The Waldorf Philosophy and the Middle Grade Reader

I homeschool my children using the Waldorf philosophy. It’s a beautiful education filled with art and music and delayed academics. But part of the philosophy has really helped me understand what a middle grade book should be. And it is the philosophy of the seven-year stages.

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In Waldorf philosophy, there’s this idea of the seven year stages of childhood. The first seven years (0-7) are all about the “will.” This is when a child is really learning how to use their body. They are full of energy and constantly moving and exploring and learning new ways to move. Everything from walking, to skipping, to doing the monkey bars. Movement and play is the most important part of this stage.

The stories that are supposed to be brought to kids at this age are simple stories, full of repetition. Which explains why picture books need to have a rhythm and some kind of repetitive quality to them. Children at this age see the world in black and white with no gray area and the stories Waldorf tells them at this age reflect that. In Kindergarten and grade 1, it’s all fairy tales. And think about how fairy tales work.

The princess is beautiful and good and gets a happy ending.

The witch is ugly and evil and gets her just punishment.

Good is beautiful and rewarded. Evil is ugly and punished. The end. Like I said, no gray area.

And this worldview is perfect for that stage of childhood. It makes children feel safe. It makes their world feel ordered.

But then we come to the next stage of childhood. The years from 8 to 14. In the Waldorf philosophy, these years are called the “feeling” years. They are when the child really learns to start seeing outside themselves. They begin to have empathy, to think more consciously about how their actions can affect others. They understand that everyone has feelings. And they start to become more aware of their own emotions, able to talk about them more, name them, and control them.

It’s during this stage that children start to see some of that gray area that was missing from the first seven years. They understand that sometimes good people make mistakes and that “bad” people can do good things. They are beginning to see that their parents are not infallible and grown-ups don’t always know everything.

The stories brought to this age group in the Waldorf philosophy reflect that growing awareness and complexity. In grade two, they learn the stories of Saints and great heroes to help them see the potential people have for goodness. And they also learn fables, to see the potential people have for folly and selfishness. This continues in grades 3, 4, and 5 as they learn the stories of the Old Testament and the great mythologies of the world. Who better to show children that greatness AND selfishness can lie in the same person than some of those Greek gods?

This idea of gently introducing children to the goodness within people and the not-so-good things within them is really what middle-grade literature is all about. MG lit opens up the world to the young reader. It shows them that life can be hard, but they can overcome. That endings can be bitter but also sweet. It helps them see a world that is complex and not really full of bad guys and good guys. But like Jem says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “I think there’s just one kind of folks—folks.”

What a great privilege and responsibility, to bring life with all its ups and downs to this budding reader. To teach them empathy, introduce them to hard subjects, and then fill them up with hope and courage and send them into the next stage of childhood.

I think when we truly understand this idea of where the middle grade reader is in their development, that we can truly honor them with fantastic stories that are what they need for their worldview. Middle grade readers need stories that don’t talk down to them but also still honor their innocence. They need stories where the adults don’t know everything and are flawed characters, but that also show there is always an adult who is dependable and safe. They need stories without a true “bad guy.” They need to learn empathy for the victim AND the bully. And most of all, they need to have hope. I think these words from Anne Frank really sum up where the middle grade reader is when they look at the world, even in the worst of circumstances.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

This idea is what you need to honor most in your books.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Middle Grade Romance

Valentine’s Day is coming and love is in the air. Right?

Well, maybe not if you write middle grade.

Middle grade fiction is for kids 8-14. Let’s face it, they know about crushes. But not really romance. If you’re writing a crush into your MG novel, keep these things in mind.

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Boys during the middle grade years are no Casanovas. In fact, they’re pretty much the opposite. They are squirrely, and awkward, and let’s face it, kind of weird. They are not sweet talking anyone and remain pretty clueless about things.

Boy-girl interactions at this age are just fraught with awkwardness but also butterflies. It’s all new and kind of exciting but kind of bewildering at the same time. I remember my first dance in sixth grade. A boy asked me to slow dance (oh my gosh!) and when he put his hands on my waist said, “Wow! You’re skinny.” That was it. There was no clue as to whether he was saying it as a negative or positive or if he meant anything by it or if he just hadn’t yet developed a filter between his brain and his mouth. (My money’s on that last guess.) But I still remember it to this day because of the mixture of so many thoughts and emotions it set off.

Does he like me? I don’t like him. What does that mean? Do I say thank you? A boy’s hands are on my waist!

You get the picture.

I’ve yet to see a middle grade where the MC has a boyfriend or girlfriend. Although in WONDER, there is a lot of talk about other people pairing up. But the narrators don’t really take part. This seems to be the unspoken rule of MG. Other people can have a boyfriend/girlfriend, but generally not the main character.

In MG, the crush is not the focus of the story. It’s usually a minor subplot, though in some books it is a larger subplot. Take for example, FORGET ME NOT by Ellie Terry, which releases this spring. The story revolves around a boy and a girl and their friendship. But there is definitely a little crush that develops through the story. To pull this off though, you really need the two characters to interact almost entirely just as friends. No lovey dovey stuff the whole way through.

Some people will tell you that physical affection is a big no in MG. But from my reading, that’s simply not true. A WRINKLE IN TIME has many moments of hand holding (admittedly not romantic, mostly because they’re scared but there are some FEELINGS that come with it) and one kiss. And that was published AGES ago. 😉 Likewise, WHEN YOU REACH ME also has a very sudden, kind of awkward kiss, and by the end the two characters are kind of going steady, but it doesn’t mean too much.

If you are going to put a crush, and especially a kiss, in your MG story, you have to earn it. I don’t mean that the same way romance writers mean it, with the right kind of build up. I mean that it should feel almost necessary to what you’re trying to show in your book. It should act as a marker on character arc, or an important illustration about your character growing up and becoming less of a child. It should have real, meaningful significance.

So, maybe romance isn’t blossoming in middle grade, but awkward crushes and tiny first kisses are.

How about you? Do you have any stories from your life that illustrate the awkward middle grade crush phase? Share in the comments.
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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Thinking in Threes: Triple MG Interview

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Today on the blog, we’re featuring triplet debut authors Jill Diamond, Elly Swartz, and our own Elaine Vickers! These three authors’ books were released just this week, and they each agreed to answer three of our interview questions. Bonus: They also agreed to do a giveaway! Check the end of the post to find out how you could win a critique from all three authors. But first, the interview…

finding-perfectWhere did your initial story idea come from?

Elly Swartz, author of Finding PerfectOne day, I woke-up with Molly in my head, and she wouldn’t leave until I told her story. At the time, I knew a number of adults and kids whom I was very close with who had OCD. I was awed by the disconnect between how they saw themselves and the world saw them. I then spent the next 7 years researching OCD, writing Molly’s story, and working with OCD pediatric specialists to authenticate the manifestation, discovery and treatment of Molly’s symptoms. Between research and the writing, I learned so much from Molly. She has stayed with me long after wrapping up my final draft. Truly, I think a piece of Molly will stay with me always.

Jill Diamond, author of Lou Lou and Pea and the Mural MysteryI actually came up with Lou Lou and Pea’s names before anything else. I adore naming things! After that, I knew I wanted to write a story inspired by the people, traditions, art, and culture that I love about my neighborhood, the Mission District in San Francisco. I also knew I wanted it to be a mystery and a friendship story. It all kind of fell into place from there, and Lou Lou and Pea were born!

Elaine Vickers, author of Like MagicFrom an editor’s tweet to an agent. (Neither of whom I ended up working with! So you’re not wasting your time on Twitter, folks. 🙂 There was an article about an American Girl doll being checked out from the New York Public Library that this agent and editor felt would make a great middle grade novel. I agreed, and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I wrote the story. The doll was replaced by a hollowed-out book box after several revisions, but that tweet and that article started it all.

lm-coverTo whom is your book dedicated, and why did you choose that particular dedication line?

Elaine: My dedication line reads:

for my mom

and my daughters

who make my life

like magic

Like Magic is a story of connection—between friends, but also between mothers and daughters. My mom has been my greatest support all my life—the kind of mom I hope to be for my own daughters. So it felt just right to dedicate it to them.

Jill: My dedication line reads:

For Nancy Diamond, known to her students as The Best Librarian in the Whole Wide World, known to me as Mom

I dedicated the book to my mom because it could never have existed without her. My mom was an elementary school librarian and a true champion of children’s literature. I began working on the book when I was caring for her during a terminal illness. I thought it was a fitting way to honor her, particularly because my mom greatly influenced my love of both reading and creative writing.


Elly: 
My dedication line says, “To James, Joshua and Gregory. You make my heart smile every day. I love you.” James is my husband of 26 years, and Joshua and Gregory are our sons. I dedicated this book to them as they are truly my whole heart. On this long journey to YES, their belief in me never wavered. They make me proud and so very happy. I am beyond grateful. And lucky.

lou-louWhat is the best reader response you’ve ever had for this book?

Jill: My favorite feedback thus far was from someone who won an ARC of LOU LOU AND PEA in a raffle. She tweeted: “My daughter LOVED Lou Lou & Pea! She gobbled it up in one night, told me it was super funny (her highest praise), and said she wants to learn Spanish. So – THANK YOU!”

Elly: I had the privilege of Skyping with a class whose teacher had an arc of Finding Perfect that she had read aloud to all of her students. When we Skyped, we spoke a lot about Molly and her unattainable definition of perfect. In response, this fourth grader shared his interpretation of what perfect meant to him after reading Molly’s story and participating in our discussion. I was truly moved.

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Elaine: When I read this book to my daughter for the first time, she surprised me with a Lego recreation of a key scene in the book. I think it will be hard for anything to top that, ever.

lego-lost-and-found-girls

And now for the best part…

Click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway and win a critique of the first five pages of your MG or YA manuscript by Elaine Vickers, Elly Swartz, and Jill Diamond!

Good luck!


JillDiamond_Headshot.pngJill Diamond has loved children’s literature for as long as she can remember, thanks to her school librarian mother and the long, cold winters in Maine. When she’s not writing, Jill practices law, dreams about her next travels, eats soft serve ice cream, and wears cowboy boots. Jill now lives in San Francisco with her husband and their son. Visit her at www.jilldiamondbooks.com or on Twitter @jillinboots


ellyElly Swartz’s debut novel, Finding Perfect (FSG) is about twelve-year-old Molly, friendships, family, OCD, and a slam poetry competition that will determine everything. Through the years, Elly’s been a Sesame Place ride operator, messenger, lawyer, legal author, and college essay adviser. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and beagle named Lucy. If you want to connect with Elly or learn more about what she’s working on, you can find her at www.ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz or Facebook.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic (HarperCollins) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

How to Keep Good Parents Out of your Main Character’s Hair

The prevalence of dead parents in middle-grade and young adult literature has been a topic of conversation and jokes for several years. The number of kids in real life with a deceased parent are not nearly so high as the number kids in the fictional world. Yet it’s an understandable set up for authors. If you want to write a story where your main character goes on adventures, gets into sticky situations, etc, you can’t have an attentive parent constantly checking in on them, forcing them to sit down and do their homework, and not allowing them out of eyesight of the front porch.

So what is an author to do if they want to give their main character an in-tact, functional family but need to give their main character some freedom to “take matters into their own hands?”

I asked a couple writing groups of mine to give me ideas, both serious and silly, of how to have good parents that stay out of your character’s hair when you need them to. Here is what we came up with. They range from ideas to give your MC an hour or two to entire weeks of time by themselves. I’ve tried to keep them ideas that can happen with good, attentive parents and not just deadbeats. I hope you enjoy!

Ways to Get the Parents Out of Your MC’s Hair Without Killing Them Off

  • They run a business that requires a lot of time.
  • In the same vein, jobs with crazy hours, lots of travel, being on call, or holding down multiple jobs.
  • They are participating in an online writing contest. 😉
  • They believe in free range/laissez faire parenting. Along these same lines, I had ideas of “hippie parents” and parents who are therapists and believe in allowing a child freedom to make their own mistakes.
  • They have another child that requires a lot of attention for health or behavioral reasons.
  • They believe in a prophecy where if they supervise their kids, the world will end.
  • One parent is in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
  • They unknowingly left an inept nanny or babysitter in charge.
  • They are motivational speakers teaching a seminar on “How to be an Attentive Parent.”
  • One parent is recently remarried or dating and spending a lot of time with their significant other.
  • They are in the military and deployed. 
  • They are caring for an aging parent.
  • They left the kids with the grandparents who let them get away with everything.
  • A futuristic society where grown-ups are obsolete and kids run the world.
  • Summer Camp!
  • They are dealing with the loss of a loved one.
  • A set up lie Mr. Limoncello’s Library where parents are not allowed to part of the contest but are watching.
  • Have the story take place mostly at a friend’s house.
  • Boarding School.
  • The main character wins a trip on a SpaceX rocket to the moon and the ship gets stuck there (alternatively, the parents could be on the rocket.)
  • They thought they were going to see a musical, but actually got stuck seeing a production of the entire Ring Cycle by Wagner.
  • Set your book in the 70’s when kids ran wild.
  • They are absent-minded a la The Penderwicks.
  • They are very involved with volunteer work.
  • They’re writing a novel.
  • They’re training for a marathon.
  • They’ve given the child a GPS bracelet in exchange for more freedom to wander.
  • They’ve been abducted by aliens.
  • They’re in quarantine.
  • They’re dealing with a health crisis.
  • They have a very large family with many kids.
  • They have MC enrolled in lots of activities that the MC just skips.
  • They send them to spend time with responsible but slightly off-beat relatives.
  • They went out for a gallon of milk and ended up going on an adventure with a hot air ballooning dinosaur. Oh, wait. Neil Gaiman already did that one.

What would add to the list?

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Getting Your MG Story Ready for the Classroom

A little while ago, there was a bit of a hullabaloo about soft censorship and Kate Messner’s new release, The Seventh Wish. I read several of Kate’s blog posts about it and some of the responses from teachers and librarians. But the post I found most interesting was this one from a teacher who used the book as the center of a unit study for several weeks.

As I read about all the different ways she infused this book into different subjects, I asked myself these questions.

Do I have material in my book that can reach across subjects?

Is there enough meat in my books to be at the center of a unit study?

The thing is, as a middle grade author, my biggest prospective customers are teachers and librarians. If I can position my book as a great asset to a classroom, a way to study several different subjects at once, I’ve gone a long way in marketing my book already.

That’s not to say that all middle-grade books must be written with this sort of research and subject material, several of my friends brought up Kate DiCamillo’s books, which are used widely for what they teach children about hope, heart, and empathy. But…these two kind of books are definitely not mutually exclusive. And as I finish revising another middle-grade novel, this one with a lot of material that spans different subjects, I realized that adding certain things to my book enhanced it. And so I want to talk about some ideas for how to write with the idea of classroom use in mind.

Revise with discussion questions. 

I love this blogpost from Rebecca McLaughlin about writing some discussion questions for your book before you begin revising. This helps you better focus in on theme, symbolism, and imagery. And yes, middle-grade books can and should make use of all of these tools. It also helps you keep a broader picture in mind, especially with non-contemporary books. How can this story still apply to the lives and struggles of the children reading it?

Here are a few questions from one of my favorite books, Where The Mountain Meets the Moon. 

  • When Minli sets off on her journey, she writes a letter to Ma and Ba, and she signs it “Love, your obedient daughter. 
  • Is Minli being obedient or disobedient at that moment? 
  • In what ways are her actions similar to or different from the actions of Jade Dragon’s children?
  • Have you ever been faced with decisions like the ones Minli and Jade Dragon’s children have to make?

Include school in your story. 

School is a huge part of every middle-grade characters life. Many MG stories take place during the school year and this fact alone is the perfect opportunity for you to add material in your story that can be used for activities in the classroom.

  • Give your character a school project. This idea of a long-term project is used to great effect in Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. Reading it, one could see how easy it would be for a classroom teacher to assign her students a similar “leaf identification project.”
  • Have on subject play a pivotal role for the character. Think of the science class in Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, or the teacher in Wonder, who writes a different motivational quote on the board every day. Both of these classes are vehicles for interesting information as well as touch points to show character arc.

Give your main character interests and hobbies that can be used in the classroom. 

Now, you have to follow your character as much as possible. Don’t try to make them fit a certain mold just to appeal to a certain teacher. However, hobbies and interests are great ways to sprinkle in lots of information and factoids that teachers can use as jumping off points into other subjects.

  • Think about all the information about jellyfish in The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin.
  • In my current manuscript, I’ve made the main character a paper engineer. I show her creating several different origami designs throughout the book and reference the story of the 1000 paper cranes and the Hiroshima Peace Park in relation to this interest. This one interest can be used to practice a handicraft, study history, and geography.I also love the character in Stead’s Liar and Spy who is obsessed with reforming spelling and Benjamin Franklin’s revised alphabet to make all spelling phonetic. It’s just a minor part of the story but it’s another thing that can be used in the classroom to take that book from just a language arts discussion to so much more.

Make your setting important. 

If you’ve really used your setting the way you should and played up certain details of it for imagery and symbolism purposes, then this should flow naturally. But no matter where you have set your middle-grade novel, you should have done enough research and included enough fact in your fiction that a teacher can draw out details from your setting to use in a wider discussion about geography, social studies, or science.

Do cross cultural writing correctly. 

If you are writing from your own experience of a culture, this shouldn’t be as difficult, but if you are writing about a culture that is not your own, make sure you RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. Books from the perspective of other cultures are great tools in the classroom for unit studies. And a book that explores other cultures really well gives rise to so, so many classroom activities.

The best recent book I’ve read for this is Lois Sepahban’s Paper Wishes. The story is about a Japanese girl and her family when they are put in a camp during WWII. That in itself is history. But beyond the basic premise of the book, there is so much just in the telling of the story that you can pull out to talk about. Like the celebration of the Japanese holiday, Obon, the tea ceremony, etc. These little details are not the crux of the story. But they help sell the story to teachers looking for a book to base a unit study on.

As always, story comes first. It doesn’t matter how many interesting tidbits you include, a boring book will never sell. But, if you have the story part down and are looking for a way to make it more marketable, give some of these ideas a whirl.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Writers are Readers: Best Lessons from Middle Grade Fantasy Books

One of the best ways to become a better writer is to study your favorite books. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from some of my favorites middle grade fantasy novels.

For a lesson in getting readers to root for a character: Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris

Christian cares so much for Princess Marigold, but he’s a lowly boy who was raised by a troll in a forest cave. He doesn’t stand a chance with her! BUT he’s also incredibly kind and goes out of his way to help the lonely princess. We can’t help but hope everything will work out for him. Even when it looks like he might rot in the dungeon during Princess Marigold’s wedding.

For a lesson in having characters announce their strategies and then seeing them fail again and again (aka the try-fail cycle): Treasure Hunters by James Patterson. 
Okay, this one isn’t a fantasy. But James Patterson just did this so well! Everything is going wrong for this group of siblings. Their mom is missing, its seems as if their father was swept off their boat in a storm, they need to follow clues to find a treasure, and scuba diving surfer dude henchmen are hot on their trail. They keep coming up with plans and things keep going very, very wrong. 
For a lesson in creating distant, unlikable characters who readers grow to love: Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo

Charlie’s Uncle Paton is a recluse and doesn’t seem to care a bit for Charlie. But as Charlie learns about his own gift he also learns his Uncle is a power booster, someone who makes electrical objects, like light bulbs explode. And his uncle can’t control his powers. Paton hides away to keep himself from hurting others. When the people at Bloor Academy keep Charlie there, not letting him return home, Uncle Paton stands outside the school and demands for him to be released. When they don’t and Uncle Paton intentionally uses his powers, it’s crazy awesome. Seriously. The. Best.

For a lesson in creating an ending that makes readers want to stand up and cheer: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
Warning! Spoiler ahead. That scene at the end when the fairies become human-sized amazonian warriors ready to do battle with the demon, witch, and imps is brilliant. When I read the book for the first time I really did feel like jumping to my feet and cheering. 
For a lesson in writing adventure and action: Larklight by Phillip Reeves and also the sequels Starcross and Mothstorm 

These steampunk novels with an alternative history where Sir Isaac Newton discovered the means to make space travel possible are a fun mix of science fiction and fantasy. They’re full of space pirates, strange creatures, dastardly villains, and loads of sword-fights and musket-fights.  

For a lesson in world building: The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

These books are set in an interesting world called The Edge and full of flitterwaifs, rotsuckers, banderbears, and a multitude of other strange and interesting creatures and plants.

For a lesson in creating quirky characters (and a super long title): 
The Strictest School in the World: Being the tale of a Clever Girl, a Rubber Boy, and a Collection of Flying Machines Mostly Broken (The Mad Misadventures of Emmaline and Rubberbones) by Howard Whitehouse
An aviatrix, an unbreakable boy, and a super strict school, St. Grimelda’s School for Young Ladies with a terrifying, mysterious method for keeping the girls in line all make for a fun book. The characters are so wonderfully eccentric. 
For a lesson in writing descriptions: The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet
This book is full of unique similes and descriptions. 
“She stretched one hand out (the air was as thick as syrup; her arm moved with the slow grace of an aquatic plant) and tried to say something, but her voice was gone, too.” Anne Nesbet, The Cabinet of Earths

For a lesson in giving characters tools they’ll need to help them win in the end: Princess Juniper of the Hourglass by Ammi-Joan Paquette
This is such a fun story! And I love how Princess Juniper and her guard change clothes and places in so that the princess can escape riding in her carriage and how they do something similar in the final battle to help the princess win. 
For a lesson in writing quirky humor: Whales on Stilts (or any other of the Pals in Peril books) by M.T. Anderson, Muddle Earth by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
It’s not surprising to anyone who knows me that I love to laugh. And these books definitely make me giggle! A villain creating stilts and laser beams for whales in order to take over the world. And a boy transported to a strange land where he’s needed to rescue all the missing wizards from the evil mastermind, Doctor Cuddles. Silly fun! 
For a lesson in creating unique magic systems and magical worlds and every other lesson in how to write brilliant fantasy: Any and every book by Diana Wynne Jones
She’s my absolute favorite of favorites. Howl’s Moving Castle, The Chrestomanci Chronicles, House of Many Ways…she’s amazing. And I’ve got my fingers crossed that someday I’ll get to hang out with her in heaven. 
To read more about more books with brilliant writing lessons, check out Elaine’s post which started this fun series! 
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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

Writers Are Readers: Best Lessons from Middle Grade Books

I strongly believe that writers must be voracious readers. Read widely, read critically, read for fun, and definitely read as many books as possible in the genre you’re writing. It’s definitely helpful to read new releases to get a sense of what’s selling (or what was selling a year or two ago), read classics to get a sense of what lasts, and read as a way to connect with your author peers.

Some of the best writing lessons can also come from thoughtfully and analytically reading the very best books in your genre or age group. If you look at the books that have had the greatest impact on you, stop and ask yourself what it was specifically about that book that was done so masterfully.

The best books do many things well, but I find I can often pinpoint one characteristic of favorite books that made each truly memorable and exceptional. Here are the titles I turn to when I want a book to show (rather then tell) me how to get it right.

For a lesson in voice: Ida B by Katherine Hannigan, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
For a lesson in dialogue: Twerp by Mark Goldblatt (and its sequel, Finding the Worm)
For a lesson in making the reader fall in love with a character, even when they’re making terrible choices: Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos; Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
For a lesson in humor: The Tapper Twins Go to War (with Each Other) by Geoff Rodkey; The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
For a lesson in mystery and suspense: The Greenglass House by Kate Milford; Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson
For a lesson in just the right amount of scary: Mothman’s Curse by Christine Hayes; The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox
For a lesson in weaving together multiple threads: Holes by Louis Sachar
For a lesson in just beautiful writing: Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith; Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
For a lesson in writing authentic and caring parents: Loser by Jerry Spinelli; Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
For a lesson in writing unforgettable siblings: The Penderwicks by Jeannie Birdsall; Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
For a lesson in establishing a sense of place: The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook by Joanne Rocklin; Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
For a lesson in how to really write a novel in verse: House Arrest by K.A. Holt; The Crossover by Kwame Alexander; Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
For a lesson in packing an emotional punch: One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis

What about you? What novels have given you your best lessons on writing?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂