Books for Winter 2016: Middle Grade

Are you searching for something new for your middle grade readers? Here are a few just out or upcoming books, in graphic format:

A selection of middle grade books launching between 1/1/16 and 4/1/16

Here’s a list of the books by author and title:


Dori Hillestad Butler, THE GHOST IN THE TREE HOUSE, (Haunted Library #7) Grosset & Dunlap

Alison Cherry, THE CLASSY CROOKS CLUB, Simon & Schuster

Leslie Connor, ALL RISE for the HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK, Harpercollins

KA Holt, RED MOON RISING, Simon & Schuster


Kristen Kittscher, THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE, Harper Children’s

Kirby Larson, AUDACITY JONES TO THE RESCUE, Scholastic

Jen Malone, YOU’RE INVITED TOO, Simon & Schuster

Katherine Marsh, THE DOOR BY THE STAIRCASE, Disney

Denise Lewis Patrick, NO ORDINARY SOUND, American Girl

Karen Rivers, THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME, Algonquin

Lisa Schroeder, THE GIRL IN THE TOWER, Henry Holt



Do you have anything you’d like to add? Please share!

Inside Plato’s Cave

Last time I talked about Lady Macbeth; this week we’ll look at an allegory.

In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, Kat and her fellow students at the Rookskill Castle Children’s Academy in the fictional burg of Craig on the coast of Scotland are taught by instructors brought in by the Lady of the manor. Their English instructor, Miss Gumble, has them study the Allegory of Plato’s Cave. This instruction turns out to be a lifesaver. (How? I’ll let you discover that.)



What is the allegory?

Plato founded his famous Academy in an Athens grove in 387 BC in order to informally tutor those intellectuals who wished to discuss philosophy and the sciences. Socrates was his mentor, having conducted his own school (the Lyceum) before being put to death after charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato continued Socrates’ tradition of oral argument and debate; Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle. Plato wrote his treatise, The Republic, as a way to elucidate societal behavior and in particular the notion of justice. Our democratic ideals descend from Plato’s arguments.

One of his most famous arguments in favor of thoughtful pursuit of knowledge is the allegory of the cave.Plato

Plato argues that the world is divided into two realms: the visible, and the intelligible (which we can only grasp in our minds). In the allegory of the cave, he suggests that people are like prisoners chained from birth in a cave and unable to turn their heads. They can only see the wall of the cave before them, and behind them is a wall along which puppeteers can walk. A fire casts shadows of the puppets on the cave wall.


Plato’s Academy

Those prisoners in the cave believe that the shadows are reality. When they are freed from their chains by education they discover they’ve been seeing only shadows of copies of reality, and not reality itself.

Plato questions the notion of reality in this allegory. Even more importantly, he suggests that those who can leave the cave – see the full scale of reality through the gift of education – must take this knowledge back to those who haven’t yet left the cave. Knowledge should be the goal of all of us, through education and realization.

I really believe that knowledge and education are the foundations of a rich, full life. Plato’s allegory works for me, just as it does for my character, Kat.

Lady Macbeth


Macbeth AndBanquo-Witches

Macbeth and Banquo confront the witches

In the previous post, I discussed Scots’ words. Now to a Scottish character.

One of the reviewers of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle pointed out that a chief character in the novel is “a tragic figure, almost a Lady Macbeth”. You might or might not remember Shakespeare’s tragedy, so here’s a bit of background that may explain why I love that comparison so much. (Note: I’m deliberately not naming my “tragic figure” in this post, so that you can discover who it is for yourself.)

Macbeth is a Scots general who receives the prediction that he will one day become king of Scotland. He’s set upon his deadly path by three witches who can foretell the future but who also use their power to play with human emotions. His ambition drives him to commit acts of murder, first of the current king, and then of many followers and allies and presumptive heirs and their children, including his compatriot Banquo, until Macbeth himself is undone.

Macbeth is goaded to action by his wife, who will stop at nothing to see her husband become and remain king, her ambitions initially outstripping his. But as the story unfolds the Lady is torn by guilt and driven toward madness – sleepwalking and obsessively washing the blood from her hands – until she finally commits suicide.

Lady Macbeth

The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth

 Macbeth has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. It’s a creepy horror tale set in Scotland and rich with magic and mystery. Shakespeare uses phrases that echo nursery rhymes or fairy tales, reminding the audience that behind the story is longing for a child and heir: “Open locks, whoever knocks”; “The Thane of Fife had a wife”. There’s little doubt that Macbeth and his Lady love one another, maybe too well.

As I drafted The Charmed Children, I struggled with my “tragic figure”. She’s an antagonist, yes, but she must also be multilayered and multifaceted, not flat. I had to give her a backstory that would make her at least understandable, if not sympathetic. It is, in part, her longing for a child that drives her terrible behavior.Macbeth

Thus the comparison with Lady Macbeth is such an honor, for Lady Macbeth is a character who inspires compassion even while her actions are horrific.

In the final post of this series: Plato’s Cave.






Scots Words

Last time: the magic of Scotland. This week – a little bit about Scots words.

I didn’t use many Scots dialect words in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. Using dialect is tricky. Too much and people get turned off. Too little and the story doesn’t sound authentic.

words kill

A kill

But the Scottish language is so rich and varied. It’s often said that the Inuit have more than 50 words and phrases associated with snow. But there are more than 400 Scots words associated with snow. These include flindrikin (a slight snow shower), spitters (small drops or flakes of wind-driven rain or snow), and unbrak (the beginning of a thaw.)

Words I did choose to use include ken (to know), bairn (child), and laird (landowner). When I named the castle Rookskill, it was to suggest death (with the word kill), but also because in Scotland a kill is a kiln-shaped chasm in the rocks, linked to the sea by a tunnel, and Rookskill is near the sea.

Rooks are birds of the crow family. But you wouldn’t want to run into a bogle (a specter) or a kelpie (water demon).

words burn

A burn in the Scottish Highlands

Scotland is characterized by many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water: burn (stream), cleugh (a gorge that is the course of a stream), glen (a hollow traversed by a stream), grain (tributary), pow (slow-moving stream), stank (pond), syke (small stream)…I could go on.


Tatties, haggis, and neeps

And, of course, perhaps the most well-known of Scots poets is Robbie Burns. Burns is beloved by Scots, and every January 25th, his birthday is celebrated in Scotland and the world over by a Burns Supper, at which a traditional Scottish meal of haggis (a savory dish of sheep innards), tatties (potatoes), and neeps (turnips) is served and the bard’s words are recited, culminating with his most famous:

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!

And gie’s a hand o’ thine!

And we’ll talk’ a right guid-willie waught,

For auld lang syne.

Next time – all about Lady Macbeth.

Holiday Break

For the next two weeks, I’ll be taking a holiday break, and I hope you will, too.

But before I go…

If you haven’t pre-ordered The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, there’s still time to get a signed copy and “charming” gift, if you go here.CharmedChildrencover (1) holiday

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is garnering raves, including a Kirkus starred review: “Witchy magic, Nazi menace, and clockwork all come into play, along with an Enigma machine and spies for both the Allies and the Nazis seeking occult sources of power or protection. After the breathtaking climax, various threads of the story are tied up in a drawing-room denouement in which the characters decide to dispose of toxic magical artifacts rather carelessly—though in a way that invites anticipation (and fortuitously leaves room for sequels). An original, clever, page-turning adventure.”

And…a Booklist starred review: “This wonderfully written gothic fairy tale pairs the horror elements with a steampunk witch and mysterious staff, all while telling a war espionage tale. Embedded lessons—even including Plato’s cave allegory—from a pair of sympathetic castle teachers provide clues to defeating the evil witch. Readers will curl up and keep the lights on with this chilling page-turner.”

Happy holidays and I’ll see you here in January!

Magical Scotland: Magical Creatures

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is set in Scotland for a number of reasons. First, the magic “lives” in a chatelaine (you can read more about that in my previous post) that is a European jewelry. Second, it felt right to place the children in a castle, with its dark, spooky corners, large scale, and ghostly history:

The castle loomed out of the fog at the end of the winding lane, after what seemed an age. Kat sat up straight, and Peter let out a low whistle.

the magical coast

Scotland’s magical coastline

It was much bigger than the picture had made it seem, a real castle with many turrets rising up through the gloom bit by bit, and it did look the sort of place that would house ghosts.

And third, Scotland is rich with magical history, from old tales to Celtic traditions to folkloric animals. Here are just a few of the latter.


A selkie?

Selkies are human-to-seal-and-back-again creatures. Most selkie stories are tragic love stories in which one of the lovers turns into a seal and must return to the sea, and cannot reunite with its human companion for seven years. In some tales a fisherman falls in love with a selkie only to lose her. The proximity of ocean to most of Scotland accounts for this and the many other magical creatures (waterhorses and sea monsters) attached in some way to the sea.

Changelings are creatures left in the place of a human infant. Usually elves or fairies were the culprits, taking the infant from her crib and replacing her with an ill or disabled child, or a disguised fairy child. A changeling child was often used as a way to explain sudden disease or developmental disability, with the result that the changeling could be left to die without guilt, and the assumption was that the real baby was living with the fairies. Sometimes a charm – such as an open pair of scissors left by the crib – was used to ward off the child-thieves.

Brownies are tiny creatures wearing brown clothing and looking like a little old man covered in curly brown hair. Brownies were usually helpful household creatures, working at night in secret in exchange for gifts of food, and living in attics or walls. Manor houses often kept a chair by the fire for use only by the brownie. It’s pretty certain that J.K. Rowling used the brownie myth as the basis for her “house elves” in Harry Potter.

magical Dobby-the-House-Elf

Dobby, the brownie-like elf

Being familiar with the rich heritage of myths, fairy tales, and magical creatures that defines the world’s cultures is a sure way to add depth to stories set in those cultures. Since I’m of English-Scots-Irish descent, I felt like I was tapping into my roots when I visited the U.K. and borrowed some of its mysteries for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.

In my next post: Scots words.

The Chatelaine

silver chatelaine

I spy a whistle, a tiny purse, a thimble, and…?

In my previous post, I discussed the role that clocks play in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. In this post, we’ll talk about jewelry.

The original title of the novel was Chatelaine. You may be reacting to that title the way that the Viking Children’s marketing department reacted: What in the world is a chatelaine? Because they feared that young readers would have no clue, we changed the title.

I love the word, and it forms a crucial part of the story (although I do love the new title, too, and those wise marketing folks were right.)

Here’s what my main character Kat knows:

The chatelaine had been a gift to Margaret from her mother upon Margaret’s marriage, and Kat knew it to be a precious family heirloom. Wrought of silver and marked with the smith’s stamp, the chatelaine contained three useful items that hung from slender silver chains joined on a silver hoop.woman wearing chatelaine

In Kat’s case, and in the case of the other chatelaine in the story, these are objects endowed with magic – a magic that can be used for good or for ill. I was inspired to write the novel because a friend of mine posted an image of a chatelaine that was so evocative – and creepy – that it brought to my mind a story. (You’ll have to read the novel to find out more – no spoilers here!)

Originally the chatelaine (the word is linked to the French word “chateau” or castle) was the actual person who held the keys to the castle. The word evolved to mean the keys themselves worn in a cluster, and then to mean something like a charm bracelet worn at the waist.


Mrs. Hughes and her chatelaine.

The Oxford English Dictionary says a chatelaine is “an ornamental appendage worn by ladies at the waist, supposed to represent the bunch of keys, etc., of a medieval chatelaine; it consists of a number of short chains…bearing articles of household use and ornament.”

If you’ve watched Downtown Abbey, you’ve seen the chatelaine worn by Mrs. Hughes, which is a set of keys and other items.

During the eighteenth century some chatelaines became so elaborate they were almost clownish. The fad faded away in the early twentieth century as fashion changed and became simpler (check out my post on fashion in the early twentieth century for more).



Some chatelaines were much like a Swiss Army knife of practical objects. Some were strictly ornamental. Many are quite beautiful. You can think of them as physical “apps”.

What do you think – is it time to revive this fashion statement?

In my next post, the magic of Scotland.

“The Secret of the Old Clock”

In the previous post, we reviewed the machines of war that influenced my novel. In this post, something about clocks.

In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, Kat Bateson is a logical girl who idolizes her father. His hobby is clock-mending, and Kat spends her time with him learning about the inner workings of clocks, including the moment when he lets her help with a clock repair:

Her hands had trembled a little as she started, but after she’d disassembled the first layer of the works she grew bolder, and her father watched her, interjecting only a little. She’d cleaned and oiled the parts, and reassembled them, tightened the screws and adjusted the balance, and then set the clock to running. It gave a satisfying tick-tick.

Salisbury_Cathedral,_medieval clock

Medieval clock in Salisbury Cathedral

Kat’s skill with clocks is a crucial element in the story.

Mechanical clocks may be an anachronism in the age of streaming time and digital watches, but they are also satisfying – and are resonant with meaning. Time travels in one direction. Time waits for no one. Time can be your friend, or your enemy.


My cuckoo clock

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is a story that is at one level about time and its passage. Kat and her friends live during World War 2. The castle itself is ancient. Scotland is a country rich in history through the ages. The clocks of Rookskill Castle break down in the face of magic. The number 12 figures both in the hours of the clock and in the children of Rookskill (more on that in an upcoming post.)

When you open up the back of a mechanical clock, you’ll see a beautiful assemblage of wheels and gears all working synchronously. Mechanical clocks need mending, but they can work for centuries (unlike most things digital). In fact, the oldest mechanical clock is in Salisbury Cathedral in England. You can even make a mechanical clock yourself!

secret of clock

Nancy Drew and her clock

I love clocks. Our family has made a collection of clocks over many years, some inherited and some we’ve picked up along the way. All are mechanical, some chime, some just tick – and one, in my office, is a cuckoo clock, which can drive our guests crazy.

One of my favorite books as a kid was Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. I wonder now if it had a subconscious influence on my work. As a writer, I love playing with the concept of time, and what better way to suggest this than to use clocks in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle both physically and metaphorically?

In my next post, I’ll talk about the inspiration of jewelry.

The Clandestine Machines of War

In the last post I talked about the United Kingdom during the Blitz. In this post, I’ll talk about other influences on the content of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. For example, a short-wave radio plays a major role:

When Father brought a short-wave wireless home a couple of weeks before leaving, he’d shown it only to Kat. “Here, Kitty. Have a look. I knew you’d be interested. Just keep it under your hat.”

war time radio

A short wave radio

During World War 2, clandestine stations broadcast news from the Allies into Nazi-controlled Europe, and those stations could be accessed through short-wave radios which access transmissions by way of skip (off the Earth’s ionosphere) propagation. Long-distance communication using shortwave frequencies is often the recourse of governments or individuals seeking to transmit to foreign nations because it’s difficult to censor. I imagined what might happen if a short-wave radio was part of a spy’s tool kit in Rookskill Castle.

war time enigma

Enigma machine

Another physical war-related item that appears in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is an enigma machine. Some models look a bit like a weird typewriter. They use rotors attached to the letters of the alphabet in several combinations in order to form encrypted information that can be transmitted. Enigma codes used mathematical cyphers as a product of permutations which made them especially hard to decode. The Germans used enigma machines with great success until code breakers were able to find the correct cyphers.

war time

Women working in Bletchley Park

One of my inspirations for Kat was the number of young women who worked at the UK Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. You may be familiar with the work of Alan Turing through the movie The Imitation Game, but some 80% of the personnel who spent time deciphering code were women. They were not permitted to discuss the nature of their work, even after the war, yet without them the enigma codes would not have been broken.

The British were constantly monitoring the coastlines during the war, concerned that a German submarine, or U-boat, would allow for a landing and invasion, even if by a small company of spies. Abandoned fortifications remain along the coasts today.war fortifications

I had a great deal of fun weaving these war-related details into the spooky mystery around Rookskill Castle. In my next post, I’ll talk about how clocks play a role in the story.

In my next post, how clocks play a role in the story and in my life.

The Blitz: “Keep Calm And Carry On”


St. Paul’s stands tall in the face of the Blitz

In the previous post on the backstory behind The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, I introduced the opening of World War 2 in Great Britain. This week, we’ll review the early days of the war.

In The Charmed Children, Kat and her brother and sister are shipped out of London, as were many children, in an attempt to escape the Blitz in the fall of 1940:

The cab splashed through deep puddles and rain pelted the roof. They passed mounds of rubble, men in their clinging wet work clothes clearing flattened homes with picks and shovels and barrows. They passed St. Paul’s, rising stately and seemingly untouched from the ruins around it. Pride surged in Kat. The bustle of London—motors and buses and black umbrellas—continued as if there was no war. Londoners described the bombings as “blitzy,” as if they were some kind of nasty weather.


Londoners hunkered down in the Underground as the bombs fell.

This fall marks the 75th anniversary of the Blitz.

The Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) was a relentless bombing campaign waged by the German Luftwaffe on Great Britain and especially on the city of London. The Blitz was Adolf Hitler’s attempt to break the British spirit. But the British refused to be cowed by the German campaign, and the Royal Air Force was able to defend the homeland.

While many families sent their children to live in the country – and even to live in the United States – to escape the bombing, the British prided themselves on standing firm in the face of tragedy and deprivation.

blitz evacuees

Children who left London as evacuees.

One of the favorite sayings of the time was “Keep Calm And Carry On”, used on a poster. This and other similar morale boosting posters were created by the Ministry of Information at the behest of the British Government. The crown of King George VI, the bold colors, and the straightforward font were used consistently. (While most of the original posters were destroyed at the end of the war, you can order your own replica – and even make up your own saying! – here.)

downloadThe British did not falter even in the face of food shortages that required the government to introduce rationing. Meat, cheese, and eggs were among the foods rationed. Cottage gardens sprang up to combat the shortages, and ration books were the currency of the day.

The British held on with a “stiff upper lip” despite the great odds and the shortages until the United States, which had held an isolationist position despite its alliance with Great Britain, entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In the next post: how the secret machines of warfare operated in life and in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.