Shorter Doesn’t Mean Easier – Four Things I Learned About Writing Chapter Books

I had already written several middle grade novels before I began writing the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS chapter book series (Scholastic, July 2019). I will admit that my first thought was, “Oh, this should be easier.” After all, at 6,000-10,000 words, chapter books are a fraction of the size of middle grade novels, right?

Oh, how quickly I was humbled! Chapter books might be shorter in word count, but they still pack just as much story and character into their pages. And chapter book authors must build a compelling story not just once, but multiple times for a series.

Luckily, my daughters are now in prime chapter book-reading territory, and we have read many fantastic series together: JASMINE TOGUCHI (by Debbi Michiko Florence), JADA JONES (by Kelly Starling Lyons), IVY AND BEAN (by ANNIE BARROWS). I turned back to these favorite series and read many more with my “writer-eyes” activated. What made these beloved books so good? How did the authors work their magic?

I discovered 4 key essentials that made my work easier:

1. Your character should stand out from the crowd. Mercy Watson loves hot buttered toast. Alvin Ho is afraid of everything. The main character is the heart of a series, and the reason that kids keep returning for more books. Memorable chapter book characters have something that sets them apart. Whatever you choose, make it authentic to your character and relevant to the storyline. And make sure it’s something that you will enjoy writing about again and again and again. And if you use a device to break up the text – such as a diary format, text messages, fun facts, etc. limit it to just one device, otherwise things can get confusing for young readers.

Notebook entries and lists are sprinkled throughout the books, which are written in a diary format.

2. Give your character room to keep growing. We novelists know that our characters need to grow and change from the beginning of our books to the end. But a chapter book MC will have to grow and change in every book in the series. In other words, a chapter book MC needs to be like the kids who will read about them. Think about the kids you know: they are constantly learning and growing a little more every day.

The MC in DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS just wants to be a normal kid. Her problem is that she isn’t normal at all – she’s a magical ice princess whose family controls the wind and weather. This sets up countless possible storylines and numerous opportunities for chaos and silliness!

Lina’s magical royal family plays a big role in each book.

3. Keep things fairly simple. Chapter book readers are in the early stages of getting hooked on reading. You want your books to seal the deal. Some kids may be reading your books independently; others may be listening to an adult read them out loud. You aren’t limited to vocabulary lists the way “easy readers” are. But you do need to make sure that your text is encouraging, enticing, and supportive of emerging readers. Chapters and paragraphs should be on the shorter side. Sentences don’t necessarily need to be short, but they should be simple to read for kids who are just starting to learn the rules of grammar.

Your overall storyline should also be streamlined. In a novel, you may have B, C, and D subplots, and an entire cast of supporting characters who all have their own emotional journeys. In a chapter book, there just isn’t room to weave all that together. For my series, I decided that each book would have two storylines: a “school” problem and a “family” problem that get resolved by the end of each book.

4. Problems should be age-appropriate – and the MC needs to be the one to solve them! This was actually a tricky one for me to figure out! Because chapter books are aimed at the young elementary school set, the topics and tone tend to be light, funny, and accessible. The problems that your MC faces will be similar to problems that any 6-9 year old might face: losing a friend, having anxiety, finding their voice, etc. 

My main character, Lina, is descended from a long line of royal beings with magical weather powers. When I first started drafting the series, I found it tricky to find a balance between presenting her with a problem that wasn’t too dark and scary (ice monsters turned out to be too frightening!) but that would challenge her enough so she could grow. I finally decided that in the first book, SNOW PLACE LIKE HOME, Lina’s struggle would be that her powers are different from other members of her family. Her parents are loving and supportive of her, but it’s not until Lina realizes for herself that her uniqueness is her strength that she is able to control her magic. She solves the problem through inward reflection, which is something young readers can relate to and achieve (even if they don’t have winter magic!).

The happy thing I learned about writing this series is that once I settled on my character and the recurring story elements, each book flowed more easily than the last – though I will never say that writing chapter books is easy! The trick is to make it look easy, and it turns out that is actually a lot of hard work.

Photo by Sam Bond.

Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.  

The Sequel Experience: Seven Second-Book Authors Tell What the Story’s Like

We’ve been through the first leg of our journey. It’s taken us to a world of Kung-fu on ice, a zombie-infested Old West, a heart-pounding medieval Scotland, an idyllic 17th century England, a dangerous steampunk metropolis, where legendary beasts exist, and inside a fairy-tale storybook. Our characters emerged stronger for their struggles—some injured, some with new realizations of who they are and what they could be, and all of them ready for another adventure.

What comes next?

For the seven authors chatting today, what came next was another book: our debut novel’s sequel. In some cases, it’s the second in a multi-book series, and others it’s the book that ends the series, and in some we just don’t know yet. But no matter what, it’s Book 2, an important installment in each author’s journey, and a book linked with the first that introduces its own conflicts.

I’m in my own sequel journey just now, and I wanted to hear what some of my fellow 2018 debut authors were thinking as they brought their characters and worlds out for a second act. And so, this is our story.

To start, we’ll talk about how our sequels began.

~ Diane Magras

Henry Lien (Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions): The sequel begins approximately 2 seconds after the end of book one. In book one, Peasprout Chen came to a new country to study at an academy that teaches an art form combining kung fu and figure skating. Peasprout learned about friendship, the dual nature of immigrant identity, and other important things, only to have those truths turned upside down at the beginning of book 2 with the arrival of a very unusual new student from her homeland.

Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester (Fang of Bonfire Crossing): Our sequel picks up a few days after the finale of Legends of the Lost Causes (Book 1). Led by orphan Keech Blackwood, our young riders find themselves on the 1850s trail to Wisdom, a settlement in Kansas Territory, where they must collect new information in their quest to bring the evil Reverend Rose and his henchmen to justice. Along the way, the kids encounter the nefarious villain, Big Ben Loving, as well as a deadly shapeshifter that’s been tracking them.

Diane Magras (The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter): My sequel starts about two hours after the first book ends in a village hut where my protagonist, Drest, wakes to the sound of a crow’s coded warning of danger: A single knight is drawing near. Drest has just escaped Faintree Castle and its fleet of murderous knights with some beloved people in tow whom they want dead. She must decide in the very first chapter whether she can protect those she loves by hiding, or by confronting her enemy. Her decision leads to a price on her head that she could have never imagined.

Melinda Beatty(Riverbound): Only Fallow can see lies–an ability that’s brought her to serve the king of Orstral. But she’s determined to get home any way she can, and, with her friend Lark, stop the persecution of the river-dwelling Ordish. But palace life is tricky and Only needs to figure out who to trust–and quickly!

Jeff Seymour (Nadya Skylung and the Masked Kidnapper): As Nadya Skylung’s cloudship Orion docks among the glorious, dangerous steampunk skyscrapers of Far Agondy, three pirates the crew are turning over to the city’s police state a daring escape. Pursuing them despite her captain ordering her not to for her own safety, Nadya discovers the city’s children are being snatched by a sinister crime lord known as Silvermask. And when he takes a personal interest in her, it’ll take all her wits and courage to keep herself, and her friends, out of his grasp.





Lija Fisher (The Cryptid Keeper): My sequel begins with Clivo and the Myth Blasters diving deeper into the world of legendary creature seeking, while desperately avoiding the bad guys (and the prying eyes of Aunt Pearl!).

Tara Gilboy (Rewritten): My sequel picks up six months after the end of book one. Gracie and the other storybook characters are living with their author, Gertrude Winters, who has given up writing stories, afraid they will come to life like Gracie’s tale did.

What did you like most about writing your sequel?

Henry Lien: My favorite thing about writing the sequel was dealing with the specter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I consider the best sequel of all time. I daily, maybe hourly, reminded myself that that was the high bar of sequels and I wanted intensely to write a sequel that made a triple leap forward like Rowling did with Azkaban. I also wanted to write the most spectacular, Miyazaki-sequel action sequences I could imagine for this book. I wanted to create my own diverse Harry Potter with an anime soul.

Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester: Though writing this book presented plenty challenges, we loved getting to move our young characters into a brand new space with trickier trials and scarier encounters. We particularly enjoyed the chance to explore our characters’ motivations and back stories more deeply, then letting those new pieces of information illuminate our plot decisions. Writing a series can be a delicate endeavor, but even with the complications that came with pushing our story onward, we think writing the second book allowed us to stretch our legs a bit more. We also loved being able to introduce two new exciting characters who become trailmates on Keech’s quest. We think readers will fall in love with these two new characters, as well as enjoy the stepped-up elements of suspense and danger. (Beware the Chamelia! Just sayin’.)

Diane Magras: I loved having the chance to deepen my characters’ stories and their relationships. My sequel gave room for Drest to really grow. While running for her life and strategizing how she’ll escape the sentence on her head, Drest questions who she is and what she could be in a way that goes a step beyond the first book. Other characters struggle with their identities too, such as Emerick, the injured young knight from the first book. The sequel gave me room to deepen their friendship and show each of them take enormous risks for the other. And it also gave me the chance to have scenes with Drest’s brothers. In the first book, readers heard only their voices as Drest embarked on her journey. In the sequel, I could show them interacting with each other—bickering, but also supporting—with new insults!

Melinda Beatty: I loved visiting with Only again and throwing everything I had at her and her friends, just to watch them survive, thrive and overcome! I also enjoyed writing some new characters to bring more humor to the story, like the Thorvald royals and my “fishmongers” Warin and Dodd. Funny is where I live as a writer, and getting to write these bits were like literary “dessert” for me!

Jeff Seymour: I absolutely loved writing the action sequences. Staging the thrilling chases, nail-biting escapes, and dangerous fights that are the hallmark of a Nadya book with Nadya on crutches (recovering from losing her leg in the last book) made them much more creative than they would’ve been otherwise. Nadya fights Silvermask and his goons on zip-lines, with hang gliders, and using a hand-cranked recumbent bicycle. She finds ways to work around and with her physical differences to come out on top. I love those scenes, and I still like to go back and re-read them.

Lija Fisher: I loved writing this sequel because I got to do so while on a writing residency through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. I spent a month in a cabin in Woody Creek, CO (home of Hunter S. Thompson!) where my only responsibility was to write. It was heaven. Since I already knew the characters and the world, I could focus on the plot and fully immerse myself in creating a fun adventure with lots of mystery and even more humor!

Tara Gilboy: I loved being able to spend more time with my characters. I also loved studying different kinds of stories and thinking about what each genre’s tropes and clichés are. For this book, I wanted to play around with the horror genre, and so I read a lot of classic gothic horror novels like Dracula and Frankenstein and thought about what elements are commonly used in horror and how to both poke fun at those tropes and use them in new ways. I then also had to consider why Gertrude would write a story like that, since she is the author in my book responsible for creating the world of the horror story.

What was the hardest part of writing your sequel?

Henry Lien: Both Peasprout Chen books are very quickly-paced clockwork puzzles, like Prisoner of Azkaban, with a number of huge secrets hiding in plain view. That kind of book requires precise choreography to pull off in a way that doesn’t seem effortful or contrived. Thus, I created a coded spreadsheet approach so that I could see the progression of each clue for each plot thread, where it occurred in terms of pages, where it occurred in terms of calendar days of the school year in the book, how evenly spaced the action sequences and major emotional confrontations were, etc. It was enlightening because I could step back and see my book like a musical score or a multi-floor dungeon map like in video games such as Legend of Zelda.

Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester: The hardest drafting for us didn’t really arrive until the midpoint of the book, where our Lost Causes ride into a dangerous town and encounter all sorts of deadly challenges. Because this situation involved lots of complicated movements around a new geographical space, we had to put our thinking caps on when mapping out our characters’ steps and decisions. How can we keep our narrative rolling smoothly without bogging the reader down with details? This was the main question we kept in mind while writing – and to tell the truth, it wasn’t easy! The Lost Causes’ final battle was also quite difficult to draft, again because of numerous players on the field. Writing the action one sentence at a time, and using lots of carefully outlined notes, helped us tackle the harrowing finale (which also helped us set up the pieces for an EPIC final Book 3 in the series).

Diane Magras: For me, it was getting the right angle of this story to tell. Before this draft, I’d written a very different Book 2 that reached a different conclusion with scenes I loved (including a castle rescue and a village confrontation scene that don’t now appear in the book). I knew what the point of the story had to be, but it wasn’t about Drest serving others. This had to be around her. And with the obvious necessary goal—regaining the castle—I needed to make it essential to her and not just the other characters. Remembering a tidbit of medieval law—the concept of the wolf’s head—helped me realize the moral focus of the story. Having Drest run for her own life and not for the sake of others added a new urgency—and gave me an excuse to show off her incredible physical training in more than one scene.

Melinda Beatty: The book was almost totally re-written between drafts 2 and 3– and I only had about 3 weeks to do it! It was the most challenging things I’ve ever done, but at the same time, one of the most rewarding and confidence building. I’ve always thought of myself as a slow writer–painfully slow sometimes–but having such a short time to totally re-imagine my story showed me that I definitely have it in me to work in a way I’d never thought possible.

Jeff Seymour: Getting Nadya’s recovery from amputation right. I’m not an amputee, so I worked with the author Kati Gardner, who is, on the book. Folding her recommendations into the story in ways that felt natural to it was sometimes challenging. For instance, she recommended I avoid using the term “stump,” which some amputees don’t like. But “residual limb,” the less controversial term, felt too medical for Nadya’s voice. So I settled on having Nadya name her residual limb “the Mighty Lady,” (nicknames being something real-life amputees sometimes do too, and definitely a Nadya thing to do) and she refers to it as “the Lady” through most of the book.

Lija Fisher: The hardest part of writing this sequel was doing it so quickly! I wrote the entire book during my month-long residency because I was determined to make the most use of my time. I wrote from 4:30am to about 3pm every day, and keeping my brain in ‘creative mode’ for that many hours was really hard. But also fun! The nice thing about being in the mountains is that whenever I had no idea what came next, I’d go out for a hike or bike ride and let my brain rest until the next idea showed up!

Tara Gilboy: The hardest part of writing this book was incorporating all of what had happened in Unwritten, the first book, without confusing my readers. I knew that some readers would have read the first book, but others may not, and so I wanted to tell a story that could stand on its own for new readers, but also one that built on what had already happened in book one. I really struggled to find ways to weave in bits of information about things that had happened in book one without boring the reader with lots of summary and backstory. My editor helped me a lot with that in revision, and I hope I was successful!

Our sequels in ten words:

Henry Lien: Kung-fu figure-skating boarding school adventure about immigration and teamwork.

Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester: Expect new friendships forged, spookier situations, and a few seriously shocking twists.

Diane Magras: Castles, swords, betrayals, secrets, loyal friends, family, and a daring battle.

Melinda Beatty: Adventure, friendship, learning about privilege, conspiracy, and lovable rogues.

Jeff Seymour: A heroine on crutches, a steampunk metropolis, thrilling fights, and a big twist at the end.

Lija Fisher: Adventure! Humor! Mystery! Search for the unknown! Cryptozoology! Friendship! Crazy gadgets!

Tara Gilboy: Spooky mansions, a magic book, a scary beast, and accepting the bad parts of ourselves.

More about our books :

Henry Lien/Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions/January 22, 2019

Now in her Second Year at Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout Chen strives to reclaim her place as a champion of wu liu, the sport of martial arts figure skating. But, with the new year comes new competition, and Peasprout’s dreams are thwarted by an impressive transfer student. Yinmei is the heir to the Shinian throne and has fled her country for Pearl. When she excels both academically and socially, Peasprout begins to suspect that Yinmei is not a refugee at all but a spy. When the Empress of Shin threatens to invade the city of Pearl, Peasprout makes a bold decision. To keep her enemy close, Peasprout joins Yinmei’s “battleband,” a team that executes elaborate skating configurations that are part musical spectacle, part defensive attack. In Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Peasprout guides her battleband on a mission to save Pearl, and learns what it truly means to be a leader.

Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester/Battle of Bonfire Crossing/February 19, 2019

Keech Blackwood and his band of fellow orphans demand justice for their fallen families. But the road to retribution is a long and hard-fought journey. After defeating Bad Whiskey Nelson, the man who burned Keech’s home to the ground, the Lost Causes have a new mission: find Bonfire Crossing, the mysterious land that holds clues to the whereabouts of the all-powerful Char Stone. Along the way they’ll have to fend off a shapeshifting beast, a swarm of river monsters, and a fearsome desperado named Big Ben Loving who conjures tornadoes out of thin air. It’s an epic standoff between the Lost Causes and the outlaw Reverend Rose, a powerful sorcerer who would be unstoppable with the Stone in his possession. With the world—and vengeance—hanging in the balance, the Lost Causes are ready for battle.

Diane Magras/ The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter: March 5, 2019

Brave warrior, bloodthirsty villain, vicious lass, wolf’s head—Drest can see herself in most of the names she’s been called, except the last. Wolf’s head. It’s a sentence of death-without-trial that’s been decreed by the ruler of Faintree Castle: the traitor Sir Oswyn. And one of his knights is determined to earn the sentence’s rich reward. It’s also a sentence that Drest tries to keep secret when her father and brothers (the Mad Wolf and his war-band) flee the castle men who are hunting them, leaving her in a village to protect the deposed and wounded young Lord Faintree. But word of the wolf’s head travels, and Drest is soon in grave danger. Unless she’s willing to run for the rest of her life or hide as an ordinary maiden, her only hope is for Lord Faintree to regain his power and reverse the sentence. Drest must decide who she really is and how much longer she is willing to risk her life before Sir Oswyn’s knight catches his wolf.

Melinda Beatty/Riverbound/June 4, 2019

Only Fallow can see lies–a cunning so powerful that the King insists on keeping her in the palace, tasked with helping him flush out traitors. When the King’s counselor, Lamia, tells Only of her plan to oust the King and put his daughter on the throne, Only is eager to help. Though Only’s cunning would be useful to any ruler, the Princess had promised to send Only home when she becomes Queen. But Only soon learns the truth is a complicated matter–especially when the fate of a country hangs in the balance. Now wound tight in a twisted plot, Only must set the record straight to stop the destruction of everything–and everyone–she holds dear.

Jeff Seymour/Nadya Skylung and the Masked Kidnapper/June 25, 2019

Nadya Skylung paid a high price when she defeated the pirates on the cloudship Remora. She lost her leg. But has she lost her nerve too? When Nadya and the rest of the crew of the cloudship Orion reach the port of Far Agondy, they have a lot to do, including a visit to Machinist Gossner’s workshop to have a prosthetic made for Nadya. But though the pirates are far away across the Cloud Sea, Nadya and her friends are still not safe. A gang leader called Silvermask is kidnapping skylung and cloudling children in Far Agondy. When Nadya’s friend Aaron is abducted, Nayda will stop at nothing to save him and the other missing kids, and put a stop to Silvermask once and for all.

Lija Fisher/ The Cryptid Keeper/ August 20, 2019

Clivo and the Myth Blasters are back on the trail of the immortal cryptid in this conclusion to a monstrously funny middle-grade duology by Lija Fisher. Life has gotten complicated for thirteen-year-old Clivo Wren. After taking up his deceased father’s mission to find the extraordinary creature whose blood grants everlasting life, Clivo is spending his summer not at camp or hanging out with his friends, but jetting all over the world tracking cryptids—while keeping his aunt Pearl in the dark about his dangerous adventures. At the same time, a shocking development unveils the truth about Clivo’s enemies, and the cryptids themselves are posing trouble at every turn. With the help of his crew of Myth Blasters, Clivo is going to need all of the tools, gadgets, and training he has to prevent the immortal cryptid from falling into the wrong hands—and to keep Aunt Pearl off the case.

Tara Gilboy/Rewritten/April 7, 2020

After learning the truth about her own fairy tale, twelve-year-old Gracie wants nothing more than to move past the terrible things author Gertrude Winters wrote about her and begin a new chapter in the real world. If only things were going as planned. On the run from the evil Queen Cassandra, the characters from Gracie’s story have all been forced to start over, but some of them cannot forget Gracie’s checkered past. Even worse, Gracie discovers that her story is still being written in Cassandra’s magic book, the Vademecum. As long as Cassandra has the Vademecum, none of the characters are safe, including Gracie’s mom and dad. In a desperate attempt to set things right, Gracie finds herself transported into another one of Gertrude’s tales—but this one is a horror story. Can Gracie face her destiny and the wild beast roaming the night, to rewrite her own story?

Bridging the Gap Between Middle Grade and Young Adult: Upper Middle Grade

Kids need books that carry them from middle grade to young adult. They need stories that challenge them, dive deep, explore ambiguity in the world, and center on complex characters. And, as I’ve heard from several educators, they also need stories that don’t contain explicit sex, drugs, and swearing, elements that can be more prevalent in young adult.

The good news? These books exist, and the publishing industry has categorized them as “Upper Middle Grade.” But it can be difficult to find them, especially since there is confusion over where they should be shelved. I have seen my debut novel, The Prophet Calls, placed in both the young adult and middle grade sections of bookstores and libraries.

In order to help pinpoint these books, I worked with fellow Upper MG authors. Together, we have compiled a “Starter List of Upper MG Books” that includes recent and coming-soon titles from 2018, 2019, and 2020. This is not an exclusive list. Rather, it is a place to get started. If you are aware of another title, please feel free to name it in the comments as we all benefit from sharing these “just right” stories for tweens and teens.

As you can see from the list, many of us are passionate about writing stories that bridge the gap between middle grade and YA. I love writing Upper MG because it provides a safe space for starting difficult conversations about topics such as racism, female empowerment, mental health, grief, religion, poverty, toxic masculinity, and more. Kids are already exposed to and talking about these things, but books can give us a launching point to have thoughtful discussions. These stories offer readers exposure to the world around them and, by doing so, provide them with one of the greatest gifts of reading: empathy.

I talked with a few author friends about why their work focuses on Upper MG, and here’s what they said:

“When I was writing YA, I was told my stories were too ‘sweet’ for high school readers. So, I began telling MG stories. I didn’t realize that, by MG standards, my books were more edgy than usual. I can’t win. All I know is my MG is literally the same as my YA: young people dealing with what life throws at them. Maybe some people forget that young people actually live in the same world adults do. I don’t, and I tell stories to help them see their way through.”

—Paula Chase, author of So Done and Dough Boys

“Middle school and upper elementary kids are facing issues we didn’t when we were kids. It’s a hard truth, but something we adults need to acknowledge. Not engaging kids on these issues doesn’t make these issues go away—it just makes kids feel we don’t get them. And I fear it makes kids turn away from books. So we need to give kids books that are just right: not too young, not too old. Not too edgy, but not too innocent, either.”

—Barbara Dee, author of Halfway Normal and Maybe He Just Likes You

“Two upper middle grade students were on my book-signing line. When they reached me, one said, ‘I know parts of your book by heart.’ I said, ‘Let me hear it.’ He looked into the air and said a line so perfect that you’d think he wore an earbud and was repeating my audiobook. I said, ‘Wow. You recite books! You must love books,’ and he said, ‘No. I hate books. I’m allergic to them.’ The librarian with his class told me, ‘Thank you for writing for their ages.’ Getting students so hooked to books that they memorize lines that help them navigate the tough years of middle and high school fuels me to write.”

—Torrey Maldonado, author of Tight and What Lane?

“I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for ten years, and my students mostly gravitated to young adult novels because middle grade books felt too young to them. There was nothing wrong with that . . . except that they were often reading about much older characters who were dealing with very different experiences and concerns, and they didn’t always see themselves reflected in what they read. I wrote Up for Airwith that 6th-to-8th-grade audience in mind. I wanted to write about a rising eighth grader who  ‘really feels like an eighth grader,’ as my former students put it, and I wanted to delve into issues that I saw lots of kids grappling with, but couldn’t often find in middle grade fiction, such as the social pressures of having older friends and the complicated types of attention that come along with developing a new kind of body.”

-Laurie Morrison, coauthor of Every Shiny Thing and author of Up for Air

“I write upper middle grade because it’s a literature defined by brightness and hope. In upper middle grade, you can explore material that is as weighty, ambitious, or serious as in any other literature. However, the deal in upper MG is that you have to show the readers a way out of the darkness into light. It’s much easier to avoid serious subject matter or write a cheaply cynical novel than write a novel with serious themes that nonetheless offers realistic and earned hope. It’s much easier to hide from or complain about the world than it is to envision a better world. One of those things is more useful, in my opinion, especially to upper MG readers as they grapple with a dawning awareness of the world we live in and how to meet that world with a productive approach. Also, I’m into fun, humor, and action, and the upper MG readership isn’t too cool yet to admit they like fun, humor, and action.”

—Henry Lien, author of the Peasprout Chen series

As you can see, this endeavor to write Upper MG is near to our hearts. But we must work together—authors, educators, and parents—to help our kids find the books they need by bridging the gap between middle grade and YA in order to sustain a new generation of readers.

Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in religious studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying social issues. Before becoming a writer, Melanie worked as a lawyer for more than sixteen years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. Her debut novel, The Prophet Calls, was selected as a 2018 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award Finalist and her next novel, The Inside Battle, publishes March 3, 2020.

STEM Tuesday Spin Off: Oh, Those Summer Nights Edition

StemLogo-SpinOff (1)

Today we continue the STEM Tuesday Spin Off guest blogger addition to the MG Book Village blog. It’s time once again for a member of the STEM Tuesday group at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors to share a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) post tying middle grade STEM books, resources, and the STEM Tuesday weekly posts to the familiar, everyday things in the life of middle graders.

We look at the things in life we often take for granted. We peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for the STEM principles involved and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. The common, everyday thing is the hub of the post and the “spin-offs” are the spokes making up our wheel of discovery.

This image is a graphic representation of the content of the STEM Tuesday Spinoff for Summer Nights. A wheel-like form is shown. At the hub is the label, Summer nights. Six spokes radiate to the rim of the wheel, each ending at one or more pictures representing each topical "spoke", or theme in the text:. Separated by 30 degrees, and beginning from top, or 12:00 positino, they are: (1) owl and bat representing creatures of the night; photo of a starry night sky  with the Milky Way, representing looking up with wonder; a sea turtle on the beach at dusk and an illuminated light bulb against a black background represent not so dark nights; a non-detailed world map represents summer and the world at large; a young girl being splashed in the face by water, arms up, eyes closed, and a tight-lipped smile represents classic summer games; and a bowl of sauerkraut, the top of an ice cream cone with ice cream in it, and a toasted marshmallow represent summer cookout.

In this month of August, STEM author and educational consultant Carolyn DeCristofano brings us the “Oh, Those Summer Nights” edition of the STEM Tuesday Spin Off. She takes us from a summer evening to books highlighting several themes: creatures of the night; looking up with wonder; not so dark nights; summer and the world at large; classic summer games; and summer cookouts.

When I was a child, nothing seemed to thrum with magic more than a summer evening. While I’m sure most nights probably were simple, ordinary events of which I took no special note, those that stick in my memory were sublime. These are the ones that define my image of a summer night. If we are lucky, a summer evening might grace us with subtle sensory detail, a connection to nature, and a link to the human community around us and the ones that precede us. And so much of this relates to the stuff of STEM!

Creatures of the Night

Cover of Mark Wilson's book, OWLING, linked to the book's p[age on the publisher's web site, https://www.storey.com/books/owling/

Mark Wilson’s Owling : Enter the World of the Mysterious Birds of the Night takes us on a journey to get to know owls, offering detailed facts about these beloved birds and explaining the parts of their anatomy and physiology that make them so successful. Did you know that owls’ ears are positioned asymmetrically, and that this gives them a unique ability to hone in on their prey? This also helps explain the head-turning habit of these birds of prey. (See Page 15.) A series of two-page spreads continue to examine the features of the owl that contribute to its owliness, and its ability to hunt so well. Other sections address owl lifestyles (not all are nocturnal), various species (!), and, most connected to our outdoor experience, ways of spotting evidence of owls nearby. A favorite section of mine is the set of tips—and rules of owl etiquette—for responsibly carrying on a conversation with your owl neighbors. And in case the reader is inspired to dive more deeply into exploring these amazing creatures, Wilson includes a section that highlights specific individuals and their owl-oriented careers. Helpful diagrams and stunning photos round out the adventure.

Of course, with the weather warm a lot of us head outdoors, some of us trekking away from the city; some others just stepping outside into our own backyards. And being outside in the evening gives us an opportunity to tune in to creatures of the night—the nocturnal beasts that hunt, hide, sing, and soar all around us, whether we notice or not. Look up at dusk and you may see swooping bats. Listen carefully and you might hear owls hooting.

Cover of THE BAT SCIENTISTS, with link to book page on publisher's site: https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/The-Bat-Scientists/9780544104938

Tom Uhlman’s photographs serve up a visual treat in Mary Kay Carson’s The Bat Scientists, featuring these nocturnal mammals and those who study them. For example, Page 42 features a close-up photo of a hibernating tri-colored, iridescent, tiny droplets of water coating its fur. The text and pictures give the reader a sense of tramping through caves to investigate these creatures alongside the scientists whose work is to know these animals up close and personal. Much more than a naturalist travelogue, this book digs into the serious science of bats. For example, she explores the “great white plague”, or white-nose syndrome, which threatens the survival of bat populations. It would be fun to read Owling and The Bat Scientists together, comparing and contrasting these nocturnal flyers through the scientific lens.

Cover of MOSQUITO BITE with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Of course, you might not want to get up close and personal with all of the critters hanging around on a summer night. Mosquitoes, for example, are best studied from afar. Unless you happen to be zooming in on them in Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkel’s Mosquito Bite. Featuring Kunkel’s stunning (and now classic) scanning electron microscopy, the book provides a great example of how technology can extend our ability to study the world around us.

Looking Up with Wonder

Cover of DOT TO DOT IN THE SKY, with link to book's page on the publisher's website.

Of course, on a summer evening, the world around us includes the night sky. If you are lucky enough to be in a dark-sky area on a clear night, you can’t help but look up and revel in the night lights. Stars take center stage and, if you are like many people contemplating the night sky, you will start to try to pick out the patterns of stars that have been recognized and named for millennia. Dot to Dot in the Sky: Stories in the Star (Joan Marie Galat) provides a primer to the (mostly Western culture) northern star patterns and their lore.

Cover of ULTIMATE SPACE ATLAS, with link to book's page on author's web site.

If you find yourself wanting to know more about what you see in the night sky, you might want to check out my own National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas, which features facts and figures on what you might spy in the sky—stars and constellations, the Milky Way’s glow, some planets, comets, meteors, and satellites, a galaxy or two–as well as features we cannot observe, even with a backyard telescope, such as the Oort Cloud, most dwarf planets, exoplanets, and countless distant galaxies. This book gives some attention as well to the mathematics of the scale of the universe as well as the technologies that help us explore it.

If sky gazing puts you in the mood to contemplate our universe’s beginnings, you might enjoy Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck that Became Spectacular, which combines Michael Carroll’s fabulous illustrations with (my) verse and prose to introduce readers to the Big Bang.

Not So Dark Nights

Cover of DARK MATTERS, with link to book's page on publisher's web site.

Of course, the ability to revel in cosmic beauty or enjoy nocturnal creatures depends on the night being dark. And dark nights are, alas, falling prey to bright lights that we humans use to illuminate parking lots, buildings, streets, back yards, and more. Night pollution has become a problem in many communities, albeit one that many fail to notice. That’s why Joan Marie Galat’s Dark Matters: Nature’s Reaction to Light Pollution is such an interesting read. Parts are like a memoir of Galat’s relationship to the night sky and her journey from a child playing in the dark to a graduate with an ecology degree, making it easy for the reader to relate to the core topic of the book. Galat shares with us the biological and physical ramifications of having so much human-created light infiltrating the night. She shares how sea turtles, fireflies, bats, frogs, birds, and humans struggle with the effects of artificial lighting, and explores how some of this may be addressed. It’s a unique take on experiencing a summer (or winter) night.

Cover of THOMAS EDISON FOR KIDS, with link to indiebound purchasing site.

Of course, we wouldn’t have light pollution without artificial lighting, which brings a lot of convenience and good to people, despite its negative impacts. Why not explore one of the key players in the technological revolution of lighting and electricity? Thomas Edison for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Laurie Carlson, provides a substantial historical and experiential exploration of the inventor’s life and the technologies he developed.

Summer and the World at Large

Cover of MAPPING AND NAVIGATION with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Of course, as we sit outside on a summer evening, losing ourselves in our own world and the cosmos beyond, somewhere else it’s wintertime. Lest we stay lost in that personal bubble, it’s time to stretch out and think abut the world at large. Cynthia Light Brown and Patrick M. McGinty’s Mapping and Navigation: Explore the History and Science of Finding Your Way can help us open our eyes to the world around us, recalling how big it is—and also providing another example of how deeply technology has changed human experience and the world at large. Chapter 7, “Space: Navigating the Final Frontier,” makes a perfect bridge from summer stargazing to navigation and map making, and Chapter 4, “Mapping and Satellites: GPS and Landsat,” reminds us that the little blips of light that slowly slip across the night sky are up there doing something—sometimes helping us map the world on which we stand.

Classic Summer Games

Cover of WHOOSH! with link to book's page on publisher's website.

And in the summer, the world on which we stand is sometimes hot. Very, very hot. It’s nice to cool off with a sweet treat—ice cream, anyone?—or maybe a frolic with water. Super-Soakers are always great fun. So is the story of the man behind their invention, as told in Chris Barton’s  Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. The super-soaker is a summery example of the lighter side of technology, but Lonnie’s tale reveals some serious thinking and hard work. The child who created his own rockets became the teen who constructed his own sound systems for summer parties and the engineer who figured out how to keep a steady power supply going on the Galileo space mission. In his quest for a better air conditioner, he came across another cool idea—a super-soaker water gun. Now in the heat of summer, we can stop and thank Lonnie for the entertainment and the relief from the heat.

Summer Cookouts

Cover of EDIBLE SCIENCE: EXPERIMENTS YOU CAN EAT with link to book page on author's web site.
Cover of 30-MINUTE EDIBLE SCIENCE PROJECTS, with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Summer games and star gazing are part of summer fun, yet many a summer evening wouldn’t be complete without a cookout. Enter Jodi Wheeler-Toppen and Carol Tennant’s Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat and Anna Leigh’s 30-Minute Edible Science Projects. You won’t just be whipping up Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s Orange Mayonnaise recipe for a unique twist on a coleslaw; you’ll be emulsifying liquids (as well as finding out what that means, and how it works). You can tap into osmosis to create a perfect fruit syrup to serve over homemade ice cream–with recipes, projects, and explanations of what’s going on when you make that cream chill out, courtesy of both books. Leigh also offers recipes for homemade marshmallows to compare from a materials science perspective. If you have extras, you might want to use them in Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s “Inflatable Marshmallow” activity. Wash it all down with one of the beverages from Leigh’s “Make Your Own Soda” project.

If it rains on the big night of the cookout? Cook in. Both books provide plenty of food and food for STEM thought to while away a summer evening. Then curl up or get active with any of the great books featured in this installment of STEM Tuesday Spinoffs. No matter where you are, no matter what books you read, no matter where your own thoughts take you, see if you and your inner child can awaken to the magic of a summer evening.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is the author of nationally acclaimed STEM-themed books for kids from 3 to 13 and up. In addition to National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas and Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck That Became Spectacular (mentioned above), her middle grade book A Black Hole is NOT a Hole is a popular favorite. Her books for younger kids include Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? published in 2018 by HarperCollins Children. Carolyn is also a STEM education consultant whose work has contributed to several National Science Foundation – funded curriculum and exhibit projects. She is a warmly received, accessible professional development provider (has bags, will travel), and recently co-launched a new educational research company, STEM Education Insights. She has been a blogger for STEM Tuesday since its inception. When she’s not immersed in thinking about STEM, she might be found trying her best to keep up at an Old Time jam session, running her own edible (not necessarily science) experiments in the kitchen, or, if the season is right, enjoying the magic of a summer evening.

Image of girl being splashed by water in Spin Off wheel diagram is “Sploosh!” by Monkey Mash Button and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped). All other images in the Spin Off wheel diagram are courtesy of Pixabay.

Guarding the Gleam Jars in Readers’ Hearts

“Nitty…took out her Gleam Jar and held it up to the dim light slanting through the barn’s siding. She did this every day with the jar, taking stock of its contents and comfort in its presence. The light bounced off the objects in the jar, sending flecks of blue, yellow, and red spinning about the room. Blue, yellow, red; ribbon, button, marble. These three objects—so small—to a stranger might’ve seemed unremarkable. To Nitty they were her only link to family, and a world brimming with color that she’d never seen.”—from A Tale Magnolious

Before I began writing A Tale Magnolious, I was feeling glum about the state of our world.  As my main character Nitty Luce would say, I feared that our world had become lovelorn. This may have been why I wrote about the lovelorn town of Fortune’s Bluff, the setting for Nitty’s story. But I could not write about a lovelorn town without also writing about an orphan and elephant who rescue the town from its dire predicament. I could not write about the world without, also, writing about hope.

Hope is what orphan Nitty Luce carries with her in her Gleam Jar—a humble mason jar filled with her most precious (and only) belongings. The jar holds three items: a blue ribbon, a yellow button, and a red marble. To Nitty, these objects embody her wish for a family—her wish to be loved and to find a home. Nitty never gives up on this wish. Her hope keeps the wish alive. The wish, however, changes as Nitty changes. Nitty grows to love Magnolious, the elephant she rescues from death. She grows to trust the curmudgeonly Windle Homes, the farmer who offers her and Magnolious refuge. With time, Nitty discovers that she doesn’t need to cling so tightly to her Gleam Jar anymore. She can entrust her Gleam Jar, her heart, and her wishes to her newfound family and friends in Fortune’s Bluff. More importantly, she can share her hope, which she’s clung so tightly to, with others, spreading it to Magnolious, Windle, and the entire town of Fortune’s Bluff.

In our trying times, hope is important to impart to young readers, and also important to protect and preserve. More than ever, we have a responsibility as educators, writers, and artists, to guard the hopes of children, to protect the “Gleam Jars” in their hearts. How can we do this? We can teach young readers empathy by sharing with them a wide variety of stories with diverse casts of characters. We can encourage them to search for pieces of themselves in each and every story. We can discuss the challenges facing our world, but also strive to instill in them a hope for the future. And we can keep a watchful eye out for the “Gleam Jars” in their hearts. What are the treasures they keep close to their hearts? When they entrust us with their wishes and dreams, let us place a book in their hands that speaks to and nurtures those dreams. Let us assure these children that, though wishes may grow and change as we do, though the oftentimes lovelorn world may not always be gentle with our Gleam Jars, there are safe places, people, and books to turn to for hope and refuge.

“Make Your Own Gleam Jar” activity for classrooms

At the beginning of the school year, ask each student to bring in:

  • A small or medium sized mason or jelly jar.
  • 3 small items or mementos that have deep meaning to them. These can be items that hold fun or special memories, or items that represent three wishes students have for the upcoming year.

Have the students write a short description of each item and why it is important to them. If the items represent wishes, have the students describe each wish. Students might be placed in pairs or small groups to discuss the items and their meanings. Find a cozy spot in the classroom to keep the Gleam Jars for the year. At the end of the school year, ask students to revisit their Gleam Jar wishes or memories. Have them reread what they wrote about their Gleam Jars at the beginning of the year. Consider asking them some of these questions, or using these questions as writing prompts:

  • Are the objects in your Gleam Jar still as meaningful to you now as they were at the beginning of the school year? Why or why not?
  • Did any of your wishes for this year come true?
  • If you had to make a Gleam Jar right now, would you fill it with the same objects you did before, or with different ones? Why?
  • Did any of your wishes change over the course of the year? If your wishes changed, do you think it was because you changed over the course of this year, too? Why or why not?

Suzanne Nelson is the author of numerous young adult and middle grade novels, including A Tale Magnolious, and Serendipity’s Footsteps, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Teen Readers and a 2016 CCBC Choice for Young Adult Fiction. Her other books include Cake Pop Crush, Macarons at Midnight, Hot Cocoa Hearts, and over a dozen more. You can find her online at www.suzannenelson.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

National Sister’s Day: Celebrate the Holiday with Sisters/Co-Authors Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski

HEIDI: Happy National Sisters Day! In honor of this made-up but still absolutely valid holiday, Kati and I thought we’d chat a little about what it’s like to write with your sister. And if you stick around, we’ll be giving away a few books at the end. 😉

KATI: Most people are surprised when I tell them I cowrite with my sister. Usually they want to know how that works, and how we don’t kill each other by the end of the book.

HEIDI: I can’t say we never have any heated . . . um, discussions.

KATI: That’s one of our writing rules. They’re never fights, they’re always “discussions.”

HEIDI: Exactly. 😉 And since we both liked most of the same books and shows growing up, and are interested in a lot of the same themes, writing together has worked out really well. Our brains overlap quite a bit.

KATI: That is a terrifying image.

HEIDI: A little bit! As kids, Kati and I used to play pretend together all the time, so writing a story together felt almost like that. It was really fun. And then somewhere along the way, we realized that we actually thought our story had the potential to make it. So once we finished our first extremely rough draft, we decided to take it more seriously.

KATI: And we’ve been serious ever since!

HEIDI: So serious. ;D

KATI: Our third and final book in the Mystic Cooking Chronicles, A Pinch of Phoenix, just came out last month, but we’re already working on a new series together. This one will have aliens and ghosts and other supernatural creepiness. So it’s very fun to write.

HEIDI: Speaking of fun, here’s a fun fact in honor of National Sister’s Day: one of the villains in our Mystic Cooking Chronicles trilogy is loosely inspired by our older sister.

KATI: We love you, Rosi! But maybe you should have been nicer to us when we were little. ;D

HEIDI: We haven’t actually written any sisters books . . . yet. But we both love stories where those relationships are portrayed. One of my recent middle grade favorites is Prisoners of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren. Valor purposely gets herself sent to an impossible-to-escape prison in order to try to break her sister Sasha out. It’s a wonderful fantasy adventure, very action-packed, and I loved the relationship between sisters Valor and Sasha. I tore through this book in a day.

KATI: One of my recent favorites is actually young adult . . . Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. In it, sisters Scarlett and Tella would do anything to help each other, which is the driving force behind the whole story. At the same time, their relationship is a little complicated, just like most sisters. Plus there’s the fantastic world building, romance, and excitement.

HEIDI: So today, Kati and I want to give away a “sisters bundle” of a signed copy of our complete Mystic Cooking Chronicles trilogy, plus a hardcover copy of Ruth Lauren’s Prisoner of Ice and Snow, and a signed hardcover copy of Caraval.

KATI: And since we’re always looking for more good sister stories, please comment and tell us any you’d recommend so we can check them out!

. . .

To enter the giveaway, head over to the MG Book Village Twitter account!

Princesses, Pink, and Physics – Breaking the Mold of the “Typical” STEM Character

When I began writing the first book in the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS series, including a science element came organically. After all, my main character is a princess whose entire family has magical weather powers. You can’t have weather without science! As the book started coming together, I realized I had been given a fantastic opportunity to counter stereotypes about girls and STEM.

As an engineer and a longtime science-lover, I remember having a hard time reconciling the many facets of my identity as I was growing up. Society and mass media often sends girls messages that STEM is only open to people who look a certain way, dress a certain way, and enjoy “typical” STEM stuff. I remember suppressing my femininity when I was younger because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or “too girly” to excel in the STEM activities I enjoyed. The reality is that STEM is for everyone – including children who love dress-up and tea parties.

We know that girls begin dropping out of the STEM pipeline around middle school. It’s not because they aren’t good at it. If girls believe that pursuing STEM conflicts with their identity and vision of their future selves, they are more likely to leave STEM behind.

With DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS, I wanted to write characters who are unabashedly awesome at STEM and also enjoy all the trappings of “traditionally feminine” pursuits. The characters came naturally because they are modeled off many girls I know in real life (including my own daughters!). These girls enjoy and excel at so many different things – including STEM.

Lina and her best friend love dancing, sleepovers, and science.

Happily, more books for young readers are now being published that celebrate STEM heroines who are multi-faceted and complex – just like the actual girls who will read them. Here are some of my favorite chapter books and middle grade novels that feature STEM-loving girl characters:

Little Robot by Ben Hatke – This graphic novel is nearly wordless, but tells a full and stirring story of friendship and perseverance. A little girl who seems very much on-her-own stumbles upon an adorable robot whom she must protect from other sinister robots. Even though the girl is quite small, she is also resourceful and knows her way around a wrench set. To save her new friend, the heroine employs all the ingenuity and problem-solving of a top-notch engineer.

Jada Jones, Rockstar by Kelly Starling Lyons– This is the first book in a wonderful series about a fourth-grade girl navigating relatable challenges with friends, school, and family. Jada loves rocks – but she loves her best friend even more. When the book starts out, Jada’s BFF has moved away and she has to find a whole new group. Jada’s interest in STEM feels reflective of real kids I know. Yes, she loves geology, but that’s just one facet of her total personality. By the end of the book, she finds a creative way to include everyone in the class in her rock appreciation.

Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray by Jess Keating – Nikki Tesla is a genius. I love that this is stated matter-of-factly and unapologetically right off the bat! But even though Nikki never downplays her supreme smarts, she has a hilarious self-deprecating sense of humor about all the conundrums she gets into. Author Jess Keating has an infectious love of science and curiosity about the world, which shines through in her videos and web resources for kids. It’s great to see another series from her that’s sure to inspire more girls to follow in her STEM footsteps.

Lights, Music, Code! by Jo Whittemore – This third book in the Girls Who Code series reminds me of the Babysitters Club with a STEM twist. The main characters are friends who are working together to code the music and lights for their school’s winter dance. I love that the book shows both the challenges and triumphs of a group of girls working together on a project. Many stereotypes of people who work in STEM is that they’re loners, toiling away in a lab. In reality, one of STEM’s greatest perks is getting to collaborate with awesome people!

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi – This middle grade novel counters the stereotype that people who love STEM are purely analytical. Ebony has an imagination so vivid that the lines often blur between reality and her make-believe worlds (as someone who spent most of third grade imagining she had been kidnapped to an alternate dimension, I can relate). Ebony loves science fiction, a passion shared by her grandfather, who was one of NASA’s first Black engineers. When Ebony moves to Harlem for the summer, others try to push her to fit in this or that box, but she stays true to her unique and awesome self.

Photo by Sam Bond.

Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.