I’ve been a devoted fantasy reader since I was a child. I loved all books, but there was something special about the stories that transported me to new worlds. It wasn’t so much because the real world bored me, but I already knew my place in it. My favorite mystery or thriller or contemporary books might’ve been entertaining, but the stories truly ended when they reached their final page.
Meanwhile, fantasy novels offered something . . . more. Almost like a choose your own adventure, to be carried on by my own imagination.
Where did I fit into this new world?
The Accidental Apprentice, the opening of the Wilderlore series, is my first middle grade fantasy novel. Prior to it, I’ve only published YA fantasy books, all of which are cast in worlds that I could imagine myself into, but would perhaps be frightened to do so. I knew even before I started drafting Wilderlore that I wanted to create a setting a reader would love to visit. A setting that was perfect for a choose your own adventure.
I started with a very particular word in that idea: choose. This may be a traditional novel that follows a designated hero—Barclay Thorne, a clever but stubborn mushroom farmer who has no interest in going on an adventure—but if I wanted readers to take up the mantle after Barclay’s story ended, then I needed to offer them choices of their own, buried within the story.
In Barclay’s world, there are tons of fantasical animals known as Beasts, and if you form magical bond with one, you’ll share some of its powers yourself—and you’ll thus be dubbed a Lore Keeper.
This concept immediately offered such fun and exciting choice: If you were a Lore Keeper, what kind of Beast would you bond with?
I adored this foundational question most of all, because it permeates the entire story. Every new Beast that Barclay encounters, no matter how adorable or monstrous, they’re a possibility. If not so much to him, but to the reader. And so I made sure to highlight that question. I threw in tons of Beastly description, including an encyclopedia as bonus content at the end of the book. I added depth to the choice, different Beastly classifications, different notions to consider. Would you rather one or two powerful Beasts or many weaker ones? What types of magic would you like? What would be the most useful magic in your story?
And this is just one of the choices presented. The Beasts live in six diferent regions of the world, called Wilderlands, each based on a different sort of enviornmental biome. Where would your adventure begin? In the Woods, like Barclay? What about in the Lore Keeper capital in the Mountains? The famous university of the Desert?
What would your Lore Keeper job be? Would you try to obtain a Guild license or strike out on your own? If you were to join the Guild, which type of license would you pick?
I had so much fun creating these layers of choices and categories that my younger self would’ve adored. But by far, the most fun I had in creating the world of Wilderlore was the details. Because even with all these exciting decisions, my younger self wouldn’t have struck off on my own imaginative adventure into a world if I didn’t like that world.
And so, true to the themes of the story, I let my imagination run absolutely wild with details! The Wilderlands needed a newspaper, so I named it the Keeper’s Khronicle. What would a young Lore Keeper be interested in? Well, like regular kids, probably sports, collectibles, and more, and thus came the competitive Dooling tournament and the champion cards. I threw in boutique stores and celebrities, delectible foods and famous landmarks. Essentially, the more I could come up with, the more vivid I could make the setting, the better!
From its deliberate decisions to sneaky whimsical discoveries, building the world of Wilderlore was and continues to be an absolute joy. It feels like extending a hand to my inner child and letting her guide the journey. It feels like coming home. And if it sparks the imagination of even a single reader, then I will consider my own adventure writing it to be a spectacular success.
Click HERE to check out the Pinterest board Amanda used during the writing of Wilderlore.
Amanda Foody has always considered imagination to be our best attempt at magic. After a double life as an accountant preparing taxes for multinational corporations, she now spends her free time brewing and fermenting foods much more easily obtained at her local grocery store. She lives in Boston, MA with a hoard of books guarded by the most vicious of feline companions, Jelly Bean. Her books include the Wilderlore series, The Shadow Game series and more. Her next YA novel, All of Us Villains, co-authored with Christine Lynn Herman, releases on November 9, 2021.
Every book I’ve ever written starts with a “what if…?” question. For The Great Shelby Holmes series it was a pretty simple lightning bolt. I was watching Sherlock and thought “What if Sherlock Holmes was a nine year old girl?” The spark for my latest novel, The Best Worst Summer (coming May 4th), took a little longer to come together. I happened to read two books back to back (The Muse by Jessie Burton and Honeymoon in Paris by Jojo Moyes) that took place in two different timelines: one in which a painting was being created and another where the painting was being looked at. What were the chances? I really liked the dual timelines so I thought, hmmm, could I do that with a middle grade novel? What would be the item that could tie the two timelines together? Then I remember as a kid my school was repaving the playground and we decided to do a time capsule. Time capsule!
Next up was what year would the time capsule be from? This was all going on in the spring of 2019, where it was the 30th anniversary of a lot of pivotal moments from my childhood, namely, the release of New Kids on the Block “Hangin’ Tough” album. So yep, that pretty much did it. I was going to have a kid in the present day discover a time capsule that was buried by someone in 1989.
That’s the loooong “what if…” that started the story of Peyton who is having THE WORST summer ever thanks to moving to a small town where she doesn’t know anybody. She has nothing to do, until she uncovers a box buried in the backyard with random items in it, including a photo of two girls from 1989, a weird plastic thing she has no idea what it is (*cough* cassette tape *cough*), and a note that says, “I’m so sorry, please forgive me.” Back in 1989, Melissa and her best friend Jessica are having THE BEST summer ever. They have the entire summer to hang out and have fun…until one girl’s family secret starts to unravel.
The Best Worst Summer is a story of friendships–one beginning, another ending. It’s also a mystery. And it has A LOT of fun references to a simpler time with less technology, but a lot more freedom. (Who remembers making mixtapes from the radio?) I’m so excited to share the first two chapters with Middle Grade Book Village. Happy Reading! And Hang Tough. (Oh-oh-ohhhh-oh-oh, hangin’ tough!)
Elizabeth Eulberg was born and raised in Wisconsin before moving to New York City to work in the publishing industry. While she got to work with amazing authors as a publicist, she also once had to play basketball dressed in a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume. Luckily life as a full-time author is just as exciting (and sometimes embarrassing) where she gets to research the best chocolate chip cookie in New York and how to pick a lock. She is the author of novels for teens and young readers, including internationally best-selling YA novels The Lonely Hearts Club and Better Off Friends, and the acclaimed Great Shelby Holmes middle-grade series. Her newest novel, The Best Worst Summer, is being released on May 4, 2021. Elizabeth now lives in London, where she spends her free time going on long walks around her favorite city in the world and eating all of the scones. ALL OF THEM.
On August 5, the second book in the LAYLA AND THE BOTS series will be released! I wanted to tell you a little bit about why I wrote these books and give you a sneak peek into Book 2, BUILT FOR SPEED.
Before becoming a children’s book writer, I spent 6 years at Intel and Google designing technology experiences for kids. Through that work, I learned some important things.
For example, did you know that girls start doubting their STEM intelligence by the time they are 6 yrs old [Atlantic]? Or that Black & Hispanic students have lesser access and exposure to CS resources [Google/Gallup Report]? Or that computer literacy and computational thinking skills are critical for everybody, not just computer engineers? [CMU]?
These are just a few of the reasons I was inspired to write STEAM books for kids. I wanted to create engaging and accessible stories to promote computer literacy. I wanted to share my love for technology and creativity. I wanted to feature strong protagonist girls of color that would inspire and empower kids in creativity, coding, and technology.
In case you’re new to the series, Layla is a rockstar/inventor with a band of bots, Beep, Boop, and Bop. They work together to solve problems in their town with their awesome inventions.
In Book 2, they are performing at their local go-kart race and modify a go-kart for Tina, a girl who uses a wheelchair. As with every Layla and the Bots book, they embark on a product design mission, complete with investigation (research), ideation (brainstorming), implementation (building and coding), and iteration (debugging and revising). And as always, their inventions are fantastic and spectacular! But when the mayor refuses to allow the modified go-kart, Layla and the Bots must find a creative way to save the day – and Tina’s race.
This story explores accessible design and the user-centric design process through a fun, jet-pack-fueled story. I hope these books help kids to see the awesome, imaginative, and meaningful possibilities of technology—And inspire them to rock out on their own!
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. Her goal is for her books to inspire computer literacy for a wide range of kids—while letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of technology! She is the author of INVENT-A-PET, as well as the LAYLA AND THE BOTS early chapter book series, and the I CAN CODE board book series. Find out more about Vicky by following her on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at www.vickyfang.com.
My brain is “fidgety.” It doesn’t sit still. It likes to go off adventuring while the rest of me does other things – things such as: waiting to arrive at my train station. Having an important meeting. Sitting an exam.
As you can imagine, this has its problems.
But now that so many of us are finding ourselves at home and facing some really tough things, I’m discovering a new benefit to my “fidgety” brain: aka my imagination.
Imagination is like an inbuilt escape hatch after all. Even if we can’t physically go there, in our minds we can explore the funny shape on the horizon we can see just over the rooftops from our bedroom window. Or countries that are thousands of miles away. Even other worlds. We can visit friends and family, meet new people, encounter fantastical beings.
What’s not to love about that?
In my book, Nevertell, eleven-year-old Lina escapes from a Siberian prison camp and soon discovers a world of magic beyond its fences. Later in the story, Lina realises the true power of ideas, and of imagination. Without either she may never have escaped. She would never have known of the existence of fairy tale beings – or discovered a touch of her own magic.
Ideas are powerful. They can change the world – in big ways and small. If you think about it, without ideas, or imagination, there wouldn’t be much of… well, anything.
While we’re zipping around the place in our minds – reading, writing, daydreaming – we’re helping ourselves, too. We’re transported. Maybe we can forget stuff for a while, figure a thing out that’s bothering us, or feel a little better. And feeling better, even for two minutes, is a precious thing in hard times. Lina knows it, and I’m certain that she’d say the same.
Without my fidgety brain there wouldn’t have been a Nevertell. That much I do know. So, one day, when I’m finally in the lovely position to miss my train station again, I’ll remember how much my imagination helped me, too.
Katharine Orton lives in Bristol in the UK and Nevertell is her first book. You can find out more, ask her questions or find free resources and creative activities on her website: www.katharineorton.com.
Wherein I get to share the newly changed title of my new MG novel in verse and a whole lot more I learned along the way…
At first, my plan was to simply share the new title for Made of Clay, my next Middle Grade novel in verse, coming out from Feiwel and Friends in 2021. A story of magic and friendship set against the backdrop of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake in a town of refugees who came to America via Angel Island, the book is about a boy who is selectively mute and a girl who won’t leave her house because of a skin condition, and the magical Jewish clay that allows them to help each other.
I can’t wait to share the new title, but first, I thought it might be fun to explore the process of how and why titles change at all.
Have you ever heard of these Middle Grade books?
Rules for Cakes
The Wild Side
Clivo Wren and the Fall of the Phoenix
Orchard Fruit (technically not MG)
Probably not, and it might surprise you that these are the original titles of some of our favorite Middle Grade books! (Try to guess! I will reveal soon.) Sometimes titles don’t change, but in this case they did–and that’s how it is for so many books!
Last year during many of my school visits talking about ALL OF ME, one of the main questions I got from young readers-almost every time-had to do with titles. They were so interested and sometimes mind-boggled that the original title of a work could change at all. Usually, when I tell them that the original title for All of Me was Weight, and before that, Heavy Water (a very science-y title), students want to know all the details of how things changed, and was I sad? Mad? Confused? This usually leads to a very engaging, much broader and riskier (in terms of generating one million other questions) conversation about publishing overall. It’s fun to talk about writing as a process rather than just a finished product. These have been some of the best conversations with readers and educators. They usually ask if this happens to a lot of books. I wanted to know more…
I asked my literary agent, Rena Rossner, who has seen this process so many times. She said:
It’s actually pretty rare in my experience that an author keeps their original title. Often, as an agent, I suggest a title change to an author before we even go out on submission, and even that title often doesn’t stick! One of the best things about being published by a traditional publishing house is that you have a whole team working on your book, and together that team knows a lot that we don’t and has a ton of collective experience. They think about the market, about other titles out there, about cover design, about your book’s audience, so many things go into choosing the right title for a book – and very often I’ve seen that the title often comes from an unexpected place! Sometimes authors (and agents) make lists upon lists of possible titles and send them over to their editor, and the title ends up being something completely different! Besides your cover, your title is perhaps one of the most important aspects of your book – so you want to make sure that it hits all the right notes.
I knew that some authors had similar experiences in terms of title changes, and when I asked the amazing author community on Twitter, I was stunned by the response. It turns out that for many authors, title changes are just part of the process as well. Most authors agree that this question of titles was a favorite during class visits. So many authors experience this!
So were you able to guess what these titles eventually became? Here they are again:
Rules for Cakes
The Wild Side
Clivo Wren and the Fall of the Phoenix
Okay, here we go!
Brilliant Lights is the original title of Dusti Bowling’s incomparable Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus! According to Bowling, “All of my book titles have been changed so far except one. It’s tough, but I know sales and marketing are a lot better at sales and marketing than I am :)”
The Wild Side? Is debut author, Tanya Guerreros’s wonderful debut, How to Make Friends with the Sea!
Clivo Wren and the Fall of the Phoenix eventually became, no, not Star Wars, it’s Lija Fisher’s fantastic tale, The Cryptid Catcher.
Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s book, The Frame-up was originally Living Pictures. According to her, “In the end, I realized that HarperCollins might know a bit more about titles than little old me…”
The Flannels was the original title of Kit Rosewater’s awesome new series Derby Daredevils!
Good Girls is a bit of a trick question since it’s Paula Chase’s next book due out in September and its new title will be, Turning Point. I asked Paula what she thought about this. She said, “At the time I was sad because I’d had a successful 7 title streak going. But I love the new title!”
And Orchard Fruit? That was the one and only Rena Rossner’s captivating book, The Sisters Of the Winter Wood.
Rena says, “When Chris and I were talking about it, I remember telling him how my book got its title – I had sent so many lists of possible titles when I went through the process of having to re-title my book, and when my editor sent me the title THE SISTERS OF THE WINTER WOOD, at first, I didn’t really like it. It was so different from what I had originally called the book, and really evocative, but it took awhile for the title to grow on me. I had wanted to call my book ORCHARD FRUIT – and now I look back at that title like, “What was I thinking?” My book grew into its title and the title grew on me and now I can’t imagine it ever being called anything else (same with my next book! But that’s a story for another day…)”
For the most part, these authors and many others are happy with the title changes. I really like how Lee Edward Fodi, author of The Secret of Zoone, and many other books, puts it: “I tend to just give my ideas a project name–sometimes that name becomes the official title, but not always.” This is a helpful way to think about titles.
I asked my own wonderful editor, Liz Szabla, Associate Publisher at Feiwel and Friends, her perspective on this, and if she had any thoughts that might be helpful. I appreciate her generous response:
Editors and the teams we work with — sales, marketing, and publicity — may ask to change a title because it’s too specific or too obtuse or too young/old for the audience, or, dare I say, mundane. If our sales team asks me to come up with a new title, I trust there’s a good reason; they know the market and what’s selling (and what’s not). I want your book to sell, and I want the team selling it to feel confident about the whole package — the cover, the title, and of course, the content. Every new title I’ve ever come up with has a reason for being, and there isn’t one I regret. I’m sure it’s difficult to let go of a title you’ve lived with from the start, but if your editor suggests a change, please keep an open mind.
Liz is such an incredible editor to work with, so when we started talking about changing the title of Made of Clay to something that better captures the spirit of the book for a wider audience, it was an intense and collaborative process—getting help from everyone from my family to my incredible literary agent, Rena Rosner, critique partners, author friends, and finally with the publishing team.
I had to get out the big book of titles…
What kind of title might do this? Like many books, the original title, Made of Clay was already challenging to find and captured a lot of the spirit of the book. The idea of “what are we made of?” is one of the central themes of the story. But this book is also about magic, earthquakes, immigrants, and the mysterious and healing power of unexpected friendship, so when the title change happened, while it seemed so different from the original, we agreed it is a perfect fit!
Before I get to revealing the new title, I forgot to mention one other favorite Middle Grade book title from my list above, Rules for Cakes? This was the original title of the one and only Remy Lai’s award winning book, Pie In The Sky! It’s one of our family favorites! And we can’t wait to read Fly On The Wall and everything else from Remy!
Remy and I became friends in our debut year together, and in the spirit of community, when I reached out to her, she offered to help reveal the new title (NOTE: IT’S NOT THE COVER—but I love it so much) for Made of Clay with an original illustration. I am so excited to reveal the new title of the book—
I loved the original title because for so long it was a thought in my mind, a file on my computer, scrawled on notes everywhere. I like how my literary agent puts it here: “In Chris’ case, while I loved Made Of Clay and really thought it fit the book, I think that the new title The Girl Behind the Door actually appeals to a wider audience and there’s something super mysterious about it – you can almost picture what the cover might be! And in this case, it also really fits the book – just in a completely different way.”
Thanks so much for reading! I am excited to start talking more about The Girl Behind the Door as we steadily move toward Spring 2021! Thank you to all MG Book Village, the incredible Middle Grade Writing Community, and educators and readers everywhere! Everyone stay safe and healthy!
. . .
Thanks MG BOOK VILLAGE everyone for posting and reading this article — and I have a little news to share!
One of things I love most about writing and publishing is that it is a process. I know that I am going to have lots of fun at school visits and other events talking about the wild and creative journey of titles, writing processes, and everything else! Even as this article came out, and the new title, The Girl Behind the Door, had been decided, other magic was in the works at my publisher, and together with the amazing team supporting the book, a new title was born:
THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT!
It is the perfect title for this second book of my heart, and I am so looking forward to sharing it with the world.
Chris Baron is the author of the middle grade novels in verse ALL OF ME (2019) and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT, (2021) from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center. Learn more about him at www.chris-baron.com and on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron Instagram: @christhebearbaron.
Have you heard of cli-fi? Even though the term has been around for a few years, I hadn’t heard of it until my editor mentioned this genre is growing in popularity among educators. Cli-fi stands for climate fiction – literature that imagines past, present, and future effects of human-made climate change. Similar to sci-fi, but solely focused on climate crisis related issues.
The trend is likely due in part to the efforts of Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist who has motivated millions of kids to raise their voices on the climate crisis. According to Nielsen Book Research, children’s publishers have been releasing and planning numerous books aimed at empowering young people to save the planet, calling it the “Greta Thunberg effect.” In the past year, booksellers have noted and responded to a high interest on this topic with kid readers especially. At Book People in Austin, for example, the store had devoted an entire endcap to books with climate crisis themes and a sign above it marked #clifi.
I didn’t know I’d be on the forefront of a trend when I started writing my fifth middle grade novel. I’m usually never on the forefront of anything – I remember being behind all the cool fashion and culture fads in middle school, probably because I was absorbed in whatever book I was reading at the time.
But eureka! The main character in my new middle grade novel, HELLO FROM RENN LAKE, (May 26, Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) becomes a mini Greta in her small Wisconsin lakeside town after a harmful algal bloom threatens the livelihood of the lake, and the town itself. Cli-fi! And, an uplifting, positive story for these challenging times, highlighting the message that if we all work together, we can change things for the better.
In the story, 12-year old Annalise Oliver isn’t satisfied when the town authorities decide to see if the harmful bloom will dissipate on its own. She springs into action and researches solutions with the help of her friends. And then takes a risk to implement a nature-based remedy.
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) have been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. You’ve probably seen a bloom – it looks like green scum covering the top of the water. They’re another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom.
HELLO FROM RENN LAKE is not only a story of youth environmental activism. There are also intertwined themes of abandonment and roots – literally and figuratively. Annalise, who was abandoned as an infant, is grappling with her unknown origins but instead of searching for where she came from, she makes a choice to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots are also part of the solution that may help Renn Lake recover. I based this plot element on real-life efforts that have helped polluted waterways become healthy again – the idea that the roots of water-loving plants can soak up toxic algae, similar to how wetlands act as natural purifiers.
A unique aspect of this novel is that Renn Lake, and its cousin Tru, a river, are narrators as well as Annalise. While I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Having the points of view of these unusual narrators deepens the events in a way that a human narrator couldn’t relay. Readers will really get the sense of the vital importance of water to our lives and how our actions are negatively affecting its viability.
There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination and refusal to accept complacency. There’s also an informational section in the back of the book for readers who want to learn more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms, and it’s narrated by one of the characters, Annalise’s friend Zach.
I’m so happy to see several other cli-fi middle grade books that have been published recently. Be sure to check out these terrific titles.
THE LIGHT IN THE LAKE, by Sarah R. Baughman
After twelve-year-old Addie’s twin brother drown in Maple Lake, she finds clues in his notebook about a mysterious creature that lives in the lake’s depths. When she accepts a job studying the lake for the summer, she discovers Maple Lake is in trouble, and the source of the pollution might be close to home.
THE LOST RAINFOREST: MEZ’s MAGIC, by Eliot Schrefer
An animal fantasy adventure novel about a reawakened evil that threatens an endangered rainforest. Mez, a panther, and her animal friends, must unravel an ancient mystery and face danger to save their rainforest home.
THE VANDERBEEKERS AND THE HIDDEN GARDEN, by Karina Yan Glaser
When catastrophe strikes their beloved upstairs neighbors, the Vanderbeeker children set out to build a magical healing garden in Harlem – in spite of a locked fence, thistles, and trash, and the conflicting plans of a wealthy real estate developer.
And, these two new nonfiction books for young readers will be sure to inspire and prompt action:
EARTH HEROES: TWENTY INSPIRING STORIES OF PEOPLE SAVING OUR WORLD, by Lily Dyu
Twenty inspirational stories celebrating the pioneering work of a selection of earth heroes from all around the globe, from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough to Yin Yuzhen and Isatou Ceesay. Each tale is a beacon of hope in the fight for the future of our planet, proving that one person, no matter how small, can make a difference.
FANTASTICALLY GREAT WOMEN WHO SAVED THE PLANET, by Kate Parkhurst
From deep in the ocean, around the Antarctic, to a Tanzanian forest, women throughout history have made discoveries that have helped and improved our world. Antarctic researcher Edith Farkas identified the hole in the Ozone Layer and Daphne Sheldrick cared for young orphaned elephants. In Gambia, Isatou Ceesay is spreading the message about the damaging consequences of plastic waste and educates women in local communities about recycling. This is a great compilation of women who have changed circumstances for the better.
With all of these books, the message is clear and positive: we are in this together globally, and every single of one of us can help in ways big and small. The health of our planet is more important than ever. During the coronavirus crisis, many people have been reminded just how restorative and soothing nature can be, not to mention vital to our survival. Let’s make a promise to take care of our water, land, air, and plants and animals so they will be here for future generations.
Michele’s website: micheleweberhurwitz.com
Michele on Twitter: @MicheleWHurwitz
Michele on Instagram: @micheleweberhurwitz
Michele Weber Hurwitz’s books include CALLI BE GOLD and THE SUMMER I SAVED THE WORLD IN 65 DAYS (both Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) and ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP and ETHAN MARCUS MAKES HIS MARK (both Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). She lives in the Chicago area.
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.
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
Tip 2 – Define
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
Tip 3 – Get the Facts
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.