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1. 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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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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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8. 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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9. 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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10. 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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11. 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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12. 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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13. 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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14. 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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15. SWITCH by Ingrid Law, a companion to SAVVY




Switch by Ingrid Law (September 2015, Dial Books for Young Readers, for ages 8 to 12)


Synopsis (from Indiebound): Gypsy Beaumont has always been a whirly-twirly free spirit, so as her thirteenth birthday approaches, she hopes to get a magical ability that will let her fly, or dance up to the stars. Instead, she wakes up on her birthday with blurry vision . . . and starts seeing flashes of the future and past. But when Momma and Poppa announce that her very un-magical, downright mean Grandma Pat has Alzheimer's and is going to move in with them, Gypsy's savvy along with her family's suddenly becomes its opposite. Now it's savvy mayhem as Gypsy starts freezing time, and no one could have predicted what would happen on their trip to bring Grandma Pat home . . . not even Gypsy.

Why I recommend it: Fantastic voice, loads of imagination, and a really cool savvy. I'm a huge fan of Ingrid Law's first book, SAVVY, which won a Newbery Honor and was also the Number One Book Sense (now Indiebound) Children's Pick for Summer 2008. See my thoughts here, in the American Bookseller Association's archives. Another favorite, SCUMBLE (2010), is a companion to SAVVY which explores Cousin Ledge's unusual talent and how he learns to control it. Now, with SWITCH, another companion novel, we see the Beaumont family from the POV of Gypsy, younger sister to Mibs. 

Bonus: Companion novels, instead of sequels, are a fun way to follow the same unusually-talented family but get to know different characters. Gypsy was only three in SAVVY, and now she's thirteen. It's like watching her grow up. 

Favorite line: "The snowflakes hung like poetry over the city." (p. 239, after Gypsy freezes time)

I especially loved what happened when Gypsy stopped time, and wish I could do the same thing! What savvy do you wish you had? 



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16. A giveaway winner -- and for MMGM, a review of THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH

First, I have a winner to announce. The winner of 101 MOVIES TO SEE BEFORE YOU GROW UP by Suzette Valle is:


Susan Gregory

Congratulations, Susan! I'll get your book out to you pronto. 

______________________________________________

And now we return to our regular Monday broadcast, er, feature, MMGM.  See Shannon Messenger's blog for the links to other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts.



The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Sept 22, 2015, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting--things don't just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy's achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe...and the potential for love and hope right next door.

Why I recommend it: Beautiful writing and an expertly crafted plot. The simple, yet luminous language -- and Suzy's earnest desire -- makes this a joy to read, even though the subject matter is weighty with sadness. It's easy to see why The Thing About Jellyfish is a National Book Award Finalist (winners will be announced November 18) and has earned starred reviews from PW, Booklist, School Library Journal and others. 

Suzy's grief is heartbreakingly realistic. I lost a good friend at age 10 (she rode her bike across a busy street and never saw the truck that hit her), so this moving story affected me deeply. This book should also win at least a Newbery honor in January.

Favorite line: They are moving silently, endlessly, all of them, through the darkness of the sea (from pg. 109).

Bonus: You're bound to learn something about jellyfish!


Have you read The Thing About Jellyfish?  If not, what MG novels have you read that deal poignantly with grief?


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17. Guest post (and Giveaway) from Suzette Valle, 101 MOVIES TO SEE BEFORE YOU GROW UP

I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for an adorable new book about movies! 


101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up by Suzette Valle (Oct 13, 2015, Walter Foster Jr/Quarto Publishing, for ages 8 and up, 144 pages)

All of my favorites are in here! I'll bet yours are too. This is fun for the entire family. It's a bright, colorful book, plus it's interactive (you can rate the movies yourself). This book would be a perfect gift for the middle grader in your life.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR





Suzette Valle is an award-winning mother of two and freelance writer focusing on family entertainment. She graduated with a B.A. from the University of San Diego, and has a Master's Degree from Oxford University, England. She also has her own blog, Mamarazzi Knows Best.com, where she writes about parenting in a celebrity-driven society and all aspects of entertainment. She is a featured Hollyblogger at the award-winning Hollywood publication The Wrap.com where she contributes film reviews, interviews with celebrities, and has covered and written about pop-culture events like Comic-Con International where she's interviewed actors, directors, producers and writers about current and upcoming projects. She wrote over 30 articles for the monthly column Parent Talk for AOL's Patch.com, and headed this publication's Parents Council in her community. Suzette lives in the seaside town of Coronado, California. This enchanted island is also known as the Emerald City because L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, penned several of the Oz books here. Suzette enjoys watching movies, and walks on the beach with her husband of 25 years and Bella, her adorable dog.

Follow Suzette on Twitter

And now for an exclusive guest post from Suzette. I asked her what her favorite movie was when she was growing up. Take it away, Suzette!

One of my favorite movies growing up was “The Parent Trap.” The original 1961 film starring Hayley Mills as the twins just captured my imagination. This film had to be in the book, especially since there was a popular remake with Lindsay Lohan that introduced this plot to a new generation. Though this is still one my personal favorite films, I think I would rather tell you about my favorite movie experience with my family, one that made a long-lasting impact on all of us: “Harry Potter.” This movie franchise had to be in the book. It was so significant that the American Film Institute gave Harry Potter a special award and recognition, “Eight films that earned the trust of a generation who wished for the beloved books of J.K. Rowling to come to life on the silver screen. The collective wizardry of an epic ensemble gave us the gift of growing older with Harry, Ron and Hermione as the magic of Hogwarts sprung from the films and into the hearts and minds of Muggles around the world.”

Before we watched any of the Harry Potter films, my husband and I would take turns reading the books aloud to our kids. We had a special routine for this. We'd sit by the fireplace with our favorite blankets, a cup of hot chocolate, and we would try to read each character in a different voice and (terrible) British accents. It usually ended up being just the voices of a boy or girl without accents since the kids would ask us to simply stop the torture. Ha!

Going to the theater to watch the books come to life on the silver screen was the first experience our children had with the book-to-movie process! We also encouraged our kids to wear their favorite Harry Potter costume to watch the films, which most kids and families tended to do at the time. I'll never forget the wide-eyed looks on their faces when they'd recognize a scene from the book, or getting elbowed when the kids noticed something was a little different from the original storyline. As adults now, 20 and 23, our kids now know that sometimes the film version has to be a little different from the book to add an element of surprise for the audience members who might think they already know the story.

After watching each of the Potter movies, it was fascinating to hear our children compare the book to the film, and listening to their observations about the differences they noticed as little film critics made all the effort we made to make this a special experience for them worth it.

One aspect that we really enjoyed about reading the books before watching the movies, was how this filled us with anticipation and excitement to see Harry, Ron, Hermione and Hogwarts materialize on screen as we had seen them in our mind's eye -- it was unlike any other movie had done before or has since then. This series had a gripping effect on us all, didn't it? I'll never forget these precious movie-moments with my family -- they were magical!

If children are not quite ready for the action and adventure of the Harry Potter films, another series that's becoming a family-movie-watching tradition is "How To Train your Dragon." There are 12 books in this series, and they've started to roll out in theaters, too.


This type of family bonding opportunity that movies provide, are the main reason I wrote "101 Movies To See Before You Grow Up." Watching movies at home is the most common activity we share as a family, and I think most families in America do as well. Taking these cinematic journeys together, from the safety and comfort of your home, is a fantastic way to spend time with your children not only before they grow up, but as they grow up. Just like mine grew up along with Harry, Ron, and Hermione!


Thanks so much, Suzette. The original Parent Trap has always been one of my favorites, too. And of course, I watched all the Harry Potter movies with my own kids!

Readers, be sure to check out the next stop on the tour: 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Fandom Monthly Magazine

http://fandommonthlymagazine.blogspot.com/



Now for the giveaway details: One lucky reader will win a copy of 101 MOVIES TO SEE BEFORE YOU GROW UP. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. If you mention this giveaway on Twitter or other social media, please let me know and I'll give you extra chances. This giveaway is open to US/Canadian addresses only and will end at 10 pm EST on Sunday November 8, 2015. The winner will be announced on Monday November 9th. Good luck!


 

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18. FULL CICADA MOON by Marilyn Hilton



"If you wrote from experience, you'd get 
maybe one book, maybe three poems. 
Writers write from empathy."   Nikki Giovanni 

(from Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, edited by 
Virginia C. Fowler, c 1992, University Press of Mississippi)  







Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (September 8, 2015, Dial Books for Young Readers, for ages 8 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): It’s 1969, and the Apollo 11 mission is getting ready to go to the moon. But for half-black, half-Japanese Mimi, moving to a predominantly white Vermont town is enough to make her feel alien. Suddenly, Mimi’s appearance is all anyone notices. She struggles to fit in with her classmates, even as she fights for her right to stand out by entering science competitions and joining Shop Class instead of Home Ec. And even though teachers and neighbors balk at her mixed-race family and her refusals to conform, Mimi’s dreams of becoming an astronaut never fade—no matter how many times she’s told no.

This historical middle-grade novel is told in poems from Mimi’s perspective over the course of one year in her new town, and shows readers that positive change can start with just one person speaking up.


Why I recommend it: I used to shy away from novels in verse, until I read May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. Now I love them. Full Cicada Moon moved me to tears. Happy ones. And that's saying something, because I rarely cry when I read MG. Mimi is one of the strongest girl characters you'll ever meet, and her story is one you'll remember long after you've closed the book and gone on with your life. The writing is spare and simple, yet gorgeous. If last year's Newbery winner wasn't a novel in verse, I would say this has a fighting chance of winning.

Plus, the cover is downright stunning.

There's been a lot of controversy in social media lately about whether or not authors should write from the POV of people from a different culture or race. In the author's note in the back of this book, Marilyn Hilton says, "I wrote Mimi's story in wonder and terror and awe, not knowing if I could or should write it." But she received much encouragement from her agent, her editor, and her friends, including Keiko Higuchi. I have to say, I'm glad Marilyn wrote this book (see the quote above by Nikki Giovanni, which says it better than I can). Reading Full Cicada Moon has made my life richer. This is one I will re-read.

Favorite lines (from pg. 370):

I used to think the people of Vermont
were like the snow--
crusty,
chilly,
and slow to thaw.

But now I think
they're what's underneath.


Bonus: This would be excellent for starting classroom discussions about tolerance.

Marilyn Hilton's website

Follow Marilyn on Twitter



What do you think, readers? Do you freeze up at the idea of reading free verse novels? Or have you begun to thaw?


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19. A giveaway winner.... And for MMGM: Rebecca Stead reaches me again!

First, I have a winner to announce. According to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover of Auggie & Me:Three Wonder Stories and The Wonder Journal is...


Greg Pattridge


Congratulations, Greg and expect an email from me asking for your mailing address. 


*   *   *   *   *


Now on to today's MMGM feature. Remember to visit Shannon Messenger's blog for other links. 




Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, August 4, 2015, 304 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Source: Random House

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Bridge is an accident survivor who's wondering why she's still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody's games or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting.Can it get them through seventh grade?

This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl as a friend?

On Valentine's Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

Each memorable character navigates the challenges of love and change in this captivating novel. 

Why I recommend it: There's a lot to love about this novel, including realistic dialogue and great characters, but my favorite part is the gradual blossoming of the friendship between Bridge and Sherm. I love that neither of them are ready to be more than just friends yet. 

Have to admit I also felt a strong kinship for Bridge since she's an accident survivor. And as an aneurysm survivor, I can tell you her feelings are spot-on. Rebecca Stead has done her research. But I wouldn't expect anything less from the author of First Light, When You Reach Me, and Liar and Spy, all of which I've read and enjoyed.

Favorite line:  "Tab's mom said that when people reached out to hurt your feelings, it was because they secretly felt they deserved to be talked to that way."   (p. 140)

Bonus: Plenty of diversity, as one would expect in a NY city school. But the author doesn't hit you over the head with it. 

Rebecca Stead's website
Follow her on Twitter




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20. Happy Labor Day! And a look at my own writing...

To all of my American friends, enjoy Labor Day!


And for everyone else, Happy Monday! If you need some inspiration, here's a link to a fifty-word story I wrote. Enjoy.

I'll be back next Monday with a guest post from an author who made her book debut in 2015. 

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21. My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) by Alison DeCamp.... Plus a Guest Post!





My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) by Alison DeCamp (February 2015, Crown Books for Young Readers, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): There are many things that 11-year-old Stanley Slater would like to have in life, most of all, a father. But what if Stan's missing dad isn't dearly departed after all? Armed with his stupendous scrapbook, full of black-and-white 19th-century advertisements and photos, Stan's attempt to locate his long-lost hero/cowboy/outlaw dad is a near-death adventure fraught with pesky relatives, killer lumberjacks, and poisonous pies. His tale will leave readers in stitches, but not the kind that require medical attention.

Why I recommend it: This is 100% fun. A terrific voice and an unforgettable main character make My Near-Death Adventures a must-read. I first heard about Stan when the book had a different title and Dianne Salerni featured the first page on her blog in February 2013. At the time, I commented, "Great voice...I'm wondering why this isn't published yet." Well, soon after that, Alison landed a contract. And the rest is history.

Visit Alison's website

Follow Alison on Twitter

And now, I'm honored to have Alison take over my blog for an exclusive guest post:

Alison DeCamp, from her website

My Path to Publishing (or Why I Will Never Get a Big Head)

Back in September of 2012 I gave myself permission to write a book. Wasn’t that nice of me? The kids would be back in school, my husband’s business tended to slow down after Labor Day, I would put my bead-making “business”aside for a month, and I had an idea that kept nudging me. Also, one of my best friends had just landed an agent with her fantastic book Words and Their Meanings so I thought maybe I could do this thing.

I wrote 19,000 words on a manuscript I affectionately called The Somewhat Manly Scrapbook of LumberStan’s Big Woods Adventure (because I couldn’t think of a longer title?) and my pitch was something along the lines of “Imagine if Laura Ingalls Wilder and Greg Heffley had a love child. That would be Stan.” Which is equal parts Ew and Adorable, right? Based very loosely on my family history (most of the names are from my family as well as the fact that my grandmother worked at a lumber camp, had a baby at 16, and I had a great grandmother that scared the bejeebers out of me even though I had never met her), I wrote a book about a boy spending the winter of 1895 in a lumber camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While writing I started thinking about the ridiculous advertisements of that time period and incorporated them into Stan’s scrapbook.









  Like this one!










By December I was ready for someone other than my closest friends to read my manuscript. I sent it off to one of Brenda Drake’s contests, where people are remarkably nice, by the way.  Krista VanDolzer contacted me and I was over the moon. Ultimately, I wasn’t picked for the contest, but I appreciated Krista’s encouragement. I continued to tweak my manuscript (19,000 words, I learned, was pretty short for a middle-grade novel, even one with lots of pictures) and hone a query letter. I wrote and rewrote my query letter forty-five times, had my critique partner rewrite it for me, read every post on Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, and submitted my manuscript to as many places as I could find, if only for feedback. One of them was Dianne Salerni and Marcy Hatch’s First Impressions critiques and another was Mindy McGinnis’s PAPFest, both in February 2013.

I had also been sending out these queries, getting a few positive responses, tweaking my query some more, sending out more letters, getting plenty of rejections, and finally, because of Mindy’s contest, I had a wonderfully smart agent (she’s not smart because she chose my manuscript, but because she’s, well, really smart) ask for the first fifty pages. I’m pretty sure she only did this because Mindy shares my sense-of-humor and told her to, because no other agent in that contest was remotely interested.

I had also been rejected in another contest in the meantime. And many agents either said, “No, thanks!” or would ask for pages and then not get back to me. I distinctly remember a rejection from an agent I really liked. I dramatically sat at my dining room table, threw my head into my hands and cried, “Why me?!” I’m not even exaggerating. I was like some actress in an old B movie.

The next day the agent from Mindy’s PAPFest contacted me. She loved the manuscript and wanted to arrange a call. She did indeed offer representation and I really liked her (she is a fantastic agent from all accounts) but I ended up contacting agents who had the manuscript, informing them of an offer of representation and eventually signed with Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency. I can’t say enough good things about her.

The same week I was deciding among four agents, I also received an email from a very successful agent that simply said, “The writing’s not strong enough.”

Just a reminder not to get too cocky? Not to let this publishing thing go to my head? I had been considering making my children call me The Author Formerly Known as Mom, but who was I kidding. This business is entirely subjective—what one person loves, someone else hates—and people have no qualms letting you know how they feel.

It’s also exciting. I love the direction I got from my editor, Phoebe Yeh at Crown Books for Young Readers, for both MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% True!) and the upcoming MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES: I Almost Died. Again., and am truly excited to work with her on TINY SHRINES FOR DEAD FLIES, my third middle-grade novel due in 2017.

But I’m pretty sure there’s no chance, that I will ever think I’m All That.

Sincerely,

The Author Formerly Known as Mom



Thanks so much, Alison. Readers, isn't that an amazing journey to publication? Persistence really does pay off. 


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22. The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall





The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall (Knopf, September 8, 2015, for ages 8 to 12)

Source: Penguin Random House

Synopsis (from the publisher): It was a bitterly cold day when Arthur T. Owens grabbed a brick and hurled it at the trash picker. Arthur had his reasons, and the brick hit the Junk Man in the arm, not the head. But none of that matters to the judge—he is ready to send Arthur to juvie for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, it’s the Junk Man himself who offers an alternative: 120 hours of community service . . . working for him.

Arthur is given a rickety shopping cart and a list of the Seven Most Important Things: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. He can’t believe it—is he really supposed to rummage through people’s trash? But it isn’t long before Arthur realizes there’s more to the Junk Man than meets the eye, and the “trash” he’s collecting is being transformed into something more precious than anyone could imagine. . . .


Why I recommend it: This book has everything you want in an inspiring MG novel:

 -- A strong main character, who is flawed but grows and changes. Your heart will ache for Arthur, who is having trouble dealing with the death of his father. There's no excuse for Arthur's violent action, but Pearsall does give us an explanation, which I won't mention here in case it's considered a spoiler.

 -- An unusual situation. I don't think I've ever read another MG where the protagonist has to go to juvenile court and then carry out a punishment like this. It was also fascinating discovering exactly what the Junk Man was doing with the seven most important things.

 -- A setting you can easily picture and a realistic depiction of life in Washington, DC in 1963. While Arthur is in Juvie, JFK is assassinated. So while the story isn't about that, the events of 1963/64 provide the backdrop for this historical novel.

And yes, there's a spiritual nature to the Junk Man and his project, but Pearsall never preaches. This is based on the true story of folk artist James Hampton and his amazing project that now sits in the Smithsonian.

Favorite line: But whenever he thought about quitting he'd hear Judge Warner saying, The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And it would make him mad enough to stay.  (p. 60)


Here's my review of another Shelley Pearsall book, from July 2012.

Shelley Pearsall's website


What's one of the most important things you look for when choosing a novel to read?


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23. Guest Post from Laurie Wallmark for ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE ... plus a Giveaway!






Today, I'm honored to have my friend Laurie Wallmark take over my blog for a guest post! Laurie and I met at the very first SCBWI conference I ever attended, Eastern PA's Pocono Retreat in 2008. I'm thrilled for Laurie that she's making her picture book debut with Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, coming from Creston Books in October. Giveaway details at the end. Take it away, Laurie!


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Guest Post:
Writing a Picture Book Biography

Laurie Wallmark

Writing a picture book biography is not as simple as starting with “She was born on…” and ending with “She died on…” Because of a picture book’s limited word count, this type of cradle to grave biography, with its details of every event in a person’s life, simply won’t work. Instead, you need to choose a focus for your story. In other words, you need a “hook.”

Your hook is your own unique perspective on the person’s life. For picture books, it may be helpful to concentrate on a single aspect of the person’s life, such as: character, childhood, home life, or professional contribution. Any scenes that don’t serve to further the reader’s understanding and appreciation of your chosen facet should be eliminated.

One possible way to focus the story is to limit most of the text to a specific time period in the subject’s life, often childhood. Many people believe this will help children identify more with the person, making the book more interesting. This method works quite well in these three situations: 1) If your subject is famous, so you don’t need to use some of your precious word count explaining her accomplishments; 2) If the subject is known for an activity that children also do, such as painting, working with animals, or sports; or, 3) If your subject works in a profession familiar to children, such as firefighter, teacher, or astronaut. In these cases, the author only needs a line or two of text to sum up the subject’s professional life, because children can fill in the gaps themselves.

Ada Byron Lovelace, the subject of my picture book biography, fits none of these three situations. She’s not famous (yet!). In fact, most people have never heard of her. Few children program computers, though I’m happy to say that’s changing. Finally, most children don’t really know what software engineers do.

I do love a challenge, though. I couldn’t show Ada using computers as a child, since computers didn’t yet exist. Instead, I included events from her childhood to illustrate both her personality and her love of mathematics. In order to introduce children to her professional accomplishments, I gave simple explanations in the text and saved the more technical details for the back matter. My hope is that children will read Ada’s story and be inspired to learn more about her and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).


Text by Laurie Wallmark, illustration by April Chu,
used with permission, from Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine



ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston Books, October 2015) is a picture-book biography of the world’s first computer programmer. Ada was born two hundred years ago, long before the invention of the modern electronic computer. At a time when girls and women had few options outside the home, Ada followed her dreams and studied mathematics. This book, by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu, tells the story of a remarkable woman and her work. Kirkus Reviews describes the book as a “splendidly inspiring introduction to an unjustly overlooked woman.” [starred review]


Text by Laurie Wallmark, illustration by April Chu, 
used with permission, from Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine



Join Laurie as she travels from blog to blog to introduce her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine.  

Blog Tour Stops
  
September 12, 2015 - Interview
www.flowering-minds.com     Flowering Minds (Darshana Khiani)


September 15, 2015 - Guest post (STEM and Trade Picture Books)
http://frogonablog.net/     Frog on a Blog (Lauri Fortino)

September 22, 2015 - Interview
http://c-c-hall.com/     Writing and Fishing (Cathy Hall)

September 28, 2015 - Guest Post (About Writing Ada)
http://mybrainonbooks.blogspot.com/     My Brain on Books (Joanne Fritz)

October 2, 2015 - Interview
https://stilladreamer.wordpress.com/     Still a Dreamer (Jeanne Balsam)

October 6, 2015 - Guest Post (Writing About Strong Women)
https://robinnewmanbooks.wordpress.com/     Robin Newman Books

October 9, 2015 - Guest Post (Five Detours on the Road to Publication)
http://www.yvonneventresca.com/blog.html     Yvonne Ventresca's Blog

October 13, 2015 - Guest Post (My Writing Firsts)
https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/     Writing and Illustrating (Kathy Temean)

October 15, 2015 - Guest Post (Acrostic Poem)
http://geekmom.com/     Geek Mom

October 18, 2015 - Interview
http://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/     The Children's Book Review

October 20, 2015 - Guest Post (Using Ada in the Classroom)
https://rlkurstedt.wordpress.com/     Kaleidoscope (Roseanne Kurstedt)

October 26, 2015 - Interview
https://darlenebeckjacobson.wordpress.com/     Gold From the Dust (Darlene Beck Jacobson)

November 6, 2015 - Guest Post (Five Favorite STEM Women in History)
http://www.viviankirkfield.com     Picture Books Help Kids Soar (Vivian Kirkfield)

November 6, 2015 - Interview


Laurie Wallmark writes exclusively for children. She can't imagine having to restrict herself to only one type of book, so she writes picture books, middle-grade novels, poetry, and nonfiction. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing or studying, Laurie teaches computer science at a local community college, both on campus and in prison. The picture book biography, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, October 2015), is Laurie’s first book.

Website:          http://www.lauriewallmark.com
Twitter:           https://twitter.com/lauriewallmark

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Thank you so much, Laurie. It was a pleasure having you on my blog.  

And now for the giveaway details. Laurie has generously offered one signed, hardcover copy of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine to one lucky winner. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. If you mention this giveaway on Twitter or other social media, please let me know in the comments and I'll give you an extra chance for each mention. This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only and will end at 10pm EDT on Sunday October 11, 2015. The winner will be announced on Monday Oct 12, 2015. Good luck!



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24. Appleblossom the Possum and Hamster Princess: A Double Book Review

Giveaway reminder: You still have almost a week to enter the giveaway of ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE by Laurie Wallmark.

*   *   *


Now onto MMGM. And it's a two-fer this time! For other MMGM posts, visit Shannon Messenger.

I enjoyed each of these younger middle grade novels, for different reasons. So I'm featuring them both. The source for both: arcs from Penguin Random House.




Hamster Princess 1: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon (August 2015, Dial Books, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Harriet Hamsterbone is not your typical princess. She may be quite stunning in the rodent realm (you'll have to trust her on this one), but she is not so great at trailing around the palace looking ethereal or sighing a lot. She finds the royal life rather . . . dull. One day, though, Harriet's parents tell her of the curse that a rat placed on her at birth, dooming her to prick her finger on a hamster wheel when she's twelve and fall into a deep sleep. For Harriet, this is most wonderful news: It means she's invincible until she's twelve! After all, no good curse goes to waste. And so begins a grand life of adventure with her trusty riding quail, Mumfrey...until her twelfth birthday arrives and the curse manifests in a most unexpected way.

Why I recommend it: Normally, I don't lean toward series books and never read Dragon Breath, Vernon's first series. But I found this hamster parody of Sleeping Beauty hilarious. Guaranteed to make you giggle. Harriet is a sassy and spunky main character, who personifies Girl Power. Give this to readers who like Babymouse.

Bonus: The large print and plenty of illustrations make this a breeze for younger readers.





Appleblossom the Possum by Holly Goldberg Sloan, illustrated by Gary A. Rosen (August 2015, Dial, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Mama has trained up her baby possums in the ways of their breed, and now it's time for all of them, even little Appleblossom, to make their way in the world. Appleblossom knows the rules: she must never be seen during the day, and she must avoid cars, humans, and the dreaded hairies (sometimes known as dogs). Even so, Appleblossom decides to spy on a human family and accidentally falls down their chimney. The curious Appleblossom, her faithful brothers who launch a hilarious rescue mission, and even the little girl in the house have no idea how fascinating the big world can be. But they're about to find out.

Why I recommend it: A sweet story about a family of actors--er, possums. Appleblossom is the curious one and her curiosity gets her into trouble. She's a lively and endearing new character. If you like animal stories (especially when the animals quote Shakespeare), this one's for you.

Bonus: This would be a terrific read-aloud.

(Be forewarned that Appleblossom isn't the least bit similar to Counting By 7's. If I didn't know they were both written by Holly Goldberg Sloan, I never would have guessed.)


Read any good animal tales lately?


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25. And the winner of ADA BYRON LOVELACE is...

First, huge congrats to Laurie Wallmark for the STARRED review of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine in Publishers Weekly! Here's a link to the review. I'm so happy for you, Laurie. It's well-deserved.





And now... (drum roll, please)

I have a winner to announce! According to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover copy of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark is...



MICHAEL G-G


Congrats, Michael. Expect an email from me asking for your address. The book will be coming directly from Laurie. So if you want it autographed, I'm sure she'd be happy to do that for you.

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway. 

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