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Interview with Merrill Wyatt and giveaway of her latest mystery, Tangled Up in Nonsense

Merrill Wyatt is the author of Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen, and Tangled Up in Luck. Her newest, Tangled Up in Nonsense, (Margaret K. McElderry Books, release date November 29) has young detectives Sloane and Amelia trying to crack a case that happened over a hundred years ago. Set in a creepy mansion during a peony competition, Sloane and Amelia work together to piece together the clues to attempt to find out who kidnapped a dog and where millions of dollars are stashed. The Kirkus review raves, “A warmhearted, very funny, madcap caper.”

Merrill Wyatt

Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, Merrill!

It is such a pleasure to interview an author who lives in my backyard. (Well, not quite, but you live here in my city of Toledo.) Speaking of backyard, Tangled Up in Nonsense is your second novel that features Northwest Ohio in the plot. What made you choose our beautiful area as the backdrop for your mystery?

There’s so much history and mystery in this area! Not only was Toledo a major stop on the
Underground Railroad, it was a hotbed of crime in the 1920s and 1930s. As in major robberies,
hidden gambling dens, gangster shootouts from speeding automobiles, and bootlegging – so much
bootlegging. If you were into crime in the 1920s, Toledo was the place to be. Which is why Sloane
and Amelia are searching for Bootleggin’ Ma Yaklin’s Missing Millions.

Young sleuths Sloane and Amelia run into all kinds of nonsense as they try and solve several mysteries nearly a hundred years ago; who kidnapped a bootlegger’s dog and where is the two million dollars that disappeared around the same time. What, or who inspired you to create this plot?

I’m a big animal lover, so animals frequently pop up as minor characters in my books. The bootlegging piece is straight out of Toledo’s history. If you talk to anyone who was alive during the 1920s or 1930s, they all have stories to tell you about gangsters and bootleggers. There’s a restaurant just down the street from where I live – I could walk to it – and one time, my dad casually said, “That was a big gangster hangout back when I was a baby. Licavoli and his guys went there all the time.” Licavoli was a major Toledo gangster with ties to other gangs all over the country.

Sloane and Amelia are rather fearless. What scares you?

Everything! Dolls creep me out – yet I love dollhouse miniatures. I can’t explain that. There’s a scene in Tangled Up in Nonsense in which Sloane and Amelia go upstairs to check out an attic in the middle of the night. As originally written, it swung between creepy and hilarious as Amelia convinced Sloane that there was probably an army of haunted dolls on the other side of the attic door. I had to cut a lot of that out because – even though it was funny and creepy – it slowed down the plot too much. There’s still a little bit of it in there, though. I couldn’t bring myself to cut out everything. I mean, if I was in the attic of a one-hundred-year-old mansion, I would definitely be worried about haunted dolls. We once had raccoons break into the attic of our very-normal house, and all the thudding and bumping woke us up in the middle of the night. But neither my husband nor I had the courage to go upstairs and check it out until it was daytime.

The mystery resolves around a time that many young people may not be that aware of…Prohibition of alcohol and bootlegging as a result. What drew you to this time frame? Are there history lesson tie-ins with the topic?

My grandmother could remember that time period very clearly, and even my parents have memories of what Toledo was like not long afterward. It really was the city’s big, shining moment. A lot of the city’s beautiful, older neighborhoods like Old Orchard, Ottawa Hills, West Moreland, and a lot of the developments along River Road date to around that time. Plus, the downtown area was gorgeous during that time. If you google “Toledo 1930s”, you’ll be able to see all these stunning buildings that are no longer with us.

If you’re looking for history lessons, a lot of the federal policing structures took shape around this time. Without Prohibition and the bootlegging that resulted, you wouldn’t have the FBI. That came directly as a result of all the crime Prohibition caused. And speaking of the FBI, one of its early directors once referred to Toledo as the most corrupt city in the country! Apparently, the mayor and the police knew they had all these gangsters living here, but they didn’t care because it brought business to the city! Also, this is when the police first got police cars. They didn’t really have them before the 1930s. But the gangsters did, and so the police would be trying to chase after them on horseback as the bootleggers drove off in cars. It didn’t work well.

 The shenanigans of the various characters reminded me of some of the Three Stooges’ antics, which my kids loved when they were younger. What slapstick comedians did you have in mind when creating the characters?

You know, I loved The Three Stooges when I was a kid too! There’s just something timelessly funny about physical comedy. I was definitely thinking of them as I was writing this. And to be honest was definitely inspired by a lot of the slapstick comedy you see on Disney and Nickelodeon shows, too. I watched so many of those with my daughter, and you can tell they are inspired by the Stooges, too. I would also add Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. You can find their movies on YouTube, and they still hold up well even a hundred years later. Slapstick comedy is timeless.

I know you work full-time, are married, and have a teenage daughter. How do you balance it all? What does your writing process look like? Are you a plotser or pantser…do you plot out your storyline, or fly by the seat of your pants in writing your novels?

I start with a general plot and try to map out as much as I can. As you mentioned, I’m super busy every second of every day. I have to snatch the writing time whenever I can get it. Having a well-mapped-out plot helps with that. That being said, sometimes I’m really detailed in that process and sometimes my notes include things like, “and then something happens. Figure it out later.” Other times, once I start writing, I find that the story very naturally progresses in a different path than I thought it would. If that seems to be working, I try to follow it as much as I can while still bringing it back to my main goal. Typically, when I start writing, I have a clear beginning and a clear end. I sometimes refer to the middle as the “soggy middle” or the “squishy middle” because it’s the part that changes the most. 

I know that writing fiction requires research, and I imagine you studied the Stranahan home which served as the inspiration for the mansion where the peony competition takes place, as well as Prohibition. Could you share your research techniques with readers?

You can do a lot of research online. I usually start with just general searches, reading blogs and looking at a lot of pictures. Images definitely inspire me. After that, I start to get more detailed. I’ll only focus on online library archives and historical societies because they are more factual and trustworthy. The Lucas County Library has a terrific collection of online photographs that include details about them. Next, I’ll go to the library itself and start pulling books. The Main Library in downtown is absolutely fabulous, with incredibly knowledgeable librarians. I also went to the Stranahan Mansion at Wildwood, which is open to the public year around, though the best time to go is at Christmas when it’s decorated for the holidays. If I could, I’d be like Amelia and dress up as Nancy Drew. In fact, when I was writing Tangled Up in Nonsense, I checked out “Nancy Drew clothes” on Pinterest – and that led me down a wormhole that it took hours to get out of. I almost ended up with an adorable cloche hat and houndstooth cape. But they were sold out, sigh.

Is there a third mystery in the works?

There is! It’s called TANGLED UP IN MAYHEM, and it takes place at Cedar Point. Sloane and Amelia are hired to investigate a lost time capsule. They’re thrilled that someone actually wants to pay them for their detective work – until both their nemesis Mackenzie and a ghost show up to stop them.

Thank you for your time, Merrill!

Merrill has agreed to give away a complimentary copy of Tangled Up in Nonsense to a random winner. To enter, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writers’ Gratitude

Today we’d like to share what we are grateful for as children’s writers. So, I asked the Mixed-Up Files contributors to write a little about what they are thankful for as authors. Hope you enjoy our thoughts.


 

“I’m thankful for the kidlit community. I’ve been in other writing communities and kidlit creators are the best. They’re like family, supporting each other and encouraging. We have a higher purpose, in creating books that are going to make children readers for life, and I’m thankful that we do that together.”

Samantha M Clark, author of ARROW and the GEMSTONE DRAGONS books

 


Image: Tarpon Springs Public Library, Tarpon Springs, FL via tarponlibrary.org

I’m grateful for…. public libraries
My most powerful—and most wonderful—memories around books are thanks to public libraries.
For years, each Saturday, my mother and I would walk to the public library near our apartment, climb the

stairs to the children’s section on the second floor, and I’d pick out a stack of books to read for the week. Like the greatest shopping trip ever, where the only limiting factor was how much we could carry. Then there was that one long, hot, un-airconditioned summer in Florida, where I lived with my father, where I worked through the local library’s very small “YA” shelf of books. I stumbled over a novel I’d never heard of before, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, my favorite book of my middle-grade reading years by a mile.

Reading has been a constant companion and source of joy and comfort in my life. So thank you, libraries and librarians, for all that you do for your communities.

“When my last MG manuscript failed to garner the attention (I thought) it deserved, I fell into a dark hole of despair. Then I did what many writers do when faced with existential burnout. I stopped writing.
But then, last summer, while I clearing out my mom’s apartment, I found a black garbage bag inside a kitchen drawer. I peeked inside and discovered a trove of letters. My letters—hundreds of them—written to my parents from sleepaway camp. Naturally, I made myself comfortable and started reading.
Hours later, I knew I had found the inspiration for my next book. I didn’t know what the book would be about at this point, but I knew I had some first-rate material. I grabbed my notebook and started writing.
Four months later, I had a first draft. I sent it to my agent, who responded: “Whenever a burned-out writer gets their second wind and writes a great novel, an angel gets their wings.” 
My agent’s words made me glow from within. I found my second wind—and I’m grateful for it, wherever it may lead me.”
Melissa Roske

“I’m grateful to be able to write while cuddling a kitty on my lap and looking at beautiful trees.  It may sound simple, but the deep peace of this space helps free my
mind to create.”

Heather Murphy Capps

 

 

 

 

 


“I’m grateful for amazing teachers like Ms. Klipfel who encourage and inspire their kids to use STEMbooks to explore their imagination!  Go STEM/STEAM!”
Jennifer Swanson

“I’m so grateful for all the support my debut novel Honey and Me is receiving from friends, family, the wider communities I’m a part of and the ones I didn’t even know about. Thank you!”
Meira Drazin

Image: Trisha Speed Shaskan,  trishaspeedshaskan.com

 

 

“I’m grateful for book events with local and national authors. They give me a reason to celebrate books, meet and talk with local authors, and discover new authors and their books. It’s inspiring and fills me with motivation to be surrounded by such talented writers.”

Karen Latchana Kenney

We are also all thankful for YOU—our wonderful readers!

All About Books: An Interview with Middle School Librarian Erin Wyatt

I thought it would be helpful to readers to get an inside perspective on middle grade books. What are middle schoolers reading? What holes are there in the market? And, with the holidays coming, what should you consider when buying a middle schooler a book as a gift? I wanted to utilize a great source to answer my questions: a middle-school librarian! Erin Wyatt is not only the librarian of my own children’s school here in Illinois, but we both used to work at the same school in our previous lives. I knew she could offer great insight to my questions for writers, parents, and teachers!

Hi Erin! I’m excited to pick your brain. Tell us a little about your background as a librarian and learning center director for a middle school.

I started my career in education as a high school English and social studies teacher where I spent four years in the classroom. I went to library school and have been working as a middle school librarian ever since. I have an MLIS (Masters of Library and Information Science) from Dominican University and a Ph.D. in information science from the University of North Texas. This is year 24 of my time working in libraries. It’s hard to believe it has been so many years. Being a school librarian is an amazing job!

 

What are the typical struggles middle schoolers have when choosing a book?

I think a lot of the struggles are the same for lots of people, kids and adults alike.

There are so many of choices of books that sometimes it proves an obstacle. At Highland, we’ve organized books by genre to make the library more browsable, utilized displays and rotating dynamic, face out shelving, and do lots of recommended reads.

There is sometimes a reluctance to try something new and a gravitation to the comfort of the familiar. Creating opportunities for students to recommend books to each other and doing things like low risk book tasting activities where students just spend a minute or two exploring a book to see if it is one they’d want to read can help connect students with new books and authors. During these types of activities students build their criteria to see what they are looking for in a book and strategies for looking at a book to see if it matches what they want and need in a read at that moment.

 

What is the most popular genre in your school’s library?

The most popular format the last few years has been graphic novels. Graphics are written in every genre, and there has been a lot of student demand for all kinds of graphics including nonfiction and manga.

The last couple years, there’s been a rise of popularity in students seeking out scary stories and mysteries. But certainly there is readership among all genres and my colleagues in the English Language Arts department encourage their students to read widely.

 

What books are very popular with this age group (at least at your library)?

I noticed the other day that our state readers’ choice shelves were nearly bare of the multiple copies the library owns of the books on the Readers’ Choice Lists for the state of Illinois. At Highland, we include the Illinois Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award Program nominees for grades 4-8, some of the books from the Bluestem list for readers in grades 3-5, and the Lincoln list for grades 9-12 in our yearly Readers’ Choice offerings.

When books are made into TV shows and movies, there is usually been a bump in demand. That’s certainly been the case this year for The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han.

I looked at our top 50 books circulated so far this year to help respond to this question. This year we’ve seen a Hunger Games resurgence. Certain authors have been popular like Kwame Alexander, Alan Gratz, Barbara Dee, and Stuart Gibbs.

Our all school read this fall was House Arrest by K.A. Holt. We were lucky enough to have Ms. Holt do an author visit. That is always impactful in terms of readers’ gravitating to an author’s books that they’ve had a chance to meet.

 

What is a book you often suggest?

Oh, this is a tough one as so much often depends on the reader too!

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman was a wow from me from last year. Plus it is a genre (historical fiction) that I don’t always gravitate toward.

Legend by Marie Lu

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

I could really go on and on…

 

FOR WRITERS

What holes do you feel are still in the middle school market? 

There are so many great options being published. However, working in a middle school and thinking about 7thand 8th grader readers, it seems like there is a gap of books for those readers who are upper middle grade or lower YA.

As I try to build an inclusive collection of diverse books, there is an increasing number of stories from different perspectives and experiences in realistic fiction. However, in genre fiction (like fantasy, scifi, mystery, thriller), there is a need for more stories being published with characters who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, LGBTQ+, disabled and the need for more stories in these genres being written by authors from historically marginalized groups.

 

What do you consider when looking at middle-grade books to purchase for your school library?

Lots of factors. First I consider the students at my school and the potential readers of the books. I think about the connection to other books and the ways those move or don’t move off the library shelves. I consider the subject, genre, and who’s voice is featured in the book. I think about the curriculum at the school. I look at book reviews and listen to student requests. Budget is also a factor because there are a finite number of resources to build and maintain our library collection.

 

When you’re reading through a middle-grade novel, is there anything that writers do that you feel may be a turn-off to middle schoolers? 

In book clubs, students often comment about the way the characters talk. When the voice doesn’t ring true to them, that’s usually seen as a problem with the book.

For many student readers short chapters and use of cliff-hangers are a hit to make them pick up a book and keep reading.

 

FOR PARENTS

How can parents help children who say they don’t like to read?

Read together and carve out time for reading, for both the parents and children. Having reading role models is important. Reading out loud or listening to books is a way to have that reading time together and create that culture and habit of reading in your family.

Having parents know and believe that listening to books IS reading. Graphic novels are REAL books. For some readers, these things might grow and sustain their interest in books and stories.

Parents can also help their students discover stories! They can connect to libraries and give their children access to materials to read whether those are physical books and reading material or linking to online resources.

 

I know as a parent, if I see a sports-related book, I assume my sporty son will like it, which, of course, isn’t the case. With the holidays approaching (books make great gifts!), any tips for picking out a book for someone else?

Books do make great gifts! We want to share stories that moved us with other people. I think it is so powerful when giving a book to someone to tell them why I gave that specific title to them.

When recommending books to people I think about ways to match their interests and what I know about them as readers to books by considering genre, style of writing, voice, format, main character, writer, and (for some) length. When buying books as gifts, I also consult gift guides, best of lists, and the work of other book people who share recommendations on social media or online.

 

FOR TEACHERS

Any suggestions for teachers wanting to bulk up their classroom libraries?

Talk to your librarian and build up that partnership! Both the classroom library, the school library, and the public library are important places for young readers to encounter books.

I would encourage teachers to think about voices that are not represented in their classroom libraries and make sure that all students in their classroom can see themselves in stories on the shelves.

 

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

In our recent author visit, I felt rockstar adjacent walking the halls with our visiting author. Thanks for writing and sharing your stories. It has an impact on your readers.

 

Thanks, Erin! It was really helpful to hear your answers as a writer, a teacher, AND a parent! (And I will definitely be putting a note on books I give as gifts, sharing why I thought it would be the perfect book.)

If you’d like to learn more about Erin and her library, check her out on Twitter:

Highland Middle School Library – @hlcD70

Erin Wyatt – @ejdwyatt