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.

 

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

NESCBWI 17: Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio

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This past weekend, April 21-23, some 700 kid lit authors, illustrators, and industry professionals got together in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the yearly Spring Conference of the New England region of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), which this year was named Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio.

This was my second time at this event, and it has definitely established itself as one of my favorite places to be. Not just because of the interesting panels, workshops, and keynote presentations, but because it tends to be a friendly, laid-back sort of thing, where everyone chats to everyone else, and new friends are made all the time. There is always lots of catching up to do with writer buddies I usually only see on social media, and time flies by all too quickly!

So, what were my highlights for 2017? To start with, this was my first time at a SCBWI event as a published author. I loved seeing Heart Blade up on the big screen with all the other attendee’s work, and it was great spotting it in the con bookstore.

This year, I attended several workshops on social media and marketing. Jess Keating encouraged us to brainstorm our platform with adjectives and images to get a feel for ourselves, and for the tone we want to set on social media. She urged us to think about who we are, rather than who we think we should be, and to remember: ‘you are the expert at being you’. Anika Denise suggested that an author platform is a stage where you connect with your audience, and reminded us that author platforms aren’t built in a day, nor should building them eclipse putting time and effort into the actual writing. For those who were unsure what to blog or tweet about, she suggested mining your book’s content for underlying themes you can dig into. Allison Moore showed us examples off her own Twitter feed, and reminded us (as did everyone lecturing about social media) that promoting your own book has to be something done in small and sporadic doses. To top it all off, Jen Malone gave us great tips on public speaking, and told us that “speakers who are real, honest and can share their passion have the greatest impact on their audience.”

One of my favorite workshops this year was Dana Meachen Rau on injecting characters with emotion, something I find my plot-focused brain often struggles with. She reminded us that plot elements are great, but without emotion, who cares? The plot provides the external story arc, but emotion provides the internal story arc, and becomes the engine that moves your character forward. When a reader reads a book, they go on the same emotional journey as the character, and it is this shared experience that makes a story unforgettable.

For a fun learning experience, Friday night brought Pitchapalooza, the now-traditional event hosted by The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Names were drawn, and contenders got to pitch their story for a minute, on the clock. Then a panel of agents and editors critiqued each attempt, explaining in a positive manner what worked, and what didn’t.

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The crowd at Pitchapalooza

There were three amazing keynote talks, by authors Barry Lyga and Jane Yolen, and author/illustrator Melissa Sweet, who had the prettiest PowerPoint presentation I’ve ever seen. Jane urged us to “listen to the work, not the fears”, a sentiment I think all writers can relate to on the dark days. On the writing the rainbow panel, Kevin Lewis reminded the audience that we should always endeavor to create environments in our work that ‘are as diverse as the world we live in.’

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Jane Yolen inspires us over breakfast

I headed home on Sunday happy and exhausted, bearing pages and pages of notes, a pile of business cards and bookmarks from people I want to keep in touch with, and a ton of fresh inspiration to give my work a much-needed boost. Thank you to all the hard-working volunteers at the NESCBWI for putting together a great event, and see you next year!

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Relaxing on Sunday evening with peppermint tea and Melissa Sweet’s biography of E.B. White