Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Fantastical Middle-Grade Monday! (and a contest!)

Yay! It’s time for my second post here at The Mixed-Up Files—I guess that means I haven’t scared everyone away with my shenanigans! (yet…)

And when I realized they’d assigned me a Monday post I was SUPER excited. (if you can’t tell by the all caps). I run a regular feature on my blog called “Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday” (*coughs* shameless self promotion *coughs*) where I feature a favorite middle-grade book or author and host a giveaway. So I thought…why not do something similar here?

But since this is the Mixed-Up Files—a whole other level of awesome—I realized I needed to go a little bigger than that. So I’m not just featuring a book or author. I’m featuring an ENTIRE GENRE. And yes—there will be a giveaway!!!! Make sure you keep reading so you don’t miss out.

It was really hard to pick a genre (I love them all so much) but I settled on middle-grade fantasy because it’s not only what I read and write, but because it’s a category thats SO dominated by two HUMONGOUS series (Harry Potter and Percy Jackson) that a lot of people may not realize how many other amazing books there are to choose from. So I’m shining the spotlight on a few of my favorites, like:

For the traditional fantasy fan: FABLEHAVEN, by Brandon Mull

Basic Concept: A brother and sister stay with their grandparents for the summer, and discover the house is part of a secret preserve for magical creatures–both good and bad. Ages: 8-12

Why it’s awesome: Kendra and Seth are hilarious characters. The plot is action packed and keeps you on your toes. And while it has everything you could want from a fantasy book (fairies and monsters and magic–oh my!), Mull puts his own twist on everything to keep it fresh and original. You’ll find yourself wishing you could take a long swig of magical milk like the characters, and have your eyes opened to a whole new world too.

For those craving something different: THE BRIMSTONE KEY, by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis

Basic Concept: The four friends known as “the Grey Griffins” discover that starting  a new school is harder than they thought. Especially when the Clockwork King returns with an evil plot to steal the souls of changelings. Ages 8-12.

Why it’s awesome: Take everything you love about fantasy, then add Steampunk. The end result is 100% cool. Technically this is a continuation of the Grey Griffins trilogy (which is also awesome, btw), but it’s written so that new readers will easily be able to understand what’s going on. And with four very unique, very hilarious characters, it’s hard to pick a favorite.

For the younger, or reluctant reader: THE FIELD GUIDE (Spiderwick Chronicles, vol. 1), by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Basic Concept: With the help of Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, the Grace siblings discover their great-aunt’s run down old house is actually surrounded by magical creatures. And seeing them is only the beginning of the adventure. Ages 6-10.

Why it’s awesome:  How they crammed so much story into so few pages still amazes me. They definitely bring new meaning to ‘making every word count.’ Older kids will read it faster, but everyone will love it. It’s hilarious, suspenseful, and full of adventures. Not to mention the GORGEOUS illustrations throughout the book. Tony’s art is in a category all its own.

For the fairy tale lover: THE FAIRY TALE DETECTIVES  (Sisters Grimm, book 1), by Michael Buckley

Basic Concept: When Daphne and Sabrina Grimm move to Fairyport Landing to stay with their Granny Relda, they discover that not only are all fairy tales real, but that as Grimms, it’s their family’s responsibility to investigate and solve any magical crimes in the town. Ages 9-11.

Why it’s awesome:  A town where Prince Charming has to live with all 3 of his Exes (Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty)? I was sold right there. The concept is hilariously original, and the fast paced mystery will keep you guessing.

For those craving another boy wizard in their life: MAGYK (Septimus Heap, book 1), by Angie Sage

Basic Concept: Septimus Heap–the seventh son of a seventh son–is stolen from his parent’s home the night he’s born. That same night, his father finds a baby girl abandoned in the snow and decides to raise her as their own. So what happened to Septimus? And where did this mysterious girl come from? Ages 9-12.

Why it’s awesome:  It may be about a boy wizard, but Septimus is definitely not Harry Potter. Filled with quirky, hilarious characters and set in an imaginative, high-fantasy world, this book keeps you racing through those pages till the very end.

For girls: THE TAIL OF EMILY WINDSNAP, by Liz Kessler

Basic Concept: Emily Windsnap never understood why her mother tried to keep her away from the water. Until she jumps in the pool and discovers she’s a mermaid. Then she finds out there’s a whole other world she belongs to. New friends to make. And a father she’s never met before. Ages 8-12.

Why it’s awesome:  Okay, it’s really NOT just for girls. But I’m listing it that way because so often in this genre it seems like the books are written a little more for boy readers. And this book is chock full of girlie goodness. Mermaids. Best Friends. Words like “swishy.” Girls will gobble this up. But there’s plenty of plot to keep everyone happy. Even boys.

For those who like bad boys: ARTEMIS FOWL, by Eoin Colfer

Basic Concept: Twelve-year-old evil genius, Artemis Fowl kidnaps a fairy as part of an plan to increase the Fowl Family fortune. But when dealing with magic and fairies, things never go according to plan. Especially since he’s not as evil as he thinks he is. Ages 9-12

Why it’s awesome:  I love anti-heroes, when they’re done right. And Artemis is definitely done right. He’s not a good guy. But he’s not a bad guy either. Leaving you wondering who to root for as the story unfolds. Bonus: the hilarious way Colfer has reinvented magical creatures is GENIUS. The perfect blend of magic, technology, and pure imagination.

For fans of the classics: PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Basic Concept: Ever wonder how Peter Pan ended up in Never Land, or why he can fly and why he doesn’t grow up? Well, after reading this you’ll have some ridiculously cool answers to those questions. Ages 9-12

Why it’s awesome: I never realized how much story there was to Peter’s life until I found this book. The writing is smart and funny, and the plot is high stakes and full of twists and turns. Plus the back story the writers came up with for all the famous characters and Never Land is so amazingly cool. Love what they did with it.

I could keep going–seriously, I’ve barely tipped the iceberg here–but I don’t want this post to stretch on endlessly. That should be enough to give you a good sample of some of the wonderful choices out there.

Not sure how many of you have heard of these books–they’re all pretty popular so most likely you have–but I chose them because, well, they’re some of my favorites. But also because–as I tried to convey with my titles–I think these books, as a group, kind of represent “a little something for everyone.” Bonus: they’re all book one in a series. So if you (or your child) get hooked on the story, there are more books to turn to. I love when that happens.

Which brings me to the giveaway. I know books are expensive to buy, and as the economy makes everyone tighten their budgets, sometimes there just isn’t enough money for all the books we want. So in that vein, I’m giving three books away today!!! That’s right–THREE lucky winners will win one of these books I’ve just featured. Even better–you get to choose which book you win!!

*tosses confetti*

To enter, leave a comment on this post between now and Monday, February 7th. Make sure you include your name, and the name of the book you’d like to win. I’ll draw three random winners and post their names on Tuesday, February 8th. Easy peasy, right?

So what are you waiting for? Put in your entry–you have THREE CHANCES TO WIN!

Ready? Set? Go!


Shannon Messenger is a middle-grade fantasy writer repped by Laura Rennert with Andrea Brown Literary. She may get older every day, but she refuses to grow up, and probably owns more toys than most of the children she knows. But that’s okay–it’s research for her writing. Or so she likes to claim. 😉

Authors Visiting Schools: thinking outside the box

There are some good resources online about the basics of an author school visit and here are two of them.

ABCs of Author visits

scbwi resources

Rather than restate what’s already available, I’d like to look at the variety of school visit experiences an author might try or a school might ask for.

1. The whole school presentation

When most people think of authors visiting schools the image of an auditorium full of kids listening to an author tell the tale of how a story became a book is what comes to mind. Usually the author brings a power point presentation and sometimes, interesting objects for students to look at. Often there is reading aloud and almost always some time for Q & A.

2. The large group writers’ workshop

Here an author teaches a full classroom of students a writing lesson. It usually draws on an element from the author’s books and involves a writing exercise from the students. It usually works best to have a topic you’ve discussed with the teachers ahead of time and a writing activity every child in the room can feel successful with. Poetry often works particularly well, but any writing topic can succeed if it’s well taught.

3. Small group writers’ workshop

A more in-depth and longer writing workshop works best with a smaller group of students who either volunteer or are chosen for the experience because of their avid interest in writing.

4. The demonstration lesson

This works well with small and large groups and has the advantage of not requiring the students to bring their own pencil and paper and produce individual writing. A demonstration might show how an illustrator creates a character, or how a writer maps a plot using audience participation and usually a white board, smart board or document camera.

5. The author interview

This format allows more participation from students who plan the interview ahead of time and take turns asking questions. It works well with Skype. In a very large school, recording a video of the author reading and students interviewing the author for later viewing may be the most practical way to use an author’s time.

6. The author luncheon

Some schools have a tradition of inviting a small group of students to have lunch with the author and interact in a much less formal way. It can be a great place to run a few story ideas by them or get immediate feedback on a scene the author is working on. Often the children chosen are avid writers so it’s also a perfect venue to ask them to tell you their favorite stories.

7. The non-writing workshop

Sometimes authors will offer a workshop on a subject that pertains to their book and suits a school’s curriculum. It might be anything from drama to history. I know an author who has considerable expertise in historical costuming who brings in clothing from the historical era of her book and talks about how what people wear informs us about the way they live. Fascinating!

8. Family Literacy Night

Another option is an evening event for students and parents that highlights the authors books and the student’s writing. It can be an opportunity for promoting read aloud at home, family story telling, the writing and collecting of letters, or the keeping of diaries. Sometimes this involves author Q&A, snacks, games, or an art activity.

9. The author-in-residence

This is an ambitious and very time-consuming project both for a school and for an author, but it can be the most rewarding experience of all. With a daily visit over one week or one day visits stretched over a few weeks, you have the opportunity to develop the kind of trust with young writers that makes real writing growth possible. Solid teaching experience and an enthusiastic school is essential.

10. The personal visit

The best place for beginning writers to start out is with a single classroom visit where the teacher is a personal friend. The format varies from a simple reading plus a little Q&A to a writing lesson, organized by the teacher and assisted by the author. Here’s a place an author can learn the ropes of working with children and get honest and kind feedback from a trusted source.

I hope this gives you some idea of the range of possibilities. I’ll be following this post up in a few weeks with specific things an author can do to prepare for a school visit and then one more post on how schools can gain the most from their visiting author. I’ll also like to do a round-up of school visit questions, so if there’s something you’ve always wanted to know about school visits, leave me a comment and I’ll follow up later today or over the weekend.

Mixed-Up Meandering

 A fellow on Twitter the other day said the number of children’s books being published every year is overwhelming, so how can anyone possibly choose which ones to read? He makes a fair point: there are a lot of good books out there, with more being added all the time. We each depend on some sort of filtering process to choose books—recommendations from friends; books that win awards; books by familiar authors; books about ghosts, or horses or Revolutionary War heroes; lists compiled by the contributors to this site.

Last summer, I went on a library scavenger hunt to see what treasures I could turn up in a “random search.” Here’s a fun way to generate a slightly more personalized (but just as serendipitous) reading list:

Imagine one of those vintage Family Circus cartoons where a dotted line traces a path through the neighborhood, crisscrossing, circling, and doubling back on itself as Billy explores every possible diversion between point A and point B.

Now, take any favorite book as your “neighborhood”—the one I’ve chosen is a middle-grade novel you may have heard of: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. We’re going to meander through Ms. Konigsburg’s award-winning story, following our noses, investigating interesting side roads suggested by the setting, plot and characters. (Well, actually, we’ll follow my nose, which may lead in an entirely different direction from your nose, but that’s sort of the point.)

The first thing my nose notices is New York City: Mixed-Up Files is absolutely rooted in the Big Apple. There are dozens of children’s books set in New York, of course, but a few come to mind that, like Mixed-Up Files, depend particularly on the ambiance of the city: The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden; Stuart Little, by E. B. White; A Rat’s Tale, by Tor Seidler; Remember Me to Harold Square (featuring a city-wide scavenger hunt!), by Paula Danziger; and last year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

Serendipity alert: Did you know that the archetypal holiday movie, Miracle on 34th Street, was based on Valentine Davies’ 1947 novel of the same name? Neither did I!

Maybe it’s not the city but the museum setting that interests you most. You might want to check out The Court of the Stone Children, by Eleanor Cameron, or the novelizations of the recent Night at the Museum movies—or even (another serendipity alert!) the picture book by Milan Trenc that inspired the films in the first place. (If you’ll allow me one more picture book mention in this middle-grade blog, You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum, by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser, filled with lovely ink and watercolor images of the city, is a perfect companion to Mixed-Up Files.)

I particularly enjoyed James and Claudia’s visit to the Egyptian Wing of the museum, so Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game, and Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death by Richard Peck both go on my list.

The art mystery at the center of Mixed-Up Files brings to mind two books by Blue Balliett: Chasing Vermeer and The Calder Game . . . or Masterpiece, by Elise Broach.

Are you caught up in the romance of running away? Try Jean Craighead George’s classic, My Side of the Mountain, about a 12-year-old running away from rather than toward the sophisticated environments of New York City.

Ranging farther afield: when I think of books set in New York, I naturally think of the original Eloise (“a book for precocious grown ups”). Eloise and her hotel remind me of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (also set in a hotel). James and Claudia’s lunch at the automat reminds me of my seventh grade train trip to New York (where we were treated to lunch at the automat)—which suggests books that feature trains: The Neddiad, by Daniel Pinkwater; The Nine Pound Hammer (first in the Clockwork Dark series), by John Claude Bemis; and this year’s Newbery winner, Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool.

One thing leads to another: Masterpiece’s tiny protagonist recalls The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks; The Borrowers by Mary Norton; and the ultimate bug story: Shoebag, by Mary James.

I could go on and on . . . I have gone on and on. Somebody stop me!

Here are the pretty covers of the 25 (!) books mentioned on our Mixed-Up Files ramble:

Bonnie Adamson is glad she’ll never run out of book neighborhoods to wander through.