Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Jo Watson Hackl: An MG Debut Chat and How to Create a Theme for Your Book by Kathy Halsey

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe Book Review

I met Jo Watson Hackl this past summer at Ohio's first Nerd Camp where she presented sessions for teachers, librarians, and other writers. I was so impressed with Jo's extensive presence online and her educational materials for Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe, I had to purchase it.

As a former middle school teacher and K-12 librarian, I knew students in this age group, as well as educators, would inhale this book as fast as I did. Jo's main character Cricket is plucky, resourceful, and easy to root for as she survives in the woods alone, searches for her mother who has abandoned her, and sleuths out clues to find her mother who deals with mental illness.

Jo deftly weaves together a page-turner that is part mystery, part history, and part adventure. The timeless themes of family issues, being different, yet wanting to fit in; being independent, yet needing security and a home will resonate with many audiences. Educators and librarians can easily use Jo's deep resources as a well to plan outdoor activities focused on nature and grit. This debut novel is a must-read.

Craft Chat

Kathy: Congrats on your debut middle grade. You indicate on your website that it took years to write. How did the book evolve over time? Do you know how many revisions you went through? What came easy? What took the most work?


Jo: Thank you, Kathy.  I’m delighted to be part of your outstanding blog.

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe took over ten years to write and revise. The story changed over time as I centered in on the core emotional journey of Cricket, Smack Dab’s main character. This journey includes her evolving understanding of herself and her changing relationships with the people and creatures (including an adopted pet cricket named Charlene and a poetry-loving dog named Percy) in her .life. Smack Dab is a work of fiction, but it reflects real-life emotions.  I went through dozens of revisions, always with the goal of allowing myself to be vulnerable on the page and to write and revise the scenes I was most afraid to write. I kept working until each part felt true.


I grew up surrounded by the woods of a real-life ghost town, so the relationship to the setting came very easy for me. I wanted to make the setting feel so real to readers that, when they open the pages of Smack Dab, they immediately feel transported into Cricket’s world. I wanted for the setting to function almost as a character in itself. I also wanted to create a clue trail that readers could solve alongside Cricket. If you ever want to have fun as a writer, I highly recommend putting together a clue trail.  It gives you a compelling reason to explore your curiosity and to gather intriguing facts and interesting details and try to make them even more interesting for readers.  A clue trail not only provides Cricket with a quest, but the journey helps her grow as a character and changes her by the end of the novel. My research led me down hundreds of rabbit holes until I found the right combination of clues. I also tried to make each clue have an emotional meaning for Cricket, and it took plenty of revisions to fit them together in a way designed to create a satisfying reader experience.

Yes Electric Mills, the setting, is based on a real lumber town.

Kathy: I love the topics and themes you worked into Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe – family issues, nature, mental illness, art history. Did you arrive at these issues/themes ahead of time or did they reveal themselves organically?


Jo: Thanks Kathy. These issues came to me very organically. I’ve always had a close relationship with nature and wanted to set the novel mostly outdoors. To make the outdoor scenes realistic, I studied extensively on outdoor self-reliance, and learned how to live off the land, make shelter, find food, and create a fire from scratch. You can read about one unusual way of making fire, called “fire out of water,” in Smack Dab.

My favorite artist is Walter Inglis Anderson, and his hidden room provided inspiration for the elusive Bird Room in the story and the personal narrative of the fictional artist in the story tied in nicely with that of Cricket’s mother. Mental health is an issue with which more and more young readers and their families are struggling, and I wanted to write a story that spoke to that issue. When I was a young person learning about the world, perhaps my greatest discovery was how people are amazingly complex, and that no person is just one thing or the other. I wanted to create a story that invites readers to lean into a more nuanced understanding of the world.

Kathy: Your main character Cricket is relatable and intriguing. How can writers create characters worth rooting for and that readers can identify with?


Jo: Great question. For me, the key to any strong relationship is to allow yourself to be open. Cricket isn’t afraid to admit when she’s scared, or worried, or uncertain, and I think that readers can relate to those feelings. It also doesn’t hurt that, early in the book, she risks the wrath of her aunt to save a real-life cricket, whom she promptly names Charlene. I also tried to make every character three-dimensional (even Charlene and a poetry-loving dog named Percy), with positive and negative qualities, conflicting emotions, and plenty of quirks.

Jo and "Pupper," the inspiration for Percy, the poetry-loving dog.

Kathy: Tell us a bit about your online resource Outdoorosity - its genesis, connection to the novel, and your personal life.

Jo: More and more research provides evidence of the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outdoors and I wanted to highlight this and to provide practical, easy ways for readers to reap those benefits.  This inspired me to found years ago as a free resource with inspiration and information about getting outdoors. We post bucket lists each season with fun things to do outdoors. We publish articles about outdoor activities, plants, and animals. We also provide original outdoor photography. I’m currently in the beginning stages of a study that introduces low-cost natural elements to the standardized test setting with the goal of increasing student performance on standardized tests. Interested educators can sign up for more information at . In my own life, I engage with nature every day. I spend as much time outdoors as possible and, six days a week, post photos from nature on social media. My writing office overlooks a view of the woods, and, whenever I feel stuck, a walk outdoors reenergizes me and boosts my creativity. 

Jo and friends at the Earthskills class hiking

Kathy: You have a cohesive, identifiable online presence. What tips do you recommend writers take to stand out, create an authentic brand?

Jo: I’m so glad that you included the word “authentic,” Kathy. To me, that really is key.  I advise writers to find something that they are passionate about and want to share with others, and then build posts around that theme.  To me, it’s time outdoors and nature. Early in the pandemic, I was holed up at home and the world as I knew it felt like it was coming unraveled.  I wanted to find a way to put a bit of positivity out into the world. Photographs of nature were an easy way for me to do that.

Battle of the Books from Kathy's School Library

Kathy: I'd love for you to tell us about your support of Battle of the Books.

Jo: I was very fortunate to have Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe  named to the Battle of the Books list for North Caroline (twice!). I am a first-generation college graduate and wanted to give back to readers and encourage a love of reading. I offer free question and answer sessions to team members from any state where Smack Dab is on the list. I’ve loved my time visiting with the teams, helping them prepare for their upcoming events, and encouraging them in their own reading and writing endeavors.

Kathy: What are you working on now?

Jo: I'm working on another outdoor adventure, art mystery, clue trail story similar to Smack Dab in these elements, and, like Smack Dab, is a coming of age novel. This story features two young chefs who are cousins from feuding sides of the family. They have to work together to survive the woods, solve the clue trail, and not kill each other in the process. I'm having lots of fun.

Jo Watson Hackl is the author of the bestselling novel, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE (Random House Children’s Books), which won the Southern Book Prize and is an Amazon Teacher's Pick. The book is set almost entirely outdoors and includes curriculum tie-ins to art, history, geography, literature, mathematics, and science.

Jo also is the Founder of, a free resource for inspiration and information about nature. Jo loves to do school visits and has presented to over 23,000 students, educators, and other professionals. She donates her honorarium to buy books for children selected by the host organization. 

Working with a team of experienced educators, she has developed a bounty of free resources for educators and other readers including outdoor adventures, a "Building Grit Kit," a "Writing and Revision Toolkit," and a "Book Club Kit."

These can be found here:


Facebook:  Jo Watson Hackl

Twitter: @JoHackl

Instagram:  @JoHackl.

You can contact Jo through her website if you'd like to apply to take part in a mentored implementation of the “Building Grit Kit” or a study implementing nature-based interventions with a goal of improving student performance on standardized tests.

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