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Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson, illustrated by Natalie Andrewson (June 2015, Simon and Schuster, 336 pages, for ages 8 to 12)
Synopsis (from Indiebound):
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory "meets "Clue "when six children navigate a mansion full of secrets--and maybe money--in this humorous mystery with heart. Sweet, shy Tabitha Crum, the neglected only child of two parents straight out of a Roald Dahl book, doesn't have a friend in the world--except for her pet mouse, Pemberley, whom she loves dearly. But on the day she receives one of six invitations to the country estate of wealthy Countess Camilla DeMoss, her life changes forever.
Upon the children's arrival at the sprawling, possibly haunted mansion, it turns out the countess has a very big secret--one that will change their lives forever.
Then the children beginning disappearing, one by one. So Tabitha takes a cue from her favorite detective novels and, with Pemberley by her side, attempts to solve the case and rescue the other children...who just might be her first real friends.Why I recommend it: Nooks & Crannies
is clever and charming, with a spunky, inquisitive heroine and one of the most adorable pet sidekicks ever. Ten-year-old me would have hugged this book and carried it around for days. This is the perfect book for a cold snowy winter day, curled up in your favorite chair with a cup of tea and a few English biscuits.And now, I'm thrilled to welcome author Jessica Lawson back to my blog (see her earlier visit here) for an exclusive interview!1) You must have read quite a few mysteries before writing this book. What were your favorite mystery novels when you were growing up?
Growing up (age 8 or so), my go-to mysteries were the Cam Jansen books. As I got older, I graduated to my aunt’s baskets of paperback mysteries—Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark and P.D. James. I was 10-12 years old when I first started reading them, and remember being fascinated by those books. And, while this isn’t book-related, I think that a big love for the more cozy-style mysteries began as a bonding experience with my mom. Starting around age 8 or 9, she would let me watch Murder She Wrote with her (with the fabulous Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher) and we’d make 25 cent bets on “whodunit” after the first commercial break.2) That's a fun childhood memory! Can you describe your writing routine? And is your writing area, by any chance, a nook? Details, please.
With little ones around (one who still wakes up at night on occasion), my writing routine is very flexible by necessity. To make writing time happen, I’ve tried various strategies like getting up super early or having ready activities for the kids so that I can get an hour here, a half hour there. I can’t seem to stay up late to write—my brain works best in the morning hours and my creative energy is mostly sapped by the afternoon. So while I can edit at night if I’m on a deadline, I write and revise best in the earlier hours of the day.
During warmer weather, my husband will take the kids outside or on a field trip for a few hours on the weekends, which is a big help. I know that some people say that you need to write a certain amount every single day, but it just doesn’t work out that way for me in this stage of my life. I think about writing and my current projects every day, and will have small plot epiphanies or sparks of dialogue come to me (in which case I’ll jot those down on a post-it for the next time I write). But some days, writing gets shoved off my schedule, and that’s okay.
|Jessica's writing space: the kitchen table|
|Photos courtesy of Jessica Lawson|
As for my writing space, sadly, it’s not a nook. How I long for a nook! Alas, instead, I park my laptop on the kitchen table and pile an extra chair with my notes. When company comes over, my “office” is moved to my bedroom floor. Not very glamorous, but between the kitchen table and the living/family room couch, I’ve managed to get a lot of writing done.3) Well, that space seems to be working just fine for you! Jess, I'm not ready to let Tabitha go. Will there be any further adventures for our plucky heroine?
Thank you for asking~ I would love to revisit Tabitha’s story and see what comes next! That said, there are no near-future plans for another Tabitha book—the books of mine that will come out in 2016 and 2017 aren’t set in that world. But I will be keeping her in my back pocket for future project ideas. I’ve also dabbled with the idea of writing a middle grade starring a 12-year-old Percival Pensive and his sidekick, Timothy Tibbs (the Holmes/Watson-esque fiction-within-fiction characters from mystery books that Tabitha Crum loves)~ if you read NOOKS & CRANNIES, you’ll see that Pensive novel quotes begin each chapter and those two seem like they’d be loads of fun to write about.4) That would be fun! If you could live in a mansion with hidden passageways, what would you use them for?
Oh, good question! I would use them for quick access to my massive library/kitchenette (I have my own mansion, right? It MUST have a massive library/kitchenette, right?) and for epic games of hide-and-seek and laser tag with my kids (note: I have never actually played laser tag, but it looks fun).Thanks, Jessica! I enjoyed having you back on My Brain on Books.
And now, for the Giveaway details:
Readers, I'm so in love with this book I want everyone to read it. I'm giving away an extra copy to one lucky winner. To enter, simply be a follower of this blog and comment on this post. Mention the giveaway on social media, and I'll give you more chances to win. Open to US mailing addresses only. This giveaway ends at 10pm on Sunday January 24 and the winner will be announced on Monday January 25. So you only have one week! Good luck!
(And don't forget my giveaway for THE GOBLIN'S PUZZLE, still going on here
The Newbery awards (and other ALA Youth Media Awards) will be announced this morning in Boston at 8 am EST. I'm posting this at 7 am, so at this point, all I can do is wish and hope. I've read so many wonderful MG novels this year that it's difficult to pick just one I think should win.Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan (February 24, 2015, Scholastic Press, 592 pages, for ages 10 to 14)
I have so many favorites: Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly, Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose, Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, along with others I haven't had a chance to blog about yet. Don't you wish all the books you read and loved this past year could win awards?
One that's certainly deserving of multiple awards is a book published in February 2015, and which I finally read on my recent blogging break in December.
my favorite local indie bookstore, Children's Book World
!Synopsis (from Indiebound)
: Music, magic, and a real-life miracle meld in this genre-defying masterpiece from storytelling maestro Pam Munoz Ryan. Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.
Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo. Why I recommend it
is 592 pages long, yet it was so fascinating and so beautifully written I read it in one day! I absolutely loved how the three seemingly-disparate storylines all came together at the end. And because the three stories all hinge on a harmonica, and my late father played the harmonica, this novel affected me in a big way. This is the kind of book that sends shivers up your spine. If Echo
doesn't win at least a Newbery honor today, I'll be sorely disappointed.
As the awards are announced, what books were you
hoping would win Newbery honors or the Newbery medal?
I'm back from my blogging break, and for those who remember my TBR pile of eight books, well, let's just say I've read all but one of them, and I'm reading that right now! I also spent a lot of time with family (including my father-in-law who was in the hospital, but he's better now. Thanks for asking!). In the meantime, I missed reading your blogs and I look forward to catching up.The Goblin's Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton, with illustrations by Jensine Eckwall (January 19, 2016, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 288 pages, for ages 8 to 12)Synopsis (from the publisher):
THE BOY is a nameless slave on a mission to uncover his true destiny.
THE GOBLIN holds all the answers, but he’s too tricky to be trusted.
PLAIN ALICE is a bookish peasant girl carried off by a confused dragon.
And PRINCESS ALICE is the lucky girl who wasn’t kidnapped.
All four are tangled up in a sinister plot to take over the kingdom, and together they must face kind monsters, a cruel magician, and dozens of deathly boring palace bureaucrats. They’re a ragtag bunch, but with strength, courage, and plenty of deductive reasoning, they just might outwit the villains and crack the goblin’s puzzle. Why I recommend it
: The Goblin's Puzzle
is a deliciously inventive tale, smart and a bit sassy, and brimming with humor and wordplay. You'll cheer for the Boy and for Plain Alice, and even find Mennofar, the Goblin, growing on you. This is the kind of book destined to become a modern classic, one that adults and children alike will enjoy. If you liked The Bartimaeus Trilogy or The Princess Bride
, you'll love this.Favorite Lines:
"Though it pains me to taint the purity of such innocence, I feel obliged to point out that in this world, kindness, like the unicorn, is chiefly found in stories told to princesses," said Mennofar. "Ordinary folk look to how the coin falls." (from page 54)Bonus:
This is an excellent (and fun!) way to introduce young readers to the concept of deductive reasoning.Here's a link to a lively interview
with Andrew S. Chilton on Suzanne Warr's delightful blog, Tales From the Raven. Her giveaway is now over, but mine is just beginning. That's right!
Through the generosity of the publisher, I'm thrilled to award one hardcover copy of The Goblin's Puzzle to one lucky winner
. To enter you must be a follower of this blog and you must leave a comment on this post. If you mention this giveaway on social media, please include a link and I'll give you extra chances to win. This giveaway is open to U.S. mailing addresses only and will end at 10:00 pm EST on Sunday January 24, 2016. The winner will be announced on Monday January 25, 2016.
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall (Knopf, September 8, 2015, for ages 8 to 12)Source
: Penguin Random HouseSynopsis (from the publisher)
: It was a bitterly cold day when Arthur T. Owens grabbed a brick and hurled it at the trash picker. Arthur had his reasons, and the brick hit the Junk Man in the arm, not the head. But none of that matters to the judge—he is ready to send Arthur to juvie for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, it’s the Junk Man himself who offers an alternative: 120 hours of community service . . . working for him.
Arthur is given a rickety shopping cart and a list of the Seven Most Important Things: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. He can’t believe it—is he really supposed to rummage through people’s trash? But it isn’t long before Arthur realizes there’s more to the Junk Man than meets the eye, and the “trash” he’s collecting is being transformed into something more precious than anyone could imagine. . . .Why I recommend it
: This book has everything you want in an inspiring MG novel:
-- A strong main character, who is flawed but grows and changes. Your heart will ache for Arthur, who is having trouble dealing with the death of his father. There's no excuse for Arthur's violent action, but Pearsall does give us an explanation, which I won't mention here in case it's considered a spoiler.
-- An unusual situation. I don't think I've ever read another MG where the protagonist has to go to juvenile court and then carry out a punishment like this. It was also fascinating discovering exactly what the Junk Man was doing with the seven most important things.
-- A setting you can easily picture and a realistic depiction of life in Washington, DC in 1963. While Arthur is in Juvie, JFK is assassinated. So while the story isn't about that, the events of 1963/64 provide the backdrop for this historical novel.
And yes, there's a spiritual nature to the Junk Man and his project, but Pearsall never preaches. This is based on the true story of folk artist James Hampton and his amazing project that now sits in the Smithsonian.Favorite line:
But whenever he thought about quitting he'd hear Judge Warner saying, The apple doesn't fall far from the tree
. And it would make him mad enough to stay. (p. 60)Here's my review
of another Shelley Pearsall book, from July 2012.Shelley Pearsall's website
What's one of the most important things you look for when choosing a novel to read?
Giveaway reminder: You still have almost a week to enter the giveaway of ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE by Laurie Wallmark.
* * *
Now onto MMGM. And it's a two-fer this time! For other MMGM posts, visit Shannon Messenger
I enjoyed each of these younger middle grade novels, for different reasons. So I'm featuring them both. The source for both: arcs from Penguin Random House.Hamster Princess 1: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon (August 2015, Dial Books, for ages 8 to 12)Synopsis (from Indiebound):
Harriet Hamsterbone is not your typical princess. She may be quite stunning in the rodent realm (you'll have to trust her on this one), but she is not so great at trailing around the palace looking ethereal or sighing a lot. She finds the royal life rather . . . dull. One day, though, Harriet's parents tell her of the curse that a rat placed on her at birth, dooming her to prick her finger on a hamster wheel when she's twelve and fall into a deep sleep. For Harriet, this is most wonderful news: It means she's invincible until she's twelve! After all, no good curse goes to waste. And so begins a grand life of adventure with her trusty riding quail, Mumfrey...until her twelfth birthday arrives and the curse manifests in a most unexpected way.Why I recommend it
: Normally, I don't lean toward series books and never read Dragon Breath, Vernon's first series. But I found this hamster parody of Sleeping Beauty hilarious. Guaranteed to make you giggle. Harriet is a sassy and spunky main character, who personifies Girl Power. Give this to readers who like Babymouse.
: The large print and plenty of illustrations make this a breeze for younger readers. Appleblossom the Possum by Holly Goldberg Sloan, illustrated by Gary A. Rosen (August 2015, Dial, for ages 8 to 12)Synopsis (from Indiebound)
: Mama has trained up her baby possums in the ways of their breed, and now it's time for all of them, even little Appleblossom, to make their way in the world. Appleblossom knows the rules: she must never be seen during the day, and she must avoid cars, humans, and the dreaded hairies (sometimes known as dogs). Even so, Appleblossom decides to spy on a human family and accidentally falls down their chimney. The curious Appleblossom, her faithful brothers who launch a hilarious rescue mission, and even the little girl in the house have no idea how fascinating the big world can be. But they're about to find out.Why I recommend it:
A sweet story about a family of actors--er, possums. Appleblossom is the curious one and her curiosity gets her into trouble. She's a lively and endearing new character. If you like animal stories (especially when the animals quote Shakespeare), this one's for you.Bonus
: This would be a terrific read-aloud.
(Be forewarned that Appleblossom
isn't the least bit similar to Counting By 7's
. If I didn't know they were both written by Holly Goldberg Sloan, I never would have guessed.)
Read any good animal tales lately?
"If you wrote from experience, you'd get
maybe one book, maybe three poems.
Writers write from empathy." Nikki Giovanni
(from Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, edited by
Virginia C. Fowler, c 1992, University Press of Mississippi) Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (September 8, 2015, Dial Books for Young Readers, for ages 8 and up)Synopsis (from the publisher)
: It’s 1969, and the Apollo 11 mission is getting ready to go to the moon. But for half-black, half-Japanese Mimi, moving to a predominantly white Vermont town is enough to make her feel alien. Suddenly, Mimi’s appearance is all anyone notices. She struggles to fit in with her classmates, even as she fights for her right to stand out by entering science competitions and joining Shop Class instead of Home Ec. And even though teachers and neighbors balk at her mixed-race family and her refusals to conform, Mimi’s dreams of becoming an astronaut never fade—no matter how many times she’s told no.
This historical middle-grade novel is told in poems from Mimi’s perspective over the course of one year in her new town, and shows readers that positive change can start with just one person speaking up.Why I recommend it
: I used to shy away from novels in verse, until I read May B.
by Caroline Starr Rose. Now I love them. Full Cicada Moon
moved me to tears. Happy ones. And that's saying something, because I rarely cry when I read MG. Mimi is one of the strongest girl characters you'll ever meet, and her story is one you'll remember long after you've closed the book and gone on with your life. The writing is spare and simple, yet gorgeous. If last year's Newbery winner wasn't a novel in verse, I would say this has a fighting chance of winning.
Plus, the cover is downright stunning.
There's been a lot of controversy in social media lately about whether or not authors should write from the POV of people from a different culture or race. In the author's note in the back of this book, Marilyn Hilton says, "I wrote Mimi's story in wonder and terror and awe, not knowing if I could or should write it." But she received much encouragement from her agent, her editor, and her friends, including Keiko Higuchi. I have to say, I'm glad Marilyn wrote this book (see the quote above by Nikki Giovanni, which says it better than I can). Reading Full Cicada Moon
has made my life richer. This is one I will re-read.Favorite lines (from pg. 370):
I used to think the people of Vermont
were like the snow--
and slow to thaw.
But now I think
they're what's underneath.Bonus
: This would be excellent for starting classroom discussions about tolerance. Marilyn Hilton's websiteFollow Marilyn on Twitter
What do you think, readers? Do you freeze up at the idea of reading free verse novels? Or have you begun to thaw?
First, I have a winner to announce. The winner of 101 MOVIES TO SEE BEFORE YOU GROW UP by Suzette Valle is:
Congratulations, Susan! I'll get your book out to you pronto.
And now we return to our regular Monday broadcast, er, feature, MMGM. See Shannon Messenger's blog
for the links to other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts.
Synopsis (from Indiebound):
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting--things don't just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy's achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe...and the potential for love and hope right next door.
Why I recommend it:
Beautiful writing and an expertly crafted plot. The simple, yet luminous language -- and Suzy's earnest desire -- makes this a joy to read, even though the subject matter is weighty with sadness. It's easy to see why The Thing About Jellyfish
is a National Book Award Finalist (winners will be announced November 18
) and has earned starred reviews from PW, Booklist, School Library Journal and others.
Suzy's grief is heartbreakingly realistic. I lost a good friend at age 10 (she rode her bike across a busy street and never saw the truck that hit her), so this moving story affected me deeply. This book should also win at least a Newbery honor in January.
Favorite line: They are moving silently, endlessly, all of them, through the darkness of the sea (from pg. 109).
Bonus: You're bound to learn something about jellyfish!
Have you read The Thing About Jellyfish? If not, what MG novels have you read that deal poignantly with grief?
Switch by Ingrid Law (September 2015, Dial Books for Young Readers, for ages 8 to 12) Synopsis (from Indiebound)
: Gypsy Beaumont has always been a whirly-twirly free spirit, so as her thirteenth birthday approaches, she hopes to get a magical ability that will let her fly, or dance up to the stars. Instead, she wakes up on her birthday with blurry vision . . . and starts seeing flashes of the future and past. But when Momma and Poppa announce that her very un-magical, downright mean Grandma Pat has Alzheimer's and is going to move in with them, Gypsy's savvy along with her family's suddenly becomes its opposite. Now it's savvy mayhem as Gypsy starts freezing time, and no one could have predicted what would happen on their trip to bring Grandma Pat home . . . not even Gypsy.
Why I recommend it
: Fantastic voice, loads of imagination, and a really cool savvy. I'm a huge fan of Ingrid Law's first book, SAVVY, which won a Newbery Honor and was also the Number One Book Sense (now Indiebound) Children's Pick for Summer 2008. See my thoughts here, in the American Bookseller Association's archives.
Another favorite, SCUMBLE (2010), is a companion to SAVVY which explores Cousin Ledge's unusual talent and how he learns to control it. Now, with SWITCH, another companion novel, we see the Beaumont family from the POV of Gypsy, younger sister to Mibs.
Bonus: Companion novels, instead of sequels, are a fun way to follow the same unusually-talented family but get to know different characters. Gypsy was only three in SAVVY, and now she's thirteen. It's like watching her grow up.
Favorite line: "The snowflakes hung like poetry over the city." (p. 239, after Gypsy freezes time)
I especially loved what happened when Gypsy stopped time, and wish I could do the same thing! What savvy do you wish you had?
First, some interesting news for fans of T.A. Barron's Young Merlin saga. They're making a movie! Woo hoo! And the script is being written by the co-writer of The Lord of the Rings movies, so there are high expectations for this film (and its possible sequels). That's excellent news for T.A. Barron fans. The Trilogy of Two written and illustrated by Juman Malouf (Putnam's, November 10, 2015, for ages 10 and up, 416 pages)
Now on to today's MMGM. For other marvelous middle grade posts, see Shannon Messenger's blog.
Synopsis (from the publisher):
Twelve-year-old identical twins Sonja and Charlotte are musical prodigies with extraordinary powers. Born on All-Hallows-Eve, the girls could play music before they could walk. They were found one night by Tatty, the Tattooed Lady of the circus, in a pail on her doorstep with only a note and a heart-shaped locket. They’ve been with Tatty ever since, roaming the Outskirts in the circus caravans, moving from place to place.
But lately, curious things happen when they play their instruments. During one of their performances, the girls accidentally levitate their entire audience, drawing too much unwanted attention. Soon, ominous Enforcers come after them, and Charlotte and Sonja must embark on a perilous journey through enchanted lands in hopes of unlocking the secrets of their mysterious past.
Why I recommend it:
Wow! This is a highly imaginative fantasy, with impressive world building by Malouf. It's set in a world that could be Earth in a far future (or an alternate past) when million-mile-high cities have overrun the planet. The author herself described it as a "post-apocalyptic, Dickensian world" in this article from The Daily Beast.
The twins are forced to travel to the Seven Edens, worlds they previously knew only as stories represented by the tattoos completely covering Tatty's skin. Luckily, they're accompanied by an intrepid band of new friends. So it's a classic journey story, a la Lord of the Rings
or The Wizard of Oz,
but with quite a few dark and startling twists. There is some violence, so I would not recommend this for younger middle grade readers. It's also quite lengthy, so give this to kids who love the longer Harry Potter books, or The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Charlotte ran through the gate and zigzagged among the broken-down railcars. She tried to remember pieces of music she used to play, but they all blended together in a tangle of notes. (from p. 71)
Fantastically-detailed drawings by the author are the perfect accompaniment to this unusual story. Before she turned to writing and illustrating children's books, Juman Malouf was the set designer and costume designer
for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Readers, please note:
After today, I'm taking a blogging break to catch up on my reading and writing, and also get ready for the holidays. I wish you all the happiest of holidays, no matter which holiday(s) you celebrate. Here's a photo of my TBR pile, all spread out. Hoping to get to these (and possibly more) before January. Wish me luck!
I had the pleasure of meeting Erin Entrada Kelly at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA, during her book launch party on March 27. She read a passage from Blackbird Fly, and gave a moving and heartwarming speech about growing up as the only Filipino American in her class in a small town in Louisiana. So she always felt different.
Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow Books/Harpercollins, March 2015, for ages 8 to 12) Synopsis (from the publisher): Future rock star, or friendless misfit? That's no choice at all. Apple Yengko moved from the Philippines to Louisiana when she was little, and now that she is in middle school, she grapples with being different, with friends and backstabbers, and with following her dreams.
Apple has always felt a little different from her classmates. Her mother still cooks Filipino foods, speaks a mix of English and Cebuano, and chastises Apple for becoming "too American." It becomes unbearable in middle school, when the boys—the stupid, stupid boys—in Apple's class put her name on the Dog Log, the list of the most unpopular girls in school. When Apple's friends turn on her and everything about her life starts to seem weird and embarrassing, Apple turns to music. If she can just save enough to buy a guitar and learn to play, maybe she can change herself. It might be the music that saves her . . . or it might be her two new friends, who show how special she really is.
Why I recommend it: The voice is spot-on. Apple Yengko will strum her way into your heart and into your soul and you won't be able to forget her. Erin Entrada Kelly has perfectly captured the essence of middle school: both the pain and the hope, the cruelty of certain kids, and the solid lasting friendships that can develop with other kids. Reading this is like eavesdropping on real middle-schoolers. I especially loved how Beatles' music helped Apple follow her dream and find her place in the world. Ten-year-old me would have hugged this book and read it all over again.
Bonus: This book will appeal strongly to anyone who ever felt like an outsider. Perfect for starting discussions in the classroom, or with your kids at home, about bullying, about tolerance, and about diversity.
My favorite line: "
I imagined a hole cracking open and transporting me into another dimension so I wouldn't have to listen to my mother." (p. 88)Erin's websiteFollow Erin on Twitter
Apple's favorite Beatles song is "Blackbird Fly" and mine is "Here Comes the Sun." What's your
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. Be sure to visit her blog for links to other MMGM posts. Today, for National Poetry Month, I'm recommending Caroline Starr Rose's Blue Birds. Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose (March 10, 2015, Putnam's, for ages 10 and up)
Synopsis (from the publisher): It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.
Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.
Why I recommend it:
This book is gorgeous. And I'm not just talking about that beautiful cover. With the two voices of Kimi and Alis, young girls from different cultures who nevertheless form a lasting friendship, Caroline Starr Rose has created a novel in verse that is more like two sweet voices singing. They sing of bluebirds, the sun, and the sky, they sing of the fragile tendrils of friendship, and they sing of the many hardships in their lives. Before I was a third of the way through this I'd forgotten I was reading a novel in verse and I was simply pulled in by Kimi and Alis and their story. Despite the thickness of the book, I read this in one day. At the same time, I didn't want to leave their story, and it has stayed with me for weeks now. I had far too many favorite lines to choose from, but in this example, from p.192, you can see how every word counts:
In my mind,
there are no barriers.
My words and hers
make perfect sense between us.Bonus
: This would be excellent for classroom discussions. Includes an Author's Note with historical information.
Caroline was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to answer three questions:
1) The dual point of view works so well here; it's almost like singing in two voices. What made you decide to write the book this way?
Having Alis and Kimi share the story was not my original plan. But once I realized Blue Birds
hinged on their forbidden friendship, I knew I couldn’t tell just one girl’s side of things. And that sort of terrified me. There are some people within the writing community who feel you must live a culture in order to write about it. I’m a non-Native author. What right did I have to speak for a Roanoke child? I had to trust my ultimate qualifications came from having once been a child and from my understanding of the beauty and security that thrives in friendship. Once I got to this place, each girl’s voice felt distinct and clear and strong.
As far as verse goes, I find it a really in-the-moment way to write historical fiction. It’s immediate, spare, and lets us into a character’s inner life very quickly. For Blue Birds
, verse became a wonderful way to tell a story in two voices. Readers move quickly from Kimi to Alis and back again. And when the girls share a poem, I was able through line and stanza placement to “speak”
their story visually, adding one more layer of communication. Verse is magical that way!
2) My favorite parts were the shared poems. Was BLUE BIRDS harder or easier to write than MAY B.?
Much harder. Because it was the first novel I wrote after publishing a rather successful first book, I had an invisible audience I had to learn to ignore. The stakes felt higher. I worried about comparisons between May B
. and Blue Birds
The process was also very different. For May B
., I was only responsible for being familiar with an era. With Blue Birds
, I had to learn about an era, an event with spare records, and two Native American tribes that no longer exist. This is the first time I’ve included real people from history in something I’ve written. While they only had minor roles, it felt like a big responsibility. Then added to this was the realization the story needed to be told in both girls’
voices. I felt utterly unqualified to write as a Native American child.
3) I think you did an excellent job. Are you a "pantser" or a "plotter" or something in-between?
I fall somewhere in between —
a plotster, as a kid during a school visit once dubbed me.
I start with a historical event or era that interests me and read broadly, trusting some sort of story idea will bubble up to the surface in the midst of my research. I keep a notebook filled with quotes, questions, maps, lists, and the like. I need a firm sense of my setting and a general sense of my key characters before I begin (though these things often change). Writing at this point feels a bit like a science experiment: This setting + this character x this event = this outcome. Before I begin, I have a sense of some key turning points. Often I know the final scene but have no idea how to get there.
Then I draft painfully and slowly. I fret a lot. I’m sure I’m a fraud. I have the awful habit of comparing my fledgling ideas to my finished work and easily convince myself I’ll never be able to do it again. This is when I lean hard on my writing friends who tell me they believe in me. I borrow their belief and keep moving forward. Getting to the end of a first draft is a relief. Even if it’s awful, even if I trash half of it, the “making something from something”stage is infinitely less scary than the “making something from nothing” stage.
Thank you, Caroline! You are definitely not a fraud. And I feel the same way about first drafts. What about you, readers? Do you fret over a first draft and enjoy revision? Or the opposite?
Visit Caroline's website
Follow Caroline on Twitter
Nightbird by Alice Hoffman (hardcover, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 208 pages, March 10, 2015, for ages 10 and up)
In keeping with this month's inadvertent theme (see Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly and Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose), today's feature also has a bird title.
(from the book jacket):
Rumor has it that Sidwell (Massachusetts) is home to a monster, and tales of sightings draw in as many tourists as do the town's famed Pink apples. Twig's mom owns the orchard and bakes irresistible pies. Because of a family secret, Twig has tried her best to be invisible, but when two girls named Julia and Agate move into Mourning Dove Cottage next door, everything changes. A witch lived there once, and Twig's mother has always forbidden her to step inside. But Julia just might be Twig's first true friend, and her ally in vanquishing an ancient curse.Why I recommend it:
The writing takes my breath away. Even though the setting is modern (Twig's brother, for instance, has a computer), there is a timeless, dreamlike quality about this book that makes it feel like a fable. This is an excellent book in which to lose yourself for a day or two. Perhaps best read on a warm, soft spring or summer day. Preferably while eating a slice of pie.
Without revealing too much about the plot, my deepest childhood wish involved flying, and this book evokes the joy as well as the obvious dangers of a person soaring silently over the town.
The publisher claims this is Alice Hoffman's first novel for middle grade readers. But I distinctly remember reading both Aquamarine
which the bookstore shelved in MG, many years ago, and according to Amazon they're both aimed at preteens. She's also the author of several YA novels, including Green Angel,
and many adult novels, including the recent The Dovekeepers
, and The Museum of Extraordinary Things.
: "If enchantment could be found anywhere, it would surely be in the Berkshires, where the woods were so green and deep, and a mist rose from the streams that crisscrossed the meadows so that even those of us without wings felt as if we were walking through the clouds." (from p. 40-41)Bonus:
The budding friendship between Twig and Julia is a gem. Give this to readers looking for friendship novels, and quiet, lovely magical realism. Alice Hoffman's official website
Other MMGM reviews of NIGHTBIRD:Jess at the Reading Nook
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog
for links to other MMGM posts.
Readers, what was your childhood wish? Did you dream of flying?
Children's Book Week is May 4--10, 2015. To celebrate, I'm featuring a book with excellent Newbery potential which is also a wonderful choice if you're looking for diversity.Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai (hardcover, Harpercollins, 272 pages, February 2015, for ages 8 to 12)Synopsis
Yes, yes, I know it's also Screen Free Week (you may remember I participated last year and oh gosh, the year before was epic ("mistakes were made"), but now that I have a smart phone, I admit it. I'm hooked. I've decided one or two screen-free days a week is the best I can do.
Don't forget to go outside and run around once in a while. Or read a book! How about this one?
(from the publisher
): A California girl born and raised, Mai can't wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai's parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn't know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.
Why I recommend it: The voice! It's so realistic you'll swear Mai is a real almost-thirteen-year-old girl who lives in your neighborhood or else you're overhearing her talking at the beach. And some of her observations will make you laugh out loud. Meanwhile, her gradual awakening to the world of her roots is deftly handled and almost guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes. Another reason I'm so impressed? Vietnam itself becomes a character in this beautifully written novel. I love it when that happens.
Favorite lines (from p. 89): "You'd think a little village in North Vietnam couldn't help but be tranquil and quiet, full of banana groves and bamboo forests, but everything here has a big mouth. Dogs fighting, crickets blasting, frogs screaming, chickens clucking, birds screeching, mice scurrying..."
Bonus: I learned a great deal about Vietnam.
Visit the author's website
I'll be participating in the Circus Mirandus Release Day Blitz!
Come back Tuesday for details about Cassie Beasley's much-anticipated MG novel -- and for giveaway details!
Today's the day! The official release day for CIRCUS MIRANDUS by Cassie Beasley. So many wonderful blogs are participating in the Blogger Blitz; thank you for stopping by mine.
Thanks so much to Word Spelunking
for organizing this event. Cassie herself has sent along a very special letter (below) sharing her feelings about seeing her book published and all of the amazing support she has received so far.
More details about the book are below, as well as a Rafflecopter giveaway for a bunch of swag items, courtesy of Penguin Young Readers. Enter for a chance to win at the bottom of this post.
Release Date: June 2nd
Micah Tuttle believes in magic, even though his awful Great-Aunt Gertrudis doesn’t approve. Micah believes in the stories his dying Grandpa Ephraim tells him of the magical Circus Mirandus: the invisible tiger guarding the gates, the beautiful flying birdwoman, and the magician more powerful than any other—the Man Who Bends Light. Finally, Grandpa Ephraim offers proof. The Circus is real—and the Lightbender owes Ephraim a miracle. With his friend Jenny Mendoza in tow, Micah sets out to find the Circus and the man he believes will save his grandfather. The only problem is, the Lightbender doesn't want to keep his promise. And now it's up to Micah to get the miracle he came for. Readers will fall in love with CIRCUS MIRANDUS, which celebrates the power of seeing magic in the world.
CASSIE BEASLEY is from rural Georgia, where, when she's not writing, she helps out on the family pecan farm. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. CIRCUS MIRANDUS
is her first novel.
Here's that special letter from Cassie herself:
Ages ago I hung a poster in my room with the words “The Circus Opens Summer 2015” in bold letters across the top. At the time, it seemed that Summer 2015 would never come. Now, miraculously, June 2 is here, and Circus Mirandus is springing up in bookshops all over the country. In the story, those called to Circus Mirandus feel a change in the wind. They hear music on the air, pipes and drums leading them toward magic and hope and heart’s desires. Eventually they find themselves before the gates, standing, as I am now, on the threshold of somewhere both wonderful and unknowable. As people read the pages into which I’ve poured so much time and self, I wonder what they’ll think of the world I’ve created. I wonder if they will love it as much as I do. It’s an exciting moment, stepping through these gates into a place I’ve imagined but never seen. Thank you so much for making this journey with me. Thank you for supporting the book. Thank you, most of all, for believing. #1 on the Summer Kids’ Indie Next List! Inspired Recommendations for Kids from Indie Booksellers
“Every now and again a book comes along that completely captures my heart and imagination. Circus Mirandus is one of those books.”
—Laura Donohoe, Malaprops
“This book is chock full of magic and love. Great storytelling, delightful characters—and that cover!” —Francine Lucidon, The Voracious Reader (Larchmont, NY)
“On one level, the book is a fantastical circus romp… On another, it's both serious and thick with longing… A delicious confection and much more: it shows that the human heart is delicate, that it matters, and that it must be handled with care.
” —Kirkus Reviews
, starred review
Now here's what you've been waiting for: the giveaway!
There will be 5 winners, and the Giveaway will run from June 2nd
until June 16th
. Winners will receive:
- Signed hardcover of CIRCUS MIRANDUS
- Audio sampler
- Animal crackers
- Bookmarks (pack of 10)
The Sound of Life and Everything by Krista Van Dolzer (Dial, May 5, 2015, for ages 10 and up)
I won this book from Literary Rambles
and Krista herself.
Synopsis (from the publisher): Twelve-year-old Ella Mae Higbee is a sensible girl. She eats her vegetables and wants to be just like Sergeant Friday, her favorite character on Dragnet. So when her auntie Mildred starts spouting nonsense about a scientist who can bring her cousin back to life from blood on his dog tags, Ella Mae is skeptical—until he steps out of a bio-pod right before her eyes.
But the boy is not her cousin—he’s Japanese. And in California in the wake of World War II, the Japanese are still feared and despised. When her aunt refuses to take responsibility, Ella Mae and her Mama take him home instead. Determined to do what’s right by her new friend, Ella Mae teaches Takuma English and defends him from the reverend’s talk of H-E-double-toothpicks. But when his memories start to resurface, Ella Mae learns some shocking truths about her own family and more importantly, what it means to love.
Why I recommend it: Ella Mae's voice is spot-on. I was completely drawn in by page 2 and felt like Ella Mae and I were old friends. What also impressed me was the deft and graceful way the author handled some tough issues about life and death, balanced with just the right amount of humor. And finally, I've read a great many MG novels and very few of them give me chills anymore (the good kind of chills that tell me I'm reading something truly special). This one did. Especially when I reached the passage Krista talks about below. Historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical, this is a book I will read again.
Favorite lines: The Japanese man, on the other hand, watched me through the glass. Neither of us said a word, but we still had a conversation.
Bonus: This book would be a great discussion-starter in classrooms.
I asked Krista if she could explain the origin of the title for my readers, and she graciously agreed. Take it away, Krista!
I'm terrible at titles, so when the publisher said they wanted something a little more accessible to MG readers--the title at that time was THE REGENERATED MAN--I was more than happy to oblige. Except I still had no idea what the new title should be. Editor Shauna and I came up with several dozen titles over the course of several weeks, but nothing felt quite right. Luckily, she was doing one last read-through and stumbled across a passage that included the expression "the sound of life and death and everything" (which we ended up shortening to "the sound of life and everything"). Right away, she knew that line had to be the title, and though it took some convincing, I eventually saw the light. (Like I already said, I'm terrible at titles, so I don't always know a good one when I see one.) I'll let you guys read the book to find that passage for yourselves!
Thank you, Krista! It's a great title.
Have you read The Sound of Life and Everything? What did you think?
MMGM is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for more posts.
The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones by Will Mabbitt (hardcover, Penguin Random House, June 2015, for ages 8 to 12)
Source: hardcover from Penguin Random House
Synopsis (from the publisher)
: Have you ever picked your nose? Have you ever picked your nose and EATEN IT? Have you ever picked your nose, eaten it, and, by doing so, opened a portal to a world run by PIRATES?
Mabel Jones has.
Kidnapped, Mabel is forced to serve aboard The Feroshus Maggot with the strangest crew you’ll ever meet. And the captain—an odious wolf named Idryss Ebenezer Split—won’t let her go until she helps the pirates uncover the treasure they seek.
Mabel’s voyage takes her across the Greasy Pole of Certain Death, into the belly of a whale, and underground to a decrepit crypt. And she does it all…in pajamas!
Why I recommend it: I didn't expect to like this book. It really didn't seem like my cup of tea. Then I started reading. And before I knew it, I was giggling, then snorting, then laughing out loud. A rip-roaring, snarky adventure with a lovable cast of characters. I was most impressed by Will Mabbitt's imagination. And I adore the drawings by Ross Collins. This will appeal to kids who like quirky books and lots of adventure and laughs.
Bonus: Visit the website
(http://mabeljonesbooks.com) for a terrific trailer, the cast of characters, and some super-fun activities. Seriously, allow some time to explore. You can even learn how to make invisible ink!
And now, for a special treat, Will very kindly wrote an exclusive guest post about his writing process and where he gets his ideas.
Take it away, Will:
I have my best ideas when I am daydreaming. This is usually when I am supposed to be doing something else. This habit really annoys people I am with because it involves me not listening to a word they are saying. My wife will ask something like “Did you hang the clothes up to dry?” and I will reply “How long would it take for a human to be digested by a whale?”
When I get an idea it gets stored somewhere in my head. Then I usually forget it. Sometimes though, the idea will pop out a bit later and I will start writing it down properly. I begin by finding somewhere to write. The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones was written entirely on my daily train ride to and from London Bridge station. Now I mainly write in cafes. I’m writing this in a cafe as we speak. I’ve been here for hours but I’ve only bought one coffee. If the barista gets annoyed I will grudgingly buy the cheapest slice of cake that is available.
Sometimes I know that the words I write will never be used - maybe even this sentence right now will get deleted. If you are reading this then I guess it has made the grade. Sometimes I delete a whole days work. This makes me sad but I know that I need to do this to get to the days where I actually like what I write.
After the first draft is done I wait for as long as I can manage then print it out and read it to myself. There are usually loads of mistakes. I don’t worry about mistakes when I am writing the first draft. I just want to get to the end. Then before I show it to anyone I start to edit it. I love this part as every single thing I do makes the story better. If there’s enough time I’ll also show it to my older brother. He writes snarky remarks about punctuation and grammar in the margin. He is annoyingly helpful like that. Sometimes I’ll show it to my writing group. They are a lovely bunch who are great at spotting things that maybe I am too close to see.
In the old days that would be the end of the process. The story would get saved on my computer and never read again. Something different happened with The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones.
Someone at my writing group showed the first three chapters to an agent. The agent liked it and showed it to a publisher. The publisher liked it and then it became a book.
Now when I’ve finished something I always show it to my agent to check that it doesn’t have anything in it that will enrage my publisher. After all the swearing and violence has been taken out I send it on to my editor. Then I wait. The waiting is terrible. I haven’t been a professional writer very long and I am afraid they won’t like what I have written. Sometimes I think maybe they have got me confused for a different Will Mabbitt and commissioned the wrong book. Sometimes I imagine them all in a meeting laughing at how awful it is. Last time I was waiting for a manuscript back, my wife told me she dreamt I had received an email from my editor which just read: NOT FUNNY.
Comments like that don’t really help.
Luckily my editors are really nice and after a brief period of huffing, puffing, and moodily glaring out to sea I usually agree with their points - most of which are fairly minor. Then I change it for the last time. Then it’s done.
I love writing. I think I am very lucky to be able to do it everyday.
Thank you so much, Will! You are lucky to do what you love.
Now for the giveaway: One lucky reader will win a hardcover copy of The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. International entries welcome. If you spread the word via Twitter or Facebook (or other social media) please let me know and I'll give you extra chances for each mention. This giveaway ends at 10:00 pm EDT on Saturday July 11 and I'll announce the winner on Monday July 13, 2015.
I'm happy to announce that according to randomizer the winner of the hardcover of THE UNLIKELY ADVENTURES OF MABEL JONES by Will Mabbitt is....
(of Cindy Reads a Lot)
Congratulations, Cindy! Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address. Readers, if you haven't visited Cindy's blog, Cindy Reads a Lot, you should click on over there pronto!
* * *
Please note that I'll be on a blogging break for at least the next month or so as I try to make headway on a much-needed rewrite of my fourth novel. I'll be back to visiting your blogs in late August. Enjoy the summer and stay cool!
I'm back! And to celebrate I'm participating in the AUGGIE & ME blog tour and having a giveaway!Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio (August 18, 2015, Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 8 to 12, 320 pages).
: Knopf/Random HouseSynopsis
: If you've read R.J. Palacio's Wonder
, you'll remember August Pullman, or Auggie, the boy with cranio-facial differences. (Here's my review
from 2012.) Previously available only as ebooks, these three first-person companion stories are now gathered in one hardcover volume. They give us an extra peek at Auggie before he started at Beecher Prep and during his first year there. Readers get to see him through the eyes of Julian, the bully; Christopher, Auggie’s oldest friend; and Charlotte, Auggie’s new friend at school. Together, these three stories are a treasure for readers who don’t want to leave Auggie behind when they finish Wonder.
Why I recommend it: Here's what I said about Wonder: "Astonishingly realistic characters populate an inspiring story with short chapters. That format and the clear, straightforward writing help to make a difficult subject easy to handle." And the same holds true for Auggie & Me. Like Wonder, this is a character-driven book. These kids' voices are so real they jump off the page. And kudos to Ms. Palacio. As K.M. Walton did for YA readers in Cracked, here R.J. Palacio gives us the bully's side of the story, and makes us realize he's human too. I think my favorite story, though, is Christopher's. It's called "Pluto" and it gives us a lot of insight into what Auggie was like before Beecher Prep.
Favorite lines: "Funny how all our stories kind of intertwine. Every person's story weaves in and out of someone else's story." (from "Shingaling," page 281)
R.J. Palacio's website
Follow R.J. Palacio on Twitter
And now for the giveaway: Knopf generously sent me one hardcover of Auggie & Me and one Wonder Journal, so I'm offering them both in a package to one lucky winner. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. International entries welcome. This giveaway ends at 10 pm EDT on Sunday August 30 and the winner will be announced on Monday August 31. Good luck!
First, I have a winner to announce. According to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover of Auggie & Me:Three Wonder Stories and The Wonder Journal is...
Congratulations, Greg and expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.
* * * * *
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, August 4, 2015, 304 pages, for ages 10 and up)
Source: Random House
Synopsis (from Indiebound): Bridge is an accident survivor who's wondering why she's still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody's games or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting.Can it get them through seventh grade?
This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl as a friend?
On Valentine's Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?
Each memorable character navigates the challenges of love and change in this captivating novel.
Why I recommend it: There's a lot to love about this novel, including realistic dialogue and great characters, but my favorite part is the gradual blossoming of the friendship between Bridge and Sherm. I love that neither of them are ready to be more than just friends yet.
Have to admit I also felt a strong kinship for Bridge since she's an accident survivor. And as an aneurysm survivor, I can tell you her feelings are spot-on. Rebecca Stead has done her research. But I wouldn't expect anything less from the author of First Light, When You Reach Me, and Liar and Spy, all of which I've read and enjoyed.
Favorite line: "Tab's mom said that when people reached out to hurt your feelings, it was because they secretly felt they deserved to be talked to that way." (p. 140)
Bonus: Plenty of diversity, as one would expect in a NY city school. But the author doesn't hit you over the head with it.
Rebecca Stead's websiteFollow her on Twitter
My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) by Alison DeCamp (February 2015, Crown Books for Young Readers, for ages 8 to 12)Synopsis
(from Indiebound): There are many things that 11-year-old Stanley Slater would like to have in life, most of all, a father. But what if Stan's missing dad isn't dearly departed after all? Armed with his stupendous scrapbook, full of black-and-white 19th-century advertisements and photos, Stan's attempt to locate his long-lost hero/cowboy/outlaw dad is a near-death adventure fraught with pesky relatives, killer lumberjacks, and poisonous pies. His tale will leave readers in stitches, but not the kind that require medical attention.
Why I recommend it
: This is 100% fun. A terrific voice and an unforgettable main character make My Near-Death Adventures
a must-read. I first heard about Stan when the book had a different title and Dianne Salerni featured the first page on her blog in February 2013
. At the time, I commented, "Great voice...I'm wondering why this isn't published yet." Well, soon after that, Alison landed a contract. And the rest is history.Visit Alison's websiteFollow Alison on Twitter
And now, I'm honored to have Alison take over my blog for an exclusive guest post:
My Path to Publishing (or Why I Will Never Get a Big Head)
Back in September of 2012 I gave myself permission to write a book. Wasn’t that nice of me? The kids would be back in school, my husband’s business tended to slow down after Labor Day, I would put my bead-making “business”
aside for a month, and I had an idea that kept nudging me. Also, one of my best friends had just landed an agent with her fantastic book Words and Their Meanings so I thought maybe I could do this thing.
I wrote 19,000 words on a manuscript I affectionately called The Somewhat Manly Scrapbook of LumberStan’s Big Woods Adventure (because I couldn’t think of a longer title?) and my pitch was something along the lines of “Imagine if Laura Ingalls Wilder and Greg Heffley had a love child. That would be Stan.”
Which is equal parts Ew and Adorable, right? Based very loosely on my family history (most of the names are from my family as well as the fact that my grandmother worked at a lumber camp, had a baby at 16, and I had a great grandmother that scared the bejeebers out of me even though I had never met her), I wrote a book about a boy spending the winter of 1895 in a lumber camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While writing I started thinking about the ridiculous advertisements of that time period and incorporated them into Stan’s scrapbook.
By December I was ready for someone other than my closest friends to read my manuscript. I sent it off to one of Brenda Drake’s contests, where people are remarkably nice, by the way. Krista VanDolzer contacted me and I was over the moon. Ultimately, I wasn’t picked for the contest, but I appreciated Krista’s encouragement. I continued to tweak my manuscript (19,000 words, I learned, was pretty short for a middle-grade novel, even one with lots of pictures) and hone a query letter. I wrote and rewrote my query letter forty-five times, had my critique partner rewrite it for me, read every post on Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, and submitted my manuscript to as many places as I could find, if only for feedback. One of them was Dianne Salerni and Marcy Hatch’s First Impressions critiques and another was Mindy McGinnis’s PAPFest, both in February 2013.
I had also been sending out these queries, getting a few positive responses, tweaking my query some more, sending out more letters, getting plenty of rejections, and finally, because of Mindy’s contest, I had a wonderfully smart agent (she’s not smart because she chose my manuscript, but because she’s, well, really smart) ask for the first fifty pages. I’m pretty sure she only did this because Mindy shares my sense-of-humor and told her to, because no other agent in that contest was remotely interested.
I had also been rejected in another contest in the meantime. And many agents either said, “No, thanks!” or would ask for pages and then not get back to me. I distinctly remember a rejection from an agent I really liked. I dramatically sat at my dining room table, threw my head into my hands and cried, “Why me?!” I’m not even exaggerating. I was like some actress in an old B movie.
The next day the agent from Mindy’s PAPFest contacted me. She loved the manuscript and wanted to arrange a call. She did indeed offer representation and I really liked her (she is a fantastic agent from all accounts) but I ended up contacting agents who had the manuscript, informing them of an offer of representation and eventually signed with Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency. I can’t say enough good things about her.
The same week I was deciding among four agents, I also received an email from a very successful agent that simply said, “The writing’s not strong enough.”
Just a reminder not to get too cocky? Not to let this publishing thing go to my head? I had been considering making my children call me The Author Formerly Known as Mom, but who was I kidding. This business is entirely subjective—what one person loves, someone else hates—and people have no qualms letting you know how they feel.
It’s also exciting. I love the direction I got from my editor, Phoebe Yeh at Crown Books for Young Readers, for both MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% True!) and the upcoming MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES: I Almost Died. Again., and am truly excited to work with her on TINY SHRINES FOR DEAD FLIES, my third middle-grade novel due in 2017.
But I’m pretty sure there’s no chance, that I will ever think I’m All That.
Thanks so much, Alison. Readers, isn't that an amazing journey to publication? Persistence really does pay off.
The Author Formerly Known as Mom
All Four Stars by Tara Dairman (July 2014, Putnam, for ages 8 to 12)
I won this book from Rosi Hollinbeck at The Write Stuff
(her blog always has helpful links for writers and an in-depth book review, so go check it out!)Synopsis
Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)
Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world.
But in order to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret! Easy as pie, right?
Why I recommend it: If you looked up "delectable" in the dictionary, this book could be the illustration. Also, "hilarious" and "imaginative" (I love that she lives in East Dumpsford, New York!). I wish Gladys was a real food critic, awarding four stars to classy restaurants. Her reviews would be so much more fun to read.
Reading this book will make you so hungry you'll want to whip up a frothy dessert and gobble it all down. And even though I found the parents a little over-the-top (they actually prefer microwaved meals? Ugh!), it's all in good fun and you'll find yourself rooting for Gladys. Give this adorable book to the young foodie in your life.
Have you read any sweet and funny middle grade novels about food?
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd (for ages 8 to 12, Scholastic, February 2014; paperback coming April 2015)
Source: My local library
Synopsis (adapted from the publisher's website): Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.
But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck's about to change. A "word collector," Felicity sees words everywhere, but Midnight Gulch is the first place she's ever seen the word "home." And then there's Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity's never seen before, words that make Felicity's heart beat a little faster.
Why I recommend it: Natalie Lloyd's spindiddly way with words! If I didn't know better, I'd think I was reading a cross between Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, with a generous helping of made-up words along with a heaping portion of real words that are both scrumptious and colorful. The quirky characters and marvelous setting are further reasons to fall in love with this imaginative novel. I wish Blackberry Sunrise ice cream really existed (eating it helps you remember). And I wish I had this much imagination.
Bonus: I appreciate that Jonah is in a wheelchair but the author doesn't make a big deal out of it. It's simply the way Jonah is.
My favorite quote: "Sometimes you don't need words to feel better; you just need the nearness of your dog." (from p. 173)
P.S. I hope the typo on p. 229 will be fixed in the paperback. Seriously: "Oliver slammed on the breaks". I guess even the best copy editor can't catch every error and this book with its invented words must have been a real challenge to edit. The publisher's full synopsis also includes a typo ("church eves" -- um, I think you mean eaves). Sorry. Things like that actually bother me...
Have you read A Snicker of Magic? What did you think?
A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep & Joanne Ryder, with illustrations by Mary GrandPre (for ages 8 to 12, Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House, March 10, 2015)Source
: hardcover copy from the generous authorsSynopsis (from the publisher):
Crusty dragon Miss Drake has a new pet human, precocious Winnie. Oddly enough, Winnie seems to think Miss Drake is her pet--a ridiculous notion!
Unknown to most of its inhabitants, the City by the Bay is home to many mysterious and fantastic creatures, hidden beneath the parks, among the clouds, and even in plain sight. And Winnie wants to draw every new creature she encounters: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But Winnie's sketchbook is not what it seems. Somehow, her sketchlings have been set loose on the city streets! It will take Winnie and Miss Drake's combined efforts to put an end to the mayhem... before it's too late.Why I recommend it:
First, full disclosure. Once upon a time, in the late 1970s, I worked as an assistant to a young editor named Joanne Ryder in a major NYC publishing house. (I was "the other Joanne".) Fast forward a few years. I moved back to Pennsylvania, worked in a library, got married and became a mom. Joanne Ryder moved to California and married Newbery-honor-winning author Laurence Yep. Of course, Jo is also an award-wining author, with more than 70 books to her credit.
We haven't seen each other in ages, but I still correspond with her and we're Facebook friends. I miss seeing her in person (someday, Jo, someday), but reading her books is the next best thing. When I read in PW that Joanne and Larry were writing a book together for the first time, I begged for an arc. They did better than that. They sent me a signed, personalized hardcover. Woo hoo!
Of course, I worried. What if I didn't like it? How would I tell my old friend? Well, you can put your mind at ease, readers, because this book is adorable
. It has everything you want in a modern-day fantasy for younger readers: humor, magic, and lots and lots of heart. Plus, not one but TWO spunky heroines. Miss Drake and Winnie made a formidable team. I love a dragon that drinks tea, uses a cell phone, and reads fashion magazines so she'll dress smartly when she changes to human form. And I love that Winnie isn't afraid of Miss Drake or any of the other fantastical creatures they confront.Bonus
: This book is the first in a planned series.Favorite quote
: A day at the fair could leave a dragon feeling two centuries younger.
Readers, be sure to come back next week for Part II -- an exclusive guest post from Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, plus a giveaway!
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Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff (for ages 8 to 12, Philomel, June 2014)
my local library
(from Indiebound): Albie has never been the smartest kid in his class. He has never been the tallest. Or the best at gym. Or the greatest artist. Or the most musical. In fact, Albie has a long list of the things he's not very good at. But then Albie gets a new babysitter, Calista, who helps him figure out all of the things he is good at and how he can take pride in himself.
Why I recommend it: Kudos to Lisa Graff for being brave enough to create a character who is ordinary. This is a quiet, thought-provoking novel (if you're looking for fast-paced action, you'll need to look elsewhere). But if you like the idea of reading about an "almost" kid, who's not the best at anything (in other words, maybe you or someone you know), this book will warm your heart. Because even though Albie isn't good at anything like math or reading or art, he's kind and compassionate. And that's good enough, right?
I've lived in New York City and the city setting is perfect for this book. I also loved Albie's math club teacher, Mr. Clifton, who starts each class with a really bad math joke.
Bonus: Short chapters and smooth writing make this a winner for reluctant readers.
My favorite quote: "Then won't you be glad you found something you love?"
(This comes after Calista tells Albie to find something he wants to keep doing, and maybe if he practices enough, one day he'll discover he doesn't stink at it. Albie responds that he might still stink at it.)
Lisa Graff's website
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