Finding Your Way into Your Story

For almost a decade, I’ve considered myself a children’s author who writes funny books about serious topics. While the stories I’ve published feature silly magical creatures, over-the-top embarrassing situations, and plenty of goofy puns, they also touch on more emotional elements such as bullying, chronic illness, and divorce. I’ve become used to thinking of humor as my “in” into tougher stories, a way to make the subject matter more accessible to myself—and to readers.

However, when I set out to write my newest novel, The Wonder of Wildflowers, which deals with the complex issue of immigration, funny just wasn’t cutting it. No matter how many times I tried to infuse humor into a story inspired by my own experiences as a young immigrant acclimating to a new, seemingly magical world, it just fell flat. I was ready to abandon the project and move on.

Then one day, I had an epiphany. What if my character wasn’t navigating a new world that only seemed magical to her because of where she’d come from? What if this new home really was magical? Perhaps it was the only country in the world to have access to magic. Once I knew that, the rest of the story fell into place fairly quickly. It turned out that magic was my “in” this time.

Now, whenever I approach a new project, I consider what my strongest “in” will be. Perhaps it will, once again, be humor or magic. Or maybe it will be a certain relationship that I’m curious to explore or a specific type of setting that I’m excited to depict. Knowing your “story in” can help you decide what to emphasize in your narrative, and it can also motivate you to keep going if you get stuck. And, ultimately, it can help keep you—and your readers—engaged in the story you’re telling.

Anna Staniszewski is the author of over a dozen books for young readers, including the novels The Dirt Diary and Secondhand Wishes, as well as the picture books Dogosaurus Rex and Power Down, Little Robot, and the Once Upon a Fairy Tale early chapter book series. She was a Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery award, and she currently teaches in the MFA Writing for Children Program at Simmons University. Visit her at http://www.annastan.com.

5 Tips for Writing About Difficult Topics for Middle-Grade Readers

Writing about emotionally difficult topics for the middle-grade audience can be tricky. How do you introduce tough subjects to young readers in a thought-provoking way without minimizing the event, compromising authenticity, and distressing your readers?

I encountered these challenges when writing my debut middle-grade novel, Crushing the Red Flowers. The book takes place in 1938 Germany over the pogrom known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Writing about one of the most disturbing periods of history was no easy feat and I learned a great deal. Whether you are planning to take on a painful historical event or a weighty contemporary issue, below are five tips that will help you tackle difficult topics for middle-grade readers.

Tip 1 – Set Objectives by Establishing a Baseline of Kid Knowledge and Questioning Your Motives

The first step is to understand what kids already know. You may be surprised to learn that your target readers have major misconceptions or aren’t even aware of the topic. Find out if the topic is part of school curriculum. Read message board discussions on the subject. Talk to educators and other relevant professionals. And of course, ask your target readers what they know.

When conceiving ideas for Crushing the Red Flowers, I asked 4th and 5th graders about the Holocaust after it was introduced to them in school. I ascertained that little was understood about the factors that led up to the war and that there were misunderstandings about why Jewish people did not leave Germany earlier and about the nuanced nature of German resistance.

A children’s writer must be certain of their intentions when undertaking a highly charged subject, so it’s necessary to question your motives from the start. What do you want your readers to internalize? Are you writing to reach those affected? Are you writing to educate the masses? Asking these questions and establishing a baseline of kid knowledge helped me focus my main objective—to provide middle-grade readers a solid introduction to the holocaust—as well as set secondary objectives.

Tip 2 – Define Parameters

After setting objectives, designate parameters specifically for the middle-grade audience. This could mean narrowing a time period, selecting point-of-view, or choosing a setting. For example, a book that takes place in the pre-war years is very different from a book that takes place during the war years. Choosing third person point-of-view over first person point-of-view may soften the content. A sympathetic omniscient narrator could work well to tie fragmented points-of-view and more gently guide the reader through upsetting events. And a story set close to the action is not the same as one set in a neutral location.

I chose to confine Crushing the Red Flowers to 1938 and center it around Kristallnacht. Keeping the story within 1938 allowed me to authentically write about the period and reach middle-grade readers without compromising authenticity or minimizing the events. Given the misconceptions my target readers held, I also decided to alternate perspectives between two twelve-year-old main characters, a German Jewish boy and a boy in Hitler’s Jungvolk. 

Tip 3 – Get the Facts Right

Because you’ve committed to writing about a difficult topic for children, you’ve committed to giving them the best you can give. Diligent research is your foundation. When writing Crushing the Red Flowers, I used a three-layer approach to research.

First, the big stuff. Identify primary sources. I conducted interviews with people who lived through the era and read everything I could get my hands on about 1938 Germany: Non-fiction, fiction, academic articles, and credible online sources.

Next, the details. As I wrote, questions emerged. What was the weather in Hannover on certain dates? What foods were hard to obtain in 1938? What did 1930s wallpaper look like in Germany? I researched through library sources and also reached out to historians, like Myrna Goldenberg, professor emerita of Holocaust history at Montgomery College, and Dr. Patricia Heberer-Rice from the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Last, the minutiae. Even after specific questions were answered, I continued my research to gain a general sense of German styles and mood in the 1930s. I watched movies from the time period, browsed through family portraits housed at the Center for Jewish History, watched old political video clips, and inspected hundreds of interiors at the New York Public Library Picture Collection. Sometimes I found a new detail to weave into my writing, but sometimes I just verified an element already in my novel.

Tip 4 – Write a Stellar Discussion Guide

A discussion guide is a list of questions found at the end of a book that foster conversation. Discussion guides work very well for middle-grade books. They provide educators and parents a manual for encouraging rich conversations. Discussion guides offer a safe stage to talk about difficult elements, help discussion leaders link the material back to children’s everyday lives, allow conversations to flow in greater detail, and help discussion leaders make sure that readers understood the material.

Ideas are freshest on your mind when you are writing, so I recommend adding a few questions to your discussion guide after writing each chapter. Ask about characters’ feelings and reasons for their actions. Incorporate other art forms, like sketching pictures or creating book trailers. And ask plenty of questions that have readers link back to their own lives.

Tip 5 – Take Emotional Breaks

Difficult topics aren’t just difficult for kids. They are difficult for everyone: writers, parents, and educators. Prioritizing self-care is a must. Crushing the Red Flowers took me years to write. That’s a long time to live in 1938 Germany and it was especially taxing because my book is based on true family experiences.

I suggest taking occasional breaks. If it becomes too much for you, it’s okay to step away for short periods. This will not only improve your well-being, it will allow you to see the bigger picture, ensure that you are working towards your objectives, and ultimately improve your ability to connect with middle-grade readers.

Jennifer Voigt Kaplan is an award-winning author of children’s fiction. Her debut children’s novel, Crushing the Red Flowers, will be published November 19th, 2019 by Ig Publishing. The manuscript was endorsed by James Patterson was recognized in six literary contests before its publication, including earning a Letter of Merit for the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant and winning the middle-grade category of Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize for Fiction. Jennifer was born in Germany, raised in Philadelphia, and now resides in the New York City area. 

Seven Lessons I Learned in Seven Years of Writing One Book

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

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

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

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

Crafting a New Chapter Book Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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.