Author Archives: Beth McMullen

The Hard Stuff

Have you ever read a book that haunts you? Follows you around like an eager puppy, sticks to you like a cobweb? Do you find yourself thinking about the story while you work or drive or do laundry? Do you see the characters in the grocery store, on the street, at the gas station?

I love books like that, the ones that weave themselves into the fabric of my life and force me to turn the words over in my head until I’ve looked at them from every possible angle.

Wendelin Van Draanen’s latest book, Wild Bird, is my current sticky cobweb.

The main character, Wren, has experienced the trauma of moving to a new city and finding her life and family utterly unfamiliar. What happens next is a spiral brought on by bad decisions and desperation, right to rock bottom. Whisked away to eight weeks of desert survivalist camp, Wren must decide who she wants to be and how she wants to live. Her journey is both heart breaking and inspiring and I held my breath for her until the very last page.

Van Draanen takes the difficult topic of drug addiction and presents it without preaching or passing moral judgments. She simply and beautifully givers us a story of struggle.

Which got me thinking.

With empathy and fearlessness, middle grade authors regularly wade into the troubling issues kids face in today’s complex world. These authors reflect the challenges a child might be experiencing or offer a window into the struggles of classmates and friends, all while telling a compelling story. This is no small feat.

I can’t possibly cover them all but here are some of my current favorites:

 

The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner

While this novel has some fantastical elements (wish granting fish, for example), it deals with the heroin crisis currently all too familiar in many parts of the country

 

 

 

 

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

This poetic story, told from the perspective of a boy and his pet fox, illustrates the ravages of war to human and animal kind with a subtle and deft hand.

 

 

 

 

OCDaniel, by Wesley King

Edgar Award winning author King offers the story of an ‘eccentric thirteen-year-old social oddity’ who desperately wants to fit in. When Daniel gets caught up in solving a mystery, he illustrates just how he might learn to survive and thrive with behavior seen as outside of ‘normal’.

 

 

 

Kat Greene Comes Clean, by Melissa Roske

Kat Greene struggles to manage her mother’s worsening OCD, a job well above the pay grade of a child. This novel deftly illustrates the importance and courage of asking for help when a situation goes too far.

 

 

 

 

George, by Alex Gino

This transgender narrative, written for and about kids, shows a child’s journey from despair to courage. It is at once funny and inspiring.

 

 

 

How to Start a Creative Writing Club for Kids

When school started last year, I got the crazy idea that the students at my daughter’s elementary school might like a forum in which to do creative writing. Although they get some in the classroom, I was thinking of a completely non-judgmental environment where I guide them but they ultimately do what they want, where there are no wrong answers or points off for misspelling a word. Really, I wanted for them the kind of club I would have loved myself as a child.

I pitched the idea to a friend of mine, a professor of creative writing, who very graciously shared with me exercises she does with her grad students. It took some work but I brought them down to a level I thought would work with 4th-6th graders.

Next I had to get buy in from the school principal to run an after school club and use the library. She loved the idea but reminded me I needed a ‘baby sitter’ because I’m not a credentialed teacher. The librarian agreed to keep me on the straight and narrow and I promised to keep his library in good working order.

From there, I got myself invited to a PTA meeting to see if they would throw me some funds to run the club. Really all I wanted were notebooks, pencils and a few other little things here and there to help with the writing exercises. They said yes and I was off.

We meet once a month for an hour. We have two rules for Writing Club. The first is we are respectful of everyone’s ideas; if a fellow student is reading his/her work aloud, we are quiet and listen closely. The second is no one has to read if they don’t want to. No pressure. I also give away middle grade books I’m done reading. Winners beam like they’ve just won the lottery.

September’s giveaway books

At our first meeting this year fifty students showed up! I ran out of everything – notebooks, pencils, seats, table space – but seeing these kids, scribbling away, giving voice to the stories in their heads, gave me hope for the future.

(for specifics on the writing exercises, please visit my website)

 

A Wonder Women Summer

This will always be the summer of Wonder Woman. Finally, a superhero with box office clout who just happens to be…female. I left the theater buzzing with the thrill but also with my fingers crossed that this opens the door to more strong female characters making it to the screen.

Because what girls and boys see up there matters. And what they read matters, too.

I’ve been feeling lucky on behalf of middle grade readers these days because there is an abundance of adventure stories out there with girl protagonists. No longer the side kicks, these mighty girls are driving the story. Full of thrilling action, whip smart characters and a touch of good old fashioned chaos to keep things interesting, this is summer reading at its best.

I have lots of favorites but I don’t want to blow up the blog so I’m limiting my list to a few recent releases:

 

Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy

by Gareth Wronski

I laughed out loud at this adventure of mistaken identity. Holly is determined to do well in school so she can enter the prestigious Falstaff Academy. This does not endear her to her classmates. When three strangers show up and ask Holly if she’s ‘important’, she says yes. This results in kidnapping by space pirates, not your everyday kind of problem. They think she is a princess and whisk her away into a world of aliens and other bizarre space creatures. School Library Journal describes it as ‘An intergalactic romp filled with humor and adventure.’ And I couldn’t agree more. A perfect addition to your summer reading.

 

A Dash of Dragon

by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski

A novel written by sisters has to be fun and this one delivers. Lailu Loganberry is an expert at hunting dangerous beasts. And she’s even better at cooking them. At thirteen years old, this master chef has a lot to prove as she tries to run a five-star restaurant, cook the perfect dragon cuisine, repay a greedy loan shark, and outsmart the Elven mafia in a novel full of fantasy, humor, adventure and action. Lailu is just the sort of feisty heroine that goes perfectly with summer reading.

 

Rules for Thieves

by Alexandra Ott

Another novel full of action and adventure and featuring a smart, resourceful girl in the lead. A recent escapee from an orphanage, twelve-year-old Alli Rosco is just getting by on the streets. But after a run-in with one of the city’s Protectors, she’s marked by a curse that’s slowly working its way to her heart. And the cost of the cure is well beyond her reach. Her only hope lies in the legendary Thieves Guild. To join, all she has to do is pass a trial assigned by the King of Thieves. And this is where it gets really interesting! Alli will add heart pounding excitement to your lazy days of summer.

Happy #SummerReading Everyone!