• From the Mixed-Up Files... > Writing MG Books > How to Give Your Readers a Hand…and a Foot…and a Face…
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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
    Check out Publishers Weekly roundup of upcoming children's books to be published in spring 2014. Read more...

    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:
    S&S and BN reach a deal
    Readers will soon be able to find books from Simon & Schuster at Barnes & Noble. The bookstore chain was locked in a disagreement with the publisher over how much it was willing to pay for books. Read more ...

    August 6, 2013:
    NPR's 100 Must-Reads for Kids
    NPR's Backseat Book Club asked listeners to nominate their favorite books for readers ages 9 to 14. More than 2,000 people nominated titles, and a panel of Newbery authors brought the list to 100. Most are middle grade books. Read more ...

    July 2, 2013:
    Penguin & Random House Merger

    The new company, Penguin Random House, will control more than 25 percent of the trade book market in the United States. On Monday, the newly formed company began to take shape, only hours after a middle-of-the-night announcement that the long-planned merger had been completed. Read more ...

    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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How to Give Your Readers a Hand…and a Foot…and a Face…

Writing MG Books

Don’t get me wrong. Words like angry and happy and nice are perfectly good words that are long-standing members of the English lexicon. It’s nothing personal. I don’t dislike them. Really. It’s just that those words are about as energized as a solar-powered calculator in a cave at midnight—they won’t be lighting up a reader’s imagination any time soon. So authors work hard to follow the oft-repeated mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” But what does that mean exactly? And how is it achieved? I make no claim of mastery, but I do have a trick I’d like to share. And it’s a trick that may zap a bit of new life into your writing.

One way that authors “show” the underlying emotion in a scene is through characters’ dialogue—the words they say and how they say them. That’s not what I want to explore. I want to focus on three ready-to-use body parts virtually all characters bring to a story: their faces, their feet, and their hands. Because by focusing on just those three little things, you can give your readers’ imaginations a hand, too.

Double Dog DareInstead of starting with an explanation, I’ll start with an example from Lisa Graff’s middle-grade novel Double Dog Dare. In the midst of a “dare war,” one of the main characters, Francine, had to dye her hair green. When Francine’s mother attempted to speak with Francine about her hair, this is what happened:

Her mother stared into her mug for a long minute, silent. Then she got up, walked to the sink, and poured all her tea slowly down the drain. When she turned around, she leaned against the sink, arms jutting out from her sides, and studied Francine. (p. 116)

What’s going on here? Does Lisa Graff have to tell us that Francine’s mother is trying to figure out what to say? Nope. She’s used the mother’s face, feet, and hands to show us the mother’s hesitation, and she trusts us as readers to accurately infer what’s going on. Let’s examine the excerpt a little more deeply to see how it works:

  1. The Face: Her mother stared into her mug for a long minute, silent.
  2. The Feet: Then she got up, walked to the sink…
  3. The Hands: and poured all her tea slowly down the drain. When she turned around, she leaned against the sink, arms jutting out from her sides…
  4. The Face (again): and studied Francine.

The mother’s face sets the scene right away. As she stares at her tea, the slow, deliberate pace of the mother’s actions is established. When her feet carry her to the sink, we already know she’s not in a rush. Then the mother’s hands join the show, slowly pouring the tea down the drain, cementing our certainty about the mother’s cautious approach to discussing her daughter’s hair. And finally, we end back at the mother’s face as she studies Francine.

Sure, Lisa Graff could have written something shorter: “Francine’s mom didn’t seem to know what to say.” But she didn’t. Thanks to her character’s face, feet, and hands, Lisa Graff showed us instead, greatly increasing the vividness of the scene in the process. So the next time one of your characters needs to be angry or happy or nice, don’t tell your readers—show them. Then trust the power of inference to take care of the rest.

Wanna post a comment? How about starting with a one- or two-sentence glimpse at a character’s face and feet and hands? Try to “show” some emotion…and see if others can figure out what you’ve decided not to “tell.”



  1. Dianna Winget  •  Jul 20, 2012 @7:55 am

    Mama stood with her back to me, her forehead tipped against the window, her arms pulled tightly across her front.

    “Mama?” I said. “You all right?”

    She didn’t turn around, but she raised her head. Then she fumbled with a tissue and blew her nose two times, hard, before turning to face me.

    (I love trying to show character emotion without actually naming the emotion. This short excerpt is from “A Smidgen of Sky,” to be released on November 6.)

    T. P. Jagger Reply:

    Let me guess, Dianna . . . Mama’s happy ’cause she won the lottery? (Just kidding! Great example. Thanks for sharing!:)

  2. Karen B. Schwartz  •  Jul 20, 2012 @8:36 am

    My personal favorite: He threw his hands up in the air.

  3. PragmaticMom  •  Jul 20, 2012 @6:49 pm

    Yes, brilliant. That show don’t tell is a lot harder than it sounds!

  4. Michelle Schusterman  •  Jul 20, 2012 @6:57 pm

    Great post! And great snippet, Dianna. :)

  5. Michele Weber Hurwitz  •  Jul 20, 2012 @10:00 pm

    Love the post! Great food for thought (or face, hands, and feet for thought) !

  6. Greg Pattridge  •  Jul 20, 2012 @10:06 pm

    One would think we were staring at a stack of gold bars. Our eyes are unable to move off the sight.

    T. P. Jagger Reply:

    Sure makes me wonder what you were staring at. Thanks for sharing the “facial show.”

    T. P. Jagger

    Greg Patttridge Reply:

    @T. P. Jagger,It is a stack of home DNA kits and an 11 year old boy’s dream of identifying his father might become reality. Here is a bit more:

    I pick a box off the top row. “It says here to allow 7-10 days for any results.”
    Jonson’s eyes sparkle. “Just what the doctor ordered. We can swab both of you tonight, yours first, and then Matt’s. If he drools it’ll be easy.”

  7. Linda Andersen  •  Jul 22, 2012 @5:30 am

    Thanks for the body part explanation of how to show what’s going on in a scene. Concrete examples are excellent teaching tools.

    T. P. Jagger Reply:

    It sounds like you may be a teacher, so I wanted to let you know that I’ve used the hands-feet-face idea as a basis for teaching “show, don’t tell” to students ranging from grades 4-8. You can even do a charades-type game to introduce the concept, selecting a student to act out an emotion without words, and then having the rest of the class guess what the emotion is, focusing on the student’s hands, feet, and face. (One of these days, I plan to share the specific lesson plan via our “For Teachers” page. . . .)

    T. P. Jagger

  8. Ruth Donnelly  •  Jul 22, 2012 @11:57 am

    Great advice. These simple actions convey emotion and make the characters more real to readers.

  9. Linda Andersen  •  Jul 23, 2012 @5:58 pm

    T.P. Jagger,

    Thanks for even more information about using this technique to teach show and not tell. I am a former educator and I may do some substitute teaching this coming year; so the more tricks in my bag the better. Thanks again.