Saturday, April 29, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 212: Author Chrystal D. Giles

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For shorter clips, subscribe to the Middle Grade Ninja YouTube channel.

Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

In the final(ish) episode of the Middle Grade Ninja podcast, Chrystal D. Giles and I discuss her practical, data-driven approach to writing fiction that led to her newest novel, NOT AN EASY WIN. It’s a great conversation to end on as we discuss all my favorite subjects, such as successful writing habits, the need for diversity of representation in fiction, how a career in finance improves a career as an author, the importance of not hiding the truth from young readers, the imminent disclosure of the reality of flying saucers, and so much more. Esteemed Audience, it’s been an honor and a privilege. Thank you so much for supporting the show. It’s enhanced my life and I hope you feel the same.

Chrystal D. Giles is a champion for diversity and representation in children’s literature. Chrystal made her debut with Take Back the Block, which received multiple starred reviews, was a Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and an NPR Best Book. Her next middle-grade novel, Not An Easy Win, which has already received multiple starred reviews will be published in February 2023. Chrystal lives outside Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and son.

Can Lawrence figure out how to get on the board, even though the odds are stacked against him?

Introducing a powerful novel about figuring out who you are when you don’t make the rules—just right for middle-grade fans of Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds.

"Smart and moving."—Book Riot

Lawrence is ready for a win. . . .

Nothing’s gone right for Lawrence since he had to move from Charlotte to Larenville, North Carolina, to live with his granny. When Lawrence ends up in one too many fights at his new school, he gets expelled. The fight wasn’t his fault, but since his pop’s been gone, it feels like no one listens to what Lawrence has to say.

Instead of going to school, Lawrence starts spending his days at the rec center, helping out a neighbor who runs a chess program. Some of the kids in the program will be picked to compete in the Charlotte Classic chess tournament. Could this be Lawrence's chance to go home?

Lawrence doesn’t know anything about chess, but something about the center—and the kids there—feels right. Lawrence thought the game was over . . . but does he have more moves left than he thought?

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 211: Literary Agent Tamar Rydzinski

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For shorter clips, subscribe to the Middle Grade Ninja YouTube channel.

Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

Tamar Rydzinski and I discuss her career in publishing, specifically her time at Sanford Greenburger Associates and the Laura Dail Literary Agency, where she became vice president and director of subrights, and now as the president and founder of Context Literary. We talk about the specifics of how she evaluates royalties from publishers, how she pitches those publishers, avoiding industry burnout, the types of projects she’s interested in, how she connects with protagonists, why books should model healthy relationships, how to make the mundane epic, and so much more.

Click here to see Tamar Rydzinski face The 7 Questions.


Tamar has always had a strong love for the written word. Her goal for her authors is to reach their audience wherever they are, and she is proud of helping them stay ahead of the curve. Tamar began her career at Sanford Greenburger Associates. She then joined Laura Dail Literary Agency, where she became vice president and director of subrights.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 210: Authors Yarrow and Carrie Cheney

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

Yarrow and Carrie Cheney share the story of how they were best friends for a decade, lived together as roommates, worked as partners on multiple animation projects, and then decided to get married after their first date. We talk about their new novel, SUPERWORLD: SAVE NOAH, as well as their vast experience working on illumination studios films such as THE LORAX, THE GRINCH, DESPICABLE ME, and THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS.

Yarrow and Carrie Cheney are a husband-and-wife creative team who met in 1992 when they shared an animation cubicle as freshmen at California Institute of the Arts. The two have been collaborating ever since. After years in the animation industry in Los Angeles, the Cheneys moved to Paris, where Yarrow served as production designer on films including Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2. He later co-directed The Secret Life of Pets before going on to direct The Grinch. The couple now spend their days on a hill in Ojai, California, hanging with superheroes and making each other laugh.

In a world where everyone is extraordinary, it takes a totally normal kid to save the day. This new series breaks the mold with gorgeous black-and-white art on every page, and a cinematic, blockbuster feel.

Every 12-year-old kid feels like they don't fit in sometimes -- but Noah takes it to a whole new level. When a meteor crashed to Earth on his seventh birthday, the whole planet got superpowers.....except for Noah.
Thanks to his tin foil superhero costume, Noah's powers got deflected -- onto his little sister.  He's literally the only normal person in all of Superworld. He can't fly. He can't scale tall buildings. He can't turn broccoli into candy. (And of course his little sister got double powers. 
Of course.) And still...when the biggest, baddest villian in town plots to take over Superworld forever, normal Noah and his supercharged best friends are the ones who just might save the day. Seriously.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 209: Literary Agent Janine Le

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For shorter clips, subscribe to the Middle Grade Ninja YouTube channel.

Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

Janine Le and I discuss her career in publishing from her first internship to her twelve years with the Sheldon Fogelman Agency to founding the Janine Le Agency. We talk about how she evaluates her slush pile, how she handles submissions and editorial feedback, how she evaluates potential clients, balancing darkness in children’s stories with joy, how authors can effectively market their books, traditional publication vs indie publishing, and so much more.

Janine Le is pleased to announce the launch of Janine Le Literary Agency, a full-service agency representing authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults. Janine brings to her new venture the classic training of over twelve years working closely with leading children's book agents, experience supporting the various career needs of children’s book luminaries and debut creators alike, and an entrepreneurial spirit to meet today's challenges.

Janine was most recently Agent and Foreign Rights Manager at Sheldon Fogelman Agency, where she spent nearly twelve years negotiating contracts, bookkeeping, managing foreign rights, and otherwise supporting agency clients, while building her own client list. She was previously an intern in the children’s department at Sterling Lord Literistic and completed NYU's Summer Publishing Institute. Janine graduated summa cum laude from Bucknell University with honors in English (Creative Writing), where she interned with literary magazine West Branch.

Janine enjoys the balance of creative-minded and business-minded work and loves pushing her clients to reach their projects’ potential in the developmental stages and advocating for them from submissions onward. Janine has served as faculty for events with The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and donated critiques for several charitable campaigns. She finds balance in life by adventuring with her husband, two young children, and new dog.

Monday, April 3, 2023



Author Rob Kent reads seven chapters from his new middle grade novel, GOODBYE TO GRANDMA. Purchase your copy here:

About the book: A part of her would always be with me. Always.

When 11-year-old Hailey Smith attends her grandma’s funeral, she can’t cry, no matter how hard she tries. And she tries everything.

Hailey’s going to be a famous actress someday. Naturally, she gets the lead in the sixth-grade play. But she’s expected to cry in the third act.

On stage. In front of everyone.

How can she cry for a play when she couldn’t cry at her grandma’s funeral?

Goodbye to Grandma is the story of Hailey’s coming of age by coming to terms with the death of her grandmother.



When you hold my novel in your hands, Esteemed Reader, you hold my beating heart. That’s true no matter which of my books you happen to be holding, even the adventure stories. There are chapters in all three Banneker Bones books I cannot read without tears threatening.

When you’re holding Goodbye to Grandma, you’re holding a much younger version of my heart. Yet, 20 years after its first draft, I still feel everything Hailey feels, and I still cry at multiple places in the story every time I read them. What may read for some as simple and unsophisticated in places is actually the faithful recording of my experiences at a time in my life when I myself was a bit simpler and less sophisticated.

Goodbye to Grandma is the most directly autobiographical of my books. All my stories contain autobiographical bits, whether I want them to or not. Whatever emotion I have a need to express at the time usually works its way in to my fiction, even if I don’t recognize it. That’s a big part of what makes fiction writing so satisfying and cathartic. Also, risky.

I’ve never blasted giant robot bees out of the sky whilst piloting a jetpack (alas) or even owned a pair of rollerblades (I’d fall and break things for sure). But my grandmother died when I was in the sixth grade and I could not cry at her funeral. I actually lived a version of the funeral scenes right down to touching my grandma’s lips and being attacked by a bee at her burial and yes, laughing hysterically in a way that the whole funeral parlor heard. I also played Nick Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mr. Laurence in a production of Little Women.

I suspect part of my motivation in choosing a female protagonist for this story was to throw off the reader’s suspicions that the character is me. Also, I really do remember being so flippant as to think “my last book, Jim’s Monster, stared a boy so this one should star a girl.” 20 years later, I’m okay with Esteemed Reader knowing I had so much trouble processing my grandmother’s death, but I’m rather attached to Hailey. I have an older sister and there’s quite a bit of me in Barry as well.

The Smith family Christmas is a good-ish approximation of a Kent family Christmas circa 1992 and Grandma Smith isn’t a character. When I see her in my mind, I still see Francis Kent, who came to our house every Christmas morning and most Saturday mornings with doughnuts. She really did let me watch rated-R movies and even took me to the theater to watch A Few Good Men at age 11 and I still clearly remember her face about an hour in as the gratuitous profanity dropped, yet the movie was so good we didn’t leave.

My grandmother’s love is one of my fondest childhood memories and I’ve carried it with me these many years. If there is an afterlife, at present, she’s the one I’m most looking forward to seeing. And her dying as I was in middle school and going through puberty is the clearest marker in my mind of the end of my childhood. I never again experienced Christmas as the same holiday it was when she was alive and I’ve missed her every Christmas since.

It’s good that I first wrote this novel 20 years ago when my memories of all my feelings from her funeral and from being in the sixth grade were still fresh in my head. That’s not the version published as I’ve rewritten this story many, many, MANY times over the years. But those core experiences have survived the many drafts, preserving what I wanted to express about grief then and what I still feel is worth expressing now. This is also the book that gained me representation by a literary agent and was very nearly my debut novel with a couple publishers, so I haven’t set out to do much rewriting now as not to fix what isn’t broken.

The reason I’ve revisited this story now, like checking in on an old friend, and the reason I decided to publish it 20 years later is that the secondary plot of Hailey’s evolving relationship with Grandma Richmond strikes me as more relevant now than it did when I first wrote it. I had another grandmother type in my life, though she wasn’t a biological relative, but Grandma Richmond is actually an amalgamation of some other relatives of mine who were openly racist. I’m a heterosexual white male from a mostly all-white Indiana town who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, but who thankfully had a library card and kept growing up after I left that town.

I have family members whom—as of the writing of this afterword—I have not spoken to since the presidency of Donald Trump. I was tempted to give Grandma Richmond a MAGA hat, but I didn’t because I don’t want to overshadow my beloved story with the existence of that heinous villain some of y’all felt fit to vote for as president. I mention him here only because two years after his presidency, I still can’t forgive his supporters.

I’ve heard all the reasons why people supported that terrible man and I understand some of them on an intellectual level, like, “if I were an uniformed person who thought television shows were real, I guess I would believe the guy from The Apprentice was good at business in spite of all the evidence he's just a born-rich criminal.” But no matter how hard I try to bend my mind, I just can’t see how it was possible to have supported that man without having also been a racist or at the very least, comfortable enough with racism to still be an enemy to my family. And I can’t accept the excuse, “I’m not a racist. I don’t personally hate anybody. I just want to support others who hate on my behalf.”

Goodbye to Grandma takes no explicit stance on religion or politics.  I’m not comfortable writing explicitly about religion for children. They’re still figuring out their own views as to the nature of God and as someone who was successfully brainwashed (for a time) in my youth, I’m careful not to do the same to my young readers.

On the other hand, full disclosure: I'm only alive to publish this book as a month ago I should've definitely, absolutely died and didn't due to a set of circumstances I can only attribute to divine intervention. The number of coincidences I'd have to explain away becomes too improbable for serious consideration. And it's my third miraculous experience, though I imagine there've been far more that were simply less obvious. Suffice it to say, I'm done flirting with atheism.

I hope it’s possible to read this book as a believer or an atheist without either view being challenged. Hailey’s story is about loss and grief and that’s universal, whatever you believe happens or doesn’t happen after death. When Hailey’s father tells her that her dead neighbor’s soul is on its way to Heaven, it’s because that’s what my father told me, it’s what a lot of Indiana parents tell their children, and it’s a nice thought. Not to acknowledge the reality of religious culture in the story’s setting would be too great an omission, I think. But when my grandmother died, all the thoughts of her in Heaven didn’t stop me from wanting her here and they didn’t help me to process the loss any differently. Gone is gone.

Hailey doesn’t care about politics and neither does this story. The issue is racism. I’m not in favor of it, of course (see the Banneker Bones trilogy), nor do I feel it should be condoned. But I was raised to hate the sin and love the sinner and I still feel that’s mostly a good idea.

I don’t think Grandma Richmond is necessarily rehabilitated in this story in a lasting way and I don’t think the Roosevelt family will be present for her next party. But I can see Grandma Richmond is trying, and that’s not nothing. I don’t know, since the story ends before we get there, that Hailey and Grandma Richmond are going to have a lasting relationship (that’s a question for Esteemed Reader to resolve). I know only that Hailey is doing her best to be open to such a relationship because that’s what her Grandma Smith taught her and one of the ways in which Grandma Smith lives on.

And that, whatever else may come to pass, is beautiful and worthy of celebration.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 208: Author Anthony Peckham

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Anthony Peckham and I discuss the differences between writing a screenplay and writing a novel, as well as the inspiration for and craft employed in his incredible debut, CHILDREN OF THE BLACK GLASS. We also talk about why making terrible things happen for your character is a form of love, working with such incredible people as James Patterson, Tobey Maguire, Matt Damon, Gary Oldman, and Bill Clinton, the advantages of not plotting, writing a character for a specific actor, a ghost story, and so much more.

Anthony (Tony) Peckham is a South African–born screenwriter, surfer, and farmer who now lives on an island in the Pacific. Decades ago, while exploring a remote, high-altitude landscape with his children, he came upon a mountain made of black glass which inspired his debut novel. His other work includes Clint Eastwood’s Invictus and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. He is a Writers Guild of America Award winner and an NAACP Image Award nominee. Children of the Black Glass is his novel-writing debut.

Howl’s Moving Castle meets Neil Gaiman in this middle grade fantasy, set in a world as mesmerizing as it is menacing, following children on a quest to save their father who get embroiled in the sinister agendas of rival sorcerers.

In an unkind alternate past, somewhere between the Stone Age and a Metal Age, Tell and his sister Wren live in a small mountain village that makes its living off black glass mines and runs on brutal laws. When their father is blinded in a mining accident, the law dictates he has thirty days to regain his sight and be capable of working at the same level as before or be put to death.

Faced with this dire future, Tell and Wren make the forbidden treacherous journey to the legendary city of Halfway, halfway down the mountain, to trade their father’s haul of the valuable black glass for the medicine to cure him. The city, ruled by five powerful female sorcerers, at first dazzles the siblings. But beneath Halfway’s glittery surface seethes ambition, violence, prejudice, blackmail, and impending chaos.

Without knowing it, Tell and Wren have walked straight into a sorcerers’ coup. Over the next twelve days they must scramble first to save themselves, then their new friends, as allegiances shift and prejudices crack open to show who has true power.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 207: Author David Ezra Stein

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Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

David Ezra Sein and I discuss his career in picture books and now graphic novels, such as his newest, BEAKY BARNES: EGG ON THE LOOSE. We talk about adapting his INTERUPTING CHICKEN series as an Apple TV series, why I own three copies of POUCH, his childhood influences, why he walked away from a contract with Harper Collins while still in college, a UFO sighting, walking with an idea and getting to know it, puppetry, and so much more.

Click here to see David face the 7 Questions.

David Ezra Stein is the Caldecott-Honor illustrator and author of INTERRUPTING CHICKEN, DINOSAUR KISSES, I'M MY OWN DOG, and many other award-winning picture books, including LEAVES, winner of an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. He lives in Kew Gardens, New York.

Caldecott Honor winner David Ezra Stein takes readers on a slapstick journey in his debut graphic novel series, featuring Beaky Barnes, a no-nonsense chicken who's determined to save her desirable egg. But with a hungry inspector, a desperate chef, and an entrepreneurial woman on her tail, Beaky has to use every tool in her chicken coop to make her grand escape.

All the inspector wanted was an egg to go in his sandwich, so he heads to the cafe. The problem? The town is entirely out of eggs, and the local chef is panicked. Luckily, he spots a lovely duo having lunch: a woman and a 
chicken named Beaky Barnes. It's his lucky day. But when the woman and Beaky have a fight over an offensive business arrangement (chicken-pulled coach service, anyone?), chaos ensues. With a chicken on the run, and an inspector and woman in hot pursuit, three stories emerge with hilarious results!

With laugh-out-loud madcap comedy on every page, David Ezra Stein's (Caldecott Honor winner of 
Interrupting Chicken) signature humor is on full display in this debut graphic novel!

Thursday, March 23, 2023


Author Rob Kent reads seven chapters from his new middle grade novel, ROB WORM'S BIRD ADVENTURE. Purchase your copy here:

About the book: With nonstop action, adventure, and humor, this thrilling tale will have 7- to 11-year-old readers wriggling on the edge of their tails! After an early spring rain, Rob Worm’s bunch burrows to the surface to enjoy the mud. At 9-and-a-half months old (10 years in human time), Rob has been deep underground over half his life. He yearns for adventure and can’t wait to see the surface! Unfortunately, a robin can’t wait to see him. When Rob pushes his best friend to safety, the robin scoops him up instead and carries him off to feed to her hatchling. Rob wriggles free but is dropped on the roof of a human house. To get home to his bunch, Rob Worm is going to have to first get down, and then contend with a nest of nasty yellowjackets, fierce colonies of warring ants, a crafty spider, sizzling hot cement, and a pond filled with hungry koi, all while being pursued by a revenge-seeking robin.


The original draft of Rob Worm’s Bird Adventure—which came with your book—was published by my 5th Grade class in 1991. I’d been drawing Rob Worm on every scrap of paper and been thinking about him for at least a year, so forever. 

I was so in love with the idea of writing a book about my best character named after me, I dedicated it to him. My best friend in that same class dedicated his book to me. Awkward. As we remained best friends well past the birth of our own children, it remains awkward:) And my enthusiasm for Rob Worm remains undiminished.

There've been many reimagining's of the original story, but the second draft of consequence was written in college. It was dedicated to the same best friend from third grade who grew up to be an excellent artist. We spent a lot of late nights at coffeeshops, him illustrating as I wrote and I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed writing more than I did when I was young and assumed everything I ever wrote was brilliant (naturally)… or needed some minor grammar checks, but was otherwise perfect.

This most recent draft of the story was written during a pandemic. That was one reason revisiting Rob Worm was so interesting to me. There’s no room for politics or thoughts about Covid-19 in a story about animal characters who happen to talk, but are mostly animals. Rob's world gave me a badly needed break from the one I was living in.

I wrote Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy assuming it was my last novel. Banneker 3 was meant to be my sign off, a pretty good spot to end, and I couldn’t complain as I’d written my most urgent novels and enjoyed much of my writing life. 

And then I got vaccinated and found myself in a position to write some more… if I wanted to. Who knows how long a golden opportunity like this might last? After the madness of 2020, who knows how long anything might last?

And was Banneker Bones 3 REALLY the last book I had to write? REALLY? Seems like I forgot something... I was sitting on my patio thinking this thought while working on my author podcast and updating my author website, because, ya know, I was done being an author:) And behold, at the start of spring, I saw a robin pulling a worm out of the ground in my backyard. Like Bruce Wayne seeing a bat fluttering through his open window, I knew what I must do!!!

I had the concept for this newest version of Rob Worm's Bird Adventure in my mind almost immediately. It would be set in a backyard like mine, but with a koi pond and other worm hazards, and it wouldn’t be realistic, exactly, but it would be realistic enough that I could include a bunch of animal facts—the sort of facts I would've obsessed over as a child. And the sort of facts I could utilize in a presentation during a school visit. Regularly chatting with amazing professional authors on a podcast teaches even a dummy like me a few things.

I wrote a solid chunk of the novel while leading a fiction workshop, which is how I do a lot of my writing these days. I tried some very different versions of the story while I was deciding the rules of this new Rob Worm, who did not surf, as he did in the original version, or ride a horsefly through a swamp full of frogs, as he did in a favorite scene from the version written when I was in college. But he did go over a waterfall in a gutter, which I think is very cool, and which neither of the previous Rob Worms did.

I even tried a version of the story called Wym Worm so the protagonist wouldn't have my name, but it just wasn’t the same. When I made that change, I made no forward progress until I changed his name back to Rob. That’s his name. Fifth grade me made that call, college me was fine with it, and adult me can think of him as having no other name. It would be easier to publish under a pen name than change the name of the worm I’ve been thinking about on and off since I was eleven. His best friend is Buzz Fly, who has been his best friend since the first rewrite I did in the 6th grade.

I’ve written many, many, MANY versions of this story over the years, including a Tarantino-esque version where the scenes were out of order and the language was inappropriate for everyone. There were several screenplay versions and a poem version. The college version was planned as a full trilogy. I drafted as far as two-thirds of the second book while racking enough rejection letters for the first to assure me it was time to write something else.

Eventually, large parts of the college version were repurposed for the Banneker Bones trilogy, which was its spiritual successor. Rather than being nabbed by giant robot bees, at one point Rob's worm friends were nabbed by Bernie the bird and Rob and Buzz had to rescue them. Having now written a couple books about Banneker Bones rescuing kidnapped friends, I didn’t want to do that again.

Of the two earlier versions of me adult me is attempting to reconcile, I’m more inclined to listen to 11-year-old me. I like to imagine the three of us meeting to discuss the new version of our one true story, the one we carried all this way for all these years. I don’t approve of a lot of the choices college me is making and I wish he’d put out that cigarette. Or give me one for old time's sake:). But that’s okay, he’s not entirely impressed by me and he wants to know why we’re not more famous. Although he probably thinks it’s amazing I found a woman who loved me enough to marry me. Fifth grade me is more interested in the fact that he’s going to grow up to own a virtual reality helmet. And he also wants to know why we’re not more famous.

It’s fifth grade me I’ve deferred to for most story decisions. He had a vision and these many years later, I think it mostly holds up. I’ve listened to bits of the soundtracks from Indiana Jones and  Jurassic Park films as those were the types of stories Rob Worm was supposed to belong beside. The dried driveway worms are a reference to Indy's mummies and Rob seeing Beatrix for the first time is very reminiscent of Tim Murphy admiring a T-Rex charging the gallimimus.  There isn’t a romantic subplot because fifth grade me wasn’t interested in romance. He wanted big adventure and fun, and college me occasionally forgot those things.

5th grade me's version of the story is sarcastic and talks to the reader in a snarky-ish tone because he’s imitating his favorite author, Roald Dahl. There’s a reference to The Birds because that movie scared him, and, more interesting, he knows it really scared some adults. He’s included a line about coal because a similar line in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off really made his parents laugh. He writes, “on this morning a new life form approached our world” because he’s imitating the melodramatic opening of Little Shop of Horrors and the Audrey II has been giving him nightmares.

That’s one of the ways I know that kid wrote a horror story. Obviously, it’s an adventure (it’s right there in the title). But Rob Worm is taken away against his will, has to be cunning twice to escape two monsters intent on eating him, and then he’s cast aside onto a sizzling hot driveway, barely able to escape. Esteemed Reader, that’s a friendly horror story, not unlike the sort Roald Dahl wrote. It’s Crawl, but with birds:)

I’ve done my best to honor young me’s original vision. I don’t think he’d like the two older hims messing with his story—why don’t they write their own!?! For this reason, I’ve included many of the major plot points from his book. I even made sure to have Rob Worm slide along in water in two separate scenes, as close as I could get to having him “surf” in a realistic-ish framing.

Fifth grade me would appreciate my efforts, I think, especially since I’ve made his unchanged original version available. I even did my best to preserve some of his narrative voice. I’m too American to go full Roald Dahl, but I included some of Dahl’s invented words and directly addressed the reader in a snarky tone. I responded well to that as a young reader, especially in a “scarier” story, because if the narrator plays with the reader, I was assured he would be there during the frightening bits as well. That way the story wouldn’t be too scary (this isn’t a Robert Kent book).

Adult me really enjoyed learning all the animal facts present in this story. Thinking of humanity as an animal population has given me quite a bit of perspective on things. 

Adult me also likes messing with the reader, who I call Esteemed Reader for the first time in a book as though it's just a long blog post. I'm gleefully reminding Esteemed Reader that this is a story throughout and Chapter 24, "How Yellow Was My Jacket," might be my favorite joke in any book I've written. I know fifth grade me would've delighted at such flagrant rule breaking in the middle of a story. And adult me is really pushing this idea of the thematic importance of perspective and wants to remind Esteemed Reader that the narrator has his own perspective.

I don’t actually have a clean version of college me’s draft and that’s just as well. I wouldn’t share it if I did and you wouldn’t want to read it. My retroactive apologies to those who did. It was typed on a classic Macintosh machine I no longer own. I do, however, have multiple binders filled with paper copies of drafts with handwritten notes and corrections.

A lot of cigarettes were smoked and a lot of two liters of Mountain Dew were drank to produce that draft. So much harm was done to my body because I was stupid enough to believe that suffering for my art made it great. It isn’t so. College me had a head full of bad ideas, but in his defense, he was still shellshocked from the trauma of middle school and high school and he’d recently had his heart profoundly broken.

That’s the draft where a father bird was introduced to argue with the momma bird and fictionally resolve a relationship I’d had. His name was Bernie and he dies in the new version before the story begins because fifth-grade me liked tragic openings and adult me isn’t interested in revisiting that old heartbreak when so many really wonderful things have happened since, such as my obtaining a virtual reality helmet.

College me’s draft is tonally all over the place and shows a frequent disregard for spelling and grammar. There are sections far too intense for children as he was imitating his favorite author, Stephen King. And there are references to literature strewn about because he was reading the classics, but all of them are clumsy attempts to impress… someone? In the sequel, there’s a plot about worm religion because college me is working out some things from childhood that definitely will not be fully resolved by his graduation... or the present:)

The draft I worked from had notes made by a girl I was in love with who was not so enthusiastic about me. Those notes make me cringe the most, humiliated for myself all over again. She was kind enough to provide some really excellent story feedback, however. And she inspired me to be better.

College me got blasted with rejection letters that I hung on my wall. It finally began to get through my thick skull that maybe, just maybe, my book wasn’t perfect the first time. Maybe, if I was going to be the sort of writer people read, I was going to have to write better books. And maybe, if I wanted the girls to like me back, I needed to respect myself more than I did.

Before I judge past me too harshly, I do well to remember he did get a gym membership and stopped drinking Mountain Dew. He could’ve done a lot of things better, but he did get me here by not doing EVERYTHING wrong. 

It’s his opening sentence that opens the newest version of Rob Worm’s Bird Adventure. He really liked the word "dark" and I guess I do too. A version of the ants (who used to be beetles) and the koi were his idea, he named the spider Kalegwa, and there are some other elements of his creation I've honored as well. But his version of the story was about humans with human problems who happened to be animal shaped, and so much of it was unusable. In his world, some worms are pirates and a peg tail is still a funny gag, but it doesn’t work in a “real world” scenario. 

I did like his version of the main characters, though. His Rob Worm is very much Ellicott Skullworth and his Buzz Fly is a version of Banneker Bones and I think he'd be happy about that. A version of the trilogy he envisioned eventually came to be.

Time spent writing is never time wasted. It all comes into play in some fashion. Neither the actual Rob nor the fictional one would be here without those Robs from the past. And future Robs, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll think I set you up nicely. And I hope you’re still telling stories. If you’re able, I know you are. And with the knowledge that we finally created a version of this story we can all agree on.


Saturday, March 18, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 206: Author Cindy Callaghan

 To watch new episodes as they air, go to my YouTube channel and subscribe.

For shorter clips, subscribe to the Middle Grade Ninja YouTube channel.

Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

Cindy Callaghan and I discuss her series, JUST ADD MAGIC, the ups and downs of publishing it, adapting it for an Amazon series, and its impact on readers around the world. We also talk about how being talented in multiple areas improves her fiction, why she plans her day the night before, what makes a good tween voice, six secrets to writing success, and so much more. As promised, here’s a link to the Muppet Show/Dirty Dancing mashup:

Cindy Callaghan is the author of the middle grade novels Lost in LondonLost in ParisLost in RomeLost in Ireland (formerly titled Lucky Me), Lost in Hollywood, the award-winning Sydney Mackenzie Knocks ’Em DeadJust Add Magic (which is now a breakout streaming original series), and its sequel Potion Problems. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware.

Take three friends. Add an old cookbook. Combine with cute boys and a pinch of magic…and see what kind of chaos ensues! When Kelly Quinn and her two BFFs discover a dusty old cookbook while cleaning out the attic, the girls decide to try a few of the mysterious and supposedly magical recipes that are inside. To their surprise, the Keep ’Em Quiet Cobbler actually silences Kelly’s pesky little brother and the Hexberry Tart puts a curse on mean girl Charlotte. Is it possible that the recipes really are magic? Who wrote them and where did they come from? And most importantly of all, when boys get involved, what kind of trouble are the girls stirring up for themselves?

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 205: Literary Agent Melanie Figueroa

To watch new episodes as they air, go to my YouTube channel and subscribe.

For shorter clips, subscribe to the Middle Grade Ninja YouTube channel.

Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

Melanie Figueroa and I discuss in depth how she built her career as an agent at ROOT LITERARY. We talk about what makes her agency different, how she uses query manager to review submissions, how she evaluates manuscripts, how she manages her time and avoids industry burnout, and how she reframes negative narrative. And she divulges information from the secret section of the Root Literary website, among other very interesting topics you won’t want to miss.

Melanie Figueroa is a literary agent at Root Literary. She represents middle grade, YA, and adult fiction along with select nonfiction and picture book titles. What she loves most about the job is the balance of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit. After graduating with a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University, she worked as an in-house editorial project manager and then as a freelance editor for several years before joining the agency in 2018. Melanie was born and raised in Southern California in a multicultural, blended family, so she has a soft spot for books that shine a spotlight on the nuances of relationships and identity. She currently lives in Southern California and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @wellmelsbells.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Middle Grade Ninja Episode 204: Author Russell Ginns

To watch new episodes as they air, go to my YouTube channel and subscribe.

For shorter clips, subscribe to the Middle Grade Ninja YouTube channel.

Middle Grade Ninja is available on AnchorSpotify,  StitcherAmazonitunesPodbeanRadioPublic,  Listen Notes, and many other fine locations.

R. U. Ginns and I discuss his career in publishing writing for Sesame Street Magazine, 3-2-1 Contact, and The Electric Company, and his many pennames as well as his newest book, 1-2-3 SCREAM. We talk about why a giant eyeball is his preferred marketing prop, advice for a successful school visit, how, the hardest part of being a writer is staying in the chair, how Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER saved his life, the importance of interacting with readers and other authors, and so much more.

Russell Ginns is a game designer, writer, and composer, primarily known for children's fiction, puzzles, and educational games. He is the author of more than 100 books, including Super Atomic Wombat Girl, Puzzlooies, 1-2-3 Scream! and the Samantha Spinner series. He has created or contributed to several notable software titles, including Castle Infinity, Hooked on Phonics, Reader Rabbit and Half-Life.

Get ready to scream with this collection of hillarifying—hilariously terrifying—tales, fully-illustrated and perfect for scary story lovers who are looking for a side of humor to go with their helpings of horror.


Unless you want to be scared, do NOT read this book. 

These tales of terror are so horrible, so alarming, they had to be bound up between these pages forever!

You’ll discover 
The Boogerman, an oozing horror that lurks in mirrors. You’ll read about Instagrave, a popular new app that tells kids how they are going to die. In Epizeuxis, you’ll learn what happens if you speak the name of a—wait. We’ve said too much already. The things between these covers are too dangerous to ever be let out. That's why we're warning you: stay away from this book, or else!

Of course, if you are reckless enough to open this book, then be sure to read these stories in a safe, indoor space, far from the beady, prying eyes of any birds*.

Now, on the count of three: 1…2…3…SCREAM!

*Is that a crow, a magpie, or an indigo bunting behind you? Be careful. Birds will do anything to keep people from discovering the secrets of this book!