Monday, September 21, 2020

MMGM: Zanzibar


There's a paradox in publishing: The type of books that teachers and parents are clamoring for is hard to find.

Example: chapter books. Agents generally don’t represent chapter book writers because their books are not lucrative. But if you are a parent or a teacher, you know how necessary these books are, and how many books are needed to fill that short frame of time when a child is reading them. Voracious readers can go through tons of chapter books, and yet it is so hard to find good one.

Even though my kids are well beyond this stage, I still feel like I’ve hit the jackpot when I find one.

Today I’m going to share with you one I recently discovered: Zanzibar by Catharina Valckx.

 Synopsis (from Amazon):

Achille LeBlab, special correspondent, knocks at Zanzibar’s door. He wants to write an article about an exceptional character. Is Zanzibar exceptional?

The lizard seems to doubt it. “Aside from your poetic name, I’m afraid you’re a very ordinary crow.”

That night Zanzibar decides: “I haven’t done anything remarkable yet, but it’s never too late!” He comes up with an idea for an incredible feat. First he must find a camel...

What to enjoy:

1.   Zanzibar: I never thought I’d enjoy reading about a crow, but there’s something about a name that is hard to pronounce that endears you to him. I can see new readers being excited to read such a long word and find the place on a map.

2.   Whimsical text: Great children’s books don’t take themselves too seriously. This book reminded me a bit of Flora and Ulysees and the lovely Barbar books from my childhood.

3.  Relatable characters and situations: Valckx writes in a childlike way and understands her audience. And who cannot relate to the goal to do something exceptional?

4.  Fun illustrations add to the text: Valckx was an artist before she took up writing and it shows.

5.  Humor adults can enjoy: There’s just enough humor for grown-ups—especially the reporter jokes—that adults reading over their child’s or student’s shoulder will enjoy as well.

Image from author's website

About the Author: Catharina Valckx is a writer living in Amsterdam, although she grew up in France, so although her parents are Dutch, she writes more easily in French. Most of her books are in French, and Zanzibar is a translation from the French by Gecko, a New Zealand press. I really enjoyed exploring her website, which has lovely illustrations done by students during school visits in France under “This and That.” If you are a writer, be sure to read her speech when she received the Children’s Bookstore prize for “Paws Up!”

I especially loved this quote from her speech:

“I am reluctant to saddle young infants with a very sad story. I won’t bother them with ecological problems, injustice or poverty. I feel that they first need to learn to love the world, the people, the animals and plants, and be able to believe that they are not the only ones who do that.”

If you'd like to read more middle grade reviews or join in the MMGM fun, go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Monday, September 14, 2020

MMGM: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict


This is the first of my “Localvore” Reading Challenge that I read (and finished!) this summer. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time. I loved the Mysterious Benedict Society because I am a sucker for books about smart kids.

I had heard such great things about this one, and fangirl that I am, I was longing to know the origins of one of my favorite adult characters in kidlit.

If you too wonder how Mr. Benedict became Mr. Benedict, you will not be disappointed.

From Amazon:

Before there was a Mysterious Benedict Society, there was simply a boy named Nicholas Benedict - now it's time to meet the boy who started it all.

Nine-year-old Nicholas Benedict has more problems than most children his age. Not only is he an orphan with an unfortunate nose, but he also has narcolepsy, a condition that gives him terrible nightmares and makes him fall asleep at the worst possible moments. Now he's being sent to a new orphanage, where he will encounter vicious bullies, selfish adults, strange circumstances -- and a mystery that could change his life forever. Luckily, he has one important thing in his favor: He's a genius.

On his quest to solve the mystery, Nicholas finds enemies around every corner, but also friends in unexpected places -- and discovers along the way that the greatest puzzle of all is himself.

Who will this book appeal to?

1.  Fans of the Mysterious Benedict Society: While this book is more character-driven and less action-packed than the original series, I loved getting in-depth characterization and background of Nicholas’ character. If you wanted to more background on the series' namesake, you will enjoy this.

2.  If you like mysteries that are not that scary: The main mystery in this story is a treasure hunt, but the focus is on the character development. I think this book, although long for new MG readers, would be perfect for kids just starting into MG mysteries or precocious readers, who aren’t ready for the scarier aspects of the Mysterious Benedict Society.

3.  If you like multi-dimensional characters: I spent a lot of time pondering why Nicholas is such an appealing character. I believe it’s because he’s both crafty and vulnerable. He knows how to use his mind to trick bullies and mean grownups, but he also has narcolepsy, which can render him useless at any moment. This made him both relatable and inspiring!

4.   If you like great themes and character arcs: While there is lots of fun to be had along the way, the best part of this book is the ending. Sacrifice is important and not just living for ourselves is a great message for kids.

5.  If you like books about strong friendships: There is a wonderful friendship at the center of this book. MG is at its best when lonely kids, like Nicholas, find strength and comfort in the company of people who get them. 

While the original series (especially the first book) will always have the number #1 spot in my heart, this book is a great prequel to one of the best mystery series for kids to come out in the last 20 years.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Riddle of the Ages

After I read The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, I had to continue my Benedict Society geekdom by reading the latest installment, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of the Ages. I am so glad that I read Extraordinary Education first, because there are some cameos of those characters in the Riddle of the Ages. So, I'd advise reading Extraordinary Education first for the full effect.

And while there were many things to love about Riddle of the Ages--namely the new character Tai and my favorite characters athletic Kate and grumpy Constance--it didn't live up to my expectations as much as some of the other books. There are still puzzles, but not as much action. But it is hard to top the original book, which is practically perfect in every way.

Do you like prequels? Have you read The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict or The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of the Ages?

On a personal note, I have scheduled my blog posts for the month of September, since the first month of teaching is always busy for me. So, I may be slow in returning blog visits over the next few weeks. But know that I read and treasure each and every comment!

The wildfires came quite close to our town last week, but thankfully losing power for one night was all that happened to us. However, I have many friends, co-workers, and students who have been more impacted.  Please keep Oregon and the West Coast in your prayers.

For more Monday Middle Grade Posts or to join in the fun, go to Greg Pattridge's website, Always in the Middle.

Monday, September 7, 2020

MMGM: Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen


I was immediately drawn to Daring Darleen because of the film connection. What’s not to like about a story with a child protagonist in the silent film industry? It wasn’t till I brought the book home that I realized another reason to pick up this book—it’s written by the amazing Anne Nesbet, who wrote Cloud and Wallfish, another MG historical I loved. It also got raves from fellow MMGM blogger, Patricia Tilton.

If you like smart writing, interesting, well-drawn characters, and on the edge of your seats action, you will love Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen!

Synopsis (from Amazon):

When a publicity stunt goes terribly wrong, twelve-year-old Darleen Darling, star of the silent film era, must defeat villains both on screen and off in this edge-of-your-seat adventure.

Lights! Camera! Kidnapping?

It’s 1914, and Darleen Darling’s film adventures collide with reality when a fake kidnapping set up by her studio becomes all too real. Suddenly Darleen finds herself in the hands of dastardly criminals who have just nabbed Miss Victorine Berryman, the poor-little-rich-girl heiress of one of America’s largest fortunes. Soon real life starts to seem like a bona fide adventure serial, complete with dramatic escapes, murderous plots, and a runaway air balloon. Will Darleen and Victorine be able to engineer their own happily-ever-after, or will the villains be victorious?

What to love:

1.Darleen and her papa: Darleen and her papa's relationship was touching and heartfelt, especially considering the backstory of her mother's death. Her affection and desire to stay safe for him was really relatable.

2. A lovely friendship between the two girls: This was MG friendship at its best. Both girls drew out and encouraged each other’s strengths, even though they were vastly different. Can I just say I was happy to see a rich girl not portrayed as an evil villain? All the characters, even minor ones, were given a lot of depth.

3. High stakes: From page one, when Darleen almost falls off a cliff, to the kidnapping, to other events, I was on the edge of my seat worried for these characters. While Nesbet has a very literary way of writing, it was refreshing to read a book with strong writing AND a great plot.

4. Beautiful writing: Nesbet has a sense of building a motif  throughout the novel. With her word choices and figurative language, I always felt in the world of silent film. This is one to study if you’re working on creating a mood.

5. Historical tie-ins: I liked how Nesbet included a real historical female pioneer of film as one of the characters and gave a detailed author’s note at the end. It makes me feel like I’m in good hands knowing the author teaches film history at the university level.

This book reminded me of the fabulous The Artist, a 2012 Oscar-winning film about the silent film industry.

Have you reading Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen? What silent films have you enjoyed?

For more MMGM reads, please check out Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle!


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

ISWG: My Dream Team Critique Group


Official trailer of Midnight in Paris from Youtube

One of my favorite writing movies is Midnight in Paris. In the film, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) travels back in time and meets the great writers and artists of the 1920s. He's ecstatic to have Hemingway and Gertrude Stein take a look at his novel.

I kept thinking about that movie as I pondered this month's question: who would like to have, living or dead, to be your beta partner? This is a hard question for me. There are so many authors, both living and dead that I admire. But being talented at writing doesn’t necessarily make you a good beta reader.

In my experience, the best writers aren’t always the best critiquers, because they understand the craft intuitively. And just as often, a not-so-good writer can give amazing critiques.

I decided I have four traits that I really like to have in a critique partner. They rarely occur in one person, so that’s why I  need more than one.

Here’s my dream team.

The living:

from Gail's website

The Encourager: Everyone needs someone who sees what you’re trying to do, even if you don’t yet. Gail Carson Levine, seems to have this gift. When she talks about critiquing other people’s work, she talks about using a light touch. And her blog posts about writing are infused with helping the writer feel confident in his/her choices. 


Photo by Carol Hart

Grammar Guru: Everyone needs someone like this on their writing team. The best person I know for this job is Carol Hart, who happens to be my aunt. She’s fabulous at writing humor, but I’ve never known anyone who can catch tense fluctuations or pronoun agreement errors like she can. I've learned so much from her and the writing books she's gifted me over the years.

Carol blogs about her random thoughts and silliness in alphabetical order at An Introvert Speaks Up

The Dead (otherwise known as the “Classics”):

Ernest Hemingway Hemingway, pictured in 1952. Photograph: Earl Theisen Collection/Getty Images

The guy who tells it like it is: Now I have to admit that Hemingway is not my favorite writer. He is, unfortunately, the reason I got a D on my first Honors English paper. However, I like that he’s brief and to the point. I imagine a critique from Hemingway a bit like this:

H: “This is awful.”

Me: “What’s wrong with it?”

H: “You’re the writer. Fix it.”

Unfortunately the tell-it-like-it-is critique partners might not be able to tell you how to fix your work, but at least they save you from sending stuff out too soon, right?

Photo originally from iStock via

The Big Picture Guy: Dickens might be one of those writers who is so talented that he can’t explain how he does what he does, but I don’t think so. From the way he’s described acting out his characters in front of the mirror, he seems like a guy who had to work at his writing. In fact, he kept a very rigorous schedule and detailed plan sheets to keep track of his multiple characters and plots.

For that reason, I think he’d have a lot to share about how to manage a plot and multiple characters.Oh, I’d so love to hear how he came up with his characters, even the minor ones are memorable!

How about you? Which writer(s) would you like to have as a critique partner(s)?

To read more Insecure Writer's Support Group posts or to sign up, please got to the Insecure Writer's Support Group website.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Why I Read Old Books

Graphic from

I don’t completely follow Lewis philosophy. I probably read one old book to every 5 or perhaps 10 modern books. But I still try to punctuate my modern reading with selections from the past.

A few summers ago, I stumbled on the Well Trained Mind reading list that I’m slowly working through. I'm finished with the novels (except for 1,000 Days of Solitude, which I'm still working myself up to). I’m currently on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography in the Biography list and plan to read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl next. I don’t read every book, because there are a few I couldn’t get through or have already read. I particularly like this reading list, because its selections are not just your typical classics.

But why even bother? Aren’t Moby Dick and War and Peace just a waste of time?

Here are a few reasons I’ve tackled those books and others.

1.  It’s a challenge. I can’t say that I loved every minute of Moby Dick, especially the chapters on whale biology and the whaling industry. Old Books require more concentration than modern books, because you don’t get as “caught up in the story.” But finishing an old book feels like completing a marathon--its own reward.

War and Peace is not on the Well Educated Mind list--but it's one of my favorite old books that gets a bad rap.

2.  I form my own judgments. It’s interesting when you look at this list, what you think you know about these books. A lot of these books have been banned for various reasons. But if you read the book yourself, you get to decide if this book is as dangerous or boring as everyone says it is.

3. People haven’t changed.  This particular struck me when reading Augustine’s Confessions, maybe because it was so focused on his thoughts. It was hard to believe this man was writing in the 300s. Except for some differences in cultural mores, his thoughts were not that different from a person of our day.

4.  It keeps me humble. If you read the whole of C.S. Lewis’ quote, you find this is the reason he advocates for old books. We all have blind spots, and the problem with reading only contemporary writers is they have the similar blind spots as your own. If you read from the past, you will definitely find many errors in their thinking, but that helps me remember that I probably have errors in my thinking too.

5. Reading old books is participating in a long, ongoing conversation. Lewis talks about reading modern books as entering into a conversation at eleven o'clock that’s been going since eight o'clock. Every time I read an old book, I am acutely aware of what a privilege it is. If I had lived at the time of many of these books were written, I wouldn’t have been able to read them, considering that a classical education was rare for women. By reading old books I am giving myself the education I never had—and getting to listen and converse with intelligent thinkers throughout the ages. I can’t see how that doesn’t inform the conversation I am building through my own books and stories.

“Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Do you ever read old books? Have they changed your outlook on modern books?

Monday, August 17, 2020

MMGM: A Slip of a Girl

I picked this book up from the library’s new reads shelf for one reason: the author. I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Patricia Giff, especially Lily’s Crossing, one of my favorite MG historicals of all time. 

I usually prefer traditional novels over novels-in-verse, maybe because I like to really get immersed in what I read. But in this case,  the sparse poetry really added to the emotional resonance of this book.  And how can you not think of the Irish without thinking of music and poetry?

Like me, you’ll find yourself rooting for this girl who’s trying to carve a place for herself during the Irish Land War.

Synopsis from Amazon:

A heart-wrenching novel in verse about a poor girl surviving the Irish Land Wars, by a two-time Newbery Honor-winning author.

For Anna, the family farm has always been home... But now, things are changing.

Anna's mother has died, and her older siblings have emigrated, leaving Anna and her father to care for a young sister with special needs. And though their family has worked this land for years, they're in danger of losing it as poor crop yields leave them without money to pay their rent.

When a violent encounter with the Lord's rent collector results in Anna and her father's arrest, all seems lost. But Anna sees her chance and bolts from the jailhouse. On the run, Anna must rely on her own inner strength to protect her sister--and try to find a way to save her family.

Written in verse, A Slip of a Girl is a poignant story of adversity, resilience, and self-determination by a master of historical fiction, painting a haunting history of the tensions in the Irish countryside of the early 1890s, and the aftermath of the Great Famine.

A Junior Library Guild Selection
A Bank Street Best Book of the Year

What to Love:

1.  Anna is a feisty heroine who is brave beyond her years in standing up to land agent’s and fighting for her her family. I felt for her from the first page, where the author did such a great job of establishing the close ties Anna has with her mother, who dies early in the book.

2.  Anna’s sister has a disability (though it’s never clearly stated), and I particularly liked how protective Anna was of Nuala. And (spoiler alert)—it was touching how Nuala finally found her home.

3. The author has a personal connection to this story. She was inspired to write it based on her great-grandmother, who took part in the Irish Land War. I enjoyed hearing how Giff visited her great-grandmother’s house in Ireland in the author’s note.

4. Real photos from the time are included between the poems. This made it feel like you were reading a memoir rather than fiction.

If you love MG historical fiction or novels-in-verse, you will love this book!

What historical fiction have you enjoyed recently?

For more MMGM reads, please check out Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Monday, August 10, 2020

MMGM: Here in the Real World

I discovered Here in the Real World  from my local library's new reads section. I was intrigued by the premise and the title. For some reason, I expected magical realism or fantasy, but this is realistic fiction at its best.

I  was moved by this story about a boy who doesn’t fit in, but wants to be a knight, and his sidekick, a girl from a difficult home, who thinks gardening might save her life.

Synopsis (from Amazon):

From the author of the highly acclaimed, New York Times bestselling novel Pax comes a gorgeous and moving middle grade novel that is an ode to introverts, dreamers, and misfits everywhere.
Ware can’t wait to spend summer “off in his own world”—dreaming of knights in the Middle Ages and generally being left alone. But then his parents sign him up for dreaded Rec camp, where he must endure Meaningful Social Interaction and whatever activities so-called “normal” kids do.

On his first day Ware meets Jolene, a tough, secretive girl planting a garden in the rubble of an abandoned church next to the camp. Soon he starts skipping Rec, creating a castle-like space of his own in the church lot.

Jolene scoffs, calling him a dreamer—he doesn’t live in the “real world” like she does. As different as Ware and Jolene are, though, they have one thing in common: for them, the lot is a refuge.
But when their sanctuary is threatened, Ware looks to the knights’ Code of Chivalry: Thou shalt do battle against unfairness wherever faced with it. Thou shalt be always the champion of the Right and Good—and vows to save the lot.

But what does a hero look like in real life? And what can two misfit kids do?

What I loved:

1. Intriguing characters: Both Wade and Jolene are multi-dimensional and sympathetic. Wade sees the possibilities in things, and Jolene counter-balances him with her realism. And the juxtaposition of their deep hurts with their big dreams (knighthood and gardening) makes them very multi-dimensional.

2. Kid- like point of view: I don’t know if I’ve read a MG book recently where the author captured the kid point of view so well. From Wade’s understanding of his parents and their world to his ideas of being a knight to Jolene’s idea of growing papayas to save her family, everything is filtered through a kid’s understanding.

3. Hope as a theme: I read this book at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by all that is going on in our world right now. What Wade's mom said about "looking around the edges” and accepting that you may not be able to fix everything, but you can fix something, really resonated with me right now. I’m sure it will with a lot of readers.

4. Sparse, but powerful prose: I am in awe of writers who can convey a lot of emotion in very few words. Pennypacker is a master at writing simply, yet powerfully. I think this adds to the strong middle grade voice, and packs a more powerful emotional punch than a lot of words would do.

Caveat: While I loved almost everything about this book, the one thing that stumped me is the author’s use of a lot of Christian symbols, but assigning different meanings to them. I was a bit confused at times with what the author was trying to say with these symbols. For that reason, I would just say that I think that aspect of this book would be something to discuss with readers, especially if you are a teacher or a parent.

Have you read any books that filled you with hope lately? Please share in the comments!