Fiona G. Reviews The Real McCoys

Apparently, various children are reading The Real McCoys, and apparently, at least a few of them like it. We have just (and by “just,” I mean several months ago) received a piece of incisive critical commentary from reader Fiona G, who has granted us permission to share it with you.

As follows:

The Real McCoys was really great! I loved it! Moxie and Milton McCoy attend Tiddlywhump Elementry where the beloved mascot, Eddie the Owl, has gone missing! I really liked Moxie’s sense of humor. She is really funny. I really liked reading it because I can relate to both Moxie and Milton. I liked all of the characters. There is a reasonable amount. The story is written in a way that makes you feel like Moxie is talking to you. You feel like you’re part of the story. It is a pretty realistic book. I could see myself doing all the things Moxie does. It makes a great read-aloud! I think readers ages 6 to10 would love it. Moxie is funny, smart, “really humble”. Milton is smart. I think everyone who reads this will love it!

-Fiona G., age 10, Middlebury, VT

Thank you, Fiona, for your stirring endorsement and for putting your good name on the line in support of our book.

Anyone else who would like to weigh in with opinions (however vitriolic) of The Real McCoys may send them to us via The Real McCoys Facebook page, and we will then post them here.

A Mighty Book

We are thrilled (and a little bit shocked) to find The Real McCoys featured on the soaringly popular A Mighty Girl Blog on the occasion of National Siblings Day.

Not only was our book included in a list of “50 Mighty Girl Books about Sisters & Brothers,” but it was one of three books chosen to appear in the lineup of covers at the top of the post, along with books by the soaringly popular Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Raina Telgemeier.

The list also includes such timeless classics as Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, Sisters (also by Raina Telgemeier), and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

Which is to say, we feel like we got a surprise invitation to a really great party (and very much hope that we don’t spill guacamole on the front of our blazer).

Thank you, thank you, good people of A Mighty Girl, for making us feel great and for sharing our book with your Mighty readership.

Barn Edition Giveaway!

We’ve been told that today is National Siblings Day!

So… Happy National Siblings Day!
To celebrate, Macmillan is giving away ten free copies of The Real McCoys, which we have signed and stamped with our shiny schmantzy Barn Edition seal, like so:

Barn Edition Giveaway

Look how shiny that seal is! And how schmanzy!!! How could you possibly resist, especially when it’s free, and when it is celebrating those few people of your own generation who share your DNA?!

So go on and enter the giveaway and get yourself a little Moxie!

Advice to a Young Writer

Not long ago, I received an email from a young woman (the daughter of a high school friend), asking me for insight on the writing process. She wanted to know about the “soft skills” it takes to be a writer. In other words, beyond being good at writing, what other attributes must one have to be able to actually do it as a profession.

It was fun (and instructive) question to try and dissect this thing that I usually do without much thought. I had a few important insights and thought I might as well share them with other young (or not so young) writers who might be out there wondering how to get started.

Without further ado, here are the “soft skills” required for me to do my job as a writer.

persistence (and patience) – Writing is something that you learn how to do little by little, over an extremely long period of time. Although you can certainly improve by taking writing classes or read books about writing, the best way to get better as a writer is to write. And write and write and write. Everyone starts out as a terrible writer (just think what awful writers babies are), but anyone who sticks with it gets better. And those who stick with it through frustration and failure are the ones who get a lot better. Robbi and I are always saying how glad we are that we chose professions that we can keep doing and continuing to get better at throughout our entire lives. If we were professional basketball players, we would already be retired because our knees would no longer work properly. Instead, if feels as if we’re just getting started. The bottom line here is that learning to write well takes a really long time. But the more you write, the faster the learning process will be. Without patience and persistence, it’s pretty much impossible to be a great writer. Because it’s one of those things that just doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work.

observation – Whether your story is about the Roman Empire or a family of green bunnies, it won’t be interesting unless it’s actually about real things that happen to actual people. Their hopes and fears and struggles and joys. And the only way to write things that people will care about reading is to pay close attention to what people actually say and do, how they feel and react in a given situation. So much of what happens to people happens below the surface and is only visible in barely perceptible ways. So you have to look and listen carefully to figure out how people work. Which is to say, writers must be good observers and good listeners.

empathy – Beyond figuring out how people work by studying them closely, writers have to do a little extra magic, taking that knowledge and understanding and using it to see and live the world through their characters’ eyes. Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If you can’t, at some level, identify with your characters, it’s hard to tell their stories in interesting and authentic ways. Which means that you have to crawl inside the hearts of your villains as well as those of your heroes. You have to open yourself up to a broad range of human experience. You have to be willing to acknowledge the complexity inside yourself. Which many people are not willing to do.

curiosity – The thing that makes one willing do be persistent and observant is an innate curiosity about the world and how it works. You have to be really interested in people and what they think and what they do and WHY they think what they think and do what they do or you probably won’t do the hard work it takes to learn how to write about these things in believable, compelling ways. One of the best ways to sate your curiosity is to read. Not only will you be exposed to people and situations and ideas and happenings that you couldn’t possibly experience in person, but you will learn how great writers perform their craft. Want to be a writer? Read and read and read. Write and write and write.

willingness to accept criticism – I wish there were a single word for this, but if there is, I can’t think of it. The bottom line is, writers don’t work alone. They collaborate with editors (professional or otherwise) to take their ideas and drafts and make them better. No writer EVER sat down and wrote something perfect in one try. That is not how it works. Writers write something, and it is riddled with mistakes (not just spelling and grammatical errors but other kinds of problems, whether with the story or the logic or the characters). Editors read the draft and give feedback, pointing out places where the story isn’t working or where the dialogue is not believable or where the writer has missed an opportunity to add emotional depth to a given exchange. The process of revision proceeds as a conversation between the writer and the editor and it often takes just as much work and time (if not more work and time) than creating the first draft did. Writers have to be willing to accept that they cannot create the best version of their book or blog post or magazine article on their own. And the better they are at listening to constructive criticism without taking it personally, the better their final work will be. I think of my editor as a true partner in the process of writing my books. She always makes them so much better than they would have been had I been working on my own.

And there you have it. I’d welcome any thoughts you have on this list. Especially if you can think of any I forgot.

Path Less Traveled

I wrote my first book when I was 12. It was terrible, but I was 12. I spent the next six years writing horrible poetry. When I was 18, someone politely suggested I might try a different genre. So I wrote stories. Weirdo stories that made people laugh and left them confused. But I kept writing because that’s what one does.

When I was 30, I felt ready to write a book, a big fat novel full of importance and truth. So I applied to six of the finest MFA programs in fiction—and got rejected by seven of them (I received rejection letters from the University of Minnesota on consecutive Mondays).

As plan B, Robbi and I decided to create our own books with my words and her pictures. I’d never had so much fun. We did this for a decade, constructing them by hand on our dining room table, learning and inventing and making connections that led to opportunities.

Today, at 42, I’m getting the chance to publish my big fat novel. It isn’t the book I dreamed of writing twelve years ago. It’s so much better than that one would have been. It’s about an impetuous ten-year old girl in search of a new best friend and a missing owl, and it is full of truth. It is important. This book, illustrated by Robbi, is exactly what I’m supposed to be writing. And it is a perfect example of a success that could not have been built without a foundation of failure.

Thank you, University of Minnesota, for sending me on this path less traveled. And thanks to the people who have been my teachers and guides: Jim Shepard, Erin Stein, Robbi Behr, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, Robin Rice, Clifford Lull, Bernice Thieblot, Matthew Westbrook—and so many others along the way. Because one learns writing by living each day in the company of good books and interesting people.

Happy book birthday, The Real McCoys. Thanks for all the adventures you’ve shown me so far. I can’t wait to watch you grow.

Judging Our Book By Its Cover

One of the most exciting and vexing and challenging and time-consuming parts of making a book is coming up with the cover, because no matter how many times we’re cautioned not to judge a book by it, the cover is that first impression we can never shake. And so a whole lot of people work very hard to make sure it is a good one.

The process usually begins with our art director Natalie saying to Robbi, “Take a stab at some cover ideas,” which always makes Robbi feel wiggly because as much as she muddles her way through our various in-house design needs, she is NOT a designer and does not play one on television. Nevertheless, Robbi dutifully creates a few thumbnails and sends them along.

To which Natalie responds something along the lines of. “Great! Let’s see that one with the big owl in a little more detail and maybe also that one with the three kids and the owl, but maybe with a little more excitement happening above the title.”

Robbi is extremely excited at this point, because the one with the big owl is her favorite.

And so she draws and draws and sends two sketches to Natalie.

One with a little more detail.     

One with a little more excitement.

At this point, Natalie and Erin take the more fully developed sketches to the team of people at Macmillan whose specialty is covers. They have important conversations to which we are not invited so as to protect our tender feelings from the grim realities of the rough and tumble world of selling books.

After the meeting, Natalie writes and says something along the lines of, “That excitement you added above the title was great, but how about having Moxie as a central figure, with the other characters sort of surrounding her like a frame. And be sure to put Milton in there somewhere, too.”

To which Robbi responds with this.

To which Natalie responds, “Thanks! I’ll share this with the Mysterious Cover Committee, but in the mean time, please see what Moxie and Milton would look like in color.”

Which makes sense, because of course the cover will be in full color but to this point, Moxie and Milton have been living in a black and white world.

So Robbi does this, and we all go ooh! and ahh! Because who doesn’t like color?

To which Natalie says, “Great on the color, but as you revise the sketch, keep Moxie in the middle, get Milton out from under her foot (that’s just mean!), keep the upper excitement, create a band of human characters in the middle and another band of non-human characters along the bottom. And separate the bands with color breaks. Sound good?!”

To which Robbi responds by tearing out just a few of her hairs before turning back to proverbial (and literal) drawing board coming up with the following.

We loved how Milton was on a stepladder (accentuating his trademark shortness), and how he is actively involved with adjusting the “s” in “McCoys,” (accentuating his trademark fastidiousness and also introducing the reader to the interaction of image and language that is to be found throughout the book).

Robbi and I were very excited about this cover. We thought it was perfect. We sent it to Natalie.

To which Natalie replies, “YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK, but let’s make the colors less depressing and get rid of that extremely creepy bug in the lower left and make your names a bit bigger, forgodsake.”

Because Natalie has powers, she turned the basic elements of Robbi’s sketch into the following.

Natalie also sent us the drawing below, which shows how the bands of color might extend onto the back. Robbi was pleased to see the return of the big owl, which, if you don’t remember, Robbi really liked.

At this point, Natalie and Erin took the cover to the Top Secret Committee of Monumental Cover Design Decision Making, and reported back that, “No, no, no. This is all wrong.”

At which point, Natalie changed into her ninja outfit and chopped down an entire bamboo thicket with one hand while using the other hand to blow up the previous cover concept and coming up with this entirely new one.

To which we said, “Oh yes. This is JUST RIGHT. We love it. You must be an actual designer who also plays one on television.”

To which Natalie responds by sending us a bunch of enthusiastic-yet-inscrutable emojis which make us laugh. It is her way. We love her for it.

In the weeks that follow, we make a bunch of minor adjustments to the above sketch, adding this and subtracting that, improving the color and adding a band with our names at the bottom.

Eventually, the real live book arrives in the mail and we cry a little (me) and swoon a little (Robbi). It’s so beautiful we can barely stand it. The fact that our names are on the cover of this beautiful book hardly makes sense. But there they are.

Matthew Swanson & Robbi Behr

We turn it over and have a look at the back.

Maybe Robbi didn’t get her big owl, but we LOVE how the back turned out. It’s a little taste of Moxie and Milton, how they talk, how they relate, the funny faces they make.

And, in full disclosure, Robbi did get a little owl. The nice thing about a dust jacket is that it sneaks around the corners of the covers so that the Committee of People Who Write Compelling Dustjacket Copy have a place to put their carefully crafted words.

And, to be utterly comprehensive, here is the back flap, where the Person Who Describes the Salient Facts of Author and Illustrator Lives (that would be I) gets to have his say.

We love every inch of every panel of these covers. We love the design. We love the colors. We love the texture. We love the kind testimonials from people who know what they are talking about.

We just plain love this book. And hope that you will, too.

Kid-Submitted Book Review: Madeleine Cox

The Real McCoys won’t be published for another week or so, but some lucky kids got an early peek by winning a giveaway sponsored by Macmillan and Goodreads. One such kid is Madeleine Cox, who read the book and felt compelled to weigh in.

Without further ado, we hand the mic to Madeleine:

The Real McCoys is the best fourth grade mystery book! It is super funny. It made me laugh so much! My favorite character was Moxie because she is a fourth grade detective and there are not many of them. This also makes me want to read Moxie, Maude, and Milton’s other cases and the Annabelle Adams series.  I loved the pictures because they went along really well with the words. This is a cool book!

-Madeleine Cox, Age 10, Decatur, GA

Thank you. Madeleine, for sharing your thoughts! We are truly delighted that our very first kid reviewer seems to have enjoyed the book. As for the continuing adventures of Moxie and Milton, I have finished writing book 2, and Robbi is currently extremely busy working on the illustrations. Here is a top-secret sneak peek for you.
As for Annabelle Adams,  you can read the first chapter of her first adventure AT THIS VERY MOMENT. Additional chapters will be published every few weeks or so once The Real McCoys is officially published on November 7.
As for you other kids out there, who will (hopefully!) read our book in days to come, we promise to publish any review you send our way, positive or not. You can email it to us here!


One of the great pleasures of publishing a book is the chance to plant a dedication in the front, to express the gratitude you feel to the people whose contributions made that book possible, through help or inspiration, and oftentimes both. We dedicated Babies Ruin Everything to our kids and Everywhere, Wonder to our parents. For The Real McCoys, we wanted to acknowledge those who paved our path from making books by hand on our dining room table to publishing a hardcover novel with one of the world’s biggest publishing houses.


Jesse Post (now proprietor of the fabulous Postmark Books) worked at Disney when he stopped by our table and bought a copy of our mix-and-match book After Everafter during an indie press show many years ago. A few years later, he took it to a production meeting at Little Brown, where he gave it to Erin Stein, who then hired us to write and illustrate a mix-and-match book about Spider Man, Thor, and friends. Erin, whose contributions to our story merit a post (or novel) of their own, is the publisher at Imprint (a part of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), and the editor of The Real McCoys.

Bridget Watson Payne, an editor at the estimable Chronicle Books, rolled the dice on two unknown creators and acquired our self-published book Ten Thousand Stories, giving it an editorial refresh and honoring it with the Chronicle name. We loved working with Bridget. She is smart, honest, and hilarious (and recently, an author in her own right). So when we were looking for an agent a few years ago, we charged Bridget with helping us find the agent version of herself. Meredith Kaffel Simonoff was first on Bridget’s list of recommendations. We emailed with Meredith. We met in person. We fell in love. Within a year, we had signed five book contracts, including The Real McCoys books 1 and 2.

This business is no solitary venture. The author and illustrator are just one part of a vast web of smart, talented people who work their tails off to make books happen. We have been lucky to work with (and count as friends) some of the very best of them.

An Illustrator’s Guide to Nocturnal Productivity

Robbi (she who illustrates The Real McCoys series) is a raccoon.

By which I mean, she comes alive when the sun sets and kicks into full gear when the most of us are ready to climb into bed. Her natural creative sweet spot is 10:00pm -2:00am. We’ve known this for a long time, but in the interest of spending time with her family by being awake during roughly the same hours, Robbi has behaved less like a raccoon and more like a prairie dog for most of the past decade. Except during stretches of intense creative production that demand nothing but her best and most efficient creative output.

We find ourselves in such a stretch.

The books in The Real McCoys series are long (336 pages) and illustration-heavy (roughly 1,000 individual drawings in each book). The number of hours required to illustrate each is patently absurd, and the only way Robbi can manage the feat is to abandon normalcy and work through the night. Every night.

I am wired like a boring old human being conditioned to mirror the path of the sun. Which means I completely decompensate as 8:00pm rolls around.  I’ve always marveled at Robbi’s nocturnal prowess, wondering how she manages it. I woke this morning with the answer. In the dead of night, Robbi decided to document her current method for keeping the Sandman at bay. I present it for you here. Lest you decide the time has come to create 1,000 illustrations:

Recommendations for your next all-nighter:

1. V8 + Energy Drink:


I don’t know what’s in this stuff but it seems to be working better than multiple cans of Coke and piles of Almond Joys. It gives the impression of being healthy by saying it has a serving of vegetables and fruits in it along with B-vitamins. Added bonus: very cool packaging design. All four flavors are delicious but don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out. A steady dose of energy without the crash.

2. Sweetzels Ginger Snaps:

I did not realize how effective the actual act of chewing can be against falling asleep, especially when it feels like you are chewing little dollops of granite. (There is a reason Almond Joys are more effective than Mounds.) This particular brand of ginger snaps is not only brain-rattlingly crunchy, they also have a nice sharp ginger bite (“made with real ginger”!) When Matthew couldn’t find this brand, he purchased a different brand, which got soggy by 4am and had no gingery bite (and were much more sugary tasting). I gave him exact directions on where these could be found at the store, so don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out of these too.

3. Podcasts:

I have three podcasts I am slowly burning through.

a. Lovett or Leave It :


Features hilarious former speechwriter for Obama who also happened to graduate from my alma mater with a math degree seven years after I graduated from there with an English degree. Which is to say, even writers don’t waste their time with English degrees. Also hosted by other Obama insiders. Funny, smart, engaging, but probably only if you’re a lefty.

b. Pod Save America :


This basically has the same line-up as Lovett or Leave It and is equally smart and entertaining but with fewer silly games. Slightly more wonky but still goes down quite well with ginger snaps.

c. MizMaryland : Soul Force Politics :


I happen to know Heather Mizeur, who ran for governor a few years back. She started this podcast to get conscience and “soul” back into politics. Earnest as H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks but refreshing to hear people working for change without cynicism and with a great deal of hope. Loved her chat with firebrand Barbara Mikulski and great to hear her talk across the aisle with Gov. Hogan. Looking forward to more, there’s only three episodes so far.

4. The Hamilton: An American Musical Soundtrack  


I’m not late to this game! I swear! You all might be totally over this by now, but I gotta say when it’s late and you’re feeling done, crank up some Yorktown and get the f–k back up again.

5. Photoshop


If your all-nighters do not involve Photoshop, then they will not be nearly as fun. Highly recommended.


And there you have it. Perhaps now that this intelligence has been shared, scores of 336 page, 1,000 illustration middle grade novels will spread like wildfire across this great land. But somehow I doubt it. Something tells me that Robbi is able and willing to stay up all night and thrive not because of the above list of worthy diversions and delights.

It’s because she is a raccoon.

Please? (And thank you!)

Hello, friends. Our first heavily illustrated, beautifully printed, funny and heart-warming whodunnit of a kid novel The Real McCoys comes out in two short weeks. We are extremely excited but are also trying to do whatever we can to help this book we love find its way in the world. From talking with other authors and people in publishing, it sounds like strong preorders can do a lot to help a book get noticed, shelved, shared, etc.

OUR REQUEST TO YOU: if you were planning on buying this book anyway, doing so now instead of after it comes out would be a huge help to us. And, even if you are currently kidless, consider picking up a copy or two for birthday or holiday gifts. (Crazily, it can be had for just $10.33.)

I’ve included links to various online retailers below, but you can also preorder from your local bookstore. Apologies for the overt ask, but in this case, if you are willing to give this book a loving nudge, we would be extremely grateful. Your support means the world to us.

[For your calculations, the sweet spot is grades 3-7, but it would also be perfect for parents to read with younger kids—and I wrote it to be funny to all but the most humorless adults].



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