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Ena Jones Interview & Two Giveaways

I’m thrilled to welcome Ena Jones back to the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors to celebrate the release of her newest novel, SIX FEET BELOW ZERO.

Credit: McCardell Photography

Credit: McCardell Photography

Ena Jones writes contemporary middle-grade fiction (for children ages 8-12). She grew up in Northern Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, and currently lives in North Carolina. She loves to read a wide variety of books, hole up in her office and write fun stories, take long walks along the ocean, and cook yummy meals for family and friends.

You can find her on her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

Here’s a link to the SIX FEET BELOW ZERO Educator’s Guide, courtesy of Holiday House.

 

 

What inspired you to write this book—and were there any surprises along the way?

A photo of Marie Jones, the inspiration for the character of Great-Grammy.

SIX FEET BELOW ZERO sprouted from a simple idea. I wanted to explore the question of guardianship, something both parents and kids think about. There’s always a fear: Where will the children end up if something happens to the parents? And will a new guardian have the best interests of the kids at heart? We all know that, from both parent and child perspectives, there are people who are not suited to the role of caregiver. And that’s where I started my “What if .  . .” questions.

The first character that came to me was “Great-Grammy,” who was inspired by my husband’s grandmother. I wanted a person who would find a way to protect the children any way she could, even if she weren’t around to do it herself. My husband’s grandmother was that kind of real-life force.

As for surprises, writing a novel is one long series of them. But the biggest surprise was that I found the courage to write—and finish—the book at all. I tried very hard to talk myself out of it, and even enlisted others to tell me it was a bad idea, mostly because of the role of the freezer. The entire concept seemed absurd for a middle grade novel. But as I wrote more and more scenes, the 10-year-old inside of me kept chuckling. And the heart of the story really meant something to me, so here we are a few years later.

 

I’m glad you didn’t talk yourself out of writing it! I love the heart of the story–and how it encourages readers to appreciate their families and things they often take for granted. You kept me chuckling throughout the book, too.

I love how fleshed out and unique all your characters are. What pieces of you and your life are in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO?

I’ll go back to my husband’s grandmother here, too. She lived on 10 acres of land just outside of Washington, DC, and we would visit her with our children and have the best time tromping around her property. As I wrote the book, I pictured her, the house, the wildlife and trees, and definitely the hundreds of groundhog holes! Revisiting that time in our lives was the best part of writing this story.

Here’s a photo of  my favorite tree on Marie’s property. Look closely, and you’ll see a swing she put up preparing for one of our visits.

 

 

Beginnings are so hard to nail…but yours sucked me in immediately. How did you decide where to start your book? 

The beginnings of books are hard! But they are so important. They’re the gateway into a story, where a reader will either keep going, or think “Meh,” and go on to the next book—or maybe out for ice cream.

I decided to play with a flashback approach. Flashbacks don’t always work, but I knew what I wanted: a compelling and humorous scene to kick off the story and act as a promise to readers about what’s to come. Something that might entice even the most reluctant readers to be curious about Rosie and Baker’s backstory, and all the events, personality-types, and attitudes, that led up to the BIG AWFUL THING that forever changed Rosie and Baker’s lives and ushered them into their “new normal.” 

First I tried an opening that took place at the midpoint of the story, where Rosie and Baker sat in a police station doing their best not to answer questions about their great-grandmother’s whereabouts. But the siblings didn’t know enough about their predicament yet, so that didn’t work.

After a bit of trial and error, I landed on a place further along in the story, at a point when they fully realized the foe they were up against and the stakes involved. And that’s where I found my beginning: Rosie starting an urgent last-chance email to her Aunt Tilly, letting everything the siblings had been through spill out.

And that’s the beginning that stuck.

 

What type of research did you need to do?

It seemed that I was always researching something. Trees, wills, historic graves, locks, and of course freezers . . . the list was endless. I even researched hairstyles. I needed a good one for Grim Hesper!

 

I love how you sprinkled humor throughout a book with a serious topic. What tips can you share for blending the two? 

For me, it all comes back to knowing the characters and their relationships with each other. Maybe characters are dealing with a serious or sad situation, but that doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly become other people. They are still themselves!

For instance, in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, there’s a scene where Rosie and Baker, as they grieve the loss of their great-grandmother, have agreed to come together to do something that seems almost impossible.

The thing is, even in the midst of that difficult scene, they must deal with each other’s quirks and their own shortcomings. There’s a unique opportunity to hit on unspoken truths when feelings let loose under stress, especially between siblings. Who else would you let your guard down with?

Also, normal everyday things continue to happen, that ordinarily wouldn’t be a big deal, but within the serious and sad scenario Rosie and Baker have found themselves in, they get a chuckle.

So I guess that would be my biggest tip for balancing humor within a serious scene or story: When something big, scary, and/or bad, is happening, remember to add your characters’ personalities to the mix, whether those traits are annoying or endearing, and also throw in some evidence that real life hasn’t stopped just because characters are handling (or not handling!) the big, scary, or bad, things.

 

Thanks so much for those awesome tips! Can you share a writing exercise with us?

A few years ago I was at an SCBWI conference in Florida, and took a full day workshop led by Elizabeth Law, Backlist & Special Projects Editor at Holiday House Books, and Greg Pincus, screenwriter. They spent the day comparing writing stories for children with writing screenplays and developing movie concepts, and it was so much fun!

One of the most memorable parts for me was the segment about “Poster-izing Your Book,” as in movie poster. It’s the line that isn’t a blurb, or synopsis sentence, but that captures the essence of your story in a short sentence or two. It’s what you almost always see on movie posters at the theatre. Do an online image search for “movie posters” and you’ll pull up thousands of examples.

It was at that workshop where I came up with the idea we’re now using to introduce SIX FEET BELOW ZERO: 

A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. 

The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.

I highly suggest writers use this strategy on the book they’re writing, no matter what stage it’s in. It helps to study as many movie posters as possible, and then get to work. Fill a few notebook pages with words and short phrases that describe your book, and then start to put them together.

Try it. You’ll love it!

And if you ever have the opportunity to take this particular workshop led by Elizabeth and Greg, don’t miss it!

 

Wow! That sounds like an incredible workshop. I love your exercise! It’s fantastic for writers and I can picture teachers and students poster-izing books and movies and letting others guess what they are. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the Mixed-Up Files readers?

I write books that are contemporary, but have a “This would never happen!” vibe. The thing is, I’m basically that kid—my character—when I’m writing. In my world, it not only could happen, it did. I hope readers will connect with the characters in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, but mostly I hope they enjoy the ride.

I also want to thank Elizabeth Law and Greg Pincus, who graciously allowed me to share the above exercise.

 

I definitely enjoyed the ride. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files again, Ena…and for generously donating a copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, a bookmark and recipe card to two lucky winners. Enter the Rafflecopters below!

A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.

Rosie and Baker are hiding something. Something big. Their great grandmother made them promise to pretend she’s alive until they find her missing will and get it in the right hands. The will protects the family house from their grandmother, Grim Hesper, who would sell it and ship Rosie and Baker off to separate boarding schools. They’ve already lost their parents and Great Grammy–they can’t lose each other, too.

The siblings kick it into high gear to locate the will, keep their neighbors from prying, and safeguard the house. Rosie has no time to cope with her grief as disasters pop up around every carefully planned corner. She can’t even bring herself to read her last-ever letter from Great Grammy. But the lies get bigger and bigger as Rosie and Baker try to convince everyone that their great grandmother is still around, and they’ll need more than a six-month supply of frozen noodle casserole and mountains of toilet paper once their wicked grandmother shows up!

 

One copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO is open to everyone in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

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One copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO will go to a teacher, media specialist or book blogger in the U.S. or Puerto Rico. 

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Winners will be announced on April 15. Good luck everyone!

 

Interview with Psychotherapist Amy Morin, Author of 13 Things Strong Kids Do

Anyone have a time machine?

For all of us who ever said, “I wish I’d known then, what I know now,” the Mixed Up Files has a special treat. Psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, has put a middle-grade twist on her adult series13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, and 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do—to create 13 Things Strong Kids Do. It presents different scenarios along with constructive activities to help kids start thinking in new ways … and I’m researching ways to send it back in time to my 13-year-old self!

Welcome, Amy!

Sean McCollum: I wish I’d had a book like 13 Things Strong Kids Do when I was in middle school! Its information and exercises might have given me the tools to sidestep some of those self-defeating adolescent mistakes or given me the tools to better handle them. How did the idea for this book come about?

Amy Morin: So many of my adult readers said the same thing—they wished they had been able to learn about mental strength when they were young. So I wanted to write a book that would teach kids how to start building mental strength so they can develop skills and tools that will continue to serve them well throughout their whole lives.

The author as an MGer. 🙂

 

SMc: Would you be willing to share an anecdote from your own teen years about a time you weren’t “strong,” and how advice from this book might have helped?

AM: Well, many of the stories in my book stem from my own childhood. There were plenty of times I wasn’t strong. One example is when I quit playing the saxophone after one day! I was in the sixth grade and I only went to one lesson before I decided it was going to be too hard for me. I could have used several exercises from the book to help me persist—like creating my own catchphrase or writing myself a kind letter. Those types of things would have helped me drown out all those negative thoughts I had about not being able to do it.

SMc: How might educators and other professionals use this title in their schools and classrooms?

AM: This book gives adults a common language to use with kids. When an educator or a professional asks, “Is that a BLUE thought or a true thought?” it’s a reminder to a child that they can take action to change their own thinking.

Adults can empower kids when they understand the skills and tools kids have at their disposal. Rather than taking responsibility for creating change, professionals can encourage kids to do it on their own with a little guidance.

My hope is that professionals will use the book as a guide so they better understand how to reinforce healthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in kids.

SMc: Could you share three “healthy habits” our readers could put to use right now?

AM: Label your feelings. When you name how you’re feeling, like sad or angry, you’ll instantly feel just a little bit better. Research shows labeling our emotions helps our brains make a little more sense of things and it reduces our stress.

Ask yourself if your feelings are a friend or an enemy. Any feeling can be a friend sometimes—even sadness or anger. After all, being sad might help you honor something you lost and being angry might give you courage to speak up for someone else. But, those feelings can be an enemy when they cause you to get into trouble or keep you from having fun in life. If your feeling is a friend, embrace it. If it’s an enemy, take steps to change how you’re feeling.

Change the channel in your brain. When you’re thinking about something that causes you to feel awful—like that mean thing someone said—change the channel in your brain. Dance to some music, sing a song, or read a joke book. That will change the channel in your brain and help you stop thinking about things that cause you to feel bad.

SMc: Do you recall a favorite middle grade book and any life lessons it taught you?

AM: I loved reading Judy Blume’s books. Blubber was my favorite. It helped me see that growing up is tough for everyone and I wasn’t alone in many of the things I was thinking and feeling.

SMc: Do you practice the exercises in this book?

AM: Yes, even though I’m no longer a kid, I find the exercises really helpful! Whether I’m calming my brain and my body when I’m nervous or I’m trying to face my fears one small step at a time, the skills that work for you when you’re young will help you when you’re grown too.

To follow Amy Morin and her life-helping work, check out:

Thanks so much for making to time to speak with us, Amy!

Readers, remember to enter our Rafflecopter raffle for Amy’s book. (This one is for American readers only.)

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STEM Tuesday — The Living Seas– Book List

STEM Tuesday

Dive beneath the waves with us this week as we explore our world ocean. Did you know our planet is 70% ocean and only 30% land? Yet the ocean is less explored than outer space. Use these books to explore the wild, the weird, and the wonderful about our blue planet.

Planet Ocean: Why We All Need a Healthy Ocean by Patricia Newman; photographs by Annie Crawley

Readers will discover how closely THEY are connected to the ocean, regardless of where they live. Be sure to explore the dazzling QR code videos! Jeff Bridges, Academy Award winner and environmentalist, call this book a “must read.”

Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact by Jennifer Swanson

Discover how scientists prepare for exploring deep-space and deep-sea.

Plasticus Maritimus: An Invasive Species by Ana Pego; illustrated by Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernado P. Carvalho

Readers will explore plastic pollution in the ocean inspired by biologist Ana Pego’s life’s work.

Beneath the Waves: Celebrating the Ocean Through Pictures, Poems, and Stories by Stephanie Warren Drimmer

Enjoy amazing animal profiles, poetry, photography, and lots of great facts.

The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans by Elizabeth Rusch

Readers will meet the scientists and engineers working to tarnish our oceans for renewable energy.

Into the Deep: An Exploration of Our Oceans by Wolfgang Dreyer; illustrated by Annika Siems

Discover the latest scientific research through a ride on a submarine. 

Secrets of the Sea by Kate Baker  

Explore rocky pools, shoreline, and the deepest depths of the ocean. 

Oceanology: The Secrets of the Sea Revealed by DK/Smithsonian  

An informative and beautiful introduction into the ocean ecosystem.

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffen Burns

This Scientists in the Field title explores the exploration of ocean trash.

Explore the Salish Sea: A Nature Guide for Kids by Joseph K. Gados and Audrey DeLella Benedict

This title explores the creatures that call the Salish Sea home, from the rhinoceros auklet to the giant Pacific octopus. 


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Nancy Castaldo has written books about our planet for over 20 years including, THE STORY OF SEEDS, which earned the Green Earth Book Award, Junior Library Guild Selection, and other honors. Nancy’s research has taken her all over the world from the Galapagos to Russia.  She strives to inform, inspire, and empower her readers. Nancy also served as Regional Advisor Emeritus of the Eastern NY SCBWI region. Her 2020 international title about farm and food is THE FARM THAT FEEDS US: A Year In The Life Of An Organic Farm. Visit her at www.nancycastaldo.com. 

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Patricia Newman writes middle-grade nonfiction that empowers young readers to act on behalf of the environment and their communities. Academy Award winner and environmentalist Jeff Bridges calls Planet Ocean a “must read.” Newman, a Sibert Honor author of Sea Otter Heroes, has also received an NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Award for Eavesdropping on Elephants, a Green Earth Book Award for Plastic, Ahoy!, and a Eureka! Gold Medal from the California Reading Association for Zoo Scientists to the Rescue. Her books have received starred reviews, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. During author visits, she demonstrates how young readers can use writing to be the voice of change. Visit her at www.patriciamnewman.com.