Monday, April 27, 2015

MMGM: Pendewicks in Spring

There’s quite a few sequels to great MG series coming out this spring, which I am excited about, but I could hardly contain my excitement about having a new Penderwick novel in my hands. Reading one of these books is like dipping into a Jane Austen novel or  relaxing in a cozy armchair with a nice pot of tea nearby.

And I sure needed a nice, cozy pot of reading tea the week I read this.

Here is the synopsis (from Amazon):

With over one million copies sold, this series of modern classics about the charming Penderwick family, from National Book Award winner and New York Times bestseller Jeanne Birdsall, is perfect for fans of Noel Streatfeild and Edward Eager.

Springtime is finally arriving on Gardam Street, and there are surprises in store for each member of the family.

Some surprises are just wonderful, like neighbor Nick Geiger coming home from war. And some are ridiculous, like Batty’s new dog-walking business. Batty is saving up her dog-walking money for an extra-special surprise for her family, which she plans to present on her upcoming birthday. But when some unwelcome surprises make themselves known, the best-laid plans fall apart.

Filled with all the heart, hilarity, and charm that has come to define this beloved clan, The Penderwicks in Spring is about fun and family and friends (and dogs), and what happens when you bring what's hidden into the bright light of the spring sun.

What I loved:

           1. We finally get to read a Penderwick novel that’s almost entirely from Batty’s point of view. In the earlier novels, she was too young to play much of a part in the story, but now at eleven, she’s the center of the plot. I think she’s my favorite character of the four sisters. I could relate to her awkwardness and shyness. 

      2. A book that celebrates the ordinary!  In a world where most MG books are either quiet issue books or fast-paced fantasies, it was refreshing to read a character-driven book where the stakes were more ordinary: starting a dog-walking business to earn money for music lessons, overcoming the loss of a beloved pet, family secrets. If you are writer who writes "quiet" books, Birdsall is one to study for how to make these ordinary events compelling.

      3. Resolution of questions brought up in Book 1. I loved how the main plot in Book 4 answered a question I’ve had since the first book. It’s a sign of a talented writer who can carry a plot thread through an entire series.

      4.  An eleven year old girl who isn’t interested in romance. Although there’s a fun subplot about her sisters’ romantic intrigues, Batty herself isn’t interested in boys or romance, just having friends who are boys. This was so refreshing.

      5. A family you’d love to have for your own. From their yearly traditional homemade birthday cakes to their MOPS (Meeting of Penderwick Siblings) to supportive parents who quote Latin, this is one family I enjoy spending time with. It reminds me of the books I loved as a kid: books by Maude Lovelance and L.M. Montgomery.  Yet the Penderwicks still feels modern, with each of the girls having strong dreams and goals, and the parents following their own as well.

If you’d love the previous books in the Penderwick series, you will enjoy PENDERWICKS IN SPRING. This, by far, is my most favorite book in this series. I hear the fifth and final book is in the works.

I’ve always found it inspiring that Birdsall’s goal was to write the books she loved to read as a child. As she says in this interview, she wrote against the trend and was surprised that "anyone liked it." (Her first book won the National Book Award.) A reminder that writing from the heart resonates with readers.

Have you read any modern books that reminded you of childhood favorites?

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

MMGM: Woods Runner

I’m not generally a big fan of American history. I chalk it up to overexposure. Everything about the Revolutionary or Civil War generally has a been there, done that sort of feel to it. So, normally I wouldn’t pick up a book set in the Revolutionary War. But WOODS RUNNER was different. When I saw the author was Gary Paulsen, who is one of my favorite writers of survival fiction, I knew I had to read this.

I loved it. And, surprisingly, I learned a few things about the Revolutionary War.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

Samuel, 13, spends his days in the forest, hunting for food for his family. He has grown up on the frontier of a British colony, America. Far from any town, or news of the war against the King that American patriots have begun near Boston.

But the war comes to them. British soldiers and Iroquois attack. Samuel’s parents are taken away, prisoners. Samuel follows, hiding, moving silently, determined to find a way to rescue them. Each day he confronts the enemy, and the tragedy and horror of this war. But he also discovers allies, men and women working secretly for the patriot cause. And he learns that he must go deep into enemy territory to find his parents: all the way to the British headquarters, New York City.

What I loved about this book:

1. It was focused on survival, not the war. This appealed to my love of survival fiction, but also it made a story about this time period fresh and new.

2. Stark, realistic images. This is what I love about Paulsen. Sometimes his images are gritty and hard to swallow, but they are always real.  You will walk away from this book knowing how difficult it was to survive in the woods in the midst of war and enemy raids.

3. An interesting protagonist. There were so many interesting facets to Samuel: his intense love and loyalty to his parents, but also his struggle with being more comfortable in the wilderness than they are. This made for many shades of conflict, internal and external, but also made for a highly realistic and sympathetic protagonist.

4. Interesting minor characters. This story was a journey, so often characters would appear and then fade as Samuel made his way to New York. I particularly Coop, who nurses Samuel after a redcoat raid, Annie, the girl Samuel saves from a Hessian raid, and Abner, a spy.

5. Real historic facts written like broadsheets throughout. I thought this was an interesting choice for a historical novel. Instead of inserting historical facts in the actual narrative, Paulsen included articles after each chapter, explaining an aspect of the time period, from rifles to spies to covert communications. Although I thought this would be distracting, it actually worked really well—giving the reader background without slowing down the actual story.

I think this would work great in the classroom for a study of the Revolutionary War, especially since it focuses on how the war affected ordinary people,. As Paulsen says in the Afterword: "The men fighting and dying, in the War for Independence were, for the most part, average young workingmen with little or no military training...That these young men and boys stood to as they did, in the face of withering odds, and actually won and crated a new country with their blood, is nothing short of astonishing."

Its focus on survival and all the gritty details of the war would especially appeal to boys, but all MG readers, especially those who love survival fiction, like JULIE OF THE WOLVES or HATCHET, would enjoy this. Due to the gritty details and violence at times, I would not recommend it to younger middle grade readers or more sensitive readers.

Have you read any good novels about the Revolutionary War?

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

Monday, April 13, 2015

MMGM: The Case of the Missing Moonstone (The Wollenstonecraft Detective Agency, Book 1)

A few years ago, while perusing Kickstarter, I came across an intriguing concept for a mystery series about two real-life historical figures (Lady Ada Byron—the first female computer programmer) and Mary Godwin (the author of Frankenstein). Boy, did I want to read that book.  

A few weeks ago I got my hands on The Wollenstonecraft Detective Agency.  I didn’t realize at first that this was the same book. But when I did a little research, I learned the author initially had asked for $4,000 on Kickstarter, but raised over $90,000 on his campaign, got an agent, and a book deal. Three more books in the series are forthcoming.

It seems that I’m not the only one who loves to read about real historical figures solving crimes, especially if the writing is fun with references to math, science, and literature.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Jordan Stratford imagines an alternate 1826, where Ada Lovelace (the world’s first computer programmer) and Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) meet as girls and form a secret detective agency!
Lady Ada Byron, age eleven, is a genius. Isolated, awkward and a bit rude—but a genius. Mary Godwin, age fourteen, is a romantic. Adventurous, astute, and kind, Mary is to become Ada’s first true friend. And together, the girls conspire to form the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency—a secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals. Their first case involves a stolen heirloom, a false confession, and an array of fishy suspects. But it’s no match for the deductive powers and bold hearts of Ada and Mary.

Mystery fans will love this tween girl riff on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. History buffs will be delighted to see all the real figures who play a role in this story and appreciate the extensive backmatter that helps separate truth from fiction. Parents and educators hoping to promote the STEM fields for girls will be thrilled to have a series where two girls use math, science, and creative analytical thinking to solve crimes. But most especially--emerging readers will love this series filled with humor, action, intrigue and wonderful artwork from Kelly Murphy.

What I loved:

      1. Main characters who showed both sides of intelligence: I loved that Mary was more imaginative, creativity and intuitive, while Ada was more scientific and math minded. They contrasted and complimented each other well. This also showed that all kinds of intelligence are needed in this world.

2. Reads like a who’s-who of 1826: Strafford doesn’t just love science and math, but literature. I loved that Dickens and Percy Bysshe Shelley are characters, and others like Wollenstonecraft and Babbage are mentioned. Literature-geek that I am, I ate all this up.

      3.  Fun language: This book is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Who the dickens was that boy?” asks a character after Charles Dickens leaves the room. Lines like this kept me smiling and added a lot of whimsy.

      4.  Theme that solving problems is not just about formulas: I think this is a theme that will really appeal to many kids, especially creative-types. You don’t have to be a math genius to  solve complicated problems or even crimes like Mary and Ada do.

      5.  Characterization: The character of Lady Ada was particularly well done. Her ineptitude in social situations provided a lot of humor, but I also enjoyed her character arc.

My only quibble is that the last chapter seemed to be tacked on to introduce characters that would appear in the next novel, so it felt a bit tacked on for the sequel. But that is a small thing in an otherwise brilliantly executed first novel.

This series reminded me a bit of Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series (about Sherlock’s sister). If you like historical and mysteries and people from the Romantic era in England, you will love this book.

Have you read any great MG historical mysteries lately?

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

Monday, April 6, 2015

Happy Easter

I'm taking today off from blogging, because of Easter weekend. If you celebrate, I hope you had a wonderful Easter!

See you soon!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ISWG: Vision

I had an interesting epiphany this week. I was discussing my book with someone, who pointed out a lot of plot holes. 

Of course, my first reaction, as it always is when I get a harsh critique, is despair. The book needs to be completely revamped. Have I learned anything at all as a writer? Etc., etc.

When that passed (eventually it does), I had some time to think. I already knew some plot points weren’t working, and I want to fix those.

But my almost immediate reaction to many of the suggestions was: “Wait. Fixing it that way wouldn’t work for my book.”

I’m not sure if this is ever happened to me. I’ve had some harsh critiques, and I’ve truly grown from them. But most often when I get critiques, I think, “Of course, they’re right.” And I proceed to make changes. The problem is, that I often end up in circles, rewriting, revising, ad nauseam, never really sure if I’ve met the mark, because I don’t have a clear vision for my book.

I’m not sure if it’s because I went to that Darci Pattison retreat in January and the first thing she had us do was write down the heart of our story—the one thing that we wouldn’t change—but I feel totally different about this book. I have a vision. I know what kind of book I want this to be. And though some of those suggestions I received might work for another book, they wouldn’t work for mine.

I wonder if having a vision is what keeps you from going round and round on the revision merry-go-round, never knowing when or how to get off.

I know now what’s missing from another manuscript that I’m stuck on: vision. Before I start anew, before I change another word, I need to decide why I wrote that book. I need to be able to answer: what’s the point?

I can't say that revising will go any easier this time, but I hope knowing the heart of my story will help me know when to stop revising, when what I've written has matched the story in my head.

Now, I'm curious about you:

How do you keep the heart of your story in mind as you revise and/or get feedback?