MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Characterization

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 5.08.22 PM

Crafting a well-drawn, fully-formed character is one of the hardest parts of writing. And one of the most important. No high-octane, super exciting plot is going to matter if the reader doesn’t care about the character. In THE VANDERBEEKERS, Karina Yan Glaser doesn’t just have to create one real-feeling main character, but six! And yet, she’s able to do so within the very first chapter (only fifteen pages!).

So how does she do it? Well, let’s take a look.

The details and bits that make a character come to life are referred to as CHARACTERIZATION. Characterization includes how a character looks, what they like, how they react to things, their hobbies, their quirks, their idiosyncracies, their vocabulary — all of it. With six characters, Glaser has to characterize each one distinctly and with only a few, efficient brush strokes. Below, I’ve listed different ways that we can reveal a character’s nature with each Vanderbeeker sibling and the brief passages that give us insight into them. Most of these use several techniques at once, obviously. But I tried separating them a bit to help you see the different tools in Glaser’s toolbox.

Backstory

Isa – Isa had discovered Mr. Beiderman’s particular distaste for instruments six years ago, when she was in first grade. She was performing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on her tiny, one-eighth-sized instrument for their second-floor neighbor, Miss Josie. Isa stood outside Miss Josie’s apartment, but halfway through her song, Mr. Beiderman’s door on the third floor burst open. He yelled down the staircase for the terrible racket to stop or he would call the police. Then the door slammed.

The police! On a six-year-old violinist! Isa was in tears, and Miss Josie invited her in and fed her cookies from a delicate china dish and gave her a pretty lace handkerchief to dry her eyes. Then Miss Josie insisted that Isa keep the handkerchief, which Isa to this day stowed in her violin case.

This might seem like a story about Mr. Biederman, but it actually makes Isa this real person to the reader. Not only do we see her backstory of playing the violin, but we can tell that she is gentle and soft. That she appreciates pretty things. That she appreciates kind gestures. Look at how she remembers that moment. It says so much about her.

Outward Appearance

Laney – “What’s a dorce?” interrupted Laney, who was four and three-quarters years old and practicing her forward rolls on the carpet. She was wearing an outfit of red plaids, lavender stripes, and aqua polka dots that she had matched herself.

What can we see about Laney here? We read her as innocent and sweet. But possibly a handful and full of energy (hello, forward rolls.) What do you think her outfit says about her? I think it says free-spirit, independent, and bright and colorful!

Dialogue

Jessie – “It means Mama and Papa don’t love each other anymore,” said twelve-year-old Jessie, glaring at her parents from behind chunky black eyeglasses. “What a nightmare.”

And then later: “Are you serious? We’ve been so good, there might as well be halos above our heads!” exclaimed Jessie, her glasses slipping down the bridge of her nose.

What can we surmise about Jessie from these two excerpts? I’m definitely getting attitude and a bit of a sharp-around-the-edges personality.

The Reactions of Others

Hyacinth – “Is it because I can’t keep Franz quiet?” asked Hyacinth as she chewed her fingernails. When Franz heard Hyacinth say his name, his tail gave a little wag and his eyes fluttered open, then drifted closed again.

Two sentences, and yet we already can tell that Hyacinth cares about animals and that animals love her. We also see that she is a bit on the nervous side, with the fingernail chewing.

Narrator Exposition

Of course, the Vanderbeeker home itself is also a character. One that the narrator straight up tells us things about. The paragraph on page 18 does this wonderfully.

The Vanderbeekers’ home—a humble red brown-stone with a weathervane that spun on windy days—sat in the exact middle of the street. The brownstone stood out not because of its architecture, but because of the constant hum of activity that burst out of it. Among the many people who had visited the Vanderbeeker household there was quite a bit of debate about what it was like, but general agreement about what it was NOT: Calm, Tidy, Boring, Predictable.

You don’t really need to draw any additional conclusions here because the narrator has told us exactly what the home is. However, she has done it in such a way that the house feels like an old friend, doesn’t it?

All of it Together

Oliver – Oliver, who was nine years old and wise to the ways of the world, put down his book and squinted. “Are you guys getting divorced? Jimmy L’s parents got a divorce. Then they let him get a pet snake.” He kicked the backs of his sneakers against the tall stack of ancient encyclopedias he was sitting on.

There is so much information in just this paragraph. Already we can see the Oliver is smart, but maybe a little too smart. That he cares, but maybe tries to act like he doesn’t. You get the feeling that he likes snakes, wouldn’t mind getting a snake, and really likes to learn (as evidenced by the stack of encyclopedias.) The inclusion of sneakers on his feet also points to something. What is it?

As you read through the book, be sure to pay attention to other instances where the author quickly paints a picture of each character.

When Dreams take Flight

My Writing Journey – by Vanessa Harbour

My writing journey has been a long one. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor or a writer. My sister sent me photos of a ‘book’ we think I wrote when I was 5ish and sent her when she was away training to be a nurse. You might notice I’d a few issues with spellings (and still do!). I was obviously rather precocious too with wild ambitions to be a poet or rather a ‘powit’ [sic]. It took nearly 40 years before my next poem was published.

My journey back to writing was rather circuitous as was the story of everything in my life. I never take the easy route. I was always a vociferous reader and I wrote a lot when I had my own company, however, it was things like press releases and articles. My life changed when I had some health issues that had a major impact. I started writing poetry and fiction to help deal with them, but it was all adult fiction. It hadn’t occurred to me to write for children at this stage. I had three children that I constantly read to and I loved children’s books but never thought about writing them. Not until I did a degree in English at the University of Winchester. I wanted to do it for various reasons, but the main one was because at that stage they had various creative writing modules and I fancied myself as the next Joanne Trollope! (At that stage they didn’t do the single honours in Creative Writing that they do now) While on the course I had various opportunities to write for children with Judy Waite and Andrew Melrose. It was a revelation as it felt so natural.

Andrew Melrose once said to me ‘If you can write for children you can write for anyone, it’s hard.’ This was a piece of advice that I have held close for a long time. Following my degree, I did an MA in Writing for Children and then eventually achieved my childhood dream, well, sort of, I became a doctor…of writing. I got a PhD in Creative Writing. As part of it I wrote a young adult novel. My third novel by then.

Ness3

While doing my PhD I started to lecture in Creative Writing at the University at both undergraduate and postgraduate level which I loved. It was during this time that Imogen Cooper came to talk to the students. Sometimes people walk into your life and it is like you have known them forever. This is what it was like with Imogen. We started talking and we have never stopped!

After a little while she came to me and said, ‘I have this idea, would you be interested in being involved.’ That was the Golden Egg Academy and I certainly was. It allowed me to work with aspiring writers. Imogen also offered to mentor me, working on getting my PhD novel out there. It seemed to me a win win situation.

Ness4

We spent some time working on that novel, but it never felt right, and I went over to see her one day where we had one of ‘those’ discussions. It must have been tough for her and I can imagine she was dreading it beforehand. She suggested I walked away from the PhD novel and started something brand new. Imogen felt the same way I did. It was too much of a ‘PhD’ novel and we just couldn’t get away from it. Half of me panicked as I’d spent four years working on it and wondered if I could remember how to write a story? The other half was thinking, thank goodness, now let’s write something I want too. I will be forever grateful to her for making me do that.

I spent the next couple of weeks worrying. I could write anything I wanted to, yet no story would come. I know this often happens to students they panic when I offer them a chance to write whatever they want. Deep down I’ve the faith that an idea will appear when it’s ready and so it was. It was the August Bank Holiday weekend and I was messing about with Google asking a lot of ‘What happened to…’ questions. In particular, I’d been thinking about my parents who were both alive during the Second World War and I remembered the stories they told. It suddenly came to me ‘What happened to the Spanish Riding School during the Second World War?’ Google took me on a journey including telling me about Operation Cowboy. Suddenly a nugget of a story began to form, and the first line of the story was written. ‘If Jakob sneezed he could die.’ That line has never changed.

I played with it a bit more than emailed Imogen and said what do you think of this idea. She loved it and so Flight began. That was in 2013. There was a total sense of freedom writing this story. It involved a lot of research as it was historical fiction, but I loved that aspect of it. I immersed myself in the world.

I write cold and edit hot. What this means is I get the bare bones of a story down and then go back in and fill in the detail. It also means I can write quite quickly working this way. I typed ‘The End’ on the first draft on the 31st December 2013. Or perhaps that was draft zero as Terry Pratchett suggests, the one where I am telling myself the story. Then started the really hard work, the editing process. A process which I thoroughly enjoy as I bring the story to life.

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 06.48.46

In 2016 Imogen had another one of ‘those conversations. This time it was to say, ‘let’s start submitting!’ It is always a lot harder than you think. It is never easy to accept rejection, though they were always positive ones. I was at a Golden Egg Academy Retreat where I read a bit of Flight, but more importantly Penny & Janet Thomas of Firefly were there. I knew Penny well having worked with her on various occasions. This time I heard them talk and I fell in love with the pair and the way they worked. Penny had expressed an interest in Flight at the LBF previously but then it wasn’t quite ready. Afterwards Imogen said to me Penny really wants to see Flight and I said “yes, definitely.” Quite quickly (in publishing terms) during a lecture I was giving I could feel my phone vibrating madly. When I’d finished I looked, they were all calls and messages from Imogen. My immediate concern was what had happened to her. I rang her, and she informed me that Penny wanted to meet with me to discuss Flight…and so started me living my dream. See you are never too old. I was 55 this year when my debut novel will be published. Never give up.

 

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, Vanessa.
Flight sounds amazing!
Be sure to check back into the village next week when we will be hosting the cover reveal for this amazing book!

Annaliese, Jarrett, Kathie and Corrina x

How to Rock Your Read Aloud & a Conversation w/ Colby Sharp: Books Between, Episode 45

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to the Books Between Podcast! I believe in the power of stories to connect us to others in our world.  My goal is to help you connect kids with incredible books and share inspiring 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 8 and 10 year old, a 5th grade teacher, and now making multiple visits to the orthodontist for both of my daughters. Farewell popcorn and hello palate expanders!

This is Episode #45 and Today I’m discussing some ideas to make your read alouds even better and then sharing with you a conversation with educator Colby Sharp about The Creativity Project!

Two quick announcements. First, the March MG at Heart Book Club pick is The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street and the April book is The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. So adjust your TBR pile if you want to join us for those conversations later this spring.  And remember that #MGBookMarch is going strong this month, and I have been so inspired by all of your responses. If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll jump into the conversation!

How to Rock Your Read Aloud

41oQ29LcQTL._SX400_BO1,204,203,200_Last week, I had to be out of my classroom for three days for special ed meetings and various professional development training. And so I left some short picture books for the sub to read while I was away and the students foisted some of their favorites on them as well. And let me tell you – my students had OPINIONS about those experiences when I got back!  And it got me thinking – it is SO hard to grab a book you’ve never read and be open and vulnerable enough in front of an audience to read it aloud well. It takes some bravery to take those chances to give yourself over to the book. In case you were
wondering, it was
The Book With No Pictures – the incredible book that “tricks” the reader into saying silly things.

So today I am going to share with you some ways that you can rock your read aloud with your students, your own kids, or any group of children. I’ll chat about what to do before,
during, and at the end of your read aloud.  And I’ll read aloud some non-spoilery samples from one of my all-time favorite books – and the one whose
sequel is released tomorrow – The Wild Robot.

Before the read aloud

There are some things you can do to prepare ahead of time to make that read aloud really come to life.

  1.  Pick the right book!

Some books just aren’t that great to read aloud. My daughters asked me to read aloud El Deafo a few years ago and it worked…okay… since they could sit on either side of me and see the illustrations, but I think a whole class read aloud of a whole graphic novel would be tough.  Books with short chapters are really great. Books that have tons of internal thinking or long sections of description can be tough though. Also, some of the classics have tricky sentence structure or difficult vocabulary. Or contain messages or stereotypes that we don’t want to perpetuate anymore. So – look to resources and people you trust for some good recommendations.

  1. Listen to great examples

If you want to improve, listen to other people read aloud to pick up their tricks. And listen to audio books. There are often samples you can listen to on Audible that will give you some ideas of voices to do. Or how to modulate your voice and tone and speed to match the story and the characters. We’ll chat more about that in a bit, but I have learned SO much from Jim Dale’s performance of Harry Potter. And Neil Gaiman’s readings of his novels, or most recently, the masterful performance of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Robin Miles. Listening to those examples, helped me realize that a good read aloud IS a performance.

  1. Preview the book ahead of time.

It really helps if you’ve at least read the chapter before so you don’t get lost in the sentences. And read it out loud – even if you’re just mouthing it to yourself. Three things to pay attention to: new characters you’ll have to voice, punctuation, and dialogue tags (the part of the sentence that says “she yelled”, or “he said angrily”). I am reading The 516KJ8Rsa9L._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_Wild Robot with my class right now. I’ve read it before so I thought I was all good, but I didn’t skim Chapter 45 first so when we got reintroduced to the otters, I forgot that the first otter speaking was Shelly and so I read it in a low male voice – and so I backed up and reread it in a more female-coded voice. (I could have decided to just have our Shelly have a low voice – sometimes I think it’s good to adjust expectations a bit. But, I’d recommend just being intentional about it.)  Or sometimes the dialogue tag at the end will say, “he whispered.” and oops! I didn’t whisper that. Skimming the chapter ahead of time will help.

  1. Review

When continuing a read aloud of a chapter book, I have found that it’s helpful to do a quick recap of the last section.  In my class, we call this “Previously in The Wild Robot” and I’ll call on a few kids to refresh our memory of what happened and where we left off. And sometimes I’ll even reread the last paragraph or two just to pick back up the threads of the story to get that momentum back. I notice that my Audible app does this automatically – when I stop the book and restart, it goes back about 15 seconds – which is so helpful.

During the read aloud

As you are performing the story, there are three elements that when they are working well, you will have a memorable and awesome read aloud! Those three elements are your voice, your body language, and your audience.

Let’s talk about your voice first because there’s a lot going on here. First of all, project your voice. And probably more than you think you have to. I don’t know about your space, but I am battling a TON of white noise in my classroom – the heater is blowing, the projector is whirring, the class across the hall is making some noise. So you have to cut through all that and angle your mouth further up than maybe you naturally would.

When you are reading aloud a text, you want to try to find the music and rhythm in the language. It’s about how the cadence and inflection of your voice matches the tone of the scene and how the characters are feeling. If it’s something mysterious is happening, add that little question to your voice. If it’s a sad moment, then you’ll want to slow down and maybe read more carefully with that emotion coming through.

For example, on page 58 of The Wild Robot, there is the part where Roz falls down the cliff:

Expressing the right tone is about finding that rhythm, but it’s also about volume. If a character yells – you yell. And whisper those poignant lines so your class leans in to hear them. Use the dramatic slow down. Speed up when there’s energy or a chase or big climatic scene.

And repeat important parts – look up at the kids. Give them a moment to digest and think. Those lines in the book that give you a deep message, that foreshadow something later, that are the heart of the story – repeat them! And maybe emphasize a different word the second time.

Here’s an example from Chapter 37 of The Wild Robot where we first meet a new character – Chitchat the squirrel.

SO in that section, based on the cues of the text – I made my voice bouncy when Chitchat bounces across the lawn and then fast and sort of nervous when she’s talking.

Another hugely important aspect of using your voice to convey meaning is by what most kids call “doing the voices”. That’s often their biggest compliment to an adult who reads out loud to them – that they do the voices well.  And it takes some practice and some planning to figure out how to perform and almost embody those various characters. Something that has really helped me is to think about what actor or actress might be cast in that role and then try to “do” their voice.  In The Wild Robot, I modeled Roz on Alexa. The older goose, Loudwing, was Julia Sweeney for some reason. Here’s an example from Chapter 44, The Runaway:

Now, YOU and the students might not hear those actors in my voice, but it helps me to keep the character’s voice straight and consistent throughout the book. And it gives me ideas of different ways that I could do different voices.

Now let’s talk about your body language!  First of all, move around the room instead of just sitting in one spot. And try gesturing with the hand not holding the book.  If a character is described as doing an action, like pointing, I’ll point. If the author has the character cough or sneeze – do that! And let your facial expressions reflect the tone of the story and mood of the characters. If there’s anxiousness in the description, furrow your brow and curl into yourself.  If they are described as smiling, I’ll smile as I say that part. And you can hear that smile in your voice. The children look for visual cues to understand the text so add a little performance to it.

A last way to really boost the engagement of your students or children during the read aloud is to get them involved in some way.

51JRcqfTfaL-1._SX409_BO1,204,203,200_Shorter picture books are easier to do this with because they can often see the words to say them. My class loves reading the colored words in books like She Persisted or You Don’t Want a Unicorn.

But it’s a bit trickier when you are reading aloud a novel. But – there are some ways to do it.  One idea is to include your audience in some kind of small action.

I remember when I was taking a graduate education class, my professor read us Seedfolks. And I vividly recall her gently placing imaginary seeds into the palms of each of our hands as she read. Just that small little thing brought us into the story, and I’ve never forgotten it.  (It also goes to show that you are never too old to enjoy a read aloud! And that you can get cool ideas by listening to experienced people read out loud.)519mQUtDjYL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_

In our class, one of the mentor texts we use a lot is Eleven by Sandra Cisneros. And there’s this part where the teacher dumps this nasty old red cottage-cheese-smelling sweater on the desk of one of her students. So, of course when I read it aloud, I mimic dropping that sweater on a student’s desk and then aim the teacher’s dialogue at that kid.

Or one time I was reading a poem where one of the characters got their shoulder bumped by another person, so as I read that part and walked past a student I dipped down and (gently!) bumped their shoulder with mine.  Now, you have to know your kids well enough to know who would respond well to that. Adding those little actions can really get the audience more invested and involved in the story.

At the end of the read aloud

At the end of the read aloud time, when you’ve got to stop. Always try to end on a cliffhanger – even if it’s the middle of a chapter. A lot of authors are really skilled at those chapter endings but you want to leave them wanting more! Begging to read just one more chapter! And sometimes – indulge them!

Most importantly – enjoy yourself!  If you are having fun reading the story and you are getting into it – your kids will love it, too.

51fDe0NaimL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_There a hundred reasons why read alouds are so important. Of course it models fluency and introduces sophisticated vocabulary. I’ll just end by  mentioning that many accomplished readers talk so fondly about those early experiences being read to that sparked that passion for story in their lives. For me, that’s my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Simile, reading The Search for Delicious to us. I just fell head over heels for that story in a way that it became part of me. Read alouds create this shared experience that you and those children will have forever.

And now – I would love to hear from you! I am always looking for ways to improve my read alouds, and I’m sure our listeners would love more ideas as well. And I am sure you have some awesome suggestions! You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or connect with me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Colby Sharp – Interview Outline

Our guest this week is Colby Sharp! He is a teacher, one of the founders of the Nerdy Book Club site, a co-host of The Yarn podcast, organizer of NerdCamp Michigan, and now…. author of The Creativity Project!  A few weeks ago we sat down to chat about the book, what’s been inspiring him in his classroom, books he’s been reading, and so much more!

Take a listen…

The Creativity Project

The Creativity Project will finally make its way into the world this March. How did this project get started?

Logistically – how did the exchange of prompts work and how did you decide who received which prompt? Did you get to see them before they went out?

Are there some responses that are really memorable to you?TCP-Promo-Cover-PromptMap-v4-flat-600

I love that The Creativity Project works not only as an anthology that you could just enjoy as a reader, but also as a spur to your own writing. It’s going to be a great resource for teachers!

Have you used the prompts in your own classroom?

What writing projects are you working on now?

Your Teaching Life

You recently switched grade levels – going from teaching 3rd grade to 5th grade. How has that been going for you?neverstop

What have been some of your favorite, most memorable teaching moments with your students this year?

What does reading look like in your class?

Your Reading Life

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?

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

Links:

cropped-justcolby_72_crop-22Colby’s website – https://www.mrcolbysharp.com

Colby on Twitter and Instagram

Student Podcasts: Colby’s Students & Corrina’s Students

 

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

Hatchet (Gary Paulsen)

Holes (Louis Sachar)

Enticing Hard to Reach Writers (Ruth Ayres)

The Truth as Told By Mason Buttle (Leslie Connor)

Freak the Mighty (Rodman Philbrick)

See You in the Cosmos (Jack Cheng)

BB45Books

Closing

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.

Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This network EPN_badgefeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit edupodcastnetwork.com

Thank 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 so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

 

Book Review: GOOD DOG by Dan Gemeinhart

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 3.31.09 PM.png

I just finished reading Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart, and it’s a book you just must read!

Brodie knows something is wrong the moment he comes to heaven. The boy that had been his owner is in danger, and Brodie cannot enjoy heaven knowing this. He must return to the world to save his boy, at the risk of losing his soul.

I absolutely loved this book. I recommend it because it is full of emotions — like love, sadness, and anger — that tug at your heart. The way Brodie’s memories came back as the story went along kept me hooked and in suspense.

You can order Good Dog through Scholastic or pick it up in a bookstore near you!

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 3.28.44 PM.png

 

Hi! I’m Jenna. I am eleven years old, and I live in Hopewell, PA. I participate in karate, and I love books and animals.

P.S. I MISS YOU and the Tradition of Sisters in Literature

Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 10.42.38 AM.png

I don’t have a sister. I have two younger brothers and I love them dearly. But growing up, I also longed for another girl in the family. Someone to share clothes and nail polish with. Someone to tell my secrets to, deep into the night. Obviously I couldn’t make my parents have another kid. (Especially since I’d have had to go back in time and had that imaginary sister born years and years ago.)

I still longed for that connection, though. It’s what I find in my close friendships now, and what I hope my two daughters will have someday. It’s also what I wrote about in my debut novel, P.S. I Miss You, which is told in letters from twelve-year-old Evie to her older sister Cilla, who has left home after getting pregnant in high school—something that’s highly disapproved of in their strict Catholic family.

Even though much of P.S. I Miss You focuses on Evie’s growing realization that she has romantic feelings for her new friend June, I don’t see this book as a love story between two girls. Yes, there is a crush and yes, there are sweaty palms and hearts skipping a beat. To me, though, the core of P.S. I Miss You is the love story between two sisters. Here are a few of my other favorite sister relationships in middle grade literature:

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

screen-shot-2018-02-26-at-10-37-06-am-e1519659552599.png

I am ridiculously excited for the fourth Penderwick book, The Penderwicks at Last, due out on May 18 of this year. I adore the relationship between Rosalind, Sky, Jane, and Batty, and the way their adventures are simultaneously so quaint and so exciting.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 10.37.31 AM

I love following the adventures of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern as they travel to Oakland to stay with their mother, who is active in the Black Panther movement. This book is so vivid with historical detail, and you can feel the emotions of all three girls as they struggle with family relationships and personal identity. (The two sequels are fabulous, too!)

The Unicorn Quest by Kamilla Benko

Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 10.38.17 AM

This is a newly published book by one of my fellow 2018 debut authors. I love this story of Claire, who follows her older sister Sophie through a ladder in a fireplace into the magical land of Arden, where she’s thrust into a struggle between four warring guilds of magic and has to find a magical treasure…and her sister.

Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 10.34.50 AM.pngJen Petro-Roy was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing. She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children.

In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy! P.S. I MISS YOU is her debut novel.

P.S. I MISS YOU releases from Macmillan Children’s Feiwel & Friends today, March 6, 2018. You can find Jen at her website (www.jenpetroroy.com), on Twitter at @jpetroroy, on Instagram as @jpetroroy and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JenPetroRoy/.

MG at Heart Book Club’s March Pick

The Middle Grade at Heart book club’s pick for March is . . .

THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141ST STREET, by Karina Yan Glaser

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 5.08.22 PM

One of The New York Times’  Notable Children’s Books of 2017: “In this delightful and heartwarming throwback to the big-family novels of yesteryear, a large biracial family might lose their beloved brownstone home, but win it back with an all-out charm offensive.”

The Vanderbeekers have always lived in the brownstone on 141st Street. It’s practically another member of the family. So when their reclusive, curmudgeonly landlord decides not to renew their lease, the five siblings have eleven days to do whatever it takes to stay in their beloved home and convince the dreaded Beiderman just how wonderful they are. And all is fair in love and war when it comes to keeping their home.

★ “Glaser’s love for the Vanderbeekers shines through in her prose and stick drawings. Readers will look forward to future adventures. A highly recommended purchase for all middle grade collections.” —School Library Journal, starred review

★  “Few [families] in children’s literature are as engaging or amusing as the Vanderbeekers.” —Booklist, starred review

“…[Karina Yan Glaser’s] contemporary family narrative preserves the winsome tone and innocence of the aforementioned classics while updating them with a rich, modern diversity of characters, settings and problems….Glaser’s warmhearted story highlights a cold truth: What is often missing in the busy lives of today’s plugged-in, checked-out families is a sense of community. In the vast village of New York City, she suggests, what it takes to raise a child can still be found on one square block.” —The New York Times Book Review

. . .

Our newsletter — including an interview, discussion questions, activity, recipe, and more — will go out March 26. Sign up for it here. Our Twitter chat will happen April 3 at 8 pm EST.

My Audience

screen-shot-2018-02-26-at-10-21-36-am.png
Art: Antonio Javier Caparo

Most authors have some sense of who their audience will be when they write a novel, and I certainly did with The Mad Wolf’s Daughter: I wrote it for me, for my son, and for middle graders who wanted a fast-paced adventure to make them almost miss the bus in the morning.

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is the book of my heart. It stars Drest, a scrappy 12-year-old girl who takes swordplay, cliff-climbing, and swimming through dangerous seas as her daily exercise. When her warm and loving family—a notoriously brutal father and five vicious brothers—are captured by enemy knights and shipped off to a castle to meet their doom, she goes after them, hauling along a young injured knight as guide and hostage. On her journey, she follows her family’s war-band codes of honor, but also develops her own codes. Oh, and she rescues pretty much everyone she runs across.

Let’s start with why I wrote this book for me.

When I was a kid, I devoured fantasy adventures: The Dark is Rising, The Sword of Shannara, The Hobbit. I loved movies that took place in ancient times: costume dramas with swords. Those stories—of quests and adventures, with witty sidekicks or wise mages—were the backdrop to my quiet life in a rural town.

I needed adventure, but I also could have used a girl leading it all—just once, please. And could she also not be the oh-so-obvious hero, but perhaps someone on the other side of the good/evil divide? I always asked myself: What if these books I loved were told from the villain’s perspective? Who would be the villain then?

So this book is, in one sense, an answer to my middle grade self: a bold medieval adventure, a historically accurate costume drama, with a somewhat villainous girl leading the show, and yes, she has quite the sword.

I also wrote this for my son. He’s eleven now, but was nine when I first began this novel. He’s always devoured books, as much as I ever did. He and I agree that there should not be “boy books” and “girl books” but just books, and that it’s important for boys to read stories with girls as protagonists. Lucky for him, there are quite a few great middle grade novels out these days that feature strong girls.

But the fast-paced classic adventures still lacked the girl who was just as strong as any boy as a matter of course. And a girl not interested in the kinds of things that many girls in such books care about. He’d read about princesses, as well as tales of awkward bookish girls, sporty girls, and nerdy girls. I wanted to share with him a new kind of girl: one whose gender was simply part of her without defining her. All within a wild adventure novel (Drest’s story is one reason that we struggle with bedtimes in our house; what kind of author parent would I be if I told him that it was time to stop reading my novel and go to bed?)

Which brings me to my third audience: middle grade readers keen on a good adventure novel. But also a question: How many of those readers—boys as well as girls—have felt alone? How many of them feel they don’t fit in? How many have spent great chunks of their lives being cautious about being themselves?

For those middle grade readers especially, I wrote a girl who was utterly unafraid to be what she wanted to be. I want those readers to think of how Drest—if she could—would step out of these pages, sling her arm around their shoulders, and offer to walk with them on their ways. How her eyes would narrow and her hand slip to the grip of her sword if she ever heard them insulted. I hope those readers look at Drest, enjoy her journey and her struggles, but also remember this: You’re important. You matter. Everyone does.  Even if you’re different. Especially if you’re different. (Twelve-year-old me needed to hear that.)

“Shuttle your courage back and forth with someone you trust” is the first of the war-band’s codes. I hope that all my readers take that to heart, and, if they need someone to trust, that this book will serve that role for them.

Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 10.20.37 AM.png
Photo: Michael Magras

Diane Magras grew up on Mount Desert Island in Maine surrounded by woods, cliffs, and the sea. She works for the Maine Humanities Council, volunteers at her son’s school library, and is addicted to tea, toast, castles, legends, and most things medieval. Diane lives with her husband and son and thinks often of Scotland, where her books take place. The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is her debut novel. You can find her at www.dianemagras.com and on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Goodreads.