Interview with New York Times bestselling author, Liz Kessler

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome MG superstar Liz Kessler to the Mixed-Up Files! In addition to being the author of the wildly popular Emily Windsnap series—which has been translated into 25 languages, appeared on the New York Times bestsellers list, and has sold millions of copiesLiz has penned the Phillipa Fisher series, several MG stand-alones, two YA novels, and books for early readers. Liz’s latest MG novel, Code Name Kingfisher, hailed by School Library Journal as “overpoweringly emotional; an intense story, gorgeously told,” is out from Aladdin on May 7.

But before we chat with Liz…

Code Name Kingfisher: A Summary

When Liv finds a box hidden in her grandmother’s attic, saved from her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, circa 1943, she unearths a trove of family secrets—including the extraordinary story of her great-aunt Hannie, a Jewish undercover agent in the Dutch resistance. It’s a tale of bravery, betrayal, and daring defiance, and Liv wants to know more—starting with why her grandmother has kept Hannie a secret for so many years…

Interview with Liz Kessler

Melissa: Hi, Liz! It’s a pleasure to have you join us today. Before we begin, I must tell you how much I adored Code Name Kingfisher. I stayed up until the wee hours reading it and was sobbing by the end. It’s such a powerful book!

Liz: Thank you!

Melissa: Also, I also have a confession to make. My daughter, Chloe—who’s now 24—loved the Emily Windsnapseries so much, she went through a period of writing her homework assignments in British English! Her teachers were very confused. 🙂 

Liz: I have found it fascinating over the years of working with both UK and US editors to discover all the ways in which our languages both align and vary!

Pulled from the Headlines

Melissa: Your latest novel, Code Name Kingfisher, is inspired by true-life events: the story of two sisters, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, and their friend Hannie Schaft. Can you give us some historical background? Also, what was your impetus to tell this particular story?

Liz: I was working on the research for my novel, When The World Was Ours, and in the course of my research I went to Amsterdam and discovered a lot about people in Holland who joined the Resistance movement during the war. Then I heard a program about these three girls and was keen to find out more. I read all about them and was so drawn to their story. I have always written about strong young women (as your daughter will tell you, because Emily Windsnap was the first of them!) and felt very inspired by these three.

Melissa: Your novel alternates between present-day England and Nazi-occupied Holland, circa 1942. It’s also told from four different perspectives: thirteen-year-old Liv, who’s getting bullied at school; Mila, 12, and Hannie, 15—two Jewish sisters who have assumed new identities and are living with a non-Jewish family in Amsterdam; and Willem, a neighbor boy with secrets of his own. How were you able to get inside each character’s head in such a genuine, authentic way? It’s not an easy feat to pull off!

Liz: Thank you for saying this. I’m glad that I pulled it off in a way that you found genuine and authentic. I think for me, the important thing is to know my characters as well as I possibly can. I spend a lot of time imagining what they are like, picturing them, planning and plotting their stories, and when I am writing, I just find that I naturally get inside their heads and try to experience the story from their point of view. It’s how I’ve always done it, and I think being someone who is quite a high-level over empathizer helps!

Lessons in Drafting

Melissa: As above, your novel is told from four different perspectives, past and present. What was your drafting technique like? Did you write each character’s narrative arc from start to finish and then weave the stories together? Or did you start with one character and then move on to the next one… and the next one?

Liz: I actually didn’t do either of these! I am quite an extreme planner. I plan and plan and plan and don’t start writing a word of the book until I have a chapter by chapter breakdown that works. So it was in the planning stage that I worked out how I wanted the story to unfold, who was the person to tell each part of the story, how the present and past narratives would work together, reflecting on each other and interweaving around each other. The planning was a lot of work with this book, particularly given the different viewpoints AND past and present settings. But once the groundwork of planning is done, it makes the writing easier!

It’s All in the Research

Melissa: Since a good portion of the novel takes place during World War II, in Nazi-occupied Holland, what sort of research did you do in order to ensure authenticity?

Liz: I spent several days in Amsterdam, visiting museums: in particular, the Anne Frank House and the Dutch Resistance Museum. I bought as many books as I could find on the subject, I scoured websites. And then when I’d completed a first draft, I found a couple of experts on Holland during the war who helped me to ensure I had gotten my facts right.

Writing about WWII

Melissa: As a follow-up, this is not your first middle-grade novel to be set in Nazi-occupied Europe. When the World Was Ours (Aladdin, 2022), which was also inspired by a true story, takes place in Vienna, in 1936. What impels you to write about this period in history? What makes it meaningful to you?

Liz: When The World Was Ours was inspired by an incident in my dad’s childhood that led to him being able to get away from the Nazis in 1939. I had wanted to write a book inspired by his experiences for many years. I am not a history fan normally, but these books have been about exploring issues that are always close to my heart: social justice, love, family and the power of kindness.

The Complexity of Secret Keeping

Melissa: An important theme in Code Name Kingfisher is secret keeping. Liv doesn’t tell her parents that she’s being bullied at school, and Liv’s grandmother never talks about her beloved sister, Hannie. She also had to keep her Jewish identity a secret when she was hiding from the Nazis. What is it about secret keeping that’s so complex and emotionally draining?

Liz: I’m actually not sure how to answer this one as I am not a big secret keeper myself. I am much more of an open book than any of these characters! But I think that when we allow ourselves to live freely and authentically, we are likely to be much happier in our lives. Living with secrets is the opposite of that, and will undoubtedly lead to living with an element of weight and stress.

Bullying and Human Persecution

Melissa: In Code Name Kingfisher, Liv is bullied by her classmates for no particular reason; the Jews were persecuted during WWII, just for being Jewish. What were you trying to say about the nature of bullying and human persecution in general?

Liz: With both of these books, I hope to show how easily people can be led into bullying or cruel behavior. How sometimes it’s about our own self-preservation – hoping that if we side with the persecutor we won’t be seen as weak and run the risk of being the bully’s next victim. I want young people to read these books and make links for themselves between current times and the fascism of World War Two. I hope to start conversations about kindness and strength and standing up for others. Beyond that, it’s up to the readers to draw their own conclusions and figure out for themselves where they choose to stand.

Liz’s Writing Routine

Melissa: Switching gears, let’s talk about your writing routine. Do you have a specific time of the day when you like to write? Any particular writing rituals?

Liz: I don’t really have rituals. I usually prefer to work in the mornings. I set targets with my work, rather than setting particular timings. I also love to be flexible so I can sometimes write all day and sometimes take the day off if the sun’s shining and the outside world is calling!

Melissa: What are you working on now, Liz? Also, are there any more Emily Windsnap books on the horizon?

Liz: Funny you should ask. I have just completed the final edit of a tenth Emily Windsnap book!

Lightning Round!

And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Used to be chocolate, but I went cold turkey a month ago so I guess it will have to be fruit.

Plotter or Pantser? Major plotter!

Superpower? The superpower I have is empathy. The one I’d like to have is the ability to time travel.

Favorite place on earth? My home. I’m never happier than when I’m with my wife and my dog.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?Notebook, pen and some form of music.

Melissa: Thank you for chatting with us, Liz. It was a pleasure to learn more about you and your book, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!

Liz: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun chatting with you!

About Liz

Liz Kessler has written over twenty books for children and young adults. Most of these are middle- grade books featuring mermaids, fairies, time travel, and superpowers. She also writes Early Readers about Poppy the Pirate Dog and Jenny the Pony, as well as two YA books about teenagers coming of age, falling in love, and discovering their identity. Learn more about Liz on her website.

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman). Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

STEM Author Spotlight– Laura Stegman

We are delighted to have Laura Stegman, author of The Chambered Nautilus on the blog today.

Laura StegmanLaura Segal Stegman is a Los Angeles-based publicist and author whose middle grade debut novel, Summer of L.U.C.K., and its sequel, Ready or Not, were published by Young Dragons. The Chambered Nautilus, the third in the L.U.C.K. trilogy, will follow. L.A. Parent Magazine lauded Summer of L.U.C.K. as a “good read,” Readers’ Favorite awarded it 5 Stars, and a Macaroni Kid reviewer said, “I was instantly captivated and couldn’t put it down.” Laura serves as a judge for Society of Young Inklings and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) writer competitions, and she shares her author journey in engaging virtual and in-person visits to schools and libraries. Her non-fiction credits include collaboration on the travel book Only in New York. Her feature stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine. A long-time publicity consultant, she owns Laura Segal Stegman Public Relations, LLC, which has represented a wide-ranging client list of businesses, arts organizations, and non-profit events over the years. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Drama.



The Chambered Nautilus book

All about the book! Get ready for a whirlwind adventure with The Chambered Nautilus, the thrilling conclusion to Laura Segal Stegman’s enchanting Summer of L.U.C.K. trilogy.

Best friends Darby, Justin, and Naz are facing their biggest challenge yet. Since last summer’s adventure, they find themselves growing apart, making new friends, and being pulled in different directions. But when a ride at ghostly Mr. Usher’s carnival experiences a mysterious malfunction, the trio reunites to answer his desperate call for help.

With expulsion from camp and the carnival’s very existence on the line, Darby, Justin, and Naz will have to rely on their wits-and one another-to unravel the mysteries surrounding Mr. Usher’s plea. The camp’s newest attraction, the Chambered Nautilus, may hold the key, but it will take everything they have to unlock its secret.

Join them in a heart-pounding journey filled with friendship, courage, and the power of never giving up. Will they save the carnival and their cherished memories before it’s too late? Find out in this magical tale of adventure, discovery, and the true meaning of loyalty.


Laura, thanks for answering my questions:

JS: This is such a fun book with a great cast of characters. Were they inspired by yourself? Or maybe kids you knew or grew up with? You don’t have to give specific names, of course, but it’s always fun to learn where authors get their characters.


LS: I appreciate your describing The Chambered Nautilus as a fun book! I sure had fun writing it! It’s the third in my middle grade trilogy about three kids whose friendship with a ghost livens up – to put it mildly – their summer camp experiences over a three-year span. In Summer of L.U.C.K., the first book, we meet Darby, Justin, and Naz, who are struggling with communicating, and the ghost, Leroy Usher, who helps them find their voices via adventures in his magical carnival. The kids have more magical adventures in the sequel, but Ready or Not sees Mr. Usher helping Justin, who faces a tricky choice: stand up to bigotry or let fear hold him back. In The Chambered Nautilus, the conclusion to the series, the trio receives an urgent plea from Mr. Usher, and they must figure out how to help him without destroying his beloved, now real-life carnival or getting expelled from camp.

It’s certainly accurate to say that the kid  characters were inspired by me. A lot of Darby is based on my own experiences learning to find my voice. I never lost a parent as a kid, the way Justin does, but I’ve felt his sense of not being heard. As for Naz, whose endearing personality makes me laugh, I share his tenacity and his love of junk food.


JS: Your book has a ghost! How cool is that? Can you explain what made you decide to put a ghost in it? 

LS: I needed a character not only with magical powers but who was also deeply compassionate. A friendly ghost fit the bill. I modeled Mr. Usher on the kind of loving, understanding adult that kids like me loved to be around. I had a grade school teacher like that. She helped me navigate tough times and gave me a sense of security and trust. Like her, Mr. Usher adores kids and does everything he can to help them, which is why Darby, Justin, and Naz are so drawn to him. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Warner, and for all I know she has passed on, but perhaps she haunts my old elementary school, still helping kids. Ha!


JS: Why did you pick a chambered nautilus? This is not a typical ride at a carnival.

Agreed! The Chambered Nautilus in this book exists nowhere but my imagination. The carnival attraction is shaped like a nautilus shell (think giant snail). When kids enter, they (and readers) learn all about chambered nautiluses and their threatened status. As they go from room to room – each smaller than the last, like a real nautilus – they must answer multiple choice questions about what they’ve learned to get to the final room and win a prize.

But it’s not as simple as all that. The Chambered Nautilus attraction is Mr. Usher’s son’s misbegotten attempt to bring his late father’s plans to life. Mr. Usher never intended it to be built anywhere except in his magical realm, but his son doesn’t know that. And of course everything goes wrong. When pieces of the carnival start disappearing, the three kids must rescue the trapped Mr. Usher so he can go back to rest once and for all.


JS: You have a little STEM in your book. Why did you add that?

My favorite book as a kid, The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, had a chambered nautilus-related scene, so I knew a little about them. But as I did research for my book, I became fascinated by their intriguing biology, their intricately designed shells, and their precarious status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. For young readers who’ve never heard of chambered nautiluses, I’m hoping to inspire their interest in these soft-bodied cephalopod class creatures, which have cruised in deep ocean coral reefs for more than 480 million years.


JS: What do you want young readers to find interesting and exciting about your book?

LS: Aside from discovering chambered nautiluses, I hope they’ll be engaged by the relationship between Darby, Justin, and Naz and enjoy sharing their adventures. In The Chambered Nautilus and the other two books in the trilogy, there’s a lot about finding self-acceptance, perseverance, ways to deal with life’s unfairness, and the power of friendship. It would be great if my readers also learn that whatever they’re struggling with, other kids struggle too, that they’re not alone, and that help is possible, even if you don’t have the guidance of a friendly ghost).


JS: Do you have any tips for writers who want to break into fiction children’s books?

LS: What helps me the most are these things, in no particular order:

1) Reading widely, especially contemporary middle grade but also other genres.

2) Making contact with as many other middle grade writers as possible, especially those at the same stage of their careers as I am.

3) Joining or creating a critique group.

4) Learning as much as possible about the publishing industry by taking advantage of the range of no-cost writer’s resources, from social media (X/Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, for me) to web sites/blogs.

5) Joining the SCBWI and, when eligible, the Author’s Guild, which offers everything from free contract reviews to webinars,  workshops, seminars, and events to website building and hosting and much more.

6) Continuing to write, never giving up, and remembering that there is no age limit to our dreams.


JS: What are you working on now?

LS: I’m deep in revisions for my fourth book, a contemporary middle grade novel about a self-conscious twelve-year-old who flourishes in an acting class only to confront her binge eating when it jeopardizes all her progress. This story of healing, self-acceptance, and hope is especially dear to my heart, and I hope it eventually finds a home. I also have an idea for another MG contemporary about a blended family, which is in such rudimentary stages that I haven’t been able to decide where the story begins.


Laura Stegman




New Releases for May 2024!

It’s springtime and there are so many good things popping up in the month of May, especially books! Here are a few new middle-grade books launching this month—from fantasy to narrative nonfiction to graphic novels and more!

The Secret Library by Kekla Magoon

Since Grandpa died, Dally’s days are dull and restricted. She’s eleven and a half years old, and her exacting single mother is already preparing her to take over the family business. Starved for adventure and release, Dally rescues a mysterious envelope from her mother’s clutches, an envelope Grandpa had earmarked for her. The map she finds inside leads straight to an ancient vault, a library of secrets where each book is a portal to a precise moment in time. As Dally “checks out” adventure after adventure–including an exhilarating outing with pirates–she begins to dive deep into her family’s hidden history. Soon she’s visiting every day to escape the demands of the present. But the library has secrets of its own, intentions that would shape her life as surely as her mother’s meticulous plans. What will Dally choose? Equal parts mystery and adventure–with a biracial child puzzling out her identity alongside the legacy of the past–this masterful middle-grade fantasy rivets with crackling prose, playful plot twists, and timeless themes. A satisfying choice for fans of Kindred and When You Reach Me.






Lunar Boy by Jes and Cin Wibowo

Indu, a boy from the moon, feels like he doesn’t belong. He hasn’t since he and his adoptive mom disembarked from their spaceship–their home–to live on Earth with their new blended family. The kids at school think he’s weird, he has a crush on his pen pal who might not like him back, and his stepfamily doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. Worst of all, Indu can’t even talk to his mom about how he’s feeling because she’s so busy.

In a moment of loneliness, Indu calls out to the moon, begging them to take him back. And against all odds, the moon hears him and agrees to bring him home on the first day of the New Year. But as the promised day draws nearer, Indu finds friendship in unlikely places and discovers that home is more than where you come from. And when the moon calls again, Indu must decide: Is he willing to give up what he’s just found?







Mountain of Fire: The Eruption and Survivors of Mount St. Helens by Rebecca E. F. Barone

For weeks, the ground around Mount St. Helens shuddered like a dynamite keg ready to explode. There were legends of previous eruptions: violent fire, treacherous floods, and heat that had scoured the area. But the shaking and swelling was unlike any volcanic activity ever seen before. Day and night, scientists tried to piece together the mountain’s clues–yet nothing could prepare them for the destruction to come.

The long-dormant volcano seethed away, boiling rock far below the surface. Washington’s governor, Dixie Lee Ray, understood the despair that would follow from people being forced from their homes. How and when should she give orders to evacuate the area? And would that be enough to save the people from the eruption of Mount St. Helens?






The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown by Elizabeth Laird

Charity Brown’s life is about to change – her family have been left a huge, rambling house by a mysterious benefactor, and her parents want to move in and throw open its doors to the needy.

Only recently back from hospital after months of isolation with polio, Charity is over-protected and lonely as the only child still at home. Her family are very religious – her sisters are called Faith and Hope, and her brother Ted is studying to be a preacher – so she’s both excited and nervous at the thought of sharing her family and new home with strangers.

It’s a recipe for confusion, joy and endless misunderstandings, including with the new neighbours, an Austrian family with a daughter just Charity’s age . . .







The Magic Paintbrush by Kat Zhang

Amy has always loved art, but lately her drawings have been less than impressive. There’s no passion, no personality, no…magic. Until Amy visits her Lao Lao, her grandmother, and finds an ancient paintbrush that brings anything Amy creates to life!

Now her creation Luna has taken over her bedroom and is running through the streets of Flushing, Queens. What awaits: an international adventure filled with an ancient Chinese legend, a greedy adversary and ghastly beasts!

Award-winning author Kat Zhang teams up with Eric Darnell, the writer and director of the Madagascar series and the Chief Creative Officer of Baobab Studios, to create a captivating highly-illustrated middle grade series debut about finding your own path, the power of imagination, and the strength of family.







A Galaxy of Whales by Heather Fawcett

When Fern hears about a photo contest with a big cash award, she decides she’ll enter and win! After all, photography is her passion (and was an interest she shared with her dad, who has recently died). She knows she can take a prize-worthy photo of a whale during one of the whale-watching tours her mom runs.

But her neighbor (and nemesis), Jasper, is also planning to enter the contest. It’s another frustration for Fern while she’s already coping with the worry that her best friend, Ivy, might not want to spend time with her anymore. She’s hoping to use the prize money to buy something that will attract Ivy’s interest.

This summer story has everything: the trials and pleasures of friendship, a rousing feud and a touch of adventure, a beautiful exploration of healing after grief, a very moving finale, and a whole lot of whale-watching fascination.






Through a Clouded Mirror by Miya T. Beck

Yuki Snow wishes she were anywhere but here.

She hates Santa Dolores, where her mom and stepdad just moved the family. Her BFF back home, Julio, has already forgotten his promise to stay in touch–and worse, he like likes Yuki’s mortal enemy. At her new school, the kids think she’s either invisible or a know-it-all nerd.

The only friend she’s made so far is the shopkeeper at a Japanese antiques store. Among the treasures there is an ancient brass mirror supposedly once owned by celebrated Japanese writer Sei Shonagon. It’s also rumored to be a portal to Shonagon’s world, which opens every hundred years. So when a woman with long jet-black hair and flowing silk robes appears in the glass, beckoning, Yuki knows there’s only one thing to do–step through to the unknown….