Monday, January 22, 2018

Where I've been and what happened to me

"I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else."  
                                  E. B. White

Where I've been and what happened to me:

I'm going off topic here. Anyone who knows me or has followed this blog for a while knows that I survived a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2005. I always felt lucky, not just because I survived something most people don't but because it was the only aneurysm in my brain.

Until recently.

On September 29, 2017, my husband and I were enjoying the first full day of another vacation in Maine (we wanted to see the fall foliage) and at dinner I said to him, "I think you better take me to the hospital". Not that I have any memory of this. 

Nor do I remember that next eight weeks.

Doctors at Maine Medical Center found two more aneurysms on the basilar artery (the same artery as my 2005 rupture) and one had ruptured. They coiled it and later also installed a shunt, to drain the excess blood in my brain. 

It was a long recuperation (in fact, I'm still recuperating, even though I'm home now). After a month in the hospital, I went to a rehab center in Maine. And after six weeks there, they allowed us to come home to Pennsylvania and transfer to a different rehab center. This second rehab center is the only part I remember. 

I don't know if those lost memories will ever come back to me, but in a way I'm not sorry. Who wants to remember being in pain, having your head cut open, and being hooked up to multiple machines?

When I look at these photos my husband took I feel like I'm looking at a stranger

I know that I'm extremely lucky -- to have survived a rupture not once but twice in twelve years. I also had wonderful nurses and doctors and a supportive husband who visited me every day (my kids came when they could).

So my purpose today is to not only raise awareness of brain aneurysms but to let you know the blog is going to change. I will no longer be reviewing children's books on a regular basis. I'll still talk about an occasional superior book (how could I resist?) but I also want to share photos and thoughts on other topics. So it'll be "my brain on" other topics, not just books.

Bear with me as the blog reinvents itself.

And for more information on aneurysms, visit the Brain Aneurysm Foundation's website.

Monday, September 18, 2017

THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET by David Barclay Moore for Diversity Monday

Welcome to another Diversity Monday!

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (September 19, 2017, Knopf/Penguin Random House, 304 pages, ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher)It’s Christmas Eve in Harlem, but twelve-year-old Lolly Rachpaul and his mom aren’t celebrating. They’re still reeling from his older brother’s death in a gang-related shooting just a few months earlier. Then Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend brings him a gift that will change everything: two enormous bags filled with Legos. Lolly’s always loved Legos, and he prides himself on following the kit instructions exactly. Now, faced with a pile of building blocks and no instructions, Lolly must find his own way forward.

His path isn’t clear—and the pressure to join a “crew,” as his brother did, is always there. When Lolly and his friend are beaten up and robbed, joining a crew almost seems like the safe choice. But building a fantastical Lego city at the community center provides Lolly with an escape—and an unexpected bridge back to the world.

Why I recommend it: The title drew me in and then the voice captivated me and enveloped me as if Lolly were right there in the room, whispering his story into my ear. The author presents an authentic portrait of a boy growing up in the projects, with all the pressures of life in Harlem. A gripping story and a beautiful, important book that deserves to win awards.

Oh, and then there are the Legos! My older son still loves Legos and he's not even a kid anymore, so I could relate to Lolly's passion for building.

Favorite lines:  "I waded my hands through all the Legos some more. There were so many. They made a sound like money, like quarters tumbling together."  (from p. 31)

Bonus: Writers, study this one for character growth. The realistic way Lolly changes how he sees the world makes him feel like an actual person, not a character in a book. This is also a moving portrayal of a boy coming to terms with grief.

David Barclay Moore's website

Follow him on Twitter

Monday, August 28, 2017

ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL by Leah Henderson

Welcome to another Diversity Monday.

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson (June 2017, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 438 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined. With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?

Why I recommend it: I had the honor of meeting and getting to know Leah when I attended the first Novels in Verse workshop at Highlights in May 2016. Note, though, that this is not a novel in verse. This book was already in the works before I met her. What I remember most about Leah from that magical week is her vibrant, infectious laughter. She's also a world traveler, and her travels inspire her stories.

Leah Henderson, from her website

But even if I didn't know Leah, I'd still highly recommend this heartwarming and beautifully-crafted coming of age tale. Yes, it sounds long for MG, but Mor's story will soak into you like the hot Senegalese sun and you'll finish reading it before you want to let go. Mor and the other characters are fully fleshed out, the plot abounds with twists and turns, and the language is exquisite. One Shadow on the Wall is a stunning debut and I can't wait to see what Leah Henderson writes next.

Favorite lines: "But the thought would not rest, like an overturned beetle trying to right itself. It kicked and kicked at Mor's brain." (from p. 95)

Bonus:  Besides being the kind of novel that deserves to win awards, this book is an excellent choice for libraries and classrooms. I learned a great deal about the culture, language, and food of Senegal. But more importantly, I got to know and understand one peace-loving Muslim family, who vow to stay together, no matter what.

Learn more about Leah Henderson on her website

Follow Leah on Twitter

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