An interview with middle grade author Sally J. Pla

If you are an aspiring author, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about ‘voice’ and how important it is to get it right. And it is!  When you read a novel and the ‘voice’ works, you can feel it all the way down to your toes. This is what happened to me with Sally J. Pla’s The Someday BirdsCharlie struggles to fit in and understand the world around him and just when he thinks he’s got it nailed down, well, everything changes. I felt his pain and confusion and admired his passion. If this character suddenly walked into my living room, I would not be at all surprised. He is that real.

I can’t recommend this middle grade book enough and I’m thrilled Sally was willing to answer some questions for us. Here we go!

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

You know, I’ve been thinking lately about the galloping myopia (nearsightedness) I had as a kid. I got glasses in first grade, but my eyes grew worse so fast, my prescriptions never quite kept up. I never could see much more beyond six inches in front of my nose, so books were simply one of the few things in my life, literally and figuratively, that stayed in focus! I was terrible at sports and things like that. So at recess, I hid, I read books, and I was happy!   And the writing of stories just came naturally from the reading.

I think I would have been a reader and writer even without the myopia—it’s how my brain’s hard-wired. But that galloping myopia? Definitely an extra inducing factor!

What was the hardest part of writing The Someday Birds?

The hardest part was giving myself permission to start. To brush off that little critic perched on my shoulder, always whispering in my ear, “Well, who the heck do you think you are, Miss Fancy-Pants? What makes you think you’re good enough to write a novel?” I’ve left that guy in the dust, now. Thank goodness.

Charlie’s voice is spot on. Did it take time to get him right or did he arrive fully formed in your head?

Charlie stepped out on the page, fully formed, from the very first words. But I did a lot of thinking about the story. I thought for years, before I tried to put it down on paper. About my own experience of the world, as a kid, and that of my now-grown son, and of the neuro-diverse friends we’ve known and loved through the years, and how their kindness, and good nature, and hyper-awareness, and sensitivity is often misunderstood.

Birds and birding are central to this novel. Are you a bird watcher?

When I was a kid, yes. I was an amateur birder. I took it very seriously. I had a bird book, and a notebook for my observations.

My dad mocked me once, when I was tramping around the backyard. He said, “Oh, look! A yellow-bellied sapsucker!” He didn’t know anything about birds or birding, and he thought it was just some funny made-up name to tease me with.

I got super excited. I whispered, “Where? Where?” looking all around — and then he laughed at me.

That crushed me, because there really was such a thing as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, gosh darn it! It wasn’t a made-up bird at all! I showed it to him in my bird book, later on.

But you know, that was one of those childhood tipping-point “moments,” somehow. The moment I first felt really self-conscious. When I realized the intensity of my interests might make me different, different enough to warrant being mocked. Even by my own dad.

My dad is very loving, and he still feels regretful about that incident. In fact, he donated to the Audubon Society last year, because the sapsucker is now endangered. An act of yellow-bellied penance, to make me smile. Because the yellow-bellied sapsucker has been this running thing between us, for about forty years, now!

I know all that plays into Charlie’s birding, somehow. It’s definitely not the only thing. But it’s part of it.

Who are your favorite authors?

Too many to name! So many amazing books and authors! But the ones who write big-hearted, with lots of feels, and leave me with a sense that the world is, on the whole, going to be an okay place to survive in – these are the books and authors who speak to my soul. Rebecca Stead, Kate di Camillo, Richard Peck, Katherine Applegate. I also love the slightly dark and mysterious. I love Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and I adore Ransom Riggs’s Tales of the Peculiar.

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

Watch movies. Cook dinner with my husband and sons. Have coffee and laugh with a good friend at a little café. Get pulled into the attention vortex of my dog (don’t laugh, that’s a real phenomenon).

What are you working on right now?

A second middle-grade novel for Harper, due out next January. It’s called JOHN LOCKDOWN IS IN THE BUILDING. It’s the story of Stanley Fortinbras, a meek, undersized comics fanatic who wants—yet dreads—to enter a big “Trivia Quest” treasure hunt, in an attempt to win back his best friend. Also, his new middle school’s wackily over-the-top safety drills are making him a nervous wreck—and leading him into a mysterious cartooning adventure…

Also pubbing in 2018:  BENNIE’S BLUE BURRITO (tentative title), a picture book with Lee & Low. It’s about two little brothers, sibling rivalry, and a fuzzy blue blanket.

I have a third young person’s novel in the drafting stage. About a girl, and an ancient, enchanted seamstress. About re-weaving family histories, and whether or not we can repair the fabric of time…

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

Please stop by my website – www.sallyjpla.com, any time. There are newsletter and ‘contact’ links on there, and blog posts fairly regularly.

Thanks you so much for letting me visit here, Beth! And thank you for reading!

The Best Middle Grade Novels of 2016

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I’m a sucker for a ‘Best of’ list, which makes this my favorite time of year. Best books, best movies, best television shows, best wine, best toys, best new superheroes, best celebrity facelifts (well, maybe not that one) but you get the idea. Who can resist a good wrap-up?

This year I’ve decided to get in on the fun. I started reading middle grade fiction when my son first picked up Percy Jackson and couldn’t get enough. Since then, I’ve been dazzled by the amazing work being done in this space. From novels dealing with the serious issues some kids face to remarkable fantasy world building, the quality of today’s middle grade authors shines bright and I’m thrilled to share with you some of my favorites from 2016. These selections each have that seamless ability to transport the reader, inviting her to get lost in another reality. This is the magic of a good book and I’m certain these titles will endure, entertaining generations to come. (PS: books make great presents and they are super easy to wrap!) (Oh, and follow the links for insight into these great authors!)

And now THE LIST (in no particular order)!

 

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The Bounders series (Book 1: Earth Force Rising; Book 2: The Tundra Trials), by Monica Tesler.

Jasper Adams joins the Earth Force military agency to train as an elite astronaut, tasked with piloting spaceships that can travel across the galaxy in an instant. But the agency has been keeping secrets about how much trouble Earth is really in and now the Bounders are the only thing standing between their planet and total destruction. This is amazing world building with relatable kids in far out situations. Fantasy fans will delight in this series. Find out who Monica Tesler’s favorite authors are here.

 

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The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price, by Jennifer Maschari.

Charlie Price is struggling in the aftermath of his mother’s death. But while his emotions are all over the place, his sister Imogen seems almost normal. Is that because Imogen has discovered a trap door beneath her bed leading to an alternate universe, one where their mother is alive? Maschari weaves elements of fantasy with realistic fiction to create an emotionally honest exploration of love and loss. I definitely cried. Find out where Jennifer Maschari’s love of story telling came from.

 

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My 7th Grade Life in Tights, by Brooks Benjamin.

Dillon has problems. He wants to be a real dancer but pursing that dream at a studio means disappointing his father who wants him to play football, and his friends, who think studios are for sell outs. Torn between what he wants for himself and what others want for him, Dillon struggles to blaze his own path. Tagging along with this endearing narrator as he dances through the chaos is a real treat. Find out what Brooks Benjamin is working on right now.

 

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Finding Perfect, by Elly Swartz.

Molly Nathans is a twelve year old struggling with an anxiety disorder. But as her family life unravels, the habits she relies upon to keep her anxiety in check begin to lose effectiveness and she feels less and less in control of her life. The way in which Molly’s inner life and what she presents to the world differ will resonate with readers on many levels. Find out what the hardest part of writing Finding Perfect was for Elly Swartz.

 

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Paper Wishes, by Lois Sepahban.

The New York Times calls this debut about Manami, a girl from Bainbridge Island, Washington sent to the Manzanar internment camp in the California ­desert, ‘devastating and brave.’ These are perfect words for a powerful story built on the loss of a beloved pet as a child is thrust into the chaos and confusion of a shameful time in our country’s not so distant past. I was greatly moved by this book and I believe it will impart valuable lessons to middle grade readers. Read the full New York Times review here. And find out where Lois Sepahban’s love of storytelling came from.

 

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Piper Morgan series, by Stephanie Faris.

This delightful series of chapter books, aimed at early middle grade readers, follow the adventures of eight year old Piper Morgan. In Piper Morgan Joins the Circus, Piper’s mom takes a job with the Big Top Circus and Piper gets a chance to perform. Of course, things go horribly array but Piper’s the kind of girl who will ultimately save the day. I thoroughly enjoyed her spunk and can-do attitude and I think you will too. Find out what Stephanie Faris does for fun when she’s not writing.

 

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The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes, by Wade Albert White.

Who can resist a book whose main character attends the Saint Lupin’s Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children? Not me. But when the day arrives for Anne to finally leave the school, strange happenings occur and she finds herself tasked with an epic quest. It’s up to Anne and her friends to triumph over some pretty monstrous foes and save the day. I love funny and this series beginning hits the mark. Just right for a kid who appreciates a laugh. Find out what the hardest part of writing this book was for Wade Albert White.

 

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The Bad Kid, by Sarah Lariviere.

Claudeline is very good at being bad. In fact, she comes from a long line of gangsters although she senses her father is running the family business into the ground. When a strange woman shows up in town, Claudeline gets pulled into a maddening mystery that has her wondering what it really means to be bad. Claudeline, a little naughty with a heart of gold, shares DNA with Harriet the Spy and kids who enjoy mysteries and crime solving will adore her. Find out what Sarah Lariviere does for fun when she’s not writing.

 

An Interview with Author Eileen Rendahl

I read a lot of young adult and middle grade fiction and I love it. However, sometimes I want to read a grown up book with grown up cursing and other grown up things. Lucky for me Cover Me in Darkness, the newest from Eileen Rendahl, showed up in my mailbox. This fast paced psychological thriller kept me glued to my seat with creepy twists and turns and potential villains lurking in every shadowy corner. Highly recommended.

Plus, Eileen answered some questions for me about Cover Me in Darkness and her writing career. Let’s take a look…

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Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

I come from a long line of storytellers. Most of my family memories center around people sitting at the dining room table and spinning stories. Some of our storytellers have a little more direct relationship to the actual truth than others, but the important thing was if you made people laugh or cry. Either response was good.

My family are also readers. I don’t recall a time that my parents weren’t each reading something. My grandparents, too. It was simply a given that we all read.

So I guess the answer is that books and storytelling and reading and writing are in my blood.

What do you think most characterizes your writing?

That’s hard to answer right now! I loved writing in the dark and creepy tone that characterizes Cover Me in Darkness, but I also love writing the light and comedic cozy mysteries I’m writing for Berkley Publishing and Crooked Lane Publishing as Kristi Abbott and Lillian Bell, respectively. I hope that in all cases, the emotional reality of my characters comes across. That’s what it’s really all about for me. Well, that and making you either laugh or cry or possibly both.

What was the hardest part of writing Cover Me In Darkness?

The plot. Plotting is always so hard for me. Figuring out the logical progression of events isn’t easy for this very non-linear girl. The fact that Cover Me has two different investigations going on made it extra challenging. Making sure each one was logical and that the rhythm between the two was right and that they intertwined where they needed to and didn’t when they didn’t was a struggle.

Who are your favorite authors?

Ooh! So tough! There are so many. I have a deep and abiding love of Margaret Atwood’s work. I read “Lady Oracle” and “Cat’s Eye” at the exact right moments in my life to have read them and they made an indelible mark on me. In the mystery and thriller genres, I’d have to point to Lisa Gardner and Harlen Coben. I love their voices and their expert plotting. I thought Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” was one of the most truthful, hysterical, and suspenseful books I had read in a long time and instantly became a huge fan of her. I can’t wait to see the HBO series based on the book!

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

Drink wine? No. That sounds terrible. Not the wine-drinking, the fact that I’d list it as what I like to do the most.

I have lived in the same small city for nearly seventeen years now and have made some amazing friends. What I like best is spending time with them and with my family. We’ve just finished cleaning up from Thanksgiving, but as far as I’m concerned, that is the perfect type of evening. Family and friends around a table groaning with food and drinks with everyone laughing and hugging. And yes. There was wine and probably some storytelling, too.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just finished the third book in the Popcorn Shop Mystery Series that I write as Kristi Abbott and am about to start writing the first book in my Funeral Parlor Mysteries that I’ll be writing as Lillian Bell.

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

Email or Facebook are probably best! Find both at http://www.eileenrendahl.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Kids Love About The Books They Love

At the beginning of our first Creative Writing Club (4th-6th graders; details here), I asked the kids about favorite books. Since I’m new to writing middle grade fiction, I’m super curious about what makes them turn the page and maybe even ask for more.  A few takeaways from their answers (some of which are shared below in their own words), kids like action and humor and I wish I’d written the Big Nate books. 🙂 Graphic novels seem to be all the rage these days. Anyway, here’s the list…

 

The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann: There are many unexpected twists and turns. There is a stark contrast between people who are creative and the people who have banned creativity.

And another for The Unwanteds: I like it because it’s about magic. It has you think about people and animals differently. It is just an awesome book.

The Extra Yard, by Mike Lupica: I like this book because it makes me want to keep trying until I succeed.

Harry Potter, by JK Rowling: It is full of action and also very funny.

Big Nate Flips Out, by Lincoln Pierce: This is my favorite book because it is a mystery and also very dramatic.

Another for Big Nate: My favorite book is Big Nate. You should read it because it’s funny.

And another: Big Nate is funny, he has cool hair and he knows how to trash talk.

My Weird School Series, by Dan Gutman: I love these books because they are awesome and weird!

Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs: It’s my favoriet because it is fantasy, it’s funny, it has lots of action, a little bit of sci-fi and it’s well written.

Treasure Hunters, by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein: I like it because the adventure represented in this books. One example is when the pirates attack ad group of kids. I also like how the author describes each character in the start of the book.

Nancy Clancy, Star of Stage and Screen, by Jane O’Connor: I like this book because I can learn lots of different songs. Second, I like a series.

Smile, Drama and Sisters, by Raina Telemeier: I like this series of books because I love the way the illustrators show the characters expressions.

Library Mouse, by Daniel Kirk: I like the book because I like how he did the “meet the author” thing.

Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins: This is my favorite book. I love it.

Warriors, by Erin Hunter: It has a lot of fighting. There are four different clans and each one has a leader. I like that.

Dogman, by Dav Pilkey: I like it because Dav Pilkey is my favorite author.

Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper: I like it because it gives me a new appreciation for disabled people.

 

 

Creative Writing Club for Kids, Session #1

I’ve had a few people ask me for details about my creative writing club for kids. These are 4th-6th graders and we meet once a month after school for about an hour. Each child has a notebook that I collect and keep at the end of each session. All their work is done in the notebook. After each exercise anyone who wants to can read his/her work aloud. There is absolutely no obligation to do this! (but I was pleased by how many wanted to read by the end of the session 🙂 )

At our first meeting, we discussed setting. I gave a bunch of examples (outer space, elementary school, a farm, etc) and asked the kids to describe the setting from their favorite book or movie in their notebooks. Anyone who wanted to read got a chance.

With a better understanding of setting, we moved on to the setting exercises which are described below.

Each child selected a photograph from the pile. (I cut out a bunch of pictures from National Geographic and various travel magazines and pasted them on paper. I had about fifty different ones the kids could choose from.)

 Exercise 1: describe the picture. Use all your senses. What does it smell like here? Is it cold or hot? What time of day is it?

Read a loud.

Exercise 2: pass photo to the left. Describe the scene as if you were in it. “I am….”

Read a loud

Exercise 3: pass photo again. Imagine you’re an animal in the photo. Describe the photo from the animal’s point of view.

Read a loud

Exercise 4: Free writing with a prompt.

One day a spaceship landed on the playground and…

Use these three words in your story: rainy, Pogo ball, Doritos.

Read aloud.

Fantasy Anyone?

I don’t know about you but I’ve gone head over heels into fantasy in the last few weeks. A well written entry in this genre provides pure escapism, sure, but these books also pose the question ‘what if?’ So many scenarios delightfully and terrifyingly spun. A few of my recent favorites:

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The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman. (YA) This is world building at it’s very best. Time traveling, adventure, danger, a badass heroine and a reverence for the power of books. Be warned, it starts slow but once you’re in, there’s no escape. I’d also recommend the sequel The Masked City. It meets the high standards set by the first. (and I think the third one comes up in December. Yay!!)

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Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine. (YA) In this thrilling start to The Great Library series, Caine reimagines a history where the Great Library of Alexandria survived as a ruthless power governing the flow of knowledge in the world. Our hero is a the son of an illegal book dealer who’s chosen as an apprentice to serve the great library. Action, strong characters, a compelling story and again, flawless world building. I just ordered the second in the series!

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Frogged, by Vivian Vande Velde. (MG) This one is pure fun and silliness but I especially liked the strong female lead. Yes, she’s a princess but she is anything but demure and proper. Once she’s turned into frog, Vande Velde does a great job weaving in powerful threads about friendship and family all while making me laugh out loud. A delicious escape.

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The Fireman, by Joe Hill. (Adult) Yeah. I just couldn’t resist. I mean, son of King writes son of The Stand?? A pandemic of spontaneous combustion decimating the world and our only hope is a band of misfits? I’m so in.

Tell me what you’re reading at @bvam or Beth@bethmcmullenbooks.com or leave a comment here.

A Writer in the Days After

Yes. It’s true. It happened. We can’t take it back. We don’t get a do over. We get to live with our choices.

So what to do next? This is the question I keep coming back to. How do we promote change, protect the people we love and those we don’t know at all? Like I said to my children, I don’t have all the answers.

But I do know this. Books are powerful things. They quietly deliver the most important ideas, hidden in mind bending stories, staring rebels and dragons and the kids down the block who don’t look like you do. They expand worlds. They teach and educate and delight and thrill. They push back against sound bites and fear. They give hope.

We have to do what we do. We can’t give up. It’s more important than ever. I’m back at my desk today with a heavy heart but so many stories.

Let’s tell them. Let’s get them out there. We will rise.

How to Survive #NaNoWriMo

It’s National Novel Writing Month! So if you see your creative friends walking around looking like zombies, do not fear. They are simply trying to bang out 50,000 words in thirty days. Sure Stephen King does this before his morning coffee gets cold but for most people it’s ambitious. However, it can be done!

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I write for a living these days and here are some tips to survive the #nanowritmo challenge.

First, and most importantly, figure out if you really want to do this. Is it important enough to lose sleep, not see your family, skip Game 7 of the World Series? Are you ready to put all your other free time pleasures on hold? I ask this because it matters. If you aren’t committed, you won’t get there. And there’s no shame in deciding this is all too much. Always go at a pace that works for you. (this is what my yoga instructor says anyway)

Okay, so you’ve signed up for the challenge, explored the NaNoWriMo website and gobbled up all the motivational goodies they have on offer. And now it’s time to get busy.

You’ve carved out your writing time. The house is dark. The kids are in bed. A blank page stares you in the face. What a great time to catch up with those friends you haven’t seen since grade school on FaceBook! Or hop on twitter to scroll through some of those hilarious memes that multiply like bunnies! Or play some Clash of Clans. There are no Pokemon to capture in your house but if you just went outside for a minute…STOP right there. Turn it ALL off. And I mean everything. Make yourself a bubble, a disconnected, undistracted, creative bubble and don’t break it until you’ve hit your word count.

I know this is hard. It will make you twitchy and uncomfortable at first. You might even sweat and shake a little. But if you stick with it you’ll find it works. Just give it a try.

Now about that blank page. Do you know what you’re going to put on it? Did you think about this during that super boring meeting with the sales manager from Ohio? Sure you did! This novel wants out and you’re just the person help it be born. But don’t panic if you didn’t spend all of October outlining your masterpiece in preparation for this sprint. Just write.

If you think what you’re writing is terrible, it probably is. Every first draft is terrible. Sometimes the second and third drafts are terrible too. I recently spent months revising the first one hundred pages of a project and I’m still not sure it’s any good. Accept this. Move on. Keep writing. Don’t look back. Editing, revising, fixing, honing, those are all for December. For now, we want words on the page.

One last bit of advice: be kind to yourself. Ernest Hemingway wrote beautifully while staggeringly drunk. We are not Ernest Hemingway.

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So let’s get this done, okay?

(keep me posted on your progress @bvam #nanowritmo)

How to Get in Front of Middle Grade Readers

When I started writing my first middle grade book my kids were seven and nine – perfect!

 An example:

Me: Can I use a reference to Vanna White in this book?

Son: Who?

Me: That would be a no.

Eventually I got around to selling the series. By this time, my kids were eight and ten. When the first one comes out in July 2017, they will be ten and twelve. When the third one hits the shelves, at least half of them will no longer be my audience.

So then what? Who will make sure I don’t sound like a seriously unhip time traveler from another dimension? Well, there are ways to get in front of middle grade readers even if you don’t have any of your own and they end up being good community builders, too. I’ve got two examples from my own life to share.

Kid/Parent Book Club:

Kids reading! We know they're smiling behind those book jackets.
Kids reading! We know they’re smiling behind those book jackets.

A friend of mine started this club a few years ago for 4th-6th graders. We meet once a month in the evening at the school library. Both the child and a parent read the assigned book and attend the meeting. The discussions are lively and you have to be on your toes to follow them –these kids have opinions and that’s middle grade author gold. Even if you don’t have kids in school, you could volunteer to do this or offer to do it through the public library. An added benefit is I’ve ended up reading a lot of MG titles that I might have otherwised missed.

 

Kids Creative Writing Club:

These are not my club kids but don't they look like they're really enjoying themselves anyway?
These are not my club kids but they look really happy writing…

There’s very little opportunity to write creativity in the academic setting for this age group, which is a drag because they really like it. I started a creative writing club at my local elementary school for 4th-6th graders. I want them to have the opportunity to write creatively but also I want to peek inside their collective middle grade brains and this seemed a great way to do it. I’m not a teacher or an educator so I hit up a fellow author and MFA for ideas and she gave me a rundown on what would for this age group. Our first lesson was on setting. To start, I had them describe settings from their favorite books and why that setting stuck with them. I was scribbling notes like a crazy person. Sure, this took time I probably don’t have to spare but what I get in return is already paying dividends in my work.

If you want details on either of these programs, give me a shout! Beth@BethMcMullenBooks.com or Twitter me or FB me!

How Do Middle Grade Readers Get Their Books?

 

When I first realized I’d written a middle grade book, I kind of panicked. How do you reach your reader when your reader is behind a barrier called ‘parents’? Adult readers I can reach through blogs or other social media channels. I can get in the magazines they read or the book reviews they scan. If they like something, they often reach out directly and we have a dialog. I get it. It makes sense. You can easily identify places where you might want to concentrate your marketing energies.

But now my reader is ten or eleven years old. She doesn’t have a credit card. She doesn’t buy her own books. And she might not spend a lot of time thinking about what to read either. Someone hands her a book with a cool cover (yes, the cover matters) and she reads it. If it’s good she might ask for the next book in the series or something like it. If she doesn’t like it, she tosses it aside and waits for the next book to magically appear in her hands.

So my question is: how do the books appear in the hands of middle grade readers?
Continue reading “How Do Middle Grade Readers Get Their Books?”