Tag Archives: Middle Grade

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?

Jennifer Richard Jacobson

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.

Making it Through the Murky Middle

bikers_croppedOh, middle problems! You know what I mean: When you are stuck in the middle between two feuding friends. Or half way up the hill you’re pedaling. Or struggling to swallow the mouthful of meatloaf you’re in the middle of choking down.

If you are trying to write a novel, that middle is the place where the cake falls, where the piano slips out of tune, where you put your mittens on and start walking for home.

But don’t give up! Whatever you are in the middle of, there is a way through. It’s all about pacing and adding fun.

A number of years ago, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I set a goal of 25,000 words (a decent children’s book length goal and more realistic than 50,000 for a working mom). I wrote something entirely out of my usual—a fantasy novel—and instead of not showing it to anyone until every sentence was nearly perfect, I let my daughter read each day’s output, as a serial novel. She begged to know what happened next. She kept me focused on story and writing daily for 30 days. It was liberating.

So for all of you out there writing, it’s mid November. Are you stuck in the murky middle? Here are a few things that may help:

  • Power through. By writing every day or at least three to five days a week, you remain in your story more. You won’t have to waste time rereading to remember where you left off.
  • Raise the stakes. If your interest is flagging, do something outrageous to your main character. Add a car crash! A fire! A ghost! Make your character run away. Lose the one thing she wants. Or get the one thing he wanted—only to find it’s not what he hoped.
  • Revise later. Don’t get caught up in lyrical prose—now is the time to tell a story. If you can get down the bones of a story, you can redo language and scenes in the second and third drafts.
  • Write out of order. Be zany! No one said you had to write the middle after the beginning. Write the end. Maybe you will then see a path from the first chapter to the last.
  • Community matters. Relying on other people—even virtual ones—to egg you on is a fun way to stay committed. Enlisting a reader will keep you going.

Whatever you produce by Nov. 30, just remember that the best thing you are doing is exercising your writing muscle. Writing is work, and the process of putting one word in front of another is just like pedaling up a hill. You have to keep huffing. You can’t stop in the middle and not reach the top or roll back down. Where you are going is up.