Monday, January 18, 2021

A Few Titles for Grown Ups #IMWAYR

Happy Martin Luther King Day! Usually I just feature middle grade reads on my blog. But over Christmas break, I had time to catch up on some longer reads. One of these was  light and entertaining, but the other two are books I will be thinking about for a long time.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

This book is hard to put into words. I picked this up as a classic I’m reading as I work my way through the  Well Educated Mind reading list.

Much of the account takes place before 1850 when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. This book pulled me immediately me from the beginning with Harriet’s descriptions of her early childhood, which was relatively happy to her sexual harassment by her “owner” and her flight and concealment (for seven years!) in her grandma’s shed. She lived Patrick Henry’s statement, “Give me liberty or give me death.”  Wanting something better for her children was the driving force in the many dangers and sacrifices she made. I liked how she highlighted people who helped her (both black and white) and how she considered someone buying her freedom an abomination. God had created her free.


Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Bannon

This was a fun read I enjoyed over Christmas break. Stephanie Bannon captured Jane’s voice so well that I felt like I was reading an Austen novel. I loved seeing how many of Jane’s relatives (her brother and sister-in-law especially) were like Austen’s characters. The mystery was intriguing, and I liked Jane’s sidekick sleuth, the mysterious Raphael West. Lots of other interesting parts: the story is framed by the doll clothes Jane and her sister give to their niece and the mystery itself ties in the Treaty of Ghent and the war of 1812. I always find it interesting to hear about American wars from a British point of view. This is a great winter read, especially as snow plays a prominent part and most of the action happens just after Christmas.

 

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

This title comes from a North Korean song that children learn in school, which sums up how the regime wants its people to think about their country. This book reads like fiction, but it’s actually based on interviews with several defectors. I was amazed by the way women found ways to provide for their families during the famine, despite capitalism being banned and electricity sporadic. One woman was born the same year as I. How different our lives have been despite us both being teachers and entering college the same year. I didn’t know a lot about North Korea before, although I’ve studied a lot about the Russian brand of communism. This book, especially the poignant love story, will stay with you for a long time. Highly recommended.



What books have you been reading lately?

Monday, January 11, 2021

MMGM: Because of the Rabbit



Another rabbit book! I seem to be on a rabbit kick lately, but there were a number of other reasons this book stood out to me. It’s by Cynthia Lord, who wrote the highly acclaimed (and deservedly so) Rules, one of the best books about autism from a sibling’s perspective. Because of the Rabbit is also about a formerly homeschooled girl entering school for the first time. And it has a rabbit rescue!

If you like emotional, character-driven stories with animals, you will love this book!

Synopsis from Amazon:
 

On the last night of summer, Emma tags along with her game warden father on a routine call. They're supposed to rescue a wild rabbit from a picket fence, but instead they find a little bunny. Emma convinces her father to bring him home for the night.

The next day, Emma starts public school for the very first time after years of being homeschooled. More than anything, Emma wants to make a best friend in school.

But things don't go as planned. On the first day of school, she's paired with a boy named Jack for a project. He can't stay on topic, he speaks out of turn, and he's obsessed with animals. Jack doesn't fit in, and Emma's worried he'll make her stand out.

Emma and Jack bond over her rescue rabbit. But will their new friendship keep Emma from finding the new best friend she's meant to have?

Newbery Honor-winning author Cynthia Lord has written a beautiful and sensitive book about being different and staying true to yourself.


What I liked:

1.    The Maine setting: Maine is a state I haven’t been to yet, but I am hankering to go after reading this book. I liked the details of how her family kayaks on a nearby lake, how remote everything is, and Emma’s thoughts on “living in the sticks.” It’s very clear that this place is near and dear to the writer’s heart.

2.    Beautiful kid images and metaphors: There’s no purple prose here, but I love how Lord uses metaphors that only a kid would come up with. When Emma described the mountains like origami done by a beginner, I had to smile. Kids are natural poets.

3.    The rabbit! Although Lapi the rabbit didn’t play a huge role in the plot, I liked the specific details about his care. I didn’t know that rabbits claim people and objects like cats and dogs do. I also like how Lord used rabbit facts at the beginning of the chapter to foreshadow events and reveal Emma’s emotional state.

4.    French Canadian folklore. I loved how the Rabbit is named Lapin after the French word for rabbit and how Emma calls her grandparents by their French names. The inclusion of Pépère’s stories was delightful. My mom is a retired French teacher, and my sons call her Mémé, so I could relate.

5.    Family dynamics: I wanted to move in with this family! It was nice to see siblings who actually like to spend time together, and a sister who misses her brother when he’s gone. Emma’s mom and dad are also really relatable, and I especially liked how Dad often brings Emma with him when he rescues animals.

Minor Quibbles: None

The new kid at school plot reminded me a lot of Roll With It, which I reviewed last fall. But I think kids can’t get enough of books like this: learning that having a friend is not so much about finding a particular person, but being a friend to others.


What books have you loved lately?

 

To read more middle grade reviews or join in on the MMGM fun, check out Greg Pattridge's blog Always in the Middle. 




Wednesday, January 6, 2021

IWSG: Why I Stop Reading


 

This post was originally published on January 15, 2014 and updated on January 6, 2020.

I have a confession to make: I sometimes don't finish books.


There's been two in the last week that I've wanted to throw against the wall. Both, by the way, were for adults. So, maybe I just need to keep reading kidlit.


There were books that started out well. I loved the characters, the voice, and was drawn into the story from the first chapter.


Why did I stop?


Here's a few reasons I can't bring myself to finish:


1. The character does something completely out of character. I don't buy it, and I can't get past it.


2. There is a shocking revelation that doesn't fit the stories or characters.


3. The character doesn't have agency. Everything seems to happen to him/her, but he/she never makes things happen. I really hate to see this in kidlit especially, as kids need good role models for how to be kind and set boundaries.


4. A middle that drags after an enticing beginning. The book I didn't finish recently started out with a really interesting mystery and then plunged into backstory. Don't do that!

5. Purple prose. I'm not a fan of too much description. And thus, I was never able to get through The Hobbit.




What makes you stop reading?

 

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! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can't find you to comment back.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say. 

Remember, the question is optional!

January 6 question - Being a writer, when you're reading someone else's work, what stops you from finishing a book/throws you out of the story/frustrates you the most about other people's books?

The awesome co-hosts for the January 6 posting of the IWSG are Ronel Janse van Vuuren , J Lenni Dorner, Gwen Gardner Sandra Cox, and Louise - Fundy Blue!



Monday, December 21, 2020

MMGM: Astrid Unstoppable



There’s something about a heroine who gets in trouble a lot that appeals to kids. My students enjoyed No, David! by David Shannon, about a boy who hears no a lot. I loved Ramona Quinby as a kid for this reason, and my son really enjoyed Pippi Longstocking when he was young.

Kids spend so much of their time following directions (or trying to!), so they enjoy reading about a heroine who takes rules and requests as a challenge. 


If you enjoyed Pippi Longstocking or other heroes or heroines who rebel in a fun-loving way, you’ll love Astrid Unstoppable.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Pippi Longstocking meets Heidi meets Anne Shirley in this tale of an irrepressible girl in a mountain village who navigates unexpected changes with warmth and humor.

Speed and self-confidence, that’s Astrid’s motto. Nicknamed “the little thunderbolt,” she loves to spend her days racing down the hillside on her sled, singing loudly as she goes, and visiting Gunnvald, her grumpy, septuagenarian best friend and godfather, who makes hot chocolate from real chocolate bars. She just wishes there were other children to share her hair-raising adventures with. But Astrid’s world is about to be turned upside down by two startling arrivals to the village of Glimmerdal: first a new family, then a mysterious, towering woman who everyone seems to know but Astrid. It turns out that Gunnvald has been keeping a big secret from his goddaughter, one that will test their friendship to its limits. Astrid is not too happy about some of these upheavals in Glimmerdal — but, luckily, she has a plan to set things right.

What I liked:


1. A Norwegian setting and mindset! As I’ve talked about on the blog before, I really enjoy reading books in translation. Reading about another culture from an American who’s lived there can be insightful, but I feel like I get so much of a deeper understanding from books written by someone who is actually a native of that country. 


2. A heroine who is spunky but in a kid-like way. One of my friends recommended this book because the heroine doesn’t act like a junior adolescent. She is just a kid. She does do pranks, but they are innocent. This is a book for kids who like being kids.


3. Endearing relationships with adults. When the story begins, Astrid is the only child in her area of Norway, and although that changes, she still ends the story with her best friends still being a grandfather-like character, who’s a lot of fun. I love stories that show that kids can be friends with people of all ages. 


4. Nods to classics like Heidi. I really enjoyed how the novel Heidi was used in this book. Gunnvald, of course, is like grandfather. And Astrid is a bit like Heidi, bringing joy wherever she goes.


5. Ultimate sledding. Gunnvald’s attempts to create an ultimate sled were really fun. As were Astrid’s mishaps!


6. Other: I can’t forget how much I loved that church was just a part of life, even though Astrid is not particularly religious, and Astrid’s nemesis was another grown up, who just didn’t understand kids.

Content Warning: Some reviewers were upset that some of the adults exhibit bad behaviors, although Astrid doesn't approve of them. I've read too many books where the message of the story is that the child must get used to the parent's bad behavior (especially in the case of divorce). That is not the case here. One character has made some mistakes in his past, and he has to own up to them. Along the way, Astrid, who isn't personally affected, learns that when grown ups make mistakes, it's not the child's fault, which I thought was a great message. I also liked that the author seemed more concerned with conveying life in all its joys and pains rather than trying to teach children a lesson by creating cardboard characters who have never made any mistakes.

However, please be aware that there a few scenes where adults are drunk, take chewing tobacco, and divorce and an out of wedlock birth are part of some of the character's backstories.

What books have you loved lately?

To read more middle grade reviews or join in on the MMGM fun, please go to Greg Pattridge's blog Always in the Middle. 



Monday, December 14, 2020

MMGM: Green Ember




Although I’m not usually a fan of anthropomorphic books, my first pet was a rabbit, and I’ve always had a soft spot for bunnies. And then there’s Watership Down. I was sure I would not like a novel all about rabbits, but I loved it. It’s become part of our family culture.


We first heard about Green Ember from some friends whose reading tastes closely match our own. It seems to be all the rage in homeschooling circles, although it’s little known elsewhere.

So when my son devoured Green Ember and kept begging me to read it, I had to find out what all the fuss was about.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Heather and Picket are extraordinary rabbits with ordinary lives until calamitous events overtake them, spilling them into a cauldron of misadventures. They discover that their own story is bound up in the tumult threatening to overwhelm the wider world.

Kings fall and kingdoms totter. Tyrants ascend and terrors threaten. Betrayal beckons, and loyalty is a broken road with peril around every bend.

Where will Heather and Picket land? How will they make their stand?

What I liked:

1.  A brother and sister who like each other. It’s unusual to see siblings without rivalry in middle grade. Although sometimes Heather and Pickett argued at times, they always ultimately wanted to help each other, which was quite refreshing.

2. Picket’s character arc. I know some reviewers have complained that Picket is a little too whiny at times—and that’s certainly true. But I liked how he learned that it wasn’t anger itself that was bad, but what you do with it.

3.  Everyone has a calling. It was a given that all the rabbits have a gift to share with the world.  In the calling ceremony, the master and apprentice bind themselves to each other and the master says, “I bind you…to release you better still.” And storytelling is considered a high calling in this society!

4.   Backstory that is interesting. I liked the backstory of King Jupiter and his fall and betrayal and how that was a huge part of this society. I generally don’t like backstory, but his story, as told by Heather and Pickett’s dad and later by other characters, was interesting and rich.

5.   Themes of hope. The whole idea of the rabbits working and looking forward to a “Mended Wood” was lovely. A good reminder right now that this world is not all that there is.

6. Illustrations! You can tell from the cover that the illustrations (black and white inside the book) are beautiful and evoke that old fashioned fantasy. They add a lot to the story.

Minor Quibbles: While I really loved the beginning and ending of this book, I did struggle through the middle. There are a lot of characters and set up, which don’t get satisfied till the end or in the next book. However, I am not generally a fan of epic fantasy, so that might just be me.

Are you a fan of epic fantasy? What books have you loved lately?

To read more middle grade reviews or join in on the MMGM fun, please go to Greg Pattridge's blog Always in the Middle. 


 

Monday, December 7, 2020

MMGM: Notorious



As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Gordon Korman. When I saw he had a new book out that was a dog mystery, I was over the moon excited. My son loves dogs and raved about this book. I was hooked from page one. First, there's the intriguing setting: an island that is split between Canada and the U.S. Supposedly this island was also once a hang out of the gangsters of the 1930s. 

Then you have amazing characters: Keenan, a kid who’s lived all over the world, but who’s moved to Centerlight (or Centrelight if you’re Canadian) to recover from TB. Then there’s ZeeBee, who’s pining for her dead (murdered?) dog and tells stories too farfetched to believe. Throw in a lot of interesting secondary characters, many of whom have their own character arcs, and you’ve got one delightful novel.

This is probably my favorite Korman to date.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Keenan has lived all over the world but nowhere quite as strange as Centerlight Island, which is split between the United States and Canada. The only thing weirder than Centerlight itself is his neighbor Zarabeth, aka ZeeBee.

ZeeBee is obsessed with the island’s history as a Prohibition-era smuggling route. She’s also convinced that her beloved dog, Barney, was murdered—something Keenan finds pretty hard to believe.

Just about everyone on Centerlight is a suspect, because everyone hated Barney, a huge dog—part mastiff, part rottweiler—notorious for terrorizing the community. Accompanied by a mild-mannered new dog who is practically Barney’s opposite, ZeeBee enlists Keenan’s help to solve the mystery.

As Keenan and ZeeBee start to unravel the clues, they uncover a shocking conspiracy that dates back to Centerlight’s gangster past. The good news is that Keenan may have found the best friend he’s ever had. The bad news is that the stakes are sky-high.

And now someone is after them. . . .


What I liked:

1.ZeeBee! I have a soft spot for difficult kids. It never fails that my favorite students are the ones that all the other teachers gripe about. ZeeBee is that difficult-to-love kid. She’s got a huge chip on her shoulder and never says she’s sorry. She complains a lot, and it’s hard to tell when she’s telling the truth. I loved her!

2. Keenan: While I didn’t find him quite as interesting as Zee Bee, I had fun learning what it was like to live all over the world. I really enjoyed his growth as a character, especially in his friendship with ZeeBee.

3. Bullies who grow up. I was worried at first that Korman was going for the jocks as bullies cliche again (see my review of Restart), but I was totally wrong. There was an amazing character arc in this novel for the middle school goof offs. It’s always nice when bullies have depth too.

4. The dog! Barney Two, who is a pretty tame dog compared to his predecessor, stole the scene a number of times. If you or a child in your life love dogs, I highly recommend this read.

5. An interesting mystery. This is the first Korman mystery I’ve read. There were lots of red herrings and puzzle pieces, but the character development wasn’t overshadowed by the plot. I didn’t guess who did it, but I was very close. (My son unfortunately spoiled the surprise, which is always a danger when you share the same taste in books as your kids.)

Minor Quibbles: None!

What mysteries have you loved lately?

To read more middle grade reviews or join in on the MMGM fun, please go to Greg Pattridge's blog Always in the Middle.


 
 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

ISWG: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to Write!

It's sparkly! It's shiny! It's a new manuscript!
 

I’m back!
 
I’m so glad I took a little break for November to catch my breath. I’ve caught up on my reading over Thanksgiving break. More book features are in the works!

In addition, I started a brand new chapter of a shiny new manuscript!


Wow, I can’t actually believe that I started something new. This idea started percolating over the summer, and I’ve been working in the evenings with Save the Cat to come up with a beat sheet and write note cards for key scenes.

The problem was the beginning. I had written a beginning over the summer, but after working on a beat sheet (an outline from Save the Cat), I realized I started too late in the story. That scene needed more set up.

But where to start exactly? I’m a little weird about first chapters. Most of the time, they just come to me. I get an idea or an image, and the scene forms in my mind. I edit my first chapters heavily, but it’s very rare that I change the first scene significantly. So I kept waiting, because I knew I couldn’t write that first chapter without that “this is it” moment.

Over the Thanksgiving break I finally had enough time to let my mind wander a bit. And not think about lesson planning! I had my image. And I wrote that first, beautiful chapter.

I’m sure it will morph and change, but I know where my story starts, and I’m so excited about starting something new. I think—though who’s counting—that it’s been five years since I started a novel length project. I’ve been dibbling and dabbling and rewriting old manuscripts.

Maybe that’s because I’ve been a bit stuck. I’m so thankful for critique partners, who have helped me get back in my writing groove. One dear writing friend, who happily lives close to me, was truly sent by God to encourage me just when I was about to give up.

The question this month is: what time of year do you write best?

Of course summer and all the lovely holiday breaks are prime writing time for me. But I’m also finding that a little bit each day, often handwritten, either brainstorming or drafting, sows the seeds to make those big leaps once I have more time.

What about you? When do you write best?



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! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can't find you to comment back.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say. 

Remember, the question is optional!

December 2 question - Are there months or times of the year that you are more productive with your writing than other months, and why?

The awesome co-hosts for the December 2 posting of the IWSG are Pat Garcia, Sylvia Ney, Liesbet @ Roaming About Cathrina Constantine, and Natalie Aguirre!