Monday, December 10, 2018

Book Review: A BOY CALLED BAT by Elana K Arnold

First Paragraph(s): Bixby Alexander Tam stared into the refrigerator, trying to decide what to eat. He knew that the longer he took, the more energy he was wasting, and Bixby Alexander Tam did not like to waste energy. But he also didn’t like to eat leftovers, or cheese that had to be sliced, or any of the yogurt flavors in the fridge. 
“Bat, close the refrigerator door!” yelled his sister, Janie, from the kitchen table, where she sat cutting out pictures from a pile of old magazines. Janie, he was sure, had eaten all the lemon and vanilla yogurts. And she knew he only liked the creamy ones, not the fruit-on-the-bottom kind. 
“Bat” was what almost everyone called Bixby Alexander Tam, for a couple of reasons: first, because the initials of his name—B, A, and T—spelled Bat. 
But there were maybe other reasons. Bat’s sensitive hearing, for one. He didn’t like loud sounds. What was so unusual about that? And if Janie’s old earmuffs happened to make an outstanding muffling device, was it that funny if he liked to wear them? 
There was also the way he sometimes flapped his hands, when he was nervous or excited or thinking about something interesting. Some of the kids at school seemed to think that was hilarious. And, of course, bats have wings, which they flap. 
So, between the initials and the earmuffs and the hand flapping, the nickname had stuck. 
And, truthfully, Bat didn’t mind. Animals were his very favorite thing. Better even than vanilla yogurt.

Esteemed Reader, I don't know if I can fully express to you just how truly and deeply I love this book. I know, I know, I love every book I review and I tell you to read all of them. Well, honestly I do love most of them and you should read them.

I'm not apologizing for liking too many books. I haven't run this free blog about middle grade fiction for all these years because I don't love middle grade books. Speaking of which, this blog has now spawned a YouTube channel and a podcast, which you should totally check out. I'm super excited about it.

Esteemed Reader, I really, really, REALLY love A Boy Called Bat. I love it so much I've read it multiple times this year and cried most every time. I'll try to make it through this review without crying, but I probably won't. Some books find you when you most need to read them, and this book found me. 

If Elana K Arnold ever came on my podcast, I expect my questions for her would be mostly, "Why are you so awesome?" and "How did you write the exact book my heart most needed?" and "Magic writer lady, I love you." After that, I imagine, would follow a period of extremely tense and awkward silence. So perhaps it's better that Elana K Arnold will be here to provide written answers for the 7 Questions on Thursday:)

And that will be it for 2018. I can't top an interview with Elana K Arnold, so we may as well call it a year. And then January 1st I'll do my usual year in retrospect post and we'll have some fabulous new guests on the podcast/TV show thingee, some swell guest posts, and I'll even publish some new middle grade books. It will be good times.

And that's it's. You can skip the review part of this if you want and just go buy your copy of the book. What follows is mostly gushing for one of my most favorite things.

As the first paragraph of A Boy Called Bat makes clear, Bixby Alexander Tam is not a neurotypical protagonist. During my discussion with Mary Kole, she was adamant that the key to hooking a middle grade reader is providing an interesting character. I can't think of a better example of this principal in action than in the book's opening above. 

Some will say this is a book about autism, and certainly it's a good book to prompt a discussion about autism. I would say this is a book about love (as in I LOVE it so much), but more on that momentarily. Without question, this is a book that should be read aloud in every classroom in the country as it's an excellent guide to understand the neuro-diverse people living among us

It is said that if you've met someone with autism, you've met one person with autism, as the spectrum is vast. I have no doubt some of you reading this and some of us writing it are somewhere on the spectrum.

Bat isn't just a kid with autism, he's Bat, and by the end of Arnold's story, you will love him because he's the one and only Bat, not the autistic kid. Although, undeniably, Bat sees the world differently than other children and is particularly bad at picking up on social ques that are obvious to everyone else:

Mr. Grayson came over. He was wearing his bright-orange tennis shoes today. Bat liked it when he wore those shoes. It was like he was wearing suns on his feet. 
“What’s the problem, friends?” he asked. 
“Bat embarrassed Lucca,” Israel said, really loudly, making Bat wish he had his earmuffs. They were in his backpack, on his back. 
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to embarrass her, did you, Bat?” asked Mr. Grayson. There were sixteen eyelets on each of his shoes, Bat counted. Eight on the left side, eight on the right side. That made thirty-two eyelets. 
“Bat, can you look up at my face?” Mr. Grayson asked. Bat shook his head. Thirty-two eyelets. His own shoes had half as many. Sixteen eyelets, four on each side of each shoe. 
Mr. Grayson sighed. “Okay, Bat, go sit at your table.” 
Bat wondered if anyone in the class had more eyelets in their shoes than Mr. Grayson. He kept his eyes on shoes as he walked through the classroom. Nope. No one did.

Perhaps the greatest feat Elana K Arnold pulls off in A Boy Called Bat, and she pulls off several, is that she creates in Bat a character who is completely believable and empathetic in every way. Bat does some things during the course of the story that are annoying and obnoxious and it's not hard to understand why the people surrounding Bat become impatient with him.

But for all that, the reader will see the world from Bat's perspective and understand his side of things. We will root for Bat and want to see how he handles usually simple situations with his unusually complicated mind. We will look forward to future stories in this series.  

Arnold's book is an incredible exercise in empathy that works so very well in part because its plot is deceptively simple. But don't let Arnold's mastery of craft fool you. This story only seems simple because it's so impeccably well constructed that its reading is effortless, but I'm certain its creation was anything but. I'd love to know how many drafts Arnold went through to nail every aspect of this story, and she does have to nail them all to give her readers the emotional payoff she's building toward.

A Boy Called Bat is a love story, one that works on multiple levels. But at it's simplest, most basic level, this is the story of a boy and his love for a skunk:

“Is she okay?” Janie asked. 
“I wish I could say she is,” Mom answered. “I wasn’t able to save the mother, or the other baby kits. Only this one lived. I was able to check the mother for diseases, though, and luckily she wasn’t sick, which is a good sign the kit isn’t sick, either.” 
“That’s awesome,” Bat said. 
“Bat!” said Janie, loud and sharp. The kit twitched and shifted, scared by Janie’s voice. “How can you say it’s awesome? The mom died! The other babies died!” 
Bat didn’t mean that it was awesome that the other skunks had died. Of course that wasn’t awesome. He’d meant that it was awesome that this kit had lived. 
But it wasn’t worth it to try to explain to Janie what he’d meant. She usually misunderstood Bat. Most everyone did. 
“Can I?” Bat reached out for the kit, wanting so badly to hold him that his fingers twitched. 
“We can’t keep him,” Mom warned. “There’s a wild animal rescue center that we can give him to in about a month, but they’re too busy to take him just yet. So we can help him get bigger and stronger before we hand him over to the experts. They’ll raise him until he’s ready to be released into the wild, when he’s about five months old.” Then she passed the tiny kit, wrapped in towels, into Bat’s arms.

You'd have to be made of stone not to root for a lonely boy who finds love for a skunk. And we see Bat come to life and get motivated by this new love as surely as any protagonist in a more traditional love story. He researches skunks, emails a leading skunk expert, and schemes to convince his mother to allow him to keep Thor, the skunk kit, forever.

There's plenty of opposition for Bat to overcome, the most chief obstacle being his own neuro-diverse self. Can he stay focused on the baby skunk long term or will he forget his pet and add a burden to his single mother veterinarian mom who already has her hands full with the sometimes challenging rearing of Bat himself. Bat never wavers in his conviction that he should be the one to take of Thor, but those around him have understandable concerns.

The plot itself will not surprise any regular middle grade readers, but that's not the point. In my fiction workshops, I've taught that the secret to a good story is either a complex plot with a relatable character, or a simple plot with a complex character. A Boy Called Bat is an excellent example of the later.

But this is a book that works on multiple levels and though Bat and Thor are always front and center, Arnold deftly creates a slew of three-dimensional characters surrounding them, each personally impacted by Bat's growth as a person capable of expressing love. The character who most moved me was not Bat, but Bat's mother, who has a wonderful moment at the end of the story I won't spoil, but I could hardly read it because my vision was so clouded by tears of happiness for her and for Bat.

Although Arnold never flat out states the significance of Bat's connection to Thor, she hints that some of it is wrapped up in his feelings regarding his parents divorce--for it's his weekends at his father's apartment that take him away from his beloved skunk. And there's a boy in Thor's class who might like to be Bat's friend. Bat might not be ready to be a friend... although if he can feel deeply for a skunk, maybe anything is possible.

A Boy Called Bat is a book about love, the characters who love Bat and make his dream possible. But more, it's about the people Bat loves, even if he doesn't express that love conventionally:

Bat loved braiding Janie’s hair, even though he usually wasn’t very good at hand things. He liked the feeling of the damp, heavy hair; he liked organizing it into a series of smaller, neatly contained braids; he liked feeling close to Janie like this, by helping her and touching her, without having to have a big conversation that might turn into a fight. 
Getting along with people was hard for Bat. Figuring out what they meant when they said something, or when they made certain faces at him . . . People were complicated. But braiding was easy.

If I made the laws of the world, I'd insist a copy of A Boy Called Bat be made available in every pediatrician's office. Parents who's children have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum need to read this book. Siblings of such children and their classmates need to read this book. Really, everyone needs to read this book, and I so glad it was available for me to read when I needed it.

A Boy Called Bat is a modern classic and should be read by everyone. Do not miss this story and keep tissues close at hand as you read it. I love it so much and I'm so happy to share it with you, Esteemed Reader.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from A Boy Called Bat:

“Hi, Bat,” Israel said. “Do you think it’ll rain?” 
“Maybe,” said Bat. “Well, eventually, yes, but today, maybe.”

“Be careful, sport,” said Dad, which was a dumb thing to say because the hot chocolate was already spilled and being careful now wouldn’t unspill it.

Her hair was damp from the shower, and she was wearing her favorite pajamas, the ones with all the unicorns. Each unicorn was doing something different; one rocked out with a guitar, another was reading a book, another wore a chef’s hat and was flipping eggs in a pan. The only thing they had in common was that they were all unicorns. 
“Janie, did you know that a herd of unicorns is called a blessing?” Bat asked. 
“Yes, Bat, of course I know that. Every time I wear these pajamas you tell me that.” 
“I didn’t know if you remembered,” Bat said.

As Thor had his breakfast, the sky turned violet and pink, then orangey red. The tree’s trunk lightened from black to brown and its leaves transformed to green. The first birds called louder, waking up their friends, and they became a chorus of song.

The Sugar Shack was an exceptional candy store. It had bins full of M&M’s separated into colors, so if you wanted exactly eleven greens and eleven blues, but no yellows, reds, or oranges (as Bat did), you could get exactly that.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

GUEST POST: "Why I Don’t Write Middle Grade" by B.A. Williamson

I love middle grade books. I have since before there was a difference between YA and MG, back when I picked up The Giver, devoured it in one weekend, and simply called it a book. But whenever anyone asks me why I write middle grade, I have a very simple answer:

I don’t.

Picture this: You’ve made it, you’re a published author, congratulations. You’re at your local Barnes and Noble, standing in front of a table covered with copies of your book (because, of course, you should never be behind the table.) Thirty identical covers gleam at you, creating a swath of your own personal color palette. You have a stack of bookmarks in hand, ready to strike up a conversation with anyone who walks in that door.

And here comes an anyone: an adult, with no child in tow. You make your pitch, they seem interested, but they ask you that dreaded question: “What age is this for?”

Of course, the real question is, “Guess the age of the kid I’m thinking of.” Guess correctly, and you’ve just made a sale. Guess wrong, and off they go to look at coffee table books about Sinatra.

I have some flippant answers I like to use: “Well, how old are you?”, or “From kids age 1 to 92.” (Not really--Gwendolyn Gray is not for toddlers.)

But usually I say something like this: “It’s kind of a book for everyone. I don’t write kids stories—I just write good stories, and they’ve got kids in them. I know that 12-year old’s like it a lot, but I’ve found teenagers who love it, and third graders, and plenty of adults. It’s for anyone who likes good stories about kids having adventures with monsters and airship pirates and super-boring schools.”

See, I never sat down to write a middle-grade novel. I just wanted to write a Brent novel. (That puts the B in B.A.) And to anyone who knows me, this is an absolute Brent novel, from ADHD children whose imaginations come to life, to a cheeky classical literary tone, to skydiving ninja-pirates who fight clockwork robots. I stopped just short of adding a TARDIS and a luck dragon.

I wrote a story about everything I love, and I love books, and I was a kid who loved books, and I wanted to write about a kid who loved books because that was me and that’s what I know and that’s what I wanted to put out into the world.

I didn’t write a story for twelve-year-old’s. I wrote a story about twelve-year-old’s, and they seem to really like it. And so do people who were twelve once, or are going to be twelve someday. But it’s also a story about friendship, loss, love, magic, and most importantly, imagination.

At the risk of being controversial, I think sometimes we coddle our readers. We dumb it down too much. There’s plenty in my story that only my older readers are picking up on, but I wanted to write a book that everyone could read, so there’s no sex, there’s no swearing, the violence is kept pretty mild, and there’s only a tiny bit of grog-swilling.

Don’t pigeon hole yourself by the constraints of a label. The best middle-grade books out there are the ones that break out of that box—when was the last time you heard Harry Potter or Percy Jackson referred to as “middle grade?” They are, but in a way that transcends the label, because they’re just good stories.

So by now it sounds like I’m hating on middle grade, on a site about middle grade, and let me say that is absolutely not the case. I’m saying that middle grade is at its best when authors find the heart of the story they want to tell, and stick to it. When they take their reader seriously, and give them serious things to think about.

I really wanted The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray to feel important. I wanted it to matter. I wanted it to have weight. And one way to do that was to make sure that there were realistic consequences for the character’s actions.

Travelling to other worlds? That would spin your head! Losing your home? That’s not the sort of thing you get over after one or two chapters. And if someone dies, right in front of you, that’s a significant trauma for a twelve-year-old to witness, and it would stick with them, probably for the rest of their life. Keeping those things in mind makes your characters feel like real people. It makes your imaginary story about shadow monsters and steampunk cities feel like real worlds, where the stakes are real and the lives are real and the consequences are real.

Another reason to keep the MG label on the outside, rather than the inside? The kids. Kids know when they’re being pandered to. And writing middle-grade stories accurately, with really authentic middle-grade characters can be… cringe inducing. I’ve had some drafts where Gwendolyn did things that didn’t make sense, or came across as self-centered and petty and awkward, and I thought, yes, well, have you ever been in a middle-school cafeteria? It’s full of awkward, cringe-inducing self-involved kids! Instead of ultra-realism, show the kind of preteens that kids wish they were, but with the kind of struggles they already have.

That’s when you can show the magic of this particular age group. They’re just starting to realize that there’s a whole world around them, full of other people with their own thoughts and feelings. They learn that the things they do matter. There’s a whole new version of themselves that they haven’t met yet, and they’re just learning how to shape themselves into that person.

There’s an aspect of romance in my book. This has been an incredibly polarizing element among reviewers. I’m told that kids this age shouldn’t be acting like that, or that it isn’t middle-grade appropriate. But the middle schoolers I work with are just certainly noticing each other, and it is constantly on their mind. When I read the book to my students, and ask them whether I should cut that out, the answer is always a resounding No, you have to keep it! I tried to capture all the adorable awkward puppy-love of that first crush age, and the love of these two characters is what gets my students crying at the end. The adults who view this through the lens of their kids think, gross, my kid isn’t ready for that sort of thing. But the ones who remember being a kid themselves find that it resonates with the hormonal mess we all were at that age.

So start with a great story. Write some great characters. If those characters are interesting, and go on marvelous adventures, kids will want to read it. And if those characters are interesting, and go on marvelous adventures, and just happen to be kids, everyone else will read it too. And when it’s all said and done, you can put that middle grade label on the cover and know that you’ve written an amazing story that shows why middle grade is one of the genres that matters most. These are the books that help shape who these kids are, and who they’ll grow up to be. All you have to do is flip through the pages of Gwendolyn Gray to see all the things I’ve loved before, all my formative influences, and most of them came from middle-school. If you don’t talk down to your audience, don’t patronize them, but give them a story with real characters that strike the heart, with real stakes and real messages, then you’ll have an outstanding book that people will love, and yes, that will include lots of middle schoolers.

B. A. Williamson is the overly caffeinated writer of The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray. When not doing battle with the demons in the typewriter, he can be found wandering Indianapolis with his family, singing in a tuxedo, or taming middle-schoolers. He is a recipient of the Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. Please direct all complaints and your darkest secrets to @BAWrites on social media, or visit

Part fantasy, part dystopian, part steampunk, and all imagination, The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray follows dreamer Gwendolyn as she evades thought police, enters a whimsical world, befriends explorers and pirates, and fights the evil threatening to erase everything she loves.

Gwendolyn Gray faces an overwhelming battle every day: keeping her imagination under control. It’s a struggle for a dreamer like Gwendolyn, in a city of identical gray skyscrapers, clouds that never clear, and grown-ups who never understand.

But when her daydreams come alive and run amok in The City, the struggle to control them becomes as real as the furry creatures infesting her bedroom. Worse yet, she’s drawn the attention of the Faceless Gentlemen, who want to preserve order in The City by erasing Gwendolyn and her troublesome creations.

With the help of two explorers from another world, Gwendolyn escapes and finds herself in a land of clockwork inventions and colorful creations. Now Gwendolyn must harness her powers and, with a gang of airship pirates, stop the Faceless Gentlemen from destroying the new world she loves and the home that never wanted her—before every world becomes gray and dull.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Middle Grade Ninja TV 05: Editor Mary Kole

Esteemed Reader, I am loving this new Middle Grade Ninja TV feature, especially now that itis available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunes, and Google Play.

Editor and former literary agent Mary Kole and I discuss her career in publishing and her approach to editing. She shares many tips for how to create memorable characters, how to improve a story's pacing, how best to market a book, and all sorts of other invaluable advice for writers. You'll want to revisit this episode a few times and take notes as it's packed with great content. And do not forget to check out,, and purchase your copy of Mary's excellent book on craft, Writing Irresistible Kidlit.

As promised in the show, here is the text of the kind rejection I recieved from Mary back in 2010: "Thank you so much for the opportunity to read BANNEKER BONES. Unfortunately, this is a pass for me. The writing here is good and the premise is fun and interesting but I'm having a hard time imagining how to pitch or sell this in today's market. The voice just isn't 100% there for me, and it really has to shine for me to take something on. You've obviously a very skilled writer and I know I'll be kicking myself, but I'm not connecting to the material enough to be the best advocate for it in the marketplace, and you deserve nothing less. I'm sure another agent will feel differently and I look forward to reading about your many successes. You're plugged in and getting there, I can tell, but you're not quite there yet."

Makes sure you check out Mary's original interview when she faced the 7 Questions.

And now, enjoy the fifth episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV:

Mary Kole worked as a literary agent for Andrea Brown Literary Agency in California and as senior literary manager for Movable Type in New York before leaving agenting behind to become a full-time book editor. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco and has worked with authors at all stages of development and expertise.
Although Mary Kole specializes in children’s literature (she is the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit from Writer’s Digest Books), she offers independent manuscript consulting and editing for all genres through Mary Kole Editorial. Her services range from phone consultations and manuscript brainstorming sessions to full manuscript edit and review. She leads webinars on the craft of writing for Writer’s Digest and speaks regularly at conferences nationwide.

Writing for young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) audiences isn't just "kid's stuff" anymore--it's kidlit! The YA and MG book markets are healthier and more robust than ever, and that means the competition is fiercer, too. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, literary agent Mary Kole shares her expertise on writing novels for young adult and middle grade readers and teaches you how to:
  • Recognize the differences between middle grade and young adult audiences and how it impacts your writing.
  • Tailor your manuscript's tone, length, and content to your readership.
  • Avoid common mistakes and cliches that are prevalent in YA and MG fiction, in respect to characters, story ideas, plot structure and more.
  • Develop themes and ideas in your novel that will strike emotional chords.
Mary Kole's candid commentary and insightful observations, as well as a collection of book excerpts and personal insights from bestselling authors and editors who specialize in the children's book market, are invaluable tools for your kidlit career.
If you want the skills, techniques, and know-how you need to craft memorable stories for teens and tweens, Writing Irresistible Kidlit can give them to you.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

GUEST POST: "Saying 'Yes, and'" by Tara Gilboy

Last year, I started taking improv classes at our local comedy theater. A friend asked me to take one with her, and my initial goal was to find another creative outlet that was NOT writing-related. I love writing, but it’s such a huge part of my professional life, and one that I am constantly working on improving at, that I also wanted to find another creative outlet that could be just for fun. I had no idea when I started that improv would be one of the best things to ever happen to my writing.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, improv comedy is all about making things up as you go along. Performers create short scenes where the plot, characters, and dialogue are made up in the moment. Since shows are based on audience suggestions, improvisers cannot plan what they want to say and do ahead of time. Improvisers must listen carefully to their scene partners and then think quickly about how to act and react in a scene.

At the heart of improv is the concept of “yes, and.” In order for improv to work, in a scene, you must “agree” (the ‘yes’ part) with everything your scene partner says and then build on it – add something (the ‘and’ part). 

So if your scene partner says “hey, sis, I heard your son just got the lead role in the play,” you don’t say, “What are you talking about? I don’t have a son.” That kind of reaction would immediately stall the scene because you are essentially shooting down the other person’s idea. 

Instead, you could say: “YES, he did, AND, I’m sorry he beat your your daughter for the role, but I guess the best performer got it, right?” Notice you have agreed with what was said (“yes, he did get the part in the play”), but you’ve also added an “and” to it – you’ve created conflict in the relationship by establishing a bit of rivalry– my son beat out your daughter in the audition.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, I think as writers we often censor ourselves in our first drafts. We get started working on something, and we decide halfway through that it’s a stupid idea, and it’ll never pan out, and so we scrap it and move on to something else.  We are much too critical of the wild things we dream up. We outline and try to structure everything ahead of time, and find all the right beats and the perfect lines of dialogue, and we think we have our characters all figured out. 

You can’t do that in improv. You have to take what your partner gives you and build on it. You often have to let go of what you planned to do or say because your partner did something completely different from what you expected. It is all about going with the flow and not taking yourself too seriously.

In writing, we need to let our characters’ speech and actions in our stories surprise us as well. And once we’ve done this, we need to not be afraid to just go with it. I’ve found when I write in this open-minded way, without censoring myself, I often do my best work. One thing naturally leads into the next, and my characters’ actions and reactions feel emotionally “true” because I am not trying to force them to do and say things. Our writing won’t be perfect. It will take a lot of revising later. But you may find some gems in what you create. 

To me, the ‘yes, and’ of improv is what we should all aspire to in our first drafts. Run with your ideas, let them romp and play on the page. If you don’t create a big pile of a mess for yourself, then you have nothing to work with. What we have in writing that we don’t have in improv, is the ability to revise. We don’t have a live audience. We can go back and tweak and reimagine and make it better later. If you immediately decide an idea is stupid and push it to the backburner, you will never discover where that “seed” of an idea might have taken you. After all, what if Rowling had never ‘yes, and-ed’ the idea of a wizard school? What if she said: “a wizard school? Playing sports on broomsticks? No, that’s ridiculous.” But she didn’t do that. She said “Yes, a wizard school. AND what if there were potions class and a minister of magic and talking elves and an evil wizard and…..”

How could I “yes, and” my example above about the school play? Well in the conversation, we have two adult siblings comparing their children. There is conflict and rivalry between them. Now how to build on this? What if these two children are friends? And they are sick of their parents fighting all the time. The child who got the role drops out of the play completely. So his dad yells at him. And then the two kids decide to run away until their parents can start behaving better. So they go stay at their grandmother’s house for the week. And while they are there, they find something mysterious in the attic about their parents…….

See what just happened? A whole story is unfolding here! Now I have these two cousins who have run away from home, and a mystery is unfolding. None of this would have happened if I’d stopped after the first part about the parents arguing, and said: “Wait a minute. I am a children’s book writer. I can’t write a story about two adults quarreling over their children. What child reader is going to find that interesting?” Instead, I “yes, and-ed” myself, and those two adults bickering led me to meet my two child characters. Now I can “yes, and” those characters and see what happens next. ‘Yes, and’ is all about exploration.

When we are writing our first drafts, we need to all focus on being good scene partners to our own imaginations. Take what your imagination gives you, write it down, and then “yes, and” yourself. Let one thing lead to another. Perhaps in writing, we shouldn’t call it simply “yes, and,” but rather “yes, and what if…..”

Tara Gilboy holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she specialized in writing for children and young adults. She teaches creative writing for San Diego Continuing Education and lives in southern California with her husband, daughter, and dog, Biscuit.

Twelve-year-old Gracie Freeman is living a normal life, but she is haunted by the fact that she is actually a character from a story, an unpublished fairy tale she's never read. When she was a baby, her parents learned that she was supposed to die in the story, and with the help of a magic book, took her out of the story, and into the outside world, where she could be safe.

But Gracie longs to know what the story says about her. Despite her mother's warnings, Gracie seeks out the story's author, setting in motion a chain of events that draw herself, her mother, and other former storybook characters back into the forgotten tale.

Inside the story, Gracie struggles to navigate the blurred boundary between who she really is and the surprising things the author wrote about her. As the story moves toward its deadly climax, Gracie realizes she'll have to face a dark truth and figure out her own fairy-tale ending.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Middle Grade Ninja TV 04: Author Darby Karchut

Esteemed Reader, I've got another amazing episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV with one of my favorite people. This episode is also available as the Middle Grade Ninja Podcast on SoundcloudStitcherSpotifyitunes, and Google Play.

Author Darby Karchut and I discuss her new middle grade novel, Del Toro Moon, as well as her advice for writers and thoughts and writing and publishing in general. We also chat a bit about our mutual love for author Mike Mullin. Late in the show, there are some slight technical issues with the video, but the audio is continuous and this was an amazing conversation I really enjoyed.

Makes sure you check out Darby's guest post, Be Like Michelangelo, as well as her original interview when she faced the 7 Questions.

And now, enjoy the fourth episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV:

Darby Karchut is a multi-award winning author, dreamer, and compulsive dawn greeter.  A proud native of New Mexico, she now lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where she runs in blizzards and bikes in lightning storms. When not dodging death by Colorado, Darby is busy at her writing desk. Her books include the best selling middle grade series: THE ADVENTURES OF FINN MacCULLEN. Best thing ever: her YA debut novel, GRIFFIN RISING, has been optioned for film. Her latest book, DEL TORO MOON, releases October 2 from Owl Hollow Press. Visit the author at

“Ride hard, swing hard, and take out as many of those creepy critters as you can.”

Twelve year old Matt Del Toro is the greenest greenhorn in his family’s centuries-old business: riding down and destroying wolf-like monsters, known as skinners. Now, with those creatures multiplying, both in number and ferocity, Matt must saddle up and match his father’s skills at monster whacking. Odds of doing that? Yeah, about a trillion to one. Because Matt’s father is the legendary Javier Del Toro—hunter, scholar, and a true caballero: a gentleman of the horse.

Luckily, Matt has twelve hundred pounds of backup in his best friend—El Cid, an Andalusian war stallion with the ability of human speech, more fighting savvy than a medieval knight, and a heart as big and steadfast as the Rocky Mountains.

Serious horse power.

Those skinners don’t stand a chance. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

GUEST POST: "Monsters and Heroes" by Clark Rich Burbidge

Fall has arrived. It is an exciting sports transition with baseball winding down and football gearing up. It also brings cooler weather and colorful outdoor activities. But for millions of our youth, anxiety and excitement are interwoven in their daily life at school and at home. Doubts swirl in their heads whether they walk through the doors of familiar places or strange new ones.

Last fall our youngest daughter entered her final year of high school with many of these emotions. The story was familiar and we stood ready to support her effort. Several courses posed special challenges for her still developing study habits and attention span.

English Literature was a particular concern. It emphasized classics like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens. I remembered taking the same class as a senior and discovering just how hard it was to stay focused while interpreting Beowulf, The Iliad or Edger Allen Poe. However, her instructor took an interesting approach to the course material. The syllabus stated they would be studying how monsters affect literature. I wondered how long it would take for the catchy title to wear off.

I was honored when the instructor extended the invitation to address and learn from his two senior classes. There was one condition: He required that I discuss my books within his course context, monsters in literature. An interesting discovery awaited and would play out in an unexpected and moving way.

Here are some of the insights shared as discussions ensued: 

I began by asking, “What exactly is a monster in literature?” We agreed that monsters can be external figures or entities. These could be real or mythological animals, people or entities like groups or governments who pose a credible threat to the welfare of others. They may have superior powers, intelligence or numbers that make them appear insurmountable and irresistible. This covered the map from the Borg in Star Trek to the Cyclops outwitted by Odysseus in The Odyssey. 

We also agreed that monsters in literature may exist within a character in the form of self-doubt, personal weakness, fear or the need to develop certain traits not present but necessary to over come a particular threat. We began a gradual metamorphosis allowing us to view monsters in a new light. Our original assumption that monsters were something threatening to be feared or that threatened began to fade. 

A realization dawned that heroes cannot exist in literature without monsters. It is the monsters that create the opportunity for a character to rise from obscurity and find their greatness. This means that the monster is not so much a threat but rather a heroic vehicle. Scrooge needed Marley and visitations from three ghosts to rediscover the good that had always been within. Sydney Carton overcame his internal demons to do a far better thing than he had ever done in A Tale of Two Cities. Evelyn Abbott managed her fears, guilt and helplessness to face and defeat her alien tormentors in the 2018 movie, A Quiet Place. 

The pattern became clear. Regardless of threat, fear or personal intimidation, engaging in a courageous act is the necessary path to discovering pre-existing greatness. 

Our discussion unexpectedly became personal. “What monsters do you face in your story?” I posed the question rhetorically, not really expecting a response. Numerous hands shot up and monsters were boldly exposed: Depression, self-doubt, bullying, fear of failure, loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem, social awkwardness, comparing, dealing with mean kids, dishonesty, gossip and rumor, difficult family situations and general hopelessness were all personal monsters described. 

The list exposed formidable monsters but we were now able to discuss them in a new light. They became less a threat than a tool designed to propel them toward self-discovery and achievement.

Like those who became heroes in literature, the key is to resist becoming a hopeless victim and face that personal monster. Overcoming naturally follows with time patience and determination.The process more than the outcome produces the victory literally transporting the hero to a different place not achievable without the experience.

We can all learn from literature how to become the hero of our own story. Sometimes the heroic act simply means continuing to take another step forward and lean into the storm. By doing so we can discover powerful potential hidden within.

Each success produces greater confidence which is multiplied as we share our new-found learnings with those struggling along the same path. Real heroes raise themselves and everyone they touch. The most powerful aspect of this process is the realization that no fictional or real hero is ever alone. There are those placed along the way to lift us when we fall or provide an extra nudge when our energy seems spent. We also can become that critical resource to others as we pass it on.

The bell rang, but something had changed. They sat momentarily before bolting for the door and looked at each other with new understanding. The fear of personal monsters was overshadowed by the light of newborn understanding. Every student has the power to become a hero. Monsters will always be part of the story but they do not make us victims. They are tools that help serve a higher purpose as each student strives to overcome. That is how heroes are born.

Clark Rich Burbidge is a multiple award winning author of middle reader, teen and young adult fiction. His Giants in the Land and StarPassage trilogies may be found at and or at most online and regular bookstores. His national Live with the Heart of a Giant Tour is available for school, community and faith based groups. He and his wife Leah love life in the high mountain valleys of the Rockies with their ever-expanding blended family of ten children and six grandchildren.

The Gold Medal-winning saga continues with Book Three in the StarPassage series.

Teenage Mike longs to help a struggling new patient who may hold dangerous secrets. An evil Tracker has escaped to the present, bringing with him plans to end the world. New and more deadly passages await. Is there a traitor in their midst already? How can they fight what they cannot see? Is it safe to use the relic at all? Or…does the relic have its own secret plan?

Join the growing band of travelers as they resist the powerful Trackers at every turn while trying to solve the relic's riddles and guard against the ever-growing risk of betrayal. It's a wild ride where hope and survival hang by a slender thread, woven by an ancient relic that becomes more mysterious with every page turned.

Monday, November 19, 2018

GUEST POST: "On Boogers and Barf" by Cara Bartek

I am good at a lot of things. Okay, maybe I think I am good at a lot of things. Inflated ego aside, being a writer means that I need to be good at one thing: communicating. And in the most eloquent words I can muster … good communication ain’t easy!

My goal as a writer is to communicate and connect with girls as they begin to undergo those mad, crazy changes during puberty. Puberty seems to be the “make or break” time in girls’ lives. In particular, this period of time has major effects on the way they perform in STEM subjects and how well they develop a sense of self-efficacy related to these fields. In other words, a girl’s experience between the ages of nine and 13 may have lifelong impacts on her academic performance, educational outcomes, and career choice. This is big stuff.

In the Serafina Loves Science! series, I have created a character who loves science. In fact, Serafina loves it so much that she uses it to navigate all the issues of her eleven-year-old life, like fitting in, dealing with parents divorcing, making and losing friends, and the pressure to achieve in school. The character Serafina is intended to connect with girls as they undergo similar situations. And to connect, I utilize one of the greatest tools in life: humor.

While we have established I may have a slightly inflated ego, I have to state one raw truth: I think I am funny. Like really funny. I laugh at my own jokes. Sometimes I snort at my own jokes. Sometimes I can see my husband or one of my daughters rolling their eyes as I guffaw and chuckle. But for the most part, I can make others laugh as well. Laughing and making others laugh is a great tool for me. It can make uncomfortable situations less tense. It can help ease the nervousness of meeting someone for the first time or of being in a bad situation, and can even help build relationships with other people.

Humor is the cornerstone of Serafina Loves Science! and this humor allows me to ease into science education. Yes, science can be completely boring and unpalatable. But why? In my experience it’s because it’s presented in an antiseptic fashion, a traditional educational dictate that kids think about science like a specimen — all theory, no application. With Serafina, I fashion her experiences to reflect hands-on-use of science. Not only that, I include the absurd: accidental chemical releases, spider invasions, student council candidates transforming into dinosaurs, and of course, boogers and barf.

Boogers and barf are great connectors between my humor as a writer and my middle school audience. And who doesn’t love a good fart joke? Let’s face it, lurking within all of us is a deep and abiding love for silliness.

Science can be boring. With Serafina Loves Science! I have made it exciting. My goal is to help more girls achieve in the STEM fields by creating a relatable character who achieves in STEM and does not apologize about that achievement. And if I can make a few fart jokes happen, then we all win!

Serafina Loves Science! is a middle grade fiction series that focuses on 11-year-old Serafina Sterling. Serafina is just like other kids who have to deal with issues like annoying older brothers, cliques at school, and parents who restrict her use of noxious chemicals. But she has a secret … Serafina loves science! Her passion for all things scientific helps her make new friends and figure out the old ones, understand her family, invent new devices for space travel, and appreciate the basic principles of the universe.

Cara Bartek, Ph.D. lives in Texas with her husband and two daughters. The Serafina Loves Science! series was inspired in part by her career path and in part by her two little girls. Her hope is to make this world a more equitable and opportune place for her daughters one silly story at a time. Visit

In Cosmic Conundrum, sixth grader Serafina Sterling finds herself accepted into the Ivy League of space adventures for commercial astronauts, where she’ll study with Jeronimo Musgrave, a famous and flamboyant scientist who brought jet-engine minivans to the suburbs. Unfortunately, Serafina also meets Ida Hammer, a 12-year-old superstar of science who has her own theorem, a Nobel-Prize-winning mother, impeccable fashion sense—and a million social media followers. Basically, she’s everything Serafina’s not. Or so Serafina thinks.

Even in an anti-gravity chamber, Serafina realizes surviving junior astronaut training will take more than just a thorough understanding of Newton’s Laws. She’ll have to conquer her fear of public speaking, stick to the rules, and overcome the antics of Ida. How will Serafina survive this cosmic conundrum?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Jerry Gordon

Jerry Gordon makes stuff by making stuff up. He is the author of the apocalyptic thriller, Breaking the World.

He is also the Bram Stoker and Black Quill Award-nominated co-editor of the Dark Faith, Invocations, and Streets of Shadows anthologies. His short stories and essays have appeared in numerous venues, including Apex Magazine and Shroud.

When he's not writing and editing, he runs a software company and teaches. You can find him blurring genre lines at and on Twitter @jerrylgordon.

And now Jerry Gordon faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I don’t know that I could pick three favorites. I might be able to put together a top twenty if you didn’t hold me to a specific order. How about three books that occupy a special place in my heart?

The Mist by Stephen King
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

On an average weekday, I write for 2-3 hours and read fiction about half as much. I like to write early in the morning when I'm fresh and distraction free. If I wait, a thousand things conspire to rob me of the time. Reading, on the other hand, weaves its way throughout my day. I read at lunch and bedtime and listen to audiobooks in the car and gym. I try to stay away from weekend writing when deadlines allow. That's family-first time.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

Like most, I started writing novels in a vacuum. I didn’t know other writers or have any sense of how the craft and business worked (outside of a handful of outdated and sometimes misguided books). The path to publication, for me, started with attending professional writing conferences and workshops. I quickly found my "writing family" and started to learn how the business worked.

I set aside my early attempts at novels and refocused on short fiction, which is a great way to accelerate your craft. Then I co-edited several high-profile anthologies with fellow writer and editor, Maurice Broaddus. The first of which, Dark Faith, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. I took all those lessons back to writing long fiction.

My debut novel, Breaking the World, was released in April by Apex Publications.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I've met a small minority of writers that seem naturally gifted, but most of us have to work at it. I always felt like a natural storyteller that had to learn the craft. Ideas and structure come easy to me. The line-by-line trench warfare of writing a novel took a lot of effort. There aren't many shortcuts. You learn by doing.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

I love being a generalist. I'm interested in just about everything, and writing gives me an outlet to explore the world without committing to a specialty. I've researched cults, government black sites, digital privacy, artificial intelligence, pandemics, missile dispersal patterns, and a host of other topics that have me on a government watch list somewhere.

My least favorite thing? Live promotional interviews. Between anthologies and novels, I've probably done a hundred of them (and enjoyed half a dozen). I almost always feel like a pretentious tool talking about myself and my work. It doesn't help that I'm a perfectionist and live interviews are rarely perfect.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Study the stuff you love. Pick apart and try to fix the things you don't. Develop a sense of what works for you and other people. Then read things and write things and talk to people that shatter your preconceptions. There's no shortcut. Becoming a writer is like becoming a person. It's the journey that makes you.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why??

Lunch with a writer is a pretty boring thing. How about dinner and drinks? There are so many amazing choices: Twain, Bradbury, Dickens... If you pressed me, I'd pick Shakespeare. We know so little about him as a person, and most of our preconceptions are a byproduct of four hundred years of literary criticism. I'd love to meet the man behind the work, the starving and uncertain artist. We could have a few too many pints and talk writing and life well past the chimes of midnight.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

GUEST POST: "On Writing What You Know" by Janet McLaughlin

Writers have been told forever to “write what you know.” But what does that mean? I did a little research and found a short but provocative blog by Jason Gots entitled: Write what you know—the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever. His conclusion, after interviewing Nathan Englander, the critically acclaimed author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: “‘Write what you know’ isn’t about events. It’s about emotions.”

Ah! That opens up things a bit, doesn’t it? I may not be a teenager in love, but I was once. And I most definitely remember that feeling. I’ve also felt fear, anger, jealousy, joy, pride, loss—pretty much the whole range of emotions. So, if I can draw on those memories, I should be able to write on just about any topic, right?

That theory was sorely tested when I began writing my middle grade novel, Different. It’s a story about a twelve-year-old girl dealing with the daily challenges of living with Tourette Syndrome, (TS) a poorly understood neurological disorder. I don’t have TS, or Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or any of the other conditions associated with TS, but my granddaughter does. Could I credibly write her story?

I struggled with that challenge for over a decade. How could I put down in story form what I watched my lovely, beautiful, bright granddaughter go through on a daily basis? I needed space and time to get a handle on the powerful emotions that her struggles produced in not only her, but her family as well. I was blessed to be a part of that struggle, called in during times of crisis to help calm the anger, stress, pain that permeated the household. Bring the child home to our house, a quiet refuge in a sea of emotion. Give the parents some space to tamp down their own stress.

No, I don’t suffer the vagaries of TS, but I understand the powerful emotions surrounding its manifestations. And I so wanted to share what I learned, observed, and absorbed over the years. Finally, after enough time had passed that I could view it all in a more objective state-of-mind, I started to write Different.

It took the better part of two years to write this small novel. It was a distressing but cathartic experience. My protagonist’s story isn’t my grandchild’s story. But her tics, emotional struggles, sometimes painful relationships are. Do I capture what goes on in her head? I think so, but then again, my granddaughter is a very private child. She hasn’t read the book. Not sure she ever will. So, I can’t say yes, this is what she felt. But it is what I felt when I watched her struggle. Her emotions were so powerful they infiltrated my own.

So, I “wrote what I know.” I wrote about the emotions that I saw and felt swirling around this incredible child and her family. I can only hope I captured it honestly and effectively. And I also hope that it can act as a catharsis for others in the TS community. And a tool to give to teachers, family, and friends to help them understand that TS is a disorder, not a disease. People afflicted with TS wear their differences where they can be seen. Most of us have the blessing of hiding them and bringing them out only if we want to. But in the end, we’re all different, aren’t we?

If you would like to share your experience with Tourette syndrome or invite me to speak with your organization or classroom, I would love to hear from you. Contact me at

Janet McLaughlin is the author of "Different" and the Soul Sight Mysteries series, including “Haunted Echo” and “Fireworks.” She has been involved in the communication field most of her adult life as a writer, editor and teacher. Her love of mysteries and the mystical are evident in her novels. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Florida Writers Association. She lives in Florida with her husband, Tom, and along with her writing, enjoys playing tennis, walking, traveling, and meeting people.