Posts Tagged contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

On the road!

My husband Brad and I both experienced camping adventures while growing up. His family took several trips in a motorhome, mine in a camper. In my case, six kids, one bathroom, not enough beds. Despite close quarters, sunburns, poison ivy, and motion sickness from being stashed in the back of the family station wagon, (again, me!), we both wanted to raise our kids with similar experiences.

Flash forward to adventures in a camper with pop out ends (a solid metal frame but screened in beds that extended out) with our three little ones. At some point Brad and I decided we wanted to travel to all of the fifty states with our kiddos.

Then life took a tragic turn.

Our oldest daughter, Claire, died unexpectedly from a misdiagnosed heart condition. Our little reader gone too soon was just 10 years-old. For those of you who have followed my journey, we created an amazing children’s book festival in her honor, Claire’s Day.

We also focused on honoring our relationships with each other and our two children, Kyle and Ian. And, we followed through on the promise of experiencing our amazing country together as a family. We bought a motorhome to accomplish this goal. Our first journey, three weeks of pure bliss in discovering the Wild West just three years after our tragic loss, helped us find our souls again.

(Well…it was mostly blissful. We had our fair share of challenges, including a septic incident, a close brush with an afternoon storm in the Tetons and a scary encounter with a new momma moose in the brush near Jackson Hole. But who remembers those?) Once our travels were through, “Bessie” was a hit for tailgating at their colleges, University of Kentucky and The Ohio State University.

It was a sad day when we decided to sell Bessie.

Covid put a hold on our plans to see more of the world, so Brad and I hit the road again in another motorhome. We’ve been traveling since October, our journey entailing over five months and six states. We have our kayaks, our bikes, our golf clubs, and our 8 year-old Labrador, Luna. It’s been an amazing experience so far…check out my blog on our adventures here.

This time around, I’ve met families full-timing with their kids. For various reasons, from the ability to work remotely, to a desire to homeschool, these families have sold their homes and hit the road in an RV.

Between our experiences on the road with our children, and my observations of other families, I’ve toyed with sharing our stories. In doing my homework, I discovered some great reads for middle graders about being on the road. I’d like to thank Afoma Ulesi and her blog, Reading Middle Grade for her wonderful recommendations!

Here are a few titles featuring road trips in an RV the middle-grade readers in your life may enjoy.

Breathing Underwater by Sarah Allen

A Junior Library Guild Selection

Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt across the country, like pirates hunting for treasure, taking pictures and making memories along the way.

All she wants is to take the picture that makes her sister smile. But what if things can never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? Through all the questions, loving her sister, not changing her, is all Olivia can do–and maybe it’s enough.

Far from Fair by Elana K. Arnold

Odette Zyskowski has a list: Things That Aren’t Fair. At the top of the list is her parents’ decision to take the family on the road in an ugly RV they’ve nicknamed the Coach. There’s nothing fair about leaving California and living in the cramped Coach with her par­ents and exasperating younger brother, sharing one stupid cell phone among the four of them. And there’s definitely nothing fair about what they find when they reach Grandma Sissy’s house, hundreds of miles later. Most days it seems as if everything in Odette’s life is far from fair. Is there a way for her to make things right? 

Wrong Way Summer by Heidi Lang

A Junior Library Guild Selection

A moving summer road-trip story for fans of Crenshaw and The Someday Birds

Claire used to love her dad’s fantastical stories, especially tales about her absent mom–who could be off with the circus or stolen by the troll king, depending on the day. But now that she’s 12, Claire thinks she’s old enough to know the truth. When her dad sells the house and moves her and her brother into a converted van, she’s tired of the tall tales and refuses to pretend it’s all some grand adventure, despite how enthusiastically her little brother embraces this newest fantasy. Claire is faced with a choice: Will she play along with the stories her dad is spinning for her little brother, or will she force her family to face reality once and for all? Equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, Wrong Way Summer is a road-trip journey and coming-of-age story about one girl’s struggle to understand when a lie is really a lie and when it’s something more: hope.

The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla

Winner of the 2018 Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award * Two starred reviews * A New York Public Library Best Kids Book of 2017 * A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2017 

Charlie’s perfectly ordinary life has been unraveling ever since his war journalist father was injured in Afghanistan.

When his father heads from California to Virginia for medical treatment, Charlie reluctantly travels cross-country with his boy-crazy sister, unruly brothers, and a mysterious new family friend. He decides that if he can spot all the birds that he and his father were hoping to see someday along the way, then everything might just turn out okay.

Debut author Sally J. Pla has written a tale that is equal parts madcap road trip, coming-of-age story for an autistic boy who feels he doesn’t understand the world, and an uplifting portrait of a family overcoming a crisis.

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone

How to Go on an Unplanned Road Trip with Your Grandma:
– Grab a Suitcase: Prepacked from the big spring break trip that got CANCELLED.
– Fasten Your Seatbelt: G’ma’s never conventional, so this trip won’t be either.
– Use the Green Book: G’ma’s most treasured possession. It holds history, memories, and most important, the way home.

What Not to Bring:
– A Cell Phone: Avoid contact with Dad at all costs. Even when G’ma starts acting stranger than usual.

Take a trip through the American South with the New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone and an eleven-year-old boy who is about to discover that the world hasn’t always been a welcoming place for kids like him, and things aren’t always what they seem–his G’ma included.

Author Spotlight: Carol Weston

If the name Carol Weston sounds familiar, it’s no surprise. Carol published her first article in Seventeen magazine at the age of 19, and she was later dubbed “Teen Dear Abby” by Newsweek, thanks to her popular “Dear Carol” column—which is still going strong—in Girls’ Life magazine. Her critically acclaimed teen-advice book, GIRLTALK: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You, has been translated into a dozen languages and is now in its fourth edition.

Currently, Carol has been enjoying an illustrious career as a middle-grade author. In addition to the beloved Ava and Pip series, as well as the fun and voice-y Melanie Martin books, Carol’s MG novel, Speed of Life was lauded by the New York Times as “perceptive, funny and moving.” The late Newbery medalist Richard Peck concurred, calling Speed of Life “A wonderful book that takes us from loss to laughter.” (I cosign Richard Peck’s praise, having read—and loved—Speed of Life when it first came out in 2017.)

In addition to Carol’s impressive contribution to children’s literature, she has had essays, articles, and interviews appear in such publications as Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Redbook, Glamour, and Parents. On television, Carol has appeared on Today, Oprah, 48 Hours, and The View. She is also a writing instructor at the New York Society Library, where her monthly writing “Prompt!” class, which I’m lucky enough to attend, is hugely popular. Married to playwright Rob Ackerman, Carol is a mother, grandmother, and splits her time between Armonk, New York, and Manhattan. Learn more about Carol on her website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.

And now, without further ado…

Heeeeeere’s Carol!

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Carol. I’m so excited to have you here!

CW: Thank you for that fabulous introduction! You’ve got me blushing!

MR: I know you’ve always loved to write, and that both your parents were writers. What is it about writing that appealed to you as a child? What about it appeals to you now? Also, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

CW: Big questions! I think of writing as sharing. I like that if you hear something funny or think something deep, and you’re working on a manuscript, you can usually find a place to put it. As for advice, there’s no getting around it. If you want to be a writer, you have to write! Don’t wring your hands. Just put words on paper. Honor your talent. Leave a pencil and paper by your bed. Keep a journal or writer’s notebook. Don’t fret about the end result. Good writing takes a zillion drafts but if you don’t get your words down, how can you have the fun of editing and revising? (P.S. Keep reading and listening to books too.)

Take My Advice

MR: Speaking of advice, like you, I was an advice columnist for teens. (My weekly column, “Life Sucks,” appeared in the U.K. teen magazine, J17, in the 1990s, and I was a teen-relationships adviser online as well.) How did you get your start as an advice columnist?

CW: Way back in 1993, I was in the waiting room of Cosmopolitan magazine and a man walked in wearing a nice coat. “Nice coat!” I said. We got to chatting and I told him about my book Girltalk, and he told me his girlfriend was starting a magazine, Girls’ Life. The next day she called and offered me the gig. I said a fast yes. Who knew I’d still be “Dear Carol” 28 years later? One lesson here: Do talk to strangers.

MR: Another advice-related question (I can’t help myself). What are some of the most common questions teens ask in your “Dear Carol” column? What about the strangest…? (Be honest. 🙂)

CW: I’ve answered “Should I tell him I like him?” and “How can I tell if he likes me?” and “When will I get my period?” over a thousand times! And Covid was so hard on so many. I really felt for girls who were stuck indoors, sometimes with difficult families or an uncle who was quarantining with them. Much of my tried-and-true advice like “Give a compliment” or “Talk to someone new” or “Join an extra-curricular” or “Talk to your school counselor” went out the window. Actually, I don’t think of any of my Girls’ Life mail as strange, though many letters are over-the-top personal. For instance, girls tell me that their brothers (or dads) are looking at porn, or in some cases that they are. Still, more human than strange. I do my best to help girls navigate the complicated adult world.

Speed of Life: The Backstory

MR: Turning to kidlit, rumor has it that Speed of Life took you ten years to write. Would you mind sharing the backstory with us?

CW: Early one January morning while un-decorating our Christmas tree in Manhattan, I got the idea for a novel that could start on January 1 with a bittersweet scene of a father and daughter putting away holiday ornaments though Christmas had “sucked.” I wanted the book to have 12 chapters, one per month. It would be a year in a life of Sofia, who would go from a grief-stricken 14-year-old kid (her mother has died eight months earlier) to a 15-year-old young woman who is finding her footing. Sofia has supportive friends, but when the novel begins, they’re ready for her to be “okay” again, and of course, she can’t recharge like a cellphone. Desperate, Sofia reaches out to a teen advice columnist (!) – but what she doesn’t know (spoiler alert) is that the advice columnist, Dear Kate, has started dating her widower father. Complications ensue!

Ten years between idea to pub party is not at all speedy. But Speed of Life began with four third-person POVs and ended up first person and just in Sofia’s voice. I sure did get to know my characters! In some ways, the novel began even earlier because it was based on my own grief over losing my father when I was 25. It’s set in New York’s Upper West Side, Spain, and Westchester, New York, three places I’ve called home. And it came straight from the heart.

Dear Diary

MR: Unlike Speed of Life, the Ava and Pip series, and the Melanie Martin series, are written in diary form. What made you choose this particular format for these books? Did you keep a diary as a child?

CW:  Oh God, yes. I kept diaries before I could really write or spell and before I had anything of note to say. Keeping diaries was a way for me to process my day and become more observant. As a kid, while others read, I scribbled. As a thirtysomething mom, I’d written eight nonfiction books and was desperate to write fiction for adults but just couldn’t make the jump. Finally, the fictional Melanie Martin, 10, sort of showed up and said: Enough with your precious attempts at the Great American Novel. How about a diary for kids? The Diary of Melanie Martin poured out.

It begins: “Dear Diary, You will never in a million years guess where we’re going. Nope. Guess again. Never mind, I’ll tell you. Italy! We’re going to Italy! In Europe!! Across the ocean!!!” I was glad that Melanie got to go to Italy, Spain, and Holland. New York too—and glad that, although several publishers passed, Knopf said yes. So, my first novel came out when I was 43. Don’t give up out there!

Turning a Child into a Reader

MR: Ava and Pip skews younger than Speed of Life (Sofia, the protagonist, is 14). The Melanie Martin books skew younger, too. What is the biggest challenge when writing for kids of different age groups on the MG continuum?

CW: Publishers want us to think about younger kids versus older kids, but I wish they didn’t. Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You was billed as a guidebook for girls 11 to 18, and I loved that! Some kids read it for tips on babysitting and bra-buying; others for tips on safer sex or job interviews. I love writing for young people because sometimes yours really is the book that turns a reluctant reader into a reader, and because when a kid loves your books, she love-love-loves them. And kids don’t just read, they reread.

Palindrome Party

MR: I know you’re a sucker for palindromes. In Ava and Pip, Ava realizes that the names of her family members—Mom, Dad, Ava Elle, and Pip Hannah—are palindromic. What is it about word play that knocks your socks off?

CW: Great question. I was a French / Spanish literature major at Yale and sure, I love books / livres / libros. But I love thinking about individual words too. When The New York Times called Ava and Pip “a love letter to language,” I basically wept. Because that’s what it is. Words themselves are fun, and if you combine them well, you can make people laugh or cry or think or become more compassionate toward others and themselves. I remember being in kindergarten when I learned the word “I.” One measly letter (one long stick, two short ones) and it was so powerful! I also remember learning to spell “here” and “there” and being baffled that they didn’t rhyme. Yes, I’m a full-fledged word nerd! And proud of it!

Persistence Is Key

MR: You are a prolific writer, Carol. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration? Is there a secret sauce you can share with Mixed-Up Files readers?

CW: No secret sauce and I still get rejection letters—most authors do. So, persistence is key. I don’t force myself to write for a certain number of pages or hours. But when I let myself stay (play?) at the keyboard long enough to find the flow, it can be fun. Okay, here’s an odd tip: I sometimes print out a work on different colored pages so that I feel I’m making progress. Like, I’ll have a yellow draft and much later, a sky-blue draft. Books take so many drafts! Another tip: I have smart friends and family members weigh in too. And smart kids when possible.

Carol’s Writing Routine

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

CW: Some days I don’t get to my work at all. Other days, I’m at my desk from dawn ’til dusk.

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

CW: I’ve been writing a novel about the girl in the painting Las Meninas by Velázquez, though I’m setting it aside for a few months. (It’s always helpful when you can let a work-in-progress marinate and then come back to it with fresh eyes.) I’m mostly focusing on a novel, Zoe and Lucas, about two city kids who get stranded in a small town and start to discover the truth about their parents and themselves. That’s all I can tell you for now!

Let’s be Prompt!

MR: Before I let you go, I need to tell you that your “Prompt!” class at the New York Society Library is the highlight of my month. It’s so joyful, and so freeing. How did you come up with the concept? Also, what can writers gain from prompts in their day-to-day writing practice?

CW: Oh, thank you, it is pretty magical, isn’t it? It’s really all about giving yourself permission to be creative. Instead of saying (as I too sometimes do), “Why should I write this, no one will care, and how will I be able to sell it?” it’s better to just w-r-i-t-e. When I’m teaching that class and I say, “The prompt is ‘my grandmother’s hands,’ you have ten minutes,” it’s amazing, as you know, that everyone just starts writing up a storm. Sometimes at home, when I’m having trouble getting going, I’ll set my cellphone for ten minutes and say, “Just start!” and on a good day, ten minutes later, I often don’t want to stop.

Lightning Round!

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

Preferred writing snack?

Gum helps me focus.

Coffee or tea?

My husband makes cappuccino every morning. Heaven.

Favorite palindrome?

EMME is our daughter’s name. Though I’m big on WOW and YAY and XOX!

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

Nay.

Superpower?

I can be charming in four languages! And I’m a Rocky Mountain skier. (But oh dear, I can’t cook or garden and I’m a reluctant driver and I get lost really easily.)

Best piece of advice?

You’re asking an advice giver for her best piece of advice? Oh man…. How about: Be kind to yourself and others.

Favorite place on earth?

Home.

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

Too hard! How about if I have just one thing—a phone that’s endlessly charged so that I can talk with loved ones and listen to audiobooks? Or else maybe one private jet so I can get off that island?

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Carol. It was my extreme pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree! 

Thank you, Melissa!! See you in class!

For more info on the fabulous Carol Weston, check out her School Library Journal interview here. And her Mixed-Up Files interview with Andrea Pyros here.

New books just in time for the holidays!

Check out these new December releases for all of your favorite middle-grade readers! This selection includes the newest from an adventure series and an out-of-this-world book on space by renowned astronomer Dean Regas.

Never After: The Broken Mirror, Roaring Brook Press, written by Melissa de la Cruz 

Real life and fairy tales collide in Never After: The Broken Mirror, book three of the funny and thrilling series from #1 New York Times–bestselling author Melissa de la Cruz.

The Never After crew is back for another twisted adventure. This time, they’re off to Snow Country—that is, after they rescue the beleaguered Lord Sharif of Nottingham from the evil Robin Hood, who has been plaguing the land with his thievery and mischief.

But Robin’s antics aren’t the only dangers afoot in the Kingdom of Never After. At the behest of her daughter, the evil Cinderella, Queen Olga has turned Prince Charming into a Frog after his wedding to the beautiful Hortense. And how could we forget the ominous Prophecy, which still looms large over Filomena and her friends?

Along with Jack, Alistair, Gretel, Beatrice, Byron Bessley, and some new Snow Country pals like Rose Red and a chatty magic mirror, Filomena sets off to find the only ones who can save the kingdom once and for all: The League of the Seven – a group of fearless warriors devoted to fighting the ogres at any cost.

Still, new threats lurk around every corner, both in Never After and back home in North Pasadena . . . Even with the League of the Seven’s help, can Filomena and her friends rescue the land from Olga’s clutches? Or will the ogres finally prevail?

1000 Facts About Space, National Geographic Kids, written by Dean Regas

BLAST OFF into the WONDERS OF OUTER SPACE with ONE THOUSAND INCREDIBLE FACTS!
Did you know … that one of Saturn’s moons is so hollow it would float in water? That the largest known star is 3.69 billion times bigger than our sun? Or that Jupiter likely has diamonds floating in its clouds?

Explore dazzling facts about the vast expanse of space, from glowing stars billions of light-years away to supermassive exploding supernovas to rockets thundering into the unknown. This comprehensive book takes you on a mind-blowing tour of our unbelievable universe and is full of fascinating facts on topics such as space exploration, our solar system and galaxy, and beyond.

Expert astronomer Dean Regas―former host of PBS’s Star Gazers and astronomer of the Cincinnati Observatory―takes you on an incredible tour of facts about each planet in our solar system, dwarf planets, our sun and other stars, exoplanets, comets, asteroids, galaxies, space travel, and so much more. Hundreds of stunning photographs bring the facts to life.

The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey, Holiday House, written and illustrated by Jason Chin

The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey

Jason Chin, winner of the Caldecott Medal for Watercress, dives into the microscopic building blocks of life in this companion to the award-winning Your Place in the Universe.

In Your Place in the Universe, Jason Chin zoomed outward, from our planet, solar system, and galaxy to the outer reaches of the observable universe. Now, Chin reverses course, zooming in past our skin to our cells, molecules, and atoms, all the way down to particles so small we can’t yet even measure them.

Like its companion, The Universe in You is a mind-boggling adventure that makes complex science accessible and enjoyable to readers of any age.

Impeccably researched, wholly engrossing, and with extensive backmatter for additional learning, The Universe in You is another knockout from the award-winning creator of RedwoodsGrand Canyon, and other distinguished works of nonfiction for young readers.

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

Minecraft: Master Builds, Random House World, by Mojang AB

Minecraft: Master Builds - Mojang Ab

Marvel at Minecraft’s greatest creations and meet the builders who have taken the game to new levels.

Packed with stunning illustrations, Minecraft Master Builds showcases the creations that have taken the game to new levels, and introduces the builders behind them.

Explore all the possibilities of Minecraft, from stunning underwater sculptures to impressive space panoramas, or travel through time to visit grand medieval towns and futuristic cityscapes. Each colossal creation is shown in beautifully rendered illustrations to highlight the painstaking details that make these builds masterful. The exclusive interviews with the builders shed light on the creative forces and processes behind each build.

Whether you’re marveling at the wonders that Minecraft’s greatest builders have to offer, or searching for inspiration to become one yourself, your tour begins here.

Pencilmation: The Graphite Novel, Penguin Young Readers, written by Ross Bollinger

Pencilmation: The Graphite Novel - Bollinger, Ross

Join the characters from Pencilmation in this new graphic novel featuring new stories, comics, activities, and more