Monday, March 30, 2015

MMGM: Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions

This book is a little different from what I normally feature. It’s for the younger range of middle grade and the protagonist is 7 ½. But the title was so hilarious, I knew I had to read it. Alvin Ho is an endearing character—and China is excellent foil for someone who’s fearful. And although my sons are no longer at the chapter book age, I’m always excited to find interesting books in this category, because I remember how hard it was to find appealing books at that stage.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

Here’s the sixth book in the beloved and hilarious Alvin Ho chapter book series, which has been compared to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and is perfect for both beginning and reluctant readers.

Alvin, an Asian American second grader who’s afraid of everything, is taking his fears to a whole new level—or should we say, continent. On a trip to introduce brand-new baby Ho to relatives in China, Alvin’s anxiety is at fever pitch. First there’s the harrowing 16-hour plane ride; then there’s a whole slew of cultural differences to contend with: eating lunch food for breakfast, kung fu lessons, and acupuncture treatment (yikes!). Not to mention the crowds that make it easy for a small boy to get lost.

From Lenore Look and New York Times bestselling illustrator LeUyen Pham comes a drop-dead-funny and touching series with a truly unforgettable character

What I loved about Alvin Ho:

         1.  A relatable main character: I loved that Alvin is so scared of everything. It adds a lot of humor, but I also think a lot of kids can relate or at least it will make them feel like they are not so fearful next to Alvin. 
      2. A book for reluctant/early readers that features a boy main character. As a mom of boys, I have been very frustrated at the dearth of reading material for the chapter book range that appealed to my boys.  It’s also refreshing to read a book for this age group that features a diverse cast of characters.

      3.  A dad who spouts Shakespeare curses and is a calm contrast to Alvin’s fears. I loved Alvin’s dad so much, especially how he handled the central conflict in this story. When you’re afraid of everything, you need a sympathetic parent who can go with the flow.

          4. An interesting setting: I probably wouldn’t have been so keen to pick this book up if it hadn’t been set in China. It was fun seeing the Great Wall and the Forbidden City from Alvin’s perspective—even though both trips got caught short by his antics.
      5. Humor: I loved the running joke of how Alvin called his baby sister different fish names and the various adventures with his PDK (Personal Disaster Kit). I think I need one of those!

This book reminded me a lot of BOBBY VS GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY) by Lisa Yee, albeit with a younger protagonist. I think it would appeal to kids who like humorous reads and travel. This is the sixth book in series. The others include: ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, ALLERGIC TO CAMPING, ALLERGIC TO BIRTHDAY PARTIES, ALLERGIC TO DEAD BODIES, and ALLERGIC TO BABIES. Don’t they sound fun?

Have you read any good chapter books for the younger MG reader?

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

MMGM: Little Blog on the Prairie

This is book is about five years old, so I’m not sure why I didn’t hear about till now, since this was a book that seemed to be written for me.  Not only did I love the Little House series as a girl (and secretly wish the power would permanently go out, so I could live just like Laura), but I also loved The Frontier  House series that came out in the late 90s.

Come to find out, the author of LITTLE BLOG ON THE PRAIRIE was inspired by both. And even though I was a bit more like Gen’s mom than Gen, I loved this hilarious take what it would be like to vacation at Camp Frontier.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Camp Frontier promises families the “thrill” of living like 1890s pioneers. Gen will be thrilled if she survives the summer stuck in a cabin with her family and no modern amenities. But ever the savvy teen, Gen sneaks in a phone and starts texting about camp life. Turns out, there are some good points-like the cute boy who lives in the next clearing. But when her texts go viral as a blog and a TV crew arrives, Gen realizes she may have just ruined the best vacation she's ever had.
What I loved:

      1.  Experiencing (real) pioneer life: I loved the nitty-gritty details of life on the prairie: struggling to make and find food, washing dishes with a rag, doing laundry in a washboard, hoeing corn. This was the reason I loved Frontier House (PBS series). It's easy to imagine how you might do as a modern person at Pioneer Camp (not very well, I'm afraid!).

      2.   An excellent antagonist: I thought Nora was one of the best antagonists that I’ve read in awhile. Writers are often advised  to create villains that aren’t stereotypical, but sympathetic. Study Nora and her motives if you want to create a memorable and interesting antagonist. I had a hard time hating her. :)

      3.  Humor: Gen, the main character, has a wonderful sense of humor, which comes through in her texts, her asides, her dialogue. Not to mention the fabulous situational humor in the book.

      4.  An interesting family: Five points for interesting parents. Everyone in Gen’s family, including her brother, grew and changed throughout the novel. 

      5. Media theme. I loved the juxtaposition of pioneer life with Gen’s texting throughout the novel. The role of media played out in many ways in the story, from how technology was relinquished upon arrival at camp to Gen’s interesting dilemma at the end.

This is a great book if you want some light reading, a trip back to Laura-land, but with some thought-provoking questions and interesting characters. It would make a great spring break read.
Speaking of spring break, I will be taking next week off to enjoy mine with my kids and (hopefully) get some interrupted writing time.
See you again in April!

Have you read any fun MG novels lately?

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

Monday, March 9, 2015

MMGM: Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile

I discovered today’s gem when I was checking out the Edgar nominees for this year. I’m not one of those writers who shun reading other people’s books while working on her own.  So since I’m working on a mystery, I’m reading mysteries, especially puzzle mysteries, to learn from the masters.

And let me tell you, Marcia Wells, knows how to write mysteries. This is her debut and I’m already looking forward to Eddie Red’s sequel.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Art, mystery, fun and friendship, combine in this illustrated middle grade series debut. Sixth grader Edmund Xavier Lonnrot, codename "Eddie Red," has a photographic memory and talent for drawing anything he sees. When the NYPD is stumped by a mastermind art thief, Eddie becomes their secret weapon to solve the case, drawing Eddie deeper into New York's famous Museum Mile and closer to a dangerous criminal group known as The Picasso Gang. 

With page-turning adventure and fun characters, this first installment in the Eddie Red series is a must-read for any fan of puzzles and mystery. A Spring 2014 Indies Introduce New Voices selection.

What I loved about this book:

      1.      Amazing characters: This is a book where every character jumps off the page. Eddie’s outgoing, fact-loving huge father. His model good-looking mother, who’s always scared for Eddie. His best friend, Jonah, who has OCD. Eddie himself, who has a photographic memory and ability to draw whatever he sees, but is also realistically unsure of himself at others (especially around girls).

2.   A fantastic set up: Isn’t it every kid’s dream to get hired as a real spy for the police? I loved experiencing police work through a kid’s eyes. As Eddie often points out, it’s not like the movies.

      3.  A fast-paced puzzle mystery: I’ve found that puzzle mysteries, while I enjoy them, tend to be slow-paced. What is refreshing about EDDIE RED is that it combines the fast pace of an adventure with the intellectual stimulation of  solving a puzzle.  

      4.      A “bad” character that turns out to be not all that he seems. No spoilers on this one, but I have a soft spot for stories like this. I’ve read about too many characters who you think are good, but really aren’t. A completely different type of character arc was nice for a change.

       5. The art! Since this is a book about a kid who can draw suspects, it made sense that we got to see Eddie’s drawings throughout the book.

Just for fun, I'm including a picture of the notes I took on some of the chapters. I used Cheryl Klein's technique of making a book map, listing each chapter and what happened. I highlighted them for subplot (purple), main plot (blue), and puzzle plot (green). The climax is at the bottom of the list, so you can see how most of the last scenes are the main plot. This really helped me see why this book had such a well-balanced pace. If you haven't ever analyzed books like this, I highly recommend it.

I’m not sure what titles to compare EDDIE RED to. It has the diverse cast of THE GREAT GREEN HEIST, but a less sophisticated hero, whom younger readers will relate to. It has the puzzle aspects of UNDER THE EGG, Blue Balliet’s books and Elise Broach’s mysteries, yet it is more fast-paced. I think this book would really appeal to boys, especially those who enjoy art or have an interest in the police.

What great mysteries have you read lately? Have you read any of the Edgar nominees for this year? 

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

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

ISWG: Stuck

If you would’ve asked me a few weeks ago if I had any insecurities, I would’ve said no.

Coming off a fantastic retreat, excited about the possibilities of revising my manuscript, I was flying high. It seemed I had the golden touch, and everything I wrote was coming together brilliantly.

I’ve never had a book go so well, I kept saying. This book is different from the rest. 

Ha! Of course, it did not take long for me to eat my words.

Now I’m nearing the end of the book—at least my revisions on the plot issues. And I’ve hit the scene that is the bane of my existence. It was hard to draft the first time; it’s been equally hard to revise. I hate this scene. I’ve spent the last few weeks on this one scene. Rewriting, revising the scenes coming up to it, analyzing other books in my genre to see how they handle similar scenes. If I could throw this scene across the room, I would.

And I thought everything was going so well.

You see, I’m one of those writers who finds the beginning easiest. I love writing the beginning of a novel. I don’t start a novel until the beginning comes to me, and often it’s the scene I have to revise the least. I slog through the middle, and the end is excruciating. But give me a beginning any day. Maybe it’s because I love the mysteries and possibilities of the opening. You can’t keep all those options open at the end. You have to make choices. You have to tie up loose threads, and that’s not as fun.

So this awful scene that’s giving me so much trouble is one of the last chapters. It leads into the climax. There’s a lot at stake to get it right. 

But I know it’s not a good sign when I hate a scene, when it feels like it’s pulling teeth to write. I’m thinking if I hate it so much, readers will too.

What do you do when you get stuck? How do you find your way through?

Monday, March 2, 2015

MMGM: Maddy West and the Tongue Taker

I first heard about this book from fellow MMGM-er DorineWhite. When she said it was about a girl who can speak in other languages and travels to Bulgaria, I knew I had to read this.

I have a soft spot for anything set in Eastern Europe, and well, I’d love to have Maddy’s ability to speak any tongue. I love studying other languages; I just wish it came as easily for me as it does for Maddy.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Maddy West can speak every language in the world. When she is asked to help translate some ancient scrolls, she is thrilled. But she soon learns that the scrolls hide many secrets . . . secrets that send Maddy on a wild adventure with a stowaway ninja, a mysterious monkey, a Bulgarian wrestler, evil magic, and a fiendish witch. Does Maddy have what it takes to save herself and her new friends?

What I loved about about Maddy West:

--How the foreign language was handled: Although it was a bit unbelievable that Maddy could speak any language fluently upon first hearing it, I loved how this skill added a lot of whimsy to the story. I thought it worked well that the author wrote in English, only telling us when Maddy was switching back and forth (because Maddy understood it as well as English). This makes it easier for younger readers to follow.

--An interesting villain. I really thought that the villain was really intriguing and well-described. I also liked her smell. (Sorry, no spoilers!)

--A wonderful side-kick.  Kazuki, who's shy, but wants to be a ninja and has invisibility powers (or not?) was a really fun character. He was a nice counterpoint to Maddy and his loyalty to her was really touching.

--Very kid-centric. One thing I loved about this book was how well it portrayed how kids think and how grown-ups perceive that thinking. Maddy didn’t always “get” what the grown-ups were thinking until the end, and her perceptions were realistic and showed that oftentimes grown-ups don’t understand anything at all.

--An interesting setting.  The London setting at the beginning and of course, the Bulgarian setting throughout the second half of the book, really added a lot of freshness to the story. I couldn’t help but think of how my host family in Crimea talked about Bulgaria as one of their favorite vacation destinations. Of course, for Maddy, it wasn’t quite so idyllic at times.

One of the great things about this story is that I think it will appeal to kids at the lower end of the MG spectrum or more sensitive kids. As any parent or teacher knows, it’s really hard to find books that are smart, yet aren’t too middle-schoolish, for upper elementary students. This would also be a good read for younger kids reading above their grade level.

 It would appeal to kids who like whimsical reads like THE ROOFTOPPERS by Katherine Rundall, THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart, or the Blue Balliet mysteries.

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