The Most Important Thing About Children’s Books: For Readers and Writers During COVID-19

Last night, my son asked for something extraordinary. He requested I read him a goodnight story. From my shelves, I pulled out a picture book, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. At first glance, this might not seem that unusual.

Except my son is a ninth grade, a newly minted 15-year-old, and I couldn’t more proud. He wasn’t afraid to ask for what he needed– the comforting ritual of a bedtime story read aloud by a parent. He wasn’t embarrassed. His ears didn’t pinken. This wouldn’t have happened pre-COVID. Well, it would have but like six or seven years ago.

This was not an isolated incident.

My oldest son, who graduated from college last year and is a software engineer for a celebrated car company, is back home and after reading some non-fiction, picked up The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman. My son had first read this very book and the rest of His Dark Materials series when he was ten. He said he relished re-reading it even more because “there was so much that I didn’t understand” the first-time round.

My middle son, a 20-year-old, and college sophomore has been asking for back rubs after sitting in his chair digesting his third Zoom class for the day. He also has been introducing us to some of his favorite board games.

In fact, all three of my sons have asked that we play family games at least once a week. Our favorite is definitely Exploding Kittens, which is silly, involves a little strategy and a lot of luck.

I’m not trying to glorify sheltering-in-place. It’s been, at times, incredibly stressful and full of grief. Two of my students have lost their grandparents. Three of my students have been hospitalized. Childhood friends are struggling to recover from COVID-19. My youngest son may have had COVID-19 for a month in March, but at the time we couldn’t get him tested. But I don’t need to tell you of all this woe. We’ve all experienced heartbreak in one form or another, collective grief and loss in many forms.

So I’m really trying not to be a Pollyanna.

But I do feel like COVID-19 has helped me put priorities and values into sharper focus.

Health. Wow. That’s important.

Friends. Community. Books. All Vital.

And it’s clearer than ever before that children’s books are not just for one particular life period. And reading aloud shouldn’t have to stop when you’ve graduated from the HarperCollins I Can Read Level 4. Nope. The pleasure of children’s books are for every season of life. The idea, for example, that you read middle grade just when you’re 8-12 is merely a state of mind.

And as creators of children’s books, it’s especially imperative to embrace this perspective.

Next month, starting on June 15, I’ll be teaching Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive, remote course for the The Children’s Book Academy with Rosie Ahmed (Penguin Random House/Dial Books) and Mira Reisberg (Clearfork/Spork). It’s a class I’ve taught for several years now, and one that I love. We focus on craft and mentor texts. But this year, I plan to remember what I’ve learned from this sheltering in-place. I want to emphasis more reading aloud at any age. And to remember that no one is ever too old for children’s books; they open hearts and minds, pose and answers questions, as well as (perhaps most importantly right now) mend and delight the spirit.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 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’s also a contributor to the new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Children’s Authors Chat about —Where Do We Go From Here?

How are you all doing? Anyone feeling like this #shelteringinplace is going on forever? Perhaps you feel like you are stuck in the Groundhog Day movie over and over? While these restrictions are necessary, it is still somewhat difficult to be stuck in a place of so much uncertainty. What will happen when things begin to open up? Will life go back to normal or will there be a NEW normal? At this point no one knows.


I decided to ask some of my fellow kidlit authors about what they are doing now and their hopes  for the future. Perhaps reading these, you’ll feel that there is HOPE for life again, even if it’s a new normal.


After all, as Albert Einstein states,  “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”


” I don’t know what the future holds for in-person visits, but I sure hope that they happen. It is a treat to connect with writers in person. While they don’t, I will continue virtual visits and will keep on WRITING! After all, I’m a writer. My job is to get out great books that will connect with readers during all of these times!” — Nancy Castaldo

“For me, my schools have cancelled my workshops so there’s not much I can do, especially if they remain closed until September. I’ll re-evaluate then. In the meantime, I’ve been giving many free readings and mini workshops online and it’s been fun to interact with kids again!”– Lydia Lukidis

“Gosh, for now, nobody knows what will happen with in-person schools, much less in-person author visits. I’m certainly willing to adapt my presentations for virtual visits, but I’ll miss interactions with kids:( I will also increase my online classes and might seek out a faculty position with an MFA program, too. I’m recently divorced, so this financial hit of lost gigs is a bit of a wakeup call about the fragility of the freelance life. As for book publication, I think we’ll all have to be extra creative about online offerings.” — Donna Janell Bowman

“As teachers and school districts have reached out for permission to read my books aloud and make recordings, I’ve been asking how they plan to use the recordings with students. To say I’m blown away by their creative ideas would be an understatement!
Some are book specific, but many could be done with a wide variety of books. I’d like to find an easy-access way to share these great lesson ideas and teaching strategies with other educators. I’m still pondering the best way(s) to do that and how the lessons might work when the recorded read alouds are no longer available, but it’s exciting to think about. School closures have demanded so much creative thinking, and teachers have risen to the challenge. Educators rock!” — Melissa Stewart

“I’ve been connecting one-on-one with some enthusiastic readers” — Laurel Neme

“I am trying out my first virtual writing workshop lesson with middle schoolers (It helps to work in one!) next week. It’s specific to THE NEST THAT WREN BUILT, but could be adapted for other books, or even done without a book connection. If successful, I’ll work on marketing this as an alternative to in-person school visits.”– Randi Sonenshine

“My WFH (work-for-hire) writing projects have all been put on hold, so I most likely will dive into research for a couple MG projects that I have been working on.” — Lisa Idzikowski

“Today I held a virtual visit for kids at home. I used one of my school visits that I knew would translate okay via screen, was an older one that is not requested much for live visits (i.e. not my “best”). I promoted via e-newsletter (mostly teacher-librarians) and social media. I offered it for free but made a request in the registration and confirmation emails for donations and/or book purchases. I had 64 families register and probably 40 show up (many with 2 kids). So far I have received 1 donation and of course don’t know about purchases. I did it mostly for myself — I desperately miss teaching– but also as a test of the interest/ willingness-to-donate.” — Heather Montgomery

“I already do virtual visits and am happy to keep doing them, but I hope we won’t get rid of in-person visits. I was telling someone the other day about times when kids have come up to me with their private concerns, and that can’t happen through a Zoom meeting. But, I do think there’s a lot to offer with virtual visits too and I’d love to see them continue to evolve. I’ve been teaching writing classes online already and would love to do more of that, although again, as much as I love webinars, in-person classes are better. As for marketing, I think there’s an opportunity to have virtual tours across the world in collaboration with bookstores. The signed copies would be missed, though.” — Samantha Clark

“I have been doing virtual school visits for 5 years at least so I doubt that will change very much. But I intend to go back to in person visits. Physical presence has a power that virtual presence does not. I will be more mindful of keeping myself protected on the road, more hand washing, less handshaking. But my life has been a mix of virtual and personal connections for a long time now and I don’t see a need for it to change drastically. But here’s what I hope will be the longer term impact for publishing. This pandemic is proving that it’s possible to run a publishing house with the majority of staff working from home. Which means that even though big publishers will likely remain in NY, their work force could be much more geographically spread out and that would be good news indeed for diversity. The expense of living in or near NYC is what drives out diverse applicants and drives up the cost of producing books.” — Rosanne Parry

“All my spring school visits were cancelled (all have said they will rebook next year, but who knows if that will be possible.)” — Buffy Silverman

” I had a few events around my book launch but have had several events cancel or postponed until next year. I’m putting in conference proposals (NSTA?) in hopes I’ll be able to travel one day, creating digital resources kids can use now, doing occasional zooms (for free) with classes of kids. Fortunately I had several blog posts and podcast interviews that continue to roll out and keep my book in folks’ mind. Other than that, I’m trying to get more reviews on Amazon, B&N, Goodreads and offering to do the same for other creators. I figure that’s one of the best ways for books to be discovered right now.”– Kirsten Williams Larson

” I will be doing a virtual joint book launch with Teresa Robeson. I recently did three Zoom visits for schools and look forward to doing more of these going forward. Although I will be very happy to return to in person visits when it is safe to do so!” — Nancy Churnin

“With school visits, educator conferences, and book festivals all being cancelled, it leaves me wondering what will happen with my three new books coming out this summer and fall. I’m already focusing a bit of what I can do online but hope for some in-person events, too. I hope to jump back into in-person school visits in the fall but will happily Zoom with classes, too.” — Annette Whipple


And, me, what am I doing and what do I hope for?   I, like everyone above hope very much to get back to doing in-school visits. The sense of energy and connection with the students from actually being in front of them is difficult to achieve in a virtual school visit. I believe that teachers want this, too. I am taking this time to work on something I’ve had percolating for years. I’m starting a new STEM podcast with Jed Doherty. Look for Solve It! — a brand new podcast for kids and families to learn how real scientists, engineers, and experts use curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity to solve everyday problems in their jobs. — Jennifer Swanson

Also good news is that agents are accepting submissions, and editorial meetings are still happening at publishers. Even though things may move more slowly, the publishing world churns on.


Finally I think we can all agree on one thing:  TEACHERS and LIBRARIANS ROCK!!!   Despite their many challenges they are doing a fabulous job connecting the best way they can with their students.

So, you see, even though we may all be hunkered down in our houses, the creative spirit lives on– THRIVES even!  Let us all hope that one day soon we’ll all be able to get together in a classroom,  at a conference or workshop, or even just for coffee,  and share this spirit in person.

I leave you with this quote from a truly amazing and inspiring woman:


“You may not control all the events that happen to you,

but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”  — Maya Angelou


Stay safe, my friends.

If you have things you are doing now, please let us know. If you have hopes for the future, also post below. Let’s promote HOPE!

Interview with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of SHINE!

Today at MUF we’re talking with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of the middle-grade novel, SHINE! (Random House Children’s Books), which James Patterson says is, “Inspirational, commonsensical, and a whole lot of fun.” We got the writing partners — and life partners! — to tell us about their new book, how they work together, and what’s next for them.



Mixed-Up Files: J.J., we understand the idea behind SHINE! was yours. Can you talk about what sparked the idea? What made this the story you decided had to get written?

J.J.: I guess living in New York City has made me hyper aware of how hard everybody here strives to get ahead. What pre-K your child gets into, theoretically, will help determine whether they get into Harvard. Growing up in an environment where accomplishments and awards were highly prized, I wish I had read a book that said who you are as a person is even more important than landing on the honor roll or winning the lead role in the school musical.

We know that J.J. has helped behind the scenes on many of Chris’ other books, but how was the process here different than in the past?

CHRIS: In the past, J.J. has been my first editor. She reads everything before anyone else and encourages me to cut out the boring parts. She also lets me know if anything takes her out of the story. An odd word or phrase. An illogical leap. Confusion of any kind. But, in the end, those books are my books and I get the final say (even though I typically take all J.J.’s notes and make all her suggested changes).

On SHINE! we were equals. Both our names would be going on the cover. We both had to be happy with every word.

MUF: What did your collaboration look like?

CHRIS: Well, first we spent months blocking out a very detailed outline. VERY detailed.

That’s a technique I learned from James Patterson. When I work on a project with him, he creates an extremely detailed outline with all the twists and turns plotted out. I execute a first draft from that outline and check in with him every month with new pages.

With J.J., we checked in every day.

We also discovered that we have extremely different writing techniques.

In college, I majored in Communications at the University of Tennessee. J.J. studied music and theater at Northwestern (yep, that’s why the hero of our book’s father is a music teacher). At the end of my freshman year at UT, I took a typing test. We needed to do 30 words a minute before we could take any sophomore level courses. From then on, every assignment we turned in had to be type written.

When I graduated, I could type over one hundred words a minute. In fact, working as a temporary typist was how I supported myself when I first moved to New York City to pursue a writing and comedy career.

So now, when I write, I think through my fingertips.

J.J., on the other hand, has a theatrical background. For years, she toured the country doing musicals. She also appeared Off Broadway in the long-running hit NUNSENSE. Today, she works as a voice actor, creating lots of different characters. (She narrated my HAUNTED MYSTERY series from Random House.)

When J.J. writes, she wants to act out all the scenes. And play all the characters. Something I was doing in my head and sending down to my keyboard (and she thought I was just typing). This led to some very interesting scenes in the writing room.

Chris and JJ Grabenstein

MUF: Did you ever disagree at points on what direction the book should go? If so, how did you resolve that?

J.J.: Not on the overall direction. On individual scenes? Yes. If neither one of us could convince the other to see it our way, then we realized there was something fundamentally wrong with both approaches. So, we’d chuck whatever we were championing and work out a solution that made both of us happy.

MUF: Do you find collaborating on a book with someone else harder or easier than doing it solo?

CHRIS: In a lot of ways, it’s much easier. Someone else is helping you map out the journey and make decisions along the way. Then, if you take a wrong turn, it’s not entirely your fault!

MUF: What’s it like when you get editorial notes back? How did you decide to tackle those edits? What was the division of labor there?

J.J.: We were very fortunate to have Chris’s longtime Random House editor Shana Corey working with us on SHINE! In fact, we often say, her name should be on the cover, too. She was a true third partner throughout the whole two-years and six drafts it took to get the book right.

Like I’ve seen Chris do (from time to time), I’d whine a little about the editorial letters and all the notes. After all, what we had turned in was perfect, right? But then, the next day, I’d also do what I’ve seen Chris do countless times: Realize Shana was right. And the book would be better if we made her suggested changes, cuts, or additions.

MUF: What projects are next for you both?

CHRIS: Well, let’s see…my first picture book, NO MORE NAPS, from Random House will be coming out in February. There will be a fifth Lemoncello book, MR. LEMONCELLO AND THE TITANIUM TICKET, coming in late summer, 2020 to be followed by the first book in what we hope is a new Middle Grades series. I also edited and contributed to a collection of short stories for the Mystery Writers of America that will be out in June. James Patterson and I will have, I think, three books coming out in 2020, including the 7th in the popular TREASURE HUNTERS series. And, I am doing a new Audible Original entitled STUCK, where I get to make a cameo appearance.

J.J.: Well, after reading Chris’s list, it looks like I have a lot of first editing to do! I’ll also be heading back to the sound booth to record books and voice overs for all sorts of clients. I’m also happy to report that I will be appearing in the Audible Original STUCK. Chris and I play goofy cartoon characters at a game-arcade/restaurant called Chuck and Ernie’s.

MUF: Do you both read quite a bit of middle grade? What are some of your favorite recent MG titles? Any recs for us?

CHRIS: I do read (and listen) to a lot of Middle Grade stories. My recent faves include Steve Sheinken’s BORN TO FLY, R.J. Palacio’s WHITE BIRD, Stuart Gibbs’ CHARLIE THORNE, and Jerry Craft’s NEW KID.

J.J.: I read a ton of Middle Grade books. Because Chris writes a ton of ’em every year.

MUF: Tell us a little bit about SHINE! for our readers. 

CHRIS: Well, the gang at Random House always knows how to summarize a book better than me! Here’s what they say:

“Who do you want to be?” asks Mr. Van Deusen. “And not when you grow up. Right here, right now.”

Shine on! might be the catchphrase of twelve-year-old Piper’s hero–astronaut, astronomer, and television host Nellie Dumont Frisse–but Piper knows the truth: some people are born to shine, and she’s just not one of them. That fact has never been clearer than now, since her dad’s new job has landed them both at Chumley Prep, a posh private school where everyone seems to be the best at something and where Piper definitely doesn’t fit in.

Bursting with humor, heart, science, possibilities, and big questions, Shine! is a story about finding your place in the universe–a story about figuring out who you are and who you want to be.

MUF: If you have anything else to add, please feel free!

We’re excited to see the numerous ways teachers and librarians have already brought SHINE! to life in their schools. We’re also thrilled that the folks at Random House put together such a fantastic Educators’ Guide for the book. (Click here for the Educators’ Guide to SHINE!)