Posts Tagged #middlegrade

Author Spotlight: Carol Weston

If the name Carol Weston sounds familiar, it’s no surprise. Carol published her first article in Seventeen magazine at the age of 19, and she was later dubbed “Teen Dear Abby” by Newsweek, thanks to her popular “Dear Carol” column—which is still going strong—in Girls’ Life magazine. Her critically acclaimed teen-advice book, GIRLTALK: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You, has been translated into a dozen languages and is now in its fourth edition.

Currently, Carol has been enjoying an illustrious career as a middle-grade author. In addition to the beloved Ava and Pip series, as well as the fun and voice-y Melanie Martin books, Carol’s MG novel, Speed of Life was lauded by the New York Times as “perceptive, funny and moving.” The late Newbery medalist Richard Peck concurred, calling Speed of Life “A wonderful book that takes us from loss to laughter.” (I cosign Richard Peck’s praise, having read—and loved—Speed of Life when it first came out in 2017.)

In addition to Carol’s impressive contribution to children’s literature, she has had essays, articles, and interviews appear in such publications as Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Redbook, Glamour, and Parents. On television, Carol has appeared on Today, Oprah, 48 Hours, and The View. She is also a writing instructor at the New York Society Library, where her monthly writing “Prompt!” class, which I’m lucky enough to attend, is hugely popular. Married to playwright Rob Ackerman, Carol is a mother, grandmother, and splits her time between Armonk, New York, and Manhattan. Learn more about Carol on her website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.

And now, without further ado…

Heeeeeere’s Carol!

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Carol. I’m so excited to have you here!

CW: Thank you for that fabulous introduction! You’ve got me blushing!

MR: I know you’ve always loved to write, and that both your parents were writers. What is it about writing that appealed to you as a child? What about it appeals to you now? Also, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

CW: Big questions! I think of writing as sharing. I like that if you hear something funny or think something deep, and you’re working on a manuscript, you can usually find a place to put it. As for advice, there’s no getting around it. If you want to be a writer, you have to write! Don’t wring your hands. Just put words on paper. Honor your talent. Leave a pencil and paper by your bed. Keep a journal or writer’s notebook. Don’t fret about the end result. Good writing takes a zillion drafts but if you don’t get your words down, how can you have the fun of editing and revising? (P.S. Keep reading and listening to books too.)

Take My Advice

MR: Speaking of advice, like you, I was an advice columnist for teens. (My weekly column, “Life Sucks,” appeared in the U.K. teen magazine, J17, in the 1990s, and I was a teen-relationships adviser online as well.) How did you get your start as an advice columnist?

CW: Way back in 1993, I was in the waiting room of Cosmopolitan magazine and a man walked in wearing a nice coat. “Nice coat!” I said. We got to chatting and I told him about my book Girltalk, and he told me his girlfriend was starting a magazine, Girls’ Life. The next day she called and offered me the gig. I said a fast yes. Who knew I’d still be “Dear Carol” 28 years later? One lesson here: Do talk to strangers.

MR: Another advice-related question (I can’t help myself). What are some of the most common questions teens ask in your “Dear Carol” column? What about the strangest…? (Be honest. 🙂)

CW: I’ve answered “Should I tell him I like him?” and “How can I tell if he likes me?” and “When will I get my period?” over a thousand times! And Covid was so hard on so many. I really felt for girls who were stuck indoors, sometimes with difficult families or an uncle who was quarantining with them. Much of my tried-and-true advice like “Give a compliment” or “Talk to someone new” or “Join an extra-curricular” or “Talk to your school counselor” went out the window. Actually, I don’t think of any of my Girls’ Life mail as strange, though many letters are over-the-top personal. For instance, girls tell me that their brothers (or dads) are looking at porn, or in some cases that they are. Still, more human than strange. I do my best to help girls navigate the complicated adult world.

Speed of Life: The Backstory

MR: Turning to kidlit, rumor has it that Speed of Life took you ten years to write. Would you mind sharing the backstory with us?

CW: Early one January morning while un-decorating our Christmas tree in Manhattan, I got the idea for a novel that could start on January 1 with a bittersweet scene of a father and daughter putting away holiday ornaments though Christmas had “sucked.” I wanted the book to have 12 chapters, one per month. It would be a year in a life of Sofia, who would go from a grief-stricken 14-year-old kid (her mother has died eight months earlier) to a 15-year-old young woman who is finding her footing. Sofia has supportive friends, but when the novel begins, they’re ready for her to be “okay” again, and of course, she can’t recharge like a cellphone. Desperate, Sofia reaches out to a teen advice columnist (!) – but what she doesn’t know (spoiler alert) is that the advice columnist, Dear Kate, has started dating her widower father. Complications ensue!

Ten years between idea to pub party is not at all speedy. But Speed of Life began with four third-person POVs and ended up first person and just in Sofia’s voice. I sure did get to know my characters! In some ways, the novel began even earlier because it was based on my own grief over losing my father when I was 25. It’s set in New York’s Upper West Side, Spain, and Westchester, New York, three places I’ve called home. And it came straight from the heart.

Dear Diary

MR: Unlike Speed of Life, the Ava and Pip series, and the Melanie Martin series, are written in diary form. What made you choose this particular format for these books? Did you keep a diary as a child?

CW:  Oh God, yes. I kept diaries before I could really write or spell and before I had anything of note to say. Keeping diaries was a way for me to process my day and become more observant. As a kid, while others read, I scribbled. As a thirtysomething mom, I’d written eight nonfiction books and was desperate to write fiction for adults but just couldn’t make the jump. Finally, the fictional Melanie Martin, 10, sort of showed up and said: Enough with your precious attempts at the Great American Novel. How about a diary for kids? The Diary of Melanie Martin poured out.

It begins: “Dear Diary, You will never in a million years guess where we’re going. Nope. Guess again. Never mind, I’ll tell you. Italy! We’re going to Italy! In Europe!! Across the ocean!!!” I was glad that Melanie got to go to Italy, Spain, and Holland. New York too—and glad that, although several publishers passed, Knopf said yes. So, my first novel came out when I was 43. Don’t give up out there!

Turning a Child into a Reader

MR: Ava and Pip skews younger than Speed of Life (Sofia, the protagonist, is 14). The Melanie Martin books skew younger, too. What is the biggest challenge when writing for kids of different age groups on the MG continuum?

CW: Publishers want us to think about younger kids versus older kids, but I wish they didn’t. Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You was billed as a guidebook for girls 11 to 18, and I loved that! Some kids read it for tips on babysitting and bra-buying; others for tips on safer sex or job interviews. I love writing for young people because sometimes yours really is the book that turns a reluctant reader into a reader, and because when a kid loves your books, she love-love-loves them. And kids don’t just read, they reread.

Palindrome Party

MR: I know you’re a sucker for palindromes. In Ava and Pip, Ava realizes that the names of her family members—Mom, Dad, Ava Elle, and Pip Hannah—are palindromic. What is it about word play that knocks your socks off?

CW: Great question. I was a French / Spanish literature major at Yale and sure, I love books / livres / libros. But I love thinking about individual words too. When The New York Times called Ava and Pip “a love letter to language,” I basically wept. Because that’s what it is. Words themselves are fun, and if you combine them well, you can make people laugh or cry or think or become more compassionate toward others and themselves. I remember being in kindergarten when I learned the word “I.” One measly letter (one long stick, two short ones) and it was so powerful! I also remember learning to spell “here” and “there” and being baffled that they didn’t rhyme. Yes, I’m a full-fledged word nerd! And proud of it!

Persistence Is Key

MR: You are a prolific writer, Carol. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration? Is there a secret sauce you can share with Mixed-Up Files readers?

CW: No secret sauce and I still get rejection letters—most authors do. So, persistence is key. I don’t force myself to write for a certain number of pages or hours. But when I let myself stay (play?) at the keyboard long enough to find the flow, it can be fun. Okay, here’s an odd tip: I sometimes print out a work on different colored pages so that I feel I’m making progress. Like, I’ll have a yellow draft and much later, a sky-blue draft. Books take so many drafts! Another tip: I have smart friends and family members weigh in too. And smart kids when possible.

Carol’s Writing Routine

MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular rituals?

CW: Some days I don’t get to my work at all. Other days, I’m at my desk from dawn ’til dusk.

MR: What are you working on now, Carol? Enquiring minds want to know!

CW: I’ve been writing a novel about the girl in the painting Las Meninas by Velázquez, though I’m setting it aside for a few months. (It’s always helpful when you can let a work-in-progress marinate and then come back to it with fresh eyes.) I’m mostly focusing on a novel, Zoe and Lucas, about two city kids who get stranded in a small town and start to discover the truth about their parents and themselves. That’s all I can tell you for now!

Let’s be Prompt!

MR: Before I let you go, I need to tell you that your “Prompt!” class at the New York Society Library is the highlight of my month. It’s so joyful, and so freeing. How did you come up with the concept? Also, what can writers gain from prompts in their day-to-day writing practice?

CW: Oh, thank you, it is pretty magical, isn’t it? It’s really all about giving yourself permission to be creative. Instead of saying (as I too sometimes do), “Why should I write this, no one will care, and how will I be able to sell it?” it’s better to just w-r-i-t-e. When I’m teaching that class and I say, “The prompt is ‘my grandmother’s hands,’ you have ten minutes,” it’s amazing, as you know, that everyone just starts writing up a storm. Sometimes at home, when I’m having trouble getting going, I’ll set my cellphone for ten minutes and say, “Just start!” and on a good day, ten minutes later, I often don’t want to stop.

Lightning Round!

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

Preferred writing snack?

Gum helps me focus.

Coffee or tea?

My husband makes cappuccino every morning. Heaven.

Favorite palindrome?

EMME is our daughter’s name. Though I’m big on WOW and YAY and XOX!

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?



I can be charming in four languages! And I’m a Rocky Mountain skier. (But oh dear, I can’t cook or garden and I’m a reluctant driver and I get lost really easily.)

Best piece of advice?

You’re asking an advice giver for her best piece of advice? Oh man…. How about: Be kind to yourself and others.

Favorite place on earth?


If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?

Too hard! How about if I have just one thing—a phone that’s endlessly charged so that I can talk with loved ones and listen to audiobooks? Or else maybe one private jet so I can get off that island?

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Carol. It was my extreme pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree! 

Thank you, Melissa!! See you in class!

For more info on the fabulous Carol Weston, check out her School Library Journal interview here. And her Mixed-Up Files interview with Andrea Pyros here.


I’m so thrilled to post a review of Fleur Bradley’s newest middle grade book, DAYBREAK ON RAVEN ISLAND! Plus, you could win a hardcover copy of this spooky, adventurous story. Just enter the contest at the end of this post. U.S. residents only please. Contest ends September 5th. 

About Daybreak on Raven Island by Fleur Bradley:

From the critically acclaimed author of Midnight at the Barclay Hotel comes a thrilling new middle grade mystery novel inspired by Alcatraz Prison.

Tori, Marvin, and Noah would rather be anywhere else than on the seventh-grade class field trip to Raven Island prison. Tori would rather be on the soccer field, but her bad grades have benched her until further notice; Marvin would rather be at the first day of a film festival with his best friend, Kevin; and Noah isn’t looking forward to having to make small talk with his classmates at this new school.

But when the three of them stumble upon a dead body in the woods, miss the last ferry back home, and then have to spend the night on Raven Island, they find that they need each other now more than ever. They must work together to uncover a killer, outrun a motley ghost-hunting crew, and expose the age-old secrets of the island all before daybreak.

My review:

Daybreak on Raven Island sucks you in from the very first chapter infused with mystery, intrigue, and foreboding. This dark tale begins with three unlikely friends thrown together on a fieldtrip to Raven Island—home of tragedy, misery, and an abandoned prison with gloomy tales to tell.

Tori, Marvin, and Noah are soon trapped in a sinister puzzle they must unravel before the next day using all their knowledge, wits, and uncovered resources. This field trip quickly becomes more than just a day off from school when we discover Tori, Marvin, and Noah each have a secret connection to this haunted island. The suspense intensifies as these kids begin to experience unexplained phenomenon that shakes up their sense of self and what they thought they knew—and leads to darker dangers they could never have anticipated.

If you love ominous, atmospheric stories, then you’ll love Daybreak on Raven Island. The suspense quickly grows with this diverse set of characters who all carry woeful baggage. They work well in contrast to each other to unravel the secrets of Raven Island—and soon discover not all is as it seems.

7 things to love about Daybreak on Raven Island:

  1. A haunted island with an abandoned prison, lighthouse, mansion, and spooky forest (my fave combo!).
  2. Ravens who watch over the island … and follow you (think Hitchcock’s The Birds but in a good way!).
  3. History comes alive—literally before your eyes.
  4. Gobs of spooky foreshadowing to give you creepy chills.
  5. Ghosts galore (of course!).
  6. A dark and tragic history to be uncovered.
  7. New friendships forged under tough circumstances.

Fleur does a wonderful job of creating not only a unique set of characters but a unique setting that comes alive. The landscape and wildlife are eerie characters themselves that at times hinder and aid our three young investigators.

With each scene the situation worsens, leaving us to wonder if Tori, Marvin, and Noah will indeed survive their night on Raven Island to see daybreak. Throw in a ticking clock, ghostly help, tragic mystery to solve, and a terrifying world to navigate in the dark and you’ve got a chilling mix for a compelling story.

I’m a big lover of touring historical prisons, imagining them in their heyday and the people who lived there—and died there. I checked off a bucket list item to tour Alcatraz several years back, and would have given anything to stay overnight on that island with an abandoned prison! This book happily fulfilled that yearning 😊. Be sure to check out Fleur’s new, Alcatraz-inspired story. It’s scary, has a murder mystery, and tons of real history folklore as its inspiration. And don’t forget the very Hitchcock-y ravens…

About Fleur:

Fleur Bradley is the author of the (scary) middle-grade mystery Daybreak on Raven Island, and award-winning mystery Midnight at the Barclay Hotel (Viking/Penguin Random House). Her story The Perfect Alibi appeared in Mystery Writers of America’s middle-grade anthology Super Puzzletastic Mysteries, edited by Chris Grabenstein (HarperCollins). Fleur regularly does school and Skype visits, as well as librarian and educator conference talks on reaching reluctant readers. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and two daughters, and entirely too many rescue animals.

Connect with Fleur:

Website: Fleur Bradley (





Enter to win a copy of Daybreak on Raven Island below or purchase a copy here!

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Author Spotlight: Landra Jennings + a GIVEAWAY

In today’s Author Spotlight, Jo Hackl chats with author Landra Jennings about her debut middle-grade novel, The Whispering Fog (Clarion Books, September 13). She’ll share her inspiration behind writing it and the real-life elements upon which she drew. (Spoiler alert: it just might include a dog).  Plus, there’s a chance to win a signed Advance Reader Copy of Landra’s book if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details.

Book Summary:

The Whispering Fog combines a mysterious South Carolina swamp, a determined sister, an endearing dog, and three friends who join together on a common mission. In the book, a twelve-year-old girl, Neve, moves to the fictional town of Etters, South Carolina with her mom and older sister, Rose, after their parents separate. Only eleven months apart in age, the sisters are in the same grade and do the same activities. Quiet, creative Neve is used to having Rose take the lead in most everything. Things change, however, when Neve witnesses Rose being swept away by a mysterious fog and must figure out what to do. The only people who believe Neve about the fog are two classmates who’ve each had their own supernatural encounters in the town. The trio work together to figure out what happened to Rose and how to bring her back.

Interview with Landra Jennings

JH: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Landra!  Thanks for joining us today.

LJ: Thank you so much for having me.

JH:  First I have to tell you how much I loved The Whispering Fog and devoured it in one sitting. Your book evokes the swamps of the South—brimming with mystery, magic and abundant heart. Neve is the perfect guide to this strange and unsettling world and I couldn’t put her story down.  Can you please tell us about your inspiration to write the book?

LJ: Thank you, thank you, thank you! There were several things that led me to this story. One was a fairy tale I read as a child: Snow-White and Rose-Red by the Brothers Grimm. I particularly remember a picture book with gorgeous illustrations. I enjoyed the tale of inseparable sisters who never fought and were endlessly good, but I always thought it would be more interesting if the sisters seemed more like real sisters. Why were they so very attached? Why did they never even get frustrated with each other, not even once? I have three sisters and though I love them dearly, we definitely did not always get along. I even used the names from the fairy tale—the name Neve is a derivation from the Latin word nivis which means ‘snow.’ Second, I wanted to set a story in South Carolina, where I live. The more things I took from my own life, I figured, the less I would have to research or invent. Third, I love spooky and fantastical stories. I had been trying my hand at those types of stories for a long while but I couldn’t find the right angle. I always thought that fairy tales in their original forms (not the animated versions!) were scary and at times even disturbing, so I leaned into that. I wanted this story to have a spooky edge.

The Appeal of Spooky

JH: Why spooky? What appeals to you about that?

LJ: I love spooky stories in general. I’ve been reflecting on why that is. I think that, for middle grade fiction, it’s because I believe it is important for kids to see young protagonists facing big, scary things and finding their own strength in getting through it. Overcoming fear is an important life skill because, let’s face it, life can be pretty scary at times. I also like dealing with strong and deep-seated emotions, and scary situations in books can bring out that adrenaline rush or visceral reaction that is related to the big emotions I’m exploring. The spookiness then ends up serving a larger purpose in the story. In The Whispering Fog, the scary situations Neve must face represent the fear she has of separating from her sister.


JH: You mentioned research. What was your research process like?  What is the most interesting fact that you learned?

LJ: I did have to do research. I mixed the real world with fantastical elements, so I was asking the reader to take a leap with me. I wanted to anchor the reader in the “real” part of the story with as much authenticity as I could so that the leap into fantasy felt believable. So many of the research sources are online these days, which can at times yield questionable results, but I tried to make sure sources were credible ones. There were many things I had to research, including: The small differences in the climate between upstate SC and the midlands of SC, where the story is set. The science of Mutualism for the class project (I loved reading about futuristic designs for communal living with animals, for instance). And tomatoes, because of Piper’s love for them. Lots of tomato research was done! I was very surprised to discover that the tomato is the world’s most popular fruit (yes, it is a fruit!). According to WorldAtlas, tomatoes compete with bananas for popularity, but tomatoes are the clear winner with 182 million metric tons harvested annually. Although I loved the research, my editor was firm on reining in any fact-sharing that wasn’t used in service to the story. Tomatoes, for instance, are important to Piper for a very specific reason, which becomes clear in the story. And Mutualism is another way of thinking about the evolution of the relationship between Neve and Rose.

JH: The book is set in a South Carolina swamp. What was the most surprising thing that you learned about swamps in your research process?

LJ: Maybe how badly they can smell? That peat smell is something to get used to, for sure. But I’ve always been fascinated by swamps and the important role they play in the environment. There are over 500 swamps in South Carolina! But I had to go a little south of where I live to find them. There are no swamps in the upstate. The ones in Kershaw Country in the middle of the state are the most similar to the fictional one in the book. An interesting fact about swamps is there is a misconception that swamps have standing water all of the time. They have water long enough to support certain plants that need wet soil, but many wetlands are seasonally dry. They come and they go. Naturally, this led me to imagine an evil fog that soaked up all of that water and went creeping around.

The Role of Magic

JH: That brings us to the magic, because the fog is obviously magical. What role does magic play in the book? Why did you include it?

LJ: First of all, I wanted to amplify that power imbalance. Neve has to face a very powerful opponent—the witch in the swamp who has access to magic. Neve must face the witch with just her regular old self; she doesn’t have any magical powers and she can’t solve her problems using magic. Secondly, I like including magic because I think fantastical stories can be more palatable mediums for readers to work out big emotions; the situations seem much more removed from real life. Thirdly, I used magic to get the parents and other potentially helpful adults out of the way so that Neve would have to solve the problem. And, finally, greater-than-life fantastical elements have always appealed to me in signaling a powerful change in the hero.

Favorite Character

JH: Who was your favorite character to write?

LJ: Piper. I loved Piper from the beginning. Her smarts, her determination to find her sister, her love of tomatoes, her streak of independence. Piper is who she is with no apologies. That part of her I felt was a role model for Neve in learning to become her own person.

Favorite Scene

JH: What was your favorite scene to write?

LJ: The climactic scene where everything comes together ended up being my most favorite to write but also my least favorite. That was because it was the most difficult to write. It was the most rewritten scene in the entire book. But that moment when I finally found the right lines and felt Neve come into her own…yes! It was a very nice moment for me.

To the Heart of The Whispering Fog

JH: What would you most like for readers to take away from the book?

LJ: At its heart, the book is about believing in yourself and following your own instincts. No one should require someone else to guide them in everything they do in life. There is a difference between healthy attachment and dependence / co-dependence. I would love my readers to realize they are enough just as they are and to search for their own voice.

Fairy-Tale Inspiration for an Intriguing Dog

JH: Can you tell us about the inspiration for the dog character in the book?

LJ: The name of the dog in the book is Bear, as the dog character is my interpretation of the heroic prince from the original fairy tale (who was bewitched into bear form). I was also inspired by our family’s Labrador, Lucky. If you know Labradors, you know that food is their love language and they are most attached to the person who feeds them, which is me. Lucky has been my constant companion and shadow for 13 years now. He’s gotten me through a lot of things—not an evil fog exactly—but a lot of difficult times. Lucky IS a prince of a dog, incredibly calm and understanding, who also loves to be scratched behind the ears, much like the dog in the book.

Lightning Round!

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

Preferred writing snack: Dark Chocolate with mint

Coffee or tea? Tea! Green decaffeinated

Favorite animal? I am fascinated by birds of all sorts

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay, zombies are not for me, although I do love vampires

Superpower you’d love to have? Telekinesis, to bring my tea and chocolate in from the kitchen

Favorite place on earth? Mountains—Snowmass might be my favorite

Hidden talent? I can predict future happenings with the power of my anxiety

If you were stranded on a desert island and could pack three things, what would they be? The practical answer is probably a knife, but I’d also have to say my abridged copy of Les Miserables and dental floss


JH: How can readers obtain a copy of the book?

LJ: The book can be preordered at your local independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or any place books are sold. Personalized copies can be preordered at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC:


And now. . . .

a Rafflecopter giveaway

For a chance to win a copy of The Whispering Fog, comment on the blog—and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win!  (Giveaway ends August 27, 2022, MIDNIGHT EST.) U.S. only, please.


About the Author 

Landra Jennings writes fantasy novels for preteens – ages 8 through 12 – but appreciates readers of all ages! She loved books before she could read – as a toddler she’d turn the pages of books for hours. As a preteen, she’d strictly manage the list of library books checked out by her and her younger siblings. She turned this love of management and list-making into an adult career as a management consultant, working in Atlanta and Chicago. However, these days she has returned to her love of books and story, writing fairy-tale influenced fantasy like the stories that so fascinated her as a child. Landra has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University where she won the Anne Tews Schwab Scholarship in Excellence in Critical Writing and the Walden Pond Press Scholarship in Middle Grade Fiction and Nonfiction. Today, Landra lives with her husband and sons in Greenville, South Carolina. You can learn more about Landra on her website and follow her on Instagram.