Illustrator Illuminations: Stephanie Graegin


In our ongoing illustrator series, we had the awesome opportunity to interview the wonderful Stephanie Graegin. She has created beautiful cover art for book such as DON’T FEED THE BOY and THE ART OF FLYING.

dont feed the boy

Middle Grade Mafia: When you get hired to illustrate cover and/or interior art, do you read the book or skim to get an idea?

Stephanie Graegin: I read the entire book, first to see if it’s a book that I would enjoy illustrating.  I then read it a second time to decide what scenes would be best to illustrate. Skimming may occur during the 3rd reading, when I am looking for details I may have missed.

MGM: How much direction do you get from the art director or editor?

SG: It varies with each book. Most of the time I’m not given much direction until I turn in the first round of sketches. For a novel, I usually pick the scenes I would like to illustrate for the interior. The cover usually involves the most direction and revisions from both the editor and art director and to me is the most difficult part of the process.

MGM: Have you also illustrated picture books and if so, how is that different from mid-grade novels?

SG: I’m currently working on my 7th picture book. Picture books are very different to illustrate than novels; the text is always less specific than a middle grade novel, so with a picture book there is more creative freedom to make the world of the book and the characters look any way I want them too. There is also room to add secondary story lines within the art of a picture book. With a middle grade novel, you have less room in interpreting the text. To be honest, a picture book is usually a lot more work! There is also the issue of color- a picture book being full color and a middle grade novel usually being black & white art. I do love it when I happen to be working on both a picture book and a middle grade novel at the same time- it’s very nice to be able to go back and forth between two different ways of working.

MGM: Do you have an agent or art rep? If so, where and how did you meet or did you connect online?

SG: I am represented by Steve Malk at Writer’s House. I am very fortunate that Steve saw my art work a few years ago on an Illustrationmundo blog posting and contacted me.

MGM: How would you describe your style?

SG: Classic, with a modern twist.

MGM: Where did you get your artistic training?

SG: I studied Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore MD.  I later got an MFA in Printmaking from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.

MGM: How do you keep your illustrations fresh?

SG: I try to do a sketchbook drawing of something that is just for me (not a hired project) every day.

MGM: What is your favorite media to use?

SG: 2B .05 graphite mechanical pencil on a Moleskine sketchbook.

MGM: Please share a little about your process with us?

SG: I draw in pencil on paper, and scan those drawings into the computer. I then make lots and lots of texture layers on frosted mylar using crayon, watercolor, colored pencil and ink. I scan those in and then assemble and color everything in Photoshop. For black & white art, I work in pencil and sometimes ink on paper.

MGM: Where do you like to work or what is your studio space like?

SG: My favorite place to draw is my kitchen table, there’s great light and it’s easy to make tea. My apartment is pretty much all working studio space – I work out of both my living room and kitchen.

MGM: Fun Question: Do you have a favorite snack to nosh on while you illustrate?

SG: Back to Nature Peanut Butter Creme cookies. They are addictive, I always have a box at home.

I would like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to answer our questions. You can see more of her work on her website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


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The Writer’s Block – An Interview with Laura Golden

As part of building community among the MG family, we here at Middle Grade Mafia will be interviewing authors so we can learn about their books and be inspired by their journey.  Our first author is Laura Golden, author of EVERY DAY AFTER. We hope you enjoy what she had to say, I know I did!

Laura photo

Middle Grade Mafia: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Laura Golden: Most authors say they knew in childhood that they wanted to be a writer. This was certainly not the case for me. I was always a voracious reader, (Is there any better smell in the world than a roomful of books? Nope.) but though I enjoyed books, and often wondered about the writer behind my favorite stories, I never considered that I could actually write a book. A book is filled with tens of thousands of words. I couldn’t possibly have that much to say! And besides, I hated writing assignments in school. Shouldn’t a prerequisite to being a writer be that one actually enjoys writing? I did not.

Fast forward to my adult life, post-kids, and I found myself needing a creative outlet–something I could do to unplug and let my mind settle. Needless to say I am not blessed with many talents. Do not ask me to paint, sing, play a sport or any other number of things. It won’t be a pretty sight.

Still, one serendipitous day I happened across an ad in a magazine for a writing course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. I thought perhaps I’d try my hand at writing magazine articles for Highlights or Cricket, or maybe even attempt to write a picture book. I thought it’d be a piece of cake (I was wrong!), and oh-so-satisfying to be published (I was bordering on right…). I registered for the course and spent the next two years learning the craft of writing for children. I can’t pinpoint the specific moment that I officially wanted to “be” a writer. I happened into it. My husband will tell you that writing is the one and only thing I’ve stuck with for a significant period of time. I set out to unearth a way to unplug from the world, and along the way I fell in love with writing.

MGM: What was your path from query to published author?

LG: An unusual one to say the least. My debut novel, EVERY DAY AFTER, was acquired by Michelle Poploff following the SCBWI Midsouth Regional Conference in Nashville back in 2011. Attending that conference was also serendipitous.

I had originally registered because I wanted to query a specific agent on faculty that year, which I did. Of course, I was rejected. Nothing new. I’d been garnering rejections for the manuscript that would become EVERY DAY AFTER for quite some time. In fact, after this agent declined I almost shelved the manuscript entirely. It was my husband who kept pushing me to submit to Michelle.

I mailed the submission off to Random House in mid-November, nearly two months post-conference, and early Monday morning after Thanksgiving my cell phone rang. The phone displayed a 212 area code. I was in the car with my husband at the time and quipped that the world had a cruel sense of humor to taunt me with a sales call from New York City, home to the major publishers and Random House. A few seconds later my voicemail alert sounded and I played the message on speaker so my husband could hear. I fully expected it to be a voice peddling wares, but instead I heard Michelle’s voice requesting the rest of my manuscript. I was overjoyed! So was my husband. Especially due to the fact that, for once, he had the pleasure of telling me “told you so”.

I sent Michelle the full via email that very morning. We scheduled a phone call a few weeks later and discussed revisions. I worked on a detailed outline over the next few weeks to aid in the revision process and after Michelle approved it, she made the official offer on the manuscript via phone. I learned so much about writing and publishing through working with her. She is a phenomenal editor and a nice person to boot.

EveryDayAfter cvr copy

MGM: What inspired you to write EVERY DAY AFTER?

LG: My paternal grandparents and their struggles growing up through the Great Depression inspired this story. I think oftentimes we get too busy in life, running hither and yon, and we don’t take time to stop and listen to the older generations among us. They tell fascinating stories, stories all the more fascinating because they are true. There is so much to be learned from history and people’s choices and experiences as they lived through it. I think we’d make fewer mistakes if we’d listen to our elders and heed their wise words. History is always applicable to the present and the future. It is also an endless gold mine of stories waiting to be written.

MGM: While you were writing this story, was there anything that Lizzie taught you about yourself?

LG: She taught me that I can’t control everybody. Authors sometimes want characters to do or say certain things in the service of the story, but sometimes the story we dream up isn’t the story that needs to be told. Anyone who has read EVERY DAY AFTER knows that Lizzie has a mind of her own. She’s pretty stubborn. She didn’t always want to bend to my will or heed my wishes. This was her story and she was going to have it told her way. Honestly, the story is all the better for it.

Those small battles with a fictional character taught me that people are going to be who they are. I can’t always change them for my definition of “better”, and more times than not I shouldn’t even try. There’s purpose in an individual’s personality, and I must let that purpose be served.

MGM: A lot can be said by where people work, can you please tell us about your writing space?

LG: Well, my current writing space is the dining room table. Not a neat, polished dining room table. A thoroughly piled with books, papers and miscellaneous office supplies, dusty,  junked up dining room table. My former office has become my youngest son’s bedroom. What does a junky, dusty table say about me as a writer? Wait. Don’t tell me. I’m opting for blissful ignorance over cold hard facts at this particular moment.

MGM: What’s next for author Laura Golden?

LG: I’m currently awaiting editorial notes on my second middle grade novel, STANDING TALL ON MULBERRY HILL. It tells the story of two young girls, one white, one black, navigating the boundaries of their friendship in 1949 Birmingham, a time of KKK uprisings and the notorious North Smithfield bombings. This story was inspired by my maternal grandmother’s close biracial friendship in the early-40s. The book was scheduled to release sometime in 2015, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pushed back into 2016. We’ll see.

Beyond that, I hope to start on a third book very soon. I’m sifting through ideas and brainstorming. I would like to step outside my comfort zone and attempt a YA, but I haven’t fallen in love with any stories appropriate for that genre. Once again, we’ll see.

Many, many thanks for having me on Middle Grade Mafia! It’s been a pleasure, and I hope to see you all around sooner rather than later.

We want to thank Laura for talking with us. Your journey is inspiring and we can’t wait for your next book to come out. Keep writing on that dining room table, it truly is working for you! To follow Laura, find her on Twitter, Facebook or her blog. Stay tuned for more great authors in the coming months.




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Editor’s Insights with Marissa Fuller

To kick off our Insider Interview series, I am proud to introduce Marissa Fuller, Senior Editor at Anaiah Press. She works directly with Middle Grade authors as part of Anaiah Adventures. I was excited when she accepted our interview request.


Middle Grade Mafia: What was your path to becoming a Senior Editor with Anaiah Press?

Marissa Fuller: I connected with a fantastic writing community on Twitter, which introduced me to the illustrious Jessica Schmeidler, managing editor to several of Anaiah’s imprints—including their MG imprint, Adventures. We got to talking and instantly connected. I fell in love with the community of Anaiah, full of positivity and welcoming arms.

MGM: As an editor, what are the benefits of working for a small press?

MF: I love the experience of working with a small press, because, as cliché as it may sound, it’s like a family. I’ve always felt that books, as pieces of their creators, shouldn’t be produced with only money on the mind. Anaiah offers a thoughtful, faith-infused approach to publishing wonderful books that make the publishing world a little bit brighter.

MGM: What do you see as the pros and cons with working with a smaller press?

MF: I feel that small presses offer the best of both worlds, sort of a bridge between the intimidating “Big” publishing houses and the brave road of self-publishing. Though there are arguably less people working with your book at a small press as apposed to a big one, I feel that it’s quality over quantity. At Anaiah, every single person who looks at a manuscript really cares; about the book, the author, the people who would read it were it to be published.

MGM: Anaiah states it is a digital first publishing house, what trends are you seeing in the middle grade market with e-books vs. the traditional physical format?

MF: A few years ago, the idea of middle grade books in e-format would have been received with a quirked eyebrow and shaken off. Because, a few years ago, every eleven year old didn’t have an iPad. The publishing market is changing because the world is changing— the consumer is changing. Now, kids are almost more likely to read on an electronic device than an actual book. Schools are implementing mandatory laptops, with all textbooks online.

Although I will always be a hard-copy advocate, it is truly amazing to watch the shape of publishing change. And who are we to argue how a child is reading? I think we can all agree we want children to read. E-publishing seems to be a fantastic way to reach more early reader and middle-grade children.

MGM: Recently, you participated in a Twitter “pitchfest”, #JustPitchIt. Can you give any advice to an author who is looking to get noticed by an editor or agent?

MF: I recently wrote up a blog post for Pen & Muse regarding the craft of a pitch, and it’s connection to a query. You can read it here:

Can you share your three favorite middle grade books?

MF: The Giver!!!!!! It’s probably a tired favorite call-out, but ever since I read it, in middle school English class, I was absolutely smitten. I still give it a reread every year or so.

I also really, really, really adore the Percy Jackson series (& Heroes of Olympus, but that’s skewed a bit older). I have always been interested in Greek mythology, if only because of its art of storytelling and the creativity of ancient minds that it points to. I actually have a xiphos, a Greek short sword (Riptide, anyone?) tattooed on my person.

And of course, though I do so hate to be predictable, Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone. I’ll limit it to the first installment alone, because I was eleven when I picked it up, and it made a reader out of me. Heck, it made a good person out of me.

MGM: What middle grade character do you most relate to?

MF: I’ll say it—Hermione. For so many reasons. I have always adored school, and of course, books in particular. I’m even married to a fella who has the emotional range of a teaspoon. 😉

MGM: Any words of advice to our readers?

MF: Just keep doing what you’re doing! Thanks to you, MG fiction is flourishing, growing every day. I can’t wait to see what Middle Grade Mafia brings to the table!

– – –

The Middle Grade Mafia wanted to thank Marissa for taking the time to share her insight and advice. She is a great person to follow on Twitter.  Marissa is currently accepting queries from MG writer through email at You can also read her MSWL posted on her blog.


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Illustrator Illuminations – Gilbert Ford


The Mafia’s resident illustrator, Alison Hertz recently had the pleasure of interviewing the great Gilbert Ford. You may have seen his artwork gracing MG titles such as THREE TIMES LUCKY, ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY, and PETER NIMBLE & HIS FANTASTIC EYES.


Middle Grade Mafia: When you get hired to illustrate cover and/or interior art, do you read the book or skim to get an idea?

Gilbert Ford: I take the weekend to read the book, jotting down notes that may be relevant as I read.

MGM: How much direction do you get from the art director or editor?

GF: They usually tell me what pieces of mine they like from my website when they hire me. Since I am known for reading the manuscripts, I send initial sketches of three or four ideas. The first idea is what they requested and the other concepts are my ideas only for the eyes of the editor and the art director. Then we do the “official sketches” once they have seen my ideas and approved a direction. Sometimes I’m micro managed, other times they give me more space, depending on how much is riding on the book.

MGM: Have you also illustrated picture books and if so, how is that different from middle grade novels?

GF: I have three picture books published and a few in the pipeline. Every picture book is its own beast and often times I find myself reinventing the wheel with each one, depending on subject matter and the age group being targeted.

With middle grade, the stakes are high but in a different way. Sales and Marketing have a tremendous amount of pull over a cover. If the book doesn’t sell, then the illustrator gets blamed for the book’s failure, not the author. So it’s always a struggle to give 17 voices ranging from editor to author to sales and marketing, a cover that we are all happy with. It’s also hard for me to create a new cover that isn’t like one of my old ones, especially if a lot is riding on the book being a hit. Everyone wants a cover like the New York Time’s bestseller.

MGM: Do you have an agent or art rep? If so, where and how did you meet or did you connect online?

GF: In 2007 I was designing and illustrating educational toys for Galison/ Mudpuppy while also illustrating freelance editorial assignments at night. One day I got an email from Steve Malk asking me if I would like to illustrate children’s books. He had found my website at the suggestion of one of his clients. He has represented me ever since.

MGM: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. We look forward to seeing more of your incredible work in the future.

You can see more of Gilbert’s portfolio on his website and follow him on Twitter.

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Inside Look: Scholastic Book Fair Selection Process

When I was hired by Scholastic Book Fairs to be a field merchandiser, I was thrilled at the thought of employee discounts and summers off. What I hadn’t thought of was how valuable my new job would be to my writing career. I visit schools and help them with their book fair which has given me a new perspective of the book-selling business and the whole publishing process. From what I’ve learned, it all boils down to one question- “Will it sell?”

Scholastic Book Fairs works on a slightly different business model than other book retailers. Unlike traditional book stores which might order a dozen books and then reorder from the publisher as needed, Scholastic purchases large quantities of a particular title to stock their fairs all over the country. By doing so Scholastic can negotiate special prices and exclusive covers and in turn, pass those savings on to their customers. If a book doesn’t sell well at Barnes & Noble, you might see a dozen copies on their 60% off table. If a book doesn’t sell well for Scholastic, they’ll have a warehouse full of it. (By the way, get to a Scholastic warehouse sale if you can. They’re fantastic.

Considering the enormous investment Scholastic makes in a title, the selection process is critical. So how does Scholastic pick the books they will carry on their fairs?

They have a book selection committee formed from all levels of the company including the sales team, inventory, category managers, merchandising, supply chain, and field reviewers. The committee reads thousands of book each year that have been submitted from publishing companies. They are judging the books based on the following criteria: attention-grabbing cover; catchy, kid-friendly title; age-appropriate content and text; quality illustrations; topic of interest; and author/character recognition factor. Because their customers are not just kids, but teachers, parents and media specialists as well, they give a priority to books with high educational value.

I’d like to say that the best book always wins, but it doesn’t. There are some really wonderful books that aren’t selected because the content might be too edgy or not timely or there are already too many titles with the same subject matter.


This insight into the publishing industry has helped me as a writer because I don’t take rejections as personally as I used to. I know that when an agent reads my query, she’s asking herself, “Can I sell it to a publisher?” The publisher is asking, “Can we sell it to the retailers?” And the retailers, like Scholastic Book Fairs, are asking, “Can we sell it to our customers?” “Will it sell?” is a very tough question and it’s not surprising that very few manuscripts get a “yes.”

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MG Book Review – Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin by @LieslShurtliff

Spoiler Alert… Rumplestiltskin wasn’t a bad guy after all.  Or at least in the twisted fairytale RUMP by Liesl Shurtliff. Shurtliff paints a picture where the “villain” ends up being a likable protagonist who is only guilty of having an unfortunate name.


Rump sets off to uncover his full name, who names their kid Rump, and the destiny that comes with it. This is important because he lives in a world where people believe that a person’s name is directly attached who they are and what they are to become.

The journey of self discovery begins when he finds his dead mother’s spinning wheel.  While he is warned against using it, the magic inside of him draws him to the wheel and straw becomes gold.  The need for more food leads Rump to spinning more and more gold, but what he soon learns is that he has no power over what he gets in return. This all leads to him to the fateful night we all know, the one where the queen is in danger of losing her baby if she can’t guess his full name.

While there is a mystery attached to Rump’s search for answers, there is not much in terms of thrilling action or nail biting suspense.  When researching this this book, I found reviews stating this as a flaw and the a low rating was given.  While I did expected more action, the character development and insight into Rump’s motives had me captivated.

The true test was with my 10 year old son.  He LOVED the story and begged for “one more chapter” every night.  He made comments like “I can really see the room in my head” and “wow, that stinks for him (Rump).”  The clear vision into Rump’s world and the empathy he felt for this flawed character more than made up for lack of fart jokes and epic battles.

I would recommend this book for mature 9 year old to young 99 year old. In the end, we can all learn from Rump that friendship, faith in yourself and perseverance can free you from whatever cards life deals you.


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MG Book Review – The Night Gardner by @JonathanAuxier

Reviewed by L. Tyre

I recently finished the new Jonathan Auxier novel, THE NIGHT GARDENER, and it was wonderfully creepy. But before I get into the novel, can we just take a moment to gaze on the incredible cover?


The second I saw that, I was determined to buy the book. Sorry, no e-edition for me. I settled in and right away, I knew I was going to love this story. Listen to this:

“The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October. The crisp sun shone over Cellar Hollow, melting the final bits of ice from the bare trees. Steam rose from the soil like a phantom, carrying with it a whisper of autumn smoke that had been lying dormant in the frosty underground. Squinting through the trees, you could just make out the winding path that ran from the village all the way to the woods in the south. People seldom traveled in that direction, but on this March-morning-that-felt-like-October, a horse and cart rattled down the road. It was a fish cart with a broken back wheel and no fish. Riding atop the bench were two children, a girl and a boy, both with striking red hair. The girl was Molly, and the boy, her brother, was Kip.

And they were riding to their deaths.”

I just got shivers all over again!

Molly and Kip are on their way to work as servants for a family living in a creepy, rundown old manor. The family is unaware that they are slowly succumbing to an evil that has worked its way into their home. Can Kip and Molly survive their encounter with the evil inhabitant and save the family, or will they meet their end as so many others before them?

This is a super-smart ghost tale with a lot of hidden depth. I highly recommend.

(Not for the faint of heart. I’d say a brave 4th grader and up.)

Don’t just take my word from it. Here’s praise from people that actually matter!


“Lots of creepiness, memorable characters, a worthy message, Auxier’s atmospheric drawings and touches of humor amid the horror make this cautionary tale one readers will not soon forget.”   —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Storytelling and the secret desires of the heart wind together in this atmospheric novel that doubles as a ghost tale.” —School Library Journal, starred review

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