Tag Archives: Middle Grade

On the Eve of Escape

Here at The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, we have scheduling fairies who put names on a magical calendar so that we all know who is posting and when. And, weeks ago, when I saw the date I would next post, I immediately thought, “Oh! That’s the day before I escape to…”

maine beach web small

Every year, this land-locked Ohio farm girl spends a week in a cottage on the  Maine shore with nine writing friends. It is often the most inspiring and productive week of my writing year. I can smell the ocean air already!

I began to wonder how other middle-grade authors escape the daily grind. Where do they go to think more clearly? Breathe more deeply?

And, so, I just asked.

Some of you might follow author Cynthia Lord on Facebook. If you don’t, you probably should click on her name and do that now, because she posts thoughtfully and with her heart, and you’ll love following her. And if you already do, you know that she has this great little escape in her own backyard.

cynthia lord's writing shed

Cynthia told me that she got her writing shed (aptly dubbed “Walden Backyard”) after RULES won a Newbery Honor and she and her husband were a bit cramped sharing an office in their house. Cynthia’s escape is close to home, and she loves writing in her multi-season shed. (We would say all-season, but she does live in Maine, and I’ve seen pictures in which the snow was piled nearly as high as the shed!)

lisa yee   Author of WARP SPEED and THE KIDNEY HYPOTHETICAL, Lisa Yee was caught in mid-escape when I contacted her. She wrote back:

“Ha! As I reply to your question, I am sitting in a hotel room where I’ve escaped to get writing done.”

Enough said, Lisa! Now, get back to work and don’t let me get in the way of progress!

I was surprised how many authors escape to water.  Kirby kirby LARSONLarson, author of HATTIE BIG SKY and the new DASH and DUKE, escapes ocean-side to be with the eagles and hummingbirds. It’s interesting that negative ocean ions can positively affect one’s blood pressure!  Thanks, Kirby!

tricia springstubbMixed-Up Files Author Tricia Springstubb echoed the water theme as well. Her newest middle-grade novel MOONPENNY ISLAND is set on a fictitious island. It’s no small coincidence that Moonpenny Island mirrors Kelley’s Island and Tricia’s favorite rocky and remote get-away.  Tricia finds water so motivating, she often swims to clear her head and has solved more than one plot dilemma after coming out of the pool!

Some writers, though they enjoy a good vacation, have found a more accessible escape. Margaret Peterson Haddix (the MISSING series and the SHADOW CHILDREN series) and Marlane Kennedy (THE DOG DAYS OF CHARLOTTE HAYES and the DISASTER STRIKES series) both agreed that when they are caught up in a good writing moment, their best escape is the story itself. Marlane shares, “When I am deep within  a story, I am not even aware of my surroundings. I am transported to wherever and whatever is happening in my story, and my writing escape is more within my mind than anywhere else.”  (Margaret’s escape mode, however, is not entirely waterless. Like Tricia,  she’s another swimmer/thinker!)

Peterson and KennedyMargaret Peterson Haddix and Marlane Kennedy

Lots more  Mixed-Up Files Authors weighted in as well! You can see their pictures and read about their books here But first, take a moment to read about their escapes:

Jacqueline Jaeger HoutmanCoffee shop. Earbuds. Vivaldi.

Michele Weber HurwitzI’m a big walker. Nothing like a long walk to clear my head and work through trouble spots in a WIP.

Greg R. Fishbone – Long train rides are great for writing.

Amie Borst – When my office won’t suffice, I love to sit on my back deck or by the lake. (There’s that water thing again!)

Valerie Stein – On the sailboat! Calm, quiet motion at the dock, free of distractions. (And again!)

Rosanne Parry – Love writing in my treehouse in the summer. Fresh air, lots of birds & squirrels for company and no distractions. Bliss!

Okay, I admit it. I just couldn’t leave Rosanne’s comment without hoping on over to her website to see if, just maybe, she had a picture of said treehouse. And, bingo! Here it is.

rosanne tree house

So, we would love to hear about your writing escape. Comment below and let us know where you go! I’ll try to respond, but remember, in less than 24 hours, I’ll be escaping to…

maine porch web small

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She loves mail (the real, slow, stamped-envelope kind) so she created the 52 Letters in a Year Challenge to encourage writers young and not very young to help revive the art of letter-writing. Visit Michelle at www.michellehouts.com. On Twitter @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.

NOOKS AND CRANNIES Interview with Jessica Lawson & Giveaway!

Today I’m thrilled to be talking with Jessica Lawson, author of THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER, and NOOKS & CRANNIES, which releases June 2nd.

Cover- Nooks & Crannies

Tabitha Crum, a girl with a big imagination and love for mystery novels, receives a mysterious invitation to the country estate of the wealthy but reclusive Countess of Windermere, whose mansion is rumored to be haunted.

There, she finds herself among five other children, none of them sure why they’ve been summoned. But soon, a very big secret will be revealed-a secret that will change their lives forever and put Tabitha’s investigative skills to the test.

What was the genesis for Nooks & Crannies? How did the story idea come to you?

First of all, thanks so much for having me on the blog! I tend to come up with main characters—their situation, their hopes/fears, their voice—before I come up with clear plots. Originally, I had Tabitha Crum’s character being sort of like Anne Shirley, and the story was going to be sort of like Anne of Green Gables in the Lake District of England. But somehow, after months/years of having this girl in the back of my mind, the cottage I had her being sent to turned into a manor house, and the adopting man/woman/couple became a mysterious Countess who was keeping secrets. Before I knew it, five other children were begging to go to the house as well, and then, well, the mystery-in-a-manor house idea was set.

As a big Austen fan, I love that so much of the book is set in the Lake District of England. How did you choose and research the area?

As I mentioned above, my original intentions with Tabitha Crum were for her to be sent to the Lake District as an orphan. I love Beatrix Potter (author/illustrator of Peter Rabbit and other delights), who lived in the Lake District for a time, and thought I might even work her into the narrative. And Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, so I was familiar with the area from many of her novels. For research, I checked books out of the library, looked up historic village information, and learned about various backgrounds and lifestyles of Lake District residents in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the early idea stage, I imagined all sorts of outdoor splendor/activities/adventure, but then a nasty snowstorm became part of the plot, ruining any chance of outdoor fun. The setting became the house, which meant that I spent long periods of time looking up historic manor homes in the Lake District, which, as it sounds, was heavenly.

Nooks & Crannies is about a group of kids who receive invitations to a mysterious Countess’s mansion. It reminded me a bit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at times. Is that an intentional choice you made?

The book was actually pitched to my publisher as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue. When I was drafting, I wasn’t writing an intentional tribute to one of my favorite books by Roald Dahl, but once Tabitha was joined by several other children, the comparison was a bit unavoidable (mysterious invitation, famously reclusive host, etc.). And there is definitely a Veruca Salt-ish character among the children ☺

Yes, there is, and she’s wonderfully drawn. One of my favorite characters in the book is Pemberley, Tabitha’s pet mouse and confidant. (I used to raise mice as a girl. ☺) What was the inspiration behind this character?

Pet sidekicks have always been a favorite with me and, for a girl who sleeps in a musty attic, a mouse seemed like the perfect companion. A clever mouse seemed even better. Tabitha is a big fan of Inspector Pensive novels (my fictional version of books like Sherlock Holmes) and needed an equivalent of the Inspector’s partner, Timothy Tibbs (aka, the Watson of the I.P. books). With Pemberley, Tabitha has a loyal friend and a go-to partner to bounce her ideas/theories off of.

You did a great job with the language of the novel, making not only the characters but the writing itself feel British. How challenging was that for you?

I hope I did an okay job! It was a lot of fun to write ☺ I adore the novels of Charles Dickens (and—some of—the movie adaptations!), and have always been drawn to MG novels with a British voice and setting (from Mary Poppins to The Secret Garden to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books by Maryrose Woods). I’ve always loved British accents and British films/tv. I grew up loving shows like “Are You Being Served?” and Monty Python skits and the like, so my wording may be a bit of a caricature of all of those influences. It may sound odd, but during the writing process I just sort of tried to adopt a British voice in my head and hoped it would sink into the writing.

I really enjoyed the friendship between Oliver (one of the children invited to the mansion) and Tabitha, and think Nooks & Crannies will appeal to boys as well as girls. Could you talk about the importance of boy-girl friendships for middle-graders? How do you feel about books being labeled “boy books” or “girl books” based on the gender of the main character or book cover?

Thank you! I love the friendship between Tabitha and Oliver, too. I think that friendships are very important for middle-graders, regardless of gender, but boy-girl friendships have a special place in the middle grade years. I think they go a long way in showing younger people that physical gender differences do not equal emotional/cognitive and ability/interest-based differences—that no matter if you’re a boy or a girl, you can have similar interests, dreams, problems, and feelings. Stereotypes learned during childhood regarding what each gender is suited to can too often develop into adult gender-based assumptions and prejudices that I’m not so fond of.

As for books being labeled “boy books” or “girl books,” I think booksellers and librarians and teachers and parents are always going to have their own opinion on which books seem more attractive to certain readers, but labeling books according to gender simply because a cover has a boy or girl doesn’t really seem inclusive. Author Shannon Hale has written a series of posts on why it’s important to remember that books like The Princess in Black can be (and are) appealing to both genders, and targeting them toward a single sex can do a disservice to readers.

There are so many fabulous details in this book, making every scene so easy for the reader to visualize. Can you talk to writers about the importance of setting in a novel, and how you create such thorough and satisfying descriptions?

Setting is what grounds the reader in time and place, and without establishing a firm setting (or settings, depending on your novel), plot and character development simply don’t feel as rich or authentic. The setting in this novel is (with the exception of the first few chapters) the manor house. Because the Countess is an eccentric character who travels a lot, I was able to combine style elements and get away with it. I spent lots of time trying to figure out what the furnishings might be, what rooms might be like, what clothing would be worn, what food would be served, and then I threw out a whole bunch of stuff because as much as I’d like to, cramming in every fact you learn never makes for the best world-building. The voice and tone of this book allowed me to take liberties with the setting that I might not have taken if I were doing straight historic fiction, but creating a setting that was authentic and rich for this story was important to me. My favorite details to research were the food dishes, both common and ones that would have been fancier in 1906.

Could you tell us a bit about your current work-in-progress?

Sure! Waiting for Augusta is about an eleven-year-old runaway who travels from Alabama to Georgia in order to make peace with his dead father. It’s a story about miracles, watercolors, knowing yourself, keeping secrets, golf, barbecue, magic, friendship, wanting to make your parents proud, living up to expectations, setting your own expectations, and second chances at connection. The book will be out next summer from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

It sounds like another fabulous book, Jessica! Congratulations!

Jessica is giving away a signed copy of Nooks & Crannies to one lucky commenter. We’d like to know about a favorite pet you had as a child (real or imaginary) who was a best friend to you. OR, if you’d rather, tell us about your favorite book set in England.
BIO:Jessica Lawson- Author Photo- Black and White (web)
Jessica Lawson does not live in a fancy manor house, but she does deal with mysteries on a daily basis. Most of those mysteries involve missing socks and shadowy dessert disappearances. She lives in Colorado with her husband and children.
Website: http://jessicalawsonbooks.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/JS_Lawson
Blog: http://fallingleaflets.blogspot.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jessica-Lawson-Childrens-Author/149125145284531

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. 


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:


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.

Carolyn Evans_Mar14

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.