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Reading and writing Children's lit...and then there's the brain stuff
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26. 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?

24 Comments on MMGM: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, last added: 9/6/2013
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27. 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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28. 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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29. 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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30. 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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31. 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.....


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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32. 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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33. 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)

: 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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34. 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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35. 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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36. Continuing my quest...

... to figure out how to write a humorous middle grade novel, I've been researching till my eyes are bleary. Researching? I mean reading, of course!

And it all fits in perfectly, not only with MMGM (See Shannon's blog for the other links) but also with Deb Marshall's Middle Grade May Reading Challenge!

So besides Timmy Failure (last week's recommendation), what did I read so far? Three paperbacks I purchased at my local used bookstore.

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen (Paperback published by Scholastic 2010, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis: Mudshark is cool. He's fast-thinking and fast-moving, and with his photographic memory, he's the go-to guy with the answers. Lost your shoe? Can't find your homework? Ask Mudshark. At least, until the Psychic Parrot takes up residence in the school library.

The word in school is that the parrot can out-think Mudshark. And right now, the school needs someone who's good at solving problems. There's an escaped gerbil running the halls, a near-nuclear emergency in the faculty restroom, and an unexplained phenomenon involving disappearing erasers. Once Mudshark solves the mystery of the erasers, he plans to investigate the Psychic Parrot. . . . 

Why I liked it: This has to be the shortest MG book I've ever read. At 83 pages, and with fairly large print, this would have strong appeal for reluctant readers. But mostly it's downright funny, in a silly sort of way. Gary Paulsen manages to pack a lot into those 83 pages -- his characters are quirky, his dialogue is spot-on, and the mystery is intriguing (as an adult reader, though, I admit I found it a bit anticlimactic).

Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar (Paperback published 1985 by Avon, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis: There'd been a terrible mistake. Wayside School was supposed to be built with thirty classrooms all next to each other in a row. Instead, they built the classrooms one on top of the other...thirty stories tall! (The builder said he was very sorry.)

That may be why all kinds of funny things happen at Wayside School...especially on the thirtieth floor. You'll meet Mrs. Gorf, the meanest teacher of all, terrible Todd, who always gets sent home early, and John who can read only upside down--along with all the other kids in the crazy mixed-up school that came out sideways. 

What I thought: This was Louis Sachar's first published book (and Louis is the yard teacher at Wayside School). I'm sure I read this many years ago, but I really didn't remember much of it. This time around, I found it a little odd, to say the least. There were quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, but on the whole I prefer Holes. However, if you have a kid reader with an unusual sense of humor (my younger son adored this book in third grade), these strange little stories would be just right. And they're very short. So there's that.

There's A  Girl in My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli (Paperback published 1992 by Trumpet Club/Bantam Books, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis: Maisie Potter isn't quite sure why she signed up for the boys' wrestling team. She's never been all that interested in boys, so it can't have anything to do with Eric Delong, in spite of the disturbing effect his smile has on her. And she's certainly not prepared for the effect her presence on the team has on the people around her.

Her brother's totally disgusted with her, her best friend drops her, her classmates ridicule her, and opposing teams forfeit rather than wrestle her. But Maisie's not a quitter, and she discovers that she really likes wrestling -- and that while Eric might not be worth the flak she puts up with, feeling good about herself is.

Why I liked it: Maisie! She's feisty and stubborn and really comes to life here. You know I love Jerry Spinelli books, and usually the more serious ones, like Maniac Magee or Stargirl. This book has some really funny moments, and Spinelli's trademark older kid/younger kid interaction (Maisie has a kid sister named P.K. who's adorable) but at the same time tackles a serious subject: gender stereotyping.

Note: When the hardcover was published in 1991, this may have broken new ground, but today it does seem a little dated. And I find the title and this newer cover image misleading. It's written from Maisie's POV. But this book was by far my favorite of the three.

So what have I learned from my research?

  -- Many contemporary middle grade books have a humorous element even if they're not "funny" books.

  -- Laugh-out-loud books are NOT the ones I remember the most or love the most.

  -- Humor can't be forced.

What do you think? Are the funny MG books the ones you remember and love? Or the deeper, more serious books?

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37. Ask a Book Blogger...

What does this book have to do with Mother's Day? Visit Random Acts of Reading to find out!

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38. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

So how did I do for Screen-Free Week? Well... I have to admit it was hard. Mistakes were made, which ties in perfectly with the book I'm featuring this week. 

I managed to stay off Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube -- no problem. Staying away from TV was not that big a deal, since I don't watch that much anyway. Except, gulp, Jeopardy! I actually watched it the first night without thinking. Mea culpa. Mistakes were made.

Staying away from all of your blogs and my own was tough. Okay, yes, I admit I visited Katia's because it's in my email feed and when I saw that I'd won a book from her I had to go thank her! And DL Hammons was having a contest... So yes, mistakes were made.

You may not realize how often you use the internet in your daily life. First thing Monday April 29th, I turned on my laptop to look up directions to this place*, and I thought, Wait a minute! I can't do this. It's Screen-Free Week.  I continued to struggle with this for days. I wanted to look up a thousand things. For the most part, I was able to stay away, but it was difficult. How quickly we've all become accustomed to instant information. 

On the plus side, I managed to read three books and write several thousand words on my current MG novel. I cleaned out our closet, got outside a lot, and worked on my flowerbeds. So I'm not a total failure. :) And on Tuesday my husband and I visited:

*Yes, it's Hershey's Chocolate World, a haven for chocolate lovers

*   *   *   *   *

Now for another Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (brainchild of Shannon Messenger). I'm also participating in Deb Marshall's May Middle Grade Reading Challenge. Go see what that's all about!

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made written and illustrated by Stephan Pastis (Feb 26, 2013, Candlewick, for ages 8 to 12, first book in a new series)

Source: hardcover borrowed from a friend (Thanks, Mariga!)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Take Timmy Failure — the clueless, comically self-confident CEO of the best detective agency in town, perhaps even the nation. Add his impressively lazy business partner, a very large polar bear named Total. Throw in the Failuremobile — Timmy’s mom’s Segway — and what you have is Total Failure, Inc., a global enterprise destined to make Timmy so rich his mother won’t have to stress out about the bills anymore. Of course, Timmy’s plan does not include the four-foot-tall female whose name shall not be uttered. And it doesn’t include Rollo Tookus, who is so obsessed with getting into "Stanfurd" that he can’t carry out a no-brainer spy mission.

Why I liked it: It's hilarious! Timmy's constant misinterpretation of the clues makes him a bumbling detective like Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies. This will definitely appeal to fans of Wimpy Kid and Big Nate and should be a hit with reluctant readers. The chapters are short and accompanied by lots of drawings. The characters are quirky (I love the librarian, who looks like he belongs in Hell's Angels). The illustrations definitely add to the charm, as they're often showing something different from what Timmy is telling us.

If Stephan Pastis sounds familiar, he's a cartoonist and the creator of Pearls Before Swine. This is his first book for children.

Have you read Timmy Failure? If not, what illustrated middle-grade book is your favorite?

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39. It's Screen-Free Week -- Go outside!

No post from me today. I'm participating in Screen-Free Week!

Go outside and play. Draw a picture. Read a book. (Okay, I admit I'll still be checking my email and writing, but I'm saying no to blogging, facebook, Twitter, and TV. Ulp!)

I'll be back next week with a new middle grade recommendation. Have you joined Deb Marshall's May reading challenge yet?


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40. A winner -- and an exciting Middle Grade adventure!

First, I have a winner to announce. According to random.org, the winner of the signed hardcover copy of LULU AND THE DUCK IN THE PARK by Hilary McKay is:

JESS of the DMS

Congrats, Jess! Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address. The publisher, Albert Whitman, will mail the book directly to you.

*   *   *   *   * 

And now, back to Marvelous Middle Grade Monday!

The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen (March 2013, Scholastic, Book Two in the Ascendance Trilogy, for ages 10 to 14)

Source: hardcover purchased from Children's Book World (my new favorite indie bookstore!)
Synopsis: Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?

Why I liked it:  This is a fast-paced action/adventure novel (I don't consider it a fantasy, although the author certainly did a great job of worldbuilding when she created the three neighboring countries). There are parts where you hold your breath. And parts that make you cheer. I read this in one weekend, wanting to find out what happens to Jaron, especially when he joins the pirates. Be forewarned, these pirates have a hideout on land, so if you're looking for a ship-based story, this isn't it. I was fine with that, as I get seasick just reading about ships. But there's plenty of sword-fighting and clever hijinks. 

I loved the new characters Jennifer introduced, especially Fink and Erick and Harlowe, and the return of familiar characters from The False Prince like Roden, Tobias and Imogen. You definitely need to read The False Prince first!  

What's your favorite action/adventure novel for middle grade?

See also:

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger


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41. Random Acts of Poetry

Don't forget my giveaway of a signed hardcover book by Hilary McKay. Go to this post to enter.

*   *   *   *   *

No MMGM post from me today. I'm taking my birthday off!

But you can find me hanging out with the other bloggers of the book blogger panel at Random Acts of Reading. This month, for National Poetry Month, we're discussing our favorite poet. Come join us!

Copyright Joanne R. Fritz

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42. A Visit from Hilary McKay -- and a giveaway!

Hilary McKay's LULU Blog Tour!

I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for British author Hilary McKay, best known for the Casson Family series of middle grade books (including Saffy's Angel) and now the creator of the Lulu series of early chapter books. Yes, I'm the final stop on the Lulu tour, but like magic, you can still check out the others HERE!

So far, two of Hilary's Lulu books are available in the U.S.

Lulu and the Duck in the Park, written by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont (Albert Whitman and Company, 2012, for ages 7 to 10)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Lulu loves animals. When Lulu finds a duck egg that has rolled out of its nest, she takes it to class to keep it safe. Lulu isn't allowed to bring pets to school. But she's not really breaking the rules because it's just an egg. Surely nothing bad will happen. . . 

Why I liked it: Lulu is an irrepressible character, who absolutely adores animals of all kinds. I laughed out loud at the thought of Lulu keeping the duck egg warm inside her sweater and the fact that her teacher doesn't notice. This is a fun book for your favorite animal lover and chapter book reader.

Lulu and the Duck in the Park has been nominated for a Kiddo Award. You can vote at this link (scroll down for best beginner read).

Lulu and the Dog From the Sea is Book Two in the series.

Synopsis: Lulu loves animals. When Lulu goes on vacation, she finds there's a stray dog living on the beach. Everyone in the town thinks the dog is trouble. But Lulu is sure he just needs a friend. And that he's been waiting for someone just like her.

Why I liked it: Just as with the first book, Lulu's love of animals shines through here. She finds a way around the "don't feed the stray dog" rule. Lulu and her cousin/best friend Mellie are always getting into shenanigans, and McKay finds the perfect solutions to the problems. The story is a lot of fun and makes you long for a seaside cottage.

A third title is coming in Fall 2013: Lulu and the Cat in the Bag. The hardcover books are published by Albert Whitman & Company, while the ebooks are available from Open Road Media.

Hilary McKay

Finally, I asked Hilary to tell us about her favorite book from childhood and how it influenced her as a writer. Take it away, Hilary!

The Sword in the Stone
T H White

First, in fairness to all the other books of my childhood that I loved so much, I have to say this was not my favourite. It was one of my favourites- one of the best of the best. They were the books that lifted me from the red brick hum drum overcrowded world of home and transported me to other times and lands and ways of thinking. 

The Sword in the Stone is the first book of the series that is known as The Once and Future King and it is simply lovely. Perfect. There is not a paragraph you want to skip, or a scene you want to change.  It is the story of King Arthur’s boyhood in a castle deep in a forest, in the days before he heaved Excalibur from its stone and thus brought his fate clattering down upon his too-young shoulders. In those days he lived with his foster brother Kay, and his guardian Sir Ector, his wizard tutor Merlin and Archimedes, the perfect owl. Various knights and questing beasts and giants appear from time to time.

The thing about this book is, the depth. The layers and layers of time and greenwood leaves into which the  reader tumbles. The colours are so bright, the characterization so brilliant, the jokes so sparkling, the nights so dark, that you come out of it blinking and rubbing your eyes.

 What did it teach me about writing?  If you want to experience real magic in action read The Sword in the Stone. It taught me that twenty six letters, arranged in quite short sequences,  with the dexterous use of a few symbols of punctuation, can have an effect on the human heart that lingers for years. 

*   *   *

Thank you, Hilary! I loved The Sword in the Stone too. And it was a pleasure having you here.

The publisher has generously agreed to give away one SIGNED hardcover copy of Lulu and the Duck in the Park. Sorry, but this giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. or Canada ONLY.  To enter, simply be a follower and leave a comment on this post. This giveaway ends at 10pm EDT on Saturday, April 20. Winner will be chosen by random.org and announced on Monday, April 22nd.

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43. On Writing and Having Fun

Katherine Applegate

The truth is, you have to have fun with it. It isfun. You have to do it because you love it, and if you love it, the rest will come. I think people forget that. They get tied up in questions of "Will I be published?," and at the end of the day, it's just about words on paper. And that's the part we all love--most of the time.   
– Katherine Applegate, 
on winning the 2013 Newbery for The One and Only Ivan
as quoted in Shelf Awareness January 29, 2013.         

Writers, what do you think? Is writing fun for you? Or do you tend to get caught up in the wishing-to-be-published blues?   

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44. Do you buy picture books for yourself?

As an adult, have you ever purchased a picture book for yourself? Or as a gift for another adult? Hop on over to Random Acts of Reading where this month, the book blogger panel discusses picture books that aren't just for kids.

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45. Exclusive interview with Kirby Larson, author of HATTIE EVER AFTER -- and a giveaway!

Hattie Ever After, a sequel to the Newbery-honor winning Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson, pubs tomorrow, and I'm thrilled to be hosting Kirby for an exclusive interview. Don't forget the giveaway at the end of the post.

 Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson (Delacorte Press, February 12, 2013, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher):  After leaving Uncle Chester's homestead claim, orphan Hattie Brooks throws a lasso around a new dream, even bigger than the Montana sky. She wants to be a big-city reporter. A letter and love token from Uncle Chester's old flame in San Francisco fuels that desire and Hattie jumps at the opportunity to get there by working as a seamstress for a traveling acting troupe. This could be her chance to solve the mystery of her "scoundrel" uncle and, in the process, help her learn more about herself. But Hattie must first tell Charlie that she will not join him in Seattle. Even though her heart approves of Charlie's plan for their marriage, her mind fears that saying yes to him would be saying no to herself. 

Why I liked it: This novel is bursting with historical flavor, so if you're a fan of historical fiction, you'll definitely want to read this. I learned a lot about the time period. And even if you're not into historical fiction, read it for Hattie herself. She's wonderful --  a strong female character full of life and sass and gumption.You'll find yourself cheering her on as if she's a real person. 

You could read this without reading Hattie Big Sky, but it definitely helps to be familiar with the first book. And although it's considered YA and it's all about careers and marriage, there is absolutely nothing too mature about the book. I suspect it's the kind of novel I would have cherished when I was 11 or 12. 

Kirby Larson from her website

Hi Kirby!  Welcome to My Brain on Books! In your author note you state that when you wrote Hattie Big Sky, you had no intention of continuing her story. I'm so glad you changed your mind. Can you tell us about the seeds that grew into Hattie Ever After and how much influence your reader fans had on the decision?

I am a firstborn and am very much into following the rules and keeping other people happy. So, even though I thought I had completed Hattie's story, when I kept hearing from readers, I felt compelled to pay attention. And, honestly, who wouldn't like spending a little more time with such a spunky and stubborn orphan? But I knew that if I were to take on a sequel, I couldn't simply do another version of the homestead story. I would need to find something completely different. I was sure Hattie was going to go on a road trip, but she had other ideas. After fighting with her for some time, I finally got the picture: she wanted to be a writer. I certainly knew about that dream! Once that fell into place, so many other things did, too. I think when we completely give ourselves over to a book -- a terrifying experience!-- we will be given what we need to tell the story. At least, that is how it seems to happen for me. 

I love it when a character takes over! Please tell us a little about your journey to publication. Was Hattie Big Sky the first novel you ever wrote? How long did it take you to find an agent?  And how much time passed before you signed your first publishing contract?

[chuckling] First novel? Um, HBS was perhaps my fifth. But, it was my first effort at historical fiction. My first published book, a chapter book, came out in 1994; then I had four more books published, including two ghost written series books. Beginning in 1997, I contracted submission pox -- everything I submitted for the next seven years was rejected. I was ready to pitch it all in and go to work as a Starbucks' barista. Or maybe a Walmart greeter. Then, through a sad and wonderful set of circumstances, I was led to my great-grandmother's story of homesteading in eastern Montana as a young woman and spent four years researching and writing Hattie Big Sky. When the manuscript was ready to submit, I sent it to half a dozen editors--one of whom called me ten days after receiving it to say she wanted to publish it. Though I had had agents (two) earlier in my career, HBS was unsolicited/agentless. After the book won the Newbery Honor, I was introduced to Jennifer Holm's agent, Jill Grinberg, and the rest, as they say, was history. 

That's quite a journey. How amazing that Hattie Big Sky was agentless!  You used to teach writing classes. What advice can you give us on revising a rough draft?

First, celebrate the fact that you have completed a first draft. Most people never make it that far! Have you adequately celebrated? Really? Was there chocolate involved? Okay. Now you can move on. I'd say the first thing to do is find a trusted reader. Mine is my picture book co-author, Mary Nethery, who has earned several jewels in her heavenly crown for nudging me to actually include a plot in my novels. Respond to the concerns of that trusted reader (e.g. in my case, add a plot). Then, scout the manuscript for narrative chunks: such chunks probably indicate telling, rather than scene-building. Convert those sections to scenes and you're most of the way there! Don't forget to take a look at motivation: yes, you need John and Jenny to have a spat in Chapter Four. But why are they having that spat? And does the spat grow organically out of the preceding action? Finally, read EVERY SINGLE WORD aloud. That will save you from all kinds of clunkers and faux pas.

Ah, yes, I did celebrate with chocolate when I finished my first draft, thank you! And thank you for the rest of this great advice too. Do you listen to music while you write? Do you have a theme song that best fits Hattie Ever After

Good lord, no. I have to have it very quiet while I write. Theme song? I think Etta James' version of At Last fits almost any situation!
Other than music, what's your writing process like? Are you an early morning writer or an evening writer? Do you write in your PJ's? Drink gallons of coffee? Do you chain yourself to a writing desk or take your laptop and spread out on the couch?

I'm an all-day writer because this is my job. In fact, both my husband and I office at home, so are a trifle workaholic. We have resolved for 2013 to quit work earlier a couple of times a week and have some non-writing or acounting kind of fun. Two nights ago we went to the Seattle Opera. The week before that, it was a date to see Silver Linings Playbook. Next week, it's a tour of the newly relocated Seattle Museum of History and Industry. 

As the result of an unfortunate event that occurred when our son was in elementary band, I do not write in my PJs (long story). I get up around 6:30 or 7 and have a cup of coffee and do the NY Times crossword puzzle (on Mondays, I feel like the smartest person in the world!). Then I walk Winston the Wonder Dog and we come back and have breakfast (he eats a bit of kibble with a home-cooked patty of turkey and veggies; I often eat a poached egg and toast). Then we are in my office by no later than 9. I write all day (breaking for lunch and that very important afternoon constitutional for Winston). I now use a Mac mini hooked up to a big monitor so I am pretty much chained to my office. But I do have an iPad so sometimes go to my local coffee shop to play around. I especially like to print out my manuscripts and take those to a coffee shop to work on revisions.

You're so good at writing historical fiction (the Hattie novels, The Friendship Doll and even a Dear America book!). Will your next book also be that genre? Or will you go back to nonfiction picture books like Nubs or The Two Bobbies?  Which is your favorite to write: picture books or novels?

[Thank you for that lovely compliment; I do work very hard on my historical fiction.] Mary and I are dying to find a third narrative non-fiction book together, along the lines of Two Bobbies and Nubs. So I am hoping a book like that is in the not-too-distant future. As for my individual work: I am totally and passionately in love with historical fiction. My next three books will be in that genre, for sure. After that -- who knows? As far as which is my favorite genre: such a thing doesn't exist. It's the story, not the genre, that counts.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. And congratulations on tomorrow's release of Hattie Ever After!

Thank you so much for taking the time to come up with such thoughtful questions! I really appreciate your support and encouragement of my work.

 *   *   *   *   *

Readers, to celebrate Kirby Larson's book launch tomorrow, I'm giving away my ARC of Hattie Ever After, along with a paperback of Hattie Big Sky (in case you haven't read it). To enter, simply be a follower and leave a comment on this post. This giveaway is open internationally and will end at 10 pm EST on Saturday February 23, 2013. Winner to be announced on Monday, February 25. Good luck!

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46. A winner... and a mystery!

First, I need to announce the winner of the prize package of a paperback of Hattie Big Sky and an arc of Hattie Ever After!  According to random.org, the winner is:

(aka Janet)

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

Now to today's MMGMM. Yes, there's an extra M in there, for mystery.

I've been writing a middle grade mystery, so I thought it wise to read more mysteries over the past few months. And I really liked this one:

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd (Yearling/Random House paperback published 2009, for ages 8 to 12).

paperback purchased from local bookstore

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Ted and Kat watched their cousin Salim board the London Eye, but after half an hour it landed and everyone trooped off—except Salim. Where could he have gone? How on earth could he have disappeared into thin air? Ted and his older sister, Kat, become sleuthing partners, since the police are having no luck. Despite their prickly relationship, they overcome their differences to follow a trail of clues across London in a desperate bid to find their cousin. And ultimately it comes down to Ted, whose brain works in its own very unique way, to find the key to the mystery. 

Why I liked it: Oh, without a doubt the character of Ted! He wants to be a meteorologist when he grows up, so he's obsessed with weather forecasts. His autism is never defined, but he nonetheless works out puzzles in his head, counts his breakfast cereal Shreddies as he eats them, and doesn't like to be hugged. Dowd, who sadly died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 47, makes Ted both likable and memorable. Ted tells the story in first person and London comes to life through his eyes. The mystery kept me guessing, and I also liked the way Ted and his sister grow closer together while they try to figure out what happened to Salim.

What middle grade mysteries have you read lately?

For more MMGM posts, see Shannon Messenger's links or my sidebar.

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47. Is it true? Is this the future of blogging?

In the December 4, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness, in an article on YA authors and their social media platforms, Andrea Cremer (author of Nightshade and its sequels) admits she started out with a blog, but "now finds that medium too slow and relies primarily on Facebook and Twitter." 

She also says her "social media activity takes up three to four hours of her day." And that's without blogging!

Further evidence that blogging is losing its appeal: several of the authors I follow have essentially stopped blogging. The last time Maureen Johnson (Name of the Star) posted to her blog was five months ago. Yet you can find the Queen of Teen on Twitter nearly every waking hour of the day.  Laurie Halse Anderson also hasn't blogged for five months. Mike Jung (Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities) is another author with a Twitter empire. His last blog post was Feb 23, certainly recent enough. Yet the one before that was Oct 7, 2012!

What does this mean?

I think it means the future of blogging is Twitter and Facebook! The internet is changing our brains and the way we process information. People simply don't have the patience to read long blog posts anymore (Go on, admit it, you've skimmed more than one of my longer posts -- and yes, I've probably skimmed one or more of some other blogger's posts. Not yours! No!).  And it's possible that LinkedIn, Google+, Tumblr and especially Pinterest also vie for a portion of your allotted social media time. When does anyone have time to write or read books?

Wait until Facebook buys out Twitter and they'll be the same thing.  Then it will be one looming tower of babble.

What do you think?

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48. Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman -- and a giveaway!

First, I want to thank everyone who participated in the lively discussion on my last post. Even discounting my replies, that post generated more comments than any other post in my four years of blogging. Now for this week's recommendation:

Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman (Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin, November 2012, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the book jacket): Will Sparrow, liar and thief, is running away -- from the father who sold him for beer, the innkeeper who threatened to sell him as a chimney sweep, from his whole sorry life. Barefoot and penniless, without family, friends, or boots, Will is determined to avoid capture and, of course, to find something to eat.

Some of the travelers he meets on the road have a kind word for him and a promise of better things to come, such as coins and juicy beef ribs. Eager to go along, Will repeatedly finds himself tricked by older and wiser tricksters.

Why I liked it: Will's a remarkable character, who at first cares for "no one but myself and nothing but my belly!" Writers who struggle with character growth should study this because Will grows and changes more than any protagonist I've come across recently. And if you're a fan of historical fiction, you'll love the story. The inimitable Karen Cushman infuses the novel with colorful personalities and plenty of Elizabethan flavor as Will travels from one market fair to another, along with an assortment of "Oddities" in search of a place to call home.

(My only trouble with this book was every time I read the name "Will Sparrow" I kept picturing Will Turner and Jack Sparrow. Guess I've watched "Pirates of the Caribbean" too many times!)

Now for the giveaway. Since I didn't receive an arc, I purchased a hardcover copy. And I'm eager to share it with one of you. To enter the giveaway you must be a follower and leave a comment on this post. International entries welcome. This giveaway will end at 10 pm EDT on Saturday, March 23, 2013. Winner will be chosen by random.org and announced Monday, March 25. Good luck!

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. See her blog for the links, or check out my sidebar.

25 Comments on Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman -- and a giveaway!, last added: 4/7/2013
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49. On Writing and Learning

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”  

          --  Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in E.L.Konigsburg’s Newbery-award-winning novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler  (p.153 in the paperback version)

Of course, she wasn't talking to Claudia about writing, but I think the quote applies just as easily to what we do, as writers. The more I write, the more I need to learn about writing. And many people have suggested I buy this craft book or that one. Sometimes I do. There's a great deal to be learned from books like Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell or my favorite, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. 

But there comes a time when you need to stop all the studying and let it "swell up inside of you." Let all the advice simmer; let your own ideas marinate so you can feel something. What do you think? Have you learned something invaluable from a craft book? Do you depend on craft books or are you finding your own way?

27 Comments on On Writing and Learning, last added: 4/8/2013
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50. A Winner -- and a new look at an old favorite

I'm happy to announce that according to random.org the winner of the hardcover copy of Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman is:

Kat Owens

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


I've been querying my second novel for about a month now and some of the very kind personal rejections I've received have said they prefer funny boy books for MG, as opposed to dark and serious contemporary stories. 

Ahem. So... I've written a lot of messy notes and character sketches and about 35 pages of a new middle grade novel. Yes, I'm attempting a humorous story this time. Go ahead, make all the jokes you want. I'll wait.


Yeah, I knew I needed lots of research. So for a month I've been re-reading every funny book on my shelves, from Diary of a Wimpy Kid (strangely, not as funny this time around) to Flush by Carl Hiaasen (he can be over-the-top funny), to Wendy Mass's books. I'm a big fan of Wendy Mass. So I re-read 11 Birthdays (paperback published 2010, hardcover 2009, from Scholastic, for ages 9 to 12). And I'm happy to report I enjoyed it just as much as the first time. 

Amanda and Leo, best friends who happen to share a birthday, have to repeat their 11th birthday until they get it right, a la Groundhog Day, the movie, or Help! I'm Trapped in the First Day of School by Todd Strasser. I love the town Wendy has created, Willow Falls, where unusual things sometimes take place. It's the real world, with a touch of magical realism. And this is exactly the sort of thing I'm going for.

I love this kind of research!
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. See her blog for the links, or visit my sidebar.

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