Archives: Middle Grade Novels

5 Questions for the Author: Naomi Milliner

You know how there are friends in your life who you’re fond of, but who drift away for one reason or another? And then, years later, serendipity intervenes. You reconnect and that friend becomes an important person in your life.

For me, that person is debut author Naomi Milliner.

We’ve known each other for more than a decade but, due to circumstances, our friendship really cemented about seven years ago. There was a very memorable road trip to the Eastern PA regional SCBWI conference and critique fest, when vast quantities of Indian food were consumed. (No regrets! We happened upon an amazing buffet.) There was commiseration and feedback as we both continued working on, and querying, books we’d already committed years to writing and revising.

Highly recommended! Find Super Jake on IndieBound.

This month, Naomi’s debut novel, SUPER JAKE AND THE KING OF CHAOS, became a real thing that people can buy, and hold in their hands, and read! I could not be more excited for my friend.

If you are interested in pairing this book with a poem for kids, you’ll find two suggestions at the bottom of this post.

Here is the description of SUPER JAKE from Goodreads:

A debut contemporary novel about 11-year-old aspiring magician Ethan, who discovers that heroes come in all sizes, and real magic can be found in the most unexpected places.

When life revolves around stressed-out parents and ER visits for his special needs little brother Jake, eleven-year-old Ethan escapes to a world of top hats, trick decks, and magic wands. When he hears of a junior magic competition where the top prize is to meet and perform with his hero, Magnus the Magnificent, Ethan is determined to do whatever he needs to get there–and to win.

His dedication and hard work pay off, and he makes it to the top five finalists: his dream really could come true! Then Jake falls dangerously ill and Ethan’s hopes and plans are in jeopardy. As he searches for any sort of magic that might save Jake, Ethan learns what is truly important . . . and what real magic is.

Another magical thing about Naomi is that Ethan, Jake, and their middle brother Freddy are based on Naomi’s own family. You can read about the real Jake here.

Naomi’s launch featured a real magician! Vick Dias Gisin wowed the kids in the audience (and the adults too).

Naomi, thank you so much for stopping by my blog today. Here are your five questions!

1. I loved the way that you incorporated your sense of humor into Ethan’s voice. What role does humor play in the story?

Thank you! Unlike other parts of Super Jake, the humor came easily – and I knew it was crucial to balance the sadder, heavier parts of the story. Luckily for me, just as Jake’s limitations and fragile health were very real, so were his big brothers’ antics. My oldest son Jeremy (who Ethan is loosely based on), had – and has – a very quick wit and terrific imagination. He really did turn a benign teddy bear into “Ninja Bear” to help Jake move his arms! And my younger son, Jesse (who inspired alter ego Freddy) truly was a sweet, joyful kid, who lightened the mood every day.

2. Let’s talk about the title. Super Jake gets top billing, even though Ethan is the narrator. What was the process of making that decision?

That’s a very perceptive point, Laura, and goes a long way in explaining why it took SIXTEEN YEARS from first draft to publication! I wrote the first draft two months after Jake died, because I wanted his brothers (7 and 11 at the time) to remember him. So, in my mind, it was always first and foremost about Jake; it still is. But many years, drafts and critiques later, I finally understood that, despite Jake’s importance both in the book and in real life, it had to be Ethan’s story. He is the first-person narrator, and his 11-year-old voice is the one readers will (hopefully) identify with and care about. I think Jake and Ethan share “top billing,” and that’s as it should be. I just feel bad for Freddy. But I guess that’s the classic middle child syndrome, right?

3. Many authors turn to memoir when they are writing about a personal or family experience. What made children’s fiction the right genre for this story? How did you decide which elements of your own experience to incorporate and what to fictionalize?

I had already written several middle grade novels, so I was comfortable writing for that age group,  plus it was my sons’ story, so it came naturally to write their voices. I had, and have, no desire whatsoever to write a memoir! As for which real-life elements to include and which to create… that was definitely challenging (did I mention it took SIXTEEN YEARS?) Pretty much all of the Jake parts happened: the therapists; the ER visits; the hospitalization; the limitations – and, most of all, his sweetness and the love we felt for him.

The magic element began because Jeremy did perform at parties, but it took on a life of its own the more Ethan needed a story line that belonged exclusively to him. Also, there was no bully, and Dad was never an assistant principal. Many of the other characters (The Todds, Tina, and the grandparents) are based on real people. Any similarities to the mom are purely coincidental – unless she’s your favorite character, in which case it’s strictly autobiographical.

4. Ms. Carlin is a teacher who Ethan has a special relationship with. Let’s talk about the importance of adults who are not a child’s own parents at this middle grade age — whether those adults are mentors or simply offer a broader view of how to be a grown up in the world.

Ms. Carlin is an homage to all the wonderful, compassionate teachers out there. She is kind and patient and funny and wise and always has time (and chocolate bars!) for Ethan, unlike his overextended parents. Ethan is fortunate (as we were) to have a “village” to support him and his family: neighbors across the street; grandparents; an older “brother” and an older “sister”… I think all kids can use someone to confide in, look up to and count on in addition to their parents.

5. Sibling dynamics are an important part of your book. It’s unusual to see a boy or brother portrayed as nurturing, especially to a male sibling, in fiction. Can you talk about the deep love that Ethan has for Jake, especially in contrast to the annoyed fondness he expresses toward Freddy.

It’s funny. Jeremy was so amazing with Jake, that when I portrayed Ethan the same way, my critique group insisted no one could be that much of a saint. (For some reason, I never heard that complaint when it came to the mom, who was not even close to perfect.) So I added a bit of jealousy here and a bit of resentment there to make Ethan more believable. I think it’s important to show kids with, and without, siblings who have special needs how much love they (the special needs kids) can give and receive. They are not a burden; they are a gift. I hope that comes across in Super Jake.

Thanks, Naomi! It does come across. What a beautiful book. Ethan shares so many insights — sweet and difficult — about the life he shares with Jake and their family.

Naomi Milliner’s love of literature led her to an English degree at the University of Maryland; her love of cinema led her to the University of Southern California, where she earned an MFA in Screenwriting. After ten years in Hollywood, her fear of earthquakes (especially hiding under a kitchen table with her baby) led her back to Maryland, where she happily resides with her husband and sons Jeremy and Jesse. Her debut middle grade novel, SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS, was inspired by the chaotic – and magical – goings-on when her youngest son, Jake, was alive.

I went in search of a poem to pair with this book, if you’re reading it with a child or classroom. Surprise! There aren’t a lot of poems about stage magic written for kids, let alone poems about kid magicians. Luckily, Kenn Nesbitt came to my rescue with a funny poem. I also found a great, heart-felt poem, “Real Magic,” by David Alexander on the Poetry Soup site.

My Hat Is Full of Rabbits

My hat is full of rabbits.
My cape is full of doves.
A playing card is up my sleeve,
and some are in my gloves.

A wand is in my pocket
with handkerchiefs and flowers.
My coat has things like ropes and rings
with mystifying powers.

I have my staff and juggling clubs,
my mirrors, cups, and dice,
my crystal ball, my smoke machine,
and fancy dancing mice.

I’m ready for my magic show.
There’s just one problem here…
My elephant is on my lap
and will not disappear.

–Kenn Nesbitt

Copyright © 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Be sure to read Kenn’s “About This Poem,” which talks about his days as a kid magician, just like Ethan!

Real Magic

Unlike a magician
          real magic I weave
It's not a trick	
     nothing up my sleeve

No abracadabra
           no sleight of hand
No vaudeville act
       or stunt preplanned

No mumbo jumbo
                  no hocus pocus
No smoke and mirrors
            to make eyes lose focus	

No prestidigitation
            no attempt to deceive
No optical illusion
           or make believe

Real magic exists
            it's not hard to find
Just close your eyes
          and open your mind

Copyright © David Alexander | Posted 2018

Both poems shared with permission of the authors.

David and I are having a side chat about poetry. Be sure to check out his work at Poetry Soup and at the Illinois State Poetry Society (click on “ISPS Member Poems” to find David’s work).

A Book and a Beagle — Special Offer

I am a dog mom.

Sam the Schnauzer is my best furry friend. But three years ago, our family decided (with much convincing) that 8-year-old Sam needed a brother. Not a puppy. An older dog. A calm dog to show our very barky, anxious guy the joys of being chilled out.

I went to the animal shelter. Crashed out on the office floor was an overweight older beagle, snoring away like he owned the place That afternoon, we brought Rudy home.

If you’d like to hear more of Rudy’s story — and meet Rudy himself, the Oscar to Sam’s Felix — check out this video.

When I was working on my middle grade novel, Takedown, I couldn’t help myself. Rudy is such a funny, weird, lovable dog, I had to put him in the book. That’s how one of my main characters, eleven-year-old wrestler Lev Sofer, ended up with a lazy, chubby old beagle named Grover.

We first meet Grover in Chapter 4. Lev describes him like this: Grover waddles into the hall, snuffling my backpack. He sounds more like a pig than a dog. I pat his soft ears.

Beagle plushies and the actual champion of doggie chill, Rudy.

When I found these adorable beagle baby plushies, I had to pick up a basket full. And now I have a special offer!

I am selling “A Book and a Beagle” for just $20 plus shipping. You’ll get a signed copy of Takedown (read a review) and a Grover beagle plushie to love. Leave a comment if you’re interested.

Since it’s Poetry Friday, I went hunting for a beagle poem to go with the book and toy. Kenn Nesbitt didn’t let me down.

I love the closing stanza of “Gabby’s Baby Beagle” because it’s so true. Beagles are totally pig-like. They are obsessed with food. And the snuffly sounds they make when they’re sniffing around, hoping to find a dropped morsel — not to mention their big tummies — earn the title of pig-dog.

Gabby’s Baby Beagle

A Tongue Twister
From the book The Tighty-Whitey Spider

Gabby bought a baby beagle
at the beagle baby store.
Gabby gave her beagle kibble,
but he begged for bagels more.

Gabby loved her baby beagle;
gladly Gabby gave him one,
but her beagle grabbed the bag and
gulped them down till there were none.

So she took her baby beagle
to the bagel baker’s store,
where the beagle gobbled bagels,
bags of bagels by the score.

Gabby’s beagle gorged on bagels,
bigger bagels than before,
till he’d gobbled every bagel
in the baker’s bagel store.

Gulping bagels bulges baby
beagles’ bellies really big.
Say goodbye to baby beagle;
Gabby’s beagle’s now a pig.

–Kenn Nesbitt

Copyright © 2010. All Rights Reserved.

You’ll find the poem here at Kenn’s website. It’s worth visiting. There’s an audio file where you can listen to the poem being read!

Thanks to Donna Smith at Mainely Write for hosting Poetry Friday this week. You’ll find the link up at her blog.

Donna Smith is hosting Poetry Friday at Mainely Write this week.

Poetry Friday: To the Moon, In the Sky

This week’s Poetry Friday host is Carol at the blog Carol’s Corner. Stop by for poetry book reviews, news, and original verse!

I’ve got a great read-along this week: a work of historical verse to pair with a wonderful new middle grade novel, coming out in February.

First up: The verse.

A few months ago, Linda Mitchell of the blog A Word Edgewise recommended a fabulous book: Countdown, 2878 Days to the Moon, by Suzanne Slade.

I hesitate to call this a picture book. It is a rich poetic history of the American moon missions, from President John F. Kennedy’s announcement of a goal to land a man on the moon (1961) to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk in 1969.

Paired with the poems, which cover all 11 Apollo missions, are gorgeous full-color paintings of the astronauts and rockets by artist Thomas Gonzalez, as well as photographs of and info-boxes about the astronauts on each mission.

The astronaut who most caught my attention in this book was Michael Collins. He flew with Armstrong and Aldrin, but never set foot on the moon:

Collins remains in the command module–
hoping he won’t have to return to Earth alone.
Then he pushes a button
and releases Eagle.

“Okay, there you go. Beautiful!” Collins calls out
as the ships slowly drift apart.

Imagine being the one to stay behind at that moment. Imagine being solely responsible for getting Armstrong and Aldrin safely back on board the command module.

There’s another reason why Michael Collins stood out among all of the heroic characters in Countdown. I had recently read about him in another book.

Next up: The Novel.

Ruby in the Sky is a debut middle grade novel by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo.

Ruby’s Dad used to work for NASA. The moon was their touchstone. Whether they were together or apart, every night they would both look at the moon and know they were thinking about each other. But Ruby and her mother’s lives have been in a tailspin since her father passed away.

Mom has dragged Ruby from Florida to Vermont, her own childhood home, in the middle of winter. Ruby is reluctant to make friends — even reluctant to speak — at her new school. But when a class biography project comes up and she has to pick a topic, her first choice is Michael Collins.

There is so much more I could say about this beautiful story of friendship, forgiveness, and finding your voice. I hope you will read it and enjoy it for yourself! Full disclosure, MG author Tricia Clasen and I worked with Jeanne on this book when she was our Pitch Wars mentee in 2016 (read about that here).

If Ruby Moon Hayes were a real person, she’d devour the poems and history in Countdown. She might even have some facts and important historical figures of her own to add to the “race to the moon” story. For your real life kids, these two books are perfects read-alongs. Enjoy!


NCTE attendees, this is where you’ll find me at this weekend’s conference. Stop by and say hello!

Coming to “Becoming the Leaders: The Power of Female Protagonists to Empower All Student Voices”? — You’ll find a recommended reading list at the bottom of this post.

Have a great conference!


Becoming the Leaders: The Power of Female Protagonists to Empower All Student Voices

Saturday – 12:30-1:45 – 370 D

We believe literature should reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Providing opportunities for all students to access a range of voices and stories in literature allows them to develop a broad understanding and appreciation of the human experience, be open to various ways of being and thinking, and to see themselves.


The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen by Merrill Wyatt

Evangeline of the Bayou by Jan Eldredge

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

George by Alex Gino

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

The House That Lou Built by Mae Respicio

The Laura Line by Crystal Allen

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

Nadya Skylung and the Cloudship Rescue by Jeff Seymour

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate & Sword by Henry Lien

Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks

A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson

Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli

Spin the Golden Lightbulb by Jackie Yeager

Takedown by Laura Shovan

The Unforgettable Guinevere St Clair by Amy Makechnie

Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung

The 11:11 Wish by Kim Tomsic

*RECOMMENDED LISTENING – Episode from 10/22/18 “Jennifer Ziegler discusses with Alvina Ling how adults gender-limit children’s reading without realizing it.”

Barb Langridge Reviews Takedown

This thoughtful review of my middle grade novel Takedown comes from former Howard County, MD librarian Barb Langridge.

Barb is the founder of the website A Book and a Hug, which I wrote about in a post for All the Wonders a few years ago: “Discover Your Reading Personality: A Book and a Hug.”


Two words for you: Middle School. There’s a lot going on in middle school. These are those turbulent bridge years filled with insecurity and peer pressure when childhood friendships start tearing apart and you’re trying to understand who you are as an individual at the same time you’re wanting so desperately to belong and fit in.

Told in alternating points of view, this is a white water rafting ride through the eyes of two champion kids who are dealing with some real-life struggles, some happening unseen inside of them and some in the glaring spotlight of life in the hallways of their school. These are kids who are figuring it out for themselves and showing their real strength as they take themselves to the mats.

Mickey (given name Mikayla) is the youngest daughter in a family with two big brothers all successful wrestlers. She lives with her mother and her older brother Cody while her oldest brother, Evan, a state champion wrestler, has chosen to live with their father. She is following in the Delgado family tradition which means not going to the dances, not being part of the Thriller act in the school talent show with her best friend and instead choosing to win in the Thanksgiving wrestling tournament.

Mickey and her best friend are about to begin wrestling at the middle school level. But when Mickey goes to join the team her brothers always wrestled for, the coach tells her, “No girls allowed.” When Mickey finds another team that will allow the girls to wrestle, her best friend says she isn’t coming along this year.

Lev has wrestled for years. He has a goal this year and that is out wrestle and defeat Nick Spence, the guy who beat him on the mats last year and is using that win to taunt and bully.

Nick Spence: “Ask your girlfriend.”

Lev Sofer: “At least I’m not afraid to wrestle her.”

Lev is starting to get headaches. He’s struggling with himself and what he really wants to do and who he really wants to be. He’s struggling with “being a boy in middle school, always trying to measure up to the other guys who brag about football and lacrosse, who’d rather get the girls to flirt with them than get good grades.”

Turns out Mickey and Lev are going to be wrestling partners. A boy and a girl facing each other every day on the mat, practicing holds, wearing the team-issued singlet, dealing with the teasing at school from Nick and some of their own teammates.

What do you do when you’re a girl and the best team for you is all boys and won’t let you join? What do you do when your father doesn’t see you through the same lens he uses to see his two sons? What do you do when your best friend changes? What do you do when you’ve always thought the most important thing in life was to win a state championship?

What do you do when something inside of you changes and the things you thought were important to you, the things you thought defined you and gave you your identity, don’t matter to you anymore?

Read the rest of the review here.


I am so grateful when a reader like Barb takes the time to write a review. Her insights into the book’s themes and characters are spot on.

Thank you, Barb!

Takedown: Bonus Scene!

Welcome, readers and fans of Takedown.

I have something special to share with you — an extra scene from the book!

This road trip mini-chapter takes place at the end of Chapter 30, when Lev is taking a week off from wrestling. Go to the end of page 212 (in hardcover editions), and you’ll find the spot where this scene begins.

This was one of my favorite sections to write, because it’s set at the ocean. I love the Maryland and Delaware beaches and it was fun to imagine Lev there. However, sometimes authors have to cut or edit down parts of a book that they love if they don’t move the story forward. Do you think that’s true of this scene?

You’ll find some discussion questions about this scene at the bottom of the page.



It’s the strangest week of my life. When I’m at school, or if Bryan’s free, everything is great. Bryan, Emma, Marisa, and I get permission to eat lunch in the media center so we can work on our mythology projects. It’s still warm enough to play basketball or ride bikes after school. But after dinner, I don’t have anything to do. I get my homework done and delete texts from Mickey. I don’t know what to say to her, so I say nothing. I watch the History Channel, then go to bed early.

I don’t even want to open my wrestling notebook, because then I’ll have to ask myself who I am. The kid who writes poetry, who thinks it’s not worth it to fight? Or the athlete, working to show everyone that I’m the best because—win or lose—I tried my hardest. I’m still not sure. What I do know is I’m a better friend since I stopped wrestling, at least to Bryan and Emma.


There’s no school on Friday because it’s the end of the quarter. I am already up and dressed when Dalia comes downstairs to make herself coffee.

“I’m taking Lev to the mall,” she announces.

Mom looks up from her crossword. “You are?”

Dalia grabs me in an awkward one-armed hug. “We both need to get out of the house.”

What is my sister plotting?

Mom puts down her pencil, ready to protest. “You want to take your brother to the mall?”

“For lunch and a movie.”

Mom bites the eraser end of her pencil.

“Look,” Dalia says. “I know I’m not the kind of big sister you want me to be. I hate babysitting. I’m not some kind of teenage life coach. And I’m not planning on giving Lev my big book of tips on how to survive high school.”

Mom opens her mouth to speak, but Dalia stops her.

“All this Evan stuff. Lev looked up to him. He’s been almost as upset as I am.”

I gape at my sister. Dalia noticed that?

Mom puts down her pencil. Then she gets up and fishes two twenty-dollar bills out of her purse. She hands the money to Dalia. “Be back in time for dinner,” she says.

Dalia rushes me out the door before Mom can change her mind.

“The mall?” I ask.

“I lied.”

I follow my sister to Mom’s minivan. “So where are we really going?”

“The beach.”

The beach is more than two hours away. Plus, it’s January. “We’re going to freeze.”

“Trust me,” she says, pulling out of the driveway. “A road trip is what we need.”

Normally, Dalia is a radio tyrant. If she’s driving, she picks the music. But she puts me in charge of the radio as we drive past Annapolis, over the Bay Bridge, and through the Eastern Shore to Ocean City.

This moment in the scene is set at Rosenfeld’s Jewish Deli in Ocean City, MD.

By the time we get there, it’s almost noon. Dalia takes me for lunch at a Jewish deli along Route 1. She has matzo ball soup. I order a bagel and lox with cream cheese. It comes with capers and lemon, the way Sabba made it for us the last time he and Safta visited from Israel.

“Aren’t we going to the boardwalk?” I ask when Dalia turns out of the restaurant, heading away from the shops and hotels of Ocean City.

“Too touristy,” she says.

I don’t point out that it’s too cold out for tourists.

She adds, “It’s emptier at Fenwick. No shops by the ocean. Just beach.”

It has been two weeks since I went to Evan’s dual meet. Dalia hasn’t missed a day of school. She hasn’t skipped a field hockey practice. Since that first night, she’s been acting like nothing is wrong. But today her face sags. She’s pulled her hair into a bun instead of taking the time to braid it. And she isn’t wearing makeup. Not even that pink stuff she always smears on her lips.

Dalia looks away from the road for a second and sees me staring. “What?” she says.


We pass empty road-side amusement parks and more mini golf places than I can count: aliens and pirates, dinosaurs with their long necks craning toward the road, their paint as dull and faded as the sky. As we drive north, shops get cheesier and more run down.

Dalia parks in a row of empty spaces near some sand dunes. From the back seat, she grabs a grocery bag full of hats, scarves, and gloves. She takes a thick blanket out of the trunk and hands me the bag.

“Put these on,” she says. “It’s going to be cold. And windy.” She puts on dark sunglasses, even though it’s not sunny.

The beach is empty. Dalia lays out a blanket and sits, wrapping her arms around her knees. What else is there to do but sit next to her?

“I don’t get it,” I say. “Why’d we come all the way out here?”


We sit together, watching the breakers and not talking. It feels like the ocean is washing away all the meanness between me and Dalia. The time I knocked her down, the names she’s called me, and all the times she’s rolled her eyes at me. That stuff doesn’t seem important when it’s just the two of us and the ocean.

“We don’t really know each other well, Lev,” Dalia says. “You’re always wrestling and I’m at field hockey. Even when you were a baby, I was already in kindergarten. We didn’t have time together like some brothers and sisters do, messing around with Play-Doh and stuff.”

I never thought about it that way, but she’s right. Dalia and I hardly ever did things together, even when we were small. We’re sitting close, but not touching. I lean against her arm.

“Why are you always so worried about what I’m going to say?” Dalia asks.

“I guess I want you to like me.”

“Of course I like you.”

“Not the kind you do because I’m your brother.”

“Oh. You want to be friends.” She turns and smiles at me. “Isn’t that why I brought you here?” Dalia picks up a handful of sand and lets it run through her fingers. “Kids at school keep asking me questions. ‘Did Evan ever hurt you? Did you know he was violent.’”

I nod. “They were talking trash about him at wrestling practice.”

Dalia gets up and brushes the sand off her jeans. I shake out the blanket. We stand together, staring at the breakers.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to drive out here by myself. Everyone’s so caught up in whether Evan meant to hurt that kid or not. They forget that he’s a good person. Most of the time, he’s a good person. You’re the only person who gets it, Lev.”

I tuck the blanket under my elbow and put my other arm around Dalia’s shoulders. We are almost the same height. Dalia tugs the edge of her hoodie’s sleeve out of her coat and wipes her eyes.

“You ready to go?” I ask.

“Yeah. I’ll grab some coffee on our way back. Hot chocolate for you.” She shoves me, but she’s smiling. “You may be almost as tall as me, but you’re not ready for coffee yet.”

When we get to the car, Dalia says, “Thanks, Lev. I feel better. The ocean always makes me feel better.”

“What’ll we tell Mom?”

“That we had lunch, went to a movie walked around the mall.”

“Will she believe us?”

“She’ll be so glad we spent time together, I doubt she’ll ask too many questions.”

As usual, my sister is right.



  • Most of Takedown takes place at Lev and Mickey’s homes, schools, and wrestling events. Why do you think this scene is set at the beach? Why does Dalia want to go to the beach, even though it’s winter.
  • Lev notices that he’s almost as tall as his sister. What does that symbolize?
  • How has Lev’s relationship with his sister changed from the beginning of Takedown?
  • Do you think it was a good idea to cut this scene from the novel? Why or why not?

I’d love to hear what you thought! Leave a comment or send me an email with notes from your discussion.

Poetry Friday: Heartseeker

Join this week’s poetry party at the blog Nix the Comfort Zone. There, you will find poetry reviews, original verses, and favorite poems shared by the Poetry Friday blogging community.

Have you ever picked up a prose novel and — surprise! — at the start of every chapter there’s a poem to greet you?

When prose novelists incorporate poetry in any form, I’m happy.

In Possession, A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel, modern literati uncover a secret Victorian romance. The whole story hinges on verses written by a fictional 19th century poet.

Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien include invented verse — often in the form of songs shared by their characters — in their fantasy novels. Other authors — such as Cornelia Funke in her Inkheart series — use poetic epigraphs from a variety of authors at the beginning of chapters.

More recent examples: Nikki Grimes’ recent Between the Lines is, in part, about teen slam poets writing their own verses. I used poetry in my prose novel Takedown to show another side of athletic Lev’s character.

What are some writing-craft reasons why an author might choose to incorporate poetry into a prose novel?

I asked this question of debut middle grade novelist Melinda Beatty. Her wonderful fantasy, Heartseeker, published in June.  Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

A vibrant fantasy-adventure debut about a girl who can see lies.

You’re a Fallow of the Orchard. You’re as tough as a green apple in summer . . .

Only Fallow was just six harvests old when she realized that not everyone sees lies. For Only, seeing lies is as beautiful as looking through a kaleidoscope, but telling them is as painful as gnawing on cut glass. Only’s family warns her to keep her cunning hidden, but secrets are seldom content to stay secret.

When word of Only’s ability makes its way to the King, she’s plucked from her home at the orchard and brought to the castle at Bellskeep. There she learns that the kingdom is plagued by traitors, and that her task is to help the King distinguish between friend and foe. But being able to see lies doesn’t necessarily mean that others aren’t able to disguise their dishonesty with cunnings of their own.

In the duplicitous, power-hungry court, the truth is Only’s greatest weapon . . . and her greatest weakness.

Each chapter of Heartseeker begins with a poem, song, or piece of religious verse. Not from our world, but from Orstral — Melinda’s invented universe — with its rural farmers, Romani-like barge community, and palace intrigues.

Here is the poem that starts the readers’ journey, right at the top of Chapter 1:

Call out, call out, you loud jays, you honey-throated sparrows!
Sing out the summer as it pours into the valleys,
Into the Hush, the Rill, the Lannock and the Blue.
Cry warmth for the Sandkin plains,
For the Mollier vines.
Life up your voices for gentle Dorvan tides
and cool Folque stone.
You sons and daughters of Orstral,
Join the chorus of the coming long light!

–Jylla Burris, poet, Songs of Orstral

When I finished Heartseeker (I sped through the last 100 pages — couldn’t put it down!), I stopped to think about this technique. Fascinating! Through brief poems and verse snippets, Melinda was able to communicate information about the world of the story, a world that was new to me, but clearly one with a unique history, various cultures and belief systems, ruling families, and social mores.

Here’s what Melinda had to say:

When I lived in Britain, it occurred to me that every culture’s got their touchstones—the things everyone knows, whether it’s old television shows, books, politics or scandal. Once I got a broader understanding, especially of the entertainment, I understood a little more about what shaped the people I interacted with every day. Writing songs, stories and poetry from the different peoples of Orstral helped me get to know them—to know what they all had in common, whether that was a rhyme that everyone knew from the cradle, or a bawdy pub tune.

What do you think of this technique? How does it help you, as a reader, connect to the story? I’d love to hear about some novels you’ve read that incorporate poetry, either as a plot element or to help with the world-building in some way. Please share your favorites in the comments.

Melinda Beatty has had years of practice trying to explain to others why she was just having an imaginary conversation between two people that don’t exist, so becoming a writer seemed like the best way to stop everyone looking at her funny. 

After years of narrowboat living on the English canals, she and her British husband are now back on dry land in Maryland where by day, she’s a mild-mannered Indie bookseller, and by night, she wrangles words, craft projects, a Labrador and two fierce mini-women. HEARTSEEKER is her debut novel.

You can connect with Melinda for news or banter at or on Twitter @poorrobin.

#ILA18 “A Sense of Place: Middle-grade Novels on Loss and Connection.”

Among our basic needs is a place of safety and belonging, yet many children face situation where their communities are under threat. A panel of middle-grade author/educators will model how they use literature to spark conversations on home and community, security, and identity. Three brief lesson plans, centered on exploring the meaning of place and designed to appeal to students with different learning styles, will be presented, followed by an opportunity for attendees to try out these activities in small groups.

Ruth W. Freeman, South Portland School Department, South Portland, ME
Karina Yan Glaser, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY
Janet Sumner Johnson, Capstone Young Readers, Logan, UT
Laura Shovan, Random House Children’s Books, Ellicott City, MD
Tricia Springstubb, Balzer and Bray, Cleveland Heights, OH


A Sense of Place: Middle-grade Novels on Loss and Connection

Ruth Freeman:
Karina Glaser:
Janet Sumner Johnson:
Laura Shovan:
Tricia Springstubb:

Mentor Texts (Books that deal with loss & connection in regards to place):

Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate)
Home Of The Brave (Katherine Applegate)
Front Desk (Kelly Yang)
The War That Saved My Life (Kimberly Brubaker Baker)
14 Hollow Road (Jenn Bishop)
The Epic Fail Of Arturo Zamora (Pablo Cartaya)
Counting Thyme (Melanie Conklin)
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel (Firoozeh Dumas)
City Of Ember (Jeanne Duprau)
Last Day On Mars (Kevin Emerson)
One Good Thing About America (Ruth Freeman)
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (Karina Glaser)
Refugee (Alan Gratz)
The Night Diary (Veera Hiranandani)
The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society (Janet Sumner Johnson)
Amina’s Voice (Hena Khan)
Inside Out And Back Again (Thanhha Lai)
Listen, Slowly (Thanhha Li)
The Exact Location Of Home (Kate Messner)
The Stars Beneath Our Feet (David Barclay Moore)
A Long Walk To Water (Linda Sue Park)
A Different Pond (Bao Phi, Illustrated By Thi Bui)
The House That Lou Built (Mae Respicio)
The Shadow Cipher (Laura Ruby)
Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan)
The City On The Other Side (Mairghread Scott)
Paper Wishes (Lois Sepahban)
The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (Laura Shovan)
Every Single Second (Tricia Springstubb)
What Happened on Fox Street (Tricia Springstubb)
Locomotion (Jacqueline Woodson)


Mapmaking Mini-lesson

Place shapes a child’s experiences, relationships, and perceptions of both herself and the wider world. This exercise helps students consider the places they live in a concrete, visual way, and allows them to take ownership of their environments.

—Children think about where they live, usually their street and streets nearby. Children unable to explore their neighborhoods can think about their houses or apartments. Some children may not consider where they live now home and want to draw another place. Encourage students to picture where they most feel “at home”.

—Children draw maps that include their house in relation to places important in their lives: school, homes of friends and relatives, a playground, favorite shops, places of worship….Drawing skills are not important–this is their map!

—Children annotate places where they’ve made observations/discoveries or had memorable experiences. Later, these notes can serve as catalysts for writing personal narratives.

—Children share and discuss their maps. Encourage questions, comparing and contrasting.

Kinetic Discussion Activity

Discussion of a text is always a great way to help students reflect on what they value in their homes and communities. Those discussions are more fun and memorable when a kinetic element is added. One example is an exercise called “Crossing the Line.”

  1. Prepare agree/disagree statements on the themes from the text you wish to discuss.
  2. Make a line, and have all students start on one side of the line. If they agree with the statement, they cross the line. If they disagree, they stay.
  3. Prepare follow-up questions to help them process what they learned/felt through the kinetic activity.
    (Classroom Activities: Discussion With Your Feet,, Referenced 17 July 2018 from

Additional online resources with ideas for kinetic discussions:

  • The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies by Jennifer Gonzalez:
  • 5 Ways to Make Class Discussions More Exciting by Dr. Richard Curwin:

Ode to Place Mini Lesson

Goal: Students will write an ode to a favorite or important place in their lives.
Literary skills: Use hyperbole and imagery to create the celebratory tone of a poetic ode.
Materials: Baggies of everyday objects for hyperbole exercise. (Paperclip, crayons, tissue, etc.) Copies of model poem, such as “Harlem Is the Capital of My World.” (Tony Medina, Love to Langston)

1. Introduce concept: Odes are poems of praise and celebration.
2. Review key tools of an ode: Description/imagery of the five senses, simile, hyperbole.
3. If time: Hyperbole exercise
Groups: examine an everyday object.
Give three reasons why this object is amazing. Exaggeration encouraged!
4. Read and discuss mentor text.
Share description, simile, hyperbole that jumps out at you.
5. Write an ode.
Cross out and replace key words in the model poem to create an ode.
Share drafts with class

NerdCampJR: Choreographing an Action Scene

I’m on the road today, heading back to Maryland from NerdCampMI. One of the best parts of NerdCamp happens on Day 2 in the afternoon, nErDCampJr. That’s when the kids arrive and have mini-sessions with authors.

Because my new book, TAKEDOWN, is about a boy and a girl on a competitive wrestling team, it is full of action. Unlike my first middle grade novel, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, I had to create believable action scenes.

What a challenge that was! I had to relearn the lingo of the sport, study moves a middle school athlete would know, watch wrestlers in competition, and think about how the characters’ bodies move in space and interact with each other. In other words, I had to choreograph action scenes!

This year, the focus of my session with 6th grade NerdCampers was how to create an action scene with words.

The materials for this mini writing workshop are: A pair of Nerf swords, two willing volunteer actors, writing notebooks, and our imaginations.

One important rule we followed as we tried out these scenes comes from the sport of fencing: All practice blows with the sword had to fall between the shoulders and the hips. No swiping at people’s heads or below the belt — not even for play.

Before we got started composing our scene, the kids and I talked about how an author helps a reader picture action in their imagination.

We agreed on: action verbs, descriptive adjectives and adverbs, naming specific body parts as they move, and using the five senses. Oh, and dialogue was a key element in each group’s scene.

Each set of kids was about 20 people. We broke into groups for the initial writing — about six kids in charge of the scene’s beginning, six in charge of the middle, and six writing the end. The actors and one or two additional 6th graders wrote the dialogue. If they needed information, groups were allowed to send “spies” (really, emissaries) to ask what the other groups were coming up with.

This group exercise was a lot of fun. A surprise to me — it turned out to be a good lesson in revision! First, we wrote down ideas. Next, we tested those ideas out on our sword-wielding actors. Then we realized we had to make a few changes, use more specific language, or move a line of dialogue. We rewrote and ran through the scene with two new actors, to see how well it was working.

Here are the fight scenes that my three groups of sixth graders choreographed, wrote, and enthusiastically acted out in just 20 minutes!

Group 1: MM (5:30-5:55 pm)

Felicia:  “You may be rich but you cannot buy skill!  You will never defeat me!”

Skylar lunges at Felicia with her sword, but it’s a fake out. When Felicia goes to block the sword, Skylar punches her in the shoulder.  Felicia falls to the ground.

Skylar:  “I may not have skill, but I am much smarter!”

Skylar lunges at Felicia, but as she does so, Felicia does a roundhouse-kick to Skylar’s sword. The sword goes flying.

“What am I supposed to do?  Fight with my feet?” yells Skylar as she kicks Felicia in the stomach.

Felicia stabs Skylar in the stomach. Skylar falls over and dies.


Group 2: LL (6:00-6:25 pm)

There  is a brother and sister on the roof of Knight School.

Brother: “Why are we up here?”

Sister: “I’m through with all this nonsense of boys are better than girls.”

Brother: “That still doesn’t answer my question why are we on the roof.”

Sister: “Enough talking. En garde!”

The girl lunges, slips, and falls to the ground. The sword falls.

Sister: “Oh no! My sword.”

Brother: “Not all boys may be better than girls. But I know I am better than you!”

The brother stabs her in her foot and she dies.


Group 3: KK (7:30-8 pm)

There is a fencing tournament at Medieval Times. When Brent steals Macy’s lucky cape, she challenges him to a duel.

Macy: “You stole my cape, give it back!”

Brent (holding the lucky cape behind his back): “You’re not getting it back!”

Macy tries to bribe Brent with a fake cape.  She holds it out and as he goes to get it from her, she reaches around to grab her cape.  She holds it up in the air, then lunges and stabs Brent in the shoulder.

Brent fake lunges at Macy. She tries to block the blow and he punches her in the belly.

Macy falls. Brent stands over her with an evil laugh but she pops up in surprise and stabs him in the collarbone.

He falls to the ground and breaks his back.

Brent: “You cannot hurt me, I’m a god!”


Thanks to volunteers Pernille Ripp and Brittney Bones for helping everything run smoothly with my groups. Couldn’t have done it without you!

nErDCampMI 2018

It’s my second year at nErDCampMI and I’ve been having a blast! My favorite thing about this event is that authors and educators are learning together — sharing our best practices, concerns, and experiences with connecting students and books.

As promised, I am posting the slide presentations for both Day 1 panels I participated in.


Nine of the 12 members of #BookExpedition led the panel. Top row left to right: Mike Grosso, Brooks Benjamin, Katie Reilly, Amy Wiggins, Cara Newman, Cheryl Mizerny. Bottom row: Laura Shovan, Lorie Barber, Erin Varley. Members not pictured: Susan Sullivan, Patrick Andrus, Alexa McKenrick.

NerdCamp DAY 1: July 9, 2018

Coast to Coast Reading with #BookExpedition

In this session, author/educators Brooks Benjamin (MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS), Mike Grosso (I AM DRUMS), and I — along with several other members of our ARC reading group — talked about how to start up your own reading circle and how reading together has positively impacted our teaching. The title of the panel recognizes the fact that our group stretches from New York to Tennessee on the East Coast, has several Midwest representatives, and one member from California. This gives us all a broader view of what’s going on in education across the country.

Breaking Down Stereotypes and Stigmas 1 Day at a Time

Stereotypes silence and shame our most vulnerable population—children. As authors, librarians, and educators, how can we create an inclusive environment where every student’s voice is valued? Children’s authors, Elly Swartz (FINDING PERFECT, SMART COOKIE), Laura Shovan, and Karina Glaser (THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141st STREET, THE VANDERBEEKERS AND THE HIDDEN GARDEN) discuss using books to breakdown stereotypes, battle stigmas, celebrate differences, build compassionate communities, and create change. You’ll find the recommended reading list session attendees generated at the end of the slides. Huge thanks to educator Lorie Barber for taking notes when we were sharing all of these great book titles.

NerdCamp DAY 2: July 10, 2018

Fractured Fairy Tales with Bridget Hodder (THE RAT PRINCE) and Laura Shovan.

Find the session notes and handouts here!