For Writers

Your local Indie Bookstore: a national treasure

No matter what your role in the life of middle grade readers: parent, teacher, writer, librarian or some combination of the above, the local independent bookstore can be your ally in getting good books into kids hands in a way that sustains and upholds the community in which those children live. Indies are great at finding that new voice and highlighting a rising star on the literary scene. Here’s their big secret–the booksellers actually read the books. And they know what their community values and is looking for.

Here are two examples from my own experience. One of the first booksellers I ever met was Laura DeLaney from Rediscovered Books in Boise, ID. She came up to me at a regional trade show three months before my first slide-image-1book Heart of a Shepherd came out. She said, my community includes Mountain Home Airbase. I’ve never read a book that speaks to the military family experience like this one. I’m going to sell 100 copies of your book. And she did.

Just for reference, most MG titles at a bookshop sell between 0 and 3 copies at any given location.

fiveThe second example comes from the genius booksellers at Paulina Springs Bookstore in Sisters Oregon. They get a ton of tourist traffic in the summer and they sell mostly hiking and fishing guides although they are a terrific literary bookstore. They decided to put my Heart of a Shepherd and Hearts of Horses, an adult novel by Molly Gloss, in the trail guide section. And then while tourists were over there picking up maps, they’d say, here are two quintessential books about rural Oregon. One for you and one to read aloud to your kids around the campfire.

heartofashepherdcvrAs a result of these two booksellers, and a bunch of others like them, my debut book, a heartfelt story about a ranch kid whose dad was deployed to Iraq, a title that was not a lead for my publisher and wasn’t even picked up by the big chains, earned out its advance in 10 months and went to 4 printings in it’s first year. Even more astonishing than that, it’s still selling, slowly but steadily, seven years later. All of that happened because indie bookstores saw something a little out of the ordinary that they knew would speak to their customers. Obviously I’m hugely grateful. But I’m also astonished that the power of Indies was still able to make a difference in 2009, one of the roughest years independent bookselling has ever endured.

Whether you are an author or a librarian or just a parent looking for a good book for you kids, here are some things you can do to make the magic of independent bookselling work for you.

  1. Visit your local bookshop regularly and get to know the booksellers. They can be a great source of information about both undiscovered gems that will be perfect for your child or your students and also that overhyped book that just isn’t all that special. And they are genuinely interested in what you are looking for in books for yourself and for the children in your life.unknown
  2. Go to readings. Online bookshops don’t bring great authors to your community, but a local bookshop can and they might even help you set up a school visit for your students if an author you love is in town. Let your local bookseller know you are interested so that they can keep you in the loop.
  3. Place school or book club orders. Most shops offer a teacher discount and will gladly work with you on ordering books for your classroom or library. Oh and guess what? When you order through a shop you don’t have to pay shipping.
  4. Are you a little tired of all the glittery, non-book, junk items that unknown-1come along with your Scholastic book fair cases? Your local bookshop can probably host a school book fair. Every shop has a different policy, obviously, but talk to your local bookstore about hosting a book fair in the shop. They can usually apply the teacher discount to everyone who comes to the fair or give the school a credit afterward to get free books.
  5. Local merchants are the ones most likely to support local fundraisers so if your school is doing an auction this year (and honestly who isn’t?) I bet your local bookstore will donate to your cause. Not only that, their employees live in your community and pay taxes there, and they pay business and property taxes in your school district.
  6. unknown-2Lost a treasured favorite? Wondering when a book that would be perfect for a whole-class read is coming out in paperback? Give your indie bookshop a call. They can look things up in a publishers data base which is not available to the general public.
  7. Feeling a little stale in your own writing? Need some encouragement? Go listen to an author talk about her new book. Authors are generous. Eager to share what they’ve learned about the writing process and the labyrinthian world of publishing. I host author events at the indie bookstore where I work several times a month and I learn something every time, even when the author writes something that is a thousand miles from my own genre.
  8. And one more thing. Buy a book. Because if you want that bookstore to still be there when you are a published author, if you want your kids and students and grandkids to know the particular peace of walking into a bookshop where they are free to browse what ever strikes their interest and not just what’s the latest hot property, then give that shop your patronage as regularly as you can. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but when everybody does a little, it goes a long way.

Nonfiction Books with Diverse Characters–An Interview with Author Annette Bay Pimentel & Giveaway!

Children’s books with diverse characters are in high demand these days. They should be. Every child who reads likes to identify with the character in the book, which means that they need to represent every race, creed, color, and ethnic background. Authors are responding to this need by writing about some AMAZING people who have made great contributions to our world.



I’m happy to have one of those author with me here today. Annette Pimentel writes picture book- biographies for young middle grade readers. She loves to discover people in the corners of history and then find their stories. She writes nonfiction picture books in Moscow, Idaho.


Her book is Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans and Helped Cook up the National Park Service by Charlesbridge Publishing




The true story of a Chinese American mountain man who fed thirty people for ten days in the wilderness–and helped inspire the creation of the National Park Service.

When millionaire Stephen Mather began his quest to create a national park service in 1915, he invited a group of influential men—writers, tycoons, members of Congress, and even a movie star—to go camping in the Sierras. Tie Sing was hired to cook. Throughout the trip, Tie Sing fed not just the campers’ bodies, but also their minds, reminding them to remember and protect the mountains.


Overall, this pencil and watercolor illustrated and eloquently written account of a Chinese American will satisfy every taste. For any library wishing to enhance its diversity and inclusion collection.
– School Library Journal

A frontier adventure that spotlights one of the many significant roles ethnic Chinese played in American history.
Kirkus Reviews

Paragraphs of straightforward text are more advanced than typical picture books, but the soft, expressive watercolor illustrations, some of which are based on historical photos, are a pleasing accompaniment. Ideal for the classroom, particularly this year, when the NPS celebrates its centennial.
– Booklist



Annette, thanks for joining me today on the blog. I have a few questions for our readers about your writing process and books.


Why narrative nonfiction biographies?

Fictional novels describe how people could be. Nonfiction biographies describe how people really are. I love the shiver of excitement I feel when I read what remarkable real people really did.

How do you choose your subjects for your books?
When I discover something new and immediately want to tell someone about it, I know that I have a promising topic. I’m especially interested in stories that surprise me and suggest that the way I’ve been thinking about the world is askew.

What led you to Tie Sing’s story?
I stumbled on photos of the Mather Mountain Party of 1915 while I was researching something else. I was startled to see in the photos an Asian man posing next to famous government officials and tycoons. I had always assumed that national parks, like other American institutions, were created by powerful white men. The photos suggested I only knew part of the story.

You do not have a Chinese heritage, so how did you make sure to include Tie Sing’s true voice and experiences?
I wish Tie Sing had kept a diary, but he didn’t. To be sure the secondhand descriptions of him were in historical context, I researched race relations in 1915. I also relied on experts like the book’s artist, Rich Lo, who, like Tie Sing, grew up bilingual in Chinese and English. The book’s expert reviewer was Park Ranger Yenyen Chan, who brought to the project deep professional knowledge as well as broad personal knowledge of Chinese American culture.

Can you talk about how important it is to ensure that diverse characters are given a true representation?
It’s important that every character in a piece of nonfiction is represented truly! But it’s extra tricky to accurately represent characters, like Tie Sing, who didn’t leave much documentary trace and who come from a culture different from that of the people who wrote about them. Despite the difficulties—maybe because of the difficulties–those people deserve to have their stories told! Without their stories we are left with an inaccurate picture of our shared history.

You have another book in development which features a Puerto Rican character’s life. Why do you think diverse books like these are important?

Children are in many ways marginalized in our society. I think that every child feels, at times, like an outsider. Stories about unexpected people doing remarkable things reassure and encourage kids that their own lives matter. And, of course, books about women and ethnic and cultural minorities give all of us a more nuanced and true picture of our history.

Tell us a little about how you do your research. How much time do you spend? What type of sources do you look for?
I spend hours and weeks and months on research. I interview my subjects or people who knew them when I can, but usually I rely on archival research—letters, papers, photos, etc. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find an autobiography. I love the US Census for the quirky information it gives me about my subject. And of course I use academic articles to provide historical context and to answer specific questions that arise as I research.

Why is back matter useful for readers?
Back matter extends my conversation with the reader and allows my book to speak to multiple audiences. Some readers only want the story in the main text. That’s find. But others want more, and back matter provides it. Back matter feels to me like a cozy dialogue, where I as a writer, get to share the fascinating details that didn’t belong in the story.

Anything that you are working on that you would care to share? Other books that we can look for from you soon?
In 2018 Nancy Paulsen Books will publish Girl Running, the story of an amazing female marathoner and in 2019 they will publish Ann Brooks Goes West (with her piano) the story of a feisty pioneer. I also have another book in the works that I’m very excited about, but I have to wait to talk about it.

Can you think of a few other diverse nonfiction books that would be good for young middle grade readers?
I loved Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford for its lyrical language and its sensitive handling of the theme of slavery



Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood for its story of creativity beating back against poverty



and Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game by John Coy for the most inspiring basketball story I’d never heard.


For more great nonfiction picture books for young middle grade readers, including diverse titles, check out Annette’s blog at

Annette has graciously offered a giveaway of her new book. To win a signed copy, please leave your name in the comments below.

******Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 25 nonfiction books for kids. Mostly about Science, Technology, and Engineering, because… well, STEM ROCKS!

A look back, a thank you & a goodbye (for now!)…

Mixed-Up Files friends!

Hard to believe, but I’ve been here blogging with the wonderful folks at the MUFs as one of the original members for more than six years now. Yes, six years! A lot has happened during that time — I moved overseas and back (yay military life!), watched my kids go from little to not-so-little (*sniff!*), and went from being an unpublished, aspiring author to someone with almost a dozen books out in the world. It’s been quite a ride so far!

But, as I’ve learned in the last year with the publication of my debut YA novel, there’s an awful lot of work that happens after your book hits the shelves. (You know, once you’ve collected yourself from the floor after spotting that thing you wrote in the Barnes & Noble… ). I’ve been busy doing book signings, conferences, school visits, festivals… (No complaints, though! I absolutely love getting out and meeting readers!)

Of course, I still need to write… :). So, for that reason, I’ll be taking a break from blogging here. But before I go, I’d like to share my journey to becoming a published author. It’s a question I get a lot when I speak to groups. It’s a bit personal and a bit long — but I hope you’ll stick with me until the end.

I guess you could say, like most authors, I’d always dreamed of being a writer… someday. I wrote a lot as a kid, studied literature in college, went on to be a journalist, etc. And there was always that little voice in my head creating stories, nudging me to write. But the truth of the matter is, the thought of actually sitting down and writing a book, of putting myself out there open to criticism — well, it terrified me.

(Besides, life has a funny habit of getting in the way. New jobs, marriage, first kids… I’d always quiet that little voice by telling myself I could write that book later — when I was older/wiser/less busy/not afraid. I’d get to it someday.)

Then, my dad unexpectedly got sick.

It was ten years ago. I was a new mom with a young son when out of nowhere my dad fell ill. One day, he was vibrant, healthy, active; the next, he was struggling to breath, suffering from something called “idiopathic constrictive bronchiolitis.” Which, was basically a fancy medical way of saying the small airways in his lungs had become irreversibly inflamed, making it impossible to exhale — and nobody knew why.

It was progressive. It was debilitating. And there was no cure.

With my brother and my dad, my hero.

With my brother and my dad, my hero.

At the time, I lived outside DC, my dad lived in Vermont. I traveled to see him as much as possible, taking him to consult with doctors and specialists — always hopeful they’d find some way to help. Various experimental medications were tried, some with side effects that seemed worse than the disease. Swelling. Fatigue. Brittle bones. Physical therapy didn’t help. The only hope was a lung transplant, but he was ultimately deemed to sick to survive the surgery.

In the meantime, my brother was in the middle of his own someday — visiting our dad as much as possible while finishing his medical fellowship in upstate New York, and getting ready to come home to Vermont and get married.

We all kept hoping for a miracle. That Dad would get better. But as his health grew progressively worse, Dad became focused on just one goal: to get to his son’s wedding.

June came, my brother’s wedding weekend rolled around. It was a semi-destination type event at a resort on Lake Champlain in Vermont — the quaint sort of place with paddle boats, no televisions, no cell phone signal. My dad arrived, confined to a wheelchair, tethered to an oxygen tank. There were hairline fractures in his back, side effects of the heavy steroids that kept him breathing. But he was still optimistic, still smiling, still fixed on his goal. He bowed out of the rehearsal dinner that night — the one he’d paid for and helped plan — to save his energy for the big day.

He was going to make it to that wedding.

The morning of the ceremony, a huge storm blew across the lake — the type that topples trees and downs power lines. It would later seem incredibly symbolic that the oldest tree at the resort was uprooted that day. But at the time, we were all busy getting ready, hurrying to the church, having our pictures taken. A groomsman was charged with making sure my dad and stepmother got there safely.

But as the final guests arrived, my dad wasn’t among them. Time slowed to a crawl as we began to panic. There were several frantic calls to the resort, and to cell phones that went straight into voicemail because there was no service.

We all feared the worst.

Finally, we saw my dad’s car pull into the parking lot. I can’t even explain the relief that washed over me as the groomsmen rushed outside and wheeled him through the blustering wind and rain to the front door.

My dad had done it. He made it to the wedding.

And as he crossed the threshold, rolling safely inside, out of the storm — his head gently dropped to his chest.

And he took his last breath.

It was probably the most profound, sad, and life-changing moment I’ve ever experienced. In one instant, the lens through which I viewed the world shifted. It was the day I truly realized that time is finite, and I had to stop waiting for “someday.” It was the moment I realized I could be afraid, but I couldn’t let fear keep me from moving forward.

If my dad could make it to that church — if broken bones and oxygen tanks and wheelchairs couldn’t stop him — I could write a book.

So, I did. I wrote a book. And then I wrote another one. And then I wrote three more before finally landing an agent. That was eight years ago. And it took almost three years from then to land a deal with book packager Working Partners and see my first book published, and three more before my debut with Disney sold. It wasn’t easy.

But, if my dad could make it to that church — I could handle the rejection, the tough reviews, the waiting to hear on a submission.

I could make it to my own personal church.

And so can you. As I tell people during my speaking engagements — whatever your goal, wherever your church, whatever your destination, you can cross that threshold. You can make it.

Just don’t be afraid to take that first step.

So as I sign off here, I’d like to thank you for being part of my journey the last six years! It’s been a wonderful, inspiring ride so far. And, of course, I wish you all nothing but the best on your own travels through life!

(p.s. For those who are wondering, my brother did get married later that day, on the dance floor at what would have been the reception hall, circled by the guests holding hands, with my cousin singing Ave Maria a cappella. It was the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever attended, without a dry eye in the house, and I know Dad would be proud.)

Jan Gangsei won’t be blogging on the Mixed-Up Files anymore, but she’ll be hanging out in the comments every now and then, and you can find her at, and on Facebook and Twitter. Someday, she might even post something on Instagram.