For Librarians

Happy Flag Day! Let’s celebrate with an interview with award-winning author Kate Messner and a giveaway!


Happy Flag Day!



What better way to celebrate than to talk to award-wining author Kate Messner        



about her middle-grade mystery book, Capture the Flag!


Kate’s newest middle-grade novel series has it all – excitement, intrigue, high-stakes action, and best of all it centers on the stolen American flag! What a great idea and a fun topic for our Flag Day post!



A stolen flag, a secret society, and three complete strangers . . .
Anna, José, and Henry have never met, but they have more in common than they realize. Snowed in together at a chaotic Washington, DC, airport, they encounter a mysterious tattooed man, a flamboyant politician, and a rambunctious poodle named for an ancient king. Even stranger, news stations everywhere have just announced that the famous flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been stolen! Anna, certain that the culprits must be snowed in, too, recruits Henry and José to help find the thieves and bring them to justice.
But when accusations start flying, they soon realize there’s even more than a national treasure at stake. With unexpected enemies lurking around every corner, will the trio solve the heist before the flag is lost forever?


A Junior Library Guild Selection
“A fast-paced mystery . . . a sparkling start for a promising new series.” –KIRKUS REVIEWS
“A novel as cinematic in execution as it is patriotic in theme.” –PUBLISHERS WEEKLY


I just finished reading your delightful book, Capture the Flag, I was wondering – where did you get the inspiration for this story? Did you visit the actual flag in the Smithsonian?

I did visit that flag – but not until I already knew I was going to let it be stolen in this book!  The inspiration for CAPTURE THE FLAG was actually the setting — I love airports and thought it would be great fun to set a mystery in one during a snowstorm. I love the super-charged atmosphere…everyone coming or going someplace. In airports, everyone has a story.  And I loved the idea of the snowstorm keeping everyone stuck there for a short period of time so my kids could investigate the crime, knowing that if they didn’t solve it, all the evidence and suspects would fly away as soon as the storm let up.


Much of the book takes place in an airport and the baggage area underneath. Were you able to go behind the scenes of the baggage handling area to do research for this book?

That’s the one thing I wasn’t able to explore firsthand in my research. Not surprisingly, airport security in a post-9/11 world doesn’t make exception for children’s authors.  However, I was able explore those under-the-airport worlds virtually, since most companies that build baggage handling systems have videos online showing how they work.


How much research, if any, do you do for your fiction books? Do you think this is  important?

I do extensive research for my books, especially when it comes to making sure I have the setting just right.  For CAPTURE THE FLAG, that meant spending a day at the Smithsonian, exploring behind the scenes with the curator of the flag exhibit and talking through just how those fictional bad guys might get out of the museum with the flag.


This book is your first mystery. Did you have fun writing it?

Great fun – but it was a great challenge, too, and taught me to plan in much more detail than I’d been accustomed to with my previous books.


Any tips aspiring authors should be aware of when writing mysteries for middle grade readers?

When I teach mystery writing workshops, I focus a lot on planning – the idea that suspects aren’t the only ones who need motives; investigators do, too.  It takes a lot of playing around with ideas to make sure all the details end up fitting together just right. And I think setting is huge in mysteries, too. The place can be a huge part of the story, and I encourage writers to think of it as the playground for their characters. What adventures can happen in a museum? In an airport, or a rainforest, or at the World Series?


Do you tend to stick with one writing level at a time or go back and forth depending on what inspires you?

I write across genres — middle grade, chapter books, and picture books – both fiction and nonfiction – and I love them all, so I couldn’t choose just one as a favorite. Most often, it’s my deadlines the determine what any given writing day looks like. The book that’s due first gets first priority, and when I’m not on deadline, I tend to play a lot, working on whatever seems to be calling me that day.


Your characters are ethnically diverse. How important do you think it is to have ethnically diverse characters in middle grade  books?

Very much so – and I’ve actually been quite involved in providing input for the covers for this mystery series. Scholastic has been amazing about asking for feedback, and we’ve talked about just this topic – the importance of not only including kids from different backgrounds on the covers but also showing their faces.  When I was teaching 7th grade, it was important to me that all of my students could find books with faces on the cover that looked like theirs. It was frustrating to me when most of the books I could find with brown faces on the covers were historical or issue books, where the story was about the character’s race.  In real life, it’s not like that — kids of all different backgrounds go to school and play lots of different sports and solve mysteries and have adventures, and I feel like we need to be mindful of that when we write and market books, too. I’ve been thrilled with the covers for the books in this series!  (And I can’t share the cover for book 3, MANHUNT, quite yet, but I can tell you that I think it might be the best of all!)

Many thanks!  ~Kate


And many thanks to you, Kate, for giving us a peek into your writing process. Mysteries are my favorite and I really loved this book! Can’t wait to read the new one in the series.

To learn more about Kate’s many amazing books, see her website

Now, for what you’ve all been waiting for,  Kate has generously offered to donate an autographed copy of Capture the Flag to one lucky reader!  Simply leave a comment below and you will be entered in the giveaway.



Jennifer Swanson is a life-long mystery lover. Some say she was born with a magnifying glass in one hand a Nancy Drew book in the other.

Using Books to Calm Anxiety

7118768Using books as a therapeutic tool, bibliotherapy, can be a powerful experience. As children face new situations and demands, they typically will experience some degree of anxiety, which is normal. In fact, learning to feel distress in certain situations can help prevent children from dangerous situations. But there are also everyday worries, where children need some guidance from parents and caregivers in order to fully process their feelings. Books can help children address routine worries and fears. However, if you suspect that your child is experiencing anxiety that is excessive and uncontrollable, please contact a mental health professional. Now let’s take a look at the two stages of childhood development that children who read middle grade books are going through and the sorts of books that might ease worry during each phase.

Children (ages 6-10). During this period, kids may fear outside dangers, especially, but not limited to, natural disasters, robberies and accidents. Often, these fears stem from what they’ve heard about on the news. Transitions may be difficult, especially during the beginning of school when they must adopt new routines.

If your child is feeling powerless in the wake of a natural disaster, you might want to give them books that empower. Also look up news stories about children who have raised money for hurricane Sandy, for example, or kids who have come up with creative fundraisers for non-profits. You can also look for books that focus on small victories that help the environment. For example, you can read about a character who recycles, or works on a way to save the rain forest. The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a wonderful book about a 12 year-old confronting hurricane Katrina. To calm going-to-school fears, you can guide them to some funny school stories such as the classic Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar.

Children (Middle School age and up). During this life phase, it’s normal to worry about social status and acceptance, as well as academic and athletic performance. Additionally, older teenagers may worry about their future.

For tweens (and teens), consider looking up the early years of people whom they admire and sharing these stories. You may discover that a rock star, athlete, actor or author was shy, or overcame adversities to get where they are today. Check out Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary about the brave children who marched along Martin Luther King and Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Kids on Strike!6522296

Stories are very powerful. You can pick a book that speaks to a given situation and present it to a child so they can understand their world, and feel soothed and calmed.

Hillary Homzie‘s second tween novel for girls,The Hot List, was published last year. She parents three boys and is always looking for ways to soothe and heal.

From Augustus Gloop to Dudley Dursley: Fat Studies and Middle Grade Novels

We hear quite a lot about the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ these days. From Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to healthy school lunch initiatives by celebrity chefs, we as a culture are concerned about our children’s eating, exercise and well being.

As well we should be.

The problem is, these health concerns are too often framed in ways that are psychologically and culturally unhealthy for young people. The phrase ‘epidemic’ conjures images of risk and contagion, and usually is accompanied by a fear of or anger toward certain populations associated with these bodily ‘failings’. Consider, for example, that historic public health campaigns against tuberculosis became ways to marginalize poor or immigrant communities, who were associated with this disease threat, and therefore became considered ‘diseased’ altogether. ‘Health’ here became a way to justify/disguise classism and xenophobia. Similarly, public health campaigns addressing the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ (such as this horrific Georgia advertisement) too often use the moralistic shaming and blaming of individual children and their families rather than critiquing systems, such as the food service industry, which makes it difficult to access affordable fresh foodstuffs in urban areas. Here, ‘health’ becomes a way to reinforce stereotypes and prejudice about poor communities, communities of color, and of course individuals of size.

In her essay, “Fat panic and the new morality,” which appears in a 2010 collection entitled Against Health, Kathleen LeBesco analyzes the “obesity epidemic” as a “moral panic.” In her words: “our insistence on turning efforts to achieve good health into a greater moral enterprise means that health also becomes a sharp political stick in which much harm is ultimately done.” So in addition to waif-thin images in beauty magazines, and the pervasive sexualization of even, say, young girl’s clothing, public health itself is a part what’s been called our pervasive toxic body culture – a culture which contributes to everything from self-hatred to self-harm to disordered eating and more. A culture which connects a young person’s appearance, size and/or weight to their worth, their very humanity.

The notion of obesity itself has come under some scrutiny by scholars and activists. Consider that recent research suggests that lower mortality might actually be associated with being overweight, that an entire scholarly discipline of Fat Studies has arisen, or that campaigns such as the Health At Every Size Campaign , the Endangered Species: Women movement, and websites such as Adios, Barbie seek to address toxic body culture.

As a pediatrician, parent, and writer of middle grade novels, I know that stories are an important way that culture gets shaped. Middle grade novels have the power to either reinforce or counteract the harmful messages sent to young people through both the commercial and public health media alike.

Rebecca Rabinowitz recently wrote a wonderful piece called, “Who’s that Fat Kid? Fat Politics and Children’s Literature” for the Children’s Book Council Diversity Blog. In it, she critiques the stereotypes and tropes of fat children in children’s literature: as either bully (ie. Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter Books) or a victim of bullying (ie. Judy Blume’s classic Blubber). Fatness often becomes code in children’s literature for gluttony, greed or other moral failings — just consider Augustus Gloop from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Oompa-Loompa song says it all: “Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop! The great big greedy nincompoop! Augustus Gloop! So Big and Vile! So greedy, foul, and infantile.”

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois asked “How does it feel to be a problem?” Like stories with a protagonist of color, where the entire narratives becomes only ‘about’ the problems of race, Rabinowitz urges writers not to make fatness a ‘problem’ to be solved. As she notes, many stories with fat protagonists such as Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, or e.E. Charlton-Trujilo’s Fat Angie, often portray their protagonists dieting, or exercising or otherwise trying to become ‘less fat.’ In Rabinowitz’ words,

I want to see characters whose fatness is not symbolic of anything. Characters who are fat simply because some people in the real world are fat… I want characters who complete their emotional and social and physical growth arcs without becoming less fat. I like books that confront fatphobia head-on, and I’d also like to see books that aren’t especially about fatness but feature fat characters…Allow fat characters the humanity that not-fat characters have. Banish fatness as a symbol; banish the textual message that a fat character is okay only as long as they’re on their way to becoming less fat.

Thinking about writing a character of size? Consider first if fatness is a part of this person’s myriad qualities, or if it is a singular, defining, stereotyped quality. Like race, class or sexuality, diversity of body size is a real phenomenon in the world to be represented in middle grade literature. The question is, whether we represent it in ways that reinforce old, oppressive stories or change the cultural narrative.

When she’s not writing middle-grade novels, Sayantani DasGupta teaches courses on narrative, health and social justice at Columbia University, blogs for Adios, Barbie, and speaks nationally about girls, toxic body culture, and media images.