Happy Birthday to the MG Book Village!

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Can you believe it?! It’s our first birthday! The MG Book Village has been around for one full year!

The site has grown in ways we never could’ve imagined, thanks in large part to the input, feedback, and contributions of YOU — the members of this wonderful kid lit community. We just wanted to take this opportunity to thank every one of you, and to once again encourage you to get involved. You can send thoughts, suggestions, and ideas to us at mgbookvillage@gmail.com or on social media. We look forward to continuing to celebrate and discuss all things Middle Grade in the coming months and years.

MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: THE HOTEL BETWEEN, by Sean Easley

Middle Grade at Heart’s November book club pick was the magical adventure THE HOTEL BETWEEN by Sean Easley.

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THE HOTEL BETWEEN is one of those books that grabs you from the first page, where we meet our hero, Cam, from the hiding-place-come-prison of his middle school locker. But after the initial humor of Cam’s situation, we immediately get that there’s something much bigger afoot than the typical middle school hijinks.

“I throw my head back against the interior of the locker, tracing the page displaying my pencil sketch of a tree with a cramped, crooked finger. I can almost hear the leaves rustling, as they have been lately in my dreams. It’s the same tree that’s on the wooden coin hanging from my neck. Dad’s coin.” 

Because Cam and his twin sister, Cass, have been raised by their Oma–both of their parents are presumed dead. But Cam’s convinced his father is still alive. So when he meets Nico, a mysterious boy who holds a coin identical to the one Cam’s father gave him before he disappeared, he can’t let it go. He has to learn more.

The adventure that ensues introduces him to The Hotel Between, a hotel with magical doors that can transport hotel guests all over the world. One member of the hotel’s staff describes it as follows:

Those who stay within our walls may dive the deepest lagoons and climb the highest mountains in a single day. Here, one can enjoy arepas for breakfast in Venezuela, the most authentic Philly cheesesteak for lunch, and dine luxuriously on the Rhine for dinner.”

Cam and his new friends travel places like Russia, Hungary, and the Congo on a series of missions for the hotel. But when the hotel’s magic starts to malfunction, Cam realizes that something’s not right. And what he discovers might be even more important than finding his long-lost father.

Part fantasy adventure, part travelogue, part touching story of hope and family connection, THE HOTEL BETWEEN is sure to please readers aged 10+.

To learn more about Sean, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to THE HOTEL BETWEEN here (https://mailchi.mp/1233feee0568/november-newsletter-the-hotel-between?e=96af0d8aff).  

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Next month, Middle Grade @ Heart will feature a round-up of our favorite graphic novels. And don’t miss our #mgbookclub Twitter chat about THE HOTEL BETWEEN on December 4 at 8pm EST!

Book Review: THE PROPHET CALLS, by Melanie Sumrow

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Cover artist: Colleen Tighe. Cover designer: David DeWitt.

Dystopian books explore what might happen to our world when something fundamental is different from what we know. Often, it’s society-based, though sometimes technology is part of it. These are books that start with a “What if” world tangled into our own. We see aspects of life we recognize, but something feels off or wrong or just plain disturbing. And it’s the main character’s role to figure out how to survive, or escape.

When I first read Melanie Sumrow’s middle grade debut The Prophet Calls, I knew it was based in the real world, and what is no doubt a very real world for certain populations in the United States. But this book felt dystopian to me. I’ve known people from religions akin to, but fortunately not as restrictive, as the one that dominates this narrative, and I’ve read of the religions that keep similar tight bonds on their women and girls, but never explored the story of one of those girls.

Yet Gentry’s story is not what you expect. It’s partly a tale of rebellion against a religion that keeps women and girls submissive. But it’s a fast-paced thriller as well, as the best dystopian stories tend to be.

The Prophet Calls begins with a children’s game: “apocalypse,” in which government agents are chasing God’s chosen. Gentry has just turned 13 and is therefore, according to her people, a woman. And a woman cannot play a children’s game. Yet she does, with her sister Amy fleeing from the “agents,” who her include her brother Tanner and her friend Channing Snell. We’re drawn into the chase, into escape and hiding, in a scene that is strangely tense for a children’s game. But this is by design. In the first chapter, Sumrow plants the seeds of much that will be important later in her book: the multiple “mothers” each child family has, Amy’s terror that Gentry will leave her behind, Tanner’s wild abandon, the bruise on Channing’s neck which we see as he urges Gentry to play, and that inexorable sense of dread.

That dread is present when Tanner and Gentry sneak off to perform at a music festival, a competition that the two, both talented violinists, have planned to attend for months. But they must attend in secret: The Prophet, the ruler of their enclosed religious community, has phoned from his prison cell to decree that woman are no longer allowed to leave the compound. This happens the day of the game, Gentry’s 13th birthday, in her first hours of being a woman.

But that doesn’t stop her. Gentry and Tanner perform. They do well. They come home. And they’re caught. And Tanner, Gentry’s friend as well as her brother, is banished from the compound, worse than dead, she’s told. And Gentry is forbidden to play the instrument that gives her such joy and freedom.

More people whom Gentry loves are banished. “Women” (of all ages) with whom she is close are forced into marriage with men of the Prophet’s choosing. But this “woman” tries to fight, though doesn’t know how, and soon it’s a matter of survival.

This is a powerful read, one rife with opportunities for discussion of restrictive gender roles, of religious rules, of what freedom really means. It’s an upper middle grade book, but perfect for a tween nearly but not quite ready for young adult. And it will introduce some of the dystopian themes that young will find in the young adult genre, but its own middle grade—chillingly realistic—manner.

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Diane Magras is author of the NYT Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, which came just before The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. All things medieval fascinate Diane: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of Scotland, where her books are set.

Cover Reveal: ALL OF ME, by Chris Baron

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I’m thrilled to welcome Chris Baron to the MG Book Village today. Chris is here to reveal the cover of his debut novel, ALL OF ME. Written in verse, ALL OF ME is, among other things, a story about a boy who’s bullied because of his weight — an issue I’m glad and grateful is being written about more often as of late. Check out my interview with Chris below, check out his book’s exquisite cover art, and check out the handy links at the bottom of the post — including one to help you preorder Chris’s book from Mysterious Galaxy, his local indie.

~ Jarrett

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This is your first time here at the MG Book Village. Would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi everyone, my name is Chris Baron! I am so thankful to be here at MG Book Village!  This place has been such an inspiring and welcoming community.  I am an MG author, poet, and I have the privilege of working as a professor in the English Department at San Diego City College where I get to be the director of the writing center!  I love my job–it’s the most diverse campus in San Diego, and my students inspire me every day.  Probably my most important job is husband and father to my own 3 MG-aged kids.  MG books have been pivotal in my life–from reading Bridge to Terabithia to Narnia and Middle Earth, books have always been there for me even in the most difficult times!

You’re here to reveal the cover (and new title!) of ALL OF ME, your debut Middle Grade novel. Can you talk about your journey to writing this book, and to storytelling for Middle Grade audiences?

Thanks! Yes. The new title for WEIGHT is ALL OF ME! I have been waiting for a long time to reveal that! More on the title journey later. I actually have the privilege of collaborating on a really fun, longer article for MG Book Village about this journey with two other MG authors, Josh Levy and Rajani LaRocca, about our adventures as a lawyer, a doctor, and a professor writing MG books, so a shorter answer for now is about seeing the passion for stories grow in my own kids. They want to be transported into magical worlds, but they also love to hear about anything we can tell them about growing up—the want “all the real stuff” (sometimes way too late after bedtime).

Also, here is one little anecdote I consider a “launch pad “story. When my book of (adult) poetry came out a few years ago, at the release, I was reading to a theatre full of people, and some of the poems were extremely serious. I decided to read some of lighter poems about growing up, and about my own children. I will never forget what happened after that. I read this poem “First Kiss.” Here are just a few lines…

“Fat kids don’t have girlfriends.
Friends yes, but not kissing,
not even in third grade.
So imagine my surprise…”

The audience laughed with relief, but I remember looking out and seeing a good friend of mine, a pretty amazing YA writer who would later become one of my greatest supporters, looked at me wide-eyed from the crowd. After the reading, he ran up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Dude, you have got to write a Middle Grade Book!” I read Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING, and he gave me a stack of other books to read, and then I read everything I could find.

My journey was launched! I took a sabbatical from work, and started writing WEIGHT in the late night hours, in the early mornings, wherever I could find the time. And now, here it is as ALL OF ME, and I couldn’t be happier!

Let’s get to the book itself. Tell us about ALL OF ME.

Sure, yes. The short version: Set in San Francisco, it is the story of Ari Rosensweig, an overweight, seventh grade boy who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games.  Ari is tired of being bullied and letting his weight define him. His parents’ marriage is struggling. They are too busy to focus on his life, much less help him with his already late bar mitzvah, and things take a turn for the worse. Ari’s mother, a painter and sculptor, decides to open an old gallery at the beach that summer. She puts him on a diet, and with the help of some unexpected friends, he tries to make a change physically, but that’s only the beginning of their adventures and the real change that comes.

As a kid, I was bullied for my weight. And in the books I read at that age, overweight characters seemed to be included exclusively for comedy relief. I know I would’ve loved to have found a story like Ari’s back then. What led to you telling it?

I am so sorry that you had that experience.  I know this story well.  I lived it myself, and I think that’s part of why I want to tell this story. Overweight kids are often left out of the story. My first memory of being bullied about my weight is so strong. I grew up in Manhattan, and I remember the cold air on the playground and the hum of the dodgeball hitting me in the stomach, and the voice of the kid, laughing, “Fatboy probably didn’t even feel it.”  The ball hurt when it hit, but I remember being much more hurt by his words. So I shook off my tears, and I just laughed along with them. Sometimes this might be the right thing to do, but the name-calling continued, and I started to believe what they said about me. I think that’s part of it. As kids, we so often take on the identities that others attach to us–even if they are not the most positive.  I really needed someone at that time to tell me that I didn’t have to listen to them, or believe what they said, or I could get help, whatever that meant.

But your point about comedy relief is really interesting.  I love comedy relief as much as anyone, but there is no reason why overweight kids can’t also be heroes of the story.  I wanted to tell a story of a character who experiences real life challenges and learns how to be confident, healthy, brave, and have authentic self esteem, and at the same time be vulnerable (and have comic relief). Like you mentioned, a story that I would have loved to have found as a kid.

ALL OF ME is a novel told in verse — a form that has in recent years been growing increasingly popular in kid lit. Why do you think that is?

I will say that so many kid lit authors have incredibly poetic, lyrical lines in their prose, so the gap isn’t always that wide. I think that poetry speaks to the heart. We see with more than just our eyes, and the music of poetry helps to make words sing directly to us.

Poetry relates to all kinds of readers. There is space on the page, measured breaks, pacing, music, and movement of lines that a reader of almost any level can find their way into. The structure of verse creates an intimacy with a reader that allows them to hear the tone and cadence of a character’s voice. This can create even stronger connections for readers.

What do you hope your readers — in particular the young ones — take away from ALL OF ME?

I love this question: I want to shout something like self-confidence! Hope! Adventure! But I am also embracing the “I don’t completely know yet.”  I am so excited to hopefully visit some schools and find out what kids take away from the book. I am working with some incredible classes right now as a part of the #KidsNeedMentors program, and I am looking forward to asking the kids what they take with them when they read the book.  I do know this though: I want kids to see some part of themselves. I hope readers will learn about empathy and kindness for others, Jewish culture and tradition, but also faith in general, overcoming struggles with body image, friendship, taking risks, and learning more about being brave and being themselves no matter what. I hope readers, especially the young ones, will know that if they are going through difficult things like the characters in the book, they will know that they are not alone.

All right — now that we know all about you and your upcoming book, let’s talk about the title change and check out cover. Did you play a part in either of these processes?

This book has had so many titles through the drafting process. But when I went to query it, I used WEIGHT, which I love–but through the course of revising and editing with my incredible agent Rena Rossner and editor Liz Szbala, we realized that the book is about so much more than what the title WEIGHT suggests about the story, so after hours and hours of brainstorming it transformed into ALL OF ME!

What was your reaction when you first saw the cover?

I was teaching a creative writing class, and during the last 10 minutes, the students were working in groups.  So I checked my email, and I saw the message from my editor.  In my head, I told myself, Stop! Wait until later! But my heart and hands had other ideas.  I clicked it immediately.  There it was.  I choked up right away, and I couldn’t hold back tears.  Some of my students noticed, but I think I managed to keep it together as they smiled and walked out.  Thankfully, my wife teaches at that time just down the hall, so she came to look, and we had tears together. The light, the colors, it’s extraordinary. The cover artist is the incredible Chris Sheban!

Okay, let’s check it out:

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I LOVE it! What a powerful, moving image. I love how it captures his strength and celebration of himself in the face of what life has thrown at him.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them — especially those planning to add ALL OF ME to their classroom libraries?

Yes! Thank you for the work you do!  I just want to be a part of the community, so please let me know how I can help–whether that’s a school visit, or letter writing, or a study guide, a reading, or even if there is just a kid who might have a question. I want to be available the best I can be.  Thank you.

Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

ALL OF ME will be out June 11th from Feiwel and Friends. You can find preorder links on Amazon, Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, Barnes and Noble, Macmillan, and all the usual places.

Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/All-Me-Chris-Baron/dp/1250305985/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1542049981&sr=1-1&keywords=all+of+me+chris+baron 

Mysterious Galaxy Books:

https://www.mystgalaxy.com/book/9781250305985

I can also be reached through my website:

www.chris-baron.com

baron bio pic 1 2mb.jpgChris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, is coming June 2019. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College. Baron has published numerous poems and articles in magazines and journals around the country, performed on radio programs, and participated in many readings, lectures, and panels. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, was released in 2012 on CityWorks Press as part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology). He is represented by the amazing Rena Rossner, from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency.

Cover Reveal: DOUBLE CROSS: MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS #3, by Beth McMullen

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Thanks so much for choosing the MG Book Village to host your cover reveal. We’re thrilled to have you! Before we get to the new book and its cover, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi everyone!  Thank you to MG Book Village for having me! I’m the author of the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls series, featuring boarding school student Abby Hunter, who never lets a little danger get in her way, and her best friends, Izumi, Charlotte and Toby.

All right — onto the new book, the third installment of the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls series. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I’m totally excited for Double Cross: Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls #3! In this installment, Abby and friends are invited to Briar Academy to participate in the Challenge, where teams of the best and brightest students from around the country are invited to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Our friends, still trying to prove to the not-so-kind Mrs. Smith that they belong in spy school, figure winning the Challenge is the best way to prove they are worthy. But during the competition, it becomes clear that Abby’s nemesis, the Ghost, is up to his old tricks and trying to steal ideas from a fellow Smith School team to use for nefarious purposes. Of course, Abby can’t let this happen. Chaos ensues. Naturally.

One of the things I love most about your books is the dialogue. I could read the back-and-forth between the characters all day long. How do you do it?!

I talk to myself a lot! Seriously, there’s a space between language that doesn’t sound as if it could ever be spoken and how we really speak. You can’t write dialog that exactly mimics conversation because it would be very hard to follow – we tend to speak in something less than complete sentences – but you don’t want your characters to sound like they are cardboard. So finding that space in between is the trick. I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan and he’s a master at the rapid fire, rat-a-tat-tat dialog I love so much. I want my characters’ conversations to fly back and forth with some sparks!

Okay, let’s get to the cover. Were you involved in the process at all?

My publisher always shares the pencil sketch early in the process of cover design. I might have a comment or two but I’ve been amazingly lucky to have the incredibly talented Vivienne To doing my covers. She really captures the essence of the books. Around Halloween, I get parents emailing me photos of their kids dressed up like Abby on the cover of the first book. That is all because of Vivienne!

Let’s get to it! Here’s the new cover:

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WOW! So much energy and movement! It’s electrifying! What did YOU think when you first saw the art?

As the series has progressed, the covers have gotten brighter and bolder. I love how the colors jump off the page and the kids look so active, like they might just charge right into your room at any second. I wanted to write a series with a lot of action, with girls in the lead. The covers bring that idea to visual life.

When can readers get their hands on the book?

Double Cross hits the shelves on August 6, 2019.

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Beth McMullen is best known for the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls trilogy,  middle grade spy thrillers, packed with action, adventure and humor. She also writes the Sally Sin series for adult readers. Beth lives in Northern California with her husband, kids, cats and a very tolerant parakeet named Zeus. Visit her website at BethMcMullenBooks.com or follow her on Twitter at @bvam.

 

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Crafting Striking Visual Descriptions

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Okay, so we all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But have you seen the absolutely glorious cover of the Middle Grade at Heart November book club pick, The Hotel Between? Isn’t it stunning and intriguing?

The cover artist, Petur Antonsson, did an incredible job with the illustration, and the author, Sean Easley, gave Antonsson a whole lot to work with because this book features some truly masterful visual descriptions. Let’s take a look at a few passages to see how Sean Easley manages to evoke rich, specific images while also leaving just enough to the reader’s imagination and conveying a sense of his narrator’s personality.

First, here’s how the book’s narrator, Cam, describes the fantastic and mysterious Hotel the first time he sees it:

I turn back to the door and catch a glimpse of…something unbelievable. Thick, velvety maroon carpet stretches deep into an open foyer and up a twisty staircase. Warm light shines from old, Thomas Edison-style bulbs in intricate brass fixtures. A sparkly chandelier with long, dangly chains of crystals casts rainbows everywhere, flooding the enormous space with warm, smoky light. I can’t even see the ceiling, it’s so high. And I think I smell blueberries. 

There are so many vivid sensory details in this opening description. We get a sense of the vastness of this place, how old it seems, and how it’s too big and too complex for Cam to fully take in. There’s a sense of oddness, too, and a bit of unexpected humor with the ending sentence about blueberries. There are interesting verbs (stretches, casts, flooding), and we can see from the word choice and specificity that Cam is intelligent and perceptive, despite how self-deprecating he can often be.

The description also doesn’t go on too long; pretty soon, the door to the hotel closes and the action starts back up. Easley doesn’t take up so much space with his lush descriptions that the action drags. He leaves us wanting more and imagining what else Cam doesn’t see in his first glimpse of this intriguing place.

Soon, Cam visits lots of international locations through the Hotel’s magic, and the descriptions of these places are just as striking as the description of the Hotel itself. Here’s how Cam describes the scene he takes in when he walks out the “Budapest Door” into the city of Budapest:

All around us, tall glass-and-stone buildings drip with light. Carved granite arches glow as the sun sets beyond them. Warm, yellow strings of incandescent bulbs drape from the pop-up tents scattered throughout the square. Tree branches twist and curl, carrying the lights into the sky like the fiery breath of a dragon. 

Again, check out all those striking verbs (drape, twist, curl, carrying) and the way we get plenty of vivid details but not too many; we have space to imagine what else is going on in this scene and to feel its glowing warmth. The use of figurative language is also terrific. That simile about the “fiery breath of a dragon” is not only original and interesting, but it also reveals something about Cam, who is a very cautious character and sees this world he’s stepping into as something amazing…but also frightening.

And it’s not only places that Sean Easley describes effectively; he also has a knack for describing characters’ appearances. Here’s a passage from when Cam first meets a mysterious man named Agapios:

And at the desk in the center of the room sits a man who looks like Death on his way to the prom—flat, angular forehead with a receding hairline and slick black hair. His face is long—way longer than it should be—and his cheekbones look like someone surgically inserted dice into his face.

Isn’t that an outstanding paragraph? The simile about “Death on his way to the prom” reveals Cam’s sense of humor as well as his lingering fear. Plus, it leaves the reader space to imagine what this man is wearing and what might make his features look “deathly.” The humorous (but disturbing) line about dice being inserted into Agapios’s face also paints quite a visceral picture! Based on the way Agapios is described, the reader immediately wants to know more about who he is and what he’s up to.

Let us know on Twitter if there are other descriptions in the book that strike you as especially effective, and we hope you’ll enjoy our newsletter about The Hotel Between, which will go out on November 26th. And don’t mis our Twitter book club chat about the book, which will take place at 8pm EST on Tuesday, December 4th with the tag #mgbookclub!