For Writers

When YA Authors Make the Switch to Middle Grade

I’ve been working on a YA for…way too long! I know, this is a blog about middle grade books. You don’t want to hear about my YA woes. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about authors who are well published in one area and then start publishing in a whole new area. Authors such as:

Elana Arnold

Elana Arnold

Megan Frazer Blakemore

Megan Frazer Blakemore

Lisa Schroeder

Lisa Schroeder

Suzanne Selfors

Suzanne Selfors

Elana Arnold, Megan Frazer Blakemore, Lisa Schroeder and Suzanne Selfors are all authors who began their careers publishing YA, but now each of them has a new middle grade out. I was curious about that so I asked them a few questions:

1. Was there anything in particular that prompted you to write a middle grade when you’ve been publishing YA?

Elana: My literary agent is named Rubin Pfeffer. I always call him Rubin Pfeffer, not Rubin, because it is such a fabulous name. One day, Rubin Pfeffer said, “I’d like to see you try your hand at writing a middle grade.” And I thought, I am going to do it, and I am going to blow Rubin Pfeffer’s socks off. Now, this is not necessarily the best reason to write any book,  but it is a reason, and it was mine. Of course, as I delved into the manuscript that became THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES, I found many better reasons for moving forward and finishing–my love of the characters, my curiosity about the story, and, deep down and unrecognized to me at the time, my own struggles of coming to terms with the death of a friend, my own fear and anger about death.

Megan: My first book (Secrets of Truth & Beauty) was YA, and when I started working on The Water Castle, I thought it was going to be YA, too. But as the story developed I realized it made more sense for the characters to be younger. I think this is because of the magic and wonder of the story.

Lisa: I’ve always loved middle-grade books. When I think back to my childhood, those are the years I recall vividly, as far as books and reading goes. So I feel like in a way, it’s my first love. After publishing a few YA novels, I really just wanted to write something fun. That’s how IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES came about. It was late 2010, everyone was in a bad mood, it seemed, because the economy was failing, people were losing their jobs, and everywhere you looked it just seemed so gloomy. Since my first three YA novels were pretty sad, I felt like I needed a break from that. And I suppose I could have tried to write a fun YA, but I wanted to write something ten-year-old Lisa would have loved. And ten-year-old Lisa loved to bake!

Suzanne: The first book I published was a MG called To Catch a Mermaid. The deal was a two book contract, so I was supposed to begin writing the second MG, but I had this idea for a YA book and I couldn’t let it go. So before I began my second MG, I wrote Saving Juliet. For the next five years, I alternated – wrote an MG, then a YA, then an MG, etc.

2. Did you face unexpected challenges writing for a middle grade audience?

Elana:  Writing for a middle grade audience was not more challenging than writing for a young adult audience in that I try my best to not think about my audience at all when I am writing. I tell myself that it’s none of my business who will read my book. I don’t picture a reader; I write the story I can write. But for some reason, I did feel the need to write THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES in a close third person voice, while all my YA novels so far have been written in the first person.

Megan: At the time I had written only YA and was working in a high school library, so I hadn’t revisted middle grade in a long time and felt a little distant from it. I went back and read old favorites (like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg) to remind myself of the feeling of reading back then. I also read newer titles like When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead so I knew more of the current landscape and what was possible.

Lisa: Writing IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. It was just so fun and happy-making. It really wasn’t hard for me at all. I almost feel now, as I look back at the seven YA novels I’ve published and the eight MG novels I’ve published, that I’m probably better suited for MG. The voice, the conflict, the family and friend troubles that occur at that age group, it all comes pretty easily to me. Having said that, I have a strong desire to write a deeper kind of MG, now that I’ve done so many fun ones. I mean, they all have a bit of emotional heft, but I’d love to go deeper and do something more substantial as far as that goes. When I think of some of my favorite MG novels, there is a subtlety about them that is so beautiful in the theme(s) they explore, and when the tender moments happen, you really *feel* them. If that makes sense? I’m thinking of books like BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE, RULES, and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. It is not easy to write a MG novel that kids can enjoy and relate to but is also one that makes you think and feel deeply. Moving forward, I want to try to do more of that. Maybe. Hopefully.

Suzanne: I have to say that middle grade is my sweet spot. I love writing for this age. I think I’m still 12 at heart. These are the most natural books for me and I’d be happy to write for this age for the rest of my life. I’m so proud to call myself a middle grade author.

YA, however, is not such a natural fit for me. I’m not drawn to edgy, or dark. I tend to write about magic and adventure.

3. What do you see as the primary difference(s) between writing for middle grade vs. writing for YA audiences?

Elana:  I don’t think there is any topic too big or too small for either a middle grade or a YA audience. The same questions that tugged at me when I was eleven haunted me through my teens and into adulthood. Those questions tug at me now, as a writer, whatever I am writing.  And I never try to teach a lesson or impart a moral code. My job–whatever the book, whomever the audience– is to tell the only stories I can tell, as clearly and truthfully as I know how.

Megan: For me, when I write MG I feel more free to follow ideas however magical or whimsical. Writing YA I tend to be more grounded. I must say that this is a personal distinction, and not anything I would consider a rule of YA vs. MG. It’s just what I’ve done so far. I would love to write gorgeous YA magical realism like Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, but that type of idea hasn’t come to me yet.

Lisa: I think it’s a matter of keeping in mind the issues that those audiences are dealing with, as far as realistic fiction goes, and considering what the younger audience is equipped to handle. Middle-grade readers are just learning that they can have different thoughts, ideas, opinions, and wishes from their family members and friends, and that sometimes that can create conflict between people. It’s not easy trying to figure out how to get along with everyone, especially at school, where you have lots of different kinds of personalities. So it’s learning how to navigate their small world as they are becoming their own person. With YA, they are learning how to navigate the bigger world, the world at large, as they continue to grow and change. Family and friends still play a part in that, of course, but mistakes and/or disagreements usually have bigger consequences. I think there’s also this extreme need for teens to be independent, so when problems occur, they aren’t asking their parents about things, they’re trying to figure it out on their own, and that is not always easy to do.

Suzanne: For me, the biggest difference was….ROMANCE.

When I wrote Saving Juliet, my first YA, my editor called me after reading the first draft and said, “Suzanne, it’s good but where’s the romantic interest?” I was befuddled. The what? “You know, the cute guy. The one she’s in love with. You can’t write YA without some element of romance.” You can’t? Well, that sucks. I didn’t now the first thing about romantic tension. I figured it out, eventually, but it took time.

You don’t need romance in MG. Not one drop. Fourth graders are perfectly happy to read about traveling to an imaginary world and no one has to be crushing on anyone!

4. Do you plan to write more MG?

Elana:  Yes, I find that I love working on stories about younger people. My second middle grade novel, FAR FROM FAIR, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the spring of 2016, and I continue to develop ideas about middle grade people as well as teens.

Megan: Yes, definitely. I’m working on revisions for a MG project due out next year from Bloomsbury called The Firefly Five.

Lisa: Yes! I love it too much to stop anytime soon.

Suzanne: Yes. I just finished book #6, The Fairy Swarm, which will release in Oct, and I am under contract for three more Ever After High books. I’m working on a single title that I hope to sell, maybe this fall. I’m not sure if I’ll write another YA. I haven’t ruled it out entirely. If there’s a story that I can’t ignore, then I’ll write it. But at the moment, my heart and soul are in the middle grade world.

Check out these new middle grade books by Elana, Megan, Lisa and Suzanne!

Elana bookMegan book

lisa booksuzanne book1suzanne book2


The Social Aspect of Reading OR Books & Friends

We usually think of reading as a solitary activity. Reading a book is so very lovely when we can curl up in our cozy armchair or under a blanket, sipping tea – or Dr. Pepper – and fully immerse ourselves. Shutting out the real world. Being transformed by the experience. 

Even the author who wrote the book disappears when the story is enthralling and the writing transports us to a whole new world.

But this post is how reading is a social experience, too.

First, let me tell you a story.

Childhood-friend-250712I met my childhood best friend in Kindergarten. Her name was Starr and we instantly hit it off. From Kindergarten through 6th grade, Starr and I were inseparable.

One of the things we both had a passion for was a love of books. We read ferociously, taking trips to the library together and purchasing stacks of Scholastic Book Club titles. We talked books constantly and laughed and cried over books for the next seven years. The first picture taken of us in Kindergarten is the two of us sitting together, our heads bent over a book. (I wish I knew what book it was, but alas, the picture keeps this little tidbit a secret).

Every afternoon we were either at my house or her house (although we had to learn how to cross a very busy street), and we spent a great deal of our time together bringing stories alive by dressing up and creating adventures and characters from the worlds of the books we’d read. (Kind of like dramatic fan fiction loooong before the term fan-fiction was coined.)

We especially loved The Little House books and loved to pretend that we were living in the Olden Days. During Friday night sleepovers we talked endlessly, ate brownie dough raw, squealed when our big brothers teased us and made fun of our “characters” when they caught us acting out our stories.

By age 9-10 we began to create our own stories. My first official “novel” was authored by the two of us. My favorite books were historicals, contemporary, and magic elizabethmagical realism , but for some reason Starr and I wrote a science fiction book about two girls kidnapped by aliens and taken to the misty world of Venus far across space. It was full of danger and daring as we hijacked the spacecraft to get back to Earth.

Whenever Starr and I were writing stories we used pen names; our middle names of Elizabeth and Anne respectively. Of course. Because we loved our middle names more than our first names, and they sounded so much more grown-up.

I’ll never forget the power that reading Harriet the Spy had on me. I imprinted with that book. I became Harriet. For many wonderful summer afternoons Starr and I armed ourselves with our notebooks and proceeded to spy on her family. She had a marvelous backyard with a big weeping willow tree, a play house, and a big tree-house with a fire station type sliding pole for quick getaways when *enemies* AKA brothers and sisters came lurking. These various locales – so close to the safety of the back door of the house! – were perfect for surreptitious eavesdropping.

Harriet the SpyWhat followed were many happy years of reading a book a day and pounding out “novels” on my father’s typewriter in his garage office.

High school brought lots of changes and, unfortunately, Starr and I never once had a class together or activity. We drifted apart due to different extracurricular activities and making new friends through our different churches.

College and then marriage took me out of state from where I grew up in the Bay Area. I haven’t seen or corresponded with Starr in over 30 years. I attended my 20th high school reunion hoping to reunite with her there, but she did not attend and nobody seemed to know how to contact her. But I fondly remember the power of our friendship, our closeness, our loyalty—and the power of books that welded us together.

I’ve had close friendships since my childhood days, but none that have been as close or as strong (not counting my husband!) as the one with Starr. Would I be the writer I am today without our live-action fan fiction, story-writing, and endless imagining?

The desire to create my own books and see them published was borne deep within me at a very early age. But I think Starr gave me the courage to begin, to not hold back, to try. I was horribly shy and Starr had much more self-confidence than I did. With Starr, I believed that the magic was real. Because it was so much less scary and overwhelming to dream together, to brainstorm together, and to put those ideas down on paper together. It was a true gift of our friendship.

Thank you, Starr, wherever you are.

Today there are dozens of places online and in the Real World where reading has become more social than ever before. Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Book Blogs, Book Clubs, Literacy nights, or Author book launches are all places readers converge to discuss and enthuse about books.

Book ClubWe discuss books in public and in the privacy of our homes in a more expansive way than I’ve ever seen before. We bond over books, don’t we??

I personally love the fact that public awareness of books, especially children’s books, is at a higher rate than ever before. Statistics show that children’s books are selling at twice the rate they used to just 10 years ago.

In the comments, please tell us about your childhood book friendships, your adult book friendships and any book clubs you participate in. How have they influenced your reading life? The good, the bad, and the enlightening!



Kimberley Griffiths Little’s best ideas come when taking long hot baths, but instead of a sunken black marble tub with gold faucets and a dragon-shaped spigot, she has New Mexico hand-painted tiles in her adobe home along the Rio Grande.

Her seven Middle-Grade novels with Knopf and Scholastic have won several awards and Forbidden, the first of a Young Adult trilogy recently published with Harpercollins. Find Kimberley on Facebook. and Twitter @KimberleyGLittl. Teacher’s Guides, Mother/Daughter Book Club Guides, and fabulous book trailers “filmed on location” at Kimberley’s website.

The Neptune Challenge (and some thoughts on dreams)

Polly Holyoke’s exciting new novel, The Neptune Challenge, is a sequel to her award-winning Neptune Project. Indiebound says:

“Genetically engineered to survive in the ocean, Nere and her friends are recovering from their treacherous journey to Safety Harbor, an undersea refuge founded by the scientists of the Neptune Project. But plenty of enemies prowl just outside the colony’s boundaries, and when two of the children are kidnapped, Nere, her loyal dolphins, and the other Neptune kids must set out on an expedition even more perilous than their first.”

neptune challengePolly stopped by the MUF to share some of her thoughts about writing and daydreaming:

On the Importance of Daydreaming

There’s no question about it. Daydreaming is an under-valued occupation in today’s society.

Look at how we treat our best daydreamers: our children. We over-schedule them with sports and after school activities and give them electronic gadgets that captivate their brains by the hour.  Worst of all, we chastise kids for daydreaming when we should be rewarding them for staring out the window and letting their minds wander. Chances are, the dreamy student in the back of the class is the person who someday may find the cure for cancer, or a new equation that will help us travel to the stars, or invent a formula that revolutionizes battery technology. If only we could encourage that child to daydream more.

Since I was fortunate enough to make the state reading list down here in Texas last year, I’ve visited EIGHTY different campuses and seen thousands and thousands of children. My Neptune books are about genetically altered teens struggling to survive in the sea. I’m amazed that kids in third to eighth grades rarely ever question the wild premise of my stories. Instead of asking skeptical questions, students stare rapt at the blow ups of my book covers that depict kids their age talking to dolphins and swimming through the ocean. They ask, what is it like to be pulled by a dolphin? Have I ever fired a spear gun myself? What does it feel like to breathe water?

Middle graders accept the impossible and the improbable, and they will happily join a writer on a journey into impossible worlds with improbable premises, as long as writers take the time to make that world rich and exciting and full of detail.  Young people’s minds are so open to daydreaming and new ideas. It is our job as writers, educators, and parents to keep providing our kids with books that fire their imaginations.

Daydreaming is natural as finding dragons and castles in clouds, but it is also a mental ability that one can hone with practice. I’ve been daydreaming ever since I was little (which does not, by the way, improve my driving skills). But I was lucky enough to live in a family and attend schools where writing and daydreaming were encouraged.  We need to schedule our children’s days at school and at home so they can daydream. I’m afraid if our kids don’t slow down and unplug, they will forget this vital skill that can benefit our entire society.

Now, I’m going to follow my own advice. I’m going to unplug from my computer, watch some clouds, and let my mind wander. Who knows what new story ideas may occur to me today!


Thanks so much, Polly! To enter a giveaway for a signed copy of her new book, plus a dolphin bookmark/necklace, please leave a comment below.