Tag Archives: middle-grade readers

Digging Deep into History: Sources for Historical Research

I love getting random notifications from our county library system. Yesterday’s was an invitation to a free lecture on the local impact of the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. My writer’s wheels started turning right away and I added the event to the calendar. Though I have no plans to start drafting a flu epidemic middle grade novel anytime soon, I think it’s safe to say that the more your writer-head knows about a historical time period–and history in general–the more inclined (read: less terrified) you become toward actually drafting a historical.

Historical research can be daunting, even for lovers of history, even for lovers of research and research paper writing. We have so much info available to us now…and yet, sometimes a seemingly easy answer eludes us. And then there’s the very real trust issues we writers have with the online world, and justifiably so; though the internet has certainly made it easier to quickly access reading material, it has also made it crucially necessary to question, check and double check, confirm and re-confirm sources. Random Googling can be appropriate for a brief overview of a historical event, person, or time period in MG historical writing; for example, clicking around for short, valid articles is great when you are still in the throes of a new crazy idea and are exploring the topic to gauge your own interest in it. The question “Is this something I want to learn more about?” is just as important as “Is this idea any ‘good’ for an MG novel?” at this stage of the game, and quick search engine results can help you start to answer these basic questions.

But once you’ve decided to dig in and try your hand at a new historical middle grade, to what types of resources do you turn?

I thought I’d share here some of the more interesting and trusted sources of historical info I’ve used in recent years. This is, of course, just to get your own wheels turning, the way that library notification did mine, and to hopefully start some comments from you all with other source ideas to inspire our whole community here at The Mixed-Up Files.

Go local:

Your local library might surprise you, and have a great resource on hand all about the preparations for a medieval feast, or The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, or the first-ever passenger rail car (England, 1825). If your own library doesn’t, search your county or statewide library system, and enjoy the benefits of interlibrary loan (free, real books, delivered to your local library, just for you!).

Local museums, local historical societies, local college and university libraries. Librarians, docents, and historical society volunteers share your passion for info and history, and chances are, they will be eager to help a writer towards historical accuracy.

Go online:

Don’t forget to try your public, state, or university library’s online aggregated content databases of articles and reference books. As a card-holding library patron, you should have access to these databases, often a mix of academic and popular culture resources. For example, my town library is part of Pennsylvania’s electronic library system (called PowerLibrary), which I can access from my home computer by inputting the patron number on my library card. This morning I found a recent Smithsonian article through PowerLibrary perfect for my WIP.

Primary source documents, like digitized newspapers, magazines, and periodicals—some from centuries ago–are amazing pieces of actual history that convey the aesthetics, attitudes, and atmosphere of the time period as well as info.

Online digital libraries. Digitized libraries can be huge aggregates of centuries’ worth of books and serials, many of them full-text… or they can be an individual’s personal web site of images of the local ferry service’s crossing schedules from 1955. And depending on your book idea, either of these or any in between might be equally helpful.  Try your luck with Hathi Trust Digital Library for out-of-print books and resources, Project Gutenberg for works in the public domain, or this site…when you have a few hours free:   http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/250-plus-killer-digital-libraries-and-archives/ I liked how these were organized by state (alphabetically) with multi-state resources listed at the end.

Photographs, of course. I like the search results I get (and the amount of info for citations) from the Photo Archive at the Getty Institute: http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/photo/

Here, for inspiration, are Life magazine historical photos by decade hosted by Google: http://images.google.com/hosted/life

Don’t forget the daily details in all your hard-core historical info. Food, footwear, furniture…depending on your setting, a sales resource like a digitized Sears and Roebuck catalog might be helpful (not to mention fascinating). Today I looked at this  one on Hathi from 1918. Middle-grade-aged girls’ clothes start on the third page, with prices and descriptions.

Grocery store ads with prices, movie posters, war propaganda literature…all telling signs of the times. From a special collections library at Emory University, here’s a 1947  ad for women’s high heels for $5.99 (!!).  How interesting that the ad utilizes the fun, adventurous lifestyle of circus performers to catch the consumer’s attention.

Specific to American history research, try the National Archives (great educator section here, by the way!): https://www.archives.gov/  and the site of the American Antiquarian Society: http://www.americanantiquarian.org/  (for info and primary sources through 1876).

The Library of Congress has an abundance of free reference materials, including an International Collections section as well an American Folklife Center: http://www.loc.gov/rr/ .

Books on historical topics that are especially cool for writers:

The Writer’s Guide to… Series. The Wild West, Prohibition through WWII, the 1800’s, Colonial America, Renaissance England, and more.

If you have kids, you probably know the DK Eyewitness series of books. Written for elementary through middle graders as visual encyclopedias, these books present great overviews on a wealth of topics and time periods. They contain the perfect amount of info if you are just getting started on a research topic—enough to catch your interest and start notetaking, but not so much as to overwhelm.

An illustrated costume history text. You can page through possibilities at bookstores on university campuses with theatre departments, or try a book like What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century by Douglas Gorsline.

I hope you found this to be a fun and possibilities-ripe list!  Please chime in with comments on what creative and helpful sources you’ve used in the past. Thanks for reading and good luck with your future research!

Revised and Updated

Peachtree Publishers is putting new covers on my companion novels Do You Know the Monkey Man and Yes, I Know the Monkey Man! What do you think? Here are the original covers:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here are the new ones:

Do You Know the Monkey Man was published in 2005. I signed a contract for it in 2003 and I wrote the first draft before 2000. My main character listened to her music on a Walkman in my first draft. (That was changed to “MP3 player” before publication. “MP3 player” rather than iPod, because who knew how long these iPod things would even be around?)

As soon as I saw these new covers, I asked my editor, Kathy Landwehr, if I could revise and update the books. She agreed that I could, so I marked the deadline on my calendar and noted I also had a MUF post due right around the same time. Suddenly I had a topic for this post: revised and updated middle grade novels!

I knew Lauren Myracle revised and updated her Internet Girls series ten years after they were published. I just saw this article on the Nerdy Bookclub blog and learned that James Preller recently revised and updated his Jigsaw Jones books. But when I started talking about this with people in my various writing circles, I had a hard time finding anyone else who had revised and updated a book. I wondered why that was. Were books simply not staying in print long enough to warrant an update?

Peachtree tends to keep their books in print for many years, so I asked Kathy if she could put me in touch with any of their other authors who have revised and updated one of their books. She couldn’t. Because she didn’t know of any other authors who had done it!

She said, “We’ve revised a series that began publishing in the nineties to update some references in the early titles, so they’d be consistent with the more recently published books. The editorial staff reviewed the books and had the author approve all of the changes. Some of our backlist is historical and doesn’t require updates. Many contemporary titles are set in the outdoors and the content, which doesn’t involve much technology, doesn’t require updating. And then there are some titles in which dated references are so thoroughly integrated into the plot that updating them would require a major overhaul. We haven’t felt that this sort of update would improve the reading experience; kids are perfectly capable of understanding older references and technologies, just as they understand them in historical fiction.”

Okay, once I got in to my own revision I understood what she meant by “references so thoroughly integrated into the plot.” Some of the things I wanted to fix weren’t as easy to fix as I had hoped they’d be. It was like dominoes. As soon as I changed one thing, that change affected something else.

Was this really worth it? This whole thing was my idea. Nobody told me I had to revise or update my book.

I talked to my friend Carol Gorman, who has gotten rights back to many of her previously published middle grade novels and released them under her own publishing imprint, Skylark Lane Press. I wondered whether she had done and revising or updating. She said, “I revised and updated all of them, including my first novel, published in 1985! The characters now have cell phones and they like Harry Styles instead of Leonardo DiCaprio. Although Harry Styles is now probably out of date!”

I asked how she felt about the revision and she said, “I think the improvement is mostly that the books will appeal more to today’s kids than if they felt ‘old-fashioned.’ I learned when I taught at Coe College that today’s kids think that anything, say 8-10 years old, is ‘back in the day’ and really ‘old’!”

I also talked to Robyn Gioia, who published a children’s mystery entitled Miss President with a traditional publisher years ago. Like Gorman, she revised it after it went out of print and self-published a new edition. She said, “Self-publishing was just becoming big and many authors were doing it, so I fleshed it out more, made it stronger in several parts but basically kept the story the same.”

But then after a couple of years, she decided to revisit the story. She decided she wanted to turn it into a fantasy! Talk about a major revision! She said, “I had just read the Rats of Nimh to my class and thought it would be fun to work in a different style. I drastically changed the story.  The Ghost, The Rat and Me is totally different than the original and I love this version the best.”

I did decide to go forward with my revision, too. But wasn’t just technology that I updated. The speed limit in Iowa has changed since I first published Do You Know the Monkey Man. (You’d be surprised how many kids wrote to tell me that the speed limit was 70 on the freeway. Not 65 as my characters said.) I also realized psychics probably charge more today than they did in 2000. And teenagers are paid more for babysitting now than they were then.

I ended up changing quite a few things. Things I didn’t necessarily intend to change. Things that had nothing to do with technology. I’m a better writer now than I was in 2000, when I wrote the first draft of this book, so once I got in there, I just couldn’t stop myself from fixing EVERYTHING. I didn’t make any plot changes, but I did a lot of work at the sentence level. And I changed one very big scene that I had never been happy with. I had a different editor at Peachtree when I first published this book. This was one of my early books, and at that time in my career I tended to do whatever my editor said, whether I agreed with her or not. Most of the time I did agree, but there was one scene in this book that I strongly disagreed with my editor on. But I rewrote it her way anyway. And I’ve always regretted it.

Well, now I have a new editor. And a chance to rewrite this book. So I rewrote that scene the way I wished I could have written it in the first place. And I didn’t tell my new editor what I did. If she finds it (and I suppose she could find it if she turns on track changes) and she misses the dialogue I took out, we can talk about it. But I don’t think she’ll find it unless she does turn on track changes.

Working on this revision reminded me of something Elizabeth Gilbert said when she was in Seattle a year ago. She was talking about reviews and how she doesn’t let them get her down. She said, “Do they think I don’t know that’s there? I wrote the best book I could at the time.”

That last sentence really resonated with me. I can be a bit of a perfectionist. (I can hear every editor I’ve ever worked: “A bit???”) The truth is no book is ever going to be perfect. We do the best we can at the time and then we let the book go.

But sometimes we get a chance to take another stab at a book. Under the guise of “updating the technology.”

Now that my “update” is done, I’m glad I took the time. I can’t say it’s a perfect book. But it’s better than it was.

And I can’t say that it’s totally modern. But again, it’s better than it was. And I really appreciated the opportunity to go back and make it better.

Middle Grade Books on Imperfection

My kids are blessed with many grandmas, one of whom has a wonderful habit with the younger grands of saying “Oops! I goofed!” at any mistake. I dropped a glass? Oops! I goofed! You stepped in dog poo? Oops! You goofed! She says it with a kind smile and an easy manner, showing that mistakes are part of life; something to smile at and shake our heads over rather than lose our temper about or try to hide.

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, and so have been thinking a lot about how we respond to mistakes. You have probably heard of Brown. Her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, has been viewed more than thirty million times. She is a shame researcher and has written three books on the subject, with a fourth due out this fall.

Brown writes that it is essential to differentiate guilt from shame. We feel guilt over our actions. We feel shame for who we are. Thus, “Jen made a bad choice,” rather than “Jen is bad.” The former is something we can work on, while the latter is immutable.

When we make a mistake—a joke that falls flat, for instance—and we feel shame over that, we use it to carve out a new understanding of our identity. From then on, we hesitate to make a joke, because we just aren’t funny. We won’t sign up for a race, because we aren’t athletic. We don’t introduce ourselves to someone new, because we’re socially awkward. Shame makes us smaller—less willing to reach out, to be creative, to try new things.

All of this, of course, is the opposite of what we want for the kids in our lives. We want kids to be bold, unflappable, willing to try anything. So what can we do to encourage kids to be willing to take those scary steps? Talking the talk is not enough, unfortunately. To encourage the bravery that is essential for living a full and daring life, we must model an ease with our fallibility, and a love of ourselves that outstrips our size, our salary, and our spelling ability.

That means admitting that we make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are minor (oops!), and sometimes, they are devastating. Final. Cruel. And yet we must continue to live with our horrible, imperfect selves. We must strive to be open about our own infernal fallibility, so that the kids in our lives to know that they are good, and worthy, even when—especially when—they try and fail.

To help along this road, here is a selection of middle grade novels where the kids make mistakes. Big whoppers. I don’t want to spoil them for you, so I won’t go over what the mistakes are, or the ramifications of them, but each of these books shows a character having to come to terms with mistakes and shame. Because I am imperfect, I know this list is incomplete. Please comment with other books that would fit with this theme. All links, images, and descriptions are from IndieBound.

The Turn of the Tide by Roseanne Parry
When the biggest mistakes of their lives bring them together, Jet and Kai spend the summer regretting that one moment when they made the wrong decision. But there’s something about friendship that heals all wounds, and together, Jet and Kai find the one thing they never thought they’d have again–hope.

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb, illus. by Diana Sudyka
From acclaimed author Tricia Springstubb comes a poignant and topical middle grade novel about the effects of an accidental shooting on family, friendship, and community. Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Rita Williams-Garcia.

As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds
When two brothers decide to prove how brave they are, everything backfires–literally–in this “pitch-perfect contemporary novel” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) by the winner of the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award.

Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck
Eighth grade is set to be a good year for Diggy Lawson: He’s chosen a great calf to compete at the Minnesota State Fair, he’ll see a lot of July, the girl he secretly likes at 4-H, and he and his dad Pop have big plans for April Fool’s Day. But everything changes when classmate Wayne Graf’s mother dies, which brings to light the secret that Pop is Wayne’s father, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother, who moves in and messes up his life. Wayne threatens Diggy’s chances at the State Fair, horns in on his girl, and rattles his easy relationship with Pop.
What started out great quickly turns into the worst year ever, filled with jealousy, fighting, and several incidents involving cow poop. But as the boys care for their steers, pull pranks, and watch too many B movies, they learn what it means to be brothers and change their concept of family as they slowly steer toward a new kind of normal.

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder
A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for–as long as it fits inside? It’s too good to be true Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents’ separation, as well as a sudden move to her gran’s house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be. Laurel Snyder’s most thought-provoking book yet.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
The book that took the world by storm….In his fifth year at Hogwart’s, Harry faces challenges at every turn, from the dark threat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be- Named and the unreliability of the government of the magical world to the rise of Ron Weasley as the keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team. Along the way he learns about the strength of his friends, the fierceness of his enemies, and the meaning of sacrifice.


Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise’s parents died when she was too young to remember them. There’s always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.
When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the bar . . .

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
It’s the start of fifth grade for seven kids at Snow Hill School. There’s . . . Jessica, the new girl, smart and perceptive, who’s having a hard time fitting in; Alexia, a bully, your friend one second, your enemy the next; Peter, class prankster and troublemaker; Luke, the brain; Danielle, who never stands up for herself; shy Anna, whose home situation makes her an outcast; and Jeffrey, who hates school. Only Mr. Terupt, their new and energetic teacher, seems to know how to deal with them all. He makes the classroom a fun place, even if he doesn’t let them get away with much . . . until the snowy winter day when an accident changes everything–and everyone.

As a bonus, here are a few lovely picture books on this topic:

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
Zoom meets Beautiful Oops in this memorable picture book debut about the creative process, and the way in which “mistakes” can blossom into inspiration.

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The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
For the early grades’ exploration of character education, this funny book offers a perfect example of the rewards of perseverance and creativity. The girl’s frustration and anger are vividly depicted in the detailed art, and the story offers good options for dealing honestly with these feelings, while at the same time reassuring children that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Kate Hillyer lives and writes imperfectly in Washington, D.C. She was a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen and Kid Book List. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.katehillyer.com.

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