Cover Reveal! The Long Trail Home

Today I’m honored to participate in some Cover Reveal Fun! I’m celebrating with Kiersi Burkhart and Amber J Keyser, whose new middle grade series, Quartz Creek Ranch, launches in January 2017.

It’s a bit out of the ordinary for all the first books in the series to drop at once, but I’m really excited about it! Books 1-3 in the series, are Shy Girl & Shy GuyOne Brave Summer, and At Top Speed. I got a sneak peek at the first few chapters of The Long Trail Home, the fourth book, to prepare for this cover reveal. I have to tell you,  I can’t wait to read them all.

Here’s what the publishers have to share about the series:

Every summer, the gates of Quartz Creek Ranch swing open for kids in trouble. Under the watchful eyes of lifelong ranchers Willard and Etty Bridle, these ten to twelve-year-olds put their hands—and hearts—to good use, herding cattle, tending the garden, harvesting hay, and caring for animals. Aided by two teenage horse trainers, the kids must forge a bond with their therapy horses, grow beyond the mistakes that brought them to the ranch, and face unique challenges in the rugged Colorado rangeland.

I spent many formative hours on a cattle ranch when I was a middle grade kid, and learning to coexist with working animals shaped my view of the world in some powerful ways. This volume in the series is also important because it helps young readers see themselves between the pages of a book. As Amber shared with me, this book is near and dear to her heart. “I so wanted to have a book about a Jewish girl that wasn’t about the Holocaust, and this is it!”

Also from the publishers, about The Long Trail Home, the subject of our post today:

Rivka can’t wait to get away from her family for the summer.  Since that terrible day last year, she wants no part in their Jewish community. At least at Quartz Creek Ranch, she feels worlds away from home among the Colorado scenery, goofy ranch owners, and baby animals. Other parts of Quartz Creek, however, are too familiar, including the unsettling wave of anti-immigrant threats to ranch workers. On a trip to the country, Rivka is also surprised to learn the history of Jewish pioneers in the area. When she and her defiant cabinmate, Cat, face disaster in the wild, Rivka will need to find strength deep within her to help them both get home safely.
I’ve read Amber’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, and her books are unique and wonderful reflections of this diversely talented author. I’m really looking forward to this series by Kiersi and Amber, and I hope you are, too.

And now, drumroll…

The cover! Isn’t it lovely?

I will be so happy when these books are available to share with my favorite nieces, nephews, and school libraries…

More about Kiersi and Amber:

KIERSI BURKHART grew up riding horses on the Colorado Front Range. At sixteen, she attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland and spent her young adult years in beautiful Oregon—until she discovered her sense of adventure was calling her elsewhere. Now she travels around with her best friend, a mutt named Baby, writing fiction for children of all ages. Kiersi’s website is: Find her on Twitter @kiersi.

AMBER J. KEYSER is happiest when she is in the wilderness with her family. Lucky for her, the rivers and forests of Central Oregon let her paddle, hike, ski, and ride horses right outside her front door. When she isn’t adventuring, Amber writes fiction and nonfiction for young readers and goes running with her dog, Gilda. Her website is: and you can follow her on Twitter: @amberjkeyser.

Thanks so much for allowing me to share in the fun with our readers, Amber and Kiersi!


In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, The Best of It: A Journal of Life, Love and Dying, was published in 2009.  Both her current work and upcoming middle grade stories are historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is Publisher at Homeostasis Press, and manages Gather Here: History for Young People

Free verse choice reads for middle grade readers

I come across a lot of free verse novels for teens in my work as a librarian, but fewer for middle grade readers, especially in recent years. Then I had the good fortune to read Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen, which recently won the Washington State Book Award for Middle Grade Books, and I was again hooked.

What’s the appeal of novels in free verse? Some readers (often adults) will tell us it’s the imagery, the pacing, the sparseness of writing that requires restraint and specificity of words. Teachers and librarians know that there’s another kind of reader who may be a perfect match for a novel in verse: the reluctant reader.

Opening a book written verse and seeing all that air, all that white space, can be inviting on its own. The books may have 200 or more pages and look long, but have half the number of words as a traditional prose piece. In addition, “novels in verse can be especially appealing to reluctant readers because they use so much vivid imagery,” says Dorie Raybuck in this excellent Horn Book piece “This Is Too Much!” Why Verse Novels Work for Reluctant Readers.”

When trying to find a free verse book for your readers, search the library under the subject heading “novels in verse” (makes sense!) and then filter to the age range and type of book you want. In the meantime, a few recommendations to get readers started.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
2015 Newbery Medal Winner and 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner. “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.

Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle
When Tony’s mother is sent to jail, he is sent to stay with a great uncle he has never met in Sierra Nevada. It is a daunting move Tony’s new world bears no semblance to his previous one. But slowly, against a remote and remarkable backdrop, the scars from Tony’s troubled past begin to heal. A Kirkus Reviews best books of 2013.

Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
School Library Journal says: “Grimes’s latest is a sensitively written middle grade novel in verse that takes its syllable count from Japanese tanka.  Garvey is an overweight boy who is teased at school and whose father constantly prods him to be more like his athletic older sister, Angie. But Garvey has a best friend (Joe), an open heart (which leads him to a new friend, Manny), and, as readers learn midway through the book, a talent for singing, which lands him a coveted solo in the school’s chorus concert.”

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lại
Winner of the National Book Award and also a Newbery Honor Book. Inspired by the author’s childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.

Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen
A young orphaned girl in modern-day China discovers the meaning of family in this “heartbreaking, heartwarming, and impressive debut” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) told in verse. 2016 Washington State Book Award winner.


Writing Irresistible Kidlit: An interview with Mary Kole

If you’re a MG or YA fan, you’re probably already familiar with Mary Kole, creator of Kole is also the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers and when she’s not writing or blogging, she works closely with writers to get their books into the best shape possible at Today, Kole is talking to MUF about mistakes writers make, her love of books that tackle real issues, and where the children’s publishing industry is headed. (Want to win an autographed copy of Writing Irresistible Kidlit? Enter below!)

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

Mixed-Up Files: Tell us a little about yourself, and your daily routine.

Mary Kole: I moved from NYC to Minnesota, where my husband is from, in 2013. I grew up in California. The climate has been a huge adjustment, to say the least! I worked in publishing and agented in CA and NY starting in 2009. My passion has always been books for children, whether picture books or YA novels. That’s what I represented when I was an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and that’s primarily what I work on now that I’m a freelance editor. Instead of working with publishers to broker deals on behalf of writers, I now work directly with writers to get their manuscripts submission-ready and help them take the next steps in their craft. I couldn’t be happier! Our son was born in March, so my routine has had quite the shake-up. Now that he’s in daycare part time, I have a lot more flexibility. I like to do some exercise every day, whether it’s a yoga or barre class, a walk around the small lake across the street, or just a half hour on the bike downstairs. Moving keeps my mind sharp! Otherwise, I’m working on client manuscripts, writing blog posts, and reading writing craft books because I’m noodling another book idea and I want to see if the project has wings. Creating my craft book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, was such a highlight for me that I’d love to do it again. My husband is a chef, so he works long hours. When he’s home, we’re spending time as a family with Theo and our two pugs, Gertie and Olive.

MUF: You provide a great deal of helpful information to writers on your site and in your book. What made you choose this as a career path?

MK: Writing has always been a part of my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on some poem or script or short story. Or reading. My parents were academics, and our house was always full of books. So I decided to “read for a living” and work in publishing. Ha! That was a bit naive, since most agents and editors read submissions in their free time and concentrate on the nuts and bolts of the publishing business during their actual work hours. But I was always passionate about story and the writing craft, so I pressed on, interning at Chronicle Books, earning my MFA, and joining Andrea Brown as an intern, then an agent. My favorite part through all of this was working directly with writers to help shape their manuscripts in terms of concept, plot, character, and voice. I’ve always dabbled in writing myself, and the blog and book were great extensions of that. Plus, I get to work from home and pick my own schedule. I’m stubbornly independent, so I was always going to create a career for myself, no matter what I ended up doing. I’m thrilled that it’s in the world of the written word that I love so much!

MUF: Writing for kids can be tough when you’re no longer one yourself. When it comes to mistakes people make in writing #kidlit, what do you think the biggies are?

MK: This is a great question. I think one of the biggest mistakes in any age category, from picture book to middle grade to young adult, is to come at the novel with an agenda in mind that you NEED to pass along to young readers. In that mindset, you’re separating yourself (wise adult) from your reader (naive child). Picture books in this vein always have a teacher or parent preaching the moral of the story at the end. Novels like this lay really heavily into the theme, telling it at every opportunity. The most successful stories, on the other hand, have theme in spades, but it’s left to the characters–and, by proxy, the readers–to discover. Nobody ever states “the point” outright. It comes across organically as the character experiences things. In order to truly do this with the respect and dignity that all young readers deserve, you need to dig deep in your own childhood experiences. There are universal coming of age themes everywhere. Kids are looking for a sense of identity, to belong, to differentiate themselves, to feel like they matter in a big and overwhelming world. How can you weave these elements into plot points? How can the character react to situations where they’re confronted with these truths? Writers who are passionate about the kidlit categories for the right reasons are more likely to be grown-ups who carry their childhoods around as part of their journeys, rather than people who grew up and left the wonder, pain, and experiences of childhood behind. I think it all boils down to seeing young readers as worthy of great stories instead of as receptacles for your opinions about life. I know this might seem obvious to some writers, but that just means you’re ahead of the game!

Mary Kole of

Mary Kole of

MUF: What are some of your favorite middle grade novels? 

MK: When I think about the wonder and nuance of the tumultuous middle grade period, I instantly think of Savvy by Ingrid Law, which came out in 2008. Sure, it’s “old news” these days, but I love it for several reasons. First, Law has such a light hand with the magic premise. Yes, it’s a “kid gets powers” story. And those are a dime a dozen in the slush pile. But it’s, above all else, a family story. And a voice-driven story. And a coming of age story. I see a lot of writers aiming for a high concept premise and forgetting the character-driven human elements of great middle grade. Editors are always going to be looking for fantastic middle grade with both girl and boy appeal, adventure, and a touch of Hollywood stakes. I would prescribe a reading of Savvy if you want to see this very commercial type of novel done with enormous heart.

MUF: Lately, we’ve seen MG books finding success while tackling difficult and mature subjects. What’s your take on this?

MK: As you can probably tell from my theme answer, I am all for books that tackle real life head-on. Even for younger readers. We now know more about what’s going on in the world, good and bad, than we ever did before. Kids are becoming aware of some really big truths at a younger age. I love this trend because it lets us all tackle this experience called life together in a way that lets kids feel authentic and vulnerable. If they’re going through something difficult, they can come and see that reality on the page, and they won’t feel so alone.

For a long time, sugar-coating was popular because there was this perception that kids’ fiction had to be nice. Like a little oasis. Well, kids will be the first to honestly say that not everything in life is nice! I think kids today tackle as many tough experiences as they did decades ago, but some of the stigmas against discussing difficult issues are finally going away. This is great. It’s been proven over and over again that repressing difficult feelings leads to problems. Sure, there are some issues that will be more controversial than others. In the middle grade category, your publisher’s customers are more likely to be gatekeepers like teachers, librarians, and parents. Depending on their institutional or family values, they may not buy books that are seen as too edgy or gratuitous, so houses may not spring for subjects that are too violent or sexual. Middle grade still has more buffer than YA, but you’re right, those standards seem to be changing these days. Some books don’t sell because their controversial elements are gratuitous. They’re in place for shock value, and not so much as a necessary part of exploring the issue. Books like this are much less likely to succeed than those where the edgy elements are unpleasant but necessary to an honest portrayal of the topic.

So the best way to honor what kids are going through is to be honest. And it just so happens that honesty is also the best way to tap into your authentic writing self. You have to experience your personal truth about life in order to communicate it, and manuscripts that come from that true, messy, emotional place are the ones that can be the most relatable.

MUF: Parents often worry about a book being too scary/mature/etc. for their child. Do you think parents/caregivers should read books along with their kids, so they can discuss the book together? Do you think young readers know they can stop reading a book if they’re not comfortable with the subject matter?

MK: It all depends on the family and the child. In an ideal world, a parent and child could read the same book and be able to discuss difficult topics openly. But everyone’s values are different. There are lines that certain parents or school administrators will not cross. I think that kids are very capable of deciding for themselves whether something is too challenging (emotionally or in terms of reading level). If something doesn’t feel right, a kid is likely to put the book down. If they have a receptive atmosphere at school or home, they may even talk to an adult about it. My answer in most cases is, “Try it.” The child might pull away, and that’s okay. Or they could really surprise you.

MUF: Industry-wise, can you read the tea leaves for us? What’s going to happen in #kidlit? Any trends you see bubbling up? Asking for a friend 🙂 …

MK: The market is quite healthy these days. Especially, as I mentioned, for middle grade. That means, however, that agents and editors expect more. Higher stakes. Twists on familiar concepts. Blends of action, adventure, magic, fantasy, etc. Barring a high concept premise, a really strong coming of age theme in a contemporary setting. Big feelings. Above all else, though, today’s MG gatekeepers demand voice and humor. If a character falls flat, or the writing doesn’t sizzle, you are in for stiff competition. Don’t take this as advice to litter your manuscript with #slang and references to Snapchat. But do read your work aloud. This is my most potent advice, and not many writers actually do it. You will learn so much about your characters and yourself if you take this step. Take risks. Be funny. Have fun. Get in touch with that inner middle grader. Sometimes writers are so busy trying to prove that they’re great writers, that they forget to listen to their characters and their own inner voice. You may surprise yourself!

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Andrea Pyros is the author of My Year of Epic Rock, a middle grade novel about friends, crushes, food allergies, and a rock band named The EpiPens.