Tag Archives: Middle Grade

An Interview with the Authors of Maggie Malone Makes a Splash

Today The Mixed Up Files is thrilled to welcome co-authors of the Maggie Malone series, Jenna McCarthy and Carolyn Evans. They were kind enough to chat with us about how they write as a team, about their characters, and (psssst) future Maggie Malone adventures.  Maggie Malone Makes a Splash, the third book in their Middle Grade series, released on Cinco de Mayo! Congratulations and welcome, Ladies. Thanks so much for stopping by. 

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MUF: We’re curious how your collaborative process works. What does that look like for two authors co-writing a book?

Jenna: In school I was always the person who hated group projects, because I’m a total control freak. I didn’t think I’d enjoy the collaborative process, but Carolyn convinced me to give it a try, and it’s actually been amazing. She and I take turns writing chapters; when one of us is done, we send it to the other and we read it together on the phone. After we howl and squeal and tell the other how awesome she is, we discuss what we think should happen next, and then the other person gets to work on her chapter. It’s exciting to hand off a story mid-plot and then wait to see what your partner does with it. The best part is how seamlessly our voices blend; my kids are always trying to guess who wrote what, and they’re often wrong—which tells me we’re doing a great job! We rarely disagree, but in the event we do, we have a “three veto” policy per book, which essentially means if there’s an impasse, we each get to fight for (and keep) only the three things we feel most strongly about. This way, you push for only what’s most important to you. You know your partner is serious about something when she throws down a veto—and you respect it. Fortunately, Carolyn and I see pretty eye-to-eye on all things Maggie so we rarely have to play the veto card.

MUF: What is it like to spend time with the same characters through more than one book, as you create your series? Are there challenges about that? Do you get tired of them, or do you feel you get to know them better? 

Carolyn: Jenna and I both love getting to know these characters throughout the series and have more fun with them over time. Frank the genie is probably my favorite character and he just gets funnier, grittier (did I mention he’s a cowboy genie?) and more honest, the longer Maggie knows him. We have had a little trouble keeping our minor characters straight between books (was Willis Freedman the long-eared donkey in the Christmas pageant or was that Carl Lumberton?) but lucky for me, Jenna is crazy organized and keeps a running character cheat sheet for us to refer back to. Also, the main part of each book is Maggie’s day in someone else’s shoes, which inevitably involves her meeting new people, so there are always fun, fresh characters to create in every book.

Can you tell us the inspiration for Maggie? Did it come from more than one place?

Carolyn: Jenna and I wanted to collaborate on a series of books for kids, but we weren’t sure exactly what we wanted to write together. We talked on the phone a lot and I mentioned to Jenna that I had been working on an idea for a series that involved a boy main character. I believe she said something like, “No way, man. I got nothing when it comes to boys,” because she has two little girls.” Plus, she’s not a fan of potty humor like I am, so I said, “Fine. What else could we do?” She remembered that she had played around with the idea of magic shoes, but hadn’t come up with what the magic of the shoes should be. I think I said something about that girl in the blue gingham dress from Kansas who had a pair of magic shoes so we might want to steer clear of that kind of magic and also those types of shoes. Jenna agreed. We considered flip-flops and probably clogs, but in the end decided that the magical shoes should be boots.

But we still weren’t sure what the magic of the boots would be. One day I was meditating (I do that a lot, but probably not as much as I should) when the idea of “spending a day in someone else’s shoes” kind of dropped into my head. I love it when that happens. Ideas sometimes drop into my head when I’m in the shower, too, but we don’t have to talk about that. So that’s how the idea for Maggie’s Magical Boots came together. As for Maggie herself, Jenna’s daughter, Sophie, helped us decide on her look—the crazy curly strawberry blonde hair and green—not blue—eyes. Sophie is also an excellent editor for both content (“This makes no sense to me!” or “I’ve never heard this word before in my entire eleven-year-old life!”) and grammar (“You said this word twice!” or “Don’t you mean ‘petal’ and not ‘pedal’?). Thanks Sophie!

You both write a wide array of books, for different ages. Which is more challenging, to write for adults, or for middle grade readers? 

Jenna: I wouldn’t say one is necessarily more challenging than the other, but they’re definitely challenging in their own ways. With middle grade readers, it’s extremely important to get the voice right, and not to use “old lady” words or expressions. (Our kids proofread everything we write for that very reason; if they were reading this, I’m pretty sure they’d tell me not to use the phrase “old lady!”) Because Maggie appeals to a broad age range, there’s also an issue of vocabulary. As writers, we love big words and aren’t afraid to use them, so we always include a glossary in the back in case younger readers are being introduced to a word for the first time. Finally, it was and is extremely important to Carolyn and me that our books have not only strong female characters but also some sort of positive messaging. The trick with that is to do it in a way that readers don’t feel like they’re being lectured or patronized. Throughout the series, we have Maggie facing all sorts of challenges—from bullies to burglars—and no matter whose life she’s in, she never backs down and she always stays true to herself and who she is. Hopefully kids will absorb that messaging and use it in their own lives. [*Crosses fingers.*]

 This is your third book featuring Maggie Malone, right? Can we expect to see more in this fun series?

Jenna: Yes, Maggie Malone Makes a Splash is the third in the series so far. We’ve dreamed up all sorts of exciting adventures for Maggie, and on our website (maggiemalonebooks.com) we invite our readers to suggest lives for her to step into. We’ve gotten lots of incredibly inspired ideas from creative fans and I won’t give them all away, but let’s just say President of the United States is a very popular request. I wanted Maggie to try out being a dog for a day—I could just see her riding in the back seat of the family car with her tongue hanging out and her ears flapping in the breeze, and groaning about having to eat Barker’s Super Duper Gluten-free Kibble again—but Carolyn put the kibosh on that one!

Thank you so much for joining us today, Jenna and Carolyn! Best of luck on the new release!

About the Authors:

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Jenna McCarthy is a writer, speaker, and aspiring drummer who has wanted magical boots since she learned to walk. She lives with her husband, daughters, cats, and dogs in sunny South California.

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Carolyn Evans is an author, speaker, and singer/song-writers who once opened for Pat Benatar- you can ask your mom who that is. She loves traveling to faraway places but is just as happy at home with her husband and kids, living by a river in South Carolina and dreaming up grand adventures for Maggie Malone.

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 Proprietor of Homeostasis Press. She blogs at the Best of It.

Paper Things: An Interview with Jennifer Jacobson

The Mixed Up Files is thrilled to welcome Jennifer Jacobson to the blog today!

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Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a writer, teacher, educational consultant, and speaker. She writes in many genres, from children’s fiction to adult nonfiction. Among her books for younger readers are the Andy Shane early chapter books, illustrated by Abby Carter, the middle grade novels Small as an Elephant and Paper Things, and the young adult novels Stained and The Complete History of Why I Hate Her.  Her book: No More “I’m Done!”: Fostering Independence in the Primary Grades has proved to be a writer’s workshop resource for teachers of all grades.

And now for our interview. Great to have you, Jennifer!

Mixed Up Files: Addressing homelessness, especially homelessness of young people, is a pretty tough subject. When did you first realize you wanted to write a story like Paper Things?

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Jennifer Jacobson: Thank you so much for this opportunity to reflect on my work! When beginning a book, I never begin with an issue or even a theme.  Instead, I begin with characters.  I first imagined a girl who creates families from catalog cutouts (just as I did as a girl). As I was imagining her life, I was hearing a lot about kids who age out of foster care without the support they need to make it in the adult world. I decided to give Ari an older brother — one who comes of age, decides to leave this guardian’s home, and takes his little sister with him.

MUF: Paper Things isn’t your first book dealing with difficult subjects, and you write for older readers, too. Do you approach the writing of your work for Middle Grade readers differently, especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter?

J. J.: Both my middle grades, Small as an Elephant and Paper Things, are written in first person.  This means, of course, that the stories are told from the perspective of a preteen. Jack doesn’t attach a label to his mom. He describes his mom’s mental illness as her “spinning times.”  Although Ari has been couch surfing for weeks, it isn’t until the end of her experience that she realizes she’s counted amongst the homeless. It’s not only a gentler approach, but also a more authentic approach.

MUF: Your work is so broad-ranging, from easy chapters to Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction to resources for classroom teachers. Do you have a favorite age group to write for?

J. J.: I do believe middle grade is my sweet spot, but I hate the thought of limiting myself to one genre. I’m deep in the process of writing a new middle grade and yet I recently woke in the middle of the night with a picture book idea.

MUF: Our school library has some books from the Andy Shane series in it. While this is an early chapters series, the characters grow and change just the same. What are the differences between writing a series where you revisit characters in each book, and writing a single story in which the characters must be fully realized by the end?

J. J.: In the Andy Shane series, Andy and Dolores do grow in that they accept each other’s differences (one is reticent the other overbearing), but it’s a lesson that’s learned over and over again.  In a middle grade novel, the protagonist faces a challenge that changes his or her worldview. In Small as an Elephant, Jack learns that he’s not alone, that he’s part of a community.  In Paper Things, Ari comes to take the reins, to make her own choices for her future.

MUF: In doing the research for this interview, it was great finding out something about your road to writing, and how it was your students who helped you become a better writer. What’s your advice for others of any age who want to make writing a part of their lives?

J. J.: I do believe that learning to write is a process similar to learning to play a sport or a musical instrument.  All require frequent practice, immediate feedback, models to learn from, a willingness to take risks . . . and yes, acceptance of occasional failure.

MUF: Before we go, can you recommend any of your own favorite reads for our Middle Grade readers?

J. J.: My current favorites: The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern, Anna was Here by Jane Kurtz and Revolution by Deborah Wiles.

Again, thank you for these wonderful questions! I’m honored to be interviewed for The Mixed Up Files!

MUF: Thanks to you, Jennifer, for taking the time to share your insight with our readers. 

The Epistolary Middle-Grade Novel – A Big Word for “Lots of Fun!”

This post is about the epistolary middle grade novel.

WAIT! Don’t stop reading just because that word sounds so, well, boring. And academic. Because I promise, epistolary middle grade novels are some of the most entertaining books out there!

But first, the academics:  Dictionary.com defines the word epistolary [ih-pis-tl-er-ee] as an adjective meaning:  of, relating to, or consisting of letters.

See? Novels made of letters! Who doesn’t love reading letters?

Actually, the epistolary middle grade  novel can consist of much more. Diary entries, newspaper clippings, even advertisements can be sprinkled about, giving these novels a lighter feel and making them a visual feast.  These days, we can add emails, text messages and social media posts to the list of devices used in contemporary epistolary novels.

Here’s one of my all-time faves!

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That’s the cover. But, it’s the interior of the epistolary novel that is always so delicious!

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Sisters Kate and Sarah Klise blend written and visual storytelling in such a fun and inviting way! Mixed fonts, lots of drawings, short snippets of this and that all contribute to this book (and to its numerous sequels that ask us to please regard other plumbing essentials, such as the sink and, yes, the privy, too).

Another great EMGN (my new acronym! Like it?) is  Jennifer L. Holm and  Elicia Castaldi‘s Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff.  Believe me, the “stuff” this book is made of is way better than meatloaf!

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Epistolary novels are not only entertaining to read, I’ve decided they must be a blast to write as well.  Mixed-Up Files member Greg R. Fishbone recently confirmed my hunch. He told me how much fun it was writing his epistolary middle grade novel The Penguins of Doom, From the Desk of Septina Nash.

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I could go on and on from Caddie Woodlawn to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Let’s keep the list going. Add in the comments below your favorite – EMGN –  Epistolary Middle-Grade  Novel.

Michelle Houts is the author of four middle grade books, fiction and nonfiction. She loves getting and sending letters so much that she started the 52 Letters in a Year Challenge. So far, she has heard from letter-writers as far away as Germany and as old as 72. She hopes one day to try her hand at writing an EMGN.