Adventures In Middle Grade Fiction

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Are you looking for a fun read to keep your preteen busy this winter? And have you ever wondered what actually goes into writing for the 8-12 year old group, known in publishing as ‘middle grade’? I invited author duo Stephanie Robinson and Jessica Haight, the masterminds behind the Secret Files of Fairday Morrow, as well as Katie Carroll, author of the YA fantasy Elixir Bound and the brand new middle grade adventure story Pirate Island, to drop by for a chat about their recent releases.

 

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Pirate Island (November 2017)

A thrice cursed island, a legendary pirate treasure, and one not-so-brave boy. What could possibly go wrong?

For centuries, the whereabouts of Captain William Kidd’s lost pirate treasure has remained a mystery. When Billy’s best friend, Andy, proposes they look for it on nearby Pirate Island, Billy thinks it’s just another one of their crazy adventures. It’s usually Billy who ends up in trouble as a result, but he goes along for the ride…like always. The more he delves into the life and death of Kidd, the more he thinks the treasure is real and that it might be buried on the small island in Long Island Sound. Billy—nope, call him William—becomes obsessed with the captain of the same first name. He even believes he’s possessed by Kidd’s restless soul. Now he and the spirit of a long-dead pirate are leading the crazy adventure on Pirate Island. And what they find is far bigger than the treasure they imagined.

 

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Fairday Morrow and the Talking Library, Book #2 (November 2017)

Fairday Morrow had no clue that moving from Manhattan to the small town of Ashpot, Connecticut, would lead to an unsolved mystery. Her parents’ dream of renovating a crumbling Victorian, called the Begonia House, into a bed and breakfast had seemed like treachery at the time. But Fairday found out that her new house kept secrets, and once inside its twisted front gates, anything was possible. When mysterious notes start showing up warning that a librarian is in trouble and a bookworm is eating words, Fairday thinks the Begonia House has more skeletons in its closets. What happens to stories when their words get eaten?

 

Thank you Katie, Jessica and Stephanie for dropping by the blog! First of all, could you tell us a little about your inspiration for Pirate Island and the Fairday Morrow books?

Katie: Hi, Juliana! Thanks for hosting me and Pirate Island. There’s a little island called Charles Island off the coast of my hometown. A lot of the things Billy learns about Pirate Island in the book are actually true (or almost true) of Charles Island. There are all kinds of local legends about treasure being buried there. Professional treasure hunters really did want to dig to see if Captain William Kidd’s lost pirate treasure was buried there. The local history was the jumping off point for this story.

Jess & Stephanie: The story was initially inspired by Jess’s grandfather. He told her about a character called Ruby Begonia, who had high-heeled sneakers and used to “haunt” their creaky, New England home. The story was originally written by Jess as a rhyming children’s poem, and then evolved into a middle grade book, The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow, which we co-authored as friends. 

Why write middle grade? And for Katie, who also writes young adult fiction, what are key differences you’ve found in writing for teens and preteens?

Jess & Stephanie: We love the age group! Stephanie was a 5th grade teacher for many years, and we are big Harry Potter fans. Middle grade readers want to believe; they are fun to enchant. 🙂 

Katie: Though I had already written a YA book before Pirate Island, middle grade readers felt like the perfect audience for a book about a boy obsessed with finding pirate treasure. When I picture Billy in my head, he was too young for YA. The age of the main character is one of the big differences between middle grade and YA. Pretty much any topic can be handled in YA up to the most controversial of topics, but with middle grade, you definitely have to keep it more PG. 

What are the main challenges in writing for this particular age group? Did you have any feedback from young readers while writing and revising your work?

 Katie: I think one of the biggest challenges in writing for middle grade readers is the vast range of reading abilities and maturity levels reading it. You have to think about the needs of someone who is as young as 7 or 8 and someone who is as old at 13 or 14. My nephew, who at the time I was writing this was a pre-teen, read the earlier versions of the beginning of novel and gave me feedback. (He’s 18 now!)

Jess & Stephanie: The main challenge for writing for middle grade readers is getting your book to them. They are not adults or teenagers, and they don’t have access to their own money and aren’t supposed to have social media accounts. Getting books into their hands is reaching parents, teachers and librarians and letting them know about your work.

We were lucky to have a test audience when Stephanie taught 5th grade. Her class agreed to give feedback to an author. Each day she read part of our manuscript to her class and they gave her their honest opinions. We made changes to the MS based on their reactions and thoughts. At one point, seven chapters were deleted and we changed the course of the story because we felt it needed more excitement. At the end of the experience Jess came in to talk to the students and they were shocked to learn that their teacher, Mrs. Robinson, was one of the authors. We’re forever grateful that we had the opportunity to hear from our target audience. 

Have you had a chance to present your books to your target audience at schools, libraries, or other locations? What are the best things about talking books and writing to young readers? 

Jess & Stephanie: Yes! We’ve spoken at schools, libraries, and other venues about our books. It is always fun to talk to readers and listen to their thoughts and ideas about the story. Nothing is more magical than kids being excited about books and hearing their questions about writing. 

Katie: I have done a couple of school visit/Skype sessions with my target audience since Pirate Island came out. It’s always fun to talk writing and my books with students. I’m working on setting up a few other locations for book events in 2018, including at my local public library. I love hearing the kids’ ideas that they’re working on in their own writing…and, of course, signing books, bookmarks, and little scraps of paper for them. That always makes me feel like a celebrity! 

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

 Stephanie: I loved so many books as a child. Each year brought new favorites. Judy Blume was an author I devoured, and I once made a two-hour puppet show about A Wrinkle in Time.  I feel thankful that I read so many fantastic books growing up and that I had teachers and librarians helping to put all kinds of stories into my hands.

 Jess: I love Frederick by Leo Lionni, and I have forever been enchanted with Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my favorite stories.

 Katie: I loved the Baby-Sitters Club books by Ann M. Martin, The Giver and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and I also used to read a lot of John Grisham adult novels when I was in middle school oddly enough. I also grew up with my mom reading the Little House on the Prairie books and the Anne of Green Gables books to me.

Who are some of your favorite present-day children’s authors? Do you have any recommendations for preteen readers?

 Jess: The Real Boy & Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. I am also a big fan of Neil Gaiman, and Stardust is a magical story.

 Katie: Some of my favorite present-day middle grade authors are J.K. Rowling (of course!), Rick Riordan, Donna Gephart, Rebecca Stead, Kwame Alexander, Jennifer Nielsen, and Jo Knowles. I’d recommend any of their middle grade books.

Stephanie: As a media specialist I read as many books as I can, from as many genres as possible. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a historical fiction book that I can’t recommend enough. When I read A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd I was touched by the beautiful writing and story.  There are so many amazing books out there- if you haven’t found a book that’s spoken to you I would say to keep trying! 

What are you working on right now? Do you have any new projects you can share with us? 

Jess & Stephanie: We are currently working on the third book in the Fairday Morrow series, Fairday Morrow and the Master’s Emporium. 

Katie: Right now I’m working on a YA fantasy called Elixir Saved, a follow up to my YA fantasy Elixir Bound. I’ve been thinking about what my next middle grade project will be, though I haven’t started writing it yet. It will take place in the same world as Pirate Island with cameos by some of the characters from that book. The main character is a girl who is one of Billy’s classmates, though she’s not mentioned by name in Pirate. I’m currently researching local witch hunt trial information to include, and I think it’s going to take place during the Halloween season. It’s another adventure/mystery type book. 

 

Stephanie Robinson lives with her husband in a quiet town, though not as quaint as Ashpot. After teaching fifth grade for almost fifteen years, she is now enjoying her role as a school media specialist. One of the many benefits of her job is that she learns something new every day. When Stephanie isn’t working, she spends her time creating stories, getting lost in books, and traveling to new places.

Jessica Haight is a true New Englander with a love of the ocean and the four seasons. She enjoys drawing while standing up and cultivating magic in her garden. Jessica easily floats away with a good story and is still waiting for her owl from Hogwarts. She lives in Connecticut with her family.

You can find Jessica and Stephanie online at https://www.fairdaysfiles.com and http://thesecretdmsfilesoffairdaymorrow.blogspot.com, and on Twitter @dmsfiles

Buy the Fairday Morrow books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Willow Press.

Katie L. Carroll always says she began writing at a very sad time in her life after her sister Kylene unexpectedly passed away. Since then writing has taken her to many wonderful places, real and imagined. She wrote her YA fantasy ELIXIR BOUND so Kylene could live on in the pages of a book. Katie is also the author of the middle grade adventure PIRATE ISLAND and a contributor to the collaborative middle grade mystery THE GREAT CONNECTICUT CAPER. She teaches writing and publishing workshops for children and adults and works as a freelance writer and editor.

You can find Katie online at http://www.katielcarroll.com, and on Twitter @KatieLCarroll

Buy Pirate Island at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and IndieBound.

 

Winter 2017 Updates

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NIGHT BLADE  has been out a month already! It’s amazing (to me) that I’m closing out 2017 with two published novels. HEART BLADE, Blade Hunt Chronicles #1, kicked off the year in February, and has garnered some great reviews.

 

 

 

It’s been a terrific year, which included some fun blog and web interviews, positive feedback from readers all over the world, and my first ever Con as a panelist (Boskone 54) — I’ll be back in Boston as a panelist in February for Boskone 55!

Upcoming for the beginning of 2018 is a short story in The Last City anthology by DUST Publishing, my first time playing in a shared world sandbox. I’m also busy outlining the third book in the Blade Hunt Chronicles series, STAR BLADE, which I’ll be diving into as soon as I finish the first draft of my current work in progress, a young adult SF crime story.

Some of the recent blog interviews and guest posts for NIGHT BLADE include:

Jamie Marchant: Juliana Spink Mills Hunts With A Blade

Kim Briggs: Interview With Juliana Spink Mills

Katie Carroll: What’s Your Real Story?

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Down The Rabbit Hole – A Brazilian-Brit In The USA

Suzanne Jackson: With All Your Heart

I’m looking forward to a busy 2018, with Blade Hunt Chronicles #3 and #4 to write, as well as a number of short story projects to find time for. And my to-read list keeps growing, so hopefully I’ll clock in some good reading hours, too! I hope all of you have lots of great reading and writing projects lined up for the upcoming year.

Last of all, I wanted to share a few Instagram edits my daughter made for some of the Blade Hunt characters (Raze, Ben, Del and Ash). Aren’t they adorable?

 

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Horse Power: a writer’s guide

It’s hard to avoid mentioning horses (or ponies, pack mules, etc.) if you write certain genres. These four-legged beauties are everywhere, leading the charge in a martial battle scene, galloping across the page in those sweeping epic fantasies, or slowing to a gentle walk to allow the romantic pair to gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

So far, I’ve managed to get away with not writing about horses by setting my novels in the present day or the future. The truth is, I know very little about them, and I’m sure I would make endless mistakes if I had to include horses in my work. But other writers have no choice. If you write – for example – certain types of fantasy, or historical fiction, then you can’t really escape using horses for transportation, at the very least.

How, then, can you make sure you get your equine characters right? I asked fantasy author Kerry Buchanan, one of the owners of Fir Tree Farm Stables in Northern Ireland, to shed some light on the subject…

 

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Photo credit: Fir Tree Farm Stables

Juliana: What horse-related mistake makes you cringe the most in fiction?

Kerry: I think the worst, and commonest, is when the writer has horses galloping all day, or even for days on end. Horses are not capable of keeping up a fast pace for a long time, and even trained endurance horses do the majority of the miles at walk/trot with only some cantering. They’re grazing animals, and need to eat frequently to keep healthy, as well as drinking too.

There are a few stories and films featuring a child and a wild or half-wild horse who inexplicably bond, with the horse allowing the child to ride it bareback, communicating (it seems) by some special telepathy. The Black Stallion film springs to mind, and maybe National Velvet. The reality is that the child would probably get nowhere near the horse in the first place, and if it was rash enough to climb aboard, would probably end up as a trampled patch of strawberry jam in the dirt.

I find it’s often the fine details that irritate me. Someone tries to be clever and Googles the parts of a horse’s tack/harness but doesn’t quite get it right. Perhaps a character hauls on the bridle (instead of the reins) to get the horse to turn or stop when they’re riding it. The same goes for descriptions of horses (green eyes? Seriously?). Sometimes I think the author’s only contact with equines has been through My Little Pony….

Juliana: Name a favorite book or movie that features horses accurately.

Kerry: It’s hard to fault Black Beauty. The story is romanticised, but the details were accurate for the era, and the characters of the horses are just beautiful. I still can’t read it without crying when the cart goes by with Ginger’s body in it. I particularly like the early section where Beauty first gets a bit in his mouth, and the way it feels, but how he is reassured by his trust in the man who trained him. Later in the book, another horse, Captain, describes how it felt to be a horse in battle in the Crimean War. The noise and confusion, plus the absolute trust in his rider, and the panic when he loses his rider, seem well-observed and, as with everything Anna Sewell wrote, beautifully done. It was a landmark book from the first day it was published, and continues to be one of the most respected fiction books featuring horses.

For a more modern example, the Green Rider books by Kristen Britain are really well written from the point of view of equine accuracy. Condor, the principal equine character, has quite a personality, and the books are well worth reading. When Karigan, the inexperienced new Green Rider of the title, tries to push her horse too hard, she has to learn that the poor animal needs recovery time, and the journey can end up being slower than it would have been had she paced him correctly from the beginning. I think a few directors of Westerns could learn something from this!

Juliana: You write a lot of mythology-inspired fiction. Are there any horse myths you particularly like?

Kerry: I love the story of Pegasus and have written a short story featuring the flying horse which will be coming out in an anthology in the near future. His birth was dramatic enough (son of Poseidon, sprung from the body of Medusa when she was killed by Perseus), but his exploits with Bellerophon kept me enthralled as a child, and still do now. Bellerophon captured Pegasus using a golden bridle (a gift from the goddess Athena), and then went on to ride the wonderful creature to victory over the dreaded monster, the Chimaera, which was terrorising the kingdom. Bellerophon and Pegasus had many adventures together, but in the end the heroic Greek over-faced himself by trying to ride Pegasus up to the top of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Zeus unseated him and he fell, but Pegasus made it all the way and became a constellation of stars in the night sky.

Another horse myth I enjoy is the story of Bucephalus, the war horse of Alexander the Great. Famously, the young Alexander won the horse in a wager with his father. Alexander realised that the horse was terrified of its own shadow, so he simply turned Bucephalus around to face into the sun and successfully climbed aboard, but not before he’d done a deal with his Dad, Philip of Macedonia, to let him keep the horse if he could manage to ride it without being thrown off.

A version of this story is beautifully told in the book, I Am the Great Horse, by Katherine Roberts.

Juliana: Please share some tips for writers planning on including horses in their work.

Kerry: It’s much the same as any other type of research for fiction-writing, really. Don’t just rely on Google or similar to get your facts, as the interweb is not always the most reliable source. Even if you find a trustworthy article, it can be all about the interpretation.

I’d say to write the story any way you like, but then ask someone who really knows about horses and riding to read it for you, to help you clean up any gaffes. If the horse(s) are a key part of the story, it’s probably worth consulting with a knowledgeable horsey person during the writing phase, too. If you want to get it completely right, spend some time around horses, and maybe learn to ride one. You’ll soon get a feel for them, and you never know: maybe you’ll get addicted!

I’m always happy to help, and will read sections for people if asked. I can also lend out a really cute small pony for equine inspiration. She’s no trouble at all and will settle down happily in your home, watching TV with you. No? Okay. Maybe another time….

Juliana: If you could ride any fictional horse, which would you choose?

Kerry: It really has to be Shadowfax, the grey stallion ridden by Gandalf in both book and film of the Lord of the Rings. Even though I’m not usually a great fan of grey horses (you should try getting grass stains out of a grey coat), I’d definitely make an exception for Shadowfax. Of course, we’d have to get rid of Gandalf somewhere along the way, as the two of them seem to be bonded pretty tightly, but I’m sure that once Shadowfax met me, he’d quickly change allegiance.

Failing that, who could resist riding a flying horse? If Athena would only gift me with a magical golden bridle, I’m sure I could do the rest!

Check out Kerry’s website and Facebook page for updates on her writing, and follow her on Twitter @Cavetraveller.

Fir Tree Farm Stables is located in Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland. You can find more information at www.firtreefarmstables.co.uk. 

Have Book, Will Read #16

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With a brand new book of my own out, over the past few weeks my blog has been full of all sorts of Night Blade related things. But I’ve also done a fair bit of reading of other people’s work, too, so here are a few of my recent favorites…

Recent Reads: Mages, Monsters, and Magic.

The latest of Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus novels, Bound, has been sitting on my shelf for a while now. To be honest, the previous novel, Burned, ended in such a dark place that I was a little wary of the direction Jacka appeared to be heading in. I needn’t have worried.

Beginning as expected with Alex back in the clutches of his old master, Richard Drakh, Bound surprised me by quickly veering away from the path I’d pictured, and landing my favorite diviner deep into mage politics. With Jacka’s usual masterful mix of action and intrigue, this eighth novel in the series will not disappoint Alex Verus fans.

Legend Has It is the fifth book in Elliott James’ Pax Arcana, another favorite of mine when it comes to urban fantasy. I’m always surprised by how seldom this series seems to come up in discussions about the genre; it’s very, very good, and the characters are fantastic. Bonus points for a variety of strong female protagonists, as well as a snarky yet respectful main character (yes, it can be done!).

In this latest installment of the mess that is John Charming’s life, the werewolf and former Knight Templar and his team must track down whoever is using a powerful magical book to make monsters from a role playing game come to life in New York City before the entire world is compromised. Good stuff.

I finally got my hands on the second book in Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity, Our Dark Duet. Schwab isn’t afraid to go dark indeed in her YA duology, and readers who are looking for something sweet with a happy ending should look elsewhere. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed both this and the and the first book, This Savage Song. The worldbuilding is unique, the plot gripping, and the main characters a pleasure to follow in their journey.

In this second and last book, August Flynn has taken his brother’s place, leading his father’s task force against the darkness that threatens the city of Verity. And Kate Harker has embraced the ruthlessness she’d tried so hard to find in the first book in order to kill monsters elsewhere. Drawn back to Verity while chasing the ultimate demon, Kate joins forces with August as they both seek redemption in the hunt. A great conclusion to the story.

I’m a big fan of Rick Riordan’s work, and I’d been looking forward to The Ship of the Dead, the last book in his Gods of Asgard trilogy. Magnus Chase is a great main character, and it’s refreshing to have a hero whose main skills are not fighting, but healing and just being a nice guy. Add in a Muslim Valkyrie with an enchanted hijab, a gender-fluid child of Loki, a fashion-loving dwarf, and a deaf elf for a wonderfully diverse series that is also laugh-out-loud hilarious thanks to the general craziness that is Norse mythology.

In The Ship of the Dead, Magnus and his team make that final desperate push to stop Loki from launching a boatful of undead warriors and kick-starting Ragnarok, leading to the end of the world. A fun read, and the perfect end to the saga! Oh, and bonus Percy Jackson cameo…

Now Reading: A little light magic…

I’m halfway through The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks, the fourth book in his Lightbringer series. It had been a while since I read the third book, so a big thanks to the author for including a series and book-by-book synopsis in the beginning of this one! I’m enjoying it so far, although the segments told from Kip’s point of view are definitely my favorites.

To Read: Knights and rogues.

I have two books set aside to read next. The first is Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath, which I’ve been curious about, even though I haven’t actually read anything in the Star Wars universe before. (I also put out a request for A New Dawn at my local library, because I love Kanan in Star Wars Rebels, and this is a prequel story for the TV show.)

I read Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows over summer and absolutely loved it. So now I have the second book in the duology, Crooked Kingdom, lined up and waiting. I’ve heard great things about it, and am looking forward to checking it out for myself.

I hope you all have a good book or two set aside for the upcoming holidays… Happy reading!

Why Kid Lit?

Sometimes I get asked, ‘why write kid lit?’ The short answer is probably ‘why not?’ The long answer is a little more complex…

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My 10th birthday cake – perfect for a book lover

This week I renewed my annual membership to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international non-profit organization for authors and illustrators producing work for children and teens. I joined the SCBWI in 2013, just after we moved to the USA. I began writing ‘for real’ a year before that, and knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write stories for young people.

I consider myself primarily a middle grade* and YA* author. Occasionally I write short stories that fall under ‘adult fiction’, too, like my tale In Plain Sight, in the Aliens – The Truth Is Coming anthology, or Fool’s Quest, in Journeys. Sometimes it’s fun to write about certain themes without stopping to think ‘would I let my kids read this?’ (The answer is probably yes – I’m pretty liberal when it comes to reading. I tend to be of the ‘if you’re interested and think you can handle it, go ahead’ school of parenting.) When it comes to novels, however, all my work so far has been within the realm of kid lit.

I moved from England to Brazil when I was eight, brand new set of Narnia books in my hand luggage as my going away gift. With no handy English-language bookstores or libraries in those pre-ebook and pre-Amazon times, I slowly built my own shelf collection, which I read obsessively over and over in my preteen years. My little personal library had plenty of classic children’s authors like Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as the ubiquitous Enid Blyton books all us 70s British kids devoured.

In my teens, I explored my parents’ bookshelves, reading other classics like Bradbury, Austen, Asimov, Brontë, and Tolkien, besides my mother’s large collection of Agatha Christie novels. But I always had time for my childhood favorites, and there was nothing quite like the beauty of those kid lit lovelies. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “one day I’ll do this too.”

A good children’s story has a streamlined elegance to it, very different from the longer, more intricate plot lines that adult novels by necessity demand. The sheer beauty of something like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web is a gift that endures. What makes children’s books so special? Perhaps it’s due to the limits on word count/novel size, forcing authors to pare their stories down to the absolute essence. Or maybe the target readership (especially in the case of middle grade fiction) demands not a simplification (children have proved over and over again to be able to handle far more complexity than we give them credit for), but a directness that brings writers very quickly to the core of a tale.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always loved kid lit in all its shapes and forms. Young people today have a tremendous amount of choice in reading matter, with hundreds (probably more like thousands) of new books published each year. It’s an exciting and invigorating field to work in, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

*A loose definition: Middle Grade – fiction for 8-12 year olds/ Young Adult (YA) – fiction for teens.

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From the 2017 New England SCBWI conference