Heist! Heist! Heist!

February 6th, 2019

Confession #1: I have seen the movie Ocean’s Eleven, in whole or in part, at least 30 times. Probably more. There’s something about a great heist story that keeps me riveted to the screen or the book or my imagination. (I think I have a heist story in me; it just hasn’t come out yet.)

Confession #2: I read very few fantasy books.

When, however, I saw the announcement of Sarah Beth Durst’s new book, I didn’t care that Fire & Heist was a fantasy. I ordered it from my local bookstore immediately. Full disclosure, I’ve known Sarah Beth Durst since early Live Journal days. I’ve also had the pleasure of our paths crossing several times, in person, so I really, really wanted to like this book. I LOVED it. Fire & Heist is everything a heist story AND a fantasy story should be.

Sky Hawkins lives within a sub-culture in Aspen, Colorado, one that celebrates the art of the heist. She is a wyvern, a human capable of transforming into a dragon, and as a wyvern, one gains power and acceptance by stealing treasure. Right now, however, Sky is at her lowest low. Her mother, who failed in some grand, mysterious scheme, has disappeared and has cast shame over her entire family. Sky’s friends have turned their backs on her. Even worse, it was her boyfriend who emphatically humiliated at their community’s Reckoning. Sky needs answers. The only way to get them is to discover what her mom was trying to steal and complete the heist herself. With a pieced-together crew, Sky goes against the wishes of her father and brothers to embark on a mission that could bring back at least a semblance of her old life or, possibly, lead to worse.

There you have it – all the motives and emotions and setting and characters and details and gold and jewels you’ll even need for a nail-biting, page-turning, and thoroughly satisfying heist story. And now I’m off to pass Fire & Heist on to an 8th grader who has no clue how great a story she’s about to read.


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Yes, It’s Very Funny, Too

December 12th, 2018
Book cover of Mascot features a pennant with the title, the St. Louis Arch, a cardinal on a baseball and a wheelchair.
Mascot by Antony John (HarperCollins)

I can’t quite remember how I met Antony John. It was at some local writer’s get-together, I believe. Sure. Let’s say that was it. And it definitely was at the beginning of both of our writing/author careers. I may have cheered as loudly as his closest family and friends when he won the Schneider Family Book Award for his outstanding YA Five Flavors of Dumb.

Then one day, two or three years ago (time flies, you know?), he asked if I would read a draft of his first foray into middle grade fiction, give him feedback. I didn’t pause. Of course, I would. I’m a sucker for his characters and their amazing senses of humor. (Reflects the author. Truly.)

I say this all so that you know that I was a big fan of MASCOT even before his edits, even when the dog was farting too much. I was a big fan before any editor saw it. And now, the story is even better.

Meet Noah Savino. He doesn’t really know his life anymore. In his old life, he was starting catcher on one of the best little league teams in St. Louis, he was tight with Logan Montgomery and the core of that team, and he could stand. Following a car accident that killed his father,  he’s stuck in a wheelchair, and everyone (except maybe Alyssa Choo) looks at him with pity. And here in 7th grade, there’s this new kid, Double-Wide (which accurately describes his size and the amount of info he shares), who has latched onto him.

WAIT. Don’t think this is one of those depressing books, not even if I go into Noah’s issues with physical therapy, his mom’s new relationship, and the neighbor who couldn’t be more unfriendly. MASCOT is filled with laugh-out-loud moments, and feel-good ones, too, as it follow Noah’s struggles to forge a life where he’s not stuck on the sidelines anymore.

All right, Antony, hurry up with that next book!


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A Book Review; But First, Backstory

October 3rd, 2018

Welcome to a book review in three parts. Part One concerns the reason why I even chose to read this book. Part Two introduces my skepticism about this choice. Part Three finally tells you what I think about it. Enjoy the backstory; enjoy the book.

PART ONE

Travel to Florida with me, about 6 years ago. I was invited for an incredible week of school visits, to date still one of my best experiences. The Gollywhopper Games had been chosen for the Sunshine State Readers list, and I was making the rounds. Toward the end of the week, one of the librarians showed me this wall outside her school’s cafeteria. Students who’d read books on the list had their pictures, along with the books they’d read (more added as necessary), posted on that wall.

The librarian invited me to join them in their reading journey. A bit exhausted and overwhelmed by this wonderful week, also wanting to be a good sport, I said, “Sure. I’ll join your Superstar wall.” When it hit me that I’d committed to reading 15 MG books, many of which I had little interest in reading, I sort of regretted it. But I have this strange habit of honoring my commitments.

My Superstar Stars!

It was one of the best blurted-out agreements I’d ever made. Even though the genres and/or subjects in a number of these books fell outside my personal preferences, this turned out to be a truly great reading experience.

PART TWO

Remembering how wonderful it was being a Superstar that year; also struggling with choosing which books to read next (so many books, so little time), I decided to do what I’d been threatening ever since Florida. I promised myself I’d make it through the entire Mark Twain List from my state of Missouri. 

I bought the full stack, now on its way to a school on the other side of the state (if you’re a teacher/librarian you may want to periodically check @jodyfeldman on Twitter for future giveaways). Then I looked at what I’d gotten myself into. Specifically, two books with dogs on the cover.

Understand, I am a huge fan of Gordon Korman’s No More Dead Dogs because I utterly identify with the main character. When I was in school, yearly it seemed, I suffered through assigned dead-animal books; Rascal, The Yearling, Sounder — and my brain has chosen to forget the rest — but I wasn’t about to let a few hours of reading stop me.

PART THREE

Maxi’s Secret (Or, What You Can Learn From a Dog) by Lynn Plourde.
This is a book where the dog dies. That’s not a spoiler. Here are the first two lines:

Let’s get this part over with – it’s not secret.
My dog, Maxi, dies.

There’s a bit of brilliance in that opening. It reminded me of one of my favorite adult books, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which reveals early on that the hostages are eventually released unharmed. It works because you can read the book,  appreciating the characters and circumstances and nuances without worrying about the eventuality of it all. Similarly, in Maxi’s Secrets, it’s more a story of how this big, bouncy, white dog changes so many lives in so many ways. 

Timminy’s family has just moved to a new town which means a new middle school. Problem one, Timminy is short, really short, which makes him a bully target. To help him ease in, his parents agree to get him a dog. The lovable puppy he falls in love with happens to, well, let me quote the flap copy: “When Timminy discovers Maxi is deaf, he is determined to help her—after all, his parents didn’t return him because he was a runt.” And so he does, with the help of neighbor Abby, who is blind.

Seriously. That all sounds terrible and depressing: blindness, deafness, shortness, death. Turns out, this is a truly funny, hopeful, inspiring, riveting read. And that’s exactly why I’ve decided to keep reading the entirety of one State List every year. You never know what gems you may find.

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Lightning Girl! Whether You Love Math or Not

May 3rd, 2018

Once upon a time, I secretly loved math. I was good at it. And just last month, I wished I had kept up some of my skills, particularly in geometry. It would have served me well in revising my work-in-progress. Here was my problem:

If Linc walks 504 feet along the perimeter of a circle with a circumference of 1800 feet, to get from his house to his neighbor’s, how many fewer feet will he travel if he cuts straight across the circle?

I turned to Facebook friends and got an answer, but I wished one of my real life friends was Lucy Callahan, aka, Lightning Girl in The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty. Lucy’s skills would have been useful, yes, but despite her extreme quirks, Lucy could become one of those true friends you never knew you wanted.

She doesn’t start out that way. At 8 years old, Lucy was struck by lightning, which stilled her heart for 2.5 to 5 minutes (she hates that no one knows the exact number). It also left her with acquired savant syndrome, which, in practical terms, means she is a math super genius. Her OCD and anxiety, however, have kept her lagging, socially. Now at 12, she wants to leap from homeschool to college. While she may be academically ready, her grandma (and guardian) insists that, first, she go to middle school. If, in 1 year there, she can make 1 friend, join 1 activity, and read 1 non-math book, she can skip straight to college.*

Sounds easy. When you understand advanced calculus, how hard can middle school be, right? But while math is a constant, which subscribes to unchanging rules and predictable outcomes, middle school is not. Lucy finds it hard and sometimes heartbreaking to navigate 7th grade. Her experience involves Windy, maybe her 1 friend?; Levi, a real irritation; and a school service project that may take Lucy far from her small comfort zone but allows her to find the right equation for her life.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, released only two days ago, is one of those books that people — girls and boys, math kids and non-math kids — will be talking about. The events, reactions, and emotions are so universal, you’ll feel all the feelings that Stacy McAnulty, in her middle grade debut, wants you to experience. And that adds up to a story and a character that may long stay with you.

A note about this review: The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl came onto my radar thanks to Stacy’s agent (not mine, by the way) and a yummy Christmastime breakfast. Soon after, I received the ARC from Stacy’s editor at Random House, but I was neither asked to write this nor compensated for this. I choose to bring you only books I happen to love.

*The numerals in this paragraph are not my normal style; they are a nod to the way Lucy sees the world.

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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
teachers
& 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)

OTHER PRIZES:
   * 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 GollywhopperGames@gmail.com
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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