Exceptional Nonfiction Reads & A Conversation w/ Wendy MacKnight: Books Between, Episode 51

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love.  I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a teacher, a mom of a 9 and 11 year old, and struggling with some kind of rogue pollen in the air. So if I suddenly sound like the Albino from the Pit of Despair in The Princess Bride – that is why.

This is Episode #51 and today I’m discussing some exceptional nonfiction reads and sharing a conversation with Wendy MacKnight, author of The Frame-up!  

But first I am excited to tell you that today’s episode is sponsored by MoxieReader – a literacy app that’s like a fitness tracker for your reading life. It gives educators insights unnamedinto their students’ reading lives, customized recommendations, and a way for kids to set and work toward their own reading goals in a way that is engaging and fun. My 5th graders and I have been trying it out over the past couple of weeks and they have been really been pumped up about hitting their own goals AND they’ve really liked sharing recommendations with each other.

I feel like the summer is, for me anyway, the perfect time to explore something new so head over to MoxieReader.com and the use the code welovereading and try it out!

A few announcements to pass along! This month’s Middle Grade at Heart book club pick is The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. We’ll have author Diane Magras on the show soon so watch out for that! In July we are reading, Just Under the Clouds and Where the Watermelons Grow is the August pick.

In other news, we at MGBookVillage had SUCH as fabulous response to the #MGBookChat  Twitter chats that we’ve decided to continue them!

So set a reminder for Mondays at 9pm EST  and check out #MGBookChat on Twitter for great conversations between educators, librarians, and authors about how to get great books into the hands of middle grade readers!    We have some great guest hosts lined up so far, but If you have an idea for a topic centered around supporting children’s reading lives and celebrating MG books and would like to co-host an upcoming chat, please contact us. (I’ll drop a link to more information and our upcoming schedule in the show notes.)

Book Talk – Exceptional Nonfiction Reads

This week’s book talk is all about nonfiction!! And I will admit, I do tend to read and book talk more fiction than nonfiction. (And I have heard from some of you about that.) But, my students and I are just coming off of a great Unit of Study all about informational texts and I wanted to share with you some of the books that have really hooked us. And as I started this list, I soon realized it’s too much for one episode. So consider this part one, and on the next show you’ll get more great recommendations!

Let’s get into it with the hot reads with my fifth graders this year. All of these books had long waiting lists and complicated exchange arrangements with my kids – if you work in a classroom or library, you know what I mean.

First up… the Science Comics series!! Oh my word – have these books taken off in my class!  They are graphic novel-style books that feature a character (like an animal) introducing you to their world and telling you everything you need to know about it.  For example, a favorite one in our class is Science Comics Dogs: From Predator to Protector by Andy Hirsch and it starts with an introduction by two canine scientists and then we meet Rudy, who talks directly to the reader about things like domestication, Punnett Squares, and evolution, and breeds, and the meanings of various howls and wags. We have another one called Coral Reefs: Cities of the Oceans which is told by a little yellow fish and is all about coral formation and water runoff and the effects of climate change. I will say – they are complicated and do contain sophisticated vocabulary like alleles and numerical dating vs relative dating and, well – lots of other words I can’t pronounce! But the support of the illustrations really helps, and I have found that readers will pick up what they can and skim the rest – and that’s okay. They next time they come across the term allele, they’ll be more likely to pick up that meaning.  There are a TON more in the series, Bats, Plague, Flying Machines, Volcanoes, Robots & Drones with new titles coming like Polar Bears and Wild Weather!! I definitely need to get more of these next year – they are bright and colorful – and just COOL!

Another hot nonfiction read for us this year is Don’t Read This Book Before Bed: Thrills, Chills, and Hauntingly True Stories by Anna Claybourne. This is a National Geographic Kids book published by Scholastic and how it’s set up is each topic has a two page spread with a big title, an introduction and then 4 or 5 text features like a timeline or picture, or fact box. It really lends itself to bite-sized reading and with each flip of the page you get a new topic like “Island of the Dolls” or “Buried Alive” or “Eerie Everest”. And there are six quizzes throughout the book like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” or “Spot the Fake Photos!” so I liked that it also included some debunking and skepticism. This is book that some of your kids are going to look at and say, “No thank you!” but you know there are a lot you are going to go “Oh yeah! Let me at it!”

In a similar vein is a book called Beasties in My Backyard which also includes a two-page spread for common backyard (or household) bugs like centipedes and cicadas and cockroaches and lightning bugs! Each page has an intro and a HUGE super close-up photo (like see every hair on their legs photo) with the features labeled and explained. And then a fact file with its size and diet and location. And a few text features. Actually, even though the title is Beasties in my Backyard – our classroom has had its share of ants, and moths, and stink bugs, and centipedes recently. Just yesterday my teammate, Cindy, had to snag a spider out of my hair during lunch!  A couple other nonfiction books that my biology-loving students are getting into are 101 Hidden Animals (all about creatures who camouflage), Life As We Know It (about everything from the beginnings of life on earth to species and ecosystems and survival) and Ocean Animals: Who’s Who in the Deep Blue (another gorgeous National Geographic Kids book).

Another super popular book this year is one called… Drones. It’s one of those short, wide books with 96 pages chock full of information. There’s a four page intro and then each spread is about a different drone – military drones and then civilian drones. I liked that the pictures are large and the text is large and well spaced so it’s really readable. Also – for each drone they include a “How Big Is It”  box with the silhouette of that drone with either a person or a bus or something to help you picture it.


Two other books that have become very popular this year in the wake of student activist movements are Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge which tells the story of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 with a particular focus on the voices of the children who participated. Another book called Kids on Strike! tells the stories of children who organized in the early 1900s for better working conditions. Each chapter is about a different strike – from mill workers and coal miners and garment workers, It was a fascinating and timely read. I think it would be really interesting to have students compare a chapter from each these books to current news stories about student walkouts and the marches demanding gun control.

My students are also really loving those Scholastic “A True Book” series – especially the one called Cybercriminals which is all about hacking and identity theft – topics they hear about in the news and want to know more about. I really, really love this series and they have a plethora of titles that can connect to just about any content area so you can make your reading time also hit some science and social studies.

And – I probably don’t need to tell you this, but any of the Almanac / World Record-type books are hugely popular with my kiddos. They were with me too when I was their age! But boy have they changed! My tattered copy of the 19somethingsomething Guinness Book of World Records is black and white, teensy-tiny print, and maybe a picture or two? These books are chock full of color and images with bold words and color coded sections.  I don’t get a new one EVERY year but honestly I probably should they are so popular. Guinness has a great one every year and so does Scholastic.  And the National Geographic Kids Almanacs are also great. And there are also books like The Year in Sports and even ones specific to baseball or football.

And I’m starting to realize that this list is pretty heavily loaded with Scholastic titles. Honestly, it’s because they are affordable and I can save up my points to get some of the more pricey ones. But I do realize that limits the selection, so next year I’m going to look for ways to fund some other titles, too.

Alright – I hope this has encouraged you to pick up some new nonfiction titles for your children and students. And if you have a suggestion about a great nonfiction book we should all know about, email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or connect on Twitter at @Books_Between.


Wendy McLeod Macknight – Interview Outline


Our special guest this week is Wendy McLeod MacKnight.  We chat about art, her biggest
influences as a child, and her inspirations behind her newest middle grade novel,
The Frame-Up.

Take a listen…


Your newest novel is due to be released into the world on June 5th! What is Frame-up all about?

What kind of research did you do for this book and did you collaborate at all with the Beaverbrook Art Gallery?

What were some of the challenges you encountered when setting up the “rules” of the paintings?

If you could go visit any painting you wished, which one would you pick?

If you knew a painting could really come alive, would you want one painted of yourself?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Wendy and I discuss 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 47:30 mark.

Your Writing Life

What are you working on next?

Your Reading Life

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 teacher or librarian in your life who helped you

What are some books you’ve been reading lately?


Wendy’s website – http://wendymcleodmacknight.com

Wendy on Twitter and Facebook

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

It’s a Mystery Pigface (Wendy MacKnight)

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

Penderwicks at Last (Jeanna Birdsall)

You Go First (Erin Entrada Kelly)

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Diane Magras)

The Science of Unbreakable Things (Tae Keller)

The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody (Matthew Landis)


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!


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.



MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: EVERY SHINY THING by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Jensen and Morrison Every Shiny Thing Cover

In May, the Middle Grade @ Heart book club had the absolute delight of reading EVERY SHINY THING by Cordelia Jensen and our very own contributor, Laurie Morrison! EVERY SHINY THING is an engaging and emotional story told half in prose and half in verse from the perspectives of Lauren and Sierra, two very different girls who are brought together after they both experience the pain of being separated from a loved one.

In EVERY SHINY THING, one of the teachers, Mr. Ellis, teaches Sierra how to structure an essay. He tells her that she must choose a thesis statement and then take examples from the test to prove it. So for this review, I will start with a thesis statement: EVERY SHINY THING is a beautifully told, important novel that teaches valuable lessons about justice, friendship, and brokenness (as well as essay structure!)

EVERY SHINY THING raises important questions about what it means to fight for justice. Lauren is an empathic character from a wealthy family who has always been a helpful sister. When her brother moves to a boarding school for children with autism, she decides to direct her empathic instincts toward raising money for people less fortunate than herself. She begins by selling things she doesn’t need, but her Robin Hood plan spirals out of control when she starts to take things that don’t belong to her. Lauren brings Sierra into her schemes, declaring that they are “partners in justice,” rather than crime, which leads the reader to ask themselves: are good intentions enough to justify the things we say and do in the name of justice? For readers interested in the things kids can do to join the fight for justice and equality, the Simplicity-A-Thon hosted by Lauren’s school provides a welcome alternative to her misguided schemes.

EVERY SHINY THING also does a wonderful job at portraying middle grade friendships. The relationships in EVERY SHINY THING are at times heartwarming, at times troubled and complex, and always realistic. The emotional ups and downs of Lauren and Sierra’s friendship, measured in kaleidoscope-colored days, will keep readers of all ages engaged and hoping that our two protagonists find lucky green days. One of my favorite parts of the novel is the sleepover the two girls have together, giggling and asking a Magic 8 ball silly questions–it’s an experience that many readers will find relatable. And yet, their friendship is complicated both by Lauren’s schemes and Sierra’s need to take care of someone the way she used to take care of her mother, who was sent to prison. It is at times difficult to read about the way Sierra hides her true feelings in order to care for Lauren. In a heartbreaking moment, Sierra turns to her beloved kaleidoscope for help:

When I got home,

I looked into my kaleidoscope

and this time shook and shook

for green to

rise up

not for Mom,


for Lauren.

(I did say this story was beautifully told, didn’t I?) Although EVERY SHINY THING covers difficult and painful subjects, readers will be left with a sense of hope for Lauren and Sierra’s friendship, and perhaps for some of their own relationships too, as they learn that sometimes relationships need to change in order to grow.

This leads to my last point: EVERY SHINY THING demonstrates the beautiful ways in which things that are broken can be put back together. Both Lauren and Sierra come from families that have been taken apart in some way. Lauren and her parents struggle to relate to each other without the presence of Lauren’s brother, Ryan, and Sierra is placed in foster care after her mother is imprisoned. Sierra’s foster mother, Anne, makes jewelry out of found objects and broken glass. She states, “Sometimes, the best thing we can do for anyone is to let them fall.” Relationships and families may permanently change, but readers will take comfort in the fact that “broken things can be repurposed to make something beautiful,” and that healing does not come from going right back to the way things were, but from creating something new with people we care about. I like to think that creating something new often starts with picking up a story like this one (and who can resist that shiny cover?!).

Mr. Ellis says you must restate your introduction in your conclusion, so I’ll say it again: EVERY SHINY THING is a wonderful and important story that will help young readers understand justice, friendship, and how to make something beautiful out of broken pieces.

The Middle Grade @ Heart book club pick for June is THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER by Diane Magras! Stay tuned for more posts about this awesome book and join us for our Twitter chat on July 3!

JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS and The Shifting Meaning of Home


Home. The concept conjures a lot of images for me.

I think of the way I have “home” programmed in my phone. It is not the number of the house I live in. It’s the number of the house I grew up in. And, though my parents still live there, I don’t call the number anymore because we all carry phones in our pockets. Still, this is how I’ve labelled “home” for years and the thought of re-labelling it doesn’t sit well.

I think of the various apartments I’ve lived in over the years. The first place I lived in, outside of my parent’s house and university dorms, was a collegetown two-bedroom I rented for $400 a month with my best friend. The couch puffed up in memories of smoke whenever I plopped down on it. It’s where we proudly rolled an ancient television set outside on warm days, which earned us respect from classmates and passersby. The lease ended upon graduation and, *poof*, an entire 4-year experience and, the person I was during that time, gone. I remember it, sometimes, a life untethered. One without any responsibility, it seemed, not to children, mortgages, or jobs.

I think of the home I live in now, the first place I have ever “owned”. It’s a weathered Cape that surprises people, when they walk inside, with its efficient Mary-Poppins-bag layout; the way it appears larger and more spacious than they imagined when they first looked at its tiny frame.

I think of the people inside these spaces. My mother, before we talked into cordless phones, how she sat curled up in a dining room chair, the telephone chord stretching across the floor plan. My red-haired son, now four years old, crawling across the hardwood floor of a cramped Brooklyn apartment while my husband pushed around sweet-smelling onions in a non-stick pan.

I remember leaving many of these four walls, these roofs, to step outside and breathe fresh air, head and heart dizzy with bad news. A heart attack. A cancer diagnosis. A death I hadn’t expected. How unmoored I could become, the ground beneath my feet no longer solid. With loss imminent, the spaces inside me, became empty. And the places I occupied felt cold.

When I sat down to write the first draft of what would become my first published novel, Just Under the Clouds, I was a new mother. I wore the identity like a scratchy, ill-fitting coat. My office, where I wrote and worked, had turned into a nursery. I had a corner of the couch I could write at. It smelled of spit-up and there was an imprint in the cushion where I had sat and nursed an infant for hours. I wondered how to be. Who to be. I turned toward the part of my identity I could keep in this new phase of life. Writer. 

I didn’t know, when I first started this book, that I would be writing about homelessness. I wanted to write about a 12 year old girl named Cora who loved surveying and climbing all the trees in Brooklyn. I knew she was searching for something, but, for what? As I explored her search, as she climbed sturdy trees, and sought out seeds and roots, I realized she was searching for stability, a feeling of being grounded and whole. It sounded a lot like what I was looking for. A way to feel at home. 

So began Cora’s search. And my own. As I thought about home, I thought of the many places I lived. But I also thought of the person I was in those spaces. The people who crossed the same floorboards with me. The experiences and feelings I left behind when I moved on.

I realized that home can be a place. But it can also be a person. Or a feeling. And it shifts as our lives do.


Melissa Sarno is a children’s writer based in the lower Hudson Valley where she lives with her husband and two children. Just Under the Clouds, her debut novel for middle grade readers, is out now.

The only thing she loves more than writing books is reading them. She celebrates middle grade and picture books on the B&N Kids Blog and she’s the YA and Children’s Book Reviews Editor for Cleaver Magazine. She also loves to hike, run, bake cakes, and take photos.



Learning to Look Beyond What You Think You See: How Middle Grade Fiction Can Entice Children to Explore the World Around Them

I’m thrilled to be visiting MG Book Village on the birthday of my latest novel, The Frame-Up, which is my love letter to art and art galleries/museums!

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As children, we are born with the love of creation. Sadly, for many of us, this unfettered joy gives way to abandonment when we realize that some of us have natural talent and some of us do not. Often, this feeling is only exaggerated by visits to where real art hangs. We wander gallery after gallery, seeing, but not seeing.

I’ve always loved art, though I didn’t always have a vocabulary to express why or how I was drawn to certain pieces of art. And if I am being truthful, at a certain point in my life, I sometimes felt intimidated when I visited art galleries, especially smaller ones, afraid I wouldn’t say or think the “right” thing. Because when I looked at the paintings or sculptures, I was imagining all kinds of things, none of which involved who the artist was or whether the medium was oil or watercolor or mixed media. I was imagining stories.

How to bring the love of art alive? I pondered this very question in the fall of 2015, sitting in my living room. I’m fortunate: I have artist friends, my great-grandmother was an amateur painter, and I have collected some nice pieces over the years. And I was always drawn to stories and movies that feature art: The Portrait of Dorian Gray, creepy movies where the eyes in the portrait follow the hapless victim from room to room, and of course, Harry Potter, where the paintings have lives of their own behind the frame. As I stared at an old oil painting of a cow on my wall, I wondered if it ever wandered over into the other paintings in my house. Were there brouhahas when I left the room or went to bed at night?

And then it hit me: what if all original art is alive, infused with the creative energy of their creators, and they don’t want us to know?

Much as I love the artwork in my home, I knew it wasn’t the proper setting for my book. But there was a place only a few miles away filled with world-class art who were just dying to share their stories: The Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. From there it was simply a matter of “casting” my characters from paintings and developing a compelling story of two worlds — one behind the frame, one in front of it — that exist side-by-side but can never intersect, at least not physically.

In the story, the gallery director’s son, an appropriately named Sargent Singer, discovers the secret of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery when he catches the book’s heroine, Mona Dunn, sticking out her tongue at a couple of obnoxious visitors. Add in some kids attending summer camp, a creepy art restorer, and a fractured father-son relationship, and I had my story.

But central to that story was encouraging children to look at art differently. In the book, the campers don’t just look at the art on the walls; they create copies using different mediums: crayons, graphic novels, collage. And readers get to step into the world behind the frame, encouraged to imagine what it was like the day the portrait or landscape was created, what’s been happening since, and the results of the artist’s choices (one can’t help but be sympathetic to the sketch of W. Somerset Maugham’s head in the story, forever dependent on the kindness of the gallery’s other residents to get him out and about.)

I also loved the idea of setting the book in a real place. Starting in June, people visiting The Beaverbrook Art Gallery can actually take The Frame-Up tour and see the characters in the book for themselves! And those who can’t go in person can visit the gallery virtually if they want to learn more about the paintings (after they’ve looked at the full color insert Greenwillow Books included in the novel!). If they visit the Beaverbrook, they’ll discover that the Mona Dunn portrait is every bit as mysterious and glorious as the Mona Lisa, which is why we’ve come up with #TheOtherMona.

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Mona Dunn, William Orpen, 1915, Oil on Canvas

One of my favourite things is when middle grade novels are set in real places that I can visit afterwards: The Anne of Green Gables House on Prince Edward Island, The Metropolitan Museum of Art after Percy Jackson, Betsy and Tacy’s houses in Mankato, Minnesota, Harriet the Spy’s house on the Upper East side of New York City, or all the locations in Michael Scott’s Alchemist books, for example. And if the reader can’t visit them in person, they can research them online.

But readers of The Frame-Up don’t have to travel to New Brunswick to experience art. My hope is that when they finish the book, they’ll ask their parents and teachers to take them to their local art galleries or museums. And when they do, I hope they stop and stare and wonder, just like I do. And realize that when you start to think of paintings as living things, they’ll come alive for you.

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Wendy McLeod MacKnight grew up in a small town and wrote her first novel at age nine. Her first middle grade novel, It’s a Mystery, Pig Face! was published by Sky Pony Press in 2017. She’s been known to wander through art galleries and converse with the paintings — mostly in her head, though sometimes not. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada with her husband, and feeds raccoons, even though she knows she shouldn’t!

Middle Grade is Listening

Listening is a skill.

We’ve all met someone who actively, purposefully listens. Not everyone does this. It’s not innate. It’s a skill honed and practiced and used with deftness. It’s a magician’s trick, because it makes the one being listened to feel valued and cherished. Except it’s not a trick. It’s the real thing.

(Bear with me, this will circle around to Middle Grade lit; I promise).

I’m a teacher by trade. Last week, I read the picture book THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS by Robert Munsch to my kiddos. While I read, I didn’t show the illustrations, but it was their job to listen and draw. When finished, I looked at each of their drawings and noticed that one child had a dragon inside a cave–a cave that was colored entirely blue (to be clear, there’s nothing *blue* in the text). When I asked the illustrator why the cave had ended up blue (also to be clear, I’d assumed they’d scribble scrabbled blue just for kicks; we’ve had problems with this of late) they said, “The cave is blue, because the dragon’s favorite color is blue, so the dragon painted the cave blue.”

(I’m getting closer to my point; hold on.)

Often, Middle Grade lit is mentioned as sitting at the kids table. There are two reasons people find this worth mentioning. First, that it’s terribly easy to equate the silliness of childhood with childhood itself as being silly. Second, that it’s a joke.

Humor and the telling of jokes is filled with power dynamics and social constructs and a way for “in-groups” to push people to the outside. This is what happens: at some point, people graduate from the kids table at holiday to the adult table, and when we look back at the kids table (or worse yet, oh horrors–if we have to return and sit at the kids table ourselves), it’s done so with shame or embarrassment or eye-rolling laughter.

Do we see how easy it is to turn “childhood” into “childish” into “silly and unimportant”? How easy it is to turn childhood into a joke? The punchline of a joke. Better yet, do we think kids don’t notice?

(Here we go; this next part is my main thought. See, I promised I’d come to books eventually.)

Middle Grade literature is not talking to children, or talking at children, or talking around children. This is what adults tend to do to kids. We talk to them, or at them, or around them. But Middle Grade literature is none of these things; at least, it shouldn’t be. Rather, kidslit is talking with children.

And when MG is at its finest, it’s listening.

At its heart, Middle Grade lit is authors listening to children. It’s the moment adults bend down, look children in the eye, and listen respectfully to their logic (that dragon’s cave was blue for a reason), their lives, their experiences, the way they value relationships and act within friendships, and the deeply held needs and desires they have. And we do not, not ever, treat childhood itself as a joke.

As Middle Grade authors, it’s our job to make the decision to listen, and also to find value in what our audience has to say. With every book we write, I hope our readers know that always, always we’re listening.

_PJZ9696.jpgJuliana Brandt is a Middle Grade fantasy author represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. When not writing about strange and dreamy magic, she teaches Kindergarten and hikes in the mountains of Appalachia. She has mentored other writers through Pitch Wars since 2014. You can connect with Juliana on Twitter at @julianalbrandt and on her website http://julianalbrandt.com

Educator Spotlight: Colby Sharp

In the Educator Spotlight today – author, podcaster, NerdCampMI organizer, AND 5th grade teacher Colby Sharp! 

In this video, Colby tells us about his favorite middle grade authors, the one book impacted his teaching the most, his classroom library, his advice for new teachers – and lots more!

Check it out!

coolteach_0.jpgYou can connect with Colby on Twitter at @colbysharp, on Instagram at @colbysharp, and on his website https://www.mrcolbysharp.com.  And definitely check out his YouTube channel!






MG at Heart Book Club’s June Pick

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


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One dark night, Drest’s sheltered life on a remote Scottish headland is shattered when invading knights capture her family, but leave Drest behind. Her father, the Mad Wolf of the North, and her beloved brothers are a fearsome war-band, but now Drest is the only one who can save them. So she starts off on a wild rescue attempt, taking a wounded invader along as a hostage.

Hunted by a bandit with a dark link to her family’s past, aided by a witch whom she rescues from the stake, Drest travels through unwelcoming villages, desolate forests, and haunted towns. Every time she faces a challenge, her five brothers speak to her in her mind about courage and her role in the war-band. But on her journey, Drest learns that the war-band is legendary for terrorizing the land. If she frees them, they’ll not hesitate to hurt the gentle knight who’s become her friend.

Drest thought that all she wanted was her family back; now she has to wonder what their freedom would really mean. Is she her father’s daughter or is it time to become her own legend? 

“[I]t’s clear we’re in the hands of a master storyteller. ‘The Mad Wolf’s Daughter’ feels like an instant classic.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Empathetic, bold, and entirely herself at a time when women were dismissed as weak, Drest shines in this fast-paced adventure.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Drest is a wonderfully fierce and feisty heroine, able and quick of wit, and she is joined by other sympathetic and complex characters. . . . The plot is packed with twists and turns, and the ending leaves enough to suggest a sequel.”—Booklist

“Drest is a likable and headstrong character, and the composite of various regions in Scotland will appeal to tweens who appreciate atmospheric woodsy settings. Readers will learn, along with Drest, about feudal village life, contemporaneous attitudes toward gender, and the relationship between truth and legend. . . . Drest’s embrace of unlikely friendships and a new code of honor are well done. A solid quest story for tweens with an interest in the Picts and medieval Scotland.”—School Library Journal

“Action-packed at every turn.”—Kirkus Reviews

The Newsletter will go out June 25.

The #MGBookclub Twitter Chat will take place July 3 at 8 pm EST.

Interview: Kathi Appelt

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I was beyond thrilled when I heard that Kathi Appelt was interested in stopping by the #MGBookVillage to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of her exceptional novel, The Underneath. I have a number of favorite books, as I know many book-lovers do, but whenever I talk about The Underneath, I always describe it as one of my favorite favorites. The characters, and the place in which their story unfolds, have remained vividly in my mind ever since I first met them, and they have beckoned me back for re-readings on multiple occasions. Getting a chance to interview Kathi about this marvelous, magical book was an honor and a treat. Read the interview below, then check out The Underneath‘s brand new book trailer and enter the exciting Tenth Anniversary Giveaway!

~ Jarrett

. . .

First of all, Kathi, thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village during your celebration of The Underneath’s ten-year anniversary. It is an extraordinary novel, and one of my personal favorites. Reading it ten years ago helped convince me that I was, deep down, a children’s book author. 

Jarrett, many thanks for taking time out for me. I know you’re a very busy person, so visiting with you, even in cyberspace, means a lot to me. And I’m so moved to think that my book had even a small part in opening the door to your own authorship.

So: ten years! How have things changed for you in the decade since The Underneath was released? 

Well, I wish I could say that I’m older and wiser, but the only thing I know for certain is that I’m older.

The Underneath was your first novel, and it’s by no means a straightforward one. It’s layered, complex, delicately twined. Did you set out to write it as such, with multiple strands of stories braided together, or did the project change and grow throughout the writing process?

It started out as a short story that I had written about a boy who rescues a cat from a creek. It was based on a true event, when my son Jacob discovered an abandoned kitten in a park where we were camping, when he was about nine years old. I had a photo of him on my desk, holding that kitten, and it served as a reminder while I worked my way through the pages.

The thing is, it was actually fine just as a short story. In fact, I still have it in a file somewhere. But I kept thinking that there was more to it. It just felt like there were stories within that story that were waiting to be uncovered. Then I had the great good fortune to attend “Write Fest,” which was being led by Cynthia Leitich Smith at her house in Austin. It was a week-long workshop and in order to be accepted, we had to turn in a minimum of 80 pages. The short story was maybe 8. So, in my desperation, I just kept “pulling” at it. I began to think of it as taffy. You know, the way that you make taffy is to pull on it until it stretches, and then you double back, and pull it some more? That’s how it felt. I finally managed to out eke out 80 rushed pages. And I will confess that I widened the margins and increased the size of the font in order to get there. But Cynthia, as well as the other participants (including Laura Ruby, Sharon Darrow, Sean Petrie, Katie Davis, et al.) encouraged me despite the hot mess that they very graciously read.

I also had a lot of encouragement from my agent, Holly McGhee, who must’ve read at least ten drafts. Holly is the author-whisperer, at least she is for me. But she is also the one who called one morning and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm in her voice, that she thought I should let the boy in the story go. Wait! What? It was that boy who gave me the story to begin with, and he was so much like my son that to cut him out was deeply painful. But it was also the exact right thing to do, even though it meant slicing out about 100 pages of text. Since extended narrative is hard for me (see below), losing that much was tough. It took me a while to wrap my head around it. However, as I began the process of trimming, what I realized—and what Holly had seen—was that taking the boy out allowed the animals’ stories to deepen. It was the exact right thing to do.

And then my editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, brought her gentle touch to the table. What she did was to help me illuminate and more fully understand Gar Face. She encouraged me to see him in a more three-dimensional way, as opposed to the Cruella de Vil approach that I had originally taken with him. (Not that I don’t love Cruella).

Altogether, it took over three years and about 30 drafts to finish it. In fact, that’s about what it takes for all my novels. I keep thinking that I should be getting better at this, but nope. Three years, thirty drafts seems about right. 

You wrote poetry before The Underneath, and the novel is, of course, deeply poetic. How did your background in poetry influence your approach to writing longer prose narratives?

So, here’s the thing . . . extended prose is really hard for me. I started out, as you know, writing poetry and picture books, and eventually I wrote a collection of short stories, Kissing Tennessee, for young adults. But in all those cases, everything I wrote seemed to naturally end around the bottom of page three. Some of the short stories were a little longer, but not really much.

I had always wanted to write a novel, but oof, those long narrative passages? They eluded me. And I admit, they also terrified me somewhat. I was never sure that I could maintain the tension required to get through more than a handful of pages. And then, I was working through some of the poetry exercises in a wonderful book called In the Palm of Your Hand, by Steve Kowit, and I discovered prose poetry. Chunky, paragraph-like passages that resemble flash fiction. I fell in love. I even wrote a memoir, My Father’s Summers, using them. That memoir gave me courage. It made me think that I could write a novel, but in order to do it I’d have to honor my natural proclivity for “short.”

With the exception of Maybe a Fox, which I wrote with Alison McGhee, that’s how I’ve written all of my novels—in short, chunky passages. I call them “S.S.S.’s,” which stands for “Short Significant Scenes.” They work for me.

It’s not that I can’t write longer passages, it’s that they go against my grain. So, one of the things that I encourage writers to do is to truly consider where their natural proclivities lie. It could be that I’m a little attention-deficit, and the short chunks of text just fit my nature? I can’t say for sure. And maybe, as I get even older, I’ll write something in a different format, but for now at least, short suits me. 

There is a wonderful passage in The Underneath that reads, “Humans are designed to be with other humans…They need each other’s laughter. They require each other’s sorrows. They are made to swim and cook and hunt and gossip together. Mostly, they need each other’s stories, stories of love and wisdom and mirth.” With this in mind, what is it about animals’ stories that particularly attract you? What do you think readers can learn from being made to empathize with animal characters?

Of course, animal characters are basically humans in animal skins, aren’t they? For them to work, they have to have human thoughts, human feelings, human ideas. But that’s not completely true, is it, because an animal character still has to have what I call the ish factor. That is, a bear character, while basically endowed with human emotions and feelings, still has to be bear-ish. Likewise, no one would buy a kitten character that didn’t resemble a toddler, but they really wouldn’t buy one that wasn’t kitten-ish.

So, one of the beauties of writing animal characters is that we get to enter into a way of looking at the world from the very ground or water up. We get to imagine what a swamp looks like from the alligator’s point of view, just under the surface of the dark water. We get to consider the way it feels to fit just underneath the ear of an old hound dog, as only a kitten could feel.

Likewise, there is the character’s animal response to consider. In other words, we can assume that a kitten would respond to a lizard in a different way from a human, right? We can assume that a bear would growl and attack if someone got too close. We can imagine that a snake would strike if provoked. Whenever I write an animal character, I do a lot of research. I want to know what they eat, when they sleep, what kinds of nests they build or not, whether they live in packs or if they’re loners. The traits of the animals in my stories always inform the story itself. Ranger, a bona fide hound dog, chained to a post for years and years, would howl out his sorrow in the way that only a hound could. To hear a hound bay like that is to understand the blues in their truest sense. And the whole forest would know it, especially the mama cat, who would recognize that anguish.

I also think that animals do elicit a kind of empathy from us that we don’t necessarily share (unfortunately) for fellow humans. I can’t explain why. But I will say that when the book came out, I got a number of angry letters and emails about the way Ranger was treated in the book. I always reassured these folks that no animals were harmed in the writing. But the thing is, Gar Face’s treatment was similar. He was also struck in the face. He was also a prisoner, albeit chained by his own hate. Still, I’ve never had anyone write to tell me that they were unhappy about the way he was treated. And maybe that’s the difference, eh? Ranger’s imprisonment was not of his own making. Gar Face’s was. Nevertheless, it’s been a curious thing to me to see how differently readers have responded to both characters.

Courtesy Atheneum Books for Young Readers

When I think about The Underneath, the characters, of course, leap to mind – Ranger, Puck, Gar Face, Grandmother. But the setting in which these characters’ stories unfold has remained in my memory and imagination perhaps even more strongly. Can you talk about the importance of place for you as a storyteller? 

I’m so glad you mentioned that. For me, there are three major things that inspire us, and they all begin with the letter P: People. Places. Pets. Those are the three major things that we hang our hearts on. And more and more, I’ve realized that Place creates the solid foundation for the story to both emerge and realize itself. Place has the ability to organize the story in that it gives us a landscape for specific sounds, obstacles, animal and human populations, flora and fauna, weather, even laws, economics, and traditions. Place a character in a fully realized place, and it gives you an immediate way to enter into what and how the characters will respond.

I know that characters are a fine way to begin a story. I’ve written stories that were very character-centered, but even those almost always eventually have to merge with setting. I’m often frustrated by stories that feel removed from place, as if they could happen anywhere. There’s some value in those stories, I think. But I also really feel that place, if it’s used well, is as much of a character as the actual characters. One story that readily comes to mind is E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. Dang, she did a great job with that island. Her main character was, in a million ways, an island within an island, and Emily did such a bang-up job of creating that place that we know, instantly, that the story was shaped, organized, fully realized by the setting, including the way that its smallness cornered the hero and her family. There was no escape, even when they weren’t on the island itself. Brilliant, really.

Another great example is Rita Williams Garcia’s Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. That story depends so much on the New York subway system. Clayton has to physically go deeper beneath the surface of his own grief in order to find his way out. He’s taunted, not only by a group of menacing kids, but by his lack of understanding about what is true and what is not. His resentment toward his mother is like the trains that barrel through those tunnels—hard and fast. The only place that story could happen was in the subway. Rita knew that, and she uses her knowledge of the city and the trains to give the story a pungency that we can almost smell, and the moment that Clayton goes down there, we’re instantly worried that he may never find his way out, at least metaphorically. So good, that Rita.

So, yes to Place and all it has to offer to us as storytellers. 

Over the course of the next ten years, The Underneath is certain to reach and resonate with many, many more readers. What do you hope they take away from your story?

My hope has always been that readers will see, in the twin stories of Ranger and Gar Face, that they can always, no matter how difficult their own stories are, make a good choice. Even in the face of darkness, they can turn their own faces toward the light.


Kathi Appelt photo 2015_credit Igor Kraguljak (1)Kathi Appelt is the New York Times best-selling author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Her first novel, The Underneath, was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newbery Honor Book. It also received the PEN USA Award. Her other novels include The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, a National Book Award finalist, and Maybe a Fox, one of the Bank Street Books Best Children’s Books of the Year. In addition to writing, Ms. Appelt is on the faculty in the Masters of Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in College Station, Texas. To learn more, and to find curriculum materials and activity pages, visit her website at kathiappelt.com.

Check out the new trailer for The Underneath !

GIVEAWAY: Fifteen lucky winners will receive an autographed paperback copy of THE UNDERNEATH. In addition, one Grand Prize winner will win a classroom set of 20 copies of the book PLUS a 30-40 minute Skype visit for her/his school, classroom, or library with award-winning author Kathi Appelt. Enter here!