THE FALSE PRINCE: an interview with Jennifer Nielsen

Today, the Mixed Up Files is celebrating the launch of THE FALSE PRINCE, the first book in Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy. It is in the top ten of the Indie Next list for spring 2012 and received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who calls the central character, an orphan named Sage, “a beguiling antihero” and describes the book as “an impressive, promising story with some expertly executed twists.

First, a quick summary: In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point — he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

If that whets your curiosity, you can read the first chapter here.

Now, some questions for Jennifer!

There’s been a lot of buzz about this book, and it’s being compared to books such as HUNGER GAMES and Megan Whalen Turner’s ATTOLIA series. Do you think they’re fair comparisons?

I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the early buzz and feel honored to be included in any mention with those wonderful books. I think it’s fair to describe THE FALSE PRINCE by saying it’ll have the danger of Hunger Games in a period and setting closer to Turner’s land of Attolia. And while I sincerely hope THE FALSE PRINCE will be loved as much as I love it, the decision of whether it deserves those comparisons is really up to readers.

Sage is a different sort of hero. He’s defiant, sneaky, and has a knack for saying or doing the worst possible thing to get into trouble. But he’s also compassionate, loyal, and fierce in his beliefs. How do you think readers will respond to him?

Nearly every week, I get an email or note from a reader who says they see themselves as being just like Sage, which I find fascinating. I’ve seen Sage’s stubbornness compared to Holden Caulfield’s, and several bloggers have talked about rooting for Sage each time he goes up against unbeatable odds. More than one female reader has already called dibs for him online in case it ever turns out he’s real.

Sage actually feels very real to me, and there are times when I’m writing his scenes that I think, Oh don’t do that Sage. If you knew what was coming next, you wouldn’t do that. But of course, he does. And then I have to write in the consequences, and they’re not always pleasant.

Who is the target reader for this book?

I think while it’s marketed toward upper middle grade students, this should find a very wide readership. Both boys and girls in about 4th grade and up could read this book. One pleasant surprise is that it’s getting a lot of enthusiasm for adult readers too. My oldest son said it’s his second favorite book ever, which would have felt like a slight until he said his favorite was HUNGER GAMES. I was okay with that.

What are you working on next?

The final book in the Elliot trilogy, ELLIOT AND THE LAST UNDERWORLD WAR, has just been released. I’m now writing the third book in the False Prince series (as the second book makes its way through copyediting).
And I’m heavy into research for a book I’ll be writing this fall – the sixth book in Scholastic’s new multi-platform INFINITY RING series. The first book in that series was written by James Dashner and will release
in late August. I know readers are going to love it!

One website said this was a rare example of a great psychological thriller for young readers. Any tips for middle grade writers about creating that sort of tension?

I hadn’t thought about that aspect of this story while writing it, but yes, there are a lot of mind games happening in the story, which is racheted up by the way the way different characters manipulate that. I think it’s really important to respect that young readers can handle far more complexity than we give them credit for. So even though the subject matter must remain appropriate for their level, the tension can be just as suspenseful as if we were writing for adults.

Congratulations and thanks for stopping by! THE FALSE PRINCE is available in stores and online today! Or, check out the book trailer here.

To learn more about Jennifer, check out her website at or follow her on Twitter @nielsenwriter. You might find Jennifer on tour in a city near you soon, and she is also a popular author for school and classroom visits.

Double Dog Dare with Lisa Graff

We’re thrilled to welcome Lisa Graff to the Mixed-Up Files. She’s a long-time reader of our blog and she’s celebrating the release of her fifth novel, DOUBLE DOG DARE. She’s also the author of THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE, UMBRELLA SUMMER, THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF BERNETTA WALLFLOWER, and SOPHIE SIMON SOLVES THEM ALL. A former children’s book editor, she’s an adjunct professor at McDaniel College and a writing instructor at Writopia Lab in Manhattan. To learn more about Lisa, visit


DOUBLE DOG DARE tells the story of fourth-graders Kansas Bloom and Francine Halata, who start out as archenemies, until–in a battle of wits and willpower–they discover that they have a lot more in common than either would have guessed.

This dual-perspective novel will appeal to girls and boys alike–and to anyone who has ever wanted anything so badly that they’d lick a lizard to get it. (From IndieBound)

Lisa, I double dog dare you to do this entire interview while unicycling on a high wire. Are you game?

Of course! (That’s how I typically answer interview questions, anyway.)

Impressive. So what inspired you to write DOUBLE DOG DARE?

This book originally grew out of a two-page short story I wrote as an exercise in graduate school (I got my MFA in Writing for Children at the New School in Manhattan in 2005). Somehow the two characters, Francine and Kansas—fourth-graders who couldn’t stop egging each other on to do more and more ridiculous things—stuck with me over the years, and I knew that one day I’d like to turn their story into a novel. But it wasn’t until I decided to add the divorce element that everything really began to fall into place.

Green hair. Underwear up a flagpole. Howling whenever your name is called. How did you come up with so many perfect-for-fourth-grade dares? And what’s the craziest dare you’ve ever done?

Lisa in Fourth Grade


I was pretty much a goodie-two-shoes when I was a kid. I think the most exciting dare I ever did was eating dry cat food (which, as I remember, was not too terrible). To come up with some of the dares in the book, I asked my friends and family members to tell me about dares they’d done. It turns out this is a good way to learn a lot of juicy information about people—who knew I had so many crazy friends??



Mmmm…cat food. Besides all the highly entertaining dares, you sort of slip in some heavier stuff about divorce and coping with it through the two narrators—Francine and Kansas. What advice would Francine give to kids about divorce? Kansas?

I knew when I began writing the book that I wanted to portray two very different kinds of divorces. Francine’s parents are trying their hardest to have a “civil” divorce, while Kansas’s father is almost completely absent from his life. So I think their advice would probably reflect those differences: Francine would most likely tell kids that sometimes you need to learn how to make the best out of a bad situation, while Kansas would encourage kids to lean on friends when they need help.

Your story alternates between a boy and girl narrator, something I haven’t seen a lot of in contemporary middle-grade stories. Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?

I’d never done that in a novel before, but the story just sort of seemed to call for it. It was a lot of fun to explore these very different kids, as well as to get two sometimes drastically different takes on the Dare War Francine and Kansas find themselves wrapped up in.

As a writer, I thought it was so unique the way you used each chapter title in one special scene near the end (don’t want to give anything away). Was this structure something you planned from the beginning or did that idea come along later?

Thanks so much! That absolutely was not something I planned. That structure came about probably in the eighth draft or so. Once I finally figured out what the end of the novel should be, I had to go back through the story and weave in those pieces throughout, so that everything would fall perfectly into place.

Your stories read so spot-on for their age. How do you stay in tune with the middle-grade mind set?

I’ve always been drawn to writing for the middle-grade age group, especially fourth-graders. I think it’s because that period was a very important one for me growing up (both of my parents remarried the summer before fourth grade, for one thing), so those memories have really stuck with me. I’m also lucky because I get to visit schools fairly frequently to talk about my books, and that helps to remind me what it’s like to be that age (and also to learn how being a kid has changed over the years!).

What’s your writing process like?

My process really changes for every novel—sometimes I outline a ton, sometimes not at all. The only thing that remains constant for me is the amount of revising I do. I am a HUGE reviser. I typically rewrite a novel—beginning, middle, end, all of it—at least four times, and very often more. Most writers really hate revising, but I actually like it quite a bit. For me revising is like a puzzle, trying to get every single piece of the story to fit just perfectly. First drafts are my nightmare—all that white space on the page really freaks me out.

What’s next for you?

I have another middle-grade novel, A TANGLE OF KNOTS, coming out with Philomel Books in Spring 2013. I’m really excited about that one because it’s my first novel with any magic in it. I also have my very first young adult novel, MOTHERSHIP, coming out this July. It’s the first in a series—sci-fi and very funny—which I’m co-writing under the pen name Isla Neal.

And, of course, the Mixed-Up Files has to know: what’s your favorite middle-grade novel?

That’s an easy one! My all-time favorite middle-grade novel is HOLES by Louis Sachar. That was the novel that made me really serious about writing my own books. (I had the honor of meeting Mr. Sachar several years ago, and I was so nervous I could barely squeak out four words!) If I can ever create anything half as good as that book, I’ll be a very happy writer.

To celebrate the release of her book, Lisa and Philomel Books are hosting a DOUBLE DOG DARE Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. Children ages 6 to 13 are invited to enter by creating their own Rube Goldberg Machines (delightfully complicated contraptions that implement a long line of steps to perform a relatively simple function, named after inventor Rube Goldberg). The contest is open to school and classroom groups as well as individuals, and the many awesome prizes include a full class set of Double Dog Dare books, and a free Skype visit for your school!
Here’s the video announcement for the contest. For a full list of rules, as well as instructions on how to enter, visit the Double Dog Dare contest page.

Lisa’s blog tour continues this week at:

Thursday, April 19th: Greetings From Nowhere (
Friday, April 20th: Reading Everywhere (

She’s also giving away a copy of her book for Mixed-Up Files readers! Leave a comment to win DOUBLE DOG DARE.


Karen B. Schwartz writes contemporary middle-grade novels and raises contemporary middle-grade kids.