Friday, December 14, 2018

The Generosity of MG Authors, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

I'm so glad I belong to this group, us middle grade authors. Because we are a generous, giving bunch. I don't know about other author worlds (I suspect picture book peeps fall into the same category) but in this world, we have each other's backs.

As we're reflecting this month on the blog about gifts and wishes, the first topic that came to mind was the generosity I see every day, without fail, in the middle grade author community.

Confession: my fourth title was released in November, and I admit, I sort of dropped the ball on promotion. Like many authors, that's not my favorite thing to do anyway, but I've been hibernating these last few months -- hard at work on a revision for book #5, to be released in 2020 -- and I kept putting off my promotion duties.

But never fear, the community had my back. Bloggers reached out, some who'd not known my work previously, like Deborah Kalb, who regularly spotlights best-selling and little-known authors on her fabulous blog. She's an author herself, but posts Q&As with authors in every genre, both for adults and kids. This year, she had close to 800 posts, helping authors get the word out about their books.

Kate Messner is another author who always goes out of her way to help fellow writers. On her website, she maintains a list of authors who are available for school Skypes on World Read Aloud Day (February 1, 2019) so if you aren't included, send Kate an email.

And on MG Book Village, a hub to share and connect on all things middle grade, the organizers keep a list of MG book release dates and regularly Tweet the authors on their book birthdays.

My Indie bookstore, The Book Stall in Winnetka, IL, reached out too, and asked me to come in and sign stock. I've been thrilled to hear that Indies are making a comeback, and people have been returning to their neighborhood bookstores.

Think about how many authors Tweet and post pics on Instagram of books they're reading and recommend. All this is how to get the word out about books -- by championing each other.

I vow to do more of that in 2019. That's both my wish and my gift -- that we continue to support and cheer for each other in little ways, big ways, and always.

Happy holidays to our Smack Dab readers!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, Ethan Marcus Stands Up, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. Find her at

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Our Favorite Father Christmas

The 1932 Christmas Letter (J.R.R. Tolkien) told how goblins had attempted to steal presents stored ready for Christmas. Photograph: The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976

This month, we at Smack Dab in the Middle present our wish for writers, a wish for creative inspiration. A wish for a grand story that takes you out of the ordinary, that presents you with the unexpected, gives you a call to adventure that you cannot help but answer?

Well. We’re working on it.

It so happens, in 1920, J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-year old son, John Francis, asked his famous father , “Who is Father Christmas?” Talk about the unexpected! And Tolkien decided to answer that call. On Christmas Eve, late at night, Tolkien sat down in his study and wrote a letter. In spidery handwriting, in red ink, Tolkien replied as Father Christmas, addressing it from “Christmas House, North Pole.”

For the next 23 years, every Christmas Eve, Tolkien wrote a letter to his four children, telling stories about the misadventures of Father Christmas and his helpers, including the North Polar Bear and his two sidekick cubs, Paksu and Valkotukka. About all the things he broke, firework explosions, the discovery of ancient caves full of old cave drawings, and battles with the goblins The stories oozed with similar motifs as his famous Middle Earth writings. When Father Christmas couldn't write, his Elvish secretary filled in. The letters come alive with Tolkien’s detailed, colorful, fantastical, intricate pictures.

“Dear Children,” begins one letter. “There is a lot to tell you. First of all a Merry Christmas! But there have been lots of adventures you will want to hear about. It all began with the funny noises underground … ”


The letters were released posthumously by the Tolkien estate on 2 September 1976, the 3rd anniversary of Tolkien’s death. Come see for yourself, the wonderful adventures of Father Christmas and the great North Polar Bear at The Tolkien Library.

I wish you a happy, inspirational, creative Holiday!


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Gift of Reading: A New MG Book For the Holidays by Darlene Beck Jacobson.

Today, for your reading pleasure, I offer a gift that would be perfect for a middle-school-er on your holiday list. Take a look at BEAUTY AND BERNICE by Nancy Viau.

A fearless skateboarder
A quirky princess
Two very different girls…
And the summer that was almost a fairy tale

 “I loved Beauty and Bernice SOOOO much! The book is about a girl called Bernice who loves skateboarding. Her life is going great until annoying pink 'princess' Odelia moves in across the road. At first, Bernice pays no attention to her - she grew out of princesses years ago. But there's more to Odelia than meets the eye... I loved this book because I, like Bernice, love skateboarding. I found this book hilarious in some parts, but moving and gripping in others. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves skateboarding, princesses and mysteries that leave you on the edge of your seat. I rate this book a definite five stars.”
 ~ 10-Year-Old Goodreads Reviewer

"Readers will enjoy their charming adventure from the skate park to Smile Academy, a summer camp for kids with Down syndrome. A sweet tale with wisdom and heart." ~ Literary SoirĂ©e 

Here's a link to the awesome trailer:

Twelve-year-old skateboarder Bernice Baransky is comfortable with her skater grunge look—a look she’s had since she traded in her childhood princess dress-up outfits for a skateboard. Bernice is the only girl at Porchtown Skate Park who can pop an ollie, ride the rails, and grind the slabs. She’d love to impress Wyatt Anderson, a skater who calls her Dude, but that would require actually talking to him, and Bernice can’t seem to do more than mumble when he’s around.
Bernice wonders if she should accept help from a new neighbor, the proper and stuffy Odelia, who is desperate to befriend her. Odelia acts like a fairy-tale princess, and insists on referring to her fancy notes in ODELIA’S GUIDE TO THE SOCIAL GRACES. Odelia spouts off ridiculous and hilarious lessons on poise, posture, manners, and more—even what to do about embarrassing “oopsies” liked spilled soda, burps, and unexpected gas—and Bernice reluctantly realizes that Odelia knows what she’s talking about. But Bernice can’t be seen hanging out with a princess at the skate park, the summer camp where she volunteers, or anywhere around town because that is just not cool. She’ll accept Odelia’s help, but Odelia better ditch the gowns and tiaras, or people will talk.
Nancy Viau’s exciting middle grade takes readers on a thrill ride from the skate park’s half-pipe to Smile Academy, a summer camp for Down syndrome children. A novel full of adventure and heart, it asks the question: Can two very different people ever be friends? 
The book is not just about skaters and princesses.
The book is not really a fairy tale although there are some sneaky references that savvy readers will pick up on.
The book is jammed packed with skateboarding moves--all thoroughly researched.
The book features Down syndrome children, and so few do. Am I right? I wanted to highlight these very capable, delightful, "Made of Awesome" kids. It's become a favorite part to teachers and educators of special needs children.


Other Middle Grade Titles:
Something is Bugging Samantha Hansen (Schiffer Publishing, 2019)
Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head (Abrams Books, 2008 & Schiffer Publishing, 2019)
Beauty and Bernice (Schiffer Publishing, 2018)
Just One Thing! (Schiffer Publishing, 2016)


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

(Not So) Simple Wish from Jody Feldman

All right, I’ll say it. Way too often I have these wonderfully grandiose ideas, but when it comes time to put fingers to keyboard, it's easier to follow a less magical path. The end result doesn’t match the vibrancy of my imagination.

I know I’m not alone.

And so my wish for writers is plain and simple: I wish for you the inspiration and dedication to put all the right words in the right order to write that story which matches the vision and voices in your head. Have a magical season!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Lump of Coal -- from Jane Kelley

This holiday season, I would like to give you all a lump of coal.

Wait! What? you say. How could anyone who's reading this blog and loves kids books possibly deserve a dirty black lump? Santa only gives coal to those who who have been naughty.

Coal's reputation has gotten even worse since Victorian England. In those days, poor children might actually have preferred to get a piece of fuel to provide a little bit more heat on a cold day. Now we shun it for being the dirtiest of fossil fuels. But I wondered, if I dug deeply enough, would that unwelcome gift have some redeeming qualities?

I searched the internet. I found recipes for lumps of "coal" made out of marshmallows and chocolate cookies. I found many different Santa-esque figures who came down chimneys to put presents in kids' shoes. (Italy had a witch named La Befana!) I found plastic lumps which could be sent as gags. And then I found what I hoped I would.

Send Coal will, for a very modest fee, ship a baseball-sized lump of actual coal to whomever you choose. Anonymously! You can include a message explaining your reasoning for this dubious gift, although they reserve the right to censor some sentiments for legal reasons.

The coal comes from Centralia, Pennsylvania. That town mined coal for over a century. But they had to stop when a vein of coal that ran beneath the town caught fire. It could not be extinguished. The underground heat, the toxic fumes, the sinkholes threatened the citizens who were moved to safety. The fire still burns, as evidenced by plumes of smoke which escape from the vents. Now Centralia is a ghost town, visited by tourists and the people who once lived there.
Discover Magazine's photo of smoke wafting past abandoned buildings
So, dear readers and writers, you are probably still wondering why I would give you each a lump of coal.

Because I hope that you will grasp whatever lump of life you have discovered. Examine it carefully. Don't take it at its most obvious value. I guarantee you will find a story in it.

Remember that it is the humble, lowly, despised lump of coal that can be turned into diamonds.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Gift I Would Give to Fellow Writers by Deborah Lytton

When I think about a gift I would give to fellow writers, many things come to mind: persistence, commitment, confidence, time, and of course, a red Moleskine notebook and Palomino Blackwing pencils. And yet there is one thing that surpasses all of this: inspiration. When a writer is inspired, the story flows smoothly and we are committed to the work so completely that finding the time becomes as simple as breathing. Being confident about the manuscript and persistent in submitting it to agents or editors happens without procrastination. It doesn't matter if our only writing supplies are a broken teal crayon and a wrinkled grocery store receipt because the words must be written. Most importantly, when we are inspired, we are confident about the work we have created. So this year, I hope you will be inspired to write the story in your heart, the one that only you can tell. Happy writing!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Dear Santa, All This Author Wants for Christmas Is...

... to give my readers HAPPY books.


Let me explain.

In September I visited a school in north rural Alabama. The 6th graders were wonderful, and a few of them wrote me letters, which I responded to. Then a few of those kids wrote me again via email. One message in particular really struck a chord:

Dear Irene Latham,

Thank you for writing me back! My name is [name removed] from Cotaco School. I am very excited about you putting my name in your idea file! If you do put my name in a book, could I be a zookeeper, please? I am a fan of your books, creations, and adventures. I am not online very much but if you do ever make a book with me in it please make it happy and not sad. I have issues with my parents they fight a lot and I am constantly moving houses it gets tiring and I just need some happiness in my life. Thank You


"I just need some happiness in my life."

YES. I want to write "happy" books for this kid, and all the kids like him. 

Working on it...
Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, Irene Latham is an Alabama author of many poetry, fiction and picture books, including Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters), which was named a Charlotte Huck Honor book and a Kirkus Best Book of 2018. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018


Congrats to Michele Weber Hurwitz, who celebrated a book birthday this week for Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark (S&S/Aladdin), her fourth middle grade novel. It's the sequel to last year's Ethan Marcus Stands Up.

Siblings Ethan and Erin Marcus are invited to attend a prestigious invention camp during winter break of seventh grade. The camp is run by the enigmatic, mysterious tech sensation Zak Canzeri, known to the world as "Z." Fidgety Ethan wants to finally create a working desk-evator (a device to allow kids to stand at their classroom desks) which he flubbed at the school Invention Day. Perfectionist Erin desperately wants to beat her archenemy Marlon Romanov, who thinks that girls aren't as good as boys at science. But at the camp, both Ethan and Erin question their abilities against a roomful of geniuses. On the last day, they team up with two new friends and think of a spectacular invention -- if there's enough time to create it and present to the judges! Narrated by five kids, the story allows readers to experience the same events from different perspectives.

CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? POEMS OF RACE MISTAKES AND FRIENDSHIP by Irene Latham and Charles Waters has been recognized as:

an NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor Book,

a 2018 Kirkus Reviews' Best Middle-Grade Book

and a 2019 NCTE Notable Poetry Book

Hopefully this recognition will get the book into more readers' hands and help #startaconversation.

Also, if you haven't heard the good news, Indie bookstores are thriving! The American Booksellers Association says that small, independent bookstores fell by about 40 percent during the mid-90s to 2009. Some have since recovered, and this year, sales are up more than 5 percent compared to a year ago! The "buy local" movement has been a driving force, says the ABA, and customers are increasingly spending in their neighborhood stores. So please continue to support your local bookstore this holiday season, and always.

Friday, November 30, 2018


The idea for Courageous wasn’t even mine.   An editor at Scholastic contacted me and said the idea for a middle grade book about the evacuation at Dunkirk had been approved in-house and that they were looking for a writer; might I be the one?  Since I had already done something similar with The Bicycle Spy—Scholastic had handed me the idea and I developed it into a successful  book—I knew that this was a way of working that challenged me, in a good way, so I was game to try it again.  I fleshed out the synopsis, wrote a few sample chapters and waited; in a few weeks, I was told that I had the job.
            I knew very little about what happened at Dunkirk before I started researching it, but what I found out intrigued me.  Rather than a military victory, Dunkirk was a retreat in which the real heroes were not soldiers, but brave British civilians who stepped in to save their boys—and a lot of other boys too.  I loved the idea of writing about ordinary people, like Aidan, Sally and the rest of the village, who risked life and limb to help the stranded troops.  In rowboats, fishing boats, and sailboats, armed with thermoses of tea and the occasional Union Jack, men and women crossed the English Channel and brought over 300,000 men to safety. It was a stirring, inspiring tale.
            Since the movie was in wide release while I was researching and writing the book, I naturally went to see it.  I’m not a fan of war movies, and I approached this one with a sense of dread mixed with grim obligation.  Of course I was going to see it, but that didn’t necessarily mean I would like it.  To my surprise, I liked it very much and found it a nuanced and unexpected treatment of the subject. 
            Courageous in no way resembles the film.  But it was through watching it that I was able to expand upon my own story, giving it both texture and heft.   For instance, watching several scenes that took place on the beach, I realized that the soldiers would have sand everywhere—in their boots, their uniforms, their hair, mouths and noses.  And that soldiers who survived the explosion of their ship and landed in the water, would end up covered in grease and oil.  Such small but telling details helped make me create characters and situations that seemed real.
            I was also able to inject my own beliefs about war into the story, and made it clear that while war may sometimes be necessary, it’s still a horrific experience for soldiers on both sides of the conflict.  I allowed George, Aidan’s enlisted older brother, to muse on what the death of a German soldier—a man even younger than he is—will mean to that boy’s parents, family and friends.   I took pride in conveying that in more than one scene, and developed the theme throughout the novel.
            Writing about what you know and love is one kind of pleasure; writing to extend the breadth and depth of your understanding and awareness is another, and I’m grateful that writing Courageous gave me that chance. 
Grab a copy of COURAGEOUS.
Keep up with Yona Zeldis McDonough.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thank a Vet!

By Charlotte Bennardo

November is Thank a Vet month. While we salute and appreciate our military vets, on Smack Dab we're thanking all those veteran writers who have helped shaped our writing. There are lots of famous writers whose work I enjoy reading, and even admire them. Some though, have a spark that catches my eye and my soul so much that they influence me, like a long distant mentor who doesn't know I exist.

Here are some of my faves:

Marshall Saunders. This Canadian author, a fierce advocate for animal rights, wrote under her middle name because in the late 1800s, female authors weren't popular. She wrote romance and children's books, and it was her book, Beautiful Joe, a story written from a dog's perspective that I love. Reading it as a young girl, I was fascinated how the dog was narrating a full novel. I thought it was amazing, I'd never read anything like it. It influenced my Evolution Revolution series which is told from the perspective of an inquisitive squirrel.

Anne Rice. This world renowned author showed me the beauty of all the history that surrounds characters and stories. It wasn't enough to show the initial historical setting, Anne wove it all through her stories, from ancient Egypt to the 1920s to modern day; and not just the history of one place, but around the world, through many cultures and beliefs and lifestyles. I strive to reproduce the richness that her novels evoke.

Sherrilyn Kenyon. Only in the last few years has Sherrilyn written middle grade novels, with her Chronicles of Nick series. Initially an adult writer specializing in vampire, Greek, and other mythologies, she spread out to middle grade and graphic novels. Her characters are complex, flawed, and magnetic. If asked to pick one favorite character, I simply couldn't.

Mary Janice Davidson. An adult writer, it was her Undead series that showed me how easy it was to write humor. When you can sit in a crowded bookstore and laugh silly over a book, not caring that people are watching, you know the humor is spot on. It was the natural humor of her adult books that made me venture into humor, both in my adult books and my children's. The premise is simple- over exaggeration and pairing two things that shouldn't be paired. This works for kids as well as adults.

Julie Garwood. A consummate and bestselling romance author, I learned dialogue from her books. Like a lot of people, I struggled with making dialogue sound real, making it flow naturally. Whether we're a kid or an adult, the way we speak is vastly different from the way we write. Always taught to write in complete sentences, we all take short cuts, use improper grammar and slang, and generally speak in ways that make English teachers everywhere cringe. Once I learned how to cut the dialogue down, I got better at writing it without struggling.

Dav Pilkey. Yep, Captain Underpants is one of my favorite books/series. It's potty humor and ridiculousness and plain fun. Reading it to my son, I had the hardest time trying to say the words without falling into a fit of giggles. The book fit so well with my boys at that age that I kind of wondered if Dav was a young kid. To keep that kind of freshness in your writing for your audience as you age is something I strive for.

Dr Suess. I generally don't write picture books, but the beloved How The Grinch Stole Christmas is written so perfectly; it incorporates rhyme, rhythm, a moral, silliness, impossibilities made real, and captures the attention of both adult and child. You're just not human if this story doesn't delight you.

The Disney Storybook. Featuring all the best known and loved fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and others, these books kept me so engrossed that my cousin once remarked, "Why do you have to read so much??" They are simply and concisely written, making them perfect for a middle grader to read on their own, or for younger ones to listen to. The stunning pictures added to the wonder.

You may notice that there aren't many current middle grade or young adult authors. There were few when I was growing up, so I had to take inspiration from writers of books for older readers. There are many current authors whose work is just as beautiful and inspiring, so take a look around. While they may not influence my writing, they satisfy my need for a good story.

Photo courtesy of Pexels, Inc.

Happy reading, and thanks, all you vet writers!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

On Not Acting (or Writing) Your Age

When I started thinking about which author I would write about for this month’s blog theme, my head was swimming. Should I focus on Beverly Cleary, who inspired me with her wonderfully funny books when I was a child? Judy Blume, who told the truth? Laura Ingalls Wilder, who made me feel as if I actually lived on the prairie? Arnold Lobel, whose delightfully weird Mouse Soup still cracks me up every time I read it?

But then I thought of an author whose books weren’t around when I was a child but who gave my daughters and me lots and lots of laughs: Barbara Park. For books that seem so simple, the Junie B. Jones series certainly taught me a lot about writing for kids. First of all, plot. Wow, could that woman keep a plot moving! There is never a point in any Junie B. book where your mind wanders or you’re not dying to turn the page to see what happens next. Second, audience analysis. Park knew what her readers would enjoy. Third, humor. How did she come up with all the crazy antics of our heroine? Taking a fish stick to school for show and tell on pet day? Genius!

But most of all, voice. The wonderful thing about Barbara Park is that I doubt most young readers who love Junie B. even know who Barbara Park is. Park, because of her amazing skill, is invisible. You really believe that a little girl named Junie B. Jones is telling you a story because the voice is so strong. You forget that an actual adult could be behind it.

As Junie B. once said, “Sometimes grown ups don’t act their right old age.” And thank goodness for all of us that Barbara Park didn’t write her “right old age,” either.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Recommended Reading by Chris Tebbetts

If I ever taught a course on writing novels for young readers, I know what at least part of my assigned reading list would look like. It centers around three books I’ve always recommended to people, each of them operating as its own mini-master-class in plot, voice, and form, respectively. (And FYI, although this is a middle grade-focused blog, I’m including middle grade as well as YA titles here.) 

Here are my recommendations, though I’d love to hear yours as well, in the comment section below. What does YOUR recommended reading list look like? 

For plot: HOLES by Louis Sachar

To me, HOLES is as close to a perfectly plotted middle grade novel as I’ve found. It brings together disparate threads in a way that, ultimately, fulfills the definition of a good ending, which is that it be both surprising and inevitable. Along the way, this book kept me turning pages with a combination of its own great premise; a compelling series of asked-and-answered questions; high stakes (and then some); and, again, those unbraided plot elements that I had to simply trust Louis Sachar would bring together in the end, even though I couldn’t imagine how he was going to do it…until he did. 

Other recommendations in the PLOT category:

A SINGLE SHARD, by Linda Sue Park

WHEN YOU REACH ME, by Rebecca Stead 


ELEANOR AND PARK, by Rainbow Rowell (This one’s a bit of a cheat on my part. Really it’s the characters I love in this book, but the way Rowell uses character to drive plot here is masterful.) 

For voice: FEED by M.T. Anderson

This book blew my mind when I first read it, early in my writing days. The story itself is compelling, but it would have been a completely different book without the distinctive voice, which in my mind succeeds in three ways. 1) By employing elements of its own invention--book-specific slang and tone that was perfectly balanced between the unfamiliar and the accessible. 2) At the same time, it was rooted in the kind of credibility that allowed me as a reader to trust the author and settle comfortably into the world of the story without pausing to question his choices. 3) Maybe most of all, the distinctive voice in this novel helped create an overall resonance around the themes of the book itself, which for me were about language, the degradation of language, and what that means for us as people, right here and right now. 

Other recommendations in the VOICE category:



THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas 


For form: OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse

I am not a huge fan of novels in verse, and yet OUT OF THE DUST is one of my very favorite reads of all time. Karen Hesse has an amazing way of packing as much story as possible into the very limited form of her  short, poem-chapters. Like writing a picture book, every word counts here, and man, does she make them count! I’m not sure this is a fair way of measuring the book’s success, but for me, it was at times like I forgot I was reading a verse novel at all. Although, for the record, her poetry is gorgeous; her word choice is stunning in places; her economy is perfect; and it seems hard to imagine this book in any other form than the one Hesse chose for it. 

Other recommendations in the FORM category (verse novels; graphic novels; and while I don't have any epistolary novels in mind, that's one of many other forms that might go here):


FUN HOME, by Alison Bechdel (not technically YA, but a genius piece of writing!)

SOLD, by Patricia McCormick

MARY'S MONSTER, by Lita Judge

Sunday, November 25, 2018


Uh. All of ‘em.

I’m really being serious. Loooooong ago, I had a prof for an intro to lit critique class. He told me that analyzing a piece had nothing to do with good. Other people with better credentials than some lowly college student had already decided the works I was reading was “good” or worthwhile. They were in the canon. My job, he said, was really to figure out why. 

Fast forward a few years, and I’m deep in the midst of trying to sell my first book (a task that took more than 7 years of full-time effort). I remember what that prof said. And I start reading all the latest releases that way. Every single one. I’d tell myself, “Somebody invested in this book. Why?”

I do it to this day, even with indies. Especially popular indies. I ask myself, “This book has an enormous following. Why?” Of course, Amazon reviews offer some insight. But I challenge myself to find something to admire in every book. Every single one.

The thing is, when you’re trying to sell a book and are up to your hair follicles in rejections, it’s easy to go negative. The negativity can be internally targeted (telling yourself “I’m not good enough”), or it can be externally targeted (telling yourself “All anybody acquires is crap. And of course, I’m too much of a genius for anyone to want to buy my books”). 

Neither is true. I guarantee it. 

Look, every author finds their path. Maybe it’s not even traditional. Maybe you’ll wind up going indie. Who knows? But if you’re on the trek to becoming an author, I HIGHLY recommend my trick. Find something positive and admirable in every book you pick up. It doesn’t matter if you like the book. Or finish the book. Find something to admire. Positivity breeds more positivity. 

After a while, positivity even bleeds into your work. 

In a way that makes your readers smile. 

And THAT’S the kind of work that winds up opening doors for authors.