• From the Mixed-Up Files... > Learning Differences > Discovering your Quirky Character: An Interview and Giveaway with Award-winning Author Donna Gephart
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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.
    Read more ...

    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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    August 6, 2013:
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    July 2, 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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Discovering your Quirky Character: An Interview and Giveaway with Award-winning Author Donna Gephart

Learning Differences


Want to know about funny? Ask Donna Gephart, she knows all about it. She’s been writing stories about funny characters for over 20 years. Her first book, As if Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President, even won the Sid Fleischman Award!

Her latest book, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen released yesterday and is already getting rave reviews.

     From Indie Bound:  Olivia Bean knows trivia. She watches Jeopardy! every night and usually beats at least one of the contestants. If she were better at geography, she would try out for the show’s kids’ week. Not only could she win bundles of money, she’d get to go to the taping in California, where her dad, who left two years ago and who Olivia misses like crazy, lives with his new family. One day Olivia’s friend-turned-nemesis, Tucker, offers to help her bulk up her geography knowledge. Before Olivia knows it, she’s getting help from all sorts of unexpected sources: her almost-stepdad, superannoying Neil; her genius little brother, Charlie; even her stressed-out mom. Soon she has breezed through the audition rounds and is headed for Hollywood! But will the one person she wants to impress more than anyone else show up to support her?

Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2012: “This tale will have readers cheering for the resilient, resourceful Olivia.”


I had the pleasure of first meeting Donna in 2009 at the SCBWI Miami conference. I attended her workshop on “How to Create Quirky Characters”. For 90 wonderful minutes, Donna kept us in stitches. We laughed. We cried. We learned. She taught us how to find the quirkiness inside ourselves and put it into our characters.  I still have those fantastic notes and have referred to them many times while writing my own fiction.

So let’s meet this incredible author and teacher. First of all Donna,

Why did you decide to make this story for middle grade readers?

I love writing middle grade fiction.  It such a crazy time of ups and downs, both physically and emotionally for kids that age, so it’s an ideal landscape for dramatic (and funny) fiction.


What was your favorite part about writing this book?

Reading books of trivia was entertaining.  Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen has more than 100 bits of fun (and sometimes gross) trivia woven through the story.

It was also fun to learn about the behind-the-scenes workings of the TV quiz show Jeopardy! and write those tense, competitive scenes.


Your books seem to show kids that are longing to be popular, but yet their nerdiness or intelligence keeps them out of the group. Did you feel that way as a kid? Do you have any advice for kids who feel this way?

Of course I felt that way!  Didn’t every children’s book author feel that way?

There’s a moment in this book where Olivia’s little “bother” Charlie says, “It’s fun to be smart, Livi.”  And she wants here brother to hang onto that feeling because Olivia’s learned it’s not so much fun to be the smartest one in your class when you’re in middle school.  It can make you the target of unwanted attention.  Olivia always feels like an outcast . . . until, through Jeopardy!, she meets other kids who are smart like her.

My advice to young people who find great pleasure in things of the mind:  While it may not be popular in middle school to be smart, it provides a lifetime of joy and entertainment.  You will meet fascinating people and never be bored.


Do you have any interesting stories to share about how this book came about or things you encountered while writing it?

I had sent an advanced reader’s copy of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen to Ken Jennings — Jeopardy! champ and author of the best-selling Maphead:  Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.  He’s such a funny, generous guy.  (If you like trivia, check out his Tuesday Trivia and read his blog; it’s highly entertaining.)  I was over-the-moon excited when Ken wrote a lovely blurb that appears on the back cover of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen.


For those aspiring authors out there, can you give us an idea of your process? How long was it from the first glimmer of a story idea to your book launch day?

As usual, I had trouble coming up with my next book.  I kept trying new ideas that didn’t work out.  So, when I read about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I knew this was just the motivation I needed.

The title came to me during a writing/scribbling session at my local library two days before NaNoWriMo began.

The day before, I figured out that Olivia loved trivia . . . and someone who loved trivia might want to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!

Then, by some miracle, I wrote Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen in 29 days.  I blogged daily about the experience here.

My agent, Tina Wexler at International Creative Management, reminds me to mention how long it took me to revise the book – months and months!  Even though I revised quite a bit during the month of writing, the book still needed much revision afterward.  Books are pesky like that!

I was thrilled to learn that the book sold about three months after I finished it.

Then, of course, it was two long years until the book launched.


Any piece of advice for writers wishing to create a quirky, funny character?

Look for the one thing that makes your character unusual and use that as your starting point to create a fully-developed character with complex relationships with friends, family, teachers, etc.  In each of my books, my characters had one thing that made him/her unique:


1. As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President – Vanessa Rothrock is a klutzy, awkward spelling bee champ.  (She reads the dictionary for fun and loves playing Scrabble with her mother.)


2.  How to Survive Middle School  – David Greenberg fancies himself the next Jon Stewart as he creates funny YouTube videos, starring his hamster, Hammy and his hilarious 6-1/2 lists.




3.  Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen –  Olivia is a trivia whiz, like her father, who abandoned the family two years earlier.  She never misses an episode of Jeopardy!

“Find the quirk through observation, memory or imagination and you will have the foundation for a unique, memorable character.”


And there you have it. How to find your own quirkiness and use it to create a wonderful character. Thanks for stopping by, Donna. It’s been delightful!

To learn more about Donna and her books, be sure to visit her website.  And don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered to win an autographed copy of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen!  The winner will be announced on Saturday, March 17th.


* * *

Jennifer Swanson is a self-professed science geek and knows all about carrying bits of trivia around in her head. At one time, she could recite the entire periodic table from memory. She would have been happy to help Olivia prep for her Jeopardy appearance.

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