For Parents

Insights from Evaluating my New Year’s Writing Resolutions

I’m really good at creating writerly/life goals every January.

However, I’m terrible at evaluating these New Year’s resolutions. I rarely reflect on what obtaining or letting go of aspirations might mean.

For 2020, I’d like to start a new tradition of spending just as much time evaluating last year‘s goals as in the creation of this year‘s goals.

I’m going to take you step-by-step in what I hope will be new tradition of evaluation and reflection. I hope to come away with helpful take-aways.

Looking back at 2019, I see that I met my physical goal of walking and going to the gym 3 to 4 times a week.

This says to me I was serious about taking care of my physical needs. I can applaud myself, yes? Well, sure. In fact, unless it was rainy or I had morning appointments, I walked every day. However, when I went to the gym, I often focused on reading my book on the elliptical versus challenging myself.

Take-away: I can do better. Sweat more. Be more in the moment.

For reading, I pledged to read more wonderful novels such as The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart and Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras. I did this. Yet I could a much better job of reviewing books after reading them. I want others to review my books on Goodreads, and I need to do the same for my colleagues.

Take-way. Read wonderful books. And support authors by reviewing their books.

I promised to keep up with my grading (I teach college). And while I had the best intentions, by somewhere in the middle of the semester, I started to get two weeks behind. Yes, I can do better. But also sometimes not working means that I am engaging in self-care. There are periods when not keeping up with a certain obligation is actually a good thing, especially if there’s some sort of pressing situation.

Take-away. It’s okay to slow down. It’s okay sometimes not to meet a goal.

I met almost all of my marketing goals. However, I’m flagging a problem. With an educator, I wrote an honesty curriculum based on issues that come up with my chapter book series Ellie May. Yet, I haven’t posted it on my website or really made the curriculum available. It shows that just making a goal isn’t what counts. How did that help you accomplish a benchmark? How did it meet expectations?

Take-away. It’s not just the goal that counts. It’s often the follow-through that’s more important.

I look at my writing goals and I’m pleasantly surprised. I met five out of the seven goals. I polished and revised three picture books, one of which I sold. I came up with new picture book ideas for Tara Lazar’s Storystorm. Additionally, I got to the end of a science fantasy MG, which I’ve been working on for eleven years. This felt like a big win because it’s a project I always put on the backburner. Plus, it’s outside of my comfort zone and has helped me stretch as a writer.

Take-away. Consider why a goal is actually important to you.

I didn’t write any part of my contemporary Jewish-themed middle grade. Why? Well, honestly,I didn’t get to it. And I’m not emotionally prepared for the themes in this book. It’s okay. I will write this book when I’m ready. I’m not right now–that’s my truth and okay with it.

Take-away. Consider why you didn’t meet a particular goal and decide if you are okay with that reason.

I did work on two middle grades that were a welcome surprise–two books in the Kate the Chemist series with Dr. Kate Biberdorf. Dragons vs. Unicorns comes out this April with Philomel Books followed by The Escape Room. Fifth grader Kate uses chemistry (my favorite science) to solve everyday problems and mysteries. I’m super proud of these books. Working with Dr. Kate and the team at Philomel has been unapologetically blissful and added so much writing fun to my life.

Take-away. You can’t plan everything. And that’s just fine.

That one is so important. I will repeat it. You can’t plan everything. For me, there were some health issues that came up as well as some challenging conditions brought about by wildfires. But every challenge has gifted me with new insights and prompted me to live more joyfully.

2020. This myopic writer is definitely looking forward to a year with clearer vision.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2-18), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

December Holiday Books for Middle-Grade Readers

The holidays are upon us, and reading about diverse December customs seems a great way to celebrate the season. Here are some middle-grade books you might want to check out for your vacation reading pleasure.

 

Winterfrost by Michelle Houts

An ordinary Danish Christmas turns extraordinary when a family overlooks an important folkloric tradition. Christmas has come, and with it a sparkling white winterfrost. When Bettina’s parents are called away unexpectedly, leaving her in charge of the house, the farm, and baby Pia, Bettina neglects to set out the traditional bowl of Christmas rice pudding for the tiny nisse.

No one besides her grandfather ever believed the nisse were real, so what harm could there be in forgetting this silly custom? But when baby Pia disappears, the magic of the nisse makes itself known. To find her sister and set things right, Bettina must venture into the miniature world of these usually helpful, but sometimes mischievous, folk.

 

Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake by Rebecca O’Connell, illus. by Majella Lue Sue

In this Hanukkah story, Penina finds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn’t looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and her best friend is deserting her to go on a dream vacation to Aruba.

Then Penina discovers why Mrs. Brown must go away and hears that a snowstorm may ruin Zozo’s trip, and Penina knows she’s the one who must bring some holiday spirit to her friends. Readers of all backgrounds will relate to Penina as she turns a pile of problems into a Hanukkah to remember.

 

Holidays Around the World: Celebrate Kwanzaa by Carolyn B. Otto

Over the course of seven days, African Americans, families and friends, come together to light the candles that symbolize their past and future—and their unity. They gather as a community to make music and to dance; to feast on harvest foods and the good things of the earth; and to exchange simple, often homemade, gifts. Readers are introduced to the symbols of the holiday, such as the mkeka (a special placemat), kinara (candleholder), and kikombe cha umoja (unity cup). Important concepts, like the seven principles, are explained. In addition, a note from the book’s consultant, aimed at parents and teachers, puts the holiday in its full cultural and historical perspective.

 

Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale by G. Neri

Young Truman Capote thought life in New York City was going to be perfect, but things didn’t work out as planned.

In fact, Tru is downright miserable. So he decides to run away to Monroeville, Alabama, and the only friend he’s ever had, Nelle Harper Lee. But things don’t go well there, either.

Bad things seem to happen wherever he goes. The only explanation: he must be cursed. Christmas is coming, and Tru’s only wish is to be happy. But it’ll take a miracle for that to come true. Luckily, a special feast brings the miracle he’s hoping for. Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale is based on the real life friendship of Truman Capote and Harper Lee.

 

How I Saved Hanukkah by Amy Goldman Koss

Marla Feinstein, the only Jewish kid in her fourth-grade class, hates December.

While everyone else is decorating trees, she’ll be forgetting to light the candles and staring at a big plastic dreidel. The holidays couldn’t get much worse.

So Marla decides to find out what Hanukkah’s really about—and soon she and her family have made the Festival of Lights the biggest party in town!

 

 

Kiesha’s Kwanzaa by Jacqueline C. Grant

Kiesha doesn’t understand what is happening to her family. Papa hides behind the newspaper at dinner time. Her big brother Derrick is grumpy and gets into trouble all the time. And Mama just seems unhappy. If not for her precious library books, Kiesha would be unhappy too.

When she discovers a family celebration called Kwanzaa, Kiesha thinks she has found a way to help her family. She works hard to create a special family Kwanzaa celebration, but is it too late? Young readers will learn about how some families celebrate Kwanzaa, but Kiesha’s Kwanzaa is really about family and togetherness and the power of love.

 

Young Scrooge: A Very Scary Christmas by R.L. Stine

Rick Scroogeman hates Christmas. He can’t stand the carols and the pageants. He can’t stand the lights and the mistletoe.

But what he hates the most is having to watch the old movie A Christmas Carol every year at school.

Since his name is Scroogeman, all of his classmates start calling him Scrooge. And he hates being called Scrooge. But everything starts to change when three ghosts visit him. At first, he thinks it’s a dream. But then he realizes that it might be a nightmare. A nightmare that could become real.

 

 

Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy

One lousy miracle.  Is that too much to ask? Evidently so for Joel, as he tries to survive Hannukah, 1971 in the suburbs of Los Angeles (or, as he calls it, “The Land of Shriveled Dreams”). That’s no small task when you’re a “seriously funny-looking” twelve-year-old magician who dreams of being his own superhero: Normalman. And Joel’s a long way from that as the only Jew at Bixby School, where his attempts to make himself disappear fail spectacularly. Home is no better, with a family that’s not just mortifyingly embarrassing but flat-out broke. That’s why Joel’s betting everything on these eight nights, to see whether it’s worth believing in God or miracles or anything at all. Armed with his favorite jokes, some choice Yiddish words, and a suitcase full of magic tricks, he’s scrambling to come to terms with the world he lives in—from hospitals to Houdini to the Holocaust—before the last of the candles burns out. No wonder his head is spinning: He’s got dreidels on the brain. And little does he know that what’s actually about to happen to him and his family this Hanukkah will be worse than he’d feared . . . And better than he could have imagined.

 

A Very Special Kwanzaa by Debbi Chocolate

Charlie’s school is holding a Kwanzaa Festival, and he doesn’t want any part of it. Last year, he was chosen to stand in front of the entire class wearing a dashiki, beads, and sandals- in the middle of winter!

When the class jerk decided to crack jokes about Charlie’s outfit, he became the clown of the third grade. This year he just wants things to be normal.

But Charlie soon learns that Kwanzaa is a celebration of creativity and caring.

 

 

The Return of Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards

The winter solstice, the day the “sun stands still,” marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year, and it comes either on December 20th or 21st. Celebrations honoring the winter solstice as a moment of transition and renewal date back thousands of years and occur among many peoples on every continent. The Return of the Light makes an ideal companion for everyone who carries on this tradition, no matter what their faith. Storyteller Carolyn McVickar Edwards retells twelve traditional tales-from North America, China, Scandinavia, India, Africa, South America, Europe, and Polynesia-that honor this magical moment. These are stories that will renew our wonder of the miracle of rebirth and the power of transition from darkness into light.

 

 

Every Christmas in the small town of Pine River, a tree appears in the town square–the Angel Tree. Some people tie wishes to the tree, while others make those wishes come true. Nobody’s ever known where the tree comes from, but the mystery has always been part of the tradition’s charm.

This year, however, four kids who have been helped–Lucy, Joe, Max, and Cami–are determined to solve the mystery and find out the true identity of the town’s guardian angel, so that Pine River can finally thank the person who brought the Angel Tree to their town.

This is a heartwarming Christmas mystery, full of friendship, discovery, and loads of holiday cheer!

 

 

Nutcracked by Susan Adrian

Georgie has waited for this moment her whole life—to dance the part of Clara in The Nutcracker ballet. And when she finally gets the part, it’s like a dream come true . . . Literally.
Every time Georgie dances with the Nutcracker doll, she leaves the ballet studio and enters a world where everything around her—the old wooden furniture, the Christmas tree, the carefully wrapped presents—is larger than life. It’s so magical, Georgie can’t wait to return again and again. Then the Nutcracker’s magic seeps into the real world, putting Georgie’s friend in danger. Everything is falling apart, and it’s almost Christmas! Can Georgie save her friend, the Nutcracker, and most of all, herself?

Interview with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of SHINE!

Today at MUF we’re talking with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of the middle-grade novel, SHINE! (Random House Children’s Books), which James Patterson says is, “Inspirational, commonsensical, and a whole lot of fun.” We got the writing partners — and life partners! — to tell us about their new book, how they work together, and what’s next for them.

 

Shine!

Mixed-Up Files: J.J., we understand the idea behind SHINE! was yours. Can you talk about what sparked the idea? What made this the story you decided had to get written?

J.J.: I guess living in New York City has made me hyper aware of how hard everybody here strives to get ahead. What pre-K your child gets into, theoretically, will help determine whether they get into Harvard. Growing up in an environment where accomplishments and awards were highly prized, I wish I had read a book that said who you are as a person is even more important than landing on the honor roll or winning the lead role in the school musical.

We know that J.J. has helped behind the scenes on many of Chris’ other books, but how was the process here different than in the past?

CHRIS: In the past, J.J. has been my first editor. She reads everything before anyone else and encourages me to cut out the boring parts. She also lets me know if anything takes her out of the story. An odd word or phrase. An illogical leap. Confusion of any kind. But, in the end, those books are my books and I get the final say (even though I typically take all J.J.’s notes and make all her suggested changes).

On SHINE! we were equals. Both our names would be going on the cover. We both had to be happy with every word.

MUF: What did your collaboration look like?

CHRIS: Well, first we spent months blocking out a very detailed outline. VERY detailed.

That’s a technique I learned from James Patterson. When I work on a project with him, he creates an extremely detailed outline with all the twists and turns plotted out. I execute a first draft from that outline and check in with him every month with new pages.

With J.J., we checked in every day.

We also discovered that we have extremely different writing techniques.

In college, I majored in Communications at the University of Tennessee. J.J. studied music and theater at Northwestern (yep, that’s why the hero of our book’s father is a music teacher). At the end of my freshman year at UT, I took a typing test. We needed to do 30 words a minute before we could take any sophomore level courses. From then on, every assignment we turned in had to be type written.

When I graduated, I could type over one hundred words a minute. In fact, working as a temporary typist was how I supported myself when I first moved to New York City to pursue a writing and comedy career.

So now, when I write, I think through my fingertips.

J.J., on the other hand, has a theatrical background. For years, she toured the country doing musicals. She also appeared Off Broadway in the long-running hit NUNSENSE. Today, she works as a voice actor, creating lots of different characters. (She narrated my HAUNTED MYSTERY series from Random House.)

When J.J. writes, she wants to act out all the scenes. And play all the characters. Something I was doing in my head and sending down to my keyboard (and she thought I was just typing). This led to some very interesting scenes in the writing room.

Chris and JJ Grabenstein

MUF: Did you ever disagree at points on what direction the book should go? If so, how did you resolve that?

J.J.: Not on the overall direction. On individual scenes? Yes. If neither one of us could convince the other to see it our way, then we realized there was something fundamentally wrong with both approaches. So, we’d chuck whatever we were championing and work out a solution that made both of us happy.

MUF: Do you find collaborating on a book with someone else harder or easier than doing it solo?

CHRIS: In a lot of ways, it’s much easier. Someone else is helping you map out the journey and make decisions along the way. Then, if you take a wrong turn, it’s not entirely your fault!

MUF: What’s it like when you get editorial notes back? How did you decide to tackle those edits? What was the division of labor there?

J.J.: We were very fortunate to have Chris’s longtime Random House editor Shana Corey working with us on SHINE! In fact, we often say, her name should be on the cover, too. She was a true third partner throughout the whole two-years and six drafts it took to get the book right.

Like I’ve seen Chris do (from time to time), I’d whine a little about the editorial letters and all the notes. After all, what we had turned in was perfect, right? But then, the next day, I’d also do what I’ve seen Chris do countless times: Realize Shana was right. And the book would be better if we made her suggested changes, cuts, or additions.

MUF: What projects are next for you both?

CHRIS: Well, let’s see…my first picture book, NO MORE NAPS, from Random House will be coming out in February. There will be a fifth Lemoncello book, MR. LEMONCELLO AND THE TITANIUM TICKET, coming in late summer, 2020 to be followed by the first book in what we hope is a new Middle Grades series. I also edited and contributed to a collection of short stories for the Mystery Writers of America that will be out in June. James Patterson and I will have, I think, three books coming out in 2020, including the 7th in the popular TREASURE HUNTERS series. And, I am doing a new Audible Original entitled STUCK, where I get to make a cameo appearance.

J.J.: Well, after reading Chris’s list, it looks like I have a lot of first editing to do! I’ll also be heading back to the sound booth to record books and voice overs for all sorts of clients. I’m also happy to report that I will be appearing in the Audible Original STUCK. Chris and I play goofy cartoon characters at a game-arcade/restaurant called Chuck and Ernie’s.

MUF: Do you both read quite a bit of middle grade? What are some of your favorite recent MG titles? Any recs for us?

CHRIS: I do read (and listen) to a lot of Middle Grade stories. My recent faves include Steve Sheinken’s BORN TO FLY, R.J. Palacio’s WHITE BIRD, Stuart Gibbs’ CHARLIE THORNE, and Jerry Craft’s NEW KID.

J.J.: I read a ton of Middle Grade books. Because Chris writes a ton of ’em every year.

MUF: Tell us a little bit about SHINE! for our readers. 

CHRIS: Well, the gang at Random House always knows how to summarize a book better than me! Here’s what they say:

“Who do you want to be?” asks Mr. Van Deusen. “And not when you grow up. Right here, right now.”

Shine on! might be the catchphrase of twelve-year-old Piper’s hero–astronaut, astronomer, and television host Nellie Dumont Frisse–but Piper knows the truth: some people are born to shine, and she’s just not one of them. That fact has never been clearer than now, since her dad’s new job has landed them both at Chumley Prep, a posh private school where everyone seems to be the best at something and where Piper definitely doesn’t fit in.

Bursting with humor, heart, science, possibilities, and big questions, Shine! is a story about finding your place in the universe–a story about figuring out who you are and who you want to be.

MUF: If you have anything else to add, please feel free!

We’re excited to see the numerous ways teachers and librarians have already brought SHINE! to life in their schools. We’re also thrilled that the folks at Random House put together such a fantastic Educators’ Guide for the book. (Click here for the Educators’ Guide to SHINE!)