Posts Tagged Grief in middle grade

AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY: Interview with Author Cliff Burke & #Giveaway!

Welcome to my interview with author Cliff Burke and his heart-warming story AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY!

This title spoke to me from the moment I read it. I’m sure it can stir all sorts of family memories and thoughts; I know, it did in me. Let’s have an introduction to the book and then we’ll move on to the author’s thoughts on his adventure writing it. Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom to enter for your chance to win a copy of this #mglit book!



by Cliff Burke

Gordon Korman meets The Great Outdoors in this funny and moving debut about a boy who goes on a disastrous family vacation (sweltering heat! bear chases!) that ends with a terrible surprise: his dad’s new girlfriend.

There are zero reasons for Theo Ripley to look forward to his family vacation. Not only are he, sister Laura, and nature-obsessed Dad going to Big Bend, the least popular National Park, but once there, the family will be camping. And Theo is an indoor animal. It doesn’t help that this will be the first vacation they’re taking since Mom passed away.

Once there, the family contends with 110 degree days, wild bears, and an annoying amateur ornithologist and his awful teenage vlogger son. Then, Theo’s dad hits him with a whopper of a surprise: the whole trip is just a trick to introduce his secret new girlfriend.

Theo tries to squash down the pain in his chest. But when it becomes clear that this is an auditioning-to-be-his-stepmom girlfriend, Theo must find a way to face his grief and talk to his dad before his family is forever changed.


Hi Cliff! It’s wonderful to have you stop by. Tell us: when did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Like most writers, I’m first and foremost a reader and grew up believing that ‘real writers’ were a special, untouchable group of people. Even though I majored in English in college and did some creative writing then, it wasn’t until more recently that I thought I might have the ability to write a full-length book that could be published. Specifically, I was inspired by my students’ creative energy and how involved they got during our writing units. I began writing short stories to serve as mentor texts for assignments, mostly just trying to get laughs (while still teaching the fundamentals of building characters, dialogue punctuation, setting the scene, etc.), and went from writing short sketches for my classes to drafting a book that is soon for sale!

Fantastic! Love that your writing evolution included your students’ fervor for their writing assignments. Very inspiring!

Tell the readers a bit about your main character Theo.

Theo is a thirteen-year-old budding comic book artist whose first graphic novel, The Aliens who Eat People But Never Get Full, was a big hit with his three friends. He is a Pisces who mostly goes with the flow and often serves as the peace-keeper between his bickering older sister and Dad. Something hinted at but not explicitly detailed in the book is Theo’s desire for, but difficulty with, connecting to other people.

Theo’s first comic book title is so great! Oh, the visuals.

Why did you want to tell Theo’s story?

I wanted to tell Theo’s story because I think it is a fairly common one. Many middle grade main characters take action, or are brash, or have strong personalities that lead them to a big change. But just as common (and just as interesting) are kids who are more reserved, and whose unique characteristics only become apparent once you get to know them better. The difference between what Theo communicates directly to the reader and what he outwardly communicates to the people in his life make him different from chattier or more outward-facing main characters.


The quote by Tolstoy that opens the book ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, screams volumes of what is to come on the pages of this story.

  • What defines this family’s happiness and unhappiness?

Without giving away too much of the story, I’d say the family’s unhappiness comes from the truly difficult experiences the family has gone through in the years before the book starts, and their inability to communicate openly about their feelings. Their happiness comes from the core of genuine care they have for each other despite their challenges in expressing this directly.

  • How do you think young readers will see their own families within this?

I am trying to reflect the reality of my own experiences growing up, and hope that even if readers don’t identify with the specific ways in which this family is imperfect, they can appreciate the importance of all imperfect families.

Grief, life changes, and acceptance are underlying themes throughout Theo’s story. What was one of your hardest scenes to write, which incorporated these? Which was your favorite?

The final scene, without giving it away, was one of the hardest to write because I wanted to strike the balance between writing a scene that was hopeful and satisfying to the reader, but still honest in showing that people (and families) do not change overnight.

My favorite scene that incorporates these themes also takes place towards the end of the book, when the family is sitting under the stars of the Terlingua desert and speaking to each other honestly for the first time.


Why will young readers relate to Theo?

In a general sense, readers can relate to Theo as someone who is shy in public but inwardly bursting with creativity, as a younger sibling, as someone torn between allegiances to his sister and his Dad, as someone who loves his friends but also wishes they were a little different sometimes, or as someone forced into a car on a family vacation to a place he has little interest in visiting.

More specifically, I also hope he is relatable as someone who has gone through a major event in his life (the death of his mother) without understanding how to really talk about his response to it. He outwardly projects that he is doing fine and has everything under control but would like to let his true feelings to someone who would listen without judgement.

As we’ve pointed out, the book does deal with serious life emotions and events, it does also have a very humorous side. Care to share an example?

Thank you for pointing this out! One of my favorite parts of writing is finding ways to incorporate humor into the story. A scene that was particularly fun to write was Theo and his family’s encounter with French nudists in a public hot springs who reject the Dad’s insistence that they follow the “bathing suits recommended” park policy.


What would you like young readers (and their parents) to leave Theo’s story with?

I hope readers will take whatever they would like from the book. There is a lot of info about Big Bend National Park and the history of Texas, observations on older sisters,

bumbling fathers, overzealous young influencers, amateur birders, and bear attacks. There is hopefully something in that list that will linger with readers, along with the above-mentioned message that expressing even the most difficult emotions can be very healing.


For our writing readers, share a piece of writing advice that you’ve found valuable throughout your writing journey.

I’ll offer this, from George Saunders’s recent A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – “doing what you please (i.e. what pleases you), with energy, will lead you to everything – to your particular obsessions, your particular challenges, and the forms in which they’ll convert into beauty…We can’t know what our writing problems will be until we write our way into them, and then we can only write our way out.”

I’m very guilty of trying to construct the perfect story in my head and flagging every possible problem rather than sitting down and starting to put words together. I’ve also talked to many people who have the best idea for a story but still need to write it. So my advice is just to start writing and see what happens.


Cliff Burke grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He worked as a house painter, a parking lot attendant, and a sign-twirling dancing banana before graduating from the College of William and Mary. He currently teaches English in Austin, Texas.

Can’t thank you enough for joining us and for sharing your new book with us, Cliff! Best wishes from the entire Mixed-Up family.

Interested in more books about spending time with family? Check out this POST!

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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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