Monday, January 26, 2015

MMGM: Close to Famous

I found CLOSE TO FAMOUS on the YA shelf at my local library. I was on one of my “what’s on the new shelf” missions. I was immediately drawn in by the cupcakes on a plate cover, but seeing that it was in the teen section, I assumed it was about a teen wanting to be on a cooking show with a little teen romance on the side.

It wasn’t till I was in the middle of chapter one that I paused. Hey, this girl is going into middle school and the language is much simpler than YA. I’m not sure why it was shelved with the teen novels, but I was so glad to discover another marvelous MG! 

Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:

When twelve-year-old Foster and her mother land in the tiny town of Culpepper, they don't know what to expect. But folks quickly warm to the woman with the great voice and the girl who can bake like nobody's business. Soon Foster - who dreams of having her own cooking show one day - lands herself a gig baking for the local coffee shop, and gets herself some much-needed help in overcoming her biggest challenge - learning to read . . . just as Foster and Mama start to feel at ease, their past catches up to them. Thanks to the folks in Culpepper, though Foster and her mama find the strength to put their troubles behind them for good.

What I loved about CLOSE TO FAMOUS:

--How it portrayed reading disabilities: I am glad that the more common disabilities, learning disabilities and speech issues (PAPERBOY) are being portrayed more in fiction. I loved how CLOSE TO FAMOUS was honest in showing Foster’s fears about school and friendship because of not being able to read. I also liked how it showed that she had an extreme talent (cooking), which helped her compensate for her difficulties.

--How it portrayed fame: Miss Charleena (a reclusive actress) was one of my favorite characters and one of the most well-rounded. I loved how Foster was able to get her to come out of hiding and the character growth that both of them had because of each other. Miss Charleena showed that fame isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.

--Minor characters: In addition to Miss Charleena, Macon was one of my favorite characters. His intensity and his self-consciousness about his height really came off the page.

--Cupcakes! I dare you to read this book and not be craving one of the treats Foster makes. And I loved how cupcakes literally saved the day in this book.

--Small town life. I have lived most of my life in small towns, though not quite as small as Culpepper. There’s something charming in reading about a place with a slower pace than most of the rest of the country.

***Caveat: I think the reason this was shelved in the YA is that it deals with domestic violence. Although the violence is not described in a graphic way, the topic might be too much for those who are sensitive or are on the younger end of MG age range.

Quibble—The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that Foster’s love interest (mind you, it’s more the blushing cheeks type of romance) is not very well-developed. Her best friend, a boy, is more well-rounded, because he has flaws. Personally, I didn’t like that she “liked” the perfect boy, but was only friends with the more flawed character. But that may be me.

Favorite quotes: “It’s here in the quiet waiting for a fish that you can fill up for when the tough times come.”

“…it took years for Sonny Kroll to become a famous chef…He appreciated it all the more because it wasn’t easy.”

Have you read any good books involving food? 

Tune in next week when I’ll be sharing about the Darcy Pattison retreat!

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

MMGM: Martin Luther King Day books

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Alas, I had plans to highlight the new Christopher Paul Curtis book today, but it’s been a busy week getting ready for the Darcy Pattison retreat. So, although I haven’t finished Curtis’ book yet, that post is in the works. So, today, I’m going to do  a “best of” post and point to some of my favorite books I reviewed last year, particularly books which deal with racism and/or civil rights.

What I love about all these books is that the Civil Rights movement and/or racism are told through the eyes of a child. We, as readers, get to experience their "awakening" to injustice right alongside them and their heartache when parents or trusted adults don't see things the same way.

Click on the titles to go to my initial feature and a longer review.

--This book is the most accessible to younger readers. It has the least amount of violence of all the books I’m highlighting here. Glory also has the youngest-sounding voice. If you have younger students or children, this would be a good first look at the Civil Rights movement/segregation. Glory's character and voice are so endearing, it’s hard not to love her.

--This is the only “new” book or previously reviewed book on my list. I read this last year, after GLORY BE, and at first, didn’t like it as well. It’s definitely for an older audience as it has more middle school issues. What I loved: the friendship between Marlee and Liz, Marlee's giftedness at math,  and the honest portrayal of Marlee’s mother’s racism and her subsequent growth as a character. This book is more in depth than Glory B, is darker in tone, but it also tells the story of two brave girls trying to change the world.

Caveat: Unfortunately, the n word is used in this book.

--This is not a new book (1995), but it is one of my favorites about this time period. Kenny, like Glory and Marlee, is just awakening to what’s going on in his country. He and his family have been living in Michigan, but when they travel south to Birmingham, he learns firsthand about segregation and church bombings.  What I love about this book is its humor and the quirky and loveable Watson family. I don’t think there are parents in literature I love as much as the Watsons.

*The movie of the book is on Netflix right now. I liked how it kept to the story of the book, but added more about segregation and the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham.

This won the Newberry Honor last year, and it was well-deserved. What I loved about this book is its theme of seeing beyond the surface. The Civil Rights movement is more in the background than the other books I’ve featured here. It’s more about the narrator’s finding a touch point with his African-American maid. Yes, he awakens to her plight, but it’s more about how her strength in the face of adversity helps him to deal with his stuttering.

This book is not about the Civil Rights movement. It takes place earlier, in the 1930s, and it one of the finest books I’ve read on racism. Though it takes place well before the Martin Luther King era, it shows why the Civil Rights movement had to happen. This is perhaps the most violent of all the books I’ve featured, but it is the most unflinching in portraying how things truly were for African-Americans.  I felt like I was awakened to the depths of the injustice in Cassie’s world along with her. A must read.

What are your favorite books about Civil Rights?

Stay tuned for a post about the Darcy Pattison retreat in the next few weeks.

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

MMGM: Ungifted

I’ve been eyeing UNGIFTED at my library for quite awhile. 1. It has an intriguing cover. 2. My sons love anything about robots, but also love books about smart kids. 3. It has a fabulous premise—a “nongifted” kid ending up accidentally in a gifted program. 4. I keep hearing wonderful things about Gordon Korman from the other MMGM bloggers.  I had to check this author out for myself.

I’m so glad I finally did, because I love nothing more than a book that has a lot of humor and pathos, which UNGIFTED has in spades.

Here’s the synopsis:

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Gordon Korman comes a hilarious and heartfelt novel in which one middle-school troublemaker accidentally moves into the gifted and talented program—and changes everything. For fans of Louis Sachar and Jack Gantos, this funny and touching underdog story is a lovable and goofy adventure with robot fights, middle-school dances, live experiments, and statue-toppling pranks!
When Donovan Curtis pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he’s finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a special program for gifted and talented students.
Although it wasn’t exactly what Donovan had intended, the ASD couldn’t be a more perfectly unexpected hideout for someone like him. But as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything), he shows that his gifts may be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.

What I loved about UNGIFTED:

1.      A likeable, but flawed protagonist: The most memorable stories are ones where the character must change, because his/her flaws are hurting other people. Yet, these types of stories are incredibly hard to write, because who wants to read about a jerk for 300 pages? Donovan, while flawed, is incredibly entertaining, so you can’t help but want to stick with him to see how everything turns out.
2.      Humor. It goes without saying that this book is filled with humor. But it’s not just witty, one-liners. It is the type of humor that boys are especially drawn to, situational humor, which I think is even more difficult to write.
3.      Character Arc: Even more than how Donovan realized his importance to the robotics team, I loved even more how he realized how the gifted kids were his true friends. The theme of sacrifice and thinking of others was really well done—and unexpected.
4.      What this book says about the disparities in our education system and giftedness in general: In my state, there are no separate schools for gifted kids, so I found that part of the premise a bit unbelievable. However, I liked the contrast between the two programs. I agree that in our school system, too much is put on school smarts, rather than the social skills that Donovan possesses. The contrast in the two schools reminded me of the disparities I’ve seen between the wealthy and the low-income schools where I’ve taught.

A few minor quibbles: At times the gifted and even the ungifted students (Donovan’s friends) seemed a bit stereotyped. I also wasn’t sure how I liked the revenge theme at the end. But still, UNGIFTED is a very memorable read, very entertaining and even moving at times.
Have you read any funny middle grades lately? Now that I’ve discovered Korman, I’d like to read more. Any recommendations?

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

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Insecure Writer's Support Group: Goals 2015


This isn't really my insecurity, except that I am a bit insecure about making my goals public. Maybe because if I fail, it's out there for all to see. But last year, I made the mistake of making my  2014 goals a little too vague. It was nice in a way, because it made it hard to fail. But as I look at making some goals for 2015, I want to be more specific. I want to know if I actually met my goals by the end of the year.

So, here are some things I plan on focusing on in 2015:

1.       Write something new. I have two manuscripts I’m revising right now, and I think these revisions may take up a big chunk of 2015, but I still want to at least start something new. I have an idea for a book that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It scares me to death, because it’s far more personal than anything I’ve ever written. I hope to at least start it by the end of 2015. Besides, writing something new is good for the soul.
2.       Be mindful of my commitments. I recently read ESSENTIALISM (Greg McKeown), which is a fantastic book, by the way. My main take away is that I need to be careful not to say yes to activities that take me away from my main goals. Last year I took on a few things that were of marginal importance, but ended up distracting me from my writing. I’m a recovering people-pleaser, so saying “no” can be hard for me, but I’m committed to making it part of my vocabulary.

3.       Write consistently, even during the school year. It’s easy in the summer and winter break to write every day, but very hard when school is in session, because I homeschool and tutor during the school year. I consistently write on the weekends, but it’s hard to fit it in on school days. My new goal: write 3x a week, which I hope will be manageable.

What are you writing goals for 2015?

Intro: I write MG/YA fiction in all genres, from historical to fantasy to mystery or combinations thereof. My nonfiction articles have appeared in Highlights for Children, Calliope, and Learning through History. I love classic novels, vintage clothes, and 40s music. I live with my husband and two sons in Oregon, happily equidistant from Mt. Hood and the beautiful Oregon coast.

If you haven't heard of it, here's a little about The 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. Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter hashtag is #IWSG

The awesome co-hosts for the January 7 posting of the IWSG will be Elizabeth Seckman, Lisa Buie-Collard, Chrys Fey, andMichelle Wallace!