mildred, and neighbor and ergonomic coach Lou. And also useful Dr. Flossdrop who presents perfectly on track to everyone else, but who, we come to find out, feels fairly lost herself. One of the joys of middle grade is having fun while creating—so I had a lot of fun dreaming up these characters! And I’ve always seen the story as an animated film in my head, so that might’ve had something to do with the zany factor as well.

Q4. What’s next??

I’m currently working on a chapter book, and I have some picture book projects too. And I’m soon to return to another middle grade manuscript that I’ve been away from for a few years to see if it still feels tangible for me after all this time.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you about Zinnia and the Bees on Middle Grade Minded!

Where to find Danielle:

At her website
on Twitter

The Giveaway!

Capstone Publishing has graciously offered to give away a copy of Zinnia and the Bees! Leave a message below, between now and Friday, sharing your own experience with bees!

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