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A Universal Recommendation

May 10th, 2017

I’ve learned to listen to the universe. Maybe it’s not speaking specifically to me when it seems to keep repeating itself, but when the message is interesting, why not pay attention? First though, let me backtrack several decades ago.

Me, at not-quite 12, in my favorite reading chair.

When I was 12 years old, after I’d exhausted our extensive (and perhaps, to that date, full) collection of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, I was looking around the house for something new to read (and actually a bit happy to move on from both formulaic series). I might have asked my mom to take me to the library, but there, lying in her nightstand drawers was a small collection of other mysteries, ADULT mysteries. Feeling very grown up—I was 12 after all—I picked one up. And for the next year or three, Agatha Christie became my reading habit of choice. It didn’t matter that these books had so many intertwined characters that it made them hard to follow or that some of the British terms and advanced words were beyond my vocabulary. They were thrilling and fresh and surprising, each one.

Side note: YA hadn’t yet surfaced as an exciting next option. Sure there were black-banded books designed for readers in 7th to 9th grades, but only an infrequent few scattered among the blue-banded books I felt as if I’d outgrown. Ha! Funny how those are the ones I now read (and write) most often.

After my Agatha Christie jag, I got busy being a teen and reading mostly for school assignments. And Agatha became someone to recall with a modicum of fondness.

But then, just several months ago, I ran across an interview where an author cited Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as the book s/he wished s/he could read again for the first time. Hmm. I didn’t remember that title; not that I remembered many. Chances were that I’d read it. And I let that thought drop. Until the next week when, in a different article, another author talked about the influence of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Then two week later, yet another one mentioned the same book.

Okay. It was time to read it. Or reread it (in case I’d read it before).And so I snagged a copy to see what this was all about. The Murder of Roget Ackroyd is one from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot line. Poirot, a retired Belgian detective is now living in London, but in this earlier work, he is not the focus of the book. Rather, the book is narrated from the point of view of the town’s doctor, who is frequently called in to do some post mortems there. From the title, we suspect that Roger Ackroyd has been murdered, but I will stop there. I don’t want anything I say to color your reading experience should you choose to pick up this one. And you should. This is such an impeccably crafted story.

And if my recommendation and that of those other three authors isn’t strong enough for you, there’s this. Just days ago, I read a fourth interview which also pointed to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And all I could do was nod an smile. Thanks, universe. You didn’t disappoint me.

This book talk is in conjunction with the wonderful Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. To check out today’s other reviews, click on the Barrie’s link above.

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Serious Laughs

February 1st, 2017

It seems I am incapable of writing a conventional book review. Feel free to pelt me with marshmallows. We’ll make s’mores.
(Or we’ll do this.)

Case in point: this month for Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club, not only am I breaking form by focusing on the reason for my selections, I am a). abandoning the traditional one-book review; and b). drumming up new enthusiasm for older titles. Let’s get started, shall we?

For what seems like forever, or maybe just 30 years, I’ve had parts and pieces of a story I’ve wanted to tell. I wrote one version which was widely and justifiably rejected (ah, you 29 smart editors and agents!). It had potential, but it was seriously boring. Not long ago, though, here’s what smacked me in the brain: at the core of this story lay/lie/laid/was some universality that, when paired with several new elements, might actually have life.

Except.

Except one of those elements? Humor.
Although I may write a funny line or set up a slightly off-beat circumstance, I’ve never been accused of writing full-on humorous novels. But I want to. That’s why I designed a crash course for myself; reading widely from an old and new library of humorous middle grade books, really studying them. Today, I bring you my thoughts on 5 or 7 (count them as you prefer) selections, or approximately 17% of the books on my syllabus. I hope you find some laughs here. I definitely did.

Millicent Min and Stanford Wong are missing! (Actually, they’re on loan.) Standing in and making a special appearance, Hubert the Printer Mascot.

All About Sam by Lois Lowry. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1988.) Told from the point of view of Anastasia Krupnik’s brother, starting with the moment he was born. Think Amelia Bedelia, baby version. (Just ignore the fact that Sam is not brought home from the hospital in a carseat.) In addition to having great appeal to elementary school readers, this is a perfect read-out-loud book for pre-schoolers on up who are about to have a new brother or sister. Most of the humor comes from Sam’s unique point of view. And clever writing.

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary. (HarperCollins, 1968.) Ramona Quimby, in her first time as the star of her own book, (we first see her in Beezus and Ramona), is utterly charming as she starts kindergarten. She’s the girl who likes to boing! Susan’s curls and chase Davy so she can kiss him. Nearly 50 years old, this book has that universality that keeps it on the shelves. Its humor comes through a spirited main character who isn’t trying to be funny, but just is. And from clever writing.

Millicent Min, Girl Genius; Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time; So Totally Emily Ebers by Lisa Yee. (Scholastic; respectively, 2003, 2005, 2007.) I’ve long loved this trilogy – or technically, these three companion books – for making me think differently about secondary characters. For many pre-published years, I didn’t take enough time or care to imagine the other characters’ lives outside the main character’s story. Together, these books inhabit the same time frame and give us three different experiences through the points of view of three vastly different kids: a child prodigy (1) who is asked to tutor a basketball player (2) and feels the need to hide her intelligence from (3) a new girl, who is working through her parents’ divorce. The humor in these books comes through the distinct personalities of the characters. And from clever writing.

Chomp by Carl Hiassen. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). Take a family of Everglades animal wranglers, mix in an out-of-shape, faking-it, TV-star survivalist, a mass amount of animal teeth, and grave danger from both the elements and from a whole separate threatening character; throw them all in one book and watch what happens. The humor comes from just-this-side-of-outrageous, but strangely believable, characters and situations. (How did he do that?) And clever writing. Although this is middle grade, its appeal can skew much older.

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce. (Walden Pond Press, 2008). Loved it. Love, love, loved it. I didn’t think I would. A kid, Liam, shuttling through the vastness of outer space with no way back? How do you make that funny? It starts with the author skillfully leading us to fully believe that we could very well mistake a tall (with beard-growing ability) 12 year old for an adult. And it launches from there. Brilliantly. Like Chomp, this middle grade book also has appeal for older readers. The humor comes from Liam’s voice, plausible miscommunication, and a ridiculous situation that somehow feels believable. And clever writing. (Do you see a common thread here?)

If you’d like the full list of humorous middle grade books I hope to devour, either email me (hit Contact at the top) or leave me a comment (click here to comment if comment section is not visible). Happy laughs!

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One Tempting Word After the Next: A Review

November 2nd, 2016

An author writes a highly popular book. It’s a stand-alone; not part of a series. Years later, however, for whatever reason, it happens that a second in that unplanned series hits bookstore shelves. It even happened to me. But this year, it happened to the wonderful Wendy Mass and her book, The Candymakers.

I bought a copy of The Candymakers several years ago, maybe even when it first came out in 2011. Then time flies, life happens, and books sit on shelves unread. When I saw the announcement of The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase, I got motivated to read.

First, The Candymakers. This book erupts with so much creativity and so many delicious plot bites, it’s more than enough to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters, I mean, readers.

From the book jacket:
At the Life Is Sweet candy factory, Logan, Miles, Daisy, and Philip are about to compete in the national candymaking competition of a lifetime. Who will make a candy more delicious than the Oozing Crunchorma or the Neon Yellow Lightning Chew?

The contestants face off in a battle of wits and sugar, but soon they realize that things are not what they seem, and they find themselves in a candy-filled world of surprises, suspense, and mouthwatering creations.

While the competition preparations are completely fun, what’s more fascinating are the characters themselves, who are definitely not as they first appear. Wendy Mass masterfully covers the same periods of time through different points of view so the story unravels like peel-apart licorice. And just when you think you know everything, here comes another delicious twist.

I couldn’t wait to read the sequel, but life has intervened again. So in full disclosure, I haven’t yet finished The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase (forgive me?). Already, though, I’m falling in love all over again with the characters I met in the first book. And I’m fully intrigued by the direct address to the reader that starts the book; especially the part that mentions hidden treasures, a decades-old mystery, and a Map of Awe.

That’s all I’ll tell you. I need to get back to writing my next book. I only hope it comes as close to the high standards Wendy Mass continually sets with hers.

This book review is part of Barrie Summy’s scrumptious Book Review Club. See other review by clicking on the icon.

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A Pondering and an Edge-of-Your-Seat Recommendation

September 7th, 2016

MGBookTV 004I’ve been thinking about how we come to books in different ways. I’ve picked up books for their covers and bought them (or checked them out from the library) because of their flap copy. There have been days when I’ve needed something to read fast and have opened whatever happened to by lying around the house. I’ve read a lot of books because they’ve been assigned, either in school, for a workshop, or with my long, lost Best Book Group Ever. I suppose most books find themselves in people’s hands because of referrals by friends, colleagues, bookstore personnel, kids, librarians, and teachers (and, yes, I’d technically categorize assignments as referrals).

Never once, though, have I read a book because my brother’s wife’s brother’s wife’s father’s wife’s nephew—I think that’s the connection—not only wrote it, but was fortunate enough to be edited by my editor for The Seventh Level.  And that editor wonderfully sent me a copy.

Full disclosure: Except for that act of kindness, I was neither compensated for nor was expected to write a review. Other than the above connection to the author, I do not know him and it took a tiny bit of digging to find out we had the same editor. We’re not even friends on Facebook, though if he’s on there, I might need to remedy that. Anyway, this is all me and self-motivation. 🙂

A Riddle in Ruby by Kent Davis, classified as middle grade, has enough substance and action and wonderful world-building to hold the rapt attention of older kids as well. Don’t rule this out for your lover of YA fantasy/action/adventure. Set in an alternative version of colonial Philadelphia, one filled with alchemy (you’ve gotta love alchemy, right?), pirates, kidnappings, secrets; and led by a main character with enough smarts and guts and spunk to populate a small nation, A Riddle in Ruby kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire amazing ride.

In short (and because I’m lazy and/or in the deep throes of a revision that’s turning half my brain to mush), here’s a bit more plot from the publisher’s website:

Ruby Teach, daughter of a smuggler and pirate, has been learning how to swindle and steal and pick the most complex locks for as long as she can remember. But a collision with aristocratic young lord Athen sends her spinning into chaos. Little did she know that her whole life has been spent in hiding from nefarious secret societies and the Royal Navy . . . who are both now on her trail.

Apparently, my editor will be thrusting me back to the edge of my seat. Book 2 releases, I just now discovered, September 27. I’d better finish this revision fast. September 27 may be my new deadline.

This is all part of the continuing, multi-blog review group started by the very fun and wonderful Barrie Summy:

 

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When You Practice What You Preach

June 21st, 2016

A Non-Preachy Post

“Sometimes,” I say to kids when I’m speaking at their schools, “if you turn a question on its head, you find answers.”
QuestionMark
Today, I found answers.

For years now—not consistently; actually way more off than on and nearly always when I’m between writing projects—I’ve flirted with finally doing justice to a story idea I first toyed with 25 years ago. Maybe 30. The story centers around a girl on the cusp of her 10th birthday and some strange goings-on in her neighborhood. There were elements I liked including the climactic scene, one woman who lived up the street, and several specific facts. But trying to get these pieces to play nicely has been like herding very boring cats.

The question I’d been asking all these years was this: How can I revise the original story to make it live up to its promise?Walking

Then came this morning’s walk. Something—I wish I knew what—had me thinking differently. What if I stopped focusing on the facts that lead to the climactic scene? What if I stopped focusing on the woman? In short…

What if I put aside everything I’ve always thought this story would be and focus on the girl telling it?

Yeah. Not so novel an idea. Hey. I’ve even spun that question with other books. But in this circumstance? It was like a shiny, new object. And I followed it to an aha! moment: I’d fallen in love with the adult-neighbor character and not with the girl. In fact, she was a total stranger to me.

In 10 minutes, my mind was swimming with answers that had eluded me for decades. And now I need to stop and apologize. No, this post will not end in a fully satisfying way for you. I will not tell you the one word that came to me as I realized who this girl is. She did come with a name. An odd one. I’ll be thinking about Burdy for the rest of the summer. And if I continue asking the right questions, there’s that chance I’ll fall in love with her for years to come.

 

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Sort of a Book Review

May 4th, 2016
St. Louis Art Museum
My dad was an artist by trade and for the love of it. This one was for the love of it.

Before I got immersed in the kidlit world, I loved to read popular fiction, especially mysteries, intrigue, and thrillers. It had been a while since I picked one up, but things happen.

My dad, who also loved to read, found his eyesight suddenly not cooperating. I bought him a Kindle so he could enlarge the type at will, and he started reading all over again. It was great. His Kindle held, especially, mysteries, intrigue, and thrillers, along with some solid biographies and other nonfiction. When he finished Sycamore Row by John Grisham, he liked it so much, he wanted to share it with me.

“I don’t have a Kindle, Dad.”
“Oh, that’s right.”

He passed away just weeks later (three years ago this month), and I took his Kindle home. He had wanted me to read Sycamore Row, and that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t get to it right away, but once some of the sting had gone, I decided to give it a try. I read about half the book, then I put it down. This action wasn’t a reflection of the plot or characters; we all know that storytellers like Grisham can keep most readers engrossed forever. I was engrossed, and I found myself guessing about the outcome, and as an added bonus, the book made me realize something important about one of my characters.

So why did I put it down? I probably thought I needed to read some kid book or another and then I needed to concentrate on my writing and then I needed to clean out my closet and then…

The Kindle sat on my dresser for more than a year, gathering dust and reminding me I needed to finish the book. And then my daughter called, groaning that she had accidentally left her Kindle on the plane where all valuable things disappear before they ever make it to the lost and found. “I don’t use Opah’s,” I told her. “You can have it.”

I couldn’t send it to her, though, until I finished Sycamore Row. That’s when I realized why I had put the book aside. Finishing it would be like saying another goodbye to my dad. But last weekend, I finally did. And there were tears at the end.
The reason for that is up for debate.

If you don’t see the comment section, please click on the headline of this post. It should appear. Thanks!

And please visit Barrie Summy’s blog for some real book reviews this month.

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Hola! Ciao! Shalom! Konnichiwa! Salut! Ni hao! Hujambo! (And Win!)

April 12th, 2016
Bookshelves-Donations-March2011 016
I still have the bookcase that provided the backdrop for the old site. It’s messier now, though. More books and all.

In other words, willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!
I almost said (sorry Rolling Stones): Meet the new site; same as the old site … but it’s not.

The total look of my website may have changed, but the favorite parts, except maybe the photo of my actual bookcase, are all still here. (Memo to self: Post that somewhere else.) With them, though, are some new features:
*More pictures, more links, more information.
*Writing games.
*Puzzle of the Month.
*Hidden pages.

AND MOST EXCITING:

THE SCHOOL TAKEOVER PAGE!

 

THE SCHOOL TAKEOVER PAGE!
Starting full-time in the fall, teachers, librarians, and their students can take over one of my webpages as their own. To learn more about this, head to the Takeover FAQs then take a look at the sample page. Click here to get on the calendar.

As for this section, I plan is to post something new every 2 weeks,
HOWEVER
(and kids who’ve attended my school visits will definitely understand that word),
my writing schedule might change that plan from month to month. The past several weeks, for example, have had me chained to my computer revising a new book I’m thoroughly thrilled with. And while that book sits for its mandatory cooling-off period, it’s back to start in on the second book that has my attention now. More details on both books when I’m ready to share.

Meanwhile, sit back, click around, and enjoy!

Click here to comment.

P.S.
If you have suggestions or other thoughts about the site, I’d love to hear them.
P.P.S.
In those comments, let me know if you’d like to WIN one of my new Gollywhopper Games combination flashdrive and slap bracelet (courtesy of the wonderful Jeff at USB Memory Direct.)  I’ll draw a name on April 28.
FlashdriveFlashdriveInside

Here’s the Key…

April 6th, 2016

… to an engaging book. Take two curious, likable characters–-one boy and one girl—and throw them into an exciting, sometimes harrowing mystery, then shake in lots of personality and personalities, intriguing settings, and questionable villains. Shake and serve to 2nd-5th graders.
It’s what Eric Luper has done in The Mysterious Moonstone, the first book in his new Key Hunters series.

When Cleo and Evan notice that their horrible new librarian (how they long for Mrs. Hilliard who left under mysterious circumstances) has essentially disappeared from the back of the library, they take it upon themselves to investigate. Their curiosity sucks them to a mansion in another place and time where they must do some real sleuthing to find the crook and find a key or they risk getting stuck in that world forever.

What I like best about this book is the way Eric takes an unflinching approach to danger and mystery, making it suspenseful and scary, in a parent-approved way, to young readers who will revel in the excitement.

I’ve learned that future books in the series will take our heroes to different locales with different missions, which is great because Cleo and Evan are such likable characters, readers will want to follow them wherever their adventures lead next.

Full disclosure: I do know Eric. We met as author-friends online, and I had the wonderful opportunity to hang out with him this past winter at a writer’s workshop and retreat. He did not pay or otherwise coerce me to write this review; I offered to do so after reading a book I sorta wished I’d written myself.

This book review is part of Barry Summy’s Outstandingly Awesome Book Review Club (not it’s real name). Check out more here.

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Driving Mr. Gibson

February 26th, 2016

You can’t see me. I’m on the other side of the camera. About two hours after I took this shot of Bob Gibson, I was behind the wheel, driving him to his hotel. For those of you who don’t have any clue what a big deal this is, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson is ranked as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. It was because of his skill and power and overwhelming success (recording a 1.12 ERA in 1968) that Major League Baseball instituted what’s casually known as the Gibson Rule, lowering the height of the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches. He was so tough that after Roberto Clemente slugged a line drive that broke his leg, Gibby faced three more batters before leaving the game. And he was always one of the most intimidating players in baseball.

Continue reading Driving Mr. Gibson

Review: Dime by E.R. Frank

February 25th, 2016

Last month, I found myself in the fortunate situation of attending the annual Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Los Angeles. I also had the more fortunate opportunity, in a post-conference workshop, to find myself sitting next to Newbery Award-winner Susan Patron. When such an author (who’s also an esteemed librarian) highly recommends a book, you find a copy right away.

Continue reading Review: Dime by E.R. Frank