Monday, October 27, 2014

MMGM: The Watsons Go To Birmingham--1963

I have been a big fan of Christopher Paul Curtis ever since I read BUD, NOT BUDDY. He hasn’t disappointed me yet in his other books either. I particularly enjoyed ELIJIAH BUXTON and THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE. Somehow I had never got around to reading his very first book, THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM.

Now I have, and if you haven’t read this one yet, you are in for a treat.

Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

 Enter the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There's Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who's thirteen and an "official juvenile delinquent." When Momma and Dad decide it's time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They're heading South to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America's history.

What I loved about this book:

  1. Humor: There are many books who will make me smile, but this book actually made me laugh out loud. The first chapter and the tongue incident are not to be missed. And the Watson parents have the most ingenious (and hilarious) punishments.
  2. Child-like POV: Curtis is a master at capturing a childlike POV. I loved how Kenny believed some of his big brother Byron’s stories, even though they were outrageous, how he viewed his parents, and bullies. About bullies, Kenny says, “I don’t know why bullies have such a good sense of humor, but they do.” Who hasn’t felt that way at times?
  3. Bullies: Bullies have been way overdone in kid’s lit, but I loved how Curtis treated them in the Watsons. The bullies weren’t just two-dimensional egomaniacs. They were three-dimensional, funny and smart with some of the best lines. Byron, Kenny’s brother, was a bully, yet stuck up for Kenny and got upset over a dead bird.
  4. Civil Rights issues dealt with in a gentle way. Although I was expecting that the Civil Rights movement would play a bigger part in this book than it did, I thought the treatment of what went on in Birmingham was gentle enough, especially as seen through Kenny’s eyes, to make this book accessible to kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum. Also, the marvelous use of humor balanced out the harsh things the Watsons encountered and made them all the more sympathetic and real.
  5. Episodic vs. Plot-Driven: Although the episodic nature of Watsons is a departure from most contemporary kidlit, I thought it really worked well here. Each chapter was a story in itself with the main plot of Byron’s troublemaking the Watson’s journey to Birmingham tying everything together. If you’re a writer thinking of doing an episodic story, this would be one to study.

I could go on and on about the things I loved about this book. My only quibble was a plot point with the Grandma and the strange tangent about magic at the end. But all in all, this is a wonderful book. I’ve had a challenging month as I have a family member seriously ill, so this book was just the medicine needed.

If you like Curtis’ other books, slice-of-life historicals, or The Christmas Story, you will love this book.

If you have read it, and want to continue in Kenny's world, Hallmark made a movie of it last year. I haven't seen it yet, but there is more info here.

Have you read any middle grades that made you laugh recently?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Few of My Favorite YA books…

I blog so often about middle grade fiction, it sometimes seems like I don't read anything else. But I do love YA and adult fiction as well. I thought for a change, I'd highlight a few of the memorable YAs I read this year. 

SEKRET by Lindsay Smith

I’m not normally a thriller reader, but I am a huge Russophile. I thought this concept sounded intriguing: what would happen if KGB agents had supernatural skills? But what really won me over were the details. Smith’s Russian is correct, she captures Russian diction (even when writing in English), and the atmosphere of Soviet Russia was dense and rich. A couple of other things I loved: an interesting love interest and a satisfactory ending without a cliffhanger (even though it’s a series).

FIREHORSE GIRL by Kay Honeyman

When I heard FIREHOUSE GIRL dubbed a Chinese Pride and Prejudice, I knew I had to read it. But once I got into it, I realized the love story, while somewhat like P & P, really takes a back seat to the main story, which is about Jade Moon finding her identity as a strong, independent Chinese woman. Reading this book also meant learning the harsh truths about Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West Coast). The author is not Chinese, but was inspired by her adopted daughter from China, which shows that it's more important to write what you love than what you know. 

A TIME FOR MIRACLES by Anne-Laure Bondoux

This is a translation from the French. This is yet another book set in Russia, but it’s one of the only books I’ve come across that deals with Chechnya during the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. The writing, so incredibly lyrical, conveys the child-like voice of Blaise perfectly. I was incredibly moved by his adventures as he and his guardian, Gloria, travel through the former Soviet republics and Europe by foot. If you loved “Life is Beautiful,” you will love this.

BELLE EPOQUE by Elizabeth Ross

This is one of the only books I’ve ever picked up because of a book trailer. It's that good! You can watch it here.
Despite its cover, which is somewhat misleading, you must give this one a try. It's set in France during the building of the Eiffel Tower, but the premise, based on an Emile Zola story, is unique.  In late 1800s Paris, Maude takes a job as a foil, an "ugly" girl who works as a companion to a rich girl to make her look pretty. But what occurs—and what this book says about our current beauty-obsessed culture--is well worth the read. I loved this book for its depth, its theme, and its rich layers of details.

Have you read any great YAs lately?

Monday, October 13, 2014

MMGM: Out of My Mind

Sometimes you read a book that’s so wonderful with a message so powerful, that you want to stand on the street corner and press it into everyone’s hands, saying, “You must read this book.”

That’s how I feel about OUT OF MY MIND.

When Andrea Mack blogged about this book, I knew I had to read it. There are few books from the POV of someone who can't communicate, especially for kids.

Besides, I used to teach in a learning resource room, and some of my former students have cerebral palsy. In reading OUT OF MY MIND, I got a glimpse into their world.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom—the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged, because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it…somehow. In this breakthrough story—reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—from multiple Coretta Scott King Award-winner Sharon Draper, readers will come to know a brilliant mind and a brave spirit who will change forever how they look at anyone with a disability.

What I found interesting about OUT OF MY MIND:

--The book begins with narration and a lot of back story, which breaks the "show, don't tell" rule. But this technique worked really well for this novel. Melody’s voice is so unique and so strong that you can't help but be enthralled. The initial back story also allowed for deep characterization.

--The book dealt with prejudice against people with disabilities in an unflinching and realistic light. It was hard to read about teachers and students treating Melody like she was invisible or inconvenient (or worse), but that was why this story rang true for me.    

--The supporting cast who was for Melody: Melody’s parents, the next door neighbor, and her instructional assistant saw a spark in Melody even before she could truly communicate. They were amazing and inspiring, yet sometimes they didn’t always understand Melody either. A humbling reminder that even the best teachers and parents are human too.

--People with disabilities were portrayed as well-rounded characters. Each of the characters in Melody’s classroom was well-developed, interesting, and unique. The author did not rely on stereotypes. I was moved by Melody's realization about her classmates at the end of the novel: "Not one of them even knows how to be mean."

--I loved how Melody at first fails to save her goldfish, but then is able to save her sister, despite her inability to communicate in typical ways. Her growth as a character was not so much becoming more independent and venturing out, but realizing that she had skills and gifts to offer the world all along.

If you like to experience another world through reading, I encourage you to check out this book. It will give you a whole new perspective on people with disabilities and how we often judge someone’s intelligence by communication alone.

Caveat: As previously noted, kids don’t always like the same books as adults do. My nine-year-old picked this up and quickly put it down. “This isn’t interesting to me.” This is a quiet, character-driven book that may not appeal to all readers, especially those who read to escape or like action-packed books.
What books have you read lately that have completely changed your perspective?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

ISWG: The Art of Not Writing

When I was first getting serious about my writing, it seemed like all the advice I heard was write, write, write. As long as you kept writing, everything would be okay. Fast draft. Don’t think too hard. Just get it out. You can always revise later.
If I got stuck, I would just push through. I’d write something, anything, to get to the other side, to the end.
I wrote pretty decent beginnings, but my endings were (you guessed it) were downright awful.
I produced two drafts of two different novels like that, and by the end, I realized they had so many structural issues; they were nearly unfixable.
That’s when I started doing something different. When I got stuck, really stuck, I stopped writing. I might switch to another document and start brainstorming. Sometimes I’d stop and write in my journal. But I didn’t keep going with the scene.
If I was stuck, I realized, it was my subconscious telling me something. This scene wasn’t working. I knew it on a deep level, even if I couldn’t verbalize it.
Sometimes I work on another manuscript, read for fun, eat lots of chocolate, or watch entirely too much Netflix.
Usually I feel a pang of guilt: but I’m not writing! But there is no timer, no race, no arbitrary finish line. I’ve learned from experience that rushing doesn’t create good writing.
Invariably when I step away, if I am just patient and wait, the inspiration comes. It’s a step of faith.
But my writing is better for the waiting.
If I were to give one piece of advice to my younger writer self, it would be: Don’t rush.

Category: Writing
I give permission to use this post in the Insecure Writer's Support Group Anthology.
Bio: I write middle grade and young adult fiction, and my nonfiction articles have appeared in Highlights, Calliope, and Learning Through History.

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