Category Archives: For Kids

Paper Things: An Interview with Jennifer Jacobson

The Mixed Up Files is thrilled to welcome Jennifer Jacobson to the blog today!

Jennifer Jacobson 5

Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a writer, teacher, educational consultant, and speaker. She writes in many genres, from children’s fiction to adult nonfiction. Among her books for younger readers are the Andy Shane early chapter books, illustrated by Abby Carter, the middle grade novels Small as an Elephant and Paper Things, and the young adult novels Stained and The Complete History of Why I Hate Her.  Her book: No More “I’m Done!”: Fostering Independence in the Primary Grades has proved to be a writer’s workshop resource for teachers of all grades.

And now for our interview. Great to have you, Jennifer!

Mixed Up Files: Addressing homelessness, especially homelessness of young people, is a pretty tough subject. When did you first realize you wanted to write a story like Paper Things?

Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Jennifer Jacobson: Thank you so much for this opportunity to reflect on my work! When beginning a book, I never begin with an issue or even a theme.  Instead, I begin with characters.  I first imagined a girl who creates families from catalog cutouts (just as I did as a girl). As I was imagining her life, I was hearing a lot about kids who age out of foster care without the support they need to make it in the adult world. I decided to give Ari an older brother — one who comes of age, decides to leave this guardian’s home, and takes his little sister with him.

MUF: Paper Things isn’t your first book dealing with difficult subjects, and you write for older readers, too. Do you approach the writing of your work for Middle Grade readers differently, especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter?

J. J.: Both my middle grades, Small as an Elephant and Paper Things, are written in first person.  This means, of course, that the stories are told from the perspective of a preteen. Jack doesn’t attach a label to his mom. He describes his mom’s mental illness as her “spinning times.”  Although Ari has been couch surfing for weeks, it isn’t until the end of her experience that she realizes she’s counted amongst the homeless. It’s not only a gentler approach, but also a more authentic approach.

MUF: Your work is so broad-ranging, from easy chapters to Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction to resources for classroom teachers. Do you have a favorite age group to write for?

J. J.: I do believe middle grade is my sweet spot, but I hate the thought of limiting myself to one genre. I’m deep in the process of writing a new middle grade and yet I recently woke in the middle of the night with a picture book idea.

MUF: Our school library has some books from the Andy Shane series in it. While this is an early chapters series, the characters grow and change just the same. What are the differences between writing a series where you revisit characters in each book, and writing a single story in which the characters must be fully realized by the end?

J. J.: In the Andy Shane series, Andy and Dolores do grow in that they accept each other’s differences (one is reticent the other overbearing), but it’s a lesson that’s learned over and over again.  In a middle grade novel, the protagonist faces a challenge that changes his or her worldview. In Small as an Elephant, Jack learns that he’s not alone, that he’s part of a community.  In Paper Things, Ari comes to take the reins, to make her own choices for her future.

MUF: In doing the research for this interview, it was great finding out something about your road to writing, and how it was your students who helped you become a better writer. What’s your advice for others of any age who want to make writing a part of their lives?

J. J.: I do believe that learning to write is a process similar to learning to play a sport or a musical instrument.  All require frequent practice, immediate feedback, models to learn from, a willingness to take risks . . . and yes, acceptance of occasional failure.

MUF: Before we go, can you recommend any of your own favorite reads for our Middle Grade readers?

J. J.: My current favorites: The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern, Anna was Here by Jane Kurtz and Revolution by Deborah Wiles.

Again, thank you for these wonderful questions! I’m honored to be interviewed for The Mixed Up Files!

MUF: Thanks to you, Jennifer, for taking the time to share your insight with our readers. 

The Epistolary Middle-Grade Novel – A Big Word for “Lots of Fun!”

This post is about the epistolary middle grade novel.

WAIT! Don’t stop reading just because that word sounds so, well, boring. And academic. Because I promise, epistolary middle grade novels are some of the most entertaining books out there!

But first, the academics:  Dictionary.com defines the word epistolary [ih-pis-tl-er-ee] as an adjective meaning:  of, relating to, or consisting of letters.

See? Novels made of letters! Who doesn’t love reading letters?

Actually, the epistolary middle grade  novel can consist of much more. Diary entries, newspaper clippings, even advertisements can be sprinkled about, giving these novels a lighter feel and making them a visual feast.  These days, we can add emails, text messages and social media posts to the list of devices used in contemporary epistolary novels.

Here’s one of my all-time faves!

regarding the fountain web small

That’s the cover. But, it’s the interior of the epistolary novel that is always so delicious!

regarding the fountain inside web small

Sisters Kate and Sarah Klise blend written and visual storytelling in such a fun and inviting way! Mixed fonts, lots of drawings, short snippets of this and that all contribute to this book (and to its numerous sequels that ask us to please regard other plumbing essentials, such as the sink and, yes, the privy, too).

Another great EMGN (my new acronym! Like it?) is  Jennifer L. Holm and  Elicia Castaldi‘s Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff.  Believe me, the “stuff” this book is made of is way better than meatloaf!

middle school meat loaf web small

Epistolary novels are not only entertaining to read, I’ve decided they must be a blast to write as well.  Mixed-Up Files member Greg R. Fishbone recently confirmed my hunch. He told me how much fun it was writing his epistolary middle grade novel The Penguins of Doom, From the Desk of Septina Nash.

the penguins of doom web small

I could go on and on from Caddie Woodlawn to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Let’s keep the list going. Add in the comments below your favorite – EMGN –  Epistolary Middle-Grade  Novel.

Michelle Houts is the author of four middle grade books, fiction and nonfiction. She loves getting and sending letters so much that she started the 52 Letters in a Year Challenge. So far, she has heard from letter-writers as far away as Germany and as old as 72. She hopes one day to try her hand at writing an EMGN.

Indie Spotlight: The Writer’s Block Book Shop Launches in Las Vegas NV

WB sign ologo #3

Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: It’s always a pleasure to hear of a new bookstore opening, more proof that the Indies are holding their own and are on the rise. Just this month Drew Cohen and Scott Seeley opened The Writer’s Block Book Shop in downtown Las Vegas.
 It’s an ambitious enterprise— book seller, book manufacturer, publisher, writer’s workshop, literacy educator, and artificial bird sanctuary! Today we’re talking about this dynamic store with co-founder Drew Cohen.

MUF: Congratulations on your grand opening. Please tell us what inspired you to open a store in Las Vegas, and describe the atmosphere you are creating in this store.WB exterior
Drew: When my husband Scott and I moved to Las Vegas, there were noindependent general-interest bookstores. So it felt like something that was direly needed, particularly in a city as large and as dense as Vegas. From the start, we were also concerned with education. We heard a number of alarming stories about how writing was taught (or, more to the point, not taught) in Vegas-area public schools.

WB interiorScott’s background, as the co-founder and former Executive Director of 826NYC—a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that provides free writing classes to students—was such that we knew that whatever we opened would include an educational component. To that end, we’ll be providing free creative writing classes to students aged 6–18 in the back of the store.WB shopPartly because ofthe classes, we wanted the entire store to feel like a workshop; not just a place where books are sold, but also a place where they are made. The name of our store—The Writer’s Block Book Shop—reflects this. It’s not merely a store, but a shop, with tools, and a letterpress, and exposed wood. One of our staff is usually seated at work bench at the entrance. Our goal has been to create an atmosphere similar to Geppetto’s workshop, where everything is constantly evolving and there are projects scattered around the store.

MUF: Please tell us about a unique feature of your store, the Artificial Bird Sanctuary and Adoption Program. WB artificial birds #2Any connection to Kate Samworth’s book Aviary Wonders, Inc?
Drew: Scott and I really enjoy blending artificial outdoor objects into The Writer’s Block. We installed a streetlamp in the middle of the space, and have a corridor of fake trees separating our classroom area from the rest of the store. So the artificial birds felt like a natural next step. As booksellers, we’re constantly seeking to be inventive about our non-book merchandising; we want to carry things you can’t get anywhere else. The birds, which are individually named and tagged, and then given unique bio sheets, were an opportunity to provide customers with a WB Artificial birdproduct they’d never seen. And because adopting an artificial bird involves reading a vow and a bit of ceremony, it adds some theater to the process—which people enjoy.WB Arificial bird adoption #6
Aviary Wonders, Inc. is a favorite of mine! We didn’t get the idea from that book, but we certainly get excited whenever we encounter a bird-related piece of literature.

MUF: How do you select the books to carry in Writer’s Block? How do you help them find their readers and vice versa?
Drew: I do all of the book-buying myself, with plenty of input from our staff and customers. Everything we carry has passed through my hands, and I take a lot of pride in that fact that nothing that we carry is arbitrarily selected. Honestly, it’s a fairly uncoordinated process: I read a lot of book blogs, scan book reviews, bestseller lists, plenty of publisher catalogs. For children’s titles, I find Elizabeth Bird’s blog via the School Library Journal to be unmissable. WB kids w booksWe carry a lot of art books, so publishers that put an emphasis on presentation—Candlewick, Abrams, 
Enchanted Lion, etc.—always take precedent.
We put a lot of work into our in-store displays. I try my best to make sure that any new books we’re excited about get highly visible shelf-space, and will sometimes resurrect some backlist titles to create display around a theme. This month, for example, we’ll be pairing Candlewick Press’s exquisite adaption of Les Misérables for elementary school readers with Penguin’s reissue of the original novel, both of which fortuitously released during the same month.

Les Miserables 2015

MUF: As Middle-Grade authors, we have to ask, what titles old or new, fiction or nonfiction, do you find yourself recommending to readers eight to twelve? WB Golden CompassWB penderwicks in Spring
Drew: 
It’s a little mature, but the Golden Compass series is a standard. We find that younger readers enjoy the novels for their elements of fantasy and adventure, but that the books still offer plenty of higher concepts to engage the older or precocious middle-graders.
We love the Penderwicks series. It’s sweet and broadly appealing, but it also deals candidly with some of the frustrations of being part of a large family—and also the unique joys of having siblings.
Anything by Gail Carson Levine. WB Writing MagicWe love her strong-willed protagonists, and her books that are about writing fly off of our shelves. There are so many adult titles about the process WB Battle Bunnyof writing fiction, so it’s refreshing to be able to recommend similar titles to younger readers.
Lastly, we’re big fans of some of the more self-aware and cheeky titles for middle-graders. Perhaps it’s partly because we have a store rabbit, but Jon Scieszka’s and Mac Barnett’s Battle Bunny is a big favorite.

MUF: Do you have events planned that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Drew: We’ll be putting a tremendous amount of work into our free creative classes, and many of these will be focused on middle-graders. (And, let’s face it, middle-graders are often the most fun age group to work with!) Our calendar will be going live in a few weeks via our website (thewritersblock.org). WB open house #2Right now, we’re discussing a workshop that relates to bird classification, and another for composing poetry. We’ll be doing an improv class in the next few months, and are also hoping to partner with some local audio-engineers to create some radio pieces with our students. Our plans are still being finalized, so I’d recommend that folks who are interested sign up for the mailing list at our website.

MUF: Many independent bookstores have mascots or pets, but it’s most often a store cat. How does your rabbit do with all those chewing temptations?
The Baron Hana HouDrew: We love cats, and have three of them at home. But they can be temperamental, and we were also worried that it might upset people’s allergies. A bunny felt like a good compromise—it’s more dramatic than a mouse or guinea pig, but it’s still low-key enough to prevent issues with biting or scratching. Our

Baron's book shop quarters

Baron’s book shop quarters

rabbit—his name is The Baron—is extremely good natured, and loves having his ears petted. He came from a shelter that was filled with noise and dogs, so he was already used to people passing through and lots of activity. We keep him in a large cage for most of the day, but let him out for 5-or-so hours in the morning to stretch his legs. All and all, I think he has a pretty good life. And since he isn’t let loose in the store, he doesn’t get the chance to eat all of our books.

MUF: If a family from out of town visits Writer’s Block are there family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they can get a snack or a meal after browsing? And if they can stay awhile, what other unique activities in the area would you recommend for families?
Drew: There is a lot for families to do and see in downtown Las Vegas. Container Park is an essential destination: it combines outdoor dining options with dozens of boutiques, all of which are housed inside of repurposed shipping containers. There’s even an awesome toy store, Kappa Toys, that specializes in fun products for people of all ages—the selection really cuts across generational lines. It’s just a few blocks from The Writer’s Block.WB Mt.  CharlestonWB Red Rock
For families who are staying longer, I’d recommend they check out some of the beautiful wildlife destinations. Vegas is known mainly for the Strip, but there is an incredibly diverse ecology in and around the Valley. Red Rock Canyon has a number of trails that can be hiked; it also has a scenic drive, perfect for when the temperature is too high. If you’ve ever wanted to explore Mars, Red Rock’s landscape gives you a close approximation. And on the other end of the spectrum, Mount Charleston is leafy and cool, and makes for a refreshing day-trip during the summer months.

writers block logo sign #5Thank you so much Drew!
Readers, doesn’t this shop make you want to visit Las Vegas and go directly there for a day of  browsing and magic?
It seems most of the people opening new book shops today do it because they just think there ought to be an independent bookstore in their town.   Luckily for us, they make that dream come true.

Sue Cowing is author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012, Harper-Collins UK 2014)