Posts Tagged historical fiction

WNDMG Wednesday: A Celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month

In commemoration of Jewish American Heritage Month–and recognizing the importance of diversity in middle-grade literature–please enjoy this carefully curated collection of 26 middle-grade books that feature Jewish themes and characters, including contemporary and historical fiction, fantasy and magic realism, graphic novels, and anthologies.



Don’t miss a chance to win not one but TWO books on this oh-so fabulous list: Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories, edited by Henry Herz and Jonathan Rosen, and Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske. Scroll down for details!


Contemporary Fiction

Not So Shy

Noa Nimrodi

Shai, 12, hates everything about moving to America from Israel. Determined to get back home, she starts weighing her options, including living with her grandparents or winning a drawing competition that offers a plane ticket to anywhere in the world as the grand prize. Meanwhile, Shai is forced to navigate seventh grade in an unfamiliar language. She also faces antisemitism but gains support from unexpected sources.

The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman

Mari Lowe

Twelve-year-old Shaindy, an Orthodox Jewish girl who struggles academically and has few friends at school, is jealous of Gayil, a popular classmate who lives next door. Shaindy and Gayil have little to do with each other, until one evening when Shaindy looks out her window and sees Gayil holding up a sign that reads: “Want to know a secret?” It turns out that Gayil has a key fob that allows after-hours access to their school. Before long, the girls are scheming harmless pranks. But under Gayil’s leadership, the mischief turns malicious, with the pranks targeted at specific girls. Shaindy is desperate to stop Gayil from terrorizing their classmates, but if she does, could she be the next target?

Honey and Me

Meira Drazin

Honey and Milla, who live in close-knit Jewish community, have been best friends for as long as Milla can remember. The girls do everything together, including delivering meals to their elderly neighbor, shopping at a local thrift store, celebrating the holidays, and going to their first Bat Mitzvahs while studying for their own. But when Honey enrolls in Milla’s school for sixth grade, it’s not as great as Milla expected. Not only does Milla feel overshadowed by her charismatic friend, she’s also worried that their friendship won’t be able to survive the ups and downs the year has in store for them. Will Milla find the courage to step out of Honey’s shadow and into her own spotlight—or will jealousy and fear get the better of her?

Repairing the World

Linda Epstein

Twelve-year-old Daisy’s life is shattered when her best friend, Ruby, is killed in a tragic accident. Now Daisy finds herself having to face the major challenges in her life, like starting middle school and becoming a big sister, without Ruby by her side. Despite her sadness—and thanks to new friends, new insights, and supportive family members—Daisy is able to see what life after Ruby can look like, and that friendship is eternal.

Ellen Outside the Lines

A.J. Sass

Thirteen-year-old Ellen Katz is neurodivergent and feels most comfortable when her life is well planned out. She attends temple with her parents every Friday and Saturday, and relies on her best friend, Laurel, to help her navigate social situations at school. Laurel has always made Ellen feel like being autistic, and liking girls, is no big deal, but lately Laurel has started making new friends and cancelling weekend plans with Ellen. A school trip to Barcelona seems like the perfect opportunity for Ellen to reconnect with Laurel, but it doesn’t—especially when a nonbinary classmate makes Ellen question her own, very binary way of seeing the world.

The Magical Imperfect

Chris Baron

Etan stopped speaking when his mother went away, and his father and grandfather don’t know how to help him. Neither do his friends, who have given up on him. And then Etan meets Malia Agbayani, known as “The Creature,” due to her acute eczema. Malia stopped going to school when the bullying became too much. As the pair become friends, Etan believes he might have a cure for Malia’s condition—if only he can convince his family, and hers, to believe it, too.

Sorry for Your Loss

Joanne Levy

Twelve-year-old Evie Walman’s family runs a Jewish funeral home, and she knows she’ll be a funeral director when she grows up. She loves dusting caskets, polishing pews, and offering her condolences to mourners. Evie doesn’t deal with the grieving families directly, until one day when her parents ask her to help with Oren, a boy who was in a car accident that killed both his parents. Although Oren refuses to speak and Evie, who is dealing her own private grief, Evie is determined to find a way to help her new friend deal with his loss.

Going Rogue (at Hebrew School)

Casey Breton

Ten-year-old Avery Green loves science, football, and Star Wars, which he’s seen 400 times. What he’s not so crazy about? Hebrew school. He’s asked his parents a million times why he has to go, but they haven’t managed to convince him. (“It’s tradition” just doesn’t cut it.) And then one day, Rabbi Bob shows up. Piecing together some unusual clues, Avery begins to suspect that this new rabbi might be a Jedi master.

Kat Greene Comes Clean

Melissa Roske

Eleven-year-old Kat Greene attends fifth grade at the Village Humanity school, a hippie-dippy progressive school in New York’s Greenwich Village. At the moment, Kat has three major problems: dealing with her boy-crazy best friend, Halle; partnering with the overzealous Sam in the class production of Harriet the Spy; and coping with her mother’s preoccupation with cleanliness, a symptom of her worsening OCD. With nowhere to turn–and hesitant to tell her dad, who’s busy with his new family uptown–Kat reaches out to Olympia Rabinowitz, the free-spirited psychologist at her school. Later, after many  soul-searching sessions with Olympia, Kat realizes that asking for help is the best way to clean up life’s messes.

Fantasy and Magic Realsm

Finn and Ezra’s Bar Mitzvah Time Loop

Joshua S. Levy

Finn and Ezra are trapped in a bar mitzvah time loop, reliving their celebrations in the same New Jersey hotel, over and over (and over) again. Ezra comes from a big family, with four siblings who seem to get all the attention, and Finn is an only child who’s tired of his parents’ constant focus, particularly on his bar mitzvah weekend. Teaming up, the boys try to break the loop, but nothing works. As their frustrations mount, real-life problems start to seep through the cracks. With all the time in the world, can Finn and Ezra figure out how to finally move forward?

The Color of Sound

Emily Barth Isler

Rosie Solomon, 12, is a musical prodigy whose synesthesia allows her to see music in colors. Her mom has always pushed her to become a concert violinist, but this summer Rosie wants a “normal” life and is sent to stay with her grandparents. While there, Rosie meets another girl her age–a girl who seems awfully familiar. Rosie quickly pieces it together and realizes that somehow, this girl is her mother, when she was twelve. Thanks to this glitch in time–plus her grandparents’ love, an improv group, and a new instrument–Rosie comes to understand her mother, herself, and her love of music.

Rebecca Reznik Reboots The Universe

Samara Shanker

Rebecca Reznik, 13, is knee deep in family drama. Her dad lost his job, her parents are fighting all the time, and her annoying brother, Jake, is acting out more than usual. Then, when a goblin turns her bedroom upside down—literally—Becca realizes that the bad juju in her house is more sinister, and more complicated, than she had first imagined. With her best friends, Naomi and Eitan, by her side—and armed with the lessons she learned from her last tussle with mythological creatures from Jewish lore in the 2022 sequel, Naomi Teitelbaum Ends the World—Becca will do whatever it takes to defend her family and save the Hanukkah.

Shira and Esther’s Double Dream Debut

Anna E. Jordan

Shira and Esther are shocked when they first meet: It’s like looking in a mirror! Despite the girls’ identical appearance, they couldn’t be more different. Shira dreams of singing and dancing onstage, but her father, a stern and pious rabbi, wants Shira to focus on her religious studies. Esther, on the other hand, dreams of studying Torah, but her glamorous, stage-performer mom, frowns on Esther’s studious ways. Then, thanks to Benny, a 14-year-old bellhop at Scheinfeld’s Resort and Cottages, the girls plan a Parent Trap-style switcheroo, to help the Shira and Esther make their dreams come true. Or sort of true…

Don’t Want to Be Your Monster

Deke Moulton

Adam and Victor are your average tweens… who happen to be vampires. Although Adam, 10, knows he has a higher purpose in life than drinking blood, his 14-year-old brother, Victor, enthusiastically accepts his vampirism. This is all well and good until bodies start appearing all over town, and the brothers realize that a vampire hunter may be on the lookout for their family. Can Adam and Victor work together to stop the killer before it’s too late—or will their differences get in the way?

The Witch of Woodland

Laurel Snyder

Life used to be simple for Zipporah “Zippy” Chava McConnell, a 13-year-old witch—that is, before her best friend, Bea, started acting funny and everyone at school thought she was weird. And to make matters worse, Zippy’s mom is making her prepare for a bat mitzvah, even though Zippy’s family barely goes to synagogue. But then one day Zippy finds a strange red book at the library and conjures a girl—a beautiful girl named Miriam, with no memory, and wings like an angel. Now it’s up to Zippy to help Miriam figure out what she is, and where she came from. And if can do that, maybe everything else in her life will make sense, too.

Black Bird, Blue Road

Sofiya Pasternack

Pesah has lived with leprosy for years, and he and his twin sister, Ziva, have spent most of that time working on a cure. Then Pesah has a vision: The Angel of Death will come for him on Rosh Hashanah, just one month away. So Ziva takes her brother and runs away to find doctors who can cure him. But when the twins meet and accidentally free a half-demon boy, he suggests paying his debt by leading them to the fabled city of Luz, where no one ever dies. It’s the one place Pesah will be safe. But can the twins run faster than The Angel of Death can fly?

The Button Box

Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani-Williams; Harshad Marathe (illustrator)

In the aftermath of a bullying incident at school, where Jewish fifth-grader Ava and her cousin Nadeem, are called hateful names, the cousins’ Granny Buena shares with them a glittering crystal button box, packed with buttons that generations of Ava’s Sephardic ancestors have cherished. With the help of Granny’s mysterious cat, Sheba, the cousins discover that a button from the button box will take them back in time. Suddenly, they are in ancient Morocco, where Nadeem’s ancestor, Prince Abdur Rahman, is running for his life. Can the cousins help the prince escape to Spain and fulfill his destiny, creating a Golden Age for Muslims, Jews and Christians?

Historical Fiction

Code Name Kingfisher

Liz Kessler

When Liv finds a box hidden in her grandmother’s attic, saved from her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, circa 1943, she unearths a trove of family secrets—including the extraordinary story of her great-aunt Hannie, a Jewish undercover agent in the Dutch resistance. It’s a tale of bravery, betrayal, and daring defiance, and Liv wants to know more—starting with why her grandmother has kept Hannie a secret for so many years. (For more on Code Name KingFisher, check out Melissa Roske’s interview with Liz Kessler here.)

A Sky Full of Song

Susan Lynn Meyer

Eleven-year-old Shoshana and her family, Jewish immigrants who have fled persecution in the Russian Empire, start a new life on the North Dakota prairie. Shoshana is thrilled to forge a new American identity and hides her Jewish identity in the face of prejudice—unlike her older sister, Libke, who misses their Ukrainian village and insists they preserve their heritage. For the first time, Shoshana is at odds with her sister. But by listening to the music that lives in her heart, she finds new meaning in the Jewish expression, All beginnings are difficult.

The Summer We Found the Baby 

Amy Hest

In Belle Beach, Long Island, during World War Two, eleven-year-old Julie Sweet and her six-year-old sister, Martha, find a baby in a basket on the library steps. Meanwhile, Julie’s friend Bruno Ben-Eli, 12, is heading to the train station to catch a train to New York City, to carry out an important errand for his brother who is a soldier stationed overseas. When Bruno spies Julie leaving the library with a baby in her arms, he assumes she’s a kidnapper. But the truth is more complicated than what Bruno, Julie, or Martha know.


On All Other Nights: A Passover Celebration in 14 Stories

Edited by Chris Baron, Joshua S. Levy, and Naomi Milliner, with stories by Chris Baron, Ruth Behar, Adam Gidwitz, Veera Hiranandani, Amy Ignatow, Sarah Kapit, Joshua S. Levy, Mari Lowe, Naomi Milliner, Soifya Pasternack, R. M. Romero, A. J. Sass Laura Shovan, and Laurel Snyder

Passover, a Jewish holiday that has been celebrated for thousands of years, features the seder; a meal filled with rituals, special foods, and songs, where celebrants gather together to retell the story of the Exodus, when the Jewish people achieved freedom from Egypt. Yet the seder is about more than the ancient past. Its themes of freedom, joy, and tradition are timeless and universal. In this collection of short stories, 14 award-winning authors each reimagine a different step of the seder through historical and contemporary fiction, verse and prose, fiction and nonfiction.

Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories

Edited by Jonathan Rosen & Henry Herz, with stories by Sarah Aronsohn, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Barbara Bottner, Stacia Deutsch, Debbie Reed Fischer, Debra Green, Henry Herz, Alan Katz, Nancy Krulik, Stacie Ramey, Jonathan Rosen, Melissa Roske, Laura Shovan, and a poem by Jane Yolen

Join thirteen diverse characters as they experience anxiety, doubt, and self-discovery while preparing for their B’nai Mitzvah, the ceremony in which they become adults in their faith. whether celebrating with a lavish party or in a rabbi’s study, the Jewish rite of passage remains the same. Filled with humor, hope, and history, there’s something in this anthology for every reader.

Graphic Novels and Adaptations

Two Tribes

Emily Bowen Cohen

Mia is still adjusting to life with her mom and stepfather, whose Jewish identity plays a strong role in their home. She’s also struggling to adjust at her Jewish day school, where she feels like she doesn’t fit in. Meanwhile, Mia yearns for a deeper connection with her Muscogee father, who lives with his new family in Oklahoma. Her mom doesn’t want to talk about him, but Mia can’t help but feel like she’s missing a part of herself without him. Because of this, Mia uses her Bat Mitzvah money to take a bus to Oklahoma—without telling her mom—to visit her dad and find the connection to her Muscogee side, which she knows is just as important as her Jewish side.

The Unfinished Corner

Dani Colman (author); Whitney Cogar (colorist); Rachel Tuna Petrovicz (illustrator); Jim Campbell (letterer)

In Jewish mythology, God created the universe and left one corner unfinished. It’s unclear why, but the Unfinished Corner is dangerous, and filled with monsters. Twelve-year-old Miriam doesn’t know about the Unfinished Corner—she’s too busy preparing for her Bat Mitzvah and wrestling with whether she even wants to be Jewish–until an angel appears, whisking Miriam, her two best friends, and her worst frenemy off to this monstrous land, with one mission: finish the Unfinished Corner.

Lauren Tarshis; Alvaro Sarraseca (illustrator)

When the Nazis invaded Max Rosen’s home country of Poland, all the Jewish people–including Max, his sister, Zena, and their papa–were forced to live in a ghetto. But two months ago, the Nazis took Pap away and now Max and Zena are on their own, with barely enough food to survive. Out of desperation, the siblings escape from Nazi soldiers into the nearby forest, where they are taken to a safe camp by Jewish resistance fighters. Soon, grenades are falling all around them. Can Max and Zena survive the fallout of the Nazi invasion?

Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation

Anne Frank; adapted by Ari Folman; illustrated by David Polonsky

Authorized by the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, Anne Frank’s Diary captures the remarkable spirit of Anne Frank, who for a time survived the worst horror the modern world has seen yet remained heartbreakingly human, and remarkably optimistic, throughout her ordeal. Includes extensive quotations directly from the definitive edition.



For a chance to win Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories, edited by Jonathan Rosen & Henry Herz, PLUS a copy of Melissa Roske’s Kat Greene Comes Clean, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on X, on the Mixed-Up Files X account for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends May 28, 2024, at midnight. U.S. only, please.)

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

Author Spotlight: Sheila Turnage

head shotIn today’s Author Spotlight, Jo Hackl chats with author Sheila Turnage about her new children’s historical fiction book, Island of Spies. She’ll share the real historical events that inspired it, the setting that influenced it, and even give us a hint about her next writing project.


Book Summary:

book coverTwelve-year-old Stick Lawson lives on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, where life moves steady as the tides, and mysteries abound as long as you look really hard for them. Stick and her friends Rain and Neb are good at looking hard. They call themselves the Dime Novel Kids. And the only thing Stick wants more than a paying case for them to solve is the respect that comes with it. But on Hatteras, the tides are changing. World War II looms, curious newcomers have appeared on the small island, and in the waters off its shores, a wartime menace lurks that will upend Stick’s life and those of everyone she loves. The Dimes are about to face more mysteries than they ever could have wished for, and risk more than they ever could have imagined.

Interview with Sheila Turnage

JH: Island of Spies takes a little-known historical detail about World War II and turns it into an intriguing and un-putdownable mystery featuring the Dime Novel Kids. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the story?  

ST: Right!  Island of Spies is historical fiction for kids, set on Hatteras Island, NC, in 1942 – in the first months of World War II.  At its heart lies a secret bit of US history – the many attacks of Nazi U-Boats, or submarines, on supply ships and passenger ships moving up and down the East Coast.

Those U-Boats not only sank ships, they also put Nazi spies ashore.  The U-Boats’ favorite hunting area?  The tricky waters off the coast of Hatteras Island.  The Graveyard of the Atlantic.

In Island of Spies, three island kids who dream of being famous detectives realize someone on Hatteras Island is a spy, and they do what any brave, smart kids would do: They set out to identify and help capture the spy, to protect their home and the people they love.

I first caught a glimpse of this little-known history when I was about nine years old.  As I walked along the Hatteras Island shore with my father, I spotted a large, black blob on the white sand beach.  What was it?

 “That’s oil,” Daddy said. “In World War II, German U-Boats sat right out there, torpedoing our ships. The ships still sit on the bottom of the sea, releasing oil for the ocean to churn ashore. That’s our secret history. So are the spies.”

 I was hooked.

 A bit later, my family climbed the Hatteras Lighthouse.  At the top I stepped into what becomes, in Island of Spies, the office of our heroes –Stick, Neb, and Rain—the Dime Novel Kids. I saw what narrator Stick Lawson sees when she looks out the window, scanning for U-Boats and spies…

Bit by bit, through research and interviews, the story fell in place over the years.

And now here it is, in Island of Spies.

JH: I love how you took inspiration from these historical events and created an immersive mystery. What appeals to you about writing mysteries? 

ST: I love mysteries in general because I like solving them along with the characters.

As a writer, I find a good mystery makes you think beyond character interaction to the rise and fall of the mystery’s storyline.  So the emotional storyline rises and falls with the mystery’s plotline.  And to me that’s fun – and also a challenge, as a writer.

On a personal and possibly devious note, I also enjoy hiding clues from my readers.

JH: Speaking of characters, each of your characters comes alive and seems to jump off the page and into readers’ hearts.  Can you tell us about your process for creating such original and memorable characters, each with unique talents and perspectives?   

ST: Wow, thanks for saying that.  I’m glad you like them.  I like them and I think readers do too – one reason the book pops up on SIBA’s bestsellers list from time to time, and possibly one reason it also won the Grateful American Book Prize Honor for historical fiction for middle-grade readers.

When I write, I first listen for my characters’ voices in my imagination, and try to capture their rhythm and their voice.  I listen, I write.  I call it creative eavesdropping.

It usually takes lots of drafts to get it right.  At first, I write without worrying too much about balance.  I just try to capture the voices.  In a later draft I look at the characters more objectively, to make sure they aren’t too similar, and to make sure I know what each character fears most, and what each character wants most in this world.

Once I know those things, I start fine-tuning the characters.  I make sure each character changes in the course of the book.  It seems to work out.  And of course, I make the details within the story fit the place and times.

JH: Congratulations on your Grateful American Book Prize Honor!  So well-deserved!  Sticking with the theme of characters for a bit more, Neb, Rain and Stick are perfect and evocative names.  Can you tell us about the inspiration for each character’s name?

ST: Sure!  I love character names.  And since they get repeated so much in a book, I like for mine to carry a double meaning, a reminder of who the characters are as the story moves along.

Neb is short for Nebuchadnezzar.  His Biblical name reflects his mother’s character, and the idea that he’s trapped a bit by his family’s traditions and history – especially by the fact that his father used to be the keeper of the Hatteras Lighthouse.  Religion was huge on the Islands, and it is in Neb’s mother’s life.  And I like the name shortened to Neb because that’s a stubborn sound, and a determined one.

Neb is both stubborn and determined.  He’s also very funny.

Stick’s name is an unusual name, one that “sticks” with you.  I think her name reflects her originality, and courage.  She’s a stand-up kid, plainspoken and true.  She’s determined to be a scientist at a time when girls rarely had that opportunity, for instance, and she will not be denied.  And at the same time Stick is a shortened version of a family name, Stickley.  So, both old and new.

Rain’s name I love because in the story, the word bridges Rain’s mother’s world and Stick’s mother’s world.  It also connects water, air and land.  The name Rain feels soft, innocent, and nourishing.  Like Rain herself.

Together, those three characters are the Dime Novel Kids, and the heart of this book.

JH: You created complex characters, not only in the Dime Novel Kids but also with the authorities and potential spies with whom they interacted. Can you tell us a bit about your process for creating the adult characters?

ST: My process is the same regardless of the character’s age.  First, I listen for the character’s voice in my imagination and make quick notes.  As I get to know them, I uncover their secret fears and hopes.  Knowing those things lets me focus the characters, which makes them consistent, and that helps them come to life.

In this case, I also used history sources and island ethnographies compiled by the National Park Service to help define the details of the characters’ lives, so they were true to that very specific time in our history.

 JH: Who was your favorite character to write and why? 

 ST: Rain was the most complex because of the language barrier and her relationship with her mom, who suffered so during her shipwreck.  I love writing all of my characters, but Rain was a particular delight because she was such a mystery in the beginning.

Stick was the most fun because she is so funny and smart, and so vulnerable in her own way.

JH: Your story is set on Hatteras Island, a North Carolina barrier island, and features a little-known aspect of WWII history. Can you tell us about your research process? 

ST: The story evolved over the years, through beach trips, through an interview with a man who grew up in the lighthouse compound like Neb does, through old-timers’ stories of blackout curtains and sinking ships, through tons of research, museum trips, and more beach trips.

Once I decided to write the story, I did lots of deliberate research on the era – reading books, studying internet sites, studying CIA reports, spy information, etc.  All of the spy gizmos and codes in this book are based on things spies really used, information that was fun to work with.

And because I live in Eastern North Carolina, I’ve heard stories all of my life of the Nazi spies who came ashore and of the ships being torpedoed. I heard those stories from people who saw those things – who heard the explosions, who saw the ships burning out on the sea.  So I relied on first-person, anecdotal information, too.

JH: What was the most surprising thing that you learned in your research process? 

ST: I don’t think I really understood how terrified Americans were at the beginning of World War II.  Think about it: They had already been attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – to the west of mainland USA.  And weeks later, as this story opens, Nazi Germany’s U-boats attack the rich shipping lanes off of North Carolina, to the east, where tricky currents made those ships sitting ducks.  Boom!  Boom!  Boom!

Ship after ship went down.

I also didn’t fully realize that the US couldn’t respond to the U-Boat attacks at first, because so much of our Navy had been damaged at Pearl Harbor.  And I didn’t realize the government deliberately kept news of the German attacks as low-key as possible, to keep America from panicking.  I didn’t realize just how alone the people on Hatteras Island must have felt.

And frankly, I didn’t know there were so many spies in the United States.

JH: I never knew that either. And now your readers have an insight that many Americans didn’t. What was your favorite scene to write?

ST: I loved writing them all.  But maybe the scene where the first ship goes down, just offshore.  That was fun to write because it was so scary!

JH: What would you most like for readers to take away from Island of Spies

ST: I’d like for them to have fun solving the spy mystery along with the Dime Novel Kids, and to learn something about our history along the way.

JH: What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?

ST: I’m hard at work on a new mystery, set in North Carolina.  In it are one murder and two miracles.  I don’t know the title yet, but as soon as I uncover it, I will let you know!

JH:  It sounds intriguing! I can’t wait to read it!

Lightning Round!

No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so. . . .

Favorite cities (besides the one in which you live):  Chicago,  Savannah, and Florence, Italy.

Favorite musical group or artist:  I like so many, I don’t really have a favorite.  As I wrote Island of Spies, I listened to lots of 1940’s music.  Swing, jazz.  The Andrews Sisters, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller…

Would you rather be able to speak every language in the world or talk to animals? 

 Talk to animals, of course!

Favorite ice cream flavor?  Banana walnut.

Do you prefer mountains or beaches or somewhere in between?  I love both but if I could visit only one, it would be the beach.  I feel so content there.

Favorite childhood TV show?  Superman.  And Mighty Mouse.  Hmm.  Maybe it’s the cape.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?  Just sit down and write.  Keep writing to the end even if the first draft’s ugly, because you can always go back and polish it up.

JH: Excellent advice!  Many thanks for making time to visit with us today!

About the Author

Sheila Turnage grew up on a family farm in North Carolina near Tupelo Landing, where the Mo & Dale Mysteries are set, and a couple hours from Hatteras Island, where Island of Spies takes place. She decided to become a writer in first grade, when she wrote her first story. Her teachers helped her.  She went to college at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, and earned a degree in anthropology.  She has written books for adults, poetry, magazine articles – but says that writing for kids is the best.  She says that characters like Mo and Dale, and Stick, Neb, and Rain are fun to write.  They’re smart, funny and brave.

She still lives on the farm she grew up on, along with her husband Rodney, their dog Callie, a flock of chickens, a bossy goose, and a couple of sweet-faced goats.  They have a tin roof, and rain sounds beautiful on it.  This year they planted a small meadow of wildflowers out front.  They are loving it.  So are the deer.

Perspective in MG Lit: Lessons in Empathy

I read an APA article recently that quoted a Stanford psychologist who referred to empathy as the “psychological ‘superglue’” that helps us all to react with kindness, understanding, and support. Empathy is one of greatest, most important life lessons for anyone, any age, any background; it fosters cooperation, inclusivity, forgiveness, and volunteerism; it can serve as both a preventative and an antidote for conflicts and disagreements on matters personal, political, familial, environmental, and worldly.

Many schools and classrooms actively or subtly coach the development of empathy. The middle grade ELA classroom offers prime opportunities for coaching empathy because many MG readers are still developing the cognitive and social tools needed to perceive someone else’s point of view. And let’s face it, the middle grades (well, school in general) can be a hazardous proving ground to navigate with the potential for strong emotions, communication struggles, and impulsivity; generally speaking, middle graders can benefit from lessons in empathy to better weather the storm.

Since the ability to perceive issues and conflicts from another’s perspective is key to an empathetic reaction, teachers, librarians, and homeschooling parents have consistent opportunities to coach empathy in group study by introducing, reviewing, and analyzing point-of-view as a story element. Discussing the viewpoints and perspectives of fictitious characters (rather than friends, family, and other real people) can provide and promote a safe space for exploring emotions and observing the empathetic reactions of peers. In thinking how that article and others might be useful in MG lit instruction and the coaching of empathy, here are some interpretations and takeaways:

  1. Offer the chance to students to practice empathy toward a variety of characters. It might be easy to empathize with the comfortable familiarity of the I-voice character, the character who looks and speaks in ways similar to their own appearance and speech, or the central character whose conflict is often made clear. Discuss instead why readers might try to empathize with the antagonist, with a character who is different from the reader in multiple ways, or with a character whose actions cannot easily be explained by a clearly stated conflict. Readers should strive to see implied motivations, points of connection, and new, potentially challenging perspectives.
  2. It’s actually not about “stepping into someone’s shoes.” Readers shouldn’t try to empathize by imagining themselves (as exactly who they are) in the problem or conflict, because each reader’s experiences, being different, have the potential to change or remold the problem or circumstances around their own preferences, needs, and background. Instead, practice “other-oriented” empathy, which would encourage the reader to focus closely on how and what and why the character is feeling—and how, therefore, the character’s actions might be explained or interpreted.
  3. As teachers, librarians, writers, and parents, we want readers to have an appropriate emotional reaction to a book; readers shouldn’t, though, let themselves become burdened with a character’s suffering or sadness.

Some classroom activities that may help to develop empathy:

  • Rewrite a scene from a secondary character’s perspective.
  • Focusing on a character’s drastic or surprising decision, create a “Top 5 Reasons Why” list to explain implied or explicit reasons for the choice.
  • Represent a character’s emotions in a symbolic, stylized collage, design, piece of music, or poem.
  • Review the subtext of a scene and a character’s movements and body language to practice interpreting nonverbals.
  • Extend reader understanding of a character’s role in the story (or a key figure’s role in nonfiction) with a character interview (crafting that character’s first-person responses) or a diary entry (written as that character).

Some works that offer the potential for empathy-building strategies, discussion, and activities (though, happily, most MG reads in general fit this bill 😊):

Jacqueline Woodson’s Remember Us: Almost-seventh grader Sage must balance the comforts of the past with the inevitable (and sometimes exciting) potential for new changes.

Landra Jenning’s Wand: Eleven-year-old Mira struggles under the heavy weight of grief since her father died and feels unhappily out of place with her stepmother and stepsisters. When a mysterious girl steps out of the woods and offers Mira three wishes, she hopes fervently that magic might be real.

Jarrett Lerner’s A Work in Progress: In a mix of prose, verse, and sketches, middle schooler Will seeks acceptance from peers and a crush named Jules; plagued with body image concerns, Will determines to transform his physical appearance.

June 2023 releaseJ. Anderson Coats’s A Season Most Unfair: Set in medieval times, Tick—short for Scholastica—is proud to help with her father’s candlemaking business, even though she isn’t permitted to take the role of an official chandler (candlemaker) apprentice. When her father allows a boy named Henry to apprentice the trade, Tick knows she must prove to her father that she is a capable chandler—in spite of being a girl.