Friday, January 27, 2023

On Submission

This post has been a long time coming. About 16 years long. There have been times when I thought I was ready to submit my middle-grade novel, HALF-TRUTHS. But now I KNOW it. 


From the beginning, I imagined a story about a white girl and a light-skinned Black girl discovering that they were second cousins. That premise, which consistently elicits a "WOW!" response, has remained the same throughout my book journey.  

Having written dozens of articles and two nonfiction books, (Friendship Counseling, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8)  I had confidence in my writing skills. But I knew nothing about writing fiction. It felt like jumping into deep water without knowing where I'd find the bottom. 

I wanted it to be a pre-civil rights story but Harold Underdown, my mentor at a Highlights Foundation workshop in 2009, informed me that was only the setting. For years I wrestled to answer the question he posed: What does your character want


In the summer of 2007, I started thinking about my story and began interviewing "experts." My friend and mentor, Joyce Hostetter, encouraged me to research far and wide. What was happening in the world? In North Carolina? In Charlotte? She suggested that I find people who lived in the area and listen to their histories. Since I was just discovering my story, those initial interviews were broad. It's funny to reread them and see some of the questions I asked. 

Even though I often got off track and wanted to include every story I heard--I absorbed a time and place that was new to me. (In a future post I'll share some of the stories that I wanted to include but didn't.) 

I'm working on my 20+ page bibliography which includes 100 expert interviews. Some interview notes are less than a page. One of my experts is a man who graduated high school the same year my protagonist was in middle school. His notes are over 90 pages. Skimming through these interviews, I found details that made it into my story. I'd forgotten where and how I learned things such as what was served for lunch in the school cafeteria, the Black help's relationship with their employers, what it felt like to sit at the back of the bus, the used books and sports uniforms passed to the Black schools, the discussions about school integration, the peasant dresses worn to dances. You name it. It's one thing to read about these things in history books. It's another thing to have someone tell you how they felt as they experienced Jim Crow and/or chose not to become a debutante. 

Dorothy Counts, one of my experts, walking to Harding High School in 1957.
She was the first Black to attend the school.  
The photo originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer. 

People often wonder how I found these experts. I learned to ask everyone, "Who else should I talk to?". Tom Hanchett, Charlotte's local historian recommended several individuals. Others were patients of my dentist husband who were long-time Charlotteans. Others were parents of friends. These became my experts whose stories were woven together to create Half-Truths.


As the (working) title indicates, this book is about secrets and "white lies." Ben Franklin wrote in the Farmer's Almanac in 1758, "Half a truth is often a great lie." Over the years, I've thought about the secrets that people choose to conceal or at least, not talk about. I've often wondered what effect that has on the following generations.  As a Christian, I'm committed to telling the truth as commanded in the ninth commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness." As I wrote this novel, I had to think about my own "little" half-truths that I tell, and the reasons for them.

One elderly woman, a former debutante, suggested that I not pry into Charlotte in the 1950s and instead, write about my own life. (Who would want to read about growing up in South Jersey? Boring!) I was fascinated by my adopted new hometown and walked and biked around South Park and Myers Park thinking, "What is the story that could have happened here?" When I visited the former Rosenwald School in Grier Heights and saw the picture of a light-skinned Black principal, I found a key part of my story.

Billingsville School in Grier Heights. 
Now a community center. 


 INovember 2008, following Joyce's advice, I joined NaNoWriMo for the first time. I didn't feel ready, but it helped me create a first draft.

Pretty soon I realized that I didn't know what I didn't know. I attended workshops and webinars, conferences, and classes. I read books and blogs on plotting, conflict, and character; participated in several critique groups, and received critiques from industry professionals. Throughout this time, my best writing buddy, Linda Phillips, and Joyce encouraged me, asked me pointed questions, and provided feedback.

From the left: Joyce Hostetter, myself, and Linda Phillips
 at a writer's retreat in 2011.

But why did it take 16 years? First, I spent a long time trying to figure out where the story began. HALF-TRUTHS takes place in 1950, but at one point I started it with the protagonist's father in WWII. Not even close to the inciting event--which I didn't know a novel needed! 

Despite the fact that I wrote several outlines, I kept getting off track. Whenever I heard a feasible suggestion, "Someone should die," or, "Write it from the points of view of both girls," or, "Include romance," I spent time incorporating these ideas and going down rabbit holes of research. Combine that with going back and forth on whether or not this was a young adult or middle-grade book, I often strayed from my original vision: two girls--one white, one Black, discovering they are related. 

Enter Rebecca Petruck.  Rebecca critiqued several drafts and offered great insight into character arcs, plot points, and internalization. After I had spent a lot of time writing boyfriends for each main character (when I was thinking HALF-TRUTHS was a young adult book), Rebecca told it to me straight. I had lost the essence of the story--the girls' relationship.  

Rebecca helped me construct a plot chart in October 2013. 
I learned about Save the Cat! for the first time.

Since all of my readers were saying the book sounded more middle-grade, I ditched the boyfriends and the young adult genre. Along the way, I continued to interview folks and read and review middle-grade books. I particularly enjoyed Kathy Weichman's historical novels. Winner of the first Grateful American Book Prize, Kathy used to joke that she is the poster child for perseverance. I think I might be tying her for that distinction. 

Joyce Hostetter and I have swapped manuscripts over the years. Last February she suggested that I hire an editor to bring the book to the next level. I asked several trusted professionals in the Kidlit community for recommendations and found Deborah Halverson. She is a treasure.

In June 2022, I shared one page from Deborah's comprehensive editorial letter. For the next six months, I worked on incorporating her suggestions. I took out Kate's free verse poetry and changed it to journal-type entries in her steno pad. This fits Kate's goal of becoming a journalist. I worked on more youthful language, made Kate the instigator for the major change in her life, tightened the ending, and strengthened the City Girl vs. Country Girl motif as Rebecca had suggested years ago--but I'd forgotten!

In other words, I revised. A few weeks ago I was rewarded with these words from Deborah: 

In this revision, I feel you have accomplished your goals with this project, creating an entertaining, enlightening, compelling, and satisfying story for middle graders. I believe young readers will connect with Katie immediately and root for her throughout. Her growth is inspirational, showing the triumph of a flawed but earnest young person. 

Deborah's words gave me a boost of confidence that finally brought me to the...

of this stage. But it is also the beginning of an exciting time--being on submission!


For my friends and family who are reading this and aren't writers, you may be wondering what happens next. Remember those conferences and webinars I mentioned? At each one, I collected the names of agents and editors who expressed interest in the manuscript. Many said they didn't care how long it took. They just wanted to see it when it was the best I could make it. 

Now I take out that list, organize it through Query Tracker, and start sending out the manuscript.

If you are a writer, how did you feel when you began submitting your work? Please share your experiences in the comments. 


Obviously, I don't have a copy of Half-Truths to give away, but I'm cleaning off my bookshelves to make room for the books I'll need for my next project. Over the last 16 years, I learned that I'm definitely a plotter, rather than a panster. For those of you who abhor outlines, I'm giving away my (slightly marked-up) copy of WRITING INTO THE DARK. Leave me a comment with your email address by February 1 and it could be yours.

Congratulations to Emily Weitz who won MY SCHOOL IN THE RAIN FOREST.

Please take a minute to see views about other middle-grade books on Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Sunday, January 22, 2023


 Margriet Ruurs was the author expert in the recent issue of Talking Story on "Libraries Without Walls." She has published a plethora of nonfiction picture books so I decided to ask her a few more questions. Here are her answers as well as a chance to win one of her award-winning books, My School in the Rain Forest.


CAROL: How did publishing My Librarian is a Camel impact your writing career?

MARGRIET: It’s funny. I loved having Boyds Mills Press as a publisher. They did several of my other books since then. But I had this particular manuscript rejected several times. In the end, it has become one of my most successful books so I learned to never give up, to keep submitting, and to believe in your writing. This book also led to many speaking opportunities because of its topic. And I’m passionate about books and libraries so I loved the ride.

CAROL: Can you speak about the global nature of your books? What inspires you? 

MARGRIET: Travel has enriched my life. I travel the world, mostly to speak at International Schools where students speak or learn English but come from a wide variety of backgrounds, different cultures, and countries. I learn much from these kids when I meet them and often they will inspire stories. Meeting kids in Pakistan, Mongolia, in Israel made me realize how similar we are, and how we share the same values and needs despite our different religions or customs. This made me write books like Families Around The World and Where We Live. I hope that these books help to bring awareness and respect for people who are different from what we know.

Margriet sharing books in Mongoloia.

CAROL: Can you talk about how your books are used in classrooms? Was that always your vision as an author?

MARGRIET: Because I spend a fair amount of time in schools as visiting author, and conduct writing workshops in classes, I know that books can be much more than ‘just a story’. I also hope that my books are not just entertainment for a short while, but that they help kids to grow and expand their knowledge. Books truly can be ‘windows on the world’. So adding teaching materials, supplementing with activities and ideas for busy teachers, can really help to increase the value of a book. 

I have often put classes in touch with each other around the world so that they can become pen pals and exchange information about their countries and their daily lives.

But also following an author visit, students will better appreciate the process that goes into the making of a book. How long do you do research? Which sources are reliable? I love telling students about the many years it took me to collect information and images for My Librarian is a Camel, and how I did not give up when it took years to get the actual information from a remote country where the librarian did not speak English. Students need to learn about online research and how to differentiate between reliable and unreliable resources.

My book Stepping Stones is about refugees and was illustrated in stones by an artist in Syria. Many schools have used it to make art from rocks and other natural objects. But also to write biographical stories. It has been used widely as a fundraiser and raised more than $100,000 for refugees.

I also have quite a few books about animals and wildlife (Wild Babies, Amazing Animals, and more). I love showing students how to make sure their information is correct and how to put information in a format to which the reader can relate. For instance, in Amazing Animals, I tell the reader how much the heart of a Blue Whale weighs. But how do you imagine what 400 pounds look like? When you tell the reader that the heart of a Blue Whale is the same size as a mini-van, or that a newborn black bear is the same size as a stick of butter… that is something a kid can picture, and thus it makes more of an impact.

Stories can also focus on real-life experiences. One of my books is called The Elephant Keeper. The publisher used an interesting format for this nonfiction picture book. They turned the picture book into chapters. The main story is about a young Kenyan boy who feared elephants but grew up becoming a much-respected elephant caretaker in an elephant orphanage I visited. The main story is illustrated with beautiful art. This is interspersed with facts about elephants where photos are used. So this book become a format that works on many different levels, in the classroom and beyond.

CAROL: What’s next?

MARGRIET: I’m working on all sorts of exciting projects, including picture books about each continent. I always have writing on the go. I love being able to follow my own interests and getting kids excited about research and writing. Besides working on manuscripts, I interview a Canadian writer or illustrator for a regular column in a magazine that goes to all schools in Canada. I also review books with global appeal for The International Educator, a print and online publication for educators at International Schools. 

Margriet with Dashdondog Jambyn who ran Mongolia’s mobile library
 and wrote many beloved books in Mongolian.


Astra Publishing is donating a copy of My School in the Rain Forest to one fortunate winner. To enter, leave me a comment by January 26. Make sure you leave your email address and name if you are new to my blog. BONUS: Educators and librarians get an extra chance! U.S. address only.

Don't panic if you don't see your comment published immediately. It will publish after I approve it. 

Saturday, January 14, 2023

OMAR RISING: A MG Review by Teen Guest Blogger, Elliott Kurta

Omar Rising is the latest middle-school book from Aisha Saeed, featuring twelve-year-old Omar as he fights for justice at Ghalib Academy, an elite boarding school in Pakistan.

Despite having stayed at Ghalib over the previous summer, Omar is overwhelmed by the opulent campus. There’s a dining hall, soccer field, library, rec room, and walking paths. But Omar quickly realizes that he won’t be able to enjoy any of the luxuries in the Ghalib campus. As a scholarship student, he’s not only expected to maintain an A+ average in every subject, but is also required to complete five service hours a week while doing so. Worst of all, he’s not allowed to join the soccer or astronomy club, which he’s been waiting to join since the summer. As Omar struggles to keep up, he notices that none of his peers are held to the same standards that he is. Inspired by the artist and female rights activist Shehzil Malik, Omar decides to stand up for himself and rebel against the system that put him in Ghalib but is now doing its best to throw him out.

Omar Rising features a primarily Arabic characters and a corrupt school system as well as teachers that, frankly, have it out for their students. While this combination may seem too mature or complicated for middle schoolers, this novel perfectly packages real-world themes into digestible, easy-to-understand portions. Readers won’t just find themselves sympathizing with Omar, they’ll find themselves empathizing with him. It’s pretty easy to see yourself in Omar; he’s smart, a soccer-fanatic, sanguine, into science, and artistic. The poster child for childhood.

The rest of the characters are similarly likable. Kareen and Naveed, Omar’s roommates, add levity to each chapter. Similarly, Omar’s peers and soccer buddies, Humza, Jibril, and Marwan, give a more detailed glimpse into what the rest of the school looks like; carefree and preppy. Meanwhile, Omar struggles to keep up with his studies and manage his five weekly hours of chores, as he points out on pp. 80-81:

            “There are so many people who keep this school running. Gardeners. Cooks. Maintenance people. … They don’t need us to do this work. They just want to make sure we remember our place.”

Without delving too deep into the fact that he’s at the bottom of the hierarchy, Omar still delivers a poignant, impactful statement. This is only a small example of Omar’s emotional narration. Keeping pace with a fast-paced story, the middle-schooler’s monologues effortlessly switch from discussing soccer practice to elaborating on the pressure to succeed at Ghalib academy.

Omar Rising is an impactful and realistic novel, a call to action for any middle-schooler who has ever felt like an outsider. Through Omar, readers are educated about life in Pakistan and are inspired to make a difference in their own communities, just like the protagonist. The book is a reminder of how powerful resistance can be, even in the face of a system designed to create and widen inequalities. Overall, Omar Rising is a novel rooted in change and justice but still easily relatable to kids, perfect for young activists and innovators.


Congratulations to Connie Saunders who won DAISY AND THE MONA LISA. 

Don't forget to check out other great Middle-Grade books on Greg Pattridge's MMGM blog.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Daisy and the Missing Mona Lisa: A Middle Grade Review by Guest Blogger, Lily Matarazzo and a Giveaway



In Daisy and the Missing Mona Lisa, by J.T. Allen, Daisy’s newest misadventure begins with an invitation from Felix, her aunt’s friend and a former spy, to visit his chateau in the Loire. During her stay, our heroine explores the historic town of Chinon in the daytime, dives into a Proust novel at night, encounters a ghost and two ginormous pigs, and helps Felix organize his massive art collection. Upon her departure after two weeks, Daisy receives a copy of the Mona Lisa from Felix, as thanks for helping him. But this Mona isn’t just any copy, it’s one of two flawless forgeries created to confuse the Nazis during their search for the real one in World War II. 

Daisy returns with the painting to her aunt’s apartment in Paris, to find that her friend Lucia Sarir, now a teen model, is in France to audition for the spring runway shows. Lucia is eager to “meet” Daisy’s Mona, and thinks it might be the real thing. When Felix suddenly dies, his family is after her, convinced she stole the painting that turns out to be worth a fortune, real or not. Daisy, followed by her loyal sidekicks, makes her way around her chaotic world full of scheming adults in a search for the truth.

J.T. Allen presents an engaging mystery about a fearless young woman with a lively personality that any girl would love to call her friend. The author has done a wonderful job of telling this story from a first-person point of view. Daisy’s narration and her conversations with others are spot-on to convey how a girl her age actually speaks and thinks. She tells her story as if she’s speaking to a friend, making her a more relatable character, and her adventures seem more real and entertaining. 

I did my best to appear skeptical. I know I’m twelve and supposed to be all jaded and everything, but this sounded like a fairy princess castle set in a magic forest with every other fairy tale thing going for it. And Chinon – the town where Joan of Arc actually met King Charles the Whatever and told him, “..give me an army.” And the king looked at this golden-haired teenager and said,” Awesome, go for it.” When does that ever happen anymore?” (Page 8) 

Learning about and exploring new places in a foreign country alongside Daisy with her vivid, humorous descriptions, is just one of the things I enjoyed about this book.  There is a helpful glossary of French words and phrases in the back of the book, because the French language is sprinkled throughout the story, reminding readers of the setting. The interactions of the characters were often entertaining and they helped to move the story forward. Daisy is older than she was in her last book, and I noticed that her maturity is reflected in her own interactions with others and the words she uses, being clever and even sarcastic, without ever being rude. 

Daisy and the Missing Mona Lisa might officially be middle-grade fiction, but I feel that the story would also be enjoyed by older children and adults, too. 

I am 15 years old and in tenth grade. I have six younger siblings, and when I'm not playing with them or homeschooling, I enjoy reading, drawing, practicing piano, and talking about stories with my friends.


Lily graciously agreed to pass along her copy of the book. To win it, please leave a comment with your email address (if you are new to my blog) by January 11.  If you share this on social media, I'll enter your name twice--just let me know where you shared it. 

Congratulations to Theresa Milstein who will be able to share TAKE BACK THE BLOCK with her Massachusetts students.

Look for more great Middle-Grade Books on Greg Pattridge's excellent blog, ALWAYS IN THE MIDDLE.


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