Tag Archives: 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).

Author Website Page Update

Kids love finding out about their favorite authors. Here are some popular middle grade writer and series websites for them, their families and their teachers to check out!

From Kwame Alexander to Dav Pilkey and Jacqueline Woodson, these authors are all about interacting with and providing fun content for their young readers.

This is an update to the list, and we plan to update it again in the near future, so if you’d like to find out more about an author not here, let us know in the comments section.

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.