Monday, May 16, 2016

WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk



Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (May 3, 2016, Dutton Children's Books, 304 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby's strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount. Brilliantly crafted, "Wolf Hollow" is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl's resilience and strength help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

Why I recommend it: This book blew me away. I'm impressed by the imagery and the voice, and astonished by the depth here. Any adult who dismisses the importance of children's literature should read this novel. A haunting story that will stay with me for a long time.

Wolf Hollow may not appeal to kids looking for an easy read with exciting adventures, but middle school readers who prefer something deeper, quieter, and more literary will find much to love here. I've read reviews comparing this to To Kill a Mockingbird and I admit the comparison is apt, but it's rural Pennsylvania and not the South, and instead of race, this book addresses class differences and bullying. Younger readers may find a few scenes frightening. (I would suggest 9 and up or even 10 and up.)


Monday, May 9, 2016

THE DRAKE EQUATION and a guest post from author Bart King -- PLUS a giveaway!





The Drake Equation by Bart King (May 10, 2016, Disney Hyperion, 320 pages, for ages 8 to 12).

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Noah Grow is a bird-watcher. If you're picturing some kid in a big floppy hat, peering up into trees through giant binoculars . . . well, good job. That's exactly what he does. Right now, Noah is on a quest to find a wood duck. According to his calculations, aka the Drake Equation, the odds are good--really good--for spotting one.

That's why he gets off the bus at the wrong stop. And that's how he ends up running down a hill, crashing into a fence, and landing right next to a strange, glittery object.

Noah and his best friends, Jason and Jenny, soon discover that the mysterious disc is, well, mysterious. It gives Noah peculiar powers. As things go from odd to outrageous, Noah is swept up in a storm of intergalactic intrigue and middle-school mayhem. There's much more at stake than Noah realizes.

Why I recommend it:  I recently spent a fun weekend with this book and was a little sorry to see the story end. Rich in humor (I haven't read such a memorable bathroom scene since The Fourth Stall) and filled with organic imagery ("My stomach dropped like a diving osprey"), this is an entertaining and imaginative tale that's perfect for the 8 to 12 age range. With its timely and subtle environmental theme, this book reminded me of Carl Hiaasen's MG novels. Kid readers will love the wild and crazy adventures that ensue after Noah figures out how to access the power of the disc, and of course they'll hoot over the bathroom humor. Teachers will appreciate the curriculum tie-ins to English vocabulary and science, used in such an ingenious way, kids won't realize they're learning!


I'm honored that author Bart King agreed to write a guest post. Take it away, Bart!






Hi! Bart King here. In the unlikely event you’ve heard of me, it’s probably because of my funny non-fiction books for younger readers, like The Big Book of Superheroes.

I began writing nonfiction books in 1999, with the gripping title, An Architectural Guidebook to Portland. (Yes, really!) Since then, I’ve stuck with that style. I mean, fiction? Puh-leeze. Novels are the province of the literati, the artists who can build imaginary worlds with graceful flourishes of their pens or keyboards. Hmm, maybe not the latter. (It’s hard to look elegant while flourishing one’s keyboard.)

Two years ago, I undertook a new writing project. It was one that tested my resolve, cursed me with sleepless nights, and basically made me want my mommy. Because what I was trying to do was write a novel.

Yes, fiction!

[cue horrified shrieks]

Today, I find myself the proud father of The Drake Equation (Disney Hyperion, grades 3-7). My goal was to write a story that was entertaining and funny, but that also had a redeeming message that didn’t seem “preachy.”

And guess what? Writing that novel really WAS incredibly hard. But after 13 drafts, I *think* it came out the way I intended. And now it’s on to the next project. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to practice my keyboard flourishes!




Bart, I'd say you more than accomplished your goal. I'm so impressed that The Drake Equation is your first novel. Writing all those humorous non-fiction books really prepared you for this.





Visit Bart's website

Follow Bart on Twitter, Find Bart on Facebook

Here's Bart on Instagram

Bart's previous appearance on my blog




Giveaway details: The publisher has generously offered a hardcover copy for giveaway. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only and will end at 10:00 pm EDT on Sun May 29.  Winner will be announced on Monday May 30. So you have three weeks to enter!






Monday, May 2, 2016

COUNTING THYME and Q&A with Melanie Conklin




Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin (April 12, 2016, G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 320 pages, for ages 10 and up) 

Synopsis (from the publisher): When eleven-year-old Thyme Owens’ little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves.

Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush, and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours, and days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Why I recommend it:  This is one of the clearest, strongest middle-grade voices I've read in years. You'll find yourself believing Thyme is a real 11-year-old girl telling you her story. Also, I've lived in Manhattan (in a third-floor walk-up) and the details about the city are spot-on. A sad but sweet and even humorous novel with a lot of heart and a lot of hope.

Melanie's website

I'm thrilled that author Melanie Conklin agreed to answer a few questions. Here's our Q&A:


Melanie Conklin, from the author's website


1) Tell us a little about neuroblastoma and especially why you decided to have a character with this form of cancer.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that is primarily found in developing nervous tissue. It can manifest in many different areas, and children ages five and younger are most commonly affected. I first became acquainted with neuroblastoma in 2007, when a child in my Brooklyn neighborhood was diagnosed with the disease. I followed his family’s story closely through their blog, and ended up joining another local mom’s effort to raise funds for pediatric cancer research through baking and selling cookies—which became Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. Several years later, when I started writing, the stories of these families fighting cancer in such young children still resonated with me, in part because the treatments for the disease are very difficult to endure. When I decided to write a character who had a younger sibling facing an illness, neuroblastoma was the illness I wanted to portray.

2) My kids were on the Lighting and Sound crew in their school theater department, so I loved your scenes about figuring out how to make the sounds for The Wizard of Oz. Were you involved in theater yourself? If not, what kind of research did you so?

I’m glad you enjoyed those scenes! I was involved in theater on the periphery in both high school and college. While I never had the urge to perform, I really enjoyed working on the sets and painting backdrops, and once you’re back stage you end up exposed to the whole world of theater! Also, a friend of mine is a sound producer and foley artist, and I’d been acquainted with his work over the years, so between those two influences I had a feel for the scenes I wanted to create for Thyme’s school play. I researched children’s theater productions and watched quite a few performances on YouTube to fill in the gaps, and had a lot of fun inventing sounds, which in many ways related to my work as a product designer. Having worked with all kinds of materials to produce household goods, I have a feel for their various properties, which helped me mock up my ideas for different sounds to test out in our kitchen.

3) What are some of your favorite MG titles? And what's your favorite snack while reading them?

Ooh, snacks! I am a snacker. I prefer salty over sweet…so most often you’ll find me with a bag of bagel chips or some slices of cheese with olives. I don’t eat much while I read, though, because I love books in print and I’m still horrified at the idea of leaving a fingerprint on the page! Childhood habits die hard. I love the variety of titles in middle grade, and I love so many of them. One for the Murphys and When You Reach Me are two of my favorites. I also love verse novels, like Brown Girl Dreaming and Blue Birds. I’m reading Mayday right now, and the voice in it is amazing!

4) I love verse novels too. What's next for you? Will there be another novel about Thyme and her family? Or are you working on something new? Can you give us a hint?


Next up for me is another middle grade novel! I’m drafting the story right now, so it’s a very exciting time of discovery and surprises. It stars a whole new cast of characters, and I can tell you that it’s about family and friendship, and though it’s a very different world from the one in Counting Thyme, it’s also about finding your place in the world after life throws you a curveball. In many ways, this story is even more personal for me, and I can’t wait to share it one day soon!

And I can't wait to read it! Thank you for visiting, Melanie. Readers, have you read COUNTING THYME? What about any other MG novels about a sibling with cancer?


Monday, April 25, 2016

LIBERTAD by Alma Fullerton: Celebrating Poetry Month with Novels in Verse


Libertad by Alma Fullerton (2008, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 215 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): With their father gone to America to make money for his family, Libertad, his little brother Julio and their mother scrape a living out of a dump in Guatemala City. Although it is too late for him, Libertad is determined that his little brother should go to school. Taught to play the marimba by his father, Libertad uses his talent as a street musician to raise enough money for his brother's school supplies. But his dreams for their future are destroyed when their mother is killed in a freak accident. Libertad must face the inevitable truth; they cannot survive on the streets of Guatemala City alone. There is only one thing to do. They must set out on the long and lonely journey to the Rio Grande River, where they plan to cross the water and enter the United States to find their father.

Why I recommend it:  Libertad means "freedom" and that's exactly what Libertad and his brother seek. A moving and inspiring story of brotherly love, strength, despair, and hope. Like any good verse novel, each poem stands alone, yet together the poems form a whole greater than its parts. Libertad, the boy, is a sympathetic character with a strong voice, and you'll find yourself cheering on both boys as they head north to find their father. Although I've read books by Pam Munoz Ryan and Christina Diaz Gonzalez and others, I still feel there aren't enough MG Latino novels being published, despite the fact that people of Hispanic origin are the largest ethnic minority in the US. So I was happy to find this one in my quest for verse novels. 


Favorite lines: (from a poem called Games on page 4-5)

         We collect our marbles, rushing
         for the safety of our homes.
         Tonight, even the moon is
         afraid
         to show its face
         on our dump.


Bonus: Use as a springboard for timely discussions about the current political race and the immigrant experience.  


Monday, April 18, 2016

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander: Celebrating Poetry Month with Novels in Verse




The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 237 pages, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): "With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I m delivering, " announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he's got mad beats, too, that tell his family's story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.


Why I recommend it:  This is so much more than poetry. The words practically explode off the page. The poems vary from rap to free verse to Basketball Rules to definitions of Josh's vocabulary words. So much imagination and artistry went into the writing, it's easy to see why this won the Newbery in January 2015 and was also named a Coretta Scott King Honor book. I'm not even a basketball fan, but I loved this book.

Favorite lines (from a poem called The Second Half on page 181):
                             
                         My brother is
                         Superman tonight.
                         Sliding
                         and Gliding
                         into rare air,
                         lighting up the sky


Bonus: This isn't just a novel about basketball and sibling rivalry. It's about a close-knit, loving family having to accept the father's illness.

What poetry are you reading for Poetry Month?



Monday, April 11, 2016

INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN: Celebrating Poetry Month with Novels in Verse



Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2013, HarperCollins, 262 pages, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher):  For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only ever known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope—toward America.

Why I recommend it: The text is spare, with lots of white space on the page. Yet the imagery is gorgeous and colorful. I could taste the papaya, see the cramped boat on which they escape, feel Hà's anger and frustration at leaving home and starting over. Hà's voice is honest and childlike. Based loosely on the author's own childhood, the story is a deeply moving one. Like Hà, Thanhha Lai fled Vietnam with her family when she was ten, and moved to Alabama. Today she lives in Kansas.

The paperback edition includes suggested activities and an interview with the author.

Thanhha Lai's website

Favorite lines: (from a poem called Twisting Twisting on p. 37)
                       
                          Mother measures
                          rice grains
                          left in the bin.
                          Not enough to last
                          till payday
                          at the end of the month.

                          Her brows
                          twist like laundry
                          being wrung dry.

Bonus: Use this as a starting point for classroom lessons about the Vietnam War, and timely discussions about refugees and prejudice.

Have you read Inside Out & Back Again or any other novels in verse? What did you think of them?


Monday, April 4, 2016

Musings on writing my fifth novel

Yes.

You read that right. I'm nearly finished writing the rough draft of my fifth novel. In the past nine years, I've written four MG novels and one YA, in addition to more than a dozen picture books. And no, in case you're wondering, I don't yet have an agent or a book contract. I've had fourteen publication credits to date, but they're all poems or flash fiction or micro fiction for adults.

Still, I keep writing for children and teens. Perseverance is my mantra.

But I have to admit, Novel #5 is, well, a little different. In what way?

Read on.

I started an idea notebook for my fifth novel back in the late spring of 2015, so nearly a year ago. After gathering ideas, and working out character sketches and a setting and a conflict, I wrote three chapters. Almost immediately, I became stuck. Something didn't feel right about it. So I put it aside and revised my fourth novel instead.

And then, in September, after reading Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (even though it wasn't the first verse novel I read), I had an epiphany.

This new novel? The one I was stuck on? It was meant to be written in verse.

I spent two months reading and studying verse novels and then in November 2015 I started writing Novel #5 all over again.

Am I crazy? Well, this doesn't feel crazy. It feels... right. Since making that decision, the process has changed for me. Writing a verse novel is the hardest thing I've done as a writer, but at the same time, it's like I've grown wings. I look forward to writing every day, which is something I never did with a rough draft before. Rough drafts are usually agony.

I've been accepted into the Highlights Foundation workshop on Novels in Verse which will take place in May. Who knows where this will lead? Maybe nowhere. But maybe, just maybe, something good will happen.

For the rest of April, in honor of Poetry Month, I'll be looking at a few of the verse novels I've studied in my quest to learn this new (for me) form.

Over the past few years, I've read, in approximately this order:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
42 Miles by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose (this made me first fall in love with verse novels)
Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryant
The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle
Impulse by Ellen Hopkins
Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas
Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli
Another Day as Emily by Eileen Spinelli
Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton
Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Libertad by Alma Fullerton
Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

(I've also read Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which is actually an autobiography, and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, which some consider prose poetry.)

What verse novels do you recommend? All suggestions are welcome.