Converting a Graphic Novel into an Audio Book: Not as Easy as it Sounds

I was thrilled when I heard that Penguin Random House had decided to make an audiobook for Operation Frog Effect. But my first thought was, “What about Blake?” Blake is one of my eight main characters in the book. It’s written from eight POVs, each with his/her unique style. Blake illustrates his entries in graphic novel form. Blake’s sections have minimal words. So . . . I wasn’t sure how an audiobook would work. How could anyone “read” it?

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Art by Gina Perry

Luckily, the audiobook producer (the frog-errific Linda Korn) contacted me on the front end and was ready to help me brainstorm. She suggested we convert all of Blake’s sections into text that could be read out loud. I went back through my illustration notes and fluffed them out into a narrative that described what Blake drew. (To be totally honest, this draft was “meh” at best.) I am so grateful for Linda’s input. She suggested I re-write, not so much describing the illustrations, but as if I were inside Blake’s head in the moment, WHILE he was sketching. I loved this suggestion. Luckily Linda’s office was about an hour away, so we met at a mid-way point, purchased some highly sugared caffeinated beverages, and hashed much of this out together. Working as a team is my favorite. I tend to be the kind of author who gets so caught up in her story that she can’t see the forest for the trees. Having another perspective enriches my work. I’m so grateful that Linda took the time to help me coax Blake’s story from the images into full blown text.

The audiobook producer selected nine different actors to narrate this book. One actor for each character, and one actor to narrate the sections that didn’t fall solidly into a particular character’s voice (like signs, chapter headings, etc.) She selected a diverse cast of actors, which made me oh-so-happy. My characters are equally diverse, so this representation felt authentic to me.

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Art by Gina Perry

The absolute highlight of the audio book experience was being asked to record author commentary for the end of the audio book. Me being me . . .  I prepped. A ton. I brought in my crinkly notepaper, all prepared to read my commentary word for word. Again, I’m grateful for Linda’s guidance and patience. She helped me get comfortable in the recording booth and instructed me to set my papers down and just talk to her. She was aiming for a relaxed commentary that showed my personality, not something prepared ahead of time. I finally relaxed, and once I got on a roll, I almost didn’t want it to end.

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The audio book for Operation Frog Effect releases in late February, 2019. Hope you like it!

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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 www.sarahlynnbooks.com.

The Charm & Power of Fantasy

As a kid, I got an early start to reading. Not because I was some prodigy, I just wanted to do everything my big sister could. And anyway, I quickly discovered that I loved reading. Mom would send me to my room to clean it and find me hours later tucked in a messy corner with a book.

By the time I was picking my books out myself, a definite trend emerged. I loved The Book of Three. I was fascinated by A Wrinkle in Time. By the end of middle school, I’d read every single book in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. In early high school, I discovered Robin McKinley and never did fall out of love with her imagined worlds.

I think I was drawn to fantasy literature for a bunch of reasons. To escape? Sure. To have an adventure? Absolutely. Because dragons are super-cool? Yes. But also, the reality of everyday sexism hit middle-grade-me like a kick in the teeth. If you ask me, fantasy’s greatest power is its unique ability to expand our understanding of what’s possible. And I’m not just talking about portals and magicians and tesseracts.

If a writer is creative enough, those imagined worlds don’t need to share this world’s failings. Racism, sexism, homophobia—all of it can be transcended, or better yet, in the pages of a book, a reader can step into a world where they never even existed.

Or, speculative fiction can offer a razor-sharp critique of our society’s ills. The canon has a lot say about repression and bigotry, fascism and propaganda, bullies and the everyday final cover Lighthousekind of people who stand up to them. The Lighthouse between the Worlds is first and foremost a fast-paced adventure story with a good dose magic. But it also looks at the terrifying consequences of forfeiting independent thought. As much as it’s about hopping a portal between worlds, it’s also about the tension between isolationism and diverse coalitions—something we’re wrestling with today on a global scale.

I wish I could say that nothing got in the way of my love affair with fantasy lit. But that’s just not true. In those later high school years, in the doldrums of reading all those “important” required texts, I got the message that the stories I loved most weren’t worthwhile. I remember vividly one time when my lit teacher let us choose our own book for a report. And what did I pick? This long, boring book for adults about Aaron Burr. I hated that book the whole way through. So why did I pick it? Because I thought my history teacher would be impressed.

Before I knew it, I’d stopped reading fantasy. It wasn’t too much later that I’d stopped reading for fun altogether. How did that happen?

More and more, I see teachers online standing up for their students’ reading preferences, validating all kinds of readers and all sorts of texts, finding really creative ways to pair books to broaden learning, to build empathy, and to celebrate reading for reading’s sake. Educators are pushing back against practices that sap the joy out of reading. And every time I see that, I’m over here, fist-pumping, celebrating that those kids have a teacher like that in their corner.

Fast forward to my first year in college. I was in the University library attempting to study for a test on parasites. Yuck. I kept reading the same paragraph in my textbook over and over again, but remembering nothing, so I thought a change of location might help. What I discovered on the next floor up was a hip-high segment of bookshelves just for Children’s Literature. I remember sort of looking around, befuddled, like, what is this doing here with all the “important” books?

And then I spotted the spine of a book I’d know anywhere. It was The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I ditched my textbooks and spent the rest of the day joyfully immersed in that familiar story.

Now, I write books for all kinds of reasons. I’m hugely passionate about my YA historicals Audacity and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky. I’ve never had so much fun writing a novel as I did with last year’s middle grade contemporary, Three Pennies.

But there’s something special in it for me when I write a work of fantasy. It’s like I’m writing to that pre-teen me, right before she let herself be convinced that her favorite stories weren’t worthy. It’s like I’m reaching back through time to whisper in her ear: Look, this thing that brings you so much joy? Hold on tight. Don’t ever let it go. 

B&WMelanie Crowder is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including
AudacityThree Pennies, An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, A Nearer Moon and Parched, as well as the new middle grade duology The Lighthouse between the Worlds.  The sequel,A Way between Worlds, releases Oct. 1 of this year.

Melanie’s books have been awarded the Jefferson Cup, the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, the SCBWI Crystal Kite, and the Bulletin Blue Ribbon; they have been recognized as a National Jewish Book Awards Finalist, Walden Award finalist, Colorado Book Awards Finalist, Junior Library Guild selection, YALSA Top Ten Books For Young Adults, ILA Notable Book for a Global Society, Parents’ Choice Silver Medal, BookBrowse Editor’s Choice, BookPage Top Pick, and The Washington Post Best Children’s Books for April. Her work has been listed as Best Books of the Year by Bank Street College, Kirkus Reviews, The Amelia Bloomer List, New York Public Library, Tablet Magazine, A Mighty Girl, and The Children’s Book Review.

The author lives under the big blue Colorado sky with a wife, two kids, and one good dog. Visit her online at www.melaniecrowder.com.

Weaving a Graphic Novel Into a Traditional Text

I’m an author, a reader, a counselor (in a school setting), and a mom. I learn so much by watching (and reading) the books my kids pick up. My two middle boys beeline it to anything with illustrations. Based on what I’m seeing in kidlit circles and school classrooms, they’re not alone. Graphic novels and illustrated novels have huge appeal amongst this generation of readers.

Interestingly, my oldest son was a new reader before this wave of graphic novels really surged. So as a middle grade reader, his book choices were often traditional text. I wondered if there was a way to write a novel with traditional text, but that incorporated a graphic novel thread. My hope was to increase appeal to additional readers.

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My character, Blake, arose from this thought. He’s a unique learner, a bright student, talented artist, but a student for whom the traditional classroom environment is sometimes challenging. There are so many types of learners in today’s classrooms. I’m impressed by the skill I see in teachers who find a way to reach a variety of different learning styles. I wanted a forum to weave this skill into my storyline.

Having Blake illustrate his entries brings a new element to the storytelling process. The brilliant illustrator, Gina Perry, was able to convey a range of emotions and themes through her artwork. See below for an example.

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Art by Gina Perry

The emotions speak volumes. I hope this additional modality of story sharing can reach more readers, and that some readers can use Blake’s storyline as a window (for some) and a mirror (for others).

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Art by Gina Perry

I’m a huge fan of illustrations and their power on the reader. I sit in awe and wonder, because my pencil doesn’t do that. I’m indebted to the skill, time and heart that illustrator Gina Perry put into her work for this project. It’s . . . Frog-tastic! And she’s pretty Frog-tastic too!

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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 www.sarahlynnbooks.com.

 

A DOCTOR, A LAWYER, AND A COLLEGE PROFESSOR…WALK INTO A MIDDLE GRADE DEBUT GROUP: A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca, Josh Levy, and Chris Baron

Josh: I’m so excited about this—for so many reasons, including the reality that this is a conversation the three of us are always having, in one way or another: Why and how three people from such different professional backgrounds now find themselves on this journey together. There’s so much I want to know and share about why and how Rajani and Chris find themselves here. But we should probably begin with the most important thing: Our books. Rajani, wanna start us off?

Rajani: MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (out June 4, 2019) is a middle grade mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking shows in which eleven-year-old Mimi dreams of winning a celebrity chef-judged baking contest, meets a mysterious boy in the woods, and stirs up all sorts of trouble with her baking. Squabbling sisters, rhyming waitresses, and culinary saboteurs all play a role in the story. In the process of setting things right again, Mimi learns that in life as in baking, not everything can be sweet.

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Chris, what about your upcoming novel? Can you tell us what it’s about?

Chris: Sure, my novel in verse, ALL OF ME (out June 11, 2019), is about middle schooler Ari Rosensweig who just wants to look in the mirror and not see a fat kid. Teased, bullied, and an outsider for most of his life, Ari is a geek who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games. He navigates the confusing worlds of his mother, a self-absorbed artist, and his father, a con man who disappears just as Ari prepares for his already-late Bar Mitzvah.

After a brutal bullying incident before summer break, Ari decides he’s had enough. He’s got to lose the weight before high school starts. With the family in turmoil, Ari’s mother moves the two of them out of San Francisco to fix up and open an old gallery at the beach. With the help of a few unexpected friends, Ari starts his quest to reinvent himself no matter what it takes, and when he begins the perfect Diet Revolution, everything changes.

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Josh: Awesome. And as you both know, SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY (out March 5, 2019), is a middle grade sci-fi novel about a “public school spaceship” in the future that gets mysteriously attacked and catapulted across the galaxy. Aliens. Lasers. Spacey shenanigans. (The #MGBookVillage was kind enough to run my cover reveal here.)

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Now to the conversation at hand: Why do we write middle grade? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts, Chris, given how personal your story seems: How did you come to middle grade? And how did you come to this story? Then what about you, Rajani? How “close to home” does your story hit? 

Chris: Josh…it is really personal, and I think that is part of why I care so much about writing middle grade. Stories have always been a source of shelter and inspiration for me. I think I have been writing about this story since I started writing at all. Growing up for me was a combination of 1) a fairy-tale childhood growing up in an artist’s family in New York City and all kinds of other places, and 2) struggling with difficult family dynamics and the identity of being a Jewish kid, an overweight kid, constant diets, negative comments and teasing  from family and friends. Honestly—I thought I was really happy—but people kept telling me I wasn’t.

For ALL OF ME, I needed to tell the story of a kid, Ari, who is told that it is wrong to be who he is—that it’s all his fault somehow—and how he works through that in a difficult but positive way. I think so many middle grade kids relate and even connect to feeling like an outsider because of their weight or their religion, their family dynamics, you name it. There are so many rites of passage happening at this age, and I wanted to tell an honest story about how childhood magic, innocence, identity, family challenges, and religion all mix together and what comes out the other side.

One last thing about how I came to this story: My own family. Seeing my own children grow up—their daily wonders, joys, triumphs and tragedies—they really do inspire.

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Chris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, is coming June 2019. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College. Baron has published numerous poems and articles in magazines and journals around the country, performed on radio programs, and participated in many readings, lectures, and panels. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, was released in 2012 on CityWorks Press as part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology). He is represented by the amazing Rena Rossner, from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency.

Rajani: The spark for MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM came from one of my own childhood memories. My dad didn’t travel much for work, but when he did, he sometimes went away for a week or two. When he returned, I’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if the person who returned wasn’t really him, but an imposter who looked and spoke exactly like him (creepy, right?). I devised some “tests” to make sure it was my dad, and luckily, it always was. When I was brainstorming novel ideas, I wondered what it would be like if a girl noticed something odd about her dad…and she was right.

My husband had an imaginary friend when he was little. He spoke to him, played with him, read stories with him—everything. I started wondering about imaginary friends, and what might happen if someone “imaginary” turned out to be quite real. Given my love for Shakespeare in general and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, the next step wasn’t that big.

And, like Chris, so much of this story was inspired by my own children, about being a young person in a world filled with “experts” (some of whom are related to you), of dreaming big dreams but not knowing whether you have the talent or the brains or the grit to make it. And my children, like Mimi, have sometimes surprised themselves with their own brilliance, and with their big hearts and hours of work and refusal to give up even when all seems lost. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM speaks to kids (and adults) who have set lofty goals for themselves and wonder whether they can ever achieve them. Because the payoff is sweeter when the struggle has been hard.

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Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. When she’s not writing middle grade novels or picture books, she practices medicine and bakes way too many sweet treats. MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM is her first novel. You can find her online at www.rajanilarocca.com and on Twitter and Instagram @rajanilarocca.

Josh: First, you are both amazing. You know I think that already (we’re friends IRL, after all). But I can’t say it enough.

In a sense, mine is a lot less personal than either of your stories. I don’t conceive of SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY as much of a reflection of my own life. If I had any guiding light in writing it, it was: Make this fun. Make this the kind of thing you would have wanted to read when you were younger (and still do).

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t “personal.” I wrote a book that middle school Josh would have wanted to read. He knew well that feeling of being a lonely kid, huddled up with a story that took me far away. I found escape in all sorts of fantasy/sci-fi as a kid. I consumed every Star Wars novel they gave me and loved every page. And I’m overjoyed at the possibility that SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY might bring a few kids some of the same comfort and enjoyment.

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Joshua S. Levy was born and raised in Florida. After teaching middle school (yes, including seventh grade) for a little while, he went to law school. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Jersey, where he practices as a lawyer. Unfortunately, outer space doesn’t come up in court nearly as often as he’d like. Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy is his first novel. You can find him online at http://www.joshuasimonlevy.com/ and on Twitter @JoshuaSLevy.

Frankly, this whole endeavor is a bit of an escape for me. Like you, I have a professional life that is separate from publishing. There are links between my “writing life” and my “lawyer life,” sure, but they’re not always obvious. And I’d love to know more about the connections in your lives. How is your “doctor life” (Rajani) and your “professor life” (Chris) threaded into your writing life?

Rajani: I wrote a piece for MGBookVillage about the parallels between writing and “doctoring.”

Put aside the years of training, the long hours, the many frustrations, and the need for support in both professions (although honestly, writing involves MUCH more rejection). Ultimately, both writing and the practice of medicine are about people— wonderful, horrible, pathetic, amazing people in all their imperfect glory. Both medicine and writing involve listening to others’ stories, and writing our own. For me, medicine and writing inform and amplify each other. And when one gets to be too much, I get to delve into the other, and it feels like a treat.

Chris: I have the privilege of working at San Diego City College, an urban, extremely diverse, Community College where I teach Creative Writing and direct the writing center. There are many connections between my job and my writing life—especially writing and publishing poetry. In many ways, it was my students who got me to the point of writing ALL OF ME. Every semester, I find my mostly working class students, veterans, transfer-minded students really drawn into narratives that connected and related to their lives, providing escape, but also giving new language to the more difficult aspects of life. Students always tell me they wished they had read books in High School and MIddle School that dealt with more serious issues head on. Every chance I get I try to connect them with books, graphic novels, poems, any story that might speak to them. Working with my students over the years has given me the courage to explore deeper issues in my own work. Not long ago, wrote what I considered to be a “risky” poem called “Heavy Water,” about an overweight boy feeling awkward and alone at the beach while other kids seemed so carefree. I got asked to read it a spoken word event.  It was after the reading, when so many of them shared with me that they wanted to hear a story about a character dealing with these issues, that I had one of the first sparks for ALL OF ME!

So Josh, to be fair, and no complaints, and the work is hard. There is a lot of grading, committees, and the introvert in me struggles sometimes, but my job gives a lot of flexibility and room for creativity. But what about your profession as a lawyer? We have talked about the fact that you do A LOT of writing, but what connections do you make between your legal writing and your creative writing? And if nothing else, how do you find the time?

Josh: Great questions, Chris. I’ll work backwards: First, time. I tend to assume that all of us “day job” writers (as well as all writers, generally) are playing a zero sum game. It’s not that “something’s gotta give.” It’s that at any given moment, something is always giving. Priorities compete with one another. What helps me keep perspective are the positive implications for which I’m so grateful: That I have a good job. That I have a wonderful family. That I’m publishing a novel!

And yeah, while my legal writing and my creative writing efforts are very different, I’m also grateful that I get to spend so much of my time doing something I really, genuinely enjoy, no matter the context: Writing. Working out puzzles of language and argumentation. “Is that the right word?” “Does an em-dash belong here?” “Does this aside serve the narrative?” These are questions I get to ask myself in both worlds.

And you, Rajani? HOW DO YOU DO IT?! How do you balance the demands of your job and the pull of writing—and everything required to facilitate the success of both?

Rajani: Well, I could ask you both the same, right?

I think the real answer is…we all make choices every day about how we want to spend our time, and our priorities show through. For me, family comes first, but my children are older now and although they don’t need me less, they need less of my time, if that makes sense. They’ve got their own goals and projects, and they spend most of their time working on those. But I still treasure our meals together, and spend time planning trips or taking walks with them and just soaking up their presence. I also get more time alone with my husband, who is my biggest support in every part of my life. I also happen to love taking care of my patients, and even on the worst day at work, I feel like I have at least helped a few people.

But with writing…it’s not really a choice anymore for me. Characters and situations keep popping up in my head, and their voices can be really annoying if I don’t write them down! I can definitely get out of rhythm if I don’t work on a particular project (particularly a novel) for a while, but once I go through the exercise of “making” myself work on it, a little bit each day, I eventually get back in the groove.

All of this to say: How do I do it all? I don’t. I struggle and muddle through everything, just like everyone else. I show up and put in the work and try to enjoy the good times, and put my head down and deal with the difficult times. And through it all, I try to hold on to the incredible fact that in the end, I am writing things that will be read and enjoyed by children. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?

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).

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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 (www.patriciamnewman.com).

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.

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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 www.sarahlynnbooks.com.

Magical Realism in Middle Grade

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Magical realism is a flourishing sub-genre of middle grade literature, but what does it mean, how is it different from standard fantasy and why is it so appealing to young readers and not-so-young authors alike? My first introduction to magical realism came in college when I became enamored with the works of Congolese author Sony Lab’ou Tansi; although, at the time, I wrote a paper outlining how his brand of magical storytelling differed from the classic magical realism tradition of Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Nowadays, my thoughts on the subject are not quite so lofty.

Middle grade authors have developed their own version of magical realism, which, of course, varies just as much as previous iterations. Today I’m going to share my specific understanding of the sub-genre and how I have used everyday magic as a tool to develop my characters’ emotional journeys.

First, a definition. I like to define magical realism in middle grade as a story that takes place in an everyday setting with just a hint of magic. However, we need to take the definition a few steps farther to really understand magical realism, especially if we want to differentiate it from contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy, which are also fantasy stories that take place in everyday settings. One of the key differences here is that with contemporary or urban fantasy, the fantasy element is generally a force that characters must strive to overcome. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the beasties are primarily there to drive the plot forward and give Buffy landmarks on her hero’s journey.

In magical realism, the fantasy element serves a different purpose. It is generally there in order to spark or highlight an emotional change in the main character. Think of the magic as a spiritual guide, leading the character on a journey of self-discovery. The magical element is often symbolic of a larger idea. For a concrete example, let’s take a look at my first book, Skeleton Tree.

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In Skeleton Tree, the main character, Stanly, discovers a finger bone in his backyard. He hopes to dig up the bones and photograph them in order to win a contest, but the bones have other ideas. They start to grow, first into a bony hand reaching up into the sky, and then into a full-sized skeleton that only children and a few special adults can see. The only person who doesn’t find the skeleton creepy is Stanly’s little sister, Miren. She wants to be best friends with the skeleton, that she names Princy, but when she starts to get sick more often than usual, Stanly worries that maybe the skeleton isn’t as friendly as Miren thinks.

Spoiler alert:  as you probably guessed, Princy represents Death in the story. As Stanly’s relationship with Princy changes and grows throughout the course of the book, so does Stanly’s understanding of Death. By the end, he realizes that, “maybe death [isn’t] all worms and nothingness. Maybe, sometimes, there [is] mystery and whimsy and dancing shadow puppets, too. The kind that [need] both light and dark to be seen” (154-155 Skeleton Tree). The magic serves the purpose of guiding both the character and the reader on an emotional journey that might be more difficult to conceptualize without a physical manifestation of a complex topic, in this case Princy as the physical manifestation of Death.

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This is one of the reasons why I think magical realism works so well in middle grade. Not only can it give young readers a concrete way to visualize and understand fuzzy existential topics, but, using light magic, often with a big dose of whimsy, is also a great way to ease readers into a conversation about dark or difficult topics, like death in Skeleton Tree or homelessness in Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw.

Another characteristic that differentiates magical realism from contemporary or urban fantasy is that authors of magical realism usually make no attempt to explain the magic. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, we learn an entire mythology surrounding slayers and demons that, while still fantastical, explains the world in a way that viewers and characters in the show are willing to accept. On the other hand, in magical realism, the author makes little or no attempt to explain, because it’s not about developing a larger fantasy world or a plausible system of magic, it’s about taking the character on a specific emotional journey. Once the journey is over, the magic often disappears or goes away until it is needed by a future character looking to undertake a similar emotional journey.

Hopefully this article has given you a greater understanding of magical realism in middle grade literature and has inspired you to go out and read, or even write, some magical middle grade in 2019.

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Kim Ventrella is the author of the middle grade novels SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW (coming 2/26/2019). Her short story, ‘Jingle Jangle,’ will appear in the NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK anthology releasing in 2020. Her works tackle tough topics with big doses of whimsy, hope and, of course, magic.