Donna Gephart and THE PARIS PROJECT: Interview + Giveaway

Today I’m thrilled to be talking to Donna Gephart about her newest middle-grade novel, The Paris Project. Donna is an award-winning author, whose middle-grade novels also include: In Your ShoesLily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper, How to Survive Middle School and others.

To learn more about Donna and The Paris Project read on. And to throw your hat in the ring for a chance to win a signed copy, write us a note in the comments section before Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, at 11:59 PM. I’ll pick a winner at random and announce it next Thursday.


What was the spark that inspired you to write The Paris Project?

There wasn’t a spark with this one. I thought I was writing a funny book about three Jewish guy friends when Cleveland Rosebud Potts marched across the pages of my notebook. Those first five pages I wrote in my notebook are close to the first five pages of the finished book. I sensed this character had an important story to tell and I’d be a fool not to pay attention to her.


Why was it important for you to write about a child having a family member in jail?

We have a big problem with mass incarceration in our country. That’s not news to anyone. What doesn’t get talked about as much is the effect that has on family members still at home. What happens when there is a loss of one income in a household? What happens when it’s expensive to travel to visit a loved one in jail? What happens when a child can’t even touch her parent because a facility chooses to have video visitations instead of in-person ones? Cleveland and her family deal with all these things and more.

I write books for young people to feel seen and to feel less alone in the world, but I also write so others can see a problem that may not affect them directly and develop empathy and understanding for those who are dealing with it. How else will we grow to understand each other and help make life better for each other?


What is it about middle-grade readers that makes you enjoy writing for them?

Middle grade readers are making the transition from childhood to adulthood. I can’t think of anything more dramatic. It’s a difficult transition, fraught with high-intensity emotions. I write to help young people navigate those changes and figure out their place in the world. I write the books I would have loved to have at that age, to help me understand what was going on and how I fit into the scheme of it all. I also write about kids with grit and determination to give young readers hope and agency in their own lives.


Did you have to do any particular research while writing The Paris Project?

I do research for each of my novels, even though they are fiction. For this one, I wanted to see what the inside of a video visitation center looked like. I wrote to and called the appropriate authorities to ask for permission and while they said they see no problem with it, no one would actually grant me the permission. So one day, my husband and I went to a video visitation center and sat with the families awaiting time with their loved ones. When the doors opened and the visitors were called in, my husband and I headed in, but I saw a guard at the door and decided to duck out at the last moment. None-the-less, while we were there, I did a lot of observing and listening to get those scenes right in the book.

My last book, In Your Shoes, found me inside a local funeral home, getting a tour and asking lots of questions. For Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, I took the online test to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy! And I interviewed a spelling bee champ who made it to the national bee in DC while writing As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President!

Research is always interesting for me. I love learning new things.


What would you like readers to come away with after reading The Paris Project?

I’m always hoping to widen young reader’s worlds/minds/hearts with my work.

For The Paris Project, I hope kids who deal with financial insecurity will feel seen, and those who don’t will have a deeper understanding of what it’s like to go without money and how it might make a person feel. I also hope to shine light on the effect of parental incarceration on children and families. I include statistics and a “Child’s Bill of Rights” in the back of the book.

There’s a LOT to discuss after reading this book. It would make an excellent book club choice. And as a bonus, there’s a recipe for limeade spritzers in the back that could be served for book club members.


You’ve mentioned that the first draft of your novel, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, was written during National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO). Since November is almost upon us, do you have any advice for writers who might be tackling writing a novel next month?

Do as much pre-planning as you can before you begin. Character bios, setting ideas, concepts for the big scenes and a possible ending.

It was a great experience in teaching me to sit down every day and keep the fingers moving across the keyboard, keep the story moving forward.

I also blogged about the experience to give myself public accountability. That helped me keep at it on the days I really didn’t feel like it. There are always days you don’t feel like writing.

It’s amazing how a handful of pages a day, consistently, turns into a whole novel at the end of the month.

Allow yourself lots of time to revise that novel. It took me months to revise Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, even though I wrote it in 29 days.


And speaking of writing, what’s up next for you?

I can’t believe it, but I’m finishing up my eighth novel. Abby, Tried and True will come out from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers next year. And I have a picture book, Go Be Wonderful, from Holiday House the year after that.


Thanks so much, Donna, for taking the time to join us at The Mixed-Up Files and for providing a signed copy to a lucky winner!


More about Donna:

Donna is a popular speaker at schools, conferences and book festivals. She has taught creative writing at a school in West Palm Beach, FL. Donna lives in the Philadelphia area with her family and her canine office assistant, Benji, a sweet retriever mix. You can visit her online at for resources, reading guides and more.


More about The Paris Project:

Cleveland Rosebud Potts has a plan. If she can check off the six items on her très important Paris Project List she will make it out of the small-minded and scorching town of Sassafras, Florida, to a rich and cultured life at The American School of Paris.

Unfortunately, everything seems to conspire against Cleveland reaching her goal.

Cleveland is ashamed of her father and angry that her mother and sister are never around because they have to work extra shifts to help out the family. Her Eiffel Tower tin has zero funds. And to top it all off, Cleveland’s best friend Jenna Finch has decided she’s too fancy for her and her neighbor Declan seems to be hiding something.

As Cleveland puts her talents to the test, she must learn how to forgive family for their faults, appreciate friends for exactly who they are, and bloom where she’s planted—even if that’s in a tiny town in central Florida that doesn’t even have a French restaurant. C’èst la vie!


Naked Mole Rat Saves the World by Karen Rivers

Ever read the title of a book and know instantly that you must find out more about the story?

When I first saw the title of our next spotlight, I couldn’t help being filled with all sorts of questions. What’s up with this mole rat? Why did the day have to be saved? And how does he do it?

And wait! A mole rat?

Haha! I know. I’m being a little overly dramatic, but this goes to show how much value a title can hold. Let’s meet this mole rat.

Can Kit’s super-weird superpower save her world?

Kit-with-a-small-k is navigating middle school with a really big, really strange secret: When she’s stressed, she turns into a naked mole rat.

It first happened after kit watched her best friend, Clem, fall and get hurt during an acrobatic performance on TV. Since then, the transformations keep happening—whether kit wants them to or not. Kit can’t tell Clem about it, because after the fall, Clem just hasn’t been herself. She’s sad and mad and gloomy, and keeping a secret of her own: the real reason she fell.

A year after the accident, kit and Clem still haven’t figured out how to deal with all the ways they have transformed—both inside and out. When their secrets come between them, the best friends get into a big fight. Somehow, kit has to save the day, but she doesn’t believe she can be that kind of hero. Turning into a naked mole rat isn’t really a superpower. Or is it?

“A warm coming-of-age story populated with a cast of memorable characters.”
—Kirkus Reviews

The book releases on October 15, 2019 by Algonquin.


It’s wonderful to have you visit us here again, Karen. Welcome!

Kit is such an intriguing and endearing character. What characteristics did you know you had to include within her?

Kit, like most of my characters, came to me fully formed as herself, right from the beginning. I knew she had to be stronger than she knew, but I also knew that she was going to have occasionally overwhelming anxiety herself, that would be secondary (in her mind) to her mum’s more paralyzing version. I also wanted her to be brave, in particular brave to be herself, even when others might think it’s “weird” (to rollerskate, to believe in magic, to tie ribbons to trees in the park, to blow bubbles). And I knew she would be funny, of course.

Just hearing you describe her in your own words makes me like her even more.

We all know how important it is for young readers to relate to the characters they read. How will young readers relate to Kit?

I think a lot of kids around the age that kit is in the book are on the cusp of young adulthood, while also still wanting to stay kids. Kit very much wants to hold on to her kid-like qualities. I know some kids like this, who feel like they are being left behind because their friends are more like teenagers already, even when they aren’t quite ready.

That’s a very important reality during the transformation between tween and teen, and it’s not talked about enough. Glad you’ve mentioned it here. What is your favorite part of the world you’ve created for Kit and why?

I love the magic more than anything — all of it, from the literal to the metaphorical. I also love the way both kit and Clem find their power in surprising ways. Both of them are exploring the scarier, darker sides of their realities in these brave and surprising ways.

Was there anything about Kit that surprised you?

When I started writing, I didn’t realize that sometimes she was going to be angry or that she was going to show her anger on the page, that she could be unforgiving. I happen to have a twelve year old of my own now (although she was younger when I was writing this story) and this ability to flip back and forth between joy and fury turns out to be very real. It felt true on the page, too, but I hadn’t necessarily anticipated it.

Would you have been friends with Kit as a middle schooler?

Oh, definitely. She’s kind and fierce and funny and loyal AND she roller skates!

She definitely sounds like fun! What’s the most important element from this story you hope readers take with them once they’ve finished the book?

That everyone has something going on beyond the version of themselves that they present and that you see at school. You don’t have to scratch the surface very deeply to realize that we all have many, many layers. You never know what someone else is going through, and you definitely can easily underestimate what they are capable of if you forget to look beyond their outward appearance. And of course it’s also a book about forgiveness, about acknowledging that not everyone always does the right thing.

Another hidden truth during those middle grade years. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Kit and Clem’s story and for helping young readers explore who they are through them. All the best from your Mixed-Up Files family . . .

Karen Rivers’s books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usu­ally be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, and two birds.

Find her online at and on Twitter: @karenrivers.


STEM Tuesday –Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and More! — Writing Crafts & Resources


Getting into Character

Planes, trains, automobiles, and more – this month’s look at transportation books might seem a bit impersonal, characterless, emotionless. When I looked closer, though, I found all kinds of characters. Let’s spend a few minutes examining how authors infuse character in these books about more technical topics.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBiography is an obvious approach, one taken in Elon Musk: And the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Following one individual’s life, author Ashley Vance shows us the development of his passion, the technical challenges he conquered, as well as the human challenges he dealt with. The results are an in-depth look at the skills needed to develop advanced transportation systems such as spaceships and electric cars.Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

When tackling a topic such as the Titanic, which incorporate so much human tragedy, utilizing character is a natural fit. In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, author Deborah Hopkinson interweaves individual’s stories to convey the magnitude of this event.

But even in a book with a much more technical focus, such as Who Built That? Bridges by Didier Cornille, space is given to including character. A single paragraph at the beginning of each chapter presents a brief expository bio before the chapter dives into the history and a step-by-step look at how each specific bridge was constructed.Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgUse of character isn’t limited to actual human characters. Take a look at Save the Crash-test Dummies by Jennifer Swanson and you’ll see how inanimate dummy characters play a role in conveying the mechanical and historical content.

Why did each of these authors use character? I’m thinking deeper than the obvious answer: to draw the reader in. I’m comparing and contrasting how they presented these characters. The placement in the sequence of the text, the words used to describe the characters, the impact of character development, or lack of it. In analyzing this, I’m considering how I’ll use character in future writing to present topics that appeal to a wide variety of readers.


Try It Yourself:

  • Compare the first two pages of the first chapter of two books. Titanic and Elon Musk work well. Highlight every word or passage that characterizes the humans. Which techniques do these authors use? How similar or different are they? Consider why.
  • Now focus on a single book, Save the Crash-test Dummies, is ideal for this exercise. Scan the book for places where the nonhuman characters are characterized. Where is that in the sequence of the book? Can you find examples of characterization in places other than the main text?
  • Think about characterization in expository versus narrative text. Look for examples of each in this collection of books. Find an example of expository characterization (as in Who Built That? Bridges) and rewrite that is narrative. Yes you probably have to make it up; that’s okay for an exercise. Find an example of narrative characterization and rewrite that as expository. Which was harder? Why? How would making that change to the text impact the larger piece of writing?

Heather L. Montgomery writes books for kids are wild about animals; she’s learned to bring characterization into her works. Her recent Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill follows an inquisitive narrator who visits scientists who use roadkill bodies to make discoveries. Her Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis under the Waves characterizes juvenile marine creatures to tell the story of how they each grow up.


Podcasts are great forgetting your regular dose of science. Here are some great ones for kids and adults:

  • Science Friday: In-depth looks at current science research. These stories dive deep into questions that are at the forefront of our minds. Their website has episodes sorted by topic (health, math, energy) as well as further reading and resources for each episode.
  • Brains On! Science Podcasts for Kids: From American Public Media, this podcast is perfect for kids and curious adults. Each week it focuses on a different fascinating question such as: How do elevators work? What is dyslexia? How do ants and spiders walk on walls?
  • WOW in the World: in this high-energy podcasts produced by NPR, the hosts take you on an imaginative trip, a journey into the wonders of the world. Inside brains, deep into the ocean, or far out in space. Perfect for the whole family.
  • Tumble Science Podcast for Kids: Hosted by a science reporter and an educator who are also parents, this podcast asks questions, shares mysteries, and interviews real scientists. Episodes include: The Secret Senses of Plants, Earth Rangers, and What Would Happen if There Was No Moon?