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.

Fall Releases on Our Radar!

Fall makes me long for crisply cool, slightly overcast days. Why? On days like this, I enjoy exerting myself in the yard, cleaning up my summer gardens and preparing the cool season garden, and then hopping in the hammock with a book. Here are a few new releases for fall that have caught my attention.

Picture Books

Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote

By Margarita Engle and illustrated by Raúl Colón

One of my favorites for this fall, definitely an award contender. It’s a fictionalized first-person biography in verse about Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, father of the modern novel. As a child, his vivid daydreams of daring knights provided refuge from his family’s troubles and inspired one of the world’s most influential books, Don Quixote. Gorgeous pen and ink illustrations perfectly contrast Miguel’s dreams with his reality, speaking to the power of story in our lives. A beautiful and engaging book to treasure.

Releases October 1, 2017

Brave by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

This book celebrates BRAVE kids and reminds us that all kids have the power to be brave and kind…

–when they face new challenges

–by helping others

–by speaking up

Great inspiration, reminding us to follow our hearts and find courage to do what is right, even when it’s hard, and showing us that there’s a little superhero in all of us.

Releases October 3rd, 2017

After the Fall by Dan Santat

From the New York Times–bestselling and Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator, Dan Santat, we finally find out what happened after Humpty’s tragically famous fall. When his beautiful paper airplane lands on that dreadful wall he’s been trying so hard to avoid, his paralyzing new fear of height haunts him. Stunning illustrations carefully balance whimsy and the gravity of his situation. My favorite thing about this book is the story behind Santat’s dedication. Watch the video where he shares why this story is a love letter to his wife.

Releases October 3rd, 2017

Red and Lulu by Matt Taveres

A pair of cardinals becomes separated when their lush, shady home is cut down and sent to New York City to become a Christmas Tree. Such a beautiful, poignant story about miracles. Because of this and the dazzling watercolor illustrations with amazing perspectives, my family may have a new holiday favorite.



Middle Grade

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Red, the ancient oak who’s been watching over the neighborhood for about two hundred years, is known as the wishtree because every year locals tie notes with their wishes to Red’s branches. You would think Red’s seen it all, but then a Muslim family moves in to the neighborhood. Red has to take things in his own hands to protect the family’s young daughter when a community member makes them feel unwelcome. With interesting, fun characters, this beautiful story of hope, friendship, and community,  is guaranteed to make you laugh and cry both happy and sad tears. Beautiful!

Releases October 3rd, 2017


Greetings from Witness Protection! by Jake Burt

Thirteen-year-old orphan and pickpocket-extraordinaire, Nicki Demere, has been chosen by the U.S. government to join a mother, father, and son who are being protected by Witness Protection from dangerous mobsters. Are her tough-girl skills enough to keep the family safe? Though the plot may seem unbelievable, this fast-paced, captivating story with relatable characters and fun family dynamics will make for some very fast page turning. Highly recommended!

Releases October 3rd, 2017


Young Adult

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Fifteen-year-old Will’s older brother Shawn was just murdered. He knows what he must do. He must follow The Rules, which means that Shawn’s killer must die…by Will’s hands. He hops on the elevator on his way to get revenge. But on each floor, a new passenger gets on. A passenger that is in some way connected to Shawn. 7 floors with 6 visitors.

This book is BRILLIANT. Told in free-verse, every word is precisely chosen to grab your heart and mess with your head. This is a book to be shared and talked about. IT WILL CHANGE LIVES. I love a lot of books, but this is my favorite read of 2017 so far. Buy it and share it. There should be several copies in every high school in America, so donate one if you can. I predict this one will win multiple awards, and it will deserve every single one. To be devoured again and again.

Releases October 17th, 2017


Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m starting today! My daughter tore through it in two days and said, “Mama, you’re going to love this book.” Then she handed me a box of tissues. “And you’ll need the whole box.” I do love books that make me think and feel, and she has assured me it will do both. It’s the story of three siblings who were given up for adoption at birth. When the middle sibling, sixteen-year-old Grace, gives her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family and discovers that she has siblings. This story about family, relationships is on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People along with Long Way Down (above) and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (below). There are so many great books on the longlist this year, so please check them out.

Releases October 3rd, 2017

I am not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

I haven’t read this one yet either, but it’s up right behind Far From the Tree. I normally read all the books on the longlist and have yet to be disappointed by any of them. This is the description on the back of the book: “From debut author Erika L. Sanchez comes a laugh-out-loud and poignant novel about losing a sister and finding yourself.” It’s about Julia, a girl who dreams to be a writer and refuses to let her family’s expectation get in her way.

Releases October 17th, 2017

We’d love for you to share your fall favorites in the comments!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.














The Unicorn in the Barn: Review/Author Interview with Jacqueline Ogburn

Today we welcome to The Winged Pen the author of one of my all-time favorite picture books, THE MAGIC NESTING DOLLS. Jacqueline Ogburn is the author of ten picture books and, in just a few short days, the world will be able to read her beautiful debut middle-grade novel, THE UNICORN IN THE BARN.


… the presence of the unicorn and other magical creatures adding just a touch of whimsy to a story about very real emotions. A sensitive, moving debut.-Kirkus reviews

Eleven-year-old Eric Harper lives on his family’s farm in Chinaberry Creek. Due to his grandmother’s illness, they’ve sold her home to a new veterinarian in town to help pay bills. The veterinarian takes care of the many wild and unusual animals that live in the area around the Harper’s land. One day, Eric spots a lame unicorn and the veterinarian invites him to work with her and her young daughter to treat the animals. As Eric learns there are magical creatures that live in their woods, he also discovers family secrets that will change his life forever.

THE UNICORN IN THE BARN is both deeply imaginative and real at the same time. It deals with family death in a tender way for young readers. It is a coming-of-age story fully of whimsy, appropriate for ages 9-12 and would make a great read-together book. Rebecca Green’s black-and-white illustrations beautifully compliment the simple and heartfelt prose.


THE UNICORN IN THE BARN goes on sale on July 4th, 2017  at your local indie or here:



Barnes and Noble  



Welcome to The Winged Pen, Jackie! Reading THE UNICORN IN THE BARN was like a walk down memory lane for me, hanging out on the farm and playing the mysterious woods near my home. Does the fictional Chinaberry Creek represent an actual place from your childhood?

JO: Yes, the setting is based on my grandparents’ farm in Cabarrus County, in-between Concord and Albemarle. I would spend at least week there every summer.  When I was little, they still had cows, chickens, barn cats and for while goats, as well as several Chihuahuas that were house pets. Several of my cousins lived in houses and land that used to be part of the original farm. The house is a rambling two story and there are lots of smaller buildings clustered around it—the tractor shed, a couple of chicken houses, a potato house, corn crib, and of course, a barn.  I moved things around a bit, as the barn was in a pasture down the hill, not next to the house. There are still a lot of woods around and a creek and a pond in the pasture.  I named the nearby town Chinaberry Creek, because my mother loved Chinaberry trees. 


It’s interesting how the story seems so simple and innocent, yet deep and moving. I think this may be related to your experience as a picture book writer. How was the process different for writing a middle-grade novel different from writing a picture book?

Novels have so much middle!  A picture book I could figure out the structure and characters in my head, then write a draft that would be very close to that.  I tried outlining this, but as I wrote, the number of scenes and chapters kept expanding.  I knew the beginning and the end, but the rest of the novel, all the middle, kept growing, as I realized more things had to happen to get to the end.  Novels also require a lot more description of the setting and action.  Even though this book ended up with a lot of illustrations, I couldn’t count on the art expressing those things.

While I love fantasy, I wanted this story to be a contemporary fantasy, for it to be as realistic and matter-of-fact as possible.  Moonpearl isn’t a rainbow sparkle unicorn, she needs someone to muck out her stall and pick the burrs out of her mane.

 To achieve that, I did some interesting hands-on research. For six months, I was a volunteer at the Piedmont Wildlife Center, and did most of the same chores Eric did – sweeping, mopping, cleaning out cages, washing dishes, fixing food and water.  That’s how I met Bobby Schopler, the vet who read the manuscript for me and now works at the Duke Lemur Center. I read dozens of books by vets and visited a couple of horse barns to make sure the physical details were well grounded.

 I knew early on that if I was going to have a story about healing, that there also had to be loss. At one point, I called a writer friend nearly in tears because I realized that I had to include the death of an animal for the story to be properly grounded.


From the story, it’s obvious that you care deeply for animals. Can you tell us about your how your real-life experiences turned into this beautiful story that is partly a love letter to animals?

The book is a lot of wish fulfillment for me. I did love animals as a kid and read tons of books about them, especially horse stories. We only had one dog, Rusty, when I was growing up. He was a sweet red-brown Chihuahua. I also kept lots of caterpillars and grasshoppers in jars, and had goldfish and guppies. Fish are nice to watch, but not very cuddly. My mother had enough to do with raising five kids, and as a farm girl, she was less sentimental about animals.  Her brother, my Uncle Jackie, adored them, and there is a lot of him in Eric.

Now I am a cat person. Our tuxedo cat, Java, likes to sit on my chest, just under my chin while I read in bed.  I spent about a year in between cats while working on the book and it made me realize how much I like having a nonhuman companion. They deserve attention, affection and respect as much as people do.   


What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

I have a few chapters on a sequel, where Allegra is the main character. She’s more complicated and prickly than Eric. Timothy the Cheshire cat and Prissy the goose are still around, but there will be other magical creatures as well.


Lightning round (hands Jackie a cookie, for strength)!

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Flying

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden

Coffee or tea? Hot coffee, but ice tea

Sweet or salty?  Salty

Dog, cat, or other?  Cat

Plotter or pantser?  Both. Even when it’s tightly plotted, like a picture book, there are surprises and detours along the way.


Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

Read widely, not just in the genre that you love, but other things, including nonfiction. Curiosity is an important trait for a writer, to wonder “what if” and then to be driven to find out the things that could and would happen after that. 


Excellent advice and thanks so much to Jackie for stopping by to talk with us! Want to see unicorns in the real world?. Follow Jacqueline Ogburn on Instagram, and you can also find out more about her here!   

And click here for a special limited-time Instagram giveaway!!!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!


















Book Recommendation: FOLLOW ME BACK by A.V. Geiger

I requested a free advanced reader copy of Follow Me Back in exchange for an unbiased review.

Told through tweets, direct messages, and police transcripts Follow Me Back is the  first book of a new duology. Written for the online generation this thriller  will keep you guessing right up to the shocking end.

Tessa Hart’s world feels very small. Confined to her bedroom with agoraphobia, her one escape is the online fandom for pop sensation Eric Thorn. When he tweets to his fans, it’s like his speaking directly to her…

Eric Thorn is frightened by his obsessive fans. They take their devotion way too far. It doesn’t help that his PR team keeps posting to encourage their fantasies.

When a fellow pop star is murdered at the hands of a fan, Eric knows he has to do something to shatter his online image fast—like take down one of his top Twitter followers. But Eric’s plan to troll @TessaHeartsEric unexpectedly evolves into an online relationship deeper than either could have imagined. And when the two arrange to meet IRL, what should have made for the world’s best episode of Catfish takes a deadly turn…
Excerpt taken from Netgalley.com

I requested this book because it sounded fun and current, like a story ripped from the headlines. I read it in one day. Tessa and Eric, the main characters, were believable and pulled me in. Unexpected plot twists and quick pacing kept my attention. And while I picked this as a light read, it had depth. Both main characters are grappling with issues that make this more than a light-hearted read.

Follow Me Back, is entertaining. Pack it in your bag for vacation. And maybe pack a second book, because you’ll fly through this one quicker than you expect.

Follow Me Back will be released on June 6th. You can pre-order or find out more on the sites below.
Barnes and Noble

Need more book suggestions? If Follow Me Back sounds good to you, you might also like these recent young adult contemporary and science fiction releases:
The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti
The Takedown by Corrie Wang
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Map to the Stars by Jen Malone


Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

2016 National Book Award for Young People

Which Book Should Win the 2016 National Book Award for Young People?

Time for a little fessing up. Before 2013, I read 0 out of 5 of the finalists for the National Book Award for Young People. Shameful, I know…

In 2014, I picked up a book called BROWN GIRL DREAMING. You may have heard of it. 😍 Unbelievably amazing. If you have the chance to hear Jacqueline Woodson read her own words on audiobook, please do.  It won and was the only book I read from the list of finalists. Yes, more shame…

In 2015, I read 3 out of 5. THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, BONE GAP, and NIMONA were all fantastic reads, some of my favorites of the year.

Last year I made myself a promise to read all five of the National Book Award for Young People Finalists. Each of these books deeply touched me in all the right places. The characters became my friends. I lived in their worlds with them. I wanted to help them. When the books ended, I wanted to call them up and discuss their stories. Here’s a little about each of these literary gems. (Don’t worry. There are no spoilers!)


by Kate DiCamillo

(Candlewick Press)

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-7-37-36-amRaymie and I are soulmates. We’ve both busy carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, making happily-ever-after plans, and hoping the world is tuned into the same radio frequency so that everything works out the way it should. For Raymie, those happily-ever-after plans involve her father redeeming himself for leaving her and her mom by rushing back to her with open arms. Like Raymie, I’m still that little girl who loves people with a big, open whooshing heart, hoping to be loved back at least half as much. This story about personal loss, finding hope and joy in unlikely places, and the power of being open to new friendships is both heart-wrenching and heart-opening, perfect for readers looking for lots of feels. Writing this review makes me want to read it again. Oh, the feels you can feel! (Ages 10+)


by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell-Artist

(Top Shelf Productions / IDW Publishing)

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-7-38-24-amI’d never heard of this graphic novel series about the Civil Rights Movement until the National Book Award Finalists were announced. The graphic novels format is perfect for relating the stories of the brave men and women who fearlessly fought for equality among people on a personal level and for transporting the reader back to the early 1960s seamlessly. You feel with the anguish of the Civil Rights fighters, understand the depths of danger they faced, and discover the enormous hurdles they encountered through first-hand accounts right out of John Lewis’ head.

These books are so much more than history books. They connect deeply into your consciousness, enlighten you about fundamentally what it means to be human, and make you wonder if you are brave enough/smart enough to fight like John Lewis did. Honestly, I learned more about the Civil Rights Movement in this trilogy than I learned in elementary through high school. In Book Three, John Lewis, who is chairman of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, must steer the group through dangerous uprisings as African Americans assert their right to vote. These books are compelling stories about the power of our voices, a must have for the history classroom. (Ages 13+)


by Grace Lin

(Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-7-39-38-amI didn’t want to/expect fall head over heels in love with this book. I’d already chosen my favorites for the year. Finding another book I loved with all of my heart at the end of October was like…cheating. Also, I wasn’t sure I’d like it because I prefer realistic fiction, but I slipped right into the story. The first day I sat down to read, I couldn’t stop. Instead of going to the grocery store to buy food for my family, I read. (They weren’t going to starve for goodness sakes! All Pinmei has to make it through the long winter is a dwindling supply of rice. We had rice!) Instead of working on revising my WIP after being away from it for many, many long days, I read. I didn’t want to stop to drive my kids to school either, but I did just because it meant uninterrupted reading time.

This book is about the power of stories and storytellers. Within the story of Pinmei and Yishan’s brave mission to save Pinmei’s grandmother, the storyteller, from the emperor, there are enchanting and unique Chinese fables masterfully woven into the story like pieces of a puzzle. We cheer for Pimei as she grows from being a quiet, unlikely hero to becoming a brave girl willing to challenge the most powerful man in the land.

The story is mesmerizing, the prose is lovely, and the illustrations are exquisite. I could not love it more. (Ages 10+)


by Jason Reynolds

(Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-7-41-12-amGhost, aka Castle Crenshaw, is trying out for a new elite middle school track team despite the fact that he’s never had any formal training. Ghost is super-fast, but he’s running for the wrong reasons. He’s a good kid on the inside, but on the outside his life is a mess. Ghost is always in trouble and being suspended from school. He’s has been running since the day his daddy chased him and his mom though their apartment and out into the streets with a loaded gun. Even after he gets some focus for his anger by running track, he still makes mistakes, big mistakes. What Ghost must realize is that he’ll always be running until he deals with the anger, his fears, the past. And just as importantly as figuring out what he’s running from, Ghost must figure out where he’s running to.

Ghost’s troubles feel real/personal. You can’t resist rooting for him. I can’t help but compare Jason Reynold’s GHOST with BOOKED and CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander (two of my all-time favorites). Sports books rarely capture my attention like these books did, but Ghost is so much more than a sports book. The dialogue and voice in GHOST are so authentic that I imagined I’d heard the story straight from Ghost’s own lips. I love books about kids making mistakes and struggling until they make things right. There’s so much for adults and kids alike to relate to and learn from in this book. A powerful, must read. Go get it now. (Ages 10+)


by Nicola Yoon

(Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House)screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-7-42-11-am

It took extreme restraint to not go ahead and proclaim this my favorite book before I read it. I obsessively love of EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING by Nicola Yoon, and I still think about it/recommend it nearly every day now, a year after I read it. Thankfully, I read the others first and had fallen in love with them too before I got my hands on this one. It made things a little more even.

And then I opened the book…I’m not a girl who likes prologues, but this one is unlike any that I’ve ever read. If you like the prologue, you will love the book.

The entire story takes place in one day. It has MULTIPLE first-person POVs. I lost track of how many because I was so overwhelmed by how masterfully they were written, each character original, each viewpoint moving.

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR is so much more than a love story. It’s a tale of deportation, the difficulties of being raised in America by immigrant parents, that moment when you realize that your parents are clueless people figuring it out as they go instead of the heroes you imagined, and the importance of living your dreams instead of the dreams that others have for you. It’s also a love letter to many topics dear to me: time travel, atomic order, dark matter, human biology, physics, and the universe. How does Nicola Yoon fit these complex subjects into a love story that made me ugly cry on page 306? I have no idea, but it’s a book that I’ll study for years to come to figure out these mysteries and as a masterclass on multiple first-person POVs. (Ages 14+, language and mild sexual content)


Choosing a favorite from these five books was nearly impossible, and I imagine the committee selecting the winner will have the same difficulties. There are no losers in this list! Read them all!

Honestly, my favorite pick of these five books has changed multiple times over the past week. If I must choose one, I’d have to pick the book that made the biggest impact on me as a reader. That book would be MARCH: BOOK THREE.

The graphic novel format made the Civil Rights Movement come alive for me in a way that it never had before. Rep. John Lewis’ first-hand accounts have rippled my consciousness, and I can’t stop thinking about the sacrifices of the unbelievably brave men and women who mostly peacefully fought against prejudice/injustices. The timing of this book is also of utmost importance.  We need these stories now and forever to know where we’ve been and to figure out where we need to go.

The judging committee will select THE WINNER of THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD in all categories on November 16th. More info about the amazing judges and books can be found here.

Have you read the shortlist nominees? I’d love to know which book you’d choose to win The National Book Award for Young People this year!