Posts Tagged contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

Ready to Rumble! with Matt Wallace, Author of BUMP—Plus a Book Giveaway!

The middle-grade fanbase for pro wrestling is off the charts, and BUMP takes readers on a thrilling and heartfelt tour of the sport—in and out of the ring. This MG novel tells the tale of 12-year-old MJ, a girl who finds meaning, healing, family, and joy in learning the craft of a “luchadora,” including the all-important BUMP. 

And there can be no more qualified guide than Matt Wallace, a former pro wrestler who also happens to be a screenwriter, podcaster, and Hugo-winning author. (You can check out his website here.) Thanks for joining MUF, Matt!

My pro wrestling fandom dates WAY back to Mad Dog Vachon, Baron von Raschke (the Claw!), The Crusher, et al. How has pro wrestling evolved, and what makes the luchadores tradition unique?

American wrestling has evolved in a lot of ways, but one of the most important, in my opinion, is how it has and is becoming a much more inclusive industry and hobby, for wrestlers and fans. When I was coming up, it was still very much a thing for and performed by straight, largely white guys of a certain physical type. Now we have women wrestling who are as famous as the men at the highest levels, and we’re seeing it open up in a lot of other ways.

There is still a lot of work to do when it comes to that inclusivity, and the problems wrestling has had with that in the past it definitely still has, but it is lightyears ahead of where it was even ten years ago. A lot of that is down to the work of those women and wrestlers of color and LGBT+ wrestlers, often putting on their own shows to be able to showcase their talent and passion.

Lucha is unique in many ways, but one of the most central is how it has been embraced and elevated by and integral to the culture and society to which it belongs. Whereas American pro-wrestling has often been seen as a niche thing, lucha libre is a part of Mexican identity. Luchadores became heroes and celebrities outside of the ring, starring in movies (in their masks, as their wrestling personas) and appearing on TV and in comic books. They became influential in politics. It’s a much more nationally revered form than wrestling is in America.

A reader doesn’t have to know a lot about wrestling to love this book, I’m thinking. It’s so well written with the wrestling scenes clearly described, and the themes are way bigger than the sport. Still, young people especially gravitate to pro wrestling, it seems. Why does it have such a powerful appeal to young fans?

BUMP author Matt Wallace

Speaking for me, when I was a kid I viewed wrestlers as real-life superheroes. They weren’t products of a comic book panel or movie special effects, they were really performing these incredible, even godlike feats of strength and endurance and athleticism, telling these fantastical stories.

When you look at how dominant the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become in entertainment, I think you can draw a straight line between the appeal of that and the appeal of professional wrestling and lucha libre. It’s something in which kids can believe and escape and on which they can project their own desires and dreams of taking charge of their fate and being in control. That’s all powerful stuff when you’re young.

Tell us about your own wrestling career! Were you a hero or a heel? Did you have a signature look and move?

I was almost always a heel, being a very large guy who looked kind of scary. When I started I wore ripped jeans and cut-up t-shirts and called myself The One Man Riot, and then later I was in a tag team called The Legion Knights with a very good friend of mine. We did kind of a holy roller gimmick. He was the evangelist, and I was his enforcer, Deacon Riot. I had a lot of finishes (finishing moves) during my career, but my favorite was the flying head butt off the top rope I stole from one my favorite wrestlers growing up, Bam Bam Bigelow.

The main character, twelve-year-old MJ, learns so much about life by joining the wrestling school. What did being a pro wrestler teach you?

So much. I spent most of my teens in pro-wrestling school, and my twenties in the business, so wrestling really formed the core of who I am. It taught me self-confidence and self-discipline and about belonging to something. That wasn’t always perfect, though. There was plenty of bad behavior and toxic lessons I had to unlearn later in life, too. But that was also part of what wrest

ling taught me. All communities and professions and cultures have dysfunction and toxic thinking, and overcoming that and establishing boundaries and being a positive force in your community is a huge lesson in itself. I take the good with the bad, and I’m grateful for the time I spent in the business.

In my experience, every story has a seed—that moment when an idea comes forward and says, “Write me!” Was there a seed for Bump?

My agent, DongWon Song, was really the person who encouraged me to write a middle-grade novel. I’d never considered trying to write a book for kids before. But I’d written some sample chapters in an effort to get hired for this contract gig writing a middle-grade book based on someone else’s concept/IP, and found I had a good voice for it. At the same time, my agent had also been encouraging me to write more personal fiction, wanting to see more of “me” in my stories. Those two elements really collided to inspire BUMP. If I was going to write a personal story for kids, making it about a kid in wrestling school just made the most sense to me.

Did you need to do a lot of extra research for this book? Or do you just know the history, the moves, and terminology in your bones?

Matt Wallace applying the heel in his very first match!

I’d say 99.9% of it came straight from the hip, and was just me pulling from my own experiences in wrestling school and my knowledge of the business. I did have to think a little bit about how the industry has changed since I was a wrestler, which is creeping up on twenty years ago at this point. Which is where references to things like Lucha Underground came from, which is a type of wrestling show that didn’t exist when I was wrestling. It’s also a big reason I chose to make the protagonist a young girl. I wanted to reinforce, especially for young kids, that women have a prominent place in this business and should pursue it if wrestling is their passion.

MJ is such a great character, complex and admirable with a super arc. Is she based on anyone in particular? Or is she an amalgamation of people you’ve known?

She’s really an amalgamation of my nieces. I have four, all my cousins’ kids, all around MJ’s age or younger. And I think some of me and my wife, Nikki, is mixed in there too.

The experience and working through grief is a main theme in the book. And I’ve come to think of grief as coming in many forms and not just related to the death of loved ones. MJ seems to get a handle on processing her heavy feelings when she starts pursuing her passion. Could you share a bit about that?

I think it’s very much about coping. When you go through something like that, losing someone or something central to who you are, it’s very easy for your everyday life to lose its flavor, and even its meaning. You stopped feeling like the things you do matter. You start to lose the joy you felt before. So when you find something, like MJ does in BUMP, that reignites that spark in you, it helps you reconnect with the life you had before that loss, and helps you get to the other side of your grief. Wrestling helped me deal with a rough period of my childhood and figure out who I am and how to be happy.

One of my fave aspects of the book was the sense of family MJ developed with Papí, Tika, Zina, et al. Was that your experience with the people you performed with during your time as a wrestler? Can you give a specific example from your own life or career?

Oh, absolutely, my wrestling crew became my family, and I still keep up with many of them today through social media, even though most of them live on the east coast and I’m all the way across the country in southern California. One of the other students who started at my pro-wrestling school, the Doghouse, at the same time I did is still wrestling and going strong to this day, and whenever he is (or was, before the pandemic) booked on a show near my town, we reconnect and it’s like no time has passed. Those are the kind of connections you form in the wrestling business.

Thanks SO much, Matt (aka One Man Riot) for taking the time to share your story, and the story behind the story. MG readers are going to love BUMP! To keep up with Matt Wallace, check him out on Twitter and Instagram, as well as his website .

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GROUND ZERO –Interview and Giveaway with Author Alan Gratz

I was thrilled to be able to read Alan Gratz’ new book, Ground Zero.  His books are so awesome! Such fun and exciting reads. And this one is no different. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to read about 9/11. Yes, it’s been 20 years, but like most of us, there are a lot of emotions tied up in that very difficult day. But Alan did a fantastic job with this book! He did a great job of handling the facts of the event, while masterfully weaving together two different action-packed stories. He kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next. Of course, if you read Alan’s other books, you’ve seen this type of heart-pounding action before.


In time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, master storyteller Alan Gratz (Refugee) delivers a pulse-pounding and unforgettable take on history and hope, revenge and fear — and the stunning links between the past and present.

September 11, 2001, New York City: Brandon is visiting his dad at work, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. Out of nowhere, an airplane slams into the tower, creating a fiery nightmare of terror and confusion. And Brandon is in the middle of it all. Can he survive — and escape?

September 11, 2019, Afghanistan: Reshmina has grown up in the shadow of war, but she dreams of peace and progress. When a battle erupts in her village, Reshmina stumbles upon a wounded American soldier named Taz. Should she help Taz — and put herself and her family in mortal danger?

Two kids. One devastating day. Nothing will ever be the same.




“The pace is quick (don’t blink or you’ll miss something!), its emotions deeply authentic, and the highly visual settings resonate with accuracy. With a moving author’s note, pertinent back matter, and a surprise twist which brings the book full circle, Gratz delivers another winning read.” — Booklist, starred review

“Gratz’s deeply moving writing paints vivid images of the loss and fear of those who lived through the trauma of 9/11.” — Kirkus Reviews


Alan was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions about this amazing book:

Ground Zero was an amazing read, but a bit difficult for us who remember so vividly that very dark day. Was it hard to do the research for this book? To relive 9/11 all over again?

Yes. I thought, “Oh, twenty years have passed. This won’t be any harder than anything else I’ve written about.” But I was wrong. It was very difficult, emotionally, for me to research and write this book. 9/11 is still such a raw nerve for me, it turns out–and for many of us who lived through it. And I wasn’t even in New York or Pennsylvania or the Pentagon, and didn’t have my own personal connection to it! But like so many Americans, I felt like part of me had been carved out by the events of that day, and it took a long time to fill that hollowness back in. It turns out, it still hadn’t entirely been filled in. At the same time, I knew that for today’s middle schoolers, 9/11 is ancient history. It happened before they were born. They don’t have that same visceral reaction to reading about it or thinking about it as adults do. And it was important to try to show them how that feels for me and so many other adults, especially as many of us still have trouble talking about it.

I love how you weave two different storylines with their own characters together. You keep the suspense going in both at the same time. Do you write each storyline by itself first? Or do the two stories come to you at the same time?

When I’m writing multiple, parallel POVs, I start by researching and thinking about the story for each. I haven’t figured out every beat of the stories at this point; I don’t know every chapter. But I’ll figure out what the larger story is for each kid. I’m definitely looking for parallels throughout. “Oh, here they both see a helicopter. Oh, here they’re both trapped in a dark place underground. Oh, here they see their world come tumbling down.” Little parallels too. “Oh, here Brandon mentions toy Wolverine gloves, and here Reshmina puts sticks in between her fingers and pretends to attack her brother like a giant cat.” Then I’ll put together the individual chapter outline for one of the stories–often the first of the stories we’ll read in the book. In Refugee, that’s Josef’s story. In Grenade, it’s Hideki’s. In Ground Zero, it’s Brandon’s. I plot that story out all the way. Then I go back and start plotting the details of the next story. That way I can build in parallels and connections to the first, but with an idea already where I want to go overall. I think if I were building two or more stories at once, simultaneously, I might be too tempted to pull off in different directions that then don’t connect in the end. It’s tricky, but researching and having a strong idea of each story first and then building each one separately seems to work best for me. When I write the actual book though, I write it straight through, jumping from character to character, because I want the whole book to feel like one story. One novel. Not two or three separate stories I mashed together.

The storyline of the girl in Afghanistan is so vivid and real. Where did you find the research on Afghanistan? Did you contact people who lived there?

Thanks. For the Afghanistan War side of the story, I relied heavily on the amazing reporting that’s still being done by newspapers and magazines and radio and TV networks around the world. That war’s been going on so long that there are already lots of books about it too. And thanks to contacts I’ve made at UNICEF due to my work with Refugee, I was also able to speak via Zoom with the UNICEF team on the ground in Afghanistan to get a better idea about the situation there now. The World Trade Center side of the story has of course been covered extensively here in the United States. I read a number of books that went into great detail about what happened before, during, and after that day, but it was the first hand accounts from survivors that were the most important part of my research. Everything that happens in my story really happened to people inside the Twin Towers that day.

You write about some amazing places in the world, not just in this book, but in all of your books. How do you learn so much about them to give such distinct details? Are you able to visit them?

I almost never get to visit the places I write about, unless it’s after the fact! Which I regret. But my deadlines are often such that I don’t have a lot of time to travel as a part of my research, and of course there’s the cost of visiting far-flung places. I wish I could! In the case of Afghanistan, of course, that’s not a place I would visit now even if I could. The 2020 Global Peace Index ranks Afghanistan as the most dangerous country in the world. I hope Afghanistan is one day peaceful again, and that I’m able to visit. To make up for not visiting, I try to learn as much about a place and a people as possible through books and interviews and other media. Not just the historical events I’m writing about, but everything from the food they eat to the religion they practice to the music they make and the stories they tell. And more, of course. Not all of that will make it into the book, of course. It can’t. But I want to get to know a place and a people as much as possible before I write about them. Most importantly, that includes how they think. It’s a terrible mistake to assume that another culture shares the same attitudes and beliefs and values that you do–and worse, to assume that YOUR attitudes and beliefs and values are the “right” ones. In everything I read and learn about a place and a people, I’m trying to empathize with them as much as possible, and see life through their eyes, not mine. That is, after all, what I’m hoping to help my young readers see too.

I have read that you use a storyboard to brainstorm ideas and write extensive outlines for your books before you even start writing. How does that help you to see the story?

Outlining helps me see the larger path a story is taking. It helps me see the plot twists and emotional beats in a story from high above, and make sure I have those well-paced throughout the story. Outlining helps me see if I’ve taken too long to move from Act One to Act Two, if I’m spending too long (or too short a time) in Act Two, and if Act Three is too quick or too slow. I can see the parallels I build into my multiple POV stories. Outlining also helps me keep track of secondary characters and storylines, and make sure I haven’t gone too long without returning to them. My outline board helps me save time too. I don’t end up doing as much wholesale rewriting when I have taken the time to hammer out plot decisions in advance. I still do a LOT of rewriting, of course. And some of the outlined plot will change in revisions. But I can generally get most of the big problems figured out before I ever write the first word of the actual book.

Do you have any tips to give writers who might like to write books like yours?

I like the way you ask that: “writers who might like to write books like mine.” Because there are as many different ways to write books as there are authors, of course, and no one way is the right way. But if you’re looking to write books like I do… Get to the action early and often. Be accurate where it matters, but don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Make your story more about the individual characters than the moment in history. And perhaps most importantly, have something to say. Don’t just tell an action-packed story. Have a theme. A message beyond the action and the thrills. Refugee challenges young readers to see the plight of otherwise invisible refugees and open their hearts and communities to them. Grenade says, “Hey, war isn’t all fun and games, and look what happens to the people caught in the middle.” Allies says we’re stronger when we work together. And similarly, Ground Zero says “It’s not us against the world. It has to be everyone, working together. That’s how we survive.” What is your story about? Answer that, and make sure you return to that question or idea or theme throughout your book. Then you’ll have a book your readers really can’t put down.

 Excellent interview, Alan! Thanks so much. Alan’s publisher, Scholastic Press is offering a giveaway of 1 copy of the book. To enter, leave a comment below and/or tag @mixedupfiles on Twitter. 

Meet Virginia…again

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Kwame Alexander prior to a Toledo-Lucas County Public Library event several years ago. His eyes lit up when I shared Ohio University Press was publishing my biography of Virginia Hamilton for younger readers. I mean, LIT UP! We spoke about Virginia’s incredible body of work, awards, accolades. And of course, being the poet he is, Kwame was curious about how Ms. Hamilton’s husband, poet and teacher Arnold Adoff, was doing, and trying to figure out a way he could make it down to Yellow Springs on his tour for a visit.

Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller. Buy here.

During the Q & A session, an attendee asked about the need for diverse works for younger readers. In a tip of the hat to Virginia, Kwame offered that yes, we need to continue to work toward providing new titles authored by diverse writers. But, Kwame said, we also need to take a look at what is already on our shelves.

Virginia Hamilton is the most honored author of children’s books. She was the first African American to win the Newbery Medal in 1975, for M.C. Higgins, the Great. This incredible story of a young man in Appalachia, facing the loss of his home, went on to also win the National Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the first book to win all three awards.

M.C. Higgins, the Great. Buy here.

Prolific Author

Virginia wrote forty-one books for children throughout her career. Beginning with her first, Zeely, a story that features a Watutsi queen, published in 1967, to Wee Winne Witch’s Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale, illustrated by Barry Moser, published by Blue Sky Press posthumously in 2004. It received Hamilton’s final starred review from Kirkus. She received 16 of the coveted Kirkus starred reviews in her career.

Zeely cover

Zeely. Buy here.

Awards and Accolades

Look up any major award for children’s literature, and you will find Virginia Hamilton among the recipients. The John Newbery Medal, The Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the International Board on Books for Young People Honour Book Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her body of work, Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association, and the Coretta Scott King Award recognition a number of times. That’s just the beginning of the list. Virginia was the first children’s book author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the “Genius Grant.”

The Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Children was established at Kent State University in 1984 and the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is given every other year to a children’s book author or illustrator.

Have you read Virginia Hamilton’s books?

Yet, when I talk about Virginia during school and library visits, very few hands go up when I ask if children, educators, and library media specialists have read her works. On a certain level, I get it. Sadly, Virginia died in 2002, after a private ten-year battle with breast cancer. It has been 17 years since her last work was published.

Her amazing books were at risk of getting buried on the shelves, among the those that during visits to the library, Virginia would get “side-swiped every time by all those straight-back sentinels in long still rows. Short books and tall books, blue books and green books.”

Have no fear. Virginia’s works have a new, bright shiny light being shone on them.

Library of America to the rescue!

Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels. Buy here.

The Library of America is publishing a collection of five of Virginia’s novels, to be released in September 2021. Once again Zeely (1967), The House of Dies Drear (1968), The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), M.C. Higgins, the Great (1974), and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), will be available to entertain, inspire and educate readers, of all ages.

So, there you go, Kwame. Both older and newer diverse works for children, featured prominently on those shelves for all to enjoy.