Favorite Reads of 2020—Part 2

Yesterday I posted my favorite middle grade books from the first part of 2020. Here’s the rest from the second half of that year!

Class Act by Jerry Craft
Jerry Craft’s New Kid, the first book in this graphic novel series, dealt with casual racism and micro-aggressions head-on (in a compelling and sometimes funny story of a Black student’s experiences at a new and primarily white school). This second book in the series touches on those same issues from a different Black character’s perspective. It also goes deep into privilege and differences and how hard it can be to be friends with people whose backgrounds and life experiences seem light years away from your own. Funny in places like the first, but incredibly thoughtful.

The Verdigris Pawn by Alyssa Wishingrad
This debut by Alyssa Wishingrad is coming out in July 2021, but I was fortunate to have an early read. The book is magnificent. I loved the gentle boy who leads the story and finds his strength where he doesn’t expect, and the determined girl who introduces him to the real version of the world he’s meant to one day rule with an iron fist. This story is packed with themes of authority and privilege, depicting how corruption can spread easily if you don’t watch out, and how we all need to stand up for the rights of each other.

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan
I make a point of reading everything that’s coming out by these two authors, so it was quite fun to read a book they’d collaborated on. And what a fantastic book. Two characters from two different cultural backgrounds—Muslim-American and Jewish-American—become friends in a cooking class taught by the mother of the first one. Expect a great story about friendship and food, as well as a depiction of how differences are good for our world.

The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson
This powerful story stars a pair of First Nation foster kids living with a white family in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who discover a portal to a world that reflects their heritage. There, time is different. Animals speak, wear traditional clothing, and follow traditional lifestyles. And everyone is worried about the hardships of a winter caused by a visitor to the land who took over far too much. A new version of Narnia that includes an important historical note as well: the impact outsiders have had on First Nation people and their traditions. And the main character, Morgan, is a fantastic edgy voice to add to middle grade lit.

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
For some reason, I hadn’t read this classic children’s fantasy, a book that helped build the genre, until this year. But I’m so glad I did. This stands up well with its wildly imaginative world and characters, and feels relevant today. It’s a story of growing up, of dealing with power and temptation, and facing one’s greatest fears. It also stars a protagonist of color in a world where people of color dominate, back when readers rare saw that in books for kids (the author mentions in her note that, to her great annoyance, cover art for this book often depicted her main characters as white).

Favorite Reads of 2020—Part 1

I read many incredible middle grade books in 2020. Here’s my list of my very favorites from the first half of of last year. While I liked nearly everything I read, these rose to the top as stories I enjoyed tremendously, thought about long after, and could see many young readers picking up and having the same response.

Last Pick by Jason Walz
This first in a graphic novel series about a dystopian society where aliens have invaded earth, taking all those they considered able-bodied (and leaving all those young and with disabilities behind), stars two siblings who were left behind. They’re starting a revolt against the aliens, but also finding value in the ways in which they differ from what aliens consider the perfect human.

Keep It Together, Keiko Carter by Debbi Michiko Florence
An incredible realistic fiction with a bubbly narrator who is trying so hard to keep her friends connected, take care of others, and be a good person while everything is changing around her. Keiko is an utterly engaging character whom readers will love to follow—and tries so hard to be understanding that, at first, she makes excuses for the micro-aggressions she endures, ones the readers will surely notice.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
I read a lot of books this year that dealt with immigrant experiences in the U.S. This novel in verse stood out for its depiction of Syrian life back at home as well as in the U.S. and the challenges of entering U.S. society as a new Syrian immigrant in a time when racism against Muslim-Americans is intense. Yet this is a sweet story as well—of family, fitting in, finding one’s place, and finding one’s home. This is a  truly beautiful novel.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably heard me rave about this marvelous answer to Little House on the Prairie. A half-Chinese girl and her white father enter Dakota Territory, where racist townsfolk, gender stereotypes, and hostile attitudes toward the native tribes make life especially challenging. It’s a sensitive depiction of frontier life and Hanna is an inspiring guide. This book is also about the importance of following your dreams.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
A boy escapes from a prison community where he’s grown up, desperate for a new life, and a policeman’s daughter is after him, determined to save her father’s honor. There are clear shades of Jean Valjean and Javert in this exciting fantasy about the abuse of privilege, what a sticky beast “justice” can be, and the power of protest.

Story Bite 21: Writing Symbols

Happy New Year! I hope everyone has a great year of writing ahead.

Late in December, I had a lovely chat with a young reader and writer about a story she was working on. She’d come up with a great scenario and there were many places her story could go. Ever since, I’ve been thinking over our conversation and what made her initial scenario so powerful: the symbols she included.

You probably have heard about symbolism in school, maybe with a bird as a metaphor for freedom. Symbols are like guideposts in your story. They hint to your reader what kind of story you’re telling and what kinds of issues you’re bringing up. You can write a story about the brutality of a corrupt government, for instance, without ever mentioning a government official or specific actions.

Sometimes symbols are obvious, part of your culture, something that everyone would understand. But sometimes they’re more subtle—and the words you put around a symbol send the message.

Before jumping into that, though, let’s think of some symbols.

For each picture below, list between one and three things that it could represent. Go as close to what the picture is as you like, or think widely beyond it. And feel free to be silly or snarky.

From your list of symbols, pick your favorite/s and think about how you’ll convey what they mean in a scene. For example, let’s say you chose the peach as a symbol of the sweetness of life. You might write, “Aisha took a bite. Juice dripped down her chin as the sweetness of that perfect peach filled her mouth. Nothing else mattered but that taste.”

Make this Story Bite as short or as long as you like. And if you’re not sure what to write, focus on one of your symbols. How could you start with it? Would the narrator notice it, walk through it, taste it, touch it? What would that be like?

Symbols will add meaning, atmosphere, and color to your writing. And while you can consciously create a scene around them, sometimes you won’t even realize when you’ve put one into your work. Symbols can just appear as part of an ordinary scene (a bowl of oatmeal during breakfast, symbolizing the comfort of a daily routine or small beauties of life, for instance) and you might not realize until later the power it holds for your readers.

On Inspiration, My Mom, and How Drest Entered the World

If you’ve read my blog or follow me on social media or heard me speak, you probably know how much I am obsessed with Scotland. It wasn’t always that way, though. But I met Scotland at a pivotal time in my life.

I first visited Scotland when I was 13 years old. I was with my parents and my two brothers on a long trip to the U.K. and we drove up from London, through the Lake District, to Edinburgh. I remember stone everywhere, Edinburgh Castle’s cannons, eating chocolate, and being wet! I had fun, but I didn’t return for many years. (The affordability of it was part of the reason.)

Fast forward to 2015. My mother, one of the best friends I ever had, died of ALS. In her final days, I couldn’t be with her in person, but I called 4 or five times each day. I kept a list of stories and told her about memories we shared over the phone. She couldn’t talk but I hoped she could hear me. Among other things, I described the many wonderful trips we’d taken.

Mom and me

After she died, my older brother and I had a conversation about one of the things we learned from Mom during her illness: the importance of appreciating what was beautiful and doing things for yourself—a bit of the classic carpe diem philosophy, though appreciating beauty was a big part of it. My brother, who is a professional rafting guide in northern California, went river rafting in Costa Rica. My husband, son, and I planned a trip to the U.K.

When we planned our trip, it was late fall 2015. I’d just finished a near-final draft of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter and I wanted to take a research trip to a place filled with castles. I asked friends on Twitter where I could find the best castles. A few people recommended the Scottish Borders. I saw what was there (many castles! tons of history!) and was hooked.

Castles like this! (Craigmillar)

In early 2016, I signed with my literary agent for Drest’s story. And just as we were leaving for our trip, literally at the airport in New York en route to Edinburgh, I had my first chat with my editor, who wasn’t my editor then but who was interested in my novel.

Scotland and the Borders were a dream. We kept to Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders and dipped down to England to visit Corbridge and Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall, outside of Corbridge, England

I drove everywhere in a little car, on the left side of the road, and loved it. I was where I belonged surrounded by the things I loved: castles and history. I kept thinking of my mom, who would have also loved the history. (She was big on learning.) I was in a state of near-constant beaming.

Constant beaming like this.

One of my favorite castles to visit was Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh (on the outskirts of the city). As soon as I saw it, I knew this was a place that would matter. I took so many pictures. At that time I was thinking of another Drest book, one that would feature a strong noblewoman* with her own castle with a secret passage. This, Craigmillar, was going to be its façade. (*That strong noblewoman became Lady de Moys and the book became The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter.)

Craigmillar Castle (or, in Lady de Moys’s world, Harkniss)

I was inspired, in my element, and very happy. We drove down to Jedburgh to stay in a cottage on a sheep farm (parts of this feature in a coming book, by the way), where I checked my email… …and learned that my editor was making an offer for Drest and her world! Suddenly, the story of my wee lass was going to be a book.

I wrote The Mad Wolf’s Daughter a few months after my mother died. I wanted to write something that would help me escape my grief. So I wrote a story about what I loved most and what I’d always wished I could have read as a child. I learned it would become a book in a place I visited because of Mom.

I wish Mom could have seen Drest outside Edinburgh Castle’s Portcullis Gate. I can just imagine her smile.

Thank you, Mom, for teaching me so much about how to live. I miss you.

Reading Black Voices in Fantastic Middle Grade Fiction

I am angry and depressed by the ongoing systemic racism of this country. It needs to change. Every single person needs to understand that Black lives matter. Everyone needs that knowledge to be part of their daily lives. And we need to flood our libraries with books that show it.

Here are some of my favorite middle grade books by Black authors. And these are books that have a lot of joy in them (even though some may have some heaviness too). These are books for any kid of any race or ethnicity, books that kids enjoy.

And these are books that every elementary school classroom and library should carry.


My first is a recommendation for fans of creepy stories and folktales. These are some of the best books of that kind I’d ever read: The Jumbies trilogy by Tracey Baptiste. Kids who love good stories loaded with menace will eat this up.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks is brand-new realistic fiction that goes into family, truth, serious baking, as well as bias and our prison system. The writing is as warm as this cover art, and I know a lot of kids already love this.

Love Like Sky by Leslie C. Youngblood is a fairly new realistic fiction book, the powerful and sometimes heartbreaking story of a blended family, sisters, illness, fitting in, and early romantic love. (And it’s very timely as well: One of the characters is involved in protesting police brutality against Black people.) This book packs in a lot of issues and weaves them together beautifully.

If you’ve ever heard me talk about Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance, you’ve heard me say that this book is like The Westing Game but better. With vivid scenes zipping between the present and the past, this mystery with its historical subplot and story of racism is utterly brilliant and a leader in the middle grade mystery genre.

The amazing Sharon M. Draper has written so many incredible books, Stella by Starlight high among them. It’s a historical novel about a girl in the 1930s facing the KKK in her community. My son reread this again and again, from 3rd grade to 5th grade, at least once each year. And wrote his one and only fan email to the author (who answered him within a day sharing news of her next book, Blended).

Finally, if Jason Reynold’s Track series isn’t in your classroom or library, you need to put it there right away. This series has a huge fan base in every school I’ve mentioned it to. They’re fast-paced, exciting sports books, but books with issues, and I’ve not met a single kid who hasn’t loved them.
These are amazing books. Kids love them. And by having authentic Black voices in these stories help children see themselves or see what kids of another race and ethnicity are like: with experiences distinct to the Black experience, yet with hopes and dreams a lot like their own.

(I tweeted the pictures and some of the text of this post on May 31, 2020.)

Black Voices in Middle Grade Historical Fiction

It’s crucial to have Black voices in the middle grade curriculum in classrooms. Too often, historical stories that have meaning because of the Black experience are told from the white perspective. We need to bring these stories back to authentic voices. Here’s are four of my favorite historical fiction books for elementary and middle grades that do this right  (each graphic has the publisher’s blurb and era).




(These images are from a thread I tweeted on June 3, 2020. I wanted it to be here as well.)

Story Bite 20 (Special): How to Write an Action Scene!

This is a little bit different from my other Story Bite posts. I wanted to try this format and see if young writers would this kind better (maybe I’ll just mix it up in the future). In this post, I’m sharing a video for a series created and hosted by Debbie Ridpath Ohi called Ask Me to Ask, in which authors and illustrators share tips relating to their crafts and answer a question.

Here’s my contribution: how to write an action scene. This could be a good introduction to my other posts on this, Story Bite Number 14 and Story Bite Number 15.

I love that Debbie used Minecraft in her intro.

What do you think? Was this fun?

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite action scene with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Story Bite 19: Building Character Through Sensory Details

Sensory details—of smell, taste, sight, and sound—make a scene come alive and can also make a character feel real. Thinking about sensory details and how someone reacts to them tells you a lot about that person. So even though this may feel like a post on descriptive writing, it’s really about digging deep into who your character really is and showing that through things like…fruit.

Here’s our inspirational image:

Strawberries, brambleberries, and raspberries from the Tay Valley, sold in the Stockbridge Market, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

The pictured berries from the Tay Valley in Scotland and are the best berries I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know if it’s the peat or the moss that flavors the water or if it’s the soil, but I’ve never eaten berries so sweet and with such distinct flavors as these. When a character has a memory of something like this—the best berries they’ve ever eaten—it could well turn into a defining moment. Let’s explore where such sensory details could lead us.

1.  Decide what kind of reaction you want your character to have related to these berries: a positive or a negative one.

Either one could do this job. You could use your sensory details to create tension or to build a sense of security. Think about the feeling you want to convey.

2. Make a list of what made the memory either positive or negative.

Positive: What made your character happy? Were they at home, or on vacation, when they ate these berries? Did they pick them in a garden or just enjoy from a bowl at someone’s house? (Whose house? A grandmother’s?) Who are the people they shared these berries with, or did they eat all the berries themselves? Were the berries served on a special occasion, or were they were simply a small beauty of everyday life, something that made the world feel normal and safe?

Negative: What made your character feel bad? Did these berries come from hard work picking in a field? Does the taste of a berry remind your character of the pressures they felt as an immigrant, or of fear of bias or violence? (Many of our farm workers in both the U.S. and Scotland are immigrants or temporary residents from other countries and, sadly, are not always treated with the respect and kindness they deserve for their expert and important work.)  Did someone shout at your character before they tasted one? Was your character supposed to eat the berries? Does the taste of these berries comfort your character in any way, or haunt them?

3. Describe the berries—and your character.

Write about the scent (and any other scene in the room or field), the taste, the sounds around your character as they eat, and what your character sees. Base all of this on what you wrote before. What is your character’s reaction to eating the berries? What is the reaction of the people around them?

A scene like this can help your reader understand your character a bit more. It provides a window into your character and their joys or fears while setting the scene. If you want, you can even add backstory—the taste of the berries in the present make your character remember the taste of berries in a scene from the past and the mood and situation of that time. Sensory details don’t have to be just ribbons on your story but essential parts of the fabric (and they can still be ribbons).

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Story Bite 18: Creating Myths

As I’ve been sheltering in place to help keep my community safe, I’ve been thinking about what stories do for us during challenging times. They can help us look with new perspectives at what surrounds us, sometimes understanding it better or more deeply. They can also help us escape into worlds far from ours. Many people throughout history have used storytelling as a means of doing both.

I know that some people want to look straight at what’s going on while others would prefer to look away, so this Story Bite offers a few options. We’re going to work on a rousing myth. And here’s our image:

This is a classic deer hunting scene carved on a stone from sometime between AD 700 and 850. This stone was found in Scoonie in southeastern Scotland and now is kept by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. (photo: Diane Magras)

Ancient people—and people of today as well—often commemorated events with a sculpture. It might be a carving like this or built from other things (clay, sand, wood, glass, metal, or found objects like branches and leaves or bicycle rims and gears). But the artist is always thinking of the story that a piece will tell. Sometimes, from particularly ancient pieces like the one pictured, the story disappears into the mists of history (especially if there is no written documents for historians to examine as well).

So let’s create a story for this image and start with some questions:

Who does this image depict? Is it an ordinary hunt led by an ordinary person? Or a hunt led by royalty? Or a deity? (And if it’s a deity, is the deity the hunter, the deer, or the dog?)

What does this image depict? What’s going on with the central character? What’s the story that this picture is showing? You’ll want to imagine what happened before the scene depicted as well as after.

What’s the main point the image’s creator wanted to convey? Think of the takeaway, the warning, or the lesson of this story. It can be as simple as a tale meant to depict a character’s bravery and cleverness or a story with a clear moral.

For your Story Bite (pick one), write one paragraph or more:

1. Answer the three questions above with the pictured stone in mind. Create your own myth around it (though you can set your myth in your area or any place you like).

2. Draw a picture or build a sculpture depicting a mythical scene that you imagine. (Are there swords? Had to ask…) Answer the questions and create a myth for that scene.

3. Think of a story that describes something going on today and draw a picture or build a sculpture depicting it. Then answer the questions above and create a myth for today.

4. Pick a work of art from one of the amazing museums sharing their collections online these days (here’s the Getty Museum in Los Angeles as one resource) and answer the questions about that work.

If you want to go a step farther, give your myth a title. It can be as simple as “The Deer Hunt,” for instance, or be your takeaway point in a few words.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Story Bite 17: World Building and History (Today)

For this Story Bite in a time of global social isolation, I’m going to delve into one of my favorite parts of writing: research that helps a writer to understand a world. This post will also connect to the incredible historical situation we all find ourselves in today…but more on that in a bit. (By the way, keep in mind that all of the below is useful for fantasy and sci-fi as well. But stick with the concept of history for now, and certainly at the end. You’ll see why.)

The fundamentals of research allow you, the writer, to know your time and place—not just what people ate, and wore, and how they traveled (and if they traveled), but what issues were facing people’s lives. Some important questions to ask about another time or place as a writer—so you can recreate it—might be: What was life like? What did people care about? What mattered most?

Here’s our photo, some detail about an important historical site in Edinburgh, Scotland, that shares a bit about how people thought and what mattered in 1886…and in 2007:

About Well Court, Edinburgh. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s the Part One of our Story Bite:

Write a series of questions that you would ask someone from the past—or from a fantasy or sci-fi world— to get to the bottom of what life was like for them. Would it be a medieval person from the time of knights and castles? Someone who lived in 1886 as Well Court was being built? A world where faeries and goblins lived alongside humans?

Here are some questions I might ask:

  • What was normal for people to eat? What was special? Where and how did they get their food?
  • What did people do for medicine? Did they do anything special to keep healthy? What was considered “healthy?”
  • What did kids do during an average day? If they could do anything they wanted, what would they do?
  • What were some of the crises that their families dealt with? How did their family, community, or world deal with regional, national, or global challenges?
  • What did people worry about? What made people scared?

Go ahead and use these questions if you like or come up with your own.

Do you have your list now? Fantastic.

Here’s Part Two:

Answer your questions yourself: about your world right now.

You are living in a historic time right now. With the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s world across the world is being disrupted. Recording what’s going on around you is important. It provides what’s called a primary source document, which shows to people in the future what the world was like now according to people living in our world and time. These are crucial in understanding events and lives of the past, but many of the past leave gaps: Few primary source documents that were written by children exist.

Your voice matters. Imagine what your documents would be like for people to read a hundred years from now. This is your chance to tell part of a big historical story.

Part Three (optional):

If you were disappointed to end with current history and really want to write about the past or an invited world, please go right ahead! This is world building, a crucial part of writing any story, and you’re just creating your primary source document for your fiction world. Have a bit of fun with it and think about what kind of character would be filling this out. You can tell a lot about a character by their answers…just as someone can tell a lot about you by yours above! But pay a lot of attention to the final question. What made people worried? And maybe add this one: How would your characters react to a world like ours?

Further Directions:

I always invite young writers to share their Story Bites with me; I love to see what you come up with. For this one, with your permission and a guardian’s permission, I’ll keep a record of what you send on my website, linked to this post. As I wrote above, your voice matters. I want to keep a record of what kids are thinking right now.

If you’d like to share your Story Bite, please submit it through your teacher (I know a lot of you are working with Google Classroom!) or through a guardian and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. I hope this is helpful.