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1. A Peek at the Creative Space of Dan Gemeinhart

Joining us today for Creative Spaces is Dan Gemeinhart. Dan's debut middle grade novel, The Honest Truth, publishes today from Scholastic Press. The Honest Truth is a moving, fast-paced story about a boy, his dog, and the adventure of a lifetime:

In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He’s got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day.
But in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from. 
So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan. A plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier. Even if it’s the last thing he ever does.
To learn more about Dan Gemeinhart, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is a big, brown couch. It's a ratty couch, scuffed and threadbare in places, but it's soft and and comfortable and it reclines with a footrest and it never complains when I spill things on it (which is often). It's in our living room, facing a big picture window that looks out on the street. There's an end table within reach and our computer (which serves as our stereo) within remote range, so I can turn the music on, off, up or down as my feverish brain requires. There are no overhead lights but there are numerous lamps around the room's perimeter, so I can adjust the lighting anywhere from sunlit meadow to burial cave, depending on mood (I write almost exclusively at night).

Describe a typical workday.

A typical writing workday (I also have a day job) begins at about 9:30 pm. The kids are in bed, as is my wife. I've made a hot cup of tea which sits on the end table beside me. There's a decent chance I've also got a glass of red wine and a chunk of really dark chocolate. I'm sitting on the couch, my laptop sitting on a pillow that's sitting on my lap. When I've got everything situated just right and everything I need within reach (an up-and-down, oops-I-forgot-something process that can take 15 minutes), I start writing. Depending on how the story is flowing and how early I have to get up the next day, my end time can vary from 10:30 to 2:00 am.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

Since I don't have a dedicated “office workspace” and have to use a shared family space, I don't really have personal, meaningful objects around me when I write. My objects are functional, but they're important:

1.      The couch. I've got to be comfortable to write. I can't do it sitting upright in some stiff  chair. I sink into that couch with my feet up and get everything set just right and I can just go.

2.      The desktop computer over in the corner, which gives me the exact music I need (see below).

3.      The end table. Sounds silly, but it's like a little workstation. I keep my drink and snacks there, right within reach, and sometimes also notes, books, notebooks, outlines, etc. I'm always reaching over there for something and would be lost without it.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

For me it's just the tea and the couch arrangement. I put one pillow behind my head to stave off a sore neck, put another under my laptop to bring it closer to eye level, prop my feet up to the perfect elevation, and cover my legs with a blanket if it's chilly. My little nest has to be just right – it's kind of pathetic, I suppose. I'm like a little old lady watching her shows, with my warm tea and blanket thrown over my legs. But, hey, it works. My brain is very easily distracted and looks for any excuse to get off-task, so getting that environment just right matters. I'm a cozy worker.

What do you listen to while you work?

It depends. Sometimes I need silence, sometimes I need just the right mood music. I've got several different playlists for different vibes . . . a pensive, gloomy list, a fast-paced tension list, etc. Sometimes the right music absolutely helps me get into a scene and capture the right kind of energy and mood. It has to be instrumental, though. . . music with words will definitely not work for me. So it's mostly classical or kind of dark, acoustic instrumental Americana. For the last book I wrote I found one song that completely embodied the tone, mood, and identity of the story I was writing; it was “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and many a night I sat there writing with that song on repeat.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Tea! Green tea mostly, black tea occasionally in the morning, herbal tea later at night. I use it as a motivator, too . . . as I finish off one cup of tea I'll set a word count mark, and I don't get to make another cup of tea until I hit it. I don't snack too much, but if I do it's probably gonna be dark chocolate.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I totally struggle with focus, so it's really just a matter of self-discipline. I've got to stay on myself and be mindful of when I'm just sitting there, daydreaming.  Keeping an eye on measurable productivity really helps, too (“how many words have I written so far this hour?”). This is one reason I cannot--really, truly cannot--write in coffee shops. Way too many distractions. If I spend an hour in a coffee shop I'll be lucky to get five minutes of writing in.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

Computer. I like the romantic image of scratching away at a paper notepad with a trusty pen, but rough draft writing for me has to be a computer. The story comes in quick, urgent bursts, and when I get on a tear there's no way I could keep up with a pen. Editing and revising I always do on a hardcopy, though, with a pen. I've got to be able to physically circle, cross out, underline.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

A bit of both! When I start writing a book I tend to know most of the first third of the story, and most of the last third. There are holes here and there, and the entire middle is kind of a mystery, but as I write through that first third it starts to kind of gel and develop some gravity and momentum and then it fills in as I go. There are surprises every time, though. As much as I'd like to and as hard as I try, I just really struggle to do much pre-outlining. I just stare at the paper and my brain says, “How the hell should I know what happens next? I haven't started writing the story yet!”  I wish I could outline, because I think it's better practice; I think I'd have to do less revising if I could do more planning ahead on the rough draft.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Someone incredibly dull and quiet. Not my wife or my friends, because I'd always want to talk to them. As hard as I would find it to work with someone else in the room, though, there's no doubt that break time would be fun if I was sharing my space with another writer. It would be awesome to commiserate, bounce ideas off each other, feed off each other's energy. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, it'd be nice to have someone there in the trenches with you.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

It's the simplest, the most often repeated, the most basic, and the most important: write. That's it. You've got to get your butt in that chair (or ratty old couch) and write. Write, write, write. Then revise, revise, revise (I learned much more about writing from revising my first book than I did from writing it). You should read tons, yes; and you should elicit (and listen to) honest feedback, yes; I'm a big believer in attending writing conferences, absolutely; but at the end of the day the single most important thing is to sit down and do it. Write.

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2. The Case for Loving (2015)

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage. Selina Alko. Illustrated by Sean Qualls. 2015. [January 2015] Scholastic. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: First comes love. Then comes marriage. Donald, Peggy, and Sidney had two parents who loved them, and who loved each other. In fact, from almost the moment Richard Loving met Mildred Jeter they wanted to get married and have a family. But for them, it wasn't that simple, and here's why: Richard was white: a fair-skinned boy who got quickly sunburned in July. Mildred was what they called "colored" in those days: her skin a creamy caramel. In 1958, they lived in the small town of Central Point, Virginia, where people every shade from the color of chamomile tea to summer midnight made their homes.

A nonfiction picture book about the legal case Loving vs. Virginia which went to the Supreme Court. The book tells the story of how interracial marriage used to be illegal in Virginia and other states. (I'm not sure if the 16 states included Virginia or if there were 16 states in addition to Virginia where interracial marriage was illegal.) Richard Loving wanted to marry the love of his life, Mildred, but was unable to do so in their hometown, in their state. So the couple married in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, as they discovered, the two could not live together as husband and wife in Virginia. They had no choice but to move. Almost a decade later, the two decided something needed to be done, that they needed to be a part of the fight, the change. Interracial marriage should NOT be illegal. The book follows the family's journey during this troubling time.

It is a compelling read. It was informative but still at its heart a story not a lesson. This one will be for older readers (as opposed to other picture books with the usual preschool audience). Definitely recommended.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 8 out of 10

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. Chasing Freedom (2015)

Chasing Freedom: The Life Journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony Inspired by Historical Facts. Nikki Grimes. Illustrated by Michele Wood. 2015. [January 2015] Scholastic. 56 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: It is 1904, a year in which the 28th Annual Convention of the New York State Suffrage Association met in Rochester, New York. On this occasion, Susan B. Anthony will introduce the guest speaker, the legendary Harriet Tubman. 

Historical fiction based on a what-if, the what-if being "What if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sat down over tea to reminisce about their extraordinary lives?" While the two women certainly met--at the very least twice since they spoke at the same conferences--there is no evidence that these two were friends or good friends who would sit down and spend an hour or two in conversation sharing their lives over cups of tea.

The whole book is a dialogue between the two women taking place in 1904. Their life stories are told alternately. This worked some of the time. Other times I felt the two were not so much connecting and sharing so much as talking AT one another. Susan being so focused on telling details of her life and Harriet being so focused on telling details from her life that the two were just being polite waiting for their turn to steer the conversation back to themselves. Not every page reads that way, of course. But it sometimes did. One thing that both women seemed to have in common is an admiration almost an idolization of John Brown.

For those interested in learning the basics about these two women, this book is certainly an interesting place to start. While it is fiction, the stories they are telling are based on facts. Readers will learn a handful of things about each woman and the significance of both women in history.

I liked the layout of this one. On one side, readers get text. On the other side, readers see lovely illustrations. I loved the illustrations!!! 

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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4. Big Bad Detective Agency (2015)

Big Bad Detective Agency. Bruce Hale. 2015. Scholastic. 128 pages. [Source: Review copy]

 Once upon a time in Fairylandia, when magic was common and cheese was two shillings a pound, there lived a wolf named Wolfgang. Being a wolf, he was widely adored, called "cute" and "cuddly," and invited to all the best parties. Not. What makes you think Fairylandia is so different from anyplace else?

Premise/Plot: Wolfgang, the hero, is falsely accused of a crime. Of breaking into the homes of all three little pigs, of destroying property, of stealing. He didn't do it. And there isn't exactly any evidence that he did it. Except for the fact that he's a wolf, and everyone in the community can get away with blaming him whenever something goes a bit wrong. "The wolf did it!" is such a handy thing to be able to say. He's been given a chance to clear his name, however. He'll have one day to find another suspect, to find proof that someone else did the crime. He teams up, reluctantly, with the fourth little pig: Ferkel. Can these two unlikely amateur detectives solve the crime? Will Wolfgang prove his innocence and avoid being locked up?

My thoughts: I liked this one very much. It was fun and playful. The premise was just too much fun to resist. I liked the detecting in this one, loved getting all the clues, watching the team piece it all together.

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. Please, Mr. Panda (2015)

Please, Mr. Panda. Steve Antony. 2015. [January 2015] Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence:
Would you like a doughnut? (panda)
Give me the pink one.  (penguin)
No, you cannot have a doughnut. I have changed my mind.  (panda)
Would you like a doughnut? (panda)
I want the blue one and the yellow one. (skunk?)
No, you cannot have a doughnut. I have changed my mind. (panda)

If the book had not been described as a book about manners, I would have been puzzled by Steve Antony's Please, Mr. Panda. In my opinion, it is still a very strange book. My first impression of the story was NOT that the animals were lacking in manners and being rude to Mr. Panda. Far from it. I actually found Mr. Panda to be the rude one since he was ASKING animals, "Would you like a doughnut?" and then abruptly changing his mind and saying NO, YOU CAN'T HAVE ONE AFTER ALL. The description may say that Panda is patient and polite, but, that was not my impression. He came across as bored, disinterested, and disgusted. But apparently, that isn't the proper way to read Please, Mr. Panda. Readers are supposed to believe that it is the animals who say "Yes, I'd like a doughnut" who are being RUDE. At least according to Mr. Panda, no matter what else is said if you fail to include the word "Please" it means YOU are being unforgivably rude and justifies completely his subsequent actions. Perhaps further complicating the situation, I never could distinguish if Mr. Panda was offering free doughnuts he'd made OR if Mr. Panda had a job selling doughnuts. If selling doughnuts was his job, if it was his job to go around asking animals if they'd like a doughnut, he was TERRIBLE at it. Clearly Mr. Panda would be far, far happier at another job where he didn't have to interact with anyone at all. Since clearly he is not what I'd call a "people-person." If none of this was job-related, I'm still confused. Clearly, Mr. Panda hates doughnuts. And he probably hated making them just as much as he hates walking around trying to give them away. The question I have is WHY would he bother? Either way, I think Mr. Panda had a bad attitude and was extra-sensitive to "insults." It wasn't as if the animals were going: Hurry up, I want it NOW, NOW, NOW! Or whining WHY ARE THERE NO SPRINKLES?! I NEED SPRINKLES!!! Or THESE DOUGHNUTS ARE TOO SMALL. The animals didn't come across as demanding or whining or picky or complaining. If the book is teach the importance of saying Please and Thank You always, always, always, then a little exaggeration of the "rudeness" so it was less subtle and actually obvious may have been preferable. I think the animals in the story are just as puzzled as I was. They're probably thinking, WHAT WAS HIS PROBLEM, ANYWAY? Now that I've read the book three or four times, I can see that the ostrich was definitely rude and the whale was very, very tacky. But still am puzzled by the book as a whole.

This one was originally published in the UK. I do like the illustrations well enough. But it was hard to like Mr. Panda.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. Review Round Up

I'm behind in reviews, so I'm doing a few round ups of titles -- better a couple paragraphs than nothing!

Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper. Little, Brown. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

Salt and Storm is set in an alternate 1860s, where witches and magic are real. Avery is the granddaughter of the witch of Prince Island, and should have been trained and raised to be the next witch. Except, her mother -- who refuses to have anything to do with magic or witchcraft -- drags Avery away from her grandmother and forbids her to see her. At sixteen, Avery is trying to escape her mother's control and claim her inheritance.

What I liked most about Salt and Storm is that Avery wasn't aware of the full picture. She knew what she knew, believed she had the full picture, believe she knew the real story about the witches of Prince Island. She thought she knew herself, but it turns out things aren't what she thinks they are. Which means what she wants isn't what she thinks it is. I also like the historical information in here, about life on nineteenth century islands.

The Raven Cycle #3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2014. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to The Raven Boys (Book 1) and The Dream Thieves (Book 2).

This continues the story of the search in Virginia for a missing Welsh king. The searchers are prep school students Richard Gansey III (the driving force behind the search), his friends Adam Parrish, Ronan Lynch, and Noah Czerny, and local girl Blue Sargent.

By the events of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, I'm not going to lie: it's complicated. There are a mess of characters, plus the search, plus the issues that the characters are dealing with in the present. Gansey is driven by his search; Ronan discovered dangerous family secrets, including his own ability to pull things out of dreams into the real world; Adam is a scholarship student with the drive for more and a serious, well earned chip on his shoulder. Noah has his own issues.

And Blue: Blue is from a family of psychics, without any real power herself, and with a curse upon her: her kiss will kill her true love. And since she's falling hard for Gansey, and since one of her aunts foresaw Gansey's death, it's, well, messy. Like life. Now take life and add in magic and history, myth and legend.

Readers know that I like when teen books have interesting adult characters: well, this has them and then some. The enigmatic Mr. Gray -- I mean, how often is a hired killer so sympathetic and likable? (And yes, I keep picturing him as Norman Reedus). Blue's mother has disappeared, but this allows other adults to move center. And Mr. Gray's boss also enters into the picture. It's not just magic and myth that is a danger.

The only frustration with Blue Lily, Lily Blue is there is still one more book in the series. So while the adventure moves forward, and questions are answered, there's still so much more to find out!

The Iron Trial (Book One of Magisterium) by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Scholastic. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Iron Trial starts a series set in the modern world, where magic is real -- but hidden. Twelve-year-old Callum's father has done everything possible to keep Callum away from this world. Call is supposed to do everything possible to fail his entrance tests to the Magisterium, a school of magic hidden in the United States. Instead, Call finds himself in the Magisterium, studying magic, and finding out his father hasn't been totally honest with him. Magic isn't the big, dangerous, evil he's been told about.

Most of this book is the "forming" part of an adventure story: Call discovering the truth about magic, that it's not a simple matter of good or evil, and Call forging friendships and allies (and sometimes enemies and frenemies) with his fellow students. He also has to study magic, and it's not all fun and games -- it's also hard work. (And, well, fun. Because magic!)

Part of what Call learns about are some epic battles from over ten years before, including those who fought on the good side and the bad side. (Magic is neither good nor bad, but those who practice it -- they fall on those two sides.) Call is sometimes frustratingly ignorant about magic and his own family's connection to it, but it works for the book -- the reader learns as Call learns.

The ending of the book -- oh, the ending! Personally, I felt as if the story was just truly beginning with the ending, and that the real story will be next year, now that the reader, and Call, has the full knowledge of what is going on. Or do we know as much as we think?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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7. My Friend the Enemy (2014)

My Friend the Enemy. Dan Smith. 2014. Scholastic. 288 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I really enjoyed reading Dan Smith's My Friend the Enemy. Give me a book set during this time period--World War II--and I'll most likely be eager to read it. This one happens to be set in England during the war! (It being set in England is an added bonus for me! Two reasons for me to be excited to pick it up!) I found My Friend the Enemy to be a quick read, and a compelling one. The premise is simple enough. Two twelve-year-olds, Peter and Kim, find a 'souvenir' in the woods after a German plane crashes near their village.

These two have just met. Kim isn't like any other girl he's known before. She dresses and acts differently. There is something about her that he's drawn to. I think they bring out the best in each other, in some ways, and I think together they are more likely to get into trouble! Kim is new to the community/village. Her parents wanted her to be safer, and they have sent her to live with an aunt. But she's seen more than Peter, perhaps, when it comes to the effect of the war. Her brother is a soldier. His father is a soldier. These two can relate well to one another. So. Back to the souvenir. These two break curfew and risk everyone's wrath by going where they technically have no business going at all. They go first to the scene of the crash, crawl into the plane itself, and then go exploring in the surrounding woods. What they find in the woods that night changes everything. For they find a near-dying German soldier, one of the plane's crew. He is--in German, of course--pleading for help, begging for mercy.

Before, if you'd asked either one, they most likely would have said Germans are the enemy, show no mercy, they're evil, they're killing monsters. But things change when they have 'the enemy' right in front of their eyes. He is young. He looks to be a teenager. To Kim's eyes, she's seeing someone just like her brother. He is not only young, but he's also weak and helpless. He is obviously in pain and very scared. They decide the right thing to do is to show him mercy, to treat him as they would want others--strangers--to treat his dad and her brother if their positions were reversed. They choose kindness. They give him water. They take him to a hiding place. They give him food and a blanket. Not right away, of course. They weren't walking around carrying provisions or anything. What they both struggle with in the next few days/weeks is keeping the secret. Is it right what they've done? They don't feel it is wrong to be merciful, of course, but is it wrong to lie and steal to cover up everything? They struggle with the ethics of it. In their minds, they see it as being a choice between life and death. They feel certain that soldiers would kill him, show no mercy or grace. (They are assuming this, of course. And adult readers might question their assumption.) But great risk and sacrifice is involved in keeping that secret, and it doesn't get any easier at all. It sounded good and right initially, but, what if the war lasts years?! How are they really going to pull this off? What will happen to Erik, the soldier? What will happen to them?! What is best for everyone?

Readers get to know Peter and Kim very well. And, to some extent, readers get to know Erik as well. Though perhaps limited since Kim and Peter don't speak much German, and Erik doesn't speak much English. Readers spend more time with Peter and his mother than with Kim and her aunt. Readers also get acquainted with the community, meeting various people. It has just enough detail to establish the setting. It isn't weighed down tediously by description. The plot moves quickly, and there is plenty of action.

I loved this one.
All those Germans we heard about on the wireless were different. They were not men, they were faceless, helmeted and armed, marching across places I knew the names of but had never seen. France, Norway, Africa. They were airplanes dogfighting over the English channel; they were bombers casting a shadow over our cities. They were the enemy. Our German was different. He was a real person. He was here, he had a face, and he was in trouble. (121)

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. December musings and what kids want to read

I spent a glorious Thanksgiving break reading, thanks to Jenn's Bookshelves' brilliant idea to curl up with a book. I made my way through the better part of the pile of books I had waiting for me; some I read all the way, some I put aside to give away. Alas, the cupcake cozy just wasn't for me.

I've also been spending this past month or so thinking about what I want to write next. I've been reading middle-grade and YA, brainstorming ideas, and most of all...

I've been listening to kids. The ones who walk up to my signing table, and also the ones who don't. I watch to see what books they pick up, what books they take home. I've been listening to third, fourth--all the way to high school aged kids when they tell me what books they like, and why.

The younger kids like funny, fast, and some fantasy. Teens want to be swept away to a different place--they love those big, epic tales. Dystopian is still a favorite. Retellings of fairytales, too.

Scholastic did a quick study on what kids like; you can read all about it here. And one of my favorite MG reviewers Ms. Yingling has been talking (with exclamation marks, because this stuff is important) about how depressing recent books are that she reviews for her library. The study tells us kids want funny books, a whopping seventy percent.

So why the disconnect?

I don't know. If I can have a soapbox moment here... I think we should focus more on what kids want to read than on what we think they should read. In any case, I hope we'll see more funny books, don't you? We could all use a laugh.

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9. What Do Kids Want in Books?: INFOGRAPHIC

scholasticlogo082310Scholastic has created the “What Do Kids Want in Books?” infographic. The data was sourced from the research done for the “Kids & Family Reading Report: Fifth Edition.”

The full report will be published in January 2015. We’ve embedded the entire graphic after the jump for you to explore further.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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10. 73% of Kids Would Read More If They Could Find Books They Like

scholasticA whopping 73 percent of kids report the they would read more if they could find more books that they liked, according to a new report by Scholastic.

The Kids & Family Reading Report: Fifth Edition, which comes out entirely in January, examines the reading habits of kids 6-17. The research reveals that  70 percent of kids want to read a book that will make them laugh when reading for fun and 54 percent like reading books that allow them to use their imagination.

Different age groups seek different types of stories. According to the report kids 6-8 like to read books with characters that look like them and kids 9-11 enjoy with a mystery or problem to solve, whereas 12-14 year olds look for books with smart, strong or brave characters and 15-17 year olds are looking for books that allow them to escape.

Follow this link to read more from the report.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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11. Five Family Favorites with Patricia Dunn, Author of Rebels by Accident

Patricia Dunn, author of Rebels by Accident, selected her family’s five favorite books with the help of her husband Allan Tepper. They are a beautiful collection of diverse characters and plots.

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12. Clifford The Big Red Dog Creator Norman Bridwell, RIP

Norman Bridwell, creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog, died last Friday at the age of 86.

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13. Angel Tree (2014)

Angel Tree. Daphne Benedis-Grab. 2014. Scholastic. 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Angel Tree is a lovely Christmas-y read. I think it is a good, balanced blend of bitter and sweet. I'll explain more of what I mean in a bit.

Pine River. Angel Tree is set in a small, cozy community called Pine River. Every December, a large community tree goes up. No one knows--at least officially--who is responsible for putting up the tree. But by the time this novel opens, the "angel tree" is legendary. (It has had a decade or two to get that status.) What makes this tree special or legendary is the fact that EVERYONE is welcome to write down their wishes and put them on the tree. Supposedly, in all the decades, the wishes have always come true. The whole community provides for its own, in a way. It gives every person an opportunity or two to be kind and generous.

Angel Tree introduces readers to a community, and it does so through several narrators/protagonists. One is named Lucy. She's blind. She's adopted (from China). Her guide-dog is dying of cancer. Her wish for the tree: medical treatment for her dog. One is named Joe. He's new to town. He's living in a small apartment with his uncle, I believe. His mom is a soldier stationed overseas. His wish for the tree: to spend Christmas with his mom. One is named Max. His house just burned down. His wish for the tree? A new house. The last is named Cami. She has a gift for bringing people together. And a musical gift as well. I honestly can't remember her wish for the tree since her wish isn't nearly as dramatic as the others.

So before the novel starts, these four young people aren't exactly close friends. I believe they are all in the same grade, and some have classes together. I think Cami and Max might have already been friends perhaps. Most of the book is about making friends, being friends, working together, thinking of others. One thing that all the kids seem to have in common--especially Max, Joe, and Lucy--is poverty.

Cami, I believe, decides that someone NEEDS to find out who is responsible for the Angel Tree. The person deserves recognition and honor. She knows she can't do it by herself, at least not in time to honor her THIS Christmas, so she involves other people. Can four kids working together solve the mystery?

The story is sweet in that it brings people together; friendships are formed; strong connections are made. In that way, it is an affirming read. The story is not perfectly sweet in that life is never made perfect. Even with all wishes fulfilled, life can never be perfect, stay perfect. For example, even if Joe gets his wish to spend Christmas day with his mom, she'll still have to go back. He'll go back to worrying about her when she does.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. Top Book Editors Pick their Favorite Children's Books of 2014

With so many wonderful books published in 2014, it's hard to know where to begin in making reading choices. One easy way to discover amazing stories is to take a look at Publishers Weekly round-up of top children's book editors 2014 picks (only books not published by their own company). In this article you'll discover the books the editors wish they'd snagged before another publisher got to them first, how they learned about the books, and why they love them. Their favorites also include some older classics.
The picks include:  The Bunker Diary; The Iridescence of Birds; Grasshopper Jungle; El Deafo; Blue Lily, Lily Blue; The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender; The Winner’s Curse; Half Bad; Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Brown Girl Dreaming; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; The Glassblower’s Children; Sideways Stories from Wayside School; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; The Storm Whale; The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making; Wild Rover No More; The Secret Garden; Egg & Spoon; and Grasshopper Jungle.

A few quotes from the piece:

David Levithan, Scholastic. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. "Grasshopper Jungle is a messy, repetitive, horny, ridiculous novel with a main character who will strain your sympathies about as far as they can go. And I love it for all of these qualities, and for the exuberance of its daring."

Nicholas During, New York Review Books. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. "There’s something rather melancholy about the story in combination with Sendak’s illustrations, and, don’t ask why, I find it’s a bit of sadness that makes the best children’s books."

Brittany Pearlman, Macmillan Children's Publishing Group. Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Steifvater. "There’s a line in the book where the main character, Blue, reflects about herself and her four male companions (the Raven Boys): “We were all a little bit in love with each other”; and that’s exactly how I feel about every one of the characters. The magical realism and fantasy make the story truly enchanting, but it’s always grounded in character so that you feel completely immersed."

T.S. Ferguson, Harlequin Teen. Half Bad by Sally Green. "Half Bad by Sally Green has obvious comparisons to the world of Harry Potter, but the story unfolds in such a uniquely compelling way that I couldn’t put it down. I loved the themes of racism, genocide, and terrorism as viewed through a fantasy lens."

Liz Herzog, Scholastic. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. "When I brought the book home and read it, I loved the way Riggs had so artfully built a rich and engaging world all from a collection of found photos. It made me think about where stories come from, and how pictures can be a powerful jumping-off point for the imagination."

Megan Barlog, HarperCollins Children’s Books. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. "This book takes the best elements of fairytale romps like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz and transforms them into a tale of daring adventure."

Be sure to visit Publishers Weekly for the complete article.

What were your favorite books of 2014 for children?

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15. Ranger in Time

Rescue on the Oregon Trail. (Ranger in Time #1) Kate Messner. 2015. Scholastic. 144 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Sam Abbott lugged another sack of bacon to the wagon and sat down to wipe his forehead.

Premise/plot: Ranger is a golden retriever who has been trained as a search and rescue dog. But he failed to graduate his training. Ranger wanted to let the humans know that in a real situation, he'd not be distracted by squirrels. But, of course, he couldn't make them get that. Thus he failed, despite his good intentions. But he's given a second chance, of sorts, when he digs up an old first-aid kit. This kit magically transports him BACK in time. Ranger suddenly finds himself in 1850 in Independence, Missouri. He finds a missing girl, Sam Abbott's sister, Amelia, and joins the Abbott family and the wagon train heading west to Oregon. On the way, Ranger will have PLENTY of opportunities to alert Sam and his family--really, the whole wagon train--of dangers on the trail. He proves himself trustworthy when it counts.

My thoughts: It's the first in a new series. I liked this one. I did. You do have to suspend your disbelief a bit, I admit. But once you do, it's just FUN. Time travel can be great fun after all. Readers learn facts about the Oregon trail AND meet a lovable dog. And since this is the first book in the series. Readers shouldn't worry about this dog-on-the-cover book. The book realistically portrays the dangers of trail life, but, not at the expense of the star of the book: Ranger.

Rescue on the Oregon Trail releases this month. And the second in the series, Danger in Ancient Rome, will release this summer.

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-Ups (2015)

Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-Ups. Stephanie Clarkson. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. 2015. [January 2015] Scholastic. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Once upon a time four fairy tale misses, tired of dwarves, witches, princes, and kisses, so bored and fed up, or just ready to flop, upped and left home for a fairy tale swap…

I enjoyed this one for the most part. It is a cute and clever fractured fairy tale. It begins with a frustrated Snow White leaving the home she shares with seven dwarves. She's searching for a new place to call home. She comes across another princess who is a bit frustrated with her situation as well. They change places. Then she goes off to find someplace new…

It was a fun story starring Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. It has a fun and playful premise. The endings have all been adjusted as well. For better or worse. I enjoyed the style of the illustrations. I enjoyed the illustrations of Snow White the best. I loved her look!

I am not sure that I LOVED this one. But I definitely found it fun and worth reading!

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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17. Glamourpuss (2015)

Glamourpuss. Sarah Weeks. Illustrated by David Small. 2015. [January 2015] Scholastic. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Once upon a pillow sat a glamorous cat named Glamourpuss. Glamourpuss lived with Mr. and Mrs. Highhorsen in a giant amnion on the top of a hill where they were waited on hand and foot by a pair of devoted servants named Gustav and Rosalie.

I enjoyed reading Sarah Weeks' Glamourpuss. I thought it was a charming picture book about a fabulous cat who was sometimes selfish and sometimes sweet. Glamourpuss, the star of the book, does not like it when Eugenia and Bluebelle come to visit Mr. and Mrs. Highhorsen, her owners. She finds Bluebelle and her many costumes ridiculous. But to her surprise, all the adults seem to find Bluebelle precious and wonderful and even glamorous. Shocking! Can't they tell the difference between tacky and refined?! When Glamourpuss realizes that Bluebelle actually HATES wearing clothes and performing tricks, the two bond. Glamourpuss gives her real lessons on how to behave, how to take her bow-wow to WOW, just as Glamourpuss has taken her meow to ME.

I found the story cute and charming. But I think it was the illustrations that really persuaded me that this story was wonderful. I loved the many expressions of Glamourpuss. I did. David Small did a great job of capturing this cat's magnificent personality. I think some of my favorite illustrations were when she is teaching Bluebelle how to be more refined.

Definitely recommended for cat lovers!

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 5 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. Owl Diaries: Eva's Treetop Festival

Eva's Treetop Festival (Owl Diaries #1) Rebecca Elliott. 2015. Scholastic. 80 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Hello Diary,
My name is Eva Wingdale. I live at Treehouse 11 on Woodpine Avenue in Treetopolis. 

 Plot/Premise: Eva, the owl, shares her diary. Readers learn about Eva, what she likes/loves, what she does NOT like/love. Readers get to know her and her family/friends. They also get to see Eva at school and home. Eva gets inspired to plan a big event--the Bloomtastic Festival. The diary shows day by day or night by night, I suppose, how that is going for her! Eva has some lessons to learn definitely!

My thoughts: The book just has a cute feel to it. It's cute from cover to cover. It's heavily illustrated. Which is a good thing, I think. Some of the text is narration: diary entries to be precise. But some of the text is dialogue in speech bubbles. This early chapter book is a fun choice for young girls.

The first book in the series releases this month. The second book releases in May.

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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19. The Only Thing To Fear (2014)

The Only Thing To Fear. Caroline Tung Richmond. 2014. Scholastic. 288 pages. [Source: Review copy]

What if the Nazis had won the war? The Only Thing To Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond is set in an alternate universe where this is so. It is set in the future, eighty years after the Nazis win the war. Zara St. James is our sixteen year old heroine. She is a bit unusual. And not just because the Nazis are so strict as to what is normal and abnormal. There are a couple of premises in the book: 1) Germany and Japan were successful in creating super-soldiers, genetically enhanced superior soldiers giving them the military advantage. 2) Russia, or the Soviets, never joined the war against the Nazis. I share these details because it is important to be grounded in this imagined reality or future. Both facts are important not only in understanding the past--as created by the author--but the future as well.

Though the eastern states have been under Nazi rule for almost eight decades, there are plenty of Americans still angry enough to fight and rebel. Zara's uncle Redmond leads the local Alliance. Zara whines for almost the entire book on how it is so completely unfair that she's not allowed to join yet. Zara is the only family Uncle Red has left. He's lost almost everyone he's ever cared about. Plenty of people have lost loved ones to the Nazis. Zara refuses to accept that that is just the way things are. She demands justice. Not clinging to future justice when the Alliance gains strength and numbers, but a RIGHT NOW justice even though all the odds are against them.

So Zara's rebellion is strengthened by her odd gifts. To say more would be to spoil the book. To say less would give you the wrong impression of the book. This book is DEFINITELY speculative fiction and not just because it's set in an alternate future. Zara has a unique advantage over most people--an unnatural advantage. I almost wish that it hadn't gone that direction. I wasn't looking for that kind of read.

Romance. What would a YA read be without a little romance?!

The Only Thing To Fear was a quick read. I liked it just fine. I didn't love it.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. Madman of Piney Woods (2014)

The Madman of Piney Woods. Christopher Paul Curtis. 2014. Scholastic. 384 pages. [Source: Review copy] 

In Christopher Paul Curtis' latest novel, readers meet two young boys, one white (Irish), one black. One boy, Benji Alston dreams of being a reporter. He wants to be a great reporter, to write compelling stories. All of his chapters contain one or more of his imagined headlines. The other boy, Alvin "Red" Stockard, dreams of a better home life. You see, Red lives with his father and grandmother, his maternal grandmother. And she can be a bit too much to take. He doesn't even know if it is possible to be on her good side! She seems to always, always be after him about something. And it gets physical. His father is sympathetic, but, kind-hearted. How can he throw his mother-in-law out of his house? Even if she does get her cane after his son? Even if he disagrees with her on most things most of the time? These two boys live in different towns. But Benji's new apprentice-type job as a reporter for a newspaper brings him to Chatham regularly. And once these two boys meet, well, they become close friends.

For better or worse, this book isn't so much about WHAT happens as it is about characters and setting and atmosphere. If you happen to like or love Red and Benji, then you're in for a treat. The two alternate chapters. It isn't easy to summarize what happens and what the book is about. You can summarize a chapter here and there, but, it doesn't really do the book justice.

The Madman of Piney Woods is set in Buxton, Canada--the same locale as his earlier novel Elijah of Buxton. The Madman of Piney Woods, however, is set forty years after the events of Elijah of Buxton. It introduces readers to a new generation of residents. (I do not believe it is essential to have read Elijah of Buxton in order to enjoy The Madman of Piney Woods. I don't. I think Elijah of Buxton is a wonderful novel, and, personally I enjoyed it more than The Madman of Piney Woods. But The Madman of Piney Woods is great all on its own.)
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. The Right Fight (2014)

The Right Fight. Chris Lynch. 2014. Scholastic. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

 I enjoyed Chris Lynch's The Right Fight. Roman, the protagonist, loves, loves, LOVES baseball. But he loves his country even more. That is why he enlisted even before America entered the war--the second world war. The book chronicles his early experiences in the war as a tank driver. Readers see him through training, war games, and going overseas, his various assignments and missions. (Most of the book sees him in North Africa). Readers experience it from his point of view and from a few letters as well. One sees how his fellow soldiers--the men in his tank specifically--form a family. One also sees the many (often-ugly) sides of war.

I enjoyed this one. I thought there was a good balance of action (war) and characterization. I liked getting to know Roman, his fiancee, his war buddies.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. Five Holiday Board Books

Gobble, Gobble, Tucker! Leslie McGuirk. 2014. Candlewick. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Tucker is napping one fall day when he catches a whiff of something delicious. He knows that smell--it's turkey! And that means it must be Thanksgiving! 

I was not familiar with the character of Tucker before reading this board book. Tucker stars in several other books, mostly with a holiday theme (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, etc). I can't judge if this book is better or worse or about the same as the rest of the series. It is enjoyable enough for what it is: a story of a dog patiently and sometimes not so patiently waiting for a feast of his own to share with his visiting cousins.

Maisy's Christmas Tree. Lucy Cousins.  2014. Candlewick. 16 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Maisy and her friends are decorating her Christmas tree. Cyril puts on the lights. Tallulah adds pretty ornaments.

If you have a little one who loves Maisy and her friends, this tree-shaped board book might make a good before-Christmas present. (I do not believe in giving Christmas books as presents ON Christmas day.) In this Maisy book, Maisy is celebrating Christmas with her closest friends: Cyril, Tallulah, Charley, and Eddie. The book is simple and short. By the end of the book, the tree is all decorated, and the presents are all wrapped. If you expect Maisy books to have an actual plot, you might be disappointed. But if you love her for her simplicity and familiarity, then you will enjoy this one too. It's a fine addition to a very long series.

Little Blue Truck's Christmas. Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 24 pages. [Source: Review copy]

"Beep! Beep! Beep!" 
December's here! 
Little Blue Truck is full of cheer.
Every Christmas, Little Blue has a delivery job to do. 
Five trees ready to take ride. How many trees will fit inside?

I believe this is Little Blue Truck's third book. He was first introduced to readers in Little Blue Truck and Little Blue Truck Leads The Way.

Little Blue Truck has a job to do. He is delivering Christmas trees. He has one tree for each of his friends. He delivers four trees to his friends. He keeps the last tree for himself. The last page of this book features colored twinkle lights on the tree.

It's enjoyable enough. I think the twinkle lights may appeal to some. If your little one loves Little Blue Truck already, then, this one may definitely be worth seeking out.

 Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel! A Sing-along book! Illustrated by Shahar Kober. 2014. Scholastic. 12 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay. 
And when it's dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play!
My dreidel's always playful.
It loves to dance and spin!

A dreidel-shaped board book of the classic song. Each spread introduces readers to an animal family celebrating Hanukkah. Raccoons. Beavers. Mice. Owls. Bears. Various traditions are shown in the illustrations, but the text itself is just the song.

Eight Jolly Reindeer. Ilanit Oliver. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. 2014. Scholastic. 16 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Eight jolly reindeer stretching up to heaven.
Up goes Dasher and then there are....
Seven jolly reindeer start their kicks.
Up goes Dancer and then there are...
Six jolly reindeer learning how to drive.
Up goes Prancer and then there are...

Another shaped-board book. This one is all about Santa's reindeer. It's a counting book. Little Blue Truck's Christmas was a counting book also focused on subtraction. (Counting down from five to one). But. This book is much more entertaining, in my opinion. The rhythm and rhyme work well to make this a fun story to share with little ones. I will admit that this one does have glitter, a bit too much glitter. But despite the glitter, I found myself liking it.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. Dead in the Water (2014)

Dead in the Water. (World War II #2) Chris Lynch. 2014. Scholastic. 188 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Dead in the Water is a companion book to the Right Fight. Both books are new 2014 releases. Both books feature baseball-loving heroes. In The Right Fight, readers meet oh-so-briefly two brothers: Hank and Theo.

The book opens with both brothers ready to join the Navy. However, only Hank ends up serving in the Navy. Their parents feel strongly that Theo should serve his country elsewhere. If both sons were stationed on the same ship, and it went down, they'd be devastated. That is their reasoning, for better or worse. So Theo enlists in the Army Air Service. This book barely mentions Theo again after the boys ship out. (We do get one letter from Theo, I believe.) This is Hank's story. (Will Theo get his own story later?)

Hank is assigned to the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier sailing in the Pacific. He is an airedale. The book chronicles his time on ship and off. He makes a few friends among the pilots. He makes one good friend among the mess attendants. He becomes close to a mess attendant named Bradford who played in the Negro League. He is a much better ball player than Hank, this is very hard for Hank to admit, and I'm not sure he ever does. But Bradford teaches or coaches him, and the two bond over the love of the game. Readers can also discern that life isn't easy for Bradford, that prejudice is a problem.

There is plenty of action in this one. If you know what happened to the real USS Yorktown, you can guess how this ends.

I liked this one. I think both books do a good job of balancing characterization with action. I feel Hank was fully developed. It was easy for me to care not only for Hank but for his whole family. I especially liked his sister, Susie.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Naughty Kitty!, by Adam Stower | Book Review

Adam Stower follows up his Silly Doggy! book with another winner, Naughty Kitty!

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25. A Snicker of Magic (2014)

A Snicker of Magic. Natalie Lloyd. 2014. Scholastic. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

A Snicker of Magic would be a great choice for fans of Wendy Mass' 11 Birthdays or Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie. It has that oh-so-magical-feel to it, a certain rightness somewhere between charm and sweetness.

Felicity Pickle is the heroine of Natalie Lloyd's Snicker of Magic. She is oh-so-easy to love. She's a word-collector. She's an awkward public speaker. She doesn't have the easiest time making friends. But she's a wonderful person, very lovely. I loved seeing her relationship with her sister. I did. But nearly as much as I loved her developing relationship (friendship) with Jonah. I loved, loved, loved every scene between Jonah and Felicity. Well, to be honest, I loved most of the scenes in general. I loved meeting so many characters, hearing so many stories, learning all about the town in the past and present. I cared. To sum it all up, this is a book where it is easy to CARE.

Felicity is tired of moving around. She wants to find a place for them all to settle down. And she's really, really hoping that that place to settle down will be Midnight Gulch, the place her mom grew up, the place her aunt still lives. The novel opens with Felicity, Franny Jo, and their mom arriving in town...

From start to finish, the book is lovely. One of those rare books where you could open it up to almost any page and find something to smile about or a quote to share. For example: "Making new friends, in a new place, when you're the new girl, is harder than fractions" (25). That being said, I could have done with a little less spindiddly vocabulary.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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