For Teachers

Book Gratitude: 18 MG Authors Share Their Favorites

I was eight, or maybe nine, when I discovered a mysterious blue box in my parents’ medicine cabinet. The box was labeled “Tampax,” and I had no idea what it was. Curious, I asked my mom.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said, moving the box to a higher shelf. “You don’t need to worry about this now.”

I wasn’t worried… just intrigued. So as soon my mom left to make dinner, I peeked inside the Tampax box and discovered an army of tubular, paper-wrapped soldiers. What on earth were these things? And how was I going to find out?

Luckily Judy Blume had the answer. Okay, not Judy Blume herself, but her classic MG novel, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which explores puberty and periods, with candor and care. The book wasn’t a replacement for a much-needed talk with my mom (that would come later), but for the moment, Margaret was the next best thing. I was grateful for this honest, informative, and true-to-life novel. I still am.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, and giving thanks to great books, I asked 18 middle-grade authors to share a book they’re most grateful for. Here’s what they had to say…

SUPRIYA KELKAR, author of Ahimsa, The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, and the upcoming American as Paneer Pie (5/12/20).

“The one book I’m most thankful for is Hot, Hot, Roti for Dada-Ji (Lee and Low Books) by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min because it was the first time my kids saw themselves in a book.”

CHRIS BARON, author of the MG debut novel in verse, All of Me.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson taught me that it was completely okay for me to be friends with a girl, something so important for the environment I was in. Even more deeply, it helped make a little more sense of the complex and difficult world I experienced at that age. It taught me that grief and hope are not enemies; that challenges are an important part of life, and that we are never alone.”

JANAE MARKS, author of the soon-to-be-released MG debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (1/14/20).

“I loved The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin as a kid, and in elementary school wrote Ann M. Martin a letter! I got a very nice form reply back, which made me so happy. What I loved most about these books was the friendships. I’m an only child, so friendships were really important to me. Reading about the books’ characters and their close relationships with each other was both entertaining and comforting. One of my best friends at the time was also into the books, and we bonded over our love for them.”

DEBBI MICHIKO FLORENCE, author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series and the upcoming Keep It Together, Keiko Carter (5/5/20).

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee was one of the first books my daughter and I read together that had a contemporary Asian-American character. I had craved books like that when I was in middle school, and  it gave me hope that the stories I wanted to write might find a publishing home some day. And my dreams came true!”

RONALD L. SMITH, author of HoodooThe Mesmerist, and Black Panther: The Young Prince.

“The book I’m thankful for is The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by British writer Eleanor Cameron. I think I discovered it in middle school, and it swept me away to Mars, with two kids who build a spaceship in their basement. When I do school visits, I like to show a slide of the cover and point out how old I am by the price being only fifty cents. I have a vague memory of being home from school one day, perhaps I was sick or just feigning. Rain was pattering on the window. The book put me in a state of mind I had never experienced before. I now know that experience as “falling into the page,” something I try to do today with my own writing. Over the years, I have found readers of a certain age who still have fond memories of the book. It’s a timeless classic!”

SANDY STARK-McGINNIS author of Extraordinary Birds and the The Space Between Lost and Found (4/28/20).

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros was the first book I read where I said to myself, ‘I want to write like that.’ For me, it’s the perfect balance of accessible but layered, lyrical prose. When I need a reminder of why I love to write, I always come back to this book.”

JONATHAN ROSEN, author of Night of the Cuddle Bunnies and From Sunset Till Sunrise.

“I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure series as a kid, because the hero was always me. The books were written in second person: “You did this,” and “You thought that,” making it easier for me to picture myself in the various situations. Plus, my dad would always buy me the next one in the series whenever we went to the bookstore, so it makes me think of him and that time in my life.”

CELIA C. PEREZ, author of  The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton came into my life when I was a seventh grader. Friendships were changing, and I was beginning to think about myself on a deeper level, to think about identity, about how others saw me and how I saw myself. Pony Boy was the first fictional character I remember identifying with. Like him, I felt that the world labeled me and made decisions about who I was without knowing me. I was a dreamer and lived in my head, like Pony Boy did. And like Pony Boy, I appreciated the power of writing; of the stories I read and of the stories I could someday write. I’ve read the book many times since I first read it decades ago, most recently to my eighth grader. The story is timeless, and I’m grateful for its lasting impact on my life as a reader and writer.”

HENRY LIEN, author of Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword and Peasprout Chen: A Battle of Champions.

“There are few books that make me feel true joy, wonder, and peace like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s a wordless, illustrated book done in beautiful, sepia-toned drawings and paintings that echo vintage photographs. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a historical piece, and that the main character is leaving some European country in the early twentieth century and emigrating to a new country. But when he arrives in the new country, you realize this place is like nothing you’ve seen before.  It’s like stepping into Oz, except Oz stays gloriously sepia-toned.

What Tan has done is given every reader the experience of being an immigrant, because everyone feels bewildered and lost. But it’s also a bright, warm immigration story because for every intimidating or strange encounter, there is an act of kindness and gentleness to remind the viewer that they might not be from here, but that they are welcome here. And here’s my greatest testament to the book’s power: I gave it to my father who came to America by himself, before the rest of our family followed. When he finished the book, he simply said, ‘This is exactly how it was for me.'”

SALLY J. PLA, author of The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.

“My elementary school library had this biography series, sort of a prehistoric version of today’s “Who Was” books (I was a kid in the 60s/70s, so yes, prehistoric). Marie Curie. Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosa Parks. Helen Keller. Thomas Alva Edison. I lived for these books. Not because of the fame of the people, but because they were people, explained. Their struggles laid open, thoughts, actions and experiences illuminated. Their stories gave me hope, because I felt as if I were struggling all the time. When I found them on the shelf in room 5B, I felt like I’d stumbled on this treasure trove of field guides into the mystery of how humans worked (or should work). I know that sounds weird, like I was some kind of robot alien child. Maybe I sort of was!”

ALICIA D. WILLIAMS, author of the MG debut, Genesis Begins Again.

Blubber by Judy Blume was one of my favorite childhood books. Not only is Ms. Blume’s writing very funny, but that book spoke to me simply because I was Blubber. I was rather chunky, and horribly teased, and reading that story made me know that I wasn’t alone. I so identified with the characters and how bullying affects friendships. You can say that I’m both Linda and Jill.”

WENDY McLEOD MacKNIGHT, author of It’s a Mystery, Pig-FaceThe Frame-Up and The Copy Cat (3/10/20).

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery entered my life when I was nine years old, and sick with a nasty cold. My mother, anxious to get me away from the clutches of Midday Matinee, a local program that aired exquisitely bad movies, passed me a green hardbound book that would forever change my life.

Why am I thankful for Anne? Anne gave me permission to let my spunk flag fly. She was eccentric, romantic, brilliant, all the things that I either was or desired to be. She loved her friends and family unabashedly. She loved her community. She loved her books. She made mistakes and owned up to them, even if they weren’t hers (hello, amethyst brooch). She wasn’t beautiful, but she was better than beautiful: she was interesting and clever, a beacon for every interesting and clever girl.

A confession: I wasn’t sick the next day, but I faked sick, because I couldn’t bear not to know what happened. As I sobbed uncontrollably during that awful scene toward the end, Anne taught how important it is to love and be loved, whatever the cost. So thank you, Anne. You continue to be my north star, the literary light that reminds me that being different is a pretty swell thing to be.”

MELISSA SARNO, author of Just Under the Clouds and A Swirl of Ocean.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett taught me that there is magic in the natural world and magic within myself. Its message is one I take with me every day: we can help one another grow.”

GREG HOWARD, author of The Whispers and the upcoming Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk! (2/11/20).

“I’m grateful to have discovered Sounder by William H. Armstrong at a young age. It taught me empathy, and helped me better understand a culture I was completely unfamiliar with. Not only that of a different race, but of a level of poverty for which I had no concept because of my privileged upbringing.”

MELANIE SUMROW, author of The Prophet Calls and The Inside Battle (3/3/20).

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is probably the first example of a middle-grade book that felt edgy to me in the best way possible. A true coming of age story, Brian is forced to cross the precipice from childhood to adulthood in order to survive. I adore Brian’s story because, in spite of his fear, self-pity and doubt, he discovers his own resilience—an important lesson for all of us.”

RYAN CALEJO, author of Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows and Charle Hernandez and the Castle of Bones.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is the first book I remember reading in school, and the first book I fell in love with. It’s a story about friendship, compassion, and accepting one another. I can’t think of a book more in the spirit of Thanksgiving than this gem.”

ROB VLOCK, author of Sven Carter & the Trashmouth Effect and Sven Carter & the Android Army.

“Having just lost my dad, who taught me to love reading and books, I’d say I’m grateful for every single book he read to me at bedtime. These were those magical moments that made me realize how amazing the experience of reading books could be. Among the hundreds of titles we loved together: The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Treasure IslandThe HobbitAlice in WonderlandWar of the Worlds20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and David Copperfield. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t be an author today. Thanks, Dad! I’m more grateful than I can express.”

JESSICA KIM, author of the upcoming MG debut, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (3/17/20).

“I am also so thankful for Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius because it was the first middle-grade book cover I ever saw that featured a contemporary Asian-American character! I also appreciated that it was a hilarious, heartwarming story about friendship, and the plot did not have to revolve around her “other” identity.”

Interview with Editor Jonah Heller – Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

We are delighted to have with us, Jonah Heller, associate editor at Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Jonah!

Hey, thanks for having me!

 

Could you share your editorial journey at Peachtree with us?

My editorial journey with Peachtree started shortly after I graduated with my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. I was fortunate enough to have a network of peers connected to Peachtree who helped advocate my intern application, and I did my internship with Peachtree in the summer of 2016. Through hard work, careful attention to detail, and routinely showering everyone with baked goods, I left enough of a positive impression that I was hired on as a publisher’s assistant on January 1, 2017.

From there, I was entering orders for sales, organizing mailings, proofing our catalog, and doing just about anything that needed an extra pair of hands while also training into editorial assistant work. As my supervisor left for other horizons—I eventually did take on more editorial work and started dipping into acquisitions by examining imports from Frankfurt and Bologna. It was great exposure to literature abroad and an excellent opportunity to develop my own taste and direction. Of course, the reward for work done well is—more work! So lots of paperbacks and reprints and editorial outreach as an assistant editor. And now I’ve been upgraded to an associate editor, so I’ve been set loose into the wilderness to go find exciting things and build my list. Woo!

 

What are some books you’ve worked on?

Peachtree is very well established in the picture book arena, so plenty of those!

In terms of middle grade: Peachtree is a smaller house, so that means it’s an all-hands-on-deck environment and everyone’s got their hand in the cookie jar at some point. I’ve helped proof various stages of our Charlie Bumpers and Nina Soni series. I’ve also overseen the paperback adaptation process for quite a number of our middle grade titles, which can involve anything from a new cover and revised back matter to substantial text edits and updates with the author.

                                               

Working on imports as an assistant, I adapted The Bookshop Girl from Scholastic UK and oversaw the illustration process from sketches to final art and cover. It’s a fun mystery about a girl who can’t read and has to save her family’s recently acquired bookstore from a shady con man. A good choice if you love whimsy and the idea of a mechanical wonder bookstore with rooms dedicated to rocket ships or pirate treasure aquariums.

What are some subjects you’d like to see authors tackle in middle grade?

Ultimately, I’d like to see them tackle whatever interests them. That’s the best place to start. But as far as my wish list for this group…

Themes: adventure, animal points of view, comedy, coming of age, contemporary, magical realism, mystery, wilderness survival,

Craft: character driven; compelling voice; page-turning digestible plot; 3-dimensional protagonist & antagonist

It’s one of those things, where I’ll know it when I see it and get into the first ten pages. So I try to keep a wide net cast. I would, however, especially LOVE ownvoices LGBTQ+ stories.

Could you share with us your ideas and goals when it comes to the representation of diversity in the books you publish?

Everyone should be able to reach out to literature and see themselves. That’s critical not only to a sense of belonging but also to establishing empathy for other walks of life outside of our own experience. I strive to be mindful and thoughtful in my acquisitions, because I don’t want a one-note list. I’d be very bored and disappointed with that and, ultimately, so would my publisher and our readers.

Putting that into practice: I don’t ever actively look to check off a box and then move on to something else. I don’t think that’s a good approach, nor a sincere one. My goal is to ultimately acquire talent from all walks of life, who can deliver an excellently crafted story while also offering authentic mirrors and varied experiences. I don’t want to just acquire you and your one book and then be done with it:  I want to build a long-lasting relationship with you and work on lots of cool things for years to come.

What are some common reasons for a manuscript to make it to acquisitions at Peachtree Publishing?

For middle grade fiction, it’s usually character- or voice-driven. You can really latch onto someone’s journey and empathize with their trials and triumphs if the writing lets you step close enough. It’s not really theme or topic that drives fiction for us; it’s a fully satisfying story and arc of growth. You walk away from the book, having had some sort of raw emotional experience that sticks to you and you carry around for a while.

Nonfiction: it’s not my area of expertise, admittedly. But this can be topic or theme driven at first and then develop into something that will ultimately be more for the institutional market. So, we’ll ask: how can this be used in the classroom? What makes it different and specialized from everything else already out there? How can we grow it further from this one book? Etc.

What advice do you have for writers who want to query you?

So if you’re unagented, I’m on snail mail at the moment. It’s not everyone’s favorite method, but it’s mine and it keeps me organized! You can find Peachtree’s address and submissions guidelines on our website, and if you were dutiful enough to read this then you’ll now discover that if you don’t put my name on the envelope, it won’t ever come to my desk.

My general wish list is above, but it’s always a good idea to check out a publisher’s catalog and see what kind of stuff they’ve done. That’s always step one. Ask yourself: does it feel like they’re a good fit for my work, or am I going to be an odd duck out here? Or, if they’ve done something similar: how is my work going to stand out?

As I’ve said, nonfiction isn’t generally my cup of tea. But maybe I’ll surprise myself one day.

I’m also probably not the right editor for a divorce or abuse story, unless it culminates in healing and/or some type of cathartic and triumphant resolution. Additionally, fantasy and science fiction haven’t been as prominent at Peachtree, so the pacing, world building, and character work has to be top-of-the-line.

Other tips:

  • Spelling the editor’s name right is cool
  • Showing up at their office in-person is not cool
  • Neither are frequent phone calls
  • Explore resources on writing query letters

What’s going on in Middle Grade at Peachtree right now?

I’ve been Americanizing an illustrated adventure from the UK, called Mr. Penguin. It’s Indiana Jones meets Sherlock, but with a penguin and a kung fu spider. So basically loads of fun.

                                         

 

Our Nina Soni series continues, and upcoming for 2020: we’ve bought the US text rights to Lavie Tidhar’s Candy from Scholastic UK. It’s an awesome film noir-like mystery following young detective Nelle Faulkner as she uncovers the shady underworld of candy smuggling in a town that’s outlawed sugar. We will be re-illustrating, so expect a fun story and a fresh American package!

Domestically, I’m on the verge of some exciting things I can’t share just yet. So stay tuned and be on the lookout for Peachtree’s middle grade!

 

Jonah Heller is an Associate Editor at Peachtree Publishing Company Inc. in Atlanta, GA. He graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned his BFA in Dramatic Writing for Film and TV at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His editorial focus ranges from board book to young adult. Say hello on Twitter @jrheller87

 

 

The Life of the Party: Setting Is Where the Action Takes Place

As I was driving with my tween, she made a comment about the high school parties she’s seen in movies. In each one, something awful occurred, making her a little wary of wanting to go to parties when she’s older. As I thought about it, I realized that parties and school dances in movies do often feature a horrifying event unfolding . . . just think of the prom scene in Carrie.

I started to think about how parties and school dances are portrayed in middle grade books. Even my own novel has the big climax scene happen at a school Halloween party. It occurred to me that my thoughts were worth sharing with fellow writers and teachers (who, I hope, will share them with their middle graders): What is the power of the setting?

Often we think of setting as where the story takes place. We are taught that it helps the reader gets a sense as to what the scene looks like (which, of course, includes the concept of time: year, season, time of day, etc.). A well-developed setting is also crucial to ground a scene and prevent the “floating in air” phenomenon that I have been accused of when I give no mention of where my characters are.

But the setting can have an even bigger role in the story. Here’s where the party scene comes in. Most stories have more than one setting: school, home, the dentist’s office, etc. This helps to keep the story interesting but allows us to focus on the character and their actions. However, if you also take your reader somewhere out of the ordinary, such as a school dance, something monumental had better happen there, such as an argument that’s been building up, the character’s first kiss, or the mom showing up and dragging the character out. You can’t just have a school dance scene where nothing unusual occurs or where the plot doesn’t move forward.

The setting can be closely linked to the plot parts: In the exposition, it helps us learn more about the main character. Where does the opening scene take place: on a soccer field? In the main character’s bedroom? At an arcade? This gives us a window into the main character’s life and interests. Of course, we can add an extra layer if the main character does not like where they are. If the setting is on the soccer field and the main character is groaning and wishing the game would just end already so he can get out of there, we glean some details about who the character is.

A muted setting is also used to help us focus on what the characters are saying. I have found that just about every movie has a tooth-brushing scene for this purpose (watch for it in live-action films and animated films, even those with animals as characters). Two of the characters chat while one or both are in the bathroom brushing their teeth. They discuss the problem or give some details we need to know about the characters. In your own story, where does this scene take place? Maybe over dinner at the kitchen table? Or in the main character’s bedroom?

A unique setting is a great place for the climax to occur. If the scene seems a little off or needs more pizazz, is it possible to rewrite the scene somewhere else? In my novel, the story needed one extra push with the main character and her soon-to-be-friend. It was suggested to me that they get lost in the woods—this was great for my non-outdoorsy main character. This added scene ended up being a turning point in the book, because the main character faced one of her biggest fears.

As for rising action and falling action, it’s often where the upcoming setting is mentioned—such as a school dance the character or characters plan to attend. Here is where the reader can also get excited about the imminent scene and feel the importance of the event to the character(s).

Finally, the setting can make the resolution scene pop. I’m picturing that first kiss at the school dance that we, the readers, have all been waiting for. Or maybe the opposite is true—the scene would have more punch if it happens somewhere more common. Playing with this can really change the impact of the action.

Teachers: When you’re working with your students on finding the setting in a novel, help them see how the setting is more than just where the story takes place. How does it impact the action? What if that climactic scene took place somewhere different? [Writing prompt: rewrite that scene with a different setting.] Was there any growth by the main character shown through how the setting is described?

Writers: I hope this made you think about your own setting; and teachers: I hope it gets your students to notice the importance a setting can make within a story.

And may the parties you attend be less eventful than the ones we’re creating.

Here are some books that have a dance or party scene.

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume
Book Scavenger: The Unbreakable Code by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Bug Girl: Fury on the Dance Floor by Benjamin Harper & Sarah Hines Stephens
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners by Natalie Rompella
Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker by Rachel Renée Russell
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl
by Rachel Renée Russell
Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel
Hoops: Elle of the Ball by Elena Delle Donne
In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart
Jessica Darling’s It List by Megan McCafferty
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
Rules by Cynthia Lord
Sorry You’re Lost by Matt Blackstone
Take Your Best Shot by John Coy
The 12th Candle by Kim Tomsic