• From the Mixed-Up Files... > Learning Differences > Fantastic Fantasy: A discussion with author Ellen Jensen Abbott
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    April 11, 2014:
    Fall 2014 Children's Sneak Peek
    A peek at forthcoming middle grade books (as well as picture books and YA books) in a round-up from Publisher's Weekly. First printed in the February 22 issue, but now available online. Time to add to your to-read list. Read more ...

    April 9, 2014:
    How many Newbery winners have you read?
    You could make a traditional list of all the Newbery Medal Award-winning Children's Books you've read, but there's something so satisfying when you check them off and get a final tally on this BuzzFeed quiz. Read more ...

    March 28, 2014:
    Middle Grade fiction is hot at 2014 Bologna Children's Book Fair

    For the second year in a row, publishers are clamoring for middle-grade, reporters Publishers Weekly. "I’ve been coming [to Bologna] for 12 to 15 years, and I’ve never had as many European publishers asking for middle-grade," said Steven Chudney of the Chudney Agency. Read more ...

    February 14, 2014:
    Cybils Awards announced
    Ultra by David Carroll (Scholastic Canada) wins the Cybil for middle grade fiction; Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Disney Hyperion) wins for Speculative Fiction. Read more.

    January 27, 2014: And the Newbery Medal goes to ...
    Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for "Flora & Ulysses"; Rita Williams-Garcia won the Coretta Scott King Author award for "P.S. Be Eleven." Newbery Honor awards to authors Vince Vawter, Amy Timberlake, Kevin Henkes and Holly Black. For all the exciting ALA Youth Media Award News ... READ MORE

    November 12, 2013:
    Vote in the GoodReads semifinal round

    Readers' votes have narrowed the middle-grade semifinals down to 20 titles. Log in to your GoodReads account and vote for your favorite middle-grade (and in other categories, of course). Read more ...

    November 9, 2013:
    Publishers Weekly Top Children's Books of 2013

    Middle-grade and young adult titles selected by the editors of Publishers Weekly as their top picks of the year. Let the season of "top ten books" begin! Read more ...

    October 14, 2013:
    Middle Shelf: Cool Reads for Kids debuts January 2014

    Shelf Media Group, publisher of Shelf Unbound indie book review magazine, will launch a new free digital-only publication for middle-grade readers. The debut issue features interviews with such notable authors as Margaret Peterson Haddix and Chris Grabenstein as well as reviews, excerpts, and more. Middle Shelf will be published bi-monthly beginning in January 2014.
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    September 19, 2013: Writer-in-Residence program at Thurber House

    Dream of time and space to focus on your own writing project? Applications now being accepted (11/1/2013 deadline) for The Thurber House Residency in Children's Literature, a month-long retreat in the furnished third-floor apartment of Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. Read more ...

    September 18, 2013: Vermont College of Fine Arts Scholarship opportunity

    Barry Goldblatt Literary launches The Angela Johnson Scholarship, a talent-based grant for writers of color attending the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at VCFA. Up to two $5,000 grants will be awarded each year. Read more ....

    September 16, 2013:
    National Book Awards longlist for youth literature

    For the first time, the NBA is presenting lists of 10 books/authors on the longlist in each category. The 2013 young adult literature list includes five middle grade novels and five YA. Read more ...

    Sept. 13, 2013: Spring preview
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    August 21, 2013:
    Want to be a Cybils Award Judge?

    Middle grade categories are fiction, speculative fiction, nonfiction. Applications due August 31! Read more ...

    August 19, 2013:
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    March 28, 2013: Big at Bologna

     This year at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, the focus has shifted to middle-grade.  “A lot of foreign publishers are cutting back on YA and are looking for middle-grade,” said agent Laura Langlie, according to Publisher's Weekly.  Lighly illustrated or stand-alone contemporary middle-grade fiction is getting the most attention.  Read more...


    March 10, 2013: Marching to New Titles

    Check out these titles releasing in March...


    March 5, 2013: Catch the BEA Buzz

    Titles for BEA's Editor Buzz panels have been announced.  The middle-grade titles selected are:

    A Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

    Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

    The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward

    Nick and Tesla's High-Voltages Danger Lab by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

    The Tie Fetch by Amy Herrick

    For more Buzz books in other categories,


    February 20, 2013: Lunching at the MG Roundtable 

    Earlier this month, MG authors Jeanne Birdsall, Rebecca Stead, and N.D. Wilson shared insight about writing for the middle grades at an informal luncheon with librarians held in conjunction with the New York Public Library's Children's Literary Salon "Middle Grade: Surviving the Onslaught."

    Read about their thoughts...


    February 10, 2013: New Books to Love

    Check out these new titles releasing in February...


    January 28, 2013: Ivan Tops List of Winners

    The American Library Association today honored the best of the best from 2012, announcing the winners of the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz awards, along with a host of other prestigious youth media awards, at their annual winter meeting in Seattle.

    The Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature went to The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Honor books were: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz; Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin; and Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage.

    The Coretta Scott King Book Award went to Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

    The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award,which honors an author for his or her long-standing contributions to children’s literature, was presented to Katherine Paterson.

    The Pura Belpre Author Award, which honors a Latino author, went to Benjamin Alire Saenz for his novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which was also named a Printz Honor book and won the Stonewall Book Award for its portrayal of the GLBT experience.

    For a complete list of winners…


    January 22, 2013: Biography Wins Sydney Taylor

    Louise Borden's His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, a verse biography of the Swedish humanitarian, has won the Sydney Taylor Award in the middle-grade category. The award is given annually to books of the highest literary merit that highlight the Jewish experience. Aimee Lurie, chair of the awards committee, writes, "Louise Borden's well-researched biography will, without a doubt, inspire children to perform acts of kindness and speak out against oppression."

    For more...


    January 17, 2013: Erdrich Wins Second O'Dell

    Louise Erdrich is recipient of the 2013 Scott O'Dell Award for her historical novel Chickadee, the fourth book in herBirchbark House series. Roger Sutton,Horn Book editor and chair of the awards committee, says of Chickadee,"The book has humor and suspense (and disarmingly simple pencil illustrations by the author), providing a picture of 1860s Anishinabe life that is never didactic or exotic and is briskly detailed with the kind of information young readers enjoy." Erdrich also won the O'Dell Award in 2006 for The Game of Silence, the second book in theBirchbark series. 

    For more...


    January 15, 2013: After the Call

    Past Newbery winners Jack Gantos, Clare Vanderpool, Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Stead, and Laura Amy Schlitz talk about how winning the Newbery changed (or didn't change) their lives in this piece from Publishers Weekly...


    January 2, 2013: On the Big Screen

    One of our Mixed-up Files members may be headed to the movies! Jennifer Nielsen's fantasy adventure novel The False Prince is being adapted for Paramount Pictures by Bryan Cogman, story editor for HBO's Game of Thrones. For more...


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Fantastic Fantasy: A discussion with author Ellen Jensen Abbott

Learning Differences


Ellen Jensen Abbott

We at the Mixed Up Files are thrilled to have fantasy author, ELLEN JENSEN ABBOTT, stop by for an interview. Her first book, WATERSMEET, came out in 2009 and the second in the series, THE CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER, hit the shelves just weeks ago. Please join me in welcoming Ellen to our cyber-home! (*wild applause here*)

Hi Ellen! Congratulations on the recent release of THE CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER! Please tell our audience a bit about your trilogy and how it came to be.

Hi! Thanks and glad to be here. Like a lot of writers, I often have a character come to me first, and that was true in this case. The first image I had was of my main character, Abisina. I knew what she looked like—dark skin and hair, light eyes—and I knew that she was an outcast, but that was all. As I started to explore why she was outcast, the entire world began to weave itself together. The trilogy deals with the events in the world that led to the outcasting of whole groups of folk and to the healing of this break—or I hope it will deal with the healing of the break. I’m in the middle of the third book, and right now, no one wants to be healed!

The Centaur's Daughter

Ha! Darn those stubborn characters! Haven’t they read your outline??? Speaking of, outlining an entire trilogy sounds like a huge amount of work. How closely have you stuck to your original? Did you find you had to make some changes once you were up to your elbows in writing?

I stuck fairly close to my original concepts until the third book. As I said above, the characters in the third book are not cooperating and everything is up in the air. (Do I sound nervous?? Excuse me while I gnaw on my finger nails!) Of course there are always changes as you get to know your characters. I tried to put Abisina into a love triangle in The Centaur’s Daughter and she wanted no part of it. The guy I had intended to catch her attention was just too creepy, and she was happy with who she was with! Even now as “everything is up in the air” the broad outlines are intact, but it’s in the details where it gets messy. It’s easy to outline a chapter in a few sentences, but when you actually start to elaborate you discover all the ways that your general idea could play out. In addition, in writing sequels, you are affected by decisions you made years ago. For example, I created my fairy race with specific qualities and values; just because I need them to play a specific role in book three, I can’t change who they are. I have to work within the confines I established—which means, if I’ve made it difficult for myself, I only have myself to blame!

Oh, man, don’t you hate it when that happens? In THE CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER, your main character, Abisina, is a shape-shifter. Besides that obvious difference, how are you and Abisina different? How are you alike?

You’re right that I have never suddenly turned into a centaur, though as I teen, I could relate to that feeling of who is this person I am becoming? Whose body am I living in? Abisina and I are both pretty intense, but I like to think I can kick back a little better than she can. (Of course, I’m not trying to save a nation. Kicking back can’t be that easy when there is a herd of centaurs after you!) She appreciates humor in others, but I am more likely to crack a joke. And while she is an excellent archer, the only time I’ve ever shot an arrow was in PE in 9th grade.

We’re alike in that we both really value the concept of home and family, and at times, both of us have had to search for the home we wanted. I had written most of my first book, before I discovered that similarity! It was there all the time; I just wasn’t looking for it.

First book in the Series: WATERSMEET

Very interesting. Also, Absinia is not a high school English teacher, like you are;) Have you ever taught a class or unit on fantasy? If so, what do you think fantasy offers readers that other genres don’t?

I’ve taught a lot of fantasy/science fiction. I taught en elective for 11th and 12th graders looking at Science Fiction dystopias, including books by Ursula Le Guin, Verner Vinge, Isaac Asimov and Robert Sawyer. Dystopic fiction is fascinating because the societies that turn so bad usually started out as a society crafted to be a utopia. They allow readers to talk about what went wrong—where greed, egotism, religious fanaticism, classism, etc. can take us as humans. By the same token, these novels allow us to discuss what would constitute a Utopia for us which asks students to articulate what social values they cherish.

I’ve also taught the Odyssey to ninth graders—if the Cyclops and Calypso and Circe aren’t fantasy characters, I don’t know fantasy! Aside from being just a really kick-butt story, the Odyssey also is about what it means to be a hero, to be loyal, to be adrift in the world and longing for home.

I’ve always wondered why more fantasy isn’t taught. Essentially, it’s The Giver, 1984, Animal Farm, a few short stories by Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” that appear on a lot of curricula along with folklore and mythology. I think the genre has a lot more to offer!

Absolutely. So, if you were to teach a middle school class on fantasy, what books would you use and why?

I would begin with folktales/fairy tales from around the world. It’s so interesting to see the same motifs come up again and again: the three brothers, the orphaned girl, the tests of bravery and pureness of heart. Equally interesting are the myriad of differences reflecting the cultures the stories are from. The same animal can be good or evil depending on where in the world you are. All fantasy writers today are responding to these early myths and stories, so I would then look at how different characters from early myths show up again in books like the Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, the Artemis Fowl series, and Harry Potter. I would also include more modern dystopias like Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Fanny Billingsley’s Chime and Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia trilogy would also be great in a middle school classroom. And then…oh! I could go on and on! But that would at least get me to Christmas!

Switching gears now, please tell us – if one of your characters in The CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER could come to life and stay a week in your house who would you choose and why?

Wow! That is so hard! It would be fun to hang out with Findlay, Abisina’s love interest, because he’s easy going and funny—and easy on the eyes! Elodie, Abisina’s best friend, would be a nice guest because she tends to look on the bright side; I could use her humor when I’m grading papers and trying to make a book deadline. I would love to have Rueshlan come. He’s Abisina’s shape-shifting father and he’s heroic in terms of both his physical attributes and his character. I really admire him and would love to get to know him better. Hoysta, the dwarf, is a dear, but I’d have to keep her out of the kitchen! No smoked moles for me! I guess, Haret the dwarf would be the one I would most want to have, though. He is the one who gives it straight to Abisina; she always knows where she stands with him, and those kinds of friends are invaluable.

Agreed. Anyone who would be barred at the door?

Aside from all the creatures like trolls, minotaurs, and leviathan birds, I would rather not have the Fairy Mother come to stay. She’s just too imperious, too commanding to be a good house-guest. And I would have nowhere to put her huge fairy guards!

Ellen, thanks so much for talking with us here at the Mixed Up Files. We can’t wait to dive deeper into this fascinating world you’ve created!

Readers: what fantasy stories would you like to see taught/read in schools?

Find out more about Ellen Jensen Abbott and her fantasy trilogy here

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