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1. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Born with a severely clubbed foot, Ada Smith, 10, has been kept imprisoned and abused by her Mam in a one room flat her whole life.  Mam sees her foot as a mark of shame and humiliation, and so Ada never learned to walk, scooting around on her bum as she waits on Mam and younger brother Jamie, 6.  Then one day, Ada decides to learn to walk, keeping at it despite the pain and blood.

Then, when war comes to England, Ada is told that Jamie will be evacuated, and she will remain in the flat - bombs or no.  But Mam doesn't know Ada's secret and when evacuation day arrives, she and Jamie take off for the train station together.  Eventually arriving at a small countryside village, all the children are selected by residents except Ada and Jamie, who are taken to the home of Susan Smith (no relation) and left in her care.

But Susan is depressed, mourning the death of her friend (though clearly more than friend), Becky.  The two women had lived there together for years and Susan had inherited the property.  The last thing she wanted now were two children to take care of.  And yet, she does.  She feeds Ada and Jamie, buys them new clothes and shoes to replace the dirty, raggy things they arrived in, and allows them to find their own way through a certain amount of benign neglect.

And Susan has a pony named Butter that Ada determines to learn how to ride and care for.  Soon, she is riding all over the village and surrounding area.  Susan has also taken Ada to a doctor about her foot, and she has been given crutches to help her walk.  But when Jamie begins school, Ada refuses to go not wanting to admit she can't read or do simple math.  Eventually Susan figures it out and offers to teach her at home - an offer not very welcomed by Ada.  But why not?

Ada and Susan are two people carrying around a lot of physical and emotional baggage, thrown together by a war they don't really feel connected to and which at first doesn't feel quite as real as the personal war they are waging with themselves.  But gradually, they forge relationships with each other and begin to feel like a family.  And then Mam shows up and takes the Ada and Jamie back to London, despite the bombing and Ada is forced to scoot around on her bum once again.

Now that they have seen another side of life, is it over for Ada, Jamie and even Susan?

What a powerful story The War That Saved My Life is.  It is everything that makes historical fiction so wonderfully satisfying.  There is lots of historical detail about London and the countryside in those early war days, including the rescue of British soldiers from Dunkirk (Susan's house is on coastal Kent, the closest point in England to Dunkirk).

I thought that Susan and Ada were drawn well, with lots of depth to their personalities, but not Jamie so much.  He really felt like just a secondary character, mostly there for contrast and to move the story along in a believable way.  The shame Mam felt over Ada's foot is quite palpable, but also seemed to empower her with the ability to abuse her daughter, making her plain scary, though a rather one dimensional character at the same time.

One of the things I found interesting is that in the beginning Ada, the child, is such a strong, determined character, while Susan, the adult, was kind of weak and irresolute.  And yet, they have things to teach each other.  And to her credit, Bradley doesn't actually come out and directly let the reader know that Susan and Becky were partners, but its clearly there.

If your young readers loved Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian, they are sure to love The War That Saved My Life.  If they haven't discovered Good Night, Mr. Tom yet, perhaps it's time to introduce them to both of these fine books.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC eceived from the publisher

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2. The Accidental Highwayman - an audiobook review

Tripp, Ben. 2014. The Accidental Highwayman: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, a Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides. New York: Tor Teen.

Can I tell you how much I like this book?  I reviewed it several months ago for AudioFile Magazine and could hardly wait until they published my review so that I could freely blog about my affinity for it!  Although "swashbuckling" is the term I've seen most often in reviews of The Accidental Highwayman, I would characterize it as a mix of daring deeds and derring-do, of historical fiction and magical conviction.  You can read my official review here, I listened to the audio version, but would guess that the printed copy is equally enjoyable.

To summarize:

Amidst a grim 18th century English setting arises the accidental highwayman, Whistling Jack.  Teenager Kit Bristol makes the unlikely yet unavoidable transformation from circus performer to manservant to famous highwayman tasked with the rescue of a mysterious princess from an enchanted coach.  Narrator Steve West employs the English "standard accent" for his presentation of the gallant robber.  He delivers non-stop action and suspense while maintaining an air of wise contemplation suited to this retrospective narrative of daring deeds from a magical past.

This is the first in an expected series. Judging from the effort expended on the series' official website, http://kitbristol.com , they knew right out of the gate that this one would be popular!  Enjoy the goofy trailer (there are two more on the site).


As a fledgling ukulele player myself, I love that Ben Tripp plays the ukulele in this trailer.

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3. Setting the Story by Margot Justes

I write romantic mysteries for a niche market, my stories deal with art, travel, a bit of mayhem and romance. I might preface that with-I love art and I love to travel-and have been fortunate to be able to do so. The old adage write what you know and love is true.  

When I started writing, I knew my novel would be set in Paris. In my youth, I lived there for a year, and have since gone back a few times. It stood to reason that my first romance should be set there.

New architectural structures reflect a modern appeal, but the old is appreciated and treasured. The Louvre now has Pei’s Pyramid at the entrance, a few buildings have been added, but the age old charm, the cobblestones, the meandering streets, the essence and soul are still very much there.

The first time I visited Bath, England, I told myself I must come back, and I did. My second book is set there. My third hotel book, my current WIP is set in magical and mysterious Venice. All three cities are mystical and romantic places. Venice has captured my heart perhaps as no other city-there is a constant pull to go back and see what I have missed.

My heroine is an artist, and through her eyes, I introduce my readers to my favorite artists, allow her to live in exciting places, give her mysteries to solve, and someone to love. The best of all worlds.

For me it is essential to visit the place I write about, get a sense of the culture, the everyday, mundane activities that make up our lives. The magical moment of sitting in a cafe, sipping an espresso, and watching people go by. An image is created that will allow a glimpse of that perfect intimate moment.  A sculpture in a garden described so well that the reader can almost reach out and touch a sinew, that is the wonder of the written word.

Rodin has always set my pulse racing, his work is strong, exuberant, poignant to the point of agony, and sometimes even mischievous. I tried to bring that sense of joy and discovery to my hero in A Hotel in Paris, and hopefully to my readers. I find solace in art, for me it’s therapeutic. You don’t have to be an art scholar to enjoy it, it’s everywhere we turn, it surrounds us, all we have to do is take note.

Imagine tea at the Pump Room in Bath, and that first sip of the heavily scented Earl Grey tea, you take a deep whiff to savor the smell of the bergamot oil, take a bite of that a fresh scone still warm, loaded with clotted cream and strawberry preserves-except that I skip the cream and go directly for the jam, lots of jam. Those are all real memories that will enrich a story.

Visit a restaurant that has been in business since the early 1600s, in Bath and watch out as you step down on the crooked stairs and touch the warped wall, coated with gobs of thick paint as you continue your descent that doesn’t seem to end, and then you gingerly sit down in a rickety old chair and hope you won’t be sitting on the ancient brick floor instead.   

Stand on top of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, look down at the Grand Canal, and the mesmerizing traffic below, boats gliding on water expertly and avoid contact. Sip an espresso in a cafe and listen to a gondolier serenade you from afar.

From the Rodin Museum in Paris, to the Pump Room in Bath, to the dark and narrow canals in Venice, where the water mysteriously shimmers in the moonlit night. It’s all there. Familiarity with a location makes it easier to write about the experience, it makes it come alive.

Even though I write contemporary romance mysteries, I love history and art, and that is what I write about. It goes back to the beginning, write what you know and love. 

Margot  Justes
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Blood Art
Hearts & Daggers
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks

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4. Bear on the Homefront by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat, illustrated by Brian Deines

In A Bear in War, a young girl named Aileen Rogers sends her beloved teddy bear to her father, a medic in Europe with the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles during World War I, in the hope that it would keep him safe from harm.  Unfortunately, Aileen's father didn't return home, dying on the battlefield, but Teddy did.

Now, it is 1940, the world is at war again and England has decided to send as many children as possible to Canada to keep them safe.  Aileen Rogers is all grown up, working as a homefront nurse, whose present job is excorting the English children to their wartime foster homes.  And yes, she still has Teddy, carrying him in her pocket in hope that seeing him will help the children feel less afraid.

As a ship arrives, Teddy notices that two small children, Grace and younger brother William, 5, look particularly lost and afraid.  With a long ocean voyage behind them and now facing a long train ride across Canada, Aileen and Teddy take them under their wing.  William is allowed to keep Teddy when they arrive at their destination.  And so, for the rest of the war, Grace, Teddy and Wiliam live on a farm, helping their host family and keeping in touch with the parents by post.

The war lasted five years, and by the end, William was 10 years old.  Grace and William return to England and their parents, and Teddy is returned to Aileen.

This lovely, gentle story about separation is narrated by Teddy, an old hand at being away from Aileen, and so someone who really understands the feelings of loneliness and anxiety that William feels at being so far away from his mom and dad.  Sometimes, just having a warm and furry toy is enough to provide just the right amount of reassurance needed to get through something difficult.

Along with and complimenting Teddy's narration are beautiful, realistic oil paintings by Brian Deines.  These illustrations are the same softness to them that Teddy's words offer.

Author Stephanie Innes created A Bear in War and Bear on the Homefront used family memorabilia, including letters, photographs, Aileen's journal and, of course, Teddy.  Teddy was donated to the Canadian War Museum.  You can hear about it in the short video below (after the annoying ad).

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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5. Illustrator Saturday – Sholta Walker

MeSholta Walker was trained and graduated as a painter in 1988 and since 1995 he has worked professionally as a full-time artist and illustrator.

The great majority of his work has been for children, with clients across the World, including Harper Collins, Random House, Egmont, Annick Press, The BBC, Macmillan and Oxford University Press.

Most of the illustrations you see here combine digital techniques with more traditional skills and media. He uses vigourous ink line work, which is usually digitally coloured and enhanced. This has given him an opportunity to produce illustrations for my clients which give great scope for expressing ideas.

Some of the work shown here is also available as limited edition

His published books include Long Grey Norris, King Arthur, Bug Wars and The Beastly Beast.., a compendium of short stories by author Garth Nix. I have recently completed work for a book by Michal Kozlowski called Louis, the Tiger Who Came From the Sea.

Here is Sholta discussing his process:

Creating ‘Bug!’ and Brer Fox

Image 1a

I made these drawings a few years ago. Both at the time were fairly experimental, but borrowed heavily from methods I was already regularly using. Brer Fox was a character I was asked to develop along with his nemesis Brer Rabbit, for a UK publisher. Bug! I made when I worked briefly with an animator-friend while he was working on his Masters Degree in animation.

Image 1b


The picture always begins with a drawing on paper. If I’m working on a character I always rough him or her out in pencil. It usually takes several attempts to create the character I’m after. It’s important to get this stage right. Any decisions made now will set the tone for the whole image and are likely to remain with you to the end of the project. The drawing process helps inform the image you have in your head, which then feeds back to your drawing. At its best this busy two-way street of drawing and imagining is a marvelously efficient creative process.

Image 2a

When I have the character I want, I either trace it through a lightbox or work directly over the top in Indian ink with a dip-pen. The type of commission will dictate how free and expressive I am with the pen. In the case of Brer Fox particularly, I was trying to work very freely. One way I do this is to create all the initial pencil sketches as quickly as I can. When I find the drawing I like I then reproduce it by drawing over the top with my pen at a similar speed. This gives the drawing energy and enables me to exploit the naturally temperamental nature of a traditional drawing nib when it’s loaded with ink.

Image 2b

While still fairly loose, Bug! was a little more considered. Also, I created the bug character and his background as two separate drawings and combined them in Photoshop later.

Image 2c

Once the ink is completely dry, any pencil marks are erased and the drawing is scanned and opened in Photoshop. The ink line now has to be separated from the the paper surface. To help improve definition I usually increase the contrast before selecting out the black lines in one piece. The drawing part of the scan is then pasted into a new document, creating a new layer over a white background layer. The original scan is now discarded. At this stage I take the opportunity to have a good look at the image and to erase any dust specks and unwanted ink spots that were picked up in the selection. I may also make any adjustments or small additions to the drawing using Photoshop’s pencil and brush tools. Finally I ‘multiply’ the layer to prevent any whitening of the pixels in the final artwork. Because I like the honesty of a hand made ink drawing I make no further digital enhancements to it.

Image 3a


Image 3b

In the case of Bug!, the character’s colour was created in Illustrator. I imported the line drawing (without the garden) into Illustrator, then, on a new layer, between the white background and the drawing layer, I put in the colour in a series of simple, fairly roughly drawn shapes. In more complex images I may create the colours on several layers, but on a simple image like this, one colour layer is sufficient. Brer Fox was slightly different. He stayed in Photoshop because in this case I didn’t want the flatter look that Illustrator tends to give my drawings. The layering technique however is identical, with the basic under-painting on the figure created using the lasso tool to make a shape into which I drop the colour. Further painting, shading and colour were then added with various brush tools. A basic background layer is also quickly rendered at this stage.

Image 4a

Image 4b

To create the textures in Brer Fox I went back to paper and ink. All the effects in this image are made using either ink applied through a mouth diffuser, (a simple breath-powered spraying device) or from an old toothbrush. The results are then scanned and separated out as in the original drawings. They are then collaged into the artwork, each on a separate layer. For Brer Fox I also experimented with some scans of torn paper. With Bug!, only the garden received this treatment. Once colouring of the insect character was complete in Illustrator, I returned him to Photoshop and combined him with the garden scene that I had drawn and coloured separately in Photoshop using the textures I made in a similar way to those previously described.

Image 5a

Image 5b

Finally, I added any extra bits and spent some time continuing to tweak the drawing. Some layers are switched off or discarded and occasionally some basic effects are added as in Brer Fox’s drop shadow. I’ll often go back at this stage and draw some new elements (extra flowers maybe) that I think might further improve the image. These will then be scanned and added to the drawing, colouring them up as necessary. A key feature of much of my work is that the process remains very fluid right up to its completion.


How long have you been illustrating?

Full-time, around twenty years. I spent a few years before that working part time on occasional commissions that came my way.




What made you choose to you study art at Cheltenham College of Art in London?

That’s Cheltenham College of Art in Cheltenham, England. Cheltenham is a large town about one hundred miles West of London. I had a bit of a shaky start in fact. In England, most visual arts degrees begin with a year-long Foundation Course, which most students are expected to complete, usually at a different college, before beginning their three-year degree proper. My foundation year was very enjoyable and successful, but I left still unsure in which direction I was going to take my art. Eventually I chose Fine Art with a painting specialism, but I think my lack of certainty was picked up during the several interviews I attended at various art colleges and found to the surprise of most people that knew me that I wasn’t offered a place at any of them on the first round. So I got a job and tried again a few months later. I was finally accepted at Cheltenham. I’d like to say this was the college I had my sights on all along; that I had studied the work of the tutors and lecturers there; that I was drawn to the verdant Cotswold Hills that rise majestically above the town, but none of that would be true. Nope. It turned out they were the only college that would have me.




What was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

I’m not too sure, but I think it was probably a tiny drawing for one of those classified small ads you see in the back of newspapers. It was around 1986.


What type of job did you do right after you graduated?

When I graduated I had no idea what to do. Looking back I think plenty of ex-students, particularly with art degrees find themselves in a similar situation. I’m not sure how it is now, but there was absolutely zero consideration given by the colleges as to what their students would do when they left. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing because fine art courses should not be job-training courses. So when I left I discovered two things pretty quickly: first, I needed to earn some money and second, degrees in Painting do not make you very employable. I was no longer comfortable at home, so I moved to London where most British students seem to pitch up after graduating. I worked briefly at the famous Cornelissen and Son art shop near the British Museum. The shop’s been trading since 1855 and has and still does supply materials to some of the greatest names in British Art. Then I bought a bike and spent a year as a bicycle courier, risking life and limb on the London streets.




How did you decide you wanted to go into the freelance art business?

After a year or two of struggling to pay my way in London, I thought I needed to make a decision. As a child, making pictures was always something I enjoyed doing and was good at. My degree had pointed me towards traditional oil painting but at that time I could see no way that I was going to be making oil paintings for a living. It was a very slow start. My dad was publishing a music magazine at the time and he managed to convince the editor (thanks Paul!) to ask me to try illustrating a few things. The jobs were very occasional and fairly straightforward, but it was these simple commissions that really got the ball rolling for me. I continued working in various low-paid jobs, but it was those occasional illustration commissions that gave me a sense of purpose. Doing something I enjoyed while being paid to do it. I decided fairly quickly that this was what I needed to pursue.


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

I never decided, my work seems to lend itself to that. When I began as an illustrator I just drew stuff. I had no idea what the illustration business was like and never gave a thought to the idea that illustration could be classified into ‘types’. After my degree, my first portfolio consisted mainly of miniature versions of what I had been producing at art college. Many were very dark and introspective, typical art student stuff really. The colours were full of dark reds and blues. Lots of angst. I was still somewhere between a painter and an illustrator. All my techniques were from three years’ training as a painter working in oils on canvas, so as an illustrator I really had to start from scratch. That meant finding new materials and methods that suited my approach and were practical. As my work developed, much of it became brighter and I found I could express and develop in my work a kind of knowing humour and a sense of the absurd that I have always enjoyed and has always been a part of my character I think. Adults seem to like this at least as much as their children and it appears in most of my best work. I think that this has always been there in my work even during my student days, but as I’ve evolved as a working illustrator I’ve learned to refine it and make it more accessible.


How did you get the job to illustrate Buzz and Bingo in the Starry Sky with HarperCollins?

Wow, that one was quite a while ago. It came through my agent. In fact, now I think of it, it was probably the first full book commission I had with Harper Collins. I think it was also the first book I illustrated digitally. It was actually part of a series for young readers and as far as I’m aware has been very popular in British schools. I have met several parents over the years that know me by name and then realize their son and daughter is learning to read with one of my books. It’s always nice when that happens. My sister lives in Spain and she called me one day to say that her daughter was reading a book I had illustrated as part of her reading program. That was perfect because I had included a dedication to her and her brothers on the title page. I think my sister cried.


Have you done any other books with HarperCollins?

Yes several. At least four or five.


What was the first picture book that you illustrated? And how did that contract come your way?

My first picture book was probably one of the Buzz and Bingo series. I had illustrated a few books before that, but they were more for slightly older readers, so they weren’t strictly speaking ‘picture books’. I had worked on other commissions for Harper Collins prior to Buzz and Bingo so I had built up a bit of a track record. I often think that is, at least in part, how it works. Once a client is happy you can make a deadline, you are professional and reliable and assuming they like what you do of course, you are likely to be asked to take on bigger projects.



How many books have you illustrated?

Well, if you mean both part books and as full cover-to-cover commissions, then the answer’s probably hundreds. If you mean whole books, then probably around thirty.


Before you had an Art Rep., what did you do to help connect with art directors and editors and find illustration work?

It was a long and painful process. Once I had set my mind to being a professional illustrator I knew I needed to start building a portfolio to show round. I put together about fifteen drawings that included several of the commissions I had been picking up as well as some of my own work. One idea I had was to buy a few magazines and find articles in them that I felt I could illustrate. If they were successful I would then include them in the portfolio. The next step was to travel to London from Bath where I was by then living and show my work around. In those days, before the internet and online portfolios, this was the only way to do it. I must have spent a fortune on fares, not to mention postage for all the mail shots I made. I picked up very little direct work from all this effort and expense, but I don’t regret it at all because I really got to see what it was I needed to do while showing me what the publishing, design and advertising world outside my studio really looked like. I also still remember to this day some of the dozens of busy art directors and designers I saw who, almost to a person, patiently leafed through my portfolio and usually sent me away with some valuable words of advice. Anyway, I did that for a year or so until I decided it was time to reassess the situation. It was then I turned my mind to getting an agent. I thought if I found the right one, they would do all that work for me.



How did you connect to your artist agency, Illustrationsweb.com? How long have they been representing you?

Yet another trip to London in around 1995 with a list of illustrator’s agents in my pocket finally brought me together with Illustration, which is Illustration USA Inc’s parent company. At that time they lurked up a flight of stairs in a dusty old office in the heart of Soho, West London. They were called Garden Studio then and had been since 1929 when they were first established. It was there I met the excellent Harry Lyon-Smith who took my portfolio away and told me to come back after lunch. When I returned he offered to represent me and that was that.

The Tin Soldier

Tell us a little bit about the 200-year-old building in your backyard and the studio you have in there.

I think it was once just a simple stone outbuilding. It was converted to something reasonably habitable about twenty-five years ago and given an electricity and water supply. I’m in Somerset, England, so everything older than about a century is built from stone. The walls are two feet thick, which is normal in old buildings here, but it makes mobile (cell)-phone use next to impossible. If anyone needs to call me at work it’s landline only I’m afraid. Oh, and the roof leaks a bit. I sit beside a window that looks out onto our garden and an apple tree that produces a rare local apple called Ashmead’s Kernal. If you can ignore their gnarled and crusty appearance and take a bite you’ll find they’re incredibly juicy and sweet.


Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?

No, not so far.


What is your favorite medium to use to do your illustrations?

Dip pen and Indian ink. Then Photoshop and Illustrator.


Has that changed over time?

Yes. When I began as an illustrator I developed a way of working that had its beginnings in my pre-art college mid-teens. I would create a pencil drawing that I would render in water-colour and gouache. I would then work over the whole thing in coloured pencil, before putting an ink line drawing on top. This made for beautifully vibrant illustrations, but was hugely labour-intensive. It meant I would often be up all night for even the simplest commissions. I realized this wasn’t sustainable, so in around 2000 I bit the bullet and bought an Apple Mac. Over the next year I figured out a way of working that still retained plenty of me, but was just far more efficient.



What do you consider is your first big success?

Probably Louis, the Tiger Who Came From the Sea. It’s a difficult question really because I’m very self-critical and I’m usually reluctant to pore over past work too long. I’m always thinking about the next opportunity to get it ‘right.’


How did that come about?

Apparently out of the blue. It’s how all the best work comes. You’re sitting around one day trying to remember how you ended up doing what you do when the ‘phone rings. Or the email arrives, as it usually is these days. In the case of Louis the Tiger, Colleen Macmillan at Annick Press contacted Stacey at my agent’s New York office and offered me the commission. They had seen my portfolio and decided I was the one they wanted to illustrate Michal Kozlowski’s wonderful story. It’s great when that happens.

Heads or Tails2


Do you ever want to write and illustrate a picture book?



Would you be open to working with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?

Absolutely. In fact I’ve illustrated a few of these already. Initially I was quite wary of working with self-publishing projects because commissions like these can lack structure and any real management process. I worried the job could really get out of hand. Before you commit I think it’s important to read the manuscript (don’t forget they’ve usually not been through any kind of editorial process) and also try to get a clear idea of what the client (author) is expecting from you and what if any experience they have of producing a book. The great thing about self-publishing commissions is they often give you great creative freedom because there are no sales departments controlling the process as so often happens with established publishers.


Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?

Very rarely. If an illustration requires a certain animal for example I usually reach for one of several natural history or wildlife reference books I keep. I recently completed ‘How to Slay a Werewolf’, a new book for Conran Octopus here in the UK. The story’s set in early Twentieth Century England so I had to get the clothes more or less accurate and then there was the werewolf of course, which required a fair bit of preliminary work. The internet has changed everything. In the past research usually meant repeated trips to the local library and bookshops and owning shelves groaning with reference material. Now most research is a mouse click away.


Have you done any work for educational publishers?

Yes, lots.


Has all your work come from European publishers?

No. I have worked on projects from around the world. My agent has seen to that. As well as most of Europe, I’ve worked for clients in the USA, Australia, Canada, South Korea and South America.


What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?

My bicycle, hanging on the wall.


Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

I don’t usually need to make a conscious effort to because I’m usually busy. This was one of the reasons I was drawn to illustration in the first place. I knew if I was a working illustrator and I was getting regular work, the commissions would keep me busy – I wouldn’t have to risk being stricken too often with that dreaded lack of motivation so many artists can suffer from.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely! Having my work on the web is like having a private art gallery in every home and office on the planet that has access to the internet.


Do you use Photoshop or Corel Painter with your illustrations?


160-82920Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?

I couldn’t work without one. Working with a mouse is about the same as drawing with a bar of soap.

160-86961Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

One or two. I really need to write and illustrate a book.


What are you working on now?

I’ve just completed the front and back cover art for a self-publishing project actually. Very imaginative. Very weird…

160-86754Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

Yes: If you work digitally invest in the best and biggest display you can find. Preferably two. Don’t forget it’s your canvas. If you make your pictures on paper, remember, if you want your work to outlast you, use the best paper and media you can find.


Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Whatever you do don’t follow fashions. Be you and keep being you.



Thank you Sholta for sharing your journey and process with us. Please let us know all your future successes. We’d love to hear about them and cheer you on. You follow Sholta on Twitter @Sholtawalker
or visit his agency at: http://www.illustrationweb.us/artists/SholtoWalker/view

If you have a moment I am sure Sholta would like to read your comments. I enjoy reading them, too, even if I don’t always have time to reply. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,


Filed under: Advice, authors and illustrators, illustrating, Illustrator's Saturday, inspiration, Interview, picture books, Process, Tips Tagged: Cheltenham College of Art in Cheltenham, England, Ilustrationweb.com, Sholta Walker

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6. The Night Gardener - a review

A short review today.  I rushed to finish, as I knew the kids in my book club would surely want to get their hands on it last week.  I was right.

Auxier, Jonathan. 2014. The Night Gardener. New York: Amulet.

Set in England aground the 1840s, The Night Gardener features an Irish gal with the gift of  blarney, her10-year-old brother with a lame leg and stout heart, a mysterious storyteller, and a strange family inhabiting a creepy mansion on an island in the middle of the sourwoods.

Separated from their parents and forced to flee Ireland due to famine, Molly & Kip have no choice but to accept employment with the Windsor Family, the only inhabitants of the only home in the sourwoods,

At the far end of the lawn stood Windsor mansion.  The house had obviously been left vacant for some years, and in that time it seemed to have become one with the landscape. Weeds swallowed the base. Ivy choked the walls and windows. The roof was sagging and covered in black moss.
But strangest of all was the tree.
The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surrounding. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy.  This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree would send a chill through your whole body. 
Even Molly's indomitable spirit and knack for storytelling cannot shield Kip and the young Windsor children from the horrors that lurk within the shadow of the giant tree.

Historical fiction and horror intertwine in this absolutely gripping story. With similarities to Claire LeGrand's The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, The Night Gardener is the stuff of nightmares.

Coming to a bookshelf near you in May, 2014!


My Advance Reader Copy was thrust upon me by none other than the wonderfully funny, Tom Angleberger (of Origami Yoda fame), who insisted that I read it.  Thanks, Tom!

Also by Jonathan Auxier, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, which I reviewed in 2011.

The book's cover was drawn by Patrick Arrasmith and designed by the talented Chad Beckerman, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing a while back.

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7. The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

With the fall of France and the war becoming worse for Britain, it was time for the Lockwood children, 12 year old Cecily and Jeremy, 14, to leave London.  So it was off to Heron Hall, to their Uncle Peregrine Lockwood's estate, with their mother, Heloise.

Traveling on the train to the same village were groups of school children also being evacuated from London by the government.  These school children are taken to the town hall and as Cecily watches them leaving one by one with women who were to care for them for the duration, she asks her mother if they couldn't also have a child.  May Bright, 10, seems to fit the bill, despite her indifference towards Cecily.

Feeling powerless and picked on by her brother, Cecily wants someone that she can control and have power over.   But May is an independent child with a mind of her own.  And though she isn't impressed that her new luxurious surroundings at Heron Hall are more than she is accustomed to, it is the vast fields and woods that attract her.  And in among it all are the remains of Snow Castle, a once beautiful castle made of white marble, where she meets two young oddly dressed boys.  At first, believing they are evacuees running away from an unpleasant placement, it soon becomes apparent that something else is going on with these two boys.

When May and Cecily ask Uncle Peregrine about the castle, he begins to tell them, little by little each evening, the haunting story of Richard III, of his brother King Edward IV's death, of his two sons, the eldest of whom is next in line for the throne and how Richard had hidden the two boys in the Tower of London in order to make himself King.

Meanwhile, Jeremy, frustrated that he can't do anything to help the war effort but hid out in the country,   he wants so very much to make his mark on the world.  Each day, Jeremy reads the newspaper accounts of the war, becoming more and more exasperated that he is not there help.  And so one night, he runs away to London. There, he discovers a burning, war torn London that he could never have imagined.  Stunned by what he sees, feeling smaller than ever, Jeremy manages to do the very thing he sets out to do - help the war effort.  It is his coming of age moment and Jeremy returns to Heron Hall a very different boy.

No one can turn a phrase, creating a hauntingly brilliant story quite like Sonya Hartnett can. Gracefully creating lyrical phrases, and characters that are hard to forget as you begin to recognize parts of yourself in each of them.  There is spoiled, selfish Cecily, who, the reader thinks, will grow up to be just like her shallow, socialite mother, Heloise, but who surprises us so often; May, quiet and thoughtful, careful but unafraid, she becomes a favorite of Uncle Peregrine (kindred souls? maybe); Jeremy, on the cusp of becoming a young man and wanting to get there way too soon - all so realistically and captivatingly drawn.

The Children of the King is the story of the powerlessness of children and the people who want to control them - of the two princes at the hands of Richard III who craves power and control, of England's children at the hands of German bombs, sent by a dictator who also craves power and control.  But it is on a smaller scale that we see how little power and control others really have over us unless we let them.  Despite all Cecily's attempt at controlling May, she is the one who remains an independent spirit.  And it is by running away, that Jeremy discovers the power each of us has to change another person's life.

Just as she did in The Midnight Garden, Hartnett once again uses the device of magical realism and of a story within a story.  Here, they is used as a means of connecting past and present, reminding us that the past is never past, it lives in the present or as May tells the two boys in the castle "Everything is connected…We are here because you are here."And the dialectic that Hartnett creates in The Children of the King is just wonderful.

I should tell readers that there are a few graphic descriptions when Jeremy goes back to London, giving a sense of realism, but not graphic enough to scare away middle grade readers.  And one does not need to already know the story of Richard III to understand Uncle Peregrine's story, he weaves in enough of it for readers to understand it perfectly well.

I put off reading this novel because I was afraid that I would be disappointed.  The Midnight Garden was such a brilliant book, had Hartnett set her own bar too high?  No, the bar is high but The Children of the King is right up there.   But, in the end, all I can says is fans of Sonya Hartnett, rejoice!  To those who will be reading her for the first time with this novel, you are lucky ducks.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was and eARC from Net Galley

The Children of the King will be available on March 25, 2014

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8. Stay Where You Are & Then Leave by John Boyne

For Alfie Summerfield, the first five years of his life had been grand.  He was a happy little boy, and his dad and mum were happy with each other and with him.  His father, Georgie Summerfield, delivered milk and drove a milk float every morning pulled by a horse name Mr. Asquith.  It was Alfie's dream to some day be big enough to ride along side his dad and help.  Alfie's Granny Summerfield, who lived right across the street, always liked to come around for a bit of a gossip.  And Alfie had a best friend, Kalena Janáček, whose father came from Prague and ran the sweet shop.

But all this changed on Alfie's fifth birthday, because on July 29, 1914, World War I officially began and a few days later England joined in.   And even though he promised he wouldn't, Alfie's father immediately enlisted anyway.  Then, Mr. Janáček's store windows were broken and someone wrote on the shop door "No Spies Here!"  Soon enough, the government came and took father and daughter away to an internment camp on the Isle of Man.

At first, letters from Alfie's father arrive regularly, but then they begin to dwindle down and down and after two years, no more letters arrive.  Alfie's mum tells her son it is because his dad is on a secret mission for the government.  But times get hard and Mrs. Summerfield, who already takes in laundry, becomes a Queen's Nurse, which means most of the time Alfie is on his own.  And so, he decides it is time to do his bit.  He steals Mr. Janáček's prized shoe shine box, walks over to King's Cross Station and begins shining shoes three days a week (Alfie still attends school two days a week).

Then one day, almost four years after the war began, something amazing happens.  While shining the shoes of a doctor, the papers he is reading get blown out of his hands.   As he and Alfie scurry around King's Cross to retrieval the papers, Alfie discovers on one of them that his dad is alive and is in a hospital, the same one the doctor works at.  From that point on, Alfie decides that he is going to go get his dad and bring him home.  He is convinced that all that his dad really needs is to come home to recuperate and soon things will be happy again, just like they were before the war.  But on his first trip to the hospital, Alfie is not prepared for what he discovers.

Alfie is one of those quirky characters that Boyne seemed to write so well.  He reminded me a little bit of Barnaby Brocket (The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket) and he was certainly a more realistic 9 year old than was Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  It felt as though Boyne's third boy protagonist has more depth and is a more well developed character than the other two.

Georgie Summerfield is not a well developed as Alfie, but he in interesting nevertheless.   Georgie has the same blind enthusiasm for the war that so many young men had when it first began. The war, the government told them, would be over by Christmas, but by jingo, they didn't say which Christmas and four years later, the reader sees how Georgie's enthusiasm has spiraled down as he lives the realities of the trenches and then suffers the consequences of the enthusiasm.

I did think that the first three quarters of the novel did a really good job of presenting life during World War I on the home front, rather than the trenches, although there is some of that in Georgie's letters home.  The last quarter became a little preposterous, and the end a little predictable, but I thought other things made up for that.

Boyne addresses two issues in Stay Where You Are & Then Leave.  The first is that of conscientious objectors.  As enthusiastic as Georgie was to get into the war, his best friend Joe Patience feels just as strongly about not wanting to fight.  Joe is a compassionate person, who strongly believed that he was not put on earth to kill anyone cost him dearly - loss of lifetime friends, jail time, and beatings.  Boyne delicately presents it all at the same time as making the reader understand Joe's position.

The other issue is that of shell shock or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it is called nowadays.  In the novel, the reader sees how skeptical people were about shell shock, believing it to be more cowardice than illness, until it hit home personally for them.  On Alfie's two visits to the hospital his dad is in, as he goes through the wards looking for him, Boyne gives us a very clear picture of what shell shock can do the a person's mind.  I think this part of the story will resonate with many of today's children whose loved one returned from Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from PTSD.

Though somewhat flawed, this is a nice book for anyone who is interested in historical fiction, and especially the impact of WWI on the people left at home.  And yes, you will discover the meaning of the title if you read the book.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC received from Net Galley

Stay Where You Are & Then Leave will be available on March 25, 2014

A person who drives a milk float delivers milk to customers and in 1914 would be delivering it is something that looks like this:

This is my World War I book for my 2014 War Challenge with a Twist hosted by War Through the Generations.
This is book 6 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

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9. 26 Characters Exhibit at Oxford's Story Museum

Last week I traveled to London and Oxford with my husband on a combined business/sightseeing trip. In Oxford I was busy doing research for an upcoming book, but I squeezed in a visit to a brand new Story Museum exhibit that I'd read about at Monica Edinger's excellent blog Educating Alice. The exhibit's curators asked a number of authors and performers (the majority will be more familiar to the British than those of us who reside on the other side of the pond) to pick their favorite childhood literary character. The chosen ones were then invited to dress up as their character and be photographed by Cambridge Jones in their new duds. Each story character was given his/her designated space or room that features the photograph as well as other props. Many include sounds that heighten the experience (the wind howls in the Mary Poppins room, for instance) or recordings of the authors and performers reading a story or being interviewed about their characters. The exhibit takes up the whole of the museum and is set up like a treasure hunt. Visitors search out all 26 characters and check them off. A completed list earns the museumgoer a prize, redeemable at the museum shop across the way.

The day I visited I was the only adult sans child, and I felt a bit conspicuous as I stalked the building clicking away with my camera. While I can't list all there was to see, here are some of my favorites. As for choosing my own childhood literary character, I have to go with Peter Pan (also chosen by author Cressida Cowell). My absolute favorite exhibit space, though, was the one dedicated to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Holly Smale selected Jadis, the White Witch as her character. To enter, you open an unmarked wardrobe and push past a row of fur coats. Then you're inside a magical darklit room dominated by a huge sled and a life-size photo of Smale dressed as the White Witch. Goosebumps will follow, I promise.

The entrance to the exhibit opens with a tower of cards referencing Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Another section features an assortment of costumes to dress up in.

And, once clad, a throne to sit on.

Neil Gaiman chose Badger from The Wind and the Willows as his favorite character.

Katherine Rundell picked Max from Where the Wild Things Are.

Here's Katrice Horsley sailing through the sky dressed as Mary Poppins.

Another childhood hero of mine--the Wicked Witch of the West, as portrayed by Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman.

The exhibit remains open until November so if you find yourself in the neighborhood, it is well worth a visit. And if a trip to Oxford isn't in the cards, why not dress up as your own childhood story hero? I'm getting out my green tights right now.

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10. The One I Was by Eliza Graham

For Benjamin Goldman, 11, the Kindertransport is a life-saver.  Oh, sure, he's homesick, but the people in England are nice and there is always plenty to eat at the refugee camp.  No one seemed interested in fostering Benny, though, except one nicely dressed man, but then, all he does is give him a chocolate bar and leave.

Nevertheless, next thing Benny knows is that his name is being called, and he is told that he and some other boys would be living at Fairfleet, the estate of Lord and Lady Dorner.  And life at Fairfleet is pretty good, with private tutoring lessons for the boys, plenty of good food and even time for recreation and dreaming.  But, Benny, who always keeps his distance from the other boys, is still haunted by things that had happened in Germany, and he just can't forget about his best friend, Rudi Lange.

The boys' benefactress, Lady Harriet Dorner, is a pilot who is often away, flying planes in the Air Transport Auxiliary.  Still, when she was at Fairfleet, it seems she and Benny shared some kind of connection, which, as the years go by, becomes a deeper mutual attraction.  Nothing comes of it and after the war, Benny leaves Fairfleet and goes on to a successful career as a journalist.

Now, many years later, Benny is one his deathbed, and a hospice nurse has come to care for him - at Fairfleet, which Benny had purchased after a forced sale.  Little does he know at first that his nurse, Rose Madison, is really Rosamond Hunter, granddaughter of Lady Dorner and a person haunted by her own ghosts of the past at Fairfleet.  But, as the days go by, Benny begins to sense something about Rose that doesn't feel right.

When a threat from Rose's childhood at Fairfleet shows up again, and begins make new threats, Rose finds she must confess her own secret in order to keep everyone safe.

And as Benny comes closer to death, it becomes clear to Rose that he needs to make his own confession of something regarding his life in Germany as a young boy.  And when he finally does, it is a stunner!

There is a lot going on in Eliza Graham's novel The One I Was.  It moves between three time periods that connect Benny and Rosamond's individual stories to each other, though they are strangers when they meet.   The red thread that ties them together is, of course, Lady Harriet Dorner.  And though I would classify this novel as historical fiction, it is also a mystery and a thriller.

Benny's story gives the reader lots of interesting, realistic background into life in Nazi Germany in 1939, as well as life in England both during and after WWII.  Graham has done her research on both early time periods and so there is an authentic blending together of events that keeps the continuity of the storyline going nicely, and framed by the present time.

Each of the characters are drawn with such depth and personality that you feel a compelling need to keep reading their story.  The overriding theme of The One I Was is the idea of reinventing oneself and why that may be done.  In the end, after reading Benny's confession, you may even find yourself in a bit of a moral dilemma regarding his actions.  There is no denying that Benny's story is thought provoking, but remember, hard times call for hard decisions and Benny was only a child when he made his fateful decision.

This is the kind of crossover novel I would have read and loved when I was about 15 years old and still straddling the worlds of young adult and adult novels.  It has some mild violence and equally mild sexual content, but nothing a young adult reader hasn't come across already.

I One I Was is a nice meaty novel that is sure to leave you feeling satisfied.

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This book was received from the author

This is book 7 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry
This is book 3 of my 2014 European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader  

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11. Everyday Life by Margot Justes

Life seems mundane. You get up, brush your teeth, make coffee, drink coffee (a few cups to get started) and generally get ready for work. After work, you run errands, make dinner, if you have kiddies take care of their needs and the day is over. You go to bed, get up, and start all over again. It's hard work.

What does one do to relieve stress, and provide a form of necessary escape, albeit it for a brief span of time? I read and write, that is my escape.

I've raised my kiddies, delight in my grandchildren, and my work is now writing full time, but after I'm done with work, time is essentially my own.  I write romance stories, that is my love, escape, and obsession if you will.

Writing allows me to escape the everyday sameness. I can kill off characters I don't like. I can fall in love with the perfect hero; he's my creation, therefore he's perfect for me.

I feel a sense of accomplishment when I've finished a story. A sense of apprehension when I start, and a sense of terror when mid-stream, there is nowhere to go and the voices are silent, and finally a sense of dread that I'm on the wrong track.  I write-by the seat of my pants-I think-that is the correct cliché. I get an idea and run with it and see where it takes me.

That to me is the perfect adventure-I don't know where my characters will wind up. It's a surprise. I like that, and it works for me.

I don't quite get the same sense of nirvana when I read, but it's a very, very close second. I escape to another world, and sometimes another period in time, and I look forward to the happy ending.

I'm reasonably well read, but at this stage in my life I look to romance, mystery and humor for my escape; it is the perfect get away. There is a reason romance writing is a multi-billion dollar industry. I'm not alone.

Along with writing and reading, travel is very close to my heart. It enriches the soul, and as Mark Twain put it so succinctly. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness...”

I have included a few pictures from Bath, England, one of my favorite places, and because A Hotel in Bath is a finalist for the RONE award. Shameless self promotion, but Bath really is magnificent.

Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath

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12. The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

Molly and Kip are trying to find the Windsors, their new home of employment, but the locals are not making it easy for them.  Every time Molly asks, they speak of the sour woods and tell Molly that she should stay away.  But it's not like Molly has a choice - she and her brother are far from home and without parents.  When they encounter Hester Kettle on the road, they seem to have found a piece of luck.  She is willing to tell the children how to get to the Windsors for a promise of future stories. Molly agrees and they are soon on their way.

Molly's introduction to the family is a far cry from welcoming.  Hired by the Windsor's solicitor, Constance has no idea Molly is coming and is less than pleased to find her telling stories to her young daughter Penny in the dusty foyer of the house.  Constance and her son Alistair want Molly and Kip to leave immediately, but Molly is able to use her gift of the gab to convince them that they would much rather live in a well tended house, and that she and Kip can provide it for them.

She will soon live to regret this move, as the family and the house seem to be harboring dark secrets.  While she is able to throw herself into the ample work of cleaning up the household during the day, it is at night when Molly is most afraid.  Every night since she's been sleeping in the house, she has been having terrible nightmares.  And it turns out the darkness isn't just in her mind.  She wakes to find her door open, leaves in her hair and mud on the floor.

As it turns out, the Night Gardener Miss Polly has mentioned is real.  He wanders the house and the grounds at night and has his hand in the nightmares of the household.

And he is not the only dark element at the Windsors' place.  The tree, growing much too close to the house, is more than it seems as well, and will soon ensnare Molly as it has the Windsors.

This is a deliciously scary story that will have readers up into the night to finish. Jonathan Auxier is one of those writers who seems like he's been around forever.  Not because there are a plethora of his books lining the shelves, but because he is a craftsman.  His books have a timeless quality to them and are made of the stuff with staying power.  The Windsor's legacy is slowly revealed piece by piece which helps bring the suspense level to that of a slow burn.  He explores the themes of human weakness and greed, family and loyalty with aplomb.  The setting is expertly laid out and even now as I close my eyes I can see the grounds, the stables and the green door.

Fans of dark fantasy, Victorians, and well crafted stories will be left shivering with delight.

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13. The Badger Knight - a review

Erskine, Kathryn. 2014. The Badger Knight. New York: Scholastic.
(Advance Reader Copy)

After the great plague, Adrian's father is overly protective. Having lost his wife and daughter, he is determined to protect his12-year-old son, Adrian.  Small and weak, Adrian has what we now call asthma and albinism. In the rural England of the 1300s, however, his condition is more often considered an unlucky and unholy affliction - rendering him only slightly more popular than Thomas the leper. Though he is quick of mind, skillful with a bow, and able to scribe, he is nonetheless treated as useless and dim-witted.

When the Middle March is threatened by war with the Scots, Adrian sees a chance to prove his mettle,

"Soon I hear the blacksmith's voice in my head: Nock! Mark! Draw! Loose! I spread some dirt under my eyes to counteract the bright sun, close my left eye, ready  my bow, and take aim at a single leaf fifty feet away.  On my second shot I split the leaf in two.  As I practice more, I can hit a leaf on my first try, even when it sways in the breeze.  I lose all sense of time and feel like I'm in another world.
Until I hear someone approach through the woods, and I grab my arrows, stowing them quickly with my bow inside the tree trunk.  For years I haven't been discovered and I don't intend for anyone to find me out now.  When the time is right, I will shock them all.  So I stand and look up at the branches to divert attention away from the trunk and to show that I'm simply addlepated Adrian looking at birds."

The Badger Knight is a historical fiction adventure that touches upon many common themes (bullying, friendship, gender bias, coming of age, survival, the nature of good and evil) as Adrian goes off to war and becomes a man - not by might, but by right.

 "... I'm reminded of Nigel and his search for the truth.  I think of what I always believed to be truths — Scots are pagans, thieves are bad, knights are noble, girls are weak, war is glorious — and how these "truths" aren't real at all.  They're things I was taught or everyone believes, just as all people who look like me are supposedly angels or, more often, devils.  I didn't believe Nigel when he said that scribing was power, that seeking the truth and sharing it is mightier than being a soldier.
     Now I see what he means."

The Knight Badger is rich in historical details - from the minor particulars of everyday life and the societal hierarchy of medieval England to the gruesome manner of medieval warfare. Erskine offers an unvarnished look into the lives of serfs, tradesmen, religious leaders, free lances, city street urchins, and robber barons. The author's thoughts on the nature of war are on display throughout, but readers are encouraged to come to their own conclusions and examine their own biases.

A solid adventure story that should appeal to boys and girls.  There is room for a sequel.

On shelves 8/26/14.   Target audience: ages 8-12, Gr 3-7
352 pages

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14. A Horse Called Hero by Sam Angus

It's 1940, and British soldiers have just been evacuated from Dunkirk, but Dodo (Dorothy) Revel and her younger brother Wolfie, 8, still haven't heard from their Pa, Captain Revel.  When a telegram arrives, Spud, the children's housekeeper, tells them the sad news that their Pa is missing.  Later that night, however, the children overhear Spud talking to someone that seems to indicate something else about Pa.

Next thing Dodo and Wolfie know, they are being evacuated to Dulverton, North Devon.  Billeted with a reluctant woman whose son is off fighting, their only relief is at school with their kind teacher Miss Lamb.  One day, on their way home from school, Dodo and Wolfie find a newborn foal.  For Wolfie, it's a miracle.  Pa had loved horses and knew a lot about them, much of which he had already taught Wolfie.  Dodo and Wolfie decide to hide the foal, now named Hero for Captain Revel, with the help of a local boy named Ned.

When word breaks that Captain Revel is being charged with desertion and disobedience at Dunkirk, Mrs. Sprig decides she can't have his children living with her.  Luckily, they end up with Miss Lamb and her elderly father, Rev. Lamb.  There is even a place for the growing Hero there.

Life is better with the Lambs, though not at school.  The whole nation is following Captain Revel's court-martial and his children are bearing the brunt of people's anger.  It is a slow process and as time goes by life gets harder, with increasing shortages and rationing.  Hettie Lamb has been watching over a small herd of Exmoor ponies, which are slowly disappearing.  During a particularly cold snowy winter, the ponies are rounded up, and, along with Hero, put into a pen where they can be fed.  But one night, the ponies and Hero disappear.  Wolfie is devestated.

When Rev. Lamb dies, Hettie is told she must move and so the three of them go to live in County Durham, a coal mining area in Northeast England.  There, Dodo gives art lessons to the children of a coal mine owner, while Hettie teaches school.  The war has now ended and Captain Revel is serving a two year sentence and still hoping to have his name cleared.  He had always worked to improve condition for coal miners, and now, even in prison is continuing that work.

But when the truth about Ned, the boy who had helped Wolfie with Hero back in Dulverton, and the shady activities he had been bullied into doing by his father come to light, things begin to change.  Is it possible the Ned holds the key to what happened to Hero?

I really enjoyed reading Sam Angus's novel Soldier Dog when it first came out, so I was excited to read A Horse Called Hero.  And I wasn't disappointed,  it is a very compelling, though somewhat predictable, story with lots of coincidences.  What is nice about this story are the glimpses the reader gets into so many aspects of life during the war.

There are the pacifist demonstrations in Knightsbridge the children witness while out shopping with Spud.  Sometimes we forget that not everyone supports war.  The crowds of children and parents on Praed Street heading to Paddington Station was palpable.  And although evacuation was difficult under the best of circumstances, Dodo and Wolfie's story show how absolutely capricious the whole process was.  Mrs. Sprig was a horrible, narrow-minded woman with friends just like herself and wasn't able to really welcome these two scared, displaced children into her home.  It makes one wonder how often that or worst happened in real life.  

However, Angus draws a lovely picture of the relationship between Wolfie and Captain Revel in the letters exchanged throughout the war, much of which was advice on caring for a horse.  Wolfie's hero worship of his father is touching, never flailing even when the circumstances surrounding Captain Revel's arrest are revealed.  Captain Revel was clearly a very compassionate character and it is one of the best fiction father/son relationships I've ever read.

The reader also learns so much about what life was life for coal miners and the pit ponies, as they were called.  These horses pulled tons of coal out of the mine each day, never seeing daylight once they were  deep in the mine.  The men and horses labored under dangerous conditions and that was what Captain Revel was working to change.

Two things did bother me - we never find out how old Dodo is, only that she is older than Wolfie.  And a map showing the relationship of London, North Devon and County Durham would have been nice (maps are almost always nice in historical fiction).

But, in the end, the novel really asks the readers to consider what makes a hero.  For that, it is a novel  well worth reading.

This book is recommended for readers 9+, but proably better for 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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Maggot Moon
Sally Gardner

I used to say I was a closet case trekkie, but this is my second post about a story with a scifi bent in less than a year. I think I've trekked out of the closet...in a Dr. Who sort of way. But that's another story.

Maggot Moon, truth be told, is less science fiction than alternate reality (along the lines of Vaterland). Basic premise - England (or something very near it) has been taken over by an fascist authoritarian regime that wants to put a man on the moon to prove its prowess to the rest of the world. Snag - the moon is too radioactive. Any possible human visitors would fry in orbit. It's a minor technicality for the Motherland. One easily solved with good old-fashioned smoke, mirrors, and Egyptian brutality. However, they don't count on Standish Treadwell (oh, the symbolism in that name!) to stand in their way.

I enjoyed Gardner's mash of alternate reality, conspiracy theories that the United States' moon landing was a hoax, and flawed, painfully human main character. She does an excellent job of building foreboding, of making sure the reader knows this cannot end well without, however, knowing how the story will end. Writing genius.

The chapters were also amazingly short, reminiscent of Kevin Henke's Olive's Ocean. The effect was, for me, choppy. However, both author and main character are dyslexic, and that much white space can be a godsend to a struggling reader. So, my discomfort may actually be a struggling reader's greatest comfort.

The additional illustrations throughout the book of the rat and fly give visual reinforcement to the decadence inherent in the world in which Standish is caught.

The issue that's kept me mulling is Standish's character and his development. I like Standish. He's real. He has real problems. He doesn't seem to have any real personality flaws, however. Yes, Standish has all of these problems - parents have disappeared, dyslexia, different eye colors, outcast of society, grandfather who's been reeducated, evil, brutish teachers - but they aren't personality flaws per se. He struggles with them because the world around him sees them as issues that make him less of a person.  He is basically the good guy fascist systems destroy, not the conflicted protagonist whose personality shortcomings lead to destruction and, out of that, growth, such as Sara Louise in Paterson's Jacob I Have Loved. 

Ah, characters. They come in all shapes and sizes!

For a cornucopia of fall delights, check out Barrie Summy's website.  

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16. Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

Princess Elizabeth's Spy is the second mystery in the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal.  When last we left our WWII heroine, Maggie Hope in Mr. Churchill's Secretary, she was leaving her post as a typist for Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain to begin espionage training for MI-5 (Military Intelligence Section 5).  Maggie, after all, is a gifted mathematician with a degree from Wellesley College and was on her way to graduate school at MIT when the war broke out while she was visiting England.

Unfortunately for Maggie,  spy school doesn't work out quite as well as she had hoped and now MI-5 is going to reassign her.  Her new assignment is to go undercover at Windsor Castle as the maths tutor to the 14 year old Princess Elizabeth.  In reality, she is to be on the lookout for any unusual activity that might put the future Queen of England in danger.  And, indeed, there does seem to be a plot underfoot to replace the reigning Royals with the recently abdicated, Nazi admiring Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, once the Nazis have invaded England.  And the Princess Elizabeth would definitely be an obstacle to these plans.

Arriving at Windsor, Maggie quickly discovers that the good part of living there is that it isn't a target for the bombs Germany has been dropping mercilessly throughout England; the bad part, no special advantages for royalty - it is terribly cold and everything is rationed.  Nevertheless, she quickly forms a rapport with both Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, and easily adjusts to castle life, making only a minimal number of faux pas.

Maggie isn't at Windsor long, however, when Lily, a lady-in-waiting at the castle, is decapitated while out riding with the two Princesses by a wire attached to two trees and strung across the riding path.  But, perhaps the wire had actually been meant for the Princess Elizabeth instead?  And the plot thickens  even more when Maggie accidentally discovers a missing decoded message in one of Lily's books.  The Germans were pretty confident that their messages, sent using an Enigma cypher, were safe and that no one could break their code. Why did Lily have it and is her death connected to the murder of the woman who is suspected of stealing the decoded message from Bletchley Park?

To make Maggie's life even more complicated, the mystery surrounding her father, a spy for MI-5 working at Bletchley Park deepens.  Edmund Hope had been suspected of being a double agent in World War I, but nothing was proven.  Is he somehow connected to the stolen decoded message and a traitor to his country in this war?

And what about Maggie's love interest, John Sterling, RAF pilot shot down over Germany?  Is he dead or alive?

Series books tend to get better and better with each new book and that is true of Princess Elizabeth's Spy.  First books in a series are concerned with introducing important recurring characters and telling why they are there.  Second and subsequent books can get right down to business and that is exactly what Susan Elia MacNeal has done here.  Princess Elizabeth's Spy is chock full of mystery, intrigue, suspense and, my favorite, historical fact so excellently mixed in with historical fiction.

Maggie remains a charming protagonist, the more so because, as intelligent as she is, she doesn't get things right ALL the time.  Maggie, like all of us, is sometimes blinded by her own biases towards people which can cloud her judgement.
It is pretty obvious as you read Princess Elizabeth's Spy that MacNeal has done her research well.  The story is full of actual historical characters, some familiar like Churchill, others less familiar, like the Duke of Windsor, or Walther Schellenberg, head of Abwehr (German Intelligence Service).  I did find that the portrait of the Princess Elizabeth and the Princess Margaret that MacNeal paints for her readers, like that of Churchill, makes them feel more human but no less royal and the sense of duty that has been a hallmark of the present Queen Elizabeth's reign is very apparent in her younger, fictional self.  The fact that the Princesses knew their way around the dungeons below Windsor Castle was a very nice, fun touch.  But what personally interested me were all the bits surrounding codes in the novel, from the Enigma to the simple code Maggie taught Princess Elizabeth.  Codes and cyphers have always fascinated me and lately it seems I have been reading a lot of books dealing with them.

Princess Elizabeth's Spy is the kind of mystery that has lots of crossover appeal for YA readers, including a very titillating ending.  Of course, given the ending, now I can't wait to read the third book in the Maggie Hope series, His Majesty's Hope, due out May 2013.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an ARC sent to me by Random House

This is book 3 of my Cozy Mystery Reading Challenge hosted by Debbie's Book Bag

9 Comments on Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal, last added: 10/26/2012
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17. Book Review: Victoria Rebels, by Carolyn Meyer (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Release date:  January 1, 2013

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Carolyn Meyer's series The Young Royals has examined the youth of many of history's most prominent royal female figures, including Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, and Cleopatra.  It's perhaps inevitable that she would turn her attention to the most important female queen of the 19th century, a figure so prominent she gave her name to an entire historical period, Queen Victoria.  The book spans from 1827, when Victoria was eight years old, to 1843, by which time Victoria was a young queen with three children.

Meyer tells her story through diary entries based on Victoria's own diaries, which she began keeping at the age of thirteen.  (Note:  in 2012, the entire contents of these diaries were made available online).  T  As Meyer explains in an afterword, these diary entries were written in the knowledge that they would be read, at first by her mother and governess, and later by historians.  Meyer uses her imagination (and research of course) to describe what  Victoria is really feeling, but incorporates many of Victoria's stylistic quirks, such as an affection for writing in all capitals or underlining dramatically, to give the feel of her actual diaries.  

I really enjoyed this novel, and felt it did a terrific job of capturing Victoria's strong personality and opinions, both as a young girl and as an adult. We learn many details of Victoria's daily life, from her strained relationship with her mother and her advisor, Sir John, to her attachment to Dash, her mother's King Charles Spaniel.  Even when you're a privileged princess, you don't necessarily get your way, and Victoria's wishes are often thwarted by her mother or court intrigue.  Even when she becomes queen, her struggles with her mother are not over, although Victoria takes control of many aspects of her court, including her personal household.  In addition to dealing with all the intrigues of court life, Meyer also takes us into Victoria's confidence as she is wooed by and eventually weds her cousin Albert, the love of her life.  Even with Albert, however, there were inevitable conflicts, as the young couple tried to adjust to their different roles--queen, sovereign, wife, and mother, and prince consort, husband, and father.

An afterword provides additional information on the rest of Victoria's life and other historical notes, as well as a bibliography and a list of related websites to visit.

Those who read this novel should certainly get a copy of the DVD of The Young Victoria, the beautifully realized 2009 film starring an elegant Emily Blunt as the young monarch.  Another appealing novel for young readers with the young Victoria as a prominent character is Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela Maccoll (Chronicle, 2010).

Disclosure:  advance copy provided by publisher.

1 Comments on Book Review: Victoria Rebels, by Carolyn Meyer (Simon & Schuster, 2013), last added: 12/28/2012
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18. Tamar, a Novel of Espionage, Passion and Betrayal by Mal Peet

Tamar is one of those stories that is difficult to talk about without giving too much away and spoiling the twist that comes at the end of the novel.  And Tamar is well worth the read just to get to that.  It begins in 1979, when William Hyde asks his son Jan if he and his wife would consider using the name Tamar for their expected baby, to which they happily respond in the affirmative.  It is this daughter, Tamar, who narratives the story that follows.

The story then switches to 1945, introducing Dart and Tamar, undercover names (based on English rivers) for two Dutch born, British trained agents for the SOE (Special Operations Executive) just as they are about to parachute into the Nazi-occupied  Netherlands to work with the Dutch Resistance in an attempt to reorganize it during that terrible Hunger Winter when so many people died of starvation.  Once inside Holland, Dart, who is the team's radio operator, operates under the name Dr. Ernest Lubbers, living and setting up his radio at the local mental asylum.  Tamar, under the name of Christiaan Boogart, is fortunate enough to be placed in the home of Marijke Maatens.  Tamar/Christiaan and Marijke have been lovers for a while, but when Dart/Lubbers realizes what is going on between them, he becomes very angry and jealous.  He has also fallen in love with Marjike.

The narrative moves to the spring of 1995.  Jan Hyde's daughter Tamar Hyde is now 15.  Her father has be missing for a few years and her beloved grandmother, Marijke, has recently passed away, after being placed in a nursing home because she was seemingly suffering from dementia.  Now, her grandfather has just committed suicide.  As a result of that, Tamar finds herself in possession of a box full of his World War II memorabilia.  Tamar knew that her Grandad "was fascinated by riddles and codes and conundrums of labyrinths, by the origin of place names, by grammar, by slang, by jokes...by anything that might mean something else.  He lived in a world that was slippery, changeable, fluid." (pg 111)  And so Tamar begins a journey to figure out that codes messages her Grandad has left regarding his life and suicide.

From here on the story alternates between 1945 and 1995 as events unfold and characters are explained.  I don't want to say too much more at this point and risk an unintended spoiler, which can so easily happen with suspense novels you feel enthusiastic about.

Tamar is an exciting, suspenseful, very sophisticated and often gritty YA novel, but it is definitely not going to be everyones cup of tea.  A lot of readers said they had a hard time getting into the story, while others complained that it was big (379 pages)  and too slow moving, while other readers thought it was a 5 star story.  I tend to be on the side of the 5 star folks.  

Peet's teenage narrator proves to be quite formidable.  One would almost think beyond her 15 years, but given Tamar's life experiences so far, maybe her formidability is completely understandable.  Through her voice, Peet details her discoveries in a very straightforward style, clean and clear, yet it is all done in such lyrical prose that sometimes it often made me almost forget the subtext of the title.  Without my realizing that he had done it, Peet has taken that subtext espionage, passion and betrayal, wound and woven them together in a story that left me unsuspecting until the very end and then totally surprised.  In fact, after I finished it, I thought the whole novel is really a reflection of of William Hyde's love of all things enigma and that, I think, that is what makes Tamar such an unusual story.  And yet, all along the way, Tamar gives us innocent (?) hints about where things are going.

The book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was bought for my personal library

Walker Books Australia has a very nice teacher's guide here.

This book was awarded the following well-deserved honors:

2005 Carnegie Medal
206 Wirral Paper Back of the Year
2008 ALA's Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
2011 De Gouden Lijst

This is book 4 of my 2013 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry
This is book 2 of my 2013 European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader

14 Comments on Tamar, a Novel of Espionage, Passion and Betrayal by Mal Peet, last added: 2/1/2013
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19. Cinders and Sapphires

Cinders & Sapphires by Leila Rasheed.

Bookshelves of Doom described this one as The Luxe meets Downton Abbey. As both are things I adore, how could I say no?

It's 1910. After many years in India, the Averlys are back at Somerton, but whispers of the scandal that caused Lord Westlake his job have followed them. Ada is a beautiful and bookish, and longs to be allowed to attend Oxford, but must marry well to save the estate. On the boat back to England, a brief encounter with a super-hott Indian boy (on his way to Oxford) leaves her breathless. But, once back at Somerton, there's a new stepmother, a cruel stepsister, and Rose. Rose was a childhood friend, the daughter of the housekeeper. Lord Westlake as taken a keen interest in her and elevates her to Lady's Maid, but the servants don't like it and she gets advice from all the wrong corners. Fancy dresses! Scheming servants! A boy she loves that her father would never approve of vs. a good match with a good guy who will let her follow her dreams...

I wanted to like this more than I did. I needed more from Charlotte to make her more than just an evil step-sister. The narrative sometimes goes to other characters (mostly Rose and the stepbrother Sebastian) but mostly sticks to Ada. A little less Ada and more of the other characters (would *love* to get some of Ravi's point of view) would have rounded it out a little more. Ada and Ravi are super insta-love, which bugged me. I liked the relationship as it grew, but I wasn't entirely sure what attracted them to each other in the first place, especially given their very different stations. The foreshadowing and clues about the BIG SURPRISE at the end were also pretty heavy--something that would have worked better if the entire story were a little more fleshed out. I just wanted more. All that said, it was still a fun read. I liked many of the characters and want to know more, especially about the minor ones. It's definitely the first in a series, with some very ominous things left hanging, so be on the lookout for book 2.

ARC Provided by... the publisher, at ALA.

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20. Book Review: War Dogs: Churchill & Rufus, by Kathryn Selbert (Charlesbridge, 2013)

Recommended for ages 7-12.  

Winston Churchill was known during his lifetime as the British Bulldog, due to his famous tenacity.  In addition to being a great statesman, writer, and orator, Churchill was an animal lover, but it was not bulldogs who lived alongside the famous man, but miniature poodles.

This new picture book by debut author/illustrator Kathryn Selbert tells the story of the British home front by highlighting Churchill's relationship with his poodle, Rufus.  The author opens with the following:

"Rufus's best friend, Winston Churchill, is a busy man, but most days Rufus and Winston share a walk."

It's 1940, and Winston is managing a nation at war.  Through the eyes of Rufus, Churchill's faithful brown miniature poodle, we see Churchill at work, visiting his secret underground bunker, the room from which he directs the war, going to the House of Commons, walking through streets filled with rubble from buildings destroyed by Nazi bombers.  Rufus is not always invited along however; when Winston meets with his allies, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, to plan D-Day, Rufus sits by the door, patiently guarding the bunker.  Rufus is once again by Churchill's side as the war ends, barking and howling with happiness.  In the end, Rufus and Winston retire to the country, resting..."two war dogs."  In the final lovely two-page spread dominated by the greens of the English countryside, Winston and Rufus gaze out to the horizon, with the country finally at peace.

Back matter includes a timeline of World War II, a look at Churchill and his affection for poodles (he owned two during his lifetime, both named Rufus), and a brief biography of Winston Churchill himself.    The author also includes books for young Churchill fans, Churchill and World War II-related websites, a bibliography, and quotation sources.

Acrylic and collage illustrations have an nostalgic yet realistic look, with plenty of sepia tones suggesting a time long ago.  Each two-page spread features a quotation by Churchill on a yellowed piece of paper, in an old-fashioned typewriter-style font, designed to look like it has been pinned to the rest of the picture. An interview on the Charlesbridge website indicates that this book grew out of an undergraduate school project, but that the book originally focused more on the relationship between dog and owner, and less on the historical details.  The book now provides more of an introduction to World War II, one that would be a good classroom read-aloud while studying that time period.  The book will, of course, capture the heart of dog lovers as well as history lover, with its illustrations that depict Rufus in all his poodle splendor.

Disclaimer:  I am a poodle owner and a poodle lover.  Review copy provided by publisher.

Churchill with the real Rufus 

2 Comments on Book Review: War Dogs: Churchill & Rufus, by Kathryn Selbert (Charlesbridge, 2013), last added: 2/13/2013
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21. Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian

On September 1, 1939, Operation Pied Piper commenced and thousands of children were evacuated from London to the English countryside to keep them safe from the war that was just beginning.

Among the evacuees to Little Weinwold is William Beech, 8, left in the care of Tom Oakley, a widower and a rather crusty loner.  William is much to small for his age, frightened of everything and covered in black and blue bruises.  Inside he duffel, Tom find a belt with a large buckle and instructions to use it on William whenever he sees fit.  Appalled by what he sees that first day, Mr. Tom, as he tells William to call him, begins to soften towards the boy, taking him out and buying him some appropriate clothing and boots, feeding him well and doctoring the bruises.

As William's body heals, he comes out of his frightened shell and even develops a fondness for Mr. Tom's dog Sammy.  But William has a bed-wetting problem that continues despite everything.   Soon William meets Zach, another evacuee, and they become best friends.  And other kids begin to join in on their fun.  And it turns out that William is quite a talented artist, receiving some art supplies from Mr. Tom for his ninth birthday.  Things go well until school starts.

It turns out that William cannot read, that in London his teachers ignored him and the other students taunted him.  When all his friends to into their proper class, William is put in with the younger kids who are just beginning school.  Mr. Tom begins to teach him to read and by the end of the term, William has conquered not just reading but his bed-wetting problem as well.

Life for William, Mr. Tom and Sammy the dog has evolved into a comfortable,  happy companionship and Mr. Tom has even begun to participate in village activities again, something he hasn't done in forty years after the death of his wife and new baby son, also named William.  But one day a letter arrives from William's mother, asking for her son to come home for a visit.

And it is with very heavy hearts that Mr. Tom and William say good-bye at the train.  William is laden with all kinds of lovely, friendly gifts for his mother as he leave and promises to write to Mr. Tom as soon as he can.  When weeks go by and not letter arrives, Mr. Tom and Sammy take the train to London to find out if things are going well for William, arriving just at the Blitz begins.

And yes, he does find him - locked in a closet, tied up to a pipe in it and holding a baby who turns out to be his illegitimate sister.  Traumatized and blaming himself for the baby's death, William is taken to a hospital.  Mr. Tom keeps watch and makes himself useful when people injured by the bombing are brought in.  After a few days, however, he is told that William is going to be transferred to a home where he will be given psychiatric treatment.

Not agreeing that this is the best thing for William, Mr. Tom resorts to something desperate.  Will the two ever make it back to Little Weinwold or is this the end of things for Mr. Tom and William?

Good Night, Mr. Tom is Michelle Magorian's first novel.  It was written in 1981 and hasn't lost any of its appeal nor does it have a dated feeling.  It is probably her most well-known work, particularly since it has been made into a television movie (ITV in the UK, Masterpiece Theater in the US, and with John Thaw, a favorite) and a play.

I have read Good Night, Mr. Tom a few times and never get tired of it.  The writing is elegant, and Magorian has great talent in fleshing out her characters so that they are believable and well-developed. And the same can be said for her settings, actually.

Magorian also has a way of presenting difficult issues without getting too graphic or going overboard.  In this novel alone, there are issues of abuse, bullying, anti-Semitism, skewed religious beliefs, the death of children and suicide.  These are dreadful things, and yet not presented in such a way that they   will disturb young readers, but enough is said to make this book appeal to an adult reader as well.  And in the end, it is a novel of healing, hope, love and trust, and these are the issues that predominate, even without a really pat ending.

If you haven't read Good Night, Mr. Tom, be warned - it is a tearjerker, but oh, so worth it.  But there is much in the story that will make you chuckle, especially William's very outgoing friend Zack, whom I haven't mentioned much even though he is a good part of the book and who makes me smile just thinking about him.

This old favorite is worthy of a first read if you haven't already read it, or worthy of another read if you have read it before.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased for my personal library

9 Comments on Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian, last added: 3/17/2013
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22. Welcome to America, Champ! by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Doris Ettlinger

Once the United States entered WWII, the inevitable was bound to happen - American G.I.s who were stationed in England before deploying to combat areas would meet, date and fall in love with English girls.  And sometimes they got married.  Welcome to America, Champ! is the story of this very thing and what happens next, all told from the point of view of a young boy named Thomas.

Thomas begins his story in 1944, telling us about his mother marrying Jack Ricker, a US serviceman stationed in England.  It is one of the few happy occasions during Thomas's experience of war.  Before Jack, things were pretty sad for Thomas and his family, even though their village hadn't been bombed like other places in England.  His mother friends all put together their rations to make a cake for the bride and groom and there is lots of dancing at the small reception, but Thomas has lots of questions for his new dad about some day living in America, which his dad is happy to answer.  And he promises to teach Thomas how to play baseball with a stick once they are all together in the US.

But soon after Jack is sent off to war.  And eventually Thomas has a new baby brother named Ronnie.

One day, the church bells start ringing all over England to announce that the war is finally over.  But Jack is sent directly back to the states, with no time to visit his wife and sons.  The family waits until the finally get a letter from the army - be ready to sail to America in two weeks.
Sailing to America
Pretty soon, Thomas, Ronnie and their mom are on the Queen Mary, sailing across the Atlantic to a
a new life.  Excited but apprehensive, Thomas reads the answers his dad had given him to all his questions over and over again to reassure himself that things will be work out.  And he spends lots time exploring the ship with his new friend Lucy, who is going to America for the same reason as Thomas.  Thomas and Lucy are both still rather homesick and anxious, but when they finally see the Statue of Liberty early one morning, Lucy's homesickness get the better of her and she begins to cry.

But maybe Thomas has just the thing to help Lucy with her fears and to help himself at the same time.

Welcome to America, Champ! is one of those very well written, well done picture books for older readers that are being published more and more lately.  I think these are perfect classroom books and offer a way of introducing different historical events to kids in first, second and third grades without overwhelming them with facts and figures.

I personally found this book to be very interesting for two reasons: first, because my best friend's grandmother was a war bride from England and because my dad had also immigrated here from Wales.  We both used love listening to their stories about leaving Britain and coming here.  And Welcome to America, Champ! is, after all, a story about immigrating to a new country and what that means to a child - getting to know a new dad, a new school, new friends, new way of life at the same time as leaving behind your old home, old friends, old school and your family.  Thomas's apprehension about these issues makes this a perfect read aloud for any child who is about to or has just dealt with a an event that has changed their lives.

Doris Ettlinger's beautifully rendered realistic watercolor illustrations complement and support this heartwarming story throughout, giving us a real sense of not just of Thomas's life but also his feelings and emotions.

My second reason for finding Welcome to America, Champ! is that I was fortunate enough to have sailed from Southampton to New York on the Queen Mary just before she was retired and I was old enough to remember it.  The Queen Mary was a lovely old ship and being on her was like stepping back in time (or at least that is what my memory tells me).

Queen Mary entering New York harbor
Be sure to read the Author's Note at the end of Welcome to America, Champ! for more information about war brides.

FYI: The Queen Mary, converted from a warship to a floating nursery, arrived in New York Harbor on February 10, 1946 with the first of the war brides and their children, all of whom were greeted by an army band playing Brahms' "Lullabye."  On board were 1,666 brides and 688 children.  What a day that must have been!

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was purchased for my personal library.

4 Comments on Welcome to America, Champ! by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Doris Ettlinger, last added: 3/30/2013
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23. Untold (The Lynburn Legacy Book 2): Sarah Rees Brennan

Book: Untold (The Lynburn Legacy, Book 2)
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan (@SarahReesBrenna)
Pages: 384
Age Range: 12 and up

Untold is the second book in Sarah Rees Brennan's The Lynburn Legacy series, after last year's Unspoken (my review). It's a sequel that I was looking forward to. I started reading it pretty much as soon as it arrived. Untold picks up shortly after the events of Unspoken, and includes just enough backstory to re-orient the reader into the world of the Lynburns and the small English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. 

Untold is Gothic in tone from start to finish, with a heavy, brooding atmosphere cast over most of the book. Untold is a bit darker than Unspoken, reminding me, in terms of bleakness, of Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. But what keeps it from being too dark is the strength of the bonds (and the degree of banter) between heroine Kami Glass and her friends. 

Like this (in a news story that Kami writes for her school paper):

""What on earth is happening?" asked a witness to these events (Rusty Montgomery, age 20, who insisted on not remaining anonymous and also wished this paper to record the fact that he is single)."

Kami is an excellent heroine. She's stubborn and determined, tireless in her efforts. She's small and fiery, with a part-Japanese heritage that makes her just the tiniest bit exotic. She glares at her best friend when tricked into discussing feelings. She has a gift for brining people together.

Kami doesn't know what to make of her relationship with Jared Lynburn, with whom she had a constant mental connection for most of her life, a connection now severed. I found the relationship dynamics between Kami and Jared to be realistic (as much as possible, given the unusual nature of their bond), and I was pulling for them.

I also quite like Kami's relationship with her contentious best friend, Angela, who Kami has only recently learned is gay. I found the scenes between Kami and Angela regarding Angela's coming out realistic, too, and not overdone. 

Well done as all of the relationship aspects of Untold are, it's the Gothic tone that really stands out. You know what you're in for when the very first chapter features a scene in which scarecrows come to life, and not in a good way. Like this:

"Kami looked and saw that every garden on Shadowchurch Lane was stirring into life. The undertaker scarecrow in the Thompsons' garden was already off it's wooden frame and climbing the fence, its round pale face shining like a small horrible moon, coming through the darkness at them." (Page 11)

Untold is a worth sequel to Unspoken. It has three-dimensional characterization (with continuing character development from the first book), a strong sense of place, lyrical writing, and an intriguing plot. I can't wait for the final (I think) book in the trilogy. I do highly recommend Untold, but be sure to read Unspoken first. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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24. The Miz Maze : or, the Winkworth puzzle ; a story in letters

So, I think The Miz Maze might be the best collaborative novel I’ve read. The authors are:

Frances Awdry
Mary Bramston
Christabel Rose Coleridge
Mary Susanna Lee
A.E. Mary Anderson Morshead
Frances Mary Peard
Eleanor C. Price
Florence Wilford
Charlotte Mary Yonge

Nine authors is a lot, and I want to know more about them and about the dynamic between them. But all I’ve got is the obvious textual evidence that they weren’t as acrimonious as The Whole Family‘s lot. Beyond that, I’ve got nothing but a page of signatures, a few Wikipedia pages, and a random selection of facts about Charlotte Yonge. And that’s okay. It’s a pretty self-sufficient book, I think, and the authors seem to agree.

The information they do and don’t choose to give is so interesting. First, the authors’ names appear only as facsimile signatures, and they don’t specify who wrote what. Second, they provide a list of characters, and it’s crazy. See, for example, “Sir Walter Winkworth, Baronet of the Miz Maze, Stokeworthy, Wilts, age about 64, residing, when the book opens, at High Scale, a small property in Westmoreland, which was his in right of his second wife, Sophia Ratclyffe, recently deceased.”

I mean, all else aside, that’s a hell of a lot of commas.

On the scale of literary parlor game pretension, these women fall somewhere between the authors of The Affair at the Inn and William Dean “Control Freak” Howells, progenitor of The Whole Family. Instead of, “hey, let’s write a story,” or “hey, let’s be super deep together,” they’re saying, “hey, let’s write something realistic.” And, I mean, it’s still a sentimental novel, so a Venn diagram with circles labeled “People who don’t think Italians are entirely respectable” and “People whose relations married Italians” would encompass most of the characters, with significant overlap. But the governing principle seems to be the idea that everyone has a different point of view, and that people rarely understand each other. And…well, a) that is obviously my favorite thing, even more than secret insane wives and people falling in love with their spouses, and b) they are so amazingly committed to this principle that I can’t help but kind of love them, even when the story doesn’t do a whole lot for me.

Let me tell you, for example, about Algernon Bootle. Algernon Bootle is the son of the vicar and his busybody wife. Sir Walter Winkworth (of High Scale and Miz Maze) hires him to tutor his eldest son, Miles. Aunt Dora, Sir Walter’s sister, says she wouldn’t have thought any real person could sound so much like Mr. Collins. All the Winkworth kids kind of hate him. And yet Miles, writing to his twin, says “He isn’t such a bad fellow at bottom. I told him the other day that you would have been a more creditable pupil, and he became natural on the spot and said: ‘I wouldn’t have undertaken him for a thousand pounds.’”

I thought Algy was the one character who was only ever going to be the butt of jokes. But no, the authors of The Miz Maze are committed to everyone’s humanity, and it’s awesome. Which is not to say that Algy’s not still continually the butt of jokes. But he’s not just that.

I want to talk about Miles, too, but I don’t quite know what to say. He’s shy in that way that comes off as dullness, and Aunt Dora says, “Miles will be better looking by and by, when he has overcome the heaviness that clings about fine young men in the undeveloped stage.” He’s desperately in love with his sister Zoe’s best friend Emily, but she’s not interested. His more outgoing twin is in the Army, and also Canada, and it makes sense for Miles to be the steady, stay-at-home one. But when Aunt Dora tells him that he and his brother had their initials written on their feet as babies so their folks wouldn’t get them mixed up, he says, “I think it’s rather a pity they didn’t.” He’s sort of inarticulately, endearingly young.

And then, Aunt Dora. You may have already noticed that I can’t describe other characters without help from Aunt Dora. That’s because she’s the best. She’s one of Sir Walter’s two spinster sisters, and while the other one, Bessie, has a tragically dead fiancé in her past, Aunt Dora is happily single. She’s also kind and intelligent, funny, and a little bit intimidating to the younger women before they know her well. And she’s awesome at gently taking Sir Walter down a peg when he deserves it, in a very realistically sibling-like way.

The family relationships in this book are fantastic all around. Or, the Winkworth family ones are. Other families don’t get the same amount of attention. But there are plenty of Winkworths, and I can’t decide which I like best. There’s Sir Walter’s fraught relationships with his eldest children, and the way his obvious love for them doesn’t lessen the weight of his expectations. There’s Miles and Clyffe — short for Ratclyffe, which ouch — who have been the most symbiotic of twins, and now have to learn to be apart from each other. There’s Miles and Zoe, who are so much alike and so different, and confide in each other and bully each other in equal measure. And there’s Sir Walter and Aunt Dora, whose teasing, open affection was my first sign that the characters in this book were going to closely resemble real people. I think this is what William Dean Howells wanted for The Whole Family, and that The Miz Maze happened 15 years earlier makes me feel even better about Howells’ book being a hilarious train wreck instead.

It gets a little worse toward the end, as books often do. There was a point at which I felt like everything had been wrapped up to my satisfaction, but the romances had yet to be resolved, so the book had to keep going, and I just didn’t care as much anymore. Also there was a while there where I thought Algy was going to be converted to Catholicism, and it would have been so funny, and I wish he hadn’t been rescued. Still, I kind of love The Miz Maze, and its authors, who clearly made an effort to agree instead of undermining each other. I think it’s because they were all women.

Tagged: 1880s, aemaryandersonmorshead, charlottemaryyonge, christabelrosecoleridge, eleanorcprice, england, epistolary, florencewilford, francesawdry, francesmarypeard, italy, marybramston, marysusannalee

4 Comments on The Miz Maze : or, the Winkworth puzzle ; a story in letters, last added: 11/30/2013
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25. Flaming June

Because why not?

Because why not?

This post is brought to you by my tendency not to think things through before I write about them.

So, the thing about Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey is that she was lousy at endings. Like, she’s so good at putting prickly characters in twisty emotional situations and still having everything be super charming, but then the end is always a cop-out, or rushed, or suddenly makes you hate all the characters you loved for most of the book. Anyway, I read a review of one of her books at Fleur in her World the other day, and Fleur had the same issue with the last 10% of the book, but her praise for the first 90% made me want to read something by Mrs. G. de H.V., because when she’s good, she’s very, very good.

Flaming June skirts the ending issue altogether, by…not having one, sort of. And I can’t decide how I feel about that. Mrs. G. de H.V. basically spends half the book turning tropes upside down, and the other half taking other tropes super seriously and I can’t tell whether she’s doing any of it on purpose. And the self indulgent part of me wants a sequel, and the critical part of me is pretty impressed with Mrs. G. de H.V. for leaving things unresolved, and then just about all of me wants a sequel that has almost nothing to do with the main characters, but follows the villainess as she carries out the plans the heroine lays out for her.


When I started Flaming June, I thought, “oh, this is Mrs. G. de H.V.’s L.T. Meade book,” because there’s a breezily unconventional American girl and a sweet, sheltered English one who become best friends. But Elma, the English girl, hasn’t got the depth that Meade’s more conventional characters have, and Cornelia, the American, has more of Mrs. G. de H.V.’s respect than Meade ever gave any of her characters. Cornelia has come to stay with her cranky spinster aunt in a quiet neighborhood, and of course everyone’s familiar with the narrative of the cheerful young person making over the stiff and uncompromising elderly relative, but Mrs. G. de H.V. passes that by — it’s a story, but it’s not this story. Likewise the story of the brash American and the proud English girl finding common ground — Mrs. G. de H.V. concentrates on Cornelia and Elma’s friendship only long enough to throw Elma into the arms of her longtime crush, Geoffrey Greville. And to introduce Cornelia to Captain Rupert Guest, who doesn’t like her at all, until he does.

Mrs. G. de H.V. structures her romances as problems, which I enjoy, except that she’s kind of too good at it. I think that’s where a certain amount of her lousy finishes come from — she creates problems that are actually insoluble, and has to do violence to her characters in order to resolve them. The Guest/Cornelia problem is that they’re nothing alike, have no common interests, and don’t always even like each other very much. Which, if you think about it, is a problem you see in romances all the time, only it’s waved away, and you’re assured that the characters are going to be very happy together. And if the author is good enough, you believe it.

So, yeah, I was kind of concerned. Because Mrs. G. de H.V. IS good enough, but she also has this tendency to write herself into a corner. And that’s what she does, and…that’s where she leaves it. My respect for Mrs. G. de H.V. has increased enormously.

I realize I’m neglecting the book itself to talk about my various Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey feels, but I do find her really fascinating. She’s so good at certain things, but I never trust her. She’s always doing icky things like shoving characters back into their strictly defined gender roles and/or destroying everything I liked about them with one action. So when I come to a book like Flaming June, and I can see Guest constructing a different version of Cornelia in his head, one that’s based mostly on her least characteristic actions, I’m apprehensive. And then Mrs. G. de H.V. explicitly recognizes that. It’s tremendously satisfying and not satisfying at all. But mostly I feel pretty good about it. Well done, Mrs. G. de H.V.

Tagged: 1900s, england, mrsgeorgedehornevaizey, romance

3 Comments on Flaming June, last added: 12/2/2013
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