Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Middle Grade Then and Now, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

When I was young, there wasn't really a category of books that were designated as 'middle grade.' I remember reading and loving Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. (Oh, to live on my own island, away from my annoying two younger brothers!) I read classics, like Heidi and Little Women. And later, in high school, I read S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and a slew of books by Paul Zindel, the most memorable being My Darling, My Hamburger. He was more or less a YA author before that genre was called YA. I remember reading gothic romance novels too, like Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which were all the rage when I was 16.

It wasn't until I was a mom and participated in mother-daughter book clubs with my daughters that I read today's middle grade novels. And fell in love with them. There were two that resonated so much that I knew I wanted to write one of these books. Or try to, anyway. They were So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles.

I didn't think these novels were just for 9-12 year olds! They're compelling, deep, heartfelt, poignant, real stories with true-to-life characters that get under your skin. Plots that prompt the reader to ponder important, essential life questions. Conflict that keeps the pages turning.

Could I create something like that?

I read them several times. I studied them. I learned what ingredients made up a good story for this age group.

I tried to write a middle grade novel. Fail (of course). I wrote another. Fail #2. Those documents are stored safely on my computer and they're not going anywhere. I think of them as practice books, sort of like an archeological remnant of early cave drawings. But, like those plucky heroines in the two books who are determined to pursue answers, I kept at it. And at some point, something worked. I wrote something that got a nibble. Then a deal!

This month, my fourth middle grade novel will be released from Aladdin Books, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. It's a sequel to last year's Ethan Marcus Stands Up. I had such fun with these two books, which are narrated by five seventh-graders, digging into themes of determination, sibling rivalry, and learning to get along with others who see the world from a different lens.

I don't think I've quite yet reached the level of Deborah's and Sarah's extraordinary works, but I keep trying. I continue to be inspired by them and so many other middle grade authors.

There's no other writing world I'd rather be a part of.

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Review: THE ART OF BEING REMMY by Mary Zisk

I recently read a fun book that was an entertaining trip down memory lane. THE ART OF BEING REMMY by Mary Zisk takes place in 1965 during the height of the Beatles fame in the USA. The heroine Remmy Rinaldi, who wants to marry Beatle Paul (she wasn't the only one!), also aspires to be an artist against the wishes of her father. The only way she can prove to Dad that girls can be artists too, is to win the Art Competition.

Here's my review of this delightful and funny story:

The Art Of Being Remmy by Mary Zisk is a delightful time travel trip back to 1965 when the Beatles reigned supreme. Remmy Rinaldi and her best friend Debbie ADORE all things Beatles and make a plan to one day meet their idols. Remmy also loves art and has a second secret plan to develop her Spark as an artist, even though it means going against her father’s wishes. Girls in the 1960’s need to know their place and follow the path men have set for them. A path that includes being housewives, mothers, maybe teachers, nurses , secretaries or stewardesses. But artists? NEVER!

Remmy is determined to prove her father and everyone else – including her once friend Bill – that she can be a great artist. Good enough to win a contest. She keeps her drawings in Super Secret Sketchbooks and earns her own money to take painting lessons so she can enter the Art Awards Contest.

Lots of challenges get in the way of Remmy’s plan, including problems with her best friend and a devious French Rat Fink. Along the bumpy road of 7th grade, Remmy learns that some rules are worth challenging and fairness for girls in all aspects of life is one of them.

This illustrated middle grade book is a funny and charming peek into the days when the Beatles took the world by storm and the force of female protest was at their heels. An entertaining read that celebrates creativity and girl power.

Darlene Beck Jacobson

Sunday, November 11, 2018

No One Single Mentor for Me

by Jody Feldman

7th grade, Home Ec*
The mandatory class was divided into sewing and cooking.
The sewing? I choose to forget that fiasco.
But the cooking? I had that down pat. Learning at the heels of my mother and grandmothers, not only did I already understand how to follow a recipe, I also understood how to stray from one to get even better results. I can tell you stories about how I got a B- in eggs because I refused to play by the classroom rules and an Incomplete in a homework assignment for the same reason, but I should probably explain why this pertains to this month’s theme... and my next sentence.

I am not Julie Powell. Who’s that?
She’s the author of Julie and Julia**, the woman who chronicled her year-long journey cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I own that cookbook, and I’ve cooked recipes from it, but I would never even entertain the idea of learning how to cook from one book. You don't see Julia Child making strudel or matzoh balls or mushroom risotto here. 

As much as I’ve set out to study what works for authors I admire, and as well as I understand how to use books as mentor texts, I find that I learn even more by experiencing books as stories. I am not wired to follow one person’s methods or lessons or examples to raise my skills to the next level.

It’s taken a village to educate me. It’s taken (off the top of my head) Cinda Chima, Debby Garfinkle, Mary Beth Miller, Martha Levine, Cindy Lord, Gordon Korman, Louis Sachar, Vicki Jamieson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Rebecca Stead, Eugene Yelchin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Franny Billingsley, Nancy Werlin, Agatha Christie, Patricia McKissack, Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Eve Bunting, and uncountable more—in their roles as critique partners or conference presenters or story creators or all three—to help me move my skills along. And I have to believe that it’s this patchwork of unofficial mentors that has most helped me to develop a style I can call my own.

The way I’m wired, it would never have taken a single Home Ec instructor to teach me how to cook. Or a single cookbook. Or even Julia Child. (I even learned something about cake decorating from my father.) Besides, I have way too much fun absorbing bits and pieces, learnings and lessons, ideas and inspirations wherever I happen to find them.
*Now known in most schools as some version of FACS—Family and Consumer Science.
**You may know it better as its film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Philip Pullman's Alethiometer -- by Jane Kelley

I just finished reading the first novel of Philip Pullman's new trilogy, The Book of Dust. He is a master storyteller. I know I should have read the book slowly, to decipher how his realistic characters can thrive in such imaginative, suspenseful plots. But I couldn't. I devoured all 450 pages. So I have started reading it again in hopes of learning how he does what he does. 

Reading his interviews have given me a few hints. He described his workspace as having room for lots of books and several power tools. It isn't hard to picture him actually constructing things, like the canoe which is such an important part of the novel I just read. He is a craftsman. And so whenever he describes something he has imagined, like the alethiometer, the mechanisms are so clear that I believe I could actually hold one in my hand.

The name alethiometer comes from two Greek words. Aletheia means truth. Meter means to measure.  The characters in this novel and in his earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials, use the alethiometer to guide them. 

The device resembles a compass or a clock face with 36 symbols around its circumference. It has four hands. To ask it a question, you point three of the hands at three separate symbols. Then the fourth hand will spin until it points to a fourth symbol. These images provide the answer. Some people, of course, are better at reading it than others. Those who think they already know have a harder time arriving at the truth. What works best, as one of the characters says, is to hold the question in one's mind while simultaneously letting the mind drift toward discovery. 

That's exactly how I try to write. I select several separate symbols. I hold them in my mind (and also my heart). I let my mind roam around all the possibilities of what they suggest. And eventually, unless my thinking has become clogged by the predictable, the short-cut, or the trope, I arrive at a truth.

But of all the elements that he uses, my favorites are the daemons. 

He has said that His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust are not fantasies, but stark realism. He writes about "real people, like us, and the story is about a universal human experience, namely growing up. The fantasy parts of the story were there as a picture of aspects of human nature, not as something alien and strange. For example, readers have told me that the daemons, which at first seem so utterly fantastic, soon become so familiar and essential a part of each character that they, the readers, feel as if they've got a daemon themselves. My point is that we all have. It's an aspect of our personality that we often overlook, but it is there. I was using the fantastical elements to say something that I thought was true about us and about our lives."

Yes. That's it. That's exactly what I want to do. Maybe I should get some power tools? Or maybe just read his collection of essays for more insights. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

What I Learned From Kate DiCamillo by Deborah Lytton

I wish I could say that Kate DiCamillo is a close personal friend and that we have talked about books and writing over cups of tea at my favorite gluten-free, vegan cafe. But I can't.

What I can say is that Kate DiCamillo has taught me a tremendous amount about writing through her books. I study her craft as I read her stories, and I try to incorporate the lessons I have learned from her in my own work.

Ms. DiCamillo's gift of storytelling balances emotion with story so that one never overpowers the other. Keeping readers engaged can make the difference between a manuscript that finds a publishing home and one that will live forever at the bottom of a desk drawer. It is the story that makes a reader want to turn to the next page, just to see what will happen. And yet, story without emotion will fail to have a lasting impression. THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE combines moving details with a compelling story all told using beautiful spare prose. Kate DiCamillo shows us in all of her works that words can be pieced together to create art and story. In BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, she demonstrates all of this as well as the way secondary characters need to have their own backstories and character arcs in order to balance the main character's journey.

Through her books, Kate DiCamillo has taught me many lessons about story structure, character development, and word choice, but most of all, she has taught me to keep writing. Because she continues to challenge herself to create new and inventive stories that touch the heart and make lasting impressions on all her readers, young and old.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

All Hail Barbara O'Connor

When I first started chasing the dream of becoming a published author of children's books, I did it quietly -- with books, and reading, and research, as is the usual m.o. for an introverted person like me. And there was one middle grade author I returned to again and again -- both through her work and through her blog/online presence: Barbara O'Connor.

To me, Barbara O'Connor writes the epitome of middle grade literature. Her books hit the sweet spot of flavor and spunk and heart -- and writing done right. Plus: dogs! Lots of dogs. :) How these books have not garnered every critical starred review and award known to man, I do not know (yes, they are sometimes recognized, but not nearly enough!) .... though they have been widely recognized and cherished by readers. Kids LOVE Barbara's books. And I do, too!

As I watched Barbara, from my little writing desk in Alabama, I learned. I particularly remember the inspiration and encouragement I got from reading her year-end blog posts found at Greetings from Nowhere (name after a book that if you haven't read yet, please go fix that RIGHT NOW). Here's her year-end musings for 2007 -- which was probably the first year I read Barb's blog, because it's the year she started her blog... and the year I landed an agent and sold my first book. (!)

Go ahead, read it. I'll wait right here...

Isn't that brilliant? So funny and honest -- just like Barb's books. And it inspired me. It helped me know what was possible. It encouraged me to keep going. THANK YOU, BARB!

Now I am off to read WONDERLAND, which is waiting so patiently on my nightstand...

Irene Latham is an Alabama author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books for children and adults, including Leaving Gee's Bend, 2011 ALLA Children's Book of the Year and Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she also serves as poetry editor for the Birmingham Arts Journal

Thursday, November 1, 2018


George Jones, rhinestone studded and hair like a fresh dollop of sour cream, said it best: “I’ve had choices since the day that I was born.” While most of us might correctly believe the Possum was referring to his less than private relationship with the whiskey bottle, a keener observer will notice how subtle and stirring those lyrics actually are. Our lives are a cluster of choices. Everything we are and what we experience is connected to and dictated by choice. 

Nearly everyone who has survived being struck by lightning tells how their lives flashed before their eyes. Weddings, graduations, the birth of children, homes, jobs, vacations, lovers, and friends. All of these things come about as a result of choice: choices made by you and by others. To distill life is to reveal the crossroads we stand at every moment of every day.

Just because children are the smaller and non-voting members of the human race does not mean their choices have any less impact on their lives. Put simply, the choices kids make today stand to impact their lives and the paths they will take as they grow older. 

Girls and STEM is a hot topic now. Especially for middle school-ers during those very difficult in-between years. These are the years when “the crud” can creep in … when STEM subjects become increasingly difficult, when peers start to pressure, when social norms and expectations for what is appropriate for “female-kind” begin to form. All of these factors come together to create very difficult choices for girls.

The STEM Choice

I had a friend just the other day ask if I was trying to make everyone into a “nerdy scientist”. So I responded, “Hey! I’m just trying to make science happen. And rock these amazing yellow taco socks I’m wearing.” Okay, maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way. Maybe my friend had a point. While making everyone into a “nerdy scientist” certainly seems like a perfect world to me, I can understand her perspective.

She was recognizing the fact that not everyone, including not all girls, is going to be made for science. She revealed to me that STEM can be about preference, what we like and what we don’t like. Preference drives what we are attracted to. Much like the charge of an atom! We are naturally drawn to the things that we like and will over time become more skilled in those areas. So why encourage STEM for all girls?

As old George Jones would probably say, “It’s about the choice”. The issue with STEM and girls is not about the preference of science versus math versus history versus reading. The issue is the choice.
Very often as teachers, parents, and people who love those short people who don’t vote, we spend time developing their preferences. We make slime, we cut up frogs, we go to museums, and aquariums, and conservatories, and generally work our tails off ensuring interests are nourished and fed. Hey, I’m not knocking this. What I am saying is that there is a ceiling on preference. We all have our hardwired likes and dislikes. These things are dictated by deeply embedded components of the human body, like our DNA and brains and guts. Choice is another matter.

Choices are made, but their very nature is created by our greater world. In my experience in the STEM world, there were far fewer women in my field, there were far fewer female leaders, maternity leave was pretty stinky, and I often felt alone. My choices were all colored by these facts.
With my series, Serafina Loves Science!, I have chosen to work at the level of the little girls to expand choice. I have attempted to create stories about a little girl who is “making nerdy happen”. Serafina goes about her everyday life with a singular passion: science! She uses theory and construct and noxious chemicals to navigate her own life.

Societal change is something that takes place over long periods of time. Even though we have lots of fabulous momentum in the direction toward empowering little girls in the STEM fields, we are not there yet. We have to create change all levels. We have to expand the amount of choices little girls have in STEM. And little girls need to see themselves in those choices. They need to see themselves in a silly book character named Serafina to feel good about “making nerdy happen.”

About Serafina Loves Science! The series is middle grade fiction that focuses on an eleven-year-old girl named Serafina Sterling. Serafina is just like all other eleven-year-olds who have to deal with issues like annoying older brothers, cliques at school, and parents who restrict her use of noxious chemicals. Serafina is trying to figure it out, much like all of her friends. But she has a little secret… Serafina loves science! Her passion for all things scientific helps her make new friends and figure the old ones out, understand her family, invent new devices for space travel, and appreciate the basic principles of the universe.

About me: I live in Texas with my husband and two daughters. The Serafina Loves Science! series was inspired in part by my own career path. The other part of my inspiration is my two little girls. I hope to make this world a more equitable and opportune place for my daughters one silly story at a time!

You can find me at: