Interview and Giveaway with Ruth McNally Barshaw

I’m thrilled to welcome Ruth McNally Barshaw, the author and illustrator of the popular Ellie McDoodle series, back to the Mixed-Up Files.  This has been a wonderful week for Ruth.  Her birthday was on Monday–happy belated birthday, Ruth!  And yesterday, Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel was released as a reissued paperback.  Huge congrats!  The new cover looks fantastic.  Can you tell our readers a bit about your Ellie McDoodle series and why two of your books are being reissued?

Thanks so much, Mindy. 🙂 Ellie McDoodle is a highly-illustrated, middle grade novel series about an 11-year-old girl who records her daily observations and art in a sketch journal. It has humor, games and crafts (complete with instructions), pranks, nature, and a lot of heart.

Bloomsbury, my publisher, tells me that Ellie McDoodle is doing well, selling overseas and in Canada and the United States. It’s on many school summer reading lists, state reading lists, and Battle of the Books lists and is gaining fans. With the third paperback coming out this summer and the fourth book coming out next spring, this is a good time to see what more can be done to appeal to Ellie McDoodle fans.

The reissue of book 2’s paperback, Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School, and book 3’s paperback, Ellie McDoodle: Best Friends Fur-Ever, both come out July 5, 2011.  All of the paperbacks have sketch lessons and other goodies in the back pages (that’s my terrific editor’s idea: Melanie Cecka of Bloomsbury).

Click on the covers to read their descriptions on Indiebound.





To celebrate, Ruth is giving away two autographed and personalized paperbacks of the newly reissued Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel.  As an extra-special bonus, Ruth will also draw a sketch of each winner!  (See below for details.)


Thank you again for the fabulous writing and illustrating exercise you gave us in the last interview.  Everyone loved it.  Do you have another exercise to share with us?

First, a little background. This comes from a poster I created when I ran a little advertising agency about 25 years ago. The poster said, “Before you settle on one, draw 50.” It had 50 thumbnails – small drawings – only in this case they were silly little drawings and sculptures illustrated on the nails of thumbs.   The idea was to not settle on the first idea that comes to you, but to push yourself to think of more. Sometimes the best idea is the ninth one you think of. Or the twenty-ninth.   So in that spirit, the exercise:

Draw or write or imagine 50 scenes with your character. This helps solidify the character’s personality, even if you never use the scenes in your story.

To get to 50, start with two scenes relating to the letter A. For example, your character goes apple picking. What is he wearing? Is he a hard worker? Does he stand on the ground and shake the tree? Climb to the very top? Eat whatever he picks?   Another A scene: What’s his favorite animal? How does he relate to it?

Next, the letter B: How does your character feel about bees? Has he ever been stung?   B can be for baking: What does your character cook up? Does he make a mess? Does he clean it up, himself?  Who is he baking the dessert for?

Continue through the alphabet. I think by the time you get to the letter G you probably have a very good idea of exactly who your character is. And maybe you have a few ideas for scenes as well.


I love the humor in your Ellie series.  Can you share some tips for writing funny books?

If you laugh while writing it, that’s a very good sign. Study humor. Read funny stuff. Know your audience and surprise them. Push it – try hard – never give up. Don’t worry if you’ve experienced some serious tragedy in your life. The funniest people I know have lived through awful times.


It’s easy to see that you and Ellie both love to sketch.  How are the two of you different?

I think Ellie is a lot more brave and confident than I ever was. She’s part me as a tween, part me today, part each of my kids, and part her own self, a girl I’d have liked to have known, growing up.   And maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about her, yet. While writing the manuscript for book 2 a few years ago I put in a subplot about a prank with flowers. It was a little bit mean-spirited, inspired by a bully. My editor struck it out saying Ellie would never do what I had her doing.  I thought, hmm, my editor has said that I myself am Ellie. The flowerbed subplot really happened to me when I was a kid. Therefore it isn’t out of character for Ellie, right? Wrong. It was then that I learned that Ellie and I are two distinct entities.

I’d love to learn more about you, and what led you to become an author-illustrator.

I’m going to be frank, because I don’t think it serves kids to think that all writers and illustrators are perfect, born into gloriously happy lives, growing up comfortable and well-nurtured. I’ve had my share of personal failings.

I was a very anxious and insecure kid. I was smart but had ADD, OCD and a touch of dyslexia. I was socially inept. I blushed easily and was told often that I was too sensitive. I was an extremely critical perfectionist and found it impossible to live up to my own high expectations. Most of my art I threw away.

One drawing that survived I did at about age 13, of my big family when I was 7 (I’m the one in the top row, middle).

My dad died suddenly and tragically when I was 12. My mom married a person who was not a good match for our family, but life works out: she and my then-stepfather had two more kids whom we all adore.

As a teen I felt worthless and unlovable; I thought very few people saw the good in me. I was embarrassed by my terrible acne. I was competitive and territorial: if a relative had a particular hobby or career, then mine had to be different. This was tough – I had a zillion relatives! I planned my funeral often, but I also dreamed of growing up and having a good family. My first sketchjournal that I nurtured and kept came from my art teacher, when I was 15 and obviously troubled. I’ve kept one ever since, and today hundreds crowd my shelves.

I escaped to college, and strongly feel everyone should. I attended for 9 years and didn’t earn a degree, but I learned a lot about life and love and art and beauty, justice, independence and peace. For years I told everyone I was going to be famous someday. Now I see what that means and I don’t wish for fame anymore (I wish for wisdom).

I worked in advertising, which I mostly loved. I got my first taste of the author life while writing, illustrating and printing up a little story that was distributed with our Christmas cards in 1995. Still, it would be seven years before I got serious about kids’ books and gave it my best, educated effort, and three more years before my first book sold.

I’m lucky to have 4 awesome, creative, sensitive, brilliant kids, and three seriously cute grandkids. I’ve been married for 30 years to a writer, Charlie, who is a future famous kids’ book author. His writing is beautiful, powerful, poetic; I’m in awe of his grasp of language. We settled in the city next to the university where we met. I love it there, and I love that our children’s families have settled nearby. Charlie and I have lived on both ends of the wealth spectrum (trumpeted psychological studies to the contrary, having money was loads more fun). My first book, Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel, came out in 2007. The first paycheck rescued our house from foreclosure.

I’ve survived tragedy – recent, even. My life is not golden. I’m just working hard trying to get better at what I do best: chronicle life around me with a pen and paper.

And if I can do this, find what I am pretty good at and persist through obstacles and push beyond worthlessness and find lasting happiness, then maybe all those other insecure teens can, also. It’s worth trying.

This is a page from my sketchjournal, drawn on the way out of a meeting with my publisher in 2006.



What were some of the middle-grade books that inspired you to become an author-illustrator?

They weren’t all middle grade books, but they’re all appropriate for middle grade audiences. These were books I read over and over as a child, or books that made me aware that authors are real people, or books I discovered as an adult and inspired me deeply.  I love every single thing by Beverly Cleary, especially Ramona.  And here are some other wonderful books that inspired me (click on each cover for more information). 

Here are the titles of other wonderful books that influenced me to become an author-illustrator:  Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop, Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Peanuts by Charles Schulz, Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson, The Archie comics, The Portmanteau Book by Thomas Rockwell, Emily San by Barbara Leonard Reynolds, Little Colonel series by Annie Fellows Johnston.

Thank you so much for visiting us again and for sharing another wonderful writing and illustrating exercise, Ruth.  I can’t wait to try it!

Two lucky winners will receive an autographed and personalized paperback of the newly reissued Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel, and they can send Ruth a photo to use when she sketches each of them with Ellie.  She’ll also format the sketch so it can be used as an online avatar (like the drawing of Ruth at the top of this interview).

Leave a comment below and our random generator will choose two winners on Thursday, May 26th.  You’ll get extra entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, or if you click the ‘Follow this blog’ button in Networked Blogs on the lower right side of our site.

*Please mention each link in a new comment so the generator will add your extra entries.

**If winners live outside the US or Canada, they’ll still receive the sketch.  Instead of the autographed book, Ruth will give them a peek at a few digital pages from the next Ellie book, Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player, a work in progress that will be published in Spring, 2012.

Don’t forget to visit Ruth’s website to find more info about her fun, sketch-filled books, freebies, school visits, library visits, and teaching guides.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and is constantly inspired by her ten and thirteen year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppy, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Interview with Hillary Homzie, author of The Hot List

Welcome! We’re excited to celebrate the book release of one of our very own members—Hillary Homzie’s The Hot List published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X launched March 8!

Spring is the perfect pub date for The Hot List because the weather is starting to heat up and that means summer is around the corner. We think this book is so fun (secret lists, crushes, crazy boys named Squid, and a bet) and will resonate so strongly with tweens (cafeteria real estate changes, bff heartbreak and maybe some healing), that we’re recommending it as a beach bring-along. Booklist said that The Hot Listcaptures the angst of young teen friendships and fragile identities.”

We caught up with Hillary for an interview and a bonus—a giveaway of a signed copy of The Hot List! Leave a comment to be entered! The winner will be announced Tuesday, April 19.

From the jacket flap:

Sophie Fanuchi and Maddie Chen have always been BFFs. Then Maddie starts hanging out with Nia Tate—CEO of the popular girls (a.k.a. the “pops”) and daughter of Sophie’s father’s new girlfriend. Soon it seems like Nia has replaced Sophie in the bestie category—and Sophie can feel Maddie slipping away.

As Sophie and Maddie’s friendship continues to unravel, Sophie impulsively makes a bet with Nia. The Mission? Get Squid Rodriguez, perhaps the geekiest, un-Hot-List-worthy boy at Travis, on the list in one month. Can Sophie turn this nottie into a hottie and win back her friendship with Maddie?

Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files, Hillary! Why did you decide to make this story for middle grade readers?

A couple of years ago, a sixth grader told me about a mysterious hot list, as in a list of all the hottest kids in the sixth grade, that was kept up in the girl’s bathroom. Somehow the students knew about the list and managed to secretly maintain it, even when the custodial staff would wipe it away. I felt like, yes, I can grow that situation into a book, if I can figure out why a girl would start a Hot List. I wanted there to be a deeper reason than because she was thinking about who’s cute in seventh grade. And I discovered it was because Sophie, my protagonist, felt as if she needed to do something cool and exciting in order to reel in her best friend Maddie, who was drifting away and beginning to explore new friendships.

Can you share an excerpt from the book that gives us a flavor of your character’s voice? How did you find your character’s voice?

in the pit of my stomach I knew it was bad. Like wearing-pajamas-to-class-to-start-a-new-fashion-trend bad. I mean, what was I thinking?—announcing to the world who was hot and who wasn’t. That might have been text-bloggy material for someone like Nia and her crew, but I should’ve known better—those lists were meant to be secret. Instead, I ignored the flip-floppy, squeezy-icky feeling inside and kept on writing. “Guard the door,” I whispered to Maddie. At least I had the sense to be paranoid about someone catching me. What I should’ve been paying attention to who was about to be leaving my life for good.

I found Sophie’s voice by interviewing her and asking her questions. I let her speak for herself. When I tried to impose a voice it didn’t work. At one point, I tried to make her more of a fashionista. A little more attitude-y. But that wasn’t Sophie. She’s smart, athletic, but doesn’t like to be the center of attention, which becomes a real problem.

Why did you choose the setting of your story?

In my last book for tween girls, THINGS ARE GONNA GET UGLY (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X, 2009), I set the novel in Menlo Park, CA because that’s where I lived when I was 13, the same age as Taffeta Smith, my protagonist. In THE HOT LIST, I wanted to set the novel some place different but some place that I had a connection to. I was born in Denver, so I decided I would find a town in Colorado. At first, I was going to set THE HOT LIST in Denver but I decided that Sophie wasn’t an urban dweller. I looked around Denver and, ultimately, decided on Boulder because it was a college town. I grew up in Charlotesville, Va., another college town and it felt familiar to me.

Who is the editor of this book? How many rounds of revision did you make? What was the most illuminating part of the revision process for you?

I was double lucky as I had an editing duo–Liesa Abrams, Executive Editor, Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X Books and Alyson Heller, assistant editor, Simon & Schuster/ Aladdin M!X. There was one major revision, for which I’m grateful. I had gone a little off course, giving too much play to a secondary character, Squid. Okay, a lot off course. Liesa and Alyson steered me back to a shore. I refocused on the friendship between Sophie and Maddie as the emotional core of the novel. It’s a much better book because of that. After my big revision, they asked only for small line changes, which made my day. Week. Okay, maybe a year. The most illuminating part of the revision process for me was to remember that a book is ultimately about a character and her relationships. That having a cool hook/premise is not enough. We need to care about the protagonist’s emotional journey, even when the book is intended to be a fun, yet resonant romp.

Was there a teacher or librarian in your childhood who inspired or empowered you to be a writer?

Two actually. My second grade teacher Mrs. McCrone wrote a letter to me. And in that letter, she said, “You are a writer.” I had always been an avid reader, but from that moment on, I thought of myself as a writer. Then when my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Casey, wrote in my middle school yearbook that I was a future writer.  Well, after that the author bug wouldn’t let go. I definitely blame Mrs. McCrone and Mrs. Casey for encouraging me.

Thank you, Hillary, and we know you’re having a wonderful Book Release Month!

Readers, we hope you enjoyed the interview!

If you’d like to a chance to win a copy of Hillary’s new book, make sure you post in the comments section. Tweets and Facebook and Blog posts earn you more entries. The winner will be announced Tuesday!

Hillary has been celebrating the launch of her newest book FOR SEVERAL WEEKS and today she’s taking the party here so leave questions; she’ll answer, and let’s have some fun!

There’s a HUGE list mania party happening at Hillary’s blog, too. If you want a chance to win a fabulous prize package, go to her blog and leave a comment!

And for those who want to see more, here’s the very fun book trailer.


Don’t forget to check out The Hot List at IndieBound or your favorite bookstore.

Enjoy Hillary’s great website, which is also full of helpful writer advice, and don’t forget to check out her school visit page so you can learn how Hillary can visit your school!

Hillary Homzie is the author of the tween novels, The Hot List (S&S 2011) and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (S&S 2009), as well as the comedic chapter book series Alien Clones From Outer Space (S&S), which is being made into an animated television series.  During the summers, Hillary teaches in the graduate program in children’s writing at Hollins University. She’s a master teacher and loves to visit schools and speak at conferences, libraries and festivals. A former sketch comedy performer in NYC, Hillary currently lives with her family in Northern California.