Tag Archives: contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

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).

Writing About Gender and Sexual Orientation for Middle Grade Readers

At BEA this year, all the buzz was about GEORGE, a middle-grade novel by Alex Gino with a transgendered protagonist. But GEORGE isn’t the only recent  middle-grade fiction with a transgender theme. There’s also GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polonsky, a sweet and poignant story about a boy who knows he’s a girl. And next spring, Donna Gephart, well-known author of popular middle-grade titles (DEATH BY TOILET PAPER; OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN) is coming out with LILY AND DUNKIN (Delacorte, May 2016).

Even five years ago, such books would never have been published by traditional publishing houses. But it seems that as our culture rapidly becomes more accepting of LGBT people and issues, there’s been an implicit acknowledgement that kidlit fiction–and not just books shelved in the YA section–should reflect this reality. When a book like Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER can become a mega-bestseller, I think it suggests that we’ve underestimated kids’ interest in, and need for, middle-grade books dealing with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

I’m currently writing STAR-CROSSED (S&S/Aladdin, Fall 2017), a middle-grade novel about a girl who develops a crush on another girl as they rehearse a middle school production of Romeo and Juliet.  It’s a departure for me; in my books I’ve always been careful not to push any boundaries. But I think that what GEORGE and NATE and GRAYSON have showed us is that middle-grade (or “tween”) fiction can explore themes of gender and sexuality in a way that feels authentic–and yet still remains age-appropriate.

So it’s been a great treat for me to chat with Donna Gephart, as she looks forward to next spring’s publication of LILY AND DUNKIN.

Why did you write this book now?

LILY AND DUNKIN  is a dual narrative of a big-hearted, nature-loving, word nerd transgender 13-year-old, Lily, and Dunkin, also 13, who has just moved to Lily’s neighborhood.  Dunkin is dealing with the move, an impossible secret and managing his bipolar disorder.  Somehow, this duo finds a way to help each other be their best, most authentic selves despite the obstacles they face.

When I began this book several years ago, it was a very different atmosphere when it came to talking about transgender issues as well as mental health issues.  Both were more taboo than they are today.  I decided to write the book despite that fact.  And because it takes a long time for a traditionally published book to come out, the tides have turned dramatically and thankfully, we’re having a more open national conversation about issues that must be addressed sensitively and compassionately.

Do you think standards for what’s “safe” in MG fiction are changing? 

I think the national conversation is changing.  When I wrote LILY AND DUNKIN, I needed to explain how Dunkin would have heard of the term “transgender.”  By the time I was revising it, I deleted that part.  Kids now have heard of the term “transgender.”  It’s my hope that with movies, TV shows and books featuring fully-realized transgender characters, everyone will understand more and fear less.  This tide of more exposure and more information can lead to much greater understanding and compassion.  And what safer way to share these characters than in the pages of a book?  It can be the starting point of meaningful discussions.  If a child has bonded with a transgender character or a character dealing with a mental illness in a novel, then when s/he meets a person like this in real life, s/he experiences recognition and a deeper understanding, instead of fear born from ignorance.

Do you expect resistance from adults who think of you as a “safe” MG author? 

I write with great respect for my young readers and I always tackle difficult subjects in my books — divorce, death of a parent, loneliness, bullying, etc.   Each of my novels has both the difficult and lighthearted, just like in life.  The topics in my upcoming novel are handled sensitively, accurately and with great love.  I’d be delighted to see it in the hands of many, many young readers because I think this book will make a difference in creating a climate of kindness.

How do we assure the gatekeepers that just because an MG book addresses certain topics, it’s still “wholesome”–and appropriate for all MG kids, even those who aren’t dealing with those particular issues?

Librarians and teachers are incredibly smart.  They want books in the hands of their students that will expand their minds and hearts and promote love and acceptance.  These are important kinds of books for all kids to read because we are all different in some way; it’s great to also notice the ways in which we’re similar:  We all need a feeling of belonging, of mattering and of being valued and loved.  That’s what my book is about.  And I can’t wait for it to make its way into the hands and minds and hearts of young readers.

Barbara Dee’s sixth middle-grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2016. fall. STAR-CROSSED will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2017.

You’re Invited: A Giveaway and Interview with Jen Malone and Gail Nall

The Mixed-Up Files is very excited to introduce Jen Malone and Gail Nall and their new series about four girls who run an event planning business. The first book in the series, You’re Invited, was released just last month.


The authors recently stopped by to answer some questions about themselves and their books.

MUF: I see that the two of you live pretty far from each other. How did you meet? And what made you decide to collaborate on a book?

Gail: In summer 2012, we were both querying and doing blog writing contests. We “met” on one of those blogs where we each had an entry (spoiler alert: my entry was my upcoming YA debut, Exit Stage Left, which was MG back then!). We each read the other’s entry, and then I think we left simultaneous comments to the effect of, “Hi! You write like me. Let’s exchange manuscripts!” So we did, and quickly became critique partners. Not long after that, Jen snagged an agent, and then about four months later, I also got an agent. Then Jen’s book, At Your Service, sold to Aladdin, and a few months later, my book, Breaking the Ice, also sold to the same editor at Aladdin. So, collaborating on a story was almost meant to be the next step! We write MG with comparable voices, were already with the same editor at the same house, and we knew we could get along! It was a nice surprise to find out that we both drafted chronologically, and that neither of us was particularly skilled in plotting before writing. (We had to fix that last one, quick!)

MUF: What sparked your idea of a group of friends becoming event planners?

Jen: I love to write wish-fulfillment books (At Your Service is about a girl who lives in a fancy hotel) and I also love books about girl entrepreneurs, so I basically just asked myself, “What business would I have loved to do with my friends when I was twelve?” Party planning was something tween girls could kick butt and allowed for lots of creativity on their part, but also offered plenty of potential for drama and hilarious mishaps, which Gail is a master at devising! I was rereading Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants around the same time and loved the four best friends each writing from her own perspective. We always knew the tight-knit friendship would be the real story in You’re Invited, and we pitched the book as a cross between Babysitter’s Club and Sisterhood, which became a touch point for us as we wrote.

MUF: Have either of you had any of your own event planning disasters?

Gail: Okay, so back in high school, my BFF and I decided to throw a party at her house. It was very last-minute, and it was really more of a way to invite the guy she liked over without specifically inviting him, if that makes any sense. So it’s 7:00, and no one’s there. 8:00, no one. About 9, the guy’s friend calls and says they’re coming over. So rather than look like the girls who threw a party no one came to, we raced around filling up plastic cups with various levels of Coke, crumbling food onto paper plates, and generally making the place look like there’d just been some amazing party these guys had missed out on. The funny thing is, I think they bought it.

Jen: I used to work as a Hollywood publicist and a big part of my job was planning premieres and special screenings, so I’ve had my share. One of the most memorable was when I had to spend a weekend hiding the boyfriend of an A-list movie star from the press… and from his wife (it actually forms the basis for my YA out this summer, called Map to the Stars). And then there was the time a movie star ground her stiletto heel into the foot of a fan who just wouldn’t give her space on the red carpet at a film festival, and I had to distract the press so they wouldn’t notice the commotion that caused. Good times! I will say, that job taught me to be a little too hyper-organized in order to avoid any potential for disaster- when it was time to plan my own wedding everyone in the bridal party got three-inch thick binders of instructions. I cringe every time I think about those, and I’m sincerely lucky to still have them as friends today!

MUF: What was your process when you wrote? Did each of you take two characters? Or did you each have a hand in writing from the point of view of all the girls?

Gail: The book is a rotating, four-person POV, so each chapter is narrated by one of the girls. We each claimed two characters and wrote “our” girls’ chapters, but there was a lot of input and revision based on the other person’s comments. The other person also had carte blanche to go through and fix her characters’ dialogue and quirks in the chapters she didn’t write. There was a lot of “blah blah [insert Becca-speak here] blah blah”-type notes throughout the first draft. If it was something more than that, we usually wrote long margin comments to each other, suggesting changes to the scene that would better fit the characters and their motivations. Co-writing is sort of like working with a built-in critique partner!

We actually wrote a three-part blog series about the whole process (from idea to publication), which you can find the first installment of here: https://chasingthecrazies.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/behind-the-curtain-what-happens-when-you-co-write-a-book/

MUF: I love how each girl’s chapter starts with something that relates to her, e.g., Sadie’s chapters always start with To-Do Lists; Lauren’s start with definitions; Vi’s start with recipes; and Becca’s start with horoscopes. If you were characters in your own book, how would your chapters start?

Gail: A list of the books in my to-be-read stack. Wait, that would take about fifty pages to list . . . So maybe I’d be a Sadie and have my endless to-do list that lives on my phone. I have reminders to “buy groceries” and “clean cat litter boxes,” because seriously, who has time to remember stuff like that? 😉

Jen: This is a great question! Mine would probably start with a quirky or inspiring quote because I’m a total sucker for them (even if I never remember them later!) 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Brown’s Book of Precepts by R.J. Palacio is basically my nirvana. It would definitely not be a recipe, like Vi’s chapters have, because I can only cook pizza bagels and oatmeal.

MUF: I see that You’re Invited Too is already in the works. When will that be out? And do you expect to do more books together?

Gail  and Jen: You’re Invited Too will be out on February 2nd, 2016! It was so much fun to write about the girls’ continuing adventures as they take on their first huge event (a wedding with a Bridezilla). We’d love to write more books for the RSVP girls, so fingers crossed!

Thanks for such great answers! Congratulations to both of you and thanks for stopping by!

Gail and Jen are giving away a signed copy of You’re Invited. To be eligible, just leave a comment below. A winner will be announced on Tuesday, June 9. (You must live in the United States or Canada to enter the giveaway.)

Read more about the authors here:

official%20author%20photoJen Malone writes books for tweens and teens. Her debut At Your Service published with Simon & Schuster/Aladdin MIX in 2014, and her new series, You’re Invited (Simon & Schuster), co-written with Gail Nall, launched with Book #1 in 2015. She has three young adult titles forthcoming with HarperCollins, beginning with Map to the Stars in Summer 2015. Jen lives outside Boston with her husband and three children, teaches at Boston University, loves school visits, and has a “thing” for cute hedgehog pictures. You can learn more about her and her books at www.jenmalonewrites.com.

Gail%20NallGail Nall lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her family and more cats than necessary. She once drove a Zamboni, has camped in the snow in June, and almost got trampled in Paris. Gail is the author of the middle grade novel Breaking the Ice, and is the co-author of You’re Invited (both Aladdin/S&S, 2015). Her upcoming young adult debut is Exit Stage Left (EpicReads Impulse/HarperCollins, 9/8/15), and two more middle grade novels, You’re Invited Too and Out of Tune, will follow from S&S in 2016. You can find her online at www.gailnall.com and on Twitter as @gailecn.


Dorian Cirrone has written several books for children and teens. Her middle-grade novel, The First Last Day, which takes place on the Jersey Shore, will be out in May 2016 from (Aladdin/S&S). You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at: http://doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/