Rethinking the Role of Research - Guest Post by Sandy Brehl

The often-repeated advice to writers is “write what you know”. That’s at the heart of every “small moments” workshop, every “what I did last summer” assignment, and even elaborate memoir projects. Much of fiction has its origins in this approach: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Judy Blume), Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (Beverly Cleary), and Paperboy (Vince Vawter) are good examples. Quality writing makes them standouts, but the stories themselves have a ring of recognition in readers’ hearts.

The flip side of that is narrative non-fiction. The current emphasis on informational text has increased the presence of biography, autobiography, history, science, and technology texts in classrooms, libraries, and publishers’ catalogs. Extensive research, documentation, specific terminology, and authentication are the foundation of these. In most cases the facts are well-vetted so readers can trust that every detail is true, at least as true as we can know “so far”.

Nonfiction writing typically follows a neat process:

          topic>research>write> bibliography.

Personal narrative often follows a prescribed path, too:


One very solid and entertaining bridge between these two genre is historical fiction. Think Hattie Big Sky (Kirby Larson) , May B. (Caroline Rose), and Number the Stars (Lois Lowry) , or Ann Turner’s picture books: Nettie’s Trip South, Katie’s Trunk, and Abe Lincoln Remembers. In each case the authors weave fact and fiction seamlessly throughout compelling stories with rich characters true to their times and places in history.

The blending of fact and fiction in this genre is not unlike a mobius strip. The two sides are not only inseparable, but interchange themselves while traveling along the path of the story. Similarly, it is nearly impossible to detect start- or end- points for the research and storytelling.

Historical fiction defies neat packaging. At its best, that ring of recognition resounds within the fictional lives of its characters, yet their journeys reveal specifics and complexities that can only be found through diligent research. Sorting out fact from fiction allows readers to explore a new purpose for research.

My debut middle grade novel, Odin’s Promise, is the end product of many years of just such a dance between fact and fiction. On a trip to Norway many years ago I heard personal stories of resistance from the war years. Memories of the German occupation were strong. From that time on I worked at writing one particular story, including extensive research about Norway’s war years.

Over time and countless revisions the story changed, the research continued, characters stepped into and abandoned center stage. Only when the right combination of research, revision, and advice came together did the story find its footing and take off. By then the facts were as familiar to me as the fictional elements so they arose naturally within the events of the story. After the book was complete and under contract I read two other recent historical fiction middle grade books set in Norway during World War II: The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova, and Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus. In both cases I recognized quirky details of the occupation years that I had included in my book. A quick check of their resources indicated our stories had been influenced by some of the same titles Despite that, our books are distinctly different.

Historical fiction provides an excellent balance of reading fiction and non-fiction text: complexity, engagement, character development, detail, sequence and consequences. More often than not there will be author notes and other back matter to help describe which elements are based on history and which are not. Online and traditional research can clarify that further, as well as offer answers to questions raised by the stories. Maps, timelines, and biographies become essential tools for both the reader and the writer.

I hope readers will enjoy Odin’s Promise for the fiction it is. I also hope the factual threads throughout the story will make them eager to learn more about Germany’s invasion and occupation of Norway under the false claim of friendship. It’s a story far less familiar than those of concentration camps and battles, but no less compelling. It even has parallels in current events of the world.

Who knows where their research could lead?

About Sandy Brehl: Retired teacher in elementary public schools for almost 40 years. A voracious reader since childhood. Writing for decades. Active in SCBWI-Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) since retiring, which led to major improvements in my writing.

Debut Middle Grade Historical Fiction:
Odin’s Promise, available April 20, 2014, official publication date- May 17.

Odin’s Promise is historical fiction for middle-grade readers, a novel depicting the first year of German occupation of Norway as seen through the eyes of a young girl.

Eleven-year-old Mari grew up tucked safely under the wings of her parents, grandma, and her older siblings. When Hitler’s troops invaded Norway under the guise of “occupying a friendly country,” she is forced to grow beyond her “little girl” nickname and comfortable patterns to deal with harsh new realities.

At her side for support and protection is Odin, her faithful elkhound.

After she witnesses a terrifying event on the mountainside, truths are revealed: the involvement of her family and friends in the resistance; the value of humor in surviving hard times; the hidden radio in her grandma’s cottage.
Odin, not one for quiet resistance, makes an enemy of soldiers who patrol the area.

The year will bring many challenges, as Mari confronts danger, develops her inner strength and voice, and finds she is able to endure hardship and heartache.

Always Emily Blog Tour, Guest Post & Giveaway

Today, I welcome Michaela MacColl to Kid Lit Frenzy. She shares with readers about The Forgotten Bronte.

Michaela MacColl
Thanks for hosting a stop on the Always Emily blog tour. I’m having a blast writing about the Bronte family and how I placed Charlotte and Emily Bronte in the middle of a mystery on the moors. I have found that so many people are fascinated by the Bronte sisters – and rightly so.

The Brontes were a close-knit family who lived in a parsonage at the edge of the moors in Haworth. Their father was a reverend and they had very little money. The four children (there were originally six, but two daughters died of tuberculosis at an early age) couldn’t afford to go to school so they were educated at home. Charlotte was the eldest, followed by the only boy, Branwell, then Emily and Anne. The children began writing from an early age, devising complex poems, novels and plays about imaginary worlds. They bound their stories in tiny books that require a magnifying glass to read.

As the world knows, Charlotte went on to write Jane Eyre and Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. These novels were acclaimed and talked about during the girls’ lifetime. But what about Branwell? What about the only boy of the family? What did he accomplish.

Not much. Although considered bright and a fine conversationalist, he struggled to find his way. He wanted to write but couldn’t get his stories accepted to his favorite Blackwood Magazine. He eventually had some poems published in a local newspaper under another name. He had some drawing skill (see the self-portrait he drew).

But he wasn’t able to make it as an artist. He went to London to go to the Royal Academy as a painting student, but he lost his nerve and drank away his tuition and returned home with his tail between his legs. He tried working as a railway clerk (but was fired for incompetence ) and as a tutor (but was fired for having an affair with his employer’s wife). He ended up becoming addicted to opiates and drinking too much before he died of tuberculosis at the early age of 31.

To many biographers Branwell represented the perfect Romantic hero. His early promise seems so wasted. Some clever researchers decided that Branwell must have helped his sisters with their famous novels. This claim has been thoroughly debunked – there’s no evidence that he even knew that the novels had been published before his death. Daphne DuMaurier, the author of Rebecca, tried to rehabilitate Branwell in her The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte. But even du Maurier who was a brilliant storyteller couldn’t make Branwell’s story compelling. She loses patience with him by the end of her biography – no doubt just as his sisters did.

Charlotte and Emily have become renowned authors, whose work is still relevant and beloved today. Branwell has been more or less forgotten. I had fun using him in Always Emily as a rather pathetic figure who needs to be protected by his big sister. But perhaps Branwell had the final word: he painted the most famous portrait of the Bronte sisters. Originally he had painted himself in the picture, but then (in a fit of 19th c. style photoshopping) he edited himself out of the picture, leaving a conspicuious void. Poor Branwell!

It’s been a pleasure. Please visit me at or follow me on Twitter at @MichaelaMacColl or check out Author Michaela MacColl on Facebook.

Check out the Official Book Trailer for Always Emily:

About Always Emily:

Emily and Charlotte Brontë are about as opposite as two sisters can be. Charlotte is practical and cautious; Emily is headstrong and imaginative. But they do have one thing in common: a love of writing. This shared passion will lead them to be two of the first published female novelists and authors of several enduring works of classic literature. But they’re not there yet. First, they have to figure out if there is a connection between a string of local burglaries, rumors that a neighbor’s death may not have been accidental, and the appearance on the moors of a mysterious and handsome stranger. The girls have a lot of knots to untangle— before someone else gets killed.

To purchase a copy: Chronicle | IndieBound | KoboApple iTunes

To read an excerpt of the book on Scribd.

To download a CCSS aligned teacher's discussion guide, click here.

Follow the Tour:

Tuesday, April 8: Actin’ Up With Books
Wednesday, April 9: vvb32 reads
Thursday, April 10: The Children’s and Teens’ Book Connection
Friday, April 11: Teenreads Blog
Saturday, April 12: Caught Between the Pages
Sunday, April 13: The Bookish Daydreamer
Monday, April 14: Forever Young Adult
Tuesday, April 15: Kid Lit Frenzy - You are here!
Wednesday, April 16: Tales of a Ravenous Reader
Thursday, April 17: YA Book Shelf
Friday, April 18: The Book Cellar
Saturday, April 19: Mother Daughter Book Club

To enter to win a signed copy of Always Emily, please fill out the Rafflecopter below.  Open to those with US or Canadian mailing addresses.

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The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut: Invasion of the Ufonuts: Special guest Laurie Keller

by Laurie Keller
Henry Holt and Co. (February 25, 2014)

Description from Goodreads: Arnie finds himself in trouble when his neighbor, Loretta Schmoretta, begins telling news reporters that she was the victim of an alien abduction. And not just any aliens—alien doughnuts from outer spastry, who will continue the abductions until people stop eating doughnuts! Although Arnie thinks this is a ridiculous story, he notices that everyone is treating him differently, as if he is an alien doughnut rather than just a doughnut-dog. And then Arnie gets abducted! Arnie must think fast in order to rescue his fellow doughnuts and the townspeople from the alien invaders.  The slapstick shenanigans continue in this hilarious second book in Laurie Keller's Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut series.

Kid Lit Frenzy welcomes author and illustrator, Laurie Keller to the blog.  After reading Arnie the Doughnut, and The Bowling Alley Bandit (Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut), I was curious about the transition from picture book to chapter book.  Thank you Laurie for answering my question, throwing in some of your great humor, and sharing some artwork with us.

Arnie Rolls Into Chapter Books 
By Laurie Keller 

When you write a picture book about a doughnut and you turn him into a doughnut-dog at the end and he’s happy, what do you do with him when you decide to write an early chapter book about him? In what point-of-view should you write it? How much back-story do you need to include? And the conundrum that keeps many writers awake at night: do you keep him as a doughnut-dog? Those were just a few of the DOZENS of questions I had to answer when I started writing Bowling Alley Bandit, first book in the series The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut.

After writing several drafts, the point-of-view became clear: first person (actually, first DOUGHNUT, in this case) to separate it from the picture book and to really let the reader into Arnie’s doughy head. Back-story: sum it up in the first chapter and get out — he has new stories to tell now. But the really perplexing one: is he still a doughnut-dog? I thought it could work but to carry that through book after book seemed too limiting. SO, Arnie explains in chapter book one that there are places that don’t allow dogs or even like them, so sometimes he’s a doughnut-dog and sometimes he just a regular doughnut.


Now we’re getting somewhere — on to the jokes. In my picture books I pepper them with all sorts of asides that aren’t necessarily a main part of the story and occasionally, depending on the age of the reader, might “go over a child’s head.” But with this new format designed for a more independent reader the jokes needed to be as much a “sure thing” as I could make them. It’s hard to gauge which jokes a child will understand or appreciate but when I asked my friend’s 5th grader if she knew who Marilyn Monroe was and she DIDN’T, I knew one of my favorite bits that referred to her famous NYC subway scene had to be cut (whaaaa!).

Arnie as Marilyn Monroe - image by Laurie Keller

Another editing issue and the last major hurdle was that my editor thought it was too long (160 pages the first go-round) and that I was going off on too many tangents with sideline stories and bits of information like the one where Arnie goes — NO — never mind. I’ll save it for another Arnie book. It was hard at first to make the big cuts she was asking me to make but it read much more smoothly after doing so (why is she ALWAYS right?).

As challenging as it was, it has been a lot of fun navigating my way through this new style of writing and I look forward to trying my hand at writing for other age groups. I don’t know how many books will be in The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut series but I have a goal of making a dozen of them. I’d love to see them sold together like a box of doughnuts. Hopefully Arnie won’t get STALE before then.

Okay, okay, doughnut puns OVER.

No more.

DO-NUT worry.

AHHHH, I did it again! Please, make it stop — I can’t stand it either!

Thank you Laurie for stopping by and sharing with us some of the behind the scenes insight on Arnie. Second and third graders love this kind of humor.

Where to find Laurie Keller: websitetwitter | facebook


Don't forget that you can can check out a copy of INVASION of the UFONUTS or BOWLING ALLEY BANDIT at your local library or pick up a copy at your local independent bookstore.  If you have a US mailing address and are over 13 years old, you can enter to win a copy of UFONUTS by completing the rafflecopter below.
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I Have a Bad Feeling About This Blog Tour and Guest Post by Author, Jeff Strand

by Jeff Strand
Sourcebook Fire (March 1, 2014)

Description from Publisher:  Everything 16-year-old Henry was dreading about survival camp turns out to be true--or even worse. The only thing to help get him through is his equally unathletic best friend Randy and the discovery of a girls’ music camp just down the path. But they’ll soon have a lot more than obnoxious “drill counselors” and too many push-ups to worry about. The owner of Strongwoods Survival Camp has taken out some loans with very dangerous men to keep himself afloat, and when a trio of them show up to collect, things go bad. Very bad. With a camp now full of armed killers, survival now has a whole new meaning for the campers. 

Kid Lit Frenzy would like to welcome author, Jeff Strand to the blog. Thank you Jeff for sharing about your experience with your first school visit.  

"They're all going to be half-asleep for the first couple of classes," I'd been warned. "So don't take it personally."

I wasn't going to take it personally. I could relate. When I was a high school student, there was nothing in the world worse than having to get up in the morning. I was so tired every morning that I couldn't even summon the energy to put edible items into a bag, and so I never had anything for lunch. ("Couldn't you have made your lunch the night before?" you're probably asking. I guess I could have. The thought did occur to me every single day at lunchtime. Instead, I went with the plan of being ravenously hungry all afternoon, and then coming home and gobbling down the stuff I should have brought for lunch.)

Anyway, I was there for the Great American Teach-In, where I would speak to seven English classes in a row about the life of being an author. Because I was there to inspire young minds, I vowed not to burst into tears at any point during my talk. I dressed nicely, to help perpetuate the myth that authors can afford nice clothes. I went in fully prepared, because even though I hoped to mostly fill the time with Q&A, I had to be ready in case there were no Q's to A.

And...the warning had been correct. The students were as zombie-like for the first couple of classes as I had been in my high school years. I was tempted to walk around with a cattle prod zapping people, but I'd left all of my cattle prods at home, and I figured that as a teenager I'd have been disinclined to buy books by an author who'd given me an intense electric shock.

Fortunately, I had this information going in, so I knew not to ARGH they hate me I'm boring them it's like I'm trying to teach them algebra first thing in the morning and I'm going to have to do this seven times and during at least one of them I WILL burst into tears despite my promise not to do so, and the teacher will report me as a Really Tedious Author and I'll never be invited to speak at a school again!

"That's how it always is," the teacher assured me, as a waterfall of flop-sweat cascaded down my forehead. "The next classes will be more alert."

Teachers had lied to me in the past ("Algebra has lots of uses in everyday life!") but in this case, it was the truth. The next batches of students remained upright, and asked questions, and laughed at my jokes. The teacher also laughed at my jokes, although by the sixth or seventh time she'd heard them I think she was just being polite.

What I mostly took from this experience was the wonderful discovery that, if you're having lunch with a bunch of teachers in the teacher's lounge, they use the F-word. A lot. I'm not saying that all teachers make frequent use of the F-word when the students aren't around, but these teachers did, and there was no evidence that it was a rare occurrence, and it was the greatest thing ever.

Did I personally inspire 175 (25 x 7) students to become authors? Not necessarily. Did they all rush home and share tales of the amazing Famous Writer who shared his life experience with them? Dunno. But they MIGHT have, in my mind, and ultimately that's what matters.

After hearing about Jeff's experience with his first school visit I had to ask “What was your favorite question from the day?” 

Jeff's response: My favorite question was “How much does school help you become a writer?” Obviously, with the teacher sitting right there, it was very important to give the correct answer! I explained that even though writers have editors, it is absolutely essential to learn grammar and all of the other writing basics, or you’ll never make it past the submission stage to get an editor. The teacher seemed to approve of this answer.

Thanks Jeff for stopping by and sharing your experiences.  And if you are reading this, check out a copy of Jeff's book at your local public library or pick up a copy at your favorite independent bookstore.

About the Author: JEFF STRAND is a three-time nominee for the Bram Stoker Award, and both of his YA books, A Bad Day for VooDoo and I Have a Bad Feeling About This are both Junior Library Guild Picks. Jeff lives in Tampa, Florida, and would last approximately three seconds in a true survival situation. But he's okay with that, because he mostly just types stuff in a safe bear-free environment.  You can also follow him on twitter: @jeffstrand

Monster Juice Guest Post by M.D. Payne

For Halloween, I have a special guest post by M.D. Payne, author of the Monster Juice Series (Penguin, August 2013).  He tells us what it was like to write for Middle Graders.  Thanks M.D. Payne for stopping by Kid Lit Frenzy.

Imagine that you were a building a house. You walk up to the beautiful acre you’ve just purchased, ready with every imaginable material—and a dozen burly workers—to get started. You’re ready to go, but before you can, the town authorities pay you a visit.

“We’re so sorry, Mr. Payne,” they say, “but regulations state you can’t actually use that type of wood. Oh, and those colors of paint are going to have to go. Ooooh, and would you hand me that hammer? It’s far too big. You’re limited to five fireplaces and one toilet, or you could have two toilets and three fireplaces. It’s your choice. Also, we’ll need to take any of your workers who are over 120 pounds. You can only keep the four smallest workers. Great! See you later. Have fun building your new house.”

You stand there, in shock and horror, wondering how on earth you’re going to build your dream home with just 1/3 of the material and help. You turn to your workers (who, by the way are in equal shock, as they’ve just been called out as the smallest), and the five of you shrug.

You’ve just got to get started.

This is exactly how I felt diving into the Monster Juice series. When you’re writing for 8-10 year olds, you’ve got less material (words, sentences, even story ideas) to work with than when you write for adults or even older kids. You can become quite limited, not only by plain words, but by streamlined plot devices. You can’t confuse the reader or they’ll slam the book shut, but you still need to keep the story going—and interesting.

The first outline I sent my editor for the series was warmly received (clearly, or I wouldn’t be here writing about my new books), but I remember him telling me, “there’s just too much going on here. You’re going to make their heads spin. You’ve got to focus on a few things and flesh those out.”

I was shocked. My number one worry was that there wasn’t enough going on—I never thought that I would be told that it was too much. And, the funny thing is, I understood I’d have to be careful about words. I had just forgotten that I had to be simpler in every aspect—including with my storyline. I had to keep things entertaining and straightforward—if I strayed from the main path, I might not have readers left when I get back on it.

On the other hand, what I lost in words, sentences and story ideas, I gained in two key tools: the hilarious mixing of horror and humor, and the ability to gross-out. Writing Monster Juice brought me back to my time in middle school, when Young Frankenstein was my favorite movie, and the first goal of one summer was to mow enough lawns to buy The Addams Family on VHS. I got to release my inner boy, and I had forgotten what a gross little monkey he was. He delights in a well-placed fart or inappropriate burp, something fueled by years of watching Ren and Stimpy, for sure.

And, don’t get me wrong—I’m not talking about dumbing things down, here. First, I had to learn the limitations of my audience, and then I pushed them a little farther. My overall goal for this series has always been to get reluctant readers in the door and absorbing more complex ideas and words than they thought possible. Once I got my readers hooked with the farts and barf, wouldn’t they be more likely to take in a larger word or more complex thought without blinking, because they were having so much fun?

So, after my initial frustration of feeling like a Picasso with only 1/3 of my palate, I dove in and had a hilariously marvelous time.

In that time, I’ve placed a number of post-it notes on my computer, my desk, my wall (practically everywhere but on my 14 month old baby, but I’ve thought about it). But there are two that are front and center, right in front of my eyes, always vying for attention. One states “Keep it SIMPLE.” The other states “SCARIER. FUNNIER. SPOOKIER. GROSSER!”

These are my main goals as I build the Haunted House that is Monster Juice.

Official Book Trailer for Monster Juice: Fear of the Barfitron

For more information about M.D. Payne: twitter | website