Posts Tagged anxiety

Author Spotlight: Chris Baron

I’ve been a fan of Chris Baron’s work since 2019, when I fell in love with his debut MG novel in verse, All of Me. My admiration for Chris’s books—and for his gorgeous, critically acclaimed writing—continued with The Magical Imperfect (2021), and most recently with The Gray, published last month by Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, and hailed by Colby Sharp as “a magical and important book.” Now, it is my greatest pleasure to extend a warm Mixed-Up Files welcome to Chris Baron, shining brightly today in the Author Spotlight!

But first…

A Summary of The Gray

It’s been a tough year for Sasha―he’s been bullied at his middle school and his anxiety, which he calls the Gray, is growing. Sasha’s dad tells him to “toughen up”―and he does, but with unfortunate, hurtful results. His parents and therapist agree that a summer in the country, with his aunt Ruthie, might be the best medicine, but it’s the last place he wants to be. Sasha will be away from his best friend, video games, and stuck in the house that reminds him of his beloved uncle Lou, who died two years earlier.

 Aunt Ruthie is supportive, and there are lots of places to explore, and even some potential new friends. When Sasha is introduced at a local ranch to a horse coincidentally, and incredibly, nicknamed the Gray, he feels he’s found a kindred spirit. But his own Gray is ever-present. When one of his new friends disappears, Sasha discovers that the country is wilder and more mysterious than he imagined. He tries to muster enough courage to help in the search . . . but will the Gray hold him back?

Chris Baron: The Interview

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Chris! It’s such a pleasure to have you here.

CB: Thank you! I feel so honored to be here with you!

MR: Could you please share your inspiration behind The Gray, including your thoughtful and detailed exploration of Sasha’s struggle with anxiety disorder?

The original inspiration for the story is rooted in imagery. That’s always an important part of writing any story. There was a time in my life where my parents abruptly left our busy life in New York City and moved us to a farm in Upstate New York. There were horses, an abandoned farmhouse, bats in the barn above the haylofts, and horses! That’s where I started riding horses—where horses became an important part of my life. Of course, as magical as it all was, there were all kinds of adventures, conflicts, and undiscovered things that I learned about myself and my family.

The other significant setting that really inspired me was my summer at Camp Shalom, a sleepaway camp that just happened to be across the lake from another camp, which had been abandoned. We spent some “unauthorized” times taking rowboats over to that camp. We were sure it was haunted!

As far as the anxiety: Certainly, my personal experience is a factor here in the inspiration—but also that we are in “undiscovered country” when it comes to understanding the kind of anxiety that kids are dealing with from the pandemic, and so many other factors in modern society. I see it in my college students, in my kids, and their friends. Anxiety is on the rise. I think books can help.

I Need A Hero

MR: In your Author’s Note, you state that Sasha, the protagonist of your novel, is an “unlikely hero.” Could you please elaborate?

CB: I don’t think Sasha would ever claim to be a hero. But sometime, somewhere in the adventure of our lives, we “step up” into something bigger than we are and play a part. In the story, Sasha is surprised when he feels a strong sense of purpose coming alive around his friends—discovering what they need, and how he might help. It’s love. Love inspires us to be a hero, even the most unlikely of us. For Sasha, it helps him get out of himself and navigate The Gray.

Dealing with Anxiety

MR: Like Sasha, you struggled with an anxiety disorder as a child. Can you tell us about this experience? How were your struggles similar to Sasha’s? How were they different?

CB: It’s true. I struggled a lot (and still do). When I was a kid, anxiety disorders were not commonly recognized or diagnosed, and mental-health awareness and treatments have evolved so much since then.

Just like Sasha, I shared a great sensitivity to my environment. That’s the core of Sasha’s gift: sensitivity to nature and his environment. That’s the core similarity. When the environment is challenging, overwrought, overwhelming, it can affect my nervous system, and growing up I didn’t always have the tools to handle things. So I often imagined worlds within worlds, sat beneath trees and read books, and played games with close friends to find safety and healing. This is true for Sasha, but he experiences a much more exacerbating and tangible form of anxiety that permeates his whole life: a world he calls The Gray.

Talking Tech

MR: When Sasha leaves Manhattan for Aunt Ruthie’s house in Upstate New York, he’s forced to leave his devices and video games behind, at the suggestion of his therapist, to help ease his anxiety. Video games, phones—and social media in general—are pervasive features of modern life, but how are they particularly harmful for kids with anxiety?

CB: I am definitely not an expert, but one of the things I see is that technology and social media lives at the core of constructing self-image. As a parent, I see it with my own kids and their friends. Here is one article from the American Psychological Association that gets into some of it. For The Gray, I did extensive research including having Sasha “diagnosed” by a therapist. There are so many credible, peer-reviewed articles on this topic that are worth researching. For Sasha, devices and video games help ease his anxiety as part of his routine; but when those things stop working, the therapist suggests “an immediate break.”

I think it’s always good not to demonize things like video games and technology; there are many proven benefits for brain development, social activity, and so on. But in Sasha’s case, and the case for many of us, the things you mention can be so harmful. For Sasha, it was overwhelming for his senses and activated his imagination in unexpected ways. In the book, it’s alluded to that Sasha’s sensitivity to nature, his “gift” as Uncle Lou called it, gets taken over by his use of tech—until the tech squeezes out everything else.

This can happen sometimes: The technology dominates until it squeezes everything out and reforms the lens we look through. Sasha needs to make space for his natural gifts to grow, and shape him as they are meant to. I think that might be a little bit true for all of us.

Navigating Social Media

MR: As a follow-up, are there any concrete steps a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult can take to help kids navigate social media as well as their dependence on their devices/phones?

CB: Ha! Again, I am not an expert in this. I think we are all learning, all the time. My wife, Ella, and I are big believers in openness and honesty with our kids. We watched documentaries about social media and tech dependence. We monitor things while trying to allow freedom and discovery. Every family is different. For us, it was no phones until high school. But that isn’t for everyone. I think one concrete step might be community. Isolation can be one of the most harmful things, so being in a community of care and trust can help so much.


MR: Change is an important theme in this novel as Sasha grudgingly learns to love his gadget-free life at Aunt Ruthie’s house in the country. He also learns to ride horses and takes lessons in the martial art of Krav Maga. At the same time, Sasha’s dad wants his son to change—to “toughen up,” despite Sasha’s anxiety. What is it about change that, for most of us, is satisfying and terrifying in equal parts?

CB: Yes! I love this question, because it almost answers itself. The world is changing fast, and even good change can be difficult. Change is such a natural part of who we are—and this novel, like my others (and so many middle-grade novels)—is a coming-of-age story at its core. For Sasha (and like many of us), we don’t like change because it’s the unknown.

I suppose this is particularly hard for Sasha, because for him the unknown means that The Gray might find him. But by taking some control, and actively pursuing things like horseback riding, Krav Maga, and of course, new friendships, he learns that he is more capable, brave, and resilient than he thinks he is. This has a hugely positive effect on understanding his anxiety. Change can often define us, but Sasha doesn’t face these changes alone. None of us should have to.

An Unlikely Friendship

MR: Friendship is another central theme in this novel, when Sasha meets Eli, an older boy who is struggling to come to terms with a violent assault perpetrated against his younger brother. Sasha, who has struggles of his own—including bullying, which heightens his anxiety—hires Eli as his bodyguard. In time, the boys forge a strong if unlikely bond. Can you tell us more about the significance of Sasha and Eli’s friendship?

CB:  Eli. One of my favorite characters ever. From the start, Sasha feels a connection with Eli. Eli, somehow, can penetrate The Gray and find Sasha in the midst of it, and because of it, Sasha and Eli form a sort of spiritual bond that draws them together. They need each other. Their unlikely friendship is a turning point for both of them.

(For more on Chris’s thoughts on The Gray, check out his interview in Publisher’s Weekly here.)

Tackling Bullying

MR: While we’re on the subject of themes, the theme of bullying is present in all three of your novels. In All of Me, Ari is bullied for his weight

in The Magical Imperfect, Malia is bullied for having eczema; in The Gray, Sasha is bullied for his anxiety (aka “the Gray”) as well as for his uncommon name. What is it about this theme that impels you to explore it, again and again?

CB: It’s funny you ask this question. Forgive my answer. We were JUST rewatching Captain America: The First Avenger the other night (one of my favorite superheroes), and my daughters always watch my face during the scene where Dr. Erskine asks a then-tiny Steve Rogers if he wants to “kill Nazis.” His response is, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.” I tear up every time. My oldest daughter actually asked me recently, “Is this why you write about bullying?”

I don’t like bullies. One way or another, we all face bullying—physical, emotional, or spiritual—and it can have a severe and negative impact on our lives. It did in mine, and I always wish I had looked for help from a trusted adult. I was often told, like Sasha is in the book, to “toughen up.” But often we are too scared, too worried, too shy. Stories always helped me with this. I’m thankful I get to write stories that might help some readers feel seen, know they are not alone, and even get help.

The Significance of Judaism

MR: Changing gears, Jewish culture, traditions—and food!—are celebrated in all of your novels. (In The Gray, Aunt Ruthie’s kugel made my mouth water). As a Jewish writer, why is it important to incorporate Jewishness, and Judaism, in your books? 

CB: The world is full of so many beautiful traditions. Judaism is part of me–and of course all of the incredible food traditions that go with it. I think Sasha’s Jewish heritage is very close to mine. The faith, the culture, and even the more mystical parts were all something I experienced with my family. For all of the Jewish holidays, big and small, I grew up hearing stories that helped me understand my heritage, my faith, my culture, and how I might fit into this giant world we live in. Those stories are relevant today, and I share them with my own children now. It’s fun to see them start to make these same connections as they grow.

MR: Also: Can you tell MUF readers about your upcoming Jewish MG anthology from Abrams, On All Other Nights: A Middle Grade Passover Anthology?

Oh, my goodness–our upcoming Jewish MG anthology is full of incredible stories from writers we love: Adam Gidwiz, Laurel Snyder, Sofiya Pasternack, and so many others. It’s been a labor of love to help edit (and write for) this project along with Josh Levy and Naomi Milliner, and we hope that this will be a wonderful book for all young readers and a fantastic companion for any Passover tradition.

Verse Versus Prose

MR: Your first two middle-grade novels were written in verse. What inspired you to choose prose for The Gray? How was your writing process for this novel different from the others? Any challenges or surprises?

CB: Since poetry feels more like my native language, I wrote much of The Gray in verse during the writing process. Of course, there are so many books that are poetic and lyrical, and I am hoping that’s true in places for The Gray. But eventually, the verse chapters became prosaic. As I explored the story, it was clear that this is a novel meant for prose. The way chapters unfolded, I found the story demanded more detail and exploration of setting, of time, and of action. So, prose… but the spirit of the book is verse.

(From the MUF archives: 5 MG authors–including Chris Baron–share their thoughts about writing novels in verse.)

The Juggler

MR: In addition to writing novels for young people as well as poetry (“Under the Broom Tree” was published in the anthology, Lantern Tree), you are a professor of English at San Diego City College and director of the Writing Center. How do you juggle these very different roles?

CB: It’s never easy to juggle. I love ALL MY JOBS, and this is an absolute gift. I often joke around with my creative writing students that when we write, we MUST be sitting in the bay window overlooking the rushing river while holding a warm tea. The reality is that we do what we can—when we can—making space when we need it and asking for help, and learning to value the creative parts of our lives in equal measure.

Advice for Writers

MR: As a professor of English, what’s your go-to advice? Also, are you a proponent of the common wisdom of “Write what you know”?

 CB: Don’t wait. The perfect moment to start is likely not coming. Just get to it. I try to teach my students that revision is not a bad word; it’s actually the fun part.

As far as “writing what we know…” Of course! Every book I write is layered with aspects of my own life and experience. It’s also important to push past the “simple” and literal truths that we know and into what we hope for, dream about, are terrified of, and desire most, in order to reach into the complexities of story and song that evolve into book-worthy ideas.

Writing Rituals: Map It Out

MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular rituals?

CB: So many rituals! They are always changing. All of Me was written in the late hours of the night, The Magical Imperfect in the early morning. The Gray was written whenever time allowed. No matter what, I try to put on the right music. Of all my rituals, the most important thing is that I start with a map of the world, which seems to push my brain into the right focus. I always loved maps in books. I hope one day one of these maps will show up in a book!

Sneak Peek?

 MR: What are you working on now Chris? Mixed-Up Files readers (and I!) are dying to know…

CB: Oh! We already mentioned the Passover anthology….but next up is The Secret Of The Dragon Gems, a middle-grade novel I cowrote with the one and only Rajani LaRocca. We had so much fun writing this book. It comes out THIS AUGUST! Check it out here.

Next year, I also have a novel in verse coming that might just be my favorite one I’ve ever written. Forest Heart. It’s a character-driven story about kids who experience a wildfire in their Northern Californian town, and how they try to save the forest they love.

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Any chip or chip-related snack.

Coffee or tea? COFFEE. Coffee forever.

Favorite horse? My Buckskin, Shawnee.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay. (Please nay–I hope). But I’m ready, just in case.

Superpower? Flight.

Magic… Real or imagined? Real.

Favorite place on earth? Right here with my family. (Cheesy enough?) Okay, there’s a little spot in the San Diego mountains that I discovered last year…it’s old forest and running rivers. It’s my current favorite place.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A water filtration system, a Star Trek food replicator, and while I’m in Star Trek mode—a transporter array. This way I can unstrand myself but also get back to this awesome Island.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Chris. It a pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!

CB: I am such a huge fan of The Mixed-Up Files. Thank you for all you do!


Chris Baron is the award-winning author of novels for young readers including All Of Me, an NCTE Notable Book; The Magical Imperfect, a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book/SLJ Best Book of 2021; The Gray (2023), Forest Heart (2024)—all from Feiwel and Friends/Macmillion—and The Secret of the Dragon Gems, co-authored with Rajani LaRocca, from Little Bee Books (2023). He is also the editor of the forthcoming MG anthology, On All Other Nights: A Middle Grade Passover Anthology(Abrams, 2024). A professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center, Chris grew up in New York City and completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998, at SDSU. He lives in San Diego with his family and is represented by Rena Rossner from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency. Learn more about Chris on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Author Spotlight: Kellye Crocker + a GIVEAWAY!

Today, Melissa Roske chats with Kellye Crocker, author of the MG debut, Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties (Albert Whitman & Co). Described by best-selling author Rita Williams-Garcia as “thoroughly engaging,” the novel combines serious topics—anxiety, ADHD, blended families—with laugh-out-loud humor. It also hooked Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly “from the first page,” which is no mean feat. Want a chance to win a copy of the book? Giveaway details below 👇👇👇

A Summary of the Novel

Anxiety has always made Ava avoid the slightest risk, but plunging headfirst into danger might be just what she needs. 

Dad hasn’t even been dating his new girlfriend that long, so Ava is sure that nothing has to change in her life. That is, until the day after sixth grade ends, when Dad whisks her away on vacation to meet The Girlfriend and her daughter in terrifying Colorado, where even the squirrels can kill you! Managing her anxiety, avoiding altitude sickness, and surviving the mountains might take all of Ava’s strength, but at least this trip will only last two weeks. Right?

Interview with Kellye Crocker

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Kellye. So happy to have you here!

KC: Thank you, Melissa! I’ve been a MUF fan for years! I’m so excited to be here!

MR: First, I have to tell you how much I enjoyed Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties. It was fun, fast-paced, and highly relatable. Can you tell us a bit about the novel? What inspired you to write it?

KC: Thank you so much! The book was inspired by my surprise move to Denver and my own anxiety disorder. After living most of my life in Iowa, the only thing I knew about Colorado was that my partner suddenly had a job there. Colorado is so different from Iowa, and I wanted to pay attention to those differences before I got used to them. I fell in love with Colorado—like everyone does (except Ava, at least at first). I’d been feeling down about my writing and a close friend suggested I take a more playful attitude. I had so much fun exploring the state with Ava and writing her contrarian views.

I wasn’t diagnosed with anxiety and depression until I was an adult, in the late ’90s. But I believe it’s something I’ve always had. It had been well-controlled for years—until the move. I didn’t intend to write about anxiety but it suddenly was part of my day-to-day life again and it danced onto the page.

Dealing with Anxious Thoughts

MR: Ava suffers from anxiety, which causes her to obsess over things that can go wrong—especially during her trip to Colorado, where the novel takes place. Ava’s fears include: altitude sickness; rattlesnakes; wildfires; hypothermia; avalanches; ghosts; poisonous plants… The list goes on. How were you able to jump inside Ava’s brain and channel her anxiety so effectively? Also, what did your research process look like?

KC: Here’s the thing: Ava’s not wrong about those dangers! 😜 She just doesn’t have the tools to accurately assess the risks and deal with her anxiety. I have a lot of those tools, and still there were times when I was a bit freaked about, say, bears. And rattlesnakes. And driving on very narrow, very twisty, very high roads with “falling rocks” signs. (By “driving,” I mean white-knuckling it in the passenger seat.) I took a lot of notes about my feelings and physical sensations, especially in the mountains, and drew on childhood memories.

When I finished the first draft in late 2016, I started researching anxiety in young people and was surprised to learn that it was growing and the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations were concerned. (This, of course, was pre-pandemic.) I ended up reading a lot of studies and articles about adolescent development and anxiety. I even talked to (and spied on) real young people! I also did a lot of internet searches for things like “how to stay safe in Colorado.”

My amazing editor—who gave me permission to share this—was diagnosed with anxiety as a young person. Everyone’s experience with anxiety—or illness or disability—is unique, so it was very helpful to talk about our experiences as we deepened Ava’s story.

Iowa, Dogs, and Charlotte’s Web

MR: Ava is not the sum total of her anxiety. On the plus side, she’s smart, resourceful, and highly relatable. On the minus, she sabotages her dad’s carefully planned vacation to Colorado with a host of evil-adjacent deeds, including canceling the hotel reservation and putting rocks in The Girlfriend’s shoes. How were you like Ava as a child? How were you different?

KC: One of my biggest childhood fears was getting into trouble! There is no way I would have done what Ava does. She’s also a shy introvert. I’m the opposite of shy. My first grade teacher wrote, “Kellye likes to go visiting” on my report card! As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve discovered that I’m actually an introvert, too. I love being with people, and I need lots of alone time. Ava and I also love dogs, books, and Iowa. We both like a good comfort read, including Charlotte’s Web. (For more children’s books that can calm anxiety, click here.)

The Connection Between Vulnerability and Humor

MR: I appreciated how you were able to take serious topics—anxiety, ADHD, blended families—and add a generous dollop of humor. How were you able to pull this off? Also, what is the secret sauce for writing “funny”?

KC: Thank you! I think humor plays such an important (dare I say “serious?”) role in helping us face and cope with difficult, scary things.

As with so many aspects of writing fiction, I think the humor comes from the main character. How does she uniquely experience and see the world? I can’t quite articulate it, but, for me, there’s also something about the connection between vulnerability and humor that really gets me, especially in writing for young readers. Funny situations often reveal an embarrassing, tender, honest part of ourselves.

At the same time, hyperbole is a fun tool for creating humor, and I may have exaggerated Ava’s Colorado take because it made me smile. I also love paradoxes, and I think it’s true that anxiety can be both awful and funny.

It helps to have really good (and funny) critique partners! (How would any of us survive without friends to help us laugh?) Shout out to Sarah Aronson and Coral Jenrette, in particular, who helped make some last-minute revisions funnier.

Finally, I can’t help thinking about what EB White and his wife, Katharine S. White, said in an essay: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process…” I haven’t found the secret sauce, but if you do, Melissa, please share, and I promise to do the same!

Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert

MR: I know you’re a fan of the following quote from writer Elizabeth Gilbert: “Fear can come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive—or touch the radio.” What is it about this advice that resonates with you?

KC: Oooh, you’re good, Melissa! Respect from one journo to another! Fear and writing is something I’ve been interested in for years. As strange as it sounds, our sweet, twisted fear is trying to protect us. It’s the ancient lizard part of our brains that sounds the alarm: BELONGING IS EVERYTHING1 What if your writing is terrible, and everyone knows but you? You will be REJECTED! YOU! WILL! DIE! ALONE!

First of all, Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote frees me from even trying to get rid of fear. (I think it’s probably impossible. Also, fear is part of ourselves, which is why she opposes macho approaches like “Punch your fear in the face!”) Her quote reminds me that when I’m doing something I really care about, especially when it’s so uncertain, fear will show up—and that’s okay. It might arrive disguised as procrastination or writers’ block, perfectionism or the most vicious Inner Critic (whose voice sounds so familiar… Your dad? Your former coach? A jealous ex?) However it shows up, it’s not the boss! It sits in the back seat because it’s not making any decisions about this creative road trip.

I try to make Fear feel as welcome, safe, and cozy back there as I can. Setting baby-step goals, finding joy in writing, focusing on a playful process instead of the end “product,” all help me calm my fear. A friend and I joked that we feed our Fear warm applesauce cake—and then she made me one with her own home-grown apples! It was delish—and still warm. Writing (and baking) friends are so important for dealing with the fear that comes with this work.

On the Move

MR: Ava faces relocation after her dad falls in love with The Girlfriend and considers a move from Iowa to Colorado. This is something you faced yourself when you relocated to Colorado from Iowa. Can you tell us about it? What are the pros and cons of moving from one place to another?

KC: As an adult, I’d moved four other times to places where I knew no one (and little about each state), and each experience was positive. The move to Colorado felt different because I’d lived in Iowa as an adult for 26 years. My roots were deep. Maybe stuck?

I didn’t want to leave our son, who had started his first year of college, my parents, and friends I’d loved for decades. I also still was recovering from a debilitating, long-term illness. Our mortgage would be paid off in three years. My husband and I were nervous. Should we do this? What if we moved to Colorado and didn’t like it? What if it was a huge mistake?

At the same time, we agreed that our decision had to come from a positive place and not fear. (Say it with me: Fear doesn’t get to drive! That quote works for everything! 😃 ) We were new empty-nesters. Weren’t we due for an adventure? If not now, when? We could return to Iowa if we wanted, couldn’t we?

Getting our house ready to sell was a full-time job. Sometimes I’d stretch out on our living room floor and sob about all I was leaving. (Why the floor? I didn’t want to disturb the stager’s precise sofa-pillow arrangement.)

AND…Colorado’s sunny, laid-back vibe really suits us. Exploring the state’s famous mountains, history, cultures, customs, and food—and meeting amazing new friends—is the shake-up we didn’t know we needed. We joke that we should have moved sooner.

Path to Publication

MR: You were a newspaper journalist and freelance writer and editor for more than two decades. How did your past career prepare you to be a novelist? Also, can you tell us about your path to publication? Was it a straight path or a curvy road?

KC: A sure way to improve your writing is to write a lot every day, and that’s what newspaper reporters do. As a reporter, you’re constantly meeting different kinds of people, and it’s such a privilege to hear their stories. You have to be able to understand their perspective, even if you personally disagree, and that’s important for writing fiction, too. One of my fiction-writing strengths, I think, is dialogue, and that probably comes from so many years of listening to—and writing down—what people said and how they said it. Also, as a reporter, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. You sit down, write, and meet your deadline. It’s great training for novel writing.

My road to publication was long, with lots of hairpin turns, potholes, construction zones, and traffic jams! I wrote fiction for kiddos seriously and steadily for sixteen years before publishing my debut novel. Here’s to all of us late bloomers!

The process of getting the book out has been nerve-wracking. Like a lot of books in the past couple of years, mine experienced supply chain and shipping delays. In addition, the publisher was unhappy with the quality of the initial printing, so the book went through an entire reprint. (I’m very happy that they did that.) My release dates were 9/1/22, then 10/18/22, and, finally, 11/22/22.

I was told that November 22 definitely was my pub date… except no print books were available! Amazon was saying the hardcover wouldn’t ship until January. (It seems to have shipped sooner than that.) The book seems to be sort of trickling out. I haven’t seen it in “the wild” yet, and occasionally a friend emails asking, “When is your book coming out?”

Writing: Inspiration Is in the Cards

MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular writing habits or rituals?

KC: I usually work for two or three hours in the morning, and sometimes can get another hour or two in in the afternoon. I have a neurological disorder and chronic illnesses that cause serious exhaustion, and, sadly, that has worsened recently. I’m trying to learn how to work with it. (Fighting it didn’t help.) For example, I just learned about pre-emptive rest—resting before you absolutely need to—and am experimenting with that in the hopes that it increases my energy.

It’s funny when I think about my writing habits and rituals. I don’t have one thing that I always do, but I have a bag of tools, so to speak, that I use often, as needed. I do a lot of journaling, but not every day. I’ll go through periods where I light incense for certain projects. (I like Golden Coast and Amber and Moss from PF Candle Co.) Sometimes I ask a question and draw a tarot card for inspiration. (I recently bought the cool Modern Witch Tarot Deck by Lisa Sterle.) Making low-stakes visual art—drawing, painting, collaging—is helpful. Sometimes I play music. I like to read early in the morning—it inspires my own writing. (I also read while resting in the afternoon…and at night. LOL.)

Read, Read, Read… and Write, Write, Write

MR: In addition to being an author of MG fiction, you teach creative writing to young people. What advice do you give to your students—and to other aspiring authors—besides “Never give up”? (For more insight and advice from Kellye, click here.)

KC: I want my students to know that writing is good for everyone. Scientific studies show writing helps them think better, stretch their creativity, and express themselves—all important skills for whatever their dreams are. Other studies have found strong mental health benefits from even short sessions of journaling (private writing about feelings).

For those who want to publish, I recommend the standard: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Send, send, send. As I’ve turned toward a more relaxed, playful writing process, I’ve encouraged my students and others to do the same. Drafting and editing require different skills and brain regions. It’s unhelpful to attempt both at the same time. Try to bring as much of your weird, wild, and wonderful self to the page. That’s truly where the magic is.

I also love, love, love working with young reluctant writers! I think it’s important that they understand they are innately creative, what they have to say is important, we need their voices, and stories can take lots of forms. I wrote a guest post about teaching creative writing to young people for The TeachingBooks Blog here.

New Projects Ahead

MR: What are you working on now, Kellye? Care to share?

KC: I’m juggling a few things. One is a middle grade novel set in the Victorian era. I finished the first draft ten years ago! I did a big revision in 2022, but it’s still a mess, and I’ve been stuck for quite a while. Expecting an epiphany…any…day… I’m also dipping into a new novel-ish thing…middle grade…set in the near future, involving politics and basketball. And I’m working on two nonfiction picture books. Picture books are a new and challenging form for me, but nonfiction feels like coming home.

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Dove dark chocolate

Coffee or tea? Cold brew coffee, even in winter—unless it’s really cold—then hot. Black. But iced tea (no sugar) on a hot, summer afternoon is lovely.

Cat or dog? DOGS. DUH. (Written under the watchful eye of Daisy Crocker, my energetic, bossy, loudly barky Black Lab.) As a kiddo, I was dismayed that the only pets allowed at my house were tropical fish. As an adult, I’ve been a devoted pet mom (consecutively) to two black cats and two Black Labs. They stretched my heart in so many ways.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? OMG, are you even KIDDING?! NAY ALL DAY, NAY ALL THE WAY!!! (I’m assuming this question involves me facing real zombies, in which case, I’m probably already dead. If it involves me safely reading about or watching zombies [on TV], then yea.)

Superpower? Napping

Biggest fear? That someone I love will be hurt or die. (Second biggest: Zombies. Thanks for that!)

Tractor rides or hiking trails? Hiking. At a leisurely pace, not too far.

Favorite place on earth? With family and friends. Maybe in a magical, cozy-cool indie bookstore?

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? Assuming clean water and food (coconuts? bugs?) already are included, I’d bring the biggest book I could carry, a notebook-and-pen, and sunscreen. Because of the hyphens, I’m hoping we can count notebook-and-pen as one thing. If I’m overruled, I’ll ditch the sunscreen.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Kellye—and congratulations on the publication of Dad’s Girlfriend and other Anxieties. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

KC: Thank you so much, Melissa! Your questions really made me think. And I really appreciate you taking the time to read Dad’s Girlfriend and to share it with your readers!


For a chance to win a copy of Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxietiescomment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 2/19/22 EST.) U.S. only, please. 


Kellye Crocker is a journalist who’s worked in library youth services and has taught writing at two Iowa universities. She teaches creative writing to young people through a large literary nonprofit. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s an empty-nester who lives in Denver, where you’ll find her reading, making art, and hiking with her husband and their rambunctious black lab, Daisy. Learn more about Kellye on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman). Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.