Cover reveal for….(drum roll)….Jenny Lundquist’s The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams

I had the great good fortune to spend several days with Jenny at a book festival earlier this year and I could not be more excited about her forthcoming novel! The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams is a hopeful middle grade story of three former friends who must come together at their annual town carnival to heal and reconnect after a tragedy.

Jenny is the author of such gems as Seeing Cinderella, The Princess in the Opal Mask, The Charming Life of Izzy Malone, The Wondrous World of Violet Barnaby and more.

Now, three quick questions for Jenny before we scroll down and take a look at the beautiful cover for The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams.

What was your favorite part about writing Carnival?

My favorite part was imagining myself living in a small town in the Midwest. I was born and raised in southern California, but both sides of my family once lived in the Midwest. They came to California partly because of the great weather and partly in search of jobs. The story goes that my maternal grandfather interviewed for a job in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, and was told he didn’t get it. He decided to take the $500 he’d saved up and buy a car to drive the family to California because he’d been told there was plenty of housing and plenty of jobs. The employer called back a few days later to say there had been a mistake: my grandfather actually had gotten the job, after all. But by then the car was purchased and the bags were packed! I don’t regret my upbringing, but sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I’d grown up in Nebraska or Ohio.

Where did the idea come from?

The idea was partly inspired by the book The Night Circus. I loved it so much, and I knew I one day wanted to write a middle grade novel with a slight nod to that. Then one day when I was free writing I came up with a character who received an anonymous note to meet someone at the Ferris wheel at midnight at the town carnival. At the time, I wasn’t even sure who          wrote the note, or why they wrote it, but it was enough to keep me intrigued, so I kept going!

What is your favorite thing to do when your not writing?

When I am not writing I love reading or especially right now with the weather so amazing, I love to be outdoors. I live in northern California now, near Sacramento and there’s a park I like to visit to walk around while I sip a cup of coffee. Being there is hugely life-giving to me, I try to make it there at least once a week.

 

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I LOVE it!! Congratulations, Jenny!

Look for The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams on Feb. 12, 2019. Preorder today from Amazon, B&N, IndieBound or from your local bookstore.

Visit Jenny at:

Website: www.jennylundquist.com

Twitter: @Jenny_Lundquist, 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/writerjenny, 

Instagram: www.instagram.com/jenny_lundquist

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34915599-the-carnival-of-wishes-and-dreams, 

Summer Reading 2018

Multiple studies now prove what we always knew: summer reading helps prevent the ‘summer slide’ or summer learning loss. And some experts say it takes just five books to reap the benefits. We can do that.

Of course, for some kids, reading is as natural as breathing but for others it’s a struggle. Fortunately, there are many amazing programs out there, including those at your local library, that encourage kids to pick up books during these long, hot, unstructured, wild and free summer days. (Check out my reluctant reader guide for tips, too.)

My personal belief is summer reading should be FUN – it’s the perfect time to indulge in action/adventure novels, thrillers, mysteries, graphic novels and books that make you laugh so hard you kind of think you might barf. To make it easy (because everyone is busy) I made a list. (I love book lists but you have probably already figured that out.)  Many of the authors here have other novels in print and I encourage you to pick those up as well – you know, double your fun with not much effort. 🙂

These books are primarily for middle grade readers but many can be read aloud to younger kids and don’t feel bad about sneaking them away to read yourself. Middle grade authors are producing gold these days and no one should miss out. Some are on shelves already and some are publishing soon.

Enjoy and happy summer!

(I include ‘buy’ links with each title but don’t forget your local indie book store and your local library!)

 

The Shadow Thieves, by Alexandra Ott (June 5th/Aladdin)

Author Ott goes deep with former thief Alli Roscoe. Torn between two worlds and competing desires, I felt every moment of her confusion.With compelling friendships and family relationships, this sequel to Rules for Thieves delivers action and edge of your seat thrills. Read the author interview here.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

The Seismic Seven (June 5th/HarperCollins)

Action packed. Science infused.  Six kids race to save the world from a super volcano. The heart pounding adventure ratchets up a notch when it becomes clear that there is more to fear than the volcano. In my mind, this is about as perfect as summer reading can get. Read the author interview here.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

The Frame Up, by Wendy McLeod MacKnight  (June 5th/Greenwillow Bks)

A fresh take on the idea of art coming to life, with multiple layers of compelling mystery  and intrigue, unexpected friendships and family drama. I especially loved the mash up of historical figures and characters living in the present. Could not put it down! Author interview here.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound

 

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, by Diane Magras (Deckle Edge)

One of my favorites of 2018 so far! I love the history, twisty plot and bold, heart pounding adventure. The Scottish headlines come vividly to life. But the complicated family relationships and friendships really make this book shine. Read the author interview here.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

Vanished! by James Ponti (Aladdin)

The winner of the 2018 Edgar Award, this sequel to Framed! is such good fun. I love the brainy mystery elements and the push/pull between best friends Florian and Margaret. I recommend reading them both although I read them out of order and it was fine. Trapped!, the 3rd in series, hits shelves SEp

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

The House that Lou Built, by Mae Respicio (June 12th/Wendy Lamb Books)

A coming-of-age story that explores culture and family, forgiveness and friendship, and what makes a true home. I especially loved how thoroughlyLou plays against type and yet is relatable and familiar. For readers unfamiliar with Filipino culture, Lou is the best kind of guide. Experiencing the world through her eyes is a delight. Middle grade readers are in for a real treat.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

A Hint of Hydra, by Kati Bartkowski and Heidi Lang (July 10th/Aladdin)

I loved A Dash of Dragon, the first in this series penned by real life sisters, about Lailu, a monster cuisine chef with the best curses (‘What the spatula?’). The amazing world building and fun hold steady in the tense and action packed sequel, which sees Lailu trying to prevent a war between the elves and the scientists. There is also a cute boy.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound) (I will be at Kepler’s Books with Heidi and Kati September and it’s going to be fun! Details here.)

 

The Cryptid Catcher, by Lija Fisher (August 21st/ GS&F)

I loved this action/adventure with mythological roots and lots of humor. Thirteen year old Clivo Wren has his hands full following in his father’s footsteps but with the help of some new friends, he might just pull off the  impossible.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

The Right Hook of Devin Velma, by Jake Burt (Sept. 4th/Feiwel & Friends)

In this story of friendship, anxiety, families and basketball,  characters struggle with some of the harsher aspects of modern American life and yet come out stronger for the experience. I loved peering into the deep friendship between Addi and Devin and how they had each other’s backs, even when it was uncomfortable.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

24 Hours in Nowhere (Sept. 4th/Sterling)

Quirky characters and a unique desert setting make author Bowling’s second novel a perfect way to round out summer vacation. Gus wants to escape his dead-end town but first he has to survive the wrath of the local bully and a harrowing 24-hour search for missing gold. There’s

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

Take Us To Your Sugar, by Jonathan Roth

(Beep & Bob #3) (September 11th/Aladdin)

This series is perfect for younger readers and it might have my favorite title ever! I can totally see my eleven year old making the same demand! In this installment, Bob and his best friend Beep discover Halloween will not be celebrated at Astro Elementary, they hatch a plan to save their favorite sweet holiday. Funny, action packed space adventures will have your readers begging for more.

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound)

 

 

Alexandra Ott, author of middle graded adventure fantasy The Shadow Thieves

The Shadow Thieves, the thrilling sequel to Rules for Thieves, is a must read for action fantasy enthusiasts in the middle grade space. Ott’s willingness to delve into her characters’ ambiguity brings them vividly to life. People are complex in the real world and reflecting this on the page makes for a compelling story. Plus, I can’t get enough of brave, determined and loyal Alli! She fits right in with the many wonderful girl leads I’ve encountered lately that won’t let me go until I finish. I think I’m going to start calling them ‘the one sitting club’.  (Buy the book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound)

And now some questions for Alexandra…

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

I always loved stories, even as a child. My parents read aloud to me often before I was old enough to read on my own, and I’ve been devouring books ever since. I think I was about 7 or 8 years old when I realized that being an author was an actual job, and I’ve wanted to do it ever since!

The Shadow Thieves is the sequel to Rules for Thieves and picks up after 12-year-old Alli Rosco is released from prison. Did you have the sequel story in mind when you wrote the first installment?

I had a loose idea of what would happen in the sequel. I knew which characters I wanted to bring back, what I wanted the focus of the story to be, and how I wanted it to end. But most of the plot details were invented in the process of writing the manuscript. I write most of my books this way; I like to have a plan but also leave plenty of room to explore as I go along.

In Shadow, like Rules, Alli ends up in that gray space between what is right and what is necessary. You illustrate so well how life is messy and things are rarely straightforward. Was this your intention with Alli?

Thank you! Yes, I knew even before I wrote the first book that it was a theme I wanted to explore—how to navigate that gray area, and how to choose between moral responsibility and survival. Alli is often placed in impossible situations where the right answer is never easy, and she has to figure out which choices she can live with and which lines she won’t cross. I think it’s an interesting dilemma to give any character, but particularly one as young as Alli who’s really finding her place in the world for the first time.

The Thieves exist in a fantasy world with touches of magic. I love how you’ve created a world that isn’t flashy or in your face but is just different enough for the reader to feel like she’s left the familiar behind. Did this world evolve or did you map out the rules before you began writing the books?

It was a little of both, I think. I knew going into it what kind of world I wanted to create, and I made lots of notes for myself before I started writing—things like how the governments are structured, the major cultural differences between the two main cities in the books, how their economy and currency works, the rules surrounding magic and how it influences the world, that sort of thing. But I also continued to develop the world as I wrote the story, and filled in a lot of holes in the worldbuilding that I hadn’t worked out beforehand. My goal was to create a world that’s easily accessible and understandable while also feeling fantastical.

I’m currently working on the third in a series so this question is for me! Which was harder to write, book one or two?

They both had their own challenges, but I’d say the second book was harder. With sequels, it’s always hard to find the right balance between including elements and characters that readers love from the first book while also introducing something new. Plus, I had deadlines while working on the second book, so I had to write it much faster than the first!

Who are your favorite authors?

 This is an impossible question to answer! I have so many. Some of my favorite children’s authors are J.K. Rowling, Cornelia Funke, Kate DiCamillo, Shannon Hale, Madeleine L’Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Megan Whalen Turner, and Tamora Pierce, to name just a few.

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

 Reading, of course!

What are you working on right now?

 I’ve just started writing my next middle grade project. I have to keep the details a secret for now, but I think readers who love adventure fantasy stories with fierce female protagonists—like Rules for Thieves!—will enjoy this one too. I’ll have more information to share about this project very soon!

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

 I love hearing from readers! They’re more than welcome to email me via my website, www.alexandraott.com, or to reach out on social media. I can be found on Twitter as @Alexandra_Ott, on Instagram as @alexottbooks, or on Facebook as alexandraottbooks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Katie Silvensky- The Seismic Seven interview

I am a huge Katie Silvensky fan so I’m extra excited to have her here to day to answer some questions. If you haven’t read her 2017 debut, The Countdown Conspiracy, get on that right now. It’s perfect for summer reading! I also can’t wait to dive into her second novel, The Seismic Seven, which pits seven smart kids against a supervolcano with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Just that description gets my heart racing.

Let’s talk to Katie!

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound or purchase from your local bookstore)

You write fast paced, science infused, high stakes thrillers for kids. Tell me a little bit about how that came to happen.

I’m lucky enough to have a career in informal science education, so I get perspectives from kids all the time about what is fun and exciting to them in the world of science. As it turns out, it’s usually what I’m super into, as well! Space travel. Giant volcanos. Prehistoric creatures. When I started pursuing publication seriously just under a decade ago, I knew that would be my angle: use what I was enthusiastic about (and what kids are enthusiastic about) to fuel my books.

My background as a scientist gave me the skillset to research with accuracy and speed to create the scenarios my books are founded on, and my lifelong love of action/adventure stories gave me the mold to work with to create my own. The only thing left to do was to practice, practice, practice, and revise, revise, revise!

Your books have ensemble casts with kids hailing from around the world and from various cultures, races and ethnicities. What kind of research do you do to make sure you get those different voices correct?

As authors, we have an incredible responsibility to our readers in this regard. I have personally made the decision to write only from the POV of my own cultural and racial background, while making sure that my ensemble cast of characters reflects the diversity of our world. I spend a lot of time working to get these varying voices to feel genuine, not perpetuate any harmful stereotypes, and stay respectful and unforced. It’s been a big learning curve—and I know I have much more learning still to do!

To accomplish the above, one thing I do is to read a lot of books by authors that share backgrounds with my characters. I have found this to be incredibly helpful way to get to know differing voices. I also do a lot of research into the modern history of each ethnicity/disability/culture/etc (as well as keeping up on current events). But these are really just first steps—getting voice “right” is as much about what you know and can put into the story as it is about what you don’t know or what should not be put in the story. Therefore, I seek out paid sensitivity readers to help me with characters whose backgrounds are different than my own. Hands down, this has been the most important and most helpful thing to do. I have received incredibly thoughtful feedback from sensitivity readers that has all served to change my narrative and characters for the better. I could not be more grateful for their honesty and work.

I tell everyone who will listen that The Countdown Conspiracy has the best ending of a middle grade book maybe ever!  Do you work up a detailed plot outline before you begin writing or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

I’m definitely a plotter, not a pantser. I create pages upon pages of detailed outlines, character arcs, maps, diagrams, everything! Messily, I should add. These notes aren’t neat or pretty in the slightest. They’re scribbles all over any type of paper I can grab when ideas hit, including junk mail envelopes, receipts, and napkins.

…Though, I have to say, I never wrote down the ending to COUNTDOWN on any of my plotting notes. I knew the ending, but I kept it in my head (or perhaps in my heart) for fear someone, somehow, would find it and get spoiled!

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

 Both of my parents are readers and got me hooked on books from childhood. I was that kid who always carried a book with them. My imagination was enormous and books were like magic!

The first evidence I have of writing came from a notebook I had when I was about 4. (I wrote a story about a girl who got a cat as a present. Clearly, I was destined to be an author.) But it wasn’t until 2nd grade that my love for writing really kicked in. My teacher gave our class a creative writing prompt that I didn’t complete on time because the story wasn’t done. Rather than force me to hand it in unfinished, my teacher encouraged me to keep writing and even began reading it aloud to the room week after week as I added to it. My classmates were always tremendously eager to hear each new chapter. As the “quiet kid”, having attention on me in a positive way that built confidence was a new and exciting thing. Ever since then, storytelling has been a critically important part of my life.

 Who are your favorite authors?

 To name a few (because I could go on all day): Rick Riordan, Richard Adams, Ibi Zoboi, JK Rowling, Douglas Adams, Ammi-Joan Paquette, and Diana Wynne Jones.

 What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

 I like to take nature walks and practice my photography. 🙂

 What are you working on right now?

 Ooooh, right now I have three projects I’m working on. Each very different, but all middle grade and adventuresome. Stay tuned!

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

 I can be reached via the contact form on my website: www.katieslivensky.com. Otherwise, please feel free to follow me on Facebook  or on Twitter.

Thank you so much for the interview, Beth! This has been fun!

 

Books

Title: THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

Release date: August 1st, 2017

Blurb: Miranda Regent can’t believe she was just chosen as one of six kids from around the world to train for the first ever mission to Mars. But as soon as the official announcement is made, she begins receiving anonymous threatening messages…and when the training base is attacked, it looks like Miranda is the intended target. Now the entire mission—and everyone’s lives—are at risk. And Miranda may be the only one who can save them.

The Martian meets The Goonies in this out-of-this-world middle grade debut where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

****A Junior Library Guild Selection: Fall 2017****

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26102519-the-countdown-conspiracy

Indiebound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062462558

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Countdown-Conspiracy-Katie-Slivensky/dp/0062462555

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-countdown-conspiracy-katie-slivensky/1124860410

Title: THE SEISMIC SEVEN

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

Release date: June 5th, 2018

Blurb: Brianna Dobson didn’t plan to spend her summer saving the planet from total destruction—but what starts as an educational experience shadowing geologist Dr. Samantha Grier in Yellowstone National Park quickly becomes a race to stop a massive volcanic eruption the likes of which the humanity has never seen.

Seven kids. One supervolcano. One chance to save the world.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35230414-the-seismic-seven

Indiebound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062463180

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Seismic-Seven-Katie-Slivensky/dp/0062463187

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-seismic-seven-katie-slivensky/1126439901

 

Author

Katie Slivensky is an educator at the Museum of Science in Boston, where she coordinates school visits, does presentations with alligators and liquid nitrogen (not usually at the same time), and runs the rooftop observatory program. Katie lives in a suburb of Boston with her two completely absurd cats, Galileo and Darwin, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Find her online at www.katieslivensky.com, and follow her on Twitter at @paleopaws.

 

An interview with Tricia Springstubb

Tricia Springstubb is the author of many books for middle grade readers and while I hope you will add them all to your child’s To Be Read list, right now I’m especially fond of the Cody series, the fourth of which, Cody and the Heart of a Champion, was recently released. Cody is a spunky young girl who charges headlong into life without thinking through the consequences. The results are often hilarious but what I really enjoy is being in Cody’s head and experiencing how she puzzles through challenging life choices, some of which may feel familiar to younger middle grade readers.

AND We’re lucky to have Tricia Springstubb here to answer some questions on today’s blog!

(Buy the books: AmazonB&N, IndieBound or purchase from your local indie bookstore)

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

I’ve loved stories as long as I can remember—stories in books, stories my grandmother told me, stories I made up and acted out with my dolls or stuffed animals. Once I learned to read,

I never went anywhere without a book. It wasn’t till I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s, though, that I began to write for anyone beside myself. I’m a self-taught writer, and my evolution from reader to reader-writer was slow.

I laughed out loud reading Cody and The Fountain of Happiness. Her heart is in the right place but sometimes she messes up anyway (I’m thinking of the hypnotizing scenes). Is this the way you envisioned her from the beginning or did she evolve on the page? Where did Cody come from?

I was a shy, timid child, and I’m still not good at taking risks. I tend to write characters who think a lot before they act. With Cody, I wanted to inhabit a different kind of kid, one who was impulsive and confident and seized the day—for better or for worse. Her big heart saves her every time, thank goodness. I have loved writing her

The secondary characters in the Cody books have much more depth than I’m used to seeing in books targeting younger middle grade readers. It gives your books real emotional heft. Was this intentional?

I can’t seem to help writing complicated—complicated characters, plots, themes. It’s kind of a curse. With the Cody books, I tried hard to make things simpler, but never simplistic. I’m so glad you liked the minor characters, because I am very fond of them all, including MewMew, who’s based on my own beloved cat.

The fourth and latest Cody book is Cody and the Heart of a Champion (released in April). How many do you envision in the series? In your mind, how is Cody changing/will change as the series progresses?

The fourth book is the last one—at least for now. It’s set in spring, so it brings the series full circle through the year. Cody has learned a lot about patience, empathy, conscience, the ebb and flow of friendship, the inevitability of change, but she’s still her own high-spirited, big-hearted self, thank goodness.

Who are your favorite authors?

Children’s writers I love include E.B. White, Kate DiCamillo, Linda Urban, Lynne Rae Perkins, Julie Falatko, Rita Williams-Garcia, Naomi Shihab Nye—I could go on and on (I am very bad at picking favorites).  Adults writers include Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Alice McDermott, Joanne Beard and someone I just discovered—Jane Gardham.

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

Uh oh, another favorite question! I could say read (duh), walk, garden, but since my second grandbaby was born yesterday, I will say: Be a nana.

What are you working on right now?

I have a new picture book coming out with Candlewick Press in 2020. It’s tentatively titled “Khalil and Mr. Hagerty”. I love love love the collaborative process of working with an illustrator, and I’m very excited to be working for the first time with the amazing Elaheh Taherian.

I’m also working on a new middle grade novel, this one about a girl named Loah, whose fearless (possibly foolish) mother is off on a scientific expedition to save the rare (possibly extinct) Loah bird. It’s gone through more drafts than I can count.

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

Readers can contact me through my website triciaspringstubb.com, my Facebook page, or Twitter @springstubb. Whichever way you choose, please do contact me! I can get very lonesome sitting at this desk by myself all day.

The Sophomore Effort

What is it like for an author to write that second book? I talked to Sally J. Pla and Elly Swartz about this very thing over at the Mixed Up Files blog. Check it out here:

The Sophomore Effort

A chat with Sally Pla, author of Stanley Will Probably Be Fine

It was a thrill to read Sally Pla’s The Someday Birds when it came out last year so I was excited to dig into her newest novel, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. And it lived up to expectations!

Stanley, suffering from a sensory processing disorder, lives in today’s new ‘normal’, dealing with lockdown drills at school, not to mention friend drama. But  his keen awareness of his own anxiety makes him relatable – elements of his struggles will resonate with almost everyone. Stanley escapes into comic books, where good and evil are often clear cut and logical.

I found this pivot away from a taxing reality both brave and heartbreaking.  Stanley reminds us that while the world may not make sense, we need strategies to live in it, and his journey toward doing just that will have you rooting for him all the way. And now, lucky us, some Q&A with author Sally Pla.

(Buy the book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound)

Who were your favorite authors as a kid?

There weren’t many books in my house when I was a kid. I remember an old copy of Hans Christian Anderson. There was a set of Dickens that my late grandfather found on a sidewalk (the story goes), and carted home in his wheel barrel. There was a beautiful 19th century copy of Tennyson on the shelf (I still have it), a circa 1910 medical book with nightmare-inducing photos, an encyclopedia, and an art book on German Expressionism which was almost as scary as the medical book.

Once I got old enough to bike to the library by myself, my world brightened considerably! Nancy Drew, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.L. Konigsburg, Aahhhhhh!!!! Also, animal stories! Misty of Chincoteague! Dr. Doolittle! I reread James Herriott’s “All Things Great and Small” series a million times and decided that when I grew up, I’d become a vet in Yorkshire.

Both The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine deal with children suffering from anxiety. What process do you go through to make sure your depictions are accurate?

Charlie in The Someday Birds and Stanley in Stanley Will Probably Be Fine are indeed both anxious. This was no problem at all to write. I have been anxious my whole life. Every physical symptom, every awfulizing, catastrophizing thought those characters have, are thoughts and symptoms and feelings that I have had. They are me; I am them.

Kids deal with things like active shooter and shelter in place drills in school all the time these days. How did you decide this could work as the focus of a middle grade novel?

We had a school principal, when my three boys were in elementary, who had a peculiar code phrase for initiating a drill. He’d get on the intercom and say: “John Lockdown is in the building!”

Now, everyone thought that was kind of funny. At home, my boys would run around playing this James Bond sort of gun chase game, pretending to be “John Lockdown.” They weren’t freaked out by the drills, not really.

But I was. What kind of a world do we have, when school kids accept as normal the possibility of an intruder bursting in and shooting them in cold blood? When they come home and cheerfully play-act about it?

This really bothered me.

I got to thinking: What if we don’t become inured to it? What if we fight against this societal desensitization? And so, further: What kind of a kid would have a problem with the normalization of violence in his life? What would that kid look like, and act like? What could that kid teach us, if we slipped inside his skin for a while?

Stanley is so wonderful, genuine and relatable. Is he based on anyone you know? Where did he come from?

Stanley is just Stanley. He has many of the same issues as Charlie in The Someday Birds, but Stanley has a dark, sardonic little sense of humor about himself and the world. Now that he exists, I love him like my own kin. Thank you for liking him too!

Superhero comic books are Stanley’s escape from reality and you include multiple panels from Stanley’s own comic creation, John Lockdown. Loved these! Did you work closely with an illustrator to get them right or did you do them yourself?

I did do my own version of Stan’s comic panels, just to storyboard it and see what needed to go where. But thank goodness for artist Steve Wolfhard! Steve’s a veteran comic artist whose work can be seen, most notably, on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. I think Steve’s art in the book (and on its cover) is just amazing. Originally, there were to be many, many more panels of Stanley’s comics. I so wish we could have included them all! Gosh darn!

Secondary characters can often feel cliché but yours, primarily Stanley’s messy family, provide depth and richness to the book. How much backstory do you create for them to achieve this, that never makes it to the page?

I write a lot of backstory, and take a lot of different approaches. At first, Stanley had two older brothers, not one. And he had both a dad and mom, but no grandpa… Things shifted a lot. What I like to do, repeatedly, is draw a bubble map with my main character in the center. Then I put each secondary character in a bubble around him. Each secondary character has to challenge the main character in a different, unique way, so the main character is always being tugged in different interesting directions. The bubble maps help me visualize this. Then, the supporting cast’s personalities grow from this. I also do a lot of journaling on each of them, until I can consistently hear their voices in my head.

What are you currently working on?

A love story between a big lonely girl named Alice Eugenia McMann and a woolly mammoth named Snowball, with a lot of cutting-edge genomic science – and an 85 year old best buddy — thrown in. It is not set in Yorkshire.

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

Check out www.sallyjpla.com — there’s a “contact me” link! Or email sallyjplawrites@gmail.com.

 

2017 Best Middle Grade Novels

When you think the world is falling apart and you just can’t take it anymore, I suggest a visit to your local bookstore or library. Browse the middle grade shelves. Pick up almost anything. What will you find?

Gold, pure gold.

Middle grade authors produce some of the best and bravest writing I’ve seen, no matter target audience or genre. Novels range from fantasy to contemporary to historical to completely silly and fun. (I have been known to shout “Funny or die!’ on occasion) These books embrace tough subject matter, not shying away from the difficulties of growing up in a complicated world. I appreciate, too, how girl characters are being elevated to positions of leadership and authority. It’s so important for girls to see themselves on the pages.

I say it all the time: what we read matters.

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THE 2017 LIST

 

The Someday Birds, by Sally J. Pla (HarperCollins)

Authors talk a lot about ‘voice’ and how important it is to get it right. It’s hard to describe what exactly ‘voice’ is but when you encounter it, you know – you can feel it all the way down to your toes. You are with the character in his or her head, seeing the world through his or her eyes.The Someday Birds is a perfect example. Charlie 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.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

The Countdown Conspiracy, by Katie Silvensky (HarperCollins) 

Holy cow, I loved this book!  Science, adventure, friendships, outer space, robots, bad guys. The stakes are high in this page turner and it will have you on the edge of your seat. Set in a future post war Earth, Miranda Regent is picked as one of six kids training to go to Mars. But things go immediately sideways and Miranda may be the only one who can herself, her family, her friends and, indeed, the world. Plus, this book has the best epilogue ever.

 

 

 

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser (HMH Books for Young Readers)

I loved this big, warm story about siblings trying to save their sprawling home, a New York City brownstone about to be rented out from under them. It’s an important lesson for kids that they are not powerless and their actions can have an impact. The neighborhood setting brings home the notion that children can experience an expansive world without leaving their city block. I read it in one sitting and look forward to the sequel, due next year.

Read an interview with the author here.

New York Times Book Review here.

 

 

Click’d, by Tamara Ireland Stone (Disney-Hyperion)

Best selling author Stone delivers a fun read with tech savvy Allie Navarro at its heart. Allie develops an app at code camp that helps kids make friends and it’s a hit. It might even be enough for her to beat arch enemy Nathan at an upcoming coding competition. But a glitch might bring down more than her game. Allie has to work fast to save her friendships and her chance at winning the competition. Along the way, she learns valuable lessons about what matters most. This story has all the elements of middle grade – friends, family, school – but bundled with the idea that girls can code as well as anyone. And I hope they do.

 

 

Kat Greene Comes Clean, by Melissa Roske (Charlesbridge)

Author Melissa Roske expertly captures the feelings of a middle school girl who finds herself dealing with how messy life can be. Navigating divorce and her mother’s worsening OCD plus a best friend who’s changing before her eyes. Kat’s bravery in dealing with the chaos broke my heart a little bit – kids being strong in the face of adversity gets me every time. But the message that we should never have to face problems on our own and that help is there no matter what is an important one that Roske brings home beautifully.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

 

A Dash of Dragon, by Heidi Lang & Katie Bartkowski (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster)

The premise of this book is completely delightful: A thirteen-year-old chef has a lot to prove as she tries to run a five-star restaurant, repay a greedy loan shark, and outsmart the Elven mafia in this entertaining novel that combines all the best ingredients—fantasy, humor, adventure, action, cute boys, and a feisty heroine. And the authors (who are sisters – cool, right??) deliver. This is the kind of book I would have loved as a kid and stayed up, hiding under my blankets with a flashlight, to finish. Good fun.

Read an interview with the authors here.

 

 

 

Ahimsa, by Supriya Kelkar (Tu Books)

As Ahmisa opens, it’s 1942 and Ghandi has asked families to give one member to the Indian freedom movement. In the case of Anjali, it’s her mother who steps up. As Anjali’s life changes, she’s forced to confront a new reality brought on my her mother’s commitment to the cause. I love stories where a girl is pushed out of her comfort zone and becomes a better, stronger version of herself. Anjali’s path is thrilling to follow and especially timely in today’s world.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

 

The Prisoner of Ice and Snow, by Ruth Lauren (Bloomsbury)

In order to rescue her sister from a maximum security prison, Valor needs to first be thrown in jail and then figure a way to bust out. The audacity of her plan tells us a lot about her character. She’s bold and daring and will stop at nothing to save her sister. I was taken from the start by Lauren’s intricate world building and edge of my seat pacing. There’s also a visual quality to her writing that had this tale unspooling like a movie in my head.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy, by Gareth Wronski (Aladdin/ Simon & Schuster)

This novel has a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sensibility that I found irresistible. After a case of mistaken identity, Holly finds herself in outer space contending with bounty hunters, giant worms, perky holograms, cosmic board games, sinister insectoid librarians, and a robot who is learning how to lie. Things are complicated….and funny…but author Wronski never loses sight of Holly’s humanity and the struggles that abound in middle school.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

Karma Khullar’s Mustache, by Kristi Wientge (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

I loved the adolescent angst in this one because if felt so familiar! Twelve and thirteen year old self doubt is unique and this book offers kids a chance to realize they are not alone dealing with all the weirdness. Karma’s body feels a little bit alien and her best friend seems ready to trade up to a newer shinier best friend. Add in her dad as the new stay at home parent, a mom at work all the time and Karma is just confused. And alone. In true Judy Blume fashion, Wientge captures Karma’s emotions with honesty and charm.

 

 

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Free Range Kids

It’s summer, a time for running through sprinklers and jumping in pools and devouring ice cream and cold lemonade. It’s also a time of panic for parents. Why can’t we have just six weeks off like some European countries? Who thought seventy days with no school was a good idea? I’d like to meet this person and have a conversation.

In truth, I’m lucky because I set my own schedule. This does not mean I get to read books pool-side all day while a cute cabana boy brings me fruity cocktails. What it means instead is that I’m responsible for everything – every deadline, every new submission, every edit, every step forward. There is no unassuming colleague to whom I can forward this week’s action items and then skip off into the sunset free of responsibility. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So here we are. Me, the kids and the deadlines. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, basking in the bluish glow of my Mac when the kids (nine and eleven) deliver a proposal. Let’s call it the ‘mom is totally not paying attention – let’s go for broke’ proposal. In short, they want to go off on their bikes, gather friends and do unspecified ‘things’. I’m paying enough attention to ask for specifics. My daughter wants to spend a gift certificate she got for her birthday. My son wants a Jamba Juice. Okay. Nothing too crazy there. But before we can dig down into how this is going to work, when they plan on returning, what route they will take on their bikes so as not to get run over, my phone rings and it’s my writing partner and we’ve been working really hard to get a submission out the door and, well, I get distracted. When I look up, the kids are gone. I drift out to the garage. The bikes are gone, too.

My kids have officially gone free-range.

I don’t panic until my brother calls and we have this conversation:
Him: What are the kids up to?
Me: They’re out.
Him: Where?
Me: I don’t know.
Him: What does that mean?
Me: Just what I said.
Him: Oh my God, that is so 1970s!!!

I immediately start to worry about the other kids they’ve rounded up and led astray. There will be parental judgment. I refill my coffee cup for the four hundredth time and think about it calmly (except for my twitching left eyelid but that’s the caffeine, right?).

We try to teach our kids right from wrong, how to make good choices, how to ask for help when needed, how not to fear new or unfamiliar things, how to be kind and thoughtful and deliberate and joyful.

And I realize we do with our children what I do with characters in my novels, which is the best I can until they seem to do it on their own.  There’s a moment when a character clicks, when she feels fully actualized, as if I could walk out my front door and find her standing there and not be at all surprised. It’s a moment to savor.

The kids eventually come back with amazing tales of their adventures. They’re flushed with freedom, telling me all about how they walked across the busy intersection and waited for the slower bikers and pooled their collective pennies for ice cream. And for a moment, it feels just a little like throwing that door open to find something wonderful on the other side.

What’s your biggest summer challenge? (and does it involve fruity cocktails? I have got to stop talking about fruity cocktails) I’d love to hear about it. @bvam,  FaceBook/BethMcMullen or go crazy and email me at beth@bethmcmullenbooks.com