Blog Archive

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Engaging the Middle-Grade Reader: Author interview with Phyllis Wheeler

What made you choose writing books for middle-grade readers?

My journalist style is simple, with strong verbs and short sentences. It works very well for middle-grade. Also, I like reading middle grade, which usually has a happy ending. I’m a kid at heart! I must have chosen the right genre, because I’ve been named finalist twice for the prestigious Selah Award for Christian Fiction.

What type of research do you do for your time travel novels?
I look into a variety of historical locations as my characters pop into various times and places.  I have traveled quite a bit in Europe but not much elsewhere, so I normally use the Internet to figure out what a particular place looks like. I’ve also asked my Facebook friends to send me photos of certain places they have been but I haven’t. One friend had just the photos I needed of the water supply system in Petra, Jordan.

The Long Shadow, my first novel, is a young-adult tale set in Missouri in three different time periods. Writing it required a research trip to Columbia MO, a town 2 hours away from my home in St. Louis. I spent a fascinating day looking at newspaper articles from long ago along with other books and articles. I also walked the town with a century-old map. This university town has changed a whole lot in that time!

Besides the novels for this age group you also have study guides so they can be used for home schoolers. How do you put those together?

I make a study guide outline: story summary, deeper questions, imagery, vocabulary, a creative exercise, and faith questions. I break up the book into chunks of chapters, for example chapters 1-3, and create questions from the outline for that group of chapters. While doing this, I really enjoy providing insights as the author that another person wouldn’t know. Tidbits from research sometimes make it into the study guide.

You are an indie author. Other than writing, what other parts of the process do you personally do? What do you hire others to do?
I was an editor and publisher at a small press for five years, so I learned useful skills. I can lay out a book, for example, and have some skill in designing covers (while hiring others to make the actual artwork). So I hire an artist and a cover designer. The only other job I hire out is editing the book. I have two editors, one for developmental edit at first, and one for polish edit later.

No way do I edit my own work. I really need the help of my writer friends and editors to see what needs fixing. It’s amazing how blind you are to your own bloopers.

What do you know now about publishing you wished you had known sooner?Marketing a middle grade book isn’t easy. That’s because you don’t market to your actual reader, but to a third person, usually a parent or school librarian. Also, there’s a major system for marketing children’s books that an indie author can’t be part of. That is the system that starts with reviews in Publishers Weekly, used by schools and libraries to choose books to buy. Those reviews mostly go to books published by the Big Five mainstream publishers. I’ve tried to get books into PW, to no avail.

I am realizing that not being in this system this is a huge handicap for a kidlit author. For a romance author, for example, it’s not such a handicap because you reach out to your readers directly on the Internet. But kidlit customers aren’t necessarily looking on the Internet for children’s books, and if they do they must get confused because there are so many options out there!

I conclude that for now I will concentrate on selling books locally or at homeschool conventions. There are parents out there looking for books like mine; I just have to find them.

So, do I regret bypassing publishers with my chapter book series? No, because a publisher takes a big cut of the sales price, leaving little for the author. But these days it’s the author who is responsible to pay for advertising and promotion. So as an indie I can afford to advertise my books and promote them.

The odds of being accepted by a Big Five publisher are ridiculously low. The consolidated publishing industry just doesn’t publish very many books any more. What about small presses? I don’t see a lot of benefit, since I have the skills to create a book. The small press that published my first book doesn’t boost my marketing but still takes a big cut of the sales price, and as a result I can’t afford ads for that book.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received or could give?
Beginning writers should join a writers’ organization and find other writers to swap work with: the sooner, the better. I waited far too long to do this. An alternative? Hire knowledgeable editors.

Are there any other points about writing you would like to add?There’s no such thing as a bad manuscript. It just needs more work. 

What is the next book coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?
Search for the Hidden Throne, Book 3 of my chapter book series Guardians of Time, is due out July 1.

How far will you go for a friend?

Jake and Ava, eleven-year-old seasoned time travelers, have learned a lot about saving others lost in time. When their teenage mentor goes missing, they suspect foul play and set out to find him.

The twins, with their four-year-old cousin in tow, jump into the past to search for their friend. Their adult mentor is supposed to meet them at their safe house. But when he doesn’t come and cannonballs start falling, they can’t wait any longer.

It’s time to get going on their own. But where?

That's all for today's interview. Here are some links to learn more about Phyllis's books...

And here's a special bonus for my readers... Get a free short story by going to this link:  

And here's  second bonus. Leave a comment on this post and next Tuesday we'll choose one winner to get a free eBook copy of The Dog Snatcher, which is  part of Phyllis's chapter book series for ages 8-11. So do that now!


  1. Super interesting! I can't wait to read the series.

  2. Congratulations on your success!