Posts Tagged middle-grade fiction

Interview with Author Leah Cypess

I’m a huge fairy tale lover, and I just discovered Leah Cypess’s Sisters Ever After series. How did I miss this?! Her latest book in the series, BRAIDED, is coming out May 28. I’m so excited that I got to interview her for our Mixed-Up Files readers!

Please tell us a little bit about your upcoming novel, BRAIDED?

BRAIDED is the story of Rapunzel’s little sister, Cinna, who grew up longing for the return of her kidnapped older sister. The book starts right after Rapunzel’s rescue from the tower. Cinna can’t wait to help her sister take her rightful place as the heir to the throne. But Rapunzel is not what anyone—including Cinna—expected. And whoever took her might still be lurking in the castle…

I’ve always loved the story of Rapunzel (and have recently been looking at some of the origins of it myself). What kind of research has gone into writing this book (and your others)? Have you fallen down any interesting rabbit holes?

I started out by reading The Rebirth of Rapunzel by Kate Forsyth, which you’ve probably come across if you’ve been looking into the origins of Rapunzel! I found the book fascinating, but ultimately I decided to make BRAIDED more of its own story (and more related to TANGLED, despite Forsyth’s dislike of that movie). The previous book in the Sisters Ever After series, THE LAST ROSE, got about as dark as I want to go with these retellings; for BRAIDED I focused heavily on the question of, “What would make this story fun for my readers?”

I ended up doing a lot of research to flesh out the magical system in BRAIDED, since Rapunzel and her sister do magic by braiding spells into their hair. And that let me down a pretty intense rabbit hole about braids and hairstyles. For a while, Instagram was showing me nothing but hair reels all the time. And for a while, my youngest daughter’s hair was very fancy every day.

I’ve found myself drawn to fairy tales these last couple of years, and I absolutely love the idea of looking at the stories from the point of view of the siblings. Can you tell us what inspired you to write fairy tale retellings, and how these unique points of view came about?

I have always loved fairy tale retellings. There’s something about playing with a very familiar story, one baked into our cultural memory, that is both incredibly fun and enormously satisfying. Ideally, you create a twist that draws on the power of that original story while simultaneously examining and/or subverting it.

One way to do that is to tell the story from a different perspective – from the point of view of someone the original fairy tale didn’t consider important or didn’t include at all. With the Sisters Ever After series, that approach is baked into the way I tell the story. But because sibling relationships are so varied, but it still allows me many different ways to use that new point of view. I’ve been having so much fun with it.

You’ve written novels centered on Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Pied Piper, Beauty and the Beast, and, now, Rapunzel. (And, I believe The Little Mermaid is up next). Did you have a favorite fairy tale as a kid? What about it did you love?

My favorite fairy tale growing up was The Twelve Dancing Princesses, about princesses who wear out their dancing shoes every night in a secret faerie realm. I think what I love about that story is how complex it is about what the princesses are doing and why. The story is pretty clear that the princesses are not being forced to dance—they are actively sneaking away and deceiving everyone around them—and yet, in the end, the dancing is what they have to be saved from. Obviously, that’s an easy story to turn on its head, but I like the tension in the fact that the faerie dancing is both fun and dangerous.

Originally, I was going to do The Twelve Dancing Princesses as one of the Sisters Ever After books! But everyone I told about the idea was confused by why on earth that story would need a thirteenth princess. In the end, I wrote two short story retellings of the Twelve Dancing Princesses but never a book. Yet.)

We’re big fans of teachers and librarians here at From the Mixed-Up Files. Could you tell our readers about a teacher or a librarian who had an effect on your reading or writing life?

I’ve been lucky to have a number of teachers who encouraged my interest in reading and writing. My first “publisher” was my first grade teacher, who compiled a booklet of students’ stories. (My story was written from the point of view of an ice cream cone.) In fourth grade, I used to sneak books into class and read them under my desk during math class. My parents told me years later that my teacher knew perfectly well what I was doing but decided to let me get away with it.

Libraries have been a huge influence on me since before I was born. My father grew up very poor, and his family could barely afford enough food; they certainly didn’t buy books. The fact that he could go to the public library and read as many books as he wanted was part of what transformed him into a reader, and the fact that he was a reader was part of what made me into a reader. I am hugely grateful to libraries.

You’ve been writing since first grade, and sold your first story while still in high school. Do you have any advice for our middle grade readers about getting started on a writing life?

Shortly after I got my first publishing contract, I saw this quote on Mandy Hubbard’s blog: “A published author is an amateur who didn’t quit. Don’t quit.” I think that’s the best advice I can give!  I would also suggest that you pace yourself in your writing development… first find your own voice and style, then find a critique group to polish it, and only then should you start worrying about publication.

Where can our readers find you?

My website is The place where I most reliably post writing news these days is on my Instagram, Leah Cypess. And if anyone is interested in getting a personalized signed copy of BRAIDED, I am running a preorder campaign through a local independent bookstore, People’s Book.


Thanks so much for visiting with us, Leah.

Readers, be sure to check out BRAIDED and the other books in Leah’s Sisters Ever After series. Do you have a favorite fairy tale? Let us know in the comments.

Interview with New York Times bestselling author, Liz Kessler

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome MG superstar Liz Kessler to the Mixed-Up Files! In addition to being the author of the wildly popular Emily Windsnap series—which has been translated into 25 languages, appeared on the New York Times bestsellers list, and has sold millions of copiesLiz has penned the Phillipa Fisher series, several MG stand-alones, two YA novels, and books for early readers. Liz’s latest MG novel, Code Name Kingfisher, hailed by School Library Journal as “overpoweringly emotional; an intense story, gorgeously told,” is out from Aladdin on May 7.

But before we chat with Liz…

Code Name Kingfisher: A Summary

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…

Interview with Liz Kessler

Melissa: Hi, Liz! It’s a pleasure to have you join us today. Before we begin, I must tell you how much I adored Code Name Kingfisher. I stayed up until the wee hours reading it and was sobbing by the end. It’s such a powerful book!

Liz: Thank you!

Melissa: Also, I also have a confession to make. My daughter, Chloe—who’s now 24—loved the Emily Windsnapseries so much, she went through a period of writing her homework assignments in British English! Her teachers were very confused. 🙂 

Liz: I have found it fascinating over the years of working with both UK and US editors to discover all the ways in which our languages both align and vary!

Pulled from the Headlines

Melissa: Your latest novel, Code Name Kingfisher, is inspired by true-life events: the story of two sisters, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, and their friend Hannie Schaft. Can you give us some historical background? Also, what was your impetus to tell this particular story?

Liz: I was working on the research for my novel, When The World Was Ours, and in the course of my research I went to Amsterdam and discovered a lot about people in Holland who joined the Resistance movement during the war. Then I heard a program about these three girls and was keen to find out more. I read all about them and was so drawn to their story. I have always written about strong young women (as your daughter will tell you, because Emily Windsnap was the first of them!) and felt very inspired by these three.

Melissa: Your novel alternates between present-day England and Nazi-occupied Holland, circa 1942. It’s also told from four different perspectives: thirteen-year-old Liv, who’s getting bullied at school; Mila, 12, and Hannie, 15—two Jewish sisters who have assumed new identities and are living with a non-Jewish family in Amsterdam; and Willem, a neighbor boy with secrets of his own. How were you able to get inside each character’s head in such a genuine, authentic way? It’s not an easy feat to pull off!

Liz: Thank you for saying this. I’m glad that I pulled it off in a way that you found genuine and authentic. I think for me, the important thing is to know my characters as well as I possibly can. I spend a lot of time imagining what they are like, picturing them, planning and plotting their stories, and when I am writing, I just find that I naturally get inside their heads and try to experience the story from their point of view. It’s how I’ve always done it, and I think being someone who is quite a high-level over empathizer helps!

Lessons in Drafting

Melissa: As above, your novel is told from four different perspectives, past and present. What was your drafting technique like? Did you write each character’s narrative arc from start to finish and then weave the stories together? Or did you start with one character and then move on to the next one… and the next one?

Liz: I actually didn’t do either of these! I am quite an extreme planner. I plan and plan and plan and don’t start writing a word of the book until I have a chapter by chapter breakdown that works. So it was in the planning stage that I worked out how I wanted the story to unfold, who was the person to tell each part of the story, how the present and past narratives would work together, reflecting on each other and interweaving around each other. The planning was a lot of work with this book, particularly given the different viewpoints AND past and present settings. But once the groundwork of planning is done, it makes the writing easier!

It’s All in the Research

Melissa: Since a good portion of the novel takes place during World War II, in Nazi-occupied Holland, what sort of research did you do in order to ensure authenticity?

Liz: I spent several days in Amsterdam, visiting museums: in particular, the Anne Frank House and the Dutch Resistance Museum. I bought as many books as I could find on the subject, I scoured websites. And then when I’d completed a first draft, I found a couple of experts on Holland during the war who helped me to ensure I had gotten my facts right.

Writing about WWII

Melissa: As a follow-up, this is not your first middle-grade novel to be set in Nazi-occupied Europe. When the World Was Ours (Aladdin, 2022), which was also inspired by a true story, takes place in Vienna, in 1936. What impels you to write about this period in history? What makes it meaningful to you?

Liz: When The World Was Ours was inspired by an incident in my dad’s childhood that led to him being able to get away from the Nazis in 1939. I had wanted to write a book inspired by his experiences for many years. I am not a history fan normally, but these books have been about exploring issues that are always close to my heart: social justice, love, family and the power of kindness.

The Complexity of Secret Keeping

Melissa: An important theme in Code Name Kingfisher is secret keeping. Liv doesn’t tell her parents that she’s being bullied at school, and Liv’s grandmother never talks about her beloved sister, Hannie. She also had to keep her Jewish identity a secret when she was hiding from the Nazis. What is it about secret keeping that’s so complex and emotionally draining?

Liz: I’m actually not sure how to answer this one as I am not a big secret keeper myself. I am much more of an open book than any of these characters! But I think that when we allow ourselves to live freely and authentically, we are likely to be much happier in our lives. Living with secrets is the opposite of that, and will undoubtedly lead to living with an element of weight and stress.

Bullying and Human Persecution

Melissa: In Code Name Kingfisher, Liv is bullied by her classmates for no particular reason; the Jews were persecuted during WWII, just for being Jewish. What were you trying to say about the nature of bullying and human persecution in general?

Liz: With both of these books, I hope to show how easily people can be led into bullying or cruel behavior. How sometimes it’s about our own self-preservation – hoping that if we side with the persecutor we won’t be seen as weak and run the risk of being the bully’s next victim. I want young people to read these books and make links for themselves between current times and the fascism of World War Two. I hope to start conversations about kindness and strength and standing up for others. Beyond that, it’s up to the readers to draw their own conclusions and figure out for themselves where they choose to stand.

Liz’s Writing Routine

Melissa: Switching gears, let’s talk about your writing routine. Do you have a specific time of the day when you like to write? Any particular writing rituals?

Liz: I don’t really have rituals. I usually prefer to work in the mornings. I set targets with my work, rather than setting particular timings. I also love to be flexible so I can sometimes write all day and sometimes take the day off if the sun’s shining and the outside world is calling!

Melissa: What are you working on now, Liz? Also, are there any more Emily Windsnap books on the horizon?

Liz: Funny you should ask. I have just completed the final edit of a tenth Emily Windsnap book!

Lightning Round!

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

Preferred writing snack? Used to be chocolate, but I went cold turkey a month ago so I guess it will have to be fruit.

Plotter or Pantser? Major plotter!

Superpower? The superpower I have is empathy. The one I’d like to have is the ability to time travel.

Favorite place on earth? My home. I’m never happier than when I’m with my wife and my dog.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?Notebook, pen and some form of music.

Melissa: Thank you for chatting with us, Liz. It was a pleasure to learn more about you and your book, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!

Liz: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun chatting with you!

About Liz

Liz Kessler has written over twenty books for children and young adults. Most of these are middle- grade books featuring mermaids, fairies, time travel, and superpowers. She also writes Early Readers about Poppy the Pirate Dog and Jenny the Pony, as well as two YA books about teenagers coming of age, falling in love, and discovering their identity. Learn more about Liz on her website.

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.

STEM Author Spotlight– Laura Stegman

We are delighted to have Laura Stegman, author of The Chambered Nautilus on the blog today.

Laura StegmanLaura Segal Stegman is a Los Angeles-based publicist and author whose middle grade debut novel, Summer of L.U.C.K., and its sequel, Ready or Not, were published by Young Dragons. The Chambered Nautilus, the third in the L.U.C.K. trilogy, will follow. L.A. Parent Magazine lauded Summer of L.U.C.K. as a “good read,” Readers’ Favorite awarded it 5 Stars, and a Macaroni Kid reviewer said, “I was instantly captivated and couldn’t put it down.” Laura serves as a judge for Society of Young Inklings and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) writer competitions, and she shares her author journey in engaging virtual and in-person visits to schools and libraries. Her non-fiction credits include collaboration on the travel book Only in New York. Her feature stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine. A long-time publicity consultant, she owns Laura Segal Stegman Public Relations, LLC, which has represented a wide-ranging client list of businesses, arts organizations, and non-profit events over the years. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Drama.



The Chambered Nautilus book

All about the book! Get ready for a whirlwind adventure with The Chambered Nautilus, the thrilling conclusion to Laura Segal Stegman’s enchanting Summer of L.U.C.K. trilogy.

Best friends Darby, Justin, and Naz are facing their biggest challenge yet. Since last summer’s adventure, they find themselves growing apart, making new friends, and being pulled in different directions. But when a ride at ghostly Mr. Usher’s carnival experiences a mysterious malfunction, the trio reunites to answer his desperate call for help.

With expulsion from camp and the carnival’s very existence on the line, Darby, Justin, and Naz will have to rely on their wits-and one another-to unravel the mysteries surrounding Mr. Usher’s plea. The camp’s newest attraction, the Chambered Nautilus, may hold the key, but it will take everything they have to unlock its secret.

Join them in a heart-pounding journey filled with friendship, courage, and the power of never giving up. Will they save the carnival and their cherished memories before it’s too late? Find out in this magical tale of adventure, discovery, and the true meaning of loyalty.


Laura, thanks for answering my questions:

JS: This is such a fun book with a great cast of characters. Were they inspired by yourself? Or maybe kids you knew or grew up with? You don’t have to give specific names, of course, but it’s always fun to learn where authors get their characters.


LS: I appreciate your describing The Chambered Nautilus as a fun book! I sure had fun writing it! It’s the third in my middle grade trilogy about three kids whose friendship with a ghost livens up – to put it mildly – their summer camp experiences over a three-year span. In Summer of L.U.C.K., the first book, we meet Darby, Justin, and Naz, who are struggling with communicating, and the ghost, Leroy Usher, who helps them find their voices via adventures in his magical carnival. The kids have more magical adventures in the sequel, but Ready or Not sees Mr. Usher helping Justin, who faces a tricky choice: stand up to bigotry or let fear hold him back. In The Chambered Nautilus, the conclusion to the series, the trio receives an urgent plea from Mr. Usher, and they must figure out how to help him without destroying his beloved, now real-life carnival or getting expelled from camp.

It’s certainly accurate to say that the kid  characters were inspired by me. A lot of Darby is based on my own experiences learning to find my voice. I never lost a parent as a kid, the way Justin does, but I’ve felt his sense of not being heard. As for Naz, whose endearing personality makes me laugh, I share his tenacity and his love of junk food.


JS: Your book has a ghost! How cool is that? Can you explain what made you decide to put a ghost in it? 

LS: I needed a character not only with magical powers but who was also deeply compassionate. A friendly ghost fit the bill. I modeled Mr. Usher on the kind of loving, understanding adult that kids like me loved to be around. I had a grade school teacher like that. She helped me navigate tough times and gave me a sense of security and trust. Like her, Mr. Usher adores kids and does everything he can to help them, which is why Darby, Justin, and Naz are so drawn to him. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Warner, and for all I know she has passed on, but perhaps she haunts my old elementary school, still helping kids. Ha!


JS: Why did you pick a chambered nautilus? This is not a typical ride at a carnival.

Agreed! The Chambered Nautilus in this book exists nowhere but my imagination. The carnival attraction is shaped like a nautilus shell (think giant snail). When kids enter, they (and readers) learn all about chambered nautiluses and their threatened status. As they go from room to room – each smaller than the last, like a real nautilus – they must answer multiple choice questions about what they’ve learned to get to the final room and win a prize.

But it’s not as simple as all that. The Chambered Nautilus attraction is Mr. Usher’s son’s misbegotten attempt to bring his late father’s plans to life. Mr. Usher never intended it to be built anywhere except in his magical realm, but his son doesn’t know that. And of course everything goes wrong. When pieces of the carnival start disappearing, the three kids must rescue the trapped Mr. Usher so he can go back to rest once and for all.


JS: You have a little STEM in your book. Why did you add that?

My favorite book as a kid, The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, had a chambered nautilus-related scene, so I knew a little about them. But as I did research for my book, I became fascinated by their intriguing biology, their intricately designed shells, and their precarious status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. For young readers who’ve never heard of chambered nautiluses, I’m hoping to inspire their interest in these soft-bodied cephalopod class creatures, which have cruised in deep ocean coral reefs for more than 480 million years.


JS: What do you want young readers to find interesting and exciting about your book?

LS: Aside from discovering chambered nautiluses, I hope they’ll be engaged by the relationship between Darby, Justin, and Naz and enjoy sharing their adventures. In The Chambered Nautilus and the other two books in the trilogy, there’s a lot about finding self-acceptance, perseverance, ways to deal with life’s unfairness, and the power of friendship. It would be great if my readers also learn that whatever they’re struggling with, other kids struggle too, that they’re not alone, and that help is possible, even if you don’t have the guidance of a friendly ghost).


JS: Do you have any tips for writers who want to break into fiction children’s books?

LS: What helps me the most are these things, in no particular order:

1) Reading widely, especially contemporary middle grade but also other genres.

2) Making contact with as many other middle grade writers as possible, especially those at the same stage of their careers as I am.

3) Joining or creating a critique group.

4) Learning as much as possible about the publishing industry by taking advantage of the range of no-cost writer’s resources, from social media (X/Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, for me) to web sites/blogs.

5) Joining the SCBWI and, when eligible, the Author’s Guild, which offers everything from free contract reviews to webinars,  workshops, seminars, and events to website building and hosting and much more.

6) Continuing to write, never giving up, and remembering that there is no age limit to our dreams.


JS: What are you working on now?

LS: I’m deep in revisions for my fourth book, a contemporary middle grade novel about a self-conscious twelve-year-old who flourishes in an acting class only to confront her binge eating when it jeopardizes all her progress. This story of healing, self-acceptance, and hope is especially dear to my heart, and I hope it eventually finds a home. I also have an idea for another MG contemporary about a blended family, which is in such rudimentary stages that I haven’t been able to decide where the story begins.


Laura Stegman