Barbara Dee has a few “Small Moments” with Author Beth Ain

Beth Ain

Beth Ain


Can you describe the fourth grade teacher’s assignment that inspired IZZY KLINE HAS BUTTERFLIES?
Yes! My daughter’s fourth grade teacher had each of the kids pick a moment or a memory to write about and they worked on drafts and went through a pretty involved editorial and peer critique process and in the end they each had a complete and well-drawn piece of writing about a moment in their lives. The teacher had the collection bound into a book called “The Stories on Our Minds,” and I was really moved and entertained by the stories. From my own daughter’s zip lining piece, “Zip, Zip, Ziiip!” to someone else’s (hilarious) “No Good, Very Bad Dentist,” to another favorite of mine, “Tia Claudia Comes to Visit, ” they displayed humor and heart and the stories were reflective and interesting. I loved also that it was called The Stories on Our Minds, because that’s just it. It was all there. They didn’t have to go very far to find their stories.
How do you think that encouraging kids to write about “small moments” helps them grow as writers? Do they have difficulty thinking “small?”
I actually think the opposite. I think they have trouble thinking big, or at least trouble writing big, which is why zeroing in on smaller moments gives them access to their own stories and their own memories and therefore gives them a jumping off point for their writing.  I think kids sometimes think writing means they have to invent a whole fictional universe out of thin air, which I suppose if you’re writing high fantasy, it is. But usually, writers access their own memories at the very least as a prompt. Most of us get our ideas from our own lives. Even if we aren’t stealing those moments directly, we are inspired by them. They trigger feelings worth writing about, or perhaps just the ambiance of the moment itself is inspiring in some way. The smell of the fresh air on the beach, the sound of the sled hitting the snow after a blizzard, the sadness of saying goodbye to Tia Claudia after a visit.
Writing can really stump some kids, but when they are reminded that the answer is likely right in front of them, it relaxes them. It’s like taking an open book test.
izzy_kline_cvr_1.11.inddSo many MG kids gravitate towards big, high-concept fantasy novels. Do you think embracing and exploring “small moments” naturally leads kids to realistic fiction?
I think in some ways, yes. I was a realistic fiction reader myself and found fantasy a bit alienating because I was searching for familiarity and I was rather practical and therefore unwilling to believe in magic of any kind–still am. (That said, my favorite book of elementary school was The Trumpet of the Swan.  Give me talking animals all day long!)
At any rate, I always credit Paula Danziger as being my mirror when I was grown up. Seeing myself in her books was helpful. Judy Blume’s characters, too, of course. Discovering characters whose lives were a bit imperfect like mine, or whose worries felt familiar, that was comforting to me. Oh look, her dad left, too. And her brother is a little testy, too. And yes, her best friend has gotten distant, etc, etc. To be fair, though, I think fantasy books can do the very same thing because the best ones truly do transcend genre. Part of the Harry Potter appeal has to do with the fact that Harry’s concerns and those of his friends are not so different from yours or mine. They’ve just been shipped off to a fantasy land where the limits of the physical world and been lifted and where Rowling could play with darkness and light in more literal ways. Almost never does the emotional world shift, even in high fantasy. There’s always magic in the small moments, whether you are in your classroom in suburbia, or your dorm room at Hogwarts. Childhood is childhood.
IZZY KLINE HAS BUTTERFLIES is a novel in verse. Can you explain the impulse to write it that way? Do you think the focus on “small moments” is especially well-suited to verse-writing? Why aren’t more MG novels written in verse?
I really do think small moments writing and verse writing are intertwined. I didn’t set out to write a novel in verse, honestly. I set out to write a novel in small moments, meaning that I wanted the language to be clear, and spare, and meaningful. I didn’t want it to be weighed down by plot and logistics. I think a kid’s day kind of happens in small moments more so than in plot points, if that makes sense. Art class. Recess. Dinner with dad. Fight with brother. Throw up. It isn’t always so linear!
As I wrote, a lot of word play started to happen and a lot of little tricks that some kids might miss and other kids (and teachers especially) will pick up on and feel really in the know. Writing that way was very exhilarating. Thinking to myself, “I know the kid who’s gonna catch that reference or see what I did there” was just very exciting. Poetry really gives a writer (and a reader for that matter) the opportunity to zero in on an experience and get deep. It can be meaning of life type stuff or small stuff, but all of it calls for artistry and evocative language and hopefully a healthy dose of humor. Somewhere in there you can get to the bottom of things. So, yes it turned into free verse as I dug deeper, as a I saw that there is so much poetry in the interior life of a child. There’s so much poetry and rhythm in the school day alone–the sights and smells and sounds and feelings of elementary school are very nostalgic for me and I feel so lucky that I get to re-live it a little through Izzy’s eyes.
What are you working on now? Is it in verse? Inspired by a “small moment?”
I am happy to report that I’m busy writing the sequel to Izzy Kline has Butterflies and lucky for me it’s another novel in verse. It has a lot to do with that transition out of the younger, more innocent part of childhood and into the complicated spaces of early adolescence. So, yeah. I get to smell those childhood smells a little while longer…one of these days I’ll be ready for middle school.
Barbara Dee’s sixth middle grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin/S&S), publishes this month.

International Day of Peace: Middle-Grade Books that Promote World Harmony

The International Day of Peace, established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly, is now celebrated worldwide every September 21.

international_peace_day_logoTo commemorate the message of the day, I’ve chosen to shine a light on a few middle-grade books that share themes of nonviolence, empathy, and dignity for all.

These books not only promote peace by highlighting the challenges of fighting against war, racism, poverty, etc., but they also underscore the importance of large and small acts of courage by individuals to create change and move toward a more harmonious world.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear about your favorite books on the subject in the comments section.

9780062377012Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Pennypacker’s novel, Pax (literally “peace” in Latin) was recently longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s literature. The story highlights peace by portraying the costs of war through the eyes of a boy and his beloved fox, Pax. Time magazine writes: “Pennypacker’s elegant language and insight into human nature spin a fable extolling empathy above all. By the novel’s poignant ending, Pennypacker has gently made the case that all of us should aspire to that view—children and adults alike.”

9781442485068Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Baskin’s novel tracks the stories of four children of different backgrounds before and after the tragedy of 9/11. While the characters have their own individual stories, they all share the fact that their lives were impacted by the event. The ending (spoiler alert) shows the characters, one year after the tragedy, at the memorial service in New York City. It’s a powerful scene demonstrating the courage of coming together in love and peace. Publishers Weekly writes: “Baskin focuses on how her characters emerge wiser, worldlier, and more sensitive to others’ pain after surviving a profound and tragic piece of history.”

9781629146133Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra

In Cerra’s book, also about 9/11, Jake’s life is turned upside down when the father of his best friend Sam is detained by the FBI after the attacks. Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, who is Muslim, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. In the end, Jake must decide: walk away from Sam and the revenge that a racist classmate has planned or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

9780316043069Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn’t make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner’s son. When Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane, the older River Road folks feel threatened. But as Sugar befriends young Beau and elder Master Liu, they introduce her to the traditions of their culture, and she, in turn, shares the ways of plantation life. Sugar soon realizes that she must be the one to bridge the cultural gap and bring the community together.

9780888999597The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis

This volume contains Ellis’s three novels, The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City. The Breadwinner is set in Afghanistan, where 11-year-old Parvana lives with her family in a bombed-out apartment building in Kabul. When her father is arrested for the crime of having a foreign education, the family is left with no money or resources. Forbidden to earn money as a girl, Parvana must transform herself into a boy and become the breadwinner. In Parvana’s Journey, her father has died and the family has scattered. Parvana, now 13 years old, is determined to find them. Again masquerading as a boy, she joins a group of wandering children, all refugees from war, who exist mainly on courage. In Mud City, the focus shifts to 14-year-old Shauzia, who lives in the Widows’ Compound in Pakistan and dreams of escaping to a new life in France. Ellis’s look at the human cost of war is also a story of hope and survival.

9780547577098Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

As the German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.

9780545464406Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine

Red has just lost his father to a fatal attack, and everything is different in his life. And when Red comes to realize the racial injustices connected to his Virginia family and community, he’s faced with some hard challenges. Publishers Weekly writes: “(Erskine) frankly explores the difficulty in fighting a corrupt system, but also stresses the difference one individual—even a child—can make, providing hope that justice can prevail.”

9780547577319A Long Walk to Water (Based on a True Story )by Linda Sue Park

 A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about two eleven-year-olds in Sudan, a girl in 2008 and a boy in 1985. The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay. Enduring every hardship from loneliness to attack by armed rebels to contact with killer lions and crocodiles, Salva is a survivor, and his story goes on to intersect with Nya’s in an astonishing and moving way.

9781600606571Poems to Dream Together/Poemas Para So by Francisco X. Alarcon, illus. Paula Barragan

A young boy dreams that “all humans / and all living / beings / come together / as one big family / of the Earth.” As we travel through the boy’s colorful universe, we learn about his family and community working together and caring for each other and the world in which they live. Neighbors help repair adobe homes. The boy and his family share old photographs, tend their garden, and pamper Mama who “works day and night.” Tribute is paid to those who toil in the fields, and to Cesar Chavez. Most of all, we see how dreams can take many forms, from the fantastic imaginary ones that occur while we sleep to the realistic ones that guide our lives and give us inspiration for the endless possibilities of the future.

9780805089967Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts about Peace by Anna Grossnickle Hines

Illustrated with handmade quilts, these poems explore various notions of peace. Some, written from a child’s point of view, explore themes of fighting with a sibling and bullying on the playground. Other poems, using personification, are narrated by a house in turmoil and peace itself. The collection compels the reader to act with compassion, respect, and hope. Back matter highlights famous peacemakers such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Jimmy Carter, as well as a few lesser-known advocates.

9780525477341Paths to Peace: People Who Changed the World by Jane Breskin Zalben

Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nobel Prize winner, Dr.Wangari Maathai, are some of the people Zalbren chose to represent different eras and parts of the globe. Many started down their path to peace during childhood, and all challenge us to think about improving the lives of others. Also included are art notes, a glossary, a bibliography, further reading, and an index, making it an excellent resource for teachers and students.

What are your favorite books that promote peace?

Dorian Cirrone is the co-regional advisor for the Florida Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She has written several books for children and teens. Her most recent middle-grade novel, The First Last Day (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin), is available wherever books are sold. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at:

An #iLoveMG Tour & a Giveaway!

I Love Middle GradeYou know we love all things Middle Grade, so of course we were excited to learn that some of Algonquin Young Readers’ MG stars are touring the country the fall as part of its #iLoveMG Author Tour. Tell us why you love MG in the comments below to be entered to win a copy of Kelly Barnhill’s amazing new MG, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

If you enjoyed the Mixed-Up Files interviews with authors Tracey Baptiste, Kelly Barnhill and Brian Farrey, don’t miss an opportunity to see them in person during the tour. And watch for upcoming interviews with some of the other authors participating in the #iLoveMG tour.

Wednesday, September 21st
Wild Rumpus
Minneapolis, MN
Authors: Kelly Barnhill, Brian Farrey

Saturday, September 24th
Odyssey Books
South Hadley, MA
Authors: Adam Shaughnessy, Tania Unsworth

Sunday, September 25th
Clinton Book Shop
Clinton, NJ
Author: Kelly Barnhill

Sunday, September 25th
An Unlikely Story
Plainville, MA
Authors: Adam Shaughnessy, Tania Unsworth

Monday, September 26th
Jersey City, NJ
Authors: Kelly Barnhill, Tracey Baptiste, Adam Shaughnessy

Tuesday September 27th
Community Bookstore
Brooklyn, NY
Author: Kelly Barnhill

Wednesday, September 28th
Blue Bunny Books
Dedham, MA
Authors: Adam Shaughnessy, Tania Unsworth

Wednesday, September 28th
Darien Public Library
Darien, MA
Author: Kelly Barnhill

Tuesday, October 4th
Watermark Books
Wichita, KS
Authors: Kelly Barnhill, Brian Farrey

Thursday, October 6th
Novel Neighbor
St. Louis, MO
Author: Kelly Barnhill

Sunday, October 30th
Brookline Book Smith
Brookline, MA
Author: Tania Unsworth

Wednesday, November 9th
RJ Julia
Madison, CT
Authors: Adam Shaughnessy, Tania Unsworth

Even if your home town isn’t on the list above, tell us us why you love MG in the comments below and you could win a copy of Kelly Barnhill’s amazing new MG, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.