Easy & Fun Writers’ Education

A Gift from the Pandemic

First, a list. After the list, why it’s included. Most important: I saved this list for you.

Stack of books

Yes, I realize the ones at the bottom aren’t #MG books. I just grabbed a stack. My books are everywhere, all over the house.

Kira-Kira – Cynthia Kadohata (2004) 

The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane – Kate O’Shaughnessy (2020)  

Holes – Louis Sachar (1998)

Hello from Renn Lake – Michelle Hurwitz (2020)

Ban this Book! – Alan Gratz (2019)

Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big Fat Quitter – Carmella Van Vleet (2015)

You Go First – Erin Entrada Kelly  (2018) 

Small Medium at Large – Joanne Levy (2015)

The Best at It – Maulik Pancholy (2019)

A Place to Belong  by Cynthia Kadohata (2019)

Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera (2014)

The List of Things That Will Not Change – Rebecca Stead (2020)

Stand Up, Yumi Chung  by Jessica Kim (2020)

Pie in the Sky – Remi Lai (2019)

The Honest Truth – Dan Gemeinhart (2015)

Shouting at the Rain – Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2020)

Ruby Holler – Sharon Creech (2012)

She Loves You – Ann Hood (2019)

See You in the Cosmos – Jack Cheng (2018)

Just Under the Clouds – Melissa Sarno (2019)

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl – Stacy McAnulty (2019)

Front Desk – Kelly Yang (2019)

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World – Ashley Herring Blake (2019)

One for the Murphys – Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2013)

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life – Shelley Tougas (2017)

A Handful of Stars – Cynthia Lord (2015)

For me, the “close down” portion of the pandemic happened Friday, March 13. I began working at home and a week later was laid off. I knew at that moment two things had to happen: (1) I had to stay home; (2) I had always wanted to write middle-grade fiction full-time and now was my chance. 

I checked my list of purchased books I hadn’t read and ordered a bunch of Kindle because I was afraid to go to a bookstore. I made a detailed list, got my mask (I already had some from my work), went to the grocery store and spent $400. It took almost three months to go through a tank of gas, I stayed home so much.

Almost all my reading is middle-grade fiction. In 26 weeks I read 26 #MG books. The only reason this reading list isn’t heroic is because I live in rural mountains now and wifi is at early 2000s level. I can’t stream a thing. Ask me what I’ve watched from Netflix, HBOGo, Amazon Prime and Hulu. Nothing. Nada. That list is blank. I almost feel like I should still have the Prodigy software.

This isn’t to brag. I don’t normally even keep a list of what I read, after I discovered I’ve had this bad habit of collecting way too much narcissistic information. 

The list is here to share this important lesson: when you really read your writing genre, you rapidly advance your education. These are traditionally-published books: big houses, highly-literate agents, deep-knowledge editors. As you read, you see all the things a writer must do: sharpen a character arc; view a relationship in a fisheye lens to deepen it; condense time or stretch it further; build scenes not with what you wrote, but with what you thought.

In the end what you publish with traditional publishers is something that is you. You will sell when you’ve honed your craft, plunged your mind for every last way to portray the characters and scenes, and can honestly answer, “THIS is why I am the best person to tell THIS story.”

You’re already writing. Let the enjoyable act of reading teach you too. Look for the good books in your genre that interest you. Buy them and read them. LOTS of them.

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Way Back in the Wayback Machine

Dig Deep & Mine Your Mind

Two people falling into a time travel vortexAfter I read a middle-grade novel, I take time to reflect, to “read” it on a deeper level. If it’s been a particularly good book, I think about the main character’s motivations, actions and emotions throughout the book and reflect on what was captured from the writer’s own childhood. 

Seldom do I really know the answer to this, of course, but I can guess. The confirmation comes back  every time: those who write good middle-grade books know their own childhood. They remember what it felt like to be bullied, popular, left out, friendless, feeling stupid, resisting or clinging to parents. What it was like having younger or older siblings and relationships with them.

This kind of inside job—digging mentally into one’s own childhood—is endemic for writers of children’s lit. It’s not easy. I think back to fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grades, the terrain of my own writing.

I remember the “little” events, like Mom’s regular chili on Friday night–a tradition of delicious food and when we all gathered (us siblings are spread out in age over a 17-year span). Then I go deeper, recalling the my Friday satisfaction of another school week done, two free days ahead, the fun family conversations on Friday nights and togetherness we felt.

Sometimes I think I’ve remembered everything there is to remember.

Sometimes I look through my old photos to try to eke out new memories, things I’d forgotten all this time.

Sometimes I simply imagine within the context of memory. What this means is focusing on one particular item and trying to figure out what was going on at a level I couldn’t see at the time. I can look at a photo and think, “Yes, that girl did come to school dirty every day.” Then I picture the inside of her house, where I’d never been, and developed a scenario. Her parents didn’t value personal hygiene. They were poor. There were serious troubles at home, perhaps an alcoholic father or negligent mother.

I’ll do this with my own family’s common events. I can think, “What did my oldest brother think when Mom gave me money to buy candy and records, knowing he didn’t get that at my age?” (my dad made more money when we younger sibs grew up). Or, “When that happened, I know how I felt, but how did my little sister feel, or my older siblings? What was going through their minds?” Then I imagine the answer.

In a way you are creating another fiction, but a fitting one. You can ask your family, or even childhood friends if you think they would remember or care. The important process is to pull yourself back into time and toy with people, places, circumstances, and actions that you have not fully remembered, and might be only retrofitting the emotions of that time.

Your own past is a rich mine of knowledge when it comes to understanding that emotional terrain. It builds your children’s writing and serves you well. There might be fruits you gather but do not use. They are not wasted, though, because your mind is circling those years, sniffing out the motivations, actions and emotions that fertilize your own story.

This is not an easy process. Sometimes it’s not even cathartic. After all, you’re not trying to give yourself therapy. You’re doing research, the deep inner study that can’t be had by a class, advisor, or anyone else.

It’s all you, and only you can do it.

The process is worth it. So worth it.


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Throwing Out the Misdirection

stack of old writing

Original music of all kinds and a script for the TV show “Maude” – jeesh!

I am going to publicly embarrass myself.

I decided to be a writer in elementary school, and by the time I was in high school, I was prolific. There was no emotion or reality in my fiction, though. Being a loner, it was easy to spend lots of time writing. I created worlds far from my own. As a teenager, I wrote about teenagers. But not teenagers like me. My characters were wild, drove fast cars, drank booze, and took drugs.

Here’s what is even more embarrassing, though: as I grew older and moved from place to place, I kept a couple of boxes of my “early writings,” dragging them with me. I didn’t go back to read them. They were my origin story. I kept thinking, once I become very popular, these will be a “valuable contribution” to some university’s collection.

I should have read the pieces. They are misshapen, badly flawed, wrong lengths (a 24-page novel, a 30-page screenplay) and straight-up stupid. A character does not run wildly down the street, screaming, “Somebody shoot me up with some dope! I need my dope!” A 13-year-old in school does not shout at the teacher, “Give me some booze! I need my booze!” It was like I was writing while on an acid trip about teenagers having acid trips. It was like a new show called ABC Afterschool Special Gone Wild. Of course I was influenced by Linda Blair’s TV movies, Born Innocent and Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. I dreamed of writing such dreck! (You won’t find those titles among Golden Globe or Emmy winners.)

There is a sadness to these youthful writings. They are not all stories. Some are poems, plays, and even songs, because I could read music and composed it. I started a full orchestra arrangement of the song “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I drew some of my characters. I drafted the layout of their houses. I drew maps of the towns where they lived. I made “newspapers” on notebook paper reporting on their happenings.

There is a solitude to these pieces, though. When I think of the accoutrement of the stories I wrote–the maps, portraits, home architectural designs–I remember living in these dream worlds where I was G-d, creating people, their actions and futures. It was so different than my own pitiful life at the time: being a misfit, being mistreated, stuck in a rural town with a lot of small minds. No wonder I wanted to escape.

Later, I actually did. And I am grateful I had the chance to “escape” to my mind during  those tough years. I’m thankful I had the inventiveness to write, to live in other “worlds” of my own making for comfort.

But I no longer needed them.

It’s hard to admit I was saving these writings because I thought someday, people would want to read every word I’ve written–unpublished pieces, horrible first drafts, stupid childhood stuff. Who wants that? No one.

This week I burned all the whole pile: drug stories, half-baked tunes, never-gonna-make-it teenage screenplays, and all the other crap from those early years. I do not need those boxes and burdens. I feel lighter.

Thank you, early writing, for being my escape when I needed it.

Thank you, self, for finding your path.

And I thank myself now, for having the maturity to understand I write not only for me, but for you. That is what makes true success.

P.S. I did save my story, The Tragedy of Anthony Mastona (the tragedy was drug use, of course; he went, in a week’s time, from trying a joint at a party to daily multi-heroin doses). I still need to have something to laugh at.


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Imbue Your Work with Love

How to Write a Novel

To a non-writer, writing a novel seems a daunting task. Most fiction writers consider it sooner or later, even if they prefer short form.

Having written several, I now believe the best way is to THINK a novel through, then start writing. A caveat, though: sometimes a character’s voice comes so strongly you feel like starting to write. You have a general idea of the goal and motivations. The main character’s voice comes to you like dictation. In such a case, that’s the best time to start. You can pause and do the heavy thinking when you hit a snag. But only for a short while.

You will have to revise: face it and embrace it. Most people have to revise heavily. This was one of my faults early on. I fell in love with some of the lines and actions and couldn’t cut them, in a novel about two rivaling sisters. Because I wanted to publish it, and quickly.

The first years of writing all I did was think about selling. I had been told I was a good writer and thought I’d find big success young. At in high school and college, I was a far superior writer to those my age.

The problem was, they caught up.

My best work came out on the rivaling sisters manuscript when I decided to take the whole thing and actually rewrite it. I’d already made notes in the margins but I didn’t edit. I began writing it over.

It was a game-changer. New ideas and directions blossomed organically and were truer. On occasion I would see how my character did not follow through a situation in her own natural way. The process made me write in a way that the characters’ actions and motivations were much more grounded in their psychological makeup. It was fast and fluid.

I understood my main character better. The weak parts of the first write-through evaporated away as my character’s thoughts and movements were much more linear with her self.

pexels-by Tim Gouw-52608

Photo by Tim Gouw. Used with permission.

The biggest issue I used to have in writing novels is taking too long to get it done. I’ve been working full-time all my adult life, until recently. Even setting aside time to write chunks of the work, or let it simmer and go back to it, too much time dragged on. In a couple of instances I was on my third year of still working on getting the 130-page manuscript together to be good enough to send to agents.

If you totaled the time writing and editing over the three years, it would be about three months total. After three years of still trying to cobble together a unified story ready for an agent’s eye, I would get sick of it. I wanted to start a new novel instead.
The time drag gave me a love/hate relationship with the characters and plot. A three-month project taking three years is painful. I wish I’d saved money, rented an isolated cabin, and written the thing in a season.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about my early success and how it waned. I sold my first piece to an anthology at age 16. I sold nonfiction pieces to magazines my senior year in college, and published features in two big-city newspapers the year after. Freelance writing supercharged my low, new-worker income. My first nonfiction book was accepted when I was 30. I read Writer’s Digest voraciously and tried all kinds of different genres, seeing what would hit. Playwriting, poetry, essays, and all other manner of writing were touched—but never really well-developed.

The selling slowed. As my public relations job paid well, brought quick success (but not for my name or writing) and other life things were more fun, the fiction writing got slower.

But the desire didn’t.

While I was getting comfortable, the hungry, sacrificing, and more honest-with-themselves writers passed me. I got so discouraged and distracted I quit writing fiction for 10 years.

When you stop thinking about selling, about writing in all kinds of formats you rarely read but think you know—you wind your way back home. And for me, that was novels.
I got back into writing fiction again when I decided this was the work I loved and wanted to do. No matter what.

Think about the story you want to tell. Ask why you are an ideal person to tell this story. Set a schedule if it helps you and doesn’t stress you. Never hate your work, even when rough waters try to sink you. Work on another type of writing or artistry if you need a break.

But only for a short while.

Keep going. Be patient and learn the craft. Listen. You will get adept at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Don’t worry about selling or publishing. The fact that you’re writing a novel is gigantic accomplishment, no matter what the outcome.

True story: over the years I’ve been at gatherings and parties and have personally met at least 50 (yes, FIFTY) people who said these exact words:

“I always wanted to write a novel.”

You passed those 50, and hundreds to thousands more, when you wrote the first sentence of your novel.

Imbue your work with love. You will love yourself more, feel calmer, write more, and write better.



Man writing

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio. Used with permission.

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Book Review

Oddball entry: my reviews are on Amazon and Goodreads, but this one deserves a place in my space.

Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera

I’m a bit late to the game on reading this 2014 MG novel, but with current era I have much reading time and am clearing up my “Wish List” on Amazon (many of the books I buy from indies, using Amazon for the online list!).

This story of fifth-grader Star Mackie was fresh and important, mastering a theme I follow: sibling relationships. This is an inside and outside perspective, as we learn about Star’s relationship with her older sister and with two other kids at school, brother and sister. One is Star’s friend and another’s her enemy. There is also an undertheme, as her mother’s best friend and neighbor, appearing in many scenes, show a sister-like relationship. A refreshing change from single parent or Dad-and-Mom-said stories.

The environment in this story was built carefully and is authentic, as Star lives in a trailer park. She’s teased at school (called “Star Trashy”) but doesn’t wallow in self-pity. It’s more an indictment of the other kids who don’t understand family life for lower-class Americans.

As Star navigates her new school, she strives for friends and gains a handful of oddball ones. Meanwhile, her teen sister vascillates between helpful and moody, more mysterious than ever until Star finds out the real problem. And it’s a big one.

I was especially impressed with her portrayals of three other characters: Eddie, Langston, and Denny (especially Denny). This near-even mix of boys and girls in a story, without them being a “type” (the musical one, the oddball one, the pretty one, etc.) is one of the best portrayals of a mixed-gender group I’ve seen in MG.

One more big discovery for Star near the end of the story–a real shocker–BEGS for a sequel. I don’t see one yet, though, and maybe the author did not intend it. But I’d love a sequel. I didn’t want to let these characters go.


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3 Hot Tips to Make Your Middle-Grade Novel Saleable

If you’ve been studying writing awhile, you’re well-versed on how to create a character, how to structure a plot, and how to find the novel’s “voice” (by far the hardest thing). But did you know these three extras that really give your story that extra oomph? Here they are:

Sharon McCutcheon

Pivot Points

Use pivot points. This is a place in the plot where the action is spun 180 degrees. As a non-child-oriented example, in the movie Tommy Boy, a young-looking older woman and her 20-something son integrate into Tommy’s dad’s life. In one scene, at a carnival, the woman and her son are walking behind the tents talking about inheriting Tom Sr.’s money when they suddenly embrace and kiss–in a way no mother and son ever would. It’s then we discover that they are really husband and wife, running a scam.

Think of movies you like: almost all modern movies have these “pivot points” in the story. There aren’t too many, though: I’ve counted about five at the most in books and movies, and three is enough.

If you’re writing a mystery, every little discovery is not a pivot point. A pivot point is a complete turnabout in a different direction. 

Make Marblecake

Your protagonist should be a marblecake character–not one way or one flavor. The poor little saintly girl who loves and understands everyone, without any negative behavior, won’t work. If you find a book for children from the 1950s or earlier, you might see that, but today’s audience is much different and more sophisticated.

Besides knowing the plot of what you’re writing, dig deep into yourself and ask: what is the biggest thing that happened to my main character before this story began? How did she react? Another good exercise I’ve used is to make a list of random situations that could face any child this age (a bully mistreats her enemy at school; a teacher unfairly accuses her of cheating; her mother begins heavy drinking) and write how my main character would respond to each situation. Some children are sweet and some are not; mix a bit of both for depth.

Don’t Muddle the Middle

It’s easier to write a strong beginning, and to draw up the conclusion toward the end. What’s much harder is not letting the middle sag. You don’t need to worry about this as much on your first draft. Once done, though, take a hard look at each chapter in the middle. Do the characters seem to be “going through the motions”? This is where you’ll have to strengthen your plot or do serious rewriting.

For each chapter in the middle of the book, ask yourself:

1. Does this naturally flow from what happened at the beginning?

2. Does this help or hinder what happens at the end?

3. If this chapter stood alone, what would you say is the point of it?

If your chapters as a whole are okay after that, then go through each scene in those chapters and ask the same questions. This is what professionals do before they submit to an agent. Writing for children is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not even a get-rich scheme!*


*Dont bring up J.K. Rowling. You are not her. She had magic on her side.

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Middle-Grade Book Know-How

Write Well, Learn the Genre, and Learn Advanced Techniques

I can’t tell whether I’m writing a middle-grade book, a chapter book, or a YA.

Have you ever thought about this? I’ve heard it at writers conferences and critique groups for a long time. Sometimes when you’re writing you just have to pour it out and see what shape it takes. If it’s not working, it might be an older or younger children’s book.

There are some clear signposts on what makes middle-grade fiction. If you’re starting a new novel and want a middle-grade book, this is the place to start.

Fiction for the Ages

Generally, middle-grade books are for ages 8-12, though if you’ve had kids you realize that a book an 8-year-old enjoys is unlikely to be the fav of a 12-year-old. That’s why you hear of “young” middle-grade novels and “older” middle-grade novels. Plus, “middle-grade” is not the same as “middle school.” In my middle school (only two grades), all the kids were 12 and 13.

Since the middle-grade reader could be in grades 3-7, we are talking a wide range. My own  material is likely to appeal to the core, kids from 9-11, grades 4-6.

Caveats for Newer Writers

Any honest writer who has had any success should level with you, if you’re new to the genre: middle-grade books are written by people who love middle-grade books. If the last book of the genre was one you read in your middle-grade years, you have a lot more reading to do. You must love and read this genre, no exceptions. There is simply too much competition to be any other way.

You have to love writing in the genre (okay, well, it’s a love-hate relationship, because the best thing about writing is having written). You must realize you will do a lot of writing before that book is published. Don’t even worry about publishing. Learn to tell a good story with heart.

That said, let’s move onto definition.

What Makes It Middle-Grade

If you have a great memory and can recall events and emotions you felt when you were that age, you are fortunate. But it’s not mandatory. I know several successful people who like me have large slots of blank time from those years and only remember the quirky things like when Mom allowed you to take Pop-Tarts in your sack lunch.

Like any good story, a middle-grade novel must have a strong central character who has a goal to achieve. There is nothing that works outside of that, unless you’ve already published and had some success. Two equal main characters or a slice-of-life novel with no goal won’t work.

Generally, your character wants something desperately, or must avoid something in a major way. This is not the time for lukewarm intentions. The desire can be tangible, such as getting on Jeopardy: Kids Edition, or can be nonmaterial, such as wanting a best friend.

Whether you plot or not is up to you. After years of doing this, I tend to simply start writing when a character has developed him- or herself fully in my mind. There is no plot but a general idea of the endgame. Then at a certain point–which I can only say is the “it’s worth pursuing” turning point–I make a general plot and begin fitting the writing into that. 

Just remember these key actions, and you’re on the right track:

undefined Everything revolves around the main character’s motivation and goal. The other characters must help or hinder that drive. In the end, the protagonist must solve the problem, not others. 

undefined The story cannot be bigger than the child’s immediate world. In other words, a theme about the world at large will not work on an MG book unless you microscope it down to the child’s immediate world. Say that you want your main character to turn from selfish to sharing during the course of the story, but you want to put forth the message of “socialism is good.”

The wrong approach: the class studies socialism and your protagonist decides it’s right for her after the class activities and her paying attention to world events on the news. Better approach: a kid from a poorer neighborhood is bussed into your protagonist’s school, and your main character gets first-hand experience of both the warmth of sharing, but also the shame of patronization. You can’t push the “big” concept as it exists in your adult mind; it has to occur organically from the microcosm of the protagonist’s day-to-day experience.

undefined Remember that the MG person lives in a much smaller world than a protagonist in a YA or grown-up novel. Explore how a common theme would be reflected in three types of novel:

Novel for adults, female protagonist: Will I meet someone to love again? Will I have enough money, even with child support? What other life choices am I wrong about?

YA novel: Did Mom and Dad ever love each other? What about my boyfriend: could I be fooled that we’re in love? Will it fade the same way?

MG novel: Will I have to go to a different school? Will I have my own bedroom at Dad’s apartment? Will Mom be too sad to take me to dance lessons?

In the middle-grade story, there is actually a very selfish streak in how a larger event is portrayed. This is not because middle-grade kids are all selfish; it’s because they are in the process of defining how they fit into the world at large. Construction of self-identity is happening at a rapid pace in those years.


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Transforming Fear into Fiction

How to use these strange times to propel your words

Never have we seen such widespread fear in our society. Yet we were warned. Scientists have predicted a major pandemic. We all coasted along, visiting the world easily, indulging ourselves, our bright future continuing to crawl toward us from the horizon.

These days are so different. We have been hit. We are isolated. We are washing our hands and endlessly wringing them, wondering, do I have it?

Our society is upended, and though we cannot see it — yet I demand to hold it — there will come some good. Maybe we will be smarter about the next pandemic, and surely we will know better how to sequester ourselves and share resources.

Meanwhile, I will write. Newly laid-off, stuck in my mountain home (not unhappily), I thought, how can I make the most of this?

Some days my fear grabs my core, searing my flesh, making me imagine the death of all those I love

Other days it lets up and I know I am doing the right thing. And I feel safe.

Every day I ride the same teeter-totter you’re on

Then there are the exhausted times, when I simply want to make a pitcher of martinis and sing along with a 1960s song of defeat, Is That All There Is? by Peggy Lee — accepting the inevitable and waiting for death.

I decided to take these emotions and pound them into prose. Deep fear, bright optimism, an expectation for transformation, and all the elements that come from today can infuse fiction with depth. Use it. Burnish your writing with this raw emotion.

When I was a young writer, l’d never heard of writing prompts. I went to a small-town school and didn’t have the same exposure as big-city students. It was around 2008 or so when I was visiting my son Max at his mother’s and he was doing homework. I saw a list called, “Writing Ideas.”

“What’s this?” I asked. “Writing prompts,” he told me. He was surprised I didn’t know about them.

I love this idea, I thought

I made a copy of it and still use that only that long, luscious list.

Try these! There are two lists below, taken from the many prompts on my full list. One list below is for you to funnel fear into words, and another is for you who need to feel hope. The length or time writing on the topic is up to you.

Reach deep

Use this surge of emotion and dedicated isolation time to create the best writing you’ve ever done.

Use Your Fear

  • What was the first time in your childhood when you felt strong fear? What was it about?
  • Use a recurring bad dream, or the worse dream you’ve ever had, making it into a brief story.
  • What would you do if you knew without a doubt you were the only person left living on Earth?
  • What is the disease you fear most? What would it be like if it happened to you?
  • Write a tombstone epitaph for yourself or someone (even imaginary) who died from a terrible bout with coronavirus. Then write a brief story of that person’s life.

Have Your Hope

  • What is the smell that brings back memories or makes you feel safe? What was that safe place like?
  • What would you do with a million dollars right now?
  • What is your most valuable material thing? Why is it the most valuable?
  • Write about what you would be doing 10 years from now.
  • Pick a superpower you’d have (but not the ability to heal, kill, or revive someone). Describe what your life would be like.
  • What is a big something/anything you’ve been looking forward to? Describe it, in present tense, in all its glory.
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Rolling with Middle Grade Reading

Three “teaching” middle-grade books for writers

After my last post I got emails and texts, asking me to talk about more middle-grade books I’ve read recently. So here are capsules of a few more. I don’t always read books in this genre after they come out. My to-read list is an odd amalgam of classics, was-gonna-read (books that are a year or two old), and recents.

undefined Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno (June 2019, Yearling)

This is an ambitious book, because the theme is about finding a place to call home. That’s especially important to middle-schooler Cora, who is homeless and lives in a shelter. Her father is deceased and she is a protective but understandable impatient big sister to mentally-disabled Adare, who rarely speaks and hates to wear shoes. Despite this daunting life, Cora has an undercore of strength. Climbing trees is symbolic of the yearning she feels within to “take root.” While not a flashy novel or concept-heavy one, it takes a talented author to weave this type of story with a character that holds you. The emotions are true and clear.

undefined Front Desk by Kelly Yang (June 2018, Scholastic)

Front Desk is a very popular, talked-about middle-grade book that has won many awards. As an #OwnVoices novel, this emerges as a fresh, needed tale. Ten-year-old Mia Tang lives in a motel, managed by her parents. While they’re cleaning rooms, she’s often working the front desk. Teased at school for her family’s lifestyle and lack of money, she ekes out a couple of friends. When the motel owner finds out the family is hiding immigrants, all heck breaks loose and Mia has to spearhead a way to save them and their jobs. Fresh, funny, and packed with lively characters, this has the kind of pull-through that more hesitant readers needed. 

undefined She Loves You by Ann Hood (June 2018, Penguin)

As a 1960s lover, I could not resist this tale set in 1960–an era one seldom sees in middle-grader books. Ann Hood mastered this story with aplomb, telling of 12-year-old Trudy Mixer and her transition from popular to a “nobody.” Her school’s Beatles Fan Club (which she heads) has dwindled down to three members as other girls and boys mature. Even her best friend Melissa is more interested in boys, and in being a cheerleader. She feels Trudy is suddenly childish and beneath her. Trudy comes up with a plan to reverse this progression, part of her intense desire to see the Beatles when they appear in person in nearby city Boston. She hatches a plan to get there with her friends, whether her parents know or not–and whether it’s entirely safe or not. Sparkled with 60s memorabilia, this captivating and delightful tale is one of the most entertaining middle-grade books I’ve read in the past two or three years.

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Middle-Grader Road Grading

Why are middle-grade books my chosen writing genre? I’ve written middle-grade and young-adult fiction, and picture books (which I’ve tried to write; but can’t do it well). Somehow middle-grade plots, characters, and ideas are what populate my mind. 

Perhaps it’s because I did not have a typical high school (YA) experience: I was a loner and almost “outcast” in my small school. In early elementary (picture-book years), I was popular and it was also an outsized experience. But middle years were a mix of the two: I was evolving into a kid more sensitive to others, more aware of myself, and yearning to be like my peers whom I thought did not have my shortcomings. This is the classic oeuvre of most middle-grade books. That age range is a field of beautiful aspirations and dreaded fears.

Middle-Grade Books in My Purview

Though I mix it up catching up on early middle-grade books I’ve missed or wanted to read (recently I read Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright, Newbery Medal winner, 1939), for the most part I read contemporary middle-grade books. It’s typical for me to read at least three of them a month.

A recent read: Pie in the Sky by Remi Lai. Any fiction book that involves cooking is going to get my interest, especially in the children’s book world. This sweet story of two brothers grabbed me, especially because I had two sons. The three-generation broken family is healed, so to speak, by cakes. The characters are gripping (even the seldom-seen mother), and the young brothers are drawn exactly to real-world scale in how they interact, be it love or tension. I can’t wait for Remi Lai’s next, Fly on the Wall, released in May. It’s preordered on Amazon so I can snap it up on “opening day”!

Coming up on my to-read list (and waiting on my nightstand) are:

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu – This is not my usual subject milieu: there is fantasy, a forest, a woman made of ice. (Weird thing about me: I read the first 2.5 Harry Potter books and got bored.) But I kept hearing so much about this book, I had to put it on my list. Its many awards tell me I must give it a try.

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly – Two kids who find common ground, though separated by a thousand miles, is an interesting premise. I’m into learning about “other” formats (types I don’t write) these days: alternating POV chapters, diary/letter formats, and such. 

Ban This Book by Alan Gratz – I heard Gratz speak at the fall 2019 SCBWI Carolinas conference and he was hilarious. The back cover of this book caught me, because I thought I knew most of the “banned” children’s books by various libraries–and there were some new ones to me. I remember the school-book-banning days that hit Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (child raised in a “communist” style), Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (talking animals being disrespectful to God), and Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (think about it). But Harriet the Spy? Matilda? I have to see what Amy Anne, the lead character in this novel, does about banned books at her school.

Story of the Negro by Arna Bontemps. I was startled to discover that Bontemps, an African-American author, won the Newbery Honor award in 1949 for this nonfiction title. It covers African-American history, and I’m still wondering why, with such a children’s book honored in 1949, has it taken so long for diversity in the children’s book field? Only in the past few years have we truly begun to have better representation of all people in children’s books.

If you have any recommendations for middle-grade books of any era, or your very favorite, please respond. When I hear a reason for someone loving a book, it often compels me to read it.

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