An Author’s Life in a List: Eight Observations About Writing Two Middle Grade Novels

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1. When I wrote my first novel, Annie’s Life in Lists, I had no idea if anyone would ever read it besides my family. (I didn’t have an agent yet, and certainly not a publisher. I hadn’t even met most of my current writing group members.)

But by the time I wrote my second novel, The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School, I had a two-book deal and a squad of incredible early readers: an editor, an agent, and four priceless critique partners!

This was very exciting. (Yay! This time I know I’ll get feedback from brilliant real-life publishing whizzes!) It was also somewhat terrifying. (Yipes. Brilliant real-life publishing whizzes are definitely going to be reading this manuscript. They will surely ask for more edits than my husband does.)

2. My first novel was written entirely as a series of lists. Writing lists was challenging but fun, and as you can see, it’s a format I got used to. In fact, I even started writing many of my emails in list form, and so did my critique partners. The Kristin Listin, we call it.

With the second novel, I was somewhat relieved to discover that I can still write in regular prose (although the book is sort of like a long list since each chapter introduces a new character).

3. The main character in the first book, Annie, is a lot like me when I was in fifth grade. She’s usually quiet and respectful of her elders, and she remembers all kinds of tiny details about people that she keeps to herself.

Gus, the main character in my second book, is definitely a bit bolder. (She yells at her parents! She gambles! She steals her teacher’s breath-freshening spray!)

I loved writing both of them, but I may have had a little more fun being inside Gus’s head, just because her relative insouciance is something I’ve often aspired to. (Something else I’ve aspired to: casually using words like “insouciance.” Check!)

4. With Annie’s Life in Lists, I usually “pantsed” it (i.e., flew by the seat of my pants and worked with a good idea and a pile of notes but no real outline).

For The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School….I pantsed it again. Some things don’t change. Apparently I’m just a pantser.


5. On a good day, pantsing is exciting, and writing feels almost like reading a great book as the adventure unfolds. (“Ha! That brother is hilarious!” or “Oh no; I can’t believe her mom said that!”)

On a bad day, pantsing it is not so fun. My thoughts on those days are more like “Ugh, why can’t this author make up her mind about the next plot point?” and “Oh wait; the author is me.” Those are the days I think often of the Dorothy Parker quote “I hate writing, I love having written.”

6. After the launch party for Annie’s Life in Lists, I saw Amy Sedaris in the bookstore. (This was a coincidence; she wasn’t there for my launch. But still, exciting. Even though my brother wouldn’t let me say hello to her. Or tell her that I’m a fellow North Carolinian. Or give her a copy of my book to pass along to her brother.)

I just felt like mentioning this; it really has nothing to do with writing my second book. Or does it? Now that I know anything is possible, maybe I’ll see a famous native of my current home state at my next book event. Paging Mr. Springsteen.

7. Every step of the process was a marvel to me both times. I couldn’t wait to see the covers, and I love them both. Annie was depicted beautifully by Rebecca Crane and Gus’s world is wonderfully captured by Hyesu Lee. I remain in awe of editors, illustrators, copy editors, and designers.

8. Hands down, my favorite thing about having Annie’s Life in Lists published has been hearing from readers. There’s nothing better than hearing that your book was the first novel a 9-year-old was able to get through, or that a fourth-grade book club is clamoring for a sequel. Those are definitely the comments that have me walking on air for the rest of the day. (And I get a giggle from readers’ probing questions like “Can I see the pencil-lead mark you got on your hand in third grade?”)

The jury is still out on Book Two, but I can’t wait to hear from readers once it’s published in August! Early buzz from the middle-graders in my house includes “This book was great, Mom!”, “Why aren’t there any characters named after me?” and “Do we have any good snacks?”

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Kristin Mahoney:
1. Grew up in North Carolina, where she always knew she wanted to be a writer
2. Now lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and a goofy dog
3. Can be found online at, @KMcMahoney on Twitter, and @kristinmahoneybooks on Instagram

STEM Tuesday Spin-Off: Potato Chip Edition

StemLogo-SpinOff (1)It’s time for another edition of STEM Tuesday Spin- Off! In this relatively new addition to the MG Book Village, members of STEM Tuesday (blogging for From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors) examine everyday items in a middle-grader reader’s life from the perspective of science, technology, engineering & math.

Picture a wheel. The common, everyday item will be the “hub” or main idea of the post and the “spin-offs” will be the STEM spokes in our wheel of discovery. We’ll peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for STEM connections, and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. According to STEM Tuesday contributor Heather L. Montgomery, we’ll “Go deep!” on a common subject and take a look at its inherent STEM components.

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STEM Tuesday Spin-Off:  Potato Chips

This month author Patricia Newman takes a closer look at snack foods, particularly POTATO CHIPS. Who doesn’t love potato chips, right? Their crispy, saltiness opens a Pandora’s box of STEM concepts.


Hub:  Potato Chips

Spoke 1:  Where Food Comes From

Do potato chips really start with potatoes? What are those other ingredients on the label? This spin-off gets kids thinking about where food comes from (before it arrives in the grocery store, that is). Everything we eat has its own story. Where are our apples grown? Did the salmon on our plates ever swim in the ocean? What pesticides are on our veggies? Let’s Eat: Sustainable Food for a Hungry Planet by Kimberley Veness uncovers the secret lives of our food (think the science of agriculture).

Establishing a small garden is another great way to reinforce the science between food and the environment. Start with The Nitty Gritty Gardening Book. This title also introduces the idea of composting (think decomposition) to reduce the impact of food waste on the environment.

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Spoke 2:  Palm Oil

Virtually all snack foods are made with oil. Palm oil is the most popular variety in the world. But palm oil plantations destroy rain forest habitat, which endangers its inhabitants such as orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Who knew eating a single potato chip could ripple all the way to the rain forests of Asia (think food chains and human impacts on the environment)?

In the “Treetop Teachers” chapter of Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, I follow Dr. Meredith Bastian from Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. Meredith studies how habitat loss affects orangutans. Her stories, both fascinating and tragic, make us wonder if we really need that potato chip after all.

Mission Tiger Rescue by Kitson Jazynka brings readers up close and personal to tigers–their habits, the challenges they face, and how we can help them.

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Spoke 3:  Cooking

Eating too many snack foods can lead to childhood obesity. But why is snack food more fattening? What is a healthy diet (think human biology)? And by golly, how can I make vegetables taste as good as potato chips?

Cooking is an excellent STEM activity (think chemistry and math) to make healthy food more exciting. For ideas, consider the global focus of Food Atlas: Discover All the Delicious Foods of the World by Giulia Malerba and Febe Sillani. Or perhaps you want to jump to the kitchen with simple home cooking. Kid Chef  by Melina Hammer includes many healthy eating suggestions that kids can prepare themselves.

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Another way to emphasize healthy eating is to uncover the dirty secrets the fast food industry uses to reel us in. Eat This! How Fast Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk by Andrea Curtis and Peggy Collins approaches STEM from a different perspective—the science of persuasion.

Spoke 4:  Trash

Once our chips are gone, we throw away the bag. But where is “away?” Garbage: Follow the Path of Your Trash with Environmental Science Activities for Kids by Donna Latham and Tom Casteel does a great job answering this question (think processes and engineering solutions).

Releases March 2019

Your chip bag is most likely made of plastic. In many cities, including my hometown of Sacramento, only rigid plastic containers may be recycled. Soft plastics such as chip bags goes to the landfill (if they don’t blow out of the trash truck and onto the side of the road first). But what happens during recycling anyway? And why can’t ALL plastics be recycled (think different kinds of plastics and upcycling vs. downcycling)?

Spoke 5:  Marine Debris

You might wonder why I didn’t include marine debris in the Trash spoke. I want to emphasize that all pollution is ocean pollution. What gets tossed out on land (especially if it’s not in the proper waste can) makes its way to the ocean via our watershed.

Read these two books to understand the way ocean currents work to transport trash and how bad ocean plastic really is.

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Spoke 6: Activism

The previous spokes also lead to this last spin-off—the idea that reading about STEM topics can inspire us to change our behavior. After all, what’s the point of all this learning if we don’t reach our potential? Challenge kids to try the following:

  1. Your groceries make a difference. Buy food that uses sustainably sourced palm oil. Either download the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s palm oil app to your phone or check out this chart of orangutan-friendly foods.
  2. Download the #ProtectOurWorld Challenge posters.
  3. Download the 30-Day Plastic Challenge.
  4. Audit your trash either at home or in the classroom. Brainstorm ways to reduce your single-use plastic consumption.
  5. Find out what kinds of plastic your community recycles. What’s left out? Are there any alternatives where you live? Check this website for recycling some soft plastics (but unfortunately NOT chip bags).
  6. Potato chips aren’t the only way we impact the environment. Read several of these books on the STEM Tuesday All About Conservation book list.
  7. Create a piece of art with waste plastic to raise awareness of our single-use plastic epidemic. Check out Washed Ashore for some amazing ideas.

Wrap Up

STEM is synonymous with inquiry and kids are natural question factories. Questions lead to discovery and discovery leads to learning. Challenge the kids in your life to ask questions and find connections. I’ll wager those connections will lead to science, technology, engineering, or math—and learning that engages as it empowers.

patricia newmanConnect with Patricia Newman on Twitter (@PatriciaNewman) or online (

Other stuff you might want to know about Patricia:  Her award-winning books show kids how their actions can ripple around the world. She is the author of Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem; as well as NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation; Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book; Green Earth Book Award winner Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; and Neema’s Reason to Smile, winner of a Parents’ Choice Award. Newman hopes to empower kids to think about the adults they’d like to become.


Eight-Layered Bean Dip: Writing in Multiple POVs

Writing a novel with eight points of view is messy and complicated, but in the end each layer is distinct and enjoyable both on its own and as part of the whole. Kind of like making layered bean dip (I think.) Admittedly I’ve never made an eight-layer bean dip. Perhaps I’ll add it to my “for when I have free time” list, next to knitting and goat yoga (yes, it’s a thing).

In truth, writing from eight points of view was a long and layered process. First, I wrote the essence of the story, trying to lightly keep my voices distinct. At that time, I was mostly just pushing the plot forward. The true differentiation took place during revision. That was when each voice became its own, when I looked for consistency one voice at a time. Each character needed his/her own nuances of speech, reference points, stylistic differences, backstory, culture, and character arc.

In some ways, having so many points of view helped to push the plot forward. I had fun figuring out how different characters would react to the same events, and playing around with secrets and misunderstandings.

When I began revising with an editor, and making some significant changes, revision became a balancing act, as I had to consider the impact on eight distinct voices. I wanted to give each personality equal playing time. All changes needed to be wound through each POV, affecting each character in his or her own way. I had to be sure not to lose a thread. And when I did purposely need to eliminate a thread, it needed to be eliminated throughout all the POVs.

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My characters arrive on my literary stage with their own unique personalities and diverse cultural/religious backgrounds, as well as learning styles. It was important to me to create diverse characters who both represented a typical Californian classroom and who were their own individuals with strengths and weaknesses. I found it extremely helpful to have authenticity readers. I identified a variety of different areas for which I might need an authenticity reader, and then I attempted to find multiple readers for each category. I’m so grateful for their assistance—if I’ve gotten it nearly right, it’s due to the help of my authenticity readers. Any mistakes that remain are my own.

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Art by Gina Perry

Two of my characters are closest to my own personality, and perhaps for that reason, midway through the revision process, I felt they sounded similar to each other. I made special effort to work on those two voices over and over to strengthen their differences both in personality and presentation. One of my characters, Blake, illustrates his entire thread. I love the inclusion of illustrations for so many reasons. I think illustrations help reach an additional group of readers, and of course brings the story to light in a whole new way.

Much like a zesty bean dip, I couldn’t have achieved the same end result without the important contribution of each layer. Even though it was a ton of work and required some deep cleaning, I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I’d happily write in multiple POVs again.



Sarah Scheerger is a school-based counselor in Southern California, helping students figure out who they are, and who they want to be. Her middle grade debut, Operation Frog Effect (Penguin Random House) releases in February but is available for pre-order now. Keep an eye out for her new picture book, “Mitzvah Pizza” (Kar-Ben) which launches in April. In addition to MG and PB’s, Sarah also writes YA. To learn more, visit

MG at Heart Book Club’s February Pick: THE NIGHT DIARY, by Veera Hiranandani

The Middle Grade at Heart Book Club Selection for February is…

Screen Shot 2019-02-04 at 1.49.58 PM.png The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani!

In the vein of Inside Out and Back Again and The War That Saved My Life comes a poignant, personal, and hopeful tale of India’s partition, and of one girl’s journey to find a new home in a divided country

It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.

Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.

Told through Nisha’s letters to her mother, The Night Diary is a heartfelt story of one girl’s search for home, for her own identity…and for a hopeful future.

A 2019 Newbery Honor Book!

“A gripping, nuanced story of the human cost of conflict appropriate for both children and adults.”—Kirkus, starred review

“This rich, compelling story, which speaks to the turbulence surrounding India’s independence and to the plight of refugees, should be in all libraries.”—School Library Journal, starred review

“The diary format gives her story striking intimacy and immediacy, serving as a window into a fraught historical moment as Nisha grapples with issues of identity and the search for a home that remain quite timely.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

The newsletter will go out 2/25. The #MGbookclub chat will happen 3/12 at 8 pm EST.

World Read Aloud Day Celebration!

Every year on World Read Aloud Day, educators, librarians, and authors from around the globe celebrate the special magic that happens when you read out loud to a child.  This year, as we celebrate the 10th annual World Read Aloud Day, we’ve invited four educators and authors to join us at the MGBookVillage to discuss reading aloud.

Jake Burt

bio2Jake is a 5th grade teacher and the author of Greetings From Witness Protection, The Right Hook of Devin Velma, and the upcoming The Tornado. You can connect with him on Twitter @JBurtBooks.

What’s one of your favorite read aloud memories?
It’s the most formative event of my life as a reader: my father reading The Hobbit aloud to us when I was a kid. I’d get into my top bunk, my brother in the bottom, and my dad would sit in the chair across the room. I’d hang my head over the guardrail on top of a pillow and watch him like a hawk as he turned the pages, gesturing with his off-hand and contorting his face to deliver each character’s unique voice.
Why is reading aloud so important?
From building fluency to engaging imagination to modeling a love of the written word, read-aloud is an essential tool in a teacher or parent’s box. I think my favorite thing about it, though, is the way it allows for immediate, shared insight and conversation about a story. Whether it’s about a connection a child makes with a character or deconstructing a beautiful bit of prose; unpacking an intense, emotional scene or predicting what might happen next, those follow-up discussions are often just as enjoyable and meaningful as the performance itself.
What is one of your favorite books to read aloud?
I have read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book aloud over a dozen times now, and I still adore it. The book itself is fantastic, but there’s something special Gaiman does that 220px-thegraveyardbook_hardcovermakes it that much better as a read-aloud. If you dare to do voices for the characters…and oh lordy, do I do voices…it adds some absolutely delightful moments to a story already chock-full of them. (SPOILERS AHEAD) For instance, I’ll never get tired of hearing my class gasp when they hear Mr. Frost speak for the first time, his voice a more avuncular version of the man Jack from the beginning of the book. And giving Silas just a hint of the old Bela Lugosi is a great little nod for sharp listeners as to his true nature. The best part, though, might be that The Graveyard Book is one of those rare works of fiction that allows its main character to grow up. As Bod matures (both physically and emotionally), the performer gets to change his voice, too, allowing a deeper sense of understanding to develop between the narrative and the audience. All that, and the book has one of the greatest “Oooooh, SNAP!” lines in all of MG literature…folks familiar with the book will know the one…

Karina Yan Glaser

screenshot2019-01-31at10.57.19pmKarina is a contributing editor at Book Riot and the author of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street and The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden. You can connect with her on Twitter at @KarinaYanGlaser

What’s one of your favorite read aloud memories?
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher spent a lot of time reading aloud to us. She was new to teaching and reading aloud was one of the only ways to keep the classroom in order! I loved read aloud time. I have no memory of being read aloud to by my parents when I was growing, so the read alouds at school were magical. Now, as a parent, I love reading aloud to my kids. I actually started reading out loud to each of them when they were in the womb because I was so excited about reading children’s books to them! I especially enjoy reading aloud to them on the subway; it makes the commute feel short and I love spotting other subway riders listening in on the story.
Why is reading aloud so important?
Reading aloud is important for so many reasons, but for me I love that it invites opportunities for deeper connections between adults and kids. I adore the questions that my kids ask me when we read books together. Last night I read Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda and His Muse by Alexandria Giardino, illustrated by Felicita Sala, to my nine-year-old daughter, and she had so Unknown-1.jpegmany funny questions: “Why is Pablo so gloomy?” “Why do onions make us cry?” “Was Pablo a real person?” “Can we read his poem about the onion again?” “Now can we read the poem in Spanish?” “Can we do shadow puppets behind the onion skin paper?”
What is one of your favorite books to read aloud?
Only one?! I have to name more than that, I’m sorry! The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt; Dreamers by Yuyi Morales; Alfie by Thyra Heder, Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier; The Best Man by Richard Peck; Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris;Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead and Erin Stead; and All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, are just some of the ones that I love to read aloud!

Christina Carter

Jg8RK8Mn_400x400.jpgChristina is a K-5 librarian, book reviewer, and ProjectLIT Buffalo site leader. You can connect with her on Twitter @CeCeLibrarian.

What’s one of your favorite read aloud memories?

My favorite read aloud memory is with my Dad because he had his very own unique way of fracturing any story that was familiar. I can’t point to any specific book really but every time we sat down to read together was a blast. When I became an adult and then watched my Dad interact with his grandchildren, reading them stories in that same special way, it made (and still makes) my heart happy. I think this honestly is a HUGE reason why I love sharing fractured fairy tales.

Why is reading aloud so important?

Every read aloud we do with our children is an opportunity for them to fall in love with reading. I approach each read aloud that way, thinking, “what if this is that book that will spark the magic and wonder of their own imaginations and creativity or pique their curiosity to the point of further inquiry? ” Knowing that this is a possibility, I bring everything I have in me to the story rug; taking on the voice and role of each character and inviting our students to engage in this reading journey together. The read aloud gifts the participants with memories that will live on in their hearts as they recall the experience(s) that evening with their families or even years beyond this moment in time. It goes without saying, that I believe read alouds to be incredibly powerful!

What is one of your favorite books to read aloud?61ksfpfx5gl._sx384_bo12c2042c2032c200_

My absolute favorite read aloud at the moment is It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh Funk! It has been a big BIG hit with every grade level that I see in the library (K-5). The idea of Jack speaking directly to the narrator and giving him a hard time about how the story is going gets our students giggling every time! During our most recent read aloud, we turned it into a mini readers theater performance and I invited my library aide, our tech aide, and every and any adult who wanted to participate. We transformed our story rug into a “stage”, taking on the roles of each character and showed our students how to bring a story to life. Students then had a chance to come on up to the “stage” and read an advance copy of It’s Not Hansel and Gretel (also by Josh Funk). We had so much FUN! After every reading, students were like, “Again! Again!” This experience made my heart so happy and it is one that I will always remember.

Amanda Rawson Hill

author-photo-2018.jpgAmanda is cofounder of the MG @ Heart Book Club, a PitchWars mentor, and the author of The Three Rules of Everyday Magic. You can connect with her on Twitter at @amandarhill32


What’s one of your favorite read aloud memories?

My favorite read aloud memory is when my mom read the first Harry Potter to me and my siblings. Right around the troll scene, I picked up the book and finished it myself. Too impatient to keep taking it chapter by chapter!

Why is reading aloud so important?

Reading aloud is important because it changes books from a solitary experience to a shared one, which I think is a vital part of having them be well-loved and creating readers.

What is one of your favorite books to read aloud?

I love reading Neil Gaiman’s FORTUNATELY, THE MILK aloud. So many fun and silly voices plus lots of laughter.

Have a wonderful World Read Aloud Day and share your thoughts using the #WorldReadAloudDay hashtag!