Monday, July 10, 2017

CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND by Rita Williams-Garcia for MMGM and Diversity Monday

No, I didn't fall off the face of the Earth, but I have been traveling a lot and also occasionally dealing with migraines. I thought these new glasses would help but instead I suspect they're making it worse. Hope to get back to regular blogging again by September.

Now onto today's Diversity Monday and MMGM review:

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (May 2017, Amistad/HarperCollins, 176 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Clayton feels most alive when he's with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the band of Bluesmen--he can't wait to join them, just as soon as he has a blues song of his own. But then the unthinkable happens. Cool Papa Byrd dies, and Clayton's mother forbids Clayton from playing the blues. And Clayton knows that's no way to live.

Armed with his grandfather's brown porkpie hat and his harmonica, he runs away from home in search of the Bluesmen, hoping he can join them on the road. But on the journey that takes him through the New York City subways and to Washington Square Park, Clayton learns some things that surprise him.

Why I recommend it: Knowing up front that Cool Papa is going to die doesn't make it any less heartwrenching, but there are still many uplifting moments in this touching little gem of a novel. Short chapters and spare lyrical language make it a smooth and easy read. Clayton is a likable character and you'll find yourself pulled in as he goes underground, in both senses of the word.

Rita Williams-Garcia is the talented author of One Crazy Summer and other books.

Favorite lines: "Clayton stretched and opened his eyelids just as the violet of night turned pale blue and before white-yellow sun streams ran the pale blues out of the room." (from p.17 of the arc)


Monday, June 12, 2017

On Returning to the Highlights Foundation -- no longer a rookie, but still learning

Some of you may remember my blog post from last year about my first Workshop at The Highlights Foundation. I was such a rookie I didn't know how to find my cabin and I especially didn't know how to juggle my minor characters or add humor to a serious novel. I learned so much and came away impressed and vowing to return as soon as possible.

That blog post received thousands of page views, more than any other blog post in my seven years of blogging, except, oddly enough, my Yorkshire post. In the latter case, I suspect kids writing book reports on The Shakespeare Stealer found it, shall we say, helpful. But in the former case, my Highlights blog post must have touched a nerve. It seems every children's writer longs to attend a Highlights Foundation Workshop (or Unworkshop). And it undoubtedly helped that Highlights posted a link to my post on their facebook page. Thank you, Highlights!

The Barn at the Highlights Foundation -- where magic happens!

This month, I was thrilled to again attend a workshop and again, it was Novels in Verse (an Advanced version), with returning faculty members Kathryn Erskine and Alma Fullerton, plus returning guest author Padma Venkatraman. They're all delightful human beings and fabulous writers who go the extra mile to coach and encourage their students. They told me to dig deeper and add more emotion so that was what I worked on, along with combining two characters into one to streamline the story a bit.

I learned so much from them and was so inspired that my novel soared to new heights in only four days. What impresses me the most about Kathy and Alma is although they divide up the twelve attendees and each mentor six of us, both of them read all twelve novels! I don't know how they do it.

Hello, Cabin 9, my old friend! New name holders and easy-to-see Cabin numbers this year.

I also don't know how I accomplished so much. There must be a magical time warp in those cabins that allows writers to achieve more in a few short days than we ever could at home. Whatever it is, I hope they keep it up!

My smartest move this year was adding an Unworkshop Day after the Workshop was officially over on Thursday (oh, how I wish I'd added two!). I got a chance to go on the tour of the Highlights offices in Honesdale, ate another delicious dinner, and then hunkered down in my cabin and flew through my revisions in close to four hours of hard work that evening. It was almost a mystical experience, sitting in Cabin 9 late at night, typing away on my laptop and seeing my characters grow stronger with every tweak.

As I write this, I've been home only a few days and already I want to go back. Not just for the writing inspiration and camaraderie, but for the fresh and delicious food:


Dessert (baked apples - yum!)

And for the fun of the Word Garden. I was thrilled when the rain stopped and I could play in it. Moving word rocks around is therapeutic and led to more than one new line for my novel.

Here's a tiny hint of what my novel in verse is all about:

Ready to sign up yet?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

LEMONS by Melissa Savage Blog Tour

I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for LEMONS, Melissa Savage's refreshing MG debut novel.

Lemons by Melissa Savage (May 2, 2017, Crown Books for Young Readers, 320 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher):  Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mama always told her: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But Lem can’t possibly make lemonade out of her new life in Willow Creek, California—the Bigfoot Capital of the World—where she’s forced to live with a grandfather she’s never met after her mother passes away.

Summer seems to bring Lem lemons upon lemons as she deals with an entire new life without any of the comforts of her old home—and then she meets Tobin Sky.

Eleven years old and the CEO of Bigfoot Detectives Inc., Tobin is the sole Bigfoot investigator for their small town. After he invites Lem to be his assistant for the summer, they set out on an epic adventure to capture the elusive beast on film. But along the way, Lem and Tobin end up discovering more than they ever could have imagined. And Lem realizes that maybe she can make lemonade out of her new life after all.

Why I recommend it: The voice captivated me from Page 1. Lemonade Liberty Witt is a 10-year-old you won't soon forget. Written in first person present tense, this sometimes bittersweet, always refreshing story has an immediacy that makes you feel all the feels right alongside Lemonade.

Yes, this is one of those novels where the mother has just died. But it's so well handled, and Tobin and grandfather Charlie and even minor characters like Mrs. Dickerson are so real and likable, you'll find yourself won over, even if you normally turn down novels where a parent dies. Surprisingly, there's a great deal of humor here. Perhaps that's what charmed me, that and the rollicking search for Bigfoot. No spoilers, but the adventure is worth the ride.

In addition, short chapters and lots of dialogue make this a fast, easy read.

Favorite lines (Lemonade's first impression of her grandfather, Charlie): "He's missing the middle part of his hair, like someone divided his head up into thirds and subtracted the center." (p. 12)

Bonus: The story actually takes place in 1975, at a time when you still had to get up to turn off the TV or change the channel. I think it was a brilliant move on the author's part, because these kids have no cell phones, no computers, no distractions to keep them from going outside.

Melissa Savage
Photo credit: Jerri Parness Photography

If you missed it, here's an interview with the author on Caroline Starr Rose's blog

The blog tour continues!

May 12: YA Books Central
May 13: Cafinated Reads
May 15: Middle Grade Mafioso

Monday, May 8, 2017

THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMORA by Pablo Cartaya for Diversity Monday and MMGM

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya (May 16, 2017, Viking Books for Young Readers, 256 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? 

For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a cute poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

Why I recommend it: Fans of books about kids who still have both parents will appreciate this. It's a lively, heartwarming, and often humorous family story. You'll get to know Arturo's immediate family and his extended family. It's also quite timely (I had to smile as I read about the nasty real estate developer!).  Sometimes change is wonderful, but sometimes keeping a tradition going is more important. 

Arturo is a flawed and therefore vulnerable and realistic character, who loves his family and their restaurant more than anything. But he's also 13 and developing a huge crush on Carmen, which makes for some funny and awkward moments. Sweet.

Favorite lines:  "I was excited for a bunch of reasons. It was the Sunday before the official start of summer, and summer meant hanging out, swinging on banyan trees, looking for manatees in the canals throughout Canal Grove, eating churros (because let's be real: those deep-fried sugary sticks are all kinds of delicious), listening to music, and jumping around in Bren's bounce house. Yeah, I know I'm thirteen, but there's just something about a bounce house that makes me feel awesome." (pg. 4)

Bonus: You'll learn about José Marti and his poetry and also about the sacrifices many Cuban-Americans have made to reach this country and become citizens. 

Look for other diverse kidlit at Pragmatic Mom and The Logonauts

Look for other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts at Shannon Messenger's blog

Monday, May 1, 2017


Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk  (May 2, 2017, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 304 pages, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from Indiebound):  Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow's only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar.

Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn't until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.

Why I recommend it:  It's rare that a novel is both a literary gem and a page-turning thriller.  Lauren Wolk's first MG novel, Wolf Hollow, won a Newbery honor. This book should win the Newbery medal itself. Of course, my batting average for Newbery predictions is not exactly perfect. But that's how strongly I feel about this gorgeously-written and deftly-plotted novel. It's also set in the 1920s, one of my favorite time periods. The metaphors made me gasp, the characters seemed like real islanders, and the mystery kept me guessing. Why was Crow set adrift when she was a newborn? No spoilers here! But as you read this, you'll ache and wonder along with Crow, who yearns to understand her origins. Though she's been raised by Osh, Crow doesn't look like him or like Miss Maggie or any of the folks in town. But that's not the only reason the townspeople avoid her.

Favorite lines:  "She took my chin and leaned down to look into my face, so close that I could see the green in her brown eyes, as if they were little round gardens."  (p. 42 of the arc)

Bonus:  This stunning book would be perfect for showing kids that families come in all forms. It could also convince readers who don't normally care for historical fiction that it can be just as exciting as a thriller.

Lauren Wolk's website

Follow Lauren on Twitter

For other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, see Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, April 17, 2017

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS by Amy Sarig King for Earth Month

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King (January 31, 2017, Arthur A. Levine Books, 256 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound):  Obe Devlin has problems. His family's farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn't like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his home, in the last wild patch left, picking up trash and looking for animal tracks. One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags... No one has seen a creature like this before, because there's never been a creature like this before. The animal--Marvin Gardens--becomes Obe's best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.

Why I recommend it:  I've read every weird and amazing YA novel A.S. King has written. So I was thrilled when I learned A.S. King (also known as Amy Sarig King) had finally written a novel for the middle grade reader. And what an extraordinary novel it is. The writing is spare and the voice is spot-on. I love the way each Obe-centered chapter begins. (Examples -- Chapter 1: "There were mosquitoes."  Chapter 3:"There was a mess." Chapter 9: "There were questions.") Interspersed with Obe's short present-day chapters are even shorter chapters titled "One Hundred Years Ago", where we learn more about Obe's ancestors and how the Devlin land was lost.

Obe is a likable character, filled with righteous anger over the development of his family's land. Marvin Gardens is undoubtedly the most unusual animal you'll ever encounter in MG fiction. And in case you're wondering -- yes, Obe names him for the Monopoly property. In fact, Monopoly plays an important part, and small illustrations of vintage Monopoly pieces decorate the beginning of each chapter.

If you've ever played Monopoly, you know it's a ruthless game of acquiring properties and building on them. It's easy to guess that Amy King hates the way developments have taken over once-beautiful and once-productive farmland, not just her own family's land in Pennsylvania (see the About the Author page) but all over our country. And she must feel the same way I do about global warming and pollution. This book is the perfect read for "Earth Month" -- which Obe's favorite teacher insists we should have instead of just one day.

Favorite lines:  "Upstream were two finished housing developments and across the tree line was a flattened dirt wasteland scattered with construction equipment that looked like monsters in the falling light. The developer bought the last of the Devlin fields six months ago and planted more house seeds. Soon, more houses would grow." (from p. 10 of the hardcover)

Bonus: Besides the environment (certainly a timely and important theme), this book explores bullying, friendship, and family relationships.

A.S. King's official hideout

Follow her on Twitter

Monday, April 10, 2017

CATCHING A STORY FISH by Janice N. Harrington for Poetry Month and Diversity Monday

Sorry for my absence but I've been dealing with family issues and health issues, as well as working on revisions for the Advanced Novels in Verse workshop I'll be attending at Highlights in June.

Welcome to another Diversity Monday. It's also Poetry Month, so I'm celebrating both at once with this lovely book. Thanks to a librarian friend from the 2016 Novels in Verse Workshop for introducing me to this one.

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington (September 2016, Wordsong, 224 pages, ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Keet knows the only good thing about moving away from her Alabama home is that she'll live near her beloved grandfather. When Keet starts school, it's even worse than she expected, as the kids tease her about her southern accent. Now Keet, who can "talk the whiskers off a catfish," doesn't want to open her mouth. Slowly, though, while fishing with her grandfather, she learns the art of listening. Gradually, she makes her first new friend. But just as she's beginning to settle in, her grandfather has a stroke, and even though he's still nearby, he suddenly feels ever-so-far-away. Keet is determined to reel him back to her by telling him stories; in the process she finds her voice and her grandfather again. This lyrical and deeply emotional novel-in-verse celebrates the power of story and of finding one's individual voice.

Why I recommend it: This is gorgeous. A warm and moving celebration of poetry, words, and voice. There's a compelling story here, told with plenty of humor and compassion, as Keet adjusts to her new life. But the book is also a word-feast, using many different forms of poetry. Concrete poetry, haiku, haibun, narrative poems, and even the difficult-to-write forms of pantoum (repeats the second and fourth line of each quatrain as the first and third line of the next) and contrapuntal, which can be read in three ways (the left column one poem, the right column another poem and when read together, left to right, there's a third poem!). A poetry glossary at the back explains it all.

Favorite lines (from JUST THE RIGHT SPOT, p. 39):   

                            Grandpa knows my tongue
                            is wiggly as a wiggle-worm
                            and quick as a mosquito
                            so wherever we look, he says, "Shhhhh.
                            Shhhh. The fish will hear you."

Bonus: Perfect for classroom lessons on different forms of poetry.