Guest Post: Barbara Dee on Keeping it Middle Grade: Handling Tough Topics in Fiction

Learn more about Barbara Dee.

By Barbara Dee
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

About a year ago, on a NerdCamp panel called “Tough Topics in Middle Grade Fiction,” we were talking about how middle grade was evolving, growing up, tackling subjects that used to be considered taboo—for example, sexuality, terrorism, refugeeism, and drug use.

I asked the educators in the room which underrepresented topics they’d like to see on their bookshelves.

A middle school principal raised her hand. “Things we used to see only in high school,” she said.

She went on to explain that lately she’d been struck by the frequency of mental health issues among her students—depression, anxiety, self-destructive behaviors like cutting—that previously she’d associated with teens.

“We need more middle grade books on these subjects, so we can start the conversation with younger kids,” she urged.

Her remarks were disturbing, but not surprising to me. At the time I was finishing my first draft of Everything I Know About You (Aladdin, 2018), a middle grade novel about a seventh grader with an eating disorder.

As someone who had survived anorexia and bulimia in my college years, I’d always assumed that disordered eating was a strictly YA sort of topic, best explored in a book like Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, 2010).

But when I came across several articles about the recent rise of eating disorders among middle school students, I sought out a social worker who specialized in treating these patients.

Oh yes, she said. Her patients were definitely getting younger. Fewer high school and college kids, more kids in the middle grades.

And they—and their friends—needed middle grade fiction. Books that reflected their struggles. Books that offered hope.

Given my own experience, I knew I’d hit on the right topic for my next novel. I understood the challenge: to treat a serious, emotionally complex, potentially scary subject in a way that was appropriate for nine-to-thirteen-year-old readers.

My previous middle grade novel, Halfway Normal (Aladdin, 2017), was about a cancer survivor’s return to seventh grade, and the way she used Greek mythology to help her connect with classmates and teachers.

Before that I’d written Star-Crossed (Aladdin, 2017), about an eighth grader’s coming to terms with her own bisexuality via the middle school production of “Romeo & Juliet.”

I’d had some experience exploring sensitive topics in a way middle graders would find accessible and appealing.

And for Everything I Know About You, I knew my approach:

First: Don’t be depressing. Middle schoolers may crave tougher topics these days, but they still want to be entertained. Since the subject matter of anorexia is inherently upsetting, I decided to come at it from an angle—with a narrator who wasn’t the character struggling with the disorder, but another girl who was both healthy and funny.

Tally is a math nerd who dresses outrageously and tells fart jokes about Pythagoras; at once altruistic and self-involved, she takes a while to understand the full extent of her roommate Ava’s problem.

This is a technique I’ve noticed in several recent middle grade novels which tackle tough topics: Write from the point of view of a an entertaining, often funny, narrator, who may or may not have full information.

Some notable examples: See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng (Dial, 2017); Alan Cole is Not a Coward by Eric Bell (Katherine Tegan/HarperCollins, 2017); Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (Sterling, 2017); The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegan/HarperCollins, 2018).

Or write from the point of view of a character who is strong and resourceful, like the protagonist of Amal Unbound (Nancy Paulsen, 2018), who finds herself forced into indentured servitude. 

Author Aisha Saeed explains how she kept her narrative buoyant, despite Amal’s troubles:

“Amal is deeply upset about her circumstances, but it’s also true that people are stronger than they can give themselves credit for. I know in my own life there have been difficulties I’ve gone through that, were I to look at them from afar, I would have thought I could not have made it through the other side, and yet when thrust into those difficulties I found I was stronger than I realized. 

“The only way through dark times is to keep on persevering, to find and hold on to light wherever we can find any, and to keep on going.”

Second: Weave the “tough topic” into a bigger picture. I set Everything I Know About You on a four-day field trip to Washington, D.C., where the kids stay at a quirky, slightly surreal hotel. To foster class unity, the teachers assign roommates, creating conflicts among several kids, especially the main character, Tally, and her roommate, Ava.

In this way, the “tough topic”—anorexia—is just one part of a larger story about friendship, self-acceptance, family, and a crazy field trip.

Some middle grades which create a whole complex ecosystem around characters facing various challenges: Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callendar (Scholastic, 2018); See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; Paper Chains by Elaine Braithwaite Vickers (HarperChildren’s, 2017); The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore  (Knopf, 2017).

Third: Give the characters an identity separate from the “tough topic.” Sometimes YA novels seem to hyperfocus on the main character’s struggles, which leads them to existential despair.

Middle graders often need a break from the darker stuff. It helps them as readers to create characters who have other frames of reference, other things going on in their lives—for example, friendships and hobbies.

In Everything, when Tally isn’t wondering about her roommate’s troubling behavior, she’s thinking about math, her collection of weird fashion accessories, her friends, her dad’s bakery, her own adoption, her dog…oh, and dying her hair Sour Apple Green.

As author Tae Keller (The Science of Unbreakable Things (Random House, 2018)) puts it:

“There’s an idea that when scary, difficult things happen to us or people we love, that scary thing becomes our entire life. And sometimes that’s true. But a lot of times, the difficult parts of life are just that—one part. 

“Natalie is in seventh grade. She goes to school and does her homework and deals with friendships and crushes and all the things middle schoolers deal with. I don’t think she’s so much obsessing over a distraction as she is trying to understand how all the pieces of her life fit together. ”

Other middle grades featuring characters who use strong—sometimes obsessive—interests to help them cope: Lights, Camera, Disaster by Erin Dionne (Arthur A. Levine, 2018)(movie-making); The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (Legos); See You in the Cosmos (rocketry and space); The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla (HarperChildren’s, 2017)(ornithology); Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla, illustrated by Steve Wolfhard (comics)(HarperChildren’s, 2018); Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (reading); Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2016)(saving the tree); Saturdays with Hitchcock by Ellen Wittlinger (Charlesbridge, 2017)(classic movies).

Fourth: Include benevolent (but imperfect) adults. In some YA novels, it seems as if all adults are absent, alien, untrustworthy or even malevolent.

Middle grade readers reading about “tough topics” need some reassurance, some sense that an adult (or two) is capable of offering guidance and support. But they’re unwilling to believe that a perfect fairy godmother/teacher/parent is going to swoop in and solve all their problems.

In Everything, Tally is deeply bonded with her parents, and comes to see that certain adults she’d previously judged (her history teacher, Ava’s mom) are more complex than she’d realized.

Some middle grade novels with flawed but well-intentioned adults : Amal Unbound (Nasreen, both parents); Hurricane Child (the parents); See You in the Cosmos (various adults).

Learn more about Aisha Saeed.

Aisha Saeed says:

“Humans are very complex beings and as an author I find it deeply rewarding to explore why people behave the way they do. While it doesn’t excuse the behavior that is problematic, awful and/or unjust, understanding why people behave the way they do can be very informative. 

“That is why when I wrote Nasreen and Amal’s parents, I wanted to write about their actions honestly but I also wanted to make sure they were more than just their flaws, as all of us humans are.”

Fifth: Be true. I know I could not have written Everything, Halfway Normal or Star-Crossed if I didn’t have some strong connection to these topics. But I don’t believe fiction is autobiography. And even as I’ve plumbed my own experience to write those books, I’ve looked outside myself, researching, reading up on the subjects and interviewing kids and experts.

While I don’t believe you need to have lived a subject to write about it, I think it’s essential to locate the truth in your topic, and find the corresponding truth within yourself.

Of course, the challenge for the author is not to overdetermine the “truth,” or rely too heavily on her own experience. Describing her process in writing Mason Buttle, Leslie Connor says:

“I kept asking myself, is this really true for Mason? Is the writer standing out of the way?”

Some middle grades which I find notable for emotional resonance and veracity: The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017); Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017); Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm (Scholastic, 2015); One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock (Scholastic, 2018); Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young (Chronicle, 2016); Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017); Ruby on the Outside (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and Nine, Ten (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Nora Raleigh Baskin; The Night Diary (Penguin Random House, 2018) by Veera Hiranandani; The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor.

Sixth: Offer hope. Middle grade readers want to walk away from a “tough topic” feeling reassured.

I ended Everything with Ava getting help for her disorder, telling Tally she’s almost ready to return to school.

When I finished Mason Buttle, Amal Unbound, Ruby on the Outside and Hurricane Child, I cried tears of relief for the title characters. They were okay. They’d be okay. Despite their struggles, they had things in their lives to look forward to.

As Leslie Connor says about writing Mason Buttle:

“Often, a compelling character is one that has some sort of sadness to their story; it’s part of what they’re up against. 

“I’ll write about the sadness, sure. But I don’t want to write a bleak book either. I think of hope as the reward that the reader, writer, and character share at a story’s end. Something good has to be on the horizon.”

Seven: But don’t sugar-coat. Middle grade readers have fake-detectors tuned to eleven. If you write a sappy ending, they’ll roll their eyes in disgust.

At the end of Everything, I was careful not to promise a friendship between Tally and Ava—just as I didn’t promise a happily-ever-after ending for Star-Crossed. Maybe things will work out for the characters, and maybe they won’t.

The world is tricky and full of surprises.
That’s a life lesson for middle grade readers—and maybe another “tough topic” right there.

Cynsational Notes



Barbara Dee is the author of nine middle grade novels, all published by Aladdin/S&S.

Everything I Know About You has been called “poignant and often hilarious” by Kirkus Reviews, “a strong addition to library collections” by School Library Journal, “honest and engaging,” by PW, and is a Junior Library Guild selection.

Barbara’s two 2017 releases have received much attention.

Halfway Normal earned starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and SLJ, is a 2018 ILA Young Adult Choice Reading List pick, a 2018 CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, a 2018-19 Pennsylvania Keystone list pick, a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Vermont State list pick, an ALA Booklist pick (“Surviving Middle School”), and a Junior Library Guild selection.

Star-Crossed is a 2018 CCBC Choice, a 2018 ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, a 2018 CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, a 2018 Goodreads Choice finalist, and listed on several Best of 2017 lists, including those by the Chicago Public Library, King County (Washington State) Library and Cleveland Heights (Ohio) Library.

Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives in Westchester County, New York.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Transitions: Lunging Forward, Leaning Back

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am leaving my day job at an extraordinary early childhood center on June 30.

Plenty of people think I am “retiring.”

But if you’re reading this, you probably could guess that I’m not retiring at all. I’m beginning my full-time career as a writer.

At last.

I’ve written and taught about transitions much of my life as a clinical social worker and still struggle with how to convey these vulnerable, beautiful, painful yet joyful, times in our lives.

Because they are difficult.

We feel the need for different or new or next; we feel the need to take a turn on our personal or professional journeys (or both). We feel a yearning. A longing to move forward. An excitement and curiosity about what the new direction will offer us – or what we will make of it.

But we also feel the pull back towards that which we want, or are ready to leave, toward the comfort, familiarity, certainty of the place, the experience, the days we are almost leaving behind.

This is what I’m feeling as I leave a wonderful job at this early childhood center that hums and bubbles with small communities of little ones busy at work and where miracles of teaching and learning surprise and delight every day.

I love coming to work and being at work in a place that feels like a second home. I love the use of many skills and strengths I was pretty sure I owned, but had not had the opportunity to use. I love the children who have passed through my life with their extraordinary desire to explore their world and the powerful capacity to connect to others. I love my boss and friend; and I love the teachers who with seeming endless amounts of energy, create small communities of friends and classrooms of explorers, scientists, artists, technicians, builders, and more.

I took on my day job when I was in the process of winding down the career that ran parallel to my dreams of being a writer – that of a clinical social worker specializing in women’s and eating/body issues and building emotional resilience.

But it’s time for me to stop getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write for an hour and a half before getting reading. I also need time to exercise before I am exhausted from eight hours of a very busy, though wonderful, day. And I want to spend time with my husband when I am not falling asleep because I need to get up at 4:30 in the morning to write.

This beautiful place I’ve had the honor to work is integrally interwoven with my life as a children’s author.

I met the woman who has been my boss and friend for 24 years in the library of my son’s school. He had been coming home each week on the day his class visited the library, sharing the excitement of what they had done that day with “the best teacher in the world.”

I decided I wanted to meet this teacher, and went in on a Tuesday, when I had no clients in my private practice. A fabulous children’s library sprawled through the big open space (along with two floor-to-almost-ceiling robots and a marble-counting machine that counted the books each child read) and the welcoming teacher invited me to take home whatever books I wanted.

I dived into picture books and middle grade novels as though I’d been starving to read. My own middle-grade life was peppered with some wonderful classics like Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, but not anything like what I found to read now – Jerry Spinelli, Karen Cushman, Mildred Taylor, Sharon Creech, Richard Peck, Gail Carson Levine, and more and more and more…and more. 

I wanted to write this.

I began volunteering one day a week in the library, and kept on for eighteen years. When the K-5 school closed, and my private practice was winding down, I accepted an offer to be the office administrator at the early childhood center.

Every step of my journey as a children’s writer, I’ve had the encouragement and support of this master educator my son introduced me to so long ago.

During the days of volunteering, I often felt like Peter Pan sitting on the windowsill as I listened to her teaching, learned about extending the books into classroom discussions and projects, learned how to read a story to children.

I could say 30 or 40 more things about what the kind of encouragement I received means, but if you’re reading this, you’ll understand when I say that the foundation of her support and encouragement is the fact that she believed in my stories, and believed in me.

And that’s an extraordinary gift.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe hundreds of transitions during my time at this early childhood center, from children so ready to run into the classroom that a parent is left open-mouthed at the door, to those who struggle for days with “missing feelings” that are soothed by loving teachers.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I always have been, I guess. I wean myself gently.

I will miss every adult and every child at my “day job” terribly…and yet I can’t wait to explore my open days.

But of course, I’ll be back in September, volunteering to read stories to eager little listeners.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes poetry and picture books.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; “Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy;” Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

New Voices: Inside Scoop on Debut Author Groups with J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth & Deborah Schaumberg

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After years of writing you finally have your very first book deal! Now what? How do you promote your debut novel? I talked to four Maryland debut authors from the Electric Eighteens to get the inside scoop on how debut groups for young adult and middle grade authors work.

Deborah Schaumberg, J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth
Let’s start with some basic introductions. Tells us about your book and your publishing journey.


J.H. Diehl: Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, 2018) is a contemporary novel for ages 10 and up. It’s about a competitive swimmer whose dedication to her sport, unlikely new friendships, and science experiments with fireflies all combine to help her navigate the tough summer she turns thirteen, when her parents split up and her mom suffers from depression.

I’ve published picture books, leveled readers and short fiction in literary journals. Tiny Infinities is the first novel for young readers. After many revisions, I’m grateful it found a perfect home with Chronicle Books.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press, 2018) is a middle grade contemporary novel that tells the story of a friendship in peril, a grandmother who’s a hoarder, and the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

I was a documentary scriptwriter for about ten years before trying my hand at novel writing, and from there, it took another ten years before I got a book deal.

Jonathan Roth: I write and illustrate a humorous chapter book series, set in space school, called Beep and Bob (Aladdin, 2018). Books one and two released (Beep and Bob: Too Much Space! and Beep and Bob: Party Crashers) March 13, book three (Beep and Bob: Take Us To Your Sugar) releases in September.

I wrote many picture books and middle grade novels before discovering that the sweet spot for me seems to be the six-to-nine-year-olds right in the center.

Deborah Schaumberg: The Tombs (Harper Teen, 2018) is a young adult historical fantasy set in 1882 New York. It is about a young aura seer who must free her mother from the Tombs asylum where seers are being experimented on and used against their will.

My publishing journey began many years ago with a middle grade novel. After tons of rejections I started over, writing for young adults, and finally found an agent through a SCBWI conference.

Who are the Electric Eighteens?



Jonathan Roth: The Electric Eighteens are a merry band of international debut middle grade and YA (and some chapter book, like me) authors who support each other online and in person through the highs and lows of the publishing process, through networking, reading advance copies of each other’s books, attending launch events, and dozens of other large and small ways.

Unlike earlier debut groups, we do not have any specific marketing requirements. It is more about helping each other as we are each able.

Deborah Schaumberg: [It] is essentially a support group. It’s like holding hands to jump in the pool!

J.H. Diehl: The group is run by volunteers, who put up and maintain a website, a closed Facebook group, a complicated set of ARC tour spreadsheets and a wonderful series of weekly member interviews.

Smaller sub-groups have organized ‘pods’ on Instagram and meetups at conferences, festivals and launch events.

How did you find out about the Electric Eighteens?

Deborah Schaumberg: Word of mouth. I found out about the Electric Eighteens from someone in a new critique group that participated in the Sweet Sixteens when her book was published.

J.H. Diehl: In August 2017, when my book’s final edits were nearly done, and I allowed myself to think ‘this is really happening’, I did an online search for a 2018 YA/middle grade debut group. I’d seen prior year debut groups and thought it would be great to join one. I didn’t know just how great until I became part of the EEs.

Jonathan Roth: I was a member of the Swanky 17s (rebranded as the 2017 Debut Group) and like many from that group, had my release date bumped to 2018. So I promptly applied and jumped over.

Though having to wait six months longer for what already felt like an eternity was initially a bit of a downer, I find having two groups of new friends has turned out to be a real blessing. Don’t fear the bumper!

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Jonathan set up a monthly local SCBWI get-together, and it was there where I met him and Deborah and learned about the group.

Deborah invited me in and introduced me and instantly I had tons of people welcoming me, complimenting my book cover – it was an amazing feeling.

How have the Electric Eighteens helped you in promoting your book and how has it help you build a local community?


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: We follow and support each other, not only on Facebook, but on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

The ARC tour is extremely effective because often an EE member will post a picture of your cover with either a shout-out or a full review and you can share that across all your social media platforms for maximum exposure.

I do feel a kinship between us four local authors, all from the same county, and I enjoy seeing them face-to-face once a month.

Jonathan Roth: Beyond the typical online sharing, I have attended many ’17 and ’18 debut book events in the D.C. area, and was thrilled to have a number of debuts attend my launch.

Though I greatly appreciate being able to connect online with other 18s around the country and world, being able to sit around a table or chat at conferences with people is my preferred method of networking.

Also, I suspect most promotion is actually invisible (when I talk up books to fellow teachers and media specialists at the school where I teach, for example).

J.H. Diehl: Some EE members who are bloggers or librarians (or both!) have reached out to the group to offer opportunities to circulate advanced reader copies to teen reading groups or to participate in blog interviews. Likewise, some established book bloggers have reached out to the group to offer guest blog opportunities.

There have been some helpful threads in the Facebook group about book swag.

Thanks to the EEs I found a terrific designer for bookmarks and other items, YA author Kristen Rae, a member of a previous YA-middle grade debut group.

What have you learned about book promotion from being in the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: Though we share all sorts of helpful tips with each other, my main take away about promotion is that no one actually knows the proven path, but we’re all stumbling down it together.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: I’ve learned about a whole community of librarians and teachers that are active on social media and willing to review and share ARCs. They are an awesome resource, especially for middle grade authors, because if they like your book they will shout it from the rooftops!

Deborah Schaumberg: I’ve learned so much from my fellow Electric Eighteens!

As someone that is not particularly tech-savvy, I can watch to see what other people do. As a result, I have created a book trailer, learned what a GIF is, and learned how to post on Instagram. We discuss what is working and what isn’t.

What surprised you about being in the Electric Eighteen group?


Deborah Schaumberg: How close I feel to many of the Electric Eighteens members.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor; we usually don’t have people around us when we write.

And as an introvert, I’ve been to events where I was too shy to talk to people I didn’t know.

At a recent conference I met another EE for the first time. I immediately hugged her hello because I felt like I knew her already from all the online sharing.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The flood of information surprised me. Your Facebook newsfeed becomes inundated with advice, questions, musings, good and bad news.

At first, it was overwhelming. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to like or comment on every single post.

There’s also a tendency to fall into the comparison game. Why didn’t my book didn’t get a starred review? Why am I not booking as many events as so-and-so?

You have to pull back sometimes and remind yourself that each publishing journey is unique.

What advice would you pass on to future groups like the 2019s, 2020s, etc? 


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Embrace this opportunity. Learn from each other. Share. Support. Cheerlead. It’s a special club, and I’m proud to be a member.

J.H. Diehl: Go into to it knowing you can participate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, and get ready to be surprised and humbled by the support you’ll experience from the other debut authors in the group.

Go into it knowing it’s a great opportunity to give support to your fellow writers and also to experience tremendous gratitude.

Deborah Schaumberg: Also, the way the administrators of the Electric Eighteens structured the group works really well. I think past groups had lots of rules about how many advanced reader copies each member had to read and so on.

We are a support system only, all promotion is voluntary, and we are respectful and inclusive. I never feel pressured to do more than I can handle and I participate as much as I want.

Jonathan Roth: The groups grow to up to 200, so it’s pretty impossible (at least for me) to bond with everyone and/or read all their books. Like so much in life, you get out what you put in, but be selective and realistic. And most of all, be excellent to each other (and party on, debuts)!

Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it’s age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia’s favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: “Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day.”

N.H. Senzai‘s previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:

  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).

For more titles related to war and peace in children’s and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia’s author site.

Guest Post: Author Deborah Lytton & Agent Stacey Glick on Middle Grade Series Proposals

By Deborah Lytton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Thanks to Gayleen and Cyn for having us on Cynsations. It’s always such a pleasure to be here!

Today, I have asked my agent and friend, Stacey Glick to join me to discuss the Middle Grade series proposal.

Stacey is Vice President at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management and has been my agent for over 12 years. Stacey and I share a background as child actors, although we never worked together as kids because she was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast. 
Hi Stacey, thanks for chatting with me today.

Stacey: So happy to be here! I’m thrilled to talk about Debby, one of my favorite people, and her books!

Deborah: Thanks, Stacey. You’re one of my favorite people, too. Before we discuss books though, we have to talk about being child actors. (I’m including our acting headshots here. I really love my 80’s red vest and tie!)

How do you think your acting background helped you become a literary agent?

Deborah’s acting headshot

Stacey: I think my ability to network and schmooze with almost anyone stems from my experiences as a child actor.

That skill has served me very well in my almost 20 years as a book agent!


Deborah: That’s so true! Speaking about books, it’s so exciting to see the first book in the Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks, 2017) series released.

Creating the series proposal was such a collaborative process between us and the proposal was an effective selling tool for the manuscript.

Why do you think it helps so much?

Stacey: I think when you are talking about a series with a protagonist who has a big personality, like Ruby or Junie B. Jones (by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Random House), it’s important to map out not only the plots for the proposed books in the series, but also the characters and the arcs they will follow throughout the series.

Deborah: The first step was to come up with an idea for a book that could extend into multiple stand-alone books.

My other published books have been stand-alone titles, and I have also written some manuscripts for trilogies, but a series is really different from a trilogy where you leave certain storylines unfinished to extend the threads through the second and third books. With a series, each book stands alone and is connected through the character and the setting.

What do you think the important differences are?

Stacey: I think it’s just what you said. A series like Ruby Starr is really about a group of characters working through a very different story and set of circumstances in each book. A duology or trilogy is really one story that continues over the course of two or three books.

Stacey’s acting headshot

Deborah: Once I had the idea for the series, I wrote the complete manuscript for Book 1.

Then after you read it, you suggested writing a proposal as well. I remember it was really helpful when you sent me an outline for the proposal because it gave me an idea of what I needed to include.

There was a short synopsis of the series, a character list, a list of multiple other stories, and then a section about me.

If we were pitching the series again, would you add anything to the proposal?

Stacey: No, I think the proposal we put together was really perfect to show the scope of the series and your ability to write it. All of the components put together made for a very strong sales pitch for the series.

Deborah: You told me that I could be creative within the format and change things around if I wanted to convey the personality of my series but still create something that editors would be able to read easily.

The most flexible section was the information about the book. I used some of the wording from the manuscript and then shared my vision for the market age range for the book. I also added a section about similar books.

Why do editors and agents like to hear comparisons in order to consider a book?

Stacey: It’s so important for agents and editors to get a sense of how you see your work in the marketplace. You need to highlight books that will appeal to the same audience as your book. This will help you and your agent and publishing partner work together to effectively market and promote the books to the right audience.

Deborah: We spent a lot of time working on the books to follow the first so that the theme of the series was really consistent and the whole package focused.

What is your tip for writers who are working on a proposal without an agent to guide them?

Stacey: Do your research and find resources online. There are a lot of sample proposals available and, if you follow the guidelines you suggested above for a series proposal, including the manuscript for Book 1, it should be more than enough for agents to be able to consider the work.

Deborah: Stacey, thanks so much for chatting with me today!

Stacey: I loved it too. And hope you all have a chance to read the Ruby Star series. She’s adorable and so much fun!

Cynsations Notes


Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Peppered with references to her favorite books, Ruby’s fresh, humorous, first-person, present-tense account of her fifth-grade traumas, her real and imaginary friendships, and her supportive family rings true…amusing saga of primary-school friendships with a clever pro-reading subtext.”

Book 2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, is now available for pre-order and will be released May 1, 2018. Ruby and the other Unicorns are involved in a new adventure to save the school library.

Deborah Lytton is the author of Jane In Bloom (Dutton Children’s Books, 2009), which was selected for several state reading lists and chosen by Chicago Public Library as one of the Best of the Best Books of 2009. See Deborah’s Cynsations Interview About Jane in Bloom.

Her YA novel, Silence (Shadow Mountain) was a nominee for the Florida Teens Read Program. See Deborah on What’s True to You from Cynsations.

Deborah resides in Los Angeles, California with her two daughters and their Papillon, Faith. She is active in the writing and blogging community and is a member of SCBWI.

Stacey Glick joined Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in 1999 after working in film and television development for five years.

Stacey grew up just outside of Manhattan and is a former child actress who appeared on television, in theater, and in feature films. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and four daughters (the youngest are identical twins), and enjoys cooking and baking, sipping wine and cocktails, taking pictures, shopping, theater, going to Mets games and eating chocolate, cheese and spicy tuna hand rolls (not necessarily in that order) when she can find the time.

She represents young adult, middle grade, nonfiction and picture books.

Authors, Editor & Illustrator Interview: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice)

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi are the co-authors of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, illustrated by Yukata Houlette (Heyday, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. 


But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. 


This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

Inspired by the award-winning book for adults Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California by Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi (Heyday, 2009), the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. 


The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.


Today we welcome the co-authors, editor and illustrator to share with Cynsations readers a glimpse into the creative process behind the book.

Stan, can you talk about the inspiration behind the book and series?

Fred Korematsu

I wish I could claim credit for initiating the book and series, but they are the brainchildren of Heyday’s founder and retired publisher, Malcolm Margolin.

He thought a children’s version of Wherever There’s a Fight, the book I co-wrote with Elaine Elinson about the history of civil rights in California, would inspire kids.

That initial idea morphed into a plan for a series of books about civil liberties heroes and heroines.

Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. So I’m delighted that the series is launching with his story.

He stood virtually alone against a powerful government he knew was violating the rights of Japanese Americans. His fight for justice was difficult. But he ultimately prevailed.

He dedicated the final decades of his life to ensuring that others would not suffer the same unfair discrimination Japanese Americans endured during World War II.

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice.

Laura, white headband, seated far end of line, blockading
Lawrence Livermore Lab. She was arrested soon after. 

Laura, what inspired you to work on this project?

I was delighted to be asked to come on board!

Molly, our editor at Heyday, approached me and asked if I could get involved as a person with children’s book experience, to help Stan create a story pitched at our middle grade readership. It was a dream project for me.

I love that the book, and the series, focus on people who have fought for social justice and civil liberties in California history.

I grew up as the child of activist parents, and got involved in activism myself in middle school and high school, including getting arrested as part of anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid protests.

I learned from my family and from my peers, that my own happiness and well-being is connected to other people’s, and that when we fight for everyone’s rights, we make the whole world better.

I am so excited that we were able to create a book that will hopefully inspire young people today to feel like they can have a voice, and the power to speak up when they see something unfair.

We are in a time when basic civil liberties are being threatened and undermined.

I hope that our story will help kids to understand more about what happened to Fred Korematsu, and how 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were put in jail during WWII just for looking like the enemy.

This can help them to reflect on issues today — a potential registry of Muslim Americans along with the travel ban for people from predominently Muslim countries, anti-immigrant attitudes, and other forms of discrimination — and consider how they can have the power, and the ability, to speak up themselves.

Molly, how did the editorial process for this book work? Was it similar to other books you’d worked on or different?

I feel very fortunate to have been part of this project, working with a group of such thoughtful and caring creative people to share Fred Korematsu’s story.

As we built the book from the ground up, the editorial process was more collaborative than that of any other project I’ve worked on.

We spent many afternoons together talking about Fred’s experiences and how to best convey them to young readers, and it was nice that we all lived in the Bay Area and could brainstorm in person.

Stan and Laura did amazing work collaborating on the writing front, melding their different strengths, and Yutaka thought about illustrations that would complement the themes of each chapter, then beautifully realized them.

Meanwhile, we gathered photos, art works, news headlines, and other documents to help extend Fred’s story.

On a basic level, the challenge was helping readers understand and relate to Fred’s story, which
involves a complicated legal fight.

There was a constant balancing act of keeping things simple enough for our audience while presenting the complexity of topics accurately. Our conversations ranged from discussing how to talk about racism with this age group to how to present the fact that the U.S. government lied during Fred’s trial.

Through the lens of his story, we talked about many important and difficult subjects that are increasingly relevant today.

From the text to the visuals, our process involved discussing possibilities, trying out ideas and approaches, and gathering input.

We were grateful to have had the help and guidance of Fred’s children Karen and Ken Korematsu, local teachers and librarians, a focus group of fourth-grade students, and staff at several nonprofits and historical societies.

Slowly, the book began to take shape, coalescing more and more until it “came into its own” as the book it is today, a book that feels, to me, like a real community project, and one that will continue to expand beyond its covers as kids start to read and interact with it.

I hope readers are moved to have the same kinds of important conversations that we had while making the book, and that Fred’s example moves all of us to act when we see others treated unfairly.


Yutaka, what was your process for thinking about and creating the artwork?

I had never worked on a narrative project that involved so many drawings before, and honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed at first.

To try to make the project less daunting, I tried to plan as much as I could before diving too deep into any one drawing. Planning involved things like creating a color-palette, gathering reference images and trying to work out the compositions for as many of the rough sketches as I could.

The color-palette was inspired by kamishibai illustrations from the 40s and 50s.

Kamishibai, or ‘paper-theater’ was a popular Japanese form of storytelling for kids that took place outdoors. The illustrations for ‘kamishibai’ were intended to be eye-catching even from afar, so the colors often have a bright, pop-art feel to them. But many of the remaining ‘kamishibai’ from the 40s and 50s are a faded and worn out from heavy use in the outdoors. I was hoping this mix of bright and faded colors would subtly evoke an older time without feeling musty.

Because the story takes place in specific times and places, there were many reference images to find, like Fred’s old high school, barbershops from the 40s, and Tanforan. 

Molly and Diane from Heyday helped out a lot by giving me some reference books about life in the
internment camps. I was also inspired by the artworks of Miné Okubo and Chiura Obata, who were both imprisoned at Topaz.

I think that in any art-form, once you introduce more than one element, the relationship between the elements becomes impossible not to think about.

So it was important for me that the drawings worked well individually but also in relation to each other. When creating rough sketches, I tried to vary the compositions from one drawing to the next to try to make them flow together but also to not be too redundant.

Once most of the planning was done, I started work on the final drawings, which is the most fun. I used a drawing tablet for the line work and a combination of watercolors, color-pencil and Photoshop for coloring.


Cynsational Notes

Yutaka, Laura, Molly and Stan

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up received a starred review from Kirkus. “Written in free verse, Fred’s story engages in powerful bursts and shows how speaking out brings complex consequences. Enhanced with pictures and archival materials, well-researched and approachable historical essays interspersed throughout Fred’s account offer context, while Houlette’s reverent illustrations give humanity to Fred’s plight.”

Laura Atkins is an author, teacher and independent children’s book editor with more than 20 years editorial experience. She recently completed an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and also holds an MA in children’s literature from Roehampton University.

Stan Yogi managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California for 14 years. In addition to Wherever There’s a Fight, he also coedited two literary anthologies. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, MELUS, Los Angeles Daily Journal and several anthologies.

Yutaka Houlette is a Japanese-American illustrator and front-end engineer based in Oakland, California. He designs and builds user interfaces for CommitChange, a fundraising platform for nonprofits and social good companies. His illustrations have also appeared in Smithsonian Magazine and Orion Magazine.

Molly Woodward is a freelance editor and the former children’s acquisitions editor at Heyday, an independent, nonprofit publisher. Heyday promotes widespread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas.

Insets in the book provide broader historical context, timelines, definitions
and questions for readers to reflect on their own contexts.