Category Archives: Giveaways

Interview–and Giveaway–with Shelley Tougas

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Shelley Tougas writes fiction and nonfiction for tweens and teens. Shelley is a former journalist who also worked in public relations. Her award-winning book, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, landed on the top ten lists of Booklist and School Library Journal. Shelley lives near the Twin Cities.

little rock girl

Today, Shelley has joined us to talk about her new book, Finders Keepers (Roaring Brook Press 2015).

Christa spends every summer at the most awesome place in the whole world: her family’s cabin on Whitefish Lake in Wisconsin. Only her dad recently lost his job and her parents have decided to sell the cabin. But not if Christa can help it. Everyone knows Al Capone’s loot is hidden somewhere near Whitefish Lake, and her friend Alex’s cranky grandpa might have the key to finding it. Grandpa says the loot is gone, or worse -cursed – but Christa knows better. If she finds it, she can keep it and save her family and their beloved cabin.

Booklist gave it a starred review “A charming story of family history and personal connections (both lost and found) that is reminiscent of Blue Balliett and the Penderwicks‘ adventures.”


Finders Keepers is your second novel, but you have ten published nonfiction books as well. How does your nonfiction inform your fiction writing?

I was a journalist for seven years, so my background is nonfiction. Working at a daily newspaper is a writer’s boot camp. Deadlines range from a week to a frantic thirty minutes. When you have limited space, you learn to treat every word like gold. Clarity and economy are essential. There’s only room for the most telling details and the best quotes. I learned about everything from police investigations to murder trials to elections to sewer systems. I met fascinating people, including a man who walked around the world, a barbed-wire collector, young men who canoed from Canada to the Amazon, a family who raised wolves, an anti-government militant who barricaded herself from the FBI for three months, and so much more.

I did a little Internet research on gangsters in Wisconsin’s Northwoods and was surprised at how many Chicago criminals spent time there. How much of the Al Capone content is fact and how much is legend? How much of it did you make up?

I invented the characters and their adventure, but everything about Capone is based on facts and legends. Capone didn’t use banks or accountants, so even historians and journalists believe he hid money or gave it to colleagues for safe keeping. His illness caused him to be delusional, so he wasn’t making rational decisions. In 1986, journalist and entertainer Geraldo Rivera had a live television special during which his crew used dynamite to blast open a vault of Capone’s. He thought he’d find Capone’s loot and maybe even human remains. IRS agents were there to collect Capone’s estimated $800,000 in unpaid taxes. Thirty million people watched him enter the vault where he discovered … nothing.

The setting in Finders Keepers felt very real to me, even though I’ve never been there. How did you do that?

Christa’s beloved cabin on Whitefish Lake is actually my parents’ real cabin on Whitefish Lake. The difference is my parents’ cabin is part of a group of cabins near a lakeside restaurant. Christa’s cabin is a standalone place near the Clarks’ home, which is also invented. The town of Hayward does have a popular candy store with a fudge lady, an ice cream store, and the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in the shape of a huge muskie. I think it’s safe to say there aren’t underground tunnels in town!

800px-HaywardMuskie-061-050507Photo credit: Bobak Ha’Eri

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from Finders Keepers, what would it be?

Put down your electronics, unleash your imagination, and play outside. That’s a message for adults, too.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed Finders Keepers?

It’s a bit self-serving to suggest my debut novel The Graham Cracker Plot [recently released in paperback], but it’s also a funny adventure story. Two novels I always recommend: Savvy by Ingrid Law and Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. I recently read Lisa Lewis Tyre’s novel Last in a Long Line of Rebels, which is also about kids seeking a hidden treasure, and I loved it.


What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?

Kids are hilarious, often without meaning to be funny. I’ve had more laugh-out-loud moments reading kid lit than adult work.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?

Spend a lot of time with kids. Listen to the way they talk and observe how they handle conflict and problems. Read your work out loud to kids and pay attention to their body language. If they’re staring out the window, you know you’ve got work to do. My daughter is my first editor. My early draft of The Graham Cracker Plot  opened with backstory. When I read it to my daughter, she said, “Mom, it’s really good. But when is the story going to start?” And she was right. In middle-grade novels, you need to invite the readers immediately. Most are impatient and won’t wade through a sluggish beginning.

Shelley has kindly offered to give away a copy of Finders Keepers. Leave a comment below by midnight on Monday, November 30 and the winner will be announced on Tuesday, December 1.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).

It’s No Mystery. The Winner is….

Last Friday’s post about Middle-Grade Biographies included a GIVEAWAY of the newly-released Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist by Julie K. Rubini.  Nineteen people commented by the deadline, so tonight, nineteen sticky notes went up on the goat gate. Because that’s how every giveaway works, right?

Giveaway 1

Picking the goat who would pick the winner was the hardest part! They all wanted to be part of the action.

Giveaway 2

I chose Kristoff because he’s the youngest. And he loves to read mysteries.

Giveaway 3

After tasting a few, Kristoff took this name off the gate and proceeded to chew.

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My daughter had homework up to her ears, so I was left to attempt this all by my selfie.


Next time, maybe I’ll choose a barn animal who will sit still for photographs.

But, for now, Kristoff and I are happy to announce that the WINNER of a *signed* copy of Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist by Julie K. Rubini is…

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Congratulations, Dee!

Growing Up with Biographies ~ Biographies Have Grown Up

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Remember these? I do. I was in 3rd or 4th grade when I discovered the section of the school library that housed all the books labeled with a capital B on the spine. Biographies. Martha Washington. Dolly Madison. Mark Twain. Clara Barton. These are a few I remember reading from the shelves of that wonderful basement library that doubled as the music room.

When my young son, a dyed-in-the-wool farmer even at age ten, seemed to lose interest in reading anything not part of a class assignment, I found a biography of John Deere. Suddenly, my little reader was back!

A few years ago, I submitted a picture book biography to a publisher who contacted me with the best kind of rejection. “This isn’t right for our list, but…”  The “but” was a great one. They were very interested in launching a new series of biographies for middle-grade readers, and since I had previously published books for middle-graders, would I be interested in writing the first book in the series? Now that’s a rejection I could handle!

This middle-grade series was a new venture for the publisher, and the editors and designers were more than willing to lend an ear to my suggestions about what a middle-grade bio should look like. Immediately, I went back to that row of “B” books in my elementary library. Yes, they had grabbed my attention, but not every elementary reader was as enamored as I was. I took a more critical look at the biographies of my youth. They were text-heavy and sparsely-illustrated, usually with some pen and ink line drawings smattered here and there.

And then, I thought about the most recent biography I’d purchased for my youngest daughter. It was Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.

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Filled with photographs, text boxes, diary entries, and varied fonts, this is how an engaging middle-grade biography should look, feel, and read. Luckily, others agree. Today’s biographies are a far cry from the those bios of old (beloved though they may have been!)

Below are some recently-released biographies for the middle-grade crowd.  Stick with me to the end. There’s a GIVEAWAY hiding there!


Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long – Bayard Rustin was a civil rights leader who believed in nonviolent action as means of achieving social reform. The organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin’s story will inspire young readers to stand up in the face of injustice.

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Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin was recently named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015.  Sheinkin’s confidence his middle-grade audience is evident as he tackles the political life of government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg during a tumultuous time in recent history.


Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist  by Julie K. Rubini 

Hot off the presses is this biography of Mildred Wirt Benson, the original ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew series. Rubini takes readers on a journey through Millie Benson’s life as a journalist and as the very uncelebrated author of  many books in history’s most celebrated juvenile series. Why did it take years to discover the identity of the writer we’ve always known as “Carolyn Keene?” Follow the clues to solve the mystery of Millie Benson.

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Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek by Michelle Houts

Here is the initial installment in the new Biographies for Young Readers series I mentioned earlier. Dorothy Kamenshek was a teenager from Cincinnati, Ohio when a man named Philip Wrigley sent scouts to find women who could play baseball as well as the men on his Chicago Cubs (men who were rapidly leaving the ball field for the battlefield at the start of World War II.)  Made famous by the movie A League of Their Own, Kammie and her Rockford Peaches inspire girls to “throw like a girl” and be proud of it.

And now, since you stuck with me…


Author Julie Rubini has generously provided The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors a signed paperback copy of Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist. To enter, please comment below. Maybe you’d like to add the title and author of a noteworthy biography for middle-grade readers. Maybe you’d rather reminisce and tell us about your favorite biography.

Just leave a comment below by midnight Eastern Time on Tuesday, November 10, 2015. 

The lucky winner will be announced on Thursday, November 12, 2015!

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She’s still a fan of biographies and good old-fashioned letter-writing. She created The 52-Letter Challenge for those who are up to writing a letter a week for an entire year.   Find Michelle at On Twitter and Instagram @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.