Tag Archives: writing tips

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: An interview with Mary Kole

If you’re a MG or YA fan, you’re probably already familiar with Mary Kole, creator of Kidlit.com. Kole is also the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers and when she’s not writing or blogging, she works closely with writers to get their books into the best shape possible at marykole.com. Today, Kole is talking to MUF about mistakes writers make, her love of books that tackle real issues, and where the children’s publishing industry is headed. (Want to win an autographed copy of Writing Irresistible Kidlit? Enter below!)

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

Mixed-Up Files: Tell us a little about yourself, and your daily routine.

Mary Kole: I moved from NYC to Minnesota, where my husband is from, in 2013. I grew up in California. The climate has been a huge adjustment, to say the least! I worked in publishing and agented in CA and NY starting in 2009. My passion has always been books for children, whether picture books or YA novels. That’s what I represented when I was an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and that’s primarily what I work on now that I’m a freelance editor. Instead of working with publishers to broker deals on behalf of writers, I now work directly with writers to get their manuscripts submission-ready and help them take the next steps in their craft. I couldn’t be happier! Our son was born in March, so my routine has had quite the shake-up. Now that he’s in daycare part time, I have a lot more flexibility. I like to do some exercise every day, whether it’s a yoga or barre class, a walk around the small lake across the street, or just a half hour on the bike downstairs. Moving keeps my mind sharp! Otherwise, I’m working on client manuscripts, writing blog posts, and reading writing craft books because I’m noodling another book idea and I want to see if the project has wings. Creating my craft book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, was such a highlight for me that I’d love to do it again. My husband is a chef, so he works long hours. When he’s home, we’re spending time as a family with Theo and our two pugs, Gertie and Olive.

MUF: You provide a great deal of helpful information to writers on your site and in your book. What made you choose this as a career path?

MK: Writing has always been a part of my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on some poem or script or short story. Or reading. My parents were academics, and our house was always full of books. So I decided to “read for a living” and work in publishing. Ha! That was a bit naive, since most agents and editors read submissions in their free time and concentrate on the nuts and bolts of the publishing business during their actual work hours. But I was always passionate about story and the writing craft, so I pressed on, interning at Chronicle Books, earning my MFA, and joining Andrea Brown as an intern, then an agent. My favorite part through all of this was working directly with writers to help shape their manuscripts in terms of concept, plot, character, and voice. I’ve always dabbled in writing myself, and the blog and book were great extensions of that. Plus, I get to work from home and pick my own schedule. I’m stubbornly independent, so I was always going to create a career for myself, no matter what I ended up doing. I’m thrilled that it’s in the world of the written word that I love so much!

MUF: Writing for kids can be tough when you’re no longer one yourself. When it comes to mistakes people make in writing #kidlit, what do you think the biggies are?

MK: This is a great question. I think one of the biggest mistakes in any age category, from picture book to middle grade to young adult, is to come at the novel with an agenda in mind that you NEED to pass along to young readers. In that mindset, you’re separating yourself (wise adult) from your reader (naive child). Picture books in this vein always have a teacher or parent preaching the moral of the story at the end. Novels like this lay really heavily into the theme, telling it at every opportunity. The most successful stories, on the other hand, have theme in spades, but it’s left to the characters–and, by proxy, the readers–to discover. Nobody ever states “the point” outright. It comes across organically as the character experiences things. In order to truly do this with the respect and dignity that all young readers deserve, you need to dig deep in your own childhood experiences. There are universal coming of age themes everywhere. Kids are looking for a sense of identity, to belong, to differentiate themselves, to feel like they matter in a big and overwhelming world. How can you weave these elements into plot points? How can the character react to situations where they’re confronted with these truths? Writers who are passionate about the kidlit categories for the right reasons are more likely to be grown-ups who carry their childhoods around as part of their journeys, rather than people who grew up and left the wonder, pain, and experiences of childhood behind. I think it all boils down to seeing young readers as worthy of great stories instead of as receptacles for your opinions about life. I know this might seem obvious to some writers, but that just means you’re ahead of the game!

Mary Kole of Kidlit.com

Mary Kole of Kidlit.com

MUF: What are some of your favorite middle grade novels? 

MK: When I think about the wonder and nuance of the tumultuous middle grade period, I instantly think of Savvy by Ingrid Law, which came out in 2008. Sure, it’s “old news” these days, but I love it for several reasons. First, Law has such a light hand with the magic premise. Yes, it’s a “kid gets powers” story. And those are a dime a dozen in the slush pile. But it’s, above all else, a family story. And a voice-driven story. And a coming of age story. I see a lot of writers aiming for a high concept premise and forgetting the character-driven human elements of great middle grade. Editors are always going to be looking for fantastic middle grade with both girl and boy appeal, adventure, and a touch of Hollywood stakes. I would prescribe a reading of Savvy if you want to see this very commercial type of novel done with enormous heart.

MUF: Lately, we’ve seen MG books finding success while tackling difficult and mature subjects. What’s your take on this?

MK: As you can probably tell from my theme answer, I am all for books that tackle real life head-on. Even for younger readers. We now know more about what’s going on in the world, good and bad, than we ever did before. Kids are becoming aware of some really big truths at a younger age. I love this trend because it lets us all tackle this experience called life together in a way that lets kids feel authentic and vulnerable. If they’re going through something difficult, they can come and see that reality on the page, and they won’t feel so alone.

For a long time, sugar-coating was popular because there was this perception that kids’ fiction had to be nice. Like a little oasis. Well, kids will be the first to honestly say that not everything in life is nice! I think kids today tackle as many tough experiences as they did decades ago, but some of the stigmas against discussing difficult issues are finally going away. This is great. It’s been proven over and over again that repressing difficult feelings leads to problems. Sure, there are some issues that will be more controversial than others. In the middle grade category, your publisher’s customers are more likely to be gatekeepers like teachers, librarians, and parents. Depending on their institutional or family values, they may not buy books that are seen as too edgy or gratuitous, so houses may not spring for subjects that are too violent or sexual. Middle grade still has more buffer than YA, but you’re right, those standards seem to be changing these days. Some books don’t sell because their controversial elements are gratuitous. They’re in place for shock value, and not so much as a necessary part of exploring the issue. Books like this are much less likely to succeed than those where the edgy elements are unpleasant but necessary to an honest portrayal of the topic.

So the best way to honor what kids are going through is to be honest. And it just so happens that honesty is also the best way to tap into your authentic writing self. You have to experience your personal truth about life in order to communicate it, and manuscripts that come from that true, messy, emotional place are the ones that can be the most relatable.

MUF: Parents often worry about a book being too scary/mature/etc. for their child. Do you think parents/caregivers should read books along with their kids, so they can discuss the book together? Do you think young readers know they can stop reading a book if they’re not comfortable with the subject matter?

MK: It all depends on the family and the child. In an ideal world, a parent and child could read the same book and be able to discuss difficult topics openly. But everyone’s values are different. There are lines that certain parents or school administrators will not cross. I think that kids are very capable of deciding for themselves whether something is too challenging (emotionally or in terms of reading level). If something doesn’t feel right, a kid is likely to put the book down. If they have a receptive atmosphere at school or home, they may even talk to an adult about it. My answer in most cases is, “Try it.” The child might pull away, and that’s okay. Or they could really surprise you.

MUF: Industry-wise, can you read the tea leaves for us? What’s going to happen in #kidlit? Any trends you see bubbling up? Asking for a friend 🙂 …

MK: The market is quite healthy these days. Especially, as I mentioned, for middle grade. That means, however, that agents and editors expect more. Higher stakes. Twists on familiar concepts. Blends of action, adventure, magic, fantasy, etc. Barring a high concept premise, a really strong coming of age theme in a contemporary setting. Big feelings. Above all else, though, today’s MG gatekeepers demand voice and humor. If a character falls flat, or the writing doesn’t sizzle, you are in for stiff competition. Don’t take this as advice to litter your manuscript with #slang and references to Snapchat. But do read your work aloud. This is my most potent advice, and not many writers actually do it. You will learn so much about your characters and yourself if you take this step. Take risks. Be funny. Have fun. Get in touch with that inner middle grader. Sometimes writers are so busy trying to prove that they’re great writers, that they forget to listen to their characters and their own inner voice. You may surprise yourself!

Win a copy of Writing Irresistible Kidlit

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Andrea Pyros is the author of My Year of Epic Rock, a middle grade novel about friends, crushes, food allergies, and a rock band named The EpiPens.

Hook your Reader with a TERRIFIC First Line

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

(A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle)


“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

(Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)

Some people call them “hooks”—that all important first line of a book. Imagine a fishing hook with a fat juicy wriggling worm on the end. That worm is much more appetizing to a fish swimming by than the metal hook will ever be dangling all by itself–and so will a juicy first line of a book to potential readers cruising the shelves in a bookstore or library.

A fishing rod and worms is how I describe the creation of story hooks when I do my Creative Diary writing workshop with kids. You want to throw that great, delicious hook out there, capture your reader, and then reel them in and not let them go until they reach THE END. As a writer or a librarian or a teacher trying to grab a child with a book, we want our potential reader to get intrigued, to *Get Hooked* and KEEP READING.

So just how important IS that opening first line or first page for Readers and how important are first lines for Writers?

Let’s go to our panel of experts:

Readers First!

Aubri, 15-years-old: “The cover of a book definitely draws me in first, but the first line makes or breaks it. I have to be intrigued, but I also like funny stories like the Junie B. Jones books that start out really funny and scary books where a character might be in prison and something is going to happen to them.”

Shelby, 12-years-old: “A first line makes me want to keep reading. If it’s boring, I’ll stop. I will probably read the whole first page, but unless I like it, I’ll stop reading the book. When I’m browsing the bookshelves, I read the synopsis on the jacket, too. And the Author stuff on the back.”

Milyssa, 16-years-old: “I like good first lines, but it’s more than that. The whole first paragraph has to be great.”

Writers Next! (Clicking on the author’s name will direct you to their website)


“I’m a sucker for great first lines. I also spend a lot of time thinking about my own first lines when I begin a book. Sometimes it takes until the end of drafting before I know what works best. Here’s the first line from my novel, When the Butterflies Came: ‘The first butterfly comes the day after the funeral.’ I hope it raises questions like “the first butterfly?” or “who just died and why are butterflies showing up?

Keep reading for more thoughts about First Lines and great books from some wonderful MG authors!


“The first line needs to set the stage, giving us a glimpse into when and where the story takes place so we can immediately begin to picture things. Optimally, it should give us a meaningful glimpse at the main character–saying, thinking, doing something relevant to the story. (That is, I don’t think highly of stories that try to grab you with a cheap falsehood, as in: Terrified, Melanie screamed, convinced she was going to die. Of course, no one had ever died from seeing a mouse, but it COULD happen…) It should set the tone, giving us the voice of the character if it’s in 1st person.

And, if possible, hint at the conflict which will be at the heart of the story.

The story where I think I accomplished this most successfully is GHOST OF A HANGED MAN, which starts: “Pa said we were too young to go to the hanging.”




“The voice has to grab you and make you want to continue and there should be some follow-through in the rest of the novel about the thing(s) that arose in the first line.

In NINJAS, I used, “I knew I was in trouble when I heard the cello,” which lets us know the protag is (a) in trouble and (b) is in some strange situation wherein that trouble is announced via a cello. And the “trouble” itself forms the basis for the main conflict.”



“First lines set the tone for the story (funny, dramatic, etc). First lines are the front door of the story and should say “come on in”.

My new favorite first line is from The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester coming out the end of August: “Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.”



“The former journalist in me always thinks of first lines as the “lead” to a story. When I was writing for newspapers and magazines, I always found that once I got the lead right, the rest of the article flowed from there. It’s like building a house on a solid foundation.

My goal for the first line is to reach out and grab the reader by the lapels and pull them into the story.”

Favorite first line? Still my first-born, from The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed:

“‘Absolutely, positively not!’ roared my father in a voice meant to be heard through the teeth of a Cape Horn gale.”




“Tell him, Muddle! Tell him we’re not mice!”

The first sentence of The Barrel in the Basement is a first sentence that HAS to be followed by the second – which is even better!

“Pudding gazed with horror at the huge yellow cat who lay on his side daintily probing the mouth of the jar with his paw.”


“I often go back and change my opening after I’ve written the end. In Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, my main character thinks in the end that the siege was like one long staring match between the British and the Patriots. I wasn’t happy with my opening, so I went back and decided to open with a staring match:

“I stared into Josiah Henshaw’s red brown eyes and vowed not to blink.”

“I wanted to open with action, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book.”


“Here’s my favorite from a short story called “Witch’s Son”.”

“When Abigail Brewster brought her son, Hugh, back from the dead the first time, he looked all fragile and wispy, like morning mist on the village commons.”


“When the flying boat/returns to earth at last, /I open my eyes/ /and gaze out the round window./What is all the white? I whisper. /Where is all the world? ”

“This is from Katherine Applegate’s masterful novel-in-verse, HOME OF THE BRAVE. Civil war tears young Kek from his family and his cattle-herding village in the Sudan, and he is relocated in Minnesota in the middle of winter. He has never felt such cold, never seen or imagined snow or such a place as America. I love the way Applegate has this character express in such powerfully simple language experiences that he can barely comprehend, making the reader instantly curious and sympathetic.”


“He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.” – from THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Ramdall Wright.

“This is a feline twist on A Tale of Two Cities in this great MG animal story told within the world of the inn where Charles Dickens spent quite a bit of time. Need I say more?”


I’ve always liked the opening lines of SCHOOLED by Gordon Korman because it effectively introduces the 1st-person narrator’s voice while hinting at the plot enough to raise some questions that compel the reader (at least me!) to keep reading:

“I was thirteen the first time I saw a police officer up close. He was arresting me for driving without a license. At the time, I didn’t even know what a license was. I wasn’t too clear on what being arrested meant either.”

HILLARY HOMZIE, author of Queen of Likes:

“I love this first line because I just love Deborah Wiles writing: “I come from a family with a lot of dead people.”

It’s the first line of Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (MG Harcourt, 2005).

The next lines after that: “Great-uncle Edisto keeled over with a stroke on a Saturday morning after breakfast last March. Six months later, Great-great-aunt Florentine died–just like that–in the vegetable garden. And of course there are all the dead people who rest temporarily downstairs, until they go off to the Snapfinger Cemetery.”

And on that funny “morbid” note, I want to give a huge thanks to all of our reader and writer experts on the subject of First Lines and Hooks! Now Go forth! Find a Great Hook Today or Write a Great Hook  – and Fall In Love at First Line!

Since I adore first lines, please share your favorite First Lines below in the comments!

Kimberley Griffiths Little has been juggling book launch parties for her FORBIDDEN trilogy (Harpercollins) with her right hand, twirling a handful of new characters with her left while drafting new book proposals with her toes. Throw in too many cookies, a household that never sleeps . . .and you have a typical day in the life of a writer on deadline. See Kimberley’s beautiful new website here: www.KimberleyGriffithsLittle.com. Friend her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kimberleygriffithslittle









How to Create Complex Characters

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about complex characters. You know—those memorable folks who inhabit our favorite books and keep us awake past our bedtimes. But what is it about these characters that makes them so memorable? What writing tricks have the authors employed to compel us to follow their characters from beginning to end, even if it means sacrificing our sleep?

These are questions I’ve asked myself as I’ve sought to improve the character development in my own stories, so I thought I’d share a writing tip that I’ve found helpful. However, even though it’s probably safe to assume that everyone who reads the MUF blog loves to read, I figured I’d give your reading-brain a 3-minute break today. So instead of an in-depth written post, I’m presenting my writing tip as part of my video series as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher.

If you’re a writer, I hope the video will prove useful as you continue to improve your writing craft. If you’re a teacher, consider using the video as a launch point for a writing mini-lesson. And if you’re neither a writer nor a teacher? . . . Well, maybe you’ll want to watch the video anyway, just to see what Luke Skywalker and a school bully could have in common.

How to Create Complex Characters

Do you have an example of a memorable, complex character from a book you’ve read? What was it that made that good character a bit bad . . . or that bad character a bit good? Feel free to post in the comments below.

T. P. Jagger The 3-Minute Writing TeacherAlong with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original, free readers’ theater scripts for middle-grade teachers. For T. P.’s 10-lesson, video-based creative writing course, check him out on Curious.com.