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Reading and writing Children's lit...and then there's the brain stuff
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26. And the winner of THE WIG IN THE WINDOW is...



According to randomizer.org, the winner of the SIGNED hardcover copy of THE WIG IN THE WINDOW by Kristen Kittscher is:


MICHAEL G-G

Congrats, Michael! Expect an email from me, asking for your mailing address.

*   *   *   *   *

I'm taking a blogging break for a few weeks, to get ready for Christmas and still have time to work on my fourth novel and some picture books. Those of you who know me on Facebook may already have heard this, but I just signed my first contract with Highlights for Children, for a rebus story. I know they don't publish right away (or ever), but it's a sale, and I'll take it! I normally wouldn't mention things like this on the blog, but I'm tickled pink because the first time I submitted anything to Highlights was in 1995. So there's a lesson for all you aspiring writers. 

Persistence pays off. 

(Sometimes it just takes longer than you expected!)


Herr's Christmas display, Nottingham, Pennsylvania



Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! May all your publishing dreams come true in the coming year. And if you're not a writer, but you are a reader, may you discover
new treasures in Children's literature in 2014 and share them with all of us!




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27. Winner of THE MONSTER IN THE MUDBALL... and an intriguing quote




Hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving weekend and didn't have to go shopping that day. I'm wondering how long it will be before retailers start trying to get you to do your Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa shopping in August... Will this consumer madness ever stop? Okay, forget I asked that. So buy books, people. If you must buy something, buy books! Preferably from brick-and-mortar stores. Small Business Saturday doesn't have to be limited to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Thank you. I'll get down from my soapbox now.


Besides, I have a winner to announce. According to random.org, the winner of the hardcover of THE MONSTER IN THE MUDBALL by S.P. Gates is (ta da!):


ROSI


Congratulations, Rosi! And expect an email from me asking for your mailing address. Readers, don't forget my other giveaway, the signed hardcover of THE WIG IN THE WINDOW by Kristen Kittscher, still going on at this post


I have no MMGM book review this week, due to family celebrations and travel, but if you go to Shannon's blog, you can find links to many other wonderful posts.

However, I do have a middle grade quote for you.




"Books are like truth serum – if you don’t read, you can’t figure out what’s real."


                                                              -- Freak, in Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick  


*   *   *   *   *



What do you think, reader? Do books help you figure out what's real?  



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28. Middle Grade Heaven -- Seven debut authors from the Lucky 13s in one room! Plus a GIVEAWAY


Seven of the Lucky 13s; in front: Kit Grindstaff, A.B. Westrick,
back row (l to r): Elisabeth Dahl, Caroline Carlson, Kristen Kittscher, 
Melanie Crowder, Jennifer Ann Mann


Last week, I had a blast meeting seven middle grade debut authors at once. Yes! I made it to the last stop on the Lucky 13s VENTURES AND MISADVENTURES tour! I got quite a few pictures (most were a little blurry because I didn't want to use flash and, you know, blind them all). Thanks to Haverford Township Free Library and Children's Book World for hosting the event. Scroll down for info on the books.


From left: Kit Grindstaff, Kristen Kittscher, Melanie Crowder, Caroline Carlson,
Elisabeth Dahl, Jennifer Ann Mann, A.B. Westrick





Kit Grindstaff and Kristen Kittscher both said their books were the first they'd ever written, 
although Kristen admitted it took many years and at one point she started over!
Here, Kit talks about THE FLAME IN THE MIST while Kristen looks on.







A.B. (Anne) Westrick with the Magic Jar of Literature (more on that later)







Elisabeth Dahl talks about (and still has!) her favorite book from childhood,
ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET









The audience got to play a fun game!
They took turns pulling out a slip of paper from the Magic Jar of Literature and reading the sentence aloud. They then tried to guess which of the seven books it came from, after which the author read the entire passage. Every kid in that audience was eager to participate.  







Melanie Crowder reads a moving passage aloud from PARCHED. 





Young fans talk to Caroline Carlson, Elisabeth Dahl, and Jennifer Ann Mann







A. B. Westrick with a happy fan


*   *   *   *   *

Any of these books would be a great addition to your middle grade shelves. They range from funny to serious and include fantasy, realistic contemporary, and historical. 


The Flame in the Mist by Kit Grindstaff (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, ages 9 to 13)
In this darkly-atmospheric fantasy, Jemma Agromond learns she's not who she thinks she is, and when the secrets and lies behind her life at mist-shrouded Agromond Castle begin to unravel, she finds herself in a chilling race for her life. I've recommended this book before, in this post.





Genie Wishes by Elisabeth Dahl (Amulet/Harry N. Abrams, ages 8 to 12)
Genie has been selected to be the class blogger and write down the wishes and dreams of her classmates. But it's scary to express her opinion in public. What if her class gets upset?







Parched by Melanie Crowder (HMH Books for Young Readers, ages 10 to 14). In this haunting, evocative eco-fable, written in a gorgeous prose that's almost poetic, a boy, a girl, and a dog struggle to survive in a world gone dry. I'm in the middle of reading this one, and I'm taking my time so I can savor the language. I first heard about this book from Akossiwa Ketoglo in this post.








Sunny Sweet is SO Not Sorry by Jennifer Ann Mann (Bloomsbury USA, ages 8 to 12). Eleven-year-old Masha has a six-year-old evil genius for a sister. Most of the action takes place in one crazy day, starting when Masha wakes up with plastic flowers glued to her hair. First in a series!







Brotherhood by A.B. Westrick (Viking Juvenile, ages 10 and up). The Civil War has ended, but for fourteen-year-old Shadrach, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, the conflict isn't over. His older brother takes him to a meeting of a secret society whose mission is to protect Confederate widows. But when Shad realizes what the KKK is really doing, he must make a decision.







Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book One) by Caroline Carlson (HarperCollins, for ages 8 to 12). Hilary has always wanted to be a pirate. But the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates won't take girls. So Hilary sets out on her own high-seas adventure, with her best friend, a talking Gargoyle. Plenty of shenanigans abound. Read Natalie Aguirre's interview with Caroline on Literary Rambles at this post.







The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher (HarperCollins, ages 8 to 12, first book in a series!)  Sophie Young and Grace Yang are best friends, and spies. Fans of funny middle-grade mysteries will devour this fast-paced contemporary mystery, set in a California beach town.The girls find more than they bargained for when they spy on their neighbor, Dr. Charlotte Agford (aka: Dr. Awkward), the middle school guidance counselor. What is Dr. Awkward hiding?



Kristen admitted this book is "somewhat autobiographical" because she had a spy club with her own best friend when she was in school. So the story has a highly authentic feel, as Sophie and Grace sneak around, make accusations, and get in deep trouble.

And the best part is, I'm giving away my signed hardcover copy of The Wig in the Window (only because it's the first book I finished reading)! Plus it comes with a pen, so you can write your own spy notes. To enter, all you have to do is become a follower and comment on this post. International entries welcome. This giveaway ends at 10 pm EST on Sunday December 8 and the winner will be announced on Monday December 9. Good luck!

*   *   *   *   *

Don't forget you still have nearly a week to enter my other giveaway, for a hardcover of The Monster in the Mudball. Go to that post to enter.

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29. The Monster in the Mudball -- and a Giveaway!




The Monster in the Mudball by S.P. Gates (September 2013, Tu Books/Lee & Low Books, for ages 8 to 12)

Source: hardcover review copy from the publisher

Synopsis (from the publisher): In this Junior Library Guild selection, eleven-year-old Jin must run around the English town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne trying to track down a monster named Zilombo. Jin teams up with Chief Inspector of Ancient Artifacts A. J. Zauyamakanda, or Mizz Z, for short. 

Zilombo gains new, frightening powers every time she hatches. Now the monster is cleverer than ever before . . . and it appears that Jin’s baby brother has disappeared! Will Jin’s baby brother be next on Zilombo’s menu? As the monster’s powers continue to grow, Jin and Mizz Z must find a way to outsmart Zilombo!

Why I liked it: This is a lively, fast-paced, multicultural fantasy adventure. If you can put up with a bit of head-hopping between characters in this brisk, third person narrative, you'll be rewarded with a great tale. Mizz Z is terrific. Jin's older sister Frankie has an important part to play. But mainly, you'll find yourself cheering for Jin -- the first protagonist I've ever encountered who has dyspraxia, a neurological condition that affects coordination. How he handles that, and helps save the day, makes him a fascinating character. 

Read a guest post on Lee & Low's own blog, in which the author shares photos of the English town where the story takes place. Interestingly, I read the book before I saw these photos, and it's almost exactly as I pictured it! So you know S. P. Gates is great at evoking a setting. Here's a teaser:

This is where Zilombo hides out, in an old sewage pipe



A little about the author (from the publisher's press release): S.P. Gates began her writing career over twenty-five years ago as an English teacher who wrote stories for her classes. One day she decided to send one of her stories in to a publisher and, to her amazement, her story was published. She is now the award-winning author of more than one hundred books for young readers including both middle grade and young adult fiction. Gates drew inspiration for The Monster in the Mudball from her time teaching in Malawi, Africa. Additionally, Jin, who has dyspraxia, is based on the experiences of Gates’ son, Alex, who also grew up dyspraxic. “Other children who have special educational needs might be interested to read how, despite his problems and to his own amazement, Jin becomes a hero,” Gates says.

 _________________________________________________________

And yes, I'm giving away that hardcover copy that Tu Books sent me for review. It comes with its very own "egg" from which you can grow your own monster! To enter, all you have to do is be a follower and leave a comment on this post. International entries welcome. This giveaway ends Sunday Dec 1, 2013 and the winner will be announced Monday Dec 2.


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30. Annual event at Children's Book World -- and Writing advice from Jerry Spinelli

I was in heaven on November 1st. Or, more precisely, I was at Children's Book World, in Haverford, PA for their annual Author and Illustrator night.




My only regret (besides the fact that I forgot to take photos - kicking myself, here) is that I didn't have enough money to buy a book from each of the more than 30 authors or illustrators present. And of course there wasn't enough time to talk to all of them.

This is actually a photo of Ellen Jensen Abbott from a previous event at CBW in October!


But I did talk to my friend Ellen Jensen Abbott, my friend K.M. Walton, and also Tiffany Schmidt, E.C. Myers, Ame Dyckman, Jen Bryant, Elisa Ludwig, Lisa Papp and Robert PappLee Harper, and Jerry Spinelli and Eileen Spinelli.


These were the books I purchased that night!

Also in attendance was my friend Ilene, whose YA deal (as I.W. Gregorio) was just announced in Publishers Marketplace. Yay, Ilene!

(Note: Yes, most of these authors are either YA or PB authors. But never fear, MG champions, because next week, I'm planning to attend a middle grade event sponsored by Children's Book World - you can read about it here! And this time, I'll try to take pics...)



Best conversation of the evening: I told Jerry Spinelli that I just finished the rough draft of my third novel the day before. And I asked, "What advice can you give me?" He said, "First, treat yourself to a milkshake because you've done something most people never do. You've finished a novel."

Then he told me to wait THREE MONTHS before tackling the revisions. As I thanked him and walked away, he said, "Remember! Three months!"

So I'll take your advice, Jerry. I'm letting it marinate until the end of January. And I'm already writing my fourth novel. But if there's anything I've learned in my years of writing, it's that there is no right or wrong way to revise a novel. Just like there is no right or wrong way to write a rough draft.

How long do you wait before revising a rough draft? Do you put it away and let it simmer? Or do you dive right into draft two?

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31. Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko

This week's MMGM is the third in a trilogy that started in 2004 with Al Capone Does My Shirts, continued in 2009 with Al Capone Shines My Shoes and now concludes with another exciting tale from Alcatraz in the 1930s. For other MMGM links, see my sidebar or Shannon's blog.





Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko (August 2013, Dial Books for Young Readers, historical fiction, for ages 9 to 12).

Source: Purchased from bn.com using the gift card I won from Michael Gettel-Gilmartin. Thanks, Michael!

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Alcatraz Island in the 1930s isn't the most normal place to grow up, but it's home for Moose Flanagan, his autistic sister, Natalie, and all the families of the guards. When Moose's dad gets promoted to Associate Warden, it's a big deal. But the cons have a point system for targeting prison employees, and his dad is now in serious danger. After a fire starts in the Flanagan's apartment, Natalie is blamed, and Moose bands with the other kids to track down the possible arsonist. Then Moose gets a cryptic note from the notorious Al Capone himself. If Moose can't figure out what Capone's note means, it may be too late.


Why I liked it: The character of Moose won me over in the first book, and his voice is just as likable in this volume. Thirteen-year-old Moose wants to do what other kids do; play baseball, run around, avoid homework. But he often has to babysit for Natalie (although Choldenko wisely never mentions the term "autism", since it wasn't used yet in 1936). After the fire, Moose discovers suggestions from Al Capone in a notebook that escaped the flames. I loved the way the author managed to work this in, making it seem like Capone is critiquing Moose's homework. But the information turns out to be far more important than that.

It probably would help to read the first two books, but Choldenko has so skillfully introduced the situation and the time period and characters (without any info dumps) that this proves to be a smooth and enjoyable read whether you've read the first two books or not. Which also makes this a great book for writers to study.

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32. Spring Forward, Fall Back: Reading with the Seasons

As we prepare to turn our clocks back here in the US next Sunday (and gain an hour of sleep - bliss!), I thought I'd do something different today.


Do you ever try to read seasonally? I don't mean reading Christmas or Hanukkah stories near those holidays. I mean, by the season itself. For instance, every few years I re-read The Secret Garden in the spring. It has to be in spring, when the grass is growing greener and the forsythia and magnolias are blooming. Reading along with the season seems to give the book more meaning, makes it more of a celebration.


So this autumn, I decided to re-read The Fledgling, by Jane Langton. Part of the Hall Family Chronicles and still available in paperback; the first image (on the left) is a photo of my well-loved Harper & Row hardcover from 1980. I bought the book before it was awarded a Newbery honor in 1981. The second image shows the Harper paperback from March 1981. Personally, I prefer the hardcover image.

This gorgeous story about Georgie, a young girl who gets flying lessons from a goose, is a beautiful evocation of childhood and the universal dream of flying, but it's also a song of praise to autumn. This book is rich in sensory images of New England in the fall: leaves turning scarlet, the air growing crisp and cool, geese flying south for the winter -- and oh, their honking, which Langton brings to life in a most creative way.

This quiet little story may seem old fashioned today, when stories have to be faster-paced, with less description, but if you let that stop you from picking it up, you'll be missing a great read. Yes, it's descriptive. But there's plenty of conflict, since both the nosy neighbor Miss Prawn, and the bank president Mr. Preek, are trying to stop Georgie from going on her nightly flights with the Goose Prince.

What books have you read that bring a season to mind?

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33. A thought-provoking quote





"All reality, I decide, is a blender where hopes and dreams are mixed with fear and despair."

-- Willow Chance, narrator of Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan




See last week's post for my review of this amazing book.


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34. Counting by 7's - Newbery guesses, anyone?

It's never too soon to start wondering what middle grade novel will win the Newbery Medal in January, and which ones will be honor books. I rarely guess them right (except for the year When You Reach Me won the medal), but I always enjoy trying.

My pick for the medal this year goes to:




Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (August 29, 2013, for ages 10 and up, Dial Books for Young Readers)

Source: I won the arc from Gina Carey. If you haven't yet visited her very cool blog, be sure to check it out. 

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

Why I loved it:  Like Auggie in Wonder, Willow is one of those unconventional characters -- intelligent, observant, fragile, and yet strong -- who stay with you long after you turn the last page. The voice is perfect. There's a surprising amount of humor in what could have been a tearjerker. Chapters narrated by Willow in first person alternate with chapters in third person that give us insight into not only Willow's character but into the refreshingly real cast of secondary characters, a multicultural group of people who come to love Willow as much as you will.

Here's Gina's review.

What book do you hope will win the Newbery in January?


For other MMGM participants, see my sidebar or Shannon's links.

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35. Gasp! An extra post -- for an extra day: THE EIGHTH DAY by Dianne K. Salerni Cover Reveal

I'm thrilled for my friend Dianne K. Salerni (Pennsylvania resident and author of two YA novels, We Hear the Dead and The Caged Graves)




 because she will be making her MG debut in 2014 with...






The Eighth Day (coming from HarperCollins, Summer 2014)

Isn't that the coolest cover EVER?  Doesn't it make you desperate to read the book?

Here's a teaser from the flap copy:

When newly orphaned Jax Aubrey awakes to a world without people the day after his thirteenth birthday, he thinks it’s the apocalypse. But then the next day is a regular old Thursday. Has Jax gone crazy? What’s going on?

Go visit Dianne's blog to find out more and to congratulate her!  
 

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36. Odessa Again for MMGM



Odessa Again by Dana Reinhardt (for ages 8 to 12, May 2013, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Fourth grader Odessa Green-Light lives with her mom and her toad of a little brother, Oliver. Her dad is getting remarried, which makes no sense according to Odessa. If the prefix "re" means "to do all over again," shouldn't he be remarrying Mom? Meanwhile, Odessa moves into the attic room of their new house. One day she gets mad and stomps across the attic floor. Then she feels as if she is falling and lands . . . on the attic floor. Turns out that Odessa has gone back in time a whole day! With this new power she can fix all sorts of things--embarrassing moments, big mistakes, and even help Oliver be less of a toad. Her biggest goal: reunite Mom and Dad.

Why I liked it:  This is exactly the kind of book I would have adored as a ten-year-old. It's fun, escapist reading, with time travel! But at the same time it delves into contemporary issues real kids face. I loved Reinhardt's unique treatment of time travel. This isn't like 11 Birthdays or Groundhog Day. The first time Odessa falls back in time, she goes back exactly 24 hours. The next time, it's 23 hours, then 22, and so on. You can see where this is heading. Reinhardt mines the comic possibilities to the fullest, but you also might find your heart pounding when time begins to run out.

Here's Susan Olson's take on it (interestingly, I had planned to feature this book on Sept 30, but got waylaid by a bad cold, and Susan reviewed it instead!)

What's your favorite time travel novel?

For other MMGM participants, see my sidebar or Shannon's links.

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37. Another great quote




"Only great ideas come when you are running. It is the way of things."

Bee, the narrator of Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco


*   *   *   *   *

What do you think, reader? Do your best ideas come to you when you're running (or swimming, walking, or biking)?


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38. Loki's Wolves Giveaway Winner

I have a winner to announce!

According to random.org the winner of the hardcover copy of Loki's Wolves is:


AKOSS

Congratulations and expect an email from me!

 


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39. MMGM Loki's Wolves -- and a Giveaway!

I've been wanting to read this book ever since I first heard about it in Publishers Weekly. Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong, two popular YA novelists, have collaborated on their first MG series, The Blackwell Pages. I finally bought a copy of the first book and yes, I will be giving it away. Details at the end of the post.



Loki's Wolves by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr (May 2013, Little, Brown, for ages 9 to 13)

Source: Hardcover purchased from Books-A-Million

Synopsis (from Indiebound):  "The runes have spoken. We have our champion...Matthew Thorsen."

Matt hears the words, but he can't believe them. He's Thor's representative? Destined to fight trolls, monstrous wolves and giant serpents...or the world ends? He's only thirteen.

While Matt knew he was a modern-day descendent of Thor, he's always lived a normal kid's life. In fact, most people in the small town of Blackwell, South Dakota, are direct descendants of either Thor or Loki, including Matt's classmates Fen and Laurie Brekke. No big deal.

But now Ragnarok is coming, and it's up to the champions to fight in the place of the long-dead gods. Matt, Laurie, and Fen's lives will never be the same as they race to put together an unstoppable team, find Thor's hammer and shield, and prevent the end of the world.

Why I liked it: It's a fast-paced, thrilling adventure for kids and young teens. The authors waste no time in sending Matt, Fen, and Laurie on a dangerous journey to find the other descendants. There are trolls, giant wolves, and police officers trying to stop them. In addition, the authors do an excellent job of filling us in on Norse mythology without hitting us over the head with it. Boys and girls will enjoy this, since Laurie certainly holds her own against the guys. Give this to fans of The Lightning Thief.

For other MMGM links, visit Shannon's blog.

________________________________

Now for the giveaway! I will be giving away one hardcover of Loki's Wolves to one lucky follower of this blog. International entries welcome. You MUST be a follower and you MUST leave a comment on this post. I'll give you an extra entry if you mention on Twitter (I'm @JoanneRFritz) and another entry if you mention on your own blog. Please let me know in the comments. This giveaway ends at 10 pm EDT on Saturday Sept 21, 2013 and the winner will be announced on Sunday Sept 22.

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40. Great Quotes from Children's Books





"How will the world change if we do not question it?"

-- Leo Matienne in The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo


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41. MMGM: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

If you've followed my blog for a while, you know I'm a huge fan of Wendy Mass (see this post and this one). But I never read Jeremy Fink until this summer.





Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass (Little, Brown paperback, February 2008, for ages 8 to 12)

Source: purchased from The Big Blue Marble Bookstore, an indie bookstore in Philadelphia, on a trip to visit my friend Mariga, who works there.

Synopsis (back cover copy and Indiebound): Jeremy Fink is about to turn thirteen. He collects mutant candy, he won't venture more than four blocks from his apartment if he can help it, and he definitely doesn't like surprises. On the other hand, his best friend, Lizzy, isn't afraid of anything, even if that might get her into trouble now and then.

When a mysterious box arrives for Jeremy with the words The Meaning of Life engraved on the lid, Jeremy and Lizzy can't wait to find out what's inside. But the box is locked, so they set off an on adventure around Manhattan to find the keys to life's biggest mystery.

Why I liked it: You've gotta love a book that starts with this line:

My sweat smells like peanut butter.

The almost-teen boy voice is fantastic. And I loved the dynamic between Jeremy and Lizzy. The adventure with the keys brings Jeremy out of his shell, so there's plenty of character growth. And the ending was not at all what I expected. 

*   *   *   *   *

I'm excited that Wendy Mass has a new book coming in September, The Last Present, set in the Willow Falls universe of 11 Birthdays, Finally, and 13 Gifts. Leo and Amanda get to travel through time! Can't wait. Release date: September 24, 2013.


For other MMGM links, visit Shannon's blog.

If you read Jeremy Fink, what did you think of it? And what books are you looking forward to in September?


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42. Catching Up

News alert: Since I last posted, I became a published writer of fiction. Okay, so it's flash fiction and it's online, and I was paid all of $3, but it's a publishing credit. Visit this page on Every Day Fiction if you'd like to read my story. I have another story coming in September from Twisted Endings.

 *   *   *

So sorry I haven't been around lately. I'm back from my blogging break, which wrapped up with two weeks' vacation in Maine. My family and I live in Southeastern Pennsylvania. So why do we go to Maine, when we could more easily drive to New Jersey's beaches, or the Chesapeake Bay?

I think a few photos will explain that.

Back Cove, West Boothbay, Maine





Back Cove, West Boothbay, Maine

Looking the other direction toward Boothbay Harbor




My husband walking on Ogunquit Beach 
Ogunquit's rocky coastline 


That, my friends, is a Lobster BLT, and it was delicious



But enough dreaming about my vacation (sigh!). It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. And on my blogging break, besides finishing a much-needed revision and blueprinting a new novel, I tried to catch up on some middle grade classics I'd missed. I bought these books from my friendly local second-hand bookshop. I recommend all three of these, though by today's standards, they're a wee bit old-fashioned.


The Witches by Roald Dahl (Puffin paperback 1998)

Synopsis from indiebound: This is not a fairy tale. This is about real witches.

Grandmamma loves to tell about witches. Real witches are the most dangerous of all living creatures on earth. There's nothing they hate so much as children, and they work all kinds of terrifying spells to get rid of them. Her grandson listens closely to Grandmamma's stories—but nothing can prepare him for the day he comes face-to-face with The Grand High Witch herself.

My take: Like every Roald Dahl book, this is imaginative, funny, fast-paced, and well worth reading.



My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (Puffin paperback 2001)

Synopsis from Indiebound: Sam Gribley is terribly unhappy living in New York City with his family, so he runs away to the Catskill Mountains to live in the woods—all by himself. With only a penknife, a ball of cord, forty dollars, and some flint and steel, he intends to survive on his own. Sam learns about courage, danger, and independence during his year in the wilderness, a year that changes his life forever. Named a Newbery honor in 1960.

My take: Lovely, in an idealistic sort of way. I've always enjoyed books about a kid on his own in the wilderness (Hatchet, for instance) and how he manages to make fish hooks, build a shelter, and figure out what berries to eat. I doubt real parents would be as unconcerned about his adventure as Sam's seem to be (but I was really glad his Dad came to visit him at Christmas). This is one of those quiet books that simply don't get published today. If you're looking for more excitement, stick with Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.




The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois (Puffin paperback 1986)

Synopsis from Indiebound: Professor William Waterman Sherman intends to fly across the Pacific Ocean. But through a twist of fate, he lands on Krakatoa, and discovers a world of unimaginable wealth, eccentric inhabitants, and incredible balloon inventions. Winner of the 1948 Newbery Medal.

My take: A fun, old-fashioned story, this felt like The Wizard of Oz meets Around the World in 80 Days. No one writes books like this anymore. For one thing, the main character is an old man, not a child. I'm not sure if today's kids would enjoy this, but I did.

While in Maine, I read Neil Gaiman's new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not for kids. But it's filled with gorgeous writing, so read it if you get a chance.

What did you read this summer?

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43. The Art of Browsing in the Rain for MMGM

Browsing is such a lovely thing to do, isn't it? For ten years, I worked in a huge bookstore, and yet I never had time to browse. If I wasn't helping customers, I was shelving new books or reshelving old books, straightening, alphabetizing, and working on the website.

Now that I'm between jobs, I've rediscovered the joys of browsing. We had a lot of rain in June this year, and one rainy day I found myself at the library. Other than the rain drumming on the roof, it was quiet. Schools were still in session, so I had the middle grade area to myself. I usually head to the library with a specific list, and this time was no exception. Among other books, I found Shakespeare's Spy (which proved to be a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to Gary Blackwood's trilogy first mentioned here).

But then as I wandered the stacks, a small book caught my eye. I'd never heard of it before, but I'd heard of the author. Impulsively, I checked it out. I love libraries.




The Magic Half  by Annie Barrows (Bloomsbury, 2007, age 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Miri is the only single child in the middle of a family with two sets of twins--older brothers and younger sisters. When the family moves to an old farmhouse Miri accidentally travels back in time to 1935 only to discover Molly, a girl in need of a real family to call her own. 

Why I liked it: The time travel element, of course! Plus, Miri is a well-rounded, sympathetic character. Also, I'm the younger sister of twins. Apparently I used to ask my mother, "Where's my twin?" So this book felt like it was written for me.

What treasures have you unearthed while browsing?


MMGM is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. Check her blog for the links, or look at my sidebar.

Please note: Next week, I'll be taking a five to six week blogging break to get some writing and revising done, and also going on vacation to Maine for part of that time. But I'll be back after that with plenty of new book recommendations and some writing posts.

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44. Impressions of NJ SCBWI - Part 2

If you missed Part 1, you can find it at this post. I'd love to tell you about every one of the eight workshops I attended, but I want to keep this from going on too long, so I'll limit myself to two today.

1) Scene Structure with Laurie Calkhoven (author of numerous MG novels, including her Boys of Wartime series) was thorough and informative. I took notes as fast as I could.  Laurie suggests we storyboard every scene of a novel.  Points to keep in mind as you do this:

Setting :  Time and Place. Is it inside or outside? Summer or winter? The reader needs to know! Laurie read from her novel, Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, and told us originally she had Daniel watching from a rooftop. Then she realized he was too far from the action and not involved, so she placed him in the middle of the battle.



Character: All characters in every scene have to want something and should be in opposition to each other.  The main character's desire in every scene should tie into their overall heart's desire in the book. In Hunger Games, Katniss wants the bow and arrow from the cornucopia, and that ties in to her overall desire to stay alive.

Dialogue: The shortcut to conflict. Two characters talking with a purpose. Dialogue also reveals much by what isn't said. Laurie read an excerpt from The Wednesday Wars, a dinner table scene that was mostly dialogue between Holling's father and sister (even though Holling tells the story).


Action: Not only moves the plot along, but also provides clues to character motivation. There should be both action and reaction every time.  

POV: Most children's books use either first person or close third person (Wonder is an exception, with its multiple POVs). She thinks POV is mostly organic or intuitive. Laurie polled a large group of writers and she claims there's really no objective way to choose your POV. Whatever you choose, be consistent!

Climax/Exit Line: Remember we're talking about the climax of a scene here, not the entire book. In every scene, there should be a story arc (characters/setting -- conflict -- climax -- resolution). In the scene at the dinner table in The Wednesday Wars, the climax is when Holling's sister gets up from the table to wash the flower child paint off her face. The exit line is Holling's dad saying, "Please pass the lima beans."

Laurie does this storyboarding for every scene, then writes the scene. If it's not working, she goes back to her storyboard to see what's missing. Every scene has a function or it shouldn't be there!

*   *   *


2) Who's Telling This Story? Point of View with Meg Wiviott (author of Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, a picture book about Kristallnacht from the POV of a cat)

The main reason I wanted to mention this workshop was the direct contrast with what Laurie Calkhoven said above about POV being intuitive. According to Meg Wiviott, POV is a conscious decision a writer makes that will determine through whose eyes the story will be told. And a lot of it has to do with psychic distance (defined by John Gardner as the distance between the reader and the writer -- think of it as a zoom lens). I also learned that there are five forms of third person. Without going into detail, I'll include examples of each kind:

Dramatic/Objective (Benno and the Night of Broken Glass), Omniscient (Tuck Everlasting, Charlotte's Web), Storyteller/Intrusive (Tale of Despereaux, Artemis Fowl), Limited/Close (Number the Stars), Multiple (Wonder, Parched).



Then of course, there's second person (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Blink & Caution), and first person (Speak and many other YA novels). The psychic distance is different for every POV. In first person there is zero psychic distance. Everything is filtered through the main character's eyes.

*   *   *

The highlight of the last day of the conference, for me, was Tara Lazar's very moving speech. Some of you may know Tara Lazar as a blogger extraordinaire. Her blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) was one of the first blogs I ever followed, back in 2009. So I've observed her journey to publication since her picture book, The Monstore, was first accepted by Simon & Schuster in 2010.


A clever and very funny tale!
Tara Lazar, from her blog

Her speech has us laughing uproariously, at first. She appeared in costume, including a long luxurious beard, smoking jacket and pipe. "I am a published author," she proclaimed in a phony British accent. "I never make mistakes. I never get rejections. I use words like verisimilitude in ordinary conversation. See? I just did." Using broad humor, her speech taught us that the myth of the Great Divide between published and unpublished authors is just that: a myth. She told us she's the same person she was before her book was published. And then she yanked off the costume and grew serious as she told us about her diagnosis in early 2010. She has MS. And the diagnosis came at the same time as her offer of a contract from S&S. So, for Tara, it's been a bittersweet journey. 

Not a dry eye in the house.

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45. Impressions of NJ SCBWI -- Part 1

I'm from Pennsylvania, so the Eastern PA SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Poconos Retreat will always have my heart, but the NJ SCBWI annual conference in Princeton, NJ exercises my brain! There are more workshops (5 on Saturday and 3 on Sunday), more editors, more agents, more opportunities to learn -- and to absorb the glow from such luminaries as Lauren Oliver, Wendy Mass, Tara Lazar, Corey Rosen Schwartz, and Ame Dyckman, winner of this year's Crystal Kite Award (for the Atlantic region) for Boy + Bot.

Is this book adorable? Affirmative!


Ame Dyckman (Photo source)

The NJ conference is a little exhausting. Okay, it's extremely exhausting, coupled with the fact that I didn't sleep more than 4 hours each night.

My first workshop on Saturday morning was my favorite of the weekend. Kit Grindstaff, debut MG author of THE FLAME IN THE MIST, and Jennifer Hubbard, YA author of THE SECRET YEAR and TRY NOT TO BREATHE, took us into The Dark Underbelly and taught us how to add flaws, secrets, and lies to deepen our characters and their stories. What ghosts from the past haunt your character? What skeletons are in their closet? What don't they know about themselves?

This workshop helped me realize what was missing from my novel.


And I highly recommend Kit Grindstaff's novel (which I finished reading after the conference). With the help of two magical golden rats, a friend named Digby, and an ancient book, Jemma must fight the evil Agromond family and the Mist that has overtaken Anglavia. If you like your MG fantasy action-packed and dark, with a strong female protagonist, if you like getting lost in a long (449 pages) and fascinating tale, with excellent worldbuilding, The Flame in the Mist (Delacorte, April, 2013, for ages 9 and up) should be on your TBR list. Sorry -- I can't give away my hardcover. It's personalized!

One of my other favorite workshops was run by Wendy Mass. You've seen her mentioned on this blog more than once.


Using examples from her newest book, PI IN THE SKY, Wendy taught us the secret to her success. She doesn't outline; she blueprints. This is her term for a system in which you start with a list of 20 important events that must happen in your novel (each described in one or two words). Then you rewrite them in the order you want them. Take the first idea and that becomes Chapter One. Your next step is to list 10 important events that must happen in Chapter One (or you can use 5 or 6 events if it feels too long). Step 3 is to change each idea into a who, what, when, where, or why question. And then answer them. Do this for each chapter and you have a complete Blueprint. When you're ready to turn it into a novel, write a page for each of the chapter ideas.

It's as simple as that. I can't wait to try this method myself.

*   *   *   *   *

Next week: POV and Scene Structure, plus a funny and touching moment with Tara Lazar, author of THE MONSTORE!

Are you a member of SCBWI or some other writing organization? Have you ever attended the NJ conference?

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46. A Winner -- and Anticipation is keeping me waiting...

First, the winner of the signed hardcover copy of IN SEARCH OF GOLIATHUS HERCULES by Jennifer Angus is.....


AKOSS


Congratulations, Akoss! Look for an email from me, asking for your mailing address. Albert Whitman will be mailing your copy directly to you.

Last weekend, I attended the NJ SCBWI conference and I'll be posting my impressions of that next week, but I'm still catching up (and revising like mad), so for now, go visit last week's book blogger panel at Random Acts of Reading. We talked about what new books we're anticipating the most!

What books are you looking forward to?


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47. You may be wondering...

... about that image to the top right of the page. WRiTE CLUB??  What the heck is that??

It's a chance, people. An amazing chance to submit your own unpublished writing in a 500-word sample and have it anonymously go head-to-head with another sample in weekly bouts. The two samples each week will be judged by bloggers and writers like you. It's the third year for this annual contest. You may not be chosen, but you definitely won't be chosen unless you enter!

Visit DL Hammons' blog, Cruising Altitude 2.0 for details.  But hurry -- you only have until June 30, 2013 to submit your writing!

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48. In Search of Goliathus Hercules Blog Tour -- and a Giveaway!



Today, I'm participating in the blog tour for In Search of Goliathus Hercules.

Hardcover books available from Albert Whitman
Ebooks available from Open Road Media


In Search of Goliathus Hercules by Jennifer Angus (Albert Whitman & Co, 2013, for ages 8 to 12)

Source
: hardcover review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis (from Indiebound): In 1890, Henri Bell, a near-orphan, is sent to live with his ancient great-aunt and her extensive button collection. One rainy afternoon, Henri strikes up a conversation with a friendly fly on the windowsill and discovers he possesses the astounding ability to speak with insects. Thus commences an epic journey for Henri as he manages a flea circus, commands an army of beetles, and ultimately sets out to British Malaya to find the mythical giant insect known as Goliathus hercules. Along the way he makes friends both insect and human, and undergoes a strange transformation of his own.

Why I liked it: Packed with adventure and imagination, this is a fascinating story that will appeal to fans of fantasy, historical fiction, and adventure novels. Henri (pronounced On-ree) is a sympathetic character, especially as he begins to take on unusual characteristics. Though it's a thick book (350 pages) it's fast-paced and exciting enough to keep you turning pages. 


And now, an exclusive interview with Jennifer Angus!



1) Hi, Jennifer and welcome to My Brain on Books! You are, first and foremost, an artist and a professor of Design Studies at The University of Wisconsin/Madison. You've had numerous successful exhibits of your Victorian-style wall pieces. Is it true that you use real insects in your patterns? And how did you become interested in insects?

Yes, all the insects I use are real, that is with the exception of Goliathus Hercules himself who I created in the great tradition of hoaxes with the parts of several insects and gold glitter (everything is better with glitter!). That’s the most common question I get asked and people also want to know if their colour is natural which it most certainly is. I’m crazy but not crazy enough to start painting thousands of insects.

Like most professors part of my job is to do research. I was researching tribal minority dress in Northern Thailand when I stumbled upon a garment from the Karen tribe that had a fringe of green metallic beetle wings. I was stunned. Other than butterflies I had never thought of insects as being beautiful. Through further research I’ve discovered other groups, primarily in Asia that use insects as embellishment and actually in the Victorian era round sequin-like shapes were cut from beetle elytra (the hard protective outside wing) and applied to fancy fabrics. I always say that I my interest in insects really grew out of my research and love of textiles.

2)  What made you decide to take the next step and write a book about the insect world?

I never intended to write a book. Really Goliathus Hercules was born when I mounted an exhibition of the same name at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. WI. The most common questions I get asked about my artwork are:

1.       Are the insects real?
2.       Is this their natural colour?
3.       Did I collect them myself?      

Those questions got me thinking about collecting and the prestige of having the rarest specimen or the largest specimen. For the exhibition I decided to create an alter ego who is a great adventurer and collector. Goliathus hercules is the name of the fictitious insect I have discovered and collected! The name alludes to the Latin nomenclature insects are given, and obviously it is a very large and strong creature. The bigger the insect, the more awe and prestige it will garner. Included in the exhibition was a diary I have created, a record of the explorer's arduous journey in the name of science and fame. Not coincidentally, the diary begins on April 1st.  You can read the diary entries here http://www.jenniferangus.com/Exhibitions/2005_2004_exhibits/goliathus_diary.htm

I enjoyed creating exhibitions with a narrative and I furthered my story with a trilogy of exhibitions  all called “A Terrible Beauty.” I also created an online, storybook version of the narrative which you can see here http://digitalthreads.ca/en/nature/artwork.cfm Eventually a small children’s publishing company invited me to write the story that underlies the exhibitions.  

3) The illustrations in the book are fascinating. Not only have you designed borders and chapter headings with patterns of insects, but you also used what look like old photos and postcards. It makes the book seem more realistic since you have photos of Henri and his friends and Henri's nemesis, Mrs. Black. Did you scour antique stores for photos from the era? Or are these recreations?

Most of the photos were purchased on E-bay although there are also photographs of objects that I owned and had previously used in my exhibitions such as the five year diary and the cricket cage buttons. I created many illustrations of Mrs. Black in her various disguises by simply Photoshopping her face into the antique photographs. That was a lot of fun and at some point I’ll put up the ones that didn’t make it into the book on my web site.

4) While reading this, I thought of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, but also of Roald Dahl and even The Wizard of Oz (Mrs. Black reminded me a bit of Miss Gulch. And of course you have a motley crew of individuals who go on a quest). Were there any particular middle-grade novels that influenced you? Did you read a lot of novels before writing this, or did you just start writing?   

I agree that Mrs. Black owes a lot to Miss Gulch, particularly in her appearance. I found her absolutely frightening as a child. I’m not sure that any particular book from my childhood influenced my writing but reading aloud to my son who is now almost 16 probably had a greater impact. Together we really enjoyed reading Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing Saga (4 books) that is about a family of bats. He also wrote Airborn and although Oppel never reveals its era exactly, it seems Victorian in a steam punk kind of way.

When I was a child I read Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and loved it) but that’s the only one of his books I ever read at that time. My mother was a great storyteller and my brother and I really preferred that she tell us a story than read anything. She told stories about growing up on Woodland Farm (the real Woodland Farm) and how she would go down a magic well to other lands where in one everything was blue and in another everything was yellow. We loved it and of course we believed it all because they were her adventures. I think that my mother instilled a real love of stories and adventure.
             
5) Is there a sequel in the works? Or are you writing something new?

I have ideas for further adventures of Henri and his friends. We’ll see if people want to read them.

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *                         
Thanks, Jennifer!  
Readers, the next stop on the blog tour is:

Monday, June 3
Guest post and giveaway




Now for my giveaway!

Please note that this giveaway is open to addresses in the U.S. and Canada ONLY.  Albert Whitman will give away one SIGNED hardcover copy of In Search of Goliathus Hercules to one lucky winner. To enter, all you need to do is follow this blog (click on Join This Site in the sidebar) AND leave a comment on this post! This giveaway will end on Sunday, June 16, 2013, and the winner will be announced on Monday, June 17. Good luck!



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49. Hiding Out at the Pancake Palace by Nan Marino

Happy Memorial Day!

We're nearly finished Deb Marshall's #MiddleGradeMay Reading Challenge and I've already surpassed my goal of reading at least 10 MG books (I read 12). Next week, I'll be interviewing Jennifer Angus and giving away a signed hardcover copy of her book as part of the blog tour for In Search of Goliathus Hercules. So be sure to come back for that.

Today's MMGM and #MiddleGradeMay feature:

Hiding Out at the Pancake Palace by Nan Marino (Roaring Brook Press, April 2013, for ages 8 to 12)

Source: hardcover won from Katia Raina (thanks, Katia!)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Eleven-year-old musical prodigy Elvis Ruby was supposed to win the most coveted reality show on television, TweenStar. None of the other contestants even came close to his talents. But in the middle of the biggest night, with millions of people watching, Elvis panicked and froze on national TV. So Elvis must run from the paparazzi camped outside his door and spend the summer working with his aunt and cousin at Piney Pete's Pancake Palace in the remote wilds of New Jersey. It's the perfect place to be anonymous, that is until Elvis meets Cecilia, a girl who can't seem to help blurting out whatever's on her mind.

Why I liked it:  Quirky characters, an unusual premise, and a gorgeously-rendered setting, which itself becomes one of the main characters. The Pine Barrens of New Jersey are brought to life beautifully here and it's obvious that Nan Marino loves them. She lives in a town that borders the Pinelands,where she's a librarian. (I also loved the reveal near the end. There's a reason Elvis froze up and it's not what you think it is!)

Have you read any middle grade books where the setting becomes a character?


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50. Aye, methinks it's a Yorkshire post

I'm taking a break from reading "funny" middle grade books for research. (See this post for more explanation.) Hey, fifteen in a row is a little hard to take! My brain wants more substance.

For MMGM (brainchild of Shannon Messenger) and for Deb Marshall's May Middle Grade Reading Challenge, I've read three books that most people would consider more serious.  Two of them I've read before, but not for many years.


The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (Puffin paperback, 2000, hardcover published by Dutton in 1998, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal Shakespeare's play "Hamlet"--or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's players perform.

Why I liked it: Plenty of action and intrigue. Widge is highly entertaining as he tells his story and there's an impressive amount of character growth here. The Elizabethan details are spot on. If you like historical fiction, and especially if you're a Karen Cushman fan, you'll love this book.

One caveat: Aye, Widge's broad Yorkshire dialect is a tad annoying. Once he moves to London and joins the Players, he learns to say "I think" instead of "I wis." But he continues to spout sentences like: "Oh, gis! 'A must ha' maggots in his brain!" (p. 196)  If you're not fluent in Yorkshire, it takes a while to adjust.

I first read this book many years ago when I first started working at the bookstore, but never finished the trilogy (maybe it was that Yorkshire dialect). I re-read it because on a recent trip to the library I spied the second book on the shelf.



Shakespeare's Scribe by Gary Blackwood (Hardcover published by Dutton, 2000, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): When an outbreak of the deadly Black Plague closes the Globe Theatre, William Shakespeare's acting troupe sets off on a tour of England. Widge, the orphan-turned-actor, knows that he'll be useful on the trip. Not only does he love the stage, but his knack for a unique shorthand has proven him one of the most valuable apprentices in the troupe. But then a mysterious man appears, claiming to know a secret from Widge's past -- a secret that may forever force him from the theatre he loves.

Why I liked it: Now that Widge is firmly entrenched in Shakespeare's troupe of actors, I feel even more involved in the story. And learning more about his past is fascinating. I can't wait to read the third book, Shakespeare's Spy. Even that Yorkshire dialect gets easier to take after a while. Note: these books MUST be read in order.



The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Hardcover, J.B. Lippincott, Tasha Tudor illustrations, 1962, for ages 9 to 13).

Synopsis: If you don't know the plot by now, this is the beloved early-twentieth-century story of Mary Lennox, orphaned when her British parents die of cholera in India. She travels to Yorkshire to be the ward of her uncle Archibald. With nothing to do and no friends at first, spoiled, sickly Mary eventually discovers a secret garden and healing ensues.

My thoughts: I loved, no adored, this book as a ten-year-old and even older. I re-read it periodically, always in springtime when the buds are bursting into bloom on my cherry tree. I still have my much-loved 1962 edition with the gorgeous Tasha Tudor illustrations.

What did I think after this re-reading?

First, the racism really got to me. Anyone would be horrified at the way Mary describes the "natives" ("They're not people--they're servants who must salaam to you."). Apparently in 1911, when this book was written, this was acceptable. Makes me shudder, and realize how far we've come, thank goodness.

Second, oh, aye, tha' munnot fear, but it's that Yorkshire dialect! Burnett gives the apostrophe a good workout. As much as I love Dickon, the Yorkshire lad who befriends Mary, it's difficult to read his words ("There's naught as nice as th' smell o' good clean earth..."). And to think, I read this out loud to my kids twenty years ago. How did I do that?

Third, this book starts out with Mary as the main character, but by the end, Mary fades into the background and her cousin Colin is more important.

Despite these flaws, I still love the book for its hymn of praise to springtime and the healing power of running around in the fresh air. This is a wonderful time of year to read it. But if you know a middle grader who is reading it, you might consider discussing it with them.

Have you read The Secret Garden recently? What did you think? 

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