by Bryan Patrick Avery
The world of middle grade novels spans a wide variety of topics, formats, and styles. Still, there are some constants that readers can count on. Good middle grade stories feature compelling characters dealing with challenging circumstances that seem almost beyond their ability to deal with. This month, let’s look at three engaging middle grade novels that readers won’t want to put down.
In ENGINERDS, by Jarrett Lerner, Ken receives a robot, delivered in a mysterious box. With no idea where the robot came from, Ken begins assembling it. When he gets interrupted, Ken is later astonished to find that the robot has assembled itself. The mystery, and the danger, grows from there.
Ken’s fellow EngiNerds, a group of kids who hang out to discuss the latest in science and technology, begin receiving robots as well. Soon, it becomes clear that the robots are not only more trouble than they’re worth, they’re actually dangerous. Ken and his friends unite to stop a robot uprising that could be the end of the world, or at least their town, as we know it.
ENGINERDS is a hilarious look at technology gone wrong, but also deals with the complex interpersonal relationships middle grade readers face. It is a great example of storytelling that both entertains and connects.
Another middle grade story that does a great job of highlighting relationships is Todd Hasak-Lowy’s 33 MINUTES. Sam Lewis is 33 minutes away from getting his butt kicked. This is bad enough but the whole indignity is made worse by the fact that it is his best friend, Morgan, who will do the kicking of said butt.
As we follow Sam through the next 33 minutes, we learn about his relationship with Morgan, from their budding friendship years earlier to the interloper that changed everything. Despite the fear and angst we experience through Sam, 33 MINUTES manages to be laugh out loud funny.
As much as readers want to find out “will Sam get his butt kicked?”, they will revel in the relationships and issues that confront every middle schooler at some point. If you want an example of the perfect balance of character and plot, check out 33 MINUTES.
Last up this month, is THE LAST KIDS ON EARTH. Written by Max Brallier and illustrated by Douglas Holgate, THE LAST KIDS ON EARTH is a post-apocalyptic tale featuring thirteen-year-old Jack Sullivan. After being abandoned by his family, Jack managed to survive a monster apocalypse that stormed into his town. Now, over a month later, Jack lives in his tree house and armed and ready (almost) for anything.
On the lookout for his best friend Quint, and hoping to save June (his crush), Jack braves the monsters roaming the streets. This is where he attracts the attention (and ire) of an uncharacteristically smart monster which he names Blarg.
On the run from Blarg, Jack reunites with Quint and saves June (it turns out she didn’t actually need or want to be saved). This sets up a final confrontation with Blarg that doesn’t disappoint.
Though they may never have to face a zombie apocalypse, middle grade readers will be able to relate to the characters and situations in THE LAST KIDS ON EARTH. If you want to write a thrilling story that still addresses the themes of friendship and courage, check out this book.
Well, that’s all for this month. Happy writing and have a magical month!
by Melissa Stoller
Last year, I wrote a post titled, “IT’S ALL ABOUT WRITING WITH . . . GRATITUDE.” Check that out here. Our world has changed dramatically since then, but there is still room for being grateful.
Here are a few tips for bringing that thankful feeling into your writing this season:
1) Read some beautiful picture books that encourage kindness and gratitude. Two examples are Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, and We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell. Use these stories as mentor texts.
2) Take a walk in your neighborhood. Notice nature: a garden in bloom, birds tweeting, snow-capped mountains, the roar of the ocean. Notice man-made creations: a skyscraper reaching toward the sky, a bridge making connections between places, a library. Use these observations to spark a writing idea.
3) Read through your manuscripts in progress. Be thankful for the progress you are making since you first started writing, in the past year, or in one particular draft. Think about where you are going in your writing journey. Prioritize and plan. Perhaps say thank you to yourself for the lovely words you have written already.
I hope these suggestions help cultivate a mindset of gratitude in your writing practice. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Return to Coney Island (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, 2018 and 2020). Melissa is a Blogger and Course Assistant for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a Moderator for the Debut Picture Book Study Group, a volunteer with SCBWI/MetroNY, and a founding member of The Book Meshuggenahs. In other chapters of her life, Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. She lives in New York City with her family, and enjoys theatre, museums, and long beach walks.
It’s such an honor to be a teacher, a mentor, an editor, and an art director, which gives me the opportunity to pull back the curtain and talk with you about some of the behind-the-scenes things that go on in a picture book.
Because Saturday was Halloween, which is over in the minds and actions of adults, but not in the hearts of children, I thought I’d share Stan’s Frightful Halloween, written by Sandra Sutter and illustrated by Chantelle and Bergen Thorne. I’m excited that all three of them will be joining us in our scholarship fundraiser which ironically and magically helped Chantelle and Burgen get their start in trade children’s book publishing. We give scholarships to all sorts of people including low income, which at that time included Chantelle and Burgen because they were mostly doing work for hire educational book illustration, which does not pay much. Please click here to apply for a scholarship for our newest PIcture Book Writing course or here to check out our “pay what you can” Conference/Summit/Learning Extravaganza/Picture Book Palooza/Lovefest/Scholarships fundraiser.
But I digress. Stan’s Frightful Halloween is a delightful story full of word play and whimsy telling a touching tale about a little werewolf determined to have a happy Halloween after he breaks his foot and can no longer keep up with his friends. It’s also a story about friendship, adventure, and things not always being what they seem, finishing up with some fabulous Halloween treat recipes at the end. What’s not to love?
This is the second book that I’ve had the honor of working on with Sandra, Chantelle, and Burgen as a team and it’s always exquisite. Initially, Sandra worked with our Publisher, Callie Metler Smith on the story before moving over to me. There were not a lot of changes to be made at this stage and it was on to the illustration process. Chantelle and Burgen sent some thumbnails and they were good, but Stan was a little too scary and cartoony for me as I really wanted him to be a character that kids would fall in love with and easily emphasize with. As an editor and art director, it’s always a fine line to walk in not wanting to trample on anyone’s creativity or vision. At the same time, it’s really hard to see to see your own work, and everyone wants the same thing, to make the book as wonderful and accessible as it can be.
I also know I’ve been wrong before and am not infallible, so I called Sandra and asked her what she thought about Stan and fortunately she felt the same way that I did, that Stan wasn’t quite there. This gave me the validation to move forward with some suggestions. Luckily and gratefully, Chantelle and Burgen are totally not ego driven and know that any comments are not a reflection on them as brilliant illustrators, but a reflection on the work and how it could be even better.
So they went back to the drawing board and kept improving Stan until he became the beautiful, adorable, and endearing character that he is now - part werewolf, part kid. After the sketches were done, it was a back and forth process between us all refining the text to see what the images showed that were no longer needed in the text and so on. The images above show Stan's progression. I hope you love Stan’s Frightful Halloween like I do and will support the creators by buying a copy, spreading the word about it, and asking your local library and school library to order it. I also want to point out some of the underlying themes in this book, which include persistence in overcoming obstacles and friendship on the story level, and the things Chantelle and Burgen did to make Stan adorable, which include having his eyes wide apart and further down his face to make him younger looking, and making him an eccentric dresser with a plaid red shirt and a purple tie. He makes me laugh whenever I see him and pulls at my heart strings every time.
If you'd like to buy a copy from our bookstore, where we get a small commission, here's the link. <3
I hope something in here has been helpful for you, or in the video above, sending love, Mira
By Maggie Lauren Brown
My absolute favorite season is upon us—fall! Fall means sweater weather, crunchy leaves underfoot, spiced beverages, Halloween, and… SPOOKY STORIES! Here are some ideas to get the creepy writing juices flowing.
1. Think about what scared you as a kid. For me, it was a life-sized Halloween vampire cutout that my mom stored under our basement stairs. No matter how many times she showed me it wasn’t real, I was positive he would lurch through the slats and bite my ankles every time I used those stairs. That could make a great creepy kidlit story.
2. Browse creepy-but-cute images online. Talented kidlit illustrators post their work on Instagram and Twitter regularly. Scroll through hashtags to check out their images, or Google search something specific you’d like to see. When you see an image you like, can you think of a backstory that goes along with it? Obviously you don’t want to rip off anyone’s characters, but let the images help your mind wander. I love this adorable ghost illustration from Fia Kilbourn’s Instagram and this bat-baby from Kaz Windness’.
3. Check out seasonal contests. SCBWI is currently hosting a contest searching for stories that will be published in book of fifty-two scary stories—one from each state—by Macmillan. If you’re an active SCBWI member, check out the Haunted States of America submission form here. Fall Writing Frenzy is another seasonal contest for kidlit writers. The entry deadline is closed, but you can read all of the short, fall-inspired entries here for inspiration, and submit next year.
4. Get into the spooky spirit. Luckily, there are many fall outdoor activities that can be done while social distancing. Explore a pumpkin patch, tell scary stories around a bonfire, maybe take a stroll through a graveyard. What do you see, smell, feel? Take in your surroundings the way a kid would, and the spark of an idea might fly.
The great thing about writing spooky picture books or horror MG or YA is that kids like to be creeped out year-round. Even though Halloween is almost here, it’s okay to keep exploring spooky ideas throughout the year. I know I will, and I hope to meet a ghost friend or two along the way.
Happy writing and Happy Halloween!
Once upon a time, Maggie Lauren Brown performed as a synchronized swimmer, mermaid-for-hire, and high school English teacher. Now, she writes about her adventures in children’s books. Maggie is an SCBWI and 12x12 member, a Children's Book Academy course assistant, and is represented by Adria Goetz of Martin Literary Management. Maggie's debut picture book, JOY THE PANDACORN, releases next year with Clear Fork Publishing.
Preorder JOY THE PANDACORN
Like most chapter books, this one is heavy on humor (don’t eat the lasagna) and light on the frights. Kids won’t lose sleep over this one but should really enjoy it. If you’re interested in writing about ghosts in a chapter book, this is a great example of how to write a scary story for this age group.
Those who know me, know I love mysteries. I also really like stories about the supernatural. I found the perfect mix of mystery and ghost stories in Fleur Bradley’s MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL, illustrated by Xavier Bonet. JJ Jacobson is an amateur ghost hunter. When his mother receives an invitation to stay at the very haunted Barclay Hotel for the weekend, JJ convinces his mother to go and take him along.
Not long after they arrive, the guests discover the hotel owner has been murdered and the guests are the suspects. JJ enlists the help of his two new friends to solve the mystery and clear his mother’s his mother’s name. With any luck, he might even get some ghost hunting in as well.
MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL is an entertaining mix of humor and mystery and is perfect for anybody looking for a great example of a middle grade mystery.
For the youngest readers, check out the picture book, CREEPY CARROTS. Written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown, CREEPY CARROTS is the story of Jasper. Jasper loves carrots. He plucks them from the local carrot patch whenever he can. Then, one day, Jasper starts to feel like the carrots are following him. He sees carrots in his room, carrots in the closet, and even in the bathroom.
Bryan Patrick Avery discovered a love of magic and mystery at the age of four, after receiving a magic set and his first Bobbsey Twins Mystery book. Today, he is an award-winning poet and author, and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Mystery Writers of America. He's also a life member of the Society of American Magicians (which was once led by Harry Houdini) and charter member of the International Association of Black Magical Artists. Bryan's greatest joy is making stories appear out of thin air.
We are so excited to be mixing things up at CBA, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome new bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with Clear Fork/Spork editor/art director, former agent and former kidlit professor Mira Reisberg PhD who is also the Director of the Children's Book Academy.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays feature funny Aussie author Sharon Giltrow sharing awesome Aussie books.
And 5th Mondays will be a total surprise!