Friday, January 31, 2014

“Middleview” Interview with Debut Author Rebecca Behrens

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Rebecca Behrens is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Rebecca’s debut middle grade novel WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, releases on 02/04/2014! Congratulations, Rebecca!

Here is a little bit about Rebecca:

Growing up in Wisconsin, Rebecca Behrens dreamed of becoming the following: a zoologist, an Olympic swimmer, or an author. One out of three isn’t bad! Today she lives in New York City, where she works as a production editor for children’s books. Some of her favorite things are: the beach, bright shoes, running, doughnuts, and laughing.

Here’s a description of WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE:

First Daughter Audrey Rhodes can’t wait for the party she has planned. The decorations are all set, and the pizza is on its way. But the Secret Service must be out to ruin her life, because they cancel at the last minute for a “security breach,” squashing Audrey’s chances for making any new friends. What good is having your own bowling alley if you don’t have anyone to play with?

Audrey is ready to give up and spend the next four years totally friendless—until she discovers Alice Roosevelt’s hidden diary. The former first daughter’s outrageous antics give Audrey a ton of ideas for having fun . . . and get her into more trouble than she can handle.

Here are the links to Rebecca online: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads

Now it’s time to hear from our guest:

Smack Dab Middleview with WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE author Rebecca Behrens
1. In a nutshell, what do your main characters, Audrey and Alice, want?

Both of my main characters want the same thing--freedom--but they want it in different ways. Alice wants freedom to “eat up the world,” which to her means travel, experience, and love. Audrey wants the freedom to live like a normal thirteen-year-old, despite the fact that she’s living in the White House. And, in a deeper way, both girls want the freedom to be her own person.

2. What is in their way?

Alice is largely constrained by her time period, the turn of the twentieth century. Many opportunities weren’t available to women then, and her lifestyle was further limited by her father’s political career. Of course, what other people (including her father) thought didn’t always stop Alice from going after what she wanted!
Audrey is constrained by security concerns and her parents’ busy schedules. Media attention on political families also gets in her way.

3. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?

I knew for a long time that I would like to write about a contemporary girl living in the White House, and I also had long wanted to write fiction about Alice Roosevelt’s wild life. Once I had the spark to combine those two ideas together via a long-lost secret diary, the story came about quickly. After doing preliminary research, I wrote Alice’s fictional diary entries first. Then I wrote Audrey’s story around them. It took quite a long time, and lots of revision, to blend the two narratives together.

4. Was When Audrey Met Alice always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel?

When I wrote the first draft, I wasn’t sure if this story would be middle grade or YA, mostly because of Alice’s age (seventeen). Once that draft was done, it was pretty clear to me that Audrey was an upper middle-grade character at heart. I changed up some of Audrey’s hijinks to make them more appropriate for an upper-MG character, and I made some minor tweaks to Alice’s diary entries so she’d be more accessible to the MG reader.

5. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers?

I love how MG readers are hungry for good storytelling, and that they have so much excitement about the world. It’s inspiring to tap into that.

6. Is there one question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself.
I’d ask myself what piece of writing advice has helped me the most.

And my answer would be this quote from Jane Smiley: “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist.” Whenever I’m struggling with putting a story to paper, that sentence gives me the boost I need to carry on.

Thanks for joining us at Smack Dab in the Middle Blog, Rebecca. Again, congratulations on the release of WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE!

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Matt Blackstone's new MG, SORRY YOU'RE LOST, released January 21st, and I'm pleased that he's agreed to stop by the blog to discuss his latest book.

What was the inspiration for the story? As Manny would say, it seems it would have to be a matter of vital, flabbergasting importance. Was it based on personal experience of any kind?

No matter where I’ve taught—Baltimore, New York City, and Great Neck—students have suffered recent family loss.  I wanted to write a book that would empower these young people—make them stronger, make them laugh, make them lighter.  I wanted to do more.  I wanted to reach a larger audience who would benefit from the story. 

Are your students aware of your publications? How does being a writer influence your teaching?

They do know.  Most of them think it’s pretty cool.  Others wish I would invent a new iPhone instead of writing books.  Being a writer certainly influences how much emphasis I put on revisions.  And there’s nothing more that a student loves to do than revise.  [Insert student eyerolling and teeth sucking.]  It’s cool to show them manuscripts with all the edits on there, and to share with them that book writing is within their reach if they work at it.  A ton of my students are WAY more advanced than I was at their age.

To some extent, humor gets in the way of Donuts dealing with his own grief. Did writing with so much humor ever get in the way of telling your story? Or did it help? 

For me, it helped.  Pacing the book with humor and grief was difficult, but it made for a better book.  I think it’s natural for those grieving to crave distraction – in part, through movies and T.V. comedies – a point that I tried to make with Denny and his dad.   

Your characters are incredibly spot-on. These really are authentic seventh grade boys. (I especially love Manny's candy-selling. We had a boy who sold Blow Pops after lunch. He racked it UP.) How do you build your characters? From observation? From memories of what it felt like to be that age? 

Thanks.  When I taught in New York City, there was a student named Hubert who sold candy in the hallways.  Every day.  And made a lot of money.  I interviewed him on his techniques and gave him credit in the Acknowledgments page.  I also had a student who used the word “flabbergasting” pretty much every day.  I thanked him, too.  Both kids, Hubert and Joseph, were instrumental in the book’s completion.  I was also able to use some of my own middle school memories (Mr. Perfect, soccer practice, idolizing English teachers).   More than anything, it helps being around teens all day long.       

What was your path to publication? How'd you start writing? Did you always write in the juvenile market?

I started this draft four years ago.  It was originally more of a YA novel, but I couldn’t get the voices right, couldn’t figure out the tone.  It was a better fit in MG.  My last novel, A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE, was YA.  I loved writing for that age, and I certainly enjoyed this genre as well.  I think it being a MG book allowed my characters to be goofier, which helped to juxtapose the grief throughout.

How does being a teacher influence your writing? Are you inspired first by your students or do your students help shape your spark of inspiration? 

Both.  I couldn’t do this without my students.  They’re so generous to share their feedback, so excited to contribute to the whole process. Because I’m a teacher, I try to write books that will not only entertain kids, but help them.

Did you ever have a teacher who told you to leave your hormones in the hallway? Have you ever told your students that? Do you find yourself mimicking old teachers in real life or on the page?  

That’s a great question.  I’ve never had a teacher tell us to leave our hormones in the hallway.  But I will say that tomorrow before students enter class.  The freshman will think I’m serious and the juniors will think I’ve lost my mind.  I do use teacher material in my work.  For instance, there’s a teacher in our English department who writes “Life is Good” on every worksheet.  I wondered, what would someone do if he/she disagreed with that sentiment?  Especially if they had gone through a recent trauma.  The “Life is Good” material became a refrain that I really enjoyed writing.   

After Manny fires Donuts, the solution to missing money is clever. Without giving anything away, how do you feel this is part of Donuts's healing process? 

My mom always taught me that helping others is the best way to help yourself.

Do you generally feel, as Mr. Morgan does, that life is good? 

Today I do.

Where are you now with your writing? Can you share any new projects with us? 
Not yet, but I’ll be sure to update you with news.

Be sure to order your own copy of SORRY YOU'RE LOST; you can keep up with Matt at his website

Matt has also graciously agreed to give one lucky winner a galley of SORRY YOU'RE LOST and a finished copy of his previous release, A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE!  The Giveaway runs through February 14, and is open to US and Canadian Residents only.  

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The in Between Spaces Jen Cervantes

I celebrate my birthday on the 30th of December. It makes New Years even more meaningful and I mark another year of blessed breath and look to a new year of surprises, joy, laughter, to do lists, challenges (another ms?) and all the things that make us human. I think because these two coincide I am challenged with looking back on the year and my life at the same time I am looking ahead.  What did I learn (reflect) and what will tomorrow hold (anticipation). Somehow I realize there is no “now” moment in between these two spaces and so my new beginning today (in this breath) is to celebrate this exact moment—I want to live my life the way I read a book or write a manuscript, absorbed in the characters, the plot, the words, style, tone, periods….you get the picture. Because in the end, here and now is all we really have.

Hawking says

there are little folds in time

(actually he calls them wormholes)

but I say:

there’s a universe beyond

where they’re hammering the brass cut-outs .. .

Push us out in the boat and leave time here—

(because: where in the plan was it written,

You’ll be too busy to close parentheses,

the snapdragon’s bunchy mouth needs water,

even the caterpillar will hurry past you?   (Brenda Hillman)

Monday, January 27, 2014

It feels very odd to be posting about beginnings just as the month about fresh starts is winding to a close--but it gives me a chance to talk about the relationship between beginnings and endings.

Generally, I love beginnings.  I love when a story catches fire and I realize it has the potential to really be something.  I love having an entire universe of characters and plots just waiting to be created.  I love having those moments when elements of the story click into place and make it look like I'm terribly clever as a writer (even though more often than not it is just dumb luck).

But I've noticed as I get to know my characters and the story solidifies, I tend to start dithering about the ending.  There are many, many reasons for this, but one of them is that it feels strange to me to create an entire world of characters, finish with them, and then walk away.

Once, when I was at a writers' conference, I wound up sitting next to a very intense woman who described herself as some sort of guru/writing coach/crystal healer type.  I told her I'd come to the conference because I was having trouble finishing my book.  She looked deep into my eyes and asked me if I feared death.

I replied (as one does) "Um, sure...why? You aren't psychic, are you?  Am I in some kind of danger?  Should I take a taxi home instead of the subway?  Am I going to choke on the soup at the conference at lunch?  Tell me!  TELL ME!"

Then she told me I didn't want to finish my story because I felt like I was killing it. 

Now, this isn't exactly how I feel--but it's not far.  When I finish a project, I do go into a period of mourning.  I find it hard to say goodbye to my characters and move on to the next thing.  I find myself feeling...maybe a bit excluded from that world that I created.  And it sometimes takes me a while to shake off this this sadness as I start the next project.

It's like the song says: Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

JANUARY THEME: THE BIG BAD BLANK by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

I have to start somewhere.

A few months ago, I dug right into a new project, reveling in the research, the reading (oh, the reading!), the notes, the lists, the "prep" that I enjoy so very much.

I can make that lovely new idea! explore all the possibilities! stage last a long, long time. Like, long. But a writer has to write, and when it's time to sit down at look at that blank page (yes, an actual paper page in my case) and pull all of those ideas and thoughts and rhythms and scraps together into just one chapter, paragraph, sentence, or word...whew!  There is always that brief flash of fear, even terror, of wait, what was I going to do again?  Even when I think I have all the ideas and all the plans...the physical act of starting at the beginning, at THE BLANK, is no joke. Picture the trailer for an old, cheesy horror film, me screaming and howling as I'm being overtaken by the menacing, slow-but-sure BLANK.

And then picture the equally cheddar-laden triumphant happy ending, me wielding a giant pen and  hopeful new notebook* (and then yeah, my laptop), beating back THE BLANK singlehandedly. Because I take a deep breath, pull up one tiny thought or word or note or memory. And I see that yes, there is something there. There is always something to work with. And accept that it will be messy, and there will be some awful sentences and pages and pages of drivel with an intermittent good paragraph or two, and that's OK. Because I'm writing.

I have to start somewhere.

*speaking of hopeful new notebooks, have you seen this? Hee hee.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


I've been talking up my debut MG for so long, it's hard to actually believe that the publication is at hand!  But nothing makes a release date feel quite as real as a box of books at your door:

THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, my first real step into the MG world, is out Feb. 6th.

The book follows Auggie's journey toward becoming a folk artist; she may very well be my favorite of all my main characters, and it's a joy to hear about others falling in love with her.  THE BULLETIN FOR THE CENTER OF CHILDREN'S BOOK STUDIES recently said:

"Auggie finds inspiration in the trash hauled by Grampa Gus and in items donated by neighbors, and soon pottery shards, vivid glass, and metal sculptures transform the house’s exterior into a vibrant expression of the love within its walls. In Auggie, Schindler creates a spunky, sympathetic character young readers will engage with and enjoy."

In the spirit of revealing our "beginnings," I'm delighted to share the opening paragraphs of THE JUNCTION:

"Old Glory shimmies like she's dancing the jitterbug.  That's what Grampa Gus calls his pickup truck, anyway, the one he's always driven, with GUS'S SALVAGE printed right across the doors.  She (that's the other thing we've always called the truck, she, because Old Glory's a regular part of the family) jiggles so much, she tickles my stomach.

The cab's completely packed--my best friend Lexie's here with me, along with my neighbor Irma Jean.  We're in a giant tangle on the passengers' side of the bench seat, our arms and legs weaving in and out of each other as we try to leave Gus enough space to drive.

Our voices sound like a whole playground as we squeal and squirm.  Excitement leaks out that way--in shrieks, like air slipping out of a balloon--the day before you get sent to a brand-new school."

Pre-order the book here.  Email me at writehollyschindler (at) yahoo (dot) com to tell me about your order, and you'll be entered to win a signed bookplate. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Monthly Theme: Begin Again

by Stephanie J. Blake

I've got the second book blues.

The middle grade novel (a companion to The Marble Queen) that I've been working on for over two years is now shelved.

I'm really struggling with the motivation. I have been drafting picture books. Seems I get an idea or two each day for a picture book.

I want to write another middle grade novel. Trouble is, I don't have any solid ideas. Well, there is this one thing, but I don't know if I can pull it off.

Here's the beginning.

Jackson Jefferson Davis Quick lounged in his video game chair in front of the only television in the house. He was very comfortable and planned on watching a marathon showing of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. He didn’t even hear her at first. Honest! But, when his mother screeched, “Jackson, get out there and start on the garage!” the grip on the remote control tightened ever so slightly.


What I really need to do is open a brand-new Word doc. and just start fresh.

I'd rather play Candy Crush. Heck, I'd rather clean the oven--or stick my head in it.

I guess I'm out of practice. It's time to re-read the book The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. I need a workshop!


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Smack Dab in the Classroom: Librarian Stephanie Dunnewind suggests Literary Charades!

Dia Calhoun: How do you engage a group of kids with the same book? Kids who might have different interests?

Stephanie Dunnewind: I think there are many children's books that appeal to readers for different reasons. Some students might be drawn into the adventure, while others might relate to the characters. For a whole-class read-aloud, I often present two or three choices and let students vote. This helps increase excitement and if it is a close vote, the next book is all ready to go! I think it is fun to pair historical fiction with nonfiction history books so students can see what parts of the story are real.

Dia Calhoun: Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids’ imaginations on fire?

Stephanie Dunnewind: I did a lesson on perspective/point of view with two chapters from the book "Flipped." This lesson fits with Common Core Standards. It alternates chapters with two narrators, a boy and girl. The girls read the girl narrator's take on an event, while the boys read the next chapter, which was the same event from the boy's point of view. Then they worked in small groups to compare/contrast the two narrators' points of view, and think about how "truth" is often a matter of perspective.

Dia Calhoun: Have you ever done something “outside the box” that worked really well?

Stephanie Dunnewind: We play literary charades where two competing teams try to guess the book title as one person from each team acts it out (either the literal title or what happens in the book). We also play 20 Questions where teams can ask Yes or No questions and then guess the title from the answers.

Dia Calhoun: If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be?

Stephanie Dunnewind: With the Common Core focus on close reading and the ongoing emphasis on reading strategies, I think it's important students learn that reading is not always hard work. Yes, it is good to challenge ourselves as readers and do deep thinking. But not always. Sometimes it can just be fun and enjoyable!

Dia Calhoun: Thanks so much, Stephanie, for taking the time to share these great ideas!

Stephanie Dunnewind is an elementary school librarian in Bothell, Washington.

Smack Dab in the Classroom by author Dia Calhoun runs on this blog on the 23rd day of every month.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Beginnings by Laurie Calkhoven

How to begin a blog post about beginnings? I have to admit I’m feeling rather stuck, but I’m the same way when it’s time to begin a new novel. Stuck. I have an idea, but it’s vague. I don’t know enough about the characters. I’m not sure in which direction the plot should go, or if it should even go at all. I feel lost and confused and afraid. The thought always crosses my mind that maybe I’m done. Maybe I don’t have another novel in me.

I used to describe this as a kind of desperate flailing around, trying to find my footing on slippery ice. But now I try to trust that it’s just part of my process. So I put my head down and do the work I can. I meditate to get to know my characters. I do research. I make lists of scenes, most of which will never get written and included in the book.

It’s only when I know for (almost) sure what my opening and closing scenes will be that I’m finally ready to really begin. To write the words Chapter One and see what comes next.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


In praise of white
In praise of possibility
In praise of poem
In praise of pure
In praise of salt and emptiness and snow
In praise of footsteps taken and erased
In praise of nothing
In praise of breath and bird and tree
In praise of falling
In praise of wings
In praise of winter
In praise of endings and beginnings
In praise of blank
Blank page
In praise of mystery
of story
In praise of ice and sky and moon
of drift and shadow
In praise of words waiting to be written
So many words
Waiting in the white

Malmo, Minnesota
Sheila O'Connor

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beginnings - January Theme - Kristin Levine

(This is pretty much directly from my school visit presentation.  The kids always get a kick out of hearing about how even "real" writers come up with some really bad opening lines.)

I had a lot of trouble with the first paragraph of my first book, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had.  This is how it originally started:

I ain’t gonna tell you this story.  No sir.  No way.  I got a million better things to do than think about that dumb old stuck-up girl and all the trouble she caused.  Least that’s what I tell myself: everything was just fine in Moundville, ‘til Emma Walker came to town.   

Now I liked this opening, but there were a couple of problems with it.  It is obvious that Dit, the narrator, is lying because, uhhh, you're holding the book in your hands.  My original plan was to make Dit an "unreliable narrator," but truthfully, I had that idea on page 1 and forgot about it for the rest of the book.

Second, my editor, the dear and amazing Stacey Barney, called and said she thought this opening seemed too harsh.  The whole book was about the friendship between Dit and Emma, and he's calling her dumb and stuck-up in the very first paragraph.  "Okay," I said, "I got it.  We need a kinder, gentler opening." 

Now I'm going to show you what I came up with.  But I have to admit it is really, really bad.  I call it "the sappy" opening.  And please, feel free to laugh:

All I’ve left of her is this dang ribbon.  Pitiful sight I must be, 13 year-old-boy, moping about on the top of this mound, winding a girl’s hair ribbon between my fingers over and over again.  I didn’t used to be this way – not before Emma came to town

Stacey called me up again. “What happened?” she asked.
"Was it too sappy?" I asked.
"Way too sappy!" said Stacey.
"But you wanted different!" I protested.
"That was different, alright," she said.  "Not good different, but different!"
"I don't know what to do," I wailed.
Stacey said, "I wanted different words, but the tone to remain the same."

I didn’t know what that meant, but I thought about for a while, and this is what I came up with.  This is the beginning of my first book:

I’ve been wrong before.  Oh heck, if I’m being real honest, I’ve been wrong a lot.  But I ain’t never been so wrong as I was about Emma Walker.  When she first came to town, I thought she was the worst piece of bad luck I’d had since falling in the outhouse on my birthday.  I tell you things were fine in Moundville before Emma got here, least I thought they were.  Guess the truth is, you’ll never know how wrong I was ‘til I’m done telling and explaining – so I’d better just get on with the story.   

Beginnings are never easy, but usually worth the work...

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Radical Uncertainty (January Theme: Beginnings) by Claudia Mills

This afternoon I am attending a baby shower for my daughter-in-law, Ashley, who is giving birth to my first grandchild in March.
A year ago today my son didn’t even have a girlfriend; he and Ashley hadn’t yet met.

A year ago I was teaching as a visiting professor at a small college in Indiana, wondering how I was going to navigate my return to a decade more of teaching at a large research university in Colorado.

Now I am counting down the final days of my last semester as a professor at CU. I ended up applying for and accepting an early retirement offer that I didn’t even know existed a year ago, so that I could devote myself full time to my career as a children’s book writer.

2013 was for me a year of surprises: massive, mega-surprises. Surprising things happened to me and my family. I was equally surprised by the things I myself did.

 Many authors report that they are constantly surprised by what happens in the books they are writing. Their characters end up doing and saying things their creators never imagined. This hasn’t happened to me all that often. The one most striking time was when I wrote my middle-grade novel Dinah in Love. I had planned on writing a novel of unrequited sixth-grade love, as unrequited love has been quite a personal specialty of mine. I sat down to write chapter 1, where Dinah Seabrooke would meet Nick Tribble and fall in love. But instead, when Dinah met Nick, she fell in hate. In fact, she hated the very “marrow of his moldy bones.” So the book became a traditional romantic comedy, where the two protagonists hate, hate, hate each other all the way through the story, right up until the moment when they . . . don’t. 

Dinah did surprise me. But more often than I’ve been surprised by my characters and what happens to them, I’ve been surprised by myself and what happens to me.

Of course, this prompts the thought that 2014 has the potential to be filled with its own massive, mega-surprises, surprises that could be either heartwarming or heartbreaking. One of my books could become a runaway bestseller (exceedingly unlikely); I could have a beloved editor vanish on me (vastly more likely). Doctors could deliver bad news. My other son could run off with a new love and blissfully start his own new family. I could find myself hankering to write a book in some genre I’ve never yet tried: creative nonfiction, poetry.

Anything can be written on the blank pages of this year to come.
It doesn’t do to dwell too much on life’s radical uncertainty. It generates too much vertigo to peer too deeply into that dizzying abyss.

Instead all we can do is take all-purpose measures to prepare ourselves for whatever comes. I know I maximize my chances of surviving life and career surprises if I write every day, walk every day, read as widely as I can, and prioritize close connections with friends and family. It’s a good idea to keep my weight under control and make healthy eating choices, to spend less than I earn, and engage in meaningful spiritual practices. I’ll never be sorry I did any of those things, whatever comes.

For the one thing I know with certainty is that I can know nothing with certainty. Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Ain’t that the terrifying – and wonderful – truth.