Posts Tagged bullying

Author Spotlight: Daphne Benedis-Grab + a GIVEAWAY!

Today, author Daphne Benedis-Grab chats about her latest middle-grade novel, I KNOW YOUR SECRETout from Scholastic tomorrow, December 7–and shares her writing secrets. She also tells us all about her role as a public-school librarian (spoiler alert: she loves it) AND and there’s a chance to win a copy of Daphne’s book if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details! 👇👇👇

Summary of I Know Your Secret

The email arrives Sunday night: Do exactly what I say, when I say it, or I will reveal your secret.

On Monday morning, seventh graders Owen, Gemma, Ally, and Todd, who have nothing in common and barely know each other, must work together and follow the instructions of an anonymous blackmailer. None of them want to go along with the blackmailer’s instructions, but each of them have a secret they must protect at all costs.

Set during a single day of school, the students race against the clock to complete a disquieting set of tasks, with fast-paced chapters detailing each moment of the day interspersed with a later interview-style recording made by the quartet.

Interview with Daphne Benedis-Grab

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Daphne! Thanks for joining us today.

DBG: I am completely delighted to be here! I am a longtime fan of Mixed-Up Files.

Book Inspiration

MR: First, I need to tell you how much I enjoyed I Know Your Secret—so much so, I gobbled it up in one sitting. What was the impetus for writing it?

DBG: It makes my heart sing to hear this! I wanted to write a book that was hard to put down, and I was inspired by Lois Duncan to try and write such a book. When I was growing up, her thrillers kept me up all night–even the second (and third) readings. So, two-and-a-half years ago, when I began a graduate program to become a school librarian and suddenly found it hard to write stories, I realized I needed to create a story idea I’d find so fun that it would always pull me back in–even after long days with my kiddos, and my homework. I thought about what I’d loved when I was middle-grade age, and that was when I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a thriller. My goal was to work on a story that was hard to put down while writing it—and that readers would find it hard to put down, too!

Dancing Dialogue

MR: As above, your novel is fun to read and incredibly fast-paced, with loads of twists and turns along the way. What is the secret to writing a book that kids (and MG-loving adults 🙂) can’t put down?

DBG: Thank you so much for that! I think writing a story that is fun to work on every day, that has bits of dialogue dancing in your head when you are on the subway or washing dishes and that makes you happy to think about, is my secret. Another element that makes a book un-put-downable to me is characters who struggle with real things, who are flawed and feel different but come to see that those flaws help them grow—and that those differences are what make them gloriously unique and essential to the world. So, working to create such characters is writing secret number two.

Multiple narrators: Owen, Todd, Ally, and Gemma

MR: The book is written from the perspective of four seventh-grade characters: Owen, Todd, Ally, and Gemma. Each has a secret, and each is terrified of having his or her secret exposed. How did you come up with these four characters? And how were you able to make their voices distinct?

DBG: I discovered when writing a previous MG novel, The Angel Tree, that I love creating books with multiple narrators. As humans when an event takes place, we tend to think we see all sides of it; that our narrative is the narrative. This is in fact almost never true. Any event has multiple perspectives, elements we may not see, and a past leading up to it that we are completely unaware of. With multiple narrators, I can show different sides of the same story so that readers see the complexity of any given event or person.

Talking about Todd…

Todd came to me first; he’s seen by the other characters (and everyone at his school) as a violent kid who lashes out with little provocation. We see this version of the narrative from Gemma, Owen, and Ally—but then we learn Todd’s story: what he is dealing with, why his fuse is so short, and how desperately he needs help. The readers get to see this early on, and then have the satisfaction of the other characters slowly coming to see it too—and seeing how learning Todd’s story changes their narratives and reshapes everything. I started with each character thinking they know the whole story but come to see how much is actually missing, both in their perceptions of each other and the bigger story at play: who is blackmailing them, and why. When they are finally honest with each other, they are able to understand each other as nuanced, complex, and vulnerable beings.

…and Ally, and Owen, and Gemma

Todd is inspired by a boy I knew in elementary school who I always thought was misunderstood and pigeonholed unfairly. I wish I’d done something about it then, and maybe having him in this book is my way of apologizing. Ally is made up of my love of animals as well as grief I have experienced in my life (Ally lost her parents twice: first her birth parents and then the parents who adopted her). Owen is my goofy, silly, over-eager but well intended side. And Gemma is who I wanted to be when I was in middle school: grounded, confident, and never afraid to speak up. Each of them having their own story helped their voices stay distinct. And then there’s that bigger story: who is behind the sinister messages, and why. But that stays secret until you read the book!

Shh…It’s a Secret

MR: Speaking of secrets, the theme of secret keeping—hence, the title—is equally important. What is it about secrets that fills most of us with anxiety and dread? Also, what were you trying to say about secrets in general?

DBG: Ages ago I took a psychology class where we read an article about how evil grows in hidden darkness. The point was that the secrets we hide inside ourselves don’t shrink or disappear; they grow bigger and stronger inside us, revealing feelings that don’t serve us like isolation and shame. The thought of being exposed can be terrifying, but when we share secrets with people we trust, the power those secrets hold over us withers in the bright of day. Quite often we discover we are not alone, either in the feelings or experience, and that the people who care about us will still care about us, and do all they can to help us through.

Stamping Out Bullying

MR: Bullying is another important theme in your book. Although I’d like to think most schools are aware of the problem—and address it as best they can—it’s clearly a prevalent and ongoing problem. While doing research for the book, did you come across any anti-bullying strategies in schools that seemed particularly effective?  

DBG: This is such a good and important question! What can be especially challenging about bullying is that it happens in those liminal times when teachers are distracted. And that makes fear of payback for telling an adult very real. Because of that, I find the most effective strategies to be community based. Schools that value, teach, and embody inclusion tend to have fewer incidents of kids being bullied. Schools that educate about bullying, compassion, and teaching kids to be allies, are also places that have less bullying. I may be biased, but I think schools with libraries and librarians are in the best position to foster these kinds of communities. Few things cultivate compassion, inclusion, and allyship like books! {For another MG author’s insight on bullying, check out Melissa Roske’s interview with Helen Rutter here.}

Inspiration Behind Daphne’s Books


MR: Turning back to books and writing, I Know Your Secret is your fifth published middle-grade novel, and you’ve written a YA novel too. You’ve also published short stories. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration for your various projects? Is there a secret sauce you can share with Mixed-Up Files readers?

DBG: Ha, that question is wonderful! But I’m worried my answer may not be all that helpful to others, because I have a brain that does not turn off. I am always thinking, mulling things over, going off on thought tangents, wondering endlessly about everything… And the way I make sense of it all is by creating narratives. If a headline or a student’s actions or an exchange I overhear on the subway baffle me, I create a narrative to help me understand it. I also create narratives imaging how something that has happened—either in my life or the world or a book or movie—might have gone differently. And some of those many narratives are seeds of books!

The Writing Librarian

MR: In addition to being a children’s book author, you are a public-school librarian. How do you juggle your writing career with your day job? What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular writing rituals?

DBG: Honestly, I am still figuring that out. My kids are seniors in high school, so I try to be with them as much as possible—which leaves less time for other things. But I absolutely love being a librarian. I love my school. I love my administration. And I love, love, love my students! Work makes me very happy, even when it’s hard. And being happy makes me a better, more engaged writer. Plus, my students influence my writing, which is motivating as well. I try to write at least a little every day. I am more productive, and able to go deeper into my story, when writing is a habit: a muscle I use regularly.

My first draft ritual is to reread whatever I wrote the day before, and polish it a bit before breaking new ground. This is a less intimidating place to start, and it gets me back into the characters. I will also confess to another secret ritual: No matter how little time I have to write, I cannot start until I’ve messed around on the internet a bit—checking my socials and reading the latest Entertainment Weekly stories. I’d probably have written twice as many books if I’d managed to drop this particular ritual!

What’s Next for Daphne

MR: What are you working on now, Daphne? Enquiring minds want to know!

DBG: Details are still a secret, but I am writing a follow-up middle-grade thriller set in Snow Valley, where I Know Your Secret takes place. More to come soon!

Lightning Round!

MR: Finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, Daphne, so…

Preferred writing snacks?

Dark chocolate and granola bars.

Coffee or tea?

I like tea a lot but adore my coffee!

 Cat or dog?

Forever a cat lady (but like dogs a lot too).

Favorite mystery novel?

For the past five years or so that spot has been held by Kate Milford’s Greenglass House. The atmosphere is deliciously spooky, the plotting excellent, the characters realistic, and the main character, Milo, is adopted, which I love to see in books because my kids are adopted.

 Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

It’s coming.


Teleportation. I love to travel but am not a big fan of airplanes. I wouldn’t mind a faster commute to work either!

 Favorite place on earth?

Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As with the books of Lois Duncan, it has been a lifelong love affair. My parents started taking me when I was six months old (there was an unfortunate sand-eating incident, but otherwise it was a smooth trip), and we started bringing our kids when they were three.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?

Dark chocolate, an e-reader with an undying battery, and sunscreen (redheads burn super easily).

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Daphne—and congratulations on the publication of I Know Your Secret. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

DBG: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a thrill!

And now…


For a chance to win a copy of I KNOW YOUR SECRET,  comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! Giveaway ends on Wednesday, December 8, at midnight EST. U.S. only, please.

About the Author

Daphne Benedis-Grab is the author of middle-grade books including Clementine for Christmas and The Angel Tree, and young-adult books including The Girl in the Wall. Her short stories have appeared in American Girl magazine. She earned an MFA at The New School and a School Media Library Specialist degree from the Palmer School of Library and Information Science. She lives in New York City with her husband, kids, and cat, and spends her days writing and being the librarian at PS32 in Brooklyn. Learn more about Daphne on her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Interview with Author Karen Pokras, author of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER, and BOOK GIVEAWAY!

I’m so thrilled to have Karen Pokras on today talking about her newest book, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER! Karen and I met at a writer’s conference many years ago and have since been part of a super cool writer’s group that meets once a week at a café to write alongside each other. It’s been a while since we’ve met up, of course, but even better for readers at From The Mixed Up-Files—we get Karen here today to talk about her new fun, adventurous, and heartfelt story! PLUS you could win a hardcover copy of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER. Just enter the contest at the end of this post. U.S. residents only please.


Eleven-year-old Danny Wexler, the only Jewish boy in his town during the late 1970s, is obsessed with the Bermuda Triangle. When a local child goes missing, Danny’s convinced it’s connected to an old Bermuda Triangle theory involving UFOs. With his two best friends and their Spacetron telescope, Danny heads to his backyard to investigate. But hunting for extraterrestrials is complicated, and it doesn’t help that his friend Nicholas’s mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with a Jewish boy. Equipped with his super-secret spy notebook, Danny sets out to fight both the aliens and the growing antisemitism in the town, in hopes of mending his divided community.

Interview with Karen

Donna: The story is rich with family bonds, community connections, and 1970s nostalgia that adds a fun and deeper layer to the story. How much research was involved in writing a story set in this time period and how much of the 1970s references were inspired from your own childhood?

Karen: First, thank you so much for having me on From The Mixed-Up Files today!

In 1978, the year the story takes place, I was ten years old, so there is definitely a lot that is taken straight from my own childhood. At the same time, that was many years ago and I wanted to make sure I was capturing the time accurately. That’s mostly where the research came in, looking up things like what movies were the biggest box office hits (Grease), whether or not nurses wore caps on their heads (yes and no), and what pizza toppings were the most popular (pepperoni.) A couple of other fun facts I learned: the video game Space Invaders came out in 1978 and movie prices were only $2.00. I also put out a crowdsource call on Facebook asking friends to share some of their own favorite 1970s memories. The responses were so fun to sort through.

Donna: Danny is a sweet and endearing character who struggles at times and fumbles a bit in his choices and beliefs, making him very relatable to readers. Is his character based on anyone you know?

Karen: Like most of the characters I write, Danny is a combination of many people I know. I love to mingle real life observations and memories when creating characters. Part of the fun in writing a character like Danny is exploring his fumbles and watching him figure his way through, even if messy. The goal is for young readers to say yeah, I get it, I’ve been there, or I’m going through that, or this is something I want to remember because it’s important and it can help others.

Donna: The story is full of zany adventures for Danny and his friends such as investigating The Bermuda Triangle, aliens, werewolves, and urban myths that young readers will be sure to enjoy. How did you create the idea to blend all these things together in a story?

Karen: As a child, I remember being so curious about the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs. Those were always big topics in my house and among my neighborhood friends. I also had a completely irrational fear of a white van kidnapper. I honestly have no idea where it came from, but to me it was very real. I’m sure my older brother put it my head. (P.S. I’m not at all sure he did, but when I was 10, I blamed everything on him, so we’ll go with that.) When sitting down to write a story that took place in 1978, I knew I wanted all of these elements that were a big part of my own childhood. As for the werewolf, I have no explanation, other than: welcome to my ten-year-old writing brain.

Donna: While a fun adventure, the story also has more meaningful threads of cultural divides, multi-generational relationships, anti-Semitism, and strength of community bonds. What prompted you to combine light-hearted high jinks with these rich and heartfelt threads?

Karen: In 2017, when I’d first started thinking about writing a new story and began brainstorming with memories from my childhood, I knew I wanted to write about a small town in the 1970s with a strong community bond. I also knew the story would have humor and high jinks as that’s where my middle grade voice always tends to land. At the same time, however, I’d been watching acts of antisemitism nationally and locally month after month: Charlottesville, Jewish cemeteries being vandalized just miles away, people finding KKK fliers on their cars in my community. While it all terrified me, I also felt compelled to write about it, and so my focus shifted to make room in the story’s underlying themes, adding in the multi-generational relationship to help facilitate the discussion.

Donna: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism and bullying in many forms are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s—and often go hand-in-hand. Were there any experiences of both from your own childhood that helped drive your writing?

Karen: There definitely were. It’s funny how we keep certain memories buried. The deeper I got into Danny’s story, the more I would remember specific incidents from my childhood, through college and graduate school, straight into adulthood, all of which helped to drive the story. There’s no doubt this was a difficult book to write, particularly the ending, because there is no neat “tie it in a bow” resolution-type ending for antisemitism and other forms of bullying on a wide-scale.

Donna: There are many “what if?” scenarios throughout Danny’s story that add to the mystery and mayhem and will appeal to young reader’s imaginations. Do you use your own “what-if?” process to write books and if so, how does that work?

Karen: I’m pretty sure my brain is on a constant loop of “what-if.”  When it comes to writing books, I absolutely gravitate toward a “what-if” approach. For this book in particular, I spent a good deal of time journaling and exploring my own personal memories and feelings. I had a very, very loose picture with a few random scenes, but really no idea of how to get there or even how these scenes would fit together. I remember early in the process sending chapters to my critique partner with the message “here’s another chapter to the story without a story.” Slowly though things started coming together. So yes, there were a lot of “what ifs” and my critique partner is basically a saint for letting me run them all by her.

Donna: I love Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. Where did this idea come from—and did you have your own secret notebook as a child to record secrets in?

Karen: I wish I had a really cool answer for this one, but I don’t. It’s one of those things that popped into my head at some point during one of those “what if” moments. While I did keep diaries as a child, they were very different from Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. They were the kind with a lock and silver-edged paper, and I was always losing the key. I have no idea what became of them, and occasionally wonder if they wound up in the trash, or if someone has all my secrets stashed away somewhere.

Donna: Can you share what current story you’re working on, and does it explore similar themes in The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler or new ones?

Karen: I have a couple of manuscripts in the works and while both are very different than Danny Wexler, they both have multi-generational relationships, quirky/funny characters, and meaningful underlying themes. The first, about a science-loving girl who moves into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, is on submission, and the other, about to head out on submission, is about ballet and also examines antisemitism, but under very different circumstances. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these stories soon! Thank You, Donna!

About Karen:

Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Always an avid reader, Karen found her passion for writing later in life and now runs all of her stories past the furry ears of her two feline editorial assistants before anyone else. A numbers geek at heart, she enjoys a good spreadsheet almost as much as she loves storytelling. A native of Connecticut, Karen is the proud mom to three brilliant children who still provide an endless stream of great book material. She lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. ​For more information, visit

Karen’s social media links:


Instagram: @karenpokras_author


Twitter: @karentoz


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WNDMG -Interview with THE COMEBACK Author E.L. Shen

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

Today for We Need Diverse MG, we are delighted to share an interview with E.L. Shen, author of The Comeback, and editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Also: be sure you check out the book giveaway after the interview!

Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Elizabeth!

Thank you so much for having me!

Interview with THE COMEBACK Author E. L. Shen

Please tell us about The Comeback. What inspired you to write Maxine’s story?

 In fourth grade, I watched the movie, Ice Princess, and desperately wanted to become a famous figure skater. While that did *not* happen, I did take lessons for several years and developed a love for the sport. I was particularly obsessed with it during the 2018 Olympics. Around the same time, I had a conversation with my friends about a comeback list I had created when I was in middle school – any time I was bullied, I wrote down the insults and my fake responses so I would be “prepared” for next time. One of my friends offhandedly mentioned that this would be an amazing book idea. So when I sat down to write Maxine’s story, I realized that my love for skating and my middle school antics would marry into a perfect middle-grade. Maxine’s determination and spunky personality flew off the page, and the rest is history.

Racism and Bullying in MG

What are some subjects you’ve addressed in The Comeback?

The idea that female competitors can be friends is a topic that I felt strongly about portraying in The Comeback. We tend to be close to people who have similar interests, which sometimes leads to rivalry and jealousy. In addition, female figure skaters are often stereotyped as catty. I wanted to dispel these rumors by showing Maxine and Hollie’s gradual friendship on and off the rink. I also addressed racism and bullying in The Comeback because it’s important for young marginalized readers to have a roadmap for support when they come across these kinds of problems.

What are the top three things readers can take away from this story?

  1. Winning is not always everything.
  2. When you feel most alone, know that there are people ready and willing to support you.
  3. While a delicious brownie and good music can’t solve every problem, they can help.

((For more on bullying themes in MG, read this WNDMG guest post))

Could you share your author/editor journey with us?

Yes! When I was little, I desperately wanted to be an author, but as I grew older, I fell more and more in love with editing, and helping other writers’ visions come to life. In college, I majored in creative writing and simultaneously did several publishing internships at HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. Three years later, my career has blossomed at Macmillan and I am honored make a home for myself at FSG. The opportunity to write has always been my dream so I am lucky to do both.

Could you share with us your ideas and goals when it comes to the representation of diversity in the books you write and publish?

It has and will always be my goal to shine a light on the multifaceted marginalized child’s experience. BIPOC children are not a monolith. Queer children are not a monolith. The more we tell our – and our ancestors’ stories – the better. As an editor and an author, I want to dispel stereotypes, and show the beauty and humanity in all of our various histories and imaginations.


What are some common reasons for a manuscript to make it to acquisitions at Macmillan?

Excellent, vivid storytelling, a strong point of view, and steady, confident pacing. Pacing really is everything!

What exciting projects are you working on right now with your own writing as well as your editorial projects?

Ooh, so many!! On the editorial side, I have a number of wonderful picture books coming out, including Dear Librarian by Lydia Sigwarth, illustrated by Romina Galotta in June 2021. I also have your fabulous picture book, She Sang for India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used her Voice for Change out in Winter 2022. In the middle grade and young adult spaces, I’m excited about a nonfiction underdog story based on a bestselling adult book titled Spare Parts, a queer Black gothic debut from Ciera Burch, and a sweeping historical drama from Libba Bray.

On the author end of things, I’m working on what I like to call the Asian American Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. For now, that’s all I can say on that. 😉

E. L. Shen is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. Her debut middle grade novel, The Comeback (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021) is a Junior Library Guild Selection, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, and was praised for its “fast-paced prose, big emotions, and authentic dialogue” in The New York Times. She received her Bachelor of Arts from Barnard College of Columbia University, where she majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. She is represented by Marietta Zacker at Gallt & Zacker Literary 

Book Giveaway

Want to own your very own copy of The Comeback? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below! 

You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on March 15, 2021 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US only) to receive the book.