Ena Jones Interview & Two Giveaways

I’m thrilled to welcome Ena Jones back to the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors to celebrate the release of her newest novel, SIX FEET BELOW ZERO.

Credit: McCardell Photography

Credit: McCardell Photography

Ena Jones writes contemporary middle-grade fiction (for children ages 8-12). She grew up in Northern Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, and currently lives in North Carolina. She loves to read a wide variety of books, hole up in her office and write fun stories, take long walks along the ocean, and cook yummy meals for family and friends.

You can find her on her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

Here’s a link to the SIX FEET BELOW ZERO Educator’s Guide, courtesy of Holiday House.



What inspired you to write this book—and were there any surprises along the way?

A photo of Marie Jones, the inspiration for the character of Great-Grammy.

SIX FEET BELOW ZERO sprouted from a simple idea. I wanted to explore the question of guardianship, something both parents and kids think about. There’s always a fear: Where will the children end up if something happens to the parents? And will a new guardian have the best interests of the kids at heart? We all know that, from both parent and child perspectives, there are people who are not suited to the role of caregiver. And that’s where I started my “What if .  . .” questions.

The first character that came to me was “Great-Grammy,” who was inspired by my husband’s grandmother. I wanted a person who would find a way to protect the children any way she could, even if she weren’t around to do it herself. My husband’s grandmother was that kind of real-life force.

As for surprises, writing a novel is one long series of them. But the biggest surprise was that I found the courage to write—and finish—the book at all. I tried very hard to talk myself out of it, and even enlisted others to tell me it was a bad idea, mostly because of the role of the freezer. The entire concept seemed absurd for a middle grade novel. But as I wrote more and more scenes, the 10-year-old inside of me kept chuckling. And the heart of the story really meant something to me, so here we are a few years later.


I’m glad you didn’t talk yourself out of writing it! I love the heart of the story–and how it encourages readers to appreciate their families and things they often take for granted. You kept me chuckling throughout the book, too.

I love how fleshed out and unique all your characters are. What pieces of you and your life are in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO?

I’ll go back to my husband’s grandmother here, too. She lived on 10 acres of land just outside of Washington, DC, and we would visit her with our children and have the best time tromping around her property. As I wrote the book, I pictured her, the house, the wildlife and trees, and definitely the hundreds of groundhog holes! Revisiting that time in our lives was the best part of writing this story.

Here’s a photo of  my favorite tree on Marie’s property. Look closely, and you’ll see a swing she put up preparing for one of our visits.



Beginnings are so hard to nail…but yours sucked me in immediately. How did you decide where to start your book? 

The beginnings of books are hard! But they are so important. They’re the gateway into a story, where a reader will either keep going, or think “Meh,” and go on to the next book—or maybe out for ice cream.

I decided to play with a flashback approach. Flashbacks don’t always work, but I knew what I wanted: a compelling and humorous scene to kick off the story and act as a promise to readers about what’s to come. Something that might entice even the most reluctant readers to be curious about Rosie and Baker’s backstory, and all the events, personality-types, and attitudes, that led up to the BIG AWFUL THING that forever changed Rosie and Baker’s lives and ushered them into their “new normal.” 

First I tried an opening that took place at the midpoint of the story, where Rosie and Baker sat in a police station doing their best not to answer questions about their great-grandmother’s whereabouts. But the siblings didn’t know enough about their predicament yet, so that didn’t work.

After a bit of trial and error, I landed on a place further along in the story, at a point when they fully realized the foe they were up against and the stakes involved. And that’s where I found my beginning: Rosie starting an urgent last-chance email to her Aunt Tilly, letting everything the siblings had been through spill out.

And that’s the beginning that stuck.


What type of research did you need to do?

It seemed that I was always researching something. Trees, wills, historic graves, locks, and of course freezers . . . the list was endless. I even researched hairstyles. I needed a good one for Grim Hesper!


I love how you sprinkled humor throughout a book with a serious topic. What tips can you share for blending the two? 

For me, it all comes back to knowing the characters and their relationships with each other. Maybe characters are dealing with a serious or sad situation, but that doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly become other people. They are still themselves!

For instance, in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, there’s a scene where Rosie and Baker, as they grieve the loss of their great-grandmother, have agreed to come together to do something that seems almost impossible.

The thing is, even in the midst of that difficult scene, they must deal with each other’s quirks and their own shortcomings. There’s a unique opportunity to hit on unspoken truths when feelings let loose under stress, especially between siblings. Who else would you let your guard down with?

Also, normal everyday things continue to happen, that ordinarily wouldn’t be a big deal, but within the serious and sad scenario Rosie and Baker have found themselves in, they get a chuckle.

So I guess that would be my biggest tip for balancing humor within a serious scene or story: When something big, scary, and/or bad, is happening, remember to add your characters’ personalities to the mix, whether those traits are annoying or endearing, and also throw in some evidence that real life hasn’t stopped just because characters are handling (or not handling!) the big, scary, or bad, things.


Thanks so much for those awesome tips! Can you share a writing exercise with us?

A few years ago I was at an SCBWI conference in Florida, and took a full day workshop led by Elizabeth Law, Backlist & Special Projects Editor at Holiday House Books, and Greg Pincus, screenwriter. They spent the day comparing writing stories for children with writing screenplays and developing movie concepts, and it was so much fun!

One of the most memorable parts for me was the segment about “Poster-izing Your Book,” as in movie poster. It’s the line that isn’t a blurb, or synopsis sentence, but that captures the essence of your story in a short sentence or two. It’s what you almost always see on movie posters at the theatre. Do an online image search for “movie posters” and you’ll pull up thousands of examples.

It was at that workshop where I came up with the idea we’re now using to introduce SIX FEET BELOW ZERO: 

A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. 

The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.

I highly suggest writers use this strategy on the book they’re writing, no matter what stage it’s in. It helps to study as many movie posters as possible, and then get to work. Fill a few notebook pages with words and short phrases that describe your book, and then start to put them together.

Try it. You’ll love it!

And if you ever have the opportunity to take this particular workshop led by Elizabeth and Greg, don’t miss it!


Wow! That sounds like an incredible workshop. I love your exercise! It’s fantastic for writers and I can picture teachers and students poster-izing books and movies and letting others guess what they are. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the Mixed-Up Files readers?

I write books that are contemporary, but have a “This would never happen!” vibe. The thing is, I’m basically that kid—my character—when I’m writing. In my world, it not only could happen, it did. I hope readers will connect with the characters in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, but mostly I hope they enjoy the ride.

I also want to thank Elizabeth Law and Greg Pincus, who graciously allowed me to share the above exercise.


I definitely enjoyed the ride. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files again, Ena…and for generously donating a copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, a bookmark and recipe card to two lucky winners. Enter the Rafflecopters below!

A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.

Rosie and Baker are hiding something. Something big. Their great grandmother made them promise to pretend she’s alive until they find her missing will and get it in the right hands. The will protects the family house from their grandmother, Grim Hesper, who would sell it and ship Rosie and Baker off to separate boarding schools. They’ve already lost their parents and Great Grammy–they can’t lose each other, too.

The siblings kick it into high gear to locate the will, keep their neighbors from prying, and safeguard the house. Rosie has no time to cope with her grief as disasters pop up around every carefully planned corner. She can’t even bring herself to read her last-ever letter from Great Grammy. But the lies get bigger and bigger as Rosie and Baker try to convince everyone that their great grandmother is still around, and they’ll need more than a six-month supply of frozen noodle casserole and mountains of toilet paper once their wicked grandmother shows up!


One copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO is open to everyone in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

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One copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO will go to a teacher, media specialist or book blogger in the U.S. or Puerto Rico. 

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Winners will be announced on April 15. Good luck everyone!


Interview with Psychotherapist Amy Morin, Author of 13 Things Strong Kids Do

Anyone have a time machine?

For all of us who ever said, “I wish I’d known then, what I know now,” the Mixed Up Files has a special treat. Psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, has put a middle-grade twist on her adult series13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, and 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do—to create 13 Things Strong Kids Do. It presents different scenarios along with constructive activities to help kids start thinking in new ways … and I’m researching ways to send it back in time to my 13-year-old self!

Welcome, Amy!

Sean McCollum: I wish I’d had a book like 13 Things Strong Kids Do when I was in middle school! Its information and exercises might have given me the tools to sidestep some of those self-defeating adolescent mistakes or given me the tools to better handle them. How did the idea for this book come about?

Amy Morin: So many of my adult readers said the same thing—they wished they had been able to learn about mental strength when they were young. So I wanted to write a book that would teach kids how to start building mental strength so they can develop skills and tools that will continue to serve them well throughout their whole lives.

The author as an MGer. 🙂


SMc: Would you be willing to share an anecdote from your own teen years about a time you weren’t “strong,” and how advice from this book might have helped?

AM: Well, many of the stories in my book stem from my own childhood. There were plenty of times I wasn’t strong. One example is when I quit playing the saxophone after one day! I was in the sixth grade and I only went to one lesson before I decided it was going to be too hard for me. I could have used several exercises from the book to help me persist—like creating my own catchphrase or writing myself a kind letter. Those types of things would have helped me drown out all those negative thoughts I had about not being able to do it.

SMc: How might educators and other professionals use this title in their schools and classrooms?

AM: This book gives adults a common language to use with kids. When an educator or a professional asks, “Is that a BLUE thought or a true thought?” it’s a reminder to a child that they can take action to change their own thinking.

Adults can empower kids when they understand the skills and tools kids have at their disposal. Rather than taking responsibility for creating change, professionals can encourage kids to do it on their own with a little guidance.

My hope is that professionals will use the book as a guide so they better understand how to reinforce healthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in kids.

SMc: Could you share three “healthy habits” our readers could put to use right now?

AM: Label your feelings. When you name how you’re feeling, like sad or angry, you’ll instantly feel just a little bit better. Research shows labeling our emotions helps our brains make a little more sense of things and it reduces our stress.

Ask yourself if your feelings are a friend or an enemy. Any feeling can be a friend sometimes—even sadness or anger. After all, being sad might help you honor something you lost and being angry might give you courage to speak up for someone else. But, those feelings can be an enemy when they cause you to get into trouble or keep you from having fun in life. If your feeling is a friend, embrace it. If it’s an enemy, take steps to change how you’re feeling.

Change the channel in your brain. When you’re thinking about something that causes you to feel awful—like that mean thing someone said—change the channel in your brain. Dance to some music, sing a song, or read a joke book. That will change the channel in your brain and help you stop thinking about things that cause you to feel bad.

SMc: Do you recall a favorite middle grade book and any life lessons it taught you?

AM: I loved reading Judy Blume’s books. Blubber was my favorite. It helped me see that growing up is tough for everyone and I wasn’t alone in many of the things I was thinking and feeling.

SMc: Do you practice the exercises in this book?

AM: Yes, even though I’m no longer a kid, I find the exercises really helpful! Whether I’m calming my brain and my body when I’m nervous or I’m trying to face my fears one small step at a time, the skills that work for you when you’re young will help you when you’re grown too.

To follow Amy Morin and her life-helping work, check out:

Thanks so much for making to time to speak with us, Amy!

Readers, remember to enter our Rafflecopter raffle for Amy’s book. (This one is for American readers only.)

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Author Spotlight: Deborah Hopkinson + a two-book GIVEAWAY!

When I was approached to interview Deborah Hopkinson, I jumped at the chance. Deborah, who has enjoyed an illustrious career as a children’s book author, has penned more than 50 award-winning books for young people: picture books, MG fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book, We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance, was released on February 2 from Scholastic. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Deborah to the Mixed-Up Files.

Meet Deborah Hopkinson

MR: Hi, Deborah. Thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files blog. It’s an honor to have you here.

DH: Thank you for having me, and for all you do to support young readers and authors.

MR: As stated in the introduction, you have written more than 50 books for children in different genres and on a wide variety of topics, from the Kindertransport of World War II to Dolly Parton and Michelle Obama. What draws you to a specific project, and what keeps you riveted?

DH: During in-person (and now virtual) author visits, I always tell young readers that I’m a lot like them: I get curious and want to know about things. And so I start researching and digging. I’m often spurred by the question: “How come I never knew about this?”

Stories of the Holocaust

MR: Your latest book, We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance, chronicles the stories of Holocaust survivors from Western- and Eastern European countries, including, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, and Hungary. With so many varied and important stories to share, how did you choose which ones to highlight? It must have been a herculean task.

DH: There are so many stories that need to be told. In We Must Not Forget and its companion, We Had to be Brave, I tried to be a curator of sorts. I began with a long list, and many oral histories and memoirs. The final books took shape as I tried to convey the varieties of what people experienced in different places and siuations. I also tried to include as many children and teens as possible. Lisa Sandell, my wonderful editor at Scholastic Focus, also encouraged me to round out sections to provide a fuller picture.

The historian’s role

 (Dr. Jacob Presser, author of Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry)

MR:  As above, the stories in We Must Not Forget are extremely raw and painful to read: Jews chased by dogs and shot in the streets; children separated from their parents and siblings; the deportation of Jews and other marginalized groups to Nazi death camps; scientific experimentation on Jews, mass murder… How do you do the important work of sharing these stories without getting sucked under by grief and despair? Do you have any specific coping mechanisms in your author’s toolbox?

DH:  I try to always remind myself that writing, preserving, and passing these stories on is a very small thing. Early on in We Must Not Forget, I quote Dr. Jacob Presser, Holocaust survivor and Dutch historian, who spent fifteen years writing about the Jewish experience in the Netherlands under the Nazis. He said that working with scraps of messages thrown out from trains leaving the Netherlands gave him an awareness that one of the roles of the historian is “to give the dead a voice.”  I am an amateur historian only, but I tried to be guided by this when writing the book.

Strength in the face of despair

(Vlada Meed, who lost her parents, brother, and sister in the Warsaw Ghetto, and later joined the resistance)

MR: Fortitude and resilience are reoccurring themes in your books, particularly in your titles about World War II and the Holocaust. From your many years of research—including interviews with dozens of Holocaust survivors, which readers can access online via the links provided in your books—what do you think gives a person strength in the face of unspeakable ugliness and despair?

DH:  One thing that came up again and again was family. That’s not a surprise, of course. But the love of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent or a spouse gave people strength.

Yet it’s important to realize that often strength grew out of intense despair and hopelessness. Vladka Meed lost her parents, brother, and sister in the Warsaw Ghetto. She reflected that she had nothing left to lose and so willingly risked her life and joined the resistance. Vladka saved others, fell in love, and survived. After immigrating to the United States, Vladka and Benjamin Meed were among the key voices in founding the United States Holocaust Memorial as a living memorial to those who were killed.

Many of these stories center on brothers and sisters who kept going and tried to endure the unendurable for their siblings, or for the memory of their parents who had been murdered. I was struck by how many stories include mention of the impact of small acts of kindness from others. Although these were, sadly, rare, it is something that we can all remember to do better at.

Definition of a hero

MR: Altruism is another powerful theme in your books. As described in We Must Not Forget, a great number of non-Jews participated in the resistance movement by hiding Jews in their homes, bribing police and public officials, and smuggling Jews out of the country. As above, what gave these heroes the strength to take such extraordinary risks at the possible expense of their own lives? Also, in your eyes, what defines a “hero”?

DH: I don’t know that there is one answer to this, or an easy answer. And I don’t feel at all qualified to know what it was like to face those risks and choices. But I hope that as young people read these stories, they will ask themselves, as we all must do, how we stand up to unfairness, injustice, bullying, racism, and evil in our own lives.

I don’t know that I can define a hero either. But I do know that as I’ve read accounts of health-care workers fighting to save lives during this pandemic that these people are heroes.

The ugly rise of antisemitism

MR: On a separate but related note, antisemitism is on the rise. According to the American Defense League, assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S. and in Europe. Additionally, an 2018 survey by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency revealed that 89% of European Jews living across the Continent feel antisemitism has increased in their country over the past decade. Almost half worried about being insulted or harassed in public because they are Jewish, and more than a third feared being physically attacked. I know this question can’t be answered definitively—and in the space allotted here—but in your opinion as an historian, what is the explanation for this uptick in antisemitism?

DH:  Yes, this rise in antisemitism and white supremacy is exceptionally disturbing. And the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was a sobering reminder of how extremism can take hold and how rhetoric and disinformation can fuel it. My books include links to the Anti-Defamation League for resources on antisemitism.

I researched and wrote We Had to be Brave and We Must Not Forget during the previous administration. And it was often very disturbing to see statistics on the rise of bullying and antisemitism today, while reading about young Kindertransport survivors, whose first inklings of what was happening after Hitler’s rise to power was being bullied and harassed by classmates and those they considered friends.

I am not a trained historian or scholar, of course. Nor am I Jewish; I am lucky to have an editor who is, and both We Must Not Forget and We Had to be Brave were also vetted by Jewish experts from the museum world.

In my writing and presentations for young readers to focus on historical thinking skills: sourcing, close reading, corroboration, and contextualization. I do this because I believe young children and teens need these tools to understand disinformation, propaganda, and misinformation to help counter the negative effects of rhetoric like this. I read recently that society needs to take this effort to combat extremism more fully, and I believe that is true.

The importance of empathy

MR: And finally, what would you like young readers to take away with them after reading your books—especially the ones about World War II and the Holocaust?

DH: I believe empathy is the most important thing I hope readers discover in these stories. It is a cliché, but true nevertheless: Reading about the past through the voices of real, ordinary people makes history come alive.

Another essential element to reading is discovering the power to make up your own mind and think for yourself about what is happening in the world.

In addition to fighting prejudice, racism, and discrimination in their everyday lives, I hope young people will be inspired to learn about the past—and feel empowered to become involved in their communities now and in the future.

Finally, I hope my books encourage readers to be brave enough to ask questions, follow evidence, and use their skills and knowledge to make up their own minds. I have a lot of hope young people can do just that.

MR: Thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files, Deborah. We appreciate your participation hugely!

And now… 

a two-book GIVEAWAY!!!

For a chance to win WE HAD TO BE BRAVE and WE MUST NOT FORGET,  comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! 

Deborah Hopkinson’s bio

DEBORAH HOPKINSON is an award-winning author of picture books, middle-grade fiction, and nonfiction. Her nonfiction titles include We Had to Be Brave: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport; Titanic: Voices from the Disaster; Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark; Dive! World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific; and D-Day: The World War II Invasion That Changed History. Deborah lives with her family near Portland, Oregon, along with an eclectic assortment of pets. Learn more about Deborah on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.