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1. Big Sur on Cape Cod

I’ve just returned home from Big Sur on Cape Cod, a wonderful mentoring weekend for children’s book authors and illustrators organized by Andrea Brown and her most-successful-in-the-US literary agency, in coordination with Lisa Rehfuss. This event is held annually in California, and for the first time was offered here in New England (lucky us). The […]

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2. Review of the Day: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

WolfHollowWolf Hollow
By Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1101994825
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

I am not what you might call a very brave reader. This is probably why I primarily consume children’s literature. I might puff myself up with a defense that lists the many fine aspects of this particular type of writing and believe it too, but sometimes when you catch me in a weak moment I might confess that another reason I like reading books for kids is that the content is so very “safe” in comparison to books for adults. Disturbing elements are kept at a minimum. There’s always a undercurrent of hope running through the book, promising that maybe we don’t live in a cold, cruel, calculating universe that cares for us not one jot. Even so, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes have difficulty with books written for, oh say, 10-year-olds. I do. I’m not proud of it, but I do. So when I flipped to the back of Wolf Hollow mid-way through reading it, I want to tell you that I did so not because I wanted to spoil the ending for myself but because I honestly couldn’t turn another page until I knew precisely how everything was going to fall out. In her debut children’s book, Lauren Wolk dives head first into difficult material. A compelling author, the book is making the assumption that child readers will want to see what happens to its characters, even when the foreshadowing is so thick you’d need a knife to cut through it. Even when the ending may not be the happy one everyone expects. And you know what? The book might be right.

It is fair to say that if Betty Glengarry hadn’t moved to western Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1943 then Annabelle would not have needed to become a liar later. Betty looks the part of the blond, blue-eyed innocent, but that exterior hides a nasty spirit. Within days of her arrival she’s threatened Annabelle and said in no uncertain terms that unless she’s brought something special she’ll take it out on the girl’s little brothers. Annabelle is saved from Betty’s threats by Toby, a war veteran with issues of his own. That’s when Betty begins a more concentrated campaign of pain. Rocks are thrown. Accusations made. There’s an incident that comes close to beheading someone. And then, when things look particularly bad, Annabelle disappears. And so does Toby. Now Annabelle finds herself trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong, and whether lies can ever lead people to the truth.

Right off the bat I’m going to tell you that this is a spoiler-rific review. I’ve puzzled it over but I can’t for the life of me figure out how I’d be able to discuss what Wolk’s doing here without giving away large chunks o’ plot. So if you’re the kind of reader who prefers to be surprised, walk on.

All gone? Okay. Let’s get to it.

First and foremost, let’s talk about why this book was rough going for me. I understand that “Wolf Hollow” is going to be categorized and tagged as a “bully book” for years to come, and I get that. But Betty, the villain of the piece, isn’t your average mean girl. I hesitate to use the word “sadistic” but there’s this cold undercurrent to her that makes for a particularly chilling read. Now the interesting thing is that Annabelle has a stronger spine than, say, I would in her situation. Like any good baddie, Betty identifies the girl’s weak spot pretty quickly (Annabelle’s younger brothers) and exploits it as soon as she is able. Even so, Annabelle does a good job of holding her own. It’s when Betty escalates the threat (and I do mean escalates) that you begin to wonder why the younger girl is so adamant to keep her parents in the dark about everything. If there is any weak spot in the novel, it’s a weak spot that a lot of books for middle grade titles share. Like any good author, Wolk can’t have Annabelle tattle to her parents because otherwise the book’s momentum would take a nose dive. Fortunately this situation doesn’t last very long and when Annabelle does at last confide in her very loving parents Betty adds manipulation to her bag of tricks. It got to the point where I honestly had to flip to the back of the book to see what would happen to everyone and that is a move I NEVER do. But there’s something about Betty, man. I think it might have something to do with how good she is at playing to folks’ preexisting prejudices.

Originally author Lauren Wolk wrote this as a novel for adults. When it was adapted into a book for kids she didn’t dumb it down or change the language in a significant manner. This accounts for some of the lines you’ll encounter in the story that bear a stronger import than some books for kids. Upon finding the footsteps of Betty in the turf, Annabelle remarks that they “were deep and sharp and suggested that she was more freighted than she could possibly be.” Of Toby, “He smelled a lot like the woods in thaw or a dog that’s been out in the rain. Strong, but not really dirty.” Maybe best of all, when Annabelle must help her mother create a salve for Betty’s poison ivy, “Together, we began a brew to soothe the hurt I’d prayed for.”

I shall restrain myself from describing to you fully how elated I was when I realized the correlation between Betty down in the well and the wolves that were trapped in the hollow so very long ago. Betty is a wolf. A duplicitous, scheming, nasty girl with a sadistic streak a mile wide. The kind of girl who would be more than willing to slit the throat of an innocent boy for sport. She’s a lone wolf, though she does find a mate/co-conspirator of sorts. Early in the book, Wolk foreshadows all of this. In a conversation with her grandfather, Annabelle asks if, when you raised it right, a wolf could become a dog. “A wolf is not a dog and never will be . . . no matter how you raise it.” Of course you might call Toby a lone wolf as well. He doesn’t seek out the company of other people and, like a wolf, he’s shot down for looking like a threat.

What Wolk manages to do is play with the reader’s desire for righteous justice. Sure Annabelle feels conflicted about Betty’s fate in the will but will young readers? There is no doubt in my mind that young readers in bookclubs everywhere will have a hard time feeling as bad for the antagonist’s fate as Annabelle does. Even at death’s door, the girl manages the twist the knife into Toby one last time. I can easily see kids in bookclub’s saying, “Sure, it must be awful to be impaled in a well for days on end . . . . buuuut . . . .” Wolk may have done too good a job delving deep into Betty’s dark side. It almost becomes a question of grace. We’re not even talking about forgiveness here. Can you just feel bad about what’s happened to the girl, even if it hasn’t changed her personality and even if she’s still awful? Wolk might have discussed after Betty’s death the details of her family situation, but she chooses not to. She isn’t making it easy for us. Betty lives and dies a terrible human being, yet oddly we’re the ones left with the consequences of that.

In talking with other people about the book, some have commented about what it a relief it was that Betty didn’t turn into a sweet little angel after her accident. This is true, but there is also no time. There will never be any redemption for Betty Glengarry. We don’t learn any specific details about her unhappy home life or what it was that turned her into the pint-sized monster she is. And her death comes in that quiet, unexpected way that so many deaths do come to us. Out of the blue and with a whisper. For all that she spent time in the well, she lies until her very last breath about how she got there. It’s like the novel Atonement with its young liar, but without the actual atoning.

Wolk says she wrote this book and based much of it on her own family’s stories. Her memories provided a great deal of the information because, as she says, even the simplest life on a Pennsylvanian farm can yield stories, all thanks to a child’s perspective. There will be people who compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird but to my mind it bears more in common with The Crucible. So much of the book examines how we judge as a society and how that judgment can grow out of hand (the fact that both this book and Miller’s play pivot on the false testimony of young girls is not insignificant). Now I’ll tell you the real reason I flipped to the back of the book early. With Wolf Hollow Wolk threatens child readers with injustice. As you read, there is a very great chance that Betty’s lies will carry the day and that she’ll never be held accountable for her actions. It doesn’t work out that way, though the ending isn’t what you’d call triumphant for Annabelle either. It’s all complicated, but it was that unknowing midway through the book that made me need to see where everything was going. In this book there are pieces to pick apart about lying, truth, the greater good, minority vs. majority opinions, the price of honesty and more. For that reason, I think it very likely it’ll find itself in good standing for a long time to come. A book unafraid to be uneasy.

On shelves now.

Source: Thanks to Penguin Random House for passing on the galley.

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3. Author Interview: Donna Gephart on Lily and Duncan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations
ajudd@penguinrandomhouse.com

From the promotional copy of Lily and Duncan by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2016):

Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in the eighth grade.

Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from the New Jersey town he’s called home for the past thirteen years. This would be hard enough, but the fact that he is also hiding from a painful secret makes it even worse.

One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, and their lives forever change.

How would you describe your body of work for young readers? Are there themes you frequently revisit, and if so, what about them fascinates you?

I write for the lonely child I was when I visited the Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia, looking for a friend inside the pages of a book. I often write on the themes of loneliness and feeling like you don't quite fit in. My books broach difficult topics, like bullying and grief, but always, always conclude on a hope-filled note.

Congratulations on the release of Lily and Duncan! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thanks! I write about the genesis of both Lily's and Dunkin's story in the author's note at the back of the novel. Lily's story stemmed from an unforgettable documentary I saw about a trans girl, and Dunkin's story emerged from a promise I made to our older son, who deals with bipolar disorder.

What was the time between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I saw the documentary that inspired me to write the novel in 2012. Recently, I was looking through my mountain of notes for the project and discovered that in 2012 I had written the ending of the novel . . . and that ending remains unchanged from the version that comes out May 3. It took all the time in between to figure out how to get to that ending — lots of research and deep thinking.

Would you elaborate on your research process?

I spent years researching this novel — talking to experts, watching documentaries, reading books, articles, memoirs and novels, etc.

How did you approach balancing the characters as joint heroes of the story?

This novel is told in alternating perspectives from each of the two characters. I had such familiarity with the mental health piece of this novel that I needed to remind myself to make Dunkin's story as strong as Lily's. When a reviewer recently said Dunkin's story almost eclipses Lily's, I know I have succeeded.

In this dual narrative, each character has a unique voice and tells their story from that very personal perspective. I felt this was the best way to get readers inside the heads and hearts of each character as they navigate very difficult terrain in their eighth grade lives.

What were the other challenges (literary, logistical, emotional, etc.) in bringing the story to life?

This was a difficult story to write because of the emotional intensity of each character's journey, but it was a story I felt strongly needed to be told to help encourage empathy and understanding and end stigma.

What advice do you have for authors in approaching stories with similar elements?

It's important to research thoroughly and tell the emotional truth. And don't forget the humor. Humor has a way of shining light in the darkest of places.

Your co-protagonists are in eighth grade, and the book is marketed to ages 10+. This developmental/literary category sometimes gets lost between middle grade and YA. 

Why should we pay more attention to tween-agers and books that reflect them?

Tween-agers deal with some difficult issues before the adults in their lives are ready for them to do so. I've already had teachers and counselors from elementary and middle schools tell me that students from their schools were transitioning. I know when I was teaching writing to young people, these tween-agers were dealing with some very difficult things that most adults would never have imagined.

It's important that these books be available for those young readers who need them — which is all young readers, to increase empathy, understanding and kindness.

The more we know, the better we do.

What do you do when you're not reading or writing?

Taking long walks, jogs or bike rides in nature always renews me. I love coming across wild turkeys or peacocks strutting around. And I enjoy cooking (and eating!) creative vegan meals. One of my favorite YouTube channels is Cheap, Lazy Vegan.



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4. Review of the Day: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

RaymieNightingaleRaymie Nightingale
By Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8117-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

My relationship to Kate DiCamillo’s books is one built entirely on meaning. Which is to say, the less emotional and meaningful they are, the better I like ‘em. Spaghetti loving horses and girls that live in tree houses? Right up my alley! China rabbits and mice with excessive earlobes? Not my cup of tea. It’s good as a reviewer to know your own shortcomings and I just sort of figured that I’d avoid DiCamillo books when they looked deep and insightful. And when the cover for Raymie Nightingale was released it was easily summarized in one word: Meaningful. A girl, seen from behind, stands ankle-deep in water holding a single baton. Still, I’ve had a good run of luck with DiCamillo as of late and I was willing to push it. I polled my friends who had read the book. The poor souls had to answer the impossible question, “Will I like it?” but they shouldered the burden bravely. Yes, they said. I would like it. I read it. And you know what? I do like it! It is, without a doubt, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I like it a lot. I like the wordplay, the characters, and the setting. I like what the book has to say about friendship and being honest with yourself and others. I like the ending very very much indeed (it has a killer climax that I feel like I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I do think it’s a different kind of DiCamillo book than folks are used to. It’s her style, no bones about it, but coming from a deeper place than her books have in the past. In any case, it’s a keeper. Meaning plus pep.

Maybe it isn’t much of a plan, but don’t tell Raymie that. So far she thinks she has it all figured out. Since her father skipped town with that dental hygienist, things haven’t been right in Raymie’s world. The best thing to do would be to get her father back, so she comes up with what surely must be a sure-fire plan. She’ll just learn how to throw a baton, enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, win, and when her father sees her picture in the paper he’ll come on home and all will be well. Trouble (or deliverance) comes in the form of Louisiana and Beverly, the two other girls who are taking this class with Ida Nee (the baton-twirling instructor). Unexpectedly, the three girls become friends and set about to solve one another’s problems. Whether it’s retrieving library books from scary nursing home rooms, saving cats, or even lives, these three rancheros have each other’s backs just when they need them most.

DiCamillo has grown as an author over the years. So much so that when she begins Raymie Nightingale she dives right into the story. She’s trusting her child readers to not only stick with what she’s putting down, but to decipher it as well. As a result, some of them are going to experience some confusion right at the tale’s beginning. A strange girl seemingly faints, moaning about betrayal in front of a high-strung baton instructor. Our heroine stands impressed and almost envious. Then we learn about Raymie’s father and the whole enterprise takes a little while to coalesce. It’s a gutsy choice. I suspect that debut authors in general would eschew beginning their books in this way. A pity, since it grabs your attention by an act of simple befuddlement.

Initial befuddlement isn’t enough to keep you going, though. You need a hook to sustain you. And in a book like this, you find that the characters are what stay with you the longest. Raymie in particular. It isn’t just about identification. The kid reading this book is going to impress on Raymie like baby birds impress on sock puppet mamas. She’s like Fone Bone in Jeff Smith’s series. She’s simultaneously a mere outline of a character and a fully fleshed out human being. Still, she’s an avatar for readers. We see things through her rather than with her. And sure, her name is also the title, but names are almost always titles for Kate DiCamillo (exceptions being The Magician’s Elephant, The Tiger Rising, and that Christmas picture book, of course). If you’re anything like me, you’re willing to follow the characters into absurdity and back. When Beverly says of her mother that, “Now she’s just someone who works in the Belknap Tower gift shop selling canned sunshine and rubber alligators” you go with it. You don’t even blink. The setting is almost a character as well. I suspect DiCamillo’s been away from Florida too long. Not in her travels, but in her books. Children’s authors that willingly choose to set their books in the Sunshine State do so for very personal reasons. DiCamillo’s Florida is vastly different from that of Carl Hiaasen’s, for example. It’s a Florida where class exists and is something that permeates everything. Few authors dare to consider lower or lower middle classes, but it’s one of the things I’ve always respected about DiCamillo in general.

Whenever I write a review for a book I play around with the different paragraphs. Should I mention that the book is sad at the beginning of the review or at the end? Where do I put my theory about historical fiction? Should character development be after the plot description paragraph or further in? But when it comes to those written lines I really liked in a book, that kind of stuff shouldn’t have to wait. For example, I adore the lines, “There was something scary about watching an adult sleep. It was as if no one at all were in charge of the world.” DiCamillo excels in the most peculiar of details. One particular favorite was the small paper cups with red riddles on their sides. The Elephantes got them for free because they were misprinted without answers. It’s my secret hope that when DiCamillo does school visits for this book she’ll ask the kids in the audience what the answer to the riddle, “What has three legs, no arms, and reads the paper all day long?” might be. It’s her version of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Now let us discuss a genre: Historical fiction. One question. Why? Not “Why does it exist?” but rather “Why should any novel for kids be historical?” The easy answer is that when you write historical fiction you have built in, legitimate drama. The waters rise during Hurricane Katrina or San Francisco’s on fire. But this idea doesn’t apply to small, quiet novels like Raymie Nightingale. Set in the summer of 1975, there are only the barest of nods to the time period. Sometimes authors do this when the book is semi-autobiographical, as with Jenni Holm’s Sunny Side Up. Since this novel is set in Central Florida and DiCamillo grew up there, there’s a chance that she’s using the setting to draw inspiration for the tale. The third reason authors sometimes set books in the past is that it frees them up from the restrictions of the internet and cell phone (a.k.a. guaranteed plot killers). Yet nothing that happens in Raymie Nightingale requires that cell phones remain a thing of the past. The internet is different. Would that all novels could do away with it. Still, in the end I’m not sure that this book necessarily had to be historical. It’s perfectly fine. A decent time period to exist in. Just not particularly required one way or another.

Obviously the book this feels like at first is Because of Winn-Dixie. Girl from a single parent home finds friendship and (later rather than sooner, in the case of Raymie Nightingale) an incredibly ugly dog. But what surprised me about Raymie was that this really felt more like Winn-Dixie drenched in sadness. Sadness is important to DiCamillo. As an author, she’s best able to draw out her characters and their wants if there’s something lost inside of them that needs to be found. In this case, it’s Raymie’s father, the schmuck who took off with his dental hygienist. Of course all the characters are sad in different ways here. About the time you run across the sinkhole (the saddest of all watery bodies) on page 235 you’re used to it.

Sure, there are parts of the book I could live without. The parts about Raymie’s soul are superfluous. The storyline of Isabelle and the nursing home isn’t really resolved. On the flip side, there are lots of other elements within these pages that strike me as fascinating, like for example why the only men in the book are Raymie’s absent father, an absent swimming coach, a librarian, and a janitor. Now when I was a child I avoided sad children’s books like the plague. You know what won the Newbery in the year that I was born? Bridge to Terabithia. And to this day I eschew them at all costs. But though this book is awash in personal tragedies, it’s not a downer. It’s tightly written and full of droll lines and, yes I admit it. It’s meaningful. But the meaning you cull from this book is going to be different for every single reader. Whip smart and infinitely readable, this is DiCamillo at her best. Time to give it a go, folks.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Song to Listen to With This Book: King of the Road
Alternative Song: I Wanna Hold Your Hand

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5. Review of the Day: The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long

MagicMirrorThe Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King, and a Pickpocket Squirrel
By Susan Hill Long
Knopf (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-553-51134-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves May 10th

What do you want from a fairy tale? Magic? Romance? Derring-do? Despicable villainy? Academics and scholars have puzzled and puzzed until their puzzlers were sore over what it is about the European fairy tale genre that so enthralls us. Recently fairy tale lovers have seen the entertainment industry discover that fairy tales are still a primo source of capital. On the book side of things, I’ve seen a distinct uptick in retellings of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and more in the last five years. Classic fairy tales have it easy. It’s the newbies that have a hard time going. How do you get a foothold in a genre that’s been in existence for centuries? In The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long, the author decides to simplify. Merely take the elements that suit the story best (highway robbers, princesses, and just a smidgen of magic) and then weave in some surprisingly stellar writing. The result is fairy tale fare that reminds one of nothing so much as the best of Gail Carson Levine. Funny, friendly, witty and sly, this makes for perfect bedtime reading.

Margaret (or Maggot, depending on who’s talking about her) should technically be grateful for her life. Though she sports a lame foot (an “accident of birth” she’s been told) and is an orphan, she has a roof over her head, food in her belly, and aside from avoiding Thomas, the local bully, not too much trouble in life. But of course she’s desperately lonely, and that’s a problem that’s hard to cure. When she makes the acquaintance of a man with a wooden leg, she receives in a trade a mirror capable of showing anyone their heart’s desire. But what she sees when she peers into it is a strange wild-eyed man she’s never laid eyes on before. When Minka, the woman who cares for Margaret, decides to marry her off, our heroine decides that leg or no leg she is not going to have her life decided for her. And in the course of her adventures she’ll little suspect there are royal mix-ups, a king with little in the way of fatherly feelings, a boy with a bagpipe, and a light-fingered squirrel in her very near future.

Is anyone going to challenge me when I say that comparing a book, any book, to The Princess Bride is never a good idea? The Princess Bride inspires a loving fandom that jealously guards its unique storytelling. Still, there are many familiar tropes in that book/film. A princess, a pirate, giants, swordplay, you name it. When writing a new fairy tale you Harry Potter it. You take those familiar elements and weave them into something new. So when Ms. Long wrote The Magic Mirror she did exactly the same thing. Additionally, by splitting her narrative into an increasingly large cast of characters, she gives it a distinctly Princess Bride-like feel. It has humor and fights and baddies in all the same ways. When Kirkus reviewed this book they said that it was predictable and unbelievable (because of the coincidences in the plot). I’d counter that there’s nothing any more predictable or unbelievable here than you’d find in any modern fairy tale, be it Ella Enchanted or Frozen, and just as much joy.

In this particular case it’s Long’s descriptions and characters that stay with a reader long after the book has been put down. Even the foulest villain has an emotional weak spot, and characters that are set up to seem like baddies at the beginning (like Minka) turn out to be pretty soft in the end. Plus you really root for these characters. Some authors think it necessary to drown their villains in a thick sauce of sadism so that when the heroes triumph it’s an even keener victory. But when writing books for 9-12 year olds there’s no need to pile on the bloodshed. In the right writers’ hands, as long as the antagonist is preventing the heroes from their happy ending, that’s all you really need to do to keep the plot moving at a sharp clip. I liked the people I met in this book, but the descriptions were probably my favorite aspect of the novel. Lines like, “Her voice climbed up the sentence like a ladder, and quavered at the top,” make me happy. Ditto wisdoms like “It’s all in the angle of the squint.” Or a description of a cathedral’s shadows where a character “shuffled away from the creeping dark so that she might escape God’s notice.”

I did experience a palpable sense of relief that it was written today, though. Since Margaret has a physical disability (a foot and leg injured long ago that were never set correctly) there is a brief suggestion at one point that there might be a magical remedy to her problem. I was reminded of a similar middle grade novel Handbook for Dragon Slayers which also starred a girl with an injured limb. In that book a cure for her disability is bandied about and ultimately rejected in an excellent manner. Indeed, the book went on to win a Schneider Family Book Award given annually to books that embody, “an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” Reading The Magic Mirror I had the very clear sense that if this book had been written in the past an easy cure for Margaret’s leg would have been part of the story’s happy ending and that would be that. These days such endings are mildly insulting answers to what, in truth, are very real problems. Happily The Magic Mirror does not fall into such a trap (though sadly the heroine does have some unfortunate thoughts about a successful man with a hunch on his back that did not gel well with the book’s otherwise positive embrace of disability).

As it happens, I did find one particular aspect of the book problematic. This is Ms. Long’s second novel so while the bones of this story are strong there are aspects to the writing that will need a bit of strengthening in the future. Specifically, the exposition. Now the art of exposition is learned, not born. Filling the reader in on a hitherto unknown back-story is no easy task. At best, back-story is woven into the dialogue so naturally the reader is hardly aware that they’re learning about what’s come before. Clunky back-story, in contrast, places huge chunks of it en masse in the same general vicinity of the novel. Alas, near the end of The Magic Mirror the author has set herself up to reveal not just the back-story of our heroine, but of at least three to four other people as well. The result is ultimately somewhat confusing, with new characters popping up (a midwife, a thief’s wife) to fill in the details out of the blue. Without a character guide (which would, admittedly, give away some of the plot) there is little to help kids distinguish between Petra vs. Minka vs. Margaret.

For all that there is a magic mirror in the story the book is pretty devoid of magical activities. You won’t find dragons or wizards or much of anything out of this world here, with the sole exception of the mirror itself. It’s almost a pity that it’s in the title since you could probably hand this title to kids that only like realism (and they do indeed exist) and they’d get just as much out of it as the most ravenous fantasy fan. While it’s not a perfect novel, it is a ripping good yarn that keeps you enthralled from page one onward. Will you see where it’s going? Maybe. But you’ll enjoy the sights along the way. Fine fantastical stuff.

For ages 9-12.

On shelves May 10th.

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6. Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan (Sky Pony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

A funny middle grade mystery adventure complete with an unconventional knight, a science experiment gone awry, a giant spider, and a boy to save the day!

Twelve-year-old Henry Hewitt has been living by his wits on the streets of London, dodging his parents, who are determined to sell him as an apprentice. 

Searching for a way out of the city, Henry lands a position in Hampshire as an assistant to Sir Richard Blackstone, an aristocratic scientist who performs unorthodox experiments in his country manor. 

The manor house is comfortable, and the cook is delighted to feed Henry as much as he can eat. Sir Richard is also kind, and Henry knows he has finally found a place where he belongs.

But everything changes when one of Sir Richard’s experiments accidentally transforms a normal-sized tarantula into a colossal beast that escapes and roams the neighborhood. 

After a man goes missing and Sir Richard is accused of witchcraft, it is left to young Henry to find an antidote for the oversize arachnid. Things are not as they seem, and in saving Sir Richard from the gallows, Henry also unravels a mystery about his own identity.

Congratulations on your upcoming release! What do you think of your new cover?

I love it! Huge thanks to Sky Pony and my editor, Adrienne Szpyrka, for capturing the humor of the book while at the same time working in two prominent elements – the giant tarantula and a journal detailing a trip to South America.

The tarantula is Henry Hewitt’s problem and the journal is the key to figuring out what to do about it, which he must do to save his friend and protector, Sir Richard Blackstone.

More specifically, how does the art evoke the nuances of your book?

We wanted the journal to feel Old World, hence the faded brown, as this story takes place in the late 1700’s English countryside.

Sky Pony’s designers had the genius idea of having the tarantula holding the journal to tie it all together. The red and yellow lettering really pop and signal the lighthearted tone.

I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Isn’t it every middle-grade writer’s dream to have a cover with a tarantula on it?

I know it has always been one of mine!

Cynsational Notes

Lisa Doan has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of the award-winning series The Berenson Schemes (Lerner).

Operating under the idea that life is short, her occupations have included: master scuba diving instructor; New York City headhunter; owner-chef of a restaurant in the Caribbean; television show set medic; and deputy prothonotary of a county court. She currently works in social services and lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

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7. Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover of The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks, 2016). From the promotional copy:

All Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when an enchanting song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest…where she vanishes. 

A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. She’s been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.

But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing-and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offers to help, and she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl that’s not quite solid, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it’s too late.

Tell us more about your cover. How did it feel to see it for the first time?

It was a total thrill! When I opened the box of galleys that my publisher sent me, it seemed like the books were absolutely glowing. The cover art makes me want to dive in and see what is behind that door. I hope kids will feel the same way.

The girl on the cover is the main character, Izzy, who journeys into Faerie to find her little sister and bring her home. The three animals are the Changeling children who help her.

The Changelings are shape shifters who can make themselves look like almost anything for a short while. But they can only truly “Change” into a handful of forms – like the stoat, butterfly, and badger on the cover.

The little flying fairies are Pollenings. They play a very tiny, but important, part in the story. (And they make honey that goes great with pancakes!)

What was it like to see your characters depicted on the cover?

I actually didn’t think the cover would feature the characters at all, so it was such a wonderful surprise to see them in the first draft! When I got my first look at Izzy, I thought the artist captured her perfectly. She looks curious and thoughtful, and is having a very human reaction to all the magic around her – a mix of awe and nervousness! I’m sure most of us would feel the same way if we stumbled into Faerie.

I think it was a very wise decision on Sourcebooks’ part to have Izzy be the only human face we see on the cover. The artist could have drawn all the Changelings in their child forms, but I think that would have taken some of the fun away from readers being able to imagine them for themselves.

Tell us more about the cover design process. Where you involved?

The artwork and design were done completely without me – thank goodness! But my editor and art director did ask me for input on the characters, and we went back and forth several times to make sure the details were right and the cover was being true to them.

I am really lucky to have been involved as much as I was. I know that’s not always the case for authors!

I learned so much about covers during this process and the heavy lifting they have to do. The cover has to draw a reader in, give them a feeling for the writing and the story, but without giving too much away. Everything, from the font to the color palette, to the way the art wraps around to the back, contributes to that sense of wonder you want readers to have – before they even start reading.

The cover for The Changelings doesn’t depict an exact scene in the book, but I think it does everything you want a cover to do!

Oh, and there is a secret hidden in the cover as well. But you will have to read the book to figure it out!

Cynsational Notes

Christina Soontornvat spent her childhood in small Texas towns, eagerly waiting for the fairies to come and kidnap her. They never came, but she still believes magic things can happen to ordinary people. When not writing, Christina hangs out in science museums and takes care of her own little goblins-ahem- children. She lives in Austin, Texas. The Changelings is her first novel.

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8. Linda Sue Park: Ted talk

In this terrific TedX talk, author Linda Sue Park talks about a path to changing the world. Life is not fair, but stories engage the minds of those who can develop empathy and act in heroic ways. Bookmark

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9. In 1900....

Jacqueline Kelly very kindly wrote another book about Calpurnis Tate. In The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, Callie Vee, as her six brothers and parents call her, is disappointed to find that life in the year 1900 goes on pretty much like always.  She goes on rambles with her scientist grandfather.  She makes meticulous notes in her notebook.  She is by turns bedeviled and beguiled by her brothers.  And she disappoints her mother and baffles her father almost weekly.

Almost every other chapter tells of her struggles with Travers, her wild animal loving younger brother, and his latest "find".  The armadillo is a bust.  The raccoon is fated for failure, but the coy-dog??  Really???

Then there is the hurricane of 1900 that wiped Galveston, TX, off the map.  The barometer and Callie's chance sighting of a strange bird sends Callie's grandfather to the telegraph office to send wires to the coast.  Callie has to give up her bed to a cousin she barely knows - a greedy, penny-pinching cousin who has no appreciation of nature.  That and the disappearance of Callie's gold piece add up to a recipe for high drama.

In between, Callie runs errands for the new veterinarian, learns how to type, gets even with a conniving brother and deals as well as she can with her parents' expectations for her future.

This feels like a bridge book.  I am eager to see if Callie prevails.

MEANWHILE, in San Francisco, Lizzie Kennedy hates her school, Miss Barstow's.  She'd much prefer going out on doctor's calls with her father.  She loves science but, just like Callie Vee, her obsession is considered unseemly for a young woman. 

In Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko, there are rumors that plague has broken out in Chinatown.  Lizzie's uncle, the owner of one of the biggest newspapers in town, refuses to believe the rumors without proof.  But Chinatown is quarantined and trapped inside is Lizzie's cook and friend, Jing.  Jing leaves behind a secret - a real LIVE secret.  And that secret teaches Lizzie to look at her world in a whole new way.

There are a lot of secrets in this book; secrets that endanger a whole city; secrets that hide the way people really feel; secrets about how to fit in.  Lizzie has to find Jing, learn how to be friends with people her own age, survive her first ball, and prove her worth as a nurse. 

It all happened in 1900!

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10. Liars! 3 books

CrenshawThe books I have read in the past few days all revolve around lying - lying to survive, lying to hide hard facts from oneself, lying to avoid confrontation - lots of untruth telling going on.

In The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen,  Sage's survival depends on how well he can lie.   In an attempt to save the kingdom of Carthya, (or so they are told), Sage, Tobias and Roden are being groomed to impersonate the lost prince, Jaron.  Their training is a fight to the death.  The boys not chosen as Prince will meet an awful fate.  Trickery, dishonesty, secret passages, dungeons are followed by a jaw-dropping master stroke.  This is the first in a trilogy.

In Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate,  Jackson has been homeless before and he knows that his parents are struggling, again.  The return of his imaginary friend, Crenshaw, a six foot tall cat, does nothing to calm his fears.  The lying in this book is the "everything is all right" kind, harmless on the surface but nasty and dangerous, nonetheless.

Dear Hank Williams by Kimberley Willis Holt, is a novel in letters.  Tate P. Ellerbee decides that the rising star, Hank Williams, will be her penpal for her class penpal project.  She is more than faithful in writing to Mr. Williams, and in return she receives three signed photographs.  And the reader learns just how Tate spins tales to make herself feel better about her absent parents and other difficulties.  All is revealed in the end, in this clever and emotionally satisfying book.  Set between 1948 and 1949, this is also a well-researched look at rural America in the aftermath of WWII.

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11. Advice from a kid: Miranda at age 9 and at age 13

A while ago I posted an interview here with Miranda, a very special person to me. Recently, I asked her similar questions about her reading habits and those of kids she knows. The answers show a trajectory  and are useful information for writers, so I also posted this on www.writersrumpus.com. Nine-year-old Miranda and I went […]

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12. Review of the Day: Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

GoneCrazyGone Crazy in Alabama
By Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0062215871
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

I’m a conceited enough children’s librarian that I like it when a book wins me over. I don’t want them to make it easy for me. When I sit down to read something I want to know that the author on the other side of the manuscript is scrabbling to get the reader’s attention. Granted that reader is supposed to be a 10-year-old kid and not a 37-year-old woman, but to a certain extent audience is audience. Now I’ll say right off the bat that under normal circumstances I don’t tend to read sequels and I CERTAINLY don’t review them. There are too many books published in a current year to keep circling back to the same authors over and over again. There are, however, always exceptions to the rule. And who amongst us can say that Rita Williams-Garcia is anything but exceptional? The Gaither Sisters chronicles (you could also call them the One Crazy Summer Books and I think you’d be in the clear) have fast become modern day literary classics for kids. Funny, painful, chock full of a veritable cornucopia of historical incidents, and best of all they stick in your brain like honey to biscuits. Read one of these books and you can recall them for years at a time. Now the bitter sweetness of “Gone Crazy in Alabama” gives us more of what we want (Vonetta! Uncle Darnell! Big Ma!) in a final, epic, bow.

Going to visit relatives can be a chore. Going to visit warring relatives? Now THAT is fun! Sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern have been to Oakland and Brooklyn but now they’ve turned South to Alabama to visit their grandmother Big Ma, their great-grandmother Ma Charles, and Ma Charles’s half sister Miss Trotter. Delphine, as usual, places herself in charge of her younger, rebellious, sisters, not that they ever appreciate it. As she learns more about her family’s history (and the reason the two half sisters loathe one another) she ignores her own immediate family’s needs until the moment when it almost becomes too late.

I’m an oldest sister. I have two younger siblings. Unlike Delphine I didn’t have the responsibility of watching over my siblings for any extended amount of time. As a result, I didn’t pay all that much attention to them growing up. But like Delphine, I would occasionally find myself trying, to my mind anyway, to keep them in line. Where Rita Williams-Garcia excels above all her peers, and I do mean all of them, is in the exchanges between these three girls. If I had an infinite revenue stream I would solicit someone to adapt their conversations into a very short play for kids to perform somewhere (actually, I’d just like to see ALL these books as plays for children, but that’s neither here nor there). The dialogue sucks you in and you find yourself getting emotionally involved. Because Delphine is our narrator you’re getting everything from her perspective and in this the author really makes you feel like she’s on the right side of every argument. It would be an excellent writing exercise to charge a class of sixth graders with the task of rewriting one of these sections from Vonetta or Fern’s point of view instead.

As I might have mentioned before, I wasn’t actually sold initially on this book. Truth be told, I liked the sequel to One Crazy Summer (called P.S. Be Eleven) but found the ending rushed and a tad unsatisfying. That’s just me, and my hopes with Gone Crazy were not initially helped by this book’s beginning. I liked the set-up of going South and all that, but once they arrived in Alabama I was almost immediately confused. We met Ma Charles and then very soon thereafter we met another woman very much like her who lived on the other side of a creek. No explanation was forthcoming about these two, save some cryptic descriptions of wedding photos, and I felt very much out to sea. My instinct is to say that a child reader would feel the same way, but kids have a way of taking confusing material at face value, so I suspect the confusion was of the adult variety more than anything else. Clearly Ms. Williams-Garcia was setting all this up for the big reveal of the half-sister’s relationship, and I appreciated that, but at the same time I thought it could have been introduced in a different way. Things were tepid for me for a while, but then the story really started picking up. By the time we got to the storm, I was sold.

And it was at this point in the book that I realized that I’d been coming at the book all wrong. Williams-Garcia was feeding me red herrings and I’m gulping them down like there’s no tomorrow. This book isn’t laser focusing its attention on great big epic themes of historical consequence. All this book is, all it ever has been, all the entire SERIES is about in its heart of hearts, is family. And that’s it. The central tension can be boiled down to something as simple and effective as whether or not Delphine and Vonetta can be friends. Folks are always talking about bullying and bully books. They tend to involve schoolmates, not siblings, but as Gone Crazy in Alabama shows, sometimes bullying is a lot closer to home than anyone (including the bully) is willing to acknowledge.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about needing more diverse books for kids, and it’s absolutely a valid concern. I have always been of the opinion, however, that we also need a lot more funny diverse books. When most reading lists’ sole hat tip to the African-American experience is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (no offense to Mildred D. Taylor, but you see what I’m getting at here) while the white kids star in books like Harriet the Spy and Frindle, something’s gotta change. We Need Diverse Books? We Need FUNNY Diverse Books too. Something someone’s going to enjoy reading and want to pick up again. That’s why Christopher Paul Curtis has been such a genius the last few years (because, seriously, who else would explore the ramifications of vomiting on Frederick Douglass?) and why the name Rita Williams-Garcia will be remembered long after you and I are tasty toasty worm food. Because this book IS funny while also balancing out pain and hurt and hope.

An interviewer once asked Ms. Williams-Garcia if she ever had younger sisters like the ones in this book or if she’d ever spent a lot of time in rural Alabama, like they do here. She replied good-naturedly that nope. It reminded me of that story they tell about Dustin Hoffman playing Richard III. He put stones in his shoes to get the limp right. Laurence Olivier caught wind of this and his response was along the lines of, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?” That’s Ms. Williams-Garcia for you. She does honest-to-goodness writing. Writing that can conjure up estranged siblings and acts of nature. Writing that will make you laugh and think and think again after that. Beautifully done, every last page. A trilogy winds down on just the right note.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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13. Unexceptional?

The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari is a welcome change.  No magical, undiscovered world-changing super-talented children here!  No half human, half immortal orphans!
Nope, this book revolves around two children so bland, so mediocre, so unremarkable as to be almost invisible to the world around them.

And that makes them PERFECT for the secret work that The League of Unexceptional Children does.

When the Vice-President is kidnapped in the middle of the night, Jonathan and Shelly are recruited to go undercover to find him before the VP can disclose the nation's most valuable nuclear codes.   Jonathan and Shelly don't actually need to go undercover.  They are so unremarkable that Jonathan's teacher thinks he's a new student almost every day.  No one even hears Shelly when she talks.

After a slow start involving an incompetent security guard and a short villain, the book turns into a spy thriller heavy on spycraft-ish talk and trappings and with more comic escapades than thrills.

To say much more will tell you almost all.  This is a quick fun read in which two ordinary kids fumble through saving the country.  They even compete with two superspy kids from Europe.

The best thing about this book - for me, anyway - is the way the characters of our heroes develop.  They may look and act boring to the world at large but, given a task that challenges them, they show some spunk, if not much talent.  Hmmmm, could there actually be a redeeming message in this silly book?  ....... Nope, probably not.

Key words:  Quick, Funny, Slapstick, Spies! 

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14. Review of the Day: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

NestThe Nest
By Kenneth Oppel
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4814-3232-0
On shelves October 6th

Oh, how I love middle grade horror. It’s a very specific breed of book, you know. Most people on the street might think of the Goosebumps books or similar ilk when they think of horror stories for the 10-year-old set, but that’s just a small portion of what turns out to be a much greater, grander set of stories. Children’s book horror takes on so many different forms. You have your post-apocalyptic, claustrophobic horrors, like Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien. You have your everyday-playthings-turned-evil tales like Doll Bones by Holly Black. You have your close family members turned evil stories ala Coraline by Neil Gaiman and Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. And then there are the horror stories that shoot for the moon. The ones that aren’t afraid (no pun intended) to push the envelope a little. To lure you into a false sense of security before they unleash some true psychological scares. And the best ones are the ones that tie that horror into something larger than themselves. In Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, the author approaches us with a very simple idea. What if your desire to make everything better, everyone happier, released an unimaginable horror? What do you do?

New babies are often cause for true celebration, but once in a while there are problems. Problems that render parents exhausted and helpless. Problems with the baby that go deep below the surface and touch every part of your life. For Steve, it feels like it’s been a long time since his family was happy. So when the angels appear in his dream offering to help with the baby, he welcomes them. True, they don’t say much specifically about what they can do. Not at the beginning, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? Anyway, there are other problems in Steve’s life as well. He may have to go back into therapy, and then there are these wasps building a nest on his house when he’s severely allergic to them. A fixed baby could be the answer to his prayers. Only, the creatures visiting him don’t appear to be angels anymore. And when it comes to “fixing” the baby . . . well, they may have other ideas entirely . . .

First and foremost, I don’t think I can actually talk about this book without dusting off the old “spoiler alert” sign. For me, the very fact that Oppel’s book is so beautifully succinct and restrained, renders it impossible not to talk about its various (and variegated) twists and turns. So I’m going to give pretty much everything away in this review. It’s a no holds barred approach, when you get right down to it. Starting with the angels of course. They’re wasps. And it only gets better from there.

It comes to this. I’ve no evidence to support this theory of mine as to one of the inspirations for the book. I’ve read no interviews with Oppel about where he gets his ideas. No articles on his thought processes. But part of the reason I like the man so much probably has to do with the fact that at some point in his life he must have been walking down the street, or the path, or the trail, and saw a wasp’s nest. And this man must have looked up at it, in all its paper-thin malice, and found himself with the following inescapable thought: “I bet you could fit a baby in there.” And I say unto you, it takes a mind like that to write a book like this.

Wasps are perhaps nature’s most impressive bullies. They seem to have been given such horrid advantages. Not only do they have terrible tempers and nasty dispositions, not only do they swarm, but unlike the comparatively sweet honeybee they can sting you multiple times and never die. It’s little wonder that they’re magnificent baddies in The Nest. The only question I have is why no one has until now realized how fabulous a foe they can be. Klassen’s queen is particularly perfect. It would have been all too easy for him to imbue her with a kind of White Witch austerity. Queens come built-in with sneers, after all. This queen, however, derives her power by being the ultimate confident. She’s sympathetic. She’s patient. She’s a mother who hears your concerns and allays them. Trouble is, you can’t trust her an inch and underneath that friendliness is a cold cruel agenda. She is, in short, my favorite baddie of the year. I didn’t like wasps to begin with. Now I abhor them with a deep inner dread usually reserved for childhood fears.

I mentioned earlier that the horror in this book comes from the idea that Steve’s attempts to make everything better, and his parents happier, instead cause him to consider committing an atrocity. In a moment of stress Steve gives his approval to the unthinkable and when he tries to rescind it he’s told that the matter is out of his hands. Kids screw up all the time and if they’re unlucky they screw up in such a way that their actions have consequences too big for their small lives. The guilt and horror they sometimes swallow can mark them for life. The queen of this story offers something we all can understand. A chance to “fix” everything and make the world perfect. Never mind that perfect doesn’t really exist. Never mind that the price she exacts is too high. If she came calling on you, offering to fix that one truly terrible thing in your life, wouldn’t you say yes? On the surface, child readers will probably react most strongly to the more obvious horror elements to this story. The toy telephone with the scratchy voice that sounds like “a piece of metal being held against a grindstone.” The perfect baby ready to be “born” The attic . . . *shudder* Oh, the attic. But it’s the deeper themes that will make their mark on them. And on anyone reading to them as well.

There are books where the child protagonist’s physical or mental challenges are named and identified and there are books where it’s left up to the reader to determine the degree to which the child is or is not on such a spectrum. A book like Wonder by R.J. Palacio or Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper will name the disability. A book like Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis or Counting by 7s by Holly Sloan won’t. There’s no right or wrong way to write such books, and in The Nest Klassen finds himself far more in the latter rather than former camp. Steve has had therapy in the past, and exhibits what could be construed to be obsessive compulsive behavior. What’s remarkable is that Klassen then weaves Steve’s actions into the book’s greater narrative. It becomes our hero’s driving force, this fight against impotence. All kids strive to have more control over their own lives, after all. Steve’s O.C.D. (though it is never defined in that way) is part of his helpless attempt to make things better, even if it’s just through the recitation of lists and names. At one point he repeats the word “congenital” and feels better, “As if knowing the names of things meant I had some power over them.”

When I was a young adult (not a teen) I was quite enamored of A.S. Byatt’s book Angels and Insects. It still remains one of my favorites and though I seem to have transferred my love of Byatt’s prose to the works of Laura Amy Schlitz (her juvenile contemporary and, I would argue, equivalent) there are elements of Byatt’s book in what Klassen has done here. His inclusion of religion isn’t a real touchstone of the novel, but it’s just a bit too prevalent to ignore. There is, for example, the opening line: “The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.” Followed not too long after by a section where Steve reads off every night the list of people he wants to keep safe. “I didn’t really know who I was asking. Maybe it was God, but I didn’t really believe in God, so this wasn’t praying exactly.” He doesn’t question the angels of his dreams or their desire to help (at least initially). And God makes no personal appearance in the novel, directly or otherwise. Really, when all was said and done, my overall impression was that the book reminded me of David Almond’s Skellig with its angel/not angel, sick baby, and boy looking for answers where there are few to find. The difference being, of course, the fact that in Skellig the baby gets better and here the baby is saved but it is clear as crystal to even the most optimistic reader that it will never ever been the perfect baby every parent wishes for.

It’s funny that I can say so much without mentioning the language, but there you go. Oppel’s been wowing folks with his prose for years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a cunning turn of phrase when you encounter it. Consider some of his lines. The knife guy is described like “He looked like his bones were meant for an even bigger body.” A description of a liquid trap for wasps is said to be akin to a, “soggy mass grave, the few survivors clambering over the dead bodies, trying in vain to climb out. It was like a vision of hell from that old painting I’d seen in the art gallery and never forgotten.” Or what may well be my favorite in the book, “… and they were regurgitating matter from their mouths and sculpting it into baby flesh.” And then there are the little elements the drive the story. We don’t learn the baby’s name until page 112. Or the very title itself. When Vanessa, Steve’s babysitter, is discussing nests she points out that humans make them as well. “Our houses are just big nests, really. A place where you can sleep and be safe – and grow.”

The choice of Jon Klassen as illustrator is fascinating to me. When I think of horror illustrations for kids the usual suspects are your Stephen Gammells or Gris Grimleys or Dave McKeans. Klassen’s different. When you hire him, you’re not asking him to ratchet up the fear factor, but rather to echo it and then take it down a notch to a place where a child reader can be safe. Take, for example, his work on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark A book where the very shadows speak, it wasn’t that Klassen was denying the creepier elements of the tale. But he tamed them somehow. And now that same taming sense is at work here. His pictures are rife with shadows and faceless adults, turned away or hidden from the viewer (and the viewer is clearly Steve/you). And his pictures do convey the tone of the book well. A curved knife on a porch is still a curved knife on a porch. Spend a little time flipping between the front and back endpapers, while you’re at it. Klassen so subtle with these. The moon moves. A single light is out in a house. But there’s a feeling of peace to the last picture, and a feeling of foreboding in the first. They’re practically identical so I don’t know how he managed that, but there it is. Honestly, you couldn’t have picked a better illustrator.

Suffice to say, this book would probably be the greatest class readaloud for fourth, fifth, or sixth graders the world has ever seen. When I was in fourth grade my teacher read us The Wicked Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden by Mary Chase and I was never quite the same again. Thus do I bless some poor beleaguered child with the magnificent nightmares that will come with this book. Added Bonus for Teachers: You’ll never have to worry about school attendance ever again. There’s not a chapter here a kid would want to miss.

If I have a bone to pick with the author it is this: He’s Canadian. Normally, this is a good thing. Canadians are awesome. They give us a big old chunk of great literature every year. But Oppel as a Canadian is terribly awkward because if he were not and lived in, say, Savannah or something, then he could win some major American children’s literary awards with this book. And now he can’t. There are remarkably few awards the U.S. can grant this tale of flying creepy crawlies. Certainly he should (if there is any justice in the universe) be a shoo-in for Canada’s Governor General’s Award in the youth category and I’m pulling for him in the E.B. White Readaloud Award category as well, but otherwise I’m out to sea. Would that he had a home in Pasadena. Alas.

Children’s books come with lessons pre-installed for their young readers. Since we’re dealing with people who are coming up in the world and need some guidance, the messages tend towards the innocuous. Be yourself. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Friendship is important. Etc. The message behind The Nest could be debated ad nauseam for quite some time, but I think the thing to truly remember here is something Steve says near the end. “And there’s no such thing as normal anyways.” The belief in normality and perfection may be the truest villain in The Nest when you come right down to it. And Klassen has Steve try to figure out why it’s good to try to be normal if there is no true normal in the end. It’s a lesson adults have yet to master ourselves. Little wonder that The Nest ends up being what may be the most fascinating horror story written for kids you’ve yet to encounter. Smart as a whip with an edge to the terror you’re bound to appreciate, this is a truly great, truly scary, truly wonderful novel.

On shelves October 6th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus,

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15. Diversity Part 2

I originally posted this article on WritersRumpus.com. As one of my heroes, the Dalai Lama, once said…“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  Let’s each one of us be the mosquito!   —Lin Oliver This week Lin Oliver, co-founder and Executive Director of the international Society of […]

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16. Monster to the Max



Exciting news!

Jolly Fish Press has acquired my middle-grade fantasy series Monster or Die and will be publishing the first book, From the Grave, in Fall 2016. Editor TJ da Roza fell in love with my wacky and wonderful monsters with his first read—and who wouldn’t.  

Frightful and fun.
Delightful and deadly.
These creatures bring a whole new meaning to monster.

Be sure to follow along the journey to publication. With monsters in charge, most anything might happen.



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17. You Know I Love "Jane Bear?" I Mean, "Jane Eyre."

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. 

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18. Author to Bookstore: Timeline

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. Bookmark

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19. Environmental Book Club

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.




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20. You Don't Have To Love Mockingbird To Like This Book

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:

  • This book really is about literate teens. These kids aren't just spokespeople spouting the party line on classics. They can actually discuss a book. They know why not everyone loves To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance. No, no, I am not one of the dislikers. But, nonetheless, I understand why not everyone embraces it and appreciate that mindset being expressed.
  • This book is about religious observance. I do not mean it is about dogma or doctrine. It is about kids who go to religious services and religious school. There are hundreds of thousands of young people who attend the services related to whatever faith their families follow. I don't see a lot of that reflected in children's books.
  • This book does have some of the "this-is-an-important-book-about-death" thing going on. Though it's more an-important-book-about-not-dying-and-having-to-get-over-it thing. And, yes, that's different.
  • I liked the father's reason for thanking God--it's always good to be polite. And the mother's argument that we are only able to enjoy living because we're able to pretend we're not going to die. And the discussion of "Ordinary Time," a season in the Christian church calendar? The main character gives a meaningful explanation of its significance. Though I was a Catholic child, I didn't learn about the church calendar until I was a Sunday school teacher in a Congregational church. I thought Ordinary Time was just that period of the year when nothing else was happening.
I liked I Kill the Mockingbird for all the odd little things I found in it. It's getting all kinds of loving  from people who probably liked it for other reasons.

I Kill the Mockingbird is a Cybils nominee in the middle grade category.


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21. Wouldn't This Make A Neat Little Sitcom?

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:

  • Boy One is a popular athlete who is considering trying something different 
  • Boy Two is dealing with growing apart from a friend and moving on, as well as trying to interview the crotchety old guy next door for a school project
  • Boy Three is highly intelligent and has begged Dad and Papa to let him go to a school for the gifted
  • Boy Four has the "stereotypical" imaginary friend. Or does he?
You know the one problem none of these kids have? Those gay dads. The men are just there, doing any kind of dad stuff. There's nothing didactic or instructive here about accepting families with nontraditional parents. These guys have had children in the school system for a number of years now. People know they're there. Halloween parties are held. Ice rinks are made. Holidays are celebrated. Life goes on.

This is not to say that no one ever raises an eyebrow over the gay family. When they are attending an open house at a new school, oldest brother Sam feels compelled to address questions. "We were all adopted as babies. Our dads have been together for ages. They got married two years ago"..."Do you have any other questions? Want to know our birthdays? Height and weight?"

That was a neat way to handle back story, by the way. The newspaper article written by an eighth grade student about the Fletchers and their annual Halloween party is also a clever way to get the back story on how the Fletcher kids became brothers.

As I was reading this book, I thought this premise would make a charming sitcom. The various chapters here could be the first season's episodes. Then the story could expand with episodes about the gay dads dealing with their boys going to camp, getting babysitting jobs, heading to high school, getting jobs, dating girls. 

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is a Cybils nominee in the Middle Grade Fiction Category.

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22. Going Out On A High

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.


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23. Do you write middle grade fiction?

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:

  • The class is completely online and mostly asynchronous. We do have weekly live chats to check in but the meat of the class is in the online readings and discussion forums. (We use the Moodle platform, but don’t worry if that doesn’t mean anything to you.)
  • There is a chance to share works in progress with the rest of the class; you also get private feedback from me on about 10 pages of writing.
  • The class is listed as “intermediate” primarily because of the expectation that writers are familiar with (if not steeped in) middle grade books, but if you have not read a lot you can catch up by familiarizing yourself with at least some of the following books. Most are Newberry medalists or honorees, so look on that bookshelf if your bookstore or library has one! These are not assigned class readings, but I use them as examples throughout the class (this is a partial list):
    • Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (and others in the Ramona series) – Beverly Cleary
    • Bud, not Buddy – Christopher Paul Curtis
    • Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
    • The Giver – Lois Lowry
    • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH – Robert C. O’Brien
    • Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
    • From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler – E. L. Konigsberg
    • The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin
    • Holes – Louis Sachar
    • Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli
    • When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead
    • Charlotte’s Web – E.B.White

    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!


Filed under: Miscellaneous Tagged: middle grade fiction, online classes

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24. Characters. It's All About The Characters.

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.

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25. The End Of My Cybil Season Reading

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.

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