Tag Archives: MG Books

MG Review – Loot by Jude Watson


Twelve-year-old March lives a different life. He’s the son of Alfie McQuin, a notorious jewel thief. One night in Amsterdam, a heist goes horribly wrong and March watches his father fall from a rooftop. Before he dies, Alfie manages to say a few words to March: “Find jewels.” Or did he say, “Find Jules”?

March discovers that he has a twin sister named Jules. The two of them are offered a job to steal back seven precious moonstones for seven million dollars. With the help of two more misfit kids, they plan a series of robberies staying just ahead of the law and the other thieves that want the stones too. The moonstones are believed to be jinxed. Their mother died trying to steal them ten years ago and now their father is dead too. Will the moonstones claim March and Jules as their next victims?

When I started reading this book, I wasn’t sure if I thought it was appropriate for kids to be cast as thieves and that lifestyle glamorized, but Jude Watson handles it well by giving it a Robin Hood feel. She also shows how that lifestyle is not glamorous at all and how March and Jules wishes they had a normal life with a normal family. The kids vs. bad adults is done well too.

Young readers will love the fast-paced action and the edge-of-your-seat excitement as the kids barely avoid capture over and over again. They will also love how the March, Jules and their friends decipher the clues.

As for MG writers, I think you should read LOOT for a plotting and pacing lesson. Watson’s chapters are very, very short. Each chapter is basically one scene and the scenes fit together like waves in a tidal pool. First is a calm scene as the kids plan their next heist. The tension builds in the next scene as they prepare to strike and then one or two scenes of high-action during the robbery. This pattern takes place within the bigger story arc as March learns to trust his sister and the mystery unfolds. The short chapters also create a sense of urgency because time seems to pass too fast for the kids to make their do-or-die deadline.

LOOT is a wonderful page-turner with the added bonus of character depth and development as well. And it has a great ending.


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MG Review – The Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin


The Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin has been called a powerful retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, but calling it that doesn’t do it justice. First off, it isn’t exactly a fairy tale and second, it isn’t a retelling of the Andersen classic. The two stories have very little in common other than a nightingale and what happens when the nightingale sings—people are cured and forgiven. So the Nightingale’s Nest would be better described as a powerful story inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen classic. That being said, it is wonderful. Let it inspire you.

The Nightingale’s Nest is powerful, compelling and haunting. With many references to grief and child abuse it will stay with you long after you have finished it. But these subjects are handled in such a clever way, neither adults or younger readers will not find them overwhelming.

The story is told from the point of view of Little John a twelve- year old boy whose little sister has died. We get an inside view of how different people process grief. Little John thinks everything is his fault. His Mother has lost touch with reality. She thinks her daughter is still alive. His Father is a drunk, depressed and hard on his son. Then Little John meets Gayle, a foster child processing grief of her own. Her parents she says have flown away. She shows signs of physical abuse and is mentally fragile. She has built a nest to await her parents’ return. But when she sings, she cures things. Is it magic? Maybe. Little John promises to protect her but lets her down. Lured by the promise of money he takes her to an old man who says he wants to record her singing but we soon believe other horrible things happen. She loses her voice, When Little John realizes what he has done, he tries to make it up to Gayle but everything goes wrong. Eventually, he gets it right and Gayle forgives him and the old man. She then disappears. We never know if she really was a bird and flew away or was a girl. We don’t know if the magic was real either but either way, Little John is transformed. I suspect you will be too.

This is such a fine example of magical realism, it is a must read.

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MG Review – The Graham Cracker Plot by @shelleytougas

GrahamCracker plot


I’m going to be honest. I was afraid to read this book. Shelley Tougas and I share an agent, the wonderful Susan Hawk, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if I hated it. The good news is that not only did I not hate it, I LOVED it. Seriously, she had me on the opening page:


I will tell you three things right now.

Number one: I’m almost twelve years old. I do not want to go to prison, even if it’s a prison for kids.

Number two: Nobody calls me Aurora Dawn Bauer, not even my grandma, and she’s the most legal person I know. Everyone calls me Daisy.

Number three: Your face looks like squirrels flopped their tails where your eyebrows should be. I can’t tell if your eyes ever laugh, but you were all business when you told me to write this, and—

UGH. Mom just peeked over my shoulder and said, “Erase that stuff about his weird eyebrows or we’ll have more trouble. I mean it!” I went to my room and slammed the door. She’s a snoop.

Talk about a great opener! The rest of the book is just as charming. The Graham Cracker Plot does a terrific job of mixing the farcical with reality, humor with poignancy, as you follow the adventures of Daisy and her frenemy Graham in their attempt to break Daisy’s father out of prison. It’s not as outlandish as you might think, it’s a minimum security prison after all. Along the way you’ll meet interesting characters, see Daisy and Graham get themselves into all sorts of trouble, and watch as Daisy learns the truth about her dad and what taking responsibility for your actions really means.

This book has a lot of heart and plenty of fun. Do yourself a favor and read it.



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Illustrator Illuminations: Beegee Topla


I was excited to have the chance to interview Beegee Topla. She is the very talented illustrator behind THE WINNIE YEARS series’ covers and has illustrated picture books, such as EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU and THE SMALLEST TREE.


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?

Beegee Topla: If they give me the manuscript, and the deadline for the art permits, yes, I will absolutely read the book. In the case of the Winnie books (Lauren Myracle), I was hooked right from the first chapter. I’m always excited to see where her story goes.

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

BT: I love when I’m given a clear direction for the art. Especially with a book (as opposed to a magazine article), there are so many ways you can take the cover art. Usually the editor has an idea for the best way to market a book before they even contact the illustrator.

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

BT: A few years back I illustrated a pop-up book called Everyone Says I Love You (not to be confused with the Woody Allen musical of the same name!). That was really fun because it was a true collaboration with the paper engineer. I am still trying to find a way to do another one with him soon (Michael Caputo–paper engineer extraordinaire!). Illustrating for mid-grade novels can be tricky because you are often dealing with somewhat grown-up subjects but the style needs to appeal to younger children as well. If a book is for a reading level for ages 11-13, that is a big range of maturity.

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

BT: When I decided to strike out on my own as an illustrator over 12 years ago (!), I contacted a few reps who had artists I particularly liked. I made a connection with Sally Heflin online and she graciously took me in! I’ve been with her ever since.

MGM: How would you describe your style?

BT: Playful. Colorful. Whimsical. Clean.

MGM: Where did you get your artistic training?

BT: I studied illustration at Parsons School of Design. But this was before computers were part of the curriculum. Yes, that long ago! So as for my “digital education”, I am mostly self-taught. But it just takes a lot of “doing” to finally get your style to be where it wants to be.

MGM: How do you keep your illustrations fresh?

BT: Look at everything. Find other artists whose work you admire and just soak it in. There may be one tiny thing they do that you can use and it might transform your work.

MGM: What is your favorite media to use?

BT: I use Illustrator for all my professional work. It just can’t be beat for making changes easily and that is so important when you’re pleasing a client. But I do a lot of drawing with my daughters and we usually use crayons. There’s something wonderful about the permanence of crayons. Wax cannot be undone.

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

BT: You know, when an assignment comes in, you just have to do it. I can’t wait for inspiration to strike or to feel “ready” to work. I have small children and my work time is limited. If a client has hired you, they already love your work, so do the job, hit the deadline and be amenable to changes. It sounds boring, but that is honestly the best way to get hired again.

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

BT: We just moved to a new home, so right now my studio is in the dining room! I’m looking at a lot of unpacked boxes right now. I really don’t need a special space to work. Any pretense I had about “my own space” went out the window when I became a mother.

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

BT: Not particularly. I try to stay away from soup or cereal when I work. No spoons near the keyboard!

I want to thank Beegee for taking the time to answer our questions. If you want to see more of her work, visit her website or visit the Heflinreps site.

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Writing Contests (and tips!)


Writing contests are a great way to get some attention for your novel and there’s a fun one going on now. The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition is looking for:

Original ideas, a fresh voice and a story that children will love! To enter, you must have written a completed full-length novel suitable for children aged somewhere between 7 and 18 years.

This competition has a great first prize –  a worldwide publishing contract with Chicken House with a royalty advance of £10,000, plus representation from a top children’s literary agent. Sweet!

(Our friends over at KidLit411 have a monthly roundup of contests, so be sure and check them out for more.)

Contests are particularly interesting to me this week as I just finished participating in round one of Pitch Wars, where I looked at approximately 40 queries/first chapters and chose one to mentor. It was very educational and I wanted to share a few tips I learned through the process.

1. Follow the rules! If the contest asks for a query and first chapter, send the query and first chapter, ONLY. This is your first impression and you don’t want to frustrate the judges immediately.

2. Make your query standout. The judges are going to be reading query after query after query. Take it from me, their eyes will start to cross and your story about a talking newt that finds a magical unicorn that turns him into a vampire unless he can SAVE THE WORLD is going to look like every other story about talking newts, so refine it until it’s awesome.

3. There’s nothing new under the sun, or is there? I saw a whole lot of stories with the same basic premise, so just go ahead and assume you’re not the first person to think of a book about talking clocks told in alternating POV’s and show how your story is different than all of those others.

4.  Do your best and forget the rest. Contests are subjective and what one person likes, another person won’t. Take the feeback that you get, learn from it, and move on. The bookstores are FULL of books written by authors that didn’t win a contest. No matter what happens, just keep writing.

I’d wish you luck, but you don’t need it. Luck is great, but good writing will always win in the end.


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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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