Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Under Cover Research, a guest post by Daphne Benedis-Grab

According to Matt,* a fourth grader at my school who often pops into the library to chat, I am a spy. I am also being spied on. This is because my future self knows what my past self has done and is doing right this minute. I love Matt because he says magnificent things that get me thinking in new ways, and also because in this case he explained in a nutshell how I research my books: I spy on my past self.

I decided to write a thriller because I have adored a good thriller my whole life. I discovered Lois Duncan when I was ten and devoured everything she wrote. I reread ‘Stranger with my Face’ so many times the cover fell off. But to actually create plot and characters, I needed to do some serious spying on Past Me.

The premise for ‘I Know Your Secret’ is that four seventh graders receive a series of texts ordering them to follow instructions or else their deepest secrets will be revealed. I came up with the heart of the premise by spying on Tween Me and recalling my love of the movie THE BREAKFAST CLUB. I have some issues with the movie now but at that time in my life it was a revelation: a group of disparate teens in trouble who slowly build trust as they sneak around their school and attempt to outwit the person who is attempting to control their actions. I also stole the timeline: ‘I Know Your Secret’ takes place entirely within in a single school day.

Ally, Todd, Gemma and Owen are also born of Past Me. Ally is adopted from Kazakhstan like both my children, and like them she has had to confront microaggressions about “real” family. She’s also a huge animal lover like both Past and Present Me. Todd is based on a friend I had back in middle school. I grew up in a white, working class town where my family stuck out a bit because we were middle class. Todd* came from an underprivileged family and often arrived at school messy and unkempt. He had acted out early on, and all of these things quickly earned the him the label of a “bad” kid. But Todd not a “bad” kid- he was an insightful, whip smart, fun kid who had some struggles going on that no one chose to help him figure out. I was too young and self-involved to ever find out his real story so in ‘I Know Your Secret’ I imagined my own version of his life, pulling from another part of my past: depression suffered by people in my family. And in ‘Secret’ Todd gets something I hope the real Todd found one day: people to understand and support him in his struggles.

Gemma is who Past Me wanted to be: confident and comfortable in her own skin, able to speak up for herself and others, and a very sleek dresser. To be honest I still aspire to fully embody these traits. And Owen is based on characteristics I’ve had all my life: the inability to say the right thing at the right time, excitement at adventure (even when that excitement irritates others) and profound desire for people to get along.

With premise and characters in place, the next step was figuring out how they built upon and impacted each other. The plot required unexpected turns, a confounding mystery and a clock ticking down to the moment where it either all comes together or all falls apart. But none of that would matter if the characters weren’t growing and changing as each event took place. For that essential piece I spied on a more recent version of me: my librarian self.

I work at a K-5th grade public school in Brooklyn with an incredibly diverse population of kids. During library lessons and during book selection I am both witness to and participant in their dynamics. I hear banter that turns into genuine baring of the soul, and arguments and struggles that injure. I meet kids who start off the school year cursing at me, only to share their secrets with me four weeks later. I wanted ‘I Know Your Secret’ to have all of that : banter, arguments, hard problems, soul baring and the incredible trust that can be born between surprising people in surprising ways.

When I spy on Past Me, the one who sat down with these ideas and story elements with hopes of writing a book, I am happy for her, for the fun and discovery that will come with  writing ‘I Know Your Secret.’ Yes, she will get frustrated and struggle and have to do an awful lot of editing. But like my characters, she gets to grow in the hard moments and have people around her to support the journey. And of course I also wonder what Future Me sees when she spies on current me as I begin work on my next middle grade thriller, what surprises and challenges lie ahead. Perhaps there is a way to ask her- I’ll have to ask Matt the next time he pops into the library for a chat!

*names changed

Meet the author

Photo credit: Greg Benedis-Grab

Daphne Benedis-Grab is the author of the middle grade novel The Angel Tree and the young adult novel Alive and Well in Prague, New York. Her short stories have appeared in American Girl Magazine. She earned an MFA at The New School and is an adjunct professor at McDaniel College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, two kids, and a cat who has been known to keep her computer warm while she is away from her desk.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/daphne.grab

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/daphne_bg/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DaphneBG

Official website: https://daphnebg.com/

About I Know Your Secret

One of Us is Lying meets Pretty Little Liars for middle-grade readers.

The email arrives Sunday night: Do exactly what I say, when I say it, or I will reveal your secret.

On Monday morning, seventh graders Owen, Gemma, Ally, and Todd, who have nothing in common and barely know each other, must work together and follow the instructions of an anonymous blackmailer. None of them want to go along with the blackmailer’s instructions, but each of them have a secret they must protect at all costs.

Set during a single day of school, the students race against the clock to complete a disquieting set of tasks, with fast-paced chapters detailing each moment of the day interspersed with a later interview-style recording made by the quartet.

I Know Your Secret is an exploration of why we conceal the truth, how far we’ll go to keep it hidden, and the power of being honest.

ISBN-13: 9781338746334
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

On Writing For Children (When You Aren’t One), a guest post by Sabrina Kleckner

Cover Designer: Jake Slavik
Illustrator: Ana Bidault

I started writing my first novel when I was twelve. It was about murderers, because sure, and despite having no actual world-building, it did include a magical language I painstakingly crafted and a very intricate (definitely too intricate) plot. Needless to say, it was not a good book. But something I do think it had going for it was the voice. I was twelve, and my characters were thirteen. Even though I didn’t understand how to write a cohesive story or that character arcs are a thing that exist, I knew how kids sounded because I was one. Fast forward, and my debut releases this month. There are no murderers this time around (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), but I did write another young protagonist. She’s twelve, and I am now twenty-four. I’ve lived double her life, and am thus far removed from her perspective. When it came to getting her voice right, I wasn’t sure if I could do a good job.

(Thirteen-year-old Sabrina probably thinking about her murder book)

(Twenty-four-year-old Sabrina definitely thinking about her debut!)

If you’ve read my book, you might think I failed on the voice front. While querying, I got several rejections because agents did not think Maisie sounded her age, and I understand why. My protagonist is much more confident than I was at twelve, and is very independent. While this could be considered a flaw in my writing, I don’t see it that way. In order for THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY to work, Maisie needed to be bold enough to flee to another country with her estranged older brother. She needed to make rash decisions while trying to save her family’s art shop because, despite being an adult, her brother isn’t in a position to help her. And she needed to be self-aware enough to understand when her careless actions caused harm, because that is the crux of the story.

When I first got the feedback that Maisie sounded too old, I worried. I considered re-writing the novel from the ground up before sending out more queries. But then I thought back to my twelve-year-old self. Whether or not I was actually mature on the outside, I felt like I was on the inside. I already had a passion I knew I wanted to pursue—writing—and I didn’t care that I was a kid or that my stories weren’t up to par yet. I was convinced that, once I finished my murderer novel, it would immediately find an agent, become a bestseller, and land me a five-movie deal (lol). At the same time, I had friends who didn’t know what they wanted for dinner, let alone what they wanted to do for a career yet. And then there were the twelve-year-olds who were already achieving unimaginable things. I was so jealous of the occasional teen who got a book deal. I used to watch the kids on Disney Channel and wonder what it was like to have a full-blown career as a middle schooler. Outside of writing, I was a competitive swimmer, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the kids my age who qualified for the Olympics.

All this to say: I realized there is no universal twelve-year-old. Children mature at different rates. They have different life experiences and personalities that lead them to thinking and speaking in their own unique ways. I don’t actually think there is a wrong way to write a child, so long as you aren’t speaking down to them. Now: this post isn’t to encourage you to ignore editorial notes—feedback is essential to publishing, and my book wouldn’t be where it is today without all the wonderful eyes that offered critiques. But if you believe a bold and confident child protagonist is necessary for your story, go for it! If your book requires a messy and immature adult main character, don’t hold yourself back! People don’t fit into neat boxes so I don’t think we should force characters into them, either.

Character Art by @kidovna

Meet the author

Sabrina Kleckner is the author of THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, a middle grade contemporary novel about family and identity. She began writing at the age of twelve, and is grateful to not be debuting with the angsty assassin book she toiled over in her teens. When she is not writing, she can be found teaching ESL or gushing about her three cats to anyone who will listen. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @sabkleckner, or at https://www.sabrinakleckner.com/.

Where to buy the book: https://www.sabrinakleckner.com/books

About The Art of Running Away

Twelve-year-old Maisie is an artist. When she’s in front of her sketchbook or apprenticing at Glenna’s Portraits, the family-run art shop her grandmother started, the world makes sense. She doesn’t think about Calum, her brother who mysteriously left home and cut ties with her family six years ago, or her parents’ insistence that she “broaden her horizons” and try something new—something that isn’t art.

But when Glenna’s Portraits falls on hard times, Maisie’s plan to take over the shop when she’s older and become a lifelong artist starts to crumble. In desperation to make things right, Maisie runs away to London to reconnect with her adult brother, hoping he might be the key to saving the shop. But as Maisie learns about her family’s past from Calum, she starts to rethink everything she’s ever known. Maisie must decide not only if saving her family’s art shop is worth it, but if she can forgive her parents for the mistakes they’ve made. 

ISBN-13: 9781631635779
Publisher: North Star Editions/Jolly Fish Press
Publication date: 11/16/2021
Age Range: 8 – 14 Years

Wild Swans and a Hymn to Anger, a guest post by Laura Weymouth

As a child, I was given a book on cassette tape, which consisted of four fairytales: The Snow Queen, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Thumbelina, and The Wild Swans. The stories were beautifully narrated, and the illustrations in the accompanying book were captivating. I was especially taken by The Wild Swans—or rather, by the central figure, mute and self-sacrificing Eliza. The entirety of the story rests on her shoulders, and yet the title makes no mention of her. She is, in so many ways, voiceless throughout her own tale, treated as a pawn or a tool through which male characters receive rewards or achieve their destinies.

Eliza’s labor breaks curses. Eliza’s loveliness sways the heart of princes. Eliza, simply minding her own business, simply seeking to undo an evil that is not of her making, is found guilty of witchcraft. And she does it all without a word, because Eliza has lost her voice.

As a young writer, I tried to retell The Wild Swans—or Eliza’s Story, as I usually thought of it—a number of times. But I always came up short, dead-ended by the brick wall of Eliza’s nature. Because the Eliza of the original story is no different with or without her voice. Whether she can speak or not has almost no bearing on the plot—more important is how the male characters around Eliza perceive her. She is a blank slate for them to write their own desires and needs upon.

As I got older, I grew angrier. I was angry as a teenaged writer, to be sure, but it was a fierce, surface-level, sharp sort of thing. The way I am angry now is bone-deep. It is relentless. It never leaves me. We live in a world of injustice and inequity, which many of us are powerless to do much about, and those who can no longer seem to care. Once that first spark of rage hits, tinder is everywhere. You never stop burning, and that fire within only gains power and heat.

So I got older, and angrier, and I came back to Eliza, and she was still a problem. She was a problem. And I thought to myself, why not make her really a problem? No girl is that saintly. No girl is that silent and pure. Deep down, we all burn. Deep down, we all harbor some form of rage.

That was how I found myself able to write Eliza. Giving her my own anger demolished the brick wall of her voiceless perfection, untangled the riddle of her, and turned her into an imperfect, furious, eminently human girl. In my novel A Rush of Wings, I gave Eliza a fresh start—a new name, a new homeland, and a more manageable number of brothers. She’s no longer the daughter of a king, but of a humble fisherman. It’s no longer a prince whose attention she courts, but a pair of boys—one a shipwrecked stray with a deadly secret, the other an upstart tyrant with a lust for power.

And yet for Rowenna, as I called my version of Eliza, the troubles of the boys and men in her life are secondary to a greater, consuming difficulty: she’s made a friend and an ally of her anger, and it’s led her own mother to distrust her. Because of her anger, Rowenna is considered undisciplined and unfit to wield any sort of power. She’s kept unschooled regarding an integral aspect of her being, because anger in a girl is considered unseemly, untrustworthy, inappropriate. We are not supposed to be angry. And if we are, we certainly shouldn’t show it.

Rowenna is brave. She wears her heart on her sleeve, pinned there with the badge of her own outrage. With or without her voice, anger lends her strength and courage, though she’s at her best when she can speak of the flame that burns at her core. Everyone she encounters has their own opinion of her anger and her power. We understand each other in that regard, because to this day, everyone has an opinion of my anger too. So many people want to chide a girl or a woman for being angry. So few want to ask her what she’s angry about.

I think for Rowenna, the answer to that question would be everything. For me, it certainly is. And so, A Rush of Wings is a hymn to anger. A recognition of the good and the beauty and the power of it. Of it how it can buoy us up and lend us courage. Of how it can get us through the unbearable and seemingly impossible, when no other emotion is enough.

There is no wickedness or wrongness inherent in anger. It is—like the other magic Rowenna learns to wield—just one gift among many. A strength or a weakness, depending on how you look at it. For Rowenna and me, anger is strength. I hope A Rush of Wings convinces others that it can be for them, too.

Meet the author

Laura Weymouth is a Canadian living in America, and the sixth consecutive generation of her family to immigrate from one country to another. She writes critically acclaimed historical fantasy for teen readers, including The Light Between Worlds, A Treason of Thorns, and the forthcoming A Rush of Wings.

Website and Socials:

WEB: www.lauraeweymouth.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/lauraeweymouth
Instagram: www.instagram.com/lauraeweymouth
Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/lauraeweymouth

About A Rush of Wings

For fans of Serpent & Dove and A House of Salt and Sorrows comes a darkly atmospheric and romantic fantasy about an untrained witch who must unlock her power to free her brothers from a terrible curse and save her home.

Rowenna Winthrop has always known there’s magic within her. But though she hears voices on the wind and possesses unusual talents, her mother Mairead believes Rowenna lacks discipline, and refuses to teach her the craft that keeps their Scottish village safe. And when Mairead dies a sinister death, it seems Rowenna’s only chance to grow into her power has died with her. Then, on a fateful, storm-tossed night, Rowenna rescues a handsome stranger named Gawen from a shipwreck, and her mother miraculously returns from the dead. Or so it appears.

The resurrected Mairead is nothing like the old one. To hide her new monstrous nature, she turns Rowenna’s brothers and Gawen into swans and robs Rowenna of her voice. Forced to flee, Rowenna travels to the city of Inverness to find a way to break the curse. But monsters take many forms, and in Inverness, Rowenna is soon caught in a web of strangers who want to use her raw magic for their own gain. If she wishes to save herself and the people she loves most, Rowenna will have to take her fate into her own hands and unlock the power that has evaded her for so long.

ISBN-13: 9781534493087
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date: 11/02/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years