Monday, November 29, 2010

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

Ah yes.  I'm getting into the act.  Shannon Whitney Messenger has an awesome meme she calls Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.  Hop on over to her blog because she has a great contest going on there right now.  Kudos to Shannon for shining a light on middle grade, since YA seems to get more attention online.  She has lots of marvelous middle grade posts, so I won't link to all of them, but here's what I believe is the first one.  So you can find out how this awesomeness started.

And it's catching.  The other Shannon, Shannon O'Donnell, has a marvelous post too.  And another one.

I was about to post a review of two middle-grade books anyway, so, heh heh, I'll just call them Marvelous and add my two cents. My apologies if you read other reviews of these months ago.  I just discovered them recently.

Both have terrific Newbery potential and the awards will be announced in January.  That's why I think they deserve a look now, if you haven't already read them.

First up, we have The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Knopf, May 2010).

The setting is Cuba in 1961.  Lucia is 14 years old and just wants to go to the beach, hang out with her friends, and dream of her first crush.  But the revolution that started in 1959 takes a dangerous turn.  Soldiers begin to appear on every street corner. Neighbors disappear.  Freedoms are taken away.  Lucia's parents decide to send Lucia and her little brother Frankie to the USA, where they will be safe in foster care.  

They're taken in by a kindly older couple who run a farm in Nebraska. Nebraska is nothing like Cuba.  It's cold!  The food is way different.  Although Lucia knows some English, it's hard to understand people.  And then she and Frankie have to adapt to a new school.

Why is the book called The Red Umbrella?  Back in Cuba, Mama had a large red umbrella.  It always embarrassed Lucia because it was so big and so red.  There are two wonderful moments involving this red umbrella that might make you cry, but you'll be smiling through your tears.

A sweet and touching historical fiction novel that deserves to at least win a Newbery honor.  Lucia is a likable character who learns a lot about the meaning of home.  You'll learn a lot about Cuba and the time period, while enjoying a fast-paced read.

Second is One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad, February 2010), which has gotten a lot of Newbery buzz among librarians and booksellers.  It also deserves to win.   Like The Red Umbrella, this is historical fiction, set in the 1960s.  Also like The Red Umbrella, this is about a girl being sent far away from home and learning something new.

Delphine is 11 years old in 1968.  She and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern live in Brooklyn with Papa and Big Mama (their grandmother).  Papa decides to send them to Oakland California to spend the summer with the mother they barely remember.

Cecille is cold and distant.  She won't cook for them or even let them in the kitchen, because it's where she keeps her printing press.  She writes and publishes poems under the name Nzila, and she's friendly with the Black Panthers.

In fact, Cecille sends all three girls to a summer camp in the city that's run by the Black Panthers.  They learn about rights and revolution, and they also get free food.  One of the best lines in the book is on page 73, when nine-year-old Vonetta says, "We didn't come for the revolution.  We came for breakfast."

Despite that, they end up learning a lot about their rights and about revolution.  Mostly, though, this is a story about family relationships and love.  The three sisters have a wonderful rapport, and constantly finish each others' sentences.  It's like poetry. From page 77: "When my sisters and I speak, it's like a song we sing, a game we play.  We never need to pass signals."  This is so true-to-life, it's inspiring.  Although Delphine is clearly the protagonist, all three girls come to life.  This is marvelous writing.

What marvelous middle grade novels have you read recently?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In which I am seduced by a cover -- or two

Okay, I admit it.  I bought a copy of Nightshade by Andrea Cremer (Philomel, Oct 2010, for ages 12 and up) because the cover was just so luscious.  (Well, and also because one of my teen friends reviewed it for me and said she stayed up until one in the morning to finish it.)

Then I read it and was drawn in by the writing. Calla's world is fully-realized. Andrea Cremer has a PhD in early modern history and the book is sprinkled with sophisticated references to Locke, Hobbes, and other philosophers. You might even learn a little Latin!  But this isn't some dry, dusty treatise -- it's a paranormal romance, so witchcraft and shapeshifting abound, along with plenty of action, suspense and longing (lots of kissing, and it's fine for 12 year olds).

What struck me, though, were the similarities between Nightshade and another book I'd just read: the ARC of Unearthly by Cynthia Hand (coming in January 2011 from Harper, for ages 12 and up).

1) They're both paranormal romances.

2) They both have pretty purple covers.

3) Both girls, Calla in Nightshade, and Clara in Unearthly, fall in love with human boys.  Even these girls' names are similar.

4) Both books have a strong sense of place.  I've never been to either Vail, Colorado or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but after reading these books, I feel I could recognize these towns.  And now I want to go there. The writing is so good that the setting becomes a character in each of these books.  

5) Although one book is about shapeshifting werewolves and one is about angels, both are about girls fulfilling their destinies as special beings with powers.

Differences?  Calla has always known her destiny as a Guardian who serves the Keepers, but Clara didn't find out until recently that she's part angel and has a "purpose" to fulfill.

By chance, Calla saves a human boy from a bear in the first chapter of Nightshade (ah, the first chapter is all action and no telling, just the way I like it). The human happened to be hiking on the mountain where Calla (in wolf form) was patrolling.  She thinks her destiny in life has nothing to do with this human boy, but rather with another shapeshifter, an alpha male named Ren.

In Unearthly, Clara has just learned that her entire purpose in life has something to do with a boy and a forest fire.  The vision is vague at first but it's important enough that Clara, her younger brother and their mother (all angels, of course) uproot themselves and move from California to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, based on the license plate in Clara's vision.

I won't spoil the plot of either by going any further.  Just pick them up and read them.  You may not stay up until one in the morning, but you might be tempted.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dear America is Back!

Okay, so maybe it never went away, but for a while the Dear America series didn't seem as popular at the bookstore.  Now they've been reissued with sparkling new covers (which is a smart move on Scholastic's part). 

Compare this for instance:

to this new cover:

Much better, wouldn't you agree?

I've always avoided actually READING the Dear America series because I thought the books looked rather boring.  Then this ARC of a brand new Dear America book fell into my lap:

It's called Dear America: Like the Willow Tree, The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce (coming January 2011 from Scholastic, for ages 8 to 14).

And it's written by LOIS LOWRY.  Yes, that Lois Lowry.

It takes place in Portland, Maine, during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.  Lydia and her older brother Daniel are orphaned by the epidemic and taken to live with the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake. 

The Shakers do everything differently.  Lydia isn't allowed to talk to her brother, because men and women are kept apart.  Her beloved copy of The Secret Garden is taken away from her because no one is allowed to own things.  But Sister Jennie, the older Shaker who is in charge of the young girls, reads the book aloud to all of them while they work, so Lydia still gets to hear the story.

Lydia doesn't understand at first why she can't go talk to Daniel.  And when Sister Jennie demands Lydia's ring, saying "we Shakers do not ornament ourselves," Lydia screams at her and calls her names. Gradually, Lydia grows to accept this new way of life, but her brother Daniel can't handle it and runs away.

It's not The Giver, but I found it entertaining and I learned a great deal about the Shaker community.

Have you read any interesting historical fiction recently?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

They're Lining Up on the Tarmac

My shiny new ideas, that is.

I'm halfway through revising my first novel, a 36,000-word middle grade fantasy. When I'm finished this revision, I'm putting it away for a good long while.  Maybe a year.  It, uh, reeks royally has a few problems.

In the meantime, shiny new ideas are clamoring for takeoff inside my brain (Laurie Halse Anderson said recently on PW's Shelftalker blog that if you've seen popcorn popping you know what it's like inside her head -- I used to use the same analogy for my own idea-filled brain, but lately it's more like huge jets awaiting takeoff clearance).

So I have these shiny new (and somewhat noisy) ideas:

 -- Another 1st-person middle grade novel
but a realistic, contemporary one

-- A chapter book mystery, in 3rd person

        -- A YA, told in 1st person by a 16-yr-old guy.

How do I know which one should take flight next?  

How do YOU decide?

(I'd also would like to welcome new followers Medeia and Amie.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Running Dream

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen is coming in January 2011 from Knopf, for ages 12 and up.

Jessica Carlisle is a junior in high school and a track star.  She sets a new record in the 400 meter during an away meet.  Then on the bus ride home, there's a terrible accident.  One girl loses her life.

But Jessica loses her leg.

I know what you're thinking.  Whoa!  A track star losing her leg?  That's terrible! What a downer of a book!  You couldn't be more wrong. This book is full of determination and hope and even lots of humor. The story of how Jessica heals and learns to walk with a prosthetic leg and meets a new friend named Rose is a story you won't soon forget.  It's not as much about running as it is about facing and dealing with adversity.

I am so impressed by this book.  It breezes along as fast as a race around a track.  Lots of one-sentence paragraphs and a present-tense narrative make it a super fast read.  But more importantly, you feel as if you're reading an actual memoir by a real teen named Jessica Carlisle. The voice is that authentic. In fact, I feverishly checked the acknowledgments, thinking surely Wendelin Van Draanen simply interviewed Jessica Carlisle and then wrote up her story.  Easy peasy. 

But this is a work of fiction. There is no Jessica. According to her own blog, Wendelin worked with experts in four different fields.  It involved a ton of research and she almost didn't want to tackle the book because of that.  I'm really glad she did.

This story of working through a difficult situation gives me the perfect segue for a mini brain aneurysm lesson.  If you've been reading my blog, you know I'm a survivor of a ruptured brain aneurysm.  And like Jessica, I had a long healing process.  But it was nothing compared to what some others have gone through.  As a brain aneurysm survivor, I've "met" many other survivors online.  One of the most amazing is Greg Wagner.  This young man, now in his 20s, was only 3 years old when his aneurysm ruptured.  He's managed to graduate from college, earn a blue belt in taekwondo and complete four marathons, despite continuing problems with nerve damage, balance and coordination.

Like Jessica and her friend Rose in The Running Dream, Greg Wagner wants us to see the person, not the disability.

What are you reading that's amazing?

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Drink of Water


If you love short middle grade novels written in spare, unemotional prose, you need to read A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, Nov 2010, for ages 10 and up).   At a slim 120 pages (Note: I read the ARC), this is so short and flows so smoothly, you're almost sorry when it's finished.

You probably drank a glass of tap water or a bottle of spring water in the last few hours. Where did it come from?  Was it clean?  A Long Walk to Water makes you realize just how lucky you are. Many third world countries do not have easy access to water.  And what the people drink is often muddy and contaminated.

A Long Walk to Water takes place in Southern Sudan.  Expertly-crafted, it's actually two parallel stories in one.  First we meet Nya in 2008.  Tall for her eleven years, she's responsible for walking barefoot many miles to bring back water for her family.  She carries a jar on her head.  And she does this twice every day, for a total of eight hours of walking.  Every day. 

Second, we meet Salva, an eleven-year-old boy in 1985, during the Sudanese Civil War.  He's in school one day when gunfire erupts outside. His teacher tells the boys to run into the bush, not home to their village where the soldiers will go next. Salva runs until he can't run anymore, and then walks for hours.  Away from home.  He joins other refugees, heading east to Ethiopia.  Salva becomes one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and will end up walking for years before finding a home. 

How these dual narratives merge near the very end is breathtaking. 

Linda Sue Park (author of A Single Shard and other memorable novels) based this book on Salva Dut's own written accounts and on many hours of interviews with him. 

Have YOU read any books this year that were based on a true story?  I'd love to hear about them.