Writing for Tween Readers: A Conversation between Hillary Homzie and Laney Nielson

Laney: When Sky Pony approached me about writing a novel for their new line for tween readers (Swirl), one of the first things I did was figure out my mentor texts. I read (and reread) books by Jo Whittemore, Joanne Levy, and you! Queen of Likes (Aladdin, 2016) is a favorite of mine, as is Pumpkin Spice Secrets. You capture the concerns and the voice of a tween protagonist perfectly. How do you do it? What’s your secret?

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Hillary: Okay, when I read that question, I had to re-read the first part. The mentor text part. You read my book before you knew me?

Laney: Yes!

Hillary: Okay, wow, I’m going to momentarily pretend that I’m suave and oh-so-used to someone reading my book as a mentor text! (She pinches herself.) Now what was the question? Oh, right. How do I capture the concerns and the voice of a tween?

My true secret? Immaturity. I just interviewed my 12-year-old and asked him and his friend  if I were more immature than the other moms. They said yes. Point proven! They also said I was fun but could be lecture-y (yes, I still do have a mom brain). I’m the one who taught them all of the silly songs from my childhood that I probably shouldn’t repeat here in case this is a strictly G-rated blog. But shockingly, there are times when my inner 13-year-old and innate immaturity isn’t enough. So when I don’t think I remember something well, I will interview my seventh grader’s friends. And then if I feel like I really need some more tween immersion, I will go and visit a middle school. In the past, I’ve visited during class time, lunch, and even a school dance! I try not to stick out with my reporter’s notebook. But I’m afraid I’m not very good at incognito.

Laney: (Laughing.) I love picturing you at a middle school dance with a reporter’s notebook, and maybe a pair of dark sunglasses and a hat pulled down low over your face. If I could get away with it, I’d do it! I’ve definitely whipped out my notebook in the car (at a stoplight, of course) to record bits of speech my daughters or their friends have said from the backseat. Once they get their driver’s licenses, I’ll miss those fun life moments — plus I may need to find some new sources of inspiration. (Laughing.)

Hillary: Yeah, two of my kids have driver’s licenses and it’s so true. It gets harder to eavesdrop. Luckily, I still have a 12-year-old. Speaking of capturing all of those bits of real life, I thought you did a wonderful job of showing day-to-day school life in Peppermint Cocoa Crushes without getting your characters stuck sitting in the classroom. You used after-school activities extremely well. How did you manage that? I would think as a former classroom teacher, you might have been tempted to keep the kids sitting still in class all day!

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Laney: The main characters in Peppermint Cocoa Crushes really identify with their extracurricular activities. So even if I’d been tempted to keep them in the classroom, they wouldn’t let me! It was fun writing about kids who are so focused and passionate. Sasha is a real doer and her commitment to her community is admirable. She’s like a lot of kids I know who are very involved in service and busy with after-school activities.

I have to say, as a former classroom teacher, I really appreciate how you depict the school project in Pumpkin Spice Secrets. Maddie, the main character, learns to express herself as she gains debate skills in the classroom. When I was a teacher, I loved watching how certain projects would develop my students’ skills in ways that expanded their sense of themselves. And that’s what happens with Maddie. So the teacher in me was so happy to see that portrayed. And it was done in such a fun way!

Hillary: Laney, thank you so much. My inner teacher was happy about that as well. While I’ve never been a classroom teacher in middle school, I actually have a master’s degree in education and did a semester of student teaching, which I loved. In your novel Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, Sasha, your protagonist, is pretty clueless that her crush Kevin doesn’t like her back. As an adult reader, I could read his disinterest right away so I was privately hoping Sasha would get it but also enjoying her not getting it because it provided tension. Did you have to plot out when Sasha gets her aha moment, and did you struggle with how far you could take it?

Laney: Great question! It’s been so interesting to hear from readers on this aspect of the story. Adults know right away, but I’ve heard from a number of middle schoolers who experienced the aha moment right along with Sasha. They then go back and see the signs Sasha (and they) missed. Sasha approaches the whole crush like she does school, her community service projects, and the talent show. She’s so focused on the outcome that she’s not picking up on what’s actually happening. I did struggle with how far I could take it, and even more than that I wanted to make sure I was depicting Ryan and Kevin’s interest in one another in an authentic way. I hope it resonates with readers who are experiencing these feelings for the first time. First crushes are fun, but they are also confusing!

Hillary: Can I just say that you depicted Ryan and Kevin’s crush in such a sweet and lovely way. They obviously enjoy each other so much and connect. If you ever did a spinoff book, those two could easily have their own book. I’m such a sucker for first crushes. Big happy sigh.

Laney: Speaking of first crushes, do you remember yours? And in writing Pumpkin Spice Secrets, did you mine those memories?

Hillary: Oh my gosh! I’m blushing thinking about my first crush. It was sixth grade, and I thought he was perfect! I’m embarrassed to give out his name, in case he’s reading this — ha ha! In sixth grade, my crush had adorable brown eyes and cute glasses. He was decent at soccer and super smart. At a sixth grade dance, he offered me a piece of hot pepper gum. My mouth caught on fire, so I had to run to the water fountain. Then he asked me to dance and even though my tongue burned, I readily and giddily accepted. I felt at the time that the practical joke was a sure sign that he really liked me. And for Pumpkin Spice Secrets, I might have mined my feelings but not my memories. Because I never had a boy who was quite as, um, mature as Jacob. He’s more like how I wished things might have gone with my first crush!

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Hillary (age 13) on School Picture Day

Laney: This memory is like a scene out of a tween novel. I love it! What advice would you give to your middle school self about balancing friends and crushes and school?

Hillary: Hmm, in terms of balance, I’m probably not the best person to give advice because I haven’t quite figured out the balance thing as an adult. But I would say that if you find that you’re so mono-focused that you’re neglecting one aspect of your life, then you need to recalibrate. Family, friends, and school should always come before crushes. But there’s no doubt that it’s fun having a crush going!

Laney: I agree. In middle school, I think it’s more fun daydreaming and reading about crushes than actually “dating.” It’s the perfect time for having fun with friends and pursuing your own interests. Romance? Relationships? They can wait. (Okay, that’s the mom in me talking!)

Hillary: Laney, I so agree about waiting to actually date. Personally, I enjoyed flirting in middle school and high school but didn’t actually get my actual first boyfriend until college! On that front, I was even more shy than Maddie. Okay, I think it’s only fair that I ask you a crush question. Sasha was pretty clueless that her crush Kevin wasn’t into her, and equally clueless that Pete Sugarman (he’s such a sweet boy with the perfect last name, by the way!) was crushing on her. In middle school, were you ever clueless that a boy didn’t like you back or that a boy liked you and you had no idea? And if so, did you mine any of those memories for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes?

Laney: In middle school, I was clueless when it came to boys. I went to an all-girls school. So the biggest opportunities to socialize came at dances at nearby all-boys schools. I remember after  “slow dancing” with one boy, he asked for my number. And in that moment with my heart beating fast, I gave him the first phone number that popped into my head — my best friend’s. I didn’t realize what I’d done until later that week when the boy called my best friend’s house and her little brother answered the phone and thought it was quite funny that someone was calling for me at their house. I can’t recall if my friend’s brother gave the boy my number or not, but needless to say I never heard from him again. And I felt so badly that he thought I’d done it on purpose! I hadn’t. I’d done it because I was nervous. So I might not have experienced the same cluelessness as Sasha, but as you can see I was bumbling in my own way.

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Laney (age 12) skating on Silver Lake in Barnard, Vermont

Mining those memories is definitely a fun part of writing realistic middle grade fiction. The details of our stories might not be autobiographical, but the emotions behind them are our truth.

By the way, what you are drinking? A peppermint cocoa? A pumpkin spice latte?

Hillary: In my fridge, I actually have some pumpkin spice almond milk that I add to my morning coffee. And I just bought some cocoa and have some candy canes on hand to crush into the mix. Yes, hand-mixed peppermint cocoa crushes.

Laney: Yum!

Hillary: So I plan to drink both — not at once, of course. I think the pumpkin spice will be a morning treat and the peppermint cocoa a late afternoon one!

Laney: I wish we lived closer so I could pop over for a mugful of either one of those treats!

But right now, I’m raising my cup of tea and toasting Annaliese, Jarrett, and Kathie for starting the MG Book Village! And for inviting us to blab. Uh, I mean blog!

Hillary and Laney: Cheers!

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 7.30.13 AM.pngHillary is the author of the tween novels, PUMPKIN SPICE SECRETS (Swirl/Sky Pony), QUEEN OF LIKES (Simon & Schuster/M!X), THE HOT LIST (Simon & Schuster/M!X), THINGS ARE GONNA GET UGLY (Simon & Schuster/M!X), a Justice Book-of-the-Month, which was optioned by Priority Pictures, as well as the humorous chapter book series, ALIEN CLONES FROM OUTER SPACE (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin), which was developed to become an animated television series and was sold to ABC Australia. Her forthcoming chapter book series about the antics of second grader ELLIE MAY will be debut in December of 2018 from Charlesbridge. Hillary holds a master’s degree in education from Temple University and a master’s of arts degree from Hollins University in children’s literature and writing, where she currently teaches. In addition, she teaches Middle Grade Mastery and the Chapter Book Alchemist, interactive e-courses, for the Children’s Book Academy. Visit her at www.hillaryhomzie.com and connect with her at @hillaryhomzie.

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Laney is a writer of middle grade fiction and lots of to-do lists. She’s a former classroom teacher with a Masters in Education and a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentorship. Laney lives with her family in Plano, Texas. Her novel, Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is part of the Swirl series, Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers. For more information visit LaneyNielson.com or follow her on twitter @LaneyNielson or on Instagram official_laneynielson

One thought on “Writing for Tween Readers: A Conversation between Hillary Homzie and Laney Nielson

  1. Annaliese, Jarrett, and Kathie, we really enjoyed kicking off your author conversation series. You serve the best snacks and warm beverages. However, I just realized something! It’s about my middle school photo. It’s actually my seventh grade photo, so that makes me 12 in it, not 13. I’m one of those July birthdays, which means I never got to celebrate my birthday in elementary school and bring in all those yummy cupcakes (severe childhood wound, as you can tell). I just flipped through my middle school yearbook to confirm my identification error. I’m sure, however, my middle school seventh grade self would have been thrilled to have been mistaken for being 13!


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