For Writers

The Epistolary Middle-Grade Novel – A Big Word for “Lots of Fun!”

This post is about the epistolary middle grade novel.

WAIT! Don’t stop reading just because that word sounds so, well, boring. And academic. Because I promise, epistolary middle grade novels are some of the most entertaining books out there!

But first, the academics: defines the word epistolary [ih-pis-tl-er-ee] as an adjective meaning:  of, relating to, or consisting of letters.

See? Novels made of letters! Who doesn’t love reading letters?

Actually, the epistolary middle grade  novel can consist of much more. Diary entries, newspaper clippings, even advertisements can be sprinkled about, giving these novels a lighter feel and making them a visual feast.  These days, we can add emails, text messages and social media posts to the list of devices used in contemporary epistolary novels.

Here’s one of my all-time faves!

regarding the fountain web small

That’s the cover. But, it’s the interior of the epistolary novel that is always so delicious!

regarding the fountain inside web small

Sisters Kate and Sarah Klise blend written and visual storytelling in such a fun and inviting way! Mixed fonts, lots of drawings, short snippets of this and that all contribute to this book (and to its numerous sequels that ask us to please regard other plumbing essentials, such as the sink and, yes, the privy, too).

Another great EMGN (my new acronym! Like it?) is  Jennifer L. Holm and  Elicia Castaldi‘s Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff.  Believe me, the “stuff” this book is made of is way better than meatloaf!

middle school meat loaf web small

Epistolary novels are not only entertaining to read, I’ve decided they must be a blast to write as well.  Mixed-Up Files member Greg R. Fishbone recently confirmed my hunch. He told me how much fun it was writing his epistolary middle grade novel The Penguins of Doom, From the Desk of Septina Nash.

the penguins of doom web small

I could go on and on from Caddie Woodlawn to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Let’s keep the list going. Add in the comments below your favorite – EMGN –  Epistolary Middle-Grade  Novel.

Michelle Houts is the author of four middle grade books, fiction and nonfiction. She loves getting and sending letters so much that she started the 52 Letters in a Year Challenge. So far, she has heard from letter-writers as far away as Germany and as old as 72. She hopes one day to try her hand at writing an EMGN.

Encouraging Young Readers, A Librarian’s Perspective

What goes on behind-the-scenes in a library is a mystery to most of us. Some, who perhaps haven’t visited a library since their childhood, envision grumpy librarians sitting behind a desk shushing rowdy library-goers. Others imagine all sorts of secrets and adventures, leading such fabulous books as Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians, and The Haunted Library series.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

In the real world, today’s librarians work their magic for our children every single day. This winter, I had a great talk about inspiring kids to read with Joanna Nelson, Teen Services Coordinator and Librarian for the Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. With 14 locations, PPLD serves a community of almost 600,000 people.

Joanna’s job includes:

  • determining the vision and goal of the teen team
  • planning district-wide programming (summer reading programs, author visits, etc.)
  • teaching students how to research using library resources
  • conducting 1-3 minute booktalks in the classroom

MUF’s own Dori Butler writes this great middle-grade mystery series.

Q: Have you noticed any differences in the types of books that get read or in the popularity of reading since the explosion of ebooks?

A: Surprisingly, teens generally prefer paper books to ebooks. We have more than 640,000 eMaterials (ebooks, audiobooks, emagazines, movies) titles for all ages, but that is just 9.1% of the total number of items that check out. So, since the beginning of 2014 we have checked out 6,434,522 physical items. Since the beginning of the year 647,797 ebooks/audiobooks have been checked out.

Q: Do you have a recent favorite middle-grade book?

A: Wonder by R.J. Palacio blew me away. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was written in 2012 and I really enjoyed that story. Another series I love, but is older is Alcatrez vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.

Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians

Q: Have you noticed any recent trends in children’s literature?

A: There are a couple of trends I’ve noticed in teen literature. First, teens LOVE series! They can’t get enough of the characters and stories that authors create. The characters become their friends and they want to know more. Second, dystopian is incredibly popular right now. I think this is because teens overcome huge challenges that they have to work to solve – and it makes their lives seem relatively better.

Q: You’re also an adjunct professor for the University of Denver Masters of Library and Information Science program. – What advice do you give your students about connecting with teen readers?

A: The class I teach at DU is the Young Adult Materials and Services class. Most of the students are going to work in libraries (school or public), but I do get a few students who will be English teachers.

Connecting with teens is about being honest – with them and with yourself. Teens can tell when someone isn’t genuinely interested in what is important to them. Teens appreciate straightforwardness and it is fun to banter with them, but it can be good to avoid sarcasm (not in all cases, but sometimes teens take things quite literally).

As far as Readers’ Advisory goes, it is really important to not pass judgment on what anyone (no matter the age) is reading. My opinion is that if someone is reading, that is excellent! Finding someone’s next good book isn’t necessarily about what they’ve read in the past. It is important to use a variety of interests to get teens a book they will enjoy. I encourage my students to read a variety of genres, watch teen movies, play video games – and know about books that are about sports, graphic novels, difficult issues and more. It is so important to welcome teens to reading no matter where they are coming from.

Q: How has the recent “We Need Diverse Books” campaign come up in your work and does it influences how you choose books for your classes?

A: Diversity in books is a huge issue. It does come up in our work regularly – even before this campaign started. The collection development team here at PPLD makes every effort to get good quality, diverse books. In teen services at PPLD, we create displays for minorities for Black History Month in February; Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15); and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May. We highlight fiction and nonfiction written by or about people of the respective ethnicity. For non-ethnic specific celebrations (Poetry Month, Women’s History Month, etc.), we include people of all ethnicities. We’re also working on building and updating more book lists that are diverse.

For my class, I try to focus on diverse issues and diversity. I only get to assign 5 books per class, which makes it difficult to touch on everything. So, the assignment requires that they read a variety of books on a variety of topics geared towards a diverse audience.

Thank you for your time, Joanna! And thank you to librarians everywhere who help us celebrate and appreciate books!

Interview with Caroline Starr Rose, Author of Blue Birds

Today we are lucky to have an interview with acclaimed author Caroline Starr Rose, whose newest book, Blue Birds, comes out in March. Blue Birds is a story of forbidden friendship told against the backdrop of England’s first settlement in the Americas — Roanoke, the colony that failed. It is a novel in verse told by Alis, a twelve-year-old English settler, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. The author is offering a special gift to those who pre-order this beautiful book by January 19th. See below for more information.


Caroline Starr Rose was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B., which was an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book and received two starred reviews. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping by the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She has taught social studies and English and worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm for experimenting with words, and a curiosity about the past. She lives in New Mexico. Visit her at

You have wonderful writing resources on your website, and are so encouraging of other writers. Can you tell us about your own path to publication?

Thank you! I’m happy to hear it. My own path to publication was a long and winding one. I started writing seriously the summer of 1998. I was teaching at the time. My husband was in seminary, and we didn’t yet have children. A whole, empty summer stretched before me. It felt like it was time to get serious about the writing I’d dreamed about forever.

Just a few weeks before school ended I’d shown my students a video about Roald Dahl. He talked about his everyday commitment to sit with his work for two hours, whether he had something to say or not. He also stopped mid-scene so it would be easier to get to work the next day. These two things felt doable, so I dug in.

That summer left me with a horrible first draft — a middle-grade novel about the Oregon Trail. It also set me up for a pattern I followed for years: drafting in the summer, revising and mailing out queries during the school year.

Truly, I spent years trying to figure things out on my own, largely stumbling around in the dark. I didn’t join SCBWI until 2004 (though years later I found I’d written notes to myself about looking into it). I knew no one else trying to get published. This was the era before blogs. At times it was pretty lonely.

May B. (2012), my first published novel, was actually novel number 4. The publication process was not smooth sailing (you can read about it here, on my blog:, but everything worked out beautifully in the end. The journey has been challenging, but a blessing in a lot of respects.

What writers influenced you?

Katherine Patterson. Laura Ingalls Wilder. L.M. Montgomery. Lloyd Alexander. Beverly Clearly. Gary Paulsen. Norton Juster.

Do you have a favorite quote on writing?

My friend J. Anderson Coats shared this with me (she’d heard it from author Elizabeth Bear): “Learn to write this book.” This little phrase has been so liberating. I tend to be a rule follower; if I read about a way I’m “supposed” to write, I’ll feel guilty if it doesn’t work for me. I find each book needs to find its own way. I don’t ever approach the process the same way twice. Realizing my round-about, inefficient approach can be what’s best for this particular book at this particular time has been really, really validating.

Blue Birds cover high res

What inspired you to write Blue Birds?

In 2008 I was teaching fifth-grade social studies. We’d gotten to those textbook paragraphs about Roanoke. Reading about the Lost Colony along with my students, I remembered the fascination I’d felt the first time I’d encountered the story: 117 missing people. The word CROATOAN the only clue left behind. I knew I wanted to dig deeper.

As stories often do, the characters circled back to my own experiences, namely my time as a young girl returning to the US after living in Saudi Arabia and later coming home after being an exchange student. In many ways I was a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to really examine those feelings — the fascination, the difference, the distance with what was once familiar, even — in my characters Alis and Kimi.

Tell us about the cover and how it came to be.

When my editor told me Penguin’s art director had Italian twin sisters Anna and Elena Balbusso in mind [to do the cover], I raced over to their website ( and was absolutely blown away. I wasn’t sure how they would depict the girls and worried only Alis might make it to the cover (Kimi only wears a skirt — not exactly something you see on your average mid-grade novel!). Thankfully, they understood the story belonged to both girls and wanted to show their equality and unity in the way they were portrayed.

The Balbussos asked if I wanted a color theme. I chose coral and blue, to reflect the coloring of the eastern bluebird. You’ll notice the bird the girls are holding isn’t colored. It’s a wooden representation of the bluebird. The wooden bird and the eastern bluebird become symbols of their friendship. So really, there are three bluebirds on the cover — the carving, Kimi, and Alis.

May B. was inspired by the American frontier and the Little House books. Blue Birds is also historical fiction, about the first English settlers in Roanoke. How do you find inspiration to create these real and relatable characters who live in times very different from ours?

Thank you so much for saying they are real and relatable. Without this, historical fiction isn’t accessible, I think. I always start with the era and immerse myself in reading. But I then come back to feelings. They are what unite us over the ages. Though experiences, responsibilities, and life expectations are so very different now than at other times, our emotional responses are largely the same: fear, sadness, curiosity, loneliness. If I can draw on these things, I can truly meet my characters…and then share them with readers.

Do you travel to research?

I haven’t yet, but I want to! I’m hoping this is the summer it will happen. Up to this point, my “travel” has largely consisted of YouTube videos on repeat.

Tell us a bit about your writing process. Are you an outliner? Do you use notecards or a writing program like Scrivener?

I keep a journal for each book, full of notes, questions, and sketchy ideas that become my starting place. I best fit the “ploster / pantster” definition — someone who knows a few key turning points and has a pretty good sense of character and setting before digging in. Honestly, drafting is angst-inducing. The something from nothing phase is really hard for me.

Scrivener and I aren’t friends. I really tried and wanted to love it, but it didn’t work for me.

Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions?

Blue Birds was really, really hard for me on many levels. So I started wearing pearls. 🙂 Everyday. With jeans. With sweats. With dressy clothes. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to feel some sort of connection with Alis and Kimi. I’m not sure if it worked, but they felt close and I felt close to the story, even when I wasn’t working on it.

Do you hear from readers much? What kinds of things do they say that are rewarding or surprising?

I love hearing from readers! Just the fact they’ve taken time to contact me is meaningful. And to hear people have connected with my characters is especially dear. Probably the most rewarding interactions I’ve had have been with dyslexic readers who have found courage and dignity in May’s story. These letters bring me to tears.

BB PDF pic for blog posts

This post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of the book Blue Birds. Author Caroline Starr Rose is giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from AmazonBarnes and NobleBooks A MillionIndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to by Monday, January 19. PDFs will be sent out January 20. To see why Rose picked this quote from the book, see her blog post here.

Katharine Manning is a writer and mom of three. She reviews middle grade books at You can follow her on twitter @SuperKate.