Book Lists

Big Questions for Leslie Connor

I’ve been a big fan of Leslie Connor’s middle grade books since I first met resourceful, upbeat Addie Schmeeter, the star of her award-winning book Waiting for Normal.Then I fell in love with wise-beyond-his-years Perry, of  All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook. Now, big-hearted, lonely Mason has stolen my heart in his poignant story, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle.Connor’s books are known for characters that have readers rooting for their triumph over situations that are truly heartbreaking. This writer is wondering how she does it, over and over again. I’m so pleased that she’s agreed to this interview.

A.F.  Hi Leslie!  Your characters are your trademark, recognizable for the way they absorb life’s meanness without becoming mean themselves. Their outsider status doesn’t make them unable to accept love or to give it. And in spite of the abuse they receive for being different, they don’t change who they are inside. They remain kind, caring kids who accept the differences in others. So, your family of character-kids are the people we want our children, our students, and our young readers to become.

Two of my favorite characters in your books have learning disabilities. Addie Schmeeter of Waiting for Normal, has serious reading problems. I so admired the vocabulary notebook she kept on her own, writing down the definitions of words she didn’t know. And Mason Buttle, the hero of The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, may not be able to write much at all, which is why he opens his heart to the Dragon, a computer in his school social worker’s office, that ‘writes’ for him. This is how readers get to hear Mason’s story, a combination of heartache, honesty, absolution, and triumph.

A.F. Finally, my question!  I’m wondering if you have a special connection to kids with learning disabilities. Why did you choose to give your characters these challenges in addition to the other problems in their lives? What do you hope young readers will take away from reading about them?

L.C.  First, thanks so much for inviting me in! It is a treat to have this visit with another author.

Yes, learning disabilities and I share some personal and family history! I know what that struggle feels like. I’m being genuine when I say that I don’t so much choose the challenges my characters face as discover them. First I see how the character is being affected, then I research and try to diagnose them. I aim to present academic underdogs as multifaceted humans. That’s not hard because every one of them is so much more than that disability. I hope readers will see themselves or their classmates in these characters and take away some patience, tolerance, and understanding.

 A.F.  Another question I have is about voice in your books. Your characters, Addie, Perry, and Mason, all have very distinctive ones, but they also have one big, beautiful thing in common–optimism.

How do you find your characters’ voices? Are they voices you’ve heard in children you’ve loved? Do you craft them during a first draft, as you learn who your characters are? Or do their voices come to you right away, in that dream stage before you begin your first draft?

L.C. I always say, “I write by ear.” Voice is there early on for me so I think it is truest to say that it comes in the daydreamingstage. I’m sure that I am conjuring voice from people I have met or read or heard about. My imagination creates a composite.

A.F.  Each of your books has a sensitive, adult hero who watches out for your child protagonist whether he or she knows it or not. Ms. Blinny is Mason’s hero, and mine. She doesn’t solve his problems for him, but gives him a voice—the Dragon—which allows Mason to tell his story and think about it in an organized way. Addie’s stepfather does what he can to make Addie safe and comfortable. He never gives up trying to get custody, so that she can return to the little sisters she loves. And Warden Daugherty, who runs the prison where Perry T. Cook’s mother lives, risks her career to help Perry’s mom get the parole she deserves.

Are there hero/mentors in your life on whom you’ve based these adults characters? Please tell us about them.

L.C.  I had a stable enough childhood that I didn’t need heroes in the same way that these characters do. However, I have had great teachers, neighbors, friends and employers in my life, many of whom I am still in touch with many decades later. I can imagine all of them in these roles. Ms. Blinny, for one, was inspired by a school social worker. I observed her in action and was hooked by my heart!

A.F.  As we write, so many of our childhood memories get reimagined in ways that make people, places, and things only recognizable to us. Addie lives upstate New York in a little bitty trailer home. Perry’s home is a private room inside a prison full of mostly well-meaning, child-friendly people.  Mason lives in a run-down apple orchard.

Could you tell us whether you reimagined a place in your childhood community into a home for Mason, Addie, or Perry? In what surprising ways did this place change?

L.C. First, I love this thought, so thanks for asking! An actual street corner in Schenectady, New York inspired Addie’s home and her story. For years I drove by a trailer home at that intersection (an unusual sight in the city) and wondered, who walks out that door? What circumstances brought them there? I turned an ordinary Hess station at the same location into the mini mart and “greenhouse apartment” that Addie’s friend Soula lived in.

Mason Buttle’s home is loosely based on the development I lived in from fourth grade until I left for college. The land had been a hilly apple orchard, some of which remained. I teleported the crumbledown house the Buttle family lived in from another location. (More daydreaming. More compositing.)

Perry’s home came from researching newer minimum-security prison campuses, and also from my own love of creative space-making and space-altering. Perry ends up sleeping in the closet at his foster home. I loved making sleeping forts inside the homes of my childhood.

L.C. Thanks for the thoughtful questions. This has been so interesting!

A.F.  You’re welcome!

Leslie Connor’s new book, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, is published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.









Trapped in a Video Game! Interview and Giveaway with Author Dustin Brady

Hey Mixed-Up Folks! I’m so excited about today’s interview. As you’re well aware, there’s a great big publishing world out there and that includes independent authors. With tools like Vellum for formatting and distribution channels like IngramSpark, authors have a toolkit at their disposal. There’s also support networks and groups where indie authors share helpful information. And in those groups are some incredible success stories. One such success story is that of Dustin Brady. I’m super excited to chat with him today!

Jesse Rigsby hates video games—and for good reason. You see, a video game character is trying to kill him. After getting sucked into the new game Full Blast with his friend Eric, Jesse starts to see the appeal of vaporizing man-size praying mantis while cruising around by jet pack. But pretty soon, a mysterious figure begins following Eric and Jesse, and they discover they can’t leave the game. If they don’t figure out what’s going on fast, they’ll be trapped for good!

Amie:Welcome Dustin! Thanks for coming to the files today. Let’s start with the most important question of all. What do you enjoy most about writing middle-grade books?

Dustin:I love writing middle grade because those are the books that really developed my love of reading. I feel like if you can write something that connects with a 10-year-old, you can create a reader for life. Also, I have a short attention span, and 25,000 words is a lot easier for me to wrap my head around than 100,000.

Amie: Haha! Yeah, I struggle with those longer books, too.  Your books feature a boy trapped in a video game. Some boys (and girls) tend to be reluctant readers, so writing in an area of interest (video games!) is a genius way to engage this demographic. Would you say part of your success can be attributed to fulfilling a need in an under-served, eager audience?

Dustin: Yes! One hundred percent. I’ve had many parents tell me that they bought this book because their child struggles with reading but loves video games, and this is actually the first book the child has read without prodding. I think that’s so cool. That angle wasn’t a conscious decision I made when I wrote the book – I just wanted to write something I would have loved when I was ten.

Amie: I think, as authors, when we write something we love, our readers know it. That makes it even more appealing. So, what made you decide to go indie?

Dustin: First and foremost, I had the resources to make a great cover. My brother is a professional illustrator, and I knew he could absolutely crush the cover. Also, I’d been selling other items on Amazon for a year when I wrote the book, so I was comfortable with marketing on the platform. Finally, this was my first book, and when I started writing, I honestly wasn’t sure if it was going to be that good. I would much rather put it out there, see what happens, and get feedback that way than submit it to a bunch of agents and get crickets.

Amie: So you had a marketing plan in place, or at least some knowledge of it, which is important not just for indie authors but even for trad authors who are expected to do more of their own marketing than in years past. The general consensus seems to tell us that MG readers prefer physical books over e-readers. In your experience, did you find this to be true?

Dustin: Absolutely! I’ve found that the sales ratio for my books is about five physical copies to every one e-book.

Amie: That’s a stark contrast to other genres in the indie market where sales are typically on digital books.  Since parents typically purchase books for their MG kids, what was your marketing strategy to reach these readers?

Dustin:  The only thing I’ve really done to market the book has been Amazon ads. I just chose as many keywords as I could think of to get the book in front of parents of 8-12-year-old boys. Once those keywords started converting, Amazon’s algorithm took it from there and started listing the book in organic search results and adding it to “Customers Also Bought” lists for other titles. I don’t think Amazon ads are a silver bullet because I’ve used the exact same strategy for other titles with much less success, but I think they’re good for accelerating growth for books that would already perform well on their own.

Because almost all my sales start with people seeing the book as a thumbnail, I think the most important “marketing” thing I got right was the cover. I decided to do two things with my cover: make the title say exactly what the book is about and keep the layout simple with a large title and a clear picture of the main character. I just wanted to promise something that a 10-year-old boy would be into, and then write the best possible version of that story.

Amie: Smart! Content is important, but the cover is the very first impression. Your cover (and title) does a great job of conveying that content.

You were quite successful as an indie. In fact, your books did so well, they attracted a publisher. Tell us a bit about your transition from indie to trad and what that’s been like. Do you have an agent? What did you hope to accomplish with a publisher that you couldn’t do as an indie?

Dustin: When Andrews McMeel approached me last year about acquiring the books, I was very skeptical. Obviously it’s flattering to have someone interested in your work, but this series has been so steady for me that giving it up felt like killing the golden goose. A big thing that convinced me to switch was when they showed me the sales breakdown for a few of their comparable titles. I always assumed that Amazon makes up the vast majority of a book’s sales, but physical bookstores still have a big share of the market. Then there are foreign rights, libraries, and audiobooks – all things that I could have pursued while indie but probably was never going to. The publisher has the resources to make those things happen.

In the end, I know that my series connects with reluctant readers. Right now, the vast majority of people introducing reluctant readers to my books are parents desperately searching Amazon for something their kid will read. I think the publisher can help introduce other gatekeepers to my series and get the books into the hands of even more reluctant readers.

Since the publisher approached me, I didn’t hire an agent. I negotiated the contract myself with help from the free legal counsel provided by the Authors Guild, which, by the way, is a fantastic resource.

Amie: Fantastic advice! Your new cover is very similar to your old one. I’m guessing your publisher was also interested in your illustrator.

Trapped in a Video Game Book 2

Dustin: My brother, Jesse Brady (, illustrated all the books. In my initial talks with the publisher, I said that I wanted to keep him on as the illustrator, and they said, “Sure, we’d love that!” I’m not sure how unusual that is, but Andrews McMeel has been great about collaborating rather than “taking over.” Working with them feels like being an indie author, except with a lot more resources.

Trapped in a Video Game Book 3

Amie: I love Jesse’s cover designs! So now that you’ve experienced both publishing worlds and we know the benefits of trad, tell us your favorite part about being an indie author. What was the worst thing? Will you continue to self publish?

Trapped in a Video Game Book 4

Dustin:  Best thing about being an indie author: The ability to bring things to market quickly and experiment. Worst thing about being an indie author: Formatting is the worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst.

Yes, I’ll continue self-publishing the other series I’ve already started. Plus, there will always be ideas that are better suited for the indie market than traditional.

Amie: Hahaha! I feel your pain! Formatting (especially when illustrations are involved) is the absolute worst! So anything else you’d like to tell us?

Dustin: It can be tempting to chase trends or write something only because you think there’s a market for it, but I really believe that every author has their own unique thing they can be great at – maybe better than anyone else – and the best path to success is finding that thing. Once you find “your thing” positioning and marketing are important, but what’s even more important is that you now offer something unique to you.

Amie: Yaaasssss. Thank you. So much truth in that. Any other books you’re working on?

Dustin: I just finished the final book in the Trapped in a Video Game series, and now I’m working on the second book in my indie Superhero for a Day series.

Amie: Ohhh! Superheros FTW! Okay, now comes the serious part. Chocolate or vanilla? Boogers or vomit? Legos or troll dolls?

Dustin: #TeamChocolate. Legos. Obviously. I’m trying to think of anything that vomit could beat, and I’m really coming up empty.

Amie: There you have it, folks.Vomit covered chocolate Legos. You heard it here first. Thanks for joining us, Dustin!

If you’d like to win a copy of Dustin’s newly relaunched Trapped in a Video Game (book 1), just fill out the rafflecopter form below for your chance to win!

Dustin Brady writes funny, action-packed books for kids. Although he regularly gets locked out of his own accounts for forgetting passwords, Dustin still remembers the Super Mario Bros. 3 Game Genie code for infinite lives. It’s SLXPLOVS. Dustin lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, kids, and a small dog named Nugget. You can check out his work at


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Happy Independent Bookstore Day!

Here at From The Mixed-Up Files, we’re all about celebrating indie booksellers, so April 28, 2018 has been on our calendars FOREVER! That’s the fourth annual Independent Bookstore Day, a “one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country on the last Saturday in April. Every store is unique and independent, and every party is different. But in addition to authors, live music, cupcakes, scavenger hunts, kids events, art tables, readings, barbecues, contests, and other fun stuff, there are exclusive books and literary items that you can only get on that day. Not before. Not after. Not online.”

The last Saturday in April is Independent Bookstore Day.

As longtime readers know, each month, MUF contributor Sue Cowling profiles wonderful booksellers across the country. We are taking a brief hiatus from our regular Indie Bookstore highlight because our bookstore champion Sue has experienced a flash flood in her home and will be without internet for a period of time. She was not injured in the flood and looks forward to coming back to the Mixed Up Files when she has a less mixed-up house. We hope you’ll enjoy the team’s prior indie bookstore spotlights. Wishing you and your favorite bookseller a wonderful April 28, and please check in with us to let us know what stores in your area are doing for #bookstoreday!

Book & Puppet Company, Easton, PA

Barstons Child’s Play, McLean, VA

Kids Ink Children’s Books, Indianapolis, IN

Iseeme African American Children’s Bookstore, University City, MO

Read With Me, a Children’s Book and Art Shop, Raleigh, NC

Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston TX

The Voracious Reader, Larchmont NY

TreeHouse Books, Ashland OR

Parnassus Books, Nashville TN

Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City IA

Booktenders’ Secret Garden, Doylestown PA

Second Star to the Right Children’s Books, Denver CO

Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville NC

The Twig Book Shop, San Antonio TX

Learned Owl Book Shop, Hudson OH

Blue Bunny Books & Toys, Dedham MA

Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck + Millerton, NY

Once Upon A Time Bookstore, Montrose CA

and many more!

Find out more about Independent Bookstore Day here.