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Speaking for Coo

November 11th, 2020

Dear Teachers, Librarians, Parents;
Dear Aunts, Uncles, Friends;
Dear Anyone In a Position to Influence the Children of this World,

Coo.
It’s a book. It’s a main character.
It’s also pigeon-speak.
In sum, they tell a wonderful, beautiful, engrossing story that’s also extraordinarily suited to help people of all ages — ALL ages — understand the concept of empathy even more deeply than they suspect they already do.

COO by Kaela Noel (HarperCollins/Greenwillow 2020)

Imagine coming to a civilization where language and habits and habitats – everything you take for granted in daily life – are very foreign from yours. That’s what Coo must do.

Where has she come from?
Before I answer, I urge you to suspend your disbelief.

As an infant, Coo’s mother left her on a factory doorstep. The pigeons that lived on the rooftop above were so concerned for the human child that they lifted her up to their home and continued to care for her. They would scavenge for “clothes” and food and every necessity to help her survive. One day, however, Coo’s closest pigeon ally was injured. For the first time, 10-year-old Coo must go into the human world to seek out the one person who might be able to save him. And so begins – for sometimes worse, but mostly better – Coo’s life with beings like her.

I’ve said this before, but books with animals, well, they’re not my thing. Before bookstores were open for browsing again, however, I trusted the wonderful Melissa Posten at The Novel Neighbor to choose a variety of middle grade books for me. And there it sat in its stack. Finally, reminding myself of Melissa’s excellent taste, I opened COO. Then, I barely put it down, as much for the story as for my fascination of Kaela Noel’s artistry, giving us a master class in empathy, one that’s subtle in many regards, but powerful at every turn.

I don’t know if Kaela Noel intended for this to be an immigrant story, but at its heart, that’s exactly what it is as it highlights so many different facets of that experience. Regardless, this is a must-read of the year, a story you’ll want to pass on to any children in your life.


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No Matter the Title: A Review

October 7th, 2020
Don’t let the title scare you 🙂

I was at a writing conference years ago when Lisa Yee and I met. It promised to be one of those fleeting moments. It was just me in line to have her sign my book. She paused to let me know about about a thing we had in common. Since then, our paths have crossed at numerous conferences, and starting with her Millicent Min series, I’ve forever been a fan. Except (and sorry, Lisa, if you’re reading this) I long ignored one book. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around its title. I won’t go into the reasons – that’s not the point of this post – but I wouldn’t have the book cover on my site unless I really loved The Kidney Hypothetical Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days  (Scholastic/Levine).

Higgs Boson Bing leads a perfect existence. He’s poised to be his class’s valedictorian, has the ideal girlfriend, an acceptance letter to Harvard, and a sure-thing career as a dentist in his father’s successful practice. There’s just one thing he doesn’t have: the “right” answer to a hypothetical question. If I needed a kidney, his girlfriend asks during a senior class day-cruise, would you give me one of yours? That’s when Higgs rocks the boat and refuses to say what she wants to hear. Now, his girlfriend won’t talk to him, his best buddy has been banned from being his friend, his nemesis on the debate team has ambushed him, and that’s just the start. Suddenly, Higgs needs to question every little thing in his life, especially whether his future, once set for smooth sailing, is what he really wants.

I loved this book on two levels. As a reader, quite simply, this is a funny, quirky, utterly honest YA that explores the meaning of living an authentic life.

As a writer, I came away inspired to be braver in dealing harshly with my main characters. For the record, I read much of this story squinting through my fingers, not wanting more horrors to befall our hero. But they came and they came and they came and they came. And while I, personally, have a hugely hard time putting my characters into ugly and unwise predicaments, The Kidney Hypothetical, like no other book, convinced me to be meaner to them. It made the ending that much more rewarding.

So thank you, Lisa, for a fun, perfectly uncomfortable, honest, squirm-inducing, completely satisfying read. Sorry it took so long. I’ll be first in line to buy your next book, no matter the title.


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(As always, thanks to Barrie Summy for organizing her awesome book review club.)

The Escape I Didn’t Know I Needed – A Review

September 2nd, 2020

It was late February this year when I decided to give a book to each kiddo, age 5 through late teens, who’d be coming to a family gathering. The plan was to return from a mid-March getaway and spend a day in the bookstore, going wild, picking out just the right titles. (Then I’d read them – carefully turning the pages – before I gave them away.)

At the top of the stack of books from The Novel Neighbor

We all know what happened to 2/3 of that plan. The gathering was canceled, the in-store visit didn’t happen, but I could still buy the books. I asked my friends at my nearest indie, The Novel Neighbor, if they’d do my shopping. And that’s how I came to read A Wish in the Dark (Candlewick Press, 2020) by Christina Soontornvat. Without bookseller Melissa Posten picking this middle-grade out for me, I might never have noticed it on my own. (Those booksellers are amazing, right?)

Bottom line, A Wish in the Dark is one of the most compelling books I’ve read in years.

Part fantasy, part thriller, and all heart, this riff on Les Miserables is the story of the orphan Pong, who pulls off an escape from Namwon prison. Born to an inmate there, which literally marks him forever, he ventures into the world all alone, trying to carve out a new, and perhaps impossible, life. In pursuit of him is Nok, the warden’s daughter, looking to restore the dignity of her family, which was marred by the disgraceful escape. Set in a Thai-inspired world, where light is owned by one man, Pong’s journey takes on desperate twists and dangerous turns in a struggle for justice, not just for himself, but for all the marginalized people living in this society.

A Wish in the Dark is the type of book I’d normally race through to the ending, but I so loved living in this story – rooting for Pong and his allies as the necessary confrontation drew closer – it took me double-time to savor every chapter, every scene, every page.

There have been few silver linings during this pandemic, but I’ll always count A Wish in the Dark, both the book and the bookseller who brought it to me, as one of them. It was the perfect escape as we wish for brighter times.


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And Bears! Oh, My!

June 3rd, 2020
Now with a new cover!

Almost never do I pick up books with animals in their titles or on the covers. I was one of those students who was inundated by that required dead-animal reading in school: Rascal, Sounder, The Yearling, and others I’ve since blocked out. In fact, one of the books I most relate to? No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman. Haven’t read it? Do, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Read me!!!

Fast forward to the day when Kim Baker asked if I wanted to read an ARC of her then-forthcoming book, I gave an enthusiastic YES.

Then I received it. it’s called THE WATER BEARS. Bears. Bear on the cover.

Oh, no. But I said I’d read it, so I yanked off the Band-Aid and jumped right into the first chapter. I didn’t stop. Turns out, I had nothing to fear. No pet bears die in this book.

it’s all about Newt Gomez’s personal journey, a year after he survived a bear attack. And it jumps headlong into a story of hope and fears and wishes.

All Newt wants for his 13th birthday is a new bicycle. And to go to school on the mainland. And to stop having nightmares about the attack that caused the scars and pains in his leg. But instead of a bicycle, his family surprises him with a former taco truck he can drive around. Yes, at 13, he’s driving an old truck (and it makes sense in the story)! Because of the truck, Newt is now carting around a life-size wooden bear that washed ashore. Turns out, this bear might grant wishes, one per person. But just as Newt has decided on his wish, everything changes.

What I loved most about this book – aside from the very real characters, the extraordinarily unique setting of Murphy Island, and an awesome sense of family – it reminds us that if we wish and wish hard, our wishes just might come true, but not necessarily the way we envision them.

Thanks, Kim, for a wonderful, heartfelt read.


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Once Upon a Time…

April 1st, 2020

… years ago, during that decade when I envisioned myself as a picture book author, I checked out book after book after book from the library, reading and learning … and eventually learning I had way too many words in me to be a picture book author. But it wasn’t in vain. It had been lovely. Especially with this one book.

If checking out the same title, time and again, entitled you to own that book, Marianna May and Nursey would have been ours long before it went out of print and I had to hunt it down.*

Marianna May and Nursey may not be Tomie dePaola’s most popular work, but it was the most popular book in our house. I still remember the toddler begging me to read it several times each night, even during a bout with acute laryngitis. She wouldn’t rest until I croaked it out. Twice.

Tomie dePaola, a wonderful teacher, mentor, personality, and force passed away earlier this week. While we usually use Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club to highlight new books, today, I urge you to remember than some of our best literature has already been published.

And if you can spare a few dollars, consider honoring the memory of Tomie dePaola by buying one of his titles for yourself, for the little ones in your life, or to donate to schools or libraries in need. I plan to.

Years after we fell in love with the book, I was so fortunate to meet Tomie and have him do this.

*I just saw. Marianna May and Nursey has been reissued!


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One Scary Story (for two reasons)

February 5th, 2020

Here’s a middle grade novel that scared me even before I read it. The Ghost in Apartment 2R by Denis Markell (Delacorte Press 2019). It’s not that the title or the thought of ghosts freaked me out. No. I blanched because I recently finished a full 70,000-word first draft of a book, and the concept of Markell’s story seemed way too close for comfort.

I ran right out to get a copy. Then it sat on my table for one day. For two. I circled it again. Again. Finally, I grew the guts to pounce. I’m happy to report that I’m not writing the same book. I’m nearly as happy to report that this is a fun, approachable, conversational read with much to love.

Danny swears there’s a ghost in his apartment. His parents and his friends swear it’s an emotional reaction to changes in his life. His brother has left for college, and Danny’s parents had always promised he’d get to move from his literal closet of a bedroom – and yes, he’s heard all the Harry Potter jokes – to his brother’s room when that happened. But when his parents decide to rent out the bedroom to make more money for college expenses, that’s when the (maybe) ghost starts showing up.

While readers will root for Danny’s attempts to convince his friends and parents to believe in his ghost, it might be the setting that wins us over the most. This ghost story is also a love letter to Brooklyn and its cultural richness history. All the sights and sounds and smells and tastes come fully alive and have me craving to revisit Brooklyn – specifically, the area where Danny lives – the next time I come to NYC.

It’s all so real. So are the characters and the relationships – both peer-to-peer and cross-generational. Denis Markell has wonderfully captured the varied and interesting and quirky personalities that make this book stand out.

I picked up The Ghost in Apartment 2R, hoping I’d read something different. I did. And I’m glad, for me, but especially for the readers.


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Not Just Your Average, Wild, Exciting Story

September 4th, 2019

If you’ve ever heard M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin speak, you’ll know that a collaboration between the two could only amount to something special. And highly intelligent. And different. And thoughtful. And … everything.

Because their work on The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge has already garnered a mass amount of publicity, including a number of starred reviews and is long-listed for the National Book Award, why would I talk abut it here?

The reason: When I went to place a hold on it through my local library system – I figured I might have to wait in line – I found there were a number of copies just sitting on the shelves. Even today, 6 of the 8 copies are available for checkout.

And so I’m giving a shout-out to a book that isn’t in my normal wheelhouse.

The plot, at the outset, sounds simple. Curmudgeonly historian Brangwain Spurge has been catapulted over the mountains by the elfin nation to deliver an artifact to the goblins, a peace offering, he’s told, that may ease the rift that has continued for a century. Poor Brangwain’s travels are anything but smooth. Perhaps worse, he is not taken to the goblin leader but is instead, hosted by Werfel, an enthusiastic archivist who has the notion that they will become true professional camrades. Brangwain Spurge just wants to fulfill his obligations. What happens next is a series of misunderstanding, missteps, and misguided missives (we see these in Eugene Yelchin’s wonderful illustration) that have us wondering exactly how there could ever be a satisfying conclusion.

Here’s where this book veers far from average. As you read, you’ll soon discover that you’re not only involved in an adventure, but a political commentary, a satire, an allegory, a case of unreliable narrators, and a work of undeniable excellence. Oh, and you can categorize it as a road-trip story, too. I see The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge being taught in high school and college courses. I can also see MG and YA readers lapping it up for the plot and for the pictures. And don’t gloss over those pictures; they are a layer unto themselves.

This book will not be for every reader. But it’s not intended to be. It wasn’t for me. And then, it was. A must read!


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Save Me a Slice

April 3rd, 2019

A few weeks before I was to appear at a school visit last month, the librarian asked if I would stay after for a pizza party. Invited would be the twelve 4th and 5th graders who had read every book on the Mark Twain list. I love pizza. I love parties. I love readers. And I, myself, had read all those books, too.

I had three favorites, one of which, I predicted, would be an underdog in the voting, for the sole reason that the general conflict is (sadly) something kids see every day.

When I first opened this particular book, I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did, but you can’t always judge a book by its cover. And you can’t judge people by theirs. Or by your initial impressions of them. The latter is a big takeaway from SAVE ME A SEAT by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan.

For Ravi, it’s the his first day of fifth grade in a new country. Back in India, he was a cricket star, super popular, super smart. He swaggers in to his new school full of hope and optimism and immediately spots Dillon, a child of Indian immigrants with swoopy bangs, a big smile, and an even bigger following. Ravi know, with absolute certainty, that he and Dillon will become the best of friends.

Dillon is exactly the guy who Joe Sylvester tries to avoid. Joe is large for his age, has APD (a noise-filtering condition), and is an easy target. Ravi wants nothing to do with Joe, who’s so unpopular, he eats lunch in the cafeteria by himself. Besides, they have nothing in common; then again, initial impressions are often wrong, especially when there’s a smiling, swoopy-haired bully involved.

As a seasoned reader, you can only imagine that with such different perspectives and outlooks, Ravi and Joe are headed on the same crash course for disaster. I’m a cringe-r. And this book is riddled with the best kind of cringe-worthy parts, the type that feels like these kiddos will only get stronger through their embarrassment and humiliation.

Save Me a Seat is told from alternating points of view, over the course of the five-day school week, each day’s section named for the featured cafeteria lunch. As for me, I didn’t need lunch the day I read this book. I swallowed it in one huge, immensely satisfying gulp.

Weeks later, at the pizza party, after I asked those 12 Mark Twain readers to save me a slice, I also asked which book they planned to vote for. No one talked about Ravi and Joe. The three titles mentioned most; really terrific books as well: Unbound (Ann E. Burg), Maxie’s Secrets (Lynn Plourde), and The Seventh Wish (Kate Messner). But when I asked the kiddos about Save Me a Seat, there was an overwhelming, “Oh, yeah!” It may not win the Mark Twain Award, but it’s a true winner!


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Dessert Worth Waiting For

March 6th, 2019

I make it a point to review books that you may not have heard about. This month, though, I’m making an exception and I’ll always make an exception for a must-read. The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson is a must-read.

I’d had so much fun reading an earlier book of his, The Great Greene Heist, that when I heard Varian was coming out with a new mystery, it soared to the top of my Buy-It! list. I did buy it soon after its release, but I approached it like dessert, waiting to consume it as a special treat. And it was special.

It sets up like this:
When Candice Miller temporarily moves to her late grandmother’s house in small-town South Carolina, she finds a letter that reveals the first clue to a puzzle, which promises to lead to a fortune. With the help of Brandon, her neighbor, they embark on a path that not only brings them more clues, but also brings to light the ugly and beautiful truths surrounding the town and its inhabitants.

I often find books to love, but this is a book I wish I had written. I couldn’t have, though. I am not a colored boy born in the 1910s. I am not a Negro tennis player born in the 1940s. I am not a black girl born in the 2000s. Varian Johnson has taken realities of African American life from the Jim Crow South through the present, and he has expertly placed them in a context that helps further our understanding of the racism that did exist and still exists today. This piece is woven in so expertly, it becomes a natural and essential element to a very compelling mystery.

I can count, on one finger, the books I have re-read as an adult. Not only is that book, The Westing Game, mentioned in The Parker Inheritance, it influences Candice’s and Brandon’s quest. And I predict, within the next few months, the first sentence in this paragraph will no longer be true. I plan to start The Parker Inheritance over, from page 1, as soon as I have another reason to treat myself to reading dessert.

(Full disclosure: I’ve met Varian Johnson a few times, had dinner with him once but that, in no way, has influenced me choosing to talk about his book, nor has it shaped this review.)


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