Tag Archives: contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

Interview–and Giveaway–with Steve Brezenoff

Steve Brezenoff is the author of young adult novels Guy in Real Life; The Absolute Value of -1; and Brooklyn, Burning, as well as over a hundred chapter books for younger readers, including The Field Trip Mysteries, Museum Mysteries, and Ravens Pass series. He grew up on Long Island, spent his twenties in Brooklyn, and now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their two children.

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Steve joins us to talk about his middle-grade Museum Mysteries series.

Description from IndieBound: ” Join four friends as they take in culture and solve crimes in the Capitol City museums. Because of their parents’ jobs in the museums, the kids have unprecedented access to the exhibits, and because of their brains, they solve mysteries that leave the pros scratching their heads. Discussion questions, writing prompts, a glossary, and nonfiction resources continue the reader’s learning experience long after the story ends.”

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The Museum Mystery series is one of several series you have written for Capstone. Can you tell us a little about the process of developing and writing a series?

I’ve done (or am in the midst of) five series for Capstone. The Museum Mysteries, The Field Trip Mysteries, Back to the Titanic, and Ravens Pass, as well as the Twice-Told Tales under the name Olivia Snowe. (I’ve also contributed titles to a series of sports books under the shared author name Jake Maddox, and a series that morphed into Ravens Pass under the name Jason Strange.)

When it comes to series for this market (school and library), series development is a different animal from trade publishing, primarily because librarians don’t want series that must be read in a particular order. It’s a difficult feat to provide books in order to readers, so being able to read out of order without losing any aspect of the story is ideal. The exception in my case is the Titanic series, which is ordered.

Because of this, development tends to be more thematic. That is, the story is not continuous, so we’re developing characters and scenarios. And because these are all work-for-hire titles, much of this work is done in-house at the publisher before I’m onboard. For example, for the Field Trip Mysteries, the idea of four sixth-graders going on field trips and solving mysteries came from Capstone. I created and developed the characters and placed them on field trips that, initially, came from the publisher as well. As the series went on, more of that became my responsibility. The Museum Mysteries in many ways grew out of the Field Trip Mysteries–they’re thematically very similar. In that case, I was given the four museums to bounce off of, and then developed other details–characters, backgrounds, parents, etc.–on my own.

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If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from the Museum Mystery series what would it be?

I’m tempted to talk about science or art history or American history–in other words, one of the themes behind the four museums featured in the series. But the truth is I’ve been more focused on writing about these characters in a way that shines a light on race and gender and sexuality in a way that I haven’t seen much in chapter books for younger readers, readers at the bottom of the middle-grade range. It’s no secret that most of my fiction takes place in Minneapolis/St. Paul, or a very vaguely fictionalized version of the metro area. I try to make sure, therefore, that the characters reflect the Twin Cities I’ve come to know and love since moving here ten years ago.

It’s no surprise, then, that what has garnered the most positive reaction has been the diversity of the cast. The cover of one of the first Museum Mysteries titles, The Case of the Missing Museum Archives, features main character Amal Farah wearing her hijab. It was such a small gesture, to be honest, but it got a lot of very positive attention.

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There’s so much to like about the Museum Mysteries: An engaging plot with a diverse cast of characters, great illustrations, and (especially appealing to me) lots of science. It seems to me that reluctant or struggling readers would really enjoy them. What has been the response?

I think the response has been good, particularly to the diversity of the cast.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed your Museum Mysteries?

Well, obviously the Field Trip Mysteries, which are thematically very similar to the Museum Mysteries. There’s a great resource for young mystery fans here and here.

Some may know you more for your young adult titles. How does your approach differ in writing for the different age groups?

It might be a symptom of writing mysteries for younger readers rather than the readers’ age, but I tend to rely more on an outline from the outset for my chapter books than for my longer novels for older readers. I can’t even begin a Museum Mystery without knowing everything about the crime, the suspects, and how it was done. With a longer novel, I tend to just start writing, knowing little more than a couple of characters, maybe a setting, and I see where it takes me before I step back and think about outlining.

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Can we look forward to more middle-grade books from you?

There are two more Museum Mysteries in August of this year. And for spring 2017, we’re trying something new with the Field Trip Mysteries. I’ve pulled Sam, Cat, Gum, and Egg out of retirement, and next year they’ll star in four new You Choose mysteries, where readers can make choices for the junior sleuths and try to solve the crime. Stakes are high, and some endings will leave the culprit on the loose.

Steve has kindly offered to give away a set of two signed books from the Museum Mysteries series–The Case of the Stolen Spacesuit and The Case of the Missing Mom. Comment below before midnight on Friday, April 15 for a chance to win. The winner will be announced Saturday, April 16.

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).

Interview with Brooks Benjamin, Melanie Conklin, Shari Schwarz, and Laura Shovan + Giveaway

We have a treat today on the blog. Four middle grade authors are releasing their stunning debuts on April 12th. We’ve asked each of them a few fun questions (learn all about Bunnicula, a debut author slumber party, and the power of brightly colored socks). At the end of this post, you’ll find a link to a Rafflecopter giveaway where you can win all four books! Here are the books and authors:

Brooks Benjamin, My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights

Seventh Grade Life

LIVE IT.

All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition—so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.

WORK IT.

At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren’t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?

BRING IT.

Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor.

About Brooks: In sixth grade, Brooks Benjamin formed a New Kids on the Block tribute dance crew called the New Kidz. He wasn’t that good at dancing back then. But now he’s got a new crew—his wife and their dog. They live in Tennessee, where he teaches reading and writing and occasionally busts out a few dance moves. He’s still not that good at it. His first novel, MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS will be released by Delacorte/Random House (April 12, 2016).

Melanie Conklin, Counting Thyme

Counting Thyme

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owens’ little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush, and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours, and days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

About Mel: Melanie Conklin is a writer, reader, and life-long lover of books and those who create them. She lives in South Orange, New Jersey with her husband and two small maniacs, who are thankfully booklovers, too. Melanie spent a decade as a product designer and approaches her writing with the same three-dimensional thinking and fastidious attention to detail. Counting Thyme is her debut middle grade novel, coming from G.P. Putnam’s Sons on April 12, 2016.

Shari Schwarz, Treasure at Lure Lake

Lure Lake

An epic adventure—that’s all Bryce wants this summer. So when he stumbles upon a treasure map connected to an old family secret, Bryce is determined to follow the clues to unearth both, even it means hiking in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere. Bryce must work with his bickering brother, Jack, or they may never see the light of day again!

About Shari: Shari Schwarz is a mom of four boys–three preteen/teenagers and one preschooler. (Yes, they are alike in many ways!) and the author of the upcoming, TREASURE AT LURE LAKE, out April 12, 2016 by Cedar Fort.

Shari is a simple person (her husband would totally disagree!) and a homebody, but she does love long chats with friends over a latte, dreaming of going to the beach, and writing adventure stories for children. If she’s not writing, she’s reading, whether it be a manuscript for the literary agent she interns for or working on an editing project. In the quiet spaces of life, she might find time for her other loves: gardening, weight-lifting, hiking, and a bit of photography. Shari has had a lifelong faith in God and tries to leave it ALL in his hands.

Shari has degrees in Cross-Cultural Studies and Elementary Education with an emphasis in Literacy. She worked as an elementary school librarian before her little guy came on the scene. Now she stays home with him and writes.

Laura Shovan, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary

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Laura Shovan’s engaging novel is a time capsule of one class’s poems during a transformative school year. The students grow up and move on in this big-hearted debut about finding your voice and making sure others hear it.

About Laura: Laura Shovan is former editor for Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura works with children as a poet-in-the-schools. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, her novel-in-verse for children, will be published in 2016 (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House).

What is your favorite quote on reading or writing?

Brooks: I’d have to go with one from Ray Bradbury. “I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.”

Shari: There are so many! Here’s one I love by Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Mel: This is not quite a writing quote, but it is my favorite.  “Only the soul that knows the mighty grief can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come to stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.” — Edwin Markham

Laura: Neil Gamain’s epigraph for the novel Coraline is “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” It’s a paraphrase of a longer quote from author G. K. Chesterton.

Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions?

Brooks: Yes! When I’m writing in the morning, I always have to have coffee in a particular mug. I also have to have something to listen to while I write. For the longest time this was music, but I’ve recently discovered Noisli and I’m falling in love with it.

Shari: None that I know of. I write wherever and whenever I can. As a busy mom of four active boys, I’m usually going in several directions at once, so I take any moment I get to write.

Mel: I like to wear brightly colored socks while I write. I also like to sit on my couch and bed and other soggy sitting spots that are terrible for my back!

Laura: When I’m struggling with my writing, I like to wear a giant plum-colored corduroy jacket that belonged to my grandmother.

What was your favorite middle grade book as a kid?

Brooks: As a kid it was probably Bunnicula. I loved Halloween (still do) and haunted houses and monsters (still do) so it’s no surprise that I fell in love (and still am) with a book that combined humor and horror.

Shari: I was sort of raised on the classics, so a couple of my favorites when I was young were The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.

Mel: The Secret Garden.

Laura: So many! My fifth grade class was obsessed with the Narnia books. But I still remember when we read, and then watched a movie of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I wanted to be Claudia in the worst way.

Any middle grade book that you missed the first time around, but have come to love as an adult?

Brooks: Bridge to Terabithia. I never read it as a kid. But when I finally did, I couldn’t believe what I’d missed. It’s such an incredible book and I read it every single year.

Shari: Before I was a teenager, I don’t think I ever read Madeleine L’Engle’s work, namely A Wrinkle in Time, but when I discovered her writing as an adult, I loved several of her books.

Mel:  I did not read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros until I was in college, but it is one of my favorites now.

Laura: Elizabeth Enright’s Gone Away Lake. My children and I listened to the audio book in the car one summer. It’s funny, quirky, and filled with mystery and adventure. It’s a perfect summer read.

What inspired you to write your book?

Brooks: What inspired me to write my very first book was actually my eighth-grade reading teacher. The whole class had to come up with an idea which could be a single short story, a collection of poems, an essay, anything. So I wrote a fully illustrated 61-page story loosely based on my favorite video game at the time, Golden Axe 2. It went on to win an award and it convinced me that maybe there were some other stories that might be worthy to have a life on paper.

Shari: My preteen/teenage sons inspired me. Two of them are reluctant readers and I wanted to write something that would be fun, exciting and a fast read for them. They both read my book in record time when we received the first copies the other day! The look of wonder and contentment on my 14-year-old’s face when he finished Treasure at Lure Lake made the hard work and rejections along the way worth every second.

Mel: One day, after reading several modern contemporary stories about children facing tough circumstances, I asked myself what it would be like to be the sibling of such a child? That in combination with my connection to pediatric cancer through volunteer work with Cookies for Kids’ Cancer led me to the core story of Counting Thyme: a girl facing life in a new city as her brother faces cancer treatment.

Laura: In my work as a poet-in-the-schools, I love seeing how each classroom forms its own sense of community. That’s something I wanted to capture in my book — how a group of students with different personalities and backgrounds works together as a group. I was interested in exploring the things the students in a class know, and the things they don’t know about one another. It was a lot of fun to create those layers in my fictional fifth grade class.

As you’re on the eve of your debut, what has been the biggest surprise in the past year?

Brooks: I expected a few of my debut siblings to be supportive, but every single one of them has been the absolute best cheerleader for each of our books. Also, I figured the debut authors from 2015 might be cool with helping us new authors out a little, but they’ve been so willing to talk, to email, to allow us to vent, to point us in the right directions. Finally, I assumed I wouldn’t have a single second to write as I got closer to my release day, but I’ve still been able to dedicate an hour or two every single morning to it. There are as many downs as there are ups, but I’ve been so pleasantly surprised every single day. And I owe a great deal of that to the people around me.

Shari: I totally agree with Brooks. The other debut authors have been essential to the process of getting our books out into the world. I am also constantly surprised by the kindness and support shown to me by family and friends and others I am only now meeting through my book.

Mel:  For me, the biggest surprise of the last year has been the wonderful friendships I’ve formed with other writers and readers. I love books because they bring us together.

Laura: I agree with Brooks, Shari, and Mel. One of the highlights of my past year was when three of my fellow debut authors spent the night at our house. I may have gotten a little teary eyed as we sat around the dinner table with my husband and daughter, talking about writing. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in middle school, but it was a surprise to me that sharing a meal at my house with other writers was my “I did it” moment.

I’m sure you, like me, are now dying to get your hands on these books. Want a chance to win them all? Click here: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Katharine Manning’s towering To Be Read pile just got a little higher. You can see her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter.

Interview with Laura Shovan + Giveaway

As we look forward to National Poetry Month, I thought it would be a nice time to have a poet on the blog. Laura Shovan is a celebrated poet whose debut novel in verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, comes out on April 12th. Read through to the end for an opportunity to win it!

Laura Shovan

Photo credit: Karen Leigh Studios.

Why is poetry appealing to kids?

Children love the idea that words can create pictures in their minds. I sometimes play a game with them where I say, “An elephant is not standing on your teacher’s desk.” And we all laugh about the elephant who suddenly appeared in our imaginations, in spite of the word “not.” Prose has imagery too, but the white space of poetry allows those images to breathe. The pause we naturally make between one line and the next gives the reader time to absorb the sensory images and ideas, and to make connections.

For kids who haven’t discovered poetry yet, what are some good places to start?

I love Calef Brown’s books for early experiences with poetry. At home, we started with his Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks. The poems are short and funny. They include quirky rhymes and great characters, like Olf the terrible pirate (“terrible” as in really bad at being a pirate) from Brown’s book Dutch Sneakers and Flea Keepers. Nursery rhymes are great, as are tongue twister books such as Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Piggy in the Puddle and Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, which both feature wordplay.

As children move through elementary school, I like poetry books on subjects they are interested in, such as Marilyn Singer’s Echo Echo for fans of Greek mythology, Jeff Moss’s dinosaur book Bone Poems, and Laura Purdie Salas’s A Fuzzy-Fast Blur: Poems about Pets. Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog is a wonderful introduction to novels in verse.

Can you recommend some exercises to get kids writing poetry?

The first thing I recommend is to focus on a single poetry-writing skill in each workshop, at least with elementary schoolers. One of my favorite workshops to begin with is onomatopoeia poems. I ask students to write about a place they know well, or an activity they like to do, using as much onomatopoeia as they can. We make it into a riddle poem. The poet will read his draft out loud to the class and everyone guesses where he is or what he is doing in the poem.

The fun part about this workshop is that, as we move ahead and write other poems, the onomatopoeia words stick. The children naturally incorporate them into their later writing. This and other writing prompts for kids are included in the back of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY.

Can you share any stories about your work with kids and poetry?

I hope you don’t mind a sad story.

I was doing a fourth grade poetry residency one winter. There was a boy in the class whose mother had died. He hadn’t been participating much, but sat with an aide in the back of the room. Then one day, he wrote a poem wishing his mother could come down from heaven and scold him for not doing his chores. All of the adults started tearing up. I found out later, it was the first time he had talked about his mother’s death at school.

There is something about making space in the school day, or at home, for writing poetry, that allows young people to open up. I think it’s because the writing task is different from the usual school assignments, which focus on analysis, persuasion, and earning a grade. When we ask children and teens to write about their experiences, the things they feel deeply about, we’re letting them know that they are valued not only as students, but as full human beings. That’s a powerful thing!

last fifth grade cover

Laura Shovan’s engaging novel, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, is a time capsule of one class’s poems during a transformative school year. The students grow up and move on in this big-hearted debut about finding your voice and making sure others hear it. To win a copy of this lovely story, leave a comment below by midnight EDT on Friday. For two entries, tweet about this giveaway! (Please make sure your email address and twitter profile are included in your comment.)

Laura Shovan is former editor for Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura works with children as a poet-in-the-schools and is currently serving as the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s Writer-in-Residence. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, her novel-in-verse for children, will be published in April 12 (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House).

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer who has loved poetry since a teacher handed her Gwendolyn Brooks’s We Real Cool in fourth grade. You can read her middle grade book reviews, including of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, at Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and @SuperKate.