Tag Archives: humor

10 Ways Writing a Middle-Grade Book is like ZUMBA®

I recently earned my Zumba Instructor certification and it occurred to me that writing middle-grade books has a lot in common with Zumba.

1.You’re never too old

I never understood why adults think that middle-grade books are beneath them. (Have you ever had anyone ask you when you are going to write a real book?) As for Zumba, you can work at whatever intensity you want. Don’t want to do that jumping move? Don’t. Just step instead. There are Zumba Gold classes especially for those with limited mobility, but if you can put one foot in front of the other, then you can do a regular Zumba class. As for teaching Zumba, suffice it to say that I have both a Zumba Instructor Certification and an AARP card.


2.You can do it in the pool

There are Aqua  Zumba classes for those who enjoy that kind of thing. It’s especially easy on the joints. I don’t care for them, at least in an indoor pool, because the music echoes so much. As for writing, I do some of my best writing while swimming laps. I don’t bring a computer or notebook into the pool with me, but the meditative action of lap swimming can sometimes help me work out sticky plot points.


3. Music helps

The Latin and International music is one of the major appeals of Zumba, at least for me. I often need music to write, and coincidentally, it is often International music, because the lyrics are not in English. English lyrics seem to short circuit the neural writing pathways. (Even though I understand French, those lyrics don’t bother me, because I’m writing in English. I haven’t tried the converse experiment—writing in French while listening to English lyrics.)


(photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

4. Earplugs help, too

Several people I know use earplugs in Zumba classes, especially with some of the younger, more enthusiastic instructors. They like to crank the tunes. Some writers work better when it’s quiet. I know I resorted to earplugs when they tore up my street last summer.


5.Working together has benefits

Some authors have writing retreats together, and the peer pressure to be writing while your fellow retreaters are writing can increase productivity. Some writers connect online and hold each other accountable. Word sprints are an online productivity tool. You each commit to writing without stopping for a set amount of time, say fifteen minutes, then you report your word count. Sure, you can lie about it, but you don’t. As for Zumba, research has shown that dancing in unison can have health benefits above and beyond simple exercise. Even more benefits than dancing independently to the same music.


6. You can learn from each other

That’s what critique groups are for. That’s why you go to writers’ conferences. That’s why you read a lot. It’s how you figure out what works for you. Same with Zumba. You go to different classes with different instructors. You watch the choreography videos. To get ideas. To see how other people interpret the same music. That person next to you in class adds a turn or a flourish of the arms to the same step you are all doing. Hmm. What if…?


7. A marathon session can be painful

The Zumba Instructor Training went from 7:30am to 4:00pm. It started with an hour-long master class, and although we didn’t dance the entire time, there were multiple sessions of learning the steps and variations, warm-ups and cool-downs, and practice putting together choreography. I learned that Zumba uses just about every muscle, because just about every muscle was sore for days. A marathon writing session can also leave me pretzel-like, because I find myself in the vulture position when I am really concentrating.


8. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

We learn in elementary school language arts class that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Zumba, we start with a warmup, to ease the body into the class, get the blood moving, and increase the heart rate. Then at the end, a cool down gradually decreases the heart rate, and stretching helps reduce muscle pain later on.

9. The middle is the hardest part.

In a Zumba class, the most strenuous, fastest songs fall between the warmup and the cool down. Authors refer to the “dreaded middle,” “sagging middle,” “middle muddle,” “sticky, icky middle,” and so on. You know where the book starts, and how you want it to end. The trick is to get your reader to the end without getting bored.


10. There’s a supportive community

The children’s writing community is one of the most supportive groups I know. Whether it’s a hug at a conference, an email or Facebook post to show an author a photo of their book “in the wild,” or offering goods and services to online auctions to help pay another author’s medical bills, you can count on the kidlit community. There’s a lot of support among Zumba aficionados, too. The instructors sub for each other and get together to run charity Zumbathons. And if you are a regular participant in a class, you are definitely missed when you don’t show up.


Whether it’s a publishable manuscript or a healthier body you’re after, you can’t just wish for it. You have to work at it. So get your butt in that chair or get your butt to the gym. You’ll feel better for having done it.

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).

The Drake Equation: Bart King Interview and a Giveaway!

Welcome to From the Mixed Up Files, Bart! We’re happy to have you. Congratulations on the release of The Drake Equation!


I have to admit that I am such a birdbrain myself that I jumped at the chance to read a book about a bird-watching kid, and to interview you, and to give away a copy of your book to one of our lucky readers. Are you ready? Here we go!

MUF: Did you get the idea for this character because of an interest in birdwatching yourself, or did it come from another place?

Bart: “I love all animals (seriously!), birds included. But while I’m not a birdwatcher myself, I have the greatest respect for birders. They tend to be the most wonderful, civic-minded, polite people among us.

I also love reading. About two years ago, I finished a book about black swifts, and was amazed to learn about this mysterious, rare little bird that nests behind waterfalls. So I imagined a boy-birder (who’s based on my nephew) who thinks he *might* have seen a black swift… and the story took off from there!”

MUF: Love this inspiration, thanks for sharing. And okay, birdwatching… with – um… some strange twists. I’m all about protecting endangered species, so this story spoke to me. I’ve read many books on this topic, but I must say, this is the first one I’ve ever encountered with – erm… yes, well, no spoilers here! But seriously, where did you get this sci-fi birdwatcher mash-up idea, anyway?

Bart: “Well, since we humans are quietly watching birds, why wouldn’t there be other beings that are quietly watching us humans? Maybe they even have field guides on how to best observe us.

And if extraterrestrials really ARE watching us, it’s a little scary thinking about what conclusions they’d draw about our species!”

MUF: Now I’m feeling a little nervous…

Say, I’m always curious about how authors find their writing paths. What made you choose to write for a middle grade audience?

Bart: “The short answer is “teaching.” See, I taught middle school language arts for many years, and reluctant readers were my primary focus. Since I was constantly searching for just the right book for those kids, at some point I thought: “Hey, why don’t I just WRITE one?”

Those reluctant readers have been a terrific motivation for me. I ended up writing a dozen nonfiction titles with them in mind, and now I have a novel that I hope they like, too. :-)”

MUF: How wonderful! I think readers at many places in their reading journey will love it, for sure.

Do you have any other titles in progress right now?

Bart: “Yes! The Drake Equation was conceived with a large story arc with a natural halfway point. That point is where the novel ends. If the story attracts enough readers, then I’ll get a chance to finish the tale I envisioned. (Oh please oh please)

I’ve also just finished a funny novel called Three Weeks to Live (Give or Take). Among other things, it’s a “SickLit” satire about a teen girl named Jackie who nearly gets hit by a meteorite in her PE class. (Her tennis partner is not so lucky.) Jackie finds herself becoming a reluctant celebrity—but she may not be around long enough to enjoy her new status.

Lastly, I’m writing a book of poems about some well-known teenaged franchise characters who must—for the moment—go unnamed. :-)”

MUF: We’ll be watching for those for sure!

And now for one last question. I always have to ask authors about their own reading lives, and books that might interest our readers, so here we go: can you please share a few of your favorite middle grade titles with us?

Bart: “I have a soft spot for funny MG and YA books, but I don’t like to read too many of them. This isn’t because they’re not great (they are). But it’s really intimidating to read other authors in the field, because it’s like, “They’re SO good, who do I think I am? Oh, just forget the whole thing!” 😛

That said, one recent MG book I really liked was Dave Barry’s Worst Class Trip. In a more YA vein, I was very impressed by Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here.”

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us.

You can find Bart in a variety of places: Website/Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/Instagram  

Now we’d love to give away a copy of your book, so it’s time for a little fun! I see you’re ready, Bart!


Often we use Rafflecopter around here to draw a winner. Instead,  I’m going to use an “Alien Landing” to choose the lucky winner of a copy of Bart King’s The Drake Equation.  

To enter: 

Comment on this post by 5 p.m. Pacific Time Thursday, May 12 to enter. I’ll announce the winner on Saturday, by sharing our “Alien Landing” in a bonus post. 

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 an upcoming middle grade series are historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is Publisher at Homeostasis Press  http://www.homeostasispress.com/index.php, and blogs at Gatherings, the blog of Gather Here: History for Young People https://gather-here-history.squarespace.com/



Interview–and Giveaway–with Shelley Tougas

STougasMug7 (1)

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).