Author Archives: Kate Hillyer

My Kids Made Me a Writer

“Mommy.”

My four-year-old daughter’s voice was a whisper in the dark. I sat quietly on a chair next to her bed, vigil against monsters and other worries.

“Mommy,” she repeated, with some urgency. “I take care of unicorns.”

Of all of my children–indeed, of all children I’ve ever met–she is the one of whom I could believe that to be true. She cares fiercely. When she walks into room, she spots the older person in pain, the lonely child, the uncertain non-English speaker. She goes to that person without hesitation, and offers a blanket, a stuffed animal, a small hand on the shoulder. She also lives a fanciful life. There is no snark in her world. Her room is pink, and so are her sunglasses.

If there are unicorns, I know she will find them, and protect them.

When I tell people I am a writer, as well as a lawyer and mom, they express amazement. “Three kids?” they ask. “How do you find time?” Advice on writing while parenting tends to be dire. You’ll need to squeeze in writing during naptime, or while sitting in the carpool lane. Don’t have more than one child. Motherhood will exact a heavy toll on your creativity and mental energy.

The message is clear that motherhood is a hindrance to a writing career. I cannot deny that the challenges are real. My own days more closely resemble a seesaw than a balance beam. But today, I want to speak not of the burden, but of the gift.

The reality for me is that if I were not a mother, I would not be a writer. My first book grew out of that late night conversation with my daughter. The book I am writing now sprouted from my realization in mother/daughter book club that all girls want to talk about in fourth grade is friendship. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts on friendship and fourth grade, too.

I am inspired by them all the time—the things that frighten them, fascinate them, make them laugh. I eavesdrop shamelessly. I steal their vocabulary and syntax.

In addition to inspiring me, my children give me the will to write. I strive for clarity and honesty because I want to show them a truth about the world. My commitment to my kids keeps me going through the long nights of toiling away. I want to create something worthy of them.

Their presence in my life is also a good salve for the slings and arrows of writing. This is not an easy business, my friends. Knowing that I have these three young ones keeps me grounded, and a snuggle on the couch cures most ills.

I would imagine many of you who write for kids do it for the same reasons. As middle grade writers, our audience is not our peers, but rather, children—our own, or those in our lives, those in the world. And aren’t we lucky?

Kate Hillyer lives, writes, and mothers in Washington, D.C. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen. You can also find her at www.katehillyer.com, on Twitter as @SuperKate, and on her book blog, Kid Book List.

 

 

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Middle Grade Books on Imperfection

My kids are blessed with many grandmas, one of whom has a wonderful habit with the younger grands of saying “Oops! I goofed!” at any mistake. I dropped a glass? Oops! I goofed! You stepped in dog poo? Oops! You goofed! She says it with a kind smile and an easy manner, showing that mistakes are part of life; something to smile at and shake our heads over rather than lose our temper about or try to hide.

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, and so have been thinking a lot about how we respond to mistakes. You have probably heard of Brown. Her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, has been viewed more than thirty million times. She is a shame researcher and has written three books on the subject, with a fourth due out this fall.

Brown writes that it is essential to differentiate guilt from shame. We feel guilt over our actions. We feel shame for who we are. Thus, “Jen made a bad choice,” rather than “Jen is bad.” The former is something we can work on, while the latter is immutable.

When we make a mistake—a joke that falls flat, for instance—and we feel shame over that, we use it to carve out a new understanding of our identity. From then on, we hesitate to make a joke, because we just aren’t funny. We won’t sign up for a race, because we aren’t athletic. We don’t introduce ourselves to someone new, because we’re socially awkward. Shame makes us smaller—less willing to reach out, to be creative, to try new things.

All of this, of course, is the opposite of what we want for the kids in our lives. We want kids to be bold, unflappable, willing to try anything. So what can we do to encourage kids to be willing to take those scary steps? Talking the talk is not enough, unfortunately. To encourage the bravery that is essential for living a full and daring life, we must model an ease with our fallibility, and a love of ourselves that outstrips our size, our salary, and our spelling ability.

That means admitting that we make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are minor (oops!), and sometimes, they are devastating. Final. Cruel. And yet we must continue to live with our horrible, imperfect selves. We must strive to be open about our own infernal fallibility, so that the kids in our lives to know that they are good, and worthy, even when—especially when—they try and fail.

To help along this road, here is a selection of middle grade novels where the kids make mistakes. Big whoppers. I don’t want to spoil them for you, so I won’t go over what the mistakes are, or the ramifications of them, but each of these books shows a character having to come to terms with mistakes and shame. Because I am imperfect, I know this list is incomplete. Please comment with other books that would fit with this theme. All links, images, and descriptions are from IndieBound.

The Turn of the Tide by Roseanne Parry
When the biggest mistakes of their lives bring them together, Jet and Kai spend the summer regretting that one moment when they made the wrong decision. But there’s something about friendship that heals all wounds, and together, Jet and Kai find the one thing they never thought they’d have again–hope.

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb, illus. by Diana Sudyka
From acclaimed author Tricia Springstubb comes a poignant and topical middle grade novel about the effects of an accidental shooting on family, friendship, and community. Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Rita Williams-Garcia.

As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds
When two brothers decide to prove how brave they are, everything backfires–literally–in this “pitch-perfect contemporary novel” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) by the winner of the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award.

Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck
Eighth grade is set to be a good year for Diggy Lawson: He’s chosen a great calf to compete at the Minnesota State Fair, he’ll see a lot of July, the girl he secretly likes at 4-H, and he and his dad Pop have big plans for April Fool’s Day. But everything changes when classmate Wayne Graf’s mother dies, which brings to light the secret that Pop is Wayne’s father, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother, who moves in and messes up his life. Wayne threatens Diggy’s chances at the State Fair, horns in on his girl, and rattles his easy relationship with Pop.
What started out great quickly turns into the worst year ever, filled with jealousy, fighting, and several incidents involving cow poop. But as the boys care for their steers, pull pranks, and watch too many B movies, they learn what it means to be brothers and change their concept of family as they slowly steer toward a new kind of normal.

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder
A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for–as long as it fits inside? It’s too good to be true Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents’ separation, as well as a sudden move to her gran’s house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be. Laurel Snyder’s most thought-provoking book yet.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
The book that took the world by storm….In his fifth year at Hogwart’s, Harry faces challenges at every turn, from the dark threat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be- Named and the unreliability of the government of the magical world to the rise of Ron Weasley as the keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team. Along the way he learns about the strength of his friends, the fierceness of his enemies, and the meaning of sacrifice.


Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise’s parents died when she was too young to remember them. There’s always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.
When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the bar . . .

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
It’s the start of fifth grade for seven kids at Snow Hill School. There’s . . . Jessica, the new girl, smart and perceptive, who’s having a hard time fitting in; Alexia, a bully, your friend one second, your enemy the next; Peter, class prankster and troublemaker; Luke, the brain; Danielle, who never stands up for herself; shy Anna, whose home situation makes her an outcast; and Jeffrey, who hates school. Only Mr. Terupt, their new and energetic teacher, seems to know how to deal with them all. He makes the classroom a fun place, even if he doesn’t let them get away with much . . . until the snowy winter day when an accident changes everything–and everyone.

As a bonus, here are a few lovely picture books on this topic:

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
Zoom meets Beautiful Oops in this memorable picture book debut about the creative process, and the way in which “mistakes” can blossom into inspiration.

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The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
For the early grades’ exploration of character education, this funny book offers a perfect example of the rewards of perseverance and creativity. The girl’s frustration and anger are vividly depicted in the detailed art, and the story offers good options for dealing honestly with these feelings, while at the same time reassuring children that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Kate Hillyer lives and writes imperfectly in Washington, D.C. She was a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen and Kid Book List. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.katehillyer.com.

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Happy Pride Month!

 

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, and across the United States, cities, towns, businesses, and schools celebrate with an array of special events. It’s a great opportunity to highlight some wonderful middle grade books featuring LGBTQ characters. All descriptions, images, and links are from Indiebound.

Books Where a Main Character is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Questioning

The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson

Thirteen-year-old Staggerlee used to be called Evangeline, but she took on a fiercer name. She’s always been different–set apart by the tragic deaths of her grandparents in an anti-civil rights bombing, by her parents’ interracial marriage, and by her family’s retreat from the world. This summer she has a new reason to feel set apart–her confused longing for her friend Hazel. When cousin Trout comes to stay, she gives Staggerlee a first glimpse of her possible future selves and the world beyond childhood.

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

Mattie is chosen to play Romeo opposite her crush in the eighth grade production of Shakespeare’s most beloved play in this Romeo and Juliet inspired novel from the author of Truth or Dare. Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing–and, if all that wasn’t enough: British. As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle

Nate Foster has big dreams. His whole life, he’s wanted to star in a Broadway show. (Heck, he’d settle for seeing a Broadway show.) But how is Nate supposed to make his dreams come true when he’s stuck in Jankburg, Pennsylvania, where no one (except his best pal Libby) appreciates a good show tune? With Libby’s help, Nate plans a daring overnight escape to New York. There’s an open casting call for E.T.: The Musical, and Nate knows this could be the difference between small-town blues and big-time stardom.

Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle

Armed with a one-way ticket to New York City, small-town theater geek Nate is off to start rehearsals for E.T.: The Broadway Musical. It’s everything he ever practiced his autograph for But as thrilling as Broadway is, rehearsals are nothing like Nate expects: full of intimidating child stars, cut-throat understudies, and a director who can’t even remember Nate’s name.

Now, as the countdown to opening night is starting to feel more like a time bomb, Nate is going to need more than his lucky rabbit’s foot if he ever wants to see his name in lights. He may even need a showbiz miracle.

Letters in the Attic by Bonnie Shimko

Lizzy McMann, the narrator, is a feisty 12-year-old who moves to a new town with her Mother, recently divorced, and experiences puberty and teenage love, including falling for a 13-year-old girl down the street who is dyslexic, smokes, and looks just like Natalie Wood.

Marco Impossible by Hannah Moskowitz

Best friends Stephen and Marco attempt a go-for-broke heist to break into the high school prom and get Marco onstage to confess his love for (and hopefully steal the heart of) Benji, the adorable exchange student and bass player of the prom band. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and every heist comes with its fair share of hijinks.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of “Moon over Mississippi,” she can’t really sing. Instead she’s the set designer for the drama department’s stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when she doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen. And when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier.

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stephenson and Grace Ellis, illus. by Brooke Allen

Five best friends spending the summer at Lumberjane scout camp…defeating yetis, three-eyed wolves, and giant falcons…what’s not to love? Friendship to the max Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley are five best pals determined to have an awesome summer together…and they’re not gonna let any insane quest or an array of supernatural critters get in their way.

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

When the heroic princess Amira rescues the kind-hearted princess Sadie from her tower prison, neither expects to find a true friend in the bargain. Yet as they adventure across the kingdom, they discover that they bring out the very best in the other person. They’ll need to join forces and use all the know-how, kindness, and bravery they have in order to defeat their greatest foe yet: a jealous sorceress, who wants to get rid of Sadie once and for all. Join Sadie and Amira, two very different princesses with very different strengths, on their journey to figure out what “happily ever after” really means–and how they can find it with each other.

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger

Best friends and unofficial brothers since they were six, ninth-graders T.C. and Augie have got the world figured out. But that all changes when both friends fall in love for the first time. Enter Al. She’s pretty, sassy, and on her way to Harvard. T.C. falls hard, but Al is playing hard to get. Meanwhile, Augie realizes that he’s got a crush on a boy. It’s not so clear to him, but to his family and friends, it’s totally obvious. Told in alternating perspectives, this is the hilarious and touching story of their most excellent year, where these three friends discover love, themselves, and how a little magic and Mary Poppins can go a long way.

So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez

When Frederick shows up at school, Xio is thrilled. The new boy is shy, cute, and definitely good boyfriend material. Before long, she pulls him into her lively circle of friends. Frederick knows he should be flattered by Xio’s attention. After all, she’s popular, pretty, and a lot of fun. So why can’t he stop thinking about Victor, the captain of the soccer team, instead?

Husky by Justin Sayre

Twelve-year-old Davis lives in an old brownstone with his mother and grandmother in Brooklyn. He loves people-watching in Prospect Park, visiting his mom in the bakery she owns, and listening to the biggest operas he can find as he walks everywhere.
But Davis is having a difficult summer. As questions of sexuality begin to enter his mind, he worries people don’t see him as anything other than “husky.” To make matters worse, his best girlfriends are starting to hang out with mean girls and popular boys. Davis is equally concerned about the distance forming between him and his single mother as she begins dating again, and about his changing relationship with his amusingly loud Irish grandmother, Nanny.
Ultimately, Davis learns to see himself outside of his one defining adjective. He’s a kid with unique interests, admirable qualities, and people who will love him no matter what changes life brings about.

Books Where a Main Character is Transgender

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart

Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in the eighth grade.

Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from the New Jersey town he’s called home for the past thirteen years. This would be hard enough, but the fact that he is also hiding from a painful secret makes it even worse.

One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, and their lives forever change.

George by Alex Gino

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection, or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher’s wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit?

The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey

Twelve-year-old Shane Woods is just a regular boy. He loves pitching for his baseball team, working on his graphic novel, and hanging out with his best friend, Josh. But Shane is keeping something private, something that might make a difference to his friends and teammates, even Josh. And when a classmate threatens to reveal his secret, Shane’s whole world comes crashing down. It will take a lot of courage for Shane to ignore the hate and show the world that he’s still the same boy he was before. And in the end, those who stand beside him may surprise everyone, including Shane.

Books Where a Main Character has Gay or Lesbian Parents

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

Sumac Lottery is nine years old and the self-proclaimed “good girl” of her (VERY) large, (EXTREMELY) unruly family. And what a family the Lotterys are: four parents, children both adopted and biological, and a menagerie of pets, all living and learning together in a sprawling house called Camelottery. Then one day, the news breaks that one of their grandfathers is suffering from dementia and will be coming to live with them. And not just any grandfather; the long dormant “Grumps,” who fell out with his son so long ago that he hasn’t been part of any of their lives.
Suddenly, everything changes. Sumac has to give up her room to make the newcomer feel at home. She tries to be nice, but prickly Grumps’s clearly disapproves of how the Lotterys live: whole grains, strange vegetables, rescue pets, a multicultural household… He’s worse than just tough to get along with — Grumps has got to go But can Sumac help him find a home where he belongs?

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

The start of the school year is not going as the Fletcher brothers hoped. Each boy finds his plans for success veering off in unexpected and sometimes diastrous directions. And at home, their miserable new neighbor complains about everything. As the year continues, the boys learn the hard and often hilarious lesson that sometimes what you least expect is what you come to care about the most.

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island by Dana Alison Levy

The Fletchers are back on Rock Island, home of all their best summer memories. But from the first day they arrive, it’s clear that this year, things have changed. FIRST, a giant fence is blocking their beloved lighthouse. SECOND, they have new neighbors. THIRD, who the heck is the weird artist guy who’s never actually painting? And FOURTH, there’s now an ice cream truck Can the island stay the same even with these crazy transformations? Over the course of the summer, the Fletchers will learn that sometimes, even in a place where time stands still, the wildest, weirdest, and most wonderful surprises await.

This Would Make a Good Story Someday by Dana Alison Levy

Sara Johnston-Fischer loves her family, of course. But that doesn’t mean she’s thrilled when her summer plans are upended for a surprise cross-country train trip with her two moms, Mimi and Carol; her younger sister, Ladybug; her older sister, Laurel; and Laurel’s poncho-wearing activist boyfriend, Root. And to make matters worse, one of her moms is writing a tell-all book about the trip . . . and that means allllll, every ridiculous and embarrassing moment of Sara’s life. Sara finds herself crisscrossing the country with a gaggle of wild Texans. As they travel from New Orleans to Chicago to the Grand Canyon and beyond, Sara finds herself changing along with the landscape outside the train windows. And she realizes that she just might go home reinvented.

My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari

Twelve-year-old June Farrell is sure of one thing–she’s great at making pies–and she plans to prove it by winning a blue ribbon in the Champlain Valley Fair pie competition. But a backlash against Vermont’s civil union law threatens her family’s security and their business. Even when faced with bullying, June won’t give up on winning the blue ribbon; more importantly, she won’t give up on her family.

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle

What do Katie-Rose, Yasaman, Milla, and Violet have in common? Other than being named after flowers, practically nothing. Katie-Rose is a film director in training. Yasaman is a computer whiz. Milla is third in command of the A list. And Violet is the new girl in school. They’re fab girls, all of them, but they sure aren’t friends. And if evil queen bee Medusa–‘scuse me, Modessa–has her way, they never will be. But this is the beginning of a new school year, when anything can happen and social worlds can collide.

The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow

Lydia and Julie are best friends with one goal: to crack the code of popularity. Lydia’s the bold one: aspiring theater star, stick-fighting enthusiast, and human guinea pig. Julie’s the shy one: observer and artist, accidental field hockey jock, and faithful recorder. In this notebook they write down their observations and carry out experiments to try to determine what makes the popular girls tick. But somehow, the harder Lydia and Julie try to imitate the popular girls, the farther they get from their goal and each other.

Double Play by Sara Cassidy

Allie loves baseball. It’s the one thing that has been consistent in her lately complicated life. Allie’s father left recently, and now Allie has a new family — her mother’s new girlfriend, Phyllis, and son Miles have moved in. It’s taking some adjustment, mostly because Miles seems determined to get under her skin. Things start looking up when Allie gets invited to join the boy’s baseball team as their new pitcher. But then Miles announces he’s quitting the boy’s team and tries out for Allie’s old team — a girl’s team

Allie is sure he’s doing it just to annoy her, but Miles insists that he just likes the girl’s style of play better. As Allie struggles to find her place on the boy’s team, she starts to see that Miles is just trying to fit in as well, and that it may be even harder for him than it has been for her.

Best Friend Next Door by Carolyn Mackler

Meet Hannah. Her name is a palindrome. Her birthday is on New Year’s. She wishes she had a cat. She’s medium height and a little awkward. Her life has NOT been fun lately — her dad and stepmom are having a baby and, worst of all, her best friend next door just moved away. Now a new girl is here, taking over her best friend’s bedroom . . . and her own identity.
Meet Emme. Her name is a palindrome. Her birthday is on New Year’s. She loves her enormous orange cat. She’s so short that last week she was mistaken for a kindergartner. She’s found moving hard . . . but at least there’s the girl next door, Hannah. Maybe they’ll become friends?
While Hannah and Emme are alike in so many ways, they’re also different in some wrong ways, too. Is this the perfect friendship . . . or a recipe for disaster?

Katharine Manning has somehow managed to add to her tottering to-be-read pile in putting together this list. She reads, writes, and drinks tea in Washington, D.C. You can find more of her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen, and was privileged to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katharinemanning.com.