Posts Tagged “writing for children”

Not (Always) the Lonely: Books About Only Children

My friend Nicole—a fellow only child—recently sent me an article from The Atlantic entitled, “Why Are People Weird About Only Children?” Not surprisingly, the piece included the usual tropes associated with onlies: We’re spoiled, selfish, maladjusted weirdos who can’t get along with others or share our toys. We’re also bad at team sports, cooperative projects, and group-socialization in general. Why? Because it’s all about me, me, ME!

This got me thinking about my own only childhood, where I spent Saturday mornings alone in my room, watching TV and scarfing Pop Tarts while my parents slept in. I knew I was lucky to have my own TV, but the shows I watched—The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Eight Is Enough, Good Times—all featured large, boisterous families whose lives seemed way more exciting than mine. The Partridge family had its own tour bus, for goodness’ sake! But as entertaining as those shows were, I couldn’t relate to them. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to books that featured only children.

Pippi, Fern, Mary, and Harriet…

I started with such classics as Pippi Longstocking, Charlotte’s Web, and The Secret Garden before graduating to Harriet the Spy—a book I’ve reread annually since the age of ten. Harriet resonated particularly deeply, because, like me, Harriet spent a lot of time alone in her room while her parents were busy. (Harriet didn’t have her own TV, though, which could explain why she felt the need to spy on people and write about them in her notebook.) Unlike me, Harriet was sassy, outspoken, and she didn’t always mind her manners. To say I found this thrilling was an understatement.

Are You There, Margaret?

My other favorite book, Judy Blume’s 1974 classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was deeply relatable as well—and not just because the eponymous protagonist spent a lot of time alone in her room (although she spoke to God instead of watching TV). Like Harriet, Margaret had the ability to say what was on her mind, even when she thought no one was listening. The fact that she was flat-chested, had hard-to-manage hair, and yearned for her period was just icing on the cake.

Above all, these books offered me the “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” I craved as an only child. I felt seen, and less alone. Sure, reading books about fellow onlies wasn’t as exciting as crisscrossing the country in a rainbow-colored tour bus. But it came pretty darn close.

(For more on how Harriet the Spy shaped my identity, click here. And for my love for Judy Blume, the beloved author of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, click here.)

And now…

Books That Feature Only Children

J.R. Silver Writes Her World by Melissa Dassori

Sixth grade is off to a difficult start for Josephine Rose Silver. Her best friend, Violet, returns from camp with a new best friend; her parents refuse to grant her more independence; and her homeroom teacher, Ms. Kline, is full of secrets. When Ms. Kline unveils a collection of old Gothamite magazines and tells her students to build their writing skills by crafting short stories inspired by the iconic covers, J.R. discovers a peculiar power: The stories she writes come true. Soon J.R. is getting a cell phone, scoring game-winning goals, and triggering school cancellations. But it’s not long before she realizes that each new story creates as many conflicts as it does solutions.

Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson

All Amara wants for her birthday is to visit her father’s family in Harlem. She can’t wait to finally meet Grandpa Earl and her cousins, and to stay in the brownstone where her father grew up. But New York City is not what Amara thought it would be. It’s crowded, with confusing subways, suffocating sidewalks, and her father is too busy  to spend time with her and too angry to spend time with Grandpa Earl. As she explores, asks questions, and learns more about Harlem and her father’s family history, she realizes how she connects with her dad, her home, and her family.

Birdie’s Billions by Edith Cohn

For as long as eleven-year-old Birdie can remember, it’s always been just her and her mom—which means there’s not a lot of extra money to spend on things like new clothes and batons from the fancy gymnastics store. Still, they always find a way to make ends meet. Then Birdie makes one silly mistake that has a big consequence: Mom loses her job. Now things are more dire than ever, and Birdie knows it’s up to her to fix it.

One Kid’s Trash by Jamie Sumner

Hugo is not happy about being dragged halfway across the state of Colorado just because his dad had a midlife crisis and decided to become a ski instructor. But when his fellow students discover his remarkable talent for garbology, the science of studying trash, Hugo becomes the cool kid for the first time in his life. But what happens when it all goes to his head?

Genesis Begins Again by Alica D. Williams

Thirteen-year-old Genesis dislikes herself for ninety-six reasons. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list: Her family is always being put out of their house; her dad has a gambling problem—and maybe a drinking problem, too—and Genesis is convinced this is all her fault. She also knows she wasn’t born looking like Mama, and that she is too Black. Genesis is determined to fix her family, and she’s willing to try anything to do so—even if it means harming herself in the process. But when Genesis starts to find a thing or two she actually likes about herself, she discovers that changing her own attitude is the first step in helping to change others.

My Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties by Kellye Crocker

Dad hasn’t been dating his new girlfriend that long, so Ava is sure nothing has to change in her life. Until the day after sixth grade ends and Dad whisks her away to meet The Girlfriend and her daughter in terrifying Colorado, where even the squirrels can kill you. Managing her anxiety while avoiding altitude sickness might take all of Ava’s strength, but at least this trip will only last two weeks. If she survives…

How to Win a Slime War by Mae Respicio

Alex Manalo and his dad have just moved back to Sacramento to revive their extended family’s struggling Filipino market. While Alex likes helping at the store, his true passion is making slime. Encouraged by a new friend at school, Alex begins to sell his creations, leading to a sell-off battle with a girl who previously had a slime-opoly. But Alex’s dad thinks Alex should focus on “traditional” boy pastimes like sports, since Dad is the new soccer coach. Alex is battling on multiple fronts, and it will be a sticky race to the finish to see who oozes out on top.

Taking Up Space by Alison Gerber

Sarah loves basketball more than anything. It’s the only thing that helps her ignore how much it hurts when her mom forgets to feed her. But lately Sarah can’t even play basketball right. She’s slower now, and missing shots. Her body doesn’t feel like it’s her own anymore. She’s worried that changing herself back to how she used to be is the only way she can take control over what’s happening. Then, when Sarah’s crush asks her to be partners in a cooking competition, she feels pulled in a million directions. She’ll have to dig deep to stand up for what she needs at home, be honest with her best friends, and accept that she doesn’t need to change to feel good about herself.

The Comeback by E.L. Shen

Twelve-year-old Maxine Chen is trying to nail that perfect landing: on the ice, in middle school, and at home, where her parents worry that competitive skating is too much pressure for a budding tween. Maxine isn’t concerned, however―she’s determined to glide to victory. But then a bully at school starts teasing Maxine for her Chinese heritage, leaving her stunned and speechless. And at the rink, she finds herself up against a stellar new skater named Hollie, whose grace and skill threaten to edge Maxine out of the competition. Will Maxine crash under the pressure? Or can she power her way to a comeback?

Life in the Balance by Jen Petro-Roy

Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. But right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team. Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.

Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca

Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, who doesn’t understand how conflicted she feels. Although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—they are a universe apart. And then Amma is diagnosed with leukemia. Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor one day despite her aversion to blood and guts, is determined to make her mother well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving Amma’s life.

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles

Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That and hanging out with his best friends and playing video games is what Wes wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year–not the protests his parents are always dragging him to. But when a powerful real-estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived in his whole life, everything changes. And Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known without a fight.

Many Points of Me by Caroline Gertler

Georgia Rosenbloom’s father was a famous artist. His most well-known paintings were a series of asterisms—patterns of stars. One represented a bird, one himself, and one Georgia’s mother. There was supposed to be a fourth asterism, but Georgia’s father died before he could paint it. Georgia’s mother and her best friend, Theo, are certain that the last asterism would’ve been of Georgia, but Georgia isn’t so sure. Then Georgia finds a sketch her father made of her. Could this finally be the proof that the last painting would have been of her?

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

For the past five years, Coyote and her dad have been crisscrossing the country in an old school bus. It’s also how long Coyote lost her mom and two sisters in a car crash. Coyote hasn’t been home in all that time, but when she learns that the park in her old neighborhood is being demolished―the very same park where she, her mom, and her sisters buried a treasured memory box―she devises an elaborate plan to get her dad to drive 3,600 miles back to Washington state in four days…without him realizing it.

Brave Like That by Lindsey Stoddard

Cyrus Olson’s dad is a hero—Northfield’s former football star and now one of their finest firefighters. Everyone expects Cyrus to follow in his dad’s record-breaking footsteps, and he wishes they were right—except he’s never been brave like that. But this year, with the help of a stray dog, a few new friends, a little bit of rhythm, and a lot of nerve, he may just discover that actually…he is.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

Middle-school baking enthusiast Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit? Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth, even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family.

The Miscalculations of Lightnight Girl by Stacy McAnulty

Lucy Callahan’s life was changed forever when she was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but the zap gave her genius-level math skills, and she’s been homeschooled ever since. Now, at the age of twelve, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass one more test–middle school.

Violet and the Pie of Life by Debra Green

Twelve-year-old Violet has two great loves in her life: math and pie. And she loves her parents, even though her mom never stops nagging and her dad can be unreliable. Mom plus Dad doesn’t equal perfection. Still, Violet knows her parents could solve their problems if they just applied simple math.

Painting with an Allegorical Brush

The messages we convey through our storytelling are important and lasting, and those that are evident but not directly stated offer readers plenty to think about. One way to get those deeper-meaning messages across while offering middle graders real opportunities to engage with stories is through allegory.

What an allegory can do (and how it’s different from symbolism and metaphor)

It’s easy to confuse allegory with metaphor and symbolism—they are closely related literary devices with some overlap between them.

Metaphor – A comparison of two unlike things that points out how they, in fact, are alike: That girl is a night owl. The sun was a golden coin.

Symbol – Usually an object, character, event, or idea that has its own literal role in the story but also represents some important idea on a figurative level: The green light on Daisy’s dock, the raven perching on a statue of Athena.

Allegory – A little more didactic, allegories point the reader in a particular direction of thought or behavior with more comprehensive lessons about or inspired by life, morals, politics, religion, history, myth, or other big ideas. An allegorical character or situation might extend through the whole work, or a whole work can be an allegory with multiple meaningful elements.

You’ll recall allegories from studying adult lit. In the allegorical medieval morality play Everyman, for example, main character Everyman (that’s his name) doesn’t want to go on a journey of reckoning with Death (someone Everyman meets), and he is surprised that his buddies Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods won’t go along with him to the afterlife. He discovers, though, that Good Deeds will follow him on his journey, though he’s been remiss in attending to them and must turn to Knowledge and Confession to help Good Deeds along. (Medieval audiences got the allegorical message, loud and clear.) Other allegories you’ve probably studied convey political or societal messages, such as Animal Farm, Metamorphosis, and The Crucible.

It may be helpful, as a writer, to think about these devices’ comparative size and scope: In a story, metaphors are typically brief expressions for a passing effect on a reader (with extended metaphors really driving the point home with additional references). The scale of importance grows with a symbol, as it carries the weight of some important takeaway that enriches the reader’s comprehension of plot and character. An allegory uses symbols and metaphors and intends even more sweeping effect on the reader, with a message or meaning about life the reader can effectively employ for their betterment and/or the betterment of everyone.

Allegories seem heavy: Too much for MG?

You might wonder so, but remember, fairy tales and fables have been serving up allegorical lessons for young audiences since once upon a time. And think about some classic children’s stories widely accepted as allegories: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, The Giving Tree, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Little Prince. There are modern examples of MG fiction with allegorical elements we can turn to for cues as well:

The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill — This allegorical fantasy reveals what happens to a community when its members are swayed by suspicion and start rejecting those unlike themselves.

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller – In this Newbery Medal winner, tales told by the characters are allegories for family love and for the power stories have to inspire.

The Puppets of Spelhorst by Kate DiCamillo – This story’s allegorical plot and character actions represent big ideas about being called to one’s true purpose and following the heart.

The Language of Spells – Garret Weyr – This adventure reveals the power of perception when considering what makes us special and points to what we tragically lose during times of conflict.

How might you employ the allegorical brush in your writing?

Experimenting with allegory in your writing? Some ideas to chart your course:

  1. What’s the big-picture message you want to send to readers?
  2. What are the most important elements of that message, and what’s the best way to convey them? Symbolic characters? Objects that recur? A quest, a battle, something else?
  3. Imply your message clearly but inconspicuously. Trust the reader: They will get the takeaway if the individual parallels are there.
  4. Keep the story strong and interesting…and prioritize it. The allegorical message flows from a story that is substantive and fulfilling all on its own.

I hope these ideas on allegory are helpful in your current projects, and thanks for reading!

STEM Tuesday — Pests that Bug Us — Author Interview


Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a fun feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Got a little tickle in your throat? Nose running? We’re all familiar with the common cold, the ferocious flu, and all kinds of illnesses, but did you know that animals struggle with sick days, too? It’s true!

In Sick!: The Twists and Turns Behind Animal Germs, Heather Montgomery explores different stories of animals getting sick: what causes it, how they get better, and what we can learn from it. Let’s take a look!

book cover for Sick: The Twists and Turns Behind Animal GermsAndi Diehn: I love all your examples of scientists collaborating – does this happen often in the science world?
Heather Montgomery: Yes! No scientist (successfully) works in a vacuum and all scientists build on the earlier work of others. In addition to the scientists there are: managers, janitors, editors, illustrators, library researchers, dishwashers (yep, labs use a lot of glassware), and a whole host of animals.

AD: In each chapter you do a fantastic job of breaking down the scientific process into real steps taken by the scientists – discovery, hypothesis, research, testing, conclusions, and beyond. Why include all these stages?

HM: The research for this book opened my eyes to the fun and value of each stage of the scientific process. Most of us (myself included) have a favorite part, but—just like discoveries are made possible by a team of people—new understandings of our world are made possible thanks to the every stage of the process.

AD: I love this quote: “One scientific study doesn’t give us an answer—it gives us a piece of the puzzle.” Why is this an important concept for kids to understand?ants around the word epidemic

HM: Because the human mind likes clarity, we can all fall into the trap of believing that one study, statistic, or statement is THE answer—especially if it supports what we already believe. But science isn’t about belief. It is about asking questions, collecting evidence, and probing deeper into the puzzles of our world.

AD: This paragraph was wonderful: “And the reason we now understand the power of camel anti- bodies? Not a bunch of experts doling out answers. Nope. It was students asking genuine questions. Students who pushed them- selves past the same old easy experiment. Students who embraced a challenge, then challenged our understanding of mammal antibodies.” What do you hope kids take away from this paragraph?

HM: Anyone can participate in science! As a child I remember thinking that all the fun science was done. That we had all the answers, that all the facts had been figured out, and that all the best discoveries had been made. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. All a discovery really needs is a solid question and a brave someone to follow where it leads.

AD: The story of Chausiku the chimp was fascinating – it made me realize how much we still don’t know about the world. Why might kids find this inspiring?Not so fun fact

HM: Animals are awesome! And their “knowledge” of the world—whether that be innate, learned, or some other form our big brains can’t understand—is fascinating. What if we could sense the world as a chimp can? What if we could know what an ant knows? Kids don’t let preconceived ideas of what we can and can’t do stop them. And that is pretty awesome, too.

AD: The chapter about vultures was just one example of my whole understanding of bacteria being turned on its head! How do scientists keep their minds open to all the possible causalities and correlations? What can students learn from this?

HM: Right?! We have this idea (this bias) of what is “bad” and what is “good.” When a scientific discovery flips that idea over, it’s like flipping a rock and finding a whole world underneath it. And when that kind of discovery comes from the belly of a buzzard, you can’t help but dive in and explore!

AD: Symbiotic relationships with bacteria – this feels like a very new way to think about our bodies and the world around us. How long have scientists been exploring this concept?cartoon of different relationships

HM: In the early 1900s, scientists were hypothesizing that mitochondria (the power houses in our cells) were of microbial origin. But where was the evidence? Sixty years later Lynn Margulis proposed that the cell is actually a community of microbes. It wasn’t combat, she said, but networking that allowed complex life to thrive. Her peers considered her a radical. It wasn’t until we developed more advanced genetic tools—and saw that the DNA in mitochondria is different than the DNA of the cell the mitochondria is in—that this concept of symbiosis within a cell took hold. And now we are seeing it everywhere!

AD: I know you touch on this in your author’s note, but what was your inspiration to write about animal germs?

HM: In 2020 when the world was in lockdown thanks to a “germ,” I needed some hope. One day I realized that every animal species still surviving on this planet had survived an epidemic. How? So I dug into databases, Zoom-interviewed cool scientists, and started drafting. I got so deep into the science that I churned out a book too complex for my audience. Three years later, after scrapping the second half of that draft (don’t worry, I squirreled it away to use later), it all came together as Sick!: The Twists and Turns Behind Animal Germs.


Heather MontgomeryHeather Montgomery’s interest in nature led to a B.S. in Biology and an M.S. in Environmental Education. For years she developed curriculum and directed the McDowell Environmental Center. Later, she taught in the classroom, directed summer camps, and finally discovered writing! She’s published 18 books for young people and owes much of her publishing knowledge to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, particularly the Southern Breeze Region.