MUF Contributor Books

MG Authors Share Their Secret Holiday Wishes

In celebration of the holiday season, and in eager anticipation of 2019, we asked a merry band of MG authors to share their holiday wishes, big and small. Here’s what they had to say:

Beth McMullen, author of the MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS series.

“I wish for the world full stomachs, sturdy roofs, good books, good friends, joy, laughter and possibly some chocolate. For my author friends, I wish for words that flow like a river, a fully charged laptop, a great answer to the question ‘what happens next?’ and a sense of humor for when it all goes sideways. Happy Holidays and best wishes for a spectacular 2019!


“For everyone who has persevered and worked hard toward a goal to accomplish it this year.”
Wendy McLeod MacKnight, author of  IT’S A MYSTERY, PIG FACE! and THE FRAME-UP.
“That every child finds the book that lifts them up, inspires them, and brings them peace.”
Hayley Chewins, author of THE TURNAWAY GIRLS.
“For every young girl in the world to find her true voice–and to have the courage to use it.”
Kim Ventrella, author of SKELETON TREE and BONE HOLLOW.
“That ghost stories return as a popular winter pastime. After all, there’s no better time to get spooky than the deep, dark of winter.”
Darcey Rosenblatt, author of LOST BOYS.
“That everyone finds time next to a fireplace with a good book. “
Kristin L. Gray, author of VILLONIA TAKES CHARGE and the upcoming picture book,
“I’d love a magical snow day where the world pauses, and everyone in it sips hot cocoa with marshmallows, reads their pile of wondrous books, and watches  movies by the fire with loved ones.
“To give everyone that lovely moment when they feel safe and cared for. And then have that moment last! (Of course, if they’re characters in a book—it won’t.)”
“Peace on earth, a good book for all.”
Melissa Sarno, author of JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS and the upcoming A SWIRL OF OCEAN.
“For all women to have confidence in their voices, and for their words to be lifted and heard.”

Jarret Lerner, author of ENGINERDS and REVENGE OF THE ENGINERDS.

“That everyone have a nice, long, uninterrupted chunk of time to a read a book that they’ve been wanting to read all year long.”


“For every kid to find a book that, while reading, they can experience with as much joy, wonder, and excitement as I did when I first discovered the magic of stories (thank you, James and the Giant Peach!).”
“That this impossible world gets way better at cherishing life in all its forms, but especially the lives of children. And that our own special kidlit community continues its excellent work caring about both kids and each other.”
Alyson Gerber, author of BRACED and FOCUSED.
“That every kid can find at least one book that makes them feel heard and understood and accepted.”
“I actually have two wishes. First, I wish everyone on earth could learn to love each other and live in peace and harmony forever. Second, I wish for a large cheese pizza. Actually, I’m starving. Let’s go with the pizza first and that whole love, peace and harmony thing second. Have a wonderful New Year everyone!”

Bridget Hodder, author of THE RAT PRINCE.

“This year, I wish you all the courageous persistence represented by the light of the Hanukkah candles, which kept burning even when common sense said there was no hope left. And I wish you the loving unity represented by the angels of Christmas, who proclaimed at Jesus’s birth: ‘Joy to the World’– the entire world, without boundary or limit. Happy Holidays, everyone!”

“My greatest wish for the new year is for everyone to have something to look forward to in 2019. Never underestimate the power of an ambition, dream, or hope!”
Allison K. Hymas, author of UNDER LOCKER AND KEY and ARTS AND THEFTS.
“My greatest wish for the holidays is that I’ll be able to spend some good, quality time with my family and that no one will ‘retrieve’ something (i.e., my Christmas candy) that does not belong to them.”
Natalie Rompella, author of COOKIE CUTTERS & SLED RUNNERS and the picture book,
“I am very excited about a book I have out on submission. I would love for this book to come into the world!”

And finally, my wish…? For anyone facing rejection to say, “Today, I will NOT give up.”

Melissa Roske, author of KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN.

5 Questions for Hillary Homzie

Middle-grade author and MUF blogger Hillary Homzie celebrates the publication of her latest MG novel, APPLE PIE PROMISES (Sky Pony Press, October 2). Here, she chats with fellow MUF blogger Melissa Roske about the writing and researching process, haunted houses, and strawberry-rhubarb pie. 

1. Your latest MG, APPLE PIE PROMISES, is about Lily, a seventh grader who is sent to live with her father, stepmother, and half-sister while her mother is on an academic fellowship in Morocco. Where did you get the idea for the premise, and what kind of research did you do?

After I finished Pumpkin Spice Secrets, which was the first book in Sky Pony’s Swirl line, I discussed with my editor the possibility of writing about a seventh grader who must live with her new stepfamily after her mom earns a fellowship abroad. Immediately, I thought of having the mother travel to Morocco. My father’s family is from North Africa, and I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to explore that part of the world. I scoured travel blogs and articles about Morocco. I asked friends who were going or had just come back from a trip there. I became an inveterate armchair traveler, falling in love with the sights and sounds of the country. I had so much fun having Lily’s mom write dispatches from Rabat, the gorgeous capital city, sitting along the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the river Bou Regreg. Oh, I really want to go! Of course, the main action takes place in the States, in Tacoma, Washington, but Lily (and the reader) will definitely learn a bit about Morocco, and especially Rabat.

I also spent time researching Tacoma. I’ve been to Tacoma and have spent time in the general Seattle area, which I love. However, I haven’t lived there, so I watched vlogs of Tacoma residents, as well as immersed myself in reading about the city through books and blogs. And yes, I fell in love all over again with the Northwest. I set my middle-grade novel Queen of Likes (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin MIX, 2016) in Portland, another quirky, cool, beautiful Northwestern city. Also, I found myself researching haunted houses. Not real ones, but the kind that students and the PTA assemble for school fairs. I’ve put together a few haunted houses in my day, but it was fun to read about different themes out there. In Apple Pie Promises, Lily works on a haunted house for the fall festival with her stepsister, as well as her crush. Let me tell you, I spent quite a few Google searches investigating zombie makeup and funny sayings and names on gravestones. You know, like Ben Better and Ann M. T. Grave. I love research assignments that make me giggle like a madwoman.

2. Baking is a huge part of this book, as Lily is an avid baker. She even Skypes with her mom while she’s baking. Are you a keen baker? If so, what is your favorite dessert to bake, and why?

True confession. I’m not a baker, but I love pies (strawberry rhubarb and tart apple pies are my favorite), so I had to read about pie baking, watch videos and cajole a friend who is actually a gifted baker to tutor me (it was so terrible. I was forced to sample pies. Ah, such cruel hard work). The hardest part is undoubtedly the crust, and my friend taught me a few tricks, which I attempted to repeat. My son filmed my tutorials and I plan to post some of it online (even the fails) to help non-bakers like me get over their baking phobia.

3. Pranks weigh heavily in APPLE PIE PROMISES. What is the silliest/craziest prank you’ve ever pulled? 

I’ve done quite a few pranks, from kidnapping stuffed animals to tying strings to closet doors, but probably the silliest happened in college. I was living in the French House (La Maison Française, at University of Virgina), and a friend purchased une crotte—basically, a piece of brown plastic that looked remarkably like a turd.  We’d drop it on the bathroom floor and then wait to hear a piercing cry, and cursing in French. It gave a whole new meaning to “Pardon my French.”

4. Do you have a specific writing routine? If so, can you tell us about it? 

Well, my writing routine first involves non-writing. Getting up. Feeding the dog. Feeding the child. Packing the child’s lunch. Walking for about 40 minutes up and down a steep hill with my husband, who is disciplined about these things. This is lucky for me, because I’m lazy and would much rather stay in bed and read. Then I check email and see what’s going on with the news (which can be dangerous since there’s a lot going on, so if I’m strategic I don’t do this, but I’m not often strategic). But somewhere around 10:00 a.m., I do start writing. And then take a break around lunchtime. Then write some more. Of course, not every day is writing. But I feel much better about my life if I can get a couple of hours in or more. Oh, and I do take social media breaks and scan to see what’s going on with my writing friends. In truth, I’m most productive when I’m on a tight deadline, and I’ve had some crazy deadlines. When a deadline looms large, I don’t even need to use Freedom (which shuts off my internet access) in order to make my goals.

In a strange way, when life interrupts due to family obligations and other responsibilities, it only makes me hungrier to write when I do finally sit in front of my computer. And often literally hungry. I confess to liking snacks when I write. I’m trying to switch to drinking more tea though.

5. What advice would you give to aspiring writers? And how about to aspiring bakers?

Finish what you write. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten bogged down by the first three chapters—obsessively rewriting them. I would say just write on through to the end, and only after you’ve finally gotten your armature in place, then spend time fine-tuning. After all, you might have to throw away your opening—perhaps starting later or earlier. Also, be careful of overcomplicating things. I’m famous for over-plotting, and then having to scale it back to spend more time on characterization. For aspiring bakers, don’t be afraid to throw away your too buttery pie dough. It’s no different than for writers—throw away your darlings, if it will make a better book (or pie!).

HILLARY HOMZIE is the author of the upcoming Ellie May chapter-book series (Charlesbridge), as well as contemporary middle grade novels, including Apple Pie Promises and Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony Press), and Queen of LikesThe Hot List and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (Simon & Schuster/M!X). She is also the author of the humorous chapter book series, Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). Hillary lives in California with her family, and teaches at the children’s writing MFA program at Hollins University. You can find out more about Hillary her  website and follow her on Twitter.

Interview with Illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler & Giveaway: Ellie May on Presidents’ Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day

When my editor sent me cover sketches of Ellie May on Presidents’ Day (Charlesbridge, December 2018) and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day (Charlesbridge, December 2018), I was bursting with happiness. Illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler truly understands the essence of this enthusiastic kid who has been in my head for such a long time.

And yet for months, I couldn’t really share the covers of my chapter books with anyone, but then the covers were shown at ALA, as well as a School Library Journal webcast Behind the Scenes: SLJ in Conversation with Children’s Books Editors. Additionally, the covers were sent to, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other bookselling sites. So yes, by then the cat was out of the bag. And so today is a big deal because it’s the first time I’m officially showing them off and talking about them.

Even though Ellie May on Presidents’ Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day are my tenth and eleventh books, this whole publishing process still amazes and, at times, overwhelms me because there are so many things that need to happen, much of which I have little to do with. And with chapter books–that would be all of those interior illustrations–and plus, the covers.

So now I get to interview illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler about how all of this came together. And you all get to enter for some awesome prizes. More on that later.

Oh, but first you probably will want to know a little bit about the series. It stars the irrepressible Ellie May. When it’s time to celebrate holidays in the classroom, second-grader Ellie May can get a little overzealous, often learning about honesty and patience through trial and error. In Ellie May on Presidents’ Day, the second grader struggles with how to be honest and be a leader (wow, I no idea how timely this topic would be when I first wrote this one). Ellie May on April Fools’ Day ultimately debates how to be funny and not hurt people’s feelings.

Now, without further ado, here’s Jeffrey to tell us about the process of creating the covers, which I think are adorable (but I’m very biased!).

Where did the inspiration for the covers come from?

I have the same experience that I think most readers have. When I read a new story, a little movie plays in my head. When I read the descriptions and dialogue, I imagine how all of the characters might look. I try to imagine every small detail, from the kind of house they live in, to the clothes that they wear.
Ellie is such an exuberant character. She bursts with excitement and enthusiasm. I felt really fortunate that I was asked to illustrate Hillary’s two books, and it came at it came at a serendipitous time for me. I have twin daughters that were in third grade last year (the same age as Ellie May) when I was working on this book. Ellie May’s personality reminds me so much of my daughter Olivia, and her friend Lizzy is like my daughter Isabel.
I used a lot of family photos as inspiration for the poses and facial expressions of those two characters.
I wanted both covers to focus on Ellie May and convey her wide-eyed excitement.

Take us through the process of how you created the covers?

When I am illustrating a book, I try to do the cover last. I always start by reading the story several times. I write lots of notes and do a bunch of doodles. Then I do a character sheet, where I draw every character. It’s really important that the characters look the same through out the whole book. Sketching a book takes a couple of weeks, and I always find that I am refining and adding new details to the characters as I go. That’s why I like to save the cover for last, because by then I have really worked out all of the characters individual mannerisms.

Did you start with pencil sketches or work on the computer?

I do most of my work the old fashion way, with pencils and paint. I sketch everything on paper, and the final art for the covers are painted. I do some additional work to the art in the computer, though. After I scan in the finished paintings, I do some retouching in Photoshop. I lightened up the background behind Ellie May on both covers in the computer, so she would be the focus of the cover.

Did you have hurdles or challenges?

I knew right away that the cover President’s Day should be Ellie May saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The biggest challenge was her pose. I did four or five different poses that ranged from her standing very seriously at attention, to some goofy poses. I think the end result is a good mix of respect for the flag and the excitement in Ellie May.
I worried more about the April Fool’s Day cover because pranks can be a dicey subject. I think Hillary did a great job in the story of having Ellie May think through some jokes and why some might not be a good idea to actually do to someone. The cover hints at one of Ellie May’s joke ideas without revealing too much. She does give someone a stinky gift, but it has a surprising result.

Any aha moments?

I had tons of moments working on these two books. I love reading a funny passage in a book and trying to think of a way that I can add to that joke with a funny image. Some of my favorite illustrations in the books are when Ellie May is researching little known facts about presidents or birds. I got to draw Abraham Lincoln covered in cats, and a cardinal taking a bath in a tub full of ants.

What medium did you use?

The cover art is done in acrylic paint on paper. The black and white art inside the book is also painted with a brush. I love painting fine lines with a liner brush. I like the look if it better than using pens or markers. All of the art has had some touchups that I do in the computer.

What do you hope the covers communicates?

I hope Ellie May’s pose and facial expression communicate that she is enthusiastic, fun, a little mischievous, but also well meaning.

How many drafts did you do before you settled on what you wanted?

For book covers, I always try to present a bunch of different options. I showed about five or six different ideas for each book. I doodled about 20 ideas that I didn’t show because they weren’t quite right.

For the Presidents’ Day book, I did a sketch that ended up being the title page for the book. It was Ellie May dressed in Revolutionary War era clothing, holding the flag. I also sketched a cover that was a grid of presidential portraits with Ellie’s portrait in the middle.

For April Fools’ Day I sketched out several different April Fool’s jokes from the book. I also thought that it might be a fun and goofy image to have Ellie hanging upside down from the monkey bars, because she does that in both books.

In what ways is the final version different from your original concept for the cover?

The final versions were much more focused directly on Ellie May. Her face is the most important thing, and I hope that it will convey somethings about her personality, and get people curious to see what she’s all about.

How important is a cover to a book’s success?

It can definitely be important. I know I’ve picked up lots of books because they had intriguing covers. In the end, there needs to be a great story inside, and there is. It would be wonderful if my cover could help draw young readers in, to check out Ellie May’s adventures.

Anything new you learned from working on the Ellie May series?

I did learn a bunch of interesting facts about the presidents as well as the history April Fool’s Day. Two of my favorite facts were that in France, “jokers tape a fish to unsuspecting peoples backs on April Fool’s Day” and that George Washington’s false teeth were made from “gold, lead, hippo, cow and donkey teeth.”

Anything else you would like to share?
I want to thank Hillary for writing these excellent stories, and also for interviewing me about illustrating her books. I hope you will have as much fun reading them as I did illustrating them.

Oh, and here’s the giveaway part! It’s–drumroll. One high-quality print of an Ellie May illustration signed by Jeffrey Ebbeler AND signed paperback copies of Ellie May on Presidents’ Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day (these will be mailed in December) AND PDFs of both books.

How to register to win? Lots of ways. 1) Make a comment here. 2) Follow me on Twitter @hillaryhomzie. 3) Tweet about this and tag me on Twitter @hillaryhomzie 4) retweet my Twitter post about this post. If you do all four things, you will increase your odds of winning but you only need to do one thing in order to get registered. Good luck everyone!

Jeffrey Ebbeler has been creating award-winning art for children for over 15 years. He has illustrated more than forty picture books, including Melvin the Mouth, Captain’s Log: Snowbound and he is both the author and illustrator of George the Hero Hound. Jeffrey has worked as an art director and has done paper engineering for pop-up books. He and his wife, Eileen, both attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati. They have twin daughters, Olivia and Isabel.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as the forthcoming Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She can be found at and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.