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.

Collaboration Celebration: The Lowdown on Co-Writing & a Big-Time Giveaway — co-written by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen

Jensen and Morrison Every Shiny Thing Cover.jpg

Our co-written middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing, came out six months ago, and since its release, we’ve gotten lots of questions about why and how we wrote together. We wondered how other writing duos would answer these questions and how their co-writing processes are similar to and different from our own. So we connected with four other co-author pairs who had some fascinating things to say. Read on to find out all the wisdom they shared for writers wanting to collaborate and teachers assigning co-writing projects. And don’t miss the details at the end about a special eight-book giveaway!

INSPIRATION

The most common question any writer gets is, “Where do you get your ideas?” That question becomes more complicated for co-written books because there’s the added question of who got the idea.

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Some co-authors hit upon their idea together when they find a shared interest. That’s what happened for Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester, authors of the Legends of the Lost Causes series. Brad and Louis were in grad school together and discovered a shared passion for the Western genre. They became excited about the idea of writing a Wild West adventure for kidsthe kind of series they would have wanted to read when they were growing up.

Other times, one person has the initial inspiration and approaches the other. That’s how it worked for us with Every Shiny Thing; we were friends and critique partners, and Cordelia wanted to write a story about a girl who has always taken care of her mom and falls into similar caretaking patterns with a new friend. She thought this story would be richer if it included each friend’s point of view and asked Laurie to take on the friend’s perspective.

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Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone, authors of The Art of the Swap, had been friends for several years before they carpooled to a conference and discussed potential projects on the drive. Kris described one idea she hada middle grade novel set in a Newport mansionand together, they ran with it. By the end of the weekend, they had “the expanded concept for a time traveling body swap story set in Newport.”

Meanwhile, Laura Shovan had worked with Saadia Faruqi a bit through the PitchWars author mentoring program and asked Saadia to partner with her on a book. Laura explained, “I wanted to write about the challenges and joys of growing up bicultural and first-generation American. But I realized that there were areas of the first-generation experience I couldn’t address because my mother came to the U.S. from England.” Laura knew Saadia was a recent U.S. citizen raising first-generation American children, and Saadia agreed to collaborate on their forthcoming novel, A Place at the Table, which is due out in 2020 and features Pakistani-American Sara and half-British, half-Jewish Elizabeth. Laura feels that working together has helped them both “see the first-generation experience through a broader lens.”

LOGISTICS

No matter whereor whothe initial idea comes from, co-authors then need to figure out how they will write together. The logistics to consider include whether they will each take one character’s point of view or work jointly on the whole narrative and how much planning they will do.

Naomis too.jpgMost of us opted to craft a dual-perspective book with each person writing one character’s perspective. That was the case for us with Every Shiny Thing, and it was also true for Kris and Jen, Saadia and Laura, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, who collaborated on Two Naomis and Naomis Too, novels about two girls named Naomi whose divorced parents get together.

For Every Shiny Thing, we did some loose plotting but then largely improvised, writing chapters back and forth in Google Docs until we were more than halfway through the book, when we met up to outline the rest.

Like us, Olugbemisola and Audrey didn’t create detailed outlines before they began. They alternated writing chapters and sometimes gave each other what Olugbemisola described as an “advance preview of what would lie ahead.” Then they got on the phone or Skype to tackle problems that arose—usually with the book’s timeline, they said.

However, Kris and Jen and Saadia and Laura planned their projects much more precisely. Jen and Kris set up a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline and adjusted the outline as needed. Saadia and Laura also created an outline, but they didn’t stop there; they then set up a chart to figure out which scenes would be in which character’s voice and a table in Google Docs to track what happens in each chapter and which character is narrating.

Brad and Louis took a different approach for their series. Although they do take turns writing chapters, they do not each have an assigned character; they collaborate on one point of view. They set up a working outline, and then they edit each other’s work as they go to ensure their books have one narrative voice throughout. But they also work on Google Docs! This seems to be the most popular forum for co-writing.

CHALLENGES AND BENEFITS

The biggest challenge when co-writing is fitting the project into an author’s busy schedule. In addition, challenges can arise because of the way the authors’ writing styles or working patterns fit together, but these challenges often lead to benefits, too.

In some instances, writing styles might be very similar, and that can present a challenge. Audrey and Olugbemisola said, “If we were allowed to, our books would be all about two girls sitting in bakeries and talking and NOTHING ELSE. So coming up with and trying to execute a plot was definitely the biggest challenge.”

Other times, authors have different working styles. Saadia feels that working with Laura has taught her “so much about different ways of working.” She told us, “For me, working with another person is challenging anytime, because I have a controlling personality. It was a challenge to get used to Laura’s writing habits, ranging from her multiple drafts to her timeline for completing chapters. When I am working on a novel by myself, I power through without breaks for days on end, and I edit as I go along. For this project though, the pace and intensity of my work had to evolve.”

Saadia’s pacing slowed down, but others of us sped up the pace of our work. Kris said, “I was a lot more diligent about my writing, knowing Jen was counting on me to get my part done when I was supposed to!”

Similarly, the first draft of Every Shiny Thing was the quickest thing we ever wrote, and we found that our different writing styles occasionally posed problems but ultimately enriched our work. Cordelia is more of a big picture thinker and Laurie is more detail-oriented. These different approaches can occasionally lead to challenges, but overall we end up stretching each other and learning from each other as we collaborate.

ADVICE FOR WRITERS

It can be smart to set some non-negotiable priorities before you begin co-writing. For Kris and Jen, their friendship came first. Jen explained, “The single best thing we did at the outset, in my opinion, was take a literal vow to one another that we wouldn’t let the co-authoring experience mess with our friendship. That took priority over all.”

Saadia and Laura set some “non-negotiable items” for their point of view characters. They each made it clear upfront that there were certain things about their characters that they would not be willing to change.

It’s also important to “set aside your ego,” as Brad and Louis put it, and to be flexible. “You’ll want to be open to new, strange ideas,” Brad and Louis advise. “Your partner might make suggestions that at first seem odd . . . but if you’re open and consider your partner’s inspiration, you’ll find sometimes the strange idea on the table can actually take the story in an exciting new direction, leaving you with a tale you could’ve never created on your own.”

Similarly, Audrey and Olugbemisola advise co-writers to “be open to working in ways you haven’t worked before” and to “take the story, but not yourself, very seriously.”

It is also essential for co-writers to communicate honestly. Conflicts will invariably arise, and having committed to a project together means working through them; as Kris said, “Being honest with each other and communicating was paramount to the process!”

ADVICE FOR TEACHERS

It’s challenging to structure effective collaborative projects in the classroom, and there are kids who get stressed out by the idea of writing together. But we think co-writing assignments can be very valuable.

Jen described one great reason for assigning this kind of work: “As much as I’ve heard the groans over group project assignments, I’m a big fan of co-writing ones because I think it’s really important for students to know there are so many different approaches to writing (and to having a writing/storytelling career, if that’s something of interest to any of them) and the majority of those approaches are not ‘sit alone at a computer and write a novel.’” She pointed out how many careers involve many creative people working together to develop stories.

Jen advises that teachers keep co-writing assignments very structured at first. She suggests having students collaborate on a play, which is mostly dialogue; they can outline it together and then each write the dialogue for one specific character.

Teachers can also set students up for success by pairing them up based on the topics they want to write about. As Laura pointed out, “When studentsor adultshave a common interest or experience, that supports collaborative writing.”

Audrey suggests that teachers should “encourage students to identify and take advantage of each person’s strength”good advice for any group work.

Oh, and she has one other excellent piece of wisdom to share: “And when possible, reward yourselves with freshly baked treats.” That’s good advice for any circumstances, we think!

THE GIVEAWAY

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We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how five writing duos collaborate, and we’re excited to offer an *EIGHT BOOK!* collaboration celebration giveaway! One randomly selected winner will receive a signed copy of our book, Every Shiny Thing, as well as four other co-written books and three solo books by the generous authors who worked with us on this article.

To enter, post on Twitter or Instagram about any co-authored book you love and why you love it by Friday, October 26th and tag your post with #CollaborationCelebration so we’ll see your entry.

You can choose a book that’s featured in this piece or any other co-authored book, MG or not. US only, multiple entries are fine. Tweet or DM @LaurieLMorrison with questions.

Cover Reveal: UP FOR AIR, by Laurie Morrison

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I am so excited to welcome Laurie Morrison to the MG Book Village for the cover reveal of her latest novel, UP FOR AIR. I’ve been a huge fan of Laurie’s work since her debut novel Every Shiny Thing, and I can’t wait to read this story!  A big thank you to Laurie for letting us host the reveal and for taking the time to answer a few questions about UP FOR AIR.

~ Corrina

. . .

Hi Laurie! Before we reveal the cover, can you tell us a bit about Up for Air?

Hi, Corrina! Thanks so much for having me on MG Book Village! Up for Air is a contemporary middle grade novel about self-esteem, swimming, summer, social pressures, shifting friendships, academic challenges, and an intense crush. Here’s the description from my publisher:

Thirteen-year-old Annabelle struggles in school, no matter how hard she tries. But as soon as she dives into the pool, she’s unstoppable. She’s the fastest girl on the middle school swim team, and when she’s asked to join the high school team for the summer, everything changes. Suddenly, she’s got new friends, and a high school boy starts treating her like she’s somebody special—and Annabelle thinks she’ll finally stand out in a good way. She’ll do anything to fit in and help the team make it to the Labor Day Invitational, even if it means blowing off her old friends. But after a prank goes wrong, Annabelle is abandoned by the older boy and can’t swim. Who is she without the one thing she’s good at? Heartwarming and relatable, Up for Air is a story about where we find our self-worth.

You’ve mentioned that this novel was inspired by your students. I’d love to hear more about that!

Yes! The short answer is that one student told me to write Annabelle’s story after reading a (now shelved) manuscript in which Annabelle was a secondary character. Then my conversations with several other students about the kinds of books they wished they could find convinced me to go for it.

The long version is this: I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English Language Arts for ten years, and it was a challenge to find contemporary realistic novels that felt geared toward my 11-14 year-old students. A lot of middle grade novels felt too young to them, so many of them (especially the 7th and 8th graders) read young adult books instead.

There was nothing wrong with that at all! Except that I wanted them to know that their current experiences were important and worth reading about, too. And I saw how much it meant to them when I could hand them a book that was about a 12, 13, or 14 year-old character they related to—one who was confronting some of the same pressures and changes they were dealing with.

But I couldn’t find many books that explored things like the attention some middle school girls started to get as their bodies developed—attention that was thrilling in some ways but scary and isolating in others. And I struggled to find books that delved into the way some of my students were ready for certain kinds of experiences, friendships, and flirtations, and others just weren’t yet…or some of them were ready for these things in one moment and then eager to retreat to something innocent, silly, and kid-like in the next.

I wanted to write an upper middle grade novel that would address topics like these and appeal to 10-14 year-old readers, but I’d been warned against writing something that would fall into the unmarketable gray area between middle grade and young adult fiction. So I wrote a YA novel called Rebound, which featured a fairly innocent teen protagonist I thought older middle schoolers would relate to…and that teen protagonist had a younger stepsister named Annabelle.

One of my 7th grade students read Rebound in 2014 and said, “I want Annabelle’s story next.” I loved that idea! I loved Annabelle and knew her story could explore many of the adolescent pressures and changes I saw my students confronting. But I was apprehensive about pouring my heart, time, and energy into something unmarketable, so I held onto the seed of her story but didn’t do much with it….until I shared Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger with a group of 7th graders the next year.

Goodbye Stranger prompted incredibly rich, passionate conversations. Students were so eager to talk about the storyline that features a 7th grade girl getting attention for her developing body. And then I led a book club group of 5th-8th graders who read Natasha Friend’s Where You’ll Find Me. That book was a hit with all of the participants regardless of their age, but the older readers in the group especially talked about how good it felt to read a novel about an 8th grade protagonist who “really felt like an 8th grader.” They wanted more books like Goodbye Stranger and Where You’ll Find Me. They wanted a story like Annabelle’s, and I wanted to write it.

And so, finally, I did. I’m so happy that my critique partners, agent, and editor believe in Annabelle’s story as much as I do, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world! I’m especially excited to give an advance copy to the student who asked me to write about Annabelle back when she was in 7th grade. She’s now about to start her senior year in high school, but better late than never, I figure!

Who is the artist that designed your cover?  And what did you think when you saw the final version?

The cover artist is Nishant Choksi, and the designer is Hana Nakamura. And I was so thrilled to see the final version! I love the bright colors, the way the title looks in those bubbles, and the way Annabelle looks simultaneously grown up and kid-like. I think it’s really eye-catching and vibrant, and it captures the story so well.

Laurie – thank you for letting us take a peek at the cover of Up for Air!  When can readers get it, and where is a good place to preorder?

It’s my absolute pleasure! Up for Air will be out on May 7, 2019 from Abrams/Amulet Books. Readers can preorder on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or IndieBound.

Thank you! And now let’s take a look!

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Laurie Morrison Headshot 1Laurie Morrison taught middle school English for ten years and is the author of two middle grade novels: Every Shiny Thing (Abrams, 2018, co-authored with Cordelia Jensen) and Up for Air (Abrams, 2019). She collaborates with other authors to run Middle Grade at Heart, an online book club and newsletter. Laurie holds a BA from Haverford College, an MA from The University of Arizona, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  She lives with her family in Philadelphia, and she loves iced coffee, freshly baked pastries, the ocean, and (of course) books.

MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: EVERY SHINY THING by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Jensen and Morrison Every Shiny Thing Cover

In May, the Middle Grade @ Heart book club had the absolute delight of reading EVERY SHINY THING by Cordelia Jensen and our very own contributor, Laurie Morrison! EVERY SHINY THING is an engaging and emotional story told half in prose and half in verse from the perspectives of Lauren and Sierra, two very different girls who are brought together after they both experience the pain of being separated from a loved one.

In EVERY SHINY THING, one of the teachers, Mr. Ellis, teaches Sierra how to structure an essay. He tells her that she must choose a thesis statement and then take examples from the test to prove it. So for this review, I will start with a thesis statement: EVERY SHINY THING is a beautifully told, important novel that teaches valuable lessons about justice, friendship, and brokenness (as well as essay structure!)

EVERY SHINY THING raises important questions about what it means to fight for justice. Lauren is an empathic character from a wealthy family who has always been a helpful sister. When her brother moves to a boarding school for children with autism, she decides to direct her empathic instincts toward raising money for people less fortunate than herself. She begins by selling things she doesn’t need, but her Robin Hood plan spirals out of control when she starts to take things that don’t belong to her. Lauren brings Sierra into her schemes, declaring that they are “partners in justice,” rather than crime, which leads the reader to ask themselves: are good intentions enough to justify the things we say and do in the name of justice? For readers interested in the things kids can do to join the fight for justice and equality, the Simplicity-A-Thon hosted by Lauren’s school provides a welcome alternative to her misguided schemes.

EVERY SHINY THING also does a wonderful job at portraying middle grade friendships. The relationships in EVERY SHINY THING are at times heartwarming, at times troubled and complex, and always realistic. The emotional ups and downs of Lauren and Sierra’s friendship, measured in kaleidoscope-colored days, will keep readers of all ages engaged and hoping that our two protagonists find lucky green days. One of my favorite parts of the novel is the sleepover the two girls have together, giggling and asking a Magic 8 ball silly questions–it’s an experience that many readers will find relatable. And yet, their friendship is complicated both by Lauren’s schemes and Sierra’s need to take care of someone the way she used to take care of her mother, who was sent to prison. It is at times difficult to read about the way Sierra hides her true feelings in order to care for Lauren. In a heartbreaking moment, Sierra turns to her beloved kaleidoscope for help:

When I got home,

I looked into my kaleidoscope

and this time shook and shook

for green to

rise up

not for Mom,

 

for Lauren.

(I did say this story was beautifully told, didn’t I?) Although EVERY SHINY THING covers difficult and painful subjects, readers will be left with a sense of hope for Lauren and Sierra’s friendship, and perhaps for some of their own relationships too, as they learn that sometimes relationships need to change in order to grow.

This leads to my last point: EVERY SHINY THING demonstrates the beautiful ways in which things that are broken can be put back together. Both Lauren and Sierra come from families that have been taken apart in some way. Lauren and her parents struggle to relate to each other without the presence of Lauren’s brother, Ryan, and Sierra is placed in foster care after her mother is imprisoned. Sierra’s foster mother, Anne, makes jewelry out of found objects and broken glass. She states, “Sometimes, the best thing we can do for anyone is to let them fall.” Relationships and families may permanently change, but readers will take comfort in the fact that “broken things can be repurposed to make something beautiful,” and that healing does not come from going right back to the way things were, but from creating something new with people we care about. I like to think that creating something new often starts with picking up a story like this one (and who can resist that shiny cover?!).

Mr. Ellis says you must restate your introduction in your conclusion, so I’ll say it again: EVERY SHINY THING is a wonderful and important story that will help young readers understand justice, friendship, and how to make something beautiful out of broken pieces.

The Middle Grade @ Heart book club pick for June is THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER by Diane Magras! Stay tuned for more posts about this awesome book and join us for our Twitter chat on July 3!

A Conversation with Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison, Books Between, Episode 50

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love.  I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a 5th grade teacher, a mom of two girls, and a new aunt!! A few weeks ago, my brother and his wife had a beautiful baby girl they named Nora and has been so wonderful to have a baby in the family again!

This is Episode #50 and today I am sharing with you a conversation with Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen – authors of  Every Shiny Thing   

But first I am excited to tell you that today’s episode is sponsored by MoxieReader – a literacy app that’s like a fitness tracker for your reading life. It gives teachers insights unnamedinto their students’ reading, customized recommendations, and a way for kids to set and work toward their own reading goals in a way that is engaging and fun. My 5th graders and I have been trying it out over the past couple of weeks and they really, really loved it!  They had armfuls of books they were excited to scan in and share with each other. I really feel like the end of the year is the perfect time to try something new that will energize your class and launch them into a summer full of reading. So head over to MoxieReader.com and try out their $7 for 3 months special by using the code welovereading!

A few announcements to pass along! The Twitter chat for  Every Shiny Thing will be on Monday, June 5th at 8pm EST using #MGBookClub.

There is also a fantastic educator’s guide available for the novel and a Flipgrid for the book where you can watch videos of Laurie and Cordelia and submit your own to ask questions about the book!

Our next Middle Grade at Heart book club picks are The Mad Wolf’s Daughter in June, Just Under the Clouds in July, and Where the Watermelons Grow in August.

Also – Ann Braden and Jarrett Lerner have teamed up with some other educators to launch the #KidsNeedMentors project to connect authors with classrooms through book deliveries, postcard exchanges, Skype visits and lots more exciting things.

A quick reminder that the outline of today’s interview and links to every book we chat about along with other awesome middle grade content can be found right at MGBookVillage.org.

 

Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison – Interview Outline

 

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Our special guests this week are Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison – authors of the newly released middle grade novel  Every Shiny Thing .

 

Take a listen…

EVERY SHINY THING

Let’s start with introductions

Can you take a moment to tell us about yourself?

How did you two meet and decide to collaborate on this book?

Tell us about Every Shiny Thing!

Let’s talk about Lauren first since we meet her character first – as she is thinking about saying goodbye to her brother Ryan as her family is leaving him off at a therapeutic school for kids with autism. And we learn right away how upset Lauren feels about this.

Laurie – can you talk a bit about any experiences you had or research you did to write your part of the novel?

One of the things that’s been on my mind lately as a teacher and as someone who is always searching for books that are mirrors for children’s own lives is the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences. And oh does Sierra have so many of those – her mother is an alcoholic, her father is in jail, and she is living with a foster family.

Cordelia – how did Sierra’s character first come to you and how did you find that balance between her vulnerability and her resilience?

There are two images in Sierra’s section of the novel that are so powerful to me – the kaleidoscope and the garden. That symbolism of Sierra’s and Lauren’s and all of our lives fragmenting and reflecting and then cycling back together….

Can you talk a bit about those parts of your novel and how you came to include them in Sierra’s story?

One part of Every Shiny Thing that fascinated me was the Quaker school that the girls attend! And the Quaker values they study – can you talk a little but about that aspect of the book?
I really noticed how much of school life your novel got right.

Did that come from your own experiences as educators or did you do some research for that aspect of the book?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Cordelia and Laurie and I discussed the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 37:12 mark.

YOUR WRITING LIFE

What was your collaboration process like for writing Every Shiny Thing? Did you meet in person or do most of your work online?

What’s next for each of you?

 

YOUR READING LIFE

Was there an adult in your life who made you the reader you are today?

What have you been reading lately?

Links:

Cordelia Jensen’s website – http://www.cordeliajensen.com

Laurie Morrison’s website – https://lauriemorrisonwrites.com

Cordelia on Twitter and Instagram

Laurie on Twitter and Instagram

Good Morning Sunshine Breakfast Cookies

Cranberry Orange Scones

 

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

NeuroTribes (Steve Silberman)

You Go First (Erin Entrada Kelly)

Star Crossed (Barbara Dee)

The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer)

Well That Was Awkward (Rachel Vail)

The Science of Breakable Things (Tae Keller)

The Girl With Two Hearts

Dumplin (Julie Murphy)

One for the Murphys (Lynda Mullaly Hunt)

Forget Me Not (Ellie Terry)

Closing

Alright, that wraps up our show this week!

Alright, that wraps up our show this week!  And thanks again to MoxieReader for supporting the podcast this month – definitely check out their website for an engaging way for your students to build their reading resume.

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

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Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This networkfeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit edupodcastnetwork.com

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

 

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MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Writing a Fallible Narrator

Jensen and Morrison Every Shiny Thing Cover.jpg

Since the MG at Heart May pick is Every Shiny Thing, the book I co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, we’re handling this writer’s toolbox post a little differently than usual. I’m here as both MG at Heart contributor and author to tell you about a challenge I faced when working on Every Shiny Thing and some strategies I used to address that challenge.

Every Shiny Thing has two alternating narrators, Lauren, whose chapters are in prose, and Sierra, whose chapters are in verse. I wrote Lauren’s sections, and Lauren…is not exactly a reliable narrator.

She isn’t unreliable on purpose. She doesn’t withhold information or tell lies. Greta Olson, who wrote an essay called “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators,” would categorize Lauren as fallible rather than untrustworthy. Fallible narrators, according to Olson, are “mistaken about their judgments or perceptions or are biased.” This is Lauren, for sure. She’s mistaken in some of her judgments and perceptions because she has some fundamental misbeliefs.

Lauren’s central misbelief is that her parents were wrong to send her older brother to a therapeutic boarding school for autistic teens because the school is not a good place for him. This misbelief leaves Lauren feeling frustrated and alone, and it leads her to question a lot of things about her parents and the privileged world she lives in, which sets the plot in motion.

But I wasn’t attempting to trick readers into believing Lauren’s misbelief along with her. One of the main things our editor brought up in our edit letter was the challenge of “toeing the line between what the reader knows to be true (that Ryan’s school is probably a good place) and what Lauren believes is true (that her parents are making a selfish mistake in sending him away).” Our editor went on to say, “It’s delicate, but I think you can do it.”

Delicate, indeed! So how did I try to accomplish this feat? Here are three strategies I used.

1.) I built in self-consciousness and desperation at the sentence level to hint at the uncertainty behind Lauren’s words.

Let’s look at the very beginning of the book, when Lauren reflects on what it was like to visit Ryan’s school for Family Weekend. She says:

There’s nothing harder than saying goodbye to Ryan.

It was hard enough back in August, when Mom and Dad first took him to his new school. Back then, I knew I’d miss him. And I was afraid that this fancy therapeutic boarding school way far away in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, wasn’t the right place for him, even though Ry said he wanted to go, and Mom and Dad kept gushing about what a wonderful opportunity it was, and his old occupational therapist, Jenna, said you couldn’t find a better school for a teen on the autism spectrum.

But saying goodbye today, at the end of Family Weekend? This was worse. Way, way worse. Because now that I’ve seen the place for myself and seen how Ryan is there, I’m not just afraid it isn’t right. Now I know it’s not.

It was awful. Really, it was.

Here, I tried to convey the sense that Lauren has a lot of intense emotions she doesn’t know what to do with. Lauren uses repetition and short sentences that pile on top of each other, reflecting how urgently she wants to hold onto her misbelief despite some evidence to the contrary when she says, “This was worse. Way, way worse,” and, “It was awful. Really, it was.” Lauren also goes a bit overboard emphasizing just how certain she is with italics for words like “afraid” and “know.” And when she mentions reasons the school might not seem so bad, she often does so in long, breathless sentences, like the one in this passage about all of the people (Ryan included) who think the school is a good idea. It’s as if she’s rushing past the things that might seem positive as quickly as she possibly can.

2.) I allowed Lauren to admit details that contradict her misbelief…but then she either lets them pass without commentary or discounts them.

In addition to admitting all the people who think the school is a good idea, Lauren lists other aspects of the school that might seem positive to people who “aren’t paying close attention.” For instance, she admits, “It’s actually sort of beautiful, with purple-gray mountains in the distance and a long, winding driveway and super-green hills.” But then she moves right past that description to get to the things that aren’t a good fit for Ryan, in her mind.

Lauren also narrates moments that show how hard it is for her parents to say goodbye to Ryan even as she worries that they have sent him to the school because they think their lives will be easier if other people are taking care of him. For instance, when Lauren remembers that her mom was crying at the end of the weekend, she says, “For a fraction of a second, I felt sorry for her, but she’s the one who decided it was a good idea for Ryan to go to this terrible school, where he obviously doesn’t belong.” So there’s this split-second recognition that her mom is struggling with this transition and loves Ryan so much…but Lauren isn’t ready to accept that her parents are doing the best they can, so she immediately downplays that.

Basically, I tried to include plenty of clues for the reader to process, even though Lauren doesn’t let herself process them.

3.) I showed the source of Lauren’s misbelief so readers could understand where she was coming from.

I didn’t want readers to be so frustrated with Lauren’s misbelief that they would stop reading, so it was important to show that she had some good reasons for worrying.

Also in the first chapter, Lauren says, “The thing about Ry is, sometimes he goes along with things that make him feel awful because he wants to make other people feel good, and then it all gets to be too much, and he melts down.” Then she gives examples of other times Ryan tried to do what he thought other people wanted him to do and finishes, “So now he might just be sticking out boarding school because he thinks it’s important to Mom and Dad. And then there’ll be nobody around but Scott the Smug OT to comfort him when it’s all too much to stick out.” And in her second chapter, we find out that Ryan attended another school at home where the therapies were detrimental for him, and it took her parents a little while to realize that school was not a good fit.

These parts make it clear that Lauren’s worry stems from a deep affection for her brother and past experiences that have made her fears seem plausible. These insights into the valid reasons for Lauren’s not-so-valid belief help readers feel for her, I think.

I hope these strategies are helpful for other writers who are crafting fallible narrators, or for readers who are reading books that feature these kinds of characters. And if you read Every Shiny Thing with us this month, I’m sure you’ll notice lots of other ways Lauren’s fallibility comes through…some of which I likely didn’t do consciously. I’d love to hear about them if you do!

. . .

Our newsletter about Every Shiny Thing will go out on 5/28 and our Twitter Book Club Chat about the book will be on 6/5 at 8pm EST with the hashtag #mgbookclub. Hope you can join us!

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Laurie Morrison taught middle school English for ten years and is the author of two middle grade novels: EVERY SHINY THING, which she co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, and UP FOR AIR, which comes out from Abrams/Amulet Books in spring of 2019. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives with her family in Philadelphia. She loves books for older middle grade readers, fresh-baked pastries, being outside, and the ocean.

 

MG at Heart Book Club’s May Pick

The Middle Grade at Heart book club’s pick for May is . . .

EVERY SHINY THING, by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

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In this beautifully constructed middle-grade novel, told half in prose and half in verse, Lauren prides herself on being a good sister, and Sierra is used to taking care of her mom. When Lauren’s parents send her brother to a therapeutic boarding school for teens on the autism spectrum and Sierra moves to a foster home in Lauren’s wealthy neighborhood, both girls are lost until they find a deep bond with each other. But when Lauren recruits Sierra to help with a Robin Hood scheme to raise money for autistic kids who don’t have her family’s resources, Sierra has a lot to lose if the plan goes wrong. Lauren must learn that having good intentions isn’t all that matters when you battle injustice, and Sierra needs to realize that sometimes, the person you need to take care of is yourself.

“Thoughtful readers will find a lot to like here—sadness, suspense, even humor. They may even pause to consider their own privilege.” (School Library Journal)

“Sierra’s narrative, in poetry, captures her spare, cautious, and constrained life. Lauren’s prose is rich and descriptive, much like her own experiences. Together, the contrasting narratives tell a touching story about friendship, loyalty, and resilience that will have lots of appeal.” (Booklist)

“An inventive and emotional story about family and friendship.” (Erin Entrada Kelly, Newbery Honor winner for Hello, Universe)

Don’t forgot to sign up for our newsletter — it goes out 5/28, and our Twitter chat about EVERY SHINY THING will be on Tuesday, June 5 at 8 pm EST. Use the hashtag #MGBookClub to participate!