Monday, May 11, 2015

The Wisdom of Merlin by T.A. Barron -- and a Giveaway!






The Wisdom of Merlin: Seven Magical Words for a Meaningful Life by T.A. Barron (hardcover, Philomel Books, 80 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): A book of advice from Merlin, the greatest wizard of all time.

Based on an address he gave to students at the University of Oxford in 2013, T.A. Barron, author of the New York Times bestselling Merlin Saga, channels the wizard Merlin and offers advice on how to live a meaningful life.  Divided into sections, each revolving around a magical word, this book poetically explores the concepts of Gratitude, Courage, Knowledge, Belief, Wonder, Generosity, Hope, and an extra one: Love.


Why I recommend it: It's beautiful and inspiring and fairly bursting with optimism. Kids and adults would all do well to listen to the sage and up-to-date advice of the ancient wizard Merlin (as presented by T.A. Barron). Even if you've never read T.A. Barron's Merlin series (and why haven't you?), you'll find much to love here. The short chapters and slim size mean even reluctant readers could handle this. 

Favorite lines: "Sometimes, turn off your electronic equipment--all of it...  Because being serene and quiet now and then gives us the space to feel grateful. You see, being fully scheduled is not the same as being fully alive."  (from p. 11)


Ah, Merlin would have believed in Screen-Free week


Bonus: This book makes an excellent graduation gift or even a birthday gift for a special someone in your life.




T.A. Barron, from his website


T.A. Barron's website (be sure to watch the trailer for the book)

Through the generosity of the publisher AND the author (thank you!), I ended up with two copies of this hardcover. So I'm giving away one of them, along with a paperback of the newly revised and updated The Hero's Trail, another inspirational gem of nonfiction from author and conservationist T.A. Barron.



That's right. One lucky winner will win both the hardcover of The Wisdom of Merlin and the paperback of The Hero's Trail. This giveaway is open to anyone age 12 and up. International entries welcome. To enter, you MUST be a follower of this blog and you MUST leave a comment on this post. This giveaway will end at 10 pm EDT on Sunday May 24 and I'll announce the winner on Monday May 25.


Monday, May 4, 2015

LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai for Children's Book Week

Children's Book Week is May 4--10, 2015. To celebrate, I'm featuring a book with excellent Newbery potential which is also a wonderful choice if you're looking for diversity.

Yes, yes, I know it's also Screen Free Week (you may remember I participated last year and oh gosh, the year before was epic ("mistakes were made"), but now that I have a smart phone, I admit it. I'm hooked. I've decided one or two screen-free days a week is the best I can do.

Don't forget to go outside and run around once in a while. Or read a book! How about this one?




Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai (hardcover, Harpercollins, 272 pages, February 2015, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher): A California girl born and raised, Mai can't wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai's parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn't know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.

Why I recommend it: The voice! It's so realistic you'll swear Mai is a real almost-thirteen-year-old girl who lives in your neighborhood or else you're overhearing her talking at the beach. And some of her observations will make you laugh out loud. Meanwhile, her gradual awakening to the world of her roots is deftly handled and almost guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes. Another reason I'm so impressed? Vietnam itself becomes a character in this beautifully written novel. I love it when that happens.


Favorite lines (from p. 89): "You'd think a little village in North Vietnam couldn't help but be tranquil and quiet, full of banana groves and bamboo forests, but everything here has a big mouth. Dogs fighting, crickets blasting, frogs screaming, chickens clucking, birds screeching, mice scurrying..."


Bonus: I learned a great deal about Vietnam. 

Visit the author's website



Monday, April 27, 2015

NIGHTBIRD by Alice Hoffman for MMGM



In keeping with this month's inadvertent theme (see Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly and Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose), today's feature also has a bird title.






Nightbird by Alice Hoffman (hardcover, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 208 pages, March 10, 2015, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the book jacket): Rumor has it that Sidwell (Massachusetts) is home to a monster, and tales of sightings draw in as many tourists as do the town's famed Pink apples. Twig's mom owns the orchard and bakes irresistible pies. Because of a family secret, Twig has tried her best to be invisible, but when two girls named Julia and Agate move into Mourning Dove Cottage next door, everything changes. A witch lived there once, and Twig's mother has always forbidden her to step inside. But Julia just might be Twig's first true friend, and her ally in vanquishing an ancient curse.

Why I recommend it:  The writing takes my breath away. Even though the setting is modern (Twig's brother, for instance, has a computer), there is a timeless, dreamlike quality about this book that makes it feel like a fable. This is an excellent book in which to lose yourself for a day or two. Perhaps best read on a warm, soft spring or summer day. Preferably while eating a slice of pie.

Without revealing too much about the plot, my deepest childhood wish involved flying, and this book evokes the joy as well as the obvious dangers of a person soaring silently over the town.

The publisher claims this is Alice Hoffman's first novel for middle grade readers. But I distinctly remember reading both Aquamarine and Indigo, which the bookstore shelved in MG, many years ago, and according to Amazon they're both aimed at preteens. She's also the author of several YA novels, including Green Angel, and many adult novels, including the recent The Dovekeepers, and The Museum of Extraordinary Things.

Favorite lines: "If enchantment could be found anywhere, it would surely be in the Berkshires, where the woods were so green and deep, and a mist rose from the streams that crisscrossed the meadows so that even those of us without wings felt as if we were walking through the clouds."  (from p. 40-41)

Bonus: The budding friendship between Twig and Julia is a gem. Give this to readers looking for friendship novels, and quiet, lovely magical realism.

Alice Hoffman's official website

Other MMGM reviews of NIGHTBIRD:

Jess at the Reading Nook

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for links to other MMGM posts.

Readers, what was your childhood wish? Did you dream of flying?

Monday, April 20, 2015

BLUE BIRDS by Caroline Starr Rose for National Poetry Month and MMGM

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brainchild of Shannon Messenger. Be sure to visit her blog for links to other MMGM posts. Today, for National Poetry Month, I'm recommending Caroline Starr Rose's Blue Birds. 





Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose (March 10, 2015, Putnam's, for ages 10 and up)

Synopsis (from the publisher): It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.
 
Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.


Why I recommend it: This book is gorgeous. And I'm not just talking about that beautiful cover. With the two voices of Kimi and Alis, young girls from different cultures who nevertheless form a lasting friendship, Caroline Starr Rose has created a novel in verse that is more like two sweet voices singing. They sing of bluebirds, the sun, and the sky, they sing of the fragile tendrils of friendship, and they sing of the many hardships in their lives. Before I was a third of the way through this I'd forgotten I was reading a novel in verse and I was simply pulled in by Kimi and Alis and their story. Despite the thickness of the book, I read this in one day. At the same time, I didn't want to leave their story, and it has stayed with me for weeks now. I had far too many favorite lines to choose from, but in this example, from p.192, you can see how every word counts:

                         In my mind,
                         there are no barriers.
                         My words and hers
                         make perfect sense between us.

Bonus: This would be excellent for classroom discussions. Includes an Author's Note with historical information.


Caroline Starr Rose from her website
Caroline was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to answer three questions:

1)    The dual point of view works so well here; it's almost like singing in two voices. What made you decide to write the book this way?

Thank you so much!

Having Alis and Kimi share the story was not my original plan. But once I realized Blue Birds hinged on their forbidden friendship, I knew I couldn’t tell just one girl’s side of things. And that sort of terrified me. There are some people within the writing community who feel you must live a culture in order to write about it. I’m a non-Native author. What right did I have to speak for a Roanoke child? I had to trust my ultimate qualifications came from having once been a child and from my understanding of the beauty and security that thrives in friendship. Once I got to this place, each girl’s voice felt distinct and clear and strong.

As far as verse goes, I find it a really in-the-moment way to write historical fiction. It’s immediate, spare, and lets us into a character’s inner life very quickly. For Blue Birds, verse became a wonderful way to tell a story in two voices. Readers move quickly from Kimi to Alis and back again. And when the girls share a poem, I was able through line and stanza placement to “speak” their story visually, adding one more layer of communication. Verse is magical that way!

2) My favorite parts were the shared poems. Was BLUE BIRDS harder or easier to write than MAY B.?

Much harder. Because it was the first novel I wrote after publishing a rather successful first book, I had an invisible audience I had to learn to ignore. The stakes felt higher. I worried about comparisons between May B. and Blue Birds.

The process was also very different. For May B., I was only responsible for being familiar with an era. With Blue Birds, I had to learn about an era, an event with spare records, and two Native American tribes that no longer exist. This is the first time I’ve included real people from history in something I’ve written. While they only had minor roles, it felt like a big responsibility. Then added to this was the realization the story needed to be told in both girls’ voices. I felt utterly unqualified to write as a Native American child.

3) I think you did an excellent job. Are you a "pantser" or a "plotter" or something in-between?

I fall somewhere in between — a plotster, as a kid during a school visit once dubbed me.

I start with a historical event or era that interests me and read broadly, trusting some sort of story idea will bubble up to the surface in the midst of my research. I keep a notebook filled with quotes, questions, maps, lists, and the like. I need a firm sense of my setting and a general sense of my key characters before I begin (though these things often change). Writing at this point feels a bit like a science experiment: This setting + this character x this event = this outcome. Before I begin, I have a sense of some key turning points. Often I know the final scene but have no idea how to get there.

Then I draft painfully and slowly. I fret a lot. I’m sure I’m a fraud. I have the awful habit of comparing my fledgling ideas to my finished work and easily convince myself I’ll never be able to do it again. This is when I lean hard on my writing friends who tell me they believe in me. I borrow their belief and keep moving forward. Getting to the end of a first draft is a relief. Even if it’s awful, even if I trash half of it, the “making something from something” stage is infinitely less scary than the “making something from nothing” stage.

Thank you, Caroline! You are definitely not a fraud. And I feel the same way about first drafts. What about you, readers? Do you fret over a first draft and enjoy revision? Or the opposite?

Visit Caroline's website

Follow Caroline on Twitter



Monday, April 6, 2015

"Take these broken wings and learn to fly" -- BLACKBIRD FLY by Erin Entrada Kelly

I had the pleasure of meeting Erin Entrada Kelly at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA, during her book launch party on March 27. She read a passage from Blackbird Fly, and gave a moving and heartwarming speech about growing up as the only Filipino American in her class in a small town in Louisiana. So she always felt different.





Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow Books/Harpercollins, March 2015, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from the publisher): Future rock star, or friendless misfit? That's no choice at all. Apple Yengko moved from the Philippines to Louisiana when she was little, and now that she is in middle school, she grapples with being different, with friends and backstabbers, and with following her dreams.
Apple has always felt a little different from her classmates. Her mother still cooks Filipino foods, speaks a mix of English and Cebuano, and chastises Apple for becoming "too American." It becomes unbearable in middle school, when the boys—the stupid, stupid boys—in Apple's class put her name on the Dog Log, the list of the most unpopular girls in school. When Apple's friends turn on her and everything about her life starts to seem weird and embarrassing, Apple turns to music. If she can just save enough to buy a guitar and learn to play, maybe she can change herself. It might be the music that saves her . . . or it might be her two new friends, who show how special she really is.


Why I recommend it: The voice is spot-on. Apple Yengko will strum her way into your heart and into your soul and you won't be able to forget her. Erin Entrada Kelly has perfectly captured the essence of middle school: both the pain and the hope, the cruelty of certain kids, and the solid lasting friendships that can develop with other kids. Reading this is like eavesdropping on real middle-schoolers. I especially loved how Beatles' music helped Apple follow her dream and find her place in the world. Ten-year-old me would have hugged this book and read it all over again. 
Bonus: This book will appeal strongly to anyone who ever felt like an outsider. Perfect for starting discussions in the classroom, or with your kids at home, about bullying, about tolerance, and about diversity.   
My favorite line:  "I imagined a hole cracking open and transporting me into another dimension so I wouldn't have to listen to my mother."  (p. 88)

Erin's website
Follow Erin on Twitter


Apple's favorite Beatles song is "Blackbird Fly" and mine is "Here Comes the Sun."  What's your favorite?


Monday, March 30, 2015

Absolutely Almost



Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff (for ages 8 to 12, Philomel, June 2014)

Source: my local library

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Albie has never been the smartest kid in his class. He has never been the tallest. Or the best at gym. Or the greatest artist. Or the most musical. In fact, Albie has a long list of the things he's not very good at. But then Albie gets a new babysitter, Calista, who helps him figure out all of the things he is good at and how he can take pride in himself.

Why I recommend it: Kudos to Lisa Graff for being brave enough to create a character who is ordinary. This is a quiet, thought-provoking novel (if you're looking for fast-paced action, you'll need to look elsewhere). But if you like the idea of reading about an "almost" kid, who's not the best at anything (in other words, maybe you or someone you know), this book will warm your heart. Because even though Albie isn't good at anything like math or reading or art, he's kind and compassionate. And that's good enough, right?

I've lived in New York City and the city setting is perfect for this book. I also loved Albie's math club teacher, Mr. Clifton, who starts each class with a really bad math joke. 

Bonus: Short chapters and smooth writing make this a winner for reluctant readers.

My favorite quote: "Then won't you be glad you found something you love?"

(This comes after Calista tells Albie to find something he wants to keep doing, and maybe if he practices enough, one day he'll discover he doesn't stink at it. Albie responds that he might still stink at it.)


Lisa Graff's website

Follow Lisa on Twitter

Monday, March 23, 2015

And the winner is...

I'm happy to announce that according to randomizer the winner of the signed hardcover copy of A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder is...


FAITH HOUGH


Congratulations, Faith! Expect an email from me asking for your mailing address.