Monday, September 11, 2017

MMGM: Mari’s Hope

Don't you just love this cover? It just exudes hope!
While I love the modern books I’ve discovered that very few have the kind of characters that I think of as friends. As a child, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, and Betsy Ray (of Betsy-Tacy fame) were not just characters to me; they were real people. So much of why I became a children’s writer and still read children's books is because of those books. When my friends didn’t understand me, Anne or Betsy did.

In the vein of those beloved classics is a modern series that has the same effect on me. In the Odin’s Promise series, Mari, a girl resisting the Nazis during the Norwegian occupation, is a valiant successor to my favorite characters of old. I’ve enjoyed not only reading Mari’s journey, but supporting its author, Sandy Brehl, through the whole series. So, with sadness I’ve finished the last book, but this is a series I won’t soon forget.



The synopsis (from Goodreads):

Mari’s Hope delivers the dramatic conclusion to the middle-grade historical fiction trilogy begun with Odin’s Promise, awarded the 2014 Midwest Book Award for Children’s Fiction, and Bjorn’s Gift (released in 2016).

In Mari’s Hope, set in a small village in occupied western Norway in the final years of World War II, young Mari has become a valued helper to the village doctor. She also plays a role in her family’s efforts in the local resistance, despite everpresent dangers, especially from the snooping soldier called Goatman and from Leif, her one-time school friend, now a German collaborator.

As the German war efforts falter, the pressure increases on the occupying troops to hold Norway firmly in their grip. But freedom-loving Norwegians will do their best to thwart those plans.

What to love:

1. Getting to spend time with people characters we love. The wonderful thing about reading the last book in a series is that you already know the characters so well. We get to see Mari, her parents, Besternor (her Norwegian grandmother), the various townspeople we’ve grown to love, the enigmatic Leif, Goatman, and many others.

2. An opening ending. Normally I don’t like open endings, but this fit this particular story—and one storyline that ran through the whole series. It fit Mari’s character so well, and had this book ended in a more typical way, I wouldn’t love her or this book quite so much.

3.  A main character who never whines. A lot of historical novels have a heroine who complains about her lot, as if she's been transported from modern times. Mari is completely different, and that’s what makes her historically authentic. Like many people in the World War II generation, Mari faces circumstances far more difficult than I can imagine, yet she never feels sorry for herself.

4.  A girl who is more focused on family than romance. I love, love this about Mari. Many of my friends who have daughters complain that so many books for kids, especially those marketed to girls, have romance as a strong theme. It’s refreshing to see that Mari’s focus is on saving her family and culture.

5.  Humor. I love throughout the series, but especially in this book, the small doses of humor, especially when it comes to thwarting the Nazis—priceless!

6.  (Because I can’t just stick to 5) Details. This is what reminds me of Little House or Anne of Green Gables. Brehl spends a lot of time giving us a lot of details about the daily life: the foods, the herbs used for medicine, the school day, train travel, etc. It is all lovingly done, and it makes you feel right there with Mari through it all.

 If you love books with strong, but quiet heroines, little known aspects of World War II, or character-driven historicals, you will love this series. Check out MARI’S HOPE, but if you haven’t read ODIN’S PROMISE or BJORN’S GIFT, get ye to a bookstore now!

A little bit about Sandy:




Sandy Brehl is the award-winning author of a Norway historical trilogy for ages ten-thru-adult. (ODIN’S PROMISE, BJORN’S GIFT, and MARI’S HOPE) She also writes a blog about picture books (http://Unpackingpicturebookpower.blogspot.com) and contributes to a blog about historical works from middle grade readers (https://thestoriedpast.org). She’s an active member and volunteer with SCBWI-Wisconsin. Sandy writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young readers of any age. A retired educator living in the Milwaukee area, Sandy offers programs for schools, libraries, and adult groups. Learn more at www.SandyBrehl.com, follow on Twitter @SandyBrehl and @PBWorkshop, and on Facebook: Sandy Brehl Author. 
 


Have you read any books with memorable characters lately?

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reads, please go to Shannon Messenger's website.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Few Titles for Grown Ups

Ah, summer! Whether I'm stuck inside with the air conditioner or enjoying iced tea on the back porch, I’m often enjoying time with a good book. What better way to celebrate summer than to read outside my usual genre, kidlit.

Here are a few of my favorites for grown ups that I've read lately.


THE OPPOSITE OF FATE by Amy Tan 

I  hadn’t read any Amy Tan before I read this book, although I did see The Joy Luck Club. What I loved about this book is that it is part memoir, part writing advice. The book is not a narrative, but a series of essays, some for other publications about her life and her writing. The essay where she describes finding a Cliff Notes about her book is not to be missed--especially if you need a laugh. Her thoughts on being a multicultural author were interesting. Despite the fact that she writes what she knows, she’s constantly criticized for not portraying Chinese culture in a good light, for not providing good Chinese male role models, etc. I loved her response. Her purpose, as a writer is not to educate or to remake Chinese culture or people’s perceptions of it. Her purpose is to write what is true. May we all have the courage to do the same. 




GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles

I tend not to like most best-sellers, but this one astounded me. It has all the things I love: the backdrop of the Russian revolution, nods to some of my favorite classic literature, and a hero who loves manners and is a true gentleman. This was a book I savored for its lovely turns of phrase, wide scope (though it takes place in one location), well-drawn characters, and wit. Not to be missed!



THE AWAKENING OF MISS PRIM by Natalia Sanmartin Fenorella

This is a translation of a Spanish novel. I first heard about it on Faith's blog, Life is Art, and knew I would love it. It's sort of a modern Jane Eyre-esque novel with a librarian meeting a curmudgeon, who is a cross between Darcy and C.S. Lewis. I loved all the literary allusions, but also the frank discussions of philosophy and Christian thought I rarely see in fiction. I also loved this idyllic town where feminists support women working less hours (yay to that!) so that they can focus on their children and their gifts and passions. And the portrayal of homeschooling as a suitable alternative to regular education spoke to me as well. It's a very different novel--if you like philosophy and Jane Eyre, it might be your cup of tea.




Have you read any interesting books for grown ups lately?

P.S. I'll be taking a break from blogging for the rest of the month and the first week of September. I will be back on September 11th with a post about MARI'S HOPE--the final installment in Sandy Brehl's trilogy about a girl surviving the Nazi occupation of Germany. See you then!

Monday, August 7, 2017

MMGM: The Unbreakable Code


This is a book I got from the library, but I can’t remember what inspired me to get it. I think it was probably the fun title and the promise of a mystery. But little did I know that this book had some parallels with a book I’m currently revising. So win, win for me. A book to enjoy, and to learn from!

If you like mysteries about codes with historical themes and treasure hunts, you’re in luck!

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

A New York Times-Bestseller!

Could books hidden through Book Scavenger be linked to an arsonist's web of destruction? Find out in Book 2 of Jennifer Chambliss' The Book Scavenger series.

Mr. Quisling is definitely up to something mysterious, and Emily and James are on high alert. First, there’s the coded note he drops at a book event. Then they uncover a trail of encrypted messages in Mark Twain-penned books hidden through Book Scavenger. What’s most suspicious is that each hidden book triggers a fire.

As the sleuthing friends dig deeper, they discover Mr. Quisling has been hunting a legendary historical puzzle: the Unbreakable Code. This new mystery is irresistible, but Emily and James can’t ignore the signs that Mr. Quisling might be the arsonist. The clock is ticking as the fires multiply, and Emily and James race to crack the code of a lifetime.

This title has Common Core connections.


What I loved about Unbreakable Code:

1.  The mystery was tied to history: I loved how the mystery didn’t happen in a vacuum but was based on real, historical events. This historical background—Angel Island, the San Fransisco Gold Rush, and Mark Twain—gave the book a lot of depth.

2.  A boy-girl friendship where they are just friends: I love that there was no hint of romance between James and Emily. It was nice to see them drawn together by common interests—a shared love of reading and clues.

3.  Codes! I recommended this to my son, who loved the Winston Breen series. Kids who love to solve the codes along with the main characters will love this.

4. A fast-paced, intricate plot: As plotting is something I struggle with, I’m going to be studying this one. I found the chapters by the anonymous villain quite brilliant. And I loved how all the various elements in this book came together for a very satisfying climax—like who knew a dance committee could be important?

5. Interesting and reliable adults: The adults usually get a bad rap in kidlit, but I loved how most of the adult characters were honorable people who seemed to really get these kids (except for the antagonist, of course).

Caveat: While I loved a lot about this book, I have a few tiny nitpicks. There were some mixed metaphors that were a bit jarring. And the entire cast of characters, some of whom had similar names, was often hard to keep track of.

But, all in all, a fun read. Perfect for summer when you want to escape and use your brain! By the way, this is the sequel to the BOOK SCAVENGER, which I haven’t read yet. So, you don’t have to read the first in the series to enjoy the sequel.

This book has been compared to the WESTING GAME and MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY, both of which are apt comparisons. Puzzles and smart kids—what a great combination!

Have you read any interesting mysteries with codes lately?

 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

ISWG: Should a Hero or Heroine be Heroic?



This month’s question is:  What is your pet peeve when writing/editing/reading?

I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that a character needed to change by the end of the story—the bigger the change, the better. If you ever read Anatomy of a Story (John Truby), one of my favorite books on writing, he says the key to a satisfying story is starting with a character with a deep moral flaw.



However, lately I’ve given some thought to this, and I’m not sure I agree. Every time I’ve tried to craft a character with a major change, I have to make that character really detestable at the beginning. And there’s the problem: the reader must put up with this nasty character for quite awhile before the “change.”

In one of my novels like this, a CP told me she hated that character, but I persevered, sure that if I could make the character arc big enough, I could make this character’s story satisfying. But then I put the book aside for awhile and upon rereading it, realized I hated this character too. It doesn’t matter how much she changes at the end—I still don’t like her. Needless to say, that novel is trunked.

I’ve put down two kidlit books recently where the main character made a bad choice that didn’t feel justified. (For the record: If the main character is like Jean Valjean and stealing bread to feed his sister’s children, that is one thing. But if a character is stealing to impress the mean girl clique, you've lost me as a reader.)

I’m currently writing and revising a novel where I thought the main character would be unlikeable. He has a lot of issues. He’s “rough around the edges.” He gets in fights. But the reason why he does these things (like Valjean’s bread) is morally upright. I think Prince Jaron in THE FALSE PRINCE is like this.
He’s tough and reckless, but he’d willingly lay down his life to save the girl he loves and his kingdom. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there needs to be at least a kernel of goodness (or a large kernel preferably) in our main characters.

Now I focus less on making sure my character changes in a big way. I’m not advocating perfect characters, but if there’s nothing heroic, nothing that makes me admire this character for being particularly kind or brave, I’m not going to keep reading.

That is why I no longer create characters that are unlikeable for most of the book. Now if there were more authors who did the same…


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!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!
 
Check out our sign up and participating blogs here.

 

Monday, July 24, 2017

MMGM: Beautiful Blue World




I picked up this book at my library. I was drawn in by the beautiful cover and the fact that it was about two girl friends, but seeing it was by Suzanne LaFleur closed the deal. I'm convinced she can't write a bad book—and her ability to convey emotion is extraordinary.

If you like suspenseful books about war or the power of friendship, this book is for you.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Beautiful Blue World is a thrilling and moving story of children who become the key to winning a war.

Sofarende is at war. For twelve-year-old Mathilde, it means food shortages, feuding neighbors, and bombings. Even so, as long as she and her best friend, Megs, are together, they’ll be all right.

But the army is recruiting children, and paying families well for their service. If Megs takes the test, Mathilde knows she will pass. Megs hopes the army is the way to save her family. Mathilde fears it might separate them forever.

This touching and suspenseful novel is a brilliant reimagining of war, where even kindness can be a weapon, and children have the power to see what adults cannot.


What to love about Beautiful Blue World:

1. An expertly drawn girl friendship: While boy-girl friendships are very common in kidlit (possibly to appeal to both kinds of readers), I find them less common in real life. The story of these two girls really resonated with me and reminded me of the close friends I have from childhood. We need more books like this that show girls sacrificing and looking out for one another (no more mean girls, please).

2. A close family relationship: You would think that because a family is willing to send their daughter off to work for the army, that they do not care for her. So the neighbors think. But Mathilde's close relationship with her sisters, her mother, and especially her father were so lovely. LaFleur’s use of memorable details makes this happen.

3. Mathilde’s gift is not your typical “talent”: Mathilde is not chosen not for her math or science or writing skills, but her gift with people. It made me think of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences; academic smarts are not the only kind of smarts. What a wonderful message for kids.

4. Children are important and insightful: I think what will appeal to a lot of kid readers is how the children in the book are integral to the war effort, though not in ways you might think. The emphasis in this book is how adults might from kids.

5. Suspense, emotion, and depth: This is a book I had a hard time putting down. When I analyze why, it wasn’t just that it was suspenseful and had high stakes; it’s that those stakes had meaning and emotional resonance. While you might speed read through this book to find out what happens, it’s not a book you’ll quickly forget.

I’m not sure what to compare this to, although the testing at the beginning reminded me of THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY,  the high stakes and emotion of THE HUNGER GAMES,  and the war time setting (albeit a made-up country) of many fine MGs about life during World War II.

If you like Suzanne LaFleur’s other work, this is vastly different, but the strong emotional core that she excels at in LOVE, AUBREY  and EIGHT KEYS (reviewed here) is very much present.

And if you enjoyed BEAUTIFUL BLUE WORLD, its sequel, THREADS OF BLUE is out in September. I can’t wait to find out what happens to Mathilde!

Have you read any books set in war time that you enjoyed lately?

If you'd like to check out more Monday middle grade books, go to Shannon Messenger's blog.


Monday, July 10, 2017

MMGM: I Am David


I initially picked up this book for my son. He’d been studying modern history this year, and I wanted a book about what it was like behind the Iron Curtain. He didn’t read it, but I did. And what a book! Many of you know I have a place in my heart for anything Eastern European or Russian. Honestly, I think it goes back to my own teen years. Before the wall fell, I watched an interview of Russian teenagers on TV.

 “They’re just like me,” I thought. And that one show changed my life. I went on to study Russian in college and live there for a semester because I wanted to meet in person these teens who “were just like me.” I still feel fortunate to call these people, former Soviets, friends.

I think when you read I AM DAVID, you will be struck with the same sort of “ah hah” moment. Yes, he has suffered more than most. He’s never known joy or a loving family or even tasty food. But at its heart, I AM DAVID, is about the strength of the human spirit, about not giving in and rising above those people who’ve sinned egregiously against you. I dare you not to fall in love with his amazing boy.

David's entire twelve-year life has been spent in a grisly prison camp in Eastern Europe. He knows nothing of the outside world. But when he is given the chance to escape, he seizes it. With his vengeful enemies hot on his heels, David struggles to cope in this strange new world, where his only resources are a compass, a few crusts of bread, his two aching feet, and some vague advice to seek refuge in Denmark. Is that enough to survive?

David's extraordinary odyssey is dramatically chronicled in Anne Holm's classic about the meaning of freedom and the power of hope.


What to like:

1. An amazing main character: What I loved about David, more than anything, is despite his various mishaps and misunderstandings of the world outside, he never loses his desire to not be like his captors. “You must hate what is bad or else you grow just like them.”

2. An outsider’s view of the western world: One of the most interesting parts of the book for me is David’s innocence, which seems ironic, seems he's been exposed to so much. But his misunderstandings about babies, families, God, among other things, are quite realistic and endearing.

3. A book in translation. As I shared here, I think we have too few books in translation in the United States. While we are a large country with lots of talented writers, I love reading children’s books from writers from other countries. It expands your view of the world.
 

It's hard for me to come up with bullet points for this book. I loved it because this character touched my heart and gave me a glimpse of a completely different world. I was initially drawn in by David’s unusual experiences and reactions, but I walked away inspired to be like him.

Have you read any inspiring books lately? Or something set during the Cold War?


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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

ISWG: Just Keep Writing




Last spring my son had two piano performances—a festival and a recital—on the same day. I watched as he struggled to continue playing after he made a few mistakes (he wanted to start over) and another student did the same. But the interesting thing to me, is that neither of these students were beginners. The beginners don’t struggle as much if they make mistakes. These two kids had high standards and their fingers couldn’t keep up with how they imagined the piece should sound.

I realize I do the same thing with my writing.

I am thankful that writing is not a performance art. Unlike when I played piano, no one sees the tears I cry at a harsh critique or a rejection from a much hoped for agent. I get to do that in private, which I am extremely grateful for.

But like the piano students, my fingers haven’t caught up with my imagination.

With other things in my life, I pick a sane, easy route. (While I love to bake, I will not be making anyone a wedding cake any time soon.) But with writing, I have the strange desire to pick the hardest thing ever.

I wonder now if some of my problems with my earlier books are that I made everything too complicated: several hundred subplots, anyone? Mashups of as many genres as possible?

See, with writing, I don’t hold back. I am not sane. And the fact that I still need to develop as a writer has never stopped me from tackling something beyond my reach.

And now here I am, having just finished a draft of a new book. I still have a lot of work to do. My rough drafts are usually more like filled-in outlines; the big work of revision is ahead. And this book is complicated in every way: a culture not my own, a theme so close to my heart it feels about to burst, a genre I’ve never tackled before.

I’m afraid that I’m going to fall on my face, or behave like I did at my piano recitals, run out of the room crying.

But I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t stretch myself, tackle a piece that’s just beyond my reach.

I need to remember the advice the adjudicator told my son: Just keep playing.

The question this month is what is the one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing? I’ve learned many things, but the most important is perseverance, or in other words, Just keep writing.


What is the one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing?


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!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

To see more ISWG posts or to sign up, go here. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

ISWG: Finding Your Way Back

This month's question: Did you ever say "I quit"? If so, what happened to make you come back to writing?

I have many different times in my life when I wanted to quit. The longest stretch was about six years ago. I had a lot going on in my personal life (my younger son required two surgeries within the space of a few months), and I’d gotten some discouraging feedback on a new project. I’ve since learned never to let anyone see my first drafts, but I didn’t know that then. I was so discouraged I set that book aside.

That’s when the writer's block started. For a few months, I just wrote, “I can’t write anything,” in my journal. At least I was writing words, right?

How did I find my way back? I started asking myself what I really liked to read and what I really wanted to write if I didn’t have to worry about anyone else reading it. This led me to tackling a YA retelling, a book of my heart. Instead of writing for the market, I wrote just for me.

No, it’s not published, but that’s not the point. The important thing is that through writing that novel, I found my love of writing again. Because if I don’t enjoy writing, why am I doing this anyway?

I’ve since learned that I’m often most vulnerable to giving up when life presents me with a mix of writing obstacles and difficult life circumstances. But now that I’ve seen I can come back, dealing with those bad days or those days (or months) when writing comes hard is easier. I know they won’t last forever.

All I need to keep in mind is why I’m writing in the first place: What do I like to read? What do I like to write?

If that’s my focus, I won’t give up for long.

And that book I gave up on? It’s finished, and I’m now querying it. Setting something aside doesn’t mean forever.





What is Insecure Writer's Support 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!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

 To see more IWSG posts, go here. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

What I Learned About Dreams from La La Land


Summit Entertainment via redbox.com
Have you seen La La Land? I recently watched it, since it just came out on DVD.  As a fan of old movies, especially Singing in the Rain, it was my cup of tea: lovely score, costumes, and snappy dialogue. I was enthralled with this story of an aspiring actress and a jazz musician till the end.

But all that talk of following your dreams made me think of my own dreams—and how long I’ve wanted to be a writer (since fourth grade—but who’s counting?).

Here’s what I learned about dreams:

***Spoiler Alert—if you haven’t watched the movie, you might want to stop here.***

1.  Rejection can make you lose sight of your dreams. There’s one point in the movie, when Mia, the main character, is so discouraged she wants to give up. “It hurts,” she says. I don’t blame her. Auditions are harder than querying. I’d rather get a form letter. But no matter how it happens, rejection does hurt. The only thing that’s helped me is to remember—it’s not personal. It’s my work they don’t like, not me.


Summit Entertainment
2.  Support is essential for any dreamer. I loved how Sebastian pushes Mia when she’s at her lowest, finding her an audition and driving her all the way from Nevada to L.A. This made me thankful for the supportive people in my life—like my husband who always took my dream seriously, never doubting I’d see a book in my hands some day. I know it’s harder following your dreams without support, though not impossible.

3.  Being a dreamer means making tough choices. The only part about the movie I didn’t like was the ending. If you’ve seen it, you know it’s not typical Hollywood. But, at the same time, I agree with what the filmmakers are saying. Having a dream—a big dream, like acting or any of the arts—is consuming. It can be hard on your family. I know this, because there was a time when I was so consumed with my art that I had very little left over for my husband or kids. But unlike Mia, I don’t think that is a good thing. I love writing, but I hold it a lot more loosely than I once did. Of course, it’s still my dream to get published, but there is more to life than writing. And I don’t regret the fact that my writing dreams have sometimes moved at a snail's pace in order to put my family first.


Summit Entertainment via redbox.com
Have you seen La La Land? What do you think about what it said about choices and following your dreams?



* I won't be blogging for the next Mondays due to a family wedding and Memorial Day weekend. I'll be back on June 7th for Insecure Writer's Support Group.  I'll see you then!

Monday, May 8, 2017

MMGM: School Ship Tobermory

If you’ve been reading this blog awhile, you may have heard me mention Alexander McCall Smith. I love his mystery series for adults, THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. It’s one of a few series that  I faithfully read Why? It’s got quirky characters, lovely prose, and a rich African setting.

When I saw that he had a new series out for kids, I was excited. Not only did it have a mystery element, but it was set on the isle of Mull in Scotland (!), and just happened to take place on a school that’s a ship. What’s not to like?

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

The author of the beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency draws from his own sailing experience to deliver this rip-roaring adventure on the high seas. The first volume in a middle-grade adventure-mystery series perfect for boys and girls!

Ben and Fee MacTavish are twins who’ve been homeschooled on a submarine. Now they’re heading to the School Ship Tobermory. This is no ordinary school—it’s a sailing ship where kids from around the world train to be sailors and learn about all things nautical. Come aboard as the kids set sail for their first adventure.

Ben and Fee make friends as they adjust to life aboard the Tobermory. When a film crew arrives on a nearby ship, the Albatross, Ben is one of the lucky kids chosen as a movie extra. But after a day’s filming, his suspicions are aroused. Are the director and crew really shooting a film? Or are they protecting a secret on the lower decks of the Albatross? Ben, Fee, and their friends set out to investigate. Are they prepared for what they might find?


What to like:

1. The author, as always, draws from his own experience: This is what I love about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. McCall Smith’s books are always set in places he knows well, like Africa or Scotland. He’s also a sailor. So, it goes to show that “writing what you know” really pays off—especially in the depth of your story.

2. A close-knit family: Although Ben and Fee’s folks only appear in the very beginning, I thought it was endearing that Ben and Fee are constantly thinking of writing their parents. I also loved how these twins share secrets and clearly like each other. While Fee and Ben drive the narrative, the author didn’t make the parents awful or kill them off in order for that to happen.

3. An interesting setting: Much of the first part of the book is establishing this school on a ship, and wow, that was a fun idea. I loved how all the students are from all over the world, each with different stories about why they’re at this boarding school.

4. A mystery that’s engaging (and not too scary) for kids: I loved how the two mysteries in the book entwined together.  I loved the emphasis on animals, which was also a hit with my 12-year-old son. This is a gentle mystery, like the No. 1 books, which will appeal to kids who normally don’t like the dark stuff.

5. Kids solve the problems, but adults play a part too. Recently my kids and I were talking about how it seems that all kids in kidlit are smarter than the adults. That doesn’t happen in Tobermory. The teachers are warm and caring, though not without flaws. I liked how the kids decided to tell their teachers what was going on—even if that didn’t work out so well at first—rather than sneaking off by themselves. (I suppose my teacher/mom side is showing.)

What else? Well, there’s an antagonist aptly named Shark (with hair to match), comic-style drawings throughout, cool parents, and the possibility of a sequel in the Caribbean.

This is MG approved, at least at my house. It’s interesting to watch what happens when I bring books home to read for MMGM. The more literary books, especially if they’re perceived to be “sad,” never get stolen from me. But humorous adventures and books about ordinary kids in interesting circumstances (like a Scottish sailing school) almost always disappear. 

Have you read any good nautical yarns lately?


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



Wednesday, May 3, 2017

ISWG: Hands On Research



 This is an update of a post I ran in January 2014. To read the original post, click here.


They say children learn best if they can touch and handle what they are learning, if they are given real experiences.

That seems to apply to us writers too.

One of my favorite parts of writing is the research. (Hey, my first job out of college was a research assistant. I got paid to go to the library!)

But the best kind of research is the kind you can't find in books.

About four years ago, I was working on a historical fantasy set in Russia in 1812.

Although it was not possible for me to travel to Russia to see a reenactment, I attended a Civil War reenactment nearby my house, just so I could talk about wartime medicine with some experts.

Tools used for amputations
I brought my then 8-year-old son as a foil and asked lots of questions. The answers changed a quite a few details in my book.

I also have a falcon in my book, so thanks to some advice from Oregon writer, Emily Whitman, I went to my local Audubon society and met Finnegan:

Finnegan the Peregrine


I took movies with my camera to refer to later. For my kids, it was a "field trip for Mom."

This last summer (2016), I stumbled on two research opportunities that helped with my current projects. Again, these both happened at different festivals or shows that I attended with my kids, often not knowing that I'm find a gem of insight for my writing. 

One, was a medieval sword demonstration, which taught me, among other things that swords fighting is much different in reality than in the movies. And a collie dog show taught me some important facts about that breed (also needed for that same book). Most recently, I am living my research as I just happen to be writing a story set in a school and have recently started substitute teaching.



Me handling a medieval sword

What's next? Hopefully, this summer, my faithful research assistants (a.k.a. sons) and I will learn how to fence.

What has been the most memorable research you have done?

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