Book Lists

Interview and Book Giveaway with Donna Gephart, Award Winning Author

You couldn’t have picked a better day to visit From the Mixed-Up Files! Donna Gephart’s debut middle-grade novel, As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! won numerous awards, including the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Her sophomore novel, How to Survive Middle School, which came out early this May, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. I ask you, does it get any better?

Why,YES—yes, it does!

Donna is here today to answer questions for the inquiring middle-grade minds. And if that isn’t good enough, Donna’s going to give a brand new hardcover of How to Survive Middle School to one lucky commenter.

But first, a little more about Donna! I explored her website, and I found a question in her Q & A section that was oh, so appropriate to introduce Donna with and to explain what middle-grade means to her. The question posed was, “Why did you decide to write How to Survive Middle School?”

Here’s Donna’s answer:  Middle school (also called Junior High in some places) was very hard for me . . . and for our sons . . . and for most people. When I was about thirteen and fourteen, I went from feeling deliriously happy to miserably depressed often in the same day . . . even in the same hour!  I wish someone had explained that it was just my hormones going a little crazy and they would calm down again.  I wish someone told me that I didn’t really “hate” my mother, but it was a normal part of adolescence to push away from her.  I wish someone had told me I’d survive the acne, the braces and the crush on a cute guy who didn’t like me.   I want young people to know they are not the only ones having a hard time.  I also want young people to know that they can get through middle school.  So hang in there.  It gets better.  Much better.

Thanks for the good words, Donna. Middle-graders, take heart!

And now for THE INTERVIEW!

Your first book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Has winning for humor affected your writing and confidence?

It was a thrill to hear Lin Oliver’s and Steve Mooser’s voice on my answering machine, telling me I’d won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  The award allowed me to give a workshop about writing humor at the national SCBWI conference in L.A., which led to other speaking engagements, like The Erma Bombeck Humor Writer’s Workshop in Dayton, OH .  After writing humor for over twenty years, it was an honor to win an award named after such a kind, generous and hard-working man.

You’ve woven sad and scary threads into your books, yet your stories are funny. How do humor and grief fit into the same book?

I strive to create books that combine humor and heartbreak, which mirror life.  Funny without substance gets boring quickly, so I try to create characters with whom young readers can relate and connect.  Of course, there will be problems—big problems—or else why write the book, right?  It’s just that the heartbreak is handled with humor to cushion the blows.

When I picked up my copy of How to Survive Middle School (available everywhere!), I spotted the toilet on the back jacket flap! My first thought: What on earth? But I thought this with a smile on my face, and it set my expectations for the book—I knew it would be funny. What was your reaction when you saw the jacket design?

My first thought was:  There can’t be another book with a singing hamster on the front and a toilet on the inside flap!  The jacket design captures what the book is about in a fun, funny way.

Readers, it’s true—the toilet picture is not random. In fact, the combination of the cool singing hamster on the cover  and the toilet photo on the jacket flap mirrors the dissimilar parallel lives of David Greenberg, the main character in How to Survive Middle School.

David is a celebrity in the cyberworld but a regular kid—sometimes overlooked—in the real world. I felt this was a good commentary on the social world in which today’s children are involved. What do you think of our lives online—are they real? Are cyber-friends true friends? Are children losing anything with or do they benefit by interacting online?

What a great question.  The answer to this could fill a book.  With two teenage sons, I’ve watched our kids sit next to a friend, each with an electronic device in hand.  “Hello,” I want to say.  “You are sitting next to an actual friend; you don’t need to text/IM/chat with your virtual friend right now.”  The Internet is a great means of connecting to the wider world. It’s a wonderful way to share information and ideas and create communities.  But it must not replace actual interaction with human beings, connecting with communities in the real world and being part of nature.  As with all things, there must be a healthy balance.

I reread As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! in preparation for this interview, and I enjoyed it even more upon this reading. The voice rang true. It had a loneliness to it, a slight melancholy that I liked. And in both books, the MCs feel like losers even after hurdling major accomplishments. What’s your take on this aspect of your books?

My parents divorced when I was young, and I lived with my mom.  She worked full-time and I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I spent a lot of time alone.  Sometimes, I was quite lonely.  Other times, I found companionship in the pages of a book, borrowed from our local library.  Oh, I loved that library!  As an author, I want to provide those books that provide companionship, that may keep a lonely child company.

Good books do become good friends! When children read your books, they’re left unattended in the playground of imagination–their parents are trusting you, Donna Gephart, alone with their kids. With that in mind, what responsibility do you feel you have to parents and your readers?

I love your phrase:  “In the playground of imagination.”  Of course, there is a big responsibility in creating books for young people.  And my responsibility, I feel, is to be honest and true in my writing.  I just got an e-mail from a young reader, thanking me for being real in my books and including things that might not make people happy, but are the way it really happens.  I loved that e-mail.  I try to be true to my characters and therefore, true to my young readers.  It’s a wonderful thing that young people can explore some of life’s challenges through the safety of books.  They can experience things on the page instead of in real life.  Parents who try to “protect” their children by limiting their reading choices are often simply not allowing them to “prepare” for challenges they might face in the real world.

That’s a perfect lead to my next question: When you write for middle-grade audiences, what experience do you hope to deliver? By this, I mean aside of the plot, what do you want your readers to take from your books?

It’s my hope that young readers of my books will feel like they’ve made a new friend.  It’s my hope they will understand that all people have flaws and faults and it’s okay that they do, too.  It’s my hope that they will realize they have power to affect changes in their lives and in the lives of others.  And it’s my hope they will learn a bit of compassion and empathy for themselves and for others.

Nice goals, Donna! I think you deliver that sense of flaws and self-acceptance because, as I mentioned before, your main characters, especially Vanessa, engage in the kind of critical internal dialog common to that age. Middle-graders don’t always realize how much they have to offer or how wonderful they really are (and that not just their mothers think that!).

If you could choose one book to be made into a movie, which novel would it be and whom would you cast for the main roles?

AS IF BEING 12 ¾ ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT . . . would be a fun movie because of the spelling bees, the political process, life in the governor’s mansion and the mystery element of the threatening notes and the assassination attempt.  Meryl Streep would make a great potential president, don’t you think?

Oh, my gosh, Meryl Streep would be perfect for that role!

HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL might make a fun TV series because of its connection to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and the main character, David Greenberg’s love of creating funny videos.  I hope the book inspires young readers to create their own shows/videos.  I’d love Jon Stewart to have a guest appearance, if this ever were made into a TV show or movie.  Wouldn’t that be fun?

Okay, Hollywood, are you listening? You never know! But one thing I do know is you’re not sitting around with your feet up–what’s next for you, Donna Gephart?

The next book down the lane is OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, about a twelve-year-old trivia geek, who will do anything to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!

That sounds like a winner! (Haha! Okay, that was lame.) Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful answers, Donna.  It was fun!

Folks, if you have questions for Donna or would like to jump into the conversation, post a few words in the comment box. Remember, one lucky poster will be selected by a random number generator to win a hardcover of Donna’s new book, How To Survive Middle School.

~~

Danette Haworth is the author of The Summer of Moonlight Secrets and Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning. Danette stays up past her bedtime to read and write into the wee hours; she swears the next morning that she will go to bed on time the next night. It never happens.

Visit Danette at www.danettehaworth.com

Seven Books I’ve Enjoyed Talking About at Guys Read

I spent two summers facilitating boys book clubs and some of the winter in between. Book clubs are a great way to encourage boys to read and a great way for boys who do read to make new friends. I would have loved to have had that kind of opportunity in fifth or sixth grade.

However, not all good books are good book club books… at least not for this facilitator. A book could be a fun read but prove tough going when you talk about it, and an unpopular book can lead to a great discussion, when kids get excited to tell you what they didn’t like about it. I won’t include any of those on this list, but I will include a short list of the selections I felt were a hit with the boys and generated great discussion. Incidentally, Guys Read groups don’t have to be about novels — many boys like to read magazines and non fiction — but mine were.

How Angel Peterson got his Name, Gary Paulsen

This series of anecdotes is just a blip on Paulsen’s amazing career, but is a bona fide book club hit with middle-grade boys. Why? Because the book is about stunts, dares, and misadventures. Boys can’t wait to share their own. This makes it a perfect first book to discuss with a new group. There’s no better ice breaker than, “what’s something stupid you did that nearly got you killed but if you had to do it over again, you would anyway?” On top of that, there are youtube videos of people wrestling bears and using makeshift parachutes that are a fun way to finish the session… if you can get the boys to stop talking about their skateboarding mishaps to watch.

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud’s sense of humor makes a grim story set in the Great Depression fun to read and fun to talk about. The surprise came when the boys talked about the back pages, where the author describes the real-life inspirations behind the story, including photographs. I thought kids would be bored by the story-behind-the-story material, but it was their favorite part. They liked knowing how Curtis came to write the story, and the fact that the characters were based on real people made it more important to them. Lesson learned. A book club facilitator can often search out and find similar source material for other historical novels.

Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

This is a real winner with boys and an easy book to talk about — I started by generating lists of all the stunts and tall tales that are in the book (frog baseball, anyone?). Kids have fun trying to remember them, and then marvel at the list when it’s done. My book club was a diverse group in Crystal, Minnesota, so the boys were confused by the theme about segregation and disinclined to talk about it. It just didn’t feel relevant or real to them. I took that as a good thing. They were still able to connect emotionally to “Maniac’s” search for a family and loved the book’s humor.

Circque Du Freak, by Darren Shan
I had a “book group” that met during the school year, and only one kid was a regular attendee. He was a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, so that’s all we read: Rick Riordian, James Patterson, Chris Paolini, and Darren Shan. I dreaded this one because I am as sick of vampires as anyone, but actually quite liked it. It’s an interesting book club selection because the story is written as if it is all true; the main character is named Darren Shan and the writer’s name is Darren Shan. I never expected to be talking narratology in a boy’s book club, but this one opens the door — we talked about how Shan’s technique and confessional tone quickly built an alliance with the reader, and give a far out story a feeling of immediacy and verisimilitude. I don’t know if the kid learned anything, but I did.

Dog Sense, by Sneed Collard III

This one hits the trifecta for things boys like to talk about — their pets, their experiences with bullies, and their favorite sports that usually nobody writes about. We also had a good discussion about a questionable decision made by the protagonist — and one which I think was a huge mistake even though things turned out OK. It’s an easy framing of an important moral question: do the ends justify the means? I think Sneed must have had book clubs in mind when he wrote this one.

Crossing the Wire, by Will Hobbs

A great way to start a discussion about a book is to list all the ways the main character nearly got killed, and this book has enough to sustain the discussion. It’s about a Mexican teenager’s attempts to enter the U.S. so he can work. The kids responded well, and analyzed each situation and the decisions the hero had to make. It was a very provocative discussion, especially since a couple of kids in the group have family members in Mexico. One understood the sentiments in the book but also wanted to tell the other kids that Mexico isn’t as bad as the book made it sound, which I thought was a fair critique. He still liked the book.

Memory Boy, by Will Weaver

It’s great to talk about a book that begins in your own neighborhood. Vaguely described as the western suburbs of Minneapolis, the kids could pretend it was their own home town. Like Under the Wire, this is a survival story, and it’s easy to talk about the dangers that a hero comes across and how he or she overcomes them. Also like Under the Wire, this has political subtext, but it’s trickier to unpack. It’s about an apocalyptic scenario and a family’s attempt to survive by fleeing to the Minnesota wilderness. We were able to talk about camping and the end of the world all in one book club session.


Kurtis Scaletta is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville and Mamba Point, both published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. He offers free virtual visits to kids book clubs — see http://www.kurtisscaletta.com/visits for more information.

New releases for June

It’s June and the summer book releases are underway! Below is a list of middle grade titles releasing this month.  Check back here every month to find out about the latest MG titles.

♦ AMELIA BEDELIA BAKES OFF (Greenwillow) – Herman Parish. Nephew of Peggy Parish, who wrote the original Amelia books, continues his aunt’s tradition.

♦ A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN (Random House) – Renee Watson.  Free verse picture book about Hurricane Katrina told from the point of view of four friends.

♦ AS SIMPLE AS IT SEEMS (HarperCollins) – Sarah Weeks. Author of the popular SO B. IT.

♦ CRISPIN, THE END OF TIME (Balzer and Bray) – Avi. Conclusion to Crispin’s adventure series.

♦ EMILY’s FORTUNE (Delacorte) – Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Newbery-award winning author’s tall tale about an orphan named Emily.

♦ IMAGINALIS (Katherine Tegen) – J.M. Dematteis. Characters from a girl’s favorite book series come to life but threatened by an accompanying villain unless she can rescue them. Watch a video of Dematteis discussing his book.

♦ INVASION FROM PLANET DORK (MELVIN BEEDERMAN) (Holt) – Greg Trine. The last book from the humorous, superhero series.

♦ HONEY BEES: LETTERS FROM THE HIVE (Delacorte) – Stephen Buchmann. Beekeeper and assistant professor of entomology shares the fascinating history of bees and our relationship with them.

♦ LOVE AND POLLYWOGS FROM CAMP CALAMITY (Wendy Lamb) – Mary Hershey. Third book about fourth grader, Effie Mahoney adventures at camp.

♦ MACKENZIE BLUE – FRIENDS FOREVER? (HarperCollins) – Tina Wells. Part of a humorous series for girls.

♦ MAGIC BELOW STAIRS (Dial) – Caroline Stevermer. Young boy from orphanage becomes footboy to a wizard with a family curse.

♦ ONE SMART COOKIE: BITE-SIZE LESSONS FOR THE SCHOOL YEARS AND BEYOND (HarperCollins) – Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Rosenthal’s morsels of wisdom mixed with the delicious illustrations of mother-daughter duo Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer.

♦ ROCKY ROAD (Knopf) – Rose Kent. A girl’s eccentric mom opens a family ice cream shop after they move from Texas to a small town in New York. Watch the book trailer.

♦ RULES TO ROCK BY (Walker) – Josh Farrar. Indie-rock coming-of-age tale about 12-year-old bassist who yearns to form a rock band in her new town of Providence, RI.

♦ SAMIRAH’S RIDE : THE STORY OF AN ARABIAN FILLY (Feiwel & Friends) – Annie Wedekind. Eight year old Arabian mare and the girl who raised her run away to escape from the rumor of the impending sale of the family ranch.

♦ SIR CHARLIE: CHAPLIN, THE FUNNIEST MAN IN THE WORLD (Greenwillow) – Sid Fleischman. Entertaining, illustrated rags-to-riches story about the comedian, Charlie Chaplin, by the late Fleischman.

♦ STRAVAGANZA – CITY OF SHIPS (Bloomsbury) – Mary Hoffman. The latest installment in the Stravaganza series transports readers to a world where magic and piracy come to life in the Italian town of Classe.

♦ SUNSHINE PICKLELIME (Random House) – Pamela Ferguson. The up and down life of PJ Picklelime.

♦ THE ACCIDENTAL ADVENTURES OF INDIA MCALLISTER (Holt) – Charlotte Agell. Fourth-grader, India McAllister, adopted as a baby from China, searches for identity in a small Maine town.

♦ THE ELEPHANT’S TALE (Dial) – Lauren St. John. Conclusion to THE WHITE GIRAFFE series.

♦ THE GECKO AND STICKY (Knopf) – Wendelin Van Draanen.  The Gecko and Sticky in their fourth dangerous encounter with treasure hunter Damien Black.

♦ THE OTHER HALF OF MY HEART (Delacorte) – Sundee T. Frazier. From Coretta Scott King award recipient, biracial twins enter an African-American pageant.

♦ THE REINVENTION OF MOXY ROOSEVELT (Dial) – Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. Boarding school story starring an ordinary girl with an unordinary name who tries to reinvent herself.

♦ The SHADOWS (Dial) – Jacqueline West. Described as Roald Dahl meets Neil Gaiman. First in a series.  Watch the trailer.

♦ ZOMBIEKINS (Razorbill) – Kevin Bolger. Shy, bullied fourth-grader empowered by zombie teddy bear. Author of Sir Fartsalot.

Please note that this list has been created as a resource for those searching for new titles and doesn’t represent our endorsement of any one book.

Authors, do you have a middle-grade book coming out in the near future? Send us an email at newreleases@fromthemixedupfiles.com with your name, title, and publisher, and we will include your title in our list of upcoming releases. All books must be published by a traditional publisher as listed in the latest Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Fiction and non-fiction welcome.

Please allow us a one-month lead time. We also ask that you do not send ARCS or books for reviews since we do not post reviews on our site. However we will gladly accept an ARC or book donated for one of our book giveaways.