Category Archives: For Kids

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)

Interview with Award-winning Author Sarah Albee and a Giveaway!

Please welcome award-winning author Sarah Albee!

Sarah Albsarah-albee1ee is the author of more than 100 children’s books. She has had three of her books appear on the New York Times children’s bestseller list.  She currently has an upper-middle-grade, nonfiction book published in May, 2010 about the history of toilets and sanitation entitled POOP HAPPENED! A History of the World from the Bottom Up, and a follow-up title under contract due out in 2013 about how insects have affected human history. She blogs daily on a variety of science and social history topics geared toward middle-grade readers (sarahalbeebooks.com/blog). She spent nine years as an editor at Children’s Television Workshop, working primarily for Sesame Street and attending both the Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fairs.

 

Here’s her new release!

Why’d They Wear That?  from National Geographic Kids (Feb 2015)
Move over Project Runway. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don’ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, kids will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. From spats and togas to hoop skirts and hair shirts, why people wore what they did is an illuminating way to look at the social, economic, political, and moral climates throughout history.

Fanatastic reviews for her new book:

“Now see, the reason I like National Geographic Kids is that they’re reliable.  Take Why’d They Wear That?, for example.  You know what you’re getting here, even if you don’t know the details.  Mind you, the details are where all the good stuff is.” - School Library Journal

“Full of period images that show off every bustle, frill, and rivet, this wide-ranging guide to clothing throughout time will fascinate history and fashion buffs alike.”Publisher’s Weekly 

 

Thanks for joining us Sarah! Here are some questions we have for you: 

You write both fiction and nonfiction- Do you like one genre better?

I love that I get to do both. And I do think writing for different genres is a great opportunity. My fiction editors appreciate that I like to do research. And my nonfiction editors appreciate that I know how to tell a story. At present, though, my passion is nonfiction.

  What was it like working at Sesame Street?

It was a fantastic place to work. I landed a job there soon after I graduated from college. I loved the humor, the music, the travel, the creativity—and just being surrounded by so many talented people. It was a dream job.

                       

Your nonfiction books are so much fun! How did you get interested in writing nonfiction?

Thanks for that! I’ve always been interested in nonfiction. As a kid, I read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun. It’s only been in the last 6-7 years, though, that I’ve been able to devote larger chunks of time to researching and writing longer, middle-grade books. For years, when my kids were young, I wrote a lot of work-for-hire and younger fiction and nonfiction. It was fun, and rewarding, and I learned how to meet tight deadlines and never get writer’s block. But now that my kids are older and don’t need me around as much, I feel like I’m in a new phase and I’m loving the flexibility to choose a topic I’m passionate about and plunge into it.

 Three of your nonfiction books, including your newest, take a specific topic from the beginning of civilization to the present time. Why so broad a category?


I often ask myself that very question—why do I keep writing the same book over and over–the history of the whole world from ancient times to the present? But what I love to do is to trace one theme chronologically through human history, ideally a theme that kids will find interesting. First sanitation (okay, poop), then insects, and now, with my new book, crazy fashions. Chronology is really important to me. Some might call a broad sweep through history superficial, but often kids don’t get enough context when they study historical units in school. They might study ancient Egypt, or the American Revolution, but they may not have a good sense where and when these events fall on the historical continuum. And the beauty of tracing a theme through history is that I am not limited to one time or place—I can take a snapshot of the world from multiple places and perspectives, as long as I can relate them all to my theme. For instance, in Why’d They Wear That? in the chapter on the seventeenth century, I was able to include the Pilgrims in America, Oliver Cromwell in England, Louis XIV in France, sedan chairs, tanning leather, and the weird trend of wearing face patches—because I could tie everything together with fashion.

 How much time does it take you to research one of these books? Where do you start?

                                                

I spend about a year doing research—but it’s not all I’m doing, of course. I usually have various book projects in different phases at the same time. For instance, I just finished two new book proposals, and am working on a first draft for my 2017 book, but am beginning research on a new idea. And my new book, Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic), launched on February 10th so I’ve been super busy with publicity for that.

For research, I have the greatest library nearby—my husband is a high school teacher, and we live close to his school. His school’s library has fantastic subscriptions to various academic search engines, and the librarians are awesome and helpful. I make frequent trips to DC to research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and then, depending on my topic, to more specialized academic libraries. I also interview experts, in person if possible, but also via Skype.

  Do you travel to places to research your books or do it from your house?

A little of both. Every place I go—whether it’s a school visit in another state, a family vacation, or a museum trip—I see as a research opportunity. And whenever I can, I visit a place I want to write about, to get a feel for the sights, sounds, and smells. I’ve been to the Paris sewers, and Lyon, France where they still make silk, and a cotton mill museum in Lowell, Massachusetts so I could hear for myself how deafening the sound of the looms are. And last fall, I visited the poison plants garden at Cornell University to research a future book project.

 Can you tell us three fun and unexpected facts you discovered when researching your latest book?

Early versions of men’s athletic trunks—the kinds acrobats and boxers wore in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century—were the same in front and back, which must have resulted in a terrible wedgie.

Shoes, even for the wealthy, who could afford custom-made shoes, did not come in right and left until the latter part of the nineteenth century.

old-shoes

As late as the nineteenth and even early twentieth century, most young boys in Europe and America from well-to-do families wore petticoats up until the age of six or seven, when they’d be “breeched,” and dressed in pants. Once you start looking for them in portrait paintings, you start to see boys in dresses everywhere.

Okay, one more: 4. In seventeenth century Venice, most men, women, and children wore masks for a huge part of the year, and not just during Carnival season. It made it hard to tell the identity, or social class—or even the gender, sometimes—of most people, and allowed them to participate in some serious debauchery incognito. It was quite a bizarre phenomenon.

 What tips can you give people if they want to write nonfiction? 

Find a topic you feel passionate about, and don’t worry about whether it will “sell.” It’s a really exciting time for nonfiction right now—there’s so much great nonfiction being published, and writers can really develop their own voice and style, more than ever before.

Thanks for joining us Sarah!!

Giveaway!

Sarah has generously donated an autographed copy of her new book,

Why’d They Wear That?  

To win this prize, tell us the craziest outfit you ever wore below.  

************

Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 20 nonfiction books for kids.  Like any good scientist and author, Jennifer is rarely without a notebook and she writes down her observations throughout the day. It is a practice she encourages many young readers and writers. You can visit Jennifer at  www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com,  her special place to explore the world.