Author Archives: Sydney Salter

Exercises Middle-Grade Writers Love

I’ve met a lot of reluctant middle-grade writers over the years, but few can resist plunging into these fun exercises. All you need is a stack of old magazines!

Create a character! 

Snip out dozens of photos of people doing interesting things & include a few non-humans for those MG animal lovers. I usually divide the photos into a girl stack and a boy stack, knowing that a lot of boys wouldn’t want to get stuck with a frilly prom queen–especially in a classroom setting. Pass out the photos (sometimes I let kids draw a photo from the envelope).

While the kids paste their photos into their notebooks with glue stick, I write a few ideas on the board. Where does your character live? Where is your character going? Who are your character’s friends? Describe your character.

Some kids plunge into stories, but other students work on writing great descriptions.

Focus on the Problem! 

Middle-grade writers are good at coming up with crazy characters (like zombie prom queens), but sometimes they struggle with creating strong conflicts. Using advice columns immediately gets young writers focused on writing about a problem. For more advanced writers, using the advice column exercise is a good way to teach kids how to write a scene by adding dialogue, description, and inner thoughts.

Embarrassing Moments! 

Nothing makes kids giggle like the Embarrassing Moments page in a magazine. Find a great embarrassing moment anecdote and ask students to write what led up to the embarrassing moment or what happened right after the embarrassing moment. Kids love showing off their humorous side, but I love showing them that the same idea will lead to wildly different stories (so they never need to worry about having their ideas stolen).

Middle-grade writers enjoy these exercise, but those who write for middle-graders might come up with some great ideas too. Give it a try writers!

Sydney Salter is currently an Author-In-Residence at Utah’s Endeavor Hall charter school where the above writing exercises have turned into truly imaginative stories! 


PragmaticMom won a copy of Dianna Dorisi Winget’s debut, A SMIDGEN OF SKY!




To read the interview see here.

Interview with Dianna Dorisi Winget

You’re a Pacific Northwestern writer, living in Idaho, how did you come to write a novel set in Georgia—filled with all those delicious Southern phrases?

People ask me this all the time, and I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t come up with a very good answer. I’ve always been intrigued with the South. It just seems to be a more laid back, genteel type of place. At the time I was writing the story, I had a close friend from Oklahoma. She shared all sorts of first hand experiences, phrases, and lots of other tidbits that really helped me make A Smidgen of Sky feel authentically Southern. Plus, I love peaches and Southern accents . . . so there you go.

Piper Lee knows a lot about airplanes, her mother’s fiancé works in a prison… What kind of research did you do while writing A Smidgen Of Sky?

I had a lot of fun researching the South itself. I learned about things like how to make sweat tea, where chiggers are found, what the bark of pecan trees feels like, ect, ect.  As far as the aviation theme, here in my hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, there’s a really cool place called the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center. It’s owned by Dr. Forrest Bird and his wife, Pamela. Dr. Bird invented the Baby Bird respirator, which has saved the lives of countless infants. I interviewed the Birds three times for various magazine articles, which meant I got to make several visits to the museum. So that definitely played a part in Piper Lee’s love of airplanes.

As far as Ben’s job as a prison guard, I studied pictures, and read a number of articles on prison riots—what provoked them, how they were handled, and what the outcome was. The dialogue of the reporters was based on transcripts of actual news stories.

Your characters wrestle with difficult issues—loss, forgiveness, jealousy, and the consequences for impulsive actions. Why do you think it’s important to explore serious themes for middle-grade readers?

Kids today are faced with so many issues at such a young age. The lucky ones have caring parents or other adults to guide and direct them. But so many children today seem to be floundering. While books certainly can’t take the place of an attentive parent, they can at least open a dialogue, and maybe help a struggling child feel less alone. I’m sure that some youngsters who read A Smidgen of Sky will find themselves in the same tricky situation as Piper Lee—trying to adjust to a new step-family, and having a tough time. As they read about Piper’s mixed emotions, and see how she tries to cope, maybe it will help validate their own feelings, as well as offer some good (and not so good) ways of dealing with the situation.

As far as Piper dealing with the consequences of her actions—have you noticed how rarely TV shows and movies show characters having to face up to what they’ve done? It’s kind of crazy. I think sitcoms are the worst. Kids on these shows do all sorts of wild, disrespectful things and get totally away with it. Their actions are portrayed as a joke. So my editor and I both thought it was important to show readers that Piper Lee’s impulsive antics led to some real consequences, just as they would in real life.

I really liked the way your story emphasizes the importance of Internet safety. What inspired this subplot?

Kids are trusting by nature, and technology is so second nature to them, many don’t stop to realize that it could actually be dangerous. Since Piper was already using the Internet to search for Ginger’s mom, it only seemed logical that at some point she’d search for her own dad as well. And since Piper was so eager for any news, I could totally picture her believing anyone who claimed to have information. So the plot twist of an Internet predator just naturally evolved.

What are your tips to readers to make sure they stay safe online?

Always remember that people online are “invisible.” You really have no way of knowing who you’re communicating with, so be extra careful when it comes to talking with, or friending people you don’t know. Always ask a parent or another trusted adult before giving out any personal information online.

Adults are often absent in middle-grade books, so I really like the way A Smidgen of Sky shows Piper Lee’s relationships with her mother, new step-father, and especially her elderly neighbor Miss Claudia. Why do you think it’s important for children to have adult mentors in their lives?

The common advice to leave parents out of kids literature has always been one of my pet peeves. Adults should play a big role in the life of an 8-12 year old. You don’t want them to take over the story, of course. It’s important the main character solve his or her own problem. But I never understood the claim that kids don’t like to read stories that contain adult characters. I read voraciously as a child, and I was never turned off by adult characters. I expected them to be there. I think it’s a little different for YA, because by then a youngster is slowly moving away from the family, that’s the natural course of events. But even in YA, it’s unrealistic to pretend that adults don’t exist.

Tell us about one of your own mentors.

The foremost one would have to be my mom. She was always there for me to talk with and turn to with problems while I was growing up. I still consider her my best friend. That’s why I retain my maiden name (Dorisi) in anything writing related, and why A Smidgen of Sky is dedicated to my mom and dad. Without their support and encouragement, I really don’t believe I’d be a published author today.

Finally, your book opens with a dreaded and despised yellow bridesmaid dress. I have to ask—what’s your worst bridesmaid dress encounter?

Oh, my goodness, finally a chance to get this off my chest! When I was fourteen, my older brother (and only sibling, no less) asked me to be a bridesmaid in his upcoming wedding. I was beyond excited, since I’d never been in anyone’s wedding before. Then his fiancé ended up picking these extremely low cut bridesmaid’s dresses that my parents refused to let me wear! I’m not sure who I was more upset with, my parents or my future sister-in-law. But in all fairness, she did turn out to be a pretty good addition to the family. So, I’ve forgiven her . . . pretty much.

Want to share any tidbits about current works in progress?

I have a second MG novel, “True as Steel,” which is under consideration by my Harcourt editor right now. The first chapter is posted on my website. And for all the young readers who (hopefully) fall in love with Piper Lee and want to now what happens next, I’m about two-thirds of the way through a sequel to A Smidgen of Sky.

 Please a comment to win a copy of Dianna Dorisi Winget’s novel A Smidgen of Sky.

Sydney Salter is the author of My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters, Jungle Crossing, and Swoon At Your Own Risk. You can find out more at