Monday, October 24, 2016

MMGM: Turn of the Tide

When I see Roseanne Parry’s name on the cover of a book, I know I’m in for a treat. There’s a rare depth, heart, and honesty in all her books. As she’s a member of my local SCBWI, I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting her a few times, and she’s as nice as she seems. I was so excited when I heard about her newest book, THE TURN OF THE TIDE. Not only is this a great cousin story (how often do cousins feature in books?), but it’s set in beautiful Astoria, one of my favorite spots on the Oregon Coast.
Brace yourself. This is a good one.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

On a beautiful day in June, the ground broke open.

In Japan, you’re always prepared for an earthquake. That’s why Kai knows just what to do when the first rumbles shake the earth. But he does the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do: He runs. And then the tsunami hits.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Kai’s cousin Jet sets sail off the coast of Astoria, Oregon. She knows she should have checked the tide—she always checks the tide. Except this time she didn’t.

When the biggest mistakes of their lives bring them together, Jet and Kai spend the summer regretting that one moment when they made the wrong decision. But there’s something about friendship that heals all wounds, and together, Jet and Kai find the one thing they never thought they’d have again—hope.

My favorite things about TURN OF THE TIDE:

1.   A book about cousins: Siblings and friends feature prominently in kidlit, but I can’t think of another book that deals with cousins. As I never had any cousins my own age as a kid, I felt like I got to live vicariously through Jet and Kai’s friendship. Hooray for working together and family loyalty!

2.  A warm, interesting family: Jet’s family is the kind of family you’d love to hang out with—I loved their teasing, their inside jokes, and their boisterousness. There was something about them that seemed so real—like they might live next door.

3.  The Japanese element: I have stayed away from reviews of this book, trying not to spoil it for myself, so I didn’t know Kai was Japanese and affected by a tsunami till I hoped the book. The cultural differences, his heartache over his family, and the way he comes to terms with his dad’s Swedish-American heritage was really well done. And I loved reading about Japanese culture, food and traditions.

4.  Interesting minor characters: Jet’s dad and his brother have to be some of the most memorable characters I’ve read in awhile. I loved how Dad fills up a room with his booming voice and mannerisms—and Oliver, Jet’s kid brother! Who couldn’t love this kid who dreams of being a pirate and reads book like THE THREE MUSKETEERS?

5. A satisfying ending: I won’t give it away, but I’ve noticed in Parry’s books that’s there’s always an element of sacrifice in the climax. I love what this leaves with the reader: even the main characters’ goals are not more important than helping others.

6.  Setting: It’s set in Astoria, Oregon, home of the Goonies! I'm always excited to read books set in my home state. It’s pure fun reminiscing about some of the places she mentioned.

If you’ve enjoyed Parry’s other books, you will probably enjoy this, although like her other books, it's unique in its own way. I think it would compare most closely with HEART OF THE SHEPHERD, but with a treasure hunt boat race!

Have you read any books with a lot of heart lately?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link.  Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

MMGM: The Last Great Adventure of the PB & J Society

Before I attend a workshop, I like to read the presenter's books. But this time, it wasn't me attending a workshop, but my son. My fourteen-year-old has developed a taste for creative writing lately and likes writing screenplays and poetry. I've been taking him to workshops led by our local SCBWI. Each month a different author tackles an element of writing (plot, dialogue, character development, etc.) for kids. October's topic was humor.

And let me tell you, Janet Sumner Johnson knows her stuff. I dare you to read through a chapter without rolling on the floor laughing. I can also vouch for her book having a similar effect on its target audience. 

If you like to laugh, you're in for a treat.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

When her best friend's house is threatened with foreclosure, young Annie Jenkins is full of ideas to save the home: selling her appendix on eBay, winning the lottery, facing down the bankers . . . anything to keep Jason from moving. But Jason's out-of-work dad blows up at the smallest things, and he’s not very happy with Annie’s interventions, which always seem to get them into more trouble. But when Annie tracks a lost treasure to Jason's backyard, she's sure the booty will be enough to save Jason’s family. Pirate treasure in the Midwest seems far-fetched, even to Annie, but it could be the answer to all their problems. Now all she has to do is convince Jason. As the two hunt for answers and the pressure gets to Jason and his family, Annie discovers that the best-laid plans aren’t always enough and there are worse things than moving away.

What I loved about PB & J:

1. A likeable and hilarious heroine: So much of the humor in this book springs from Annie, self-described as a little impulsive. Often it’s her childlike interpretations of grownup's words. “…even though I had no idea what traffic had to do with it, I was pretty sure she meant my kidney was officially off the market.” Sometimes it’s her crazy ideas to help. (Note to Annie: not all plants with spiky leaves are aloe!)

2. A warm family and community: Although Annie doesn’t get along with her siblings, she has a warm relationship with her dad and mom. I also loved how Annie was able to inspire her community to do a kind thing near the end of the book.

3.  A plot obstacle that did not involve a parent dying: This character-driven book tackled a problem that’s far more common than parents dying: unemployment and foreclosure. I also found Annie's feelings about her mom going back to work very realistic. I was about the same age when my mom returned to teaching, so I could relate.

4. Characters learning that who they considered “bad” are not all that they seem: If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know how much I love redemption in children’s books. I enjoyed seeing Annie learn more about people and their real motivations, often becoming friends with former enemies.

5.  A realistic ending: I’ll try not to give it away, but though it’s not entirely happy, this was a fitting ending, which always wins points in my book.

At the workshop, Janet shared a list of different types of comedy with the kids. HERE is a link to the Janet Phelp's website where the list originated. If you're a writer and are looking to incorporate more comedy into your writing, this website is a great place to start.

Writers, how do you incorporate humor into your writing?
Readers, have you read any funny books lately?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link.  Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

MMGM: If You Like the Betsy-Tacy Books …

Bear with me as I take a break from my usual highlight of modern, just-published kidlit to travel back to the last century to share a beloved author with you...

I discovered the Betsy-Tacy-Tib series  in elementary school. Like Betsy, I wanted to be a writer and had a friend like Tacy, a girl who loved to play pretend and listen to my stories. She’s still a treasured friend after all these years...and I still love these books.

Betsy-Tacy doesn’t get as much attention as Anne of Green Gables or Laura Ingalls, but she should. Like those books, Lovelace offers a character-rich slice of life in different era. But if like me, you can't get enough of Lovelace, did you know she wrote other children's books--some set in Deep Valley?

Picture Book

The Trees Kneel at Christmas

After Grandmother explains why the trees in Lebanon kneel at Christmas, Afify and Hanna hope to witness a similar miracle in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. (synopsis from Amazon)

This is a picture book Christmas story about Lebanese refugees and their traditions, a beautiful book written with Lovelace's wonderful ability to portray children's experiences in thoughtful ways.

Middle Grade

Winona’s Pony Cart

Winona Root is almost eight years old. More than anything in the world, she wants a pony for her birthday. She wishes so hard for a pony that she's sure to get one--at least, that's what she tells her friends Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. It's only when the exciting day grows near that Winona begins to wonder: What if her father meant it when he said she couldn't have a pony? (synopsis from Amazon)

This is the most “middle grade” of the extra books about Deep Valley. While I love Winona in the Betsy books, especially how she stands up to Betsy in elementary and is full of fun in high school, I didn’t love her in the Pony Cart. Like a lot of girls, Winona wants a pony, and her parents respond in an interesting way. However, I didn’t like how this story ended. Not my favorite of the “extra” books.

Young Adult (though these might appeal to middle grade readers as well)

Carney’s House Party

It is the summer of 1911, the Carney Sibley is back home in her beloved town of Deep Valley, Minnesota. She's looking forward to hosting a month-long house party, with guests including her Vassar college roommate Isobel Porteous and old chum Betsy Ray. With lots of the old Crowd and a new friend--wealthy, unkept, but loveable Sam Hutchinson--around, the days are filled with fun. And romance seems to be in the air. But Carney can never be romantic about anyone but Larry Humphreys, her high school sweetheart, who moved to California four years ago. Then Larry returns to Deep Valley and sets the town abuzz. Will Larry purpose? And will Carney say yes? (synopsis from Amazon)

This was the book I expected not to like. A book about a month-long sleepover? But it is so much more than that. I loved the depictions of early days at Vassar (an all women’s college at the time) and the resolution of the Carney-Larry question. But mostly, I found Carney to be an interesting character. She's one of the smartest of the girls in the “crowd” and attends an exclusive college, even though she just wants to be a housewife. In Lovelace books, girls can like embroidery and be smart. The romance in this book is very sweet and gives an interesting glimpse into dating rituals of those times.

Emily of Deep Valley

Emily Webster, an orphan living with her grandfather, is not like the other girls her age in Deep Valley, Minnesota. The gulf between Emily and her classmates widens even more when they graduate from Deep Valley High School in 1912. Emily longs to go off to college with everyone else, but she can't leave her grandfather.

Emily resigns herself to facing a "lost winter," but soon decides to stop feeling sorry for herself. And with a new program of study, a growing interest in the Syrian community, and handsome new teacher at the high school to fill her days, Emily gains more than she ever dreamed... (synopsis from Amazon)

This is probably my favorite extra book, if not my favorite Lovelace book. Emily sacrifices her dreams for her family and is put upon by her insufferable high school friends. But eventually she learns to make the best of staying home from college by reaching out to the Syrian refuges in Deep Valley. It inspires me every time I read it to bloom where I’m planted.  Well worth your time.

Have you read the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books? What is your favorite classic author for children or adults?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links.  Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

ISWG: Is it Ready?

When I saw the question for this month, I felt an extreme bout of writer’s insecurity coming on. I’m not sure if I’m the best person to write about this. You see, I don’t have a great track record with figuring out when my work is done. Chalk it up to the lack of objectivity about my own work at times.  And then I’ve often rushed.

Also, there’s picture perfect hindsight.  I can look back at manuscripts I submitted and always see something that needs to be fixed. It’s just that I didn’t know it then.

I always sent what I thought was my best work at the time. It’s only now that I realize it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.

So, I guess the question isn’t for me, how do I know it’s ready, but how do I know I’ve done my best work?

Here are the clues I look for:

1.  I don’t have any nagging doubts. I don’t know how else to describe it, but with some of my previous manuscripts, I’ve always had parts that I was insecure about. So with this book, when I didn’t have those doubts, I knew it was close.

2.  I’ve crossed almost everything off my revision to-do list. Yes, I make one of these, from big picture (plot, character) to small stuff (narrative patterning, grammar issues). It’s beyond satisfying to x them off one by one.

3.  Beta readers aren’t giving me big picture things to fix anymore. More than once I’ve had betas suggest I totally rewrite a manuscript, so I’m used to that kind of feedback. It’s when their notes are about minor stuff that I start to think it might be ready.

4.  The story in my head made it to the page. I’ve learned recently the importance of this. I used to run in circles revising because I didn’t know what I was trying to achieve, and I was hoping someone else would tell me when my work was “good enough.” Now I figure out what my vision is and use others’ comments to gauge whether I achieved it. No one can tell you if you’re writing is good enough anyways. Darcy Pattison had a great post about this:

P.S. Thank you so much to everyone who commented last month on finding time to write. Publishing my plan for writing and hearing from you was what I needed to keep accountable for September. I am now at 15,000 words on a brand new manuscript—and this is from generally writing about ½ hour a day from 500-1,000 words. Baby steps do work!

How about you? How do you know when your work is ready?

What is Insecure Writer's Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Looking for more insecure writer's posts? Check out the links here: 

Monday, October 3, 2016

MMGM: Bjorn's Gift and Interview with Sandy Brehl

When Sandy Brehl contacted me about receiving an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of BJORN'S GIFT, I said, "Yes, please!" I adored ODIN'S PROMISE, the first book in the series, which I reviewed here. I was excited to read more of Mari's experiences during the Nazi occupation of Norway--and a third book is in the works!

Here's the synopsis (from Amazon):  

BJORN'S GIFT is a sequel to ODIN'S PROMISE, winner of the 2014 Midwest Book Award for Children's Fiction. Set in Norway during World War II, BJORN'S GIFT continues the exciting adventures of Mari, the young Norwegian girl who faces growing hardships and dangers in her small village in a western fjord. German occupation troops and local Nazi supporters move closer to her family's daily life, and her classmate Leif becomes active in the Norwegian Nazi youth party. Mari struggles to live up to her brother Bjorn's faith in her, as she becomes more involved in risky resistance activities, trusting only her family and a few close friends. Across Norway, oppressive laws are imposed in the months from late 1941 to early 1943, with dire local consequences. Still, difficult decisions force Mari to admit that many things in life are not easily sorted into good or bad, and she begins to wonder if Hitler will ever be defeated and whether the occupation of Norway will ever end. 

The things I loved about BJORN'S GIFT are many of the same things I loved about ODIN'S PROMISE: a strong character, who's shy, just like I was as a child; a supportive, loving family; and a dangerous historical period that's handled in a way that even sensitive readers can enjoy. But to add to that list, here's a few things I loved in particular about the sequel:

1. An antagonistic character that keeps you guessing: Even by the end of the book I wasn't sure if Leif was good or bad or somewhere in between. Read on for Sandy's take on how she created this interesting character.

2. A tween girl who still loves her family but is not boy-crazy: I loved that Mari at thirteen is still close to her parents, loyal to her friends (both boys and girls), and full of depth. She grows a lot in this novel as she faces dangers foreign to most modern readers. This makes her seem more mature as she has to make adult decisions but she still remains refreshingly childlike in other ways.

3. Pacing: If anything the pacing was faster in this novel than the first because the stakes are higher with increasing crackdowns on Norwegian traditions and language. Still, the tension never felt forced, but always grew organically from the characters.

Now onto the interview!

Hi, Sandy, and welcome to my blog. I so enjoyed Bjorn's Gift and am so excited to have you here today.

Hi, Jenni, it’s great to be a guest on your blog. Thanks so much for your review and for asking such interesting questions.

1.   I like how Mari is a shy character, something we don’t see a lot of in kidlit. But one of the difficulties in creating quieter characters is that they don’t make things happen as much as more outgoing characters. How did you develop a character that is shy while also giving her enough agency to drive the story?

In the original book, Mari’s safe, predictable life changed overnight. Until then, her intelligence and her powerful emotions found outlets through reading, a safe step back from the real world.
In the course of that first year Mari struggled to redefine her place within a dangerous world. On top of that, she realized that people she loved and trusted most, her family, were deeper than the two-dimensional, predictable people she had always known. Perhaps it was recognizing the complexity of their lives that let her confront her own anger, fear, and stubbornness, uncomfortable emotions that put her at risk but also propelled her beyond her patterns of dependence and avoidance. 

The bottom line is, I work at listening carefully to how Mari is feeling, to what she needs, and to how she can best tell her own story about surviving in such challenging times.

2.  I also liked how you kept the reader guessing as to Mari's schoolmate Leif’s true motives and whether Mari’s perceptions of him were true or imbalanced. His ambiguous nature reminded me a bit of Snape from Harry Potter. Can you speak about developing a character that might be good or bad?
Wow, that’s a compliment of the highest order, to have created a character that reminds you of J. K. Rowling’s Snape in some way. Tusen takk! (A thousand thanks!)
Bjorn’s Gift encompasses Mari’s critical early adolescent years. She’s forced to move past her rigid sense of right and wrong, good and bad, to a more realistic but painful recognition that NO ONE is all good or all bad, always right or always wrong. That happens to young people in every circumstance during the transition from childhood simplicity to adult realities, but in her life it was an unavoidable issue. 

Because I know Leif’s full story (which will be revealed in the final book) I could step back a bit and imagine his feelings and motivations while keeping Mari in turmoil about the changes she witnessed. Research provided helpful examples of citizens whose choices alienated them from their friends, neighbors, and even family members. Choices they made based on a variety of motivations.
It was actually more challenging to create scenes in which Mari had to acknowledge that even adults dearest to her heart were making choices that didn’t fit her world-view. Then she had to consider: are they flawed, or should she adjust her expectations? If so, would that compromise her core values?

3.  One of the things I loved about both Odin’s Promise and Bjorn’s Gift 
was the historical details. What was the most interesting thing you learned in your research? Was there any tidbit that you left out?
It’s wonderful to hear that you connected with the history underlying this trilogy! I’m not Norwegian, but I heard fascinating stories of the occupation and resistance while visiting in Ytre Arna with people who lived through those times. Their detailed memories revealed a history about which I knew nothing. 

Sandy Brehl
Since that inspiration many years ago I’ve read stacks of books and spoken with many people with powerful stories. “Most interesting” is a challenging answer, but I’d have to say the full story of the treatment of Norway’s small Jewish population came as a complete surprise. I barely brushed the surface in this book, but felt it was crucial to include some key events in that era. There are countless details on that topic and many others that won’t make it into the pages of this trilogy. Some were modified or omitted to support the story arc, timing, tension, and suitability for the target age. 

I’m preparing website additions to help clarify which story elements come from research or personal accounts and which are entirely fictional. I’ll post some “side stories” from research and even some scenes “from the cutting room floor” that aren’t in this book or the next. I welcome questions from readers, too. Readers can subscribe to my quarterly newsletter and to news updates on my website.

Thanks, Jenni, for your interest in my books, in my writing experiences, and for your always valuable posts for all of us who love kidlit.
 If you'd like to hear more from Sandy or read other reviews of Bjorn's Gift, check out the other stops on her tour:

September 1 Interview with Todd Burleson at GROG blog:

September 7 Review: Stephanie Lowden at golowd, a blog about teaching and books

September 11 Guest post Unleashing Readers

September 14 Review by Erik at This Kid Reviews Books,

September 19 Review, Suzanne Warr, at Tales from the Raven, for MMGM:

September 20 Olivia and Oscar- review of ODIN’S PROMISE at Kid Book Reviewer:

September 27  Olivia and Oscar- review of BJORN’S GIFT at Kid Book Reviewer: (giveaway ends Sept. 30.)

September 29 Alex Baugh review at The Children’s War

October 3 Jenni Enzor  MMGM with review and interview

October 5   MomReadIt-  Review by Rosemary

October 7 Trisha at Mindjacked

October 11  Guest post Rochelle Melander

Photo credit: Photo of the author and book cover courtesy of Sandy Brehl.

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 


Monday, September 26, 2016

MMGM: FRAMED (A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery)

I picked up this story because I have a soft spot for art history mysteries. Chalk it up to hours listening to my art history professor wax eloquent about Gothic arches, but I certainly would've been an art history major--if my first love hadn't been writing. 

FRAMED  joins the likes of CHASING VERMEER, EDDIE RED AND THE MUSEUM MILE and UNDER THE EGG; it’s a rich art history mystery with fun characters and an intriguing plot line.

A book that will appeal to kids and grownups alike!

Synopsis (an excerpt from Amazon):

Florian is twelve years old and has just moved to Washington. He’s learning his way around using TOAST, which stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It’s a technique he invented to solve life’s little mysteries such as: where to sit on the on the first day of school, or which Chinese restaurant has the best eggrolls.

But when he teaches it to his new friend Margaret, they uncover a mystery that isn’t little. In fact, it’s HUGE, and it involves the National Gallery, the FBI, and a notorious crime syndicate known as EEL.

Can Florian decipher the clues and finish his homework in time to help the FBI solve the case?

 What to like:

 1.  A smart, quirky kid as the main character. Of course, it’s every kid’s fantasy to actually work for the FBI! Florian isn’t your typical kid. He’d lived most of his life in Europe and has a Holmes-like eye for noticing seemingly insignificant details.

2.  A great boy/girl friendship. While I tend to think boy/girl friendships don’t always seem realistic in MG, this one really worked. Margaret’s sensible nature was an excellent foil to Florian’s quick mind. Their dialogue was always snappy and fun.

3.  Two intact families.  I thought it was great that both Florian and Margaret’s families were intact, supportive and loving—and it was nice seeing grownups respecting the kids and their ideas.

4.  Insider details about FBI training and art museums and art theft detection. Part of the fun of reading books like this is learning about what goes on at FBI training or what being undercover really entails. I loved how Florian’s trainer was petite but tough!

5. An open ending. I cheered for the open ending on this mystery--which means they’ll be more adventures with Florian and Margaret!

14-year-old boy's take: "This is hard to put down!"

If you loved mysteries about art history or anything about the FBI (think SPY MICE by Heather Vogel Frederick but without animals), you need to check out FRAMED. I’m always excited to find more smartly written, intriguing mysteries like this!

And if you do pick it up, I dare you to try not to see the significance of small things!

Have you read any good mysteries lately? 

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, only because it's easier for me to post book covers that way. Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.