Supporting Students w/ ACEs & a Conversation with Varian Johnson, Books Between Episode 48

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who loves middle grade books.  I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two girls and a 5th grade teacher in Central New York. I believe in the power of books to help us see each other more clearly.  And my goal is to help you find fabulous books for the tweens in your life and help create a community where we all can support each other as we build those readers.

This is Episode #48 and today I’m discussing how to support readers with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Varian Johnson – author of The Parker Inheritance.

A few quick announcements before we dive in today – the Middle Grade at Heart Book Club Twitter chat about The Parker Inheritance is Tuesday, May 1st (tomorrow!) at 5pm PT / 8PM ET. Just search for the hashtag #mgbookclub and jump into the conversation. Varian will be participating so if you have a question you want to ask him, here’s your chance!  Also, the May MG at Heart Book Club pick is Every Shiny Thing by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen and in June we’ll be reading The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras.

And – we at MGBookVillage have some exciting news to tell you! We will be spending the month of May honoring educators! Over the next few weeks we’ll share posts and interviews with inspiring teachers, literacy specialists, principals, and all those who work to create passionate middle grade readers.MGBookVillageEducatorsMonth

We’re also excited to host four educator-focused Twitter chats every Monday evening this May at 9pm EST with topics like Fictional Teachers and Connecting with Authors – so head to for all the details and to stay up-to-date on all things middle grade.

You can also find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of this show at – including links to every topic and book we mention. So definitely check that out!

Main Topic – Supporting Students with Adverse Childhood Experiences

A couple months ago I had the opportunity at my school to attend a professional development session lead by my principal, Amy Horack, about ACEs – an acronym which I came to learn means “Adverse Childhood Experiences”. And it really opened my eyes to seeing the struggles many of my students have had in a new light – a new frame that helped me make sense of some of their behaviours and look for ways to support them. So today I am going to share with you a bit of what I discovered that day (and since then) with the hope that you will be inspired to learn more so we can support those students. First, I’ll share some definitions and discuss what Adverse Childhood Experiences are and how to calculate your own ACEs score. Then I’ll chat a bit about what that means for children and what impact a high ACEs score has on their health and behaviors. And then I’ll discuss some things we can do as educators and parents to be trauma-informed in our teaching and help support those kids as readers – and in all aspects of their life.

Definitions and Discussion

Let’s start with a definition. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events that happen in childhood. These might include economic hardship, abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse. ACEs are highly correlated with a variety of health problems throughout a person’s life and substance abuse as a teen and adult. And also impact their opportunities and ability to learn.   

In my research, I found several different studies that used a variety of indicators to calculate a person’s ACEs score. There isn’t one set list, but typically there are about 10 questions with a higher score indicating more risk for negative health effects and other impacts that we can see in the children we work with – and the adults in their lives.

I am going to read off a list of situations, and I’d encourage you to first think about your own score. (Mine is three.) And think about the children you interact with. By the time they are an adult, about 67% of people will have a score of at least one. 22% will have two or more ACES, with almost 10% having scores of 3 or higher.

Adverse Childhood Experiences:

  • Have you ever lived with a parent or guardian who got divorced or separated?
  • Has a member of your household ever died?
  • Have you or a member of your household dealt with a life-threatening health situation or chronic disease?
  • Have you experienced a life-threatening accident or natural disaster?
  • Has a member of your household ever served time in jail or prison?
  • Have you ever lived with anyone who was mentally ill or suicidal, or severely depressed for more than a couple weeks?
  • Have you ever lived with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs?
  • Have you ever been the victim of emotional neglect in your home? (For example, you often felt that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important, or supported each other.)
  • Have you ever been the victim of physical neglect in your home? (For example, the adults in your household didn’t provide clean clothes, meals, or take you a doctor or dentist?)
  • Have you ever been the victim of physical abuse in your home? (For example, someone in your household who might hit, kick, bite, or throw things at you?)
  • Have you ever been the victim of emotional abuse in your home? (For example, someone in your household who might swear at you, insult you, or humiliate you?)
  • Have you ever been the victim of sexual abuse or unwanted touching?
  • Have you ever witnessed physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in your home or neighborhood?
  • Have you ever experienced extreme economic hardship where the family found it difficult to cover the costs of food and housing?
  • Have you ever been treated or judged unfairly due to your race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity?

Impacts on Adults

So what does this mean? The first ACEs study conducted in 1998 and reinforced by dozens of studies afterward has found a strong link between childhood trauma and profound negative impacts on adult health like alcoholism, chronic depression, suicide attempts, trouble holding a job – and so, so much more. (I don’t want to go too far down the road of adult impacts because I really do want to focus on children, but I encourage you to take a closer look at that research. I recommended and


Impacts on Children

Let’s talk a bit about what the effects of ACEs looks like with kids and how to support them. As others have said, it’s about a change in mindset from “What’s wrong with this kid?” to “What happened to this kid?”  As I read this list of some of the effects on children, think about how that impacts them as readers:

  1. Antisocial behaviors and difficulty trusting others including both adults and peers (I think about how hard it can be for some readers to trust you and your recommendations, and to open up to you and the class about their thinking as they read. These are also the children I see struggling to participate well in in book clubs – who may resist sharing their feelings and being too vulnerable.)
  2. Social isolation (What comes to mind for me are those quiet, fly under the radar, submissive kids – those who curl up with a book as an escape, but not necessarily interacting with anyone else. Or those students who will submit to reading whatever you recommend but who aren’t making their own choices.)
  3. Difficulty seeking help (I absolutely see that kids who are dealing with a lot outside of school, sometimes don’t want to tell me they are having a hard time with a book. They’ll just push through thinking it’s going to make me happy. Or they just don’t have the mental energy to explain what they are struggling with as a reader.)
  4. Frequent absences, medical issues, or requests to go to the nurse / bathroom (Every one of those is just more time away from that immersive, productive reading. I’m also thinking that it’s hard to keep continuity with a book when a child is distracted by a medical issue or missing a lot of class time. I’m thinking of all the conferring they miss, to missing big chucks of the class read aloud where you are modeling strategies. And when they get back and you attempt to catch them up, now they are missing something else… I STILL have nightmares about coming back to school after a long absence and not remembering my locker combination or my schedule – it’s stressful!)
  5. Difficulty with focus and transitions (Of course, a child who is distracted by home situations and dealing with chronic stress will have difficulty selected that good book and a quiet spot to read in the time frame you are hoping for.)
  6. Trouble with organization (I’ve noticed that kids who travel back and forth between two or more households tend to lose things more often – including books. But I’ve also noticed that if a child fears consequences at home of a library fine or a note from me about a missing book, they may not want to even check out books or take them home.)  
  7. Anxiety (In thinking about students with Adverse Childhood Experiences and anxiety, I notice that some really shy away from books with heavier themes that might bring up difficult emotions. They’re the kids who want the assurance that the dog on the cover is going to make it at the end. Or may feel reticent about reading a book that will hit too close home. One the one hand, I think it’s really important to have books available where students can see that characters have dealt with similar issues to their own so they don’t feel alone. And it’s important for other students to read those books to develop some empathy and understanding. But – it’s also okay if a child doesn’t want to read something that might trigger them but instead looks to reading as an escape. So I’m thinking that having fun, light books than can provide that safe haven for students is also key and to honor those choices.)
  8. Difficulty with academic achievement (Absolutely! And since becoming a strong and competent reader is the linchpin to gathering all other knowledge – it reinforces to me that importance of focusing on reading.)
  9. Difficulty planning for the future (When a child can’t rely on stability at home, it’s no wonder that kids can’t tell me what book they’re going to read next or how they are going to schedule in their reading homework at night – sometimes they don’t know what they are coming home to! Or – more likely – they know exactly what they are going home to and it’s not a situation conducive to reading.)
  10. Trouble regulating their emotions and their affect – facial expressions – either exaggerating them or having no affect (This brings to mind a former student who would seemingly overreact to their reading – bursting out in this wild laughter or tossing the book aside in anger. And at the time, I did think “What is the matter with this kid?” But now…I can only wonder – “What was really going on with that child?”

How to Support Students with ACEs

In thinking about how to support the children in our lives who have those ACEs, I think for me, starting with that mindset change was a key first step. I think it’s natural to respond to some of those situations by wanting to get worked up yourself, but I’m trying to pause and realize that it’s not personal. And find some better strategies. So, I do not, by any means, want to portray myself here as any kind of expert. And I encourage you to look at the research yourself and see what might work for you. But after doing some reading, here are some things I’m going to try:

First, I want to recognize and support the resilience they already have. When I think about what some of my students have been through, I am so proud of what they are accomplishing despite the stress they may be under. So, highlighting their strengths whenever possible and help them build themselves up is something I want to focus more on.

Second, since kids who have experienced trauma can often suffer from worry and have trouble regulating their emotions and actions, I want to make sure my classroom environment is as stable and calm as possible. So being more aware of my language and tone of voice and nonverbal cues – even when I’m frustrated is something I want to be more aware of. And providing a stable routine with more opportunities for movement and snack breaks. I’m really intrigued by some teachers who’ve set up what they call a Calming Station in their room with things like a comfortable chair, soft music, lavender scented play-doh, some gum, resources on meditation, and an opportunity to write about what they’re feeling. So I think I’m going to start to get together a kit to keep in my classroom.  

Also, learning more about the impacts of ACEs has reinforced even more, the importance of building relationships with my students. And having more casual one-on-one conversations where I’m not asking them to comply with a direction, but I’m just asking about their interests. Which has the double benefit of helping me know them better as readers and people.  The more I think back, the more I am appalled at the advice I got as a young teacher to never smile before Christmas! Who wants to spend 8 hours a day with someone who never smiles?  These kids – and all kids – need warm, nurturing, safe, and stable relationships. And a teacher who smiles and welcomes them by name every day. I used to give a general welcome as students arrived but this year, I made the decision to make sure I welcome every kid by name within the first ten minutes of them arriving at school. And it has made a difference. And try to ask them a little something (What did you of the ending of Amulet? How was your game last night?) or notice something (The unicorn on your shirt reminds me of this new series you might like – The Unicorn Rescue Society!)

And finally it reminds me to be more observant and not let things go. If something doesn’t feel right in your interactions with a child, I don’t want to let them fall through the cracks. If you notice something that warrants it, please call Child Protective Services. I’ll drop a link to some indicators and a place you can go for more information.  But, if you’ve ever had to call CPS, you know it is complicated.  I’m reminded of The Last Jedi where Luke says to Rey, “This is not going to go the way you think.” There is no quick rescue from those dark situations, but being a positive presence, helping all students develop resilience and coping strategies – or even just offering a few hours of escape – can do more than you realize.

And I’ve said that learning more about how Adverse Childhood Experiences opened my eyes – but it also opened my heart to be more loving not only toward my students but also toward my colleagues – and even toward myself a bit, too.

If you want to know more (and I hope you do!) – I’ve including links to several sites that will give more details and more strategies you can use to help the children (and adults!) in your life.

For more information about ACEs:


Varian Johnson- Interview Outline

Our special guest this week is Varian Johnson, author of The Parker Inheritance! We discuss his love of puzzles, his research process, favorite childhood books, and so much more!  And joining me this month to chat with Varian Johnson is one of the founders of the MG at Heart Book Club, Julie Artz.  

And I got so much great feedback from you all about the last episode’s Bonus Spoiler Section at the very end of the show that we doing it again! So, if you want to hear Varian talk about the end of his novel, I put that part of our conversation after the credits so this part will be spoiler-free.

Take a listen…



CA: For our listeners who haven’t yet read the novel, can you tell us a bit about The Parker Inheritance?

JA:  One of the things I love about The Parker Inheritance is how vivid the historical storyline is and how well it’s integrated into Candice & Brandon’s present-day story. Can you tell us a little bit about the research that went into writing this story?

CA: Your novel had such depth and nuance and included these small but powerful scenes – like Brandon feeling uncomfortable checking out “girl books”, and his older sister explaining why she slows down to avoid any chance of getting pulled over, the assistant principal discovering Brandon and Candice doing research and asking for their ID, and then…that scene between Siobhan and Chip and Reggie with the Coca Cola.  I just loved how there were these small dips into complicated themes. I guess this isn’t a question per se but more of a thank you for helping me see and think through some of those preconceptions and biases and for writing a novel that will also do that for my students….

JA: Who is your favorite character from The Parker Inheritance?

CA: One of the things I loved about Candice was her love of puzzles – and how she figured out Milo’s schedule so that Brandon could avoid him! Are you into puzzles and codes like Candice?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Varian and Julie and I discussed the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 50:58 mark.


JA: The way you melded the two timelines really built a lot of page-turning tension into the story. How did you plan that out as you were writing?varian-johnson

CA: As a writer, what were your early inspirations and what do you think teachers and parents can do to get young people writing more and writing more confidently?

JA: What are you writing next?


CA: Did you have a teacher or librarian in your life who helped you grow into a reader?

JA: I loved all the hat-tips to treasured books like The Westing Game that were sprinkled all through The Parker Inheritance. Any other childhood favorites you still love today?

CA: What are some books that you’ve been reading lately?


Varian Johnson’s website –

Varian on Twitter and Facebook

Althea Gibson

Mad Men

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar & Inception

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)

Holes (Louis Sachar)

Beverly Cleary

Peter & Fudge Books (Judy Blume)

Blubber (Judy Blume)

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (Judy Blume)

Walter Dean Myers

Virginia Hamilton

Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson)

One Crazy Summer (Rita Williams Garcia)

Once You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead)

Goodbye Stranger (Rebecca Stead)

Shelby Holmes Series (Elizabeth Eulberg)

The Lonely Hearts Club (Elizabeth Eulberg)

The Mortification of Fovea Munson (Mary Winn Heider)


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 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

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 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!


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.



It’s Never Too Early

Time is the best story teller. Only after it’s passed can you go back over the scenes of your life and understand how they cobbled together to give you a point of view.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where reading was important. Sundays were often spent snuggled beside my mother as we read. By the time I was a teen, we’d exchange books and have our own little book talks. She most definitely instilled a love of reading. But – and I’ll refrain from ranting – once children reach school-age, the politics of education get in the way. Educators and librarians have a tough hill to climb to keep reading fun. Today, I salute those who find a way. Specifically, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Crowner who served as someone who supported me as an early reader.

My elementary school library was small. Like many other school libraries, it was divided into sections. As a second grader, my section was primarily picture books and easy reader chapter books. I had my eye on the “fifth grade” section pretty early on. The books were invitingly thick. Alas, no 2nd graders allowed.

One day, during our library visit, I boldly ventured into the area, curious. Honestly, it felt taboo. I’m surprised alarms didn’t go off. I found a book, bigger than me, and decided I wanted to read it. The librarian was skeptical, this huge tome with a winged horse on it (and I honestly can’t recall the title or author) was clearly not from my section. Still, something compelled her to let me check it out.

During reading time I eagerly opened the book, ready to dive in. Mrs. Crowner was making her rounds. When she got to me, she paused. I have no idea what she might have been thinking or what teacherly rules she must have mentally gone through to see which one I was breaking. I felt her standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. I was afraid she was ready to take away my treasure. The book was obviously too big to have come from the proper section. I’d been caught.

Was her pause attached to the book? Or to me, as the reader?

I’ll never know for sure. What I’m certain of is that she took a second to see a child immersed in a book and she decided to dive deeper into that immersion rather than pull me out. She asked was I enjoying the book? After confirming that I was she asked did I understand it? I was in the very early stages, so there wasn’t much to understand yet – but even at seven years old I knew an interrogation (albeit a gentle one) when I heard one. So, naturally, I said yes. Her eyes gazed on the page again, she nodded and moved on.

That was a pinnacle moment in my life because it reinforced that books were to enjoy. Having a teacher, someone with great influence over what I read, support that objective was a brick in my reading foundation. Because of that, reading has continued to be primarily about pleasure for me. I don’t know any other way to view books. Maybe it’s why there are so many required reading books I dislike – too many of them I simply didn’t enjoy. It’s also why my objective, as an author, is to remind kids that there are far too many books out there for them to dislike reading. They just haven’t found the type of book they like. And they won’t without someone there to support that quest.

As authors, librarians, teachers, bloggers, or reviewers: keep in mind how easily you can turn off a reader when forcing your own baggage onto them. Yes, we can learn from books. And all content isn’t for all readers. But when a child is curious enough to venture, adults must nurture that curiosity.


Paula Chase hasn’t slept in eleven years. She also feels like people are speaking a foreign language when they use the term “free time.” Her awake hours are spent split between her work with a municipal association, mothering two, wife of one, and authoring MG and YA books. She is a co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf and can be found on Twitter @paulachase or at  

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Using Multiple Points of View to Create Tension and Mystery

The MG at Heart team is back again with a mid-month post about our April pick, Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance. A mystery with a historical timeline as compelling as Louis Sachar’s Holes, The Parker Inheritance charms with its hat-tips to The Westing Game and other beloved books, while at the same time compelling readers to turn the page.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 5.08.53 PM

Twelve-year-old Candice Miller is not thrilled when her mom announces that they’re headed to Lambert for the summer while their house is being renovated so that it can be sold. Not only will she have to leave her father and her friends behind in Atlanta, but they’ll be staying at her dead grandmother’s house. But soon after arriving, Candice finds two important things: an unlikely friend, Brandon Jones, and a mysterious letter that her grandmother left behind for her before she died.

The letter is the first of many clues about an inheritance hidden somewhere in the town of Lambert. An inheritance that Candice’s grandmother, Abigail Caldwell, risked everything to find, leaving her to die in disgrace. Determined to clear her grandmother’s name and save her house back in Atlanta with the money, Candice uses her smarts and love of a good puzzle to start to unravel the mystery.

Her investigations lead her to the Washington family and to the historical timeline that Varian Johnson uses with great skill both to educate young readers about the horrors of Jim Crow-era racism and to build up the mystery of how Enoch Washington and his daughter, Siobhan, relate to the lost inheritance.

These historical chapters, which are interspersed between chapters where Brandon and Candice work together to investigate the mystery, also give the reader clues that our two main characters don’t know, further building the tension in the story. The biggest mystery of all: Who is James Parker and what led him to hide his multi-million-dollar inheritance for decades in the town of Lambert.

Johnson also makes deft use of cliffhanger chapter endings to keep readers frantically turning pages. In the current timeline, Candice and Brandon battle a neighborhood bully, encounter racism at the local school, and deal with some complicated family situations at home. At the same time, in the historical timeline, Siobhan and her father move from the usual parent-child conflicts over dating and life choices to a more fraught conflict with life or death stakes. Both timelines separately build in tension over the course of the story, and the use of cliffhanger endings makes us race from timeline to timeline as we try to gather clues alongside Candice and Brandon.

I won’t give you any more spoilers in case you haven’t read the book yet, but I will say that Siobhan’s story was so compelling that I hope Varian will consider writing a companion novel just for her! It would make a wonderful historical YA set at the end of school segregation in the south.

Whether you’re writing something of your own or working with kids on their creative writing, look for ways that you can use multiple points of view to create tension and mystery. In The Parker Inheritance, Varian Johnson uses this technique to create page-turning drama as both the present-day and historical timelines reveal the mystery one tantalizing detail at a time.

Taking Off the Coat of Shame

I was eight years old and the front desk clerk of a motel in California when I started watching The Simpsons. I won’t lie, the first time I saw Apu, an Asian American man and the proud owner of a small business, I felt seen. Finally! To be represented on a hit TV show! The feeling quickly turned sour, though, when it became apparent Apu was on the show solely to be mocked and laughed at. It wasn’t his accent that bothered me – my Kelly In Motel Floral Pantsparents also have an accent—it was the way he was characterized: having him work a 96 hour shift and then prance around happily as a hummingbird afterwards. Having him cross out the expiration date out on a package of expired meat and sell it to Homer, who then gets food poisoning. On and on it went. Apu wasn’t representative of me or my parents. He was put on the show at the expense of hardworking Asian Americans like us.

My parents came to America with $200 in their pocket. To get by, we took manual labor jobs in restaurants and motels. At the motels, my parents cleaned the rooms while I managed the front desk (which, when you’re only 8, is really hard. Adults don’t like handing over their ID and cash to an 8 year old for some reason. Go figure.) I threw myself into the job, getting to know all the guests and treating all my customers with kindness, care, and respect.

Kelly in motelSometimes, during my shift breaks, I’d watch the Simpsons, my eyes glued to Apu, unable to look away, because as much as it hurt to be stereotyped and ridiculed, it was that amazingly rare to see an Asian small business owner on TV. I’ll admit, I too laughed at Apu sometimes, only to then sit and writhe as the juices of self loathing twisted in my stomach afterwards. Sometimes, my customers would come in and cheerfully say “Thank you come again!” ala Apu and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh. At night, I’d lie awake and wonder is it better to be seen and mocked than to not be seen at all?

At school, all my friends were watching the Simpsons and making fun of Apu. They’d take turns speaking in accents, yelling at their “customers”. Terrified they’d make fun of me if they found out what I did, I kept my job a secret from them. It was in this kind of climate that I grew up, going to school by day and tending to my customers by night. I was a real life Apu but I dared not tell a single soul because of fake Apu.

FrontDesk_CoverFast forward 25 years, and I’m finally ready to take off the coat of shame that has covered me all these years. My debut middle grade novel FRONT DESK, about a 10 year old Chinese American immigrant girl who manages the front desk of a motel while her parents clean the rooms, comes out on May 29. It is an honest, funny and moving portrayal of the immigrant experience, managing a small business in America in the face of racism, police mistreatment, and poverty. It is the nuanced treatment that The Simpsons should have given Apu.

And while I’m disappointed that the creators of one of the most admired television shows of all time had neither the patience nor the will to create an Asian American character more sensitively or at least RESPOND more sensitively when called out, I’m encouraged by shows like Fresh Off The Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and books like Front Desk and Serpent’s Secret. Currently in the United States, there are nearly 2 million Asian owned businesses, many of which are in the service industry. They rent us rooms, cut our hair, paint our nails, serve us food, and much much more. They work hard and have hopes and dreams and kids like me who don’t deserve to live with a lifetime of shame just because some writer wants an easy joke. It’s about time we see them and see them right.

kelly yang headshot

Kelly Yang is the author of FRONT DESK, a middle grade debut novel about a 10 year old Chinese American girl who manages the front desk of a motel in Southern California while her parents clean (Out May 29, Arthur Levine/Scholastic).

You can find her on Twitter at @kellyyanghk


A Conversation with Jen Petro-Roy: Books Between, Episode 47

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who loves middle grade books. I believe in the power of stories to help us realize that we are not alone in the world.  And my goal is to help you connect kids with those incredible stories and share inspiring conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I am Corrina Allen – a mom of two, a teacher of 22, and gearing up for my Spring Break next week!

This is Episode #47 and today I’m sharing three books about the challenges and realities of family life, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Jen Petro-Roy – author of P.S. I Miss You.

A few quick announcements before we get started – the April Middle Grade at Heart Book Club pick is The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson and the May pick is Every Shiny Thing by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen if you want to adjust those TBR piles so you can join us.

Also, if you are on Twitter, Matthew Winner and I will be guests on the upcoming #mglitchat Twitter Chat this Thursday, April 19th from 9-10pm. And we’ll be chatting about podcasting and whatever else you want to chat about! So I hope you can join us live this Thursday or check out #mglitchat afterward to see the transcript.

Book Talk – Three Novels Featuring the Challenges and Realities of Family Life

This week I am kicking off the show with some book talks! And the theme this week is novels featuring the challenges and realities of family life.Our three featured books this episode are Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske, The Thing About Leftovers by C.C. Payne, and One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

Kat Greene Comes Clean


kat-greeneOur first featured MG novel this week is Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske. This is a book about a 5th grade girl, Kat, who lives in New York City with her cleaning-obsessed mother who is now a contestant on the TV game show Clean Sweep. But that’s not the only stressor in her life right now. She is still dealing with the ramifications of her parent’s divorce and her dad’s new family. Her best friend, Halle, is less-than-supportive now that she’s newly enamored with a particular boy at their school.  And, Kat did not get one of the lead roles in her school’s production of her favorite book – Harriet the Spy. She gets the blah role of the boy in the purple socks. Here are three things to love about Kat Greene Comes Clean:

  1. The complicated crush situation in this book. I won’t reveal the details because it’s a bit of a spoiler, but Kat’s best friend has an intense crush on this boy, Michael McGraw, and talks about every facet of his life constantly. And that situation takes an unexpected and awkward detour. Well, unexpected for Halle and Kat. As a teacher, I’ve seen this play out like this a bunch of times…..  yikes!
  2. How this book portrays what it’s like dealing with a family member who has OCD. Kat’s mom was laid off from her job at a magazine, went through a divorce, and her OCD has manifested itself more and more through her obsessive cleaning. I appreciated that this book acknowledged that these anxieties and disorders are often more than just one thing. And the multiple layers of impact on everyone around them. Kat’s mom scrubs the floor with an electric toothbrush, so Kat has to constantly worry about her wrath if there are crumbs anywhere. Her mom washes her hands in a very precise way over and over again, so Kat has to wait while she finishes and her mom’s attention is always diverted to the next thing she has that compulsion to clean. Even in public, her mother wipes down the cans at the grocery store before putting them in her cart, which embarasses Kat terribly! But then she starts throwing away Kat’s things from her bedroom and the impact on Kat is beyond just that embarrassment. At one point later in the novel when things have come to a head, her mother says, “I felt out of control and incredibly anxious. So I shut down.”
  3. Kat’s school psychologist – Olympia Rabinowitz. I just loved her gentle way of slowly helping Kat release herself that her mother had a problem. Early on, Olympia comes to her classroom for something like a sharing circle and later Kat writes her an email about her mom. And then deletes it. I thought that was such a truthful moment – because especially for children, sometimes even acknowledging a problem is overwhelming because the consequence of telling is often also bad. There’s a real chance that Kat could have to leave her mom and go live with her dad and his new wife and son – which she does NOT want to do! And like a lot of kids, she has an aversion to airing her family’s “dirty laundry.” Plus – I loved Olympia because has jelly beans in her office and that’s always a plus.

If you have a kid who likes Harriet the Spy or Kharma Khullar’s Mustache or Finding Perfect, then Melissa Roske’s Kat Green Comes Clean is a great book to introduce them to next.

The Thing About Leftovers

9780147514226A book that I finally got a chance to read last week is The Thing About Leftovers by C.C. Payne. This novel is about 6th grader Elizabeth “Fizzy” Russo who is struggling to navigate changing family dynamics in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce. And figuring out how to make friends at her swanky new school. The only two things that consistently provide stability and help her cope are cooking and her Aunt Liz, who helps Fizzy register for the prestigious Southern Living Cook-off and works with her to test out tons of recipes after school.  I loved every bit of this book from the first to the very last page. But, just as a small sample, here are three things to love about C.C. Payne’s The Thing About Leftovers:

  1. Have I mentioned that I am a sucker for books featuring food?  Oh my gosh – this book had me DROOLING over all the recipes that Fizzy tries out. Like lasagna and apple tart and this intriguing German dessert called Eis and Heiss (meaning ice and hot) which is a mix of cold ice cream and hot fruit sauce.  And then later, when she finds out that her mom’s boyfriend, Keene, likes her baking, she makes cake after cake – pineapple upside down and red velvet and this gorgeous purple cake with purple flowers all over it…ahhh. Oh – and this wonderful thing called Benedictine that Fizzy’s Aunt Liz makes for her when she comes over. It’s this wonderful-sounding cucumber and cream cheese spread. I NEED to try this!
  2. All the analogies and descriptions related to food. As Jarrett Lerner mentioned on a recent episode, a fabulous analogy can make your writing just sparkle. And boy does Payne fill her writing with sparkling moments. Like, “In a voice so sugary I could practically feel a cavity coming on.”  or “And if Mom was starting fresh, then that made me a kind of leftover, didn’t it?”, “Here’s the thing about leftovers: Nobody is ever excited about them; they’re just something you have to deal with.”  and here’s one of my favorites from page 190.
  3. Her friendships with Zach and Miyoko. Zack is a boy who Fizzy’s mom describes as “slick” but who you realize is coping with his own “stuff” by telling adults what they want to hear – and then doing what he wants to do. And then Miyoko – who does exactly what the perhaps over-protective adults in her life want her to – from getting straight A’s to going to bed at 10 – even when she’s having a sleepover!  But who stands up for things when it really matters. I really enjoyed Fizzy and Miyoko and Zach‘s supportive friendship with each other.

C.C. Payne’s The Things About Leftovers is so well-written – a bittersweet mix of heartbreaking and heartfelt and humourous, and with an ending that is both honest and hopeful. As a kid who went through some very similar family dynamics, I think this book is a must-have for your collection. And I’m really looking forward to seeing more from C.C. Payne!

One for the Murphys


one-for-the-murphys-335x512Our third book featured this week is One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  This is one of those books that got past me and when some friends found out I hadn’t read it yet they basically staged an intervention and forced me to! And oh am I glad they did!! They were so right – this book is incredible! So for the few of you who haven’t read it yet (it seems like I was the last one!), One for the Murphys is about 12 year-old Carley who grew up in Las Vegas with her fun-loving but neglectful mother. She’s a tough kid. But when a violent incident with her step-father leads to Carley’s placement in foster care with the Murphys, it gets harder for Carley to convince herself that she is not worthy of their love.  Here are three things to love about One for the Murphys:

  1. The slow, skillful reveal about Carley’s previous life and what happened to land her in foster care. Hunt does not come right out and tell you, but drops a trail of memories. Like learning that Carley used to “go shopping” for her family by diving into Goodwill dumpsters while her mom played lookout. Or when she asks Mrs. Murphy if the lasagna she has planned for dinner is Stouffers or the store brand. Or when she’s shocked that Mrs. Murphy can calm herself down, because her own mother could never do that. Or the times Carley reveals she had to sleep in the bathtub… It just reminds us that a lot of kids – the angry ones, the quiet ones – have those types of stories that if we knew them, would explain so much.
  2. Mrs. Murphy! This woman, who has her own stories, is incredible at understanding Carley and being patient with her as the family adjusts. There’s this powerful scene at a restaurant after Mrs. Murphy has just taken Carley clothes shopping and Carley, probably feeling overwhelmed, starts lashing out at the server, at the food, at her, at herself. Let me read you this one section from page 25.  
  3. All the little things. I can’t pin it down to just one, but… the giraffe stuffed animal, and Tori’s love of the musical Wicked, and her razzing Mr. Murphy about the Red Sox, and all the Murphy boys – Daniel, and Adam, and especially little Michael Eric. And the sign in Carley’s bedroom… The last three chapters of this book – whoa. Prepare to finish this novel in a location where you can cry. And yes, it’s a tear-jerker at the end, but the tears are about the hope as much as they are about the other things that happen. So please don’t let the fact that you might cry dissuade you from reading this book! It’s… earned them. I almost feel like, Carley (and the kids like Carley) deserved that emotion at the end.

One for the Murphys is for all the Carley’s in the world, and for all the kids and adults who need a way to see past the hardened front of children like Carley.

If you want to instantly boost the quality of connections your kids can find in your classroom library or your collection, get these three books! They each offer much-needed perspectives for families experiencing divorce, mental illness, the foster care system, and a lot more and told with warmth and lightness and humor!

Jen Petro-Roy – Interview Outline

Our special guest this week is Jen Petro-Roy, author of P.S. I Miss You. We discuss the role of sensitivity readers, the challenges of writing a novel told all in letters, her favorite board game, and of course – her debut novel!

Take a listen…


PSIMissYouFor our listeners who haven’t yet read P.S. I Miss You, what is this story about?

One of the things I really appreciated about this story was that it deals with issues that many, many kids are experiencing – like an older sibling’s pregnancy, religious questioning, and Evie slowly starting to realize she may have romantic feelings for her friend, June. I love that kids have your age-appropriate story so they can either see themselves reflected in the characters (and feel like they are not alone) or start to develop some awareness of what their peers are going through.

What was your thought process like as you were including those elements of your story?

I saw you mention that you used a sensitivity reader. I am so curious about that process – can you tell us what that was like, how you connected with them, and how their advice may have enhanced your story?

On a personal note – I just want to thank you soo much for including a positive portrayal of an unapologetically atheist family.  I was formerly very Catholic but we are now a non-religious family and it was so refreshing to FINALLY see a character like June who is happy, well-adjusted, and also non-religious. … So, thank you!!

Even though there are some weightier themes, your novel includes such laughter and light – and the references to Fish in a Tree, and Harry Potter, and Beauty & the Beast and the movie Grease…

How did you balance those aspects of Evie’s life?

So…. I want to talk about the ending. But… I don’t want to reveal the ending!

NOTE: Jen and I discussed the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 45:35 mark.


As a novel told all in letters – what kind of challenges did that format create for you?JenPetro-Roy.authorphoto

What are you working on now?


One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and librarians inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books.

Did you have a special teacher or librarian in your life who helped you grow into a reader?

You’ve said that reading The Babysitters Club as a child made you into the reader and writer you are today….

Are you more Kristy, MaryAnne, Claudia, or  Stacey?

What are you reading now?


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Jen Petro Roy’s  gorgeous website –

Jen on Twitter and Instagram

Danika Corrall’s website –

Photosynthesis Board Game


Books & Authors We Chatted About:


The Baby-Sitters Club (Ann M. Martin)

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade (Jordan Sonnenblick)

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie (Jordan Sonnenblick)

Not If I Save You First (Ally Carter)

Gallagher Girls (Ally Carter)


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 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

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 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!


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.


Interview: Sarah Jean Horwitz


I’m very excited to welcome Sarah Jean Horwitz to the #MGBookVillage! It’s especially awesome to have her here today, as it’s the release day of her second novel. That book — the lovely cover of which is above — is THE CROOKED CASTLE, the second installment in her CARMER AND GRIT series.

In the interview below, I talk to Sarah about the new book, her experience writing a sequel, world-building, writing from research, flying circuses, and more. Give it a read, and then go get your hands on THE CROOKED CASTLE!

~ Jarrett

. . .

Sarah — thanks so much for stopping by the MG Book Village on your big day! First things first: can you tell us a bit about the new book?

THE CROOKED CASTLE follows the adventures of Carmer, a tinkerer and former magician’s apprentice, and Grit, a (literally) fiery faerie princess, as they hit the road together after becoming friends in the first book. Their travels take them to Driftside City, an airship manufacturing hub, where they become entangled in a mystery involving a high profile airship accident, a famous flying circus, and of course, faerie magic!

Whoa! Sounds like a blast! What was the experience of writing a sequel like for you? Was it different from writing your first book? Were there ways in which it was easier? Harder?

I think the middle grade fantasy author MarcyKate Connolly put it best when she said, “Second books are strange beasts.” For those of us writing in a series, book two is easier in some ways; the world and the major characters are usually already in place. It’s great fun to play in the same sandbox you’ve been enjoying for a while – and now with some new toys!

But second books are also harder. There are new expectations from your publisher, your readers, and yourself. This was the first book I ever wrote with a deadline from a publisher, and I definitely felt the pressure of that working experience! And just as you’ve changed since the first book, so have your characters. They’ve grown with you, and any new adventure they tackle has to reflect that growth.

You do a lot of great world-building in your books. Do you have any tips or insights for writers working on vividly, thoroughly building worlds of their own? 

One of the greatest pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received was from my college screenwriting mentor, Eric Bogosian, who always told me to make my writing “sexy.” Ha! He didn’t actually mean sexy in the traditional sense – he just meant that every scene in the story should be as cool, vivid, and engaging as possible. This sounds obvious, of course – why wouldn’t you make your story as awesome as possible? – but I’ve definitely caught myself coasting along in a unnecessarily bland scene before.

You can say, “Grit walked down the hallway of the palace.” But isn’t it so much cooler if you mention that the walls are in a cave, encrusted with layers and layers of shells and coral, and that occasionally Grit thinks she sees a blinking eyeball embedded in the rock? So much sexier!

It helps, of course, to build a story world that lends itself well to vivid imagery and lots of sensory details to begin with. That’s why I gravitate to stories with magic, circus, theatre, distinctive natural environments, and the like. If you think it’s cool, chances are, that enthusiasm will show in your writing, and readers will enjoy it as well.

Do you have authors who are favorite world-builders? Or is there a fictional world that is your favorite?

I read the original Mistborn trilogy last year, so I’ve got to tip the hat to Brandon Sanderson’s meticulous world-building and magic system. That level of internal logic and attention to detail isn’t something I necessarily even want in every story (and I certainly don’t write that way!) but it’s just so darn impressive.

I also grew up on Harry Potter, and it remains one of my favorite worlds to this day, as much for the things that don’t make any sense as for the things that do. I don’t mind some arbitrary or contradictory elements in a story world as much as some people do. The real world is full of them! I also enjoy that it would be possible to lead a fairly uneventful life within the Harry Potter world, if one was so inclined. I’ll pass on being the hero of the story, but being able to Apparate to work in the morning? Sign me up.

In addition to the magic and all the fantastical elements, your work contains real-world technology and inventions. Do you do any research for that? How is writing from research different for you than writing fully from your imagination? Does one appeal to you more than the other?

Anyone who knows me is aware that I know absolutely nothing about math or science – so naturally, I created a main character who is not only great at those things, but wants to be an inventor! The first book revolved around the invention and distribution of electric light, and I did a fair bit of research about dynamos, early power stations, and facilities like the Menlo Park laboratory, which is often credited with being the first research and development facility of its kind. Anyone who has called the villain from THE WINGSNATCHERS “Evil Thomas Edison” isn’t far off the mark! I also researched stage magic history to create the routines in the magic competition – though I pumped them up with faeric magic, of course!


For THE CROOKED CASTLE, I researched airships, airplanes, and early flight in general. For a while, I probably knew more about The Hindenburg than is strictly necessary, and I am now the proud owner of such exciting titles as “American Airship Bases.” I did less research for the circus element of the book, Rinka Tinka’s Roving Wonder Show, which I’m slightly embarrassed about, because I was taking circus arts classes while I was writing it! There are definitely a few details in the book that I look at now and sort of groan at, now that I’ve been actually doing circus for a bit.

From Sarah: “I got the idea for the Roving Wonder Show’s floating criers from this photo – it’s just so funny looking, and it made me think, ‘What if she really just lifted off, right then and there?’ I often search Pinterest for a bit of visual stimulation as I write a story, but in this case I was directly inspired by something I found there.” (See below for more about Sarah’s Pinterest board…)

I do have fun with the research, and I definitely use it to inform the story, but at the end of the day, I always keep two things in mind, and I hope readers do as well. Firstly, the book takes place in an alternate universe; their steam technology is much more advanced than the real 1880s-early 1900s, as are their developments in flight. (For example, manned ornithopters – devices that fly by the flapping of wings, like birds – have never had much success in the real world, but in THE CROOKED CASTLE people are able to fly them quite expertly.) Secondly, it’s a fantasy! Faerie magic is at work in both books, and that’s always going to interfere with what we’d normally consider possible.

Okay — about that circus. That flying circus, to be exact. I can’t wait to visit it in The Crooked Castle! Can you tell us where the idea and/or inspiration for that part of the story came from?

Flying circuses were totally a thing! And not just because of Monty Python. 😉 Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s and into the thirties, and of course, air shows are still popular today. Stunt pilots would tour either alone or in groups and perform tricks or try to break various records.

To create Rinka Tinka’s Roving Wonder show, I took the idea of a flying circus for planes and applied it to other aircraft – airships, balloons, ornithopters, etc. And it wouldn’t be a Carmer and Grit adventure if there wasn’t at least a little faerie magic involved…

What’s next for you? Can we expect more from the Carmer and Grit universe? Something else entirely?

I would love to write more in the Carmer and Grit universe – I’ve definitely got one or two more adventures in mind for them! But as of right now, there are no plans set in stone.

I’m currently working on a different middle grade fantasy set in a fairytale-inspired world with a bit of a dark comedic twist. It’s about the daughter of an evil overlord who’s starting to realize she’d rather not take up the family business of dastardly deeds! I’m having great fun writing it. Fingers crossed that it completes the journey to finished book.

. . .

Want to see what else made its way onto Sarah’s CARMER AND GRIT Pinterest board? Click here to check it out!



Sarah Jean Horwitz is the author of the middle grade fantasy series CARMER AND GRIT. She loves storytelling in all its forms and holds a B.A. in Visual & Media Arts with a concentration in screenwriting from Emerson College. Her other passions include feminism, circus arts, extensive thematic playlists, tattoos, and making people eat their vegetables. She works as an administrative assistant and lives with her partner near Cambridge, MA. 

Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide

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If you listened to yesterday’s episode of Books Between, then you’ve already heard about Lifelines, the exciting new children’s book podcast hosted by Ann Braden and Saadia Faruqi.


What can you expect to hear on episodes of Linelines? Here’s an answer from Ann and Saadia themselves:

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Guiding the creation of the content you’ll hear on Lifelines is a set of beliefs about the power of fiction, the necessity of diversity, and the importance of amplifying the voices of minority groups:

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The first two episodes of Lifelines are already live. The first episode, “Supporting Students in Poverty,” features Ann’s conversation with elementary school librarian Eileen Parks as well as Saadia’s recurring “Books You’ve Never Heard Of” segment, in which she recommends books about kids struggling with poverty.

The second episode, “Fighting Prejudice With Words,” features Ann’s conversation with Kiran Waqar, a high school senior and a member of the slam poetry group “Muslim Girls Making Change,” and Saadia’s book recommendations about South East Asia and refugee issues.

You can learn more about the podcast, find links to subscribe, and listen to the two episodes mentioned above here.

And if you’re an educator or librarian who has ideas about great ways to use books to bridge cultural divides, don’t hesitate to reach out to Ann and/or Saadia. They want to hear from you, and are open to all ideas about what should be included on future episodes. For those of you who have LOTS of ideas, they’d love to set up an interview. Their goal is to have all voices at the table. Contact them via this form at Ann’s website, or on Twitter at @annbradenbooks and @SaadiaFaruqi.