Category Archives: Book Lists

Interview and Giveaway with Jessica Lawson

Today we’re pleased to be interviewing middle grade author Jessica Lawson. We featured her novel Nooks & Crannies on Mixed-Up Files back in 2015, and she’s back today to talk about her latest book, Under the Bottle Bridge.

In the weeks leading up to Gilbreth, New York’s annual AutumnFest, twelve-year-old woodcraft legacy Minna Treat is struggling with looming deadlines, an uncle trying to hide Very Bad News, and a secret personal quest. When she discovers mysterious bottle messages under one of the village’s 300-year-old bridges, she can’t help but wonder who’s leaving them, what they mean, and, most importantly…could the messages be for her?

Along with best friend Crash and a mystery-loving newcomer full of suspicious theories, Minna is determined to discover whether the bottles are miraculously leading her toward long-lost answers she’s been looking for, or drawing her into a disaster of historic proportions.

Hey, Jessica! Welcome back to the MUF! Can you tell us how came  up with the idea for this novel?

I always thought of bottle messages as things that were found bobbing up and down in the ocean. For whatever reason, when I was brainstorming new story ideas, I had this picture in my head of a girl finding message bottles in a shallow, empty ravine—a place that used to run with water, but had been dry for hundreds of years.

As for the setting, I’ve always been fascinated by traditional arts—blacksmiths and weavers and candlemakers and such. I wondered what it might be like to live in a modern-day place that really valued those talents, and what sort of encouragement and pressure the children of artisans might be given to continue that work. Those elements blended and I had myself enough to start writing

This is your first crack at a contemporary story. What were the challenges for a writer used to historical settings?

Well, I cheated a little. Under the Bottle Bridge is set during autumn in a modern-day artisan village that’s steeped in tradition and history. While there are modern conveniences like cell phones and yummy pizza restaurants, there’s definitely a thread of the town’s history being very much alive. Each chapter opens with a consecutive piece of village history that leads-up to a reveal that concerns Minna, and the Gilbreth’s annual AutumnFest involves people in period dress…bottom line, you can take the author out of historical fiction, but you can’t always take the historical fiction out of the author.

Honestly, I couldn’t get away from my interest in personal history and how it shapes us. There’s an Alex Haley quote at the beginning of the novel: In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future. I think that, for better and for worse, that’s so true.

In terms of challenges, dialogue had to be more modern than I’m used to writing and school scenes had to reflect modern conveniences.

Your character, Minna, is raised by her uncle and she reads all of the parenting books that he buys for himself—the titles are pretty funny (for example: Rollercoaster: The Oft-Nauseating Ups and Downs of Parenting Kids, Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings That Won’t Leave the House). Have you read many parenting books?

I have not read many, but I am a mom and stepmom to four kiddos (ranging in age from 4 to 22) and I think it’s nearly universal to have the occasional wish that our precious children came with a straightforward handbook. It can be intimidating to be the framing influence in our children’s lives, just as it can be scary to navigate the ups and downs of childhood. Minna reads all of her uncle’s books and has sort of internalized all of the advice. She comes to realize—as does her uncle—that there’s no one answer to life’s trials.

What are themes that teachers, librarians, and booksellers might latch onto when sharing the story with readers?

Family, friendship, and expectations all come into play in this story. There are elements of balancing family expectations and the desire to honor the past while becoming your own person. A new girl in town teaches Minna about pre-judging others. Also, the bottles play with the idea that sometimes the thing you’re searching for isn’t necessarily what you need to feel complete.

I think the book would pair nicely with a student project on traditional artisan skills or interviews with family members to delve into personal history.

Thanks so much, Jessica, for stopping by! We wish you and your new book all the very best!

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To be entered to win an ARC of Under the Bottle Bridge, publishing this September, please leave a comment below.

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.

Katharine Manning 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.katharinemanning.com.

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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.