Tag Archives: middle-grade readers

Mixed-Up Instagram: an April #mglitchallenge!!

Fromthemixedupfiles.com is @mixedupfilesmg on Instagram!

And to celebrate our new foray into the world of #mglit pics, we want you to join us in a 30-day Instagram challenge.

The fantastic April #mglitchallenge

Here’s the deal: follow us on Instagram (@mixedupfilesmg) and post a pic that corresponds to the day on the image below. Don’t forget to hashtag it #mglitchallenge! We’ll be watching the hashtag to see what you’re posting, and  featuring the very best of your posts.

#muflit #mglitchallenge middle grade books authors librarians

Of course, fromthemixedupfiles.com is focused on middle grade books, so that’s what we’re looking for. MG authors, readers, and librarians, join us and show us where your passion for middle grade lit comes from!

Take an Umbrella, It’s Raining – The Overarching Conflict in MG

Whether we’re reading, writing, or recommending a middle grade story, conflict typically comes in at or near the top of the Important Elements list. But with regard to the specifics of conflict in MG — Single conflict or layered? Internal or external? How much is too much? — there’s a lot of different advice out there. Click five results after Googling, and you’ll get five different takes on middle grade conflict. For example:

  • One source might recommend a single line of conflict with only minimal subplot problems; another will say middle grade audiences can absolutely handle “richly layered” multiple struggles.
  • Some in the publishing industry define middle grade by not only protagonist age and content, but also by the conflict, which (they say) should be external (outside things cause trouble with which the MG main character must deal). However, others say MG characters can certainly be roiled by internal conflicts appropriate to their age, and that these internal conflicts drive actions, thereby sparking the external conflict.
  • Depth of recommended conflict depends greatly on maturity of intended audience…and calendar age of a child doesn’t always match developmental age. So one fifth grader may have a high degree of comprehension for and interest in a classroom bully story, but may or may not be quite ready for a book set during the Holocaust, like her friend in the same class.

So…it’s probably safe to say that, as with many topics in middle grade literature, there is no formula, no simple categorization system. There’s just no easy answer on conflict, in other words.

To me, this is a beautiful thing. The MG writer is free to let his or her particular story vision grow and change through different styles and intensities of conflict. And the MG reader is free to enjoy an amazing variety of stories, made inherently different by their conflicts.

But for the purpose of writing, teaching, or sharing thoughts on a middle grade novel, another way to talk about the character’s struggles might be helpful: the overarching conflict.

The notion of overarching conflict helps me understand theme and purpose in MG books that I’ve taught, and has helped me through the latest revision of my middle grade historical. An overarching conflict is like an umbrella that covers all other conflicts in the book—big, little, internal, external, resolved, unresolved. They’re all under there because, in some connected way, every smaller problem turns out to be a part of the bigger overarching problem.

This idea of overarching conflict is easiest to see with some series. Harry’s overarching conflict with Voldemort carries through all seven novels that comprise his overall story. So while each book’s plot offers its own main conflict plus multiple sub-conflicts, we also see Harry’s escalating succession of wins and losses against his biggest enemy as series-long conflict building blocks, culminating in the final epic battle that resolves the overarching conflict.

You can apply this overarching conflict idea to a stand-alone MG work, too. There are many ways to state an overarching conflict for a book; this is what I came up with for a few examples:

The overarching conflict in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars: How can Annemarie help to keep her friend Ellen safe in situations of increasing danger? When the overarching conflict helps align the MC’s objectives scene to scene, it’s easier to see how the internal conflict (Annemarie’s struggle with bravery) and the external conflict (Nazi occupation and oppression of the Jews in Denmark) exist in a two-way, fluid relationship, each affecting the other (instead of one driving another). This overarching conflict also helps bring together other conflicts (the death of Annemarie’s sister; trusted adults lying) that might at first seem disconnected, but prove by the book’s conclusion to be important parts of Annemarie’s attempt to help her friend.

The overarching conflict in Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy: How can Bud find not just a home, but his home? In this excellent quest adventure, individual conflicts arise one after another as Bud makes his way toward the home he hopes will welcome him. His mini-conflicts (the Amos family, the mission, Hooverville, Lefty Lewis) are resolved each in turn as he proceeds, each in some way giving him a piece of knowledge or inspiration moving forward, until he finally has the chance to solve his overarching struggle.

The overarching conflict in Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak: How can Serafina learn more about her past while living hidden from the world? As the external conflict with the man in the Black Cloak and his evil crimes intensifies, Serafina seeks answers about her mother, her background, and her own mysterious talents. Disagreements with her father and her new friend Braedyn create additional conflict layers. The author skillfully brings together the resolutions of Serafina’s external, internal, and layered conflicts in an exciting battle scene, and all work together to supply an answer to the overarching conflict.

In these examples, articulating the overarching conflict can help connect all the struggles for the MG main character, and it can demonstrate his or her constant, steady objective through a sequence of other misadventures. Indeed, maybe the greatest benefits of the overarching conflict are the depth acquired in the story without muddying the plot, and the invisible cohesion it provides.

Thanks for reading! Glad to be a new part of this great group, and eager to hear your thoughts on conflict in MG.

Indie Spotlight: TreeHouse Books, Ashland OR

Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files: It’s always a pleasure to feature a true children’s book shop! We are talking today with Jane Almquist and Cynthia Salbato, shopkeepers and creators of the Secret Book Club at TreeHouse Books(www.TreeHouseAshland.com).

 MUF: Treehouse Books has made the Best Bookstores in Oregon list, and Ann Patchett recently named it in her list of 26 bookstore favorites nationally. Brag a little. What do you think has made your shop so successful?
Jane & Cynthia: We have a 39 year old history and deep connection to our community. TreeHouse was founded by teachers and then nurtured through a lineage of owners passionate about children’s literature. The secret to our success? We excel at filling up a very tiny bookstore with a wide selection of carefully curated books, we have strong relationships with the area schools and Oregon Shakespeare patrons, and we have our own line of story themed Art Kits and community events.

Jane & Cynthia, aka Owl and Raven

MUF: Visitors to Treehouse Books describe it as unique, magical, and full of color.What atmosphere have you tried to create and what do you want customers to experience?
Jane & Cynthia:
We are a bridge between the world of the imagination and ordinary reality.  Both Jane and Cynthia grew up in the backyard of Disneyland, and Disney’s ‘lands’ were hugely impactful. Instead of Fantasyland, we have the Wizard Apothecary. Instead of Tomorrowland, we have the Secret World Vault. It helps that so many authors have created such vivid worlds for us to borrow from. Our Wizard Supplies section owes much to JK Rowling, as does our Book Vault for Young Adult readers. The mythic and faery realms are also well represented. Each genre or reading level is the entrance into a different ‘land’.
We love to encourage our guests to be their most magical selves while they are in Ashland, and to take some of that enchantment with them into their everyday lives. We ourselves love to be in our personas of LadyJane Owl and Cynthia Ravenwich when we are at the shop!
MUF: A number of independent bookstores have book clubs for kids, but your Secret Book Club for middle readers has developed into something wonderful called the Wizard Academy that includes monthly story games and involves the community. Tell us about that. What games are planned for this spring? What are your plans to expand the program?
Jane & Cynthia:
Merging story genres with community games, we have created a story-based calendar of events featuring 12 themed story games, a game for each month of the year.   The year starts with Time Travel, our science fiction game that also doubles as a goal setting game. In February we read animal stories and play Care of Creatures, a community kindness game.  March is our Wizard Academy. April is mystery, May is fairy tales and so forth. We are working with Matthew Beers, a software developer to take these games online and to other communities.

MUF: Please tell us about your story-themed art kits.
Jane & Cynthia:
 TreeHouse celebrates reading, writing and creating. The Art Kits are the hands-on creating part of our mission. Reading is a wonderful pastime, expanding our hearts and minds. The kits take that expanded heart and mind and put it into action and activate a kid’s own creativity. As kids we loved to “create somethings out of nothings” as LadyJane likes to say.  We put together fun supplies and offer some possibilities with a story theme, and then leave it up to each creator to come up with their own personal creations.

MUF: You describe your collection as “curated.” How do you choose the books to carry in your shop?
Jane & Cynthia
:We read A LOT. We also research a lot (not as fun as reading but essential.) Our customers and community are also big readers and are always recommending titles. It takes a village to build a good bookstore! A lot of great books get missed… possibly a boring cover, or not enough publicity. There’s nothing more satisfying than discovering an undiscovered book and sharing it with readers!  We also have great book publisher reps that help us discover new gems.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, do you find yourself recommending these days to ages eight through twelve ?
Jane & Cynthia:It does depend on what the reader likes… it’s very fun to match up a reader with their next favorite book! But here are the books that we have found to have universal appeal this past year:  Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jody Lynn Anderson. When the Sea Turns to Silver, by Grace Lin, The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, and Winterfrost by Michelle Houts. Then there are those authors that we know will excite readers: Brandon Mull, Maile Meloy, Colin Meloy, Kelly Barnhill (yay! She won the Newbery award!), Kate DiCamillo, and of course JK Rowling.
One of the fun things with our book club is that we get to recommend books in different genres each month. In January it was science fiction to complement our Time Travel storygame. This month we switch to animal stories to complement our Care of Creatures Kindness storygame. And in March, when we go to Wizard School, we’ll be reading Fantasy.

MUF: If a family visits Treehouse from out of town, are there family friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after shopping? And if they can stay longer, are there some sights and activities they shouldn’t miss?
Jane & Sylvia
:  Ashland is tiny but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival assures we have lots of visitors so good restaurants are easy to find. Standing Stone and Granite Tap House are two pubs that cater to families. Granite Tap House has just installed a game room and we may be collaborating with them in the future for story themed parties. Martolli’s is a family owned business that sells the best handmade pizza. There is always a big group of students in there and they offer ‘by the slice’ or full pies.
Just half a block from our store is the entrance to Lithia Park, one of our favorite places in Ashland.   The park features a couple of miles of trails along Ashland Creek which runs through the middle of the park.  There is also a playground, the Japanese Garden, some tennis courts, a bandshell, duck ponds, and ice skating in the winter months. For longer stays, OSF is actually very family friendly and student focused. At least one play every season is a rollicking comedy, and one is a big broadway style musical production. Last year we saw a family friendly production of The Wiz, and we’re looking forward to Beauty and the Beast this year. TreeHouse is right across the street from the theaters! Science Works Hands On Museum is a great family place. Don’t miss the Bubble Room!And Southern Oregon is famous for its outdoor activities. World class rafting  in summer and skiing and ice skating in winter are just a few of the outdoor activities for families. Emigrant Lake has a water slide and our neighboring town of Medford has a family fun center with mini golf, go carts, bumper boats and arcade.  The world famous Crater Lake is a great day trip which should include a stop at the Rogue River Gorge in Union Creek.

MUF:  Sounds like a great town for kids growing up, especially with such a dynamic bookstore at its heart!  Thanks for sharing some of the details.  Readers, have you visited this shop?

Sue Cowing is  author of the puppet-and-boy novel; You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Osborne UK 2012)