Connecting Kids to Authors: That’s What It’s All About

As a middle school librarian for 23 years, I have spent much time searching for books that kids will love and then helping kids discover those books.  But, I’ve always felt that there is a deeper connection that can be made between reader and book – the connection to the author!  I’ve been privileged to attend conferences and meet many authors – but how often do young readers have that opportunity? It rarely happens for young readers, especially tweens. Authors do come through town on book tours, but most of the tours are for adults and young adults.  We do have a book festival in Utah, but again – the audience is adults with some YA mixed in.  Occasionally there is a picture book author, sometimes a middle grade author – but those chances are the rarest of all.

So here comes my dream – a book festival in Utah just for those kids in the middle.  It took me several years to screw up my courage, but with the help of a few friends, I am taking the plunge into making this a reality.  The inbeTWEEN Book Festival will take place on Monday, February 15th (President’s Day) in West Jordan, Utah.

Now begins the hunt for authors of books for kids from grades 4-9 – the ages in the middle. All the information for author submissions is on our website: http://www.utahtweenfest.org.

We are looking for authors of middle grade books who want to talk face-to-face with their readers.  We are also looking for sponsors, exhibitors, and will be applying for grants so that hopefully no one will be doing this on their own dime.

If you have questions, feel free to email me at cindy.utahreads@gmail.org.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Shannon Doleski

Hi Shannon, and welcome to MG Book Village. Thank you so much for taking part in our Fast Forward Friday feature. Can you introduce yourself to our readers, please?

Hi! I’m so excited to be here! I am Shannon Doleski, the debut author of the upper MG, Mary Underwater. I live in west Texas with my husband, our three kids, and our two rescue dogs. I used to be a middle and high school English teacher and swim coach. My husband is a social worker in the Air Force, and we move around the world. 

Your debut book, MARY UNDERWATER, will be released on April 7th by Amulet Books, and I hear that it’s inspired by Joan of Arc. Could you tell us a bit more about that, please, and give us a brief synopsis of your story.

Mary Underwater is about a fourteen year old girl, inspired by Joan of Arc, who builds a submersible and pilots it across the Chesapeake Bay.

I remember camping in Santa Fe, with a half-done first manuscript about a sad girl who builds a sub, and thinking it needed something else. Mary Murphy, my Catholic school protagonist, needed an internal hero. She needed something to shield her from her abusive family. And I knew it had to be a saint. At first, I thought I could pick a whole bunch of girl saints and rattle off facts like a Catholic school kid would. But then it became apparent that Mary needed one heroine, Joan. I was, like Mary, pretty obsessed with the superheroes of the religion when I was a middle schooler, and Joan was such a perfect fit. Two teens on epic quests. 

If there’s one thing you hope young readers will take away from your book, what would you like it to be?

This is a hopeful story. We are captains of our own ships (we are pilots of our own subs 😉 So the one thing that I want young readers to know is that they are worthy. Worthy of love and happiness and joy and success.  

What has it been like for you to publish your debut book?

It’s wild. I still can’t believe it’s happening. Maybe it’s not! Maybe it’s all a beautiful dream. No, I am so lucky to have a wonderful agent and editor and team who believe in me. I can’t wait for kids to get their hands on my book.  

If readers want to find out more about you and your writing, where can they go?

I have a website: www.shannondoleski.com and a pretty good Instagram (if I do say so myself) @shannondoleski. That’s my favorite, but I’m also available on Shannon Doleski Author Page on Facebook and Twitter @shannondoleski.

Thank you again for taking time to chat with us, and I hope your debut year is a successful one!

Thank you so much for having me! Meant the world to me 🙂 🙂 🙂 

Shannon Doleski was born and raised in Cazenovia, New York. After graduating from Niagara University with an English Education degree, Shannon was an English teacher and swim coach in New York and Maryland. She lives with her husband, three children, and rescue dogs wherever the Air Force sends them (currently West Texas). Visit her author website at shannondoleski.comMary Underwater is her debut novel.

Seven Lessons I Learned in Seven Years of Writing One Book

I spent seven years writing my debut novel. Yes, seven years.  Writing one novel. Not writing and then finding an agent and then getting a contract; just writing. I think that may be some kind of record.

I know there are people out there who have written entire first drafts in a month (thank you NaNoWriMo), and then revised and had something to send out to their agent a couple of months later. I am not one of those people. I don’t think I ever will be, although I’m on track to have a decent draft of novel number two in only four years, which feels like a kind of victory.

I don’t regret the seven years it took me to write and revise and polish THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO because I learned so much — about myself and about writing.  Here are seven lessons I learned during my writing journey, one for each of the years I spent writing my debut.

  1. You are the writer you are. Don’t sell yourself short (or out) because you don’t write the way you’re “supposed” to. I have been writing since I was seven years old, but for much of my life I didn’t see myself as a writer because I didn’t write the way I thought “real” writers did: I didn’t write every day, I was (and still am) a lousy journal-keeper, and I hated most “literary” fiction. It took me a long time to come to terms with the way I wrote, which is for a few hours a day, and completely alone. I can’t write in coffee shops, or on vacation, or when my kids are in the house. I can sometimes write when my husband is around, if he confines himself to another room and doesn’t talk to me at all. I know there are writers who write while they’re cooking dinner, or helping their kids with their homework, or, although I cannot imagine it, with music playing. I am not those writers. But I am a writer. And you are too.
  2. Write what you love, not what’s hot, or selling. Write what you love even if everyone is saying there’s no market for it, because the market will change. When I first began showing my manuscript around to agents, MANY of them said a version of the following: “you’ve got an interesting story, but I’m not sure anyone will publish it. It’s not Middle Grade material.” I kept going because I wanted a completed draft of something, even if it was “unpublishable.” Then a presidential candidate bragged on camera about touching women inappropriately, and that got played on the news. And the Harvey Weinstein story broke. And #MeToo became a rallying cry for women around the world. Suddenly, publishers were interested in a Middle Grade novel with a #MeToo moment at the center.
  3. Writing groups are better than chocolate. Writing is actually revising. And revising means re-seeing: seeing the words you’ve brought forth in a new light, or from a new perspective. But re-seeing is hard. That’s where your writer’s group comes in. Find a writing group, or a critique partner, or both. I’ve been lucky enough to have three writing groups over the course of my seven-year writing journey. One met every Thursday, and read parts of my novel in 10-page chunks. One meets once a month, and reads anything from partial manuscripts to complete drafts (they have a draft of novel number two as I type this). The third group meets once or twice a month, and we all write short pieces based on a writing prompt.
  4. All chocolate is delicious, but some chocolate is better than other chocolate. And some critique group members will have advice or suggestions that will resonate with you, while others may make suggestions that feel wrong. Keep an open mind and an open heart, but also remember: it’s your vision. Trust your instincts.
  5. The Society of Children’s Book Writers is the jam. I met the folks in my monthly writing group at the SCBWI winter conference cocktail party. I’ve gotten amazing feedback from several agents at other SCBWI conferences I attended, where my socks were also knocked off by some phenomenal workshops. I mean Laurie Halse Anderson talking about how she does research for her historical fiction books?! Priceless. Also, I connected with my agent through an SCBWI First Pages sessions.
  6. Everyone’s journey is different. Once I finally was ready to send start querying agents, I expected to be at it for years. But about six weeks after I sent my first queries, I signed with my agent. Less than six months after that, I had a contract with HarperCollins. My friend C. signed with an agent more than a year before I signed with mine, and has four fabulous manuscripts, but is still waiting for that first contract. There’s no pattern, and there are no guarantees.
  7. Writing is not a sure path to financial freedom. Most of the published writers I know do other things: they teach, they do party planning, they clean houses or write computer code. These days, I tutor, and for many of the seven years I was writing THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO I did freelance editing work as well. I also have a patron of sorts in my husband, whose income means I don’t have to have a full-time paying gig. I know a lot of rich people. None of them are writers. There are a handful of rich writers, and some other writers who are making a decent living off of their books (they tend to be the prolific ones), but there are many, many more published writers who aren’t able to pay the rent just with their writing. Write because you love it, because you have to, because it feeds your soul. And figure out what else you can do to pay the rent.
Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She wrote her first story she she was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant.” Later, she majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher. She is married and has three mostly grown children, an excitable rescue dog named Zeke and a Machiavellian cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. That’s What Friends Do is her first published novel.

Crafting a New Chapter Book Series

As a young girl, who lived in a rowhouse in South Philadelphia and played Wiffle ball in the street, I loved no book more than Anne of Green Gables. Anne was an orphan who was adopted by a pair of siblings who initially had wanted a boy to help them manage their farm. Instead, they got a spunky, red-haired, intelligent girl who stole their hearts. Though she was poor, Anne roamed through the woods and ran through the green fields of Prince Edward Island, a place that was far more beautiful than the paved streets and narrow alleyways of South Philadelphia.

As the daughter of immigrants, who often felt isolated among her American friends, I connected with Anne who was also an outsider in the town of Avonlea; people tended to think the worst of her because she was an orphan, and she dealt with their judgement fiercely. And her imagination and her loneliness often combined in ways that brought tears to my eyes, such as this sad moment when she faces being returned to the orphanage: “I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here forever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted. But the worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop and that hurts.”

I’ll say that later, as an older child, I realized that all the books I was reading starred white children; that bothered me more and more, because I could imagine myself in anyone’s shoes (that’s the power of readings, after all), but couldn’t there be a book that met me halfway? A book that, while I stretched my imagination to connect with it, simultaneously reached out to me?

Therefore, when I finally decided to write a children’s book, I wanted to carefully craft it so that it would reflect my values and my ideals. Therefore, I decided four things:

First, my main character would be a Palestinian American girl. Like me. Like my own daughter. It would be an #ownvoices book. I named my protagonist Farah [which means “joy” in Arabic] and gave her some fun traits — she’s funny, she’s smart, she’s curious, and she can be stubborn. She speaks Arabic at home with her parents and English at school with her teachers and friends, and I included a glossary of Arabic terms in the back of the book.

Second, Farah would be working class. This was very important to me, because many times, the characters we see in #kidlit books tend to be privileged kids. Money is never discussed because the reader is supposed to assume the character is financially comfortable. Farah’s family, however, struggles financially — her parents work hard, but they’re always pinching their pennies, and like any lower-income kid, Farah is acutely aware of this. It’s a testament to my own upbringing; I was raised in a family that was often short on money but had an abundance of love and affection.

Third, this book would be the first in a series. For example, as a kid myself, I read Anne of Green Gables several times before I saw, in a Scholastic flyer, that there was …  a second Anne novel? Indeed, Anne was a character who spanned an entire series:  Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, and more. The story didn’t end at the closing of the first novel. I realized, with a thrill, that I never had to lose Anne. At its core, this is the appeal of the book series: the joy of finding a good book and realizing there’s a whole bookshelf at the library or bookstore with the Boxcar Children, Ramona Quimby, the Sweet Valley High twins, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. Later, I became a big Agatha Christie fan and followed Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

The fourth thing was that Farah’s story would be a chapter book. I didn’t want to write a picture book, nor did I want to pen a novel for older, more advanced readers. I wanted kids in the younger grades as well as older kids who were still emerging readers to meet Farah Rocks. This was a deliberate decision because very little attention is given to the chapter book, one of the hardest-working genres in children’s literature. A chapter book, loosely defined, is a book targeted towards readers who have graduated from picture books [although, in my opinion, nobody should ever “graduate” from picture books] but who are not yet ready for novels. The chapter book is a happy medium — a long story, broken up into shorter chapters, lightly illustrated throughout.

The chapter book is a victory for the emerging reader. It’s a “real book”, as my own kids used to say, with just enough pictures to break up the text but not so many that the prose is de-emphasized. Finishing a chapter book makes a young reader feel like a big kid, and it creates a positive vibe around the experience of reading independently.

I’m excited to see where Farah goes on her adventures, but no matter what, I’m glad that she, and the series, reflect my values and my commitment to my readers.



Susan Muaddi Darraj won an American Book Award in 2016 for her novel-in-stories, A Curious Land. She teaches creative writing in the graduate programs at both The Johns Hopkins and Fairfield Universities. Her #ownvoices chapter book series, Farah Rocks, debuted in January from Capstone Books.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Margaret Finnegan

Hi Margaret, and welcome to MG Book Village. I’m so pleased for our readers to get to know more about you and your debut novel, WE COULD BE HEROES (release date is Feb 25th by Atheneum Book for Young Readers). Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Thank you so much for inviting me to MG Book Village. Although I now live in Southern California, I spent my childhood moving around the western United States, including Utah, North Dakota, and Montana, before finally settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I am not writing middle grade fiction, I teach college students at California State University, Los Angeles. For fun, I like to play ball with my sweet yet neurotic dog, Walt, bake, and spend time with husband and two daughters. Oh, and as that last sentence proves, I am camp Oxford comma.

Can you please tell us about your book in your own words, please?

We Could be Heroes is about Hank Hudson, a fourth grader with autism, and the friendship he develops with new girl Maisie Huang as they come up with increasingly elaborate plots to…liberate..the epileptic pitbull who is tied day and night to a neighbor’s tree. Ultimately, it is a story of not only how to make a friend, but how to be one to both people and animals.

Why did you feel compelled to write this story?

I’ve been a writer for adults for a long time, but I wrote this story for my daughter, Elizabeth, who has both autism and epilepsy. Although she is a young adult, she got stuck for a really long time re-reading the middle grade fiction that she loved because she was so worried about what might happen to new characters in unfamiliar books. When she reads a book, she is in that book! So I wanted to help unstick her, and I also wanted her to see her challenges and her gifts represented on the page. 

How has your debut experience differed so far from what you expected?

I didn’t think it would be so terrifying. To be sure, it has been a very positive experience. My agent, Tracy Marchini at Bookends Literary, and my editor at Atheneum, Alex Borbolla, have been so encouraging and they have both helped me turn what I think was a pretty good book into what I hope readers will now consider a pretty great book. But, wow, everytime I would get a revision letter from Alex I would have to just walk away from my computer and eat some chocolate so I could fortify myself to even read what she wrote. And now, as we await publication, I’m freaking out a little bit. Right now, reviews are starting to roll in. Just recently, Alex sent me our Booklist review. She said, “Look at this great review!” And I was just, “Wait! Where is my chocolate? Is this review radioactive? Will I explode? Ack! I don’t even want to know!”

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers, either about WE COULD BE HEROES or advice for other debut writers?

You know, as a society, we ask a lot of neurodiverse people, and so often what we ask is that they change everything about themselves in order to make everyone else more comfortable. It is true that people on the spectrum need accommodations and support, but what they need more than anything is acceptance. I’d like to see a world where neurotypical people–without even being asked–do some of the bending that we ask of people on the spectrum. For example, my daughter has had numerous teachers get frustrated with her inability to recognize their sarcasm, and they have straight out said, “You need to learn sarcasm.” Well, okay. But, you know, those teachers could have just as easily said to themselves, “Maybe I need to need to have a little more audience awareness myself. And maybe if I want to be sarcastic I can sometimes say, ‘Don’t worry. I’m being sarcastic.” It seems to me that thinking about the needs of others is just being kind. I hope that WE COULD BE HEROES can help create a kindness narrative that will help everyone.

As for advice for debut authors, keep a steady supply of chocolate on hand at all times.

We really appreciate you joining us today. Thank you so much, and best of luck with your upcoming release.

Margaret Finnegan’s work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She is lives in South Pasadena, California, where she enjoys spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really good chocolate cakes. Connect with her at margaretfinnegan.com or on Twitter at @FinneganBegin.

Interview: Tamara Bundy re: PIXIE PUSHES ON

Hi, Tamara! Thank you so much for joining us today. I loved PIXIE PUSHES ON, your new middle grade novel that comes on on January 14th. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Thank you, Kathie! And thank you for having me today.

Pixie Pushes On, tells the story of Pixie, a young girl in the 1940’s and the bittersweet lessons she learns from farm life as well as life without her sister who is hospitalized with polio.  Pixie’s mother has recently passed away, too –so Pixie is convinced the world would be better off if she never got close to anyone again. This is the story of her finding out everyone has something they are going through –and maybe, just maybe– it’s easier if you let people in. 

What was it like for you to write your second MG novel?

Writing my second middle grade novel was wonderful and scary all wrapped up in one. With my first, Walking with Miss Millie –the idea had formulated and percolated in my mind for so long, it became a part of me. Then that novel was born into the world and it was time to sit down and write another. On one hand, I felt like I had been to a very special school to have worked with the amazing Nancy Paulsen on Millie –and therefore my next manuscript could only get better. But on the other hand, I worried that it wasn’t all going to happen again. What if the creativity was all dried up? What if I was a one-hit-wonder? (We writers are a needy bunch!) But once I got out of my own head –I really did enjoy the process.  And working with Nancy Paulsen once again was an absolute gift.  

I’ve loved so many of the books in which Nancy has been involved. I know this is a personal story that is connected to your family history. Would you share a bit about the inspiration for it with our readers?

Writing Pixie Pushes On was so special to me! Since my mom and dad both grew up on farms, they would tell me stories about their childhoods. From my perspective as a city-kid, I was amazed at their tales–especially my mom’s stories of her favorite lamb, Buster. But it wasn’t until I was writing this novel that I sat down and asked them detailed questions I never thought to ask before about the logistics and particulars of their lives during that time. This coincided with my dad being in the hospital and I swear I could see both him and my mom grow visibly younger while recounting the long-lost days of their childhoods. It was such a gift to us all. And now that my dad has since passed away, those days, those memories are more precious than ever.

I love the cover of this book. Can you tell me a bit about the design team, and whether or not you had input on the process?

Oh, I so love the cover! The illustrator, Matt Saunders, captured so beautifully the nostalgia of the novel. The colors are so warm and inviting–like a perfect sunset! The funny thing is, the cover actually necessitated a title change. My original title was And the Creek Don’t Rise (based on the way Pixie and her sister sign off their letters). But when the illustrator came up with this cover –and we loved it –but there was no room for a creek, we decided it needed a new title. We honestly went through about 30 suggested titles before we landed on Pixe Pushes On!

Do you have a favorite character or relationship in this story?

I am in love with Granddaddy! The way he is so wise and calm -such a tower of strength for Pixie, makes me happy. I really don’t think of myself as giving him the words. I feel he tells me what to say. So I can honestly say when he speaks sometimes, I tear up. It’s like I’m eavesdropping on two people. (again –this probably says more about the personality of us writers! We are an interesting species.)

Granddaddy was a favorite character for me, too. If there’s one thing you’d like our readers to know about PIXIE PUSHES ON, what would it be?

I hope that after reading Pixie –and finding out how the story came to be –readers will take the time to really get to know their older relatives.  If they are lucky enough to have a grandparent, great-grand parent –anyone –I want them to ask them about their childhoods –and listen –really listen, before it’s too late. If I can get just one more person to connect in that way with someone, I’ll be thrilled. 

Do you have another writing project on which you’re working right now?

I’m super excited about a novel-in-verse project that is based on a true story I experienced that is currently on submission. And, I am thrilled to say I have my debut picture book coming out next year! Details coming soon!

Congratulations, that’s great news! I personally would LOVE to read a novel in verse by you; your writing is so poetic. Where can our readers find you if they want to know more about you and your writing?

My website is https://www.tamarabundy.com/

I am on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well. 

Thank you so much for joining us today, Tamara, and all the best on your book’s launch next week!

Thank you so much for talking with me today –and for all you do for reading! 

Book Review: DIANA: PRINCESS OF THE AMAZONS, by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and Victoria Ying

Although so many of us are, or know, superhero fans, there are not enough female superhero anything (books, costumes, figurines, movies, and the list goes on!) for elementary and middle grade kids.  There are even fewer female superhero stories written by authors that propose the very true reality that so many need to accept: books are for readers, regardless of gender. Shannon and Dean Hale’s Diana: Princess Of The Amazons services both these needs with a story that is relevant and engaging for readers of all ages and genders.

Readers meet a very young Diana living on the island Themyscira, the only Amazonian that isn’t thousands of years old.  As there is no alternative but to feel lonely, surrounded by aunties who can’t possibly remember what it means to be a kid, Diana depends on the company and attention of her mom, Hyppolita, the queen of Themyscira, to feel truly connected.

What happens next is all too relatable for kid and adult readers; adults get busy, kids feel ignored and unloved, then secrecy, self-doubt, anger, and bad decisions usually follow.  Through what seems a magical miracle, Diana wishes for a friend and Mona comes into the picture. Not exactly an Amazonian girl, but a girl Diana’s age nonetheless, and so it begins.

One of the powers of story is the ease with which readers can reflect on their behavior without pointing a finger towards themselves.  Diana offers readers the possibility of reflecting on past bad decisions or future decisions to be made, when feeling ignored by those we love, be it family or friends.  Is the act of ignoring a conscious decision or is it the result of overwhelming circumstances or a slip into the hustle of daily life? Should we question what we mean to family and friends because of the feeling of loneliness they are creating or should we be brave and talk it out?  The opportunity to also reflect on going against our values or better judgement because of new friendships and how they make us feel less alone is also made possible as we follow Diana’s story and the evolution of her friendship with Mona.  

Adult readers have much opportunity to reflect about their part in the decisions young people make and the value they place on their ideas and suggestions.  Witnessing how Diana does things she knows are not right due to the dire need she feels for friendship and acceptance when Hippolyta is preoccupied with ruling Themyscira is a cautionary tale.   Diana’s young age and zestfulness are used to measure the importance of her observations and suggestions, making Hippolyta and others almost miss opportunities to better care for the island and its inhabitants.

Whether young and adult readers enjoy Diana’s story separately or together, this fast paced graphic novel that ends in an EPIC battle offers so much to glean about self, family dynamics, the power of honest conversation and reparations, that it should be made available to readers of all ages, at home, in the library and at school.

Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX.  After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.