Middle Grade Fantasy: A Roundup of Modern Classics

Part of the fun of writing fiction is that you never know exactly what’s going to happen when you sit down at your desk. Still, I have generally leaned toward writing realistic, contemporary stories, and that’s what I’ve read for the last several years (to the exclusion of nearly everything else).

So when I started on my current work-in-progress, the last thing I expected was for it to be a fantasy, much less a fairy tale. But when my protagonist pricked her finger on a thorn from the stem of a rose (while sitting in a castle tower) on the very first page of my very first draft, I knew right away that I didn’t have a choice––I was about to plunge head first into a world of my own creation.

As I started to explore the genre, I realized the landscape had changed quite a bit since the days of THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, HARRY POTTER, and NARNIA. Needless to say, I had my reading cut out for me.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I’d been missing out on a whole slew of amazing stories and gorgeous writing. From THE PRINCESS ACADEMY to THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (and everything in between), the genre quickly captured my heart.

I figure I can’t be the only one who has neglected the fantasy realm as an adult, so I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve been exploring. Whether you are new to the genre or you are searching for holiday gifts, here is a sample of some of the “modern classics” I think you (and the kids in your life) will find well worth your time:

Happy Reading! (And if you have more fantastic MG fantasy to suggest, please share in the comments below.)

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

Jessica Vitalis is a middle grade author represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch. An active member of the literary community, Jessica volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor and with the We Need Diverse Books campaign. When she’s not pursuing her literary interests, Jessica can be found chasing her two precocious daughters around Ontario or eating copious amounts of chocolate.

Q&A with Middle Grade Author Julie Leung

Julie, congratulations on the release of your latest book, Mice of the Round Table (Voyage to Avalon) and welcome to The Winged Pen! Your cover is gorgeous––tell us about the story.

Julie: Young mouse Calib Christopher has nearly completed his training to become a squire to the Knights of Camelot when news of a deadly plague reaches the castle. Soon all of Camelot is showing signs of the illness, animals and humans alike. Desperate to find a cure, Calib and his friend Cecily set off on a voyage to find the healing land of Avalon. But even as their journey takes them over land and sea, back at home, Calib’s human friend Galahad discovers that the true enemy may have already found a way inside the castle walls…

Thanks, Julie––this sounds like a fantastic adventure! Let’s talk about your favorite children’s books. What books inspired you while writing?

One of the most influential books of my childhood would have to be The Neverending Story by Michael Ende—upon which a pretty cheesy, but also childhood-defining ’80 movie is based. As a secluded bookworm, I was absolutely enraptured by the idea that I could imagine something into “being.” I longed to be Bastian Balthazar Bux and get whisked away into a fantastical book. While I can’t say that it’s happened to me literally, I feel like I’ve achieved the next closest thing by becoming an author.

If you could whisk yourself into any of your favorite fantasy novels, which would you choose?

I probably wouldn’t survive very long before some undead thing ate me. But one of my favorite fictional places is the Old Kingdom in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series. My other, safer answer would be Mossflower Wood in the Redwall series. I would incarnate as squirrel probably.

What are your favorite creative retellings of classic stories?

As a huge Oz fan (who read all the books past The Wizard of Oz, no less!), I enjoyed Wicked by Gregory Maguire a lot. I’m generally fascinated by good vs. evil dynamics getting turned on their heads when envisioned from the villain’s perspective. I also very much enjoyed Cinder by Marissa Meyer, which speaks to my Sailor Moon fangirl roots.

If you could retell any famous novel with mice, which would you pick?

Thinking of cool retellings is one of my favorite past times, so I have a lot of ideas along this vein. But if I had to pick, I would love to reimagine the Robin Hood adventure through the eyes of a woodland creature…maybe a scrappy pine marten. Have you googled pine martens? If you haven’t, you should. You won’t regret it.

Thanks for the tip! *makes mental note to google pine martens* Speaking of googling, when you’re writing a medieval fantasy, how much do you depend on research versus your own imagination?

As far as Arthurian lore goes, I’m lucky that this sandbox has already been played in by many authors before me. A lot of my research had more to do with folklore and literature than history. I revisited a lot Arthurian fictional classics in my preparation for writing: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s  Merlin trilogy, etc.

Before we go, can you tell us more about Calib Christopher’s next adventure?

In Books 1 and 2, I’ve been hinting at the idea that Camelot is perhaps doomed no matter what our heroes try to do. In the third book, we’ll see Galahad and Calib confront this prophecy and Camelot’s greatest enemies firsthand. The ending may surprise you.

 JULIE LEUNG was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, though it may be more accurate to say she grew up in Oz and came of age in Middle-earth. By day, she is a senior marketing manager for Random House’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Del Rey Books. In her free time, she enjoys furtively sniffing books at used bookstores and winning at obscure board games. Her favorite mode of transportation is the library.


Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

October Four on 400 Contest Window is Now Open!

Q: What is Four on 400? 

A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of October, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the fourteenth of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.

If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!

*Please check your email SPAM filter to make sure it will allow an email from info@thewingedpen.com

Want a chance to win an extra entry? Go to our Facebook page and find our post about the October Four on 400 contest. Then like and/or share our post. While you’re there, like our Facebook page if you haven’t already!

Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on October 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

Four on 400 September Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

Middle Grade: REMY (Working Title)

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” Mahatma Gandhi

But the town was dirty and dying. Rémy hardly remembered it being otherwise. And what happened when more and more of the molecules afloat in this village became stained with the scum of fear?

She knelt in the dirt and lowered her face close to the ground, almost as if praying, like she’d seen Karthik’s mother do. But instead of praying, Rémy was scheming. She eyed the stones spread across the yard—hers red, Karthik’s blue—then glanced up at him. His back showed no sign of watching. Instead, he faced across the street, and she took the opportunity to give her General a shove. She sprang up from the ground, watching the General roll destructively through his array of blue stones and displace most of them.

Rémy sauntered to Karthik’s side, eyeing him to see if he’d noticed anything. But he leaned on his staff, watching his mother across the street. Missus Kapoor stood outside her front door with a screwdriver, twisting calmly at the door’s threshold. She dropped one small screw after another into the pocket of her apron, until she’d pried loose the Kindivine that had greeted every visitor to the Kapoor house since before Rémy and Karthik were born. This charm, too, went into the flowered apron, but she seemed to continue to hold it tightly, her hand remaining locked away inside that pocket as a truck rumbled past and hid her, leaving smoke in its wake.

The truck stopped in front of the Campanas’ house, where they had been lining up their belongings all morning. Those important enough to take. Cousins and granduncles worked swiftly, many hands piling these into and onto the truck, until it was precarious with the weight of their collective memories and tears. It was done in a smattering of minutes. Last, they tucked Greatmissus Campana into a small passenger roost and the truck lumbered off, a few young men hanging from its sides. A small boy Rémy didn’t know ran behind, waving and shouting.

“Karthikeya!” Their heads both snapped to where Missus Kapoor had reappeared at the door. “Time to eat!” she called.

Karthik hadn’t even looked at Rémy. But as he started across the street, she distinctly heard his voice carry back.

“I saw what you did. Expect retaliation.”

Rémy smiled at his small back, retreating across the great boundary of road.

Michelle– I can already tell this is going to be a compelling story about families being forced out of their homes and a young girl who is plotting a way to fight back. You can slow this down just a little to ground us in time and place. Because you’ve quoted Ghandi, I’m assuming this is India, but it would be helpful if there were details in the scene to confirm this–types of belongings, lingering smells of food in the air, etc. I’d also work on the first two sentences to create lines that will hook a reader. Here is a post about first lines that might help. Specifically, the “scum of fear” threw me out of the reading while I tried to understand what that meant. A few sentences down, you refer to “her General.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. Why is it “hers”? Overall though, this is a great start because you’ve piqued my interest! Best of luck!

Jessica: So much to love here! You’ve done a great job setting up the tension, which makes me want to continue reading. That said, the opening jumps around a little too much for me to fully immerse myself in the story. We go from Remy worrying about her world to her playing a game and then back to the troubles in her world. I’d suggest starting with the second paragraph; flesh out the game and setting just a touch more so that we don’t have to work so hard to figure out what she means by the General and we feel we’re there with her. After that, the opening flows nicely. Well done!

Karin: I love your language and the emotion and tension you create with Rémy as well as the other characters, who are also so beautifully anchored in action. I wouldn’t change too much at all. I would consider cutting the third sentence as it’s a little too telly and pulls me out of the story. Later you can consider replacing “his” before “array” with “Karthik’s” as a little clearer. Also, I pictured the truck rumbling past and leaving them in a wake of smoke, but in the fourth paragraph I was confused because this same truck stops at the Campana’s house. Perhaps you can give us as a transition some sense of distance here; for example, “At the end of the street the truck came to an abrupt stop at the Campanas’ house…” I don’t think you need paragraph 6 (two sentences) as a set up to K saying he saw what R did because  you did a wonderful job of showing us that K wasn’t looking at but at his mother, and without these sentences his remark is even more satisfying. These are minor nitpicky details because I really loved these 400 words!

Gabrielle: Your prose is lovely, and the feeling is dark, which I love. I think, too, you’ve done good work developing character and voice in page one. I agree, however, that it jumps around a lot–without the descriptive part of the narrative that we need to root us a little better. We meet too many people, too quickly, without seeing/sensing them or the space they occupy. It’s unusual, I think, to have the feeling and the pull of a narrative so well done, but be missing that (usually easier) piece. If you give us a few lines of sensory setting description, and/or physical character description, trickled in,  as the characters move through, it will space the scene out a little and help us see it as it happens. Do that, and I think this will be gold.

Coming Back After a Writing Hiatus

Does life ever get in the way of your writing? It does for me, and never more so than during my recent move from Georgia to Canada. With all of the logistics that came with moving a family internationally, I was forced to set aside my writing for a period of more months than I care to admit.

It wasn’t until after we were settled and my children started school that I finally had the time and emotional energy to get back to work. Unsure where to start after such a long break, I reached out to my friends at The Winged Pen to get their advice. Their thoughts were so helpful that I asked for their permission to share them with all of you.

Q: How do you get back to your writing after a hiatus?

 Halli: I’m dealing with that now. I just tried to jump into my manuscript, but I’ve been out of the story for so long, I’ve lost the feel and voice. So I am diving back in with research I need to do for the story.

Julie: Between travel and Pitch Wars, I took six weeks off this summer. I wanted to ease back into things, but not too gently because I didn’t want it to take another month for me to get going again. So this weekend, I made a 30-day revision plan. I reread my notes to myself about what needed to happen to take this zero draft from dumpster fire to something I could send to CPs by the end of September. I mapped out a new beat sheet (because I’m changing a couple of the plot points and getting rid of some others) and created a chapter map with color coding for the four act plot/character arc structure, with an added set of columns for the themes & subplots to make sure they’re echoing enough/making regular appearances in the storyline. Then yesterday, I sat down and started reading. It took me at least an hour, maybe two, to get back into the voice, but after a while, I was able to start making tweaks, and tweaks led to a new scene, and now I feel like I’m back in the groove. My ms just happens to have 30 chapters, so I wrote 1-30 on my chalkboard and will try my best to cross off at least one chapter a day until I’m done! That will hopefully give me some accountability, plus I get a huge sense of accomplishment when I cross off those numbers on the chalkboard.

Kate: What helps me, like Julie, is setting up a schedule. I did my month of poetry as a kickstart. Then I tried to get back into the manuscript, but was still dithering a bit. Finally, I just gave myself some deadlines. I’m writing 3k a week (2 pages a day, 6 days a week). I have a chart. I’ve accepted that I’m basically a toddler when it comes to whining and stubbornness, and sticker charts and rewards are really helpful!

Rebecca: Tackling a new revision is always intimidating. I find that setting a timed-goal for my first couple dips into revising really helps. The hard part is thinking about revising 96,000 words. If I pick a place to start and tell myself to work for 45 minutes and then I can have a break, I find by the end of the 45 minutes that I’m usually engaged with the work and happy to keep revising.

Richelle: Scheduling usually works for me. I like to dedicate a couple of nights a week to an away-from-home writing session. It’s on the calendar so everyone knows I’ll be unavailable. I find that having even just two nights a week to immerse myself in writing means that I can squeeze in shorter (but very productive) bursts the rest of the week because I have those longer stretches to really figure out what I need to do.

Jessica: In addition to incorporating many of the suggestions above, I’ve decided to jump back in by reading my entire manuscript and writing myself an edit letter—something that I can use as a roadmap for revisions.

One last thought:

People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
– Harlan Ellison

With that in mind, let’s all get back to work!

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Canada, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.