Getting to Know: Christina Uss


Okay, I may be biased towards books that have bicycles on the cover and Bicycle in the title and feature bicycles and a Bicycle on pretty much every page. But I can also honestly say that I fell in love with The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House, May, 2018) for its whimsical humor, awesome sense of adventure and ample heart (and bicycles)! I caught up with debut middle grade author Christina Uss to learn more:

Me: Can you sum up The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle for the uninitiated?

Christina: Bicycle is the quirky story of a twelve-year-old girl who rides her bike across the United States in search of her first true friend. It’s full of fun and surprises, plus some bits that seem clearly, fully, ridiculously fictional but are actually true, real, factual, and can be visited by kids on bikes.

Me: What sparked the creation of your book?

Christina: Over twenty years ago, I joined a 2-month-long 4,000-mile fundraising ride that led from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, despite not having an abundance of physical stamina or bike handling skills. There isn’t an adjective to sum up that whole ride. It was by turns stunning, inspiring, challenging, terrifying, confusing, and electrifying, and it changed the course of my life. When I decided to write my first book, I knew it was going to involve a girl who had a crazy adventure on her bike. And I knew it would be middle-grade. The books I loved best as a kid were all middle-grade.

Me: What can you share about your creative process?

Christina: As a teenager, I used to hear band names in odd word conglomerations: The Inadvertent Cows or Why Me and Why You? or Here Comes the Smug. Now I hear book titles instead and immediately want to write a book to go with them. (I have eleven-year-old twins who are always saying wonderfully weird things, so I have a pretty long spreadsheet of titles I want to explore.) Some of the titles immediately come with a basic impression of what they’re about: for example, I knew The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle would involve a girl pedaling from the east to west coast, but then had to figure out who this girl was and why she was called Bicycle and what was pushing her to pedal so far.

When I sit down to write, usually for several hours on weekday mornings (and once I can force myself past the anxiety that I have no talent and nothing to say to open the file and start typing), I could go for hours if no one interrupts me. It’s like going underwater and swimming around, hanging out with my characters in this alternate universe. I write pretty linearly but without an outline – just re-read what happened in the previous day’s writing and start up where that left off. Once the whole book is done, I’ll go back and see if I have a coherent plot and character arc and all that good stuff.

Me: What’s the most surprising thing about your publishing journey?

Christina: Everything about it is surreal! One pretty unusual thing is that my book was originally purchased by my editor, Margaret Ferguson, when she was with one publishing house, but then she chose to move to another, smaller house and asked if I’d make the move with her. My instincts said YES – she was so enthusiastic about the book, and so insightful on how to make it the best it could be – and I’m extremely glad I stuck with her and got to meet the wonderful supportive folks at Holiday House through her.

Me: What do you do when you’re not writing?

Christina: I love, love, love, love to sleep, read, and eat. Sometimes reading takes precedence over sleep. I’m like a literate sloth.

Me: Any advice to kids who like to write? And to adults who want to write for kids?

Christina: For kids: have fun with it! Give yourself permission to write anything and everything that comes into your head, because you never know when something amazing will show up. Nothing you create is ever wasted. And to adults: a wonderful task you must perform if you wish to write for kids is reading what kids are reading. In huge, delicious servings, every day. It may seem like procrastination, but Stephen King commanded us all to read voraciously, advising that we all read at least as many hours as we write if I remember correctly, and who are we to argue with him?

Me: As an illustrator who works on my own covers, I’m always interested in learning an author’s involvement in and reaction to their own cover?

Christina: My cover illustrator, Jonathan Bean, did an amazing job. He also made an interior map that I adore – it’s got sea monsters munching on bicycles! My editor was our go-between (my understanding is they don’t often let authors talk directly to their illustrators so they don’t hound them incessantly.) As soon as my editor told me Jonathan wanted a photo of the kind of bike my main character rode to make sure he got the handlebars and rear rack right, I knew he was a good fit. When I saw his first pencil sketch, I was floored. He’d made the cover wrap around the entire book and included so many details and characters! (In fact, my editor ended up asking him to cut back so we’d have more room for the title.) I thought for sure kids would see Jonathan’s cover and decide my book was a fun adventure in which they could lose themselves, which is all I hoped the cover would communicate.

Me: What’s next for you?

Christina: My next novel, THE COLOSSUS OF ROADS will be coming out in 2020 from Holiday House. COLOSSUS tells the story of a boy in Los Angeles who figures out how to secretly, successfully, and spectacularly fix all of L.A.’s traffic problems. And after that…maybe start working on a book titled THE INADVERTANT COWS or HERE COMES THE SMUG?

Me: I’ll be looking forward to all those titles! And wishing Bicycle much success!

You can learn more about Christina at


Getting to Know: Lauren Abbey Greenberg


Two summers ago my wife and I vacationed for a week on the coast of Maine for the first time. It was a pretty magical setting, and as I faced the wild, Northern Atlantic, I began to brainstorm ideas for using it as a setting for a novel. Then I had a Corona and a nap and didn’t think of it again until my author friend Lauren Abbey Greenberg (who also lives in Rockville, MD, but has been summering in Maine for years) came out with her touching middle-grade debut, The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press, 2018), set during a Maine summer. I caught up with Lauren to learn more:

Me: Can you sum up The Battle of Junk Mountain for the uninitiated?

The Battle of Junk Mountain tells the story of twelve-year-old Shayne, who looks forward to her annual summer visit to Maine to see her yard-sale loving grandmother and her best friend, Poppy. But this summer, everything is different. Not only is Poppy boy crazy, she now must work at her family’s store. Grandma Bea has morphed from quirky collector into full-on hoarder. This story touches on difficult themes like mental illness and asking for help and leaves you rooting for Shayne and her grandmother to overcome their toughest battles.

Me: What sparked the creation of your book?

Lauren: This book began as an assignment for the Institute of Children’s Literature. I knew I wanted to set the story on the Maine coast, since I’ve been going there every summer for the past twenty years. I also wanted my main character to experience tension with an old friend. But friendship troubles in kid lit aren’t new, so I needed a fresh angle to make the story unique. That’s where the hoarding grandmother came in. Grandma Bea began as someone who simply enjoyed yard sales, but with each revision her collecting addiction got worse and worse until it became a hoarding situation.

Me: What can you share about your creative process?

Lauren: I have writing bursts and writing droughts (gosh, a lot like my behavior toward going to the gym), and I’m forever trying to get better at sticking to a schedule. I do think a lot in the shower, though. Getting the first draft out of me is a bear, but once the words are on paper, I do enjoy the revision process and having those “aha!” moments that take the story to the next level.

Me: What’s the most surprising thing about your publishing journey?

Lauren: Writing is an introverted sport. You spend so much time alone with your thoughts, but once you’re published, you must flip that switch and become a marketer, a public speaker, a social media guru, and possibly a website designer. No pressure at all! And you realize that even if getting a book published was your personal end-game, it’s just the beginning.

Me: What do you do when you’re not writing?

Lauren: Life is busy these days! My husband is a small business owner, so I help him with bookkeeping, payroll, and other left brain functions like that. I also have two teenagers, so we’re getting into the heavy stuff like college touring, driver’s licenses, and other things that keep parents up at night. Oh, and I hug my dog a lot.

Me: Any advice to kids who like to write? And to adults who want to write for kids?

Lauren: For kids: journaling/keeping a diary is an awesome way to get your thoughts down or to simply write observations about what’s going on in your life. You’ll appreciate it when you’re older, either as a simple time capsule or an idea generator.

For adults: Take classes, join SCBWI, share your work with others in the field and most importantly, read many, many books in the genre you’re interested in.

Me: As an illustrator who works on my own covers, I’m always interested in learning an author’s involvement in and reaction to their own cover?

Lauren: I was lucky to have been included in the cover design phase; I’ve heard that that’s not always the case. When I saw a first pass of Teresa Bonaddio’s creation, my reaction was a solid ooooooooh, but upon closer inspection I noticed the “junk pile” needed work. We went a few rounds of getting it just right, adding specific details that would act as clues to the story. I also loved the background, a golden sunset with a hint of fog, which perfectly captured summer weather on the Maine coast.

Me: What’s next for you?

Lauren: I’m writing my second novel. It’s another realistic contemporary mg, but this time it’s set in a middle school in Maryland.

Me: Can’t wait to read it! And wishing The Battle of Junk Mountain much success!

You can learn more at

Lauren Greenberg

Getting to Know: Diane Magras


If, like me, you’ve never been to Scotland or to Medieval times (excluding that jousting/dinner joint), but would like to visit for a few hours, I have the ticket for you! The only catch is that you’ll have to journey with a girl who, against all odds, is trying to get to a faraway castle to save her captured brothers and father before they’re executed. Oh, and she may have to battle her own inner demons, too.

If this sounds like your kind of trip, I highly recommend Diane Magras’ new middle grade debut, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Kathy Dawson Books), just out this month! Drest’s journey from wee lass to legend is not one you’ll soon forget. I caught up to author Diane Magras to learn more.

Me: Can you sum up The Mad Wolf’s Daughter for the uninitiated?

Diane: The Mad Wolf’s Daughter takes place in medieval Scotland, and is the story of Drest, the youngest in her father’s ferocious war-band. When enemy knights invade her remote headland home and capture her father and beloved brothers, Drest escapes, but then goes after them to free them from the castle prison where they’re being held. She takes along with her an abandoned wounded knight from the other side to serve as guide and captive—she plans to trade him for one of her family. She has six days before her family will be hanged, and a journey through a land she’s never seen before her.

Me: What sparked the creation of your book?

Diane: Drest was actually a minor character in another story I’d been thinking of writing. I was trying to understand how she had reached the point of that story, and began thinking back into her history. I had an image in my mind—of a girl and her old warrior father by a bonfire on a rocky beach—and suddenly I knew that I wanted to tell her story, and not the other one.

Me: The obvious and not-so-obvious influences on your book are…?

Diane: My publisher compares The Mad Wolf’s Daughter to the Song of the Lioness and Ranger’s Apprentice books, and lots of people have compared Drest to Arya Stark. I can certainly see all those comparisons, but none of them were in my mind when I was writing this. My biggest inspirations in the beginning were Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur and Kelly Barnhill’s The Witch’s Boy. Though I can’t point to specific themes or character models as influences, I’ll point to the feel of those books and how each author wrote (respectively) a brutal world that was still beautiful in parts, and a story rich with secrets and meaning behind the tale.

Me: Can you share about your creative process?

Diane: I come up with a skeleton of an idea—so the beginning, middle, and end, more or less—and then I figure out who my main characters are. I spent a lot of time researching names since I want them to be historically accurate (sometimes I take liberties, though, but I try not to!), and also any other aspect of the world that I don’t know about. I research the historical aspects of my novels before I write, and then dip into specific questions as I’m writing. And then I whip through a first draft. My first drafts always come quickly, but I also always rewrite them multiple times. I need to have the novel in front of me before I really know what I’m doing with it, and so this rapid first draft followed by layer upon layer of revision is the manner in which I’m most comfortable working.

Me: What’s the most surprising thing about your publishing journey?

Diane: This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but I remember the moment when it really hit home that this novel wasn’t just mine anymore. I was so accustomed to having my writing be just me in my writing nook at my computer with no one else caring all that much about it. It’s a lot like when a child first goes to school and you realize that you alone are not responsible for every aspect of your child’s education, growth, and relationships. In the same way, it’s a bit scary, hoping that people on the outside (in the novel’s case, readers) will like my wee bairn and treat my bairn well.

Me: What do you do when you’re not writing?

Diane: I read a lot of middle grade fiction, and also research books, casting about for an idea or detail to help with a future novel. I also love exploring woods and trails with my husband and son, and just hanging out with them. (I also have a day job, so that takes a lot of my non-writing time!)

Me: Any advice to kids who like to write? And to adults who want to write for kids?

Diane: My advice for both kids and adults is pretty much the same:

Read a lot, and never stop reading a lot. Pay attention to what you read. Write down after each book what you liked or didn’t like about it. Copy your favorite sentences; that will help distill what kind of writing you love most and what you notice.

Then write, and write a lot, and never stop writing. Figure out a schedule of when you’ll write, and keep to it. Becoming a good writer means practice. But have fun as you practice. Write what you love most, your own ideas from the start or fan fiction based on something else that you love. Just get your own writing, your own conception of the world, out on paper.

Know yourself as a writer. Do you write for the pure pleasure of it? Then just write, and don’t worry about nailing down the perfect draft. Do you want to go farther and get published? It’s a much harder path, and just be sure that you want it. There’s no shame in only writing what you want to write just because you want to write it.

If you want to get published, take your time. Be patient with yourself. There’s a long path, and it includes your constant evolution as a writer. You’ll never stop learning.

And one more thing that’s crucial to writing a strong piece of fiction: Revision is an essential part of the process. If you find it also fulfilling, you’ll be well on your way to publication.

An additional note for adults writing for kids: Read books from your genre. Pay close attention to how other writers find their fictional voices. In addition, listen to kids. Respect them too. You’re not there to teach your audience the ways of the world, but to engage and inspire them.

Me: As an illustrator who works on my own covers, I’m always interested in learning an author’s involvement in and reaction to their own cover?

Diane: My editor asked me to think about what I wanted to see in my cover, what kinds of things I felt strongly about, and what I envisioned. Because I work at a nonprofit that takes listening to its audience very seriously, I put together a focus-group approach and asked librarians, teachers, parents, and kids of my audience’s age what they thought made a good middle grade adventure cover. My librarian friends were able to explain very specifically what kinds of cover art circulate most, and students gave me really thoughtful reactions to sample cover art I shared with them to get a sense of their tastes. My biggest wish for the cover was to have my protagonist front and center, her face visible, and not smiling. She couldn’t look too feminine (that’s not who she is), and I wanted her to look real. My editor and I looked at many, many pieces from different cover artists’ portfolios, trying to find the perfect approach. And then we came upon Antonio Javier Caparo’s work, and instantly knew that we’d found the one we wanted. Fortunately, he had time in his schedule to work on this. I’m grateful that he did. He read the book and understood its feel, who the characters were, and, most importantly, how to depict Drest, my protagonist. He did an incredible job. I saw sketches throughout the whole process, so I knew what was coming, but when I saw the final cover, I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. I also want to mention Maggie Edkins, the designer at Penguin Young Readers, who worked with Antonio on the cover’s particular design. I think my cover is truly a work of art.

Me: What’s next for Drest and her family?

Diane: There’s a sequel in the wings. I don’t want to give too much away, since it ties with some of what’s revealed at the end of Book 1, but let’s just say that Drest has more of a chance to develop her legend, and the story continues.

Me: Thanks so much, Diane. I’m wishing you and Drest much success!


All things medieval fascinate children’s author Diane Magras: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of medieval Scotland, where her stories are set. Her middle grade fantasy adventure The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin Younger Readers) is her debut novel.

To learn more, visit Diane’s website at:

Also, find her book on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and a cool book trailer.



First of all, I just want to thank everyone, near and far, who has been supporting Beep and Bob. It means so much to me. If you were at the series launch event at Barnes & Noble this past weekend, you may have noted that one of the most important things I said is that while my name alone is on the cover of the book, creating even a silly chapter book series is a group effort. Though my editor was in New York and my agent in California, many of the faces behind helping me along my journey to get this series published were in attendance, including my mom, Karen, my wife, Lisa Marie, my sisters Catherine and Elizabeth, my brother Matt (with nephew Arthur), and my critique partners Fataima, Lauren and Robin. Their names are all listed at the end of book 1, and Beep and Bob would truly not be here without them. Beep says YAY to you all!








Getting to Know: Brad McLelland

If I mentioned that I just discovered a cool new middle-grade series about a young orphan on the hunt for a magical stone, you might say, uh, Harry Potter came out 20 years ago. But what if that orphan lived in 1850s Missouri, and had to fight off a horde of zombie outlaws? If you know some kids ready for a different kind of fantasy, I heartily encourage them check out Legends of the Lost Causes (Henry Holt), which released this past week. I caught up with co-author Brad McLelland, who talked to me about his kidlit debut:

Me: Can you sum up Legends of the Lost Causes for the uninitiated?

Brad: Legends is the first book in a 4-book Western Fantasy series that tells the story of 13-year-old Keech Blackwood, a frontier-smart orphan in 1855 Missouri who encounters a deadly desperado named Bad Whiskey Nelson. A devastating act of violence turns Keech on a path toward vengeance, and along the road to meting out his retribution he runs into other orphans who’ve suffered similar tragedies. The kids form a posse and hunt the outlaw together, but along the way, they uncover Bad Whiskey’s devilish plot to retrieve an ancient relic known as the Char Stone. And Whiskey’s not alone in the hunt. He brings along a horde of undead outlaws, relentless in their dark business. Imagine The Goonies with the raw, gritty realism of Louis L’Amour and the dark thrills of The Walking Dead, and you have Legends of the Lost Causes!

What sparked the creation of your book?

Legends took its first tiny breath as a short story concept in my head several years ago. I envisioned a tale about a dark outlaw in pursuit of an ancient artifact. That was all I had. I never wrote the story, and it quickly faded into the background. The concept leaped back to life after I met Louis Sylvester in the Oklahoma State University creative writing program in Stillwater. We started swapping fiction ideas one day at a friend’s birthday party, and realized we shared a lot in common with our writing and interests. I told him the basic outlaw premise and he just started listing off the coolest concepts. In other words, I knew I had just found a writing partner.

The obvious and not-so-obvious influences on Legends are…?

Although Legends features undead villains and dark magic, I have to list Charles Portis’s True Grit at the very top of the “Most Obvious” column. Louis and I both love that brilliant novel and its scrappy, resourceful MC, a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, who hunts her father’s killer with U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Two other obvious influences would have to be Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I think some not-so-obvious influences would include Little House on the Prairie (yes, really!), maybe a sprinkle of Jonah Hex, and the fantastic junior detective series, The Three Investigators by Robert Arthur Jr.

Can you share about your creative process? About having a writing partner?

Louis Sylvester

I like to call our creative process “controlled chaos.” Louis and I have worked out a fantastic system for writing together, but the system itself might make other writers cringe at the mere thought of it.

We start by discussing the story we want to tell and writing a loose outline. Then we take turns drafting each chapter. For example, I write a chapter, then send it to Louis, then he reads through it, makes some changes and adjustments for voice and style, then writes a new chapter and sends it back. My next step is to look at the edits on my first chapter and then make changes on the next, and so forth. In that manner, we’re always editing and always writing new material, a conveyor belt of word-churning that I call a “perpetual motion machine” of drafting and redrafting. When you work in a system like that, you have to be prepared to endure some heartache when you see your partner erase a sentence you love — but in the end, the process works so well for the shared, overall vision. We end up with a book in which every word and syllable feels like a diamond to us.

What’s the most surprising thing to you about your publishing journey?

I would have to list two things that have surprised me the most. The first is that I’ve found a writing partner who feels like true family, a close friend who works so perfectly lock-step with my mind and creativity. The second has to be the pure awesomeness of our publishing team. Our agent, Brooks Sherman, and the entire Macmillan squad working on this project are just exceptional human beings, with nothing but a desire to help me and Louis fulfill our dream and get the best books possible on the shelves.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m actually finding it harder and harder these days to break away from Keech and the gang, but when I do find a little time, I love to play board games and put together jigsaw puzzles with my wife, Alisha, and stepdaughter, Chloe. We also enjoy going to movies on the weekends, geeking out together over the latest Marvel and Pixar films.

Any advice to kids who like to write? And to adults who want to write for kids?

My strongest advice is simply to stick with it—and by “it,” I mean the entire process, from reading all the books you can cram, to honing your craft, to querying agents and beyond. I know that sounds like an “easy-for-you-to-say” kind of thing, but in mine and Louis’s case, perseverance and patience are exactly the tools that paid off. We started work on Legends all the way back in 2010, and even though life changes threw heavy speedbumps onto our path, we stuck with the process and never gave up on the dream of publication. Three years after we typed the first word of Book 1, we acquired Brooks as our agent, and three years after that, he sold our series to Macmillan. So I would say put the straps on tight when you take the author’s seat, don’t look away from your goal, and don’t be afraid to fail from time to time.

As an illustrator who works on my own covers, I’m always interested in learning an author’s involvement in and reaction to their own cover?

Months before Macmillan even offered the first glimpse of our cover, we learned who the publisher was courting to be our cover artist—the fabulous Alexandria Neonakis, an illustrator and graphic designer from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. We looked at Alex’s portfolio and grew very excited about the visual beauty she would bring to our story. Then after we began working with our editor, we started sharing concepts back and forth. The Macmillan sales team suggested a “bird’s eye” view of the Lost Causes wrapping around both the front and back of the book—an idea that Louis and I found completely intriguing. The resulting design, however, was a complete surprise to us. And when Alex finally unveiled it, we were just floored.

What’s next for Keech and the gang?

Well, the particulars are a bit top-secret at the moment, but I can tell you that the kids will encounter a multitude of tight situations in Book 2. Rumors have it they’ll discover a deep mystery surrounding a place called Bonfire Crossing, and they might even come face-to-face with a monster unlike anything they faced in Missouri. More to come very soon, when we  the title reveal!

Thanks, Brad, can’t wait! Wishing you and Louis much success!

Check out Brad at and the official series site at!