Writing a Story That’s Not Yours

It happens unexpectedly, like a slap on the face by a friend. You wake up one morning to read an announcement on social media: a new book about a (insert minority group here). This should be great news, especially if you belong to said minority group. But it’s not, because the author is white.

The same often happens in a religious context as well. Muslim stories are frequently co-opted by writers who are non-Muslim. (So are black stories, native stories, LGBTQ stories.) The bulk of western publishing has leaned white and Christian for centuries, so the fact that this occurs as often as it does shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve been complaining about this for the longest time, but has anyone been listening?

Now, however, Muslims have a voice amplified by social media and more publishing weight through imprints such as Salaam Reads. Increasingly, Muslim stories are being told by big-name authors (Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series comes immediately to mind) and also newcomers who have gained quick popularity (Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, for instance). As a result, the noise is loud and immediate when Muslim authors wake up one morning and see another story written about them.

Sometimes the author in question withdraws with apologies, at other times he or she insists there is nothing wrong with what they’ve done. At the end of the day, two camps exist, and neither is happy.

For authors who may be tempted to write a story about a Muslim main character, consider this: do you truly have unique insight into another religious group? Is that story so important to tell that you cannot wait for a Muslim writer to tell it? Do you have any stories of your own to tell, or are you simply jumping on a bandwagon to get some quick publicity because the political climate is ripe?

All these are very probing questions, and they may garner a shocked or offended reaction. Of course I’m not trying to get publicity! Of course this is an essential story to tell! Perhaps. The important thing is being honest about it to yourself before you begin writing. If the answers to all these questions are yes, then go ahead, but do know that others along the publishing journey will question your decision every step of the way.

You may think it’s important for everyone to hear Muslim stories. I agree. In an era of Muslim travel bans and refugee crisis, the need for authentic stories about Muslims is critical. But those stories must come from the people who experience them, not from someone who is looking at them from the outside. Consider this: if you write a Muslim main character, do you know what culture she will belong to? Will she eat chappati or hummus or pizza? Will she speak Urdu or Bengali or Arabic or English? Will she wear the dupatta or chador or abaya, and do you even know what those are, or do you use the catchall term hijab which actually doesn’t mean a head covering at all?

Does it really matter?

If you’re an author who thinks that telling a good story is the only important thing, and to heck with the details, then nobody can dissuade you. But if you are the sort of writer who thinks it’s the details which bring richness and depth to the character (and the story), then you’ll realize how important it is to not tell an inauthentic story. Not to use stereotypes you don’t even recognize as stereotypes. Not to create cardboard cutouts instead of the real thing because all you know of Muslims has come from Disney’s Aladdin.

We live in an era when Muslims in the U.S. and abroad have the ability, platform and willingness to tell their own stories. Be their ally and their loudspeaker. When they get published, share their books on social media, buy them for all your friends, and shout about it from the rooftops. Isn’t that a better (and easier) way to tell a true Muslim story than go write your own?


Saadia Faruqi is Pakistani American author of the early reader Yasmin series by Capstone. She also writes fiction and essays for adults and is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim writers. She was profiled by O Magazine in 2017 for her interfaith and intercultural sensitivity trainings. Visit her website at www.saadiafaruqi.com.

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Using Sentence Length to Create a Voice-like Cadence

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The MG at Heart team is back again with a mid-month post about our February pick, Jack Cheng’s See You in the Cosmos. Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski narrates the entirety of this charming debut novel to the aliens he hopes to teach about Earth via a series of conversations recorded on a golden iPod. He got the idea from his hero, Carl Sagan, who created the Golden Record, which was launched into space in 1977.

An entire book narrated to aliens sounds like an unusual choice for a middle-grade novel, but Cheng’s incredible voice makes See You in the Cosmos a heart-warming and compelling read. It really sounds like Alex is telling us the story. And one of the reasons for that is Cheng’s use of sentence length to create a very realistic voice-like cadence. In some parts of the story, Alex’s voice comes through as breathless because of the long, stream-of-consciousness sentences, while in others, the use of ellipses and em-dashes reflects the tense or deeply upsetting scenes.

American author and writing instructor Gary Provost had this to say about varying sentence length in writing:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

It’s no surprise that he uses terms like “music,” “lilt,” “drums,” “cymbals,” and “harmony,” because varying sentence length is a way to add musicality to your writing. But it can also convey both pace and character. And that’s what Cheng does so well in this story.

If you’re joining us in reading See You in the Cosmos this month, you know this is a book that can make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. See if you can spot instances of Jack Cheng using Alex’s somewhat quirky voice and perspective in combination with varied sentence length to evoke a certain emotion. And please share other examples in the comments on this post or on Twitter at #mgbookclub.

From the very first page, the story uses interesting sentence and paragraph structure to engage the reader:

“Who are you? What do you look like? Do you have one head or two? More? Do you have light brown skin like I do or smooth gray skin like a dolphin or spiky green skin like a cactus? Do you live in a house?” (3)

Sentences from one to 22 words not only convey a LOT of information about Alex’s personality, but they create an inviting and conversational tone.

Look at how the series of “and…and…and…and” here creates a sense of a building storm:

“Sometimes the clouds inside my head get big and gray and swirly and then I hurricane through my eyes. Except I don’t literally hurricane through my eyes—I don’t actually have a weather system in my head.”

And how the stream-of-consciousness format of the following quote shows us real-time how Alex grapples with the tough emotions that are explored in this story. You can almost hear his mind whirring as he figures things out:

“Have you ever lost someone you love?...Maybe you don't have that problem because you're never separated from anyone you love. Maybe as soon as you love someone you're physically connected to them with a tube that's kind of like a leash, except it's made out of flesh and it grows out of your belly button and you call it a fleash."

Whether you’re writing something of your own or working with kids on their creative writing, look for ways that you can use sentence length to convey emotion and voice in your writing. In See You in the Cosmos, Jack Cheng often uses this technique to create the voice-like cadence that is one of several interesting and unique things about the story.

Happy reading and writing, and make sure you’ve subscribed to the Middle Grade at Heart newsletter so you won’t miss this month’s edition, which goes out on February 26th and will include an author interview, an activity, a recipe, and other great content for See You in the Cosmos. And we look forward to chatting with you about the book on our Twitter book chat on March 6th!

Happy International Book Giving Day 2018

February 14th is not only a day of hearts, it’s also a day of books! International Book Giving Day is celebrated each year on this date, with an aim “to get books into the hands of as many children as possible.” You can find a link to their website here (https://bookgivingday.com/blog/about-2/), and the following information is taken directly from the site:

“International Book Giving Day’s focus is on encouraging people worldwide to give a book to a child on February 14th. We invite individuals to

1) gift a book to a friend or family member

2) leave a book in a waiting room for children to read

3) donate a gently used book to a local library, hospital or shelter or to an organization that distributes used books to children in need internationally.”

In the spirit of the day, Urja (aka The Book Chief, and a contributor to the Village with her favorite MGLit picks from India) and I chose to do a book exchange. Books are excellent windows to see into other places and cultures, and make us more open and inclusive, so we chose sharing MGLit titles from our respective countries as one way to do that. Urja is from India, and I am from Canada, so the logistics were a bit complicated. We shared a couple of titles with each other from our own country that we had enjoyed, purchased a gift card for each other, and we are currently in the process of getting the books delivered to us. My first book has arrived, and so today, I will be starting MAYIL WILL NOT BE QUIET by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran (Tulika Publishers, 2011). I will add it to my library’s collection when I’m finished reading it so my young patrons can enjoy it, too. Urja and I will share more about our exchange with you once we’ve both read each other’s selections. In the meantime, you can hear Urja’s thoughts about MAYIL WILL NOT BE QUIET, and some of her other favorite Indian MGLit here.


Happy International Book Giving Day to all!


Making Social Studies Not the Worst Subject Ever


Ten years of teaching social studies has alerted me that most incoming 8th graders view my subject with:

  1. Apathy
  2. Extreme boredom
  3. Deep and abiding hatred
  4. All of the above

Yes, I have gaggles of honors and PEN nerds who LOVE history—but mostly they just love being nerdy. Rarer still is that social studies buff who adores the past for the past, stumbling close to that mother lode of factual euphoria.

Obliterating this boredom has become my primary goal as a history teacher, both in and outside the classroom. In fact, it’s why I started writing modern novels laced with history: I want my students to see how the past can and does impact their lives TODAY. Here’s how I attempt to do this in teaching and writing.

I Must Get Amped About the Past

If I’m bored, then so are the kids. This truth prevents me from becoming the stereotypical teacher who recycles lessons year after year (and FYI that type of teacher is actually super rare). My undiagnosed ADD helps here, but the key is to dig deep, to tunnel down and hardline into the good stuff. I do this by inhaling academic monographs steeped in primary sources on the unit I’m about to teach. Not only can I haul out handy nuggets for the kids, but this digging deep reignites my passion for the topic.

This has to bleed through on my book pages too, or the reader—also middle-school aged, also likely eye rolling at social studies—will be bored. My forthcoming novel, THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY, is about some middle school kids doing a social studies project—i.e. the characters are set up to encounter just such boredom. Gearing up to write a novel aimed at such drudgery, I head dove into a treasure trove of Civil War soldier letters, diaries, and super nerdy things called muster sheets (regimental records of enlisted soldiers). Doing this stirred up my understanding and affection for the millions of men and women who endured this nation-defining event, fueling my next task: transmission.


I Must Communicate the Past In A Not-Boring Way

Oliver, my main character, is a hardcore Civil War nerd. He knows every general, battle, and casualty statistic; unsurprisingly, he’s also a reenactor in his local regiment, the PA 104th. But most kids today get mildly ill at the concept of reading and studying such facts to be later regurgitated on a terrifyingly gargantuan test. (The kinds of tests I took and hated myself, and refuse to give my students.)

So the key is to teach in a not-boring way.

For example: Instead of just reading about the Northern and Southern armies, what if the entire grade became the Northern and Southern armies? What if each table group was assigned a state regiment, and every graded activity—homework, project, test—counted as points in a grand, collective competition? What if instead of learning about soldier life just through diaries, we went outside and drilled like they did? What if we built tents of canvas and wood and hung out in them for a class period? What if we played the same early version of baseball that they did?


In short: What if we participated in the past, rather than just studied it?

I try to do the same with my books. PRIVATE NOBODY involves some potentially boring scenes (this is a history project after all), so I had to situate them within the hilarious context of middle school mayhem. I wanted my readers to participate in the work of history with the characters, and not get put to sleep by it—harder than it sounds. For example: how do you make a scene at a historical society not be a snoozefest? By incorporating a trio of kids whose hilarity and awkwardness endear them to the reader. In a weird way, PRIVATE NOBODY isn’t really a book about a Civil War project; it’s a book about some great kids with authentic obstacles doing a Civil War project.

Conclusion: The Past Matters (And It Also Happens to Rule)

Obliterating this boredom allows students to make connections that can impact the world. Want to understand racial tension in 2018, and perhaps fight against it? Study the Civil War—its cause (slavery—the answer is always and forever slavery) and the unrealized outcome of African American enfranchisement. Confused where to line up on the hot-button issue of Confederate monuments? Study who built them and when. The connection between a nation’s past and present is not ethereal—it exists. But it is tenuous, stretched thin over years and years of additional impacts and players, readily forgotten by the modern observer. We must encourage students to make these connections, but they will never do that if they’re bored.

THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY is a book taken directly out of my daily life, and from deep within my heart. It is the prime of example of having my cake and eating it too—writing about teaching history to middle school students. Please feel free, but not obligated, to purchase enough copies that allow me to begin buying the next size up Starbucks coffee. Or perhaps (another) Civil War rifle.

website finalMatthew Landis teachers 8th grade Social Studies outside of Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son whom he named Washington after George Washington (duh). He has five chickens, whose egg production has fallen off as of late. He is the author of the YA thriller LEAGUE OF AMERICAN TRAITORS (Sky Pony), and the MG contemporary novel THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY (Dial/Penguin), which Junior Library Guild made a 2018 selection. He hopes to one day reach a level of literary success that allows him to summer in Cape Town and go on endless safaris.

You can find more about Matthew, his books, and his taco obsession at www.matthew-landis.com.


Anna Meriano, 3 Fails & 1 Win: Books Between, Episode 43

Episode Outline:



Hi and welcome to the Books Between Podcast! I believe that books can change your life for the better. I know because books did that for me.

And I want to help you connect kids with those amazing, life-shaping books and bring you inspiring (and fun!) conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.  Every other Monday, I bring you book talks, interviews, and ideas for getting great books into the hands of kids between 8-12.

I am Corrina Allen – a mom of an eight and ten year old, a 5th grade teacher, and excited about two things this week!  First, the Winter Olympics.  And second – today’s announcement of the American Library Association Youth Media Awards including t


he Caldecott, the Newbery, The Coretta Scott King, and lots more!  I am so excited for those authors and illustrators who will be getting those early morning phone calls. I’ll be streaming it with my class and can’t wait to chat more with you about it!

This is Episode #43 and today I’m talking about some fails, some wins, and bringing you a conversation with author Anna Meriano about her debut novel (and the MG at Heart January Book Club pick) Love, Sugar, Magic!

But first I have some exciting news to share with you — I’m joining the fabulous team at MGBookvillage.org!  MGBookVillage has become THE place for all things middle grade, and I’m so thrilled to be working with Annaliese Avery, Jarrett Lerner, and Kathie MacIsaac who’ve done such an incredible job developing a home for lovers of middle grade that I can’t imagine we ever made do without it!

MGBookVillage has it all; a book-release calendar, a Kids’ Corner, a monthly book club (MG at Heart), an all-day twitter chat on Mondays (#MGBookathon)—and so, so much more.

And from now on it will be the new home of the Books Between podcast and where you can find all our transcripts.

Three Fails & One Win

And now a new segment I am calling three fails and a win. So – I am going to share with you three failures.  And then one thing that went well recently.  I think we all have the tendency to share our achievements and hide our failures, only revealing things that put us in a positive light. Inadvertently, it can lead to people feeling like they aren’t living up to all the amazingness they see on Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest, and next door. It’s an unrealistic view of teaching and parenting and it makes it seem like there are just these amazing rockstar kidlit advocates who have success after success. Nah! In the interest of acknowledging that the most learning happens through our mistakes, I’ll share three of mine with you today. And then I share something good that happened.

Fail #1

Last summer I had an great conversation with Jillian Heise about #ClassroomBookADay and was so inspired to give it a try this year. (If you want to hear that conversation about the power of reading one picture book a day with your students, check out episode 30). Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.33.09 PMSo, at the beginning of the year I made this GIANT public display of 280 blank polaroid-style frames – all waiting for me to post colorful pictures of the books we are reading. And I have! Up until about like 40. Now – we have STILL been reading those picture books. Mostly.  We’ve missed a few days here and there, but – ugh that display has embarrassingly just… stalled. And I want to catch up but now I can’t quite remember the order of the titles we’ve read or even the names of them all.  And in fact, one of my eagle-eyed gals noticed that we have Not Quite Narwhal on there twice.  Not my best moment of this year.

Fail #2 

So last summer, I secretly pre-ordered a certain book for my daughter.  I will withhold the name because it doesn’t really matter but I’ll just say that it was the next title in a fun graphic novel series that my 8 year-old daughter LOVES. She’s picky with her reading, so when she finds something she likes, I RUN to the ball. Well, I thought I was getting the Best Mom Ever award when a few weeks ago the book arrived on our stoop Tuesday afternoon and I gleefully called her into the kitchen as I whipped the book from around my back and held it out to her with a GIANT grin on my face! TA-DA!! And she….backed out of the room cringing. And then told me she’s just not into those books as much anymore.  Okay then – mom win turned into major mom fail.

Fail #3

This is the one I refer to as The Armadillo Book Debacle. So, a couple weeks ago my daughter comes home upset because she’s going to have to pay $15 to replace a missing library book. Well – High Alert in the Allen household! We tear apart the house looking for it. All the bedrooms, under the couch cushions. I look at school. I call the 51J3OjN-s9L._SX398_BO1,204,203,200_grandparents! Nowhere is this darn Armadillo book. And my husband and daughter start to think they saw it go in the backpack and back to school. And mistakes happen, so we email the librarian and explain that we think it was returned and could she look? And I just want to say – she was extraordinarily nice about it!  And so – she’s looking all over the school for it.

Yeah, you know where this is going don’t you? A couple months ago we had a party at our house. And, like happens, there comes a point when you have cleaned and scrubbed and dusted and vacuumed and people are just about to arrive! So you switch from cleaning mode to hiding mode. You know,  there’s that one dirty casserole dish in the sink so you shove it in the oven. And there’s a stack of random papers and mail and books that you haul down into the basement. Including an Armadillo book that ended up tucked away in a corner of our basement for two months. My fault.  Awkward email back to the librarian.

And…. a WIN!

I have to end on a positive note. So I have this student who I love but he was tough nut to crack when trying to find a book that would hold his interest. In September, I discovered he had liked The One and Only Ivan, so I handed him my ARC of Wishtree weeks before it came out. Nope. I piled book after book after book on his desk – asking him questions about what he liked – to no avail.  It seemed like he was going to be one of those kids that you just hope the next person can help them find books they’ll love because it just didn’t click with you. But, then – I found out that he LOVES wrestling – like WWE wrestling. And 51N+1--1BgL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_a friend on #mglitchat recommended these Choose Your Own Adventure style WWE wrestling books. I order them on Amazon Prime and two days later, I slid one across his desk and his eyes just lit up!  I even caught him reading it as he walked to the bus! Heread those books back and forth cover to cover for weeks. And now – he’s on to the second Tapper Twins book and on a roll and YES!!!  (I’ll link to those wrestling books in the show notes if you want to check them out. As far as I can tell there are only two of them – Race to the Rumble and then Night of Champions. Both are by Tracey West)

So, maybe my hallway display has stalled out, and I got overzealous with my child, and I embarrassed myself with the school librarian, but I helped that one kid get himself on his way.

Anna Meriano – Interview Outline

This week I had the opportunity to have a fantastic conversation with two authors Meriano_Credit_Rita_Meriano_copy_2debuting middle grade novels in 2018. Joining me today is Amanda Rawson Hill. She is the author of the upcoming book Three Rules of Everyday Magic and one of the
organizers of the MG at Heart Book Club. Her and I hopped on Skype to chat with Anna Meriano about her debut novel (and the January MG at Heart Book Club pic),
Love Sugar Magic.

Take a listen…..

Love, Sugar, Magic

CA: Your first middle grade novel, Love Sugar Magic, debuted last month. For those listeners who haven’t yet read the book – can you tell what the story is about?

MG-Meriano-LoveSugarMagicCA: One of things I loved about this book was that passing down of family recipes from mother to daughter generation to generation. So – did I hear that you aren’t actually much of a baker?

CA: Where did the recipes come from?

CA: In your novel, each sister has a special power, depending on her birth order. First born daughters have the gift of influence, second born daughters have the talent of manifestation, and the third borns have the gift of communicating with the dead.  Which gift would YOU want to have?  

ARH: I wanted to get some insight into how you wrote a big family so well…

Your Writing Life

CA: How long ago did you start writing Love, Sugar, Magic?

ARH: You’ve talked a lot about how you worked with Cake Literary, a book packager. I was wondering what the experience of doing that from the beginning with someone else was like compared to when you’re writing a book all on your own.  And how did it affect your creative process?

CA: What is Cake Literary and what is a book packager?rliidh27sfn6xh6n76hw

CA: How did you end up connecting to Leo?

JL: I’d be interested to hear about Anna’s experience with her debut group. The Electric Eighteens seem like such a positive and supportive bunch, and they’re so active in promoting one another. I’d love to hear what Anna got out of being a part of such a group — both in practical terms of promotion and things, and emotionally and psychologically, too, since the debut experience can be so confusing and exciting and overwhelming and joyful and terrifying and a million other things, too!

CA: The more I chat with authors about their process, the more I want to share with my students the idea that what they see as a finished story is the very tip of a gigantic iceburg of planning and writing and revising that never sees the light of day. What below-the-surface part of your writing process do you really enjoy? And what parts are challenging?

Your Reading Life

CA: Something that I think about a lot is how sometimes it only takes ONE person to really influence a child’s reading life – either in a positive way or sometimes in a negative way. Was there someone in your life who impacted you as a reader?

C: What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?



Anna on Twitter

Cake Literary website – http://www.cakeliterary.com

Electric Eighteen Debut Group website – https://electriceighteens.com

Anna’s Nerdy Book Club Post is here

The Coco Movie

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

The First Rule of Punk (Celia C. Perez)

Goosebumps (R.L. Stine)

Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson)

The Inquisitor’s Tale (Adam Gidwitz)

The Gauntlet (Karuna Riazi)

Betty Before X (by Ilyasah Shavbazz & Renee Watson)

Alright, that wraps up our show this week! If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

CorrinaAllenThank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org. And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher. Or even better – tell a friend about us!

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!

Cover Reveal: THE RIGHT HOOK OF DEVIN VELMA by Jake Burt

Happy Saturday!

For us here at the #MGBookVillage, it’s a very happy Saturday indeed. That’s because we’re lucky enough to be hosting a cover reveal for The Right Hook of Devin Velma, the second novel by Jake Burt, author of last year’s all-around exceptional Greetings from Witness Protection! 

Before we get to the big reveal, I’d just like to thank Jake for thinking of the Village as the place to host it, and also for taking the time to answer a few of my questions about The Right Hook of Devin Velma and its cover. Read my brief interview with Jake — and see the new book’s cover! — below.

~ Jarrett

. . .

Jake! You’ve been busy, my friend. Greetings from Witness Protection! released last October, and since then, you’ve been touring, Skyping, guest posting all over the place, AND teaching your 5th graders in Connecticut. Somehow, amidst all of this, you’ve found time to get your second novel ready for the presses. I’m impressed!

But before we reveal the cover of your latest masterpiece, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Absolutely . . . right after I thank MG Book Village for hosting me, and you for the interview. My upcoming novel is entitled The Right Hook of Devin Velma. Like Greetings, it’s a MG contemporary. We’ve been hard at work on the cover copy (that’s the little summary that will go on the back of the ARC), and here’s a shortened version of it, to give you a taste of what the novel is about:

When Addison Gerhardt’s best friend, Devin Velma, begs for his help, Addi knows he’s in trouble. After all, Devin wants to hit it big on the internet by pulling a stunt at an NBA game – one the entire nation will be watching. Addison can’t turn Devin down, but he can barely manage talking to his teachers without freezing up. How’s he supposed to handle the possibility of being a viral sensation?

Addi’s not sure why Devin is bent on pulling off this almost-impossible feat. Maybe it has something to do with Devin’s dad’s hospital bills. Maybe it all goes back to the Double Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Doom. Or maybe its something else entirely. No matter what, though, it’s risky for both of them, and when the big day finally comes, Devin’s plan threatens more than just their friendship.

That sounds fantastic! I can’t wait to find out what the Backflip of Doom entails.

You won’t have to wait long . . . it’s the title of the second chapter.

Now that we know what the book is about, let’s get to the cover art. Can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s ORANGE — which, by the way, I think was a great choice by the art department at Macmillan. We wanted something modern and poppy, and since we felt that the title was a strong draw, we wanted to highlight it as well. The colors they chose do a great job of that in my opinion.

We also decided to go in a cartoonish direction. The cover of my first novel was very concept-y, with the characters’ faces pixelated and barred (save my main character, who looks like she’s taped into the family). There was a lot to “read” on that cover. I adore covers like that, but for this one, we wanted something simpler, something both inviting and spare. That’s why we went for the portraits of the two main characters, represented in a sort of caricature style.

I can’t wait to see it!

Well then, without further ado:

The Right Hook_cover.JPG

Whoa! Congratulations, man! I know it’s always a rush to see what your baby is going to look like on the shelves. Can I ask you what your initial thoughts were when you first saw this one?

I love the way the artist, Tom Booth (www.tom-booth.com/), captured Addison — the narrator of the story. He’s the tall guy on the right who looks like he’s just had a rendezvous with the business end of someone’s fist. Devin, his titular best friend, has a goofy sort of confidence that’s spot on. Yes, both boys are highly stylized, but I think that’ll draw kids in. Another aspect of cartooned cover characters I like is that they’re representative enough without instantly petrifying how the reader imagines the character. Even though I read every single Harry Potter book before seeing one of the movies, Daniel Radcliffe leaps into my head every time I imagine Harry. It was never that way with the Harry from the cover illustrations, and I liked that freedom. Not that Radcliffe makes a bad Potter (quite the opposite!), but I enjoyed it when the Harry in my brain was unique to me. I hope Addison and Devin afford the same opportunity to readers . . .

. . . not that I’d mind seeing Addi and Devin in a movie (Spielberg — CALL ME).

Jake — thanks so much for giving us this first glimpse at the cover of The Right Hook of Devin Velma. When can we expect to see Addison and Devin on shelves?

October 2nd, 2018 (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan). Only eight months to go!


Jake Burt is the award-winning author of Greetings from Witness Protection! The Right Hook of Devin Velma is his second novel. He lives in Connecticut, where he also teaches fifth grade, plays the banjo, and runs around on the ultimate frisbee field. Check him out at www.jburtbooks.com and on Twitter @jburtbooks.

What To Expect When You’re Expecting That Second Book-Baby


It starts with a story-seed that implants in your brain-heart, then swells. Word-counts double, then double again. The tiny buds of subplots become visible. Chapters, characters, and settings develop… A first draft is formed, finessed, and fine-tune, and eventually a book-baby meets the world!

Okay – Is it weird to talk of books like babies? But they are our brain-children, after all. We do love them. And just like real children, they can deeply vary, both in provenance and personality.

For example, the process of creating my second middle grade novel, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, was vastly different from The Someday Birds, my first.  To start with, the main characters are quite different.  Where Charlie, my first, is contemplative, Stanley, my second child, is sarcastic. Where Charlie is transparent, honest, and direct, Stanley is cagey and self-deprecating. Charlie is tall; Stanley is the tiniest kid at Peavey Middle School of Horrors.

With Charlie, I had total, immersive writing time to devote to him, and not much pressure. I was writing for the sake of writing, and enjoying that first attempt at a novel. Plus, it felt like Charlie was speaking in my ear, his voice was that strong.

Stanley, on the other hand, needed far more coaxing into life. His voice was evasive, and I couldn’t seem to pin his family down. First he had a father; then he didn’t; then he did, once again. His three older brothers became two, then morphed into one. A grandpa arrived for a weekend visit, but ended up moving in and playing a larger role in the story.

To complicate matters, while still in early drafting stage, I had a personal mishap. I fell into a big hole in the sidewalk while running, and snapped both tibia and fibula, so I was wheelchair-bound through much of the time I was writing Stanley.

This was a double-edged twist all right. In that stupid leg cast, there wasn’t much else I could do besides write, which was a plus. But I was uncomfortable. My leg kept me up at night. I’d lay there, listening to the coyotes howling in our canyon… And inevitably, coyotes worked themselves into the storyline, too.

In sum, instead of a preconceived calm trajectory, like Charlie’s story, Stanley’s tale was cobbled together through both serendipitous and unfortunate happenstance. It was a story I fell into, sort of like that hole.

No, hopefully not like that hole!

The only thing that stayed clear from the start was that Stanley’s story had to be about anxiety.  I wanted to talk kids through that needling fear that I felt, too, as a child – and still feel, all too often. It’s a hard world out there, and anxiety in children is on the rise. Stanley exists to give voice to what it’s like to deal with that.

To face fear and worry, to face the world and come away maybe a little bit more resilient, is Stanley’s task — the same as Charlie’s was. That’s the big similarity they share as fictional brothers.

Two books, two boys, Stanley and Charlie, arriving into the world so close together… And I’m feeling torn. Will there be sibling rivalry? I mean, Charlie’s still so young! How can I leave him and go devote all my attention to new arrival Stanley?  It all feels so soon!

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Okay, are these weird feelings, or normal? Veteran writers, please share your advice with me!

And for those writers whose second books, or first books, haven’t yet published, here’s some advice I can share:

Just as in parenting, there is no one single approach to a story. You forge it anew with every book. Every project is different, just like every child is different.

Definitely read lots of books on craft – all the “What to Expect” books on writing. They help! But ultimately, I think you have to just really deeply listen to the heart of your story, and to your characters.

Love them like your children, and hopefully, they’ll tell you what you need to know.

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Sally J. Pla is the award-winning author of THE SOMEDAY BIRDS. Her second middle-grade novel, STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE, came out today, and her first picture book, BENJI, THE BAD DAY, & ME, will release later this year. She’s worked as a journalist and in public education, and now lives with her family near lots of lemon trees in Southern California, where she’s hard at work on the next book.


A New Home at MGBookVillage!

Hi everyone!Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.40.06 PM

I have some exciting news to share—I’m joining the fabulous team at MGBookvillage!  As you know, this site has become THE place for all things middle grade, and I’m thrilled to be working with Annaliese Avery, Jarrett Lerner, and Kathie MacIsaac to continue helping us all discover incredible authors and books for kids between 8 and 12.

If you are a fan of middle grade, then MGBookVillage has it all; a book-release calendar, a Kids’ Corner, a monthly book club (MG at Heart), an all-day twitter chat on Mondays (#MGBookathon)—and so, so much more.

And starting on February 12th, it will be the new home of the Books Between podcast! It’s an exciting new chapter in my mission to connect kids with entertaining, and hopefully enlightening, reads.  So make sure you subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, bookmark the new site, and I’ll see you here!

~ Corrina



Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is a contributor at MGBookVillage and the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love. You can find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

Writing as a Second Career: Seven Middle-Life Authors Share Their Experiences

One of the interesting things about middle grade fiction is how many authors begin writing for children after working in other careers for many years.  So many, in fact, that those of us who’ve made the leap to writing for children suspect there are many more aspiring authors out there who are second-guessing whether or not to take the leap themselves. Seven authors — Kristin L. Gray, Wendy McLeod MacKnight, Sally J. Pla, Jonathan Rosen, Melissa Roske, Corabel Shofner, and Rob Vlock — have pulled back the curtain to share their own experiences, and perhaps encourage others that it’s never too late to chase their dream.

. . .

Kristin L. Gray — Author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge, Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2017

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What was your previous career? 

Pediatric RN, Stay-at-Home Mom of five

Why did you change? 

My youngest began school, and I’d let my RN license lapse. I decided to give myself that year to buckle down and get serious about my dream. Up to that point, I’d treated writing like a hobby.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit? 

Being around kids! Observing their speech, their body language, their negotiation skills, their zest for life.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

Same age audience.


Fewer kids crying!

Is it ever too late?

Never. Anna Sewell didn’t start writing Black Beauty until age 51, and Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64 when the first Little House book published.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career? 

Writing more books, improving my craft, making more friends.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors? 

Read what’s current. Join a writing community, in person or online. Enjoy the journey. It’s a privilege to do what we do.

Wendy McLeod MacKnight — Author, It’s a Mystery, Pig Face, Sky Pony Press, 2017 and The Frame-Up, Greenwillow Books, June 5th, 2018

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What was your previous career(s)? 

I taught part-time at the University of New Brunswick and I was a civil servant for the province, rising to the level of Deputy Minister of Education.

Why did you change? 

I’d dreamed of writing for children my whole life. One day I woke up and decided it was now or never and left.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit? 

Tenacity, not taking others’ criticism of my work personally, work ethic.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career?

Deadlines, managing expectations, having to work long hours under very tight deadlines.


In my previous career, everything was about implementing political policy directions. This career is solely for me.

Is it ever too late?

So long as you can access your inner child, and unleash your imagination, you are good to go!

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career? 

Writing, learning, and hopefully inspiring kids just like I was inspired by the books I read.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors? 

The kidlit world has changed and you need to understand it. Strive for excellence, make connections, and find peers and teachers who can give you useful feedback. And keep trying!

Sally J. Pla — Author, The Someday Birds,Harper Books, 2017 and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, Harper Books, February 6th, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.12 AM What was your previous career(s)? 

Business journalist. Front desk clerk. Freelance writer on business/family/education issues. School board president. Bad waitress. Terrible back-up singer in a local band. Mother. Special needs advocate.

Why did you change? 

Life comes in phases. I loved everything I did while I was doing it. (Except for waitressing. Those trays were HEAVY, and they made such a mess when you dropped them in the middle of the restaurant!)

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit? 

I’ve always been a writer at heart and have always viewed everything in life as writing-fodder (for better or worse). The more life you live, well, the more fodder you have… Also, raising three little boys close in age, and surviving to tell the tale (they are all young adults now) gave me lots of stories. LOTS OF STORIES.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career?

I almost always wrote for a living — for journals, magazines, and businesses. Can’t not write.


This is the first time I really love what I get to write. I have always, always wanted to write fiction, but it took me decades to finally give myself the permission to try. (Hey, I have self-esteem issues! I didn’t think I’d be good enough. I mean, what audacity, to assume you can write a novel!)

Is it ever too late? 


What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

Many books of all sorts. Hopefully, I’ve got time! I mean, Ursula LeGuin was writing until she just passed away at 88. Grandma Moses started painting at 78. Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman started writing at 49. Inspiring, right?

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Don’t make it be about getting published. Make it be about the art. The journey, not the destination. Do it for the work’s sake — for the love of perfecting an amazing, rich, full-of-life story. Eventually, you’ll know when it’s time for the next level.

Jonathan Rosen — Author, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, Sky Pony Press, 2017

 Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.23 AMWhat was your previous career? 

Which one? I did a few different jobs, but I did daytrading for many years, until the market really started tanking, and I transitioned into the lucrative field of education. From there, it was a more natural switch to writing, which I had always wanted to do, but never devoted the time to it.

Why did you change? 

I had always wanted to write, and being an English teacher meant that I was already immersed in literature. The bug came back, and I really sat down to do it.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

As a teacher, I was already doing literature. Reading, studying it, analyzing it. I got to discuss some of my favorite books, but kept thinking I want kids to discuss my work one day.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

Well, besides being immersed in books, I do think you have to study your craft. By that, I mean reading a lot. Also, reading and learning about writing. I love to read new middle grade books and think about story structure. What would I have done the same or differently? Would I have made the same choices as this author?


It’ll sound funny to say in a world where deadlines are ever-present, but I like the solitude. I don’t have to answer to people about my work. It’s freeing, that I’m in total control of what I do. Though, I guess, agents and editors might beg to differ.

Is it ever too late? 

No. Definitely not. We all have to follow our own paths to whatever gets us here. And just because your first book might not be published until later in life, doesn’t make it any less of a great story than someone who publishes right out of school, or along those lines. It’s your journey, and everyone’s is different.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

I want to write, write, and write. I want to have as many books out as I can and leave behind a body of work for kids to enjoy. I have a lot of stories I want to tell.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Keep at it and NEVER give up. Rejections are tough to deal with, but we’ve all had them. It’s discouraging, but don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough, or that you’re not going to make it. Learn your craft, study, and write. It can happen.  

Melissa Roske — Author, Kat Greene Comes Clean, Charlesbridge Books, 2017

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What was your previous career? 

Magazine editor/freelance writer; advice columnist; life coach.

Why did you change?

I didn’t change, exactly. I’ve always written for work; I just lacked the discipline to write anything longer than a magazine article, or answers to readers’ letters in my advice column. But then, when I became a life coach, I realized that my lifelong dream was too important to ignore. So I stopped ignoring it, and wrote a novel.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

As a magazine editor/writer, I learned to listen to the rhythm of words. As an advice columnist: Not every problem has a solution—but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find it. As a life coach: Your inner voice always has something important to say. Listen to it.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

Using the written word to express my thoughts, feelings, and ideas; adhering to deadlines; paper cuts.


Working in pajamas (I don’t do it, but I could); no waiting in line for the Xerox machine (there is no Xerox machine); talking to myself without getting the side-eye from co-workers (there are no co-workers).

Is it ever too late?

If Grandma Moses started painting at 78, well… why the heck not?

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

Writing more books; worrying less about what people think of my books. You can’t please everyone, but you can be true to yourself—and to your readers.

 What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

I know it sounds trite, but DON’T GIVE UP! I actually did give up at one point, but the urge to write overpowered the desire to quit. Being stubborn helps, too. 

Corabel Shofner — Author, Almost Paradise, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.45 AM  What was your previous career? 

What is this thing you call a career? I’ve been a traveler, a lawyer, an actress, a wife and mother.

Why did you change careers? 

I got old.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

Law: research & communication; Actress: imagination & tenacity; Traveling: bravery & energy; Family: faith & love

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

You must study to become excellent at anything. Writing is no exception. Keep learning. Network. Have fun.


Have to break in, so to speak. And that is weird particularly for an older person. Fortunately, I learned to handle rejection as an actress. It’s no big deal. You only need one agent and one editor to love your work to get published.

Is it ever too late?

Absolutely NOT. My debut novel came out when I was 64 and I think it is a perfect age.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

Writing many books for children. Promoting librarians and teachers.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Treat it like a job. Learn the craft, work hard, learn the business and get out there. Oh and get a layer of teflon for rejections.  I can’t tell you how many friends stop because of rejections. An independent editor told me to submit to 100 agents before giving up on a manuscript.  With so many submissions you can’t take it personally.

Rob Vlock — Author, Sven Carter and the Trashmouth Effect, Simon and Schuster/Aladdin, 2017 and Sven Carter and the Android Army, Simon and Schuster/Aladdin, Fall 2018

 Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.53 AMWhat was your previous career? 

I started out teaching college writing at a couple of schools in the Boston area, but I was a pretty lousy teacher. So I became an advertising copywriter. SPOILER: It’s not as glamorous and exciting as MAD MEN would make lead you to believe. (Although I do have some stories….)

Why did you change?

I got tired of writing ads for life insurance companies, banks, software companies, health insurers and pharmacy chains. So I started working on my first book — an adult commercial novel about a copywriter who writes ads about flushable scented butt wipes.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

Being a copywriter was actually great preparation. You learn to be creative on demand, grow a thick skin, and cope with tons of distractions and competing demands and scathing criticism, and way too tight deadlines. It’s an awful lot like being a kidlit author, come to think of it.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? Differences?

They’re similar in that they’re actually both really fun careers that can be incredibly rewarding — and incredibly bruising. The biggest differences: 1) Ads are typically much shorter than novels. 2) Being an author is a far more solitary endeavor.

Is it ever too late?

Of course not! My father, who just turned 90, has started his memoir. And I have every expectation that he’ll get it published! And I, decades out of college, am only now feeling like I’m hitting my creative stride.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your career?

Other than fretting and stressing over deadlines and sales? I envision continuing to write books that delight the 12-year-old inside me and give kids a reason to put down their iPhone and pick up a book!

What piece of advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old. Just keep working and keep looking forward. Oh, and be sure to eat plenty of fiber.

MG at Heart Book Club’s February Pick

The February Pick for the Middle Grade at Heart Book Club is . . .


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A space-obsessed boy and his dog, Carl Sagan, take a journey toward family, love, hope, and awe in this funny and moving novel for fans of Counting by 7sWalk Two Moons, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him for the secrets he’ll uncover—from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly not-around brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.
Jack Cheng’s debut is full of joy, optimism, determination, and unbelievable heart. To read the first page is to fall in love with Alex and his view of our big, beautiful, complicated world. To read the last is to know he and his story will stay with you a long, long time.

“Poignant and funny . . . propulsive . . . Alex’s strong voice drives this compelling personal journey with resonant themes of family, friendship, and resilience.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“It’s a story that changes the way you see the world.” — Holly Goldberg Sloan, author of Counting by 7s

. . .

Our newsletter — including an interview, discussion questions, activity, recipe, and more — will go out February 26. Sign up for it here. Our Twitter chat will happen soon thereafter, date and time TBA.