For Teachers

A Chat About GLOOM TOWN by Author Ronald L. Smith & An Engaging Challenge For Readers!

Hi Everyone! How are you all doing? Social distancing and self-confinement is not something any of us expected to be doing, right now. Such an abrupt change to our lives can make us feel withdrawn and lonely. But there are ways to combat that feeling of isolation. One way is through reading and writing. Just as exciting is doing that with others through the internet. If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll find a little creative exercise I created for you to do. Those who participate will have a chance to win a prize!

But don’t scroll yet! Take a peek at my next creepy book spotlight and what the author has to say about his writing journey. It’s seriously an amazing, creepy middle grade read.


by Ronald L. Smith

A delightfully creepy novel from a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award winner imbued with magic and seafaring mythology. Lemony Snicket and Jessica Townsend meet Greenglass House, with a hint of Edward Gorey thrown in.

When twelve-year-old Rory applies for a job at a spooky old mansion in his gloomy seaside town, he finds the owner, Lord Foxglove, odd and unpleasant. But he and his mom need the money, so he takes the job anyway. Rory soon finds out that his new boss is not just strange, he’s not even human—and he’s trying to steal the townspeople’s shadows. Together, Rory and his friend Isabella set out to uncover exactly what Foxglove and his otherworldly accomplices are planning and devise a strategy to defeat them. But can two kids defeat a group of ancient evil beings who are determined to take over the world?

Another delightfully creepy tale from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award–winning author Ronald L. Smith.


Hello Ronald! It’s such a pleasure to have you visit us. Let’s begin with an area most readers are curious about: What is it about writing stories that makes it all worth it for you?

Selfishly, it’s a dream come true to do this for a living.  I feel very lucky to have such a cool job. But what’s really rewarding is knowing that kids will read my books and (hopefully) like them.

Did any book(s) from your childhood influence or encourage you to . . .

    1. Want to read more?


    1. Become a writer?

                    Yes. One of my favorite books as a kid was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Elanor Cameron. I also loved Ray  Bradbury, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. All of these books fired my imagination and set me on a path of becoming a writer. 

How do you think authors, librarians, teachers, and parents can encourage a love of reading in middle schoolers?

I think they’re all doing a fantastic job. There has to be a story for every kid. The librarians and teachers are on the front lines in suggesting books that will appeal to every one of them, no matter their background. Also, it’s not just books. Comics, graphic novels and poetry also help kids become better readers of novels. So don’t discourage any kind of reading at all!

So very true!

Describe for us the town in which you set Gloom Town and why this story had to be told there?

Hmm. Well, I write organically, and just kind of discovered Gloom Town as I was writing it. I wanted a locale that felt out of time. Kind of like 19th century England but with odd details in the mix as well. The seaside setting was a surprise to me, but once that came to me I really began to love it. Ships, mariners, the docks—it all came together to create a setting I really loved.

I love how the town revealed itself to you as you were writing the story.

What was your favorite part of the story to write?

I like the creepy stuff, so it has to be Lord Foxglove and his minions!


What makes your main character Rory different from other characters you’ve written?

He has a lot on his shoulders and will do whatever it takes to keep his family safe. He is bright and confident, brave and curious. His home life is different from that of my other characters. His mom is a singer, and her friends are artists and performers, so he has grown up in a creative, avant-garde community.

Why will middle schoolers relate to Rory and/or your other characters in Gloom Town?

Hopefully, they’ll see a bit of themselves in these characters and experience every bit of joy, fear and happiness that they do!

What do you hope readers will take-away with them after reading this story?

Be brave. Fight for your family. Don’t take a job at a spooky mansion.


Food advice: What’s your favorite writing snack?

I don’t really have one. I take a break at noon for lunch. I usually have some tea in the afternoon. But if I had to answer I’d say anything salty and crunchy!

Writing advice: What do you do when the writing just isn’t flowing?


Walk away for a while. Read someone else’s novel. Take a walk and clear my head.

One favorite idea-generating method you use is . . .?

Sometimes when I get stuck I imagine that the book is a film. What would happen next if this were a movie, I ask myself. Sometimes it works, Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sounds like a pretty effective method.

Care to share a favorite middle grade book of yours?

His Dark Materials from Philip Pullman and The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience with us. All the best to you, from your Mixed-Up Files family!




Ronald L. Smith is the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award-winning author of Hoodoo, The Mesmerist, The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away, Gloom Town, and Black Panther: The Young Prince. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.




Dear Readers, thank you for joining in to learn more about Ron’s mysterious story of GLOOM TOWN! Are you ready for your home-schooling exercise? Create your own fictional town – Name & a brief Description – in the comment section below along with your Twitter handle for a chance to win a copy of GLOOM TOWN! I can’t wait to see what you come up with! Giveaway runs from today until April 1st, (US only). Winner will be announced via Twitter.

The Case for Audio Books and Virtual Teaching

Welcome to Virtual Teaching!

by Robyn Gioia, MEd

The COVID-19 virus is ravaging S. Korea. We were in school one day and told to stay home the next. Classes would be taught virtually until further notice. Students didn’t have their text books, reading books, or school supplies.

My team and I decided to assign our 240 fifth-grade students audio books for reading. Fortunately, we are living in the age of digital text and audio. There are many resources and books available online. And there is YouTube, with its sea of readers bringing books to life.

Why Audio Books?

Remote learning is enhanced through the use of audio books. Audio books build listening and comprehension skills while teaching fluency. Students develop their imaginations. It helps many students make sense of the story because they can hear the emotion in the reader’s voice. I’m always delighted to hear them recall the smallest detail from previous chapters.

Virtual Activities That Work Well With Audio Books

  1. Summaries. I have my students look through the eyes of the protagonist when they write their summaries. This helps them to zero in on main events, and tap into the characters feelings and actions. It also reinforces their knowledge of the first-person point of view.
  2. Assign comprehension questions. This can also be tiered to the different levels of readers.
  3. Have students use graphic organizers to organize events and characters.
  4. Write a diary entry of specific events.
  5. Research interesting topics in the story. When we listened to The Cay students were intrigued by the German U-Boats and how they hunted like wolf packs.
  6. Make collectible trading cards. Students researched the tropical animals surrounding the island in The Cay. The collectible cards display an illustration of the topic on one side and lists eight detailed facts on the backside.
  7. Meet with small groups in an Internet Chat to discuss the story. Let students come with their own questions to ask. I generally ask them to bring one factual question and one higher level thinking question. I have also been successful with students discussing books on Google Docs.
  8. Make Slideshows with small groups collaborating in Google Docs.
  9. Give students the opportunity to design quizzes.

While nothing can really replace face-to-face learning, virtual teaching offers unlimited opportunities in a whole different field.

Middle Grade Student-Produced Book Trailers

***When I thought about sharing this middle grade learning project with you all just a few weeks ago, I really wasn’t thinking I’d be opening with the following paragraph. Hopefully, everyone is weathering necessary school closings as best we can. Teachers, librarians, and parents have such a critical role to play in our world’s response to this pandemic; let’s keep teaching our kids that we all learn amazing lessons from books, both fiction and non-fiction, and that sharing good stories benefits all learners. I hope this book trailer project idea might work for your classroom situation in the coming weeks, whether you’re face-to-face with your kids or working remotely with them.***

In school? Teaching from home? Need an extra project idea to supplement your kids’ online academics? Whether you are a middle grade teacher, a librarian, or a homeschooling parent, it may be a good time to try a project that employs a little freedom and a lot of creativity: middle grade student-produced book trailers.

Student-produced book trailers are a fantastic way to inspire readership of new books, incorporate technology into learning, employ writing skills, and practice project planning and organization. If your school is in session, this is the kind of project that will energize your students despite the springtime sluggishness that tends to set in around now, or to regain the attention of those who’ve grown hard to hook. Or, if your school is among the many closing for several weeks and suddenly implementing online learning, your readers may need a project with wide parameters to which they can bring a highly individualized amount of knowledge and expertise.

A book trailer project addresses multiple areas of standards for learning, as well: reading, writing, speaking, listening, technology…and depending on the content of the book for which the trailer is produced, possibly history, science, world studies/cultures, and others!

Here’s a step-by-step that worked with my students recently:

  1. Ask students to think about movie trailers out there right now, and trailers they can recall from recent years. Students’ contributions  can be listed on the board, in the virtual classroom collaboration space, or on a group email. Have the class brainstorm and share characteristics that made those movie trailers memorable.
  2. Introduce the concept of a book trailer via discussion or info sheet. Depending on ages and interests, some students may not realize the wealth of beautiful book trailers available online that pique attention and provide visuals for a new book or series. Professionally-created book trailers by authors and publishers employ graphics, video, animation, words, music, and dialogue to craft cinema-worthy advertisements, and you can share wonderful examples with a few links.
  3. You will also find many student-produced book trailers, created for the classroom or out of fandom. Watching a variety of both professional and student-produced trailers will give you a clearer idea of the capabilities of your readers, and will allow you to generate a list of required or suggested elements for their student-produced trailers. For example:
  • Book choice (class novel, or independent read?)
  • Video footage, with or without dialogue
  • Still images, saved and cited with source, or taken by the student photographer
  • Labels, captions, and hooks written by the student
  • Quotes from the text, with chapter and page cited
  • Author info
  • An image of the book cover with author’s name
  • Music
  • Voice over
  • Reviews, either borrowed and cited or collected from classmates
  • “Coming Soon” list of similar titles or other titles by the author
  • Color, style, length, pace of the trailer
  • Questions or statements to hook the potential reader
  • Revelation of a certain number of plot points and characters…but don’t reveal the ending!
  1. What about books with characters, situations, or settings that students can’t portray in actual video footage, for whatever reason? Instead of live actors, students might try models or toys for a stop-motion process. Just as effective as costumed actors, isolating symbolic props in interesting scenes or lighting for close-up shots can be mysterious and thought-provoking. There are many more components to a book trailer than the video footage, so if your students don’t have the resources, scrap that part.
  2. Technically speaking…. On what software or web-based design program can your students produce the book trailer? If your students have dedicated laptops, they may have video-producing software at their fingertips. My students made excellent trailers using their laptop camera for video, then easily imported the segments into the video editor. Special effects and music made the video-making experience fun and frustration-free. For those with no laptop or software, kids who have hand-held gadgets (phone, tablet, iPod) will probably already be quite adept at recording video segments and emailing them to themselves for use. iMovie offers templates and tutorials as do free accounts on Animoto, Powtoon, and other web-based presentation programs. A slideshow book trailer is another great option for still images, original text, and presentation effects.

Once book trailers are completed and edited, you can think about ways to use these great middle grade projects in the future: library contests, summer reading program activities, back-to-school night for new students, or homeschool network or coop project sharing.

Thanks as always for reading, and I hope a book trailer project might work for your readers!