The Fluidity of History: On Middle Grade Historical Fiction

All fiction that speaks the truth is historical.When I was in eighth grade, my school district determined that girls and boys would study the exact same curriculum. This was progress.

In sixth and seventh grade, we girls had taken Home Economics while the boys had Industrial Arts. In eighth grade, however, we would rotate to take both subjects, one half year in each one in mixed gender groups.

I had Home Ec first. I remember making the first Caesar salad I ever ate. The recipe called for canned tuna instead of anchovies. It wasn’t authentic, but still delicious. I also remember a male classmate telling the teacher that really good cooks don’t need recipes. (We call that “mansplaining” now.)

The Industrial Arts teacher had an even worse adjustment than the Home Ec did. He took his eyes off what he was doing when a girl student called out to him, her unaccustomed high girly voice carrying across the class. He looked up, and he cut off three fingers on a circular saw. It was a memorable day for everyone. (We call that “being a distraction” now.)

Thus when I finally took my first shop class, my teacher was an experienced substitute who had been called out of retirement while the injured shop teacher healed.

Mr. Legg was a taciturn sort, and he had lived through a lot that was far worse than the unfamiliar presence of 13-year-old girls in his classroom. He bore an Auschwitz tattoo on his forearm. He wouldn’t talk about it, but he didn’t hide it. I think he wanted you to know it was there.

The Holocaust seemed so distant in 1983, but Mr. Legg had survived it.

Now I realize how close it was — the liberation of Auschwitz had happened just 38 years earlier.

I’m sure middle-school students now also think the Holocaust is ancient history. It’s not.

I’m sure that the softer bigotry the required different classes for boys and girls seems distant as well. It was just 33 years ago — history to current middle graders.

Antisemitism, sexism, and bigotry of all kind are not in the past. Racism didn’t end with slavery — it continues. Antisemitism and misogyny are resurgent, reactionary convulsions in the face of other progress. Genocide, religious, gender, and racial violence continue on the evening news, in Mosul, Ferguson, and Orlando.

It can be difficult for middle-grade writers to look at current events and culture with the clear eyes reserved for hindsight. History moves — current events slide into the past as we write about them. Distant events emerge as relevant.

But as middle-grade writers, we have an opportunity to make past and present real and vivid. That’s what historical fiction is for, even with the humbling fact that our own childhoods are now the realm of historical fiction. It’s also what contemporary fiction is for, turning the writer’s lens to the present.

We’re living in history, past and present. All fiction that speaks truth is historical, all is contemporary.

Originally posted on Project Mayhem


Favorite Children’s Books of 2016

Today I’m posted as part of a blog party hosted by the wonderful Eileen Manes, a picture book writer who blogs at Pickle Corn Jam. Ten of us are writing about one of our favorite books of the year — here’s mine! At the bottom the post, you’ll find links to the other blogs.

One of my favorite books when my children were small was City Animals by Simms Taback. I had always wondered about early childhood’s obsession with farms. Why is it necessary for babies to know that cows moo and pigs oink? Most of them won’t encounter these animals in everyday life. Why is this somewhat anachronistic knowledge is among the very first things we impart?

That’s why I loved Taback’s lift-the-flap book. After three clues, these animals revealed itself. I’m a PIGEON! I’m a SQUIRREL! I’m a MOUSE!  These were the animals that my inner-ring-suburban children were likely to encounter (they encountered the mice with far more delight than I did).

This year’s City Shapes, written by Diana Murray and illustrated by Bryan Collier (Little, Brown. June 2016) does the same reimagining to the classic shape book that Taback did for animals, and it elevates it. Shapes can be well, two-dimensional, but this book is anything but.

The young girl in City Shapes encounters CIRCLES, SQUARES, and TRIANGLES in her own city neighborhood in Murray’s flawless rhyme and Collier’s gorgeous realistic watercolor and collage illustrations. These shapes move and live, and these words are vivid and playful.

I love the specificity and sense of place here,  I’d like to see similar journeys in more diverse, real places with other children.

But in the meantime, there’s even a pigeon!

“the pigeon flies back through the night cityscape/as city lights sparkle, SHAPE after SHAPE./But her heart starts to ache for the SHAPE/she loves best./The SHAPE that is home—/her warm CIRCLE nest….”

And now for the other writers and their picks for favorite children’s books in 2016:

Ready for the rest of our 2016 recommendations? Just follow the links! 








Seven Picture Book Writers on Barnes & Noble Kids Open Mic

Today on BN Kids blog, I share a story on their Open Mic, along with six other kidlit writers.

7 Awesome Picture Book Authors Share Their Personal Stories


New Review Roundup, Featuring Mira, Em, and Ada Twist, Scientist

Mira Forecasts the Future has had a flurry of new reviews, especially from the UK, including a great review from BookTrust, which promotes literacy and reading among children and awards the Bailey Women’s Prize for fiction, and a three-book review featuring the wonderful Ada Twist, Scientist and The Way to Outer Space.

Here’s a roundup.

“This deceptively simple picture book not only gives youngsters a basic introduction to understanding how weather works, but also celebrates individual difference and talents – and shows how failure can be something positive if it is used as a learning experience.” – BookTrust (UK)

“…a heartwarming story. A lovely book to sit and read to your children and a great stepping stone into the world of science. ” – Chantelle Hazelden, Mama Mummy Mum

“One of our absolutely favourite reads from over the summer was Mira Forecasts the Future … Little Miss loved it so much I didn’t complain when she asked for it two or three times … a great structured story” – Amy Marie, Cocktails in Teacups

“Meet Ada Twist, Scientist, Mira, and Em”: Three new picture books featuring diverse science girls – Jill R. Bennett, Red Reading Hub, on Ada Twist, Scientist, and The Way to Outer Space

Science Girls, The Way to Outer Space, Ada Twist, Scientist, and Mira Forecasts the Future

Hooray for science girls, including The Way to Outer Space, Ada Twist, Scientist, and Mira Forecasts the Future







Story Time Near You on Saturday!


MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE (illustrated by Lissy Marlin) and THE BOT THAT SCOTT BUILT (by Kim Norman, illustrated by Agnese Beruzzi) will be read to kids at B&N stores nationwide on August 20.

Find an event near you at Barnes & Noble, or select your store and the date to find a story time with Mira and Scott.

Summer Is What You Make: Resources and a Review

Summer is what you make. Mira Forecasts the FutureSummertime can be a time for academic slide or for exploration of all kinds of new and favorite interests. Summer is what you make it — and it’s also what you make.

Download Mira’s activity kit for your kids with games and activities — include make-your

Watch a video review from the Awesome Annie Show to see how she (and her mom) are inspired by Mira Forecasts the Future.

MIRA Will Be B&N National Story Time

I wish I could visit Barnes & Nobles across the country, but Mira actually can! I’m excited to reveal that MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE will be a Barnes & Noble National Story Time on August 20. Mira Forecasts the Future National Story Time

Every Saturday at 11 am, Barnes & Noble hosts a story time for kids with the picture book or book of the week. MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE (illustrated by Lissy Marlin) and THE BOT THAT SCOTT BUILT (by Kim Norman, illustrated by Agnese Beruzzi) will be read to kids at B&N stores nationwide on August 20.

Find an event near you at Barnes & Noble, or select your store and the date to find a story time with Mira and Scott.




Q&A: Author Spotlight on Kidlit 411

Don't Write Boring StoriesI was featured as the Author Spotlight on Kidlit411 on July 1. Here’s the Q&A. You can read the full post at Kidlit411.

Tell us about your background and how you came to write for children.
I was one of those kids who always wanted to be a writer, and I started out as a writing seminars major when I was in college at Johns Hopkins. The emphasis there was adult literary fiction, and it didn’t draw me as much as my history and sociology classes did. I switched to a humanities major, but I always thought that I would go back to writing adult literary fiction someday when I was adult enough.
It turned out that when I was truly adult, the books that entranced me were written for kids — the Harry Potter series, which inspired a lot of writers. I wrote a middle grade novel when I had an infant daughter and full-time job, and the second novel I wrote was published by Spencer Hill Press in 2014. Writing for children fired me up in a way that writing for grownups never did.
You write a range of categories from adult nonfiction to picture books.  How do you decide what age group to write for, for any particular project? Do you have a favorite age group?
My day job is still writing for adults (and young adults) — I’m a writer and editor at a collegiate business school. It can be fun and creative, but it’s a different kind of creative than writing stories for children. Sometimes I need the kind of magic that’s only found in the pages of children’s books.
I usually have at least two projects in the works — a novel at various stages, and a picture book. Switching between them makes my work stronger. Writing picture books keeps me honest — you have to pare down the story to essentials. Writing for age 4 to 8 has to be my favorite — it’s so satisfying to compress conflicts, reversals, and character growth into a few hundred words.
Congrats on the release of MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE. Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
When I was a kid my friends and I made paper fortune tellers for fun, and so do my children. Who doesn’t want to be able to predict the future? But clairvoyance — if it is real — is not something you can learn. Science is.
I was looking for a fun way to encourage learning in the sciences, and I came up with predicting the weather as something children can learn about and try with very little equipment. I love the Jersey Shore and the boardwalk, and I had to set the story there, where the weather changes minute by minute.
What projects are you working on now?
I have a few picture book manuscripts in the hopper, as well as a young adult fantasy. The fantasy is just the kind of book I love to read — no one wrote this one, so my only chance to read it was to write first.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is it the same advice you would give to aspiring authors?
Don’t write boring stories. Write the stories you love to read. And while you’re at it, read the stories you love to read, and don’t worry about what others will think of it. I’d tell that to any aspiring author, including myself.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
When I was 8 years old, I made the decision not to have my ears pierced, and I never have. That didn’t stop me from piercing my sister’s ear with a thumbtack when we were teens. She asked, and I thought a thumbtack would give the best leverage. I do not recommend trying this at home.


Bruce Springsteen, Superstorms, and Fortune Telling on the Boardwalk

Fourth of July pinwheel at beach

I’m a Belmartian by marriage, which means I claim the beach town of Belmar, NJ, as a home. During Superstorm Sandy, Belmar’s boardwalk was destroyed, and many homes were damaged or demolished.

My beach town was on my mind when I was looking for a picture book idea, and it combined with a line from a Bruce Springsteen song, “Asbury Park, Fourth of July (Sandy).” “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do.”

Sandy, storms, boardwalks, fortune tellers — they all came together in Mira Forecasts the Future, the story of the daughter of a boardwalk fortune teller who can’t see the future with magic, so she learns to predict the weather with science.

Mira learns about weather, and this book is the story of a girl who saves a surfing contest and the day. It doesn’t take place in the present or in the past, despite Lissy Marlin’s gorgeous Boardwalk Empire inspired ilIustrations, but somewhere in between.

It doesn’t take place in New Jersey — it could be Coney Island, Santa Cruz, or any beach town. Boardwalks and beach towns seem like tourist traps to those visiting, but there are real people who live there. I wanted to capture a warm small-town environment — flavored with salt water taffy and pizza by the slice, soundtracked by calliope music and the crash of waves.

Read the original post at Good Reads with Ronna >>

Five Things Writing Novels Taught Me About Writing Picture Books

I write for children of all ages. Two years ago, when my first middle-grade novel, Deadwood, was released, I wrote a post called what What Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Middle-Grade Novels.

This month, my first picture book, Mira Forecasts the Future (illustrated by Lissy Marlin), hit the shelves. So now I take a look in opposite direction to assess what writing novels taught me about writing picture books.

5 things novels taught me about writing picture books

1. Nobody’s perfect.

When beginning to write picture books for young children, many writers have a tendency to want to model good behaviors. But good behaviors don’t make good stories.

Writing and reading novels prove that flawed characters are interesting characters. They make mistakes. They grow. They don’t have to be good influences.

Sometimes picture book readers — agents, teachers, parents, even kids — will call out characters for the wrong things they do, feel, or are. But the interesting, imperfect characters get your attention, and it’s the interesting, imperfect characters who have room to grow. That leads me to my next point.

2. Everybody arcs.

In my favorite books, every character wants something. Every character has their own story and growth. Even villains are the heroes of their own stories.

In a novel, there’s plenty of room to infuse each character with their own motivations, narrative, and character arc. This deepens the emotional impact of the plot and characterization, even if minor characters do much of their growing behind the scenes.

There’s not as much room in a picture book, but there also aren’t many characters. If you can make every character vibrate with their own motivations and change in the course of the story, your picture book will pack more resonance into 300 to 800 words.

3. Know your backstory (but don’t tell it all).

One of the biggest temptations when writing a novel — especially a big, juicy fantasy or historical — is to put all the worldbuilding and research on the page — addendums, family trees, glossaries, maps, footnotes with the history of the centuries. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it’s just an info dump.

When writing novels, you make a critical decision about what backstory not to include. Just because you know something doesn’t mean your reader needs to — the hidden history of your world makes the story more real even if you never put it in the foreground. That’s why it’s called backstory — you can’t show perspective and dimension unless there’s something in the background.

Of course, the few hundred words of text in a picture book don’t allow foreground backstory. The lesson from novels is to know the backstory even if you don’t tell it. If you understand your characters outside of those 300 to 800 words, if they live for you as people (or bunnies or sentient shovels), you’ll have a richer story.

4. Trust your reader.

One reason novel writers leave out backstory is that they trust their readers to pick up allusions and make connections. But can you do that when writing for very young children?

Yes. Your child readers may have only few years behind them, but they’ve accomplished hugely impressive cognitive growth before listening to or reading your story. They understand more than you think they do, and they are capable of understanding so much more than that if you give them a chance. So give them a chance.

5. Be in it for the long haul.

Writing a novel takes stamina. Even a short middle grade novel is 30,000 words. Adult novels are 80,000 and more, and don’t even think about the number of words in a multibook series. You have to write a lot of words, many days in a row or over the course of months or years until you reach the end. Then you revise, again and again. It’s a long haul.

A picture book is shorter than 1000 words, the amount many writers strive to draft in a single day. A picture book manuscript often doesn’t take long to write compared to a novel. But it’s still a long haul.

The individual manuscripts may be short, but shorter isn’t easier. Every word counts. You’ll probably rewrite each one. You may start from a blank page sometimes. You’ll workshop. Revise again.

And still, that first book you write probably won’t be published. Probably not the second. Maybe even your 10th manucript still won’t interest an agent. Maybe it will take your 15th or 20th to get published. And then maybe you’ll write 10 more before you get published again.

Picture books may be short, but they’re not a short cut. Every road in the writing business is a long one. Shorter isn’t easier. Younger isn’t lesser.

Writing is hard for every age. When it works, the writer finds the story, and the story finds the reader. And novel or picture book, that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Read the original post on Project Mayhem >>