Author Archives: Jacqueline Houtman

10 Ways Writing a Middle-Grade Book is like ZUMBA®

I recently earned my Zumba Instructor certification and it occurred to me that writing middle-grade books has a lot in common with Zumba.

1.You’re never too old

I never understood why adults think that middle-grade books are beneath them. (Have you ever had anyone ask you when you are going to write a real book?) As for Zumba, you can work at whatever intensity you want. Don’t want to do that jumping move? Don’t. Just step instead. There are Zumba Gold classes especially for those with limited mobility, but if you can put one foot in front of the other, then you can do a regular Zumba class. As for teaching Zumba, suffice it to say that I have both a Zumba Instructor Certification and an AARP card.

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2.You can do it in the pool

There are Aqua  Zumba classes for those who enjoy that kind of thing. It’s especially easy on the joints. I don’t care for them, at least in an indoor pool, because the music echoes so much. As for writing, I do some of my best writing while swimming laps. I don’t bring a computer or notebook into the pool with me, but the meditative action of lap swimming can sometimes help me work out sticky plot points.

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3. Music helps

The Latin and International music is one of the major appeals of Zumba, at least for me. I often need music to write, and coincidentally, it is often International music, because the lyrics are not in English. English lyrics seem to short circuit the neural writing pathways. (Even though I understand French, those lyrics don’t bother me, because I’m writing in English. I haven’t tried the converse experiment—writing in French while listening to English lyrics.)

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(photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

4. Earplugs help, too

Several people I know use earplugs in Zumba classes, especially with some of the younger, more enthusiastic instructors. They like to crank the tunes. Some writers work better when it’s quiet. I know I resorted to earplugs when they tore up my street last summer.

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5.Working together has benefits

Some authors have writing retreats together, and the peer pressure to be writing while your fellow retreaters are writing can increase productivity. Some writers connect online and hold each other accountable. Word sprints are an online productivity tool. You each commit to writing without stopping for a set amount of time, say fifteen minutes, then you report your word count. Sure, you can lie about it, but you don’t. As for Zumba, research has shown that dancing in unison can have health benefits above and beyond simple exercise. Even more benefits than dancing independently to the same music.

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6. You can learn from each other

That’s what critique groups are for. That’s why you go to writers’ conferences. That’s why you read a lot. It’s how you figure out what works for you. Same with Zumba. You go to different classes with different instructors. You watch the choreography videos. To get ideas. To see how other people interpret the same music. That person next to you in class adds a turn or a flourish of the arms to the same step you are all doing. Hmm. What if…?

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7. A marathon session can be painful

The Zumba Instructor Training went from 7:30am to 4:00pm. It started with an hour-long master class, and although we didn’t dance the entire time, there were multiple sessions of learning the steps and variations, warm-ups and cool-downs, and practice putting together choreography. I learned that Zumba uses just about every muscle, because just about every muscle was sore for days. A marathon writing session can also leave me pretzel-like, because I find myself in the vulture position when I am really concentrating.

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8. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

We learn in elementary school language arts class that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Zumba, we start with a warmup, to ease the body into the class, get the blood moving, and increase the heart rate. Then at the end, a cool down gradually decreases the heart rate, and stretching helps reduce muscle pain later on.

9. The middle is the hardest part.

In a Zumba class, the most strenuous, fastest songs fall between the warmup and the cool down. Authors refer to the “dreaded middle,” “sagging middle,” “middle muddle,” “sticky, icky middle,” and so on. You know where the book starts, and how you want it to end. The trick is to get your reader to the end without getting bored.

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10. There’s a supportive community

The children’s writing community is one of the most supportive groups I know. Whether it’s a hug at a conference, an email or Facebook post to show an author a photo of their book “in the wild,” or offering goods and services to online auctions to help pay another author’s medical bills, you can count on the kidlit community. There’s a lot of support among Zumba aficionados, too. The instructors sub for each other and get together to run charity Zumbathons. And if you are a regular participant in a class, you are definitely missed when you don’t show up.

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Whether it’s a publishable manuscript or a healthier body you’re after, you can’t just wish for it. You have to work at it. So get your butt in that chair or get your butt to the gym. You’ll feel better for having done it.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).

Museum Mystery Winner

The winner of signed copies of

The Case of the Stolen Spacesuit and The Case of the Missing Mom

by Steve Brezenoff is:

Ryan Swanson

Congratulations, Ryan.

Check your email inbox for a message.

Thanks to all who commented.

Interview–and Giveaway–with Steve Brezenoff

Steve Brezenoff is the author of young adult novels Guy in Real Life; The Absolute Value of -1; and Brooklyn, Burning, as well as over a hundred chapter books for younger readers, including The Field Trip Mysteries, Museum Mysteries, and Ravens Pass series. He grew up on Long Island, spent his twenties in Brooklyn, and now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their two children.

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Steve joins us to talk about his middle-grade Museum Mysteries series.

Description from IndieBound: ” Join four friends as they take in culture and solve crimes in the Capitol City museums. Because of their parents’ jobs in the museums, the kids have unprecedented access to the exhibits, and because of their brains, they solve mysteries that leave the pros scratching their heads. Discussion questions, writing prompts, a glossary, and nonfiction resources continue the reader’s learning experience long after the story ends.”

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The Museum Mystery series is one of several series you have written for Capstone. Can you tell us a little about the process of developing and writing a series?

I’ve done (or am in the midst of) five series for Capstone. The Museum Mysteries, The Field Trip Mysteries, Back to the Titanic, and Ravens Pass, as well as the Twice-Told Tales under the name Olivia Snowe. (I’ve also contributed titles to a series of sports books under the shared author name Jake Maddox, and a series that morphed into Ravens Pass under the name Jason Strange.)

When it comes to series for this market (school and library), series development is a different animal from trade publishing, primarily because librarians don’t want series that must be read in a particular order. It’s a difficult feat to provide books in order to readers, so being able to read out of order without losing any aspect of the story is ideal. The exception in my case is the Titanic series, which is ordered.

Because of this, development tends to be more thematic. That is, the story is not continuous, so we’re developing characters and scenarios. And because these are all work-for-hire titles, much of this work is done in-house at the publisher before I’m onboard. For example, for the Field Trip Mysteries, the idea of four sixth-graders going on field trips and solving mysteries came from Capstone. I created and developed the characters and placed them on field trips that, initially, came from the publisher as well. As the series went on, more of that became my responsibility. The Museum Mysteries in many ways grew out of the Field Trip Mysteries–they’re thematically very similar. In that case, I was given the four museums to bounce off of, and then developed other details–characters, backgrounds, parents, etc.–on my own.

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If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from the Museum Mystery series what would it be?

I’m tempted to talk about science or art history or American history–in other words, one of the themes behind the four museums featured in the series. But the truth is I’ve been more focused on writing about these characters in a way that shines a light on race and gender and sexuality in a way that I haven’t seen much in chapter books for younger readers, readers at the bottom of the middle-grade range. It’s no secret that most of my fiction takes place in Minneapolis/St. Paul, or a very vaguely fictionalized version of the metro area. I try to make sure, therefore, that the characters reflect the Twin Cities I’ve come to know and love since moving here ten years ago.

It’s no surprise, then, that what has garnered the most positive reaction has been the diversity of the cast. The cover of one of the first Museum Mysteries titles, The Case of the Missing Museum Archives, features main character Amal Farah wearing her hijab. It was such a small gesture, to be honest, but it got a lot of very positive attention.

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There’s so much to like about the Museum Mysteries: An engaging plot with a diverse cast of characters, great illustrations, and (especially appealing to me) lots of science. It seems to me that reluctant or struggling readers would really enjoy them. What has been the response?

I think the response has been good, particularly to the diversity of the cast.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed your Museum Mysteries?

Well, obviously the Field Trip Mysteries, which are thematically very similar to the Museum Mysteries. There’s a great resource for young mystery fans here and here.

Some may know you more for your young adult titles. How does your approach differ in writing for the different age groups?

It might be a symptom of writing mysteries for younger readers rather than the readers’ age, but I tend to rely more on an outline from the outset for my chapter books than for my longer novels for older readers. I can’t even begin a Museum Mystery without knowing everything about the crime, the suspects, and how it was done. With a longer novel, I tend to just start writing, knowing little more than a couple of characters, maybe a setting, and I see where it takes me before I step back and think about outlining.

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Can we look forward to more middle-grade books from you?

There are two more Museum Mysteries in August of this year. And for spring 2017, we’re trying something new with the Field Trip Mysteries. I’ve pulled Sam, Cat, Gum, and Egg out of retirement, and next year they’ll star in four new You Choose mysteries, where readers can make choices for the junior sleuths and try to solve the crime. Stakes are high, and some endings will leave the culprit on the loose.

Steve has kindly offered to give away a set of two signed books from the Museum Mysteries series–The Case of the Stolen Spacesuit and The Case of the Missing Mom. Comment below before midnight on Friday, April 15 for a chance to win. The winner will be announced Saturday, April 16.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).