Last Boy? Why? (A Review)

April 4th, 2018

First there was the title: The Last Boy at St. Edith’s.
Then came the rush of questions; among them: Who was the first boy? Why is there a last? And if this was the only boy, why would he stay at an all-girls’ school?
If that wasn’t enough to make me read, I had a secondary reason; I’d recently become slightly acquainted with the author, Lee Gjerstsed Malone.

So I bought the book.
And consumed it in a couple of sittings.

Many of my questions were answered right away. After an unsuccessful attempt at making their all-girls’ school co-ed, St. Edith’s Academy reversed that decision, but grandfathered in their current male students. One by one, however, the remaining boys graduated or transferred. Except one. Jeremy Miner. And now there are girls, girls, girls, only girls—in his classes, in the halls, and even at home. As much as he begs his mom to send him to another school, it a hard “no” from her. That’s when Jeremy schemes to get kicked out. And that’s when the pranks begin; pranks designed not to hurt anyone, Jeremy insists, and especially not to maim his own permanent record. But the more Jeremy employs his plan, the worse it seems to get.

Filled with heart and humor, The Last Boy at St. Edith’s also explores themes of family, friendship, and class issues, but these linger so subtly in the background that you’ll fully focus on the mayhem and the consequences that lead Jeremy, and everyone involved, into a tailspin that eventually results in a very satisfying outcome.

This review is part of Barrie Summy’s awesome Book Review Club. Click the icon below for looks at more books.


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The Gollywhopper Games Is 10!

February 12th, 2018

To celebrate 10 year of The Gollywhopper Games
and to thank
& librarians
& media specialists
& parents
& especially readers
for joining in the fun of the story,
let’s bring on some prizes!

I’ll be drawing 10 names from all entries received by 11:59 CST, February 28.

GRAND PRIZE (1 winner):
A Gollywhopper Games challenge designed especially for you
(or instead, your choice of all the prizes below)

   * Class set* of The Gollywhopper Games (2 winners)
   * Free Skype visit or in-school visit if local** (2 winners)
   * All three books in The Gollywhopper Games series (5 winners)


To enter, send an email with your contact info to
or provide you info in the comment section below.

Want a double chance to win?
Simply list the 3 titles in The Gollywhopper Games series with your entry.

Thanks for all your support these 10 years!
And good luck!

*Class set = maximum of 25
**Local = within a 150-mile radius of St. Louis, Missouri


Mark Twain Lives!

February 7th, 2018

Where to start reviewing this book?
I’ll start by announcing the title:
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip Stead with illustrations by Rebecca Stead.

That was easy, but what should I tell you next?
I could continue with the difference between Here and There.
Or with the story itself, based in fairy tale and finished with a satisfying whimsy.
Or with the structure of the book: a conversation between the author and Mark Twain (then the author and a weasel).
Or with the refreshingly unapologetic bluntness of the asides.
Or with the humor that resonates as much for adults as it will with kids.
Or with the editor’s note at the end which explains how the book came to be. (Read it!)

But I need to continue with what struck me most about The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. And that is bravery. Not so much of Johnny, our hero, and not so much of Pestilence and Famine, the chicken who went without a squawk, but of Philip and Erin Stead who took on the daunting responsibility of this story from notes written in Mark Twain’s hand and found in a museum.

In short, the story begins as a riff on Jack in the Beanstalk with the wretched grandfather commanding Johnny to sell their chicken (and Johnny’s only friend) for “something worth eating.” He trades Pestilence and Famine to “an old, blind woman, thin enough to cast no shadow” for some seeds, which, when properly planted and tended, will grow a flower that “will make you feel full and you will never feel emptiness again”. And this is where we stray from Jack. The story takes us through connected scenes, which feature (among many others) Susy the Skunk, a tiger, average-sized giants, two dragons, and eventually the purloined prince from the title.

This is one of those book where the story is secondary to the wit and wisdom that, I want to say, only Mark Twain can bring us. And yet, it’s impossible for me to determine, in parts, where Twain’s notes end and Philip Stead’s words pick up. Living downstream from Twain’s childhood home and holding his work in such awe, it is amazing for me to hear from Mark Twain again … and the Steads did him proud. Bravo!

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Hungry For Fun?

January 3rd, 2018

Happy New Year!
I just realized I’ve yet to review a relatively new series of wonderful and cute and lovely books starring the inimitable Jasmine Toguchi. And what a perfect time! (You’ll see why below.)

The first book in the series – Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen – centers around Jasmine’s determination to be a standout in her family. How? She has special plans to pounds the mochi rice for their New Year’s celebration (thus the “perfect time” comment). Here’s the problem: traditionally, it’s men who do the pounding. Not only is Jasmine a girl, but she’s still deemed too young to roll the sweet, sticky rice balls with the women. Jasmine decides to take fate into her own hands, but reaching her goal isn’t easy.

I love the way author Debbi Michiko Florence weaves story with tradition, even allowing someone like me to learn a lot while being thoroughly entertained and especially focused on rooting, wholeheartedly, for Jasmine.

In the spirit of full disclosure: I’d been hearing a lot about this book and the series long before it was published. Debbi and I had connected online years ago and have been friends since. That said, I don’t often review friends’ books. But this one fills such a great space in book-dom, with humor and heart, I’d love to see it be one of those staples on all school library shelves, sitting right next to the other three Jasmine Toguchi books: Super Sleuth, Drummer Girl, and Flamingo Keeper. (The last two will be coming out later this year.)

And now I’m hungry for mochi. I need to try out the Microwave Mochi recipe in the back of the book … to keep the new year’s celebration going.

P.S. A shout-out to illustrator Elizabet Vukovic for further bringing Jasmine to life.
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A Bear and a Daring Young Girl

December 6th, 2017

It’s holiday time! And present time! (As in gifts.)
For kids, your thoughts might immediately race to toys, games, electronics. And books, of course; funny, colorful picture books for the younger ones, right? Sure, pick some with pigeons or elephants or crayons. But don’t forget the ones that pack more than their weight in satisfaction and emotion that comes with what’s real and true.

Non-fiction picture books have come a million miles since I was a kid. And these two, particularly, make my eyes well up every time.

FINDING WINNIE: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear
by Lindsay Mattick; illustrated by Sophie Blackall
(Little Brown, 2015)
This title (the title, itself, that is) happened to be perfect for something I needed to include in a book I was writing. So when illustrator Sophie Blackall was signing Finding Winnie at a conference I’d attended, I needed to get a copy. What I didn’t know is that I’d love it so much that I haven’t stopped recommending it to anyone who will listen. It’s a story of World War I and animal rescue; the veterinarian-soldier and the real-life bear who became Winnie the Pooh. And it’s the story of family and things coming full circle. I get chills even typing this.
(For a more thorough review, head to Barrie Summy’s archives.)

THE YOUNGEST MARCHER: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist
by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017)
Especially relevant with today’s societal climate, The Youngest Marcher tells the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who at 8 years old, felt compelled to take part in The Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, knowing she would be arrested. Make sure you read through The End to for even more insight into Audrey and the law change that came about through the actions of her and other brave children. Also for the recipe. (Cannot wait to try it!)

This book talk is part of Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. Check it out:

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A Thriller!

October 4th, 2017

If you’ve ever sat with a bird’s-eye view at any sporting event–and today, let’s call it a soccer game–you’ve probably witnessed players from different teams and from all parts of the field converging on the ball. Maybe you predicted who’d get there first or noticed a player who was sure s/he’d get the next kick, only to have another player swoop in and change the course of events. Up there, you’re seeing it unfold before the players can.

I kept picturing that type of scenario as I read The Shadow List (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017), a fast-paced diplomatic thriller. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, the author Todd Moss has an extraordinary feel for the inner workings of all the different factions which find themselves converging on this international ball of intrigue.

(Just a note before I go on: I usually review kids’ books. This one was written for adults.
Now that we have that clear, on with the plot.)

State department crisis manager Judd Ryker has been temporarily taken off his strategic planning assignment surrounding oil grabs in the South China Sea to travel to London, then Nigeria, to look into the disappearance of a young executive who may have succumbed to an online, get-rich-quick scam. Meanwhile, his CIA wife, Jessica, is chasing a master criminal in Russia. “Unknown to either of them, they are pulling at the ends of the same lethal thread, a staggeringly vicious enterprise of piracy, extortion, and murder.” (That last sentence from the flap copy because they do it so much better than I can.)

What I really liked about this book, the action and the story never got bogged down in minutia. This is a very fast read, and even with the multitudes of players in the field, Moss makes the unfolding events easy to follow. And keeps you turning pages.

What disappointed me was the fact that I discovered this is the fourth in the Judd Ryker series, If I hadn’t known it, however, I never would have realized that I’d missed the personal set-ups. And that’s unusual coming into the middle of a series.

I do need to mention, I received this book as an advance copy from the publisher, but I have not otherwise been compensated for this review nor cajoled into writing it. And if you look at my history, I choose only to review books I can recommend.

I recommend The Shadow List. But, if you’re like me, I also recommend that you pick up the other titles first, not because you have to, but because you will have wanted to.

This review, brought to you by:

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A Whole New School Year (In Reality and In Fiction)

September 6th, 2017

School’s in session!
Nationwide, yes, but also in this utterly endearing book.
I pulled A Whole New Ballgame from the bookstore shelf much earlier in the year, when I started my self-directed, middle-grade, humor-novel study. I’d read a good amount of my new collection, but took a break to write—to write funnier, I hope. You’ll be the judge eventually.

You know what comes next:
A. I opened this book.
B. I couldn’t put it down.
C. I immediately fell in love with Rip, the main character, because of his relationship with his best friend Red. (Well, you probably didn’t know that.)
D. I found out I’m late to the love fest surrounding this book (numerous state award nominations).
E. All of the above.

It’s fully apparent (yet remains unlabeled) that Red falls somewhere on the autism spectrum with his quirks and fears and comfort practices. And Rip is his biggest fan, supporter, cheerleader, advocate, and protector because they are truly best friends.

In this first of the series, Rip and Red are a bit startled when, in the place of their expected 5th grade teacher, they find Mr. Acevedo, tattooed and totally unconventional. In short, he refuses to give homework and he refuses to teach to the test. Meanwhile, he also takes charge of the school’s flailing basketball team.

I could go into more plot but:
A. I’m trusting you’ll pick up this fast read.
B. You deserve to hear it in the characters’ voices.
C. I’m ready to rush out and get the next books in the series.
D. Just out of view is an ice cream sundae with my name on it.
E. All of the above.

So I’ll leave you with a mention of the wonderful illustrations by Tim Probert, and with author Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame page. You’ll want to know more. Happy school year!

This book review is part of Barrie Summy‘s brainchild.

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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 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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