September 29, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

When I was a kid, we had ducks. We had dogs. We had pigeons. We had chickens. Occasionally, we had hamsters, crawdads, and the neighbor's bunnies and goats. I grew up in a suburban zoo, apparently, so the title of this book made me smile and want to read it. I don't have chickens right now - and I'm not sure I'd want chickens like these!

Synopsis: Sophie is twelve, and a new arrival from LA into the wilds of Sonoma County. Her mother is a freelance writer, working frantically to provide the family income. Sophie's Dad got laid off from his old job - which is one of the reasons why they've moved to her great-uncle Jim - on her father's side - farm. The other reason is that he died, and left it to the family in his will. Sophie's family has no money, and nowhere else to go - and they're going to make the best of this place.

Sophie's loneliness stems from missing her bestie, LaToya, and her Abuelita, who passed away before they left LA. She's afraid she won't make new friends, and then she finds... a chicken. A kind of angry chicken, really, which glares a lot, and ... occasionally does other things that Sophie's not sure of. Writing a letter to Redwood Farm Supply in Gravenstein makes perfect sense now, because Sophie's hopeful SOMEONE will be able to tell her how to care for the chicken, which Sophie names Henrietta and reads to daily. Through trial and error, and working hard like her Abuelita always told her to, Sophie makes a start on things. Agnes at Redwood helps... but her typing is kind of awful, and she's sporadic help at best.

And, it seems like someone is trying to steal Sophie's chicken already!

Through the kind auspices of the mailman, the boy down the road, and with a little help from her poultry friends, Sophie finds her way through the first summer on Blackbird Farm, and provides readers with a lot of humor along the way.

Observations: This is kind of prime Middle Grade fiction to me - extraordinarily creative, gently amusing, and a quick read. Sophie is lonely, and a little sad, and readers will sense that her curiosity about her new home is leavened by this - and by her parents' fears for the future, and their own grief and losses. I like that Sophie is a quick study - she knows that there is Stuff Going On with the adults, and while it doesn't totally derail her, she's fairly convinced that figuring things out on her own is her best bet.

Middle grade books seem specially geared to doing well with dealing with loss. Sophie's hole-in-the-middle feelings from losing first her grandmother, then her best friend are detailed well, and the slow evolution of strangers-to-friends she experiences with the boy from up the road and the girl she sees in the library will remind readers of how friendships begin: slowly, over time, and silences are bridged with smiles, even when one doesn't have words.

Additionally, this is a fun prompt to get people to libraries! Sophie sympathizes with her father, whose delayed grief - and guilt - from growing up with his great-uncle Jim, and then never visiting him again, and STILL inheriting his farm, leads him to try viticulture, even though he doesn't know what he's doing. Sophie shows him an excellent example when she goes to the library and finds A BOOK and READS about caring for chickens. It takes him a bit, but eventually, he catches a clue. Sophie actually checks out books for him, and soon he signs up for a viticulture class on his own.

Conclusion: The matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction is the basis of surrealistic fiction and magical realism, and because Sophie is Mexican-American, I think that label fits for this story, at least partially. A lighthearted, funny and creative book, this made me want to have chickens again someday, and probably will lead every twelve-year-old who reads it to have at least the tiniest twinge of wanting a chicken - or six - for pets.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my local bookstore. You can find UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER by Kelly Jones at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 28, 2017

Thursday Review: LITTLE MONSTERS by Kara Thomas

Synopsis: Kacey Young has only been living with her dad and stepfamily for a year or so, after escaping from an unpleasant home life with her mother. Things are still delicately balanced, but it feels like she's finally found a real home—her stepbrother Andrew has become one of her best friends, and she's finally won over her 13-year-old half-sister Lauren.

Kacey's friends, though, are another matter entirely. At the beginning of the book, it seems like Kacey, Bailey, and Jade have become an inseparable trio, even if Bailey's always suggesting ways for them to get into trouble in their small Wisconsin town. Kacey goes along with it—even if she'd rather not, sometimes. And that's where we see the cracks start to form in their seemingly perfect unit. One night, Bailey and Jade go to a raging party without inviting Kacey along…but Bailey never comes home afterward.

In this page-turning thriller, everyone's got something to hide—and the person who's got the most to hide is sometimes the one you least suspect.

Observations: As with a lot of my reviews of suspense novels, I've tried to keep this one brief to avoid spoilers. But I can say a few things! One of the intriguing structural choices for this story was the decision to alternate sections from Kacey's first-person viewpoint with diary excerpts from another character's point of view. This sets up an immediate opposition and tension, with the reader wondering who's hiding what, and who they can really trust as a narrator. It kept me sort of suspicious of everyone until the last few chapters. In a way, that distanced me from Kacey as the primary narrator of the story, but not so much that I didn't want to keep following along.

The fact that all the major players DO have something to hide makes this an intriguing and gripping story—obviously, in a good whodunit, lots of possible motives are at play, and if they're woven in well, it keeps the reader guessing. And in this one, Kacey's murky past keeps her right in the center of things, including the suspicions of everyone around her.

Conclusion: I often turn to a good thriller when I'm looking for a fast read that's immersive and emotionally tense, to distract me from stress and busy-ness. This fit the bill perfectly and, as a fun bonus, there's a mixed-race Asian American character! (Though his identity was not really explored in the story. Pretty sure it would be a THING in a small town. Oh well.) Recommended for suspense fans.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find LITTLE MONSTERS by Kara Thomas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 25, 2017

Starring Sara Lewis Holmes

It's Day One of The Wolf Hour blog tour!

Welcome, my little lambs, to the Puszcza. It's an ancient forest, a keeper of the deepest magic, where even the darkest fairy tales are real. Here, a Girl is not supposed to be a woodcutter, or be brave enough to walk alone. Here, a Wolf is not supposed to love to read, or be curious enough to meet a human. And here, a Story is nothing like the ones you read in books, for the Witch can make the most startling tales come alive. All she needs is ...
      A Girl from the village,
            A Wolf from the forest,
               & A Woodcutter with a nice, sharp axe.

So take care, little lambs, if you step into these woods. For in the Puszcza, it is always as dark as the hour between night and dawn -- the time old folk call the Wolf Hour. If you lose your way here, you will be lost forever, your Story no longer your own. You can bet your bones.

And with a bit of a shiver, come in! We bid you Welcome!

Sara Lewis Holmes has been a very dear friend since 2007, when Tanita joined she and five other women in a year-long poetry challenge which culminated in a National Poetry Month Crown of Sonnets way back in 2008. This poetry effort then turned from a trial experiment for one poem into a yearly, year-long delight of poetry and wordplay. We expected good things when we reviewed Sara's second book, and when Sara joined our writing group, we were pleased to indulge ourselves in talking craft and sharing stories. Today, we celebrate the release day of Sara's fourth book, and we're excited to tell you all about it! Well... all about it within reason, anyway. We're focusing on writing details, and the craft of fiction today, and working hard to present NO SPOILERS here, so you may find this interview vague on points of plot. -- No worries, though! You'll have all the plot you'd like when you pick up your own copy. So, without further introduction, we're thrilled to welcome author and poet Sara to the Wonderland Treehouse!

Finding Wonderland: Hi Sara! Let's get right into it - THE WOLF HOUR is a "Once upon a time" type of tale, but stories don't always actually start that way for writers. What was the starting point of this story for you? What initially inspired you to write this book, and which character(s) sprang to mind first?

Sara Lewis Holmes: I’m more like a magpie than a spider when it comes to story. I don’t spin a carefully symmetric web of plot and character out of my guts, as much as I would love to say I do. Rather, I collect shiny baubles over the years, hoarding and obsessing over them until I figure out how to make a story out of all the strange beauty.

For THE WOLF HOUR, those glittering pieces included: a conversation with a stranger about why some stringed instruments howl when played, the image of a child clinging to a tree rather than be forced to lessons, a rotund china pig given to me by my mother-in-law, and a former piano teacher whose entire house bloomed with pink.

Those elements were in my magpie’s nest of a journal but it took an encounter with a wolf to set them free. Not a real wolf, although I’d seen one, in a carefully fenced wolf park, and listened to one howl in a chilling YouTube video, and read about many in both fairy tale and fact—-but one whose voice stole into the forest of words crowding my head, and told me that if I wanted to write about wolves, he would be my guide. His name was Martin, and he had been raised by books, and knew everything about everything—-except the human heart. I could not help but love him, and be terrified for his future, too.

Finding Wonderland: Okay, we LOVE that you based this story on actual items that you were GIVEN! Story magpies! How cool a concept! So, let's talk readers --

Despite their often bleak or violent content, fairytales are traditionally seen as stories intended for children. What's the optimum age of your target reader for THE WOLF HOUR? Who is this book for? Who, if anyone, is it not for?

Sara Lewis Holmes: Age and readership questions are hard. Do you like to shiver and chew your lip ragged as you read? Do you like a story that twists and turns and doesn’t go where you expect it to? Do you enjoy a story that KNOWS it’s a story, and might even challenge you to think about your own Story and whether you like your place in it? If you do, even if you aren’t in the 8-12 age range for this book…read on!

Finding Wonderland: Ah. So, what books are for you? What are a few of your favorite fairytales, and why do you love them?

SLH: East of the Sun and West of the Moon has to be the most lovely title ever for a fairy tale. And in it, the girl rescues her prince, instead of the other way round. Also, there’s a princess with a nose that is “three ells” long! I’m also fond of works that focus on the told nature of stories, such as William J. Brooke’s three part TELLER OF TALES book series, as well as the 2000 American/British TV miniseries, ARABIAN NIGHTS, adapted by Peter Barnes. Like a hall of mirrors, these “stories within stories” crack open my view of the world. Finally, I’d add that all fairy tales are, to a fault, weirdly defiant of the world’s conventions. They are like poetry in that way, and I love their wildness.

Wonderland: I'm going to have to look up what how long an 'ell' is!

Often, setting is itself a character in a novel, acting as an active metaphor. Would you say that you consciously, or unconsciously used THE WOLF HOUR'S setting to speak to the reader? Do you consider this novel a "fairytale mashup”?

SLH: The Wolf Hour, in legend, is the hour between darkness and dawn; it’s the hour more people are said to be born into this world and more people leave it than any other —-and, if you are like me, you are often awake then, wondering if you will ever get your Story right. So I would say that part of the “setting” of my novel deals with such fairy tale time—-how twisty it is, and how “once upon a time” can stretch to many, many days and nights, and how being in charge of your own time means being in charge of your own story. Easy to say, difficult beyond measure to do.

The other part of the setting is the deep, dark forest. In Polish, the word for such a place is “Puszcza,” and yes, I absolutely wanted the reader to feel that such a place was both desirable and dangerous. I wanted the reader to feel its call, as Magia does, and to discover the Stories that dwell there. I think it’s those various Stories that make me say THE WOLF HOUR is not a re-telling but “a fairy tale mashup.” It’s a story about the power of stories, and how everyone tries to cast you in the story that is easiest for them to hear—-but not necessarily the one you want to live in. How do you fight that?

Wonderland: How one combats someone trying to recast their Story is something few tales look at quite so directly, so this is very interesting.

Those of us who know you through your work know that you delight in Shakespearean stories, and acting as a tool for self-understanding. How did your appreciation for the Bard and your interest and skill in theater help to shape this novel?

SLH: Reading Shakespeare taught me that disguise is uncommonly common, death is a persistent beast, and love is found in unexpected places. His plays are filled with a more than a touch of unbelievable—-a trait I admire in novels such as COSMIC by Frank Cottrell Boyce, THE WHITE DARKNESS by Geraldine McCaughrean, and NATION by Terry Pratchett—-not to mention most fairy tales. The Bard was also a master of the “story within a story” trope, which I find irresistible, as I mentioned earlier, and he absolutely inspired me to make up words as needed, and to not be afraid to pair utter despair with low comedy. (I think of the pigs in THE WOLF HOUR as a villainous take on his “rude mechanicals.”)

Finally, I am ever grateful to the brilliant artists at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA, who hold a Shakespeare camp for adults every summer and stage the most compelling theater I know. Their work informs mine in ways I cannot explain, but I do know that they remind me that Magic Happens. Every Day.

Wonderland: All hail the magic, indeed. We never quite know how it works... but sometimes, it's enough that it does.

So, softball question: If you could write yourself into a fairytale, which one would it be? Would you prefer a role which gave you Power or Guile?

SLH: Puss in Boots is a master class in Guile, or How to Make Something from Nothing. As a writer, I identify. However, if I had to pick some boots to fill, I prefer seven-league boots. The power to travel great distances without burning carbon fuel would be both practical and fun.

Wonderland: Ooh, good answer. Definitely, we writers must use all we've all got to get ourselves as far along as we can!

So, while you studied the Bard, my studies were in 19th c. British and American lit... and the 19th century canon uses a lot of intrusive narrator/direct address authorial comment to help readers gain a deeper understanding of the characters, but authorial insertion is largely absent from modern novels. What prompted you to use that 'Dear reader' sort of narrative technique in THE WOLF HOUR? Do you think more novels would benefit from that sort of "breaking the fourth wall" technique, in order to allow readers to come closer to the action?

SLH: My editor, Cheryl Klein, and I talked at length about the challenge of signaling to a reader HOW to read this story. I needed to convey that all was not going to proceed as normal, and that the path ahead would be scary and often double-back on itself before coming to a conclusion. After all, the novel is ABOUT how to find and live in your own story…and how unbelievably hard that can be. So we decided that a direct reader address would set the right tone for the three-stranded tale that would follow, and that the voice would re-occur at the beginning of each section, to both invite the reader forward, and to chillingly warn them of the darkness ahead. This is a choice, obviously, that most novels don’t need, so I wouldn’t recommend it often. (I found it enormously fun to write, however.)

Wonderland: Many American kids have never heard of Scottish author Andrew Lang's 12-volume "Coloured" Fairy Books. Which one is your favorite? Do you own them all? How were you introduced to them?

SLH: The only one I own is The Green Fairy Book, and it sits on my desk along with my other favorite fairy/fantasy books. I was introduced to the Lang Fairy Books by finding them mysteriously lined up in the non-fiction section of the children’s room of Lawson McGee Library in Knoxville, TN. I mostly went to the non-fiction section to hunt down books on magic tricks and codes and secret languages, so it was a surprise to find stories here, too. Especially stories that couldn’t be true: tales of iron shoes that tortured their owners; of Winds who offered you soaring rides along with their down-to-earth advice; and of children who were loved less than coin shine and left to die. Casual cruelty and stunning beauty lived side by side. Animals and people fought and slept and morphed from one form to the other. Nothing made sense, and everything did. And most of all, these tales seemed to offer a glimpse into the dangers of “adult” life. I was utterly fascinated.

Wonderland: I can see why! So, from language hints, we can tell The Wolf Hour takes place in a specific geographical setting, in a fairytale Poland. First, what prompted your fairytale Eastern European setting, especially now? Additionally, how did you select the stories that you used, and what prompted you to choose them?

SLH: Originally, the humans in the novel were a default English family, but I questioned if that was laziness on my part. Stories are everywhere, and even though most of our American fairy tales come to us filtered through Western European tellings, stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs are told the world over. So why not draw on my Polish heritage and research and feature a fairy-tale Polish family encountering these tales instead—-although perhaps in a form they hadn’t seen before? (Miss Grand, however, DOES retain her English name, which might tell the reader a thing or two about the specific tellings of the Stories she controls.)

Additionally, when I chose the Stories to “mashup,” I was looking for those tales which featured a Wolf. (To my surprise, there were not as many as you would think.) And then I let those stories “live” in the forest—-in the Polish Puszcza—-where they could cause trouble for Magia and the townfolk of Tysiak—-at least until they could confront those tales, and face up to their own hunger in creating them. Hunger, by the way, is a big theme in the book—-hunger for what you can’t have, hunger for the truth, hunger for safety, and hunger for home. (You see now why I needed stories in which a Wolf swallows people and Pigs employ a giant cooking pot?)

Wonderland: Ah! What a fun way to explore your own heritage and metaphor at the same time. SO, to wrap up our time with a cheater question - and I'm kind of cheating, because AF and I are in your writing group... but, every writer comes to the end of the first (few hundred) drafts with bits of the story that end up on the cutting room floor. What were the bits of THE WOLF HOUR which you needed to cut that you wish you could have kept?

SLH:In an early draft, I had one more fairy tale that was active in the Puszcza—-that of the Little Lambs whose Mother tells them to keep the door locked while she is away. Then the Wolf comes to their cottage, and to fool the wooly wee ones into letting him in, he dips his paws in white flour and pretends to be her. Holy Horrors, that fairy tale scared me when I was a kid! I still remember the picture of the rangy wolf with his snowy paws on the door’s transom to this day. But…the novel didn’t need another cast of characters, so those Lambs only make a teeny-tiny appearance now---for when the Story voice addresses the readers, this is its endearment for them: my Little Lambs. I hope we will all be frightened (and saved) together.

"Fairy tales are precarious places for girls and wolves. In a brash, dazzling break with tradition, Sara Lewis Holmes arms a woodcutter's daughter and a sensitive wolf pup with a means of defense against the old familiar roles that threaten to swallow them whole. The story of how they come together to rewrite fate is bewitchingly delicious; you'll gobble it up." -- Christine Heppermann, author of Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

Thank you, Sara, for your quirky, funny, thoughtful comments, and thank you, Readers, for joining us on the first stop of The Wolf Hour tour!

Friends, you do not want to miss this dreamy, scary, funny, unusual retelling of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, all tied up in a very Sara sort of collision. Readers who enjoyed last year's THE GIRL THAT DRANK THE MOON may find this is right up their alley. Stay tuned for more chat with Sara Lewis Holmes through October at Charlotte's Library, with Maureen at By Singing Light, with Laura at Writing the World for Kids, with Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect & Liz Scanlon's blog.

Images used in this interview courtesy of the author. You can find THE WOLF HOUR by Sara Lewis Holmes at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 19, 2017

Surveying Stories: Soul Survival in Erin Entrada Kelly's HELLO UNIVERSE

Bullying was a problem in middle schools in the dinosaur years when I was there, so it's not like it's a new phenomenon. However, the "just ignore them and they'll leave you alone" school of thought has finally wised the heck up (and not before time, either) and since about 2006, after the film "Mean Girls" had its success, a new wave of middle grade books has begun to explore some of the more painful realities of living with the dichotomy of "being yourself" while being assured by your peers and classmates that your "self" is unacceptably and irreparably flawed.

Because middle school to high school is a time of immense pressure and personal development, these books are necessary, as social media and its adjacent technologies are giving sadistic little bullies more and more access to peers at an earlier and earlier age. Now that it's become even more obvious that adults are finding their strength in bullying (you needn't look too deeply into our politics to see that link), books which examine the painful and individual repercussions of being bullied are more important than ever. Bullies suffer from an unwillingness or inability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others. They won't be able to learn to act with empathy until they more clearly see the results of its lack. One cannot heal what has not been revealed.

Granted, this is hard for some adult readers to grasp. Complaints that a book is "too sad," "dark and depressing" or "guilt-inducing" are unfortunately common when less mainstream (privileged?) characters are presented in fiction. Fortunately, through the auspices of adults with a little more emotional range who are , the kids who need these books find them. All it takes, adults, is decentering your feelings on the matter, and realizing that there's always at least one child who takes refuge in books because they really don't fit in. And these stories of kids who are sad but surviving can be the path through the jungle, the maps to the treasure, the how-to-deal manual that every kid needs. With that in mind,

Let's survey a story!

Acclaimed and award-winning author Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe is a funny and poignant neighborhood story about unexpected friendships. Told from four intertwining points of view—two boys and two girls—the novel celebrates bravery, being different, and finding your inner bayani (hero), and it’s perfect for fans of Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Thanhha Lai, and Rita Williams-Garcia.

In one day, four lives weave together in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is shy and kindhearted and feels out of place in his crazy-about-sports family. Valencia Somerset, who is deaf, is smart, brave, and secretly lonely, and she loves everything about nature. Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic, whose little sister, Gen, is always following her around. And Chet Bullens wishes the weird kids would just stop being so different so that he can concentrate on basketball. They aren’t friends, at least not until Chet pulls a prank that traps Virgil and his pet guinea pig at the bottom of a well. This disaster leads Kaori, Gen, and Valencia on an epic quest to find the missing Virgil. Sometimes four can do what one cannot. Through luck, smarts, bravery, and a little help from the universe, a rescue is performed, a bully is put in his place, and friendship blooms. The acclaimed author of Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls writes with an authentic, humorous, and irresistible tween voice that will appeal to fans of Thanhha Lai and Rita Williams-Garcia.

One of the things easily apparent in Erin Entrada Kelly's books is the link each character has between the present and the past. Like a string at the end of a balloon, each needs the other to keep the story grounded. In BLACKBIRD FLY, Apple Yengo reaches back to the past both with the Beatles' music, and with what she's literally holding onto from the past; something she believes belonged to her late father. These things, brought together into the present, help give Apple the wings she needs to fly. In THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS, Soledad and Dominga hold onto their mother through sharing the fantastical tales of Auntie Jove. Soledad also holds onto Amelia, her late sister, through the whispering of her own conscience. In HELLO, UNIVERSE, Kelly takes a slightly different approach, stretching each character to reach toward something bigger than themselves for comfort. This is both grounding, and a means of expanding the character's worldview.

The deeply shy Virgilio clings to his guinea pig, and to his Lola's myriad tales of boys who get eaten by rocks and crocodiles and girls who ask so many questions they have to travel the world to find their destinies. Through his imagination, a starring character in a story speaks back to him from his deepest despair, reminding him that he is a hero, and that the worst thing he can do is give up. Independent-but-lonely Valencia, whose parents love her without understanding her, looks to the natural world as a larger organism to absorb and make unimportant the isolation she endures. The psychically inclined Kaori opens herself to dreams, crystals, portents, spirits, and the universe to guide her steps (even when opening her eyes to the here-and-now might help her a bit more), and even self-aggrandizing Chet frequently imagines himself a big, important hero like his father - not a truly larger-than-life guide through the world, but a familiar one.

This imaginative reach is also a survival tool, perhaps the best survival tool of all. Looking outside of themselves saves each of these children. Soledad has a strong, battle-cry of a name, but she is so lonely and isolated in her silent world that even religious solicitation at seven-thirty in the morning isn't viewed as something entirely horrible - besides, she's always open to learning a new thing, and maybe that church is interesting. Being open to finding out makes Soledad unique. Seeking an outlet for both her nightmares and her prickly moments with her mother, she unexpectedly finds Kaori... whose sense of wonder about life, the universe, and everything spurs her to be useful to many different people - even though Kaori only has two clients and one little sister in her sphere of influence so far. Despite having only her little sister for company, Kaori is never lonely, and never bored, because the universe is right there with so much to teach her, despite her parents preference for TV, March Madness, and earthbound concerns. Virgilio, the family turtle, constantly compares himself to his louder, livelier family, and it is his rich imagining of one of Lola's characters that sees him through his time alone in the woods. (Of course, that also plays against him a bit, since Radu is there, too.) Chet whistles in the dark by imagining himself a conquering hero... and in the end, his imagination of what the words "you'll regret it" mean just maybe will set him on a better path. We'll never know!

Far from guilting or making sad the children who read these books, this quiet story of a summer day in which four kids become better known to each other hits that sweet spot of being intriguing and well characterized while still leaving room for readers. Real life kids will draw conclusions, make assumptions and guesses and write their own "and the next day" hopes for these characters. And then, hopefully, they'll take the tools to reach out that the characters have set before them - a ladder, a handful of stones, a pink jump rope, a notebook - and go out and find their own way through the vast universe.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find HELLO UNIVERSE by the inimitable Erin Entrada Kelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 18, 2017

Monday Miscellany, a.k.a I Don't Have a New Review

I guess it's time I admitted it to you all--there are times when I'm not actually reading YA books. Surprise! Over the past few weeks I read a couple of grown-up books instead: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (which won last year's National Book Award) and No Time Like the Present by Jack Kornfield, which was helpful for anxiety and stress and the like. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in mindfulness as a therapeutic practice. I wouldn't say I'm any GOOD at mindfulness, at meditation, or at stress relief as a general rule, but I think I'm better off having read the book. And, as a special bonus, both of these books were available in my library's ebook app!

I did run across a couple of items of interest, though, which I thought I would share. First, the program for this year's Kidlitosphere Conference in Hershey, PA has been finalized, with a ton of fantastic authors and presenters including keynote Rachel Renee Russell, author of Dork Diaries, Jordan Sonnenblick, Tracey Baptiste, Laura Atkins, and many many more.

Second, in the process of desperately googling ways to make my novel notes more coherent, I found a really cool resource for writers who use Evernote (I don't, but after this I'm thinking about it!). In honor of last year's NaNoWriMo, the Evernote blog did a post about several writer-oriented templates, from character worksheets to plotting outlines. They look really fun to play around with for those who a) use Evernote and b) like to fiddle with their notes and stuff.

As per usual for me these days, I don't think NaNoWriMo is in my future this year, due to work-related circumstances, but I am starting a new project...which is also good news!

September 12, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It's another Erin Kelly book! I heard a lot of good things about this book from the Cybils crew last year, and was happy to read it. Also, not gonna lie, the title does good things for me, because I can just hear that pretty little guitar riff from the Beatles song. ☺ Content commentary: The bullying in this novel seems pretty brutal to some people, but to me, for middle grade, it feels gruelingly spot on. Your mileage may vary.

Synopsis: Chapel Spring, Louisiana, where Apple Yengko lives, isn't the type of place you'd write songs about. Certainly Apple won't do so, when she becomes famous. She's going to run away to New Orleans where she can have a guitar and make her living from it. Of course, she doesn't have a guitar yet. Her mother won't let her get one, even though music is all Apple has of her father, who died in the Philippines when she was only three. Since they emigrated to the U.S., Apple's mother has become the block in the road to a great many things Apple feels like she needs - like pizza and a normal name, and good friends. Why can't her mother understand the Beatles are everything? Why must they always eat pancit? Why can't her mother stay out of her way, and start calling her Analyn?

Apple knows, if she thinks about it, that it's not anyone's fault that she's on the Dog Log as the third ugliest in the school... and now even her best friends believe that she eats dog - and that her tilted eyes mean she's Chinese. Just as her girlfriends are beginning to "date" suddenly Apple is a social pariah - the boys bark at her in the hall as she passes, and her friends, humiliated by her mere existence, first won't speak to her, then actively seem to hate her... but why? Why don't they care that she's actually Filipino, and has never eaten dog in her life? Why are they acting like the Hot List matters, and listening to the boys? Apple's only escape comes through listening to Abbey Road and other Beatles albums. Her father loved the Beatles, and all Apple has left from him is a single old tape. She holds on to that tenuous link between herself and a man she doesn't really remember, and longs to fly away from her life. When she finds out that her class is going on a field trip to New Orleans, one of the only places Apple has ever seen musicians making a living from their art, she knows where she wants to go, to start a new life. Now, if she could just get a guitar...

As Apple's unhappiness grows, and she bends her natural personality more and more to accommodate her friends, she slowly begins to realize what she's giving up - dignity and character, and for what? For people who don't really see her, and want her to be the same as everyone else. Readers will cheer as Apple learns to stand up against bullying and her new friends help her to cherish the self she was throwing away. And finally, like the blackbird song she adores, she flies.

Observations: Erin Kelly writes emotional books - close to the root of one's feelings, allowing readers into the character's deepest inner mind - yet without making the reader feel guilty about things. Apple falls in line with the mean girls, and through her guilty silence, she shares in their worst behavior. She doesn't outwardly believe in the popularity "tiers" as her friend Alyssa does, but she acts like it, making her complicity actually worse. Because Apple doesn't sit in the seat of the Unassailably Right Behavior Judgment Panel like many other bullied characters do, she is realistically flawed - which as a protagonist makes her easier to relate to and to understand.

Despite her complicity, this is recognizably a redemption story. When it begins, Apple is in a place where nothing she IS is okay, and everything she is NOT is what she wants. She wants to be JUST an American, not a Filipino-American. She wants to be fair and blonde like her friends, have "good eyes," which to her meant eyes with no tilt and no epicanthal fold. She wants to throw away her native language and culture. It takes having a friend who has no special link to a particular heritage valuing her language and food and culture for her to be able to see it as anything worth keeping. Additionally, it's significant that he's white and male -- at Apple's school, where she is the ONLY Filipina, other white males are devaluing her for the same reasons Evan values her. As she learns to look at her mother with fresh eyes, her love outpaces Evan's regard for her culture, and she comes back into valuing herself for her own sake again. This is important, and allows Evan to be simply a catalyst for the work that needs to be done, and not the whole reason Apple sees herself correctly again by the story's end.

Conclusion: In middle school, kids are encouraged to step out of childhood and grow into themselves - but no one can reassure them that their "selves" are okay except their peers, who unfortunately are, at that point, jockeying for position and trying to shine as their best selves. It's an exhilarating and awful time - usually with more emphasis on the awful, unfortunately - but Kelly's characters see themselves through this awfulness into triumph, allowing readers to come along for the ride.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, but it, like all of Kelly's books, is worth not just a Borrow but a Buy. You can find BLACKBIRD FLY by Erin Entrada Kelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 11, 2017

Monday Review: RED QUEEN Trilogy by Victoria Aveyard

Good covers, too
Synopsis: I was drawn to Victoria Aveyard's trilogy--Red Queen, Glass Sword, and King's Cage--because I saw some echoes of the project I'm currently working on and was immediately intrigued. In the world of protagonist Mare Barrow, there are two types of people, Reds and Silvers; and the color of your blood determines your worth, your skills, and your fate. It's a world that is very possibly our own world, drastically changed on a fundamental level by centuries of destruction and eventual recovery. But the focus is not on the past here, but on the grim present, where those with Silver blood rule the Reds and subjugate them with hereditary powers: abilities to manipulate metal, to control fire, even to conquer minds.

As regular red-blooded humans, Mare and her family live a rather hardscrabble existence—not on the level of the Hunger Games, but not too far off. Young people who aren't able to land a job or apprenticeship are drafted into the legions of their country of Norta and sent to the border to die fighting the neighboring Lakelanders. When Mare's best friend Kilorn finds out he's to be drafted, her whole life feels like it's falling apart—she's already lost brothers to the war, and her father was left without the use of his legs.

After Mare is sent to the Silver capital in a job as a servant, she is hoping to help keep her family safe and fed, but instead, something completely unexpected happens: she finds out she has some powers of her own. And she might not be the only one. It's a discovery that could tear apart the fabric of their strictured society—but not if the Silvers can help it.

Observations: The synopsis above is how the story starts, but these events set in motion a movement of Reds that fuels the entire trilogy. Mare is whisked into a world of Silver nobility and made into a pawn for multiple sides of the struggle, while still hoping to keep her family safe. Not only that, she discovers that the Silvers themselves aren't universally amoral and evil—and her feelings for a Silver prince make things particularly complicated.

Mare's story ramps up throughout the second and third books, and we find out that the struggles between Red and Silver aren't confined to Norta—things are changing throughout the world as they know it. This trilogy is definitely a sweeping epic on a grand scale, and the author doesn't ignore complex social ramifications and the interplay between countries, even if the action is primarily focused on one locale.

It's really impressive and tightly plotted, but the characters and their struggles remain central—the books don't get hijacked by the speculative fiction elements, which are wonderful and intriguing but (appropriately) are ultimately less important than the all-too-human motivations and emotions of the players themselves. These players—Mare, her allies, her enemies—nobody is wholly good or evil, and that makes for a believable and very gripping story with a lot of twists and turns.

Conclusion: Of course I WILL recommend this to fans of The Hunger Games, but also to any fans of postapocalyptic or dystopian fiction, as well as fantasy about paranormal powers. The blurb on Amazon calls it Graceling meets The Selection, so I guess there's that, too.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find RED QUEEN, GLASS SWORD, and KING'S CAGE by Victoria Aveyard at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 06, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I picked up this book because of the author, and the enigmatic - or meaningful, as Betsy Bird calls it - cover. And then, I almost put it down, because it is set in 1975.

It is hard for me to imagine the seventies as a time anyone wants to read about, much less venerate as "historical." After all, to be antique, an object must be at minimum a mere hundred years old; novels set in the seventies and eighties feel... indulgent and nostalgic; more about the authors than the readers. But, on the other hand, the 20th century is now considered "historical fiction," so setting my hesitation aside, I read on.

Synopsis: Raymie Clarke's plan for the summer is this: learn to twirl a baton in Ms. Ida Nee's baton-twirling class; win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 competition; get her name and picture in the newspaper... and thus create enough interest in her life and well-being to make her father come back from where he's run off with the dental hygienist. By all accounts, it was a reasonable plan. It was something Raymie could hold up to herself when she was afraid, when her mother was silent and sat in the sunroom, staring into space: she had a Plan that was going to Fix Things.

Unfortunately, other people had plans - and troubles of their own. Louisiana Elefante, a tiny, blonde asthmatic, wants to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 so that she can claim the prize money and free her cat from the pound. Unspoken is her hope that they can use the money to then eat more than tunafish and she and her grandmother can stop running from Marsha Jean, the invisible social worker who might put her in foster care. Beverly Tapinski's plan is to sabotage the pageant - somehow. With a knife. Beverly hates Little Miss pageants, is tired of her mother signing her up for them, and has tried to run away to her father in New York, twice. She is angry and fearless - and sometimes bruised.

Raymie strikes out alone, at first, to do a good deed so that she can list it on her Little Miss application, but soon she, Louisiana, and Bev find themselves doing things together... not willingly, at first, but Louisiana's winsome imagination draws them, and Raymie is eager for something brighter and better than life at home. Even Bev finds herself charmed, despite herself. The girls have more in common than Raymie first believed, and in the end, relying on each other's strengths saves them

Observations: I did not love this book, but found it ...complex and textured. The people Raymie meets during the course of the novel add a depth and nuance that is unexpected. There are cynical elderly people and optimistic ones; haughty ones living on their past successes, like Ms. Ida, and ones running from their current responsibilities, like Raymie's dad. Among her peers, Raymie's problems don't seem so very big to her. While it's true that her father left them, and her mother is depressed and silent, Louisiana, in addition to her very serious asthma, is food insecure, living in a house with no power and no furniture, and a grandmother who is very old and teaching her survival tricks to help her live outside of the county assistance she needs. Beverly poses as self-confident and brave, but she is furious at being abandoned by her father, always running away to be with him, and fighting with adults - to the point of having physical altercations at home. With all of this, the time period and the setting weren't... significant.

"Issues" were obviously not something which were talked about in school in the 70's, as Raymie didn't automatically respond by speaking with an adult when it was revealed that Louisiana was food insecure, whereas I think most of today's ten-year-olds would at least mention it to someone in passing. Infidelity seems to be much less common, and much more a source of shame to those left behind. By avoiding the obvious stereotypes, DiCamillo avoids a dated feel - no super bell bottoms and flower children or anything - but, to be honest, I don't think adding a year is going to be really significant to young readers.

An interesting quibble I did have with the novel setting, though, is that it depicted central Florida without any people of color in it. The only people in the novel who are of a different class than Raymie other than Louisiana signal this by speaking non-standard American English. These two nurses are kindly, immediately helpful, speaking endearments and providing tea and sympathy on the phone to Raymie's mother, and to a soaked and shivering Raymie, a sweater. The author provides no racial description for them, but I find myself hoping that those ladies are white with beehived brunette hair, because they move perilously close to the enveloping, comforting Mammy stereotype otherwise.

Conclusion: I'm still not sure about children's books set in the 70's and 80's, but this book in particular explored meaningful relationships with old people, divorce, grief, abuse, depression, food insecurity and poverty, the idea of having a plan to fix the world, and recovering when that plan shows itself to be flawed, and kind of going with the flow and finding new plans, new purposes, and new friends. Not much happens... but, in a way, everything -- life -- does.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library You can find RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE by Kate DiCamillo at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

September 04, 2017

Apply to Be a Cybils Judge!

The call for 2017 Cybils Awards judges is open! Bloggers, vloggers, Goodreads reviewers--any or all of those are welcome, as long as you have a love of kidlit, a passion for reading, and a discerning eye for the best of the best.

Judges for Audiobooks and Easy Reader/Early Chapter Books are especially wanted at the moment, so if you have experience with either of those, please apply. The contest relies on as many as 100+ volunteers every year, and can't exist without us. I've already thrown my hat into the ring for judging, and I'll be co-blog-editor again this year--and as perennial participants, Tanita and I can both vouch for the fact that it is one of the most fun ways to take part in the kidlit community and draw attention to the many worthy books out there.

Also, don't forget to register for KidLitCon in November! The program (and registration information) is available here. There are some amazing authors in the lineup, and a wide range of sessions on topics including STEM, Historical Fiction, reading development, activist books, and much more.

September 01, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Though I don't often do so, after reading this book, I checked to see what kind of critical acclaim it had received. I was pleasantly surprised to see a star from SLJ, a star from Booklist, as well as a commendation from Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Content Commentary: This is may be painful or distressing to people who have experienced physical and psychological abuse. It's indirect enough that most kids will likely simply express unhappy surprise at some of the interactions, but more sensitive children (and knowing adults) may find themselves utterly brokenhearted. Provide tissues.

Synopsis: Auntie Jove never did come to take them to live with her. Soledad expected her at seven, after her mother died, but now that she's twelve, she knows Auntie Jove was just a story - her mother didn't have a sister, and now she's dead. To comfort her little sister now, Sol shares the arresting, vibrant, beautiful adventure stories of the dashing Auntie Jove with her little sister, Dominga, to keep Ming's spirits up. Since their father left them, three years ago, things have been going from bad to worse with their stepmother, Tita Vea. Ming doesn't talk to Vea, and sometimes, she hardly talks to Sol. Her silence just pushes Vea to get worse and worse, to scream louder and louder, to pinch and throw ice water, and take their toys... They're not little girls in a fairytale story. There's no one going to step in and save them. And really, who should save them? Tita Vea always says Sol is a bad, bad girl.

Soledad is so bad, she and her best friend, Manny, sometimes pick on the kids from other schools for fun. She's so bad, she steals from the corner store - and now Ming's done it, too, which is NOT what Soledad intended. Sol is so bad, she's responsible for her other little sister, Amelia's death, when Amelia was only ten. And recently Sol threw a pinecone at a girl's head, and the girl ....had to get stitches. Oops.

Sol believes herself to be bad, but not quite that bad. After some effort, she tracks down the girl, with her pale skin and paler complexion, and Soledad apologizes. In doing so, she discovers that it's not so hard to make a enemy a friend... All it takes is listening. The girls share stories, and Soledad begins to feel a little bit heard, realizing that harsh realities feel just as harsh to others, even when they've got different problems. Now that the weird skateboarding girl from the snobby school talks to her, and the boy who hangs around with her, Sol's almost got three new friends. Things get a tiny bit brighter, for Sol, at least. But after Ming's theft, Tita Vea has been told, and there was Real Trouble. Since then, Ming's been... acting odd. She's insisting that Auntie Jove is coming for her -- and her silences grow louder. She's packing her bags. She's retreating inside of her own head, and Soledad can't get her out. Now all of her trips to Blackbeard's junkyard to find her a special something just might be in vain. She's got to find someone to help her -- but is there anyone who sees them?

Observations: It's rare to see a book with Filipino main characters, and these girls were born in the Philippines, and immigrated to the U.S. Most of us who live in California grew up with immigrants surrounding us at work, at school, and in our neighborhoods. More of us who lived on the margins will recognize that at times, the real America to which these families came did not mesh well with dreams the families brought with them, nor with the cultures and mores of the countries these families had left behind. This caused some tension in those families, and for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways, many of us observed this tension. While I dealt with the fallout from this tension, teaching group home students, I have never seen a book deal with this specifically. It was heartbreaking and strengthening in myriad ways, because how often do kids in trouble - immigrants or no, being bullied by children, or by the adults who are meant to care for them - how often do they wish desperately that someone saw them? The children in this story were visible, by virtue of finding people to listen amongst their peers, by virtue of learning to listen to others, and through the salvation of a silent but kind neighbor. This made me wonder how I could do better at seeing, and will spark some important conversations with the big-hearted and intelligent children who read this.

There are magical elements of the story, as Amelia appears and reappears as Soledad's conscience, in a manner of speaking, but she is ambiguously not much of a ghost, but more of Soledad's inner mind, or what she believes a protective adults would think or say. Amelia tries to help Soledad be an amazing sister to their baby sister, Ming, and her proactiveness allows Ming as much protection as their rough world affords. This tender relationship provides a tendril of hope and allows mature readers to set aside their sadness at the circumstances in which the girls find themselves, and embrace the truths, that story is a lifeline, that sisters can be fierce protectors, and that hope is sometimes found by taking less traditional and unexpected paths.

Conclusion: This novel is not tied neatly in a bow; life, especially lives in the margin, are a series of victories and defeats. The story certainly ends with the traditional "kernel of hope" however, and most readers can clearly see better days ahead. Some readers will find it "too depressing" and be upset that an adult writer articulated so clearly the struggles of children, but I encourage you not to allow your feelings to be centered, and shift your focus to potential young readers. It's important that more privileged children learn that not everyone has their privileges, and it's important for less privileged children to know that their lives and struggles have meaning and validity and that they are seen. The voices in this book are real and true, and Soledad is allowed to be "bad," angry, confused, and flawed. The adults in this book are not irredeemably bad, either; Vea is a selfish, monstrously abusive woman, but she is also an immature person who paid a staggeringly high price for what she wanted, feels trapped, and doesn't know how to better herself. There are complexities available to the reader who doesn't assume this entire book can be understood in a single glance.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, but for me, this is a Buy book not a Borrow. You can find THE LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS by Erin Entrada Kelly an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!