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Reading and writing Children's lit...and then there's the brain stuff
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1. And the winner is...





I'm happy to announce that, according to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover copy of A CLATTER OF JARS and the paperback copy of A TANGLE OF KNOTS is....


BOOKS4LEARNING


Congratulations! And expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.



Come back next week for a guest post from debut author David Neilsen!



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2. A CLATTER OF JARS by Lisa Graff -- and a Giveaway!



A Clatter of Jars by Lisa Graff (May 2016, Philomel, 224 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): In this magical companion to the National Book Award nominee A Tangle of Knots, it's summertime and everyone is heading off to camp. For Talented kids, the place to be is Camp Atropos, where they can sing songs by the campfire, practice for the Talent show, and take some nice long dips in the lake. But what the kids don't know is that they've been gathered for a reason, one that the camp's director wants to keep hidden at all costs.

Meanwhile, a Talent jar that has been dropped to the bottom of the lake has sprung a leak, and strange things have begun to happen. Dozens of seemingly empty jars have been washing up on the shoreline, Talents have been swapped, and memories have been ripped from one camper's head and placed into another. And no one knows why.

With a camp full of kids, a lake full of magic, and a grown-up full of a secrets, "A Clatter of Jars" is a story of summer, family, and the lengths we go to win back the people we love.

Why I recommend it: I've been a fan of author Lisa Graff since Umbrella Summer and it's been awe-inspiring to watch her talent grow over the years. I love the magical realism of this perfect summer tale. And I adore how it all comes together in the end. You don't need to read A Tangle of Knots to appreciate this fun and sophisticated summer camp yarn, since it's about different characters, but it adds to your enjoyment if you're familiar with the first book and the Talented world Lisa Graff has created. And Cady makes a cameo appearance here!

Favorite lines: Memory is a curious thing. Some details stick in our minds like peanut butter on crackers, and refuse to budge, as much as we might wish they would. (from p. 51)

Bonus: Plenty of diversity among the large cast of characters. Plus... recipes! This time for refreshing summer drinks.

Giveaway details: Thanks to the generosity of the publisher, I have one hardcover copy of A Clatter of Jars to give away, along with a paperback of A Tangle of Knots (and if you're the lucky winner and you've already read A Tangle of Knots, I could substitute another Lisa Graff paperback). To enter, all you need to do is follow my blog and comment on this post. If you tweet about it or mention it on social media, please let me know and I'll give you extra chances. This giveaway is open to mailing addresses in the US and Canada ONLY and ends at 10:00 pm EDT on Sunday July 24. Winner to be announced on Monday July 25. Good luck!

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3. On visiting the Highlights Foundation for the first time... and my impressions of the Novel in Verse Workshop from May 2016

Some of you have been waiting patiently for this post. Sorry it took so long! I was a tad distracted (see my previous post).


Some of the cabins at the Highlights Foundation.
Mine was the second from the left.


How to sum up my first visit to the Highlights Foundation?

In one word: magical.

In many more words: The entire experience inspired me, from the first Saturday gathering of 14 strangers (twelve attendees plus two faculty members) over wine and cheese to the last goodbye hugs with all my new friends on Wednesday. I couldn't imagine a more caring, encouraging group with which to share my first Highlights workshop. I'm honored to have spent time with these talented and creative people (many of whom already have books published!). By the last day, we felt like a family. 

Yet I had a somewhat rocky start -- emails going astray for months, a cabin mix-up the day I arrived... There's always a story behind the story, right? Do you know what it's like to wander around a big rural campus in search of your name on a door, hoping to find it and not finding it? Agh!  

The lovely Jan Godown Annino (check out her wonderful blog) tried to help me solve my dilemma that first afternoon.  I'm afraid I was (unintentionally) a little short with her. I'm a timid driver and I'd just spent three and a half hours driving on unfamiliar highways. Not my favorite thing to do. So I was a wee bit cranky when I arrived, only to find someone else in what was supposed to be my cabin! Indeed, I almost felt Highlights didn't want me there. 

Silly, I know.

Of course, all was not lost. The indomitable Jo Lloyd took charge and put all things right, finding my name sign and canvas welcome bag (containing the schedule, among other papers), and assigning me to a different cabin, which worked out perfectly. I fell in love with Cabin 9 and it became my home for 4 nights. 



Cabin 9: my writing cabin and my sleeping, reading, and day-dreaming cabin



Inside Cabin 9: rustic but charming, and always quiet.


As we must do when confronted with unexpected situations, I adjusted my attitude and rediscovered my sense of humor (and I'm happy to say I became great friends with Jan Godown Annino!). That evening, I enjoyed meeting and getting to know all my talented fellow attendees, along with our fearless leaders, Kathy Erskine (author of the National Book Award-winning Mockingbird, and of Seeing Red, Badger Knight, and other novels, along with the upcoming verse novel Hidden Power) and Alma Fullerton (author of verse novels Libertad, which I reviewed hereBurn, In the Garage, and others). 

On the third day, we were joined by guest author Padma Venkatraman (I was excited to meet her because I'd already read all three of her novels, Climbing the Stairs, Island's End, and A Time to Dance). 

By that third day, I'd had conversations with every single attendee, even the reticent (and gifted) Ray, the only male in our group. Ray's powerful picture book in verse moved us all to tears when he finally read it out loud at Group Critique. 

Group critique every afternoon at 4 was followed by wine and cheese at 5:30 and then a delicious buffet dinner at the Barn. 

Getting ready for dinner


Wine and cheese time in the Barn!



The food at the Highlights Foundation is worth the price of the workshops. It's true! Always fresh, local, and delicious, and prepared by the most talented chefs you'll find. They even take into account your dietary restrictions and bring you a special plate if needed. I'm sorry I didn't think to take more photos of the generous buffets. This one below is a simple lunch. There were always plenty of salad and veggie choices as well as comfort foods like lasagna. Ingredients were identified (writing with chalk on the black tablecloth: ingenious!) so you could avoid known allergens.





Eating this wonderful food made us all feel healthy-- and quite spoiled! No cooking, no clean-up. It's a writer's dream. Highlights even provided snacks and coffee, tea, or soft drinks in the Barn at any hour of the day or night, though I was usually too full to consider it.

When the rain finally blew away, we could play in the word garden:


An attempt at poetry


or take a brisk evening walk, led by Kathy Erskine, a walk which helped jump-start my brain for more writing that night.







My writing desk and reading chair



Our mornings were filled with informative workshops held in the classroom corner of the Barn. My favorite moments were mostly visual. I will never forget Kathy Erskine crawling around on the Barn's hard stone floor to demonstrate how she got into her character's head in the medieval tale, The Badger Knight, when Adrian hid under a pew at Carlisle Cathedral. And Alma telling us how she got into her character by huddling in a snow drift for hours with no coat or shoes. Wow! Talk about dedication. 

After Padma joined us, she described binding up her leg for a day and trying to walk around. That was how she got inside her character in A Time to Dance, her moving verse novel about a dancer who loses one leg in an accident.

Our afternoons included plenty of free time to write. And write is what I did. Inspired by my one-on-ones with Alma and Kathy, I managed to write four new poems for my verse novel in the time I was there, and many more since I came home. From my one-on-ones and from comments in Group Critique, I learned that I need to flesh out the minor characters more and add some humor to what has turned out to be a serious MG contemporary novel.*

I came away with a renewed sense of purpose for my novel in verse and a sense of lasting camaraderie with an amazing group of people. I'm sorry I don't have people pictures, but check out the Highlights Foundation site (at least, for now) and you may catch a glimpse of our group.

If you've never attended a Highlights Foundation workshop, please keep it in mind for the future. It's a must for any writer. And they do have scholarships. Just ask!

Personally, I can't wait to go back.


*Oh, you thought I was going to tell you what my novel is about? Sorry! That will have to wait.




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4. When something unexpected happens...


I'm back from my blogging break and happy to be here. Revising my verse novel took up more than half my time (I'll be back to talk about my novel and the Highlights Foundation workshop on Monday, July 11th). The rest of my blogging break was spent on a river cruise with my husband in Europe.

Yes, I know, we're very lucky. Actually, you have no idea how lucky we are!

This photo pretty much sums it up (yes, that's our ship in the background, which we had to evacuate):

That's my husband with some very nice ladies from Texas
at about 6:30 am local time on Father's Day, June 19, 2016.
We all managed to keep our sense of humor about the situation.

You may have seen the commercials. ("Unpack once and spend more time being there.") An idyllic river cruise through Germany, Austria, and Hungary to see Europe's greatest treasures. Well, two nights out of a planned seven were actually spent cruising. Then we were awakened at 3:30 am on the second night by a loud bang, the ship shuddered several times and eventually started listing to one side. My husband said, "I think we're in trouble." I said, "Relax, they know what they're doing. We're probably in a lock. Go back to sleep."


Taken from our sliding glass door on the 2nd level at 3:54 am local time.
We are parallel to the bridge and not going anywhere.


But we never did go back to sleep.

And we weren't in a lock.

My husband understood right away that we were actually stuck next to a bridge. The muddy, churning water of the Danube River was rushing under the boat but we weren't moving.

By 4:30 am, we'd been officially informed that the ship had run aground. By 5:30 we'd packed our luggage but left it in our stateroom as ordered, and even had time for a quick buffet breakfast on board the ship (I miss you, Chef Solomon!). By 6:30, we were taken off the vessel in small rescue boats by a local German fire rescue crew and taken to a small dock, then by bus to the fire hall, where the equivalent of the Red Cross handed out coffee, tea, and water.

I can honestly say it's the first time I've ever had to be rescued from a ship that ran aground and the first time I've ever been taken to a fire hall for disaster relief. It was truly an adventure. I think having a sense of humor and a sense of adventure is the key here. More importantly, no one was hurt, everyone on the ship stayed safe, and the volunteers of the Kelheim-Stadt Fire Rescue company were all very calm and thorough and professional. They did a fantastic job of getting 186 passengers and 50 crew members safely off the ship.




Another view from our stateroom, around 6 am, just before we left it for good.




The volunteer fire rescue crew wrote numbers on our hands as we prepared to step into the rescue boat.
It was a little disconcerting, but led to a lot of jokes (and took three days to wash off),
Those are German 1's, so I was number 141




There goes our rescue boat, off to retrieve more passengers



More pics of our intrepid rescuers:









It certainly was not what we expected to happen. We expected, instead, plenty of this:




Half-timbered house near Nuremberg Castle, Germany





Our tour guide called this "Medieval color TV" --
clock tower in Nuremberg, Germany
with figures that appeared at noon, danced and played instruments


Worlds Oldest Sausage Kitchen, Regensburg, Germany.
The sausages were delicious and I don't even like sausage!





Thirteenth-century Patrician tower with Italian influence,
Regensburg, Germany




St. Stephen's cathedral in Passau, Germany.
We were treated to a magnificent organ concert.



Near Krems, Austria, looking down at the valley from Gottweig Abbey,
a 900-year-old working Benedictine abbey where they make a delightful apricot wine!

The church at Gottweig Abbey

Maria Theresa, Queen and Empress, who reigned in the 18th century,
also wife of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I,
Vienna, Austria

Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the former imperial palace,
and still the seat of government


This may look like a palace or cathedral but it's actually Parliament in Budapest.
And Viking gave us a one-hour river cruise to see the lights come on Thursday evening.
So we still got our Budapest river cruise. Thank you, Viking!


We were most impressed with how well Viking handled the entire situation. They tried very hard to get us another vessel, but it didn't work out. So our vacation turned into a bus tour. Not the worst thing that could happen! (And other ships were affected by the flooding that same week.) Everyone from the company was calm, professional, and hardworking and did everything in their power to keep us happy. Nikki, Ivan, and especially Daniel, my hat is off to you. (I don't think those three young people ever slept.)

Imagine finding hotel rooms for 190 people at short notice! And having to feed all those people. And bus them all to the next included excursion. How they managed, I'll never know. But we never missed a single city tour. So we still saw everything we were supposed to see, including an optional tour my husband and I had signed up for, to the Bavarian Village museum, also known as the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald, near Passau. A delightful journey into Bavaria's past, with over 100 authentic buildings brought in from all over Bavaria and preserved.

Chapel in the Bavarian Village museum

The geese at the Bavarian Village were excited to see us,
as our group of 15 seemed to be the only people there that day!


The accident was certainly not the worst thing that ever happened to us on vacation. Curious about the worst? See my "About Me" page.

When something unexpected happens on vacation, how do you handle it? Do you keep your sense of humor?

I'd like to wish all my American friends a very happy (and safe) Independence Day weekend. And to everyone, whether you're heading off to the beach or the mountains or to somewhere farther away for vacation, may all your travels be safe and uneventful!


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5. Giveaway winner for UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT


I'm pleased to announce that according to randomizer the winner of the SIGNED hardcover copy of UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT by Mike Jung is





Congratulations, Rosi! Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.


* * *

Please note: I'm taking a blogging break for a few weeks so I can focus on revising my verse novel. I received some fantastic feedback on it at the Highlights Foundation workshop on Novels in Verse in late May. Those five days were a magical experience, filled with learning, sharing, and making new friends. Really, we felt more like a family by the end. The food was heavenly, we took walks without seeing a single vehicle (!), and there was plenty of built-in time for writing. I'll be back in July with a more-detailed recap of my adventures.


I'll leave you with some photos from Highlights. My cabin was the second from the left. Rustic and cozy and very conducive to writing.







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6. Giveaway winner! Plus, a NEW Giveaway for UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT by Mike Jung

I'm pleased to announce a Giveaway winner for the signed hardcover copy of THE DRAKE EQUATION by Bart King. According to randomizer the winner is:


SUE HEAVENRICH


Congratulations, Sue! Look for an email from me asking for your mailing address.

*  *  *

And I'm so excited because I have a new giveaway this week and it's also SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR!




Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung (April 26, 2016, Scholastic Press, 272 pages, for ages 8 to 12)


Synopsis (from Indiebound):  The next person who compares Chloe Cho with famous violinist Abigail Yang is going to HEAR it. Chloe has just about had it with people not knowing the difference between someone who's Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. She's had it with people thinking that everything she does well -- getting good grades, winning first chair in the orchestra, et CETera -- are because she's ASIAN.

Of course, her own parents don't want to have anything to DO with their Korean background. Any time Chloe asks them a question they change the subject. They seem perfectly happy to be the only Asian family in town. It's only when Chloe's with her best friend, Shelly, that she doesn't feel like a total alien. 

Then a new teacher comes to town: Ms. Lee. She's Korean American, and for the first time Chloe has a person to talk to who seems to understand completely. For Ms. Lee's class, Chloe finally gets to explore her family history. But what she unearths is light-years away from what she expected.

Why I recommend it: I've been one of Mike's loyal followers since, well, practically forever (in social media terms). I've always found his blog posts and tweets thoughtful and thought-provoking. He's a founding member of We Need Diverse Books (and yes, people, we STILL need diverse books!). But all of that is really besides the point because I LOVE THIS BOOK and I would love it even if I didn't know anything about the author and even if I hadn't read GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES, Mike's first MG novel, published in 2012.

Chloe's voice is pitch-perfect. You will feel you are listening to an actual twelve-year-old girl gripe about her parents and school. Her family history is wild and crazy, but makes for a fun, fast-paced read. Chloe's friendship with Shelly reminds me of actual friendships I had in junior high. And it's always refreshing to read a story in which the main character has two loving parents. Plus, this is a lighthearted, humorous novel that nevertheless delves into deeper issues of prejudice and racism. Today's kids need this book more than ever.

Favorite lines (from page 66): "The notes spilled out of the violin strings like beams of sunlight, and I got that tingly feeling I always get when I'm playing something as well as I can play, except I was just playing a scale!"




Giveaway details: I have a SIGNED hardcover copy to give away. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. US mailing addresses only, please (so sorry!). If you mention this giveaway on social media, please let me know and I'll give you extra chances. This giveaway ends at 10:00 pm EDT on Sun June 5 and the lucky winner will be announced on Monday June 6, 2016. Good luck!


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7. WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk



Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (May 3, 2016, Dutton Children's Books, 304 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby's strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount. Brilliantly crafted, "Wolf Hollow" is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl's resilience and strength help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

Why I recommend it: This book blew me away. I'm impressed by the imagery and the voice, and astonished by the depth here. Any adult who dismisses the importance of children's literature should read this novel. A haunting story that will stay with me for a long time.

Wolf Hollow may not appeal to kids looking for an easy read with exciting adventures, but middle school readers who prefer something deeper, quieter, and more literary will find much to love here. I've read reviews comparing this to To Kill a Mockingbird and I admit the comparison is apt, but it's rural Pennsylvania and not the South, and instead of race, this book addresses class differences and bullying. Younger readers may find a few scenes frightening. (I would suggest 9 and up or even 10 and up.)


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8. THE DRAKE EQUATION and a guest post from author Bart King -- PLUS a giveaway!





The Drake Equation by Bart King (May 10, 2016, Disney Hyperion, 320 pages, for ages 8 to 12).

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Noah Grow is a bird-watcher. If you're picturing some kid in a big floppy hat, peering up into trees through giant binoculars . . . well, good job. That's exactly what he does. Right now, Noah is on a quest to find a wood duck. According to his calculations, aka the Drake Equation, the odds are good--really good--for spotting one.

That's why he gets off the bus at the wrong stop. And that's how he ends up running down a hill, crashing into a fence, and landing right next to a strange, glittery object.

Noah and his best friends, Jason and Jenny, soon discover that the mysterious disc is, well, mysterious. It gives Noah peculiar powers. As things go from odd to outrageous, Noah is swept up in a storm of intergalactic intrigue and middle-school mayhem. There's much more at stake than Noah realizes.

Why I recommend it:  I recently spent a fun weekend with this book and was a little sorry to see the story end. Rich in humor (I haven't read such a memorable bathroom scene since The Fourth Stall) and filled with organic imagery ("My stomach dropped like a diving osprey"), this is an entertaining and imaginative tale that's perfect for the 8 to 12 age range. With its timely and subtle environmental theme, this book reminded me of Carl Hiaasen's MG novels. Kid readers will love the wild and crazy adventures that ensue after Noah figures out how to access the power of the disc, and of course they'll hoot over the bathroom humor. Teachers will appreciate the curriculum tie-ins to English vocabulary and science, used in such an ingenious way, kids won't realize they're learning!


I'm honored that author Bart King agreed to write a guest post. Take it away, Bart!






Hi! Bart King here. In the unlikely event you’ve heard of me, it’s probably because of my funny non-fiction books for younger readers, like The Big Book of Superheroes.

I began writing nonfiction books in 1999, with the gripping title, An Architectural Guidebook to Portland. (Yes, really!) Since then, I’ve stuck with that style. I mean, fiction? Puh-leeze. Novels are the province of the literati, the artists who can build imaginary worlds with graceful flourishes of their pens or keyboards. Hmm, maybe not the latter. (It’s hard to look elegant while flourishing one’s keyboard.)

Two years ago, I undertook a new writing project. It was one that tested my resolve, cursed me with sleepless nights, and basically made me want my mommy. Because what I was trying to do was write a novel.

Yes, fiction!

[cue horrified shrieks]

Today, I find myself the proud father of The Drake Equation (Disney Hyperion, grades 3-7). My goal was to write a story that was entertaining and funny, but that also had a redeeming message that didn’t seem “preachy.”

And guess what? Writing that novel really WAS incredibly hard. But after 13 drafts, I *think* it came out the way I intended. And now it’s on to the next project. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to practice my keyboard flourishes!




Bart, I'd say you more than accomplished your goal. I'm so impressed that The Drake Equation is your first novel. Writing all those humorous non-fiction books really prepared you for this.





Visit Bart's website

Follow Bart on Twitter, Find Bart on Facebook

Here's Bart on Instagram

Bart's previous appearance on my blog




Giveaway details: The publisher has generously offered a hardcover copy for giveaway. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only and will end at 10:00 pm EDT on Sun May 29.  Winner will be announced on Monday May 30. So you have three weeks to enter!






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9. COUNTING THYME and Q&A with Melanie Conklin




Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin (April 12, 2016, G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 320 pages, for ages 10 and up) 

Synopsis (from the publisher): When eleven-year-old Thyme Owens’ little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves.

Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush, and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours, and days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Why I recommend it:  This is one of the clearest, strongest middle-grade voices I've read in years. You'll find yourself believing Thyme is a real 11-year-old girl telling you her story. Also, I've lived in Manhattan (in a third-floor walk-up) and the details about the city are spot-on. A sad but sweet and even humorous novel with a lot of heart and a lot of hope.

Melanie's website

I'm thrilled that author Melanie Conklin agreed to answer a few questions. Here's our Q&A:


Melanie Conklin, from the author's website


1) Tell us a little about neuroblastoma and especially why you decided to have a character with this form of cancer.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that is primarily found in developing nervous tissue. It can manifest in many different areas, and children ages five and younger are most commonly affected. I first became acquainted with neuroblastoma in 2007, when a child in my Brooklyn neighborhood was diagnosed with the disease. I followed his family’s story closely through their blog, and ended up joining another local mom’s effort to raise funds for pediatric cancer research through baking and selling cookies—which became Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. Several years later, when I started writing, the stories of these families fighting cancer in such young children still resonated with me, in part because the treatments for the disease are very difficult to endure. When I decided to write a character who had a younger sibling facing an illness, neuroblastoma was the illness I wanted to portray.

2) My kids were on the Lighting and Sound crew in their school theater department, so I loved your scenes about figuring out how to make the sounds for The Wizard of Oz. Were you involved in theater yourself? If not, what kind of research did you so?

I’m glad you enjoyed those scenes! I was involved in theater on the periphery in both high school and college. While I never had the urge to perform, I really enjoyed working on the sets and painting backdrops, and once you’re back stage you end up exposed to the whole world of theater! Also, a friend of mine is a sound producer and foley artist, and I’d been acquainted with his work over the years, so between those two influences I had a feel for the scenes I wanted to create for Thyme’s school play. I researched children’s theater productions and watched quite a few performances on YouTube to fill in the gaps, and had a lot of fun inventing sounds, which in many ways related to my work as a product designer. Having worked with all kinds of materials to produce household goods, I have a feel for their various properties, which helped me mock up my ideas for different sounds to test out in our kitchen.

3) What are some of your favorite MG titles? And what's your favorite snack while reading them?

Ooh, snacks! I am a snacker. I prefer salty over sweet…so most often you’ll find me with a bag of bagel chips or some slices of cheese with olives. I don’t eat much while I read, though, because I love books in print and I’m still horrified at the idea of leaving a fingerprint on the page! Childhood habits die hard. I love the variety of titles in middle grade, and I love so many of them. One for the Murphysand When You Reach Me are two of my favorites. I also love verse novels, like Brown Girl Dreaming and Blue Birds. I’m reading Mayday right now, and the voice in it is amazing!

4) I love verse novels too. What's next for you? Will there be another novel about Thyme and her family? Or are you working on something new? Can you give us a hint?


Next up for me is another middle grade novel! I’m drafting the story right now, so it’s a very exciting time of discovery and surprises. It stars a whole new cast of characters, and I can tell you that it’s about family and friendship, and though it’s a very different world from the one in Counting Thyme, it’s also about finding your place in the world after life throws you a curveball. In many ways, this story is even more personal for me, and I can’t wait to share it one day soon!

And I can't wait to read it! Thank you for visiting, Melanie. Readers, have you read COUNTING THYME? What about any other MG novels about a sibling with cancer?


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10. LIBERTAD by Alma Fullerton: Celebrating Poetry Month with Novels in Verse


Libertad by Alma Fullerton (2008, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 215 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): With their father gone to America to make money for his family, Libertad, his little brother Julio and their mother scrape a living out of a dump in Guatemala City. Although it is too late for him, Libertad is determined that his little brother should go to school. Taught to play the marimba by his father, Libertad uses his talent as a street musician to raise enough money for his brother's school supplies. But his dreams for their future are destroyed when their mother is killed in a freak accident. Libertad must face the inevitable truth; they cannot survive on the streets of Guatemala City alone. There is only one thing to do. They must set out on the long and lonely journey to the Rio Grande River, where they plan to cross the water and enter the United States to find their father.

Why I recommend it:  Libertad means "freedom" and that's exactly what Libertad and his brother seek. A moving and inspiring story of brotherly love, strength, despair, and hope. Like any good verse novel, each poem stands alone, yet together the poems form a whole greater than its parts. Libertad, the boy, is a sympathetic character with a strong voice, and you'll find yourself cheering on both boys as they head north to find their father. Although I've read books by Pam Munoz Ryan and Christina Diaz Gonzalez and others, I still feel there aren't enough MG Latino novels being published, despite the fact that people of Hispanic origin are the largest ethnic minority in the US. So I was happy to find this one in my quest for verse novels. 


Favorite lines: (from a poem called Games on page 4-5)

         We collect our marbles, rushing
         for the safety of our homes.
         Tonight, even the moon is
         afraid
         to show its face
         on our dump.


Bonus: Use as a springboard for timely discussions about the current political race and the immigrant experience.  


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11. THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander: Celebrating Poetry Month with Novels in Verse




The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 237 pages, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): "With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I m delivering, " announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he's got mad beats, too, that tell his family's story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.


Why I recommend it:  This is so much more than poetry. The words practically explode off the page. The poems vary from rap to free verse to Basketball Rules to definitions of Josh's vocabulary words. So much imagination and artistry went into the writing, it's easy to see why this won the Newbery in January 2015 and was also named a Coretta Scott King Honor book. I'm not even a basketball fan, but I loved this book.

Favorite lines (from a poem called The Second Half on page 181):
                             
                         My brother is
                         Superman tonight.
                         Sliding
                         and Gliding
                         into rare air,
                         lighting up the sky


Bonus: This isn't just a novel about basketball and sibling rivalry. It's about a close-knit, loving family having to accept the father's illness.

What poetry are you reading for Poetry Month?



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12. INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN: Celebrating Poetry Month with Novels in Verse



Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2013, HarperCollins, 262 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher):  For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only ever known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope—toward America.

Why I recommend it: The text is spare, with lots of white space on the page. Yet the imagery is gorgeous and colorful. I could taste the papaya, see the cramped boat on which they escape, feel Hà's anger and frustration at leaving home and starting over. Hà's voice is honest and childlike. Based loosely on the author's own childhood, the story is a deeply moving one. Like Hà, Thanhha Lai fled Vietnam with her family when she was ten, and moved to Alabama. Today she lives in Kansas.

The paperback edition includes suggested activities and an interview with the author.

Thanhha Lai's website

Favorite lines: (from a poem called Twisting Twisting on p. 37)
                       
                          Mother measures
                          rice grains
                          left in the bin.
                          Not enough to last
                          till payday
                          at the end of the month.

                          Her brows
                          twist like laundry
                          being wrung dry.

Bonus: Use this as a starting point for classroom lessons about the Vietnam War, and timely discussions about refugees and prejudice.

Have you read Inside Out & Back Again or any other novels in verse? What did you think of them?


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13. Musings on writing my fifth novel

Yes.

You read that right. I'm nearly finished writing the rough draft of my fifth novel. In the past nine years, I've written four MG novels and one YA, in addition to more than a dozen picture books. And no, in case you're wondering, I don't yet have an agent or a book contract. I've had fourteen publication credits to date, but they're all poems or flash fiction or micro fiction for adults.

Still, I keep writing for children and teens. Perseverance is my mantra.

But I have to admit, Novel #5 is, well, a little different. In what way?

Read on.

I started an idea notebook for my fifth novel back in the late spring of 2015, so nearly a year ago. After gathering ideas, and working out character sketches and a setting and a conflict, I wrote three chapters. Almost immediately, I became stuck. Something didn't feel right about it. So I put it aside and revised my fourth novel instead.

And then, in September, after reading Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (even though it wasn't the first verse novel I read), I had an epiphany.

This new novel? The one I was stuck on? It was meant to be written in verse.

I spent two months reading and studying verse novels and then in November 2015 I started writing Novel #5 all over again.

Am I crazy? Well, this doesn't feel crazy. It feels... right. Since making that decision, the process has changed for me. Writing a verse novel is the hardest thing I've done as a writer, but at the same time, it's like I've grown wings. I look forward to writing every day, which is something I never did with a rough draft before. Rough drafts are usually agony.

I've been accepted into the Highlights Foundation workshop on Novels in Verse which will take place in May. Who knows where this will lead? Maybe nowhere. But maybe, just maybe, something good will happen.

For the rest of April, in honor of Poetry Month, I'll be looking at a few of the verse novels I've studied in my quest to learn this new (for me) form.

Over the past few years, I've read, in approximately this order:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
42 Miles by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose (this made me first fall in love with verse novels)
Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryant
The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle
Impulse by Ellen Hopkins
Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas
Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli
Another Day as Emily by Eileen Spinelli
Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton
Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Libertad by Alma Fullerton
Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

(I've also read Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which is actually an autobiography, and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, which some consider prose poetry.)

What verse novels do you recommend? All suggestions are welcome.



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14. And the winner of FREE VERSE is...

I'm happy to announce that according to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover copy of FREE VERSE by Sarah Dooley is...

JESS HAIGHT


Congrats, Jess! Those extra chances really did help. Look for an email from me asking for your mailing address.


I'll be back next week with something a little different... In the meantime, enjoy my latest Fifty Word Story: Midnight at the Urgent Care Clinic.


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15. FREE VERSE by Sarah Dooley -- and a Giveaway!


First, I have a winner to announce from last week's giveaway of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. According to randomizer, the winner is

JENNI ENZOR

Congratulations, Jenni! And look for an email from me asking for your mailing address. For those who didn't win, remember the book is now available from Viking or your local indie bookstore.


Now on to today's feature:





Free Verse by Sarah Dooley (March 15, 2016, G.P. Putnam's sons, 352 pages, for ages 10 and up) 

Synopsis (from the publisher):  When her older brother dies in a fire, Sasha Harless has no one left. Her father died in the mines and her mother ran off, so Sasha's brother was her only caretaker. They'd always dreamed of leaving Caboose, West Virginia together someday, but instead she's in foster care, feeling more stuck and broken than ever. But when Sasha discovers cousins she didn't know she had, she finally has something to hold onto, especially sweet little Mikey, who's just as broken as she is. Sasha even makes her first friend at school and is slowly learning to cope with her brother's death by writing poetry.

Then a tragedy strikes the mines where Mikey's father works, and Sasha fears the worst. She takes Mikey and runs away.

Why I recommend it: I know what you're thinking: oh, how sad! And yes, of course, it is sad. As sad as Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt or One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt or Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. But what the synopsis doesn't tell you is how strong and likable Sasha is, and how powerfully and in what exquisite detail this novel brings to life a West Virginia coal-mining town. Yes, there is tragedy, but there is also a wonderful ending filled with hope. Best of all? It's about the power of poetry to heal.

Bonus: Poetry Month is coming up in April and this would be a great discussion starter. While not written in verse, one part of this four-part novel is Sasha's poetry notebook, with many different forms that Sasha learns: haiku, cinquain, tanka, found poetry, etc, as well as a section of free verse poems.

Favorite lines:  I HAVE STOPPED

                          corralling
                          my poems
                          by form.
                          They run
                          loose like
                          wild dogs.


Now for the giveaway details: The publisher has generously offered one hardcover copy for giveaway. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. If you mention the giveaway on social media, please let me know and I'll give you extra chances to win. This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only (sorry!) and will end at 10:00 pm EDT on Sunday March 27. The winner will be announced on Monday March 28. Good luck!






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16. THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE by Janet Fox -- Guest post and Giveaway!


First, according to randomizer, the winner of last week's giveaway of a new paperback of THE ANCIENT ONE by T.A. Barron is:


FAITH HOUGH

Congratulations, Faith! And look for an email from me asking for your mailing address.

Now onto today's feature!




The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox (March 15, 2016, Viking Books for Young Readers, 400 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the arc): Twelve-year-old Katherine Bateson believes in a logical explanation for everything. But even she can't make sense of the strange goings-on at Rookskill Castle, the drafty old Scottish castle-turned-school where she and her siblings have been sent to escape the London Blitz. What's making those mechanical shrieks at night? Why do the castle's walls seem to have a mind of their own? And who are the silent children who seem to haunt Rookskill's grounds?

Kat believes Lady Eleanor, who rules the castle, is harboring a Nazi spy. But when her classmates begin to vanish, one by one, Kat must face the truth about what the castle actually harbors--and what Lady Eleanor is--before it's too late.

Why I recommend it: You can just tell from that dark, atmospheric cover that this will be a fantastic and chilling read! Yet it's not too scary (for example, the children find sympathetic adults to help them). The Scottish setting is superb, the writing masterful. I had trouble tearing myself away from the book to cook dinner or even sleep. Kat is a strong and resourceful protagonist, and you'll be with her every step of the way as she puzzles out the mysteries of the castle, Lady Eleanor, and the Lady's mysterious chatelaine with one charm for each child.

I'm honored to be the first stop on Janet Fox's blog tour! And now, for a special treat, a guest post from the author herself.

Please discuss your research process (particularly if it involved mysterious trips to Scotland!). Please also expand on how your research brought you to become interested in chatelaines.


Janet Fox from her website

Thanks for this great prompt! My entire process - writing and researching - is very organic.

Many of my best ideas come from a place I can only call "my magic zone". Lots of my ideas have come from dreams; I've often started writing a novel from a single image that pops into my head from out of the blue. In the case of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, the inspiration was a picture. The chatelaine in the story was posted as a picture on the internet and the story grew from my reaction to that strange piece of jewelry.

Once I begin a project I research as I go. When I need to know more about something, like castles or the London Blitz, I'll look it up, study the details, read various accounts. I do both online research and traditional book research, and the only hard part is keeping track of where the information came from. (Note to scholars: keep a good record!)

That's not always the way it works, however. In the case of my YA novel SIRENS, I wanted to add something more - some layer, something deeper - but I didn't know what, until one night in winter while I was listening to a radio program. The interviewer was discussing a new book on Spiritualism in the 1920s and the magician Howard Thurston, and how he was a friend and rival of Harry Houdini. Thurston believed in life after death; Houdini did not. That was the layer I was looking for, and I bought and read the book on Thurston and incorporated magic and spiritualism into my story.

More recently, I've been working on another MG novel set in Scotland (a possible sequel to CHARMED CHILDREN). Again, I was trying to find some way to make a richer and more compelling story, so I went on line and began to research old clocks, and discovered that the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, possessed something called a "death's head watch." If that novel comes to life, you'll find out just what a death's head watch is, and I can assure you it's pretty creepy.

As to trips to Scotland, I didn't take that trip on the spur of the moment! I've been to Scotland before, and my husband and I planned to go to the UK to visit friends, and when I sold CHARMED CHILDREN we adjusted our plans to make an excursion through Scotland. That way I could visit the castle I plucked out of photographs to become Rookskill - and it exceeded my expectations in its scary splendor.

In short, I tend to follow my instincts, and I've found that once I become interested in a certain aspect of what I'm writing, references pop up everywhere. It's as if the universe is affirming what I'm doing. Writing really is like magic - backed up by science (solid facts) - with an energy all its own.

Thanks so much for your guest post, Janet. Glad a trip to Scotland was involved somehow! And I'm thrilled to hear of a possible sequel!


And here's a fantastic trailer for the book.   




Now for the giveaway details. The publisher has generously offered one hardcover copy to one lucky winner (US mailing addresses only. Sorry!). To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. If you mention the giveaway on social media, please let me know and I'll give you extra chances for each mention. This giveaway ends at 10:00 pm EDT on Sunday March 20 and the winner will be announced on Monday March 21. Good luck!


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17. Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of THE ANCIENT ONE by T.A. Barron --- and a Giveaway!



The Ancient One by T.A. Barron (New paperback edition March 8, 2016, Puffin Books, 320 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the author's website): When Kate Gordon travels to Oregon for a quiet week at Aunt Melanie’s cottage, her plans are dashed by the discovery of a grove of giant redwood trees in nearby Lost Crater. Caught up in the struggle to help protect the redwood forest from loggers, Kate is thrown back in time five hundred years and finds herself facing the evil creature Gashra, who is bent on destroying the very same forest.
In this extraordinary quest, a girl discovers that all living things are connected in ways she never expected, and that true friendship can reach across cultures, and even across centuries.
Why I recommend it: Long before Katniss Everdeen, we had a strong female heroine by the name of Kate Gordon. I actually read this and the other two Kate Gordon adventures (the first is Heartlight and the third is The Merlin Effect) years ago, before I read all of  T.A. Barron's Young Merlin saga. But never fear: each of the Kate Gordon books are stand-alones. In fact, I read this one first.
I love Kate. She's not only strong, she's loyal, caring, and sure of herself. A great role model for both girls and guys.
Bonus: With the theme that everything is connected, this would also be excellent for starting conversations about the environment. Remember Earth Day is coming up in April. 

Through the generosity of the publisher I have one brand-new paperback to give away. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must leave a comment on this post. Mention the giveaway on social media and I'll give you extra chances for each mention. Open to US mailing addresses only. This giveaway will end at 10:00 pm on Sunday March 13 and the winner will be announced Monday March 14.


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18. THE MORRIGAN'S CURSE Guest post from Dianne Salerni!





The Morrigan's Curse: The Eighth Day Book 3 by Dianne K. Salerni (January 26, 2016, HarperCollins, 400 pages, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis: The battle between Kin and Transitioners that's been brewing for centuries has finally come to a head. The sinister Kin have captured Evangeline's younger sister, Addie, a descendant of Merlin whose presence will allow them to reverse the Eighth Day Spell and free themselves. Addie has been helping the Kin because they value the strength of her magic, something Evangeline never did. 

Meanwhile, Riley, Evangeline, and Jax craft a plan to rescue Addie from her captors. But the Kin's unstoppable magic, and a rebellious Addie, force Riley to reconsider whether saving Addie is worth sacrificing everyone who lives in the seven-day week. Jax won't let Evangeline's sister be used as a pawn, so he risks it all in a secret mission of his own. With the Morrigan pushing both sides of the war toward annihilation, Addie must decide where her loyalties lie, while Jax, Riley, and Evangeline confront the possibility of losing Addie to save the world.


Readers, I'm honored to once again welcome Dianne Salerni to my blog. Take it away, Dianne!



It’s very fitting that Joanne asked me to write a post on Leap Day, a day that doesn’t exist most of the time. My Eighth Day series is about a day of the week that doesn’t exist for most people.

Last month I was thrilled to launch The Morrigan’s Curse – my fifth published book, the third in my series, and the most challenging book I’ve ever written. This book possessed a unique requirement: It needed to serve as either the final installment of a trilogy OR the midpoint in a series of five. Even now, a month after its release, I still don’t know which one it will be. (The publisher will make that decision later this year.)

Because it was so difficult to write, The Morrigan’s Curse has a special place in my heart. In particular, I’m excited about:

Addie Emrys

In this book, readers finallymeet Evangeline’s little sister. They already know she’s going to be trouble. In Book 1, Evangeline predicts that wherever her spitfire sister is, she’s driving her guardians crazy. In Book 2, Addie doesn’t win any points by leaving her elderly foster parents a petulant list of complaints. We also learn that she bit Finn Ambrose when he forcibly took blood samples from her. (Really, though, he had that coming.) And at the end of the book, she willingly runs off with the evil Llyr family.

So, heading into The Morrigan’s Curse, I was working with a resentful, prickly protagonist who’d aligned herself with the bad guys. Nevertheless, I needed Addie to be sympathetic. I wanted readers to like her and root for her.

Evangeline describes Addie as “difficult,” and she certainly was difficult to write. I rewrote her POV chapters many, many times, and I didn’t know whether I’d done her justice until I got my revision letter from my editor. What she said about Addie made me cry (in a good way). I hope everyone else will love Addie, prickliness and all.



Stink

In The Inquisitor’s Mark we learn that Jax’s dad had a pet brownie named Stink. In fact, we met Stink in that book, although he was never directly identified. (Lots of readers guessed, though.) I don’t want to post any spoilers here, but let’s just say that Stink is my favorite new character after Addie. Smartest. Pet. Ever.




The Morrigan

Again, no spoilers, but weaving this 3-in-one deity from Celtic mythology into my story was a lot of fun. She’s a force of nature, embodying destruction and chaos. She manifests as an old crone, a middle-aged woman – or a young girl often referred to as the Girl of Crows.


Jax

I love Jax. He’s like the son I never had. Jax has grown up a little over the course of three books, but he’s still only 13 years old and some things about him haven’t changed at all. What’s more, he knows it:
“How’d you end up with the Sword of Nuadu?” Evangeline whispered.
“Same as usual,” Jax replied in an undertone. “I did something stupid while Riley wasn’t looking.”


Joanne, thank so much for inviting me here today to celebrate the release of The Morrigan’s Curse!

My pleasure, Dianne! Thanks so much for your guest post. And that's a great quote at the end of your post.

Learn more about Dianne at her website.

Readers, have you read the first two books in The Eighth Day series? The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor's Mark?  If so, you definitely need to read this book. And if you haven't read the first two, what are you waiting for?


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19. THE TRILOGY OF TWO by Juman Malouf for MMGM

First, some interesting news for fans of T.A. Barron's Young Merlin saga. They're making a movie! Woo hoo! And the script is being written by the co-writer of The Lord of the Rings movies, so there are high expectations for this film (and its possible sequels). That's excellent news for T.A. Barron fans.

Now on to today's MMGM. For other marvelous middle grade posts, see Shannon Messenger's blog.



The Trilogy of Two written and illustrated by Juman Malouf (Putnam's, November 10, 2015, for ages 10 and up, 416 pages)

Synopsis (from the publisher):  Twelve-year-old identical twins Sonja and Charlotte are musical prodigies with extraordinary powers. Born on All-Hallows-Eve, the girls could play music before they could walk. They were found one night by Tatty, the Tattooed Lady of the circus, in a pail on her doorstep with only a note and a heart-shaped locket. They’ve been with Tatty ever since, roaming the Outskirts in the circus caravans, moving from place to place.

But lately, curious things happen when they play their instruments. During one of their performances, the girls accidentally levitate their entire audience, drawing too much unwanted attention. Soon, ominous Enforcers come after them, and Charlotte and Sonja must embark on a perilous journey through enchanted lands in hopes of unlocking the secrets of their mysterious past.


Why I recommend it: Wow! This is a highly imaginative fantasy, with impressive world building by Malouf. It's set in a world that could be Earth in a far future (or an alternate past) when million-mile-high cities have overrun the planet. The author herself described it as a "post-apocalyptic, Dickensian world" in this article from The Daily Beast.

The twins are forced to travel to the Seven Edens, worlds they previously knew only as stories represented by the tattoos completely covering Tatty's skin. Luckily, they're accompanied by an intrepid band of new friends. So it's a classic journey story, a la Lord of the Rings or The Wizard of Oz, but with quite a few dark and startling twists. There is some violence, so I would not recommend this for younger middle grade readers. It's also quite lengthy, so give this to kids who love the longer Harry Potter books, or The Invention of Hugo Cabret.


Favorite line:  Charlotte ran through the gate and zigzagged among the broken-down railcars. She tried to remember pieces of music she used to play, but they all blended together in a tangle of notes. (from p. 71)


Bonus: Fantastically-detailed drawings by the author are the perfect accompaniment to this unusual story. Before she turned to writing and illustrating children's books, Juman Malouf was the set designer and costume designer for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.



_____________________________________________

Readers, please note: After today, I'm taking a blogging break to catch up on my reading and writing, and also get ready for the holidays. I wish you all the happiest of holidays, no matter which holiday(s) you celebrate. Here's a photo of my TBR pile, all spread out. Hoping to get to these (and possibly more) before January. Wish me luck!



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20. THE GOBLIN'S PUZZLE and a giveaway!


I'm back from my blogging break, and for those who remember my TBR pile of eight books, well, let's just say I've read all but one of them, and I'm reading that right now! I also spent a lot of time with family (including my father-in-law who was in the hospital, but he's better now. Thanks for asking!). In the meantime, I missed reading your blogs and I look forward to catching up.





The Goblin's Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton, with illustrations by Jensine Eckwall (January 19, 2016, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 288 pages, for ages 8 to 12)


Synopsis (from the publisher):

THE BOY is a nameless slave on a mission to uncover his true destiny.
THE GOBLIN holds all the answers, but he’s too tricky to be trusted.
PLAIN ALICE is a bookish peasant girl carried off by a confused dragon.
And PRINCESS ALICE is the lucky girl who wasn’t kidnapped.

All four are tangled up in a sinister plot to take over the kingdom, and together they must face kind monsters, a cruel magician, and dozens of deathly boring palace bureaucrats. They’re a ragtag bunch, but with strength, courage, and plenty of deductive reasoning, they just might outwit the villains and crack the goblin’s puzzle.


Why I recommend it: The Goblin's Puzzle is a deliciously inventive tale, smart and a bit sassy, and brimming with humor and wordplay. You'll cheer for the Boy and for Plain Alice, and even find Mennofar, the Goblin, growing on you. This is the kind of book destined to become a modern classic, one that adults and children alike will enjoy. If you liked The Bartimaeus Trilogy or The Princess Bride, you'll love this.


Favorite Lines: "Though it pains me to taint the purity of such innocence, I feel obliged to point out that in this world, kindness, like the unicorn, is chiefly found in stories told to princesses," said Mennofar. "Ordinary folk look to how the coin falls." (from page 54)


Bonus: This is an excellent (and fun!) way to introduce young readers to the concept of deductive reasoning.


Here's a link to a lively interview with Andrew S. Chilton on Suzanne Warr's delightful blog, Tales From the Raven.  Her giveaway is now over, but mine is just beginning. That's right!

Through the generosity of the publisher, I'm thrilled to award one hardcover copy of The Goblin's Puzzle to one lucky winner. To enter you must be a follower of this blog and you must leave a comment on this post. If you mention this giveaway on social media, please include a link and I'll give you extra chances to win. This giveaway is open to U.S. mailing addresses only and will end at 10:00 pm EST on Sunday January 24, 2016. The winner will be announced on Monday January 25, 2016.




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21. ECHO by Pam Munoz Ryan -- and Newbery thoughts, anyone?

The Newbery awards (and other ALA Youth Media Awards) will be announced this morning in Boston at 8 am EST. I'm posting this at 7 am, so at this point, all I can do is wish and hope. I've read so many wonderful MG novels this year that it's difficult to pick just one I think should win.

I have so many favorites: Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly, Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose, Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, along with others I haven't had a chance to blog about yet. Don't you wish all the books you read and loved this past year could win awards?

One that's certainly deserving of multiple awards is a book published in February 2015, and which I finally read on my recent blogging break in December.



Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan (February 24, 2015, Scholastic Press, 592 pages, for ages 10 to 14)

Source: my favorite local indie bookstore, Children's Book World!

Synopsis (from Indiebound):  Music, magic, and a real-life miracle meld in this genre-defying masterpiece from storytelling maestro Pam Munoz Ryan. Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.

Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.

Why I recommend it: Echo is 592 pages long, yet it was so fascinating and so beautifully written I read it in one day! I absolutely loved how the three seemingly-disparate storylines all came together at the end. And because the three stories all hinge on a harmonica, and my late father played the harmonica, this novel affected me in a big way. This is the kind of book that sends shivers up your spine. If Echo doesn't win at least a Newbery honor today, I'll be sorely disappointed.

As the awards are announced, what books were you hoping would win Newbery honors or the Newbery medal?


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22. NOOKS & CRANNIES Giveaway, and an Exclusive Interview with Jessica Lawson!



Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson, illustrated by Natalie Andrewson (June 2015, Simon and Schuster, 336 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory "meets "Clue "when six children navigate a mansion full of secrets--and maybe money--in this humorous mystery with heart. Sweet, shy Tabitha Crum, the neglected only child of two parents straight out of a Roald Dahl book, doesn't have a friend in the world--except for her pet mouse, Pemberley, whom she loves dearly. But on the day she receives one of six invitations to the country estate of wealthy Countess Camilla DeMoss, her life changes forever.

Upon the children's arrival at the sprawling, possibly haunted mansion, it turns out the countess has a very big secret--one that will change their lives forever.

Then the children beginning disappearing, one by one. So Tabitha takes a cue from her favorite detective novels and, with Pemberley by her side, attempts to solve the case and rescue the other children...who just might be her first real friends.

Why I recommend it: Nooks & Crannies is clever and charming, with a spunky, inquisitive heroine and one of the most adorable pet sidekicks ever. Ten-year-old me would have hugged this book and carried it around for days. This is the perfect book for a cold snowy winter day, curled up in your favorite chair with a cup of tea and a few English biscuits.

And now, I'm thrilled to welcome author Jessica Lawson back to my blog (see her earlier visit here) for an exclusive interview!

Jessica Lawson, from her website

1) You must have read quite a few mysteries before writing this book. What were your favorite mystery novels when you were growing up?

Growing up (age 8 or so), my go-to mysteries were the Cam Jansen books. As I got older, I graduated to my aunt’s baskets of paperback mysteries—Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark and P.D. James. I was 10-12 years old when I first started reading them, and remember being fascinated by those books. And, while this isn’t book-related, I think that a big love for the more cozy-style mysteries began as a bonding experience with my mom. Starting around age 8 or 9, she would let me watch Murder She Wrote with her (with the fabulous Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher) and we’d make 25 cent bets on “whodunit” after the first commercial break.

2) That's a fun childhood memory! Can you describe your writing routine? And is your writing area, by any chance, a nook? Details, please.

With little ones around (one who still wakes up at night on occasion), my writing routine is very flexible by necessity. To make writing time happen, I’ve tried various strategies like getting up super early or having ready activities for the kids so that I can get an hour here, a half hour there. I can’t seem to stay up late to write—my brain works best in the morning hours and my creative energy is mostly sapped by the afternoon. So while I can edit at night if I’m on a deadline, I write and revise best in the earlier hours of the day.

During warmer weather, my husband will take the kids outside or on a field trip for a few hours on the weekends, which is a big help. I know that some people say that you need to write a certain amount every single day, but it just doesn’t work out that way for me in this stage of my life. I think about writing and my current projects every day, and will have small plot epiphanies or sparks of dialogue come to me (in which case I’ll jot those down on a post-it for the next time I write). But some days, writing gets shoved off my schedule, and that’s okay.

Jessica's writing space: the kitchen table

Photos courtesy of Jessica Lawson












As for my writing space, sadly, it’s not a nook. How I long for a nook! Alas, instead, I park my laptop on the kitchen table and pile an extra chair with my notes. When company comes over, my “office” is moved to my bedroom floor. Not very glamorous, but between the kitchen table and the living/family room couch, I’ve managed to get a lot of writing done.



3) Well, that space seems to be working just fine for you!  Jess, I'm not ready to let Tabitha go. Will there be any further adventures for our plucky heroine?

Thank you for asking~ I would love to revisit Tabitha’s story and see what comes next! That said, there are no near-future plans for another Tabitha book—the books of mine that will come out in 2016 and 2017 aren’t set in that world. But I will be keeping her in my back pocket for future project ideas. I’ve also dabbled with the idea of writing a middle grade starring a 12-year-old Percival Pensive and his sidekick, Timothy Tibbs (the Holmes/Watson-esque fiction-within-fiction characters from mystery books that Tabitha Crum loves)~ if you read NOOKS & CRANNIES, you’ll see that Pensive novel quotes begin each chapter and those two seem like they’d be loads of fun to write about.


4) That would be fun! If you could live in a mansion with hidden passageways, what would you use them for?

Oh, good question! I would use them for quick access to my massive library/kitchenette (I have my own mansion, right? It MUST have a massive library/kitchenette, right?) and for epic games of hide-and-seek and laser tag with my kids (note: I have never actually played laser tag, but it looks fun).


Thanks, Jessica! I enjoyed having you back on My Brain on Books. 

Jessica's website


And now, for the Giveaway details:

Readers, I'm so in love with this book I want everyone to read it. I'm giving away an extra copy to one lucky winner. To enter, simply be a follower of this blog and comment on this post. Mention the giveaway on social media, and I'll give you more chances to win. Open to US mailing addresses only. This giveaway ends at 10pm on Sunday January 24 and the winner will be announced on Monday January 25. So you only have one week! Good luck!

(And don't forget my giveaway for THE GOBLIN'S PUZZLE, still going on here!)

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23. TWO WINNERS!

It gives me great pleasure to announce the winners of my two recent giveaways.



According to randomizer.org, the winner of the hardcover copy of THE GOBLIN'S PUZZLE by Andrew S. Chilton is:





Congratulations, Akoss!  Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.


_________________________________________




And now, according to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover copy of NOOKS & CRANNIES by Jessica Lawson is:




Congratulations, Rosi! Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.



And thanks to everyone for supporting my blog. 


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24. BROWN GIRL DREAMING for Black History Month



Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (August 2014, Nancy Paulsen Books, 352 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): "Jacqueline Woodson, one of today's finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse. "

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child's soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson's eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.


Why I recommend it: I first discovered Jacqueline Woodson when I read her picture book, Coming On Home Soon, in 2004, and later her MG novel, Feathers, in 2007. Both were books I loved and championed at the indie bookstore where I worked. I found Jacqueline's writing to be gorgeous and poetic. So it's not surprising that she chose to tell the story of her own childhood in verse. In breathtaking, yet spare poetry, we get to know the child Jackie, her family, and all the elements that shaped her into a writer. It's inspiring and deeply moving.

But don't just take my word for it. Look at that cover image. This book has so many awards they barely fit! And they're all well deserved. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, the National Book Award, and a Newbery Honor book.

Favorite lines: (from a poem called "The Garden" on page 48)

My southern grandfather missed slavery
by one generation. His grandfather
had been owned.
His father worked
the land from dawn till dusk
for the promise of cotton
and a little pay.

So this is what he believes in
your hands in the cool dirt
until the earth gives back to you
all that you've asked of it.

Jacqueline Woodson's website

What Coretta Scott King award winners have you read or do you want to read?



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25. GOING WHERE IT'S DARK by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor



Going Where It's Dark by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (January 12, 2016, Delacorte Press, 336 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Buck Anderson's life seems to be changing completely. His best friend, David, has moved away; his anxious parents are hounding him more than ever; he has reluctantly agreed to fill in for his uncle and do odd jobs for a grumpy old veteran in town; and his twin sister has a new boyfriend and is never around anymore. To top it all off, Buck is bullied by a group of boys at school mainly because he stutters.

There is one thing that frees Buck from his worries. It is the heart-pounding exhilaration he feels when exploring underground caves in and around his hometown. He used to go caving with David, but he's determined to continue on his own now. He doesn't know that more changes are headed his way, changes that just might make him rethink his view of the world and his place in it.


Why I recommend it:  Buck emerges as a very real and likable thirteen-year-old boy, who happens to stutter. I also found it refreshing to read about a large and loving family with two parents, which seems rare in recent MG literature (or is it just me?). The caving adventures add a level of excitement. My pulse raced when I reached the part where the bullies drop him in the pit and he has to find a way out on his own. I think I read the last third of this book without taking a breath.

Favorite lines: "Everything he'd heard from outside the kitchen made him sick to his stomach. The pity in their voices, the way they predicted how the rest of his life would be. He hated his mouth, his throat, his tongue, his face."  (from p. 102)

Bonus: This is the second novel I've read about a young teen who stutters. The first was Tending To Grace by Kimberly Newton Fusco (reviewed here).  The two styles are quite different but both books have much to offer the reader. Each of my sons had speech disorders in elementary school, and speech therapy made a huge difference in their lives. Teachers and librarians: this book would be excellent for helping students empathize with kids who have speech disorders.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is the author of more than 140 books, including Shiloh, the Alice books, The Boys Start the War, The Girls Get Even (and many more Boy-Girl Battle books). Read more about Phyllis at randomhouse.com.

Readers, do you know of any other MG novels about stuttering? Or about caving?




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