For Writers

On the Eve of Escape

Here at The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, we have scheduling fairies who put names on a magical calendar so that we all know who is posting and when. And, weeks ago, when I saw the date I would next post, I immediately thought, “Oh! That’s the day before I escape to…”

maine beach web small

Every year, this land-locked Ohio farm girl spends a week in a cottage on the  Maine shore with nine writing friends. It is often the most inspiring and productive week of my writing year. I can smell the ocean air already!

I began to wonder how other middle-grade authors escape the daily grind. Where do they go to think more clearly? Breathe more deeply?

And, so, I just asked.

Some of you might follow author Cynthia Lord on Facebook. If you don’t, you probably should click on her name and do that now, because she posts thoughtfully and with her heart, and you’ll love following her. And if you already do, you know that she has this great little escape in her own backyard.

cynthia lord's writing shed

Cynthia told me that she got her writing shed (aptly dubbed “Walden Backyard”) after RULES won a Newbery Honor and she and her husband were a bit cramped sharing an office in their house. Cynthia’s escape is close to home, and she loves writing in her multi-season shed. (We would say all-season, but she does live in Maine, and I’ve seen pictures in which the snow was piled nearly as high as the shed!)

lisa yee   Author of WARP SPEED and THE KIDNEY HYPOTHETICAL, Lisa Yee was caught in mid-escape when I contacted her. She wrote back:

“Ha! As I reply to your question, I am sitting in a hotel room where I’ve escaped to get writing done.”

Enough said, Lisa! Now, get back to work and don’t let me get in the way of progress!

I was surprised how many authors escape to water.  Kirby kirby LARSONLarson, author of HATTIE BIG SKY and the new DASH and DUKE, escapes ocean-side to be with the eagles and hummingbirds. It’s interesting that negative ocean ions can positively affect one’s blood pressure!  Thanks, Kirby!

tricia springstubbMixed-Up Files Author Tricia Springstubb echoed the water theme as well. Her newest middle-grade novel MOONPENNY ISLAND is set on a fictitious island. It’s no small coincidence that Moonpenny Island mirrors Kelley’s Island and Tricia’s favorite rocky and remote get-away.  Tricia finds water so motivating, she often swims to clear her head and has solved more than one plot dilemma after coming out of the pool!

Some writers, though they enjoy a good vacation, have found a more accessible escape. Margaret Peterson Haddix (the MISSING series and the SHADOW CHILDREN series) and Marlane Kennedy (THE DOG DAYS OF CHARLOTTE HAYES and the DISASTER STRIKES series) both agreed that when they are caught up in a good writing moment, their best escape is the story itself. Marlane shares, “When I am deep within  a story, I am not even aware of my surroundings. I am transported to wherever and whatever is happening in my story, and my writing escape is more within my mind than anywhere else.”  (Margaret’s escape mode, however, is not entirely waterless. Like Tricia,  she’s another swimmer/thinker!)

Peterson and KennedyMargaret Peterson Haddix and Marlane Kennedy

Lots more  Mixed-Up Files Authors weighted in as well! You can see their pictures and read about their books here But first, take a moment to read about their escapes:

Jacqueline Jaeger HoutmanCoffee shop. Earbuds. Vivaldi.

Michele Weber HurwitzI’m a big walker. Nothing like a long walk to clear my head and work through trouble spots in a WIP.

Greg R. Fishbone – Long train rides are great for writing.

Amie Borst – When my office won’t suffice, I love to sit on my back deck or by the lake. (There’s that water thing again!)

Valerie Stein – On the sailboat! Calm, quiet motion at the dock, free of distractions. (And again!)

Rosanne Parry – Love writing in my treehouse in the summer. Fresh air, lots of birds & squirrels for company and no distractions. Bliss!

Okay, I admit it. I just couldn’t leave Rosanne’s comment without hoping on over to her website to see if, just maybe, she had a picture of said treehouse. And, bingo! Here it is.

rosanne tree house

So, we would love to hear about your writing escape. Comment below and let us know where you go! I’ll try to respond, but remember, in less than 24 hours, I’ll be escaping to…

maine porch web small

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She loves mail (the real, slow, stamped-envelope kind) so she created the 52 Letters in a Year Challenge to encourage writers young and not very young to help revive the art of letter-writing. Visit Michelle at On Twitter @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.

Strong Girl vs Rock Head Boy

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”   – Ursula Le Guin

We have the words; we have the power.
We have the power; we can transform.
The artist produces the idea, the idea is consumed, and then the idea seeps into our reality.
They can make a difference.

Girl Power vs. Rock Head Boy
Last month, we hosted a youth baseball clinic as a fundraiser for our high school baseball program. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and there were around twenty 5-8 year-old-boys on the green grass of the outfield warming up with a little catch. Out of the check-in table in the first base dugout, ran a first-grade girl, her glove in one hand, her ponytail bouncing in the morning sun, and wearing a pink T-shirt with a big flower emblem on the front.

Baseballs hit the ground in mass. The boys all stared at the newest kid to join the clinic until the inevitable occurred and a half-dozen boys yelled, “She’s a girl. She can’t play baseball.”

Now, a younger version of me would have probably agreed with these young boys. But the evolved me said, “Girls can play baseball. Girls can do just about anything they want to.”

Not another word. The young lady played as hard and had as much fun as any of the boys on the field. After the initial incident, no boy said another word or even raised an eyebrow. It was wonderful.

I was not only impressed with the effort of the girl, but also impressed with the almost immediate acceptance of a girl baseball player by the other kids.

Where does this come from?

When I was a kid, we would rather have not played and spent the summer afternoon in the library rather than let girls play. What has changed the attitudes and why? I thought of Ursula Le Guin’s quote from the National Book Award last fall.

Art and words make a difference.

These modern kids have been exposed to more equality and empowerment in their literature than we were. Their attitudes have shifted for the positive. No, things aren’t perfect, but things are getting better.

Art and words change minds.

Take Wonder Woman for example.

Wonder Woman was created to show young girls in the 1940’s that women could be strong and empowered while still being women. Strong Girl, huh? Changing the perception of women and girls as the “fairer” or “weaker” sex.

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” – Dr. William Marston, Psychologist, and co-creator, with his wife Elizabeth, of Wonder Woman (1943)

Literature and art showing what is possible.

Girls were alien to me growing up. I grew up kid #4 in a house of six kids and only one of the six was female. My only sister is still known as “that poor Hays girl” even after all these years. Our neighborhood was also young male dominant.

Needless to say, a girl POV was sorely lacking in my young life.

So I turned to books. And in the climate of 1970’s Kansas City parochial school life, this may not be the best resource for an academic study on the sociology and behavioral patterns of girls. The “Boy Meets Girl” romantic book section? What could be learned from googly-eyed, pink, monogrammed sweater-wearing, paper doll characters? The take home message seemed to say that girls were indeed the “fairer” or “weaker” sex. Nothing worth learning.

So, I was clueless. I gave up trying to define what girls were all about. I put my male head in the sand and stayed safely in the dark.

LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS was very good. But, why did they have to move to the Kansas prairie? I liked the woods. I lived in Kansas; I didn’t dream about living on the prairie, I dreamed about living in the Big Woods and building log cabins. Sorry Laura, Mary and bulldog Jack. You were strong, but I abandoned you on the dry, arid flatlands before you had a chance to transform my way of thinking.

LITTLE WOMEN. Nope. Couldn’t relate, refused to read … almost flunked 8th grade English. My mother threw a fit and still gets a twitch in her eye at even the mention of LITTLE WOMEN. Enough said?

What I failed to realize was strong girls were all around me. In real life, I only needed to observe the strong girls in my life. My sister, mother, classmates, and even the athlete girl, the cheerleader girl, the artist girl, the intellectual girl who were all examples of strong girls right there in front of my nose my whole life. Strong girls were in books I didn’t take the time or the effort to invest in reading.


But, this is not a sad story; it’s a happy story of enlightenment and redemption. No matter how much of a chauvinist, male-centered, and close minded an individual can be, there is always hope. I am lucky enough to have the gifts of a wonderful wife and amazing daughters to help redeem me. These Strong Girls opened my eyes to the world of strong girls in life and in literature.

There is so much good art out there now. Words to change minds. Words I wish I would have had back in the day. Here are some of the Strong Girl characters which have helped bring me out of the dark ages.

  • Hermione (The Harry Potter series is chock-full of strong girls!)
  • Penny, Turtle, Ellie or any female character written by Jennifer Holm
  • Coraline Jones
  • Stargirl
  • May B
  • Tabitha-Ruth “Alice” ‘Turtle’ Wexler

I invite you to leave a comment on what “Strong Girl” books or characters influenced you growing up. Also please suggest books representing strong female characters to help enlighten today’s young rock head boys. Help us out … we need all the help we can get.

And never forget that words have power.

Wield your words wisely.

Make the world a better place.


Woods to Words – A Summer Adventure

Next month is July, when we’ll be deep in that magical, lazy time of summer. I can just picture it. Watermelon juice dripping down my chin as I sit, feet kicked up on the deck rail, tall glass of iced tea at my side, and the grid map and binoculars in my lap. Wait. What?

It’s okay, stay with me here! I’m still talking about that magical summer, and some of it might be lazy, I promise! Let me share with you my kind of summer fun this year.

It’s Woods to Words, a science and poetry summer camp. Though it’s offered for a range of ages, I dreamed it up to delight middle grade students in particular.

The school’s camp description is pretty spot-on:

Join our literary nature-lover Mrs. Stein for a week of scientifically-inspired creative writing!  Develop an appreciation for nature as you map the woods, watch wildlife through binoculars, and hunt through the forest with a magnifying glass in hand. Hear the world like never before as you use onomatopoeia to produce nature soundscapes. Writers will have an opportunity to share their hand-crafted books at the end-of-week author celebration.

Yes, that’s right – our lazy days of summer will be spent in the school’s forest making scientific observations – and making poetry! On day one, we’ll create a site map and a shape poem. An “onomatopoetical” exercise and an art project for our book covers will stem from the sound maps we’ll create. I’m excited to build a team word bank from our square-foot observation exercise, which we’ll continue to use for inspiration as we write each day.

Young people are natural observers and I can’t wait to harness their innate curiosity in a camp setting, tapping into their drive to learn new things. Add nature read-alouds and fun games like “Whose Dinner Am I?” and we’ll have a well-rounded camp experience. Anyone know any fun science songs?

My own writing and art are driven by the observations I make, and its a natural leap to blend one passion for another. I’m excited by the opportunity to incorporate these passions into an informative, fun and relaxed camp setting.

So how about you? Will you kick back this summer and gaze at a site map while sipping your iced drink and writing poetry? I can’t wait to start.

For further reading:

What Schools can Learn from Summer Camps

What is STEAM?

Cornell Lab of Ornithology Education

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, The Best of It: A Journal of Life, Love and Dying, was published in 2009.  Both her current work and an upcoming middle grade series are historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is proprietor of Homeostasis Press and blogs at The Best of It.