Author Archives: Michelle Houts

Never Too Old for Back-to-School

It’s Back-to-School month for many students, teachers, librarians, and parents. Summer is at its peak, and yet the supermarket aisles are filled with crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes. It’s time to get back to the business of learning.

As authors, we never stop learning, really. At least we shouldn’t. Even though I teach workshops about writing, mentor new writers, and critique others’ work, I still seek out opportunities to learn from those who paved this road I’m lucky to travel.

The best teachers are perpetual students. I believe that with all my heart.

Walking with Jane Yolen at her home, Phoenix Farm, during Picture Book Boot Camp last spring.

It’s important for authors to look for learning opportunities and find ways around all the reasons why we can’t pursue them.  Too far, too expensive, too time consuming, maybe in a few years. Of course, some of those are valid reasons, and no one can do everything their heart desires, but if each of us sought out one mentor encounter a year — attended a lecture, went to a book signing, signed up for an advanced workshop — all opportunity would not be lost on “maybe next year.”

Have you ever been in the presence of someone and I thought, “This is golden. I need to remember everything about this moment?” I look for moments like that. Sometimes I find them among hundreds of people in an auditorium, listening to a speaker. Sometimes, it’s just me, face-to-face with a beloved author, feeling the warmth of their handshake and trying desperately to form words in my mouth that make it sound like I made it past third grade.  That was me at this moment:

Standing on Ashley Bryan‘s front step, Little Cranberry Island, Maine, June 2015.

Here in rural Ohio, I don’t exactly live in a literary hotbed. But, I do live within driving distance to The Mazza Museum, the country’s largest collection of art from children’s literature. I’ve made the trip there to hear dozens of authors and illustrators speak. I’ve sat mesmerized by Tony Abbott, had a conversation with Gary Schmidt. and listened intently to Michael Buckley.

Last winter I drove two hours in the other direction to hear what Kwame Alexander had to say, and one piece of advice he gave the audience made a beeline to my brain and has changed the way I think. “Say yes,” he said. Be that person that says, “YES!” to opportunities.

So what Back-to-School opportunities will our Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors bloggers say “YES!” to this year?  Maybe sign up for that amazing out-of-state-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Take a road trip to hear someone speak?  Attend a presentation at your local bookseller? Listen to a podcast?  Read that craft book on writing you’ve been putting off reading – you know, the one everyone says is “magical?”

It’s time. It’s time to get back to school.

Cinco de Mayo, Middle-Grade Style

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated by many in the United States, but does everyone who celebrates know what the holiday commemorates?  A popular myth is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, similar to America’s Fourth of July.

But, it isn’t. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16th.

Here’s the real story:  On the 5th day of May in 1862, though out-numbered and poorly equipped, Mexican soldiers held off French soldiers in the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. This stopped the the French from progressing to Mexico City. It was a victory worth celebrating!

Also worth celebrating are some great middle-grade titles that feature Latina/Latino characters.  But first, two words of caution as we think about diversity in our reading selections:

Not just today. Cinco de Mayo (or any holiday of cultural significance) is a great time to move readers toward more diverse book selection. But, let’s not limit that practice to the “culture of the month.”  Each and every day, we should strive for diversity in our home, classroom, school, and public libraries.

Not just the classics. There will always be that treasured and timeless book we adore. We love it for its heart and for its story. And, because its characters helped us learn more about a given culture (in this case, think Esperanza Rising), we tend to gravitate toward it again and again.  I say, Great! But, don’t stop there. Look for and champion new middle grade titles, like the ones below.

Click the book to go to the publisher’s page to read more about it.




Comment below with a book featuring Latina/Latino main characters that you’d like to read on Cinco de Mayo (or ANY day!)

A Word or Two with Phil Bildner

Today the Mixed-Up Files blog is talking with author Phil Bildner. You may know Phil from his amazing picture books, including Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans and Derek Jeter Presents: Night at the Stadium.

I met Phil Bildner on a three-hour bus ride through rural Missouri last spring when we were both featured authors at Truman State University’s Children’s Literature Festival. (The Mixed-Up Files’ own Tricia Springstubb will be taking that bus ride this April!) On that trip Phil taught me how to capture great photos from slo-mo video (we had a lot of time to fill!). I practiced on him. Want to see?

I also learned that Phil Bildner is a high-energy, deep-thinking, and talented middle-grade author and former middle school teacher. In addition to picture books, Phil writes the Rip and Red series. This series is all about the things that, when it comes to kids, matter most to Phil:  school, sports, friendships, community, and empathy.  Look for Tournament of Champions, the third book in the series this June.

So, I was going to call this post A WORD WITH PHIL BILDNER and limit his responses to a single word, but then I thought how difficult that might be, so I gave him a little wiggle room.  He could answer with TWO words if he needed to.

So, let’s see how he does. Ready?

MH:  I always pick a word of the year. Do you have a word for 2017?
PB:  Evaluate
MH: What’s the best thing about being a successful middle-grade author?PB: Kid readers

MH: Which is your favorite part of the writing process:  research, drafting, or editing?
PB: Research
 
MH: How would you describe your writing style?
PB: Scattered
 
MH: What’s the best time of day to write?

PB: Morning

MH: What food have you tried that you hope you’ll never have to eat again?
PB: Beets
MH:  So, I guess I won’t serve these to you, then.

 
MH: What is the latest you’ve ever been on a deadline?
PB:  Late? Never.
MH:  Wow!
 
MH: If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go?
PB:  Machu Picchu
 
MH: When you were in middle school, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

PB: Lawyer

MH: What animal would be a great pet?
PB: Dogs!
 Meet Katniss, Phil’s rescued pitbull mix.

She’s smiling, isn’t she?

MH: Where do you most like to write?
PB: Back porch
 
MH: What’s the hardest part of writing for children?
PB: Time management
 
MH: Is there a word that you really like the sound of?
PB: Boo-yah!
MH:
MH: What is the farthest from home you’ve ever travelled?
PB: South Africa and China
 
Which is more challenging to write: picture books or middle-grade?

PB: Middle-grade

MH: Who is your favorite character from middle-grade fiction?
PB: Auggie Pullman

MH: If you could meet any famous person, who would you meet?
PB: President Obama

MH: What do the best middle-grade books offer their readers?
PB: Hope

MH: If you could talk to your 12-year-old self, what would you say?
PB: You got this.

 
MH: What could our world use more of?
PB: Empathy
MH:  I agree.MH:  So, besides the third Rip and Red book, I know that you have a picture book coming soon about two famous tennis players, titled  Martina and Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports.  What can you tell us about that book?

PB: 
MH: What’s wrong? Do you need more than one or two words? Oh, well, I guess. Take as many as you need.

 

PB:  The rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert was (and is) the greatest rivalry in the history of sports. No other rivalry comes close. They faced one another an incredible eighty times, fourteen times in grand slam finals. But what makes their rivalry and story so compelling and important is that it went far beyond the grass courts of the All England Club and the red clay of Roland Garros. What makes their rivalry transcendent is the humanity of the combatants.

Martina and Chrissie were fierce competitors. They played under the brightest lights and on the biggest stages. But they were also the best of friends, and in the world of sports where we often carelessly serve and volley phrases like “going to war” and “doing battle” and “fighting for your life,” Martina and Chrissie never lost sight of their humanity.

MH: Now I’m really glad I gave you more space. I loved watching Martina and Chrissie play tennis when I was young!

Thank you, Phil, for your brief, but heartfelt answers! It’s been fun talking with you on the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors!  Folks, find Phil Bildner by clicking here, and find his books in your neigborhorhood bookstores.

 Michelle Houts is the author of many books for middle-grade readers. She’s rarely a person of few words, so she completely appreciates the challenge Phil Bildner faced doing this interview! Find Michelle at www.michellehouts.com and on Twitter and Instagram as mhoutswrites.