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I was intrigued when I read a review of The Cottage in the Woods by Katherine Coville and snatched the book off the shelf when I saw it at my local library. I mention this to make the point that sometimes reviews actually do get readers. Or, in this case, a reader.
The Cottage in the Woods has been described as Jane Eyre meets Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It certainly is. Jane Eyre fans can have a fantastic time picking out the connections. A young, powerless, single female enters a large house as the employee of a wealthy man. This is a wealthy, married man with a family, which is one of the ways this book is different from Jane Eyre. But he's also a bear, as is the young female, Ursula. (Relating to ursine, I'm guessing.) Ursula is there to act as a governess to the bear's son, Teddy. (Oh, my gosh. Teddy Bear!!! No, actually his last name is Vaughn.) Ursula has a love interest, and, shades of Mr. Rochester, he's not free to love her. There is a mystery in this house, as there is in Jane Eyre. And it's related to a female, as is the mystery in Jane Eyre. This female, though, is young, with golden hair.
However, there is a whole nonJane plot involving human bigotry toward enchanted animals like Ursula and the Vaughns. I've read that some reviewers found that aspect of the book didactic. To me it was distracting, because it wasn't part of the Jane Eyre/Three Bears premise. It seemed unnecessary. What was going on with Goldilocks was so clever and unique that I would have liked a plot sticking much closer to that, which could have been closer to the Jane Eyre source material.
But, then, I know Jane Eyre. Readers who don't could feel differently. Since this is a middle grade novel, there will be many readers who don't know Jane.
While reading this, I wondered what Ms. Yingling would think of it. Sure enough, she read The Cottage in the Woods and weighs in on the subject. I agree that while I enjoyed it, it may have trouble finding an audience.
The process of writing or illustrating a children’s has often been compared to having a baby. That gestation-to-birth time is partly the work of creating the story and pictures, but that’s just the beginning. Here is a fantastic explanation of the actual publication timeline, written by tween and teen author extraordinaire, Jen Malone. BookmarkAdd a Comment
I finished the last book I'd taken from the Cybils lists last night, and not a moment too soon. The finalists for the Cybils Award will be announced tomorrow.
I love the premise for The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods. Violet Diamond is an eleven-year-old biracial child whose black father died before she was born. She has never met his family because his mother originally objected to her son marrying a white woman and later, we learn, was so devastated by her only child's sudden death in an accident that she couldn't deal with the family he created with his wife. Once she'd recovered, staying away from them had become a habit.
I find that believable, by the way.
Violet's loving maternal family is extremely white, and she lives in a very white, upper-middle class world. Her mother is a neonatologist, and her late father was a medical doctor as well. Her white grandmother runs some kind of on-line business and her white grandfather is enjoying retirement, cooking and playing golf. Violet wants for nothing, materially or emotionally. Except that half her identity is missing. Just not there.
She is aware that her black grandmother is a well-known artist, and when she finds out that grandmother will be in a neighboring city for an exhibit, she gets her mother to take her to the opening. Violet and grandmother meet, and Violet ends up being exposed to the half of her family history she's never known.
As I said, I love the concept and love the artist grandmother. I felt as if the story of Violet's exposure to her family took a while to get started, though.
For another take on biracial children meeting an unknown grandparent, check out Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything In It (Hmm, similar title.) by Sundee Frazier.
The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond is a Cybils nominee in the middle grade fiction category.
After a couple of months of Cybilizing, I feel more up-to-date on recent children's lit than I have in quite some time.
A clever, spunky girl who keeps a journal and is dealing with a parent's tragic illness. Doesn't that sound like a stereotypical children's book, the kind adult gatekeeper's just love?
That was my first impression of The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern. In fact, I considered giving up on this one early on. Before long, I was very glad I didn't.
Twelve-year-old Maggie Mayfield is brilliant, knows it, and loves everything that goes along with being smart. She is given a journal in which she begins writing a memoir while sitting in a hospital room with her obviously critically ill father. This is all in the prologue. You can see why I wasn't immediately entranced.
But Maggie has a truly marvelous voice. She reminded me very much of Flavia de Luce, a child character of about the same age in an adult mystery series, not just in her intelligence and enjoyment of same, but in her relationship with her two hot, older sisters. There is antagonism there, but the older sisters also keep an eye out for Maggie, which she may not always recognize. Maggie also sets out at one point to cure her father of multiple sclerosis, just as Flavia sets out to do something miraculous and impossible for a parent in one of her books.
Maggie's memoir deals with the year between her eleventh and twelfth birthdays, the year when her father's illness took a turn for the worse, something her family couldn't protect her from, try as they would. Hmm. My college knowledge of memoir is that it's a recollection of an event the significance of which is not clear until after it happens. That pretty much fits the situation here.
One thing I found odd with this book was it's 1980s setting. Why? I kept wondering. So that dad could be the aging hippy he is here? So that the author can talk about decades old music? So that Maggie wouldn't have the Internet available to her, because the Internet would have made it a lot harder to keep knowledge of her father's illness from her? No, in an author's note at the end of the book we find out that The Meaning of Maggie is autobiographical. I can't believe I've never read an autobiographical children's book before. If so, was it this good?
The Meaning of Maggie is a Cybils nominee in the middle grade fiction category.
I am teaching an online class through the Loft Literary Center beginning on February 2, 2015. Here is the description:
Many consider ages 8–12, “the middle grades,” to be a golden age for readers. Their novels include classics like Charlotte’s Web, the Ramona series, and the earliest adventures of Harry Potter. Most Newbery winners also fall into this category. In this class, we will explore some of the qualities that make a book a hit with young readers, with an emphasis on developing a character-driven story. Topics covered include creating a main character kids want to chase through the pages of a novel, avoiding stereotypes and cliches, and being attentive to the inner life of a middle grade novel. Participants will have an opportunity to share their work and get feedback from their peers as well as from the teaching artist.
And here are answers to commonly asked questions:
We also all read one recent book recommended and voted on by the class, and I try to get the author to join us for a chat.
Sign up for the class here!
I have liked some of M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales/Pals in Peril books better than others. (I know I'm nitpicking on this, but the name of the series changed for some reason.) I had to be won over by the first book, Whales on Stilts, but the second one, The Clue of of the Linoleum Lederhosen, was a hit. The third one I read (there are supposed to be six; I seem to have missed a couple), Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware wasn't a favorite. But the final book in the series, He Laughed with His Other Mouths, is an absolute gem.
The basic premise for all these books: A Tom Swift-type character named Jaspar Dash and a spunky girl (younger and spunkier than the 1930's era Nancy Drew) existed in their own book worlds that reflected the eras that created them, the 1920s/30s and the 1980s/90s. And yet, at the same time, they are existing in our own twenty-first century where Jaspar, in particular, is both having adventures but out of place.
In He Laughed with His Other Mouths, Jaspar is now that classic/stereotypical character, the young male in search of his father. Jaspar will go to the ends of the universe in search of dear old dad. He will accept some pretty outlandish behavior from his father figure. However, Jaspar is a young hero, and he recognizes evil when he sees it. Maybe he doesn't recognize it right away and maybe he needs a little push from his spunky girl companions, but he does recognize and behave as a hero should.
All of the books that I've read in this series operate on more than one level. You have the basic contemporary adventure. You have characters from an older book world trying to function in a contemporary one. You have the knowledge that children who are now old, if not dead, read the older books back when they were new and shiny.
With He Laughed with His Other Mouths, Anderson does something quite marvelous with footnotes. Using footnotes for witty asides has become a cliche since Terry Pratchett perfected doing that back in the day. But Anderson uses his clever footnotes not to be witty but to tell another story entirely, this one about a kid during World War II who was a Jaspar Dash fan. This is a complete story, a piece of serious historical fiction embedded in a fantasy satire/comedy.
As with all these books that I've read, I wonder how much of this wonderful stuff child readers will understand. Assuming they enjoy the layer with the contemporary adventure, will they get the jokes that are part of it? Will they get the nostalgic elements?
Kid readers aside, for those of us who do get He Laughed with His Other Mouths, it's pretty damn brilliant.
He Laughed with His Other Mouths is a Cybils nominee in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category.
When I picked up The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy from the library, I told the librarian that I'd heard the book was like The Penderwicks but with boys and two gay dads. She said, "Ah, bringing the story into the present." I think that is the case. I liked The Penderwicks very much and found it contemporary, probably compared to/contrasted with Little Women, which it is a spin on. But I also thought "This book, simply by being a throw-back to Little Women and, perhaps, other pre-nineteen-fifties stories, is different." It had a retro thing going for it, it was "a story about sisters who worry about the family's honor and don't even mention a TV."
The Fletcher boys may be viewed as a little innocent and other-worldly not because they're retro in any way but because their stories and lives are very rooted in traditional child issues. This in spite of the fact that they are not genetically related, they are not even all the same ethnic background, and they are all the children of two men who are living and raising a family together. Each boy has his own storyline with his own issue:
I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora is about a group of teenagers who set out to increase To Kill a Mockingbird's popularity by making it appear to be disappearing and thus unavailable. Everyone wants what they can't have, right? Part of their plan is to take their project viral. Some readers might think that they were unrealistically successful with that. All the characters, teen and adult, are amusing and clever, though some readers might find that they sound a lot alike.
Yes, yes, "some readers" is me.
Okay, let's talk about the intriguing things in I Kill the Mockingbird:
Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French is one of the first pieces of fiction with an environmental setting/theme that I think I've read for this project. It deals with a boy from the city who learns of an endangered old growth forest of redwoods and gets involved with a child-directed initiative to save it. It's very much a city-people-with-money-bad, rural-farm-people-good story. That kind of stereotype is not a big drawback in children's publishing because child readers have not had time to become widely read. Old scenarios are new to them. In fact, Operation Redwood won the Green Earth Book Award in the children's fiction category in 2010. For this adult reader, the most interesting part of the book was the Author's Note in which French, an environmental lawyer, describes the history of redwood preservation, which also gave some idea of the inspiration for some of the events and characters in the book. The novel includes a lot of information and could easily be a reading list staple for school environmental units.
Reading this book raised lots of questions for me about environmental fiction. For one thing, what exactly is an environmental theme? In the case of Operation Redwood, I would say that it's that humans have a responsibility to act as caretaker for the Earth. But what would other themes be? Are there other themes? Is there any way for a writer to use the humans-as-caretakers theme without making it instructional instead of thematic?
And what about my desire to see environmental books that include an immersion in some kind of natural experience? Can you get that particular type of sense of place while working a plot?
How does Saving the Planet & Stuff fit in with all this? Thematically, that book is about having to decide how we'll live our lives. There's an environmental setting. There are environmentalist characters. If there's any kind of environmental theme, I'd say that it's the difficulty of living an environmental life.
Wait! Wait! Go back three paras at which point I asked for other environmental themes! I just came up with one!
Well, I look forward to reading more environmental fiction and obsessing on this further.
A dream shattered.
Eleven-year-old Kate Taylor dreams of being the star of her basketball team, Angels. When Kate’s tooth is knocked out at one of the games and her mother, who is also her coach, says she can’t play until the tooth the dentist replants heals, Kate’s dreams are in jeopardy. Add Emily, the new girl at school who claims she’s the best, and Kate faces a challenge to prove that she is the star.
Will Kate succeed? Or will Emily ruin Kate’s plans?
Barnes and Noble: http://tinyurl.com/18r6ox4
Most of the time, you’ll find Beverly in front of her computer, writing the stories little voices whisper in her ear. When she’s not writing, she takes long walks and snaps pictures of clouds, wild flowers, birds and deer. To some of her friends, she is affectionately known as the “Bug Lady” because she rescues butterflies, moths, walking sticks, and praying mantis from her cats.
For twenty-two years Beverly taught children in grades two through five how to read and write. They taught her patience. Now, she teaches a women’s Sunday school class at her church. To relax she plays the piano. Her cats don’t appreciate good music and run and hide when she tickles the ivories.
You know I love lists. I’m a listophile. This blog features t a list of 500+ Things that Kids Like, Things They DON’T Like, and a list of over 200 fun, cool and interesting words. List-o-mania! List-o-rama! The lister! (Pretend I’m talking in Rob Schneider’s SNL “annoying office guy” voice.)
Today I invited debut author Darlene Beck Jacobson to the blog to share the Top 10 Toys and Candies of the early 1900’s, the time when times, well, they were a-changin’. It was also the time during her new middle grade novel, WHEELS OF CHANGE! (Don’t you just LOVE that cover?)
TOP TEN TOYS OF 1900-1920
Other popular toys of the time included: Baseball Cards (1900), Ping Pong (1901), Jigsaw Puzzle (1909), Snap Card Game, playing cards, marbles, checkers, chess, yo-yos, wooden tops and (of course) dolls.
Let’s see, what would the top 10 toys of today be? I think Teddy Bears might still have a shot at it. Maybe Crayola crayons, too. But I bet no one back then could envision an app being the most popular toy. (An app? they might say. You mean a tiny apple?)
Now let’s devour the top tasty treats of the era!
POPULAR CANDY FROM 1900-1920
Hmm, I think Hershey would still rank pretty high today. But my kids love Sour Patch and Fun Dip and AirHeads and all kinds of gross things now. Give me a Hershey’s any day (although make it a Cookies-n-Cream bar).
Last night was back-to-school night at my daughter’s elementary, and I’m astounded every year when the principal says, “Our children will be working in fields that haven’t even been invented yet.” That’s how fast things are moving. I’m sure in another hundred years the top toys will be time machines and molecular transporters that will bring the catchphrase “Beam me up, Scotty” back in style.
Today’s world is moving fast, and that tempo is paralleled in WHEELS OF CHANGE with racial intolerance, social change and sweeping progress. It is a turbulent time growing up in 1908. For twelve year old EMILY SOPER, life in Papa’s carriage barn is magic. Emily is more at homehearing the symphony of the blacksmith’s hammer, than trying to conform to the proper expectations of females. Many prominent people own Papa’s carriages. He receives an order to make one for President Theodore Roosevelt. Papa’s livelihood becomes threatened by racist neighbors, and horsepower of a different sort. Emily is determined to save Papa’s business even if she has to go all the way to the President.
Sounds exciting, right? IT IS!
And guess what, you have yet another chance to win another book! Leave a comment stating what YOU think the #1 toy and #1 candy is right now, in 2014. You have until the last seconds of September 29th to enter. The winner receives WHEELS OF CHANGE.
To learn more about Darlene Beck Jacobsen and WHEELS OF CHANGE, visit DarleneBeckJacobson.com.
Eldin Memorial Fellowship
Christine Elizabeth Eldin (1966-2012) was an aspiring middle grade author. Her passion for learning, and for sharing her knowledge with young people, inspired her to earn a master's degree in education and dedicate her life to writing young adult literature. She co-founded "Book Roast," an online book promotion site that spotlighted the recent releases of dozens of authors. She also maintained a popular blog and actively supported her community of fellow writers. She was a loving mother, sister, and daughter, and a dear friend to many.
Chris left this world too soon when her life took a tragic turn. Her gentle soul, creative spirit, and generous heart will forever be remembered by the many people whose lives she touched and inspired. *
The Christine Eldin Memorial Fellowship ("Eldin Fellowship") has two purposes:
1. Honor the memory of Chris Eldin.
2. Provide recognition and financial assistance to an unpublished middle grade fiction writer whose work-in-progress reveals potential for a successful writing career.
The Lascaux Review will host an annual contest to choose a "best" middle grade novel work-in-progress, along with a short list of finalists, among entries submitted. The contest will be conducted initially in 2014 (for award of the 2015 fellowship) and scheduled annually thereafter. A middle grade novel is understood to mean a work of fiction, typically a chapter book, for readers between the ages of eight and twelve.
Any unpublished middle grade manuscript, in whole or part, for which no publication contract exists at the time of submission, is eligible. Only English language submissions will be considered.
Contestants cannot be previously published in middle grade book-length fiction. Other types of previous publications are allowed. Previously self-published works are allowed. Contestants may be of any nationality and reside anywhere.
Judging takes place in two stages. In the first stage contestants submit the first 5000 words of their manuscripts, along with a synopsis. The synopsis may be of any length not exceeding 2000 words, and it should describe the entire story, including how it ends. Contestants submit digital files (doc, docx, pdf, rtf, etc.) via Submittable. The entry fee is $10. Readers selected by the Eldin Fellowship committee will choose the finalists.
In the second stage, a judge selected by the Eldin Fellowship committee selects a winner.
The first year's fellowship is $1000 and a trophy. The first year's judge is Louise Hawes.
Deadline for submissions is 31 December.
For more information contact:
lascauxreviewATgmailDOTcom (Change AT to @ and DOT to . )
To submit to the contest, click on the following link.
To contribute to a fundraiser presently underway, visit Indiegogo.
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:
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!
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!
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.
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.
Original article: #NoiseforNess Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness Giveaway
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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 . )
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.
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!
Born 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.
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.Display Comments Add a Comment
Book: The Great Greene Heist
Author: Varian Johnson
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
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title: Saving Kabul Corner
author: N. H. Senzai
date: Simon and Schuster; 2014
main character: Ariana Shinwari
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
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.
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
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.
With 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).
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.
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 […]Add a Comment