Monthly Archives: September 2010

Penny Dreadful Winner!!

The not-at-all dreadful winner of Laurel Snyder’s PENNY DREADFUL is….


Please send an email to msfishby at fromthemixedupfiles dot com with your mailing address, so we can send your book.

Ordinary Kids, Extraordinary Stories

I love contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction. As a kid, I was delighted to discover Beverly Cleary’s BEEZUS AND RAMONA. Finally, a big sister with an embarrassing little sister, just like me! Judy Blume’s ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MARGARET? was a hot topic on the sixth grade playground where my friends and I whispered about scenes in the book and smoothly segued into conversations about ourselves. That’s what I love most about stories featuring ordinary* kids, they reflect on real life and let readers know they are not alone.

Today’s contemporary realistic fiction moves beyond just school and friendship stories, and adds a little extra spark. Is it because today’s readers are more sophisticated? Or that authors are competing with TV, Internet, and video games? Probably both. In any case, the books listed below cover common issues among ordinary kids in a unique way.

HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL by Donna Gephardt follows David as he navigates the first difficult year of middle school, loses and gains friends, and deals with bullies–all very common issues for this age. Extra spark: David aspires to be like Jon Stewart on the Daily Show and becomes a local celebrity with his own YouTube videos.

THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z by Kate Messner follows Gianna as she struggles to complete a huge school project and deals with a rival on the track team. Extra spark: Gianna lives in a funeral home and is embarrassed by her father driving to her school in his hearse. Also, she must deal with her grandmother’s diagnosis of dementia.

A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT by Linda Urban follows Zoe who dreams of playing piano at Carnegie Hall, but is instead stuck with an organ. And her best friend recently deserted her. Extra spark: her father is afraid to leave the house, her mother works all the time, and the boy bully she was afraid of becomes a friend.

THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS by Frances O’Roark Dowell follows two best friends as they drift apart in middle school. Extra spark: the story is told in alternating points of view, letting us know neither is the mean girl. They’re both under peer pressure and trying to find their best self.

SCHOOLED by Gordon Korman follows the worst loser in school who is secretly nominated for class president and tortured throughout the school year. Bullying, conformity, peer pressure, check. Extra spark: this year’s nominee is a kid seemingly straight from the sixties, the last kid on a hippy-style commune. His first time attending school is as a complete innocent venturing into the playground jungle.

What are your favorite contemporary realistic middle-grade stories? And what gives them that extra spark?

*By ordinary kids I mean kids with functional families that go to school, as opposed to kids possessing magical abilities or orphans.

Karen B. Schwartz writes contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction, and is currently working on I AM NOT A PINK GIRL about a tomboy, Alex, and her ultra-feminine stepmother-to-be, Dee Dee, who’s determined to make a lady out of Alex. Extra spark: Dee Dee has a murky past full of secrets that Alex is determined to reveal in an attempt to stop the wedding.

Penny Dreadful– Giveaway and Interview!

It’s book launch time again, and we’re so glad you’re joining us, to  celebrate the  release of  Penny Dreadful, Laurel Snyder’s third middle grade book (which has lovely interior drawings by the talented Abigail Halpin).  The book has gotten great reviews so far, from all the usual suspects, including a bright shiny star from Booklist, who did a great job of summing up the premise of the book:

Penelope Grey lives a lovely life in the city, with a stone mansion, servants, toys, and plenty of books. Perhaps she is a little short on friends. And her parents are very busy. But lovely. Then one day, her father  comes home and informs his family he has quit his job. This declaration of independence leads Penelope  and her parents to Thrush Junction, Tennessee, where Mrs. Grey has inherited a house, but as they quickly  learn, it comes with a massive second mortgage and lodgers, who, according to the terms of her aunt’s  will, can live in the connected apartments without paying rent…

Sound like something you’d like to read? Sound like a book you’d like to win a FREE COPY OF? At the bottom of this interview you’ll have your chance.

In the meantime… let’s sit  down with Laurel for a little interview…

Hey, Laurel! Great to have you here with us today.  We’re curious, how did you come up with the idea for Penny Dreadful?

That’s a funny question, actually. Because the idea for Penny Dreadful was very different than the book I ended up with. Initially, I imagined Penny as a darker book, more  ironic.  It was to be called “Penny Dreadful’s Favorite Fears, and she was going to be this odd little character, who had a series of– for lack of a better word– neuroses. And the book was going to be the story of how she overcame them. I wanted it to be a little Dahl-esque, maybe a little Snickety.  But also, I had Mrs. Piggle Wiggle in mind when I began.  I wanted each chapter to be an episode, a neurosis.  Then, naturally, the book that came out was entirely different! Much softer, sweeter.  Who was it that said, “You have to get out of the way of the book that wants to be written?” Someone smart said that!

You mention Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.  What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid?

Oh, all kinds of books, but most of all I loved books with just enough magic.  I wasn’t into high fantasy. I liked books about regular kids who stumbled onto magic, where the magic was only part of the story.  I also loved books about non-magical adventures that felt magical. I loved Eager and Enright and Dahl and Thurber.  I loved L’Engle and Lewis.  In fact, a lot of those books are in Penny Dreadful, because Penny is a total reader, and that’s part of her story.  The book actually opens with Penny bored and hunting around in her bookshelf, for ideas for things to do.    Penny, in the beginning of the book, doesn’t know how to do.

Interesting.  In light of the fact that Penny’s such a reader, do you think there’s a way Penny Dreadful  could be used in schools? Could she tie-in to literacy stuff, maybe.

Absolutely!  In fact, I’m making a booklist right now, for kids who want to read along with Penny! The book is full of literary references.  It’s littered with titles and mentions of moments I myself loved from children’s books. But also, it’s structured in sections that relate to  a grownup poem (though nobody has caught that yet!)  I’m hoping to do a book club program, where I offer to skype into classrooms and libraries, to talk with kids about the “Penny’s Picks” books they’ve been reading. I think it’s a good thing for kids to talk about books in relation to one another, and not just as isolated experiences.

That sounds great, and speaking of other books, we’d love to know– what are you working on now?

Well, I’m just finishing a new book, a novel called Bigger Than a Breadbox.  It’s hard to explain, but it’s about a girl whose parents are splitting up, and she happens to find a magical wishing box with a funny trick to it.  It’s more serious than anything else I’ve done, and maybe a little bit older.  It’s rooted in my own childhood memories, in a way nothing else I’ve written has been, and it’s been both very  easy, and very hard to write.  Also, it’s full of seagulls, and Baltimore references, and Bruce Springsteen.

So far as I know, it’s the first magical middle grade book about a Bruce Springsteen song!


Well, we’ve certainly never heard of one!   Thanks so much for being here, and Happy Book Release!

Readers, if you’d like to a chance to win a hardcover of Laurel’s new book, leave a comment below, and our random generator will choose a lucky winner on Thursday.  You’ll get extra entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter (please mention each link in a new comment).

And don’t forget to check out Laurel’s other books, Any Which Wall and Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, available in bookstores and online. To read reviews or excerpts from her books, visit Laurel’s website!