• From the Mixed-Up Files... > Activities > Art and Letters in Middle-Grade Fiction
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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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Art and Letters in Middle-Grade Fiction

Activities, Book Lists

One of my favorite quotes of all time is, “Writing about music is like dancing about art,” pithily describing the inadequacy of one medium to fully capture the nuances of another.

Try dancing to this!

But what of writing about art? Here, in the middle-grade world, we have no shortage of books truly inspired by works of art and the artistic process. Certainly we need look no further than our own namesake, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two runaways at Metropolitan Museum of Art must determine whether Michelangelo himself sculpted a statue named Angel.

Writing about art requires, at a basic level, being able to describe the art itself as well the effect of the artwork on the viewer. Consider this short excerpt from Mixed-Up Files:

Claudia was lost in remembrance of the beautiful angel she had seen. Why did she seem so important; and why was she so special? Of course she was beautiful. Graceful. Polished. But so were many other things at the museum.

The effect of the statue is so dazzling that Claudia is lost in remembrance. The statue is graceful and polished, but also has a quality that elevates it above even other pieces in the museum.
Novels about art present a wonderful opportunity to study description and emotion. Here are some ideas for writing exercises to use with students:

  • Use art to build vocabulary. What texture words help enhance description – smooth, rough, choppy, prickly? What words will convey whether the exact colors used in a painting? Robin’s egg blue, navy blue or periwinkle?

  • Ask your students to think about how the artwork makes them feel or the mood they think the artist is trying to convey. Is the artwork playful or serious? Is there a sense of joy or sadness? Ask them to find two or three words that best describes their feelings, or challenge them to come up with a unique metaphor.
  • After the students describe a chosen work of art, challenge them to a mix-and-match gallery of words and art, where they must pair other descriptions with the correct work of art. There may even be an opportunity for re-writing, where the author can see where his or her work can be strengthened, based on the feedback received from other students.

In addition to the Mixed-Up Files, here are other middle-grade books that feature art, along with some related links:

• Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett: Two friends must solve a series clues to recover a stolen Vermeer before it’s too late. This book is the first in a trilogy of art-based mysteries. Follow this link to the National Gallery of Art for a kid-friendly lesson about Vermeer.

• Masterpiece, by Elsie Broach: A beetle with a knack for fine pen-and-ink sketches finds himself and a human friend embroiled in a scandal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Can they solve the mystery and keep their unusual friendship intact? The website makingartfun.com has this informative page about Albrecht Dürer, the artist whose work is central to the story.

• Noonie’s Masterpiece, by Lisa Railsback: Noonie copes with her mother’s death and father’s frequent absences through her art and her imagined relationships with famous artists. When she creates her own masterpiece, she discovers new truths about herself and her new family. A special National Gallery of Art page also allows kids to create their own works of art and explore art.

• The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate: In this book, the artist in question is Ivan, asilverback gorilla who lives in a cage at the mall who draws with paper and crayons for his owner to sell. While he has convinced himself that his life is not so bad, when he feels obligated to help a fellow animal, he will draw upon all his talents to save her.


Do you have a favorite work of art, or book that features art?  Share it in the comments below!

Wendy Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu.



  1. Angelina C. Hansen  •  Aug 24, 2012 @9:08 am

    How about Brian Selznick’s WONDERSTRUCK?

  2. WendyS  •  Aug 24, 2012 @11:38 am

    Absolutely! And I loved Selznick’s allusions to the Mixed-Up Files!

  3. Ali B  •  Aug 24, 2012 @12:45 pm

    I would add Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin.

    WendyS Reply:

    @Ali B, Breaking Stalin’s Nose is on my nightstand! Can’t wait to read it.

  4. Greg Pattridge  •  Aug 24, 2012 @5:43 pm

    Here is an oldie (1994) but one I still remember: The Boy Who Drew Cats by Arthur A. Levine. It is is short but with beautiful drawings throughout. Probably intended more for the 7-10 age group,though I first came across a 7th grade art teacher using this title with her class to inspire them to draw.

  5. Shelley Borysiewicz  •  Aug 24, 2012 @7:25 pm

    For an ischool project I created a summer reading list called Art of the Book a couple of the above titles were on it. I had so much fun rereading or discovering these books. Here are other wonderful MG fiction books that touch on art:

    The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle

    Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club by Niki Daly

    Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine

    Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce MY FAV BOOK. AUDIO VERSION IS PERFECT

    From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

    The Gawgon and the Boy by Lloyd Alexander

    Heist Society by Ally Carter (older MG)

    Matisse on the Loose by Georgia Bragg

    Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryant (Older MG)

    The Poison Place by Mary E. Lyons

    Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay

    Secrets of the Cirque Medrano by Elaine Scott

    Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Mardsen

    WendyS Reply:

    @Shelley Borysiewicz, Wow – this is great! Thanks for sharing your list!

  6. Sue Cowing  •  Aug 26, 2012 @11:33 am

    Thanks for the list, Wendy (you, too Shelley). Great topic! I would add Gary D. Schmidt’s 2011 book, OKAY FOR NOW. I love the way main character Doug Swieteck’s accidental encounter and ultimate obsession with the art of Audubon expands his view of the possibilities in the world and himself. I know we’re talking about middle grade here, but I can’t resist mentioning a delightful picture book: Jon Agee’s THE INCREDIBLE PAINTING OF FELIX CLOUSSEAU. It’s not so much about the beauty of art, but about the power of imagination.

    WendyS Reply:

    @Sue Cowing, We are huge Jon Agee fans in this house, but I hadn’t heard of THE INCREDIBLE PAINTING OF FELIX CLOUSSEAU and will have to go look it up. While this is a MG blog, picture books often make great jumping off points for young writers. (And YES to OKAY FOR NOW! I can’t believe I forgot to include that one!)

  7. Bruce Luck  •  Aug 26, 2012 @6:24 pm

    Definitely OKAY FOR NOW. Schmidt’s great voice and characters are reasons alone to pick it up. The way MC Doug applies Audubon’s compositions to his own life is fascinating.

  8. Linda Andersen  •  Aug 26, 2012 @7:56 pm

    The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwan–not MG but a great read and inspired by Rembrandt’s painting.

    WendyS Reply:

    @Linda Andersen, It’s funny that you mention this, because I debated whether to have adult read-alongs on this list. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro at ALA, and I was mesmerized by the author’s descriptions of art. That book contributed to the inspiration for this post!

  9. Teresa Flavin  •  Aug 29, 2012 @9:13 am

    I’m a children’s book illustrator who became an MG author and my trilogy (published by Candlewick Press in the US) is all about a Renaissance painting in a Scottish castle, its mysterious creator and the kids who stumble upon the painting’s secrets. The first book, The Blackhope Enigma, was released in the US in paperback yesterday and the sequel, The Crimson Shard, is out on Sept. 11. I hope it’s okay to mention them here (shameless plug!) as they fit the topic so well. Many thanks!