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1. #NoiseforNess Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness Giveaway

It’s no surprise I’m a huge Patrick Ness fan. In the past I’ve written about how inspiring his work is as well as the time when I was actually able to meet him in person. I’ve also reviewed quite a few of his books:

The Knife of Never Letting Go
The Ask and the Answer
Monsters of Men
A Monster Calls

I’ve also interviewed the narrator for the audiobooks, Nick Podehl, whom is a personal favorite of mine. The way that Nick narrates The Knife of Never Letting Go will turn any non-audiobook fan into a audiobook listener for life. He’s brilliant!

Chaos Walking paperback

So when the publisher, Candlewick Press, reached out to me to offer a giveaway featuring the newly designed paperback covers for The Chaos Walking series I couldn’t resist. Not only do I love the redesign, but it also reminds me a bit of the UK edition that I love. Also, they’ve added additional content to each book! Each paperback includes a short story that was only previously available in eBook format. Candlewick has really done an excellent job with this new edition and I’m thrilled to have a full set to giveaway to one There’s A Book reader!

Giveaway!

Thanks to the wonderful people at Candlewick Press I have ONE FULL SET of this new edition of The Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness which also includes a bonus short story within each book! Be sure to enter using the rafflecopter form below and be aware that this one is for US and Canadian residents only.

Ad1_PatrickNess

Find the new paperback edition of The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness at the following spots:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s Books | Indiebound | Book Depository | Goodreads | ISBN10/ISBN13: 0763676187 / 9780763676186

Thank you so much to the publisher, Candlewick Press, for providing a copy of this book for review! Connect with them on Twitter, Google+ and on Facebook!
Purchasing products by clicking through the links in this post will provide us a modest commission through our various affiliate relationships.

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

Original article: #NoiseforNess Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness Giveaway

©2014 There's A Book. All Rights Reserved.

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2. Have you ever ridden on a sea lion?

Miriam at Create Hope Inspire blog interviewed me about Rescue on Nim's Island this week.

 Her two young sons also had some great questions! Here are a couple:

Have you ever ridden on a sea lion?
What does a sea lion's fur feel like?
Wendy sent this gorgeous photo in answer to these rather funny questions!



Flip- 
Was the cake actually poisoned? What with?
It was actually poisoned. They used juice from rhubarb leaves, because that makes you very sick but probably wouldn't kill you.

Why was there a passage where Tiffany's foot got stuck?
Why was the hole joined to the bat's cave?
All the passages, tunnels and caves were formed in the mountain by water dripping or running through the limestone rock, and gradually dissolving it, so that bigger passages, tunnels and caves were formed. Of course this took many thousands of years! Also, any small earthquakes or rumbling through the mountain when the volcano erupted made new faults and cracks, so the water dripped down those and continued to erode the new holes in the tunnel or passage.

For the complete interview and Miriam's review, go to: Create Hope Inspire




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3. Call for Book-length Fiction: Luminis Books

Luminis Books is an independent publisher of 'Meaningful Fiction.' We are seeking submissions of thought-provoking adult literary fiction, new adult, young adult and middle grade fiction that explores the intricacies of human relationships. We look for beautifully crafted prose above all—writing that is compelling and stories that are thought-provoking. 

For consideration, please submit a synopsis telling us about your book including the beginning, middle and end. We want to know exactly what the book is about. Also include a 10-page sample of the manuscript. We only accept online submissions. 

Email your submission to:

editorATluminisbooksDOTcom (Change AT to @ and DOT to . ) 

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4. From the Family Bookshelf – July

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We’re still on vacation right now, but that means we’ve had a chance to get some reading done. Both girls signed up for the library’s summer reading program. The Lil’ Diva has already surpassed her goal. The Lil’ Princess is making her way to her goal.

Since our arrival, the Lil’ Diva has read Love? Maybe by Heather Hepler, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, and Draw the Dark by Ilsa J. Bick. The Lil’ Princess brought Half Upon a Time by James Riley with her from home, but she’s been tied up reading the recently released Dork Diaries 7: Tales from a Not-So-Glam TV Star by Rachel Renee Russell. We bought it this week at Downtown Books in Manteo.

Dad has actually gotten some reading in too. He’s still slowly reading Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King. He’s also reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.

As for me, I’ve been trying to catch up on my massive TBR pile. Before we left, I had read Four Corners or A Book That Will Tickle Your Intellectual Nipple by Cary Smith and Breath of Spring by Charlotte Hubbard. Since we got here, I’ve managed to read A Nation Under Judgment by Richard Capriola and Corrie ten Boom by Kaylena Radcliff, part of the Torchlighters Series. I’m in the middle of Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey by Valerie Estelle Frankel.

That’s it for this issue of From the Family Bookshelf. Hope you’re enjoying your week.


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5. Using Picture Book Techniques in Novels by Anna Staniszewski

Anna Staniszewskiby Anna Staniszewski

As an author who’s slowly been transitioning from novels to picture books (my first picture book will be out in March 2015), I’ve realized that picture book techniques have started influencing my novel-writing process. Here are a few examples.

1. Brevity and Word Choice
This is probably the most obvious connection. When you’re used to working with 500 words, you tend to get a little pickier about the words you use in longer projects. Even when I have 50k words to work with, for example, I still find myself making sure to cut out unnecessary phrases (particularly unneeded dialogue tags) and using strong verbs and interesting nouns to make each sentence count.

2. Tying the End to the Beginning
This is my favorite picture book technique. In picture books, the ending almost always echoes the beginning of the tale. I love using this approach in novels, reflecting something from the opening chapter in the closing chapter in a different context. This technique shows us that the character has grown and changed, and it also makes the story feel cohesive and satisfying.

3. Repeating for Emphasis
Repetition can be great in picture books, but in novels it can feel like telegraphing. A strong repeated image, however, especially one whose meaning deepens over the course of the story, can work well if it’s revisited throughout the novel. It can help show how the meaning of that image or experience has changed for the character over time.

4. Using the Senses
In picture books, we have to be mindful of not focusing too much on the visual details so that we don’t step on the illustrator’s toes. That means we have to use other senses to give the story depth. I try to use a similar multi-sensory approach in my novels, so I’m not simply describing how things look to the characters, but I’m also thinking about the smells, sounds, and textures around them. I’ve also found myself using a lot of onomatopoeic words—kapow!

For those of you who write in longer and shorter formats, how do you find the two influencing each other? What’s your favorite picture book technique to use in novel-writing? Please comment below and join the conversation!

.

prank list cover 2Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. Currently, she lives outside Boston with her husband and their crazy dog. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and the Dirt Diary series. Her newest novel, The Prank List, released on July 1st from Sourcebooks. You can visit Anna at www.annastan.com.


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6. The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham


The Luck Uglies

I finished The Luck Uglies last night and I was satisfied to see that it promises a sequel.

When the (evil, disgusting, arrogant, cruel, etc.) Earl of Longchance captures a young Bog Noblin, he invites doom and terror to the village of Drowning.  Rye, her friends, Folly and Quinn, her mother, Abby and the mysterious tattooed man, known as Harmless, must save the village.  Spells, magical beasts, potions, and incredible escape acts, most occurring in the dark of night, keep the pages turning.

I admit I skimmed.  I often skim through battles because reading about swordplay and how the characters avoid decapitation or mangling makes me itchy.  (I am not an 11-year-old boy.)  I took the time to read one such scene and it was cinematically presented - the type of action/adventure sequence that the target readership will LOVE.

I love the cover and chapter illustrations.   I thought that one or two scenes were dragged out for suspense and action's sake.    Even the villains - except for the Earl, who is beyond the pale - have their not-so-awful moments.  So, yes, I think fantasy and adventure fans, boys and girls alike, will enjoy this book.

ASIDE:  Is there a running around the rooftops meme circulating through kids' fiction right now?  This is not the first, or even the second, book that I've read this year in which city rooftops are used as escape routes or roadways.  Just wondering.



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7. Naturalized Diversity

By Joyce Audy Zarins Like daffodils naturalized in the woods, all Native Americans, immigrants from everywhere in the world, people with various abilities, talents, handicaps, and preferences populate our American nation. We are all in this cross-pollinated garden together. Our stories should reflect that biodiversity. By “naturalized diversity” I mean that the characters in our […]

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8. author interview: Estela Bernal

Estela Bernal made her debut as an author this past May with Can You See Me Now? (Pinata/Arte Publico). As you get to know her today and find out a little more about Can You See Me Now? you’ll be impressed but, be even more impressed to know that she’s donating 100% of her proceeds to education and animal rights.

Just a little about the book. Kirkus says:

Tragedy strikes on Mandy’s 13th birthday when her father is struck by a drunk driver and killed. Now grief—both her own and her mother’s—complicates the already confusing landscape of early adolescence.

can u see me nowWith her mother working more and more hours in the wake of her father’s death, Mandy begins spending most of her time living with her grandmother. Often the target of bullies, loner Mandy approaches Paloma to be her partner for a school project. Paloma is also a misfit, but she carries herself with a self-assured grace that Mandy finds compelling. As she becomes closer to Paloma, she learns about the practices of yoga and meditation, which are foundational in Paloma’s family. An overweight boy in class, Rogelio, is also touched by tragedy when his family’s home burns down, and Paloma invites him to join their yoga crew. As the three continue practicing together, they each begin to cultivate their own peace amid the chaos in their lives. Though each faces personal challenges, they find friendship and support in one another. Bernal has succeeded in crafting a story that acknowledges tragedy without wallowing in it, placing her emphasis on resilience and personal growth. The quick pace and distinctive characters make for a smooth, well-crafted read.

Middle-grade readers should respond to this tender story of learning to connect with others through open eyes and an open heart. (Fiction. 10-13)


And Estela’s interview!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in South Texas (the Rio Grande Valley).

Estela Bernal

Estela Bernal

Do you have any pets?

I love animals and have had many pets through the years.  I currently have two cats.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I grew up in a home where we had no books.  There were no public libraries in my hometown either.  Despite the lack of age-appropriate reading material, I fell in love with books as soon as I learned to read.  I remember reading the Weekly Reader and whatever else I could get my hands on at school.  Although I don’t remember where I got it, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth was one book I read and re-read.  I’ve always been a dreamer and this book opened up an exotic new and very fascinating world to me. 

Meat or vegetables?

Vegetables, absolutely!  As an animal lover, I volunteered with many animal welfare organizations until I was able to form my own.  Through it I do community education and help provide low-cost spay/neuter services to residents’ pets in underserved communities.  It would be hard to justify rescuing some animals while eating others.  Besides, I find that when I eat a healthy diet, I feel so much better.

Which famous person would you most like to have write a review for your book?

So many famous and not-so-famous people come to mind.  It always makes me happy to hear about celebrities and other public figures who are also great philanthropists and who help raise awareness about some very important issues facing society today.  But there are also many unsung heroes quietly working to help make their communities better places to live.  I sincerely believe we all have the potential to do good and that, after all, is what really matters.   Two of my own favorite causes are education and animal welfare so my choice would have to be someone with similar ideals.

What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?

Although man-made treasures are priceless, I believe that natural treasures are absolutely essential.  I’d love to see all public waterways, land (public, private, agricultural), and all living beings protected and preserved for our well-being and that of future.

 

Why would you be up at 3am?

Usually, I’m only up at that time if I’m traveling and have to catch an early flight.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

I’m currently making my way through a 100 Greatest Books for Kids list and just started Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León.  I’m also reading my latest copy of Glimmer Train.

What made you decide to write about a teen who discovers yoga?

One of my nephews died accidentally a few years ago.  The accident happened in front of his wife and children and I began to wonder how such a tragic event would affect any family who witnessed such a tragedy. That also got me thinking about how a child, already weighed down by grief, would cope with the additional burden of parental abandonment and being bullied on top of everything else.   Adolescence is tough enough as it is, and adding all this other stress can lead to such despair that anyone could easily be overwhelmed.  I wanted to introduce the idea that there are alternatives to violence, that there is help even when we think there is no safe way out of certain situations, and most importantly, that there are ways to access inner peace. 

When I first discovered yoga, I was going through a stressful period in my life and still remember the feeling of calm and well-being that I experienced when I was able to slow down the thoughts racing through my mind long enough to catch my breath and try to put things in perspective.  The character Paloma seemed the perfect vehicle through which to introduce the topic and Mandy, of course, was the ideal student.

I’m sorry to hear your family experienced such a tragedy. I can definitely see how that experience could inspire your writing.

I haven’t had the opportunity to read Can You See Me Now, but I do know it’s about a thirteen-year-old girl whose father dies in a car accident and her mother blames her for it. At 13 (or there about) to which adult were you the closest?

I was a very shy child and at thirteen I was closest to my mother.  Because I was the youngest child in my family and my parents were old enough to be my grandparents, the fear of losing them seemed to always be in the back of my mind.  If my mother wasn’t there when I got home from school or from playing with my friends, I panicked.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Again, this is a hard question to answer because there are so many authors I admire, but I’d have to say Harper Lee ranks pretty high on my list along with Sandra Cisneros.  Although their work is very different, I find the characters so easy to relate to and the stories so hard to forget.

What’s the trick to writing humor?

I’m sure there is a trick to it and I suppose part of it is to be naturally funny.  I don’t set out to write humor, but because I do write about serious issues which can be hard to address when writing for a younger audience, I try to ease the tension by including bits of humor here and there as I weave the story.  The humor I use is based on things that tickle my own funny bone.

What does diversity mean to you?

Diversity to me is inclusivity.  I try to write about things that all readers can relate to regardless of their racial or social background because, no matter what other commonalities we may or may not share, there are certain things that we all have to experience at some point in life.

Speaking of diversity, I’m glad to see that the need for diversity in children’s literature is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.  Although the need has always been there, it’s great that diversity among the writing population is also changing, however gradually. 

Thanks, Estela! It’s a pleasure getting to know you!

Visit Estela’s website.


Filed under: Authors, Interview Tagged: Arte Publico, interview, latino, middle grade fiction, Pinata

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9. YA and Children's Fiction Competition: Hunger Mountain's Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing

Hunger Mountain is accepting submissions of young adult and children's literature. One first place winner receives $1,000 and publication and three category winners receive $100 each and publication. The categories are: Young Adult (YA) Middle Grade (MG) Picture Book Writing for Young Children. Enter your original, unpublished piece under 10,000 words. Your entry may be a short story or a novel excerpt, but if it’s a novel excerpt it should really stand alone. 

The 2014 judge is Katherine Applegate, the Newbery Award winning author of The One and Only Ivan. About: Hunger Mountain is both a print and online journal of the arts publishing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. The print issue comes out annually in the fall.

Entry fee: $20.00

Deadline: 7/1/14

Enter here.

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10. book review: Saving Kabul Corner

Readers will appreciate that young people solve all of the questions at hand and ultimately bring the two families together." Kirkus

“Readers will appreciate that young people solve all of the questions at hand and ultimately bring the two families together.” Kirkus

title: Saving Kabul Corner

author: N. H. Senzai

date: Simon and Schuster; 2014

main character: Ariana Shinwari

synopsis:

From Afghanistan to America, family matters most in this companion to Shooting Kabul, which Kirkus Reviews called “an ambitious story with much to offer.”

A rough and tumble tomboy, twelve-year-old Ariana couldn’t be more different from her cousin Laila, who just arrived from Afghanistan with her family. Laila is a proper, ladylike Afghan girl, one who can cook, sew, sing, and who is well versed in Pukhtun culture and manners. Arianna hates her. Laila not only invades Ariana’s bedroom in their cramped Fremont townhouse, but she also becomes close with Mariam Nurzai, Ariana’s best friend.

Then a rival Afghan grocery store opens near Ariana’s family store, reigniting a decades-old feud tracing back to Afghanistan. The cousins, Mariam, and their newfound frenemie, Waleed Ghilzai, must ban together to help the families find a lasting peace before it destroys both businesses and everything their parents have worked for. –Source

My take:

Saving Kabul Corner seems to develop quite independent of its companion novel Shooting Kabul, a book I have not yet read. This book had a compete story line and makes little reference to prior events. Particularly for a continuing storyline, the main characters were well developed.

This story revolves around Arianna’s dislike for her cousin, Laila, from Afghanistan who is staying with her. Something odd is going on in the neighborhood that could mean the end of the family’s local business. Arianna and Laila along with schoolmates Mariam and Waleed, work together to solve this mystery. The story begins with Arianna looking forward to a new home her father is having built. She describes strong desire for privacy and looks forward to getting her own room. Unfortunately, the new house is never again mentioned.

The Shinwari family is very much connected to events in their homeland, as are many first generation Americans. While I think Senzai did a skillful job of balancing the portrayal of events in Afghanistan with Arianna’s life in Los Angeles, I think there were at times too many historical details crammed into the novel. Senzai gives us Arriana, in a story drenched in Afghan history, laced with the language and decorated with the foods and a storyline that is as American as apple pie. Is she telling us that at the core, we are all very much the same?

Saving Kabul Corner is written for readers at the younger end of the YA spectrum.


Filed under: Book Reviews Tagged: Afghanistan, H. Senzai, middle grade fiction, N

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11. The Great Greene Heist: Varian Johnson

Book: The Great Greene Heist
Author: Varian Johnson
Pages: 240
Age Range: 10-14

The Great Green Heist is a fun caper novel for middle school students, written by Varian Johnson. It features Jackson Greene, a semi-reformed prankster who sets out, with a talented crew, to ensure that his former almost-girlfriend wins the election for student council president. There are spy novel trappings such as disguises, hidden microphones, and custom gadgets. However, the real emphasis in The Great Greene Heist is on interpersonal dynamics, and the role that the various kids play in the drama.

The Great Green Heist features a diverse cast of characters (as one can see by looking closely at the cover), but it is about the heist (well, more of a scam), rather than being about the ethnicity of any one character. Johnson does a nice job of including small details that let the reader know that the characters come from different backgrounds, without distracting too much from the story. There is one minor character, an administrative assistant in the Principal's office, who is overtly racist, but skin colors are otherwise mainly a background matter. A bigger difference in how Jackson perceives other students involves whether or not they play basketball (and how good they are), rather than what they look like.

In truth, I had a bit of trouble sorting out all of the characters and their relationships at the beginning of the book. I had to go back and skim the first few chapters a couple of times. A relationship diagram / cast of characters might have been helpful. There is a glossary of Jackson's past capers included in the book's end materials, as well as a list of the 15 rules that make up the "Greene Code of Conduct." For example, "Stay cool under pressure. A rattled crew is a mistake-prone crew."

The Great Greene Heist has an intro sure to pull kids in: 

"As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School Cafeteria -- his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his hear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket -- he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking." (Page 1)

The story is a bit over the top, as is common in caper-type novels, featuring a candidate with basically no redeeming value, and a corrupt principal, not to mention a cooler-than-cool Jackson. I was reminded a bit of the Veronica Mars television series, in a good way. Kind of a quirkier, more interesting school than one might actually find in real life. 

I enjoyed The Great Greene Heist, and I think that kids will, too. I especially liked the character of Gaby, a strong girl running for Student Council President. Gaby at one point laments a female friend who prefers watching boys play sports over playing herself, and vows never to be like that herself. I think I would have liked to be friends with her. And I love the fact that Jackson makes it cool to be smart.

The Great Green Heist has become a bit of a poster-book for diversity, in light of the recent We Need Diverse Books campaign. But don't read it out of some sense of making a difference by reading diverse books. No, read it because it's a fun story about smart kids taking matters into their own hands, and bending the rules for a greater good. Recommended for middle school readers, boys or girls. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: May 27, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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12. Review of the Day: brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

BrownGirlDreaming Review of the Day: brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodsonbrown girl dreaming
By Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 978- 0399252518
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 28th

What does a memoir owe its readers? For that matter, what does a fictionalized memoir written with a child audience in mind owe its readers? Kids come into public libraries every day asking for biographies and autobiographies. They’re assigned them with the teacher’s intent, one assumes, of placing them in the shoes of those people who found their way, or their voice, or their purpose in life. Maybe there’s a hope that by reading about such people the kids will see that life has purpose. That even the most high and lofty historical celebrity started out small. Yet to my mind, a memoir is of little use to child readers if it doesn’t spend a significant fraction of its time talking about the subject when they themselves were young. To pick up brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is to pick up the world’s best example of precisely how to write a fictionalized memoir. Sharp when it needs to be sharp, funny when it needs to be funny, and a book that can relate to so many other works of children’s literature, Woodson takes her own life and lays it out in such a way that child readers will both relate to it and interpret it through the lens of history itself. It may be history, but this is one character that will give kids the understanding that nothing in life is a given. Sometimes, as hokey as it sounds, it really does come down to your dreams.

Her father wanted to name her “Jack” after himself. Never mind that today, let alone 1963 Columbus, Ohio, you wouldn’t dream of naming a baby girl that way. Maybe her mother writing “Jacqueline” on her birth certificate was one of the hundreds of reasons her parents would eventually split apart. Or maybe it was her mother’s yearning for her childhood home in South Carolina that did it. Whatever the case, when Jackie was one-years-old her mother took her and her two older siblings to the South to live with their grandparents once and for all. Though it was segregated and times were violent, Jackie loved the place. Even when her mother left town to look for work in New York City, she kept on loving it. Later, her mother picked up her family and moved them to Brooklyn and Jackie had to learn the ways of city living versus country living. What’s more, with her talented older siblings and adorable baby brother, she needed to find out what made her special. Told in gentle verse and memory, Jacqueline Woodson expertly recounts her own story and her own journey against a backdrop of America’s civil rights movement. This is the birth of a writer told from a child’s perspective.

You might ask why we are referring to this book as a work of historical fiction, when clearly the memoir is based in fact. Recently I was reading a piece in The New Yorker on the novelist Edward St. Aubyn. St. Aubyn found the best way to recount his own childhood was through the lens of fiction. Says the man, “I wanted the freedom and the sublimatory power of writing a novel . . . And I wanted to write in the tradition which had impressed me the most.” Certainly there’s a much greater focus on what it means to be a work of nonfiction for kids in this day and age. Where in the past something like the Childhood of Famous Americans series could get away with murder, pondering what one famous person thought or felt at a given time, these days we hold children’s nonfiction to a much higher standard. Books like Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair, for example, must be called “fiction” for all that they are based on real people and real events. Woodson’s personal memoir is, for all intents and purposes, strictly factual but because there are times when she uses dialogue to flesh out the characters and scenes the book ends up in the fiction section of the library and bookstore. Like St. Aubyn, Woodson is most comfortable when she has the most freedom as an author, not to be hemmed in by a strict structural analysis of what did or did not occur in the past. She has, in a sense then, mastered the art of the fictionalized memoir in a children’s book format.

Because of course in fiction you can give your life a form and a function. You can look back and give it purpose, something nonfiction can do but with significantly less freedom. There is a moment in Jackie’s story when you get a distinct sense of her life turning a corner. In the section “grown folks’ stories” she recounts hearing the tales of the old people then telling them back to her sister and brother in the night. “Retelling each story. / Making up what I didn’t understand / or missed when voices dropped too low . . . / Then I let the stories live / inside my head, again and again / until the real world fades back / into cricket lullabies / and my own dreams.” If ever you wanted a “birth of a writer” sequence in a book, this would be it.

At its heart, that’s really what brown girl dreaming is about. It’s the story of a girl finding her voice and her purpose. If there’s a theme to children’s literature this year it is in the relationship between stories and lies. Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener and Margi Preus’s West of the Moon both spend a great deal of time examining the relationship between the two. Now brown girl dreaming joins with them. When Jackie’s mother tells her daughter that “If you lie . . . one day you’ll steal” the child cannot reconcile the two. “It’s hard to understand how one leads to the other, / how stories could ever / make us criminals.” It’s her mother that equates storytelling with lying, even as her uncle encourages her to keep making up stories. As it is, I can think of no better explanation of how writers work then the central conundrum Jackie is forced to face on her own. “It’s hard to understand / the way my brain works – so different / from everybody around me. / How each new story / I’m told becomes a thing / that happens, / in some other way / to me . . . !”

The choice to make the book a verse novel made sense in the context of Ms. Woodson’s other novels. Verse novels are at their best when they justify their form. A verse novel that’s written in verse simply because it’s the easiest way to tell a long story in a simple format often isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Fortunately, in the case of Ms. Woodson the choice makes infinite sense. Young Jackie is enamored of words and their meanings. The book isn’t told in the first person, but when we consider that she is both subject and author then it’s natural to suspect that the verse best shows the lens through which Jackie, the child, sees the world.

It doesn’t hurt matters any that the descriptive passages have the distinct feeling of poems to them. Individual lines are lovely in and of themselves, of course. Lines like “the heat of summer / could melt the mouth / so southerners stayed quiet.” Or later a bit of reflection on the Bible. “Even Salome intrigues us, her wish for a man’s head / on a platter – who could want this and live / to tell the story of that wanting?” But full-page written portions really do have the feel of poems. Like you could pluck them out of the book and display them and they’d stand on their own, out of context. The section labeled “ribbons” for example felt like pure poetry, even as it relayed facts. As Woodson writes, “When we hang them on the line to dry, we hope / they’ll blow away in the night breeze / but they don’t. Come morning, they’re right where / we left them / gently moving in the cool air, eager to anchor us / to childhood.” And so we get a beautiful mixing of verse and truth and fiction and memoir at once.

It was while reading the book that I got the distinct sense that this was far more than a personal story. The best memoirs, fictionalized or otherwise, are the ones that go beyond their immediate subjects and speak to something greater than themselves. Ostensibly, brown girl dreaming is just the tale of one girl’s journey from the South to the North and how her perceptions of race and self changed during that time. But the deeper you get into the book the more you realize that what you are reading is a kind of touchstone for other children’s books about the African-American experience in America. Turn to page eight and a reference to the Woodsons connections to Thomas Woodson of Chillicothe leads you directly to Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Page 32 and the trip from North to South and the deep and abiding love for the place evokes The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Page 259 and the appearance of The Jackson Five and their Afros relates beautifully to Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven. Page 297 and a reference to slaves in New York City conjures up Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Even Jackie’s friend Maria has a story that ties in nicely to Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. I even saw threads from Woodson’s past connect to her own books. Her difficulty reading but love of words conjures up Locomotion. Visiting her uncle in jail makes me think of Visiting Day as well as After Tupac and D Foster. And, of course, her personal history brings to mind her Newbery Honor winning picture book Show Way (which, should you wish to do brown girl dreaming in a book club, would make an ideal companion piece).

It’s not just other books either. Writers are advised to write what they know and that their family stories are their history. But when Woodson writes her history she’s broadening her scope. Under her watch her family’s history is America’s history. Woodson’s book manages to tie-in so many moments in African-American history that kids should know about. Segregation, marches, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One thing I really appreciated about the book was that it also looked at aspects of some African-American life that I’ve just never seen represented in children’s literature before. Can you honestly name me any other books for kids where the children are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Aside from Tom Angleberger’s The Qwikpick Papers I’m drawing a blank.

The flaws? Well it gets off to a slow start. The first pages didn’t immediately grab me, and I have to hope that if there are any kids out there who read the same way that I do, with my immature 10-year-old brain, that they’ll stick with it. Once the family moves to the South everything definitely picks up. The only other objection I had was that I wanted to know so much more about Jackie’s family after the story had ended. In her Author’s Note she mentions meeting her father again years later. What were the circumstances behind that meeting? Why did it happen? And what did Dell and Hope and Roman go on to do with their lives? Clearly a sequel needs to happen. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this.

I’m just going to get grandiose on you here and say that reading this is basically akin to reading a young person’s version of Song of Solomon. It’s America and its racial history. It’s deeply personal, recounting the journey of one girl towards her eventual vocation and voice. It’s a fictionalized memoir that nonetheless tells greater truths than most of our nonfiction works for kids. It is, to put it plainly, a small work of art. Everyone who reads it will get something different out of it. Everyone who reads it will remember some small detail that spoke to them personally. It’s the book adults will wish they’d read as kids. It’s the book that hundreds of thousands of kids will read and continue to read for decades upon decades upon decades. It’s Woodson’s history and our own. It is amazing.

On shelves August 28th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Reviews: Richie’s Picks

Misc: A look at the book and an interview with Ms. Woodson from Publishers Weekly.

Videos: In this opening keynote from SLJ’s Day of Dialog in 2014, Ms. Woodson talks about the path to this book.

Jacqueline Woodson keynote | SLJ Day of Dialog 2014 from School Library Journal on Vimeo.

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13. School Days: AFTER THE BOOK DEAL – Guest Post by Jonathan Auxier

After the Book Deal Banner

The Internet is full of great advice about how to sell a book, but what about after the sale? When my first book came out, I found it was surprisingly hard to find answers to some basic questions. Like most authors, I learned most of the answers through trial and error. And so in anticipation of the launch of my new novel,The Night Gardener, I’ve decided to write down everything I learned so I don’t make the same mistakes twice!

AFTER THE BOOK DEAL is a month-long blog series detailing the twenty things I wish someone had told me before entering the exciting world of children’s publishing. Each weekday from now until MAY 20, I will be posting an article on a different blog. Follow along and please spread the word!

***

School Days: Crafting an Effective School Program

Yesterday I talked about how to do Skype visits with classrooms, now I want to move on to school assemblies! When my first book came out, I did almost nonstop school events for seven months—it was exhausting but extremely rewarding. I picked up a few things along the way that might be worth sharing …

 

NightGardener Cover

Be a Storyteller, not an Author

In the vast majority of cases, you will be coming to these kids as a complete stranger. Most kids will not have read (or even heard of) your books. This is important to remember as you’re crafting your presentation: don’t assume they will be impressed by the fact that you’re a published author. Your only job is to convince them that your story is something they want to read. The best way to do this is by BEING A STORYTELLER. Don’t just read an excerpt and give a summary—instead invite them into the world of your story, put them in the shoes of your hero, make the book come alive right there on the stage.

 

Play to Your Strengths

Take careful inventory of personal skills that you can bring to the table. Some authors draw on giant notepads. Others perform music. Others juggle or teach dance routines or fold origami. I exploited my past career as a professional yo-yo demonstrator by incorporating a yo-yo into my routine. It is hands-down the most popular part of every presentation! Chances are, you’ve got some silly talent that can be turned into a memorable moment in your presentations—make the most of it! Here’s a video of my yo-yo presentation, for the curious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbmSYeyVDtI

 

Crowd Control

There’s no question that wrangling a crowd of kids can be tricky. I have a loud voice, but with groups over 100, I always require that schools provide a microphone. Even with a mic, however, a hall full of squirming kids can get pretty loud. I always request that the teacher/librarian who introduces me gives the kids a special reminder about appropriate assembly behavior. And when the classes are streaming into the room, I go to every one of the teachers and introduce myself, thank them for coming, and ask them where their students are sitting—this is a subtle way of encouraging the teachers to be more proactive with crowd control. My final crowd control trick is to start every presentation by showing the Peter Nimble book trailer. Not only does this give kids something to visualize the story, but it creates a baseline of actual silence from the crowd. I’ve found that when I don’t show the trailer, I’m never able to eliminate the dull roar of whispers and fidgeting that passes for “quiet” in other circumstances.

 

Build a Flexible Program

Every school runs on a different schedule. Generally speaking, assemblies will run between 40-60 minutes. It’s important that you have a program that can expand or contract to fit these requirements. Your goal should be to have discrete “bits” that you can add and remove at will depending on the needs of your audience. If I’m talking to a restless crowd, for example, I can trade out a more serious literary discussion for an extra game. Flexibility goes beyond time-management. When I started touring, I carried around two vintage suitcases full of props. The suitcases looked cool, but they were a serious pain in the neck. I’ve since learned to pare down my props—fitting everything I need into a single shoulder bag. Likewise, when showing my book trailer, I used to haul my laptop computer (school computers were just too unreliable). Recently, however, I’ve ditched the laptop for a small VGA adaptor that plugs directly into my iPhone … so much easier!

Selling Books

You always want to be working with a local bookseller that can handle sales—you don’t have time to deal with that stuff yourself. If the school doesn’t have a store they regularly work with, then offer to connect them to someone. In most cases, a store will give 10-20% of all proceeds back to the school … which you should encourage them to do. Every store has a different way of handling book sales. I’ve found the best method is to send out pre-order forms in advance of the event as well as a “last chance” order form that kids take home the day that you visit—then once all orders are collected, you can sign books at the store, which will deliver them to the school later in the week.

 

That’s it for AFTER THE BOOK DEALTomorrow we’ll be talking about how how and when to charge for appearances. In the meantime, you can catch up on previous posts (listed below), and please-oh-please spread the word!

AFTER THE BOOK DEAL – Stops So Far

WEEK ONE: Before Your Book Comes Out
4/21 – Finding Your Tribe: entering the publishing community
4/22 – Do I Really Need a Headshot?: crafting your public persona
4/23 – I Hate Networking: surviving social media
4/24 – A Night at the Movies: the ins and outs of book trailers
4/25 –  Giveaways! … are they worth it?

 

WEEK TWO: Your Book Launch
4/28 - Can I have Your Autograph?: 5 things to do before your first signing
4/29 –  Cinderella at the Ball: planning a successful book launch
5/1 – Being Heard in the Crowd: conferences and festivals
5/2 - The Loneliest Writer in the World: surviving no-show events

 

WEEK THREE: The Business of Being an Author
5/5 – Handling Reviews … the Good and the Bad!
5/6 – Back to the Grindstone: writing your next book
5/7 – The Root of All Evil: some thoughts on money
5/8 – The Green-Eyed Monster: some thoughts on professional jealousy

 

WEEK FOUR: Ongoing Promotion
5/12 – Death by 1000 Cuts: Keeping ahead of busywork
5/13 – Can You Hear Me Now? Tips for Skype visits

Jonthan Auxier Headshot - web square

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JONATHAN AUXIER writes strange stories for strange children. His new novel, The Night Gardener, hits bookstores on May 20—why not come to his book launch party? You can visit him online at www.TheScop.com where he blogs about children’s books old and new.

Find The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier at the following spots:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s Books | Indiebound | Book Depository | Goodreads | ISBN-10/ISBN-13: 141971144X / 9781419711442

Thank you so much to Jonathan for stopping by today! Connect with Jonathan on Twitter and on Facebook!
Purchasing products by clicking through the links in this post will provide us a modest commission through our various affiliate relationships.

Original article: School Days: AFTER THE BOOK DEAL – Guest Post by Jonathan Auxier

©2014 There's A Book. All Rights Reserved.

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14. Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi Preus

WestMoon1 334x500 Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi PreusWest of the Moon
By Margi Preus
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0896-1
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

These are dark times for children’s literature. Pick up a book for the 9-12 year-old set and you just don’t know what you’re going to find. Whether it’s the murderous foliage of The Night Gardener, the implications of Nightingale’s Nest, or the serious subject matter of The Red Pencil, 2014 is probably best described as the year everything went dark. Don’t expect West of the Moon to lighten the mood any either. Like those books I just mentioned, it’s amazing. Dark and resilient with a core theme that simply cannot be ignored. Yet for all that Preus has tapped into a bit of harsh reality with her title that may give pause to all but the stoutest hearts. Fortunately, she tempers this reality with an artist’s license. With folktales and beautifully written prose. With a deep sisterly bond, and a serious consideration of what is right and what wrong and what is necessary in desperate circumstances. I don’t expect everyone to read this book and instantly love it, but I do expect people to read it. Slow to start, smart when it continues, and unlike anything you’ve ever really read before.

“Now I know how much I’m worth: not as much as Jesus, who I’m told was sold for thirty pieces of silver. I am worth two silver coins and a haunch of goat.” That’s Astri, discussing the fact that her aunt and uncle have just essentially sold her to Svaalberd, the local goat herder. Though she is loathe to go, she knows that she has little choice in the matter, and must leave her little sister behind with her foul relatives. Svaalberd turns out to be even fouler, however, and as she plans her escape Astri hits up on the idea of leaving Norway and going to America. With time and opportunity she makes good her plans, taking little sister Greta with her, protecting the both of them, and making difficult choices every step of the way.

I’ll just give away the game right from the start and confess to you that I’m a big time fan of this book. It’s sort of a brilliant combination of realism with folktales and writing that just cuts to the heart thanks to a heroine who is not entirely commendable (a rarity in this day and age). But I also experienced a very personal reaction to the book that as much to do with Preus’s extensive Author’s Note as anything else. You see, my own great-great-grandfather immigrated to America around the same time as Ms. Preus’s great-great-grandparents (the people who provided much of the inspiration for this book). I’ve always rather loved knowing about this fellow since most of the immigrants in my family disappeared into the past without so much as a blip. This guy we actually have photographs of. Why he left had as much to do with his abusive father as anything else, but I never really understood the true impetus behind leaving an entire country. Then I read the Author’s Note and learned about this “America fever” that spread through Norway and enticed people to leave and move to the States. It gives my own family history a bit of context I’ve always lacked and for that I thank Ms. Preus profusely.

On top of that, she provides a bit of context to the immigrant historical experience that we almost never see. We always hear about immigrants coming to America but have we ever seen a true accounting of how much food and staples they were told to bring for the boat trip? I sure as heck hadn’t! You can study Ellis Island all the livelong day but until you read about the 24 pounds of meat and the small keg of kerring folks were asked to bring, you don’t really understand what they were up against.

It should surprise no one when I say that Preus is also just a beautiful writer. I mean, she is a Newbery Honor winner after all. Still, I feel I was unprepared for the book’s great use of symbolism. Take, for example, the fact that the name of the girl that gives Astri such a hard time is “Grace”. And then there’s the fact that Preus does such interesting things with the narrative. For example she’ll mention a spell she observed Svaalberd reciting and then follow that fact up with a quick, “I’ll thank you to keep that to yourself.” You’re never quite certain whom she is addressing. The reader, obviously, but anyone else? In her Author’s Note Ms. Preus mentions that much of the book was inspired, sometimes directly, by her great-great-grandmother Linka’s diary. Knowing this, the book takes on the feel of a kind of confessional. I don’t know whom exactly Astri is confessing to, but it feels right. Plus, it turns out that she has a LOT to confess.

As characters go, Astri is a bit of a remarkable protagonist. Have you read Harriet the Spy recently? See, back in the day authors weren’t afraid to write unsympathetic main characters. People that you rooted for, but didn’t particularly like. But recent children’s literature shies away from that type. Our protagonists are inevitably stouthearted and true and if they do have flaws then they work through them in a healthy all-American kind of way. Astri’s different. When she recounts her flaws they take on the feeling of a folktale (“I’ve stolen the gold and hacked off the fingers and snitched the soap and swiped the wedding food. I’ve lied to my own little sister and left Spinning Girl behind, and now I’m stealing the horse, saddle, and bridle from the farm boy who never did anything wrong except display a bit of greed.”) But hey, she’s honest! This section is then followed with thoughts on what makes a person bad. Does desperation counteract sin? How do you gauge individual sins?

If I’ve noted any kind of a theme in my middle grade children’s literature this year (aside from the darkness I alluded to in the opening paragraph) it’s a fascination with the relationship between lies and stories. Jonathan Auxier explored this idea to some extent in The Night Gardener, as did Jacqueline Woodson in Brown Girl Dreaming. Here, Preus returns to the notion of where stories stop and lies begin again and again. Says she at some point, “soon I’ve run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I’m left with just the thin thread of truth.” Astri is constantly telling stories to Gerta, sometimes to coax her into something, sometimes to comfort her. But in her greatest hour of soul searching she wonders, “Is it a worse sin to lie to my sweet sister than to steal from a cruel master?” And where does lying start when storytelling ends? There are no easy answers to be found here. Just excellent questions.

So let’s talk attempted sexual assault in a work of children’s literature. Oh, it’s hardly uncommon. How many of us remember the reason that Julie in Julie of the Wolves ran away to join a furry pack? In the case of West of the Moon the attempt could be read any number of ways. Adults, for example, will know precisely what is going on. But kids? When Astri sees her bed for the first time she takes the precaution of grabbing the nearest knife and sticking it under her pillow. No fool she, and the act turns out to be a good piece of forethought since later in the book the goatman does indeed throw her onto her bed. She comes close to cutting his jugular and the incident passes (though he says quite clearly, “Come summer, we will go down to the church and have the parson marry us. Then I’ll take you to my bed.”). Reading the section it’s matter-of-fact. A realistic threat that comes and goes and will strike a chord with some readers instantly and others not at all. There will be kids that read the section and go to their parents or teachers (or even librarians) looking for some clarification, so adults who hand this to younger readers should be ready for uncomfortable questions. Is it inappropriate for kids? That is going to depend entirely on the kid. For some 9 and 10-year-olds there’s nothing here to raise an eyebrow. Astri hardly does. Later she hates the goatman far more for baby lambicide than any attempted rape. For others, they’ll not care for the content. Kids are great self-censors, though. They know what they can handle. I wouldn’t be worried on that score.

If we’re going to get to the heart of the matter, this book is about grace and forgiveness. It’s about how even victims (or maybe especially victims) are capable of terrible terrible things. It’s about making amends with the world and finding a way to forgive yourself and to move on. Astri is, as I’ve said before, not a saintly character. She steals and tricks good people for her own reasons and she leaves it to the reader to decide if she is worth forgiving. This is an ideal book discussion title, particularly when you weave in a discussion of the folktales, the notion of stories vs. lies, and the real world history. It’s not an easy book and it requires a little something extra on the part of the reader, but for those kids that demand a bit of a challenge and a book that’ll make ‘em stop and think for half a moment, you can’t do better. Remarkable.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer – Few can weave folktales into text as well as Farmer, so naturally when I saw what Preus was doing here I thought of this epic series.
  • The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket – Because if anyone understands how to bring up the notion of whether or not sinking to the level of the bad guys makes YOU a bad guy, it’s Snicket. And this was the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events to come up with the notion.
  • The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier – These two books wouldn’t have a lot in common were it not for the fact that Auxier delves into the relationship between lies and stories as deeply as Preus and with similar conclusions.

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: KUMD spoke with Ms. Preus about her books and her work on this one in particular here.

Book Jacket: Oo!  In case you didn’t get to see the back cover . . .

WestMoon2 Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Misc: For a look behind-the-scenes of the book check out this article Award-winning Duluth author pulls from folk tales, ancestral diary for newest novel from the Duluth News Tribune.

Videos: And here’s the book trailer!

West of the Moon / Margi Preus Book Trailer from Joellyn Rock on Vimeo.

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15.

TheGreatGreeneHeisttitle: The Great Greene Heist

author: Varian Johnson

date: Arthur A. Levine; May 2014

main character: Jackson Green

middle grade fiction

Intriguing! Has Jackson Greene changed? And, just how bad was he that he needed to change? Will Jackson get the girl? Will the girl get the guy? Will Gabriela win the election?

The cast of characters for this middle grade caper includes Victor Cho, Bradley Boardman, Megan Feldman and Charlie de la Cruz and their talents range the spectrum from inventing high-tech inventions to environmental advocacy. These middle grade students put it all on the line to save their friends and the student council election for their school. What could be more important to middle grade students?

I found the 3rd person voice in this book so refreshing and accomplished in a manner that few other than Varian Johnson can do. The story Johnson tells is as much Gaby’s as it is Jackson’s. I think he successfully nailed the voice of his characters, who were quite well-developed. The guys sound like guys and the girls sound like girls.

And, then there’s Principal Kelsey who manages to rest firmly on the marker for ‘stereotypical character’ on the Scale of Character Development for Children and Young Adult Books. With so much going on in the story, using him as a stock character allows the story to move at it’s quick pace. How stock is he? This guy is so self-involved that he doesn’t take any effort to get to know his students. He confuses his Asian students with one another as easily as he confuses Latino students. The students are so different from one another, readers wonder how he could do that.

Embedding elements from Oceans 11, Westing Game, Sneakers, Thomas Crown Affair and Star Trek 3: Wrath of Khan in this book, Johnson appeals to the mischievous intellect of this daring age group. Jackson is one of the best-developed MG male characters I’ve read in a long time. While his character relate more to reader’s creative site, his escapades relate to why we read in the first place: for sheer enjoyment.

themes: Elections; friendship; technology; reliability; integrity

 


Filed under: Book Reviews Tagged: african american, book review, middle grade fiction, varian johnson

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16. A Future That Is Not Dystopian

Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel by K. A. Holt is a nominee this year for Connecticut's Nutmeg Award, which is how I found out about it. It was on the Nutmeg Shelf at my local library.

Nerves of Steel is a mystery in a science fiction setting that is more Jetsons than Hunger Games. Mike Stellar is suddenly hauled off on a space mission by his parents who were accused of being responsible for the failure of an earlier trip into the great unknown. Right away Mike thinks there's something odd going on. In traditional kid story fashion, he is all over it.

I found Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel slow getting going. And slow in other places. I hate to admit it, but I found the plot confusing in places, too. But there came a point when I did think that child Gail would have bought into a kid being able to save the day, no matter how improbable.

As Charlotte of Charlotte's Library said of this book when it was published, "This probably isn't a book that will appeal to grown-up fans of science-fiction, for whom the plot and its concomitant technology might seem simplistic. But, since they aren't the target audience, so what." Well, maybe I shouldn't say "As Charlotte...said" because I didn't find the plot simplistic. But you get what I'm going for here. This book isn't for people like me.

A big plus: Civilization hasn't fallen in this book. Oh, my gosh, I am so tired of post-apocalyptic misery.

0 Comments on A Future That Is Not Dystopian as of 4/23/2014 10:29:00 PM
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17. Post Publication Book Awards: Housatonic Book Awards

We invite you to nominate your 2013 titles for the inaugural Housatonic Book Awards, operated by the MFA in Creative in Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University in cooperation with the MFA Alumni Writer's Cooperative (AWC). The mission of the awards is to promote excellent writing, to identify authors who serve as professional role models for writing students, and to develop the WCSU MFA in Creative and Professional Writing scholarship fund.

Five recipients will be honored in the areas of Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, Writing for Middle Grades and Young Adults, and Professional Writing. Any publisher, author, agent, or legal representative may enter a title in the appropriate award genre.

The Housatonic Book Awards are open for nominations between March 15 and June 15. This is a postmark deadline. Recipients receive $1500 and will appear at a WCSU MFA Residency in 2015.
 

Guidelines, the entry form, and the electronic submission portal may be found here.

The awards subscribe to the CLMP Code of Ethics.

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18. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is a historical mystery novel set in a small Vermont town in 1953. Hazel Kaplansky lives with her parents in a home adjacent to the graveyard that they manage. She's prickly and smart, and doesn't fit in very well, despite having grown up in Maple Hill. At a time when everyone is nervous about Russian spies and possible nuclear attacks, Hazel is suspicious of the new gravedigger, a man with the too-banal-to-be-true name of Mr. Jones. Hazel soon enlists lonely new kid Samuel Butler in her investigation. But she soon learns that Samuel has secrets, too, which everyone seems to know about except Hazel. Hazel and Samuel's developing friendship is set against a backdrop that includes a McCarthy investigation of the men in the local factory, and corresponding swirl of local rumor and innuendo.

I think that Blakemore does a nice job integrating the historical time period with Hazel's story. She introduces lots of details, but keeps all of them tied closely to Hazel's perspective. For instance, she captures Hazel's mortification when she sneezes during an air raid drill. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill covers everything from the scars that remain from the depression and influenza epidemic to how people treated unwed mothers during and after World War II to the fear and gossip triggered by McCarthyism. And she slips in little tidbits, too, like the fact that Alaska isn't a state yet. 

There is a bit of an old-fashioned feel to The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, as you would expect from a book so decisively set in the 50s. Bike riding, microfiche searches at the library, only mothers expected to show up at school events, etc. I think that the presence of a graveyard, together with active spying, will still keep kids interested, but there's always that risk with historical fiction that it will appeal more to adults than it does to the kids. There's a pretty clear sub-text in some of the scenes, where the adults, particularly Hazel's parents, talk over her head. I suppose that kids who understand this will have the chance to feel superior. Certainly I would expect young readers to be surprised at how different the world was 60 years ago. 

Anyway, I quite liked Hazel, despite (or perhaps because of) that fact that she isn't completely likable at all. She makes mistakes, she runs away with her assumptions, and she is flat out wrong about most things. But she's smart and loves books and doesn't really try to fit in - she is utterly herself. When a popular girl invites Hazel, unexpectedly, to a birthday party, she attends only so that she can conduct her investigation. She attempts to turn a mausoleum into a fallout shelter. She does remind me a bit of Harriet the Spy, writing things down in a little notebook, though the lives of the two girls are quite different. 

Here's a snippet, to give you a feel for Hazel:

"What was in that box?

Hazel sat up in the tree chewing her lip. Something was not on the up-and-up. Last year she had read every single one of the Nancy Drew mysteries, and just like Nancy always did, she had a hunch, but you didn't need to be a young sleuth like Hazel and Nancy to know that when a person locked something up, he was hiding something. And just like that, Hazel had her first real mystery." (Chapter 2)

and:

"It should come as no surprise that Hazel loved the library. She loved everything about it, even the smell, like paper, and paste, and sometimes, when Richard Begos was there, a little bit like pipe smoke." (Chapter 6)

Despite the presence of some mean-spirited, gossipmongers in the town, there are several wonderful adult role models for Hazel, including a service station owner and a librarian. I also liked the fact that the conflict that Hazel has with a couple of mean girls is not resolved to any great degree. This comes across as realistic, and Hazel never feels like she needs their approval anyway. 

A hint of a mystery is left open at the end of The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill. It's not a cliffhanger, just something to keep the reader guessing. Kids who enjoy mysteries or realistic historical fiction (like Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now) will definitely want to check this one out. I enjoyed it as an adult, and I think that I would have loved it when I was ten (having been something of a geek like Hazel). Although this is Hazel's story, the engaging cover should help it to appeal to boys, too. Recommended! 

Publisher: Bloomsbury (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 6, 2014
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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19. The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers: Matthew J. Kirby

Book: The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers
Author: Matthew J. Kirby
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8 - 12

Spell Robbers is the first book in a new series by Matthew J. Kirby, The Quantum League. The premise of the book is that there are people, called Actuators, who can take advantage of quantum mechanics to bring about events with their thoughts. These events include everything from conjuring up fireballs and storm clouds to manipulating locks.

When 12-year-old Ben moves with his grad student mother to a new university, he's invited to join an after-school Science Camp in which a professor is training young Actuators. But when their professor, Dr. Hughes, invents a portable device that makes Actuators much more powerful, the camp is attacked. Dr. Hughes is kidnapped, and Ben and another boy are rescued, and co-opted, by The Quantum League. High-stakes adventures follow.

Kirby does a good job of keeping the plot moving, and adding sufficient twists to keep the reader guessing. I was able to anticipate some, but not all, of the twists. 

I also liked the fact that the capabilities described in Spell Robbers are based on science, rather than magic, even though there's not a huge difference in the end result. [Is "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have strong powers as an Actuator" really all that different from "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have the ability to do magic"?]. Here are a couple of snippets:

"At the atomic level," Dr. Hughes said, "reality is dependent on our observation of it. As the Nobel-winning physicist Eugene Wigner put it, reality is created when our consciousness 'reaches out.' When you actuate, you are reading out to create a potential reality. (Page 36)

"Non-Actuators," Agent Taggart said, "N-A's. Most people who cannot actuate don't really perceive it. It is a part of reality they are blind to, just like you're blind to infrared light. They see the aftermath of actuation, but they attribute it to other things. Freak storms. Freak accidents. Spontaneous combustion. That kind of thing." (Page 62)

I did find a bit disturbing the device that Kirby uses to separate Ben from his mother. I understand that some sort of device was necessary in order to free Ben up to have his high-stakes adventures. But, without giving away any plot points, I didn't like this one. There's also a whole "only kids can actuate because adult brains don't think that it's possible" element to the story that I could see as a necessary plot point (otherwise why would The Quantum League recruit 12-year-olds?), but that I found a bit ... tired. 

Still, I think that middle grade and middle school kids who enjoy over-the-top adventures will like Spell Robbers. There's a superhero vibe to the quantum battles that take place. There are also some scenes that take place in a creepy abandoned amusement park, a highly kid-friendly setting. Ben is smart and loyal. There are various unanswered questions left at the end of Spell Robbers, leaving plenty of room for future titles in the series. 

All in all, while perhaps not quite as original as I might have hoped, The Quantum League offers kid-friendly science fiction with three-dimensional characters (including a 16-year-old girl who helps train Ben) and a fast-moving plot. Definitely worth a look for elementary and middle school libraries, or as a gift for adventure-hungry readers. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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20. Knightley and Son: Cracking the Code: Rohan Gavin

Book: Knightley & Son: Cracking the Code
Author: Rohan Gavin
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10-12


Cracking the Code is the first book in the new Knightley & Son series by Rohan Gavin. It features a father and son team of detectives. As the story begins, Alan Knightley, a once successful London private investigator, has been in a pseudo-coma for four years. His son Darkus has spent the four years reviewing and memorizing his father's old cases, and internalizing Sherlock Holmes-like methods of analytical detection. When Alan wakes from his extended sleep, Darkus finds himself drawn in to the investigation of a shadowy conspiracy involving people who commit peculiar crimes after reading a self-help bestseller. 

Cracking the Code is dark in tone, though occasionally humorous. Although this is strictly true, it feels looking back like the entire book takes place at night, on dark London streets. There are supernatural overtones, though the question of whether anything supernatural has actually occurred is skillfully left murky. There are also sufficient private eye novel trappings to make readers feel grown up, though the story is appropriate for middle schoolers.  

The characters in Knightley & Son are unconventional and just a hint larger than life. Darkus is an unabashed geek, who says things like this:

"So I conclude that the only possibility is that you were in fact the culprit, Clive--by accident of misadventure, of course. And I will hazard a guess that if you measure the zipper on your fashionable new coat, in all probability you'll find it's approximately one yard from the ground." (Chapter 3: The Case of the Scratched Quarter Panel)

You can definitely hear him channeling Sherlock Holmes (and his father, for that matter). Fortunately, Darkus's stepsister, Tilly, adds a more emotional component to their eventual investigative team, as well as much cooler hair. 

The humor in the book tends to be understated, as when a colleague of Alan's stops unexpectedly by the home where Darkus lives with his mother, stepfather, and Tilly. As he leaves he says:

"Thank ye for the tea, and the rather disappointing snacks." (Chapter 4: Uncle BIll)

My one problem with this book concerned the viewpoint. I suppose it's omniscient third person perspective, but there's a lot of "Darkus felt ..." and "Alan thought..." So it's more like limited third person, but with shifts in viewpoint from paragraph to paragraph. I found it occasionally distracting - it took me out of the story. (Note: I was reading the advanced copy, so this could theoretically be changed in the final book.) Like this:

"Draycott thought carefully about how to word this last piece of testimony. As he returned to scribbling, Tilly brushed by indifferently..."

And then the viewpoint shifts to Tilly. It's like in a movie, where you follow one character, and then another, but there are intermittent glimpses of people's inner monologues, too. 

Apart from that concern, I did enjoy Cracking the Code. The plot is suspenseful. There are various pieces to mull over and assemble, throughout the book. The kids are granted a fair bit of leeway to do things on their own, in a reasonably plausible manner. There are some interesting gadgets, and intelligence is definitely prized and rewarded. 

I think that Cracking the Code will be a good fit for fans of the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson (though Darkus is more analytical than James). It should also be a good bridge book for middle schoolers prior to reading adult mysteries, including the Sherlock Holmes stories. As for me, I look forward to hearing what Alan, Darkus, and Tilly get up to next. Recommended for age 10 and up, boys or girls. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids) 
Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Source of Book: Advance Review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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21. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy: Karen Foxlee

Book: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a retelling of the Snow Queen by Karen Foxlee. I don't know the original story, so I can't comment on faithfulness to that tale. But Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy works well as an old-fashioned fantasy novel for middle grade readers. 

Ophelia is a glasses-wearing 11-year-old girl who believes in facts, not fantasy. She is mourning the recent death of her mother, who was a novelist specializing in horror stories. Ophelia also laments that change that her mother's death has wrought in her older sister, Alice. As the story begins, Ophelia and Alice's father has dragged them to a mysterious snow-covered city, where the dad, a sword expert, is working on a sword exhibition. The exhibition is in an enormous, rambling museum full of odd artifacts. Poking around one day, Ophelia is amazed to discover a boy in old-fashioned clothes who is locked in a room. Even though she on principal doesn't really believe in this boy, Ophelia is unable to resist his request for help. 

Ophelia reminds me a bit of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, a lonely person with smudgy glasses mourning a missing parent, confronted with impossible occurrences. But of course Ophelia is her own quirky person. Like this:

"Everything in the world can be classified scientifically. For instance, I am from the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, species Home sapiens. I only eat class Pisces and only if they're called sardines. I don't believe in unicorns or dragons or anything magical, really." (Page 16, to the Boy)

"Of course she couldn't save the world. She was only eleven years old and rather small for her age, and also she had knock-knees. Dr. Singh told her mother she would probably grow out of them, especially if she wore medical shoes, but that wasn't the point. She had very bad asthma as well, made worse by cold weather and running and bad scares." (Page 17)

I did find Ophelia a bit slow to catch on to a couple of major plot points, and I think that young readers will, too. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ophelia plods along trying to do the right thing, and the reader gets to feel clever. Also, having figured things out ahead of time lends a tension to the book, as the reader worries about Alice's situation before Ophelia even realizes that there is a problem. 

The boy's story is told in the form of tales that he tells to Ophelia. It's more high fantasy (wizards, a village, great owls, etc.), but blends well with Ophelia's slightly more real-world story. Here's a snippet:

"And you might think a name is just a name, nothing but a word, but that is not the case. Your name is tacked to you. Where it has joined you, it has seeped into your skin and into your essence and into your soul. So when they plucked my name from me with their spell, it was as heavy as a rock in their hands but as invisible as the wind, and it wasn't just the memory of my name, but me myself. A tiny part of me that they took and stored away." (Page 21)

Lovely prose, I think! The entire book has an otherworldly, dreamlike feeling. The primary setting, the museum, is full of intriguing and sometimes creepy things (including ghosts). There's a literal clock ticking away the time in which the world can be saved. All set against a sub-text of Ophelia and her family coming to terms with the loss of Ophelia's mother.

It's a powerful book all around. And it has a great title and an appealing cover. I picked it up knowing very little about it, but certain that Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy had to be interesting. I was correct. Recommended for middle grade readers who enjoy fantasy, and anyone else who likes fairy tale retellings. Knowledge of the Snow Queen story is not necessary to appreciate the book.  

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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22. Growing Bookworms Newsletter: February 25

JRBPlogo-smallToday I will be sending out a new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. I currently send out the newsletter once every two weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have four book reviews (middle grade through middle school), as well as a post documenting some of my daughter's emerging literacy skills, and a tip for growing bookworms related to not bookshaming your child. I have one post with links that I shared on Twitter recently. 

Reading Update: I've been having a rough combination of computer troubles and pressing work deadlines (isn't that always the way?) over the past week so, so my reading has been a bit lacking, Still, in the last two weeks I read:

  • Kevin Henkes: The Year of Billy Miller. Greenwillow Books. Early Middle Grade. Completed February 14, 2014. Review to come.
  • Shannon Messenger: Exile: Keeper of the Lost Cities, Book 2. Aladdin. Middle Grade. Completed February 16, 2014, on Kindle. My review
  • Jonathan Stroud: Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase. Disney/Hyperion. Middle Grade. Completed February 24, 2014, on MP3. I'm not planning to review this because it has already received so much acclaim (including winning a recent Cybils award), but I did enjoy it. I look forward to the next book. 
  • Sue Grafton: R is for Ricochet. Berkley. Adult Mystery. Completed February 21, 2014, on Kindle. After reading two of these Sue Grafton books in the past few weeks, I am ready for a break, but I imagine that I'll return before too long to finish catching up on this series. The nice thing is that these are very popular, and hence are available on Kindle from my local library. 

I'm currently reading Mark Frost's Alliance (sequel to The Paladin Prophecy) in print and reading Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan on Kindle. I just started listening to A Week in Winter, Maeve Binchy's final book (so sad). 

We're also still reading to Baby Bookworm these days, of course. You can check out the complete list of books we've read to her this year on my blog. She still surprises me in her reactions sometimes. Last night we read Buglette: The Messy Sleeper by Bethanie Murguia fo the first time in a long time. And it was too scary for her (there's a crow that threatens the bugs in the story). We had to immediately turn to some Little Critter and Fancy Nancy to chase the chills away, so that she wouldn't have nightmares. I'm considering giving the Winnie the Pooh stories a try soon, though. Definitely not scary!

What are you and your family reading these days? Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms. 

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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23. Review of the Day: Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin

NightingalesNest Review of the Day: Nightingales Nest by Nikki LoftinNightingale’s Nest
By Nikki Loftin
Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISNB: 978-1-59514-546-8
Ages 10-14
On shelves now.

Magical realism in children’s novels is a rarity. It’s not unheard of, but when children’s authors want fantasy, they write fantasy. When they want reality, they write reality. A potentially uncomfortable mix of the two is harder to pull off. Ambiguity is not unheard of in books for youth, but it’s darned hard to write. Why go through all that trouble? For that reason alone we don’t tend to see it in children’s books. Kids like concrete concepts. Good guys vs. bad guys. This is real vs. this is a dream. But a clever author, one who respects the intelligence of their young audience, can upset expectations without sacrificing their story. When author Nikki Loftin decided to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Nightingale into a middle grade contemporary novel, she made a conscious decision to make the book a work of magical realism. A calculated risk, Loftin’s gambit pays off. Nightingale’s Nest is a painful but ultimately emotionally resonant tale of sacrifice and song. A remarkably competent book, stronger for its one-of-a-kind choices.

It doesn’t seem right that a twelve-year-old boy would carry around a guilt as deep and profound as Little John’s. But when you feel personally responsible for the death of your little sister, it’s hard to let go of those feelings. It doesn’t help matters any that John has to spend the summer helping his dad clear brush for the richest man in town, a guy so extravagant, the local residents just call him The Emperor. It’s on one of these jobs that John comes to meet and get to know The Emperor’s next door neighbor, Gayle. About the age of his own sister when she died, Gayle’s a foster kid who prefers sitting in trees in her own self-made nest to any other activity. But as the two become close friends, John notices odd things about the girl. When she sings it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and she even appears to possibly have the ability to heal people with her voice. It doesn’t take long before The Emperor becomes aware of the treasure in his midst. He wants Gayle’s one of a kind voice, and he’ll do anything to have it. The question is, what does John think is more important: His family’s livelihood or the full-throated song of one little girl?

How long did it take me to realize I was reading a middle grade adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen short story? Let me first tell you that when I read a book I try not to read even so much as a plot description beforehand so that the novel will stay fresh and clear in my mind. With that understanding, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world that it took a 35-year-old woman thirty-nine pages before she caught on to what she was reading. Still, I have the nasty suspicion that many a savvy kid would have picked up on the theme before I did. As it stands, we’ve seen Andersen adapted into middle grade novels for kids before. Breadcrumbs, for example, is a take on his story The Snow Queen as well as some of his other, stranger tales. They say that he wrote The Nightingale for the singer Jenny Lind, with whom he was in love. All I know is that in the original tale the story concentrates on the wonders of the natural world vs. the mechanical one. In this book, Loftin goes in a slightly different direction. It isn’t an over-reliance on technology that’s the problem here. It’s an inability to view our fellow human beings as just that. Human beings. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what Andersen was going for in the first place.

It was the writing, of course, that struck my attention first. Loftin gives the book beautiful sequences filled with equally beautiful sentences. There’s a section near the end that tells a tale of a tree that fails to keep hold of a downy chick, but is redeemed by saving another bird in a storm. This section says succinctly everything you need to know about this book. I can already see the children’s book and discussion groups around the country that will get a kick out of picking apart this parable. It’s not a hard one to interpret, but you wouldn’t want it to be.

As for the characters, there wasn’t a person here that I couldn’t recognize as real. I was quite taken with the fact that Loftin continually sidesteps a lot of the usual middle grade tropes. Gayle’s nasty foster brother Jeb, for example, could easily have been labeled the typical bully type character for this book. Bullies in children’s books, after all, have a tendency to be one-note characters. Jeb, in contrast, is capable of talking like a normal human being from time to time. He’s a horrible human being at other times, but at least you get the sense that he’s not just a walking two-dimensional caricature. It makes a difference.

The ending is going to be problematic for some folks. It is not, I should say, unsatisfying. I think even people who don’t have a problem with what it says will only have a problem with HOW it goes about saying it. But the end of the book goes so far as to make it clear that this story really doesn’t take place in the real world in which we live. The characters face real world problems, but that doesn’t preclude the presence of something magical. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio . . .” and all that jazz. For some readers, this may feel like a kind of betrayal. As if the author didn’t have the guts to stay in the real world from start to finish, but instead had to rely on something otherworldly for her climax. I don’t see it that way. Loftin’s choices seem very deliberate here, from page one onward. Just because something is magical, that doesn’t mean you can’t interpret the book in other ways. Don’t like the supernatural element at the end? Then why are you assuming it’s real? After all, we’re getting this whole story through Little John’s perspective. Who’s to say he’s the world’s most reliable narrator? Just because a book is written for children, that doesn’t mean you have to take it at face value.

In any case, I don’t believe the magic detracts in the least from what Loftin is saying here about the banality of poverty. This isn’t a book that romanticizes what it’s like to be poor. It’s just Little John’s everyday existence, to a certain extent. And with the introduction of The Emperor, readers get to see firsthand how money, or the lack thereof, has a lot to do with self-worth and what you have to do with your pride and sense of self-worth when you’re indebted to another person. Little John witnesses firsthand his own father’s humiliation at the hands of the Emperor, and then finds himself in possession (in a sense) of something The Emperor wants. But rather than give him power, this just focuses the rich man’s attention on the boy, making him easy prey. Better that you never have something the wealthy think that they need. And as Little John says at one point, “What was right didn’t have a thing to do with what was.”

Reading the book, I found it enormously painful. But I at least had the wherewithal to realize that it was uniquely painful to me as a mother. Any parent reading this is going to instantly fret and worry and think about Gayle’s position in her foster home. But for kids reading this book they’re going to identify with Little John and Gayle as children, not as parents. This is a book about terrible decisions made, for the most part, by good people. This can, at times, make the story emotionally hard to follow, but I like to think Ms. Loftin had things well in hand when she came up with her tale. There’s a great comfort in knowing that even when you screw up royally, you can still find forgiveness. If kids take nothing else away from this book, I hope that they understand that much. Smart and beautiful by turns, The Nightingale’s Nest does one thing that few will contest. Once you’ve read it, you’ll have a hard time getting it out of your head.

On shelves now.

Notes on the Cover: It was indeed the cover that I noticed first about this book. Unfortunately the name of the artist has been difficult to find, but it’s lovely isn’t it? The girl, clearly Gayle, could be floating or flying or just lying on the ground, depending on how you look at it. Of course, most notable is the fact that she appears to be African-American. There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about showing black faces on our book jackets, so I applaud Razorbill for having the guts to do a cover that isn’t a silhouette. That said, I did notice that at no point in the novel does the book specifically say that Gayle is dark-skinned. In fact, it doesn’t really describe her skin at all. We get a sense of how soft her hair is and how beautiful her voice, but nothing much more beyond that. Could this be one of the very few cases in which a kid’s race isn’t mentioned in a book and yet that kid isn’t just assumed to be white? If so it’s a big step forward in the world of book jackets. Someone should conduct an interview with Razorbill’s art director about the decision to go with this cover. I’d love to know if this is indicative of books in the future. If so, it’s a trend I’ll be watching with great interest.

Source: Galley sent from the publisher for review.

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24. The Mark of the Dragonfly: Jaleigh Johnson

Book: The Mark of the Dragonfly
Author: Jaleigh Johnson
Pages: 400
Age Range: 10 and up

I quite enjoyed The Mark of the Dragonfly a brand-new middle grade/middle school fantasy novel by Jaleigh Johnson. The Mark of the Dragonfly is set on another world, one that bears a resemblance to ours, but also includes non-human races and humans with unusual gifts. Piper lives on her own in the bleak Scrap Town 16, eking out a living as a scrapper and a machinist. Scrappers salvage items from other worlds that arrive in certain areas via meteor storms (an example is a book: "Embossed on the front cover was a picture of a girl and small dog. Next to her stood a grinning scarecrow, a lion, and man who looked like he was made entirely of metal.") 

Piper has a gift for machinery, and is good at refurbishing some of the recovered items. But she longs for more. Her life changes forever when she finds a mysterious, fragile girl in the scrap fields. Piper ends up on a quest to help Anna find her home, though the two girls are pursued by a powerful and dangerous man.  

The adult quibbler in me questions how Piper's world can be similar to ours in many ways, despite being on an apparently separate planet. But this wasn't enough to dampen my appreciation for the book. I liked Johnson's inclusion of other intelligent races, coexisting with humans in the world. 

But the real reason that I enjoyed the book is that the characters in The Mark of the Dragonfly are quite strong. Piper is angry about her father's death, and determined to make a better life for herself. She struggles plausibly with doing the right thing. Anna is a bit more of an enigma, by design, but she is fascinating, too. She has only fragmented memories of her life, but she is drawn to books, and can spout various arcane bits of knowledge. There are some nice supporting characters, too, including a potential love interest for Piper (all quite PG, still suitable for upper elementary and middle school kids).

The plotting in The Mark of the Dragonfly moves along quickly, with several dangerous encounters that will keep readers turning the pages. The ongoing puzzle regarding who Anna is, and why she is being pursued, lends a more over-arcing suspense. 

The Mark of the Dragonfly wraps the initial story up nicely. No cliffhangers here. But given the depth of the world that Johnson has created, I do hope that there are future installments. Recommended for fans of middle grade fantasy with strong characters and unusual worlds. This one is going to stick in my memory, I'm sure. 

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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25. Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

Curiosity Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary BlackwoodCuriosity
By Gary Blackwood
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3924-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 10th

Blackwood’s back, baby! And not a minute too soon. Back in 1998, the author released The Shakespeare Stealer which would soon thereafter become his best-known work. A clever blending of historical fiction and adventure, the book allowed teachers the chance to hone Shakespeare down to a kid-friendly level. Since its publication Mr. Blackwood has kept busy, writing speculative fiction and, most recently, works of nonfiction for kids. Then there was a bit of a lull in his writing and the foolish amongst us (myself included) forgot about him. There will be no forgetting Mr. Blackwood anytime now though. Not after you read his latest work Curiosity. Throwing in everything from P.T. Barnum and phrenology to hunchbacks, Edgar Allan Poe, automatons, chess prodigies, murder, terrible fires, and legless men, Blackwood produces a tour de force to be reckoned with. In the press materials for this book, Penguin calls it “Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction.” They’re not wrong. The man’s about to acquire a whole new generation of fans and enthusiasts.

Fear for the children of novels that describe their childhoods as pampered or coddled. No good can come of that. Born weak with a slight deformity of the spine, Rufus lives a lovely life with his father, a well-respected Methodist minister in early 19th century Philadelphia. That’s all before his father writes a kind of predecessor to The Origin of the Species and through a series of misadventures is thrown into debtor’s prison. Fortunately (perhaps) Rufus is a bit of a chess prodigy and his talents get him a job with a man by the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel owns an automaton called The Turk that is supposed to be able to play chess against anyone and win. With Rufus safely ensconced inside, The Turk is poised to become a massive moneymaker. But forces are at work to reveal The Turk’s secrets and if that information gets out, Rufus’s life might not be worth that of the pawns he plays.

Making the past seem relevant and accessible is hard enough when you’re writing a book for adults. Imagine the additional difficulty children’s authors find themselves in. Your word count is limited else you lose your audience. That means you need to engage in some serious (not to mention judicious and meticulous) wordplay. Blackwood’s a pro, though. His 1835 world is capable of capturing you with its life and vitality without boring you in the process. At one point Rufus describes seeing Richmond, VA for the first time and you are THERE, man. From the Flying Gigs to the mockingbirds to the James River itself. I was also relieved to find that Blackwood does make mention of the African-Americans living in Richmond and Philly at the time this novel takes place. Many are the works of historical fiction by white people about white people that conveniently forget this little fact.

Add onto that the difficulty that comes with making the past interesting and accurate and relevant all at once. I read more historical fiction for kids than a human being should, and while it’s all often very well meaning, interesting? Not usually an option. I’m certain folks will look at how Blackwood piles on the crazy elements here (see: previous statement about the book containing everything from phrenology to P.T. Barnum) and will assume that this is just a cheap play for thrills. Not so. It’s the man’s writing that actually holds your focus. I mean, look at that first line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.” Heck, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Check out these little gems:

“If my cosseted childhood hadn’t taught me how to relate to other people, neither had it taught em to fear them.”

“I was like some perverse species of prisoner who felt free only when he was locked inside a tiny cell.”

“Maelzel was not the sort of creator imagined by the Deists, who fashions a sort of clockwork universe and winds it up, then sits back and watches it go and never interferes. He was more like my father’s idea of the creator: constantly tinkering with his creations, looking for ways to make them run more smoothly and perform more cleverly – the kind who makes it possible for new species to develop.”

As for the writing of the story itself, Blackwood keeps the reader guessing and then fills the tale with loads of historical details. The historical accuracy is such that Blackwood even allows himself little throwaway references, confident that confused kids will look them up themselves. For example, at one point Rufus compares himself to “Varney the Vampire climbing into his coffin.” This would be a penny dreadful that circulated roundabout this time (is there any more terrifying name than “Varney” after all?). In another instance a blazing fire is met with two “rival hose” companies battling one another “for the right to hook up to the nearest fireplug.” There is a feeling that for a book to be literary it has to be dull. Blackwood dispels the notion, and one has to stand amazed when they realize that somehow he managed to make a story about a kid trapped in a small dark space for hours at a time riveting.

Another one of the more remarkable accomplishments of the book is that it honestly makes you want to learn more about the game of chess. A good author can get a kid interested in any subject, of course. I think back on The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, which dared to talk up the game of Bridge. And honestly, chess isn’t a hard sell. The #1 nonfiction request I get from my fellow children’s librarians (and the request I simply cannot fulfill fast enough) is for more chess books for kids. At least in the big cities, chess is a way of life for some children. One hopes that we’ll be able to extend their interest beyond the immediate game itself and onto a book where a kid like themselves has all the markings of true genius.

It isn’t perfect, of course. In terms of characterization, of all the people in this book Rufus is perhaps the least interesting. You willingly follow him, of course. Just because he doesn’t sparkle on the page like some of the other characters doesn’t mean you don’t respond to the little guy. One such example might be when his first crush doesn’t go as planned. But he’s a touchstone for the other characters around him. Then there’s the other problem of Rufus being continually rescued by the same person in the same manner (I won’t go into the details) more than once. It makes for a weird repeated beat. The shock of the first incident is actually watered down by the non-surprise of the second. Rufus becomes oddly passive in his own life, rarely doing anything to change the course of his fate (he falls unconscious and wakes up rescued more than once,) a fact that may contribute to the fact that he’s so unmemorable on the page.

But that aside, it’s hard not to be entranced by what Blackwood has come up with here. Automatons sort of came to the public’s attention when Brian Selznick wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Blackwood takes it all a step further merging man and machine, questioning what we owe to one another and, to a certain extent, where the power really lies. Rufus finds his sense of self and bravery by becoming invisible. At the same time, he’s so innocent to the ways of the world that becoming visible comes with the danger of having your heart broken in a multitude of different ways. In an era where kids spend untold gobs of time in front of the screens of computers, finding themselves through a newer technology, Blackwood’s story has never been timelier. Smart and interesting, fun and strange, this is one piece of little known history worthy of your attention. Check and mate.

On shelves April 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.”

Notes on the Cover: And now let us praise fabulous cover artists. Particularly those creating covers that make more sense after you’ve finished the book. The glimpse of Rufus’s eye in the “O” of the title didn’t do much more than vaguely remind me of the spine of the The Invention of Hugo Cabret at first (an apt comparison in more than one way). After closer examination, however, I realized that it was Rufus in the cabinet below. The unnerving view of The Turk and the shadowy Mr. Hyde-ish man in the far back all combine to give this book a look of both historical fervor and intrigue. And look how that single red (red?) pawn is lit. It’s probably not actually a red pawn but a white one, but something about the image looks reddish. Blood red, if you will. Boy, that’s a good jacket.

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc:

  • Care to read Edgar Allan Poe’s actual article for The Messenger about The Turk?  Do so here.
  • A fun BBC piece on the implication of The Turk then, now, and for our children.  It appears to have been written by one “Adam Gopnik”.  We’ll just assume it’s a different Adam than the one behind A Tale Dark & Grimm.

Videos: Want to see the real Turk in action?  This video makes for fascinating watching.

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