Tag Archives: children’s literature

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.

My Summer Fun Reading List

Summer is finally here, and with it comes the memory of summer vacations long ago. One of my favorite things about summer was the local library’s Summer Reading Program. The rules were simple:  1. Read at least 1o books. 2. Record the titles on a chart. Do those things and at the end of summer you were rewarded with a picnic at the park, a dip in the community swimming pool, and a certificate signed by the governor. Which meant my weekly treks to the local library and the long days I spent sprawled in a lawn chair reading were totally justified. Just ask the governor.

All of this got me thinking about my own reading – and my current desire to spend my afternoons lounging in a lawn chair. Needless to say, this train of thought led to the creation of a new Summer Fun Reading List featuring the 10 middle grade books that will be keeping me company as I relax in my back yard this summer.

ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL by Leah Henderson

“Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined. With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?”

THE SOMEDAY BIRDS by Sally J. Pla

“Charlie’s perfectly ordinary life has been unraveling ever since his war journalist father was injured in Afghanistan.

When his father heads from California to Virginia for medical treatment, Charlie reluctantly travels cross-country with his boy-crazy sister, unruly brothers, and a mysterious new family friend. He decides that if he can spot all the birds that he and his father were hoping to see someday along the way, then everything might just turn out okay.”

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS by Amy Sarig King

“Obe Devlin has problems. His family’s farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn’t like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his home, in the last wild patch left, picking up trash and looking for animal tracks.

One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags… No one has seen a creature like this before, because there’s never been a creature like this before. The animal–Marvin Gardens–becomes Obe’s best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.”

RULES FOR THIEVES by Alexandra Ott

“Twelve-year-old Alli Rosco is smart, resourceful, and totally incapable of keeping her mouth shut. Some of these traits have served her well during her nine years in Azeland’s orphanage, and others have proved more troublesome…but now that she’s escaped to try her luck on the streets, she has bigger problems than extra chores to contend with. Surviving would be hard enough, but after a run-in with one of the city’s Protectors, she’s marked by a curse that’s slowly working its way to her heart. There is a cure, but the cost is astronomical—and seems well out of her reach.

Enter Beck, a boy with a gift for theft and a touch of magic, who seems almost too good to be true. He tells Alli that the legendary Thieves Guild, long thought to be a myth, is real. Even better, Beck is a member and thinks she could be, too. All she has to do is pass the trial that the King of Thieves will assign to her. Join the Guild, collect her yearly reward and buy a cure. Plus, Alli hopes the Guild will be the home—the family—that Alli has always wanted. But when their trial goes wrong, innocent lives are put in danger, and Alli has to decide how much she can sacrifice in order to survive.”

HOLLY FARB AND THE PRINCESS OF THE GALAXY by Gareth Wronski

“Holly Farb is not the Princess of the Galaxy. She may be top of the class in every subject, but she can’t even win a school election, never mind rule the Milky Way. The aliens who kidnapped her have gotten it all wrong.

Unfortunately Holly’s alien pirate kidnappers believe that she’s the princess they’ve been looking for, and so she finds herself hurtling through space on an alien pirate ship together with her teacher, Mr. Mendez, and Chester, the most annoying boy in her class. Now all she has to do is escape the pirates, find the missing princess, and get back to Earth in time for her big test on Friday.

But it turns out that space is a pretty big place, and before they can go home, Holly, Chester, and Mr. Mendez must face down space cruise liners, bounty hunters, giant worms, perky holograms, cosmic board games, sinister insectoid librarians, and a robot who is learning how to lie.

Between running from space pirates, defying the President of the Universe, and meeting a host of rather unusual new friends, Holly starts to wonder if there might be more to life than being top of the class after all.”

AMINA’S VOICE by Hena Khan

“Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.”

MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON by Linda Williams Jackson

“It’s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and Rose Lee Carter can’t wait to move north. But for now, she’s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white man’s cotton plantation. Then, one town over, an African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When Till’s murderers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change . . . and that she should be part of the movement.”

SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS by Jack Chen

“11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him for the secrets he’ll uncover—from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly not-around brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.”

A DASH OF DRAGON by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartoski

“For years Lailu has trained to be the best chef in the city. Her specialty? Monster cuisine. When her mentor agrees to open a new restaurant with Lailu as the head chef, she’s never been more excited. But her celebration is cut short when she discovers that her mentor borrowed money from Mr. Boss, a vicious loan shark. If they can’t pay him back, Lailu will not only lose her restaurant—she’ll have to cook for Mr. Boss for the rest of her life.

As Lailu scrambles to raise the money in time, she becomes trapped in a deadly conflict between the king’s cold-blooded assassin, the terrifying elf mafia, and Mr. Boss’ ruthless crew. Worst of all, her only hope in outsmarting Mr. Boss lies with the one person she hates—Greg, the most obnoxious boy in school and her rival in the restaurant business.

But like Lailu always says, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And she’s determined to succeed, no matter the cost!”

ROOTING FOR RAFAEL ROSALES by Kurtis Scaletta

“Rafael has dreams. Every chance he gets he plays in the street games trying to build his skills, get noticed by scouts, and—someday—play Major League Baseball. Maya has worries. The bees are dying all over the world, and the company her father works for is responsible, making products that harm the environment. Follow Rafael and Maya in a story that shifts back and forth in time and place, from Rafael’s neighborhood in the Dominican Republic to present-day Minnesota, where Maya and her sister are following Rafael’s first year in the minor leagues. In their own ways, Maya and Rafael search for hope, face difficult choices, and learn a secret—the same secret—that forever changes how they see the world.”

What’s on your Summer Fun Reading List this year? Please share your summer must-reads in the comments below. I can’t promise a certificate signed by the governor, but I can give you permission to schedule a picnic in the park and a dip in the local pool. Happy summer reading.

A Word or Two with Phil Bildner

Today the Mixed-Up Files blog is talking with author Phil Bildner. You may know Phil from his amazing picture books, including Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans and Derek Jeter Presents: Night at the Stadium.

I met Phil Bildner on a three-hour bus ride through rural Missouri last spring when we were both featured authors at Truman State University’s Children’s Literature Festival. (The Mixed-Up Files’ own Tricia Springstubb will be taking that bus ride this April!) On that trip Phil taught me how to capture great photos from slo-mo video (we had a lot of time to fill!). I practiced on him. Want to see?

I also learned that Phil Bildner is a high-energy, deep-thinking, and talented middle-grade author and former middle school teacher. In addition to picture books, Phil writes the Rip and Red series. This series is all about the things that, when it comes to kids, matter most to Phil:  school, sports, friendships, community, and empathy.  Look for Tournament of Champions, the third book in the series this June.

So, I was going to call this post A WORD WITH PHIL BILDNER and limit his responses to a single word, but then I thought how difficult that might be, so I gave him a little wiggle room.  He could answer with TWO words if he needed to.

So, let’s see how he does. Ready?

MH:  I always pick a word of the year. Do you have a word for 2017?
PB:  Evaluate
MH: What’s the best thing about being a successful middle-grade author?PB: Kid readers

MH: Which is your favorite part of the writing process:  research, drafting, or editing?
PB: Research
 
MH: How would you describe your writing style?
PB: Scattered
 
MH: What’s the best time of day to write?

PB: Morning

MH: What food have you tried that you hope you’ll never have to eat again?
PB: Beets
MH:  So, I guess I won’t serve these to you, then.

 
MH: What is the latest you’ve ever been on a deadline?
PB:  Late? Never.
MH:  Wow!
 
MH: If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go?
PB:  Machu Picchu
 
MH: When you were in middle school, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

PB: Lawyer

MH: What animal would be a great pet?
PB: Dogs!
 Meet Katniss, Phil’s rescued pitbull mix.

She’s smiling, isn’t she?

MH: Where do you most like to write?
PB: Back porch
 
MH: What’s the hardest part of writing for children?
PB: Time management
 
MH: Is there a word that you really like the sound of?
PB: Boo-yah!
MH:
MH: What is the farthest from home you’ve ever travelled?
PB: South Africa and China
 
Which is more challenging to write: picture books or middle-grade?

PB: Middle-grade

MH: Who is your favorite character from middle-grade fiction?
PB: Auggie Pullman

MH: If you could meet any famous person, who would you meet?
PB: President Obama

MH: What do the best middle-grade books offer their readers?
PB: Hope

MH: If you could talk to your 12-year-old self, what would you say?
PB: You got this.

 
MH: What could our world use more of?
PB: Empathy
MH:  I agree.MH:  So, besides the third Rip and Red book, I know that you have a picture book coming soon about two famous tennis players, titled  Martina and Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports.  What can you tell us about that book?

PB: 
MH: What’s wrong? Do you need more than one or two words? Oh, well, I guess. Take as many as you need.

 

PB:  The rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert was (and is) the greatest rivalry in the history of sports. No other rivalry comes close. They faced one another an incredible eighty times, fourteen times in grand slam finals. But what makes their rivalry and story so compelling and important is that it went far beyond the grass courts of the All England Club and the red clay of Roland Garros. What makes their rivalry transcendent is the humanity of the combatants.

Martina and Chrissie were fierce competitors. They played under the brightest lights and on the biggest stages. But they were also the best of friends, and in the world of sports where we often carelessly serve and volley phrases like “going to war” and “doing battle” and “fighting for your life,” Martina and Chrissie never lost sight of their humanity.

MH: Now I’m really glad I gave you more space. I loved watching Martina and Chrissie play tennis when I was young!

Thank you, Phil, for your brief, but heartfelt answers! It’s been fun talking with you on the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors!  Folks, find Phil Bildner by clicking here, and find his books in your neigborhorhood bookstores.

 Michelle Houts is the author of many books for middle-grade readers. She’s rarely a person of few words, so she completely appreciates the challenge Phil Bildner faced doing this interview! Find Michelle at www.michellehouts.com and on Twitter and Instagram as mhoutswrites.