Posts Tagged middle-grade readers

Interview With Janet Fox, Author of The Artifact Hunters

The Artifact Hunters is one of my favorite books of 2020. So I immediately called dibs on an interview with Janet Fox for MUF. This sequel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE combines historical fiction and magic in a fast-paced adventure full of twists and turns.

Let’s get to it!

1. Tell us about The Artifact Hunters.

My main character, Isaac Wolf, is a 12 year old boy living in Prague in 1942, when his parents suddenly send him away alone with a talisman (a pendant in the shape of an “eternity knot”), a mysterious box containing…, and instructions to find Rookskill Castle in Scotland. When he arrives at Rookskill he discovers the Special Alternative Intelligence Unit where gifted children learn to harness their magical powers to support the Allies’ cause. Isaac has to learn that he, too, has magical powers, but to harness and use them he must hunt for a series of magical artifacts that are scattered throughout the past. And what is inside the mysterious box? How can he find those artifacts? And who – or what – is actually hunting him, as he unlocks the answers to these secrets?

2. How did you come up with the idea?

All of my Rookskill books have something to do with time.

In the first book, my protagonist Kat (who is also in this book) knows how to fix clocks, which gives her the ability to defeat the antagonist (there’s a bit of a steampunk element). In this new book, I wanted to play with time travel and the dangers inherent in time loops, time warps, and so on. I also wanted in this book to touch, albeit subtly, on how societies rise and fall and the nature of conflict.

But the real touchstone for me was when I happened upon an article about something called a Death’s Head Watch, which is a totally creepy real thing. https://janetsfox.com/2020/07/the-deaths-head-watch/

3. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!

Actually…no. My characters come to me, begging to be written. I’m not kidding.

Of course, there is an element of me in each of them. Kat is especially close to the kid inside me. But I try to enrich them by playing at opposites, at something I would never do or say or think, even if I share their fears or dreams. Each time I start a new story I start with the character first, and build the story around him or her.

4. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?

When I write I do a lot of research, and my favorite kind of research is travel (which is a little hard to do right now, sadly.) For The Artifact Hunters, I went to Prague, where Isaac is from, and for Charmed Children I visited Scotland. A sense of place is really important to everything I write, so if you look carefully at any of my books you’ll see that they are set in places I’ve lived or visited.

I also have a master’s degree in science (geology), and so science plays a huge role in my work.

5. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing?

My all-time favorite books as a kid were the Narnia books. And yes, they profoundly influence everything I write. I try to invoke that same sense of wonder and magic, and the kid relationships Lewis developed. My first three books are YA novels, and I have one picture book out, but I feel now that my sweet spot is middle grade, and that’s probably due to my love of Narnia.

6. What are you working on now?

I have a third Rookskill novel in proposal stage with my publisher (Viking), so we’ll see whether that’s a go or not. It may depend on how well The Artifact Hunters does, as all things in this business.

I have another book, Carry Me Home, coming out with Simon & Schuster next summer that is really different for me – a contemporary middle grade story about a homeless girl. I really, really love that book and can’t wait to see it out in the world.

But I’ve also been working hard on a “Covid” book, another middle grade fantasy that’s set in contemporary times but with a parallel universes theme. It’s tentative title is The Book of Weirds and Wonders.

7. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’ve been a pantser forever but I’m trying really hard to plan more, and am finding my way to a technique I really like (that I’m teaching as part of my coaching business https://janetsfox.com/book-coaching/ ). I love pantsing but it makes the work so much more difficult. I’m working on this new in-between strategy called the inside-outline.

https://montana.scbwi.org/events/webinar-a-new-way-to-outline-with-author-janet-fox/

8. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Don’t give up.

It’s so amazing to me to think that I’ve written and published as much as I have. I remember too well the early days, the rejections, the disappointments, the thinking I’d never make it, never publish anything, never be read. There’s only one real reason I did make it – I didn’t give up.

Oh, sure, I studied craft. I have my MFA in writing. I work hard. I’ve been lucky. But honestly, there are many ways to reach your dreams and only one thing that will really get you there and that’s to Never Give Up.

Buy Now!

 

 

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.

Exploring THE PLACES WE SLEEP with Author Caroline DuBois

I have a new guest for you, today! She’s written a tender, moving tale in verse that journeys a young girl through everyday details while living during a time of national crisis. The first words of this story made me pause and take notice. And the rest, poked me right in the heart to the end. The writing is beautiful and real, the story is important, and the growth of the main character is hopeful. I’m very excited to share The Places We Sleep with you and welcome Author Caroline DuBois to share her thoughts about the book.

Hi Caroline! It’s wonderful to have you visit our Mixed-Up Files family. Let’s share your beautiful cover and story with readers first.

THE PLACES WE SLEEP

by Caroline DuBois

A family divided, a country going to war, and a girl desperate to feel at home converge in this stunning novel in verse.

It’s early September 2001, and twelve-year-old Abbey is the new kid at school. Again.

I worry about people speaking to me / and worry just the same / when they don’t.

Tennessee is her family’s latest stop in a series of moves due to her dad’s work in the Army, but this one might be different. Her school is far from Base, and for the first time, Abbey has found a real friend: loyal, courageous, athletic Camille.

And then it’s September 11. The country is under attack, and Abbey’s “home” looks like it might fall apart. America has changed overnight.

How are we supposed / to keep this up / with the world / crumbling / around us?

Abbey’s body changes, too, while her classmates argue and her family falters. Like everyone around her, she tries to make sense of her own experience as a part of the country’s collective pain. With her mother grieving and her father prepping for active duty, Abbey must learn to cope on her own.

Written in gorgeous narrative verse, Abbey’s coming-of-age story accessibly portrays the military family experience during a tumultuous period in our history. At once personal and universal, it’s a perfect read for fans of sensitive, tender-hearted books like The Thing About Jellyfish.

If you would, share with our readers one book from your childhood that has stayed with you, and how can children’s authors in today’s unsettled world achieve this same unforgettable feel?

Mary Norton’s The Borrowers sparked my imagination as a child. My librarian mom introduced it to me. Norton’s world-building of tiny people living in the walls and borrowing from the people with whom they lived was pure escape for me from the big complicated world.

Children’s authors in today’s uncertain world can achieve this same unforgettable feel by either delivering children to a rich land of imagination, or by providing children a story in which they can see themselves. Then they can envision and dream of ways they can be and all the things they can achieve.

What made you decide to write “The Places We Sleep” in verse?

Abbey’s story came to me naturally in poetry, perhaps as a lyrical way to process 9/11 and my brothers’ deployment, but also likely because I’d recently completed my MFA in poetry. It began as more of a character sketch through poems and eventually turned into a story. I wanted to write about how world events have rippling effects on individuals and familial relationships in unexpected ways. The snapshots or scenes that poems allow you to write provided me with the perfect medium.

Your description of poems being scenes is fascinating and also beautiful. It definitely worked. How much of the novel is inspired by your own experience growing up in the South in a military family?

Although I did not grow up in a military family, both of my grandfathers served in the military, as well as both of my brothers, my brother-in-law, and my sister-in-law. Abbey’s story is about being a military child, but it’s also about many other things—identity, loss and grief, creating art in the face of tragedy, tolerance and acceptance, and friendship. It’s about how world events can touch individuals in large and small ways.

That they do. ♥ This couldn’t have been an easy story to write. What was the most difficult part?

I faced two specific challenges in writing this story. One was creating full, round characters through poems. And the other was making decisions about how to approach a national tragedy age-appropriately and sensitively. Having a great editor at Holiday House and a sensitivity reader helped with both.

Why do you think this story is important for the middle-grade audience?

Middle grade students I’ve taught often have had only a fuzzy understanding of the events of 9/11, and the nonfiction texts they’ve typically enjoyed the most in my classroom were almost always couched in a narrative story. I hope Abbey’s story will spark curiosity in young readers about 9/11 and the monumental lessons we learned and are still learning from that tragedy. I hope the book will leave readers with a memorable story about a girl who may not be all that different from themselves. Furthermore, I hope student readers are gently nudged to learn the names of others with whom they share classes and hallways and to act with kindness and dignity to those they may not know or understand. Maybe it will even inspire some young reader to choose to deal with life’s challenges through art or poetry or other forms of creativity.

Inspiring young readers to engage in conversation about the events of 9/11 is a wonderful.

How much research did you do for the story?

I lived through 9/11 and began writing and reading about it immediately thereafter. Additionally, I’ve had various family members in the military as well as taught students who experienced and still experience islamophobia. I conducted research as I was writing the story, as well as mined the living resources around me to create as authentic a portrayal of the historical backdrop to the story as I could.

What can young readers expect from your main character Abbey?

I hope that young readers can see themselves in Abbey as she navigates challenging world events along with the struggles of middle school and adolescence. Currently, teens and children are facing their own difficult world events. I hope readers see how Abbey perseveres and strives to be a good friend, to be kind, and to express empathy and tolerance to others.

All extremely important traits, especially in today’s world. Do you have any advice for librarians and teachers on how to encourage middle schoolers to give in verse books a try?

Books in verse make great shared read-aloud opportunities. You’re never too old to be read to or to enjoy reading aloud to someone else. Another way to inspire and hook a child on the joy of reading is by giving a book talk. Where an educator may not have time to read an entire chapter, there’s always time for a poem or two. And once one student starts reading it, the likelihood is that his or her friends will pick it up too. Books in verse create more white space between scenes as well as playful or dramatic visual messages with syntax, punctuation, and form, which can motivate adolescent readers.

Circling back to my first question, what do you hope stays with your readers after they read this story?

Perhaps The Places We Sleep will spark curiosity in young readers about 9/11 and the monumental lessons we learned and are still learning from that tragedy. I hope student readers are gently nudged to learn the names of others with whom they share classes and hallways and to act with kindness and dignity to those they may not know or understand. Maybe it will inspire some young reader to choose to deal with life’s challenges through art or poetry or other forms of creativity.

Here’s a little bit more about Caroline:

Caroline Brooks DuBois found her poetic voice in the halls of the English Department at Converse College and the University of Bucknell’s Seminar for Young Poets. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, under the scholarship of Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Tate, among other greats in the poetry world.
DuBois’s writing infuses poetry and prose and has been published by outlets as varied as Highlights High Five, Southern Poetry Review, and The Journal of the American Medical Association and has been twice honored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her debut middle-grade novel-in-verse, The Places We Sleep, is published by Holiday House and to be released August 2020.
DuBois has taught poetry workshops, writing classes, and English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. In May 2016, she was recognized as a Nashville Blue Ribbon Teacher for her dedication to her students and excellence in teaching adolescents.
DuBois currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she works as an English instructional coach and sometimes co-writes songs for fun with her singer-songwriter husband. She has two teenage children and a dog, Lilli, and she enjoys coaching soccer and generally being outside.
WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM

Thank you for sharing some of your writing journey with us, Caroline! All the best with The Places We Sleep.