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Unstuck

LIST PRICE $8.99

About The Book

“Both relatable and inspiring…an entertaining and heartfelt read.” —Janae Marks, New York Times bestselling author of On Air with Zoe Washington

From critically acclaimed author Barbara Dee comes a middle grade novel that’s “this generation’s Dear Mr. Henshaw” (Kirby Larson, Newbery Honor–winning author of Hattie Big Sky) about a girl whose struggles with anxiety and writer’s block set off unexpected twists and turns, both on and off the page.

Lyla is thrilled when her seventh grade English language arts class begins a daily creative writing project. For the past year, she’s been writing a brilliant fantasy novel in her head, and here’s her chance to get it on paper! The plot to Lyla’s novel is super complicated, with battle scenes and witches and a mysterious one-toed-beast, but at its core, it’s about an overlooked girl who has to rescue her beautiful, highly accomplished older sister.

But writing a fantasy novel turns out to be harder than simply imagining one, and pretty soon Lyla finds herself stuck, experiencing a panic she realizes is writer’s block. Part of the problem is that she’s trying to impress certain people—like Rania, her best friend who’s pulling away, and Ms. Bowman, the coolest teacher at school. Plus, there’s the pressure of meeting the deadline for the town writing contest. A few years ago, Lyla’s superstar teen sister Dahlia came in second, and this time, Lyla is determined to win first prize.

Finally, Lyla confides about her writing problems to Dahlia, who is dealing with her own academic stress as she applies to college. That’s when she learns Dahlia’s secret, which is causing a very different type of writer’s block. Can Lyla rescue a surprisingly vulnerable big sister, both on the page and in real life?

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

Unstuck

By Barbara Dee

About the Book

Lyla is thrilled when her seventh-grade English language arts class begins a daily creative writing project. For the past year, she’s been writing a brilliant fantasy novel in her head, and here’s her chance to get it on paper! But writing a fantasy novel turns out to be harder than simply imagining one, and pretty soon Lyla finds herself stuck, experiencing a panic she realizes is writer’s block. Part of the problem is that she’s trying to impress certain people—like Rania, her best friend who’s pulling away, and Ms. Bowman, the coolest teacher at school. Plus, there’s the pressure of meeting the deadline for the town writing contest. A few years ago, Lyla’s superstar teen sister, Dahlia, came in second, and this time Lyla is determined to win first prize.

Discussion Questions

1. When you first saw this book, before you started reading it, what did you think it would be about based on the title? The main character, Lyla, is suffering from writer’s block. What had you heard about writer’s block before reading Unstuck? Have you experienced it?

2. In what other ways does Lyla feel stuck during the novel? Which other characters in the book are stuck about something? What are some things that you or your friends might feel stuck or blocked about?

3. Discuss in groups or pairs how this book might have been different if Lyla had not been able to make progress on writing her story. What are some other themes in the book? How do they connect with the main theme of being stuck?

4. In the first chapter, readers learn that Lyla is very excited to be doing a creative writing project instead of the essay writing she’s done previously. How do you feel about creative writing? Lyla doesn’t appreciate the cliché that says “you need to suffer to write a story” and wonders, “Why can’t writing just make you happy?” (p. 3) What kind of story would make you happiest to write? Do you also love to read stories in that genre?

5. Readers learn that Noah knows all the answers in math class, so he probably “likes numbers better than words.” (p. 4) Can you be both a words person and a numbers person? Which type of person are you? Explain why you prefer one over the other.

6. Lyla’s teacher Ms. Bowman, a songwriter, gives Lyla lots of tips about ways to overcome writer’s block, like taking breaks and having a cookie. What are some of her other suggestions? Which suggestion would you try first?

7. According to Ms. Bowman, “Reading can help give you ideas.” (p. 23) And Lyla realizes, “Reading is kind of disappearing. Writing is . . . the opposite. A kind of appearing.” (p. 111) How do you feel about Ms. Bowman’s and Lyla’s observations? How does Lyla’s voracious reading help her as a writer? How does it interfere?

8. Ms. Bowman says to the class: “‘My goal is really just that folks enjoy the writing process, with no rules or expectations.’” (p. 94) Is that something you’ve learned from your English teachers? How do you feel about what Ms. Bowman says: “‘Ideas come as you’re working. You really don’t have to have it all figured out before you begin’”? (p. 46) Is that how it works for you when you’re writing something? Or would you rather have a completed outline or story structure before you begin writing?

9. According to Lyla, opening sentences are important. What do you think is important to have in a first sentence? What does Lyla feel needs to be in a first sentence, or an opening sequence? Look back through some of your favorite books and write out the first lines in each one. What is most important about these sentences? How are they different, and what do they all have in common?

10. Because her sister Dahlia previously won a prize in the town writing contest, Lyla is determined to enter and win, too. How does this desire interfere with Lyla’s writing? What other problems does it cause? What are some of the negatives about comparing yourself to others? What are some of the ways that readers discover that Dahlia is not perfect? Why does she say to Lyla, “‘You’re so lucky you’re just in seventh grade’”? (p. 14) Compare Lyla and Dahlia in regard to feeling pressure and suffering writer’s block. Do you identify with one or the other of the sisters? Why does someone else’s situation always seem preferable to your own?

11. How does Lyla feel when she discovers that Dahlia is not doing well in school and is keeping secrets from their parents? She promises she will keep Dahlia’s secrets. Do you think that’s a good way to support a sibling, by keeping their secrets? How could that backfire on someone? Why is Lyla conflicted about telling on Dahlia when she disappears?

12. Since Lyla’s best friend, Rania, changed schools, she doesn’t have any friends—but she does sit with Journey at lunch. Lyla says Journey is “a nice person, but a little . . . weird.” (p. 7) Why does Lyla describe Journey this way? One of Journey’s hobbies “is reading random stuff online and then telling you about it.” (p. 9) Identify some other ways that Lyla and her peers consider Journey to be weird. How do you feel about Lyla’s observation that “once people expect you to be weird, nothing you do or say will change their minds”? (p. 197) How and why does Lyla’s opinion of Journey change throughout the book?

13. When Lyla goes to Rania’s house and meets her new friends, it doesn’t go well. Rania accuses her of bragging about her writing and the contest. In what ways might it be hard to meet an old friend’s new friends? Should a person have more than one friend or groups of friends? Why do you feel that way?

14. Lyla asks Journey to give her some feedback on her story. How can receiving feedback on something you’ve created, even from a friend, be scary or nerve-racking? Do people place too much value on what others think of them? How is Journey’s feedback helpful? What sort of feedback helps you?

15. Lyla says she has “too many people in her head.” (p. 134) How do all their “opinions and feedback and criticism” interfere with her creativity? How do you listen to helpful opinions about your work and shut out the unhelpful ones?

16. When Lyla is fretting about meeting the deadline for the writing contest and tells Journey and Noah why she wants to win, Journey says to her: “‘Lyla, you’re a writer . . . you don’t need to prove it to your sister. Or some contest judge. Or anyone else!’” (p. 249) Why is this important for Lyla to hear? Why does Lyla want this outside validation of her identity as a writer? Can you understand her reasoning?

Extension Activities

Creative Writing

Use the first sentence of Lyla’s story to write an original short story: “Aster was sloshing through the Quagmire when all of a sudden she heard the shriek.”

Journey asks Lyla: “‘If you could have any superpower in the world, which would you choose?’” (p. 25) Give yourself a superpower and write a short story with your super-self as the main character.

Essay Writing

Pretend it’s time to write your college essay! Your topic, like Dahlia’s, is “A Meaningful Experience.”

Lyla asks Dahlia, “‘If you could do anything in the world, anything you wanted for the next year, what would it be?’” (p. 213) Write an essay answering this question for yourself.

Free Writing

Choose any character from the book and write about them for ten minutes without stopping. Make sure to follow Ms. Bowman’s freewriting rules: keep your pen or pencil moving, no pauses, no rereading, and no worries about handwriting, spelling, or grammar. Just keep the words flowing!

Lyla can’t think of anything but clichés when she tries to express that “she needed to run really fast.” Set your timer and freewrite for ten minutes about that: suggest some other ways Lyla could phrase this or write about other clichés you’ve heard.

Guide written by Bobbie Combs, a consultant at We Love Children's Books.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or thebookpantry.net.

About The Author

Carolyn Simpson

Barbara Dee is the author of fourteen middle grade novels including Unstuck, Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet, Violets Are BlueMy Life in the Fish TankMaybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About YouHalfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

Product Details

Raves and Reviews

“Short dynamic chapters and Lyla’s distinctive and energetic voice will keep readers flipping the pages. Just as she has in My Life in the Fish Tank and other titles, Dee showcases the power of compassion and understanding during the crucial middle school years of growth and change.”

School Library Journal (Starred Review)

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