Crafting Stories for Middle-Grade Readers

M.F.A. graduate Lisa Riddiough uses skills from Writing certificate to get children’s books published

“I would not have applied to nor been accepted to an M.F.A. program if it weren’t for the instruction I received through the Certificate Program in Writing,” says Lisa Riddiough, who graduated from the program back in 2014.

“As I ticked off each of the classes in the certificate program, my confidence grew, and I began to understand how stories work and how to piece together the elements of craft,” she recalls. “I published a few short stories and essays but was most interested in writing for children, though I had not had any success with manuscripts that I had submitted to agents and editors in the kid lit arena.”


“I chose Hamline University’s low-residency M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults for its stellar faculty, the focus on writing for children and young adults and the breakdown of each residency by craft element: point-of-view, theme, character, plot and setting,” Lisa tells me.

“I left each of the five residencies with a solid understanding of that particular craft piece. And by the end of my program in 2018, I was immersed in the world of children’s literature and was ready to query agents with polished manuscripts.”

While Lisa’s master’s education at Hamline University provided focused skills to get her work in the hands of agents, it was our Writing certificate that had influenced her preferred genre.

“At Hamline, I studied the three main genres of children’s literature: picture books, middle-grade and young adult, but ended up focusing mostly on picture books and middle grade.”

“Having the certificate from UC Berkeley Extension gave me the tools and language to begin the massive undertaking of my debut middle-grade novel, Elvis and the World As It Stands,” she says. “It helped me clarify in my own mind what it was that interested me. Prior to the certificate, I don’t think I was able to articulate my specific interest in writing for children and young adults—I just knew that I was drawn to it.”

Developing Elvis’ and Georgina’s Story

It wasn’t until Lisa was in her M.F.A. program that the story for Elvis and the World As It Stands presented itself.

“My critical thesis was titled, ‘It’s Not Just Talk: How Empathy Elevates When Talking Animals Exist in Contemporary Human Settings—Middle Grade.’ The gist of it is centered around the idea that when a reader follows the journey of an animal character concurrently with a similar journey of a human character, there is a synergistic effect on the reader’s empathy.

“I endeavored to present this effect in Elvis and the World As It Stands,” she shares.

“The certificate program helped me understand the elements of craft and their rules, and my M.F.A. helped me fine tune that understanding and gave me the confidence to bend those rules as needed.”

Lisa walks us through the narrative and structure of her story:

“The story is told from shelter kitten Elvis’ point of view,” she explains. “When Elvis is separated from his sister on adoption day, the world he thought he knew is upended. While he attempts to get back to the shelter to reunite with his sister, he becomes intrigued with the family’s other pets and the human girl, Georgina, who builds LEGO® skyscrapers in her room while navigating her parents’ recent divorce.

“In early drafts of the story, I played with POV and eventually settled on first person, present, because I wanted a direct connection to the voice of someone who is new to world experiences.

“In terms of developing the story, I knew I had to have layers. I love word play and double meaning and knew that this would be essential in my story. My task was to find a way to highlight the theme of rebuilding after loss. This is where the LEGO® bricks came into play, allowing me to include literal and figurative rebuilding to the story. That led me to architectural research on skyscrapers. From here, I realized that I could build Georgina’s backstory via her family’s connection to the skyscrapers. Because I love character development, and I knew this would be an animal story, I wanted an ensemble cast; there are four other animals that are featured in the book. With each character’s story, I was able to add incrementally to the theme.”

Even 6 Years Later, Certificate Lessons Come to Bear

In her M.F.A. program, Lisa explored more deeply the themes and structure of her stories, but she is certain that the free-writing exercises in her first UC Berkeley Extension writing classes were essential to her creative process.

“Much of the story came to me from those exercises. The free writes were based on childhood memories. The discussions on characterization through dialogue. The essential use of the senses in setting,” she attests.

She even provides an example:

“At one point in the writing process, I couldn’t figure out how to characterize Georgina’s father, who lives in a different house and who Elvis doesn’t ever see. I had an aha moment when I realized that, as the author, I could do anything I wanted. I decided to add a series of text strings throughout the book between Georgina and her dad. It was a way for the reader to see their relationship outside of Elvis’ view. You can do that!

“The certificate program helped me understand the elements of craft and their rules, and my M.F.A. helped me fine tune that understanding and gave me the confidence to bend those rules as needed.”

The Author’s Backstory

“So much of Elvis’ story comes from my own life,” Lisa imparts.

“It’s true that we write what we know. It’s also true that we write what we wish we knew. What I mean by that is, oftentimes, our writing is simply an effort to find answers to the questions in life that we most need answered.

“From the time when my daughter was in sixth grade until she graduated from high school, she and I volunteered in the feline department at the East Bay SPCA. It was incredibly rewarding—not just for the work we did with the cats, but also for the time I got to spend with my daughter. Through this work, we couldn’t help but wonder how the cats felt about being randomly moved to their new forever homes, often separated from their littermates and families. It was a good thing, right? But it still seemed so unfair—they had no control.

“I wanted to take a closer look at this and other times in my own life when things felt out of control. Was there a difference between the way a cat might feel when it is taken from its family and how a child might feel when, say, their own family experiences a divorce? Children especially have so many aspects of their lives that are out of their control.

“What about how we feel when something horrific happens that is out of our control, like 9/11, for example? Elvis’ story seeks to ask this question. How do we move forward in life after experiencing loss? And what do we do when we feel like we can’t do anything. Kids want to know this. I want to know this.”

How the story is told also taps back into Lisa’s own experiences.

“It is important to me to write stories that are accessible to the type of reader I was as a child. It was difficult for me to pay attention, and I was a very slow reader. I want to write books that invite in that type of child reader. I want my readers to feel confident that they can read this book. That means there is white space and illustrations and animals.

“Like I mentioned earlier, I believe that sometimes an animal’s story can bring a reluctant reader in easier than a human’s story. I also want to let young readers know, through both direct text and subtext, that they are going to be okay. My stories and books always have elements of realism sprinkled with optimism. Optimism is my superpower, and I want to share that,” she adds.

Finding the Right Literary Agent Can Make All the Difference

Prior to beginning her M.F.A. program in 2016, Lisa had written dozens of picture book-length manuscripts that she had sent out to agents and editors to no avail. While in the certificate program, she wrote a “grown up” novel and half of a different middle-grade novel, either of which she might get back to someday.

“While I was doing my M.F.A., the middle-grade work bubbled up to the top alongside my picture book work. I knew that my first step was to get an agent who specialized in children’s literature,” she says.

Here is what followed in her publishing process:

  1. “After I graduated, I brought my best picture book manuscript and a few chapters of my middle-grade novel to the Big Sur Writer’s Conference hosted by Andrea Brown Literary Agency, which specializes in children’s literature.

  2. There, I met my future agent, Jennifer Mattson. She was interested right away in my picture book manuscript. At her request, I also submitted a few other picture book manuscripts—for picture books, you have to have more than one—and the opening chapters of my then middle-grade novel, which was yet unfinished.

  3. With this body of work, she offered representation and had an immediate plan to query editors.

“Finding an agent who was specifically involved in children's literature and who loved my work was the most important step I could take toward my publication goal.”

Working with her agent, Lisa trusts that her books are in good hands from the start.

“This is where having an excellent agent comes into play,” Lisa confirms. “Jennifer knows the market, the publishers, the editors and is an expert contract negotiator. I have trusted her all the way through and am so grateful every day that she is in my corner.”

Picture books can sometimes take a long time to make it to market, the writing graduate says. For example, although she sold her first picture book immediately after signing with Jennifer in 2019, it won’t be released until 2024.

“Together, we came up with a timeline for the completion of the middle-grade book; I met the deadline, and Jennifer sold Elvis and the World As It Stands to Abrams Books in 2020, right after the quarantine lockdown began. She sold another picture book manuscript at that time, too. (Letters to Live By comes out in January 2022 from Running Press Kids.)

“So I now have three different editors at three different publishing houses. I love that I get to experience working with three different publishers. Each has their own style, timeline and process—it is fascinating!”

“Finding an agent who was specifically involved in children's literature and who loved my work was the most important step I could take toward my publication goal.”

The trust Lisa has for Jennifer’s publishing expertise is especially important when it comes time for illustrations to complement her storylines and how she originally envisioned them.

“As far as illustrators go, the publishers make those decisions. There is a lot of trust, for sure, and I do get to provide approvals as needed. I have been completely thrilled with the illustration choices and final product of my books. Seeing the words come to life through illustration is probably the most exciting part about writing a children’s book. It is such an honor to co-create a book where my text merges with incredible illustration,” she effuses.

But Lisa has to occasionally remind herself that there is a business behind all of this fun.

“I am in the throes of marketing my first book,” she says. “And I am learning that each publisher’s marketing and publicity teams work differently. I am also gearing up for marketing and publicity on my second book, Letters to Live By, and can’t wait to see how it all comes together. There are things I am doing on social media and with the press—like this interview—but I have to remind myself that my job is to write. Working on my next project is the most important thing I can do.”

Paying It Forward

“I love my work as a mentor with Society of Young Inklings, a Bay Area-based nonprofit that serves young writers ages 8 to 18,” says Lisa.

“Weekly Zoom sessions have become vital to my own growth as a writer. For one thing, I have to prepare a lesson, and that keeps me on my toes. I frequently go back to my many notebooks from the Certificate Program in Writing classes to find useful nuggets.

“I usually have something centered around one of the five key elements of craft. I’ll have an excerpt to read that relates to the lesson. And I always do a free-write. For hesitant writers, we might start by talking about ideas and make word banks related to our ideas. Or maybe we break down our favorite movies from a craft perspective. Sometimes we look at a student’s favorite book and rewrite the ending.”

It is her students’ energy and enthusiasm for storytelling that Lisa really loves. And she hopes to nurture this passion in them and herself.

“They are there for the love of reading and creating, and they are so full of hope,” she relates. “To watch a young writer develop an idea or unlock a puzzle in their writing is marvelous. Working with this age group—and writing for this age group—inspires me. It helps me look for the good in the world and actually see it. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to work with and for children and young adults. They are the future solvers of our world’s problems, and supporting their creativity is vital!”

Creating a supportive environment is key to fueling that love of reading and writing.

Lisa recalls, “One of the things that has stuck with me came from Extension Honored Instructor Laurie Ann Doyle, who would often start her classes by telling us how honored she was to work with us and how impressed she was with our commitment to our craft. She also once told me to ‘honor my gift.’ I try to convey these messages to my own students as much as possible.

“Sometimes it is just one person’s belief in your work that makes all the difference. I like to remind my students that anything is possible in their writing, and to find the magic all they have to do is start.”