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.




Monday, March 9, 2015

Guest Post and Giveaway, from the authors of A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans!


Readers, last week I promised you an exclusive guest post from the authors of A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder (see my review here). Now, I'm thrilled to present their post. Giveaway details below. 





Happy Together

We were happy to agree to Joanne’s request to do a guest blog post about writing A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans.  Since Larry and I met in journalism school at Marquette University, we decided to answer some traditional reporter-type questions for you.

Who are we?  Larry and I are married and children’s book writers.  We’ve written well over 100 books, but until recently we wrote books separately.  Larry usually writes novels, and I write poetry and picture books.

What has changed?  We fell in love with the idea of a dragon who has a pet human. We both were so charmed by our 3000-year old dragon, Miss Drake, and her 10-year old pet, feisty Winnie, we wanted to work on the book together.  It is our first collaborative work.

When do you write?  Larry is a lark and writes in the morning.  I am an owl and write best in the quiet of night.  We talk about our work at lunch…often away from home with a picnic at the beach or enjoying a meal in town.  It’s nice to take a break from writing, share problems we’re having, and get new ideas. We always end up writing notes on napkins and stuffing bits of scribbled paper tablecloths in our pockets.

Where does the story take place and where do you write?  We set the book in San Francisco because we both love the city.  Larry was born there, we lived there for years, and we both think of it as a unique and rather magical place.

When we moved away and looked for a home in Pacific Grove, we had two conditions.  We needed two studies and lots of wall space for bookcases.  We each have our own writing spots, computers, and our books nearby.

How do two people write one book?   I am sure there are many different ways to write together, but this seems to be ours.  Larry writes the opening, we work on the overall plot, he writes some chapters, and I write others.  We share what we’ve done and rewrite and edit all the parts till we are happy.  Larry, as a novelist, has a much better understanding of plotting and dramatic arcs, etc.  As a poet, I work on images and details and the emotional thrust of the book.  So we each bring the elements we know best to the story.

Larry and I have lived together for 30 years.  That most likely made this project easier to do. Earlier on we might have had some clashing of egos.  But we do respect each other and treat each other kindly most of the time.  I think we both kept our relationship in mind as we tussled a bit over plot points.  In addition, we do laugh and tease a lot. The banter between Miss Drake and Winnie came quite naturally to us.

We both hope readers can see how much fun we had creating these two ever-so-different friends and that they will join us in seeing what Miss Drake and Winnie do in the future.  There’s more magic to come!

_________________________________________

Thank you so much, Joanne and Larry! I loved hearing about your process and especially how a novelist and a poet who are happily married can create magic together. I look forward to more adventures.

Readers, the authors have generously offered one signed hardcover copy for a giveaway. To enter, you must be a follower of this blog and you must leave a comment on this post. If you spread the word via Twitter or Facebook, please let me know and I'll give you extra chances for each mention. This giveaway is open to US and Canadian addresses only and will end at 10 pm EDT on Sunday March 22, 2015. Winner will be announced on Monday March 23. Good luck!


Monday, March 2, 2015

A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans -- Part I


A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep & Joanne Ryder, with illustrations by Mary GrandPre (for ages 8 to 12, Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House, March 10, 2015)

Source: hardcover copy from the generous authors

Synopsis (from the publisher): Crusty dragon Miss Drake has a new pet human, precocious Winnie. Oddly enough, Winnie seems to think Miss Drake is her pet--a ridiculous notion!

Unknown to most of its inhabitants, the City by the Bay is home to many mysterious and fantastic creatures, hidden beneath the parks, among the clouds, and even in plain sight. And Winnie wants to draw every new creature she encounters: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But Winnie's sketchbook is not what it seems. Somehow, her sketchlings have been set loose on the city streets! It will take Winnie and Miss Drake's combined efforts to put an end to the mayhem... before it's too late.


Why I recommend it: First, full disclosure. Once upon a time, in the late 1970s, I worked as an assistant to a young editor named Joanne Ryder in a major NYC publishing house. (I was "the other Joanne".) Fast forward a few years. I moved back to Pennsylvania, worked in a library, got married and became a mom. Joanne Ryder moved to California and married Newbery-honor-winning author Laurence Yep. Of course, Jo is also an award-wining author, with more than 70 books to her credit.

We haven't seen each other in ages, but I still correspond with her and we're Facebook friends. I miss seeing her in person (someday, Jo, someday), but reading her books is the next best thing. When I read in PW that Joanne and Larry were writing a book together for the first time, I begged for an arc. They did better than that. They sent me a signed, personalized hardcover. Woo hoo!

Of course, I worried. What if I didn't like it? How would I tell my old friend? Well, you can put your mind at ease, readers, because this book is adorable. It has everything you want in a modern-day fantasy for younger readers: humor, magic, and lots and lots of heart. Plus, not one but TWO spunky heroines. Miss Drake and Winnie made a formidable team. I love a dragon that drinks tea, uses a cell phone, and reads fashion magazines so she'll dress smartly when she changes to human form. And I love that Winnie isn't afraid of Miss Drake or any of the other fantastical creatures they confront.

Bonus: This book is the first in a planned series.

Favorite quote: A day at the fair could leave a dragon feeling two centuries younger.

Readers, be sure to come back next week for Part II -- an exclusive guest post from Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, plus a giveaway!


Monday, February 23, 2015

A Snicker of Magic


A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd (for ages 8 to 12, Scholastic, February 2014; paperback coming April 2015)

Source: My local library

Synopsis (adapted from the publisher's website): Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.

But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck's about to change. A "word collector," Felicity sees words everywhere, but Midnight Gulch is the first place she's ever seen the word "home." And then there's Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity's never seen before, words that make Felicity's heart beat a little faster.

Why I recommend it: Natalie Lloyd's spindiddly way with words! If I didn't know better, I'd think I was reading a cross between Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, with a generous helping of made-up words along with a heaping portion of real words that are both scrumptious and colorful. The quirky characters and marvelous setting are further reasons to fall in love with this imaginative novel. I wish Blackberry Sunrise ice cream really existed (eating it helps you remember). And I wish I had this much imagination. 

Bonus: I appreciate that Jonah is in a wheelchair but the author doesn't make a big deal out of it. It's simply the way Jonah is. 

My favorite quote:  "Sometimes you don't need words to feel better; you just need the nearness of your dog." (from p. 173)

P.S. I hope the typo on p. 229 will be fixed in the paperback. Seriously: "Oliver slammed on the breaks". I guess even the best copy editor can't catch every error and this book with its invented words must have been a real challenge to edit. The publisher's full synopsis also includes a typo ("church eves" -- um, I think you mean eaves). Sorry. Things like that actually bother me...


Follow Natalie on Twitter

Have you read A Snicker of Magic? What did you think?