Book Lists

Ingrid Law interview and Scumble giveaway

Congratulations to Savvy author, Ingrid Law, on the release of her new book, Scumble. I met with Ingrid last week and got some of the fun inside scoop on her writing journey, plus she gave me a signed Advanced Reading Copy of Scumble to giveaway here on From The Mixed Up Files! Read more at the end of the interview about how you can win.

Here’s the jacket flap description of Scumble:

It’s been nine years since his cousin Mibs had her extraordinary savvy journey, and Ledger Kale has just turned thirteen. This birthday should have meant he’d inherit an amazing power — instead he can break little things apart. But when the Kales decide to attend a family wedding in Wyoming, Ledge’s savvy grows to monumental porportions. Worse, his savvy disaster has a witness: Sarah Jane Cabot, eagle-eyed reporter and daughter of the local businessman. Now Ledge must stop Sarah Jane from turning savvies into headlines, stop her father from foreclosing on Uncle Autry’s ranch, and start scumbling his savvy into control . . . so that, someday, he can go home.

Savvy was your first book and it became a New York Times Bestseller, plus it won gobs of amazing awards including the Newbery Honor. Wow! That must have been life changing!

The unexpected success with Savvy certainly was life changing: I quit a job I’d held for sixteen years, I moved, and I traveled more in two years than I’d done in my entire life. But there are highs and lows in any aspect of life, even a successful one. For instance, I’ve met many new and wonderful people, but I’ve also lost touch with people I used to see and talk to nearly every day. As with any major life change, it takes a little while to find a renewed sense of equilibrium. Now that my second book, Scumble, is finally finished and in bookstores, I’m hoping to find that balance and hold on to it until the next new thing sends me wobbling on the high wire.

Which of the two books was easier to write? Why?

For some of us, it can be easier to do things when no one is watching. So, in that regard, writing the first draft of Savvy was easier: only about ten people on the planet knew I was writing anything at all, whereas many, many, many people were watching and waiting as I wrote Scumble. Second books, I’ve been told, are known for being harder. There is more pressure and more expectation. The Newbery Honor, while fantastic and astonishing and wondrous, did have the side effect of adding to that pressure. I like to think of my two books as siblings. Savvy is the older sister and Scumble the younger brother. They both want to stand on their own, but the younger brother will always follow in his sister’s footsteps and be compared to her on some level. Heh… can you tell I had a brilliant older sister who went through school a few years ahead of me?

In Savvy, there were several references to The Wizard of Oz. Do you use similar references to another story in Scumble?

Oh, yes—Peter Pan! I liked using Peter Pan allusions in Scumble because, while Savvy is a journey story, Scumble is more fixed. The main character, Ledge, leaves home and ends up someplace else for a while, someplace a bit more magical and remote. Plus, the concept of growing up is such a big part of the book.

Like Savvy, there are many different allusions in Scumble. Readers may catch references to fairytales and folk tales, tall tales, and even to the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind—the book takes place thirty miles from Devil’s Tower in Wyoming… I couldn’t resist!

What kind of research did you do for Scumble?

All sorts! My daughter and I drove up to Wyoming twice, I went to a motorcycle and chopper show, and I was allowed a behind the scenes tour of a real insect zoo. I did a ton of research online: anything from looking up the history of peanut butter jars and of Wyoming outlaws, to reading about the world’s largest butterflies and half marathons. I downloaded Ford F-1 truck manuals and toaster diagrams, and learned old cowboy slang. I even ordered a bumper from an old VW bug, and an 18-pound circus-tent sledgehammer head off eBay, just so that I could see what they were really like to pick up and hold instead of simply looking at pictures and using my imagination.

What do we have to look forward to from you next?

After taking a bit of time off, I am starting to work on something new. And, while I would love to return to the Savvy world again sometime in the future, the new work is taking me in a different direction for the moment. But the new story is still too young and fragile to talk about. I’m the sort of writer who can’t talk too much about what I’m working on while I’m working on it. If I do, the fuel of the story—the excitement that feeds the flames—gets burned up and I lose my motivation. But I hope that Scumble will satisfy readers for a time, while I continue to work.

Thanks for the great questions!

That was fun! Thank you, Ingrid! And for those of you who want to read more about Ingrid, visit her at her colorful blog: Also, leave a post in the comment section below and you’ll be entered in the drawing for an Advanced Reading Copy of Scumble. The winner will be announced on August 21st, so don’t forget to check back!

Jennifer Duddy Gill has the privilege of working with truly amazing kids in an elementary school. She also writes humorous middle-grade novels and is represented by Wendy Schmalz.

A Few Books for Byron

When people talk about getting boys to read, I wonder if they ever explain that books can turn boys into men? I mean that good books, like good food, can provide nourishment that make boys big and strong. Boys want nothing more than to grow up, and to take the world by storm when they do. Although books were an important part of my own childhood, I never talked about them in reading groups in the way that they matter the most — how they helped prepare me in various ways for the challenges ahead.

I’m becoming a father this month, and as I considered books that should make up a reading list for little Byron, I found myself focusing on books that would give Byron a vision of the man he might become. Every book about boys will give a boy a vision of masculinity and become part of his idea about how men behave, but how many are helpful? Here are four I remember well from my own childhood that bolstered my confidence as a young man even without a sword or a magic wand.

The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald

Although the idea of financial success looms large in the American psyche, it’s rarely treated in children’s books. These one do it with terrific with and poignancy. Tom is ambitious, charismatic, and conniving. The little brother narrator has a begrudging respect for his big brother’s gift for gain, but compliments Tom’s ambition with a strong sense of justice and fair play. Tom himself is given to surprising generosity and humanity. In a nutshell, these books celebrate everything that’s great about the American spirit. The series also has a lot of realistic, offhand historical lessons–the introduction of water closets to the American home, for example. While there are a few stories that I might skip at first, or talk about later–particularly one with heavily stereotyped Native American characters–the author means well, and the goodness comes out in most of the stories.

Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

The hero is Leonard, a trademark Pinkwater hero: chubby, goofy, and a zest for life unquashed by miserable treatment at school. He meets a kid from Mars and they learn how to wreak havoc at school using mentalist tricks, then slip off on a strange adventure in an alternate world. Alan Mendelsohn features a mid-novel sort-of climax where the boys realize that merely outsmarting the bullies and snobs at the school only brings a moment of shallow satisfaction. It’s not heavily stated at all, but there’s something worth probing: that conflicts aren’t about winning, but about resolving differences. Meanwhile, the real moral of this or any Pinkwater novel is that the real world is full of extraordinary experiences: groovy new neighborhoods, little-known restaurants with good chili, B movies, old records, dancing chickens and new friends — things that make adult life as full of fun and wonder as childhood.

The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

This is a gorgeous story about a boy who becomes entranced by a fox, and in so doing develops an appreciation for nature and country life. “There was a great deal of difference between seeing an animal in the zoo,” its hero says, “and seeing one in natural and free in the woods. It was like seeing a kite on the floor and then, later, seeing one up in the sky.” Many of my favorite middle grade books are about the relationship between children and animals, and this one is pitch perfect, with the quirky dry humor and empathy of all Byars books. This will be a nice one to share on trips to the woods, when wildlife is visible from the cabin windows.

The emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between the small, unmuscled Tom and his tough-as-nails, muscle-bound, gun-toting uncle. Tom is intimidated by his uncle and tries to stay out of his way, but the two are pulled uncomfortably together as Uncle Fred pulls an unwilling Tom into a fox-hunting mission. Tom tries to sabotage his uncle’s efforts, and ultimately succeeds. The aftermath is unexpected; one of sudden respect and understanding between the two men that is surprising and moving.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I loved books with puzzles and wordplay, and could have included any number of them, including the terrific quasi-gothic books by John Bellairs and Ellen Raskin’s brilliant three mysteries. I pick Tollbooth because it’s so canonical, the gags and whimsy so plentiful and memorable. Like Pinkwater’s book, it’s about an open, curious, and active mind can make life into an adventure even when there are no super-villains to vanquish.

Your Turn

This is a short-list of classics because I’m remembering my own golden years of reading. What other books should be on the list? Please let me know in the comments below.

Kurtis Scaletta is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville and Mamba Point, both published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

It’s a Mystery To Me

illustration by olart.ollie

Every book has a mystery in it.

Don’t believe me?  Pick up the nearest title.  I grabbed a fantasy: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.   It may be about a boy going to a school for wizards, but Harry and his friends spend a good deal of the book figuring out the mystery of what is on the third floor of Hogwarts.

“Hey, that’s not fair,” you say.  “That book really is mainly about the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone.”  Fair enough.  Let’s try a classic instead: Charlotte’s Web.  It’s a book about friendship, right?  But—aha!—that friendship starts with a little mystery.   Wilbur hears a tiny voice promising to be his friend, but because it’s dark he can’t see who’s talking.  Though he searches for clues the next morning, he can’t solve the mystery until Charlotte introduces herself.

Some books, like Charlotte’s Web, have only a small mysterious element to them, but there are plenty that are mainly about the whodunit.  These books are clumped together into what we call the mystery genre.

But what books fall under this genre?  Actually, that’s a hard question to answer.  Every person has a different definition of what books are considered part of the mystery genre.  This is probably because, as I mentioned before, every book has a mystery hiding in its pages. Under the mystery umbrella you can find puzzlers, crime and detective fiction, suspense and thrillers, even humor or horror.  Most have contemporary settings, but there are historical mysteries, too.  There are also fantasy mysteries, sci-fi mysteries and paranormal mysteries.  There is just about any type of mystery you can think of because—say it with me—every book has a mystery somewhere in it.

I’ve done my own sleuthing and compiled a list of ten must-read middle-grade mysteries.  They are:


by Blue Balliett

Calder and Petra become friends and then set off to solve the mystery of a stolen piece of Vermeer’s artwork.  Calder’s fascination with pentominoes (math puzzle pieces) is one of the most interesting and clever things about this mystery. Other books in this series…


by Pseudonymous Bosch

I wish I could tell you about Cass and Max-Earnest, who find the journal of a missing magician, or about how they learn what the mysterious Symphony of Smells is.  I really wish I could.  But I can’t.  It’s a secret.  Other books in this series…


by Patricia Finney writing as Grace Cavendish

Grace Cavendish is a lady-in-waiting at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but she solves mysteries while no one is looking. In this book, one of Grace’s suitors is killed, and she must find a way to prove that the man she gives her hand to is not the killer. Other books in this series…


by E.L. Konigsburg

Claudia decides to run away from home, but she needs somewhere to run away to.  So she and her brother, Jamie, decide to hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  While living there, they come across a mystery surrounding an angel statue purchased by the museum.


by R.L. LeFevers

Theodosia spends most of her time at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities where her parents work.  And it’s a good thing, too, because only she can see the ancient curses still attached to the Egyptian artifacts.  When her mom brings home a cursed amulet, Theodosia is thrust in the middle of a battle between secret societies.  Other books in this series…


by Ellen Raskin

Sam Westing has sixteen heirs, and after his death all of them are summoned for the reading of his will.  There they are divided into eight pairs, each pair is given a different clue, and all are challenged to solve the mystery of who killed Sam Westing.  Whomever solves the mystery inherits his millions.


by Rick Riordan

At their grandmother’s funeral, Amy and Dan Cahill learn they are members of the most powerful family in the world.  Their grandmother’s will offers a challenge to all family members: find the 39 Clues to secure the family’s power.  But only one team can win the challenge (and the power), so Amy and Dan find themselves in an international race against the rest of the family.  Other books in this series…


by Donald Sobol

Each mystery is short but contains all the clues needed to solve the puzzle.  Can you figure it out without checking the solution in the back? This book is a great way for budding detectives to stretch their minds and see if they have what it takes to be great sleuths.  See more and still more…


by Rebecca Stead

Miranda’s life revolves around Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  But when she discovers mysterious notes from someone who seems to know the future and claims to want to save her life, she spends large amounts of time watching the homeless lunatic her mom calls the laughing man as she tries to find the connection between her life and the notes.


by Trenton Lee Stewart

Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance are the four clever children who make up the Mysterious Benedict Society.  Their first mission: infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and find out what the evil Mr. Curtain is up to.  And once they do, they must use their special skills together to stop him.  Other books in this series…

Search out your own favorite middle-grade mysteries and share with me what you find.   And make sure you investigate our Fifth Summer Giveaway, where three awesome MG books are up for grabs.

But while you’re sleuthing, do me a favor.  If you happen to come across a book with no mystery anywhere in it, don’t tell me.  I don’t want to know.


Elissa Cruz’s life is full of toys and papers and books and kids, and because of it she solves mysteries on a daily basis.  Important ones, too, like where the missing car keys are, or who ate the last piece of cake.  Her first book, a light and fun middle-grade mystery, is currently on submission.