Author Spotlight: Landra Jennings + a GIVEAWAY


In today’s Author Spotlight, Jo Hackl chats with author Landra Jennings about her new middle-grade novel, Wand (Clarion Books, October 31). She’ll share her inspiration behind writing it, the works of literature that influenced it, and the surprising muse for the bird characters! Plus, there’s a chance to win a finished/signed copy of Wand if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details.


Book Summary:

A dazzling story of grief and found family wrapped in a spellbinding fairy tale, perfect for fans of Anne Ursu and Jodi Lynn Anderson.

Eleven-year-old Mira wishes everything could go back to the way it was. Before she changed schools and had to quit gymnastics. Especially before Papa died. Now she spends her days cooking and cleaning for her stepsisters and Val—who she still won’t call mom and still won’t forgive for the terrible thing she did.

When a mysterious girl named Lyndame appears out of the woods wielding a powerful wand, she makes Mira an offer she can’t refuse: she will grant Mira three wishes.

What if magic isn’t just pretend after all? What if these wishes could fix everything? But in the quiet town of Between, Georgia, where secrets lurk and rumors swirl of strange creatures, nothing is as it seems, and everything comes at a price.

Rising talent Landra Jennings weaves together an enchanting, modern fairy tale with eloquence and compassion about finding hope after loss—and finding belonging in the places we least expect.


Interview with Landra Jennings

JH: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Landra! Thanks for joining us today.

LJ: Thank you so much for having me.

JH:  First I have to tell you how much I loved Wand. The story felt gothic and suspenseful, like your first book, and I loved the adventure. I enjoyed  the fairy tale elements. Can you please tell us about your inspiration to write it?

LJ: Thanks so much! You’re right about the fairy tale elements. I’d say I had three areas of inspiration. Firstly, this is my take on Cinderella for middle grade. I wanted to figure out what a happy ending looked like for eleven-year-old Mira, whose story starts in in modern-day Georgia. Her father has passed away, leaving her with a stepmother and two step sisters, and she’s still grieving. Similar to other modern interpretations of Cinderella, I wanted Mira to figure out her happy ending for herself versus finding a literal ‘prince.’ Secondly, I’ve also realized in the process of writing that I start stories with some big emotion and build from there. My first book was focused on the difficulty in detaching from that one friend (or sibling) that you’ve become too dependent on and learning how to become an independent person. Wand is about grief; how once we’ve experienced the pain of losing someone, whether it be through death or some other way, we can build those walls around ourselves to protect from future pain, and how that can isolate us from the world. We might really want something magical to fix everything and take our pain away versus facing the pain head-on. I wanted to explore the process of breaking down those walls from the perspective of a child. Finally, while I was editing Wand, I read The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, an amazing YA portal fantasy and that book started me on a binge of reading and re-reading portal fantasies, mostly middle grade works. So those other fantasies were also influential as I developed the plot.

Portal Fantasy Influences

JH: Why a portal fantasy? Please tell us more about that.

LJ: Portal fantasy is a very broad category, really. A character travels from one world to another through a “portal,” a passageway of some sort, whether it be a tornado as in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, or a mysterious wooden door, as in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Sometimes the characters stumble onto the portal as in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Sometimes they deliberately seek it out, as in the Hogwarts Express train in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Or sometimes (and this is really fun) they create the portal themselves as in Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife or in Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.

I’ve mostly been reading about portals where characters travel from our ordinary world to the fantasy world. Sometimes they’re escaping a bad situation or boredom, and other times they’re searching for something specific. As readers, a book can be an escape to begin with and I love the function of a portal in taking the reader that much further away from their reality. It’s a very different world readers enter and they can work out their big emotions in a place far removed from their own problems. In Wand, the portal to the other world is a pond. My main character, Mira, is searching for her true family and a place she can belong. Mira has built up those emotional walls, protecting herself. Leaving the modern world and going to a new one by jumping into the pond is a way of avoiding confronting her powerful emotions.

The Role of the Wand and Magic

JH: Let’s talk about the wand. It’s in the title obviously, and I noticed its significance in the story. What is the role of the magic wand in the book?

LJ: The wand in my book represents the wish to “magic away” your problems. And the use of the wand in the narrative tracks along with Mira’s journey of processing her grief. In many versions of Cinderella, like Disney’s version, the heroine does not have the ability to use the magic wand herself. She is dependent on powerful others, such as a fairy godmother, who can wield it. The fairy godmother character in Wand is a teen named Lyndame who offers to grant Mira wishes, misrepresenting the power of the wand and her purpose in offering the wishes. Once Mira figures that out, she does get the wand for herself and she can wield it. Even though Mira’s intuition tells her that she shouldn’t use it, she does use it, to disastrous effect.

Favorite Character

JH: Who was your favorite character to write?

LJ: Lyndame, the antagonist. She’s so independent, yet so angry. She is processing her grief very differently than Mira, becoming a cautionary tale and demonstrating the emotional wreckage that can happen if an individual can’t work through grief and move on.

Favorite Scene

JH: What was your favorite scene to write?

LJ: I think one of my favorites is the girls together, upstairs in Mira’s bedroom. Mira’s been sent to her room without dinner and her stepsisters bring up a board game and some mushy microwave pizza. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue and it’s not a complicated scene, but there’s a lot of sub-text about demonstrating care for someone else.

Inspiration for the fascinating bird characters

JH: Can you tell us about the inspiration for the bird characters in the book? I noticed there are actually two in the main cast!

LJ: I love birds of all sorts. That love started as a child. I remember when I was 10 years old, using my last 50 cents to buy a used bird cage at a garage sale and begging my mother to let me have a parakeet. She didn’t! (I now recognize the wisdom of this decision). As an adult, I was finally able to get a parakeet: Momo. He became a tiny and beloved member of our family, moving with us from Chicago to Greenville, and living for 11 years.

Lately, I’m fascinated by wild birds, like hummingbirds and crows. I loved the idea of a crow to support Mira in her journey. As Bandit the crow is from the ordinary world, it was important to me that he be an ordinary crow. However, there’s no reason to enhance crows from the way they actually are. They are extraordinary to begin with, very intelligent, and there is so much research available from which to draw. I read about some crow species using found objects as tools and I knew I had to include that behavior in the book.  Source: I had a little more leeway with the character of Edwin, the golden bird who made it into the cover art. He’s from a magical land so I could make him a little more human-like. Overall, I enjoyed the parallel of having both the protagonist and the antagonist having bird companions.

To the Heart of Wand

JH: What would you most like for readers to take away from the book?

LJ: At its heart, the book is about family. However, you define family—whether it be the family you are born into or the one you find along the way. About recognizing that your family might not be perfect (can’t be perfect) but might be what you need to support you in your life, anyway.

Lightning Round!

No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so. . . .

Favorite cities (besides the one you live in):

Chicago. My kids were both born there.

 Scale of 1 to 10—How good of a driver are you?

Eh. Maybe an 8. I’m very cautious and slow (careful about distracted driving!) but my reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

Would you rather be able to speak every language in the world or talk to animals?

Talk to animals!

 Favorite ice cream?

Mint chocolate chip.

 Dawn or dusk?

Dusk. Such a gorgeous and mysterious time.

 Favorite childhood TV show?

Well, that really dates me. My favorite was Space Giants. When I look back on that now, it’s kind of an embarrassing choice because the scripts and special effects weren’t exactly top notch.

 What’s the best advice you ever received?

Be accountable. Follow through on what you’ve promised and if you make a mistake, apologize.


 JH: How can readers obtain a copy of the book? And for our educators and librarians, do you offer reading guides?

LJ: The book can be preordered at your local independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or any place books are sold. Personalized copies can be preordered at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC: And yes! I have an amazing curriculum supplement, with tons of fun and educational activities, to accompany my first book, and a curriculum supplement is soon to come for Wand. My multi-talented and multi-credentialed (EdS and M.Ed.) sister, Kinla Nelson, created both of these. And both will be available on my website.


And now. . . .


For a chance to win a signed copy of Wand, comment on the blog—and, if you’re on Twitter/X, on the Mixed-Up Files  Twitter/X account, for an extra chance to win!  (Giveaway ends September 18, 2023, MIDNIGHT EST.) U.S. only, please. Book will be mailed after publication. To enter, click here


About the Author 

Landra Jennings is a Greenville, South Carolina-based writer, author of middle-grade fantasy novels The Whispering Fog and the forthcoming Wand (October 31, 2023) published by HarperCollins Clarion Books. She holds an MBA from Northwestern University and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University in Minneapolis where she won the Anne Tews Schwab Scholarship for Excellence in Critical Writing and the Walden Pond Press Scholarship in Middle Grade Fiction and Non-Fiction. She is passionate about encouraging a love of reading and writing in children. You can learn more about Landra on her website. You can follow her on Instagram and Goodreads.

Interview & Giveaway With Author Toni Buzzeo

I’m thrilled to welcome middle-grade and picture book author Toni Buzzeo to the Mixed-Up Files. Congrats on your debut MG, Toni. I’m happy dancing that it’s been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. That’s fantastic! What inspired you to write Light Comes to Shadow Mountain?

I am thrilled to qualify at long last for MUF with my first MG novel!

As for inspiration, you’ll read in my Author’s Note that I had encountered two essential books. The first was Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells. I fell in love with that lyrical book with its musical language and stories based on the life of nurse-midwife Mary Breckinridge. I learned about the important work that Mary did in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky establishing the Frontier Nursing Service to bring medical services to those mountains and went on to do much more reading and research.

Then, three years later, Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer published Down Cut Shin Creek, about the intrepid librarians of the Pack Horse Library Project who delivered books to the homes and one-room schoolhouses scattered across those same mountains. Both the FNS and the PHLP were in operation at the same time in the same place!

Add in the fact that in 2011, I learned that the mountains of Eastern Kentucky were dark, without electricity until 1937, and I knew I had the makings of a powerful story. However, what I didn’t know was that the story I wrote—a picture book—needed a lot more words and space to tell it properly.

I’m so glad you expanded it into this amazing novel. After having 31 picture books published, what was it like writing your debut MG? Are there picture book skills that helped, or ones you had to push aside while writing this?

Economy of words, a skill I’d employed over the course of 31 picture books, was a skill I had to push aside. Many of my editor’s early notes and line-edits challenged me to expand on description. I had learned, especially as picture book texts became ever-shorter over the last two decades, that one should scorn the paragraph and use a sentence instead, scorn the sentence and employ a carefully crafted phrase, scorn the phrase and find a single word if you could!

Perhaps the most important skill that I did bring along from picture books to the MG novel was the use of lyrical language. I started my writing life as a teenage poet and the drive to employ poetic language has never left me. Given the MUCH broader canvas of a novel, I was able to employ so much more of it in telling this story. My favorites were similes, metaphors, and personification. I had to assume that most of my readers weren’t familiar with my setting, but I enjoyed sharing the minute details of that setting in this way.

A couple of my favorite similes from the novel:

“Now, our beechnut isn’t a practical tree to climb—silver bark as smooth as river rocks and no low-slung branches like the others nearby.” (Chapter One: In the News)

He [Pap] holds my gaze. “I think you’re near old enough to understand this, Cora. Your mommy is in a mighty struggle with a demon as fierce as that giant catfish folks say pulls people underwater.” (Chapter Four: Mommy Has a Day)

A couple of my favorite metaphors from the novel:

“I chew on Glenna’s words for a silent moment, trying to separate out electricity from Glenna’s description of a crowded, busy city.” (Chapter Eleven: Ready for the Bee)

“Cora Mae Tipton, the heroine of the day,” Pap says as I fling myself into his arms. “I hear you and Stormy flew down the mountain with the wings of Pegasus to save your sister!” (Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Interview)

And here are two of my favorite uses of personification, both from Chapter Eight: Pies, Pies, Pies:

“On the way down the path after school, the reds of the sourwood and sumac shout their glory.”

“It was the very isolation and the quiet darkness of Shadow Mountain that called to our Scots-Irish ancestors, Cora Tipton.”

I love these so much, Toni! Your language absolutely sings.

What tips do you have for people writing MG for the first time?

For me, the most important practice was immersion in the world of the novel. I read only books set in my geographic landscape (Eastern Kentucky) during the period of time I was writing about (the late-1930s). I watched (and watched and watched) films and shorter documentaries about the area. I sought out photographs from the area, especially portraits of individuals and families. I listened to so many interviews of people who had lived a childhood like Cora’s young life themselves. I mined all of those sources, not just for the volumes of notes I took, but for the bonus it gave me—a sense that I, too, was inhabiting Cora’s world.

I also learned a lot from three of my mentors, Donald Maass, Lorin Oberweger, and Brenda Windberg at the Breakout Novel Intensive (BONI) and the Breakout Novel Graduate Learning Retreat.

The most helpful craft book I read and employed was James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel from the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between, recommended by my friend, novelist Dorian Cirrone, my chief plot brainstormer and multiple-draft reader.

And perhaps most importantly, I’d advise you to join a critique group of really smart, really dedicated, really talented writers. I’m lucky enough to have two groups. (If you peek into the acknowledgements in my novel, you will see the members of both groups named.) To employ an overused phrase, it really does take a village!


Yes! It definitely takes a village. And having trusted critique groups and mentors is a huge help. I’ve heard amazing things about the Breakout Novel events. And I absolutely love the Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. It’s helped me have so many amazing ‘aha’ moments.  

How did you make Cora’s world so vivid? The neighborhood map is helpful and gave me a glimpse of the setting immediately. Did you use a map or other methods while drafting and revising? 

Well, as I’ve said, I dug deeply into details of the place. What animals lived there? What was the weather like? What were the most beautiful aspects of the geography? What were the harsh geographic challenges? And for so many scenes, I worked to imbue them with these details (often expressed lyrically as you’ve seen).

As to that wonderful map, no, I didn’t work from a paper map of Shadow Mountain and Spruce Lick. It was 100% in my mind. I did, however, know every inch of that mountain. So when Kelly, my editor, asked if she could draw the first draft of the map (it was eventually rendered by the cover illustrator, David Dean), I said sure. But honestly, I think the story did such a good job of describing the place that Kelly’s hand-drawn map got it almost entirely right—just as I’d pictured it in my mind.


Can you share a writing exercise with everyone? 

Picture the main character of your picture book or novel. What pose are you seeing them in? Get a clear picture of them–standing, seated, reclining–and imagine the position of each of their limbs, of their hands, of their feet. What does this pose, with its details, reveal to you about their core personality? Now ask yourself how this core trait will be/is revealed in your story. How will that trait play out in the outer story arc (external journey) and inner story arc (internal journey)?


I love this, Toni! I’ve never seen this exercise before, and will definitely use it on my novels and picture book main characters in the future. Thank you!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?  

I write in a fairytale writing cottage that my late husband Ken built for me when we lived in Maine. I moved to Massachusetts after his death, but I brought the cottage with me and did much of the work on Light Comes to Shadow Mountain right in that cottage. There’s even a video of it being built on my website.

I’m currently working on my second MG novel. It’s a Colonial time-travel novel set in contemporary Maine and 1770 Maine Territory, Massachusetts, on the cusp of the Revolutionary War. I wrote the first draft 37 years ago when I really didn’t know a thing about writing a novel. Now I hope to employ my mad skills and those of my brilliant editor to bring it to print!

Your fairytale writing cottage looks amazing! I’m so glad you were able to bring it with you to Massachusetts. Your second MG sounds fantastic. I hope it will be out in the world soon.

Thank you so much for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files—and for your generous book giveaway. One lucky reader will win a copy of Light Comes to Shadow Mountain. U.S. only. Enter the Rafflecopter below.

It’s 1937 and the government is pushing to bring electricity to the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. It’s all Cora can think of; radios with news from around the world, machines that keep food cold, lightbulbs by which to read at night! Cora figures she can help spread the word by starting a school newspaper and convincing her neighbors to support the Rural Electrification Act.

But resistance to change isn’t easy to overcome, especially when it starts at home. Cora’s mother is a fierce opponent of electrification. She argues that protecting the landscape of the holler—the trees, the streams, the land that provides for their way of life—is their responsibility. But Cora just can’t let go of wanting more.

Lyrical, literary, and deeply heartfelt, this debut novel from an award-winning author-librarian speaks to family, friendship, and loss through the spirited perspective of a girl eager for an electrified existence, but most of all, the light of her mother’s love and acceptance.

*A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be shown here and contacted on Thursday, July 20. Good luck. 😊


Toni Buzzeo is a New York Times bestselling children’s author of thirty-one picture books and board books, and her first middle grade novel, Light Comes to Shadow Mountain, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. A former librarian and writing teacher, Toni and her books have won many awards, including a 2013 Caldecott Honor for One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small. Her fictional characters sing with her deep understanding of human emotion. Endlessly enthusiastic, Toni draws on her career experiences as a school librarian in crafting her books and speaking with young audiences in schools and libraries. Toni lives in Arlington, Massachusetts just downstairs from her two lovable grandchildren (endless sources of inspiration!).

How to Survive in the Age of Dinosaurs Blog Tour and Giveaway



Welcome to the blog tour for

How to Survive in the Age of Dinosaurs,

part of National Geographic Kids’ DinoMAYnia – a month-long celebration of all things prehistoric!

All week blogs are hosting fun excerpts from this handy guide so you will know just what it takes to dodge deadly dinosaurs, ride out mega monsoons and escape other perils of the prehistoric!

How To Survive the Jurassic

Feeling proud for making it this far? Well, that was just the warm-up. In the Jurassic, Earth’s land begins to split apart. Enormous cracks appear in the ground. The planet strains and shakes. Finally, Pangaea splinters. The climate changes, too: What was once hot and dry becomes warm and wet. Lush plants sprout up, a feast for some of the biggest dinosaurs that ever lived. And predators evolve, too — large and ferocious enough to take the others down. This is a dino-eat-dino world.

  • The Jurassic: 201-145 million years ago
  • Known For: The dinosaur takeover
  • Best Place for Home Base: Ginkgo forests
  • Your Main Food Source: Jurassic plants
  • Try to avoid: Meat-eating dinosaurs

Prehistoric Problem: Biting Bugs


The Jurassic was definitely a period of dino domination. But it was also an awesome time to be an insect. During the Jurassic, insects crawl and buzz around every inch of the earth and skies. And to them, you’re nothing but a tasty, walking meal.

Because they evolved to feed on animals that no longer exist, many Jurassic insects—such as the parasite Qiyia jurassica—have features that would be unfamiliar to modern humans. These fly larvae have an abdomen that has been transformed into a giant sucker — perfect for devouring the blood of Jurassic salamanders. The sucker is surrounded by six spines that help the larvae stick to their slippery victim.


Picture a dog infested with fleas: It scratches and rolls, trying to deal with the maddening itch. Now imagine a Brachiosaurus doing the same thing! Flea-like insects first evolved during this time, and they probably plagued the dinosaurs just as badly as they do your modern-day Labrador retriever. Ten times the size of modern fleas, they had a huge proboscis (a long, sucking mouthpart) that would have felt like a hypodermic needle as it plunged into the skin. Ouch!

Fortunately, not all Jurassic insects are bloodsuckers. Creatures called kalligrammatids flap from leaf to leaf, pollinating extinct seed plants called bennettitales as they sip on their nectar, just like modern butterflies. Also like butterflies, their wings are decorated with spots that look like eyes. But kalligrammatids aren’t butterflies— those won’t evolve for another 40 to 85 million years.

Considering you’re trying to get by in a time before insect repellent, these are some awful pests. But you have one hope: They might not see you as a victim. Modern bloodsuckers often have specialized mouthparts and attack only one kind of prey. So keep your fingers crossed— perhaps these nasty invertebrates will only attack critters they’re familiar with, leaving you bite free.

Did You Know?

Rex and Velociraptor, stars of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, actually lived during the Cretaceous. Oops!


Buy | Buy on


How to Survive in the Age of Dinosaurs:

A Handy Guide to Dodging Deadly Predators, Riding Out Mega-Monsoons and Escaping Other Perils of the Prehistoric

(ages 8-12, Paperback, National Geographic Kids Books)

Boom, boom, BOOM … Look out! That’s a T. rex coming your way!? You’ve been transported back in time to the age of the dinosaurs. What do you do?!

Test your chops and discover if you have what it takes to survive at a time when Earth looked, well, a tad different in this ultimate survival guide to the prehistoric age.

Find out how to make it through exploding volcanoes and mega monsoons—while dodging giant Permian bugs! See how to fend off an angry pterosaur and learn what to do if you’re caught in a stampede of enormous titanosaurs. Discover what you could eat (spoiler alert: You better like the taste of insects!), and find out which hungry creatures just might try to eat you!

Packed with tips, tricks, and helpful maps, this is the ultimate handbook for dinosaur fans who want to know what life on Earth was really like when dinos ruled. Could you survive in the age of dinosaurs?


About the Author

Stephanie Warren Drimmer is an award winning science writer based in Los Angeles, California. She writes books and magazine features for kids about everything from the strangest places in space, to the chemistry of cookies, to the mysteries of the human brain. She has a degree in science journalism from New York University…but she thinks she likes writing for kids because she’s secretly still one herself.



About the Expert Contributor

Dr. Steve Brusatte vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Edinburgh who specializes in the anatomy, genealogy, and evolution of dinosaurs and other fossil organisms. He has written over 110 scientific papers, published six books (including the adult pop science book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, the textbook Dinosaur Paleobiology, and the coffee table book Dinosaurs), and has described over 15 new species of fossil animals. He has done fieldwork in Brazil, Britain, China, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and the United States. His research is profiled often in the popular press and he is a “resident paleontologist” and scientific consultant for the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs team.

Website | Twitter



  • One (1) winner will receive a copy of How to Survive in the Age of Dinosaurs!
  • US/Can only
  • Ends 6/3 at 11:59 pm ET
  • Enter via the form below

Visit the other stops on the tour for more chances to win


Blog Tour Schedule:

May 22ndMom Read It

May 23rdMs. Yingling Reads

May 24thFrom the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

May 25th Log Cabin Library

May 26thMrs. Book Dragon