The Queen Bee and Me - Gillian McDunn Interview!

Click above to purchase/preorder - OUT next Tuesday March 3! 
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“McDunn portrays the intertwined emotional lives of middle-school kids with sensitivity and precision. An insightful story of friendship and change.”—Booklist, starred review

“Readers will identify with the pitch-perfect middle school dynamics and cheer for Meg as she navigates a toxic friendship.”—Publishers Weekly
“The dynamics of shifting middle school friendships ring true, and readers will recognize themselves and their friends in Meg’s struggle with her loyalty to Beatrix, her budding friendship with Hazel, and her need to be true to herself.”—School Library Connection
“Meg's first-person narration is emotive and candid. . . . Refreshingly genuine.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Fully realized characters and high-stakes yet realistic middle school dilemmas with real-world applications make this a royal addition to shelves”—School Library Journal
***Praise for Caterpillar Summer***
An Indies Introduce Pick
Parents Best Book of the Year
Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
An Amazon Best Book of the Year
“This absorbing, heartfelt novel seamlessly blends the challenges of life with a neurodivergent child into a story of one tween’s burgeoning self-awareness as she figures out how to reclaim her childhood.”—New York Times Book Review
“An engrossing, heartwarming, beautifully written debut about building and rebuilding family ties.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“McDunn’s poignant, gratifying debut about friendship and family encourages both empathy and hope.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Meg has been friends with confident, self-assured Beatrix since kindergarten. She's always found comfort in Beatrix's shadow—even their families call them Beatrix-and-Meg. But middle school has brought some changes in Beatrix, especially when Meg tries to step outside her role as sidekick. Upsetting Beatrix means risking The Freeze—or worse.

Meg gets into a special science elective and wants to take the class, no matter what Beatrix thinks. But when quirky new girl Hazel becomes Meg's science partner, Beatrix sets her sights on Hazel. At first, Meg is taken aback at how mean Beatrix can be—and how difficult it is to stand up to her friend. But as Meg gets to know Hazel while working on their backyard beehive project, she starts to wonder: What's it really like to be the Queen Bee? And more importantly: Is being Beatrix's friend worth turning down the possibility of finding her own voice?

Q: How did you get started in the author profession? 
From a very young age, I loved reading and writing. I did a lot of different kinds of writing professionally, but always dreamed of becoming a children’s book author. When I got the idea for Caterpillar Summer, I made a deal with myself that I would write the whole book without giving up. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! I really love being an author and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do so.
Q: What inspired you to become a middle grade author? 
A: I love the middle grades because it’s such an important time. Kids are growing up and gaining an understanding of the world around them while still being very much tied to their families. I also think kids ages 8-12 are one of the best audiences imaginable. I love hearing about kids who read even while brushing their teeth or sneak extra reading time at night ... that’s the kind of reader I was too!
Q: What was your influence for The Queen Bee and Me? It’s a situation that is so common, but isn’t discussed as much I feel necessary. 
A: I wanted to explore “tricky” friendships. So often kids (and adults!) find themselves in a difficult situation when a friendship dynamic changes. I’m hoping that kids and adults will read this book together and discuss what a healthy friendship should look like.
Q: Can you describe your revision/editing process for students? Also, do you start writing on paper/computer/etc?
A:  I often do early notes on paper, then switch to the computer to write my first draft--I can type a lot faster than I can write! I go through a few edits with peer reviewers and then send to my editor at Bloomsbury, Mary Kate Castellani. We usually do a few rounds of revision--this can look like long editorial letters (I think the standing record is eight pages long!) or comments/track changes on the electronic document. One of my final steps is to print the manuscript and read the whole thing out loud. Middle grade books are often read out loud, so it’s especially important for me to pay attention to the rhythm of language. I did this process recently for my third book THESE UNLUCKY STARS and came across a phrase that was a total tongue-twister. Can you say “Oak Branch Books booth” five times fast? Or even one time, semi-fast? I couldn’t, so I ended up rewording!
Q: How do you make time to read since you are also writing full time?
A: I make time to read every day because I love it so much. Also, I’m very lucky to have many writer friends who keep making incredible books and so I need to keep reading them!
Q: What advice would you give to middle grade students who are writing? 
A: My advice for all writers is to read and write as much as they can. Sometimes writers can fall into a trap of waiting to write, wanting to think out everything in their head perfectly. This is a trap! It’s much better to write a messy first draft (or several messy first drafts) and then go through the process of revision. Revision is where the magic happens!
Q: Future middle grade projects that you are currently working on? 
A: I’m currently revising my third book THESE UNLUCKY STARS, which is about a girl named Annie who believes that she has terrible luck. But after a summer with a ding-dong-ditch prank gone wrong, she starts to believe that luck is what you make of it. I really love this main character, who tries hard but feels like she is a magnet for trouble. It takes place in a town called Oak Branch in the North Carolina mountains. I’m hoping readers will love reading about this town and its people--they really stole my heart!
Q: What were your favorite books as a kid? Are there any upcoming books you are especially looking forward to?
A: As a child, I was a voracious reader (and re-reader) but of all my books these were the three I re-read the most: Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.

There are so many wonderful books coming soon! I’m very excited to read Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramee (Balzer + Bray), which is about a girl who faces her fear of public speaking in order to speak out about what matters to her most. I had a chance to read Jess Redman’s upcoming Quintessence (FSG Books for Young Readers) and it is absolutely stunning. I’m also very excited for Sandy Stark-McGinniss’s upcoming The Space Between Lost and Found (Bloomsbury) about a girl dealing with her mother’s early-onset dementia.


The Gauntlet & The Battle - MODERN DAY JUMANJI

I remember the first time I read The Gauntlet and I was so impressed. A modern day twist on a tale that I grew up loving, Jumanji, yet this time I could relate to it so much more.

When I found out Karuna was writing a sequel I had to beg and plead for book 2, The Battle, but her publisher was amazing and sent an early copy to me.

When kids ask for adventure - I send them to The Gauntlet and then follow up with The Battle.

Lisa, Karuna's publicist, was able to get the interview set up and accomplished for us and even thought it was months ago when she sent them ( I am so glad to finallllly post the interview with Karuna!!!!

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself as an author and everyday person? What are your likes/dislikes?
A: As an author and an everyday person, I just recently found an accurate model of who I am. If you Google the anime Nichijou – one of those cutesy, slice-of-life series about middle school students and their surreal adventures – and look up their homeroom teacher, you’ll be able to see it for yourself: a constantly smiling but anxious-faced educator wondering if she’s approaching things in the right way and doing the best for the kids she writes for and teaches.

That is me to a T: always trying to do the best I can and feeling like I’m constantly learning something new along the way. I’m a high school English teacher, current student in Hamline University’s spectacular MFAC program (proud to be part of the summer 2021 Inside Jokes cohort!) and freelance writer.

I like tea, reading, video games, the color yellow, sunny days, fuzzy sweaters, teaching, and doing my best to make sure that, with every book I write and every student I teach, I am supporting the next generation and reminding them that every one of them has the right to seeing themselves in the media they consume in positive and reaffirming ways.

I dislike rainy days, injustice, wet socks, the patriarchy, grading, bigotry and jackfruit. There’s a whole history there, but I hate it. Maybe there will be a picture book out of that one day!

Q: When did you know you had a gift of writing?  
A: I still, to this day, hope that I have a gift of writing! But in all seriousness, I’ve been writing and playing around with words since I was very young. I was homeschooled and my mom gave me a great deal of time to indulge in the stories I love. When I was just five, I wrote a whole picture book and she hand-bound it. The story was about a little girl who sees a rabbit in her yard and feeds it carrots from her fridge. Obviously, it was Caldecott material.
Q: I have LOVED sharing The Gauntlet with students and telling everyone it’s a “modern day Jumanji!” How would you describe the Gauntlet to students?   
A: Usually, my log line for it is very close to your awesome one for your students – it’s an inverse Jumanji with Middle Eastern and South Asian flair, where the kids get to go into this awesome, creepy board game instead of the game coming out into the real world! There’s a lot of cool stuff in it like mechanical spiders, a souk where you can buy talking fish and flying carpets, and palaces spun out of sand!
Q: Did you think The Battle was something that was going to happen when you were writing The Gauntlet?  
A: No, and that just makes it even more special! Usually, you sell a sequel along with the first book. The Battle was made possible by all the reader support and enthusiasm for The Gauntlet. With so many readers clamoring for more, my editor – Zareen Jaffery – thought it would be a great idea to revisit the world!
Q; Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind The Gauntlet and The Battle?  
A: Before I started working with Zareen Jaffery, I had a brainstorming session with my bosses at diverse book packager Cake Literary – Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton – where we discussed how to best put my own voice and Muslim representation into a fun, adventurous MG that would have soothed the ache of not seeing myself in books I experienced as a middle schooler myself. When we were talking about what I loved at that age, Jumanji and board games came up a lot so that was the enthusiasm we went with!

With The Battle, we looked to the official Jumanji sequel – Zathura – and decided to do homage to the original books by following that sequence but with video games instead of the space opera aspect Zathura originally has.
Q: I am so impressed with these story lines and I love how even more relatable The Battle is for kiddos with devices – what was the difference in writing both?  
A: I think for me, both books set me on a track of “constantly doing firsts in whatever I’m writing”! The Gauntlet was my first time ever writing a book with Muslim characters, and it was wonderful and nerve-wracking because of the awareness of the weight of that representation for my community and concerns about reception and what I could possibly get wrong. There was also a lot to emotionally unpack about how I used to self-cancel in terms of my own representation as a kid, fearing that stories about girls like me would either be weaponized against me (in the typical way the Muslim community is often villainized) or would not be considered normal or interesting enough to make it in mainstream publishing. (As an aside, I’ve been so glad to be proven wrong.)

With The Battle, there was the new adventure of writing a male protagonist for the first time and trying to get into that brain space (while also realizing that it is easier to play a video game than describe the mechanics of a video game in words!), plus an external change of circumstances: previously, I was writing as an undergrad student, and right after The Gauntlet published, I graduated and started teaching. I had more obligations, less time and the added worry of getting a bunch of (dear but very, very mischievous) 7th graders through the day alive, happy and without any injuries.

So, a lot of firsts for both books, but I’d say The Battle really proved to me what I’m made of: that I can face all these external obstacles and get through to the other side with a finished book.

(Also, shout-out to my 7th graders, now my 9th graders, for being an excellent class, modelling middle grade boy behavior to me in the case of my guy students, and explaining how a Switch worked to me since I was still on a Nintendo DS!)
Q: How do you get started on your writing, and what advice would you give to middle grade students who are writing?
A: Usually, an idea comes to me and I try to turn it over in my head for a while. Once I have characters, and maybe even dialogue or scenes, then I start thinking about outlining and coming up with a plan for where that story will go and how it should look. After I have an outline, I usually feel confident enough to launch into the first chapter and see how it goes. One of my problems that I would tell middle grade students to nip in the bud right now: don’t think everything has to be absolutely perfect and the stars need to be aligned for you to start on a new project! Do not get hung up on the perfect first sentence when it’s the first draft. It’s the first draft. Have fun and blurt everything out, and then go back and build from there.
Q: Can you describe your revision/editing process for students? Also, do you start writing on paper/computer/etc?
A: After I finish a draft, I put it out of sight for myself for a while. Being on a deadline, whether it is to an editor or an advisor at school, also helps – because while I’m waiting for feedback, I don’t have to look at it if I don’t want to! Once I get that feedback, I glance over it and then let it sit so I can get over any initial emotional response or nerves. And then, I make a rough to-do list for myself and start breaking it down into chunks! I always tell my high school students to remember that everything has to be done one bite at a time. If you stuff too much in your mouth, you can choke – and, translating that over to the writing process, you can burn yourself out fast, get exhausted, find yourself running out of time and panic…It’s better to come at it with a plan!

In terms of writing, I used to hand write everything in high school and am trying to explore that again in the future. Nowadays, I start brainstorming on paper, take that over to the computer and stay there until it’s done!
Q: Future projects that you are currently working on? 
A: I am currently working on projects for my MFA program and trying to get back into the habit of writing things for the fun of it and not worrying about the industry market or what is “on trend.” That’s harder than it sounds!
Q: What else would you like teachers and young readers to know?
A: You guys are great and I would not be out here doing what I’m doing – any of it – without great educators and great kids cheering me on every step of the way.  Also, now, more than ever, I hope educators remember to value and nurture every voice of every student in their classrooms and remind themselves of the value of their stories – no matter how different they look from another child’s in the classroom. To young readers: once I was the kid in the crowd with a raised hand and not the educator/teacher at the front of the room! If this is your dream, please keep that in mind and know that you can make it here. Dreams do come true, and you have every right to have it happen for you, and you absolutely deserve to be heard and share your stories with the world.

Purchase the books here:


Books with Foster Kids in Mind

I have curated a list thanks to friends from Twitter when a foster parent reached out to me asking for titles to share with her foster kids. She has provided me with so much positive feedback in this list and how many she has read on her own and read with them  - it truly has helped so much! I wanted to share in case anyone out there may need to recommend to a student(s) they have or even have had.

If you know of any more, especially upcoming in 2020 or out in 2019 that I missed, please comment or email me and I will add!

** Edited to add new titles: 

Leslie Connor - All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook - 


IMWAYR: 2.17.20

It's a long weekend for me, in Ohio. I've had 5 days off, so I used a lot of time to catch up on reading. Here are the books I finished over these past few days:
  • Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano (Adult, but considering for 8 grade book clubs)
  • The Serious Goose by Jimmy Kimmel (PB)
  • Wolfpack by Abby Wambach (reread, but using it as a mentor text)
  • The Great Upending by Beth Gephart (MG, coming soon)
  • Where is Walt Disney World by Joan (we're going to Disney in April) 

Happy Reading!


Bullet Book Review with @mrs_cmt1489

Teachers: here are resources you can access if you use Cindy's stories in your classroom; which I highly recommend!

Disclaimer: I'm a 5th grade teacher in south central Texas, what works for my kids may not work for your kids, and what does work; it may work the same or in different ways. In the end, they're all kids - they all need to be exposed to many lives, cultures, history, and experiences as possible. 

I have featured Cindy quite a bit on Teachers Who Read and for good reason. Her newest release, Beginners Welcome, was one that I still haven't let go of. It just came out today, and I promise - as much I loved Where the Watermelons Grow, Beginners Welcome holds just as big a place in my heart. 

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Beginners Welcome
By: Cindy Baldwin

For fans of: 
Authors: Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Ali Benjamin, Elly Swartz

First Line(s): "I woke on the first day of sixth grade to the sound of mama crying in the bathroom."

The author: 

Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Where the Watermelons Grow is her debut novel and is followed by Beginners Welcome. Learn more about Cindy at 

The Book: 

It’s been eighty-three days since Annie Lee’s daddy died, but she still sees reminders of him everywhere. His record player mysteriously plays his favorite songs, there’s shaving cream in the sink every morning, and the TV keeps flipping to the Duke basketball games he loved.
She knows Mama notices it too, but Mama’s been working around the clock to make ends meet. To make matters worse, Annie Lee’s friends ditched her over the summer. She feels completely alone—until she meets Mitch.
Though Mitch is tough and confident on the outside, she may need a friend just as badly as Annie Lee. But after losing so much, Annie Lee is afraid to let anyone get too close.
And Mitch isn’t the only friend trying to break through Annie Lee’s defenses. Ray, an elderly pianist who plays at a local mall, has been giving her piano lessons. His music is pure magic, and Annie Lee hopes it might be the key to healing her broken heart. But when Ray goes missing, searching for him means breaking a promise to Mitch.
Faced with once again losing those who mean the most to her, Annie Lee must make a choice: retreat back into her shell, or risk admitting how much she needs Mitch and Ray—even if it means getting hurt all over again.
Just like in her debut, Where the Watermelons Grow, Cindy Baldwin brings her signature twist of magic to this authentically heartfelt story.



"Targeted to kids who sometimes feel invisible or afraid, Baldwin’s prose challenges them to be the bravest and wisest versions of themselves, delivering the message that it is our brokenness that makes us beautiful, not our perfection." (School Library Journal (starred review))

“As delicate and powerful as a sonata, Annie Lee’s story of music, magic, loss, and love should not be missed!” (Jessica Day George, New York Times bestselling author of Tuesdays at the Castle)

“Southern charm and ghostly magic bridge the loss of 11-year-old Annie Lee’s daddy. Once again, Baldwin crafts a solid story of hardship tempered by community and resilience.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Genuine and hopeful, Annie Lee’s story is one of finding courage in tough circumstances, of love and vulnerability, and of the power of music, despite one’s imperfections.” (Booklist)

“Intermingling themes of grief and loss with moments of unexpected, joyful connection, Baldwin depicts character growth with particular grace.” (Publishers Weekly)
Reviews from myself and friends: 

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Where The Watermelons Grow 
By: Cindy Baldwin

For fans of: 
Books: The Thing About Jellyfish, Good Enough, Shouting at the Rain, Amal Unbound, The Science of Breakable Things 

First Line(s): "On summer nights, the moon reachers right in through my window and paints itself across the ceiling in swirls of gleams of silver." 

The author: 

Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Where the Watermelons Grow is her debut novel and is followed by Beginners Welcome. Learn more about Cindy at 

The Book: 

A debut middle grade about a girl coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness.

When twelve-year-old Della Kelly finds her mother furiously digging black seeds from a watermelon in the middle of the night and talking to people who aren't there, Della worries that it’s happening again—that the sickness that put her mama in the hospital four years ago is back. That her mama is going to be hospitalized for months like she was last time.

With her daddy struggling to save the farm and her mama in denial about what’s happening, it’s up to Della to heal her mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville, North Carolina, for generations.

But when the Bee Lady says that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain and more to do with healing her own heart, Della must learn that love means accepting her mama just as she is.


★ “Della’s voice will tug at readers’ heartstrings as she tries to hold her family together. Middle grade stories about mental illness, particularly those that focus on empathy and acceptance, are rare. This heartfelt story will stay with readers. A top choice.” (School Library Journal (starred review))

★ “Baldwin has written a heartbreaking, yet heartening, story that explores mental illness and its effects on an entire family. Readers will connect with the novel’s well-formed characters and be absorbed by the plot, which pulls no punches but doesn’t overwhelm.” (ALA Booklist (starred review))

★ “Cindy Baldwin’s graceful debut is an ode to family and community. Hints of sweet magical realism touch Where the Watermelons Grow, balancing this exquisite novel’s bittersweet authenticity.” (Shelf Awareness (starred review))

★ “In her debut novel, Baldwin presents a realistic portrayal of life with a mentally ill parent.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“[Della’s] first-person narration is realistically earthy without crossing into gritty. This debut novel gushes with Southern charm. This story’s as sweet as Della’s daddy’s watermelons but never saccharine.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“This has a tenderness that will appeal to fans of DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie.” (Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books)

“Della’s story is a reminder that even under the toughest rinds of troubles we can find the cool, sustaining sweetness of friendship.” (Kirby Larson, author of the Newbery Honor Book Hattie Big Sky)

Where the Watermelons Grow takes a close look at the unpredictable and debilitating nature of schizophrenia. Baldwin writes with a genuine voice.” (Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA))

Where the Watermelons Grow is a spot-on, insightful novel about a preteen learning to live with and accept a parent’s mental illness.” (
Reviews from myself and friends: