Monday, October 5, 2015

Appleblossom the Possum and Hamster Princess: A Double Book Review

Giveaway reminder: You still have almost a week to enter the giveaway of ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE by Laurie Wallmark.

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Now onto MMGM. And it's a two-fer this time! For other MMGM posts, visit Shannon Messenger.

I enjoyed each of these younger middle grade novels, for different reasons. So I'm featuring them both. The source for both: arcs from Penguin Random House.

Hamster Princess 1: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon (August 2015, Dial Books, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Harriet Hamsterbone is not your typical princess. She may be quite stunning in the rodent realm (you'll have to trust her on this one), but she is not so great at trailing around the palace looking ethereal or sighing a lot. She finds the royal life rather . . . dull. One day, though, Harriet's parents tell her of the curse that a rat placed on her at birth, dooming her to prick her finger on a hamster wheel when she's twelve and fall into a deep sleep. For Harriet, this is most wonderful news: It means she's invincible until she's twelve! After all, no good curse goes to waste. And so begins a grand life of adventure with her trusty riding quail, Mumfrey...until her twelfth birthday arrives and the curse manifests in a most unexpected way.

Why I recommend it: Normally, I don't lean toward series books and never read Dragon Breath, Vernon's first series. But I found this hamster parody of Sleeping Beauty hilarious. Guaranteed to make you giggle. Harriet is a sassy and spunky main character, who personifies Girl Power. Give this to readers who like Babymouse.

Bonus: The large print and plenty of illustrations make this a breeze for younger readers.

Appleblossom the Possum by Holly Goldberg Sloan, illustrated by Gary A. Rosen (August 2015, Dial, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Mama has trained up her baby possums in the ways of their breed, and now it's time for all of them, even little Appleblossom, to make their way in the world. Appleblossom knows the rules: she must never be seen during the day, and she must avoid cars, humans, and the dreaded hairies (sometimes known as dogs). Even so, Appleblossom decides to spy on a human family and accidentally falls down their chimney. The curious Appleblossom, her faithful brothers who launch a hilarious rescue mission, and even the little girl in the house have no idea how fascinating the big world can be. But they're about to find out.

Why I recommend it: A sweet story about a family of actors--er, possums. Appleblossom is the curious one and her curiosity gets her into trouble. She's a lively and endearing new character. If you like animal stories (especially when the animals quote Shakespeare), this one's for you.

Bonus: This would be a terrific read-aloud.

(Be forewarned that Appleblossom isn't the least bit similar to Counting By 7's. If I didn't know they were both written by Holly Goldberg Sloan, I never would have guessed.)

Read any good animal tales lately?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Guest Post from Laurie Wallmark for ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE ... plus a Giveaway!

Today, I'm honored to have my friend Laurie Wallmark take over my blog for a guest post! Laurie and I met at the very first SCBWI conference I ever attended, Eastern PA's Pocono Retreat in 2008. I'm thrilled for Laurie that she's making her picture book debut with Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, coming from Creston Books in October. Giveaway details at the end. Take it away, Laurie!

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Guest Post:
Writing a Picture Book Biography

Laurie Wallmark

Writing a picture book biography is not as simple as starting with “She was born on…” and ending with “She died on…” Because of a picture book’s limited word count, this type of cradle to grave biography, with its details of every event in a person’s life, simply won’t work. Instead, you need to choose a focus for your story. In other words, you need a “hook.”

Your hook is your own unique perspective on the person’s life. For picture books, it may be helpful to concentrate on a single aspect of the person’s life, such as: character, childhood, home life, or professional contribution. Any scenes that don’t serve to further the reader’s understanding and appreciation of your chosen facet should be eliminated.

One possible way to focus the story is to limit most of the text to a specific time period in the subject’s life, often childhood. Many people believe this will help children identify more with the person, making the book more interesting. This method works quite well in these three situations: 1) If your subject is famous, so you don’t need to use some of your precious word count explaining her accomplishments; 2) If the subject is known for an activity that children also do, such as painting, working with animals, or sports; or, 3) If your subject works in a profession familiar to children, such as firefighter, teacher, or astronaut. In these cases, the author only needs a line or two of text to sum up the subject’s professional life, because children can fill in the gaps themselves.

Ada Byron Lovelace, the subject of my picture book biography, fits none of these three situations. She’s not famous (yet!). In fact, most people have never heard of her. Few children program computers, though I’m happy to say that’s changing. Finally, most children don’t really know what software engineers do.

I do love a challenge, though. I couldn’t show Ada using computers as a child, since computers didn’t yet exist. Instead, I included events from her childhood to illustrate both her personality and her love of mathematics. In order to introduce children to her professional accomplishments, I gave simple explanations in the text and saved the more technical details for the back matter. My hope is that children will read Ada’s story and be inspired to learn more about her and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Text by Laurie Wallmark, illustration by April Chu,
used with permission, from Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston Books, October 2015) is a picture-book biography of the world’s first computer programmer. Ada was born two hundred years ago, long before the invention of the modern electronic computer. At a time when girls and women had few options outside the home, Ada followed her dreams and studied mathematics. This book, by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu, tells the story of a remarkable woman and her work. Kirkus Reviews describes the book as a “splendidly inspiring introduction to an unjustly overlooked woman.” [starred review]

Text by Laurie Wallmark, illustration by April Chu, 
used with permission, from Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Join Laurie as she travels from blog to blog to introduce her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine.  

Blog Tour Stops
September 12, 2015 - Interview     Flowering Minds (Darshana Khiani)

September 15, 2015 - Guest post (STEM and Trade Picture Books)     Frog on a Blog (Lauri Fortino)

September 22, 2015 - Interview     Writing and Fishing (Cathy Hall)

September 28, 2015 - Guest Post (About Writing Ada)     My Brain on Books (Joanne Fritz)

October 2, 2015 - Interview     Still a Dreamer (Jeanne Balsam)

October 6, 2015 - Guest Post (Writing About Strong Women)     Robin Newman Books

October 9, 2015 - Guest Post (Five Detours on the Road to Publication)     Yvonne Ventresca's Blog

October 13, 2015 - Guest Post (My Writing Firsts)     Writing and Illustrating (Kathy Temean)

October 15, 2015 - Guest Post (Acrostic Poem)     Geek Mom

October 18, 2015 - Interview     The Children's Book Review

October 20, 2015 - Guest Post (Using Ada in the Classroom)     Kaleidoscope (Roseanne Kurstedt)

October 26, 2015 - Interview     Gold From the Dust (Darlene Beck Jacobson)

November 6, 2015 - Guest Post (Five Favorite STEM Women in History)     Picture Books Help Kids Soar (Vivian Kirkfield)

November 6, 2015 - Interview     VCFA Launch Pad

Laurie Wallmark writes exclusively for children. She can't imagine having to restrict herself to only one type of book, so she writes picture books, middle-grade novels, poetry, and nonfiction. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing or studying, Laurie teaches computer science at a local community college, both on campus and in prison. The picture book biography, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, October 2015), is Laurie’s first book.


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Thank you so much, Laurie. It was a pleasure having you on my blog.  

And now for the giveaway details. Laurie has generously offered one signed, hardcover copy of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine to one lucky winner. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. If you mention this giveaway on Twitter or other social media, please let me know in the comments and I'll give you an extra chance for each mention. This giveaway is open to US mailing addresses only and will end at 10pm EDT on Sunday October 11, 2015. The winner will be announced on Monday Oct 12, 2015. Good luck!

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall (Knopf, September 8, 2015, for ages 8 to 12)

Source: Penguin Random House

Synopsis (from the publisher): It was a bitterly cold day when Arthur T. Owens grabbed a brick and hurled it at the trash picker. Arthur had his reasons, and the brick hit the Junk Man in the arm, not the head. But none of that matters to the judge—he is ready to send Arthur to juvie for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, it’s the Junk Man himself who offers an alternative: 120 hours of community service . . . working for him.

Arthur is given a rickety shopping cart and a list of the Seven Most Important Things: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. He can’t believe it—is he really supposed to rummage through people’s trash? But it isn’t long before Arthur realizes there’s more to the Junk Man than meets the eye, and the “trash” he’s collecting is being transformed into something more precious than anyone could imagine. . . .

Why I recommend it: This book has everything you want in an inspiring MG novel:

 -- A strong main character, who is flawed but grows and changes. Your heart will ache for Arthur, who is having trouble dealing with the death of his father. There's no excuse for Arthur's violent action, but Pearsall does give us an explanation, which I won't mention here in case it's considered a spoiler.

 -- An unusual situation. I don't think I've ever read another MG where the protagonist has to go to juvenile court and then carry out a punishment like this. It was also fascinating discovering exactly what the Junk Man was doing with the seven most important things.

 -- A setting you can easily picture and a realistic depiction of life in Washington, DC in 1963. While Arthur is in Juvie, JFK is assassinated. So while the story isn't about that, the events of 1963/64 provide the backdrop for this historical novel.

And yes, there's a spiritual nature to the Junk Man and his project, but Pearsall never preaches. This is based on the true story of folk artist James Hampton and his amazing project that now sits in the Smithsonian.

Favorite line: But whenever he thought about quitting he'd hear Judge Warner saying, The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And it would make him mad enough to stay.  (p. 60)

Here's my review of another Shelley Pearsall book, from July 2012.

Shelley Pearsall's website

What's one of the most important things you look for when choosing a novel to read?

Monday, September 14, 2015

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) by Alison DeCamp.... Plus a Guest Post!

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) by Alison DeCamp (February 2015, Crown Books for Young Readers, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis (from Indiebound): There are many things that 11-year-old Stanley Slater would like to have in life, most of all, a father. But what if Stan's missing dad isn't dearly departed after all? Armed with his stupendous scrapbook, full of black-and-white 19th-century advertisements and photos, Stan's attempt to locate his long-lost hero/cowboy/outlaw dad is a near-death adventure fraught with pesky relatives, killer lumberjacks, and poisonous pies. His tale will leave readers in stitches, but not the kind that require medical attention.

Why I recommend it: This is 100% fun. A terrific voice and an unforgettable main character make My Near-Death Adventures a must-read. I first heard about Stan when the book had a different title and Dianne Salerni featured the first page on her blog in February 2013. At the time, I commented, "Great voice...I'm wondering why this isn't published yet." Well, soon after that, Alison landed a contract. And the rest is history.

Visit Alison's website

Follow Alison on Twitter

And now, I'm honored to have Alison take over my blog for an exclusive guest post:

Alison DeCamp, from her website

My Path to Publishing (or Why I Will Never Get a Big Head)

Back in September of 2012 I gave myself permission to write a book. Wasn’t that nice of me? The kids would be back in school, my husband’s business tended to slow down after Labor Day, I would put my bead-making “business” aside for a month, and I had an idea that kept nudging me. Also, one of my best friends had just landed an agent with her fantastic book Words and Their Meanings so I thought maybe I could do this thing.

I wrote 19,000 words on a manuscript I affectionately called The Somewhat Manly Scrapbook of LumberStan’s Big Woods Adventure (because I couldn’t think of a longer title?) and my pitch was something along the lines of “Imagine if Laura Ingalls Wilder and Greg Heffley had a love child. That would be Stan.” Which is equal parts Ew and Adorable, right? Based very loosely on my family history (most of the names are from my family as well as the fact that my grandmother worked at a lumber camp, had a baby at 16, and I had a great grandmother that scared the bejeebers out of me even though I had never met her), I wrote a book about a boy spending the winter of 1895 in a lumber camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While writing I started thinking about the ridiculous advertisements of that time period and incorporated them into Stan’s scrapbook.

  Like this one!

By December I was ready for someone other than my closest friends to read my manuscript. I sent it off to one of Brenda Drake’s contests, where people are remarkably nice, by the way.  Krista VanDolzer contacted me and I was over the moon. Ultimately, I wasn’t picked for the contest, but I appreciated Krista’s encouragement. I continued to tweak my manuscript (19,000 words, I learned, was pretty short for a middle-grade novel, even one with lots of pictures) and hone a query letter. I wrote and rewrote my query letter forty-five times, had my critique partner rewrite it for me, read every post on Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, and submitted my manuscript to as many places as I could find, if only for feedback. One of them was Dianne Salerni and Marcy Hatch’s First Impressions critiques and another was Mindy McGinnis’s PAPFest, both in February 2013.

I had also been sending out these queries, getting a few positive responses, tweaking my query some more, sending out more letters, getting plenty of rejections, and finally, because of Mindy’s contest, I had a wonderfully smart agent (she’s not smart because she chose my manuscript, but because she’s, well, really smart) ask for the first fifty pages. I’m pretty sure she only did this because Mindy shares my sense-of-humor and told her to, because no other agent in that contest was remotely interested.

I had also been rejected in another contest in the meantime. And many agents either said, “No, thanks!” or would ask for pages and then not get back to me. I distinctly remember a rejection from an agent I really liked. I dramatically sat at my dining room table, threw my head into my hands and cried, “Why me?!” I’m not even exaggerating. I was like some actress in an old B movie.

The next day the agent from Mindy’s PAPFest contacted me. She loved the manuscript and wanted to arrange a call. She did indeed offer representation and I really liked her (she is a fantastic agent from all accounts) but I ended up contacting agents who had the manuscript, informing them of an offer of representation and eventually signed with Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency. I can’t say enough good things about her.

The same week I was deciding among four agents, I also received an email from a very successful agent that simply said, “The writing’s not strong enough.”

Just a reminder not to get too cocky? Not to let this publishing thing go to my head? I had been considering making my children call me The Author Formerly Known as Mom, but who was I kidding. This business is entirely subjective—what one person loves, someone else hates—and people have no qualms letting you know how they feel.

It’s also exciting. I love the direction I got from my editor, Phoebe Yeh at Crown Books for Young Readers, for both MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% True!) and the upcoming MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES: I Almost Died. Again., and am truly excited to work with her on TINY SHRINES FOR DEAD FLIES, my third middle-grade novel due in 2017.

But I’m pretty sure there’s no chance, that I will ever think I’m All That.


The Author Formerly Known as Mom

Thanks so much, Alison. Readers, isn't that an amazing journey to publication? Persistence really does pay off. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy Labor Day! And a look at my own writing...

To all of my American friends, enjoy Labor Day!

And for everyone else, Happy Monday! If you need some inspiration, here's a link to a fifty-word story I wrote. Enjoy.

I'll be back next Monday with a guest post from an author who made her book debut in 2015. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

A giveaway winner.... And for MMGM: Rebecca Stead reaches me again!

First, I have a winner to announce. According to randomizer, the winner of the hardcover of Auggie & Me:Three Wonder Stories and The Wonder Journal is...

Greg Pattridge

Congratulations, Greg and expect an email from me asking for your mailing address. 

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Now on to today's MMGM feature. Remember to visit Shannon Messenger's blog for other links. 

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, August 4, 2015, 304 pages, for ages 10 and up)

Source: Random House

Synopsis (from Indiebound): Bridge is an accident survivor who's wondering why she's still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody's games or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting.Can it get them through seventh grade?

This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl as a friend?

On Valentine's Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

Each memorable character navigates the challenges of love and change in this captivating novel. 

Why I recommend it: There's a lot to love about this novel, including realistic dialogue and great characters, but my favorite part is the gradual blossoming of the friendship between Bridge and Sherm. I love that neither of them are ready to be more than just friends yet. 

Have to admit I also felt a strong kinship for Bridge since she's an accident survivor. And as an aneurysm survivor, I can tell you her feelings are spot-on. Rebecca Stead has done her research. But I wouldn't expect anything less from the author of First Light, When You Reach Me, and Liar and Spy, all of which I've read and enjoyed.

Favorite line:  "Tab's mom said that when people reached out to hurt your feelings, it was because they secretly felt they deserved to be talked to that way."   (p. 140)

Bonus: Plenty of diversity, as one would expect in a NY city school. But the author doesn't hit you over the head with it. 

Rebecca Stead's website
Follow her on Twitter

Saturday, August 22, 2015

AUGGIE & ME Blog Tour and Giveaway

I'm back! And to celebrate I'm participating in the AUGGIE & ME blog tour and having a giveaway!

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio (August 18, 2015, Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 8 to 12, 320 pages).

Source: Knopf/Random House

Synopsis: If you've read R.J. Palacio's Wonder, you'll remember August Pullman, or Auggie, the boy with cranio-facial differences. (Here's my review from 2012.)  Previously available only as ebooks, these three first-person companion stories are now gathered in one hardcover volume. They give us an extra peek at Auggie before he started at Beecher Prep and during his first year there. Readers get to see him through the eyes of Julian, the bully; Christopher, Auggie’s oldest friend; and Charlotte, Auggie’s new friend at school. Together, these three stories are a treasure for readers who don’t want to leave Auggie behind when they finish Wonder.

Why I recommend it: Here's what I said about Wonder: "Astonishingly realistic characters populate an inspiring story with short chapters. That format and the clear, straightforward writing help to make a difficult subject easy to handle." And the same holds true for Auggie & Me.  Like Wonder, this is a character-driven book. These kids' voices are so real they jump off the page. And kudos to Ms. Palacio. As K.M. Walton did for YA readers in Cracked, here R.J. Palacio gives us the bully's side of the story, and makes us realize he's human too. I think my favorite story, though, is Christopher's. It's called "Pluto" and it gives us a lot of insight into what Auggie was like before Beecher Prep. 

Favorite lines: "Funny how all our stories kind of intertwine. Every person's story weaves in and out of someone else's story."  (from  "Shingaling," page 281)

R.J. Palacio's website

Follow R.J. Palacio on Twitter

And now for the giveaway: Knopf generously sent me one hardcover of Auggie & Me and one Wonder Journal, so I'm offering them both in a package to one lucky winner. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must comment on this post. International entries welcome. This giveaway ends at 10 pm EDT on Sunday August 30 and the winner will be announced on Monday August 31. Good luck!