Middle Grade Author Event of Epic Wonderful-ness!!!

A few months ago, Bridge to Books (Alethea and I are co-founders of this grassroots movement) was approached by Simon & Schuster with the opportunity to do an event with none other than Margaret Peterson Haddix (Missing Series) and Lisa McMann (The Unwanteds).

Seriously, how do you say "no" to this opportunity?  Better yet, why would you want to say "no"? I quickly responded "yes".  I figured all the details would work themselves out.  And they did.

We found a location - Thank you McKinley School in Pasadena for hosting the event in your beautiful library.  
Shannon Messenger shares a moment with Lisa McMann
Helen Stringer speaking to the crowd
In speaking with Kelly from Simon & Schuster, our two person panel grew to a foursome when we included debut author, Shannon Messenger (The Keeper of the Lost Cities) and Helen Stringer (Spellbinder). 

We had some great questions from the audience.

And our author panelists managed to show great enthusiams in responding to questions despite it being 106 degrees and the library had no air conditioning.  Definitely an amazing team of authors.

There was signing of books, and posters, and more books.  I am certain at one point Margaret Peterson Haddix thought we were never going to let her leave.  With 30 books to her credit, there were piles of books to sign.

Isn't this a lovely Middle Grade Author Panel? 

One of the highlights of the event for me was when Margaret read a letter from Jackie, my 11 year old niece who was out of town.  In her letter, Jackie credits Margaret's Shadow Children series as kick-starting her love of reading.   

Thank you Simon & Schuster and thank you Margaret Peterson Haddix, Lisa McMann, Shannon Messenger, and Helen Stringer for epic wonderful-ness and for delighting an audience of children, parents, teaches, and librarians on one of the hottest days of the year.

Some final thank you's to Kris and Maureen at Once Upon a Time in Montrose for all the book sales; Katie Ferguson for the wonderful photos of the event; and finally, thanks to all the Bridge to Books volunteers who set up, cleaned up, sold bottles of water and made people feel welcomed.

Blog Tour Giveaway & Interview with author Helen Stringer

Thanks to Barbara and the folks at Blueslip Media, I have this wonderful opportunity to participate in a Blog Tour Giveaway featuring Helen Stringer and her books Spellbinder and The Midnight Gate. Click here to read my review of Spellbinder.

There is a bit of a twist here. My 10 year old niece, Jackie, loved Spellbinder and she created the questions for the interview. We were thrilled to find out that Helen answered all of our questions.  Hope you enjoy the questions and answers as much as we enjoyed thinking up the questions.

So does Belladonna have a crush on Steve or are they just friends?
No, Belladonna doesn’t have a crush on Steve, he’s a bit too annoying for that at the moment. As to being friends, the only time she ever really talks to him is when it’s something to do with the Dark Spaces. The rest of the time he spends with his other friends talking about football and making trouble.

Has there been any other Spellbinders, and if so how many?
Yes, there have been other Spellbinders. In “Midnight Gate” the Queen of the Abyss tells them a little about the last one and they meet the shade of the last Paladin, whose name is Edmund de Braes. The last time a Spellbinder was needed was in the mid-14th century. In the past, though, Spellbinders were always adults. Belladonna is the first one to be a child, which makes her task much more difficult.

How long did your research take you especially on the Greek language?
The Greek language thing took ages! I don’t speak modern Greek, let alone ancient Greek, and because the Sibyl is from ancient Greece she had to speak the ancient variety. I tried using online translators, but they were all modern Greek. Then I tried to find an ancient Greek dictionary and had the same luck as Belladonna and Steve. I finally found something that translated individual words into ancient Greek and used that, but I’d already discovered that the ancient Greeks had different words or the same thing – for example, the word “door” could be different depending on whether you were opening it or going through it, and whether it was an outside door or an inside door – so I was fairly certain it was wrong. My editor thought so too. She had a Greek friend and asked her, but the friend only knew modern Greek. She then called her local college and managed to speak to someone in the Classics department who knew ancient Greek and gave us the correct translation. Phew! Funnily enough, no one has ever asked if the ancient Sumerian is right, although it really is actual ancient Sumerian, or as close as I can get it using a massive lexicon I found online!

What made you decide to write a ghost story?
I’ve always liked ghost stories and cemeteries. When I was about 12 my family and I went to Scotland on vacation. We stayed in a cottage in a tiny village that had a wonderful old graveyard. The gravestones were huge and had all sorts of details about the person’s life. Many of them had carvings of skulls and crossbones on them, as well as carvings of hourglasses. If the hourglass was lying on its side, it meant that the person had died young – before their time. A lot of the stones went back to the 1600s and were fascinating and sad. On some you could see that entire families had died within days of each other and you knew that some awful disease must have swept through the village. It’s hard not to think about ghosts in places like that, and to wonder if people hang around for a while after they die, and what they might make of our modern world if they do.

Who is your favorite character in the book? (Jackie's response "That's kind of hard. I liked all the characters.")
I’m with Jackie on this one! I like Belladonna because she’s so shy and quiet, yet really brave and smart. Steve is just so much fun to write – he gets to say all those things that you wish you’d said but couldn’t think of at the time. He’s also the kind of kid that everyone thinks they understand because they take him at face value, but he’s so much more than that and only needs the opportunity to be challenged and prove it. I also love Elsie. The Edwardian period was one of great confidence and she embodies that with her gung-ho, can-do spirit. She’s the exact opposite of Belladonna and can be really annoying, but her heart is in the right place. As to the other characters, I’d have to say that I like the Leader of the Wild Hunt and the Queen of the Abyss. They are both mysterious and dark and it isn’t entirely clear whose side they are on.

Why does Belladonna's aunt seem so scared of the Hunt?
She’s not scared. If she was scared, she wouldn’t have gone chasing after them. She has met them before. She knows they are dangerous but there is something that she is hiding. In “Midnight Gate” Belladonna asks the Leader if he has seen Aunt Deirdre and it is clear that he knows who she is too, though he says he hasn’t seen her.

In the book, The Hunt seemed nice to Belladonna but can they be harmful to others? 
The Wild Hunt are very dangerous. They ride the night and can scoop up anyone they want and force them to join the Hunt and ride with them forever. The Wild Hunt are well-known in the mythology of several northern European countries. In Germany they are known as Odin’s Hunt and in France as Arthur’s Hunt. Their legend even crossed the Atlantic and can be seen in songs such as “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Whatever they are called, the story is the same, a band of mysterious riders that appears out of the night sky to punish the wicked and occasionally even the good. I always liked the idea of these immortal riders who should be avoided at all costs. The Leader has taken a liking to Belladonna, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is any less dangerous.

How come people didn't know the truth about Lady Mary?
It’s not at all unusual for history to forget certain details about people and events. This is even more common when the people and events are only of local importance. And, of course, ghosts are good for business. What old house doesn’t claim to have at least one? The story of Lady Mary and her demise is based on a story that the guides at the real-life Speke Hall in Liverpool tell, but although the lady’s husband did gamble away their fortune there isn’t really any evidence that she killed herself and her baby as a result. (And the windows in Speke Hall really are far too small!)
Speke Hall

Now here are some questions for the main characters:

To Belladonna: What did you like most about our adventure?
Gosh, I don’t know. Finding my mum and dad, I suppose. But…well, it was exciting to be able to do something and not be ordinary. I’d always wanted to be ordinary before, of course, and dreaded someone finding out that I could see ghosts – though they’d say that I thought I could see them and then everyone would laugh and…well, it didn’t bear thinking about, really. It was better once Steve could see them, too. The thing with the Words was really scary at first, but it felt really great to stand my ground and send the Kere back to the Dark Spaces. It’s going to be weird having to go back to school and pretend nothing happened!

To Steve: Has your ruler turned into anything else other than arrows and swords?
Yes! The thing is totally brill! It’s been a shield (twice), a blow-gun and a quarterstaff. I’d only seen a quarterstaff in that Daffy Duck cartoon (the Robin Hood one), but it was great. At first we (that’s me and Belladonna) thought it would only work on the Other Side, but it turns out that I can use it in the real world if there are supernatural creatures about, which is good because otherwise Belladonna would be toast by now.

To Elsie: Did you learn anything else (besides the information about the Night Ravens and the Dog) from Ashe's helper?
Not really. The chap was dashed cagey about things. No idea why he picked me, either. I suppose it could have been because I was at the school, but there are a couple of ghosts of teachers flitting about there, too, and you’d have thought he’d pick them. Mind you, now that I think about it, the ghostly teachers are a rather drippy duo. One’s an old art teacher who spends all her time fretting about the quality of everyone’s work and weeping at the windows. The other was a cook in the kitchens and all she does is follow the canteen staff around yelling that they’re doing it all wrong. I’m not sure that either of them would be much use in a crisis, and my grandfather was at Roarke’s Drift, as I said, so I’ve got proper brave soldier’s blood running through my veins. Anyway, I haven’t had such a ripping good time since my dad’s friend took me up in his flying machine!

Thanks Helen for stopping by Kid Lit Frenzy and answering all these questions.  Jackie and I wish you the best of luck with The Midnight Gate and we will post our review after we stop fighting over who gets to read it first. :-)

Spellbinder series giveaway!
Three lucky winners will receive one copy each of THE MIDNIGHT GATE and SPELLBINDER along with some bookmarks!

1. To enter, send an e-mail to SpellbinderSeries@gmail.com.
2. In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and e-mail address).
3. One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses.
4. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/17/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 6/18/11 and notified via email.

For excerpts, games, links, and more, visit Helen's website at: http://www.helenstringer.net/
Read Helen's blog: http://helenstringer.net/blog/

To follow her on twitter: @hcstringer

To find her on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1553125309

Tomorrow's stop will be Mr. Ripley's Enchanted Books at http://mrripleysenchantedbooks.blogspot.com/.

Spellbinder Series Blog Tour Information

Blue Slip Media has arranged for a Blog Tour for author Helen Stringer's The Midnight Gate release.  If you are interested in checking out all of the blog posts and interviews, click on the links below.

May 23, 2011 - Mundie Kids:

May 24, 2011 - Poisoned Rationality:

May 25, 2011 - Cracking The Cover:

May 26, 2011 - Bookworming In The 21st Century:

May 27, 2011 - The OWL for YA:

May 30, 2011 - Wicked Awesome Books

May 31, 2011 - TeenReads:

June 1, 2011 - Kid Lit Frenzy (that's me):

June 2, 2011 - Mr. Ripley's Enchanted Books:

June 3, 2011 - The Joys of Reading

June 6, 2011 - The Bluestocking Guide:

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Spellbinder

Author: Helen Stringer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (Hardcover: September 29, 2009; Paperback: April 12, 2011)
Source: Personal Copy
Audience: Ages 9 to 12 years
Fiction * Middle Grades * Fantasy

Description from GoodReads:
Belladonna Johnson can see ghosts. It’s a trait she’s inherited from her mother’s side of the family, like blue eyes or straight hair. And it’s a trait she could do without, because what twelve-year-old wants to be caught talking to someone invisible?

It is convenient, though, after Belladonna’s parents are killed in a car accident. They can live with her the same as always, watching the same old TV shows in their same old house. Nothing has changed . . . until
everything changes.

One night, with no warning, they vanish into thin air—along with every other ghost in the world. It’s what some people think ghosts are supposed to do, but Belladonna knows it’s all wrong. They may not be living, but they’re not supposed to be gone.

With the help of her classmate Steve, a master of sneaking and spying, Belladonna is left to uncover what’s become of the spirits and to navigate a whole world her parents have kept well-hidden. If she can’t find her way, she’ll lose them again—this time for good.

"Some parts you don't want to put this book (Spellbinder) down and then in other parts you don't know if you should keep reading (because it is a bit scary)." - Jackie, age 10

Writing for children in what is considered the Middle Grades (Ages 9 to 12) can be a definite challenge.  Reading levels, life experiences, and maturation vary so much.  And just like the variety of children in this age group, books for this audience seem to also vary significantly.  However, I always love finding smart writing that holds the reader's attention, has a cast of solidly developed characters, and doesn't seem to be too old or too young for it's audience.

Helen Stringer's debut novel Spellbinder is really an amazing book.  Several times I stopped as I was reading just to admire, Stringer's use of language.  Maybe I am a little partial to British mysteries and fantasy stories, but when they are well done there is nothing better to read.

In Spellbinder, readers are introduced to Belladonna Johnson.  A 12 year old girl who can see ghosts, including her parents.  Of course, seeing ghosts isn't the unusual thing about Belladonna, at least not in her family.  However, what is unusual is when the ghosts start disappearing.  Belladonna sets out to find out what has happened to all the ghosts.  With her parents' disappearance, and her aunt and grandmother's unwillingness to include her in discovering what is happening, she must rely on the support of a classmate, Steve, and a 100 hundred year old ghost named Elsie, who died as a student and haunts the school.

Stringer works to tie in the present with a bit of Greek Mythology, and some bits and pieces of various ghost stories to provide just the right mix of creepy scary with action adventure.  As Belladonna searches for her parents and what is happening to the world, she must find the Spellbinder for the answers.  Some say she is the Spellbinder and that her friend Steve - her Paladin.  But if she is the Spellbinder, how come she doesn't feel like she has any answers?  Steve adds a bit of humor with his quick comebacks and ability to sneak into places he technically shouldn't be in, but he certainly proves himself a faithful friend.  Elsie, despite being annoying at times, proves to be quite the guide and mentor when adults don't seem willing to answer any questions.

Though the story ties up nicely, there were enough questions left unanswered for readers to yearn for future books.  At this point, if you are just discovering this series, you don't have to wait to pick up book 2 -
The Midnight Gate - which was released in the middle of May.  More action and adventure await Belladonna and Steve.  To find out a little more about the book, stop by the blog on June 1st, for a guest interview with author Helen Stringer.

When Feiwel & Friends released
Spellbinder, the original cover was of Belladonna having a meal with her ghostly parents (see cover above).  I guess they must have felt the cover wasn't exciting enough.  With the release of the paperback version, Spellbinder received an exciting update that matches the cover for The Midnight Gate.

I can see where the new covers may be much more attractive to middle grade readers.  What do you think?

If you haven't discovered Helen's website, she has quite a few things on it for children interested in her books.  You can click on the link to check out the information and games about her books: 

You can follow Helen Stringer on Twitter: @hcstringer
She can be found on Facebook by clicking