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…



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.



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.



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

Interview with Adam Borba, author of Outside Nowhere!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

We are in for a treat today! Returning to the blog is Adam Borba, who has a new book out, Outside Nowhere!

It’s a great read, and I’m thrilled Adam has agreed to come back.

Hi Adam,

JR: Welcome back to Mixed-Up Files!

Outside Nowhere was so much fun. Tell us a little bit about it, and where the idea came from.

AB: Thanks so much! It’s about a funny, charming kid named Parker Kelbrook who has a problem taking things seriously (the book gets into why, but I don’t want to spoil too much). Parker is a slacker who constantly gets into trouble. Think of him like a young Ferris Bueller. He loves pulling pranks, and in the opening sequence he’s fired from his summer job as a junior lifeguard for pouring 60 gallons of fruit punch mix into a community pool.

After Parker loses his job, his father sends him halfway across the country to work on a farm in the middle of nowhere. The farm has three rules:

  1. Do your chores
  2. Stay out of the farmhouse
  3. Don’t eat the crops


Parker’s fellow co-workers are a bunch of kids that are roll-up-your-sleeves, get-the-work-done types. So Parker doesn’t fit in and the other kids don’t find him charming or funny because he’s not pulling his weight and he’s making more work for them. Parker is out of his element. A fish out of water. And he needs to figure things out and learn to grow. And when he does, magical and mysterious things start happening on that farm – like one morning he wakes up to find a seventeen-hundred-pound dairy cow on the roof of the barn. And that’s when Parker discovers that things on this farm aren’t as they appear.

The idea was somewhat inspired by an organization called WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s a network of thousands of farmers in dozens of countries that offers young adults (or WWOOFers) the chance to do agricultural work in exchange for food and lodging. So, for a little manual labor, you can “see the world one rutabaga farm at a time.” The concept got me thinking about how something similar might work with younger participants and then wondering what secrets or magic might be growing in the fields of one of these farms.

The other important idea for this story came as a reaction to writing my first book, THE MIDNIGHT BRIGADE. That book is about an introvert kid named Carl Chesterfield who discovers a troll living under a bridge in Pittsburgh. I loved writing about Carl and being in his head, but I wanted to try something different. I wanted to tell the story of an extrovert. Someone who spoke without a filter—willing to share anything that popped into his mind, and used to being able to talk himself out of any problem. And then I wanted to put that character into a situation that couldn’t be talked out of.

JR: I was just about to bring that up. Just like with your first book, The Midnight Brigade, Pittsburgh is featured. In your mind, what is it about the city that lends itself to these types of magical stories?

AB: I love Pittsburgh. It’s where my wife grew up and most of her family lives. It’s big and strong, and filled with great food and wonderful people. The city is an absolute character with charm. It was the perfect setting for my first book because that story was an ode to food, but more importantly, Pittsburgh has over 400 bridges – which makes it the ideal place for a troll to hide. And it was the perfect starting place for OUTSIDE NOWHERE because it’s such a fun, comforting, and lively place to call home—the opposite of the farm where Parker is sent to work.

JR: Let’s talk about your main character, Parker. (By the way, my dog is named Parker, so I liked him immediately) He’s funny, (Your character, not my dog, though my dog is funny too) and also a bit of a prankster. I loved his character. How much of you is in Parker?

AB: Ha! I wish I was more like Parker. First off, he’s a much better dresser. He shows up to work on the farm in a blue and white striped seersucker suit (which, admittedly, isn’t very practical). As a kid I was more like Carl from my first book—quiet. And though I may have been able to come up with as many jokes as Parker, more often than not I kept them to myself.

JR: What’s the best prank you’ve ever done? (That you’re willing to share 😊)

AB: Well, nothing on Parker’s level. I mean, that kid is a legend. He threw a surprise semi-formal dance at his vice principal’s house, and once he snuck a pony into a movie theater.

I think the thing for me as kid was toilet-papering houses. Like Parker, there wasn’t anything malicious about it and I took pride in my art!

JR: I never got to do that as a kid. Maybe, there’s still time? With Parker, I love characters who are sarcastic or slightly obnoxious, but in a well-meaning way. When writing a character like that, do you have to sometimes force yourself to soften them a little?

AB: One of the great things about Parker is the kid has a good heart. Sometimes he goes a little too far for a joke, but he never does anything to be mean. That said, he has a lot to learn and room to grow, and that’s one of the bigger journeys in this story.

JR: Again, I feel like you do a great job of balancing the humor with sentiment. Do you outline or do you let the course of the story dictate how it’s going to go?

AB: Thank you! I am a huge believer in outlines. But a stronger believer in keeping those outlines loose. The characters need to have the space to make decisions and discoveries and share secrets. But it’s important to my process to outline to keep things structurally sound so I don’t get lost along the way and to keep the story moving. My outline is a document that grows and changes as I work through a draft of a manuscript. It’s not uncommon for my outline to triple in size between writing page 1 and finishing a first draft. When I start writing, there will be placeholder beats like, “something bad happens” followed by “and then something happens that makes that bad thing worse” and the closer I get to those points in the story, the higher the likelihood will be that I’ll know what those things are. In addition to story beats, I’ll track how my protagonist(s) will change in the outline and manuscript. And as early as possible in my process, I’ll attempt to establish a universal theme (or lesson) that connects my character’s growth to the overall story.

JR: There’s great camaraderie among the friends in the book. Do your own friends ever reach out to you and say, “Hey, that kid is definitely me!”

AB: A handful of folks are convinced they were the inspiration for the grumpy troll, Frank, in THE MIDNIGHT BRIGADE. They’re all kind of right.

JR: You also work in a capacity for Disney. You ever go into the office with one of your books and say, I have the perfect story for a movie?

AB: Absolutely! And I love both mediums, but movies take much longer to come together for me than books, so the adaptations are going to take more time.

JR: Will we see Parker in another book?

AB: As of now, I’m thrilled with the way things end in OUTSIDE NOWHERE. But in the off-chance I get an idea in the future that I just can’t shake—who knows?—I just might revisit Parker. He was a lot of fun to spend time with.

JR: What are you working on next?

I’ve been working with my editor, Alexandra Hightower, at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on a new novel about the dangers of time travel and middle school called THIS AGAIN? It should be hitting shelves in the fall of 2023.

And I’m almost done with a live-action adaptation of PETER PAN & WENDY for Disney. It’ll be out in the world this spring.

JR: Adam, thanks so much for joining us today!

Thanks for having me! I hope everyone gets a chance to check out OUTSIDE NOWHERE and share it with a kid who believes in magic. You can order it here:

 To Follow Adam on Twitter: Adam Borba

Well, Mixed-Up Filers, hope you enjoyed! A special thanks to Adam Borba for joining us, and please make sure to go out and get OUTSIDE NOWHERE! 

 Until next time . . .







Diversity in MG Lit #41 November 2022

I’ve heard a lot of concern around new policies at Barnes & Noble that will change the way MG books are acquired, particularly as it relates to diverse titles. I went to my local B&N and did a shelf inventory. I ran a simple tally of all the books in the MG section noting whether they had diverse content or not. POC, LGBT+, disablility, neurodiversity, and religious diversity were included. If none of those qualities were present in the book or the author, I put it in the Not diverse pile. If the book was animal, toy, or mythological creature-centric I left it out of the count entirely. In a group cast, if more than one person was diverse, I counted it as a diverse book. I did not count chapter books, easy readers, nonfiction, or graphic novels.
It’s not a perfect system. For example, leaving out Dogman and the Wings of Fire (animal-centric books) drops the numbers of white writers in the count. And any count like this is only a snapshot of what is on the shelf in a particular day. Still it’s a window into what’s happening and B&N under the new book buying policy, regarding the diversity of the collection.
Here are the numbers.
Overall collection size: 1225 books
Diverse titles: 455 or 37%
not-diverse titles; 770 or 63%
There were 4 endcap displays with faced out titles.
Mystery: 30 books total, not-diverse 90%, diverse 7% and animal narrated 3%
Staff Favorites: 24 titles, diverse 100% These were all Indigenous American titles and all authored by indigenous authors.
Rick Riorden Presents books: 18 titles, diverse 100%
Spooky: not diverse 68%, diverse 32%
Total endcap faced out books: 110, not diverse 48%, diverse 51%
Obviously these results are disappointing considering the rate of diversity among MG students is pretty close to 50%. Still there were encouraging signs. The most recent statistics from the CCBC put the rate of diverse books created at 33% about diverse characters and 37% by diverse creators. So the content on the shelves at B&N fairly closely mirrors the available books.
Many of the white authored titles belonged to long dead writers who were quite prolific, Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl etc. Among newer titles the rate of diversity was much more equitable.
There is plainly an effort to make diverse books more visible on end caps. The Staff Favorites titles were chosen for Native American history month and will change in December. On the other hand, if they are diligent about honoring Latin American history month, Asian Pacific Islander history month, Black history month, Pride month, and disability awareness month . That puts diverse titles on the end cap about half the time.
Barnes & Noble has a huge Manga section and the lions share of that section is diverse. Had I counted the MG section of those books there, I would have seen a clear majority of diverse MG books overall.
By its self my survey doesn’t prove anything, but I found it interesting to see the mix of older classics and new titles. The mix of what was faced out and not. I would encourage anyone who is concerned about diversity in publishing to take a close look at the actual numbers of diverse books at bookstores and libraries nearby. It at least gives us a factual basis on which to have a conversation.
And in the end a bookstore can only carry what sells in their local community. Much attention has been paid to the production side of the equation. I hope at least as much energy can be spent on encouraging diverse communities to come to bookstores and ask for diverse content. That’s is the only sure way to keep the progress we’ve made so far and continue it into the future.