Posts Tagged Kate DiCamillo

Family Book Club: Middle Grade Books That Can Be Enjoyed by ALL

As I write this I am preparing to leave New York where we’ve been for the summer and return to London (where we live during the year) in time to quarantine for 14 days before school starts. I am kind of freaking out about what I am going to do with my kids in quarantine, but probably like most people with children or who are around children, the theme of this summer has certainly been “unstructured time.” My kids are currently 15, almost-12, 9.5, and almost-6. And thinking back to lockdown, one of the things that worked well was spending some time a few days a week listening to an audiobook while we colored or just relaxed. Okay, the 15-year-old did not involve herself in this, but for the rest of us it was nice. And when I would be reading a middle grade book to the 11 and 9 year old before bed, she would often casually come in and listen, or if we were discussing a book she’d read or I’d read to her when she was younger, she would happily weigh in.

How about a Family Book Club, in whatever shape that might look like to you?

So, for other people struggling with how to fill the last weeks of kids’ summers with something other than screens and devices, I thought I’d make a list of middle grade books that family members of different ages and genders would all enjoy reading (or listening to) and could then discuss.

I’m thinking middle grade books that work on a number of different levels—understood even by little ones not quite reading chapter books to themselves, hit the sweet spot of middle grade readers (either to be read out loud to or to read themselves), might interest your teen if they’ll deign to participate (boredom works in interesting ways), and sophisticated and nuanced enough to be truly enjoyed by adult readers too. 

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea—this moves quickly because of short chapters narrated by different voices. The classroom dynamics are realistic and I found it wise in a way that I, as an adult, have taken the subtle lessons, for example how to handle a “girl wars” bully. There are now 3 additional sequels.

 

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo—written deceptively simply, this one is funny and moving and heartwarming—an all-round winner for everyone every time I’ve read it. I’d say ANY Kate DiCamillo is a good choice for family book club: as Ann Patchett writes, some people like the magic animals ones (her) and some the realistic childhood ones (me) but they all “crack you open and make you a better person.”

  All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor—written in the 1950s about a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, this one just never, ever, feels dated. We are working our way through the sequels now.

 

 

Fudge books, in particular Superfudge by Judy Blume—laugh-out-loud funny and relatable about 6th grader Peter and the antics of his irrepressible 5-year-old brother Fudge. (My teen daughter’s suggestion was Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great).

 

Fortunately The Milk, by Neil Gaiman—madcap storytelling that’s fun for all ages.

 

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White—honestly, I hadn’t read this since I was a kid and pretty much remembered nothing from it. Reading it to my almost-6 year old this summer, the writing blew me away as well as the story. Garth Williams’ illustrations are a delight for everyone. A classic for a reason.

 

The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary—again, funny and relatable situations that make moving drama out of everyday circumstances and relationships. These have been a big hit over and over again and provoke great discussions about relationships and difficult situations. My personal favorites are Ramona and Her Mother and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

 

All of the above are available as audiobooks too. And speaking of audiobooks, a special mention for How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell narrated by David Tennant because on the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group someone queried if people had recommendations for an audio book for a long car ride with an 8-year-old that everyone else in the car would enjoy, and this was the overwhelming favorite.  

An important note:

When I looked at my list above I realized that it had no real diversity or POC in it. While many of the books we’ve enjoyed as a family do (see below), I couldn’t think of one that worked as well with my criteria of working for young children too—please, if anyone has any suggestions please add them in the comments.

 

Books next on my own family to-read list that I think will work well:

George by Alex Gino

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

Babysitter’s Club, the original books by Ann Martin—I loved this piece in the New York Times recently about boys reading these and my sons have devoured the graphic versions, not to mention that all of us are LOVING the fabulous Netflix series. Thought this might work well for us in audio. The first 5 are narrated by Elle Fanning.

 

Family Book Club for Middle Grade Readers and Up:

Graphic novels abound with moving stories and are great for reluctant readers or for kids ready for sophisticated themes but aren’t at a reading level for more advanced MG novels. They don’t work as well for the littlest members of the family, but if that’s not your situation, these books sparked lots of conversation and good book discussion in our family recently.

New Kid by Jerry Kraft —code switching and discomfort in either world when middle schooler Jordan changes schools, but instead of art school where he’d wanted to go, his parents send him to a prestigious academic school where he is one of the few kids of color. My kids have each read this several times and have asked a lot of questions sparking great discussion.

 

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed—family love, education, and a Somali refugee’s story as told to graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson. Both my sons devoured this. My 9-year-old described it as about “a boy with a brother who can’t speak. Really sad but really good.”

 

Other MG books on my (older) Family Book Club list:

One Crazy Summer trilogy—The first book, the story of 3 sisters joining their estranged mother in tumultuous 1960s San Francisco, has been a big hit with all my kids over the years and coming late to the party I’ve just discovered that there are two sequels which I can’t wait to try.

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman—“Imani is adopted, and she’s ready to search for her birth parents. But when she discovers the diary her Jewish great-grandmother wrote chronicling her escape from Holocaust-era Europe, Imani begins to see family in a new way.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough—I think my boys will be ready for it this year and really look forward to reading it with them. I also gave it to my older daughter’s best friend who loved it and I hope my daughter will read it too!

High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson—this just won the prestigious Waterstones Book Prize in the UK and I’m excited to read it with the kids. 

If mysteries are your family’s thing, check out some of these.

 

Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein. I just finished this and want to hand a copy to everyone I know. In a portrait of contemporary Jewish life, this book explores self-image, grief and friendship and is a wonderful, wonderful, thoughtfully-written debut.

Middle Grade for All

In truth, minus needing to encompass a little one’s needs, to me the perfect Middle Grade book is written in a way that absolutely resonates on many levels and to many ages. My list includes a lot of obvious ones–classics and award-winners. But there are thankfully untold numbers that are amazing for a Family Book Club. In addition to the ones mentioned above, here are some suggested by friends of mine who said these worked well for different-aged readers in their families:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (for fans of The Westing Game)

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds (have just ordered this for myself)

Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, adapted for young readers edition

And Finally, In Her Own Words:

One of my favorite middle grade readers, who was in a neighborhood mother-daughter book club with her mom, recommends these (and her mom endorses them too 🙂

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A Drop of Hope by Keith Calabrese

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Jennifer Choldenko

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt 

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

 

Happy Reading, Everyone!

Let me know how you get on with any of these, and please write more Family Book Club suggestions in the comments. With fears of a second Covid-19 wave and another lockdown looming (and who knows what will be with school), we all might have a LOT of time on our hands. But I can think of worse things than spending it reading and discussing great children’s books. Stay safe and Happy Reading! 

 

All books can be bought on MUF’s Bookshop.org affiliate program or wherever fine books are sold.

Interview With Middle-Grade Editors of Angelella Editorial

For today’s post, we asked the editors of Angelella Editorial five burning questions about middle-grade books.

Angelella Editorial  is a community of highly skilled editors, specializing in but not limited to children’s literature. We focus on the craft, career, and community of writing and look forward to helping you craft your storytelling magic. Here’s what they have to say.

  1.   What are your top three favorite middle grade fiction/nonfiction books from 2018?

Marissa Graff: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, The Science of Unbreakable Things by Tae Keller

Diane Telgen: Regrettably, I haven’t read as much MG as I would have liked this year, but I really enjoyed the skillful weaving of stories in The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, the clear-eyed look at various social issues in Breakout by Kate Messner, and the off-the-wall humor of The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider.

Denise Santomauro: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider, Louisana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Jenn Bailey: Charlie and Frog by Karen Kane; The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson; The Collectors by Jacqueline West

Jay Whistler: Young, Gifted, and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson, Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher, Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

Kate Angelella: Having just had a baby and amidst growing this business, I have not had much time for free reading this year. But a few of my all-time favorites: Dani Noir (aka Fade Out) by Nova Ren Suma, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass, and Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead.

 

  1.   What is your favorite thing about editing middle-grade novels?

Marissa Graff: Middle-grade novels are misunderstood as being simple to write, especially when compared to YA. Rather, I think the author has a much more difficult task in conveying heart and age-appropriateness, all while respecting the audience’s savvy and perceptiveness.

Diane Telgen: MG allows for more kinds of complexity, both in content and structure, than most people give it credit for. One thing I particularly enjoy is that the tone of MG often tends to be more open and less cynical than works for older readers, and that makes for a refreshing read.

Denise Santomauro: Young people in this age range are old enough to engage in a deep way with challenging topics, but still have a sense of wonder about the world, which is what makes working on stories for them interesting and fun. Characters in MG dive deep into complex social and emotional situations while going on adventures and finding magic and whimsy in the everyday. It’s exciting to help authors balance all of these elements.

Jenn Bailey: When kids start reading MG they are entering a time in their life when they are less self-absorbed and far more curious. They are looking at the world, seeing what it has to offer, and finding their place in it. I love how open they are to experiences that dwell beyond what they know, even when it comes to what kinds of stories they will read. This makes editing middle grade stories delicious. Nothing is really off the table (as long as it stays PG) and it is a time where authors can weave in Big Ideas and take risks in style, approach, and content. It is a chance to awaken wonder in readers and reawaken wonder in ourselves as we write, and edit, for these kids.

Jay Whistler: I love that middle-grade kids are still at the age at which they haven’t figured out how to manipulate people and lie the way older teens and adults have, so the books are more honest and raw. There is a vulnerability in the main characters that you don’t see in YA because the MC still hasn’t figured out how to put up those walls yet. I like being able to help authors navigate that.

Kate Angelella: There is a rawness about this age that has always appealed me. Young people in this age group are experiencing life in all its fullness–joy, sorrow, grief, excitement, and heartache included. Honesty and emotional truth are paramount when creating an authentic voice for this age range. A good MG book will allow the adult reader to travel back in time to that time in their lives in a way that leaves them feeling almost breathless, and will allow the MG reader to feel as though they’re not alone.

 

  1.   If you could have lunch with a middle-grade author, who would it be and why?

Marissa Graff: Lauren Wolk, hands down. I read Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea back-to-back and scrambled to see what else she had written or what was coming out next. Her characters have such believability and life to them, as do her settings. The worlds she creates are these perfectly sculpted packages she delivers to her readers in a way that makes you swear she was watching the stories as they happened. I also love that she delivers messy endings. The characters get what they need, but not necessarily what they want at the novels’ outset.

Diane Telgen: Can I have another lunch with Philip Pullman? While studying in England, I actually attended a group lunch with the author of my favorite MG series (His Dark Materials). I could have stayed past dinner time listening to him talk about the power of poetry and how he builds worlds.

Denise Santomauro: I would love to spend a few hours with Kate DiCamillo. I love pretty much everything she writes. She infuses so much heart and courage in her stories and isn’t afraid of delving into challenging topics, which leads me to believe that we would have an amazing conversation and become best friends.

Jenn Bailey: I would love to cruise the Costco aisles, eating free samples with John David Anderson. I discovered him a few years ago and have since devoured everything he has written. He pairs funny, trope-busting, quirkiness with great heart and honesty. And he’s comfortable in multiple genres — fantasy, contemporary, scifi. I will never forgive him for writing The Dungeoneers before I could (as if I could) but I will always love him for Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. Speaking of last days, if I could have lunch with somebody who is dead I’d pick Terry Pratchett. Always Terry Pratchett. I’d eat out of a dumpster for Terry Pratchett. But I’d bring John along with me.

Jay Whistler: There are almost too many to name. I love Julie Berry’s ability to switch genre and age level and voice, to sound as if she is writing as a plucky preteen in Victorian England in one book and then a persecuted religious heretic during the Inquisition in the next. Then there’s Katherine Paterson, who has managed to navigate a changing landscape of children’s literature over her nearly fifty years of writing. How does one stay relevant to that age group, when one’s original audience could almost be grandparents now? Or Lois Lowry, or Diana Wynne-Jones, or Terry Pratchett. I could go on. Just too many.

Kate Angelella: Neil Gaiman, without a doubt. I would love to explore the wonderful weirdness that is his brain. That said, I am always a little afraid to meet the people whose worlds I’ve inhabited for so long, and in such a personal way! I’m always afraid that knowing who they are personally will shade the way I read their books.

 

  1.   How do you get a sense of the voice and character in a middle-grade novel?

Marissa Graff: When a voice can translate from words on a page to sounds in my ear, I know a writer has nailed the voice for their narrator or characters.

Diane Telgen: I love that MG often allows for a distinct narrative voice, in addition to the voice of the characters, and thrill to a confident narrator who can draw the reader deeply into a new world. As for character, it’s their emotions and actions, as well as their dialogue, that show me who they really are.  

Denise Santomauro: Unique voice is most apparent for me when it’s clear the author has fully fleshed out the character. A character who has a past, desires, dislikes, hopes, opinions, emotional responses, etc. will guide the voice and the way a character moves through the story.

Jenn Bailey: When I know exactly what that character will say (I don’t mean verbatim) and how they will say it before I read it. Voice and character — a great pairing — because I feel they support, enhance, and inform each other.

Jay Whistler: I read this question differently than my colleagues did, and I saw it as wondering how we, as writers, find that sense of voice for writing middle grade. So I answered it that way. This probably seems obvious, but volunteering in a classroom or library is a great way to be around that age group and see what is important to them, how they talk, how they behave, how they interact with one another and with the adults around them.

Kate Angelella: This may sound a bit strange…but when I can imagine myself in the character’s shoes, when the character is so real to me that I can move through their story as them, I feel as though that’s the moment a writer has conveyed voice and character successfully.

 

  1.   What advice would you give someone who is looking to hire an editor?

Marissa Graff: Request a sample edit, a few pages where the editor gets to know your writing and you get a sense of the value of their feedback. It’s an investment and you want to make sure it’s worthwhile. I think most writers are surprised at how valuable the feedback of a good editor really is. I also think a good editor shows you how to employ techniques going forward so that you learn deeply for all writing going forward.

Diane Telgen: I agree with Marissa that a sample edit can be useful in deciding whether you’ve found the right editor. I’d add that working with an editor requires an open mind-set. If you see a critique as just someone telling you what’s wrong, it can feel crushing when you see comments and corrections littering your pages. But if you approach a critique as a chance to learn and grow, to try new things, it can be amazing. Remember, we provide feedback because we have confidence you can make your writing better.

Denise Santomauro: I’d echo everything Marissa and Diane said, and add that I think it’s important to examine where you are in the writing process and read the editorial options carefully to determine the most useful type of edit for the manuscript in its current form. I’d also recommend taking a break from the manuscript after you send it off to an editor. Taking time away provides the necessary distance needed to be able to have a fresh perspective on the work when you get your editorial letter.

Jenn Bailey: Difficult to think of anything to add to the wonderful advice of my colleagues. I think Denise really hits on something by encouraging writers to know where they are in their process, and know what they will need from an editor, before jumping in. I realize that may sound counterproductive to getting folks to hire us, but it isn’t. We really want you writers to succeed. We want you to launch on your publishing adventure, but you have to be ready. So write your first draft, give it some revision, share it with your critique group, and when you are ready for that one-on-one deep dive into your story, that push that will make your story the best it can be, look us up.

Jay Whistler: My colleagues have covered a lot of the same points I would make. But I think it doesn’t hurt to reiterate that you must be open to having someone go through your story with a fine-toothed comb. While it might seem as invasive as having someone rifle through your underwear drawer, remember that editors are truly looking to help you make your story as strong as it can be. Professional editors have a reputation to uphold and want to help you on your journey to learn and improve your craft.

Kate Angelella: Yes, to all of the above! Be sure you get a sample edit, be sure you get a contract, and be sure you feel connected to the editor in some way. The reason we offer clients a glimpse of our editors’ favorite movies and TV shows on our website is to offer potential clients a way to connect with our editors outside of their own work. One of the very first things Kyle and I connected over, way back when he was a client of mine, was our love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the TV show Pushing Daisies.

Writers, did you know that Angelella Editorial is offering a 10% discount on all editorial services this holiday season? For more information about the editors of Angelella Editorial and the work they do, click here and here.

 

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.