Monday, October 3, 2016

MMGM: Bjorn's Gift and Interview with Sandy Brehl

When Sandy Brehl contacted me about receiving an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of BJORN'S GIFT, I said, "Yes, please!" I adored ODIN'S PROMISE, the first book in the series, which I reviewed here. I was excited to read more of Mari's experiences during the Nazi occupation of Norway--and a third book is in the works!

Here's the synopsis (from Amazon):  

BJORN'S GIFT is a sequel to ODIN'S PROMISE, winner of the 2014 Midwest Book Award for Children's Fiction. Set in Norway during World War II, BJORN'S GIFT continues the exciting adventures of Mari, the young Norwegian girl who faces growing hardships and dangers in her small village in a western fjord. German occupation troops and local Nazi supporters move closer to her family's daily life, and her classmate Leif becomes active in the Norwegian Nazi youth party. Mari struggles to live up to her brother Bjorn's faith in her, as she becomes more involved in risky resistance activities, trusting only her family and a few close friends. Across Norway, oppressive laws are imposed in the months from late 1941 to early 1943, with dire local consequences. Still, difficult decisions force Mari to admit that many things in life are not easily sorted into good or bad, and she begins to wonder if Hitler will ever be defeated and whether the occupation of Norway will ever end. 

The things I loved about BJORN'S GIFT are many of the same things I loved about ODIN'S PROMISE: a strong character, who's shy, just like I was as a child; a supportive, loving family; and a dangerous historical period that's handled in a way that even sensitive readers can enjoy. But to add to that list, here's a few things I loved in particular about the sequel:

1. An antagonistic character that keeps you guessing: Even by the end of the book I wasn't sure if Leif was good or bad or somewhere in between. Read on for Sandy's take on how she created this interesting character.

2. A tween girl who still loves her family but is not boy-crazy: I loved that Mari at thirteen is still close to her parents, loyal to her friends (both boys and girls), and full of depth. She grows a lot in this novel as she faces dangers foreign to most modern readers. This makes her seem more mature as she has to make adult decisions but she still remains refreshingly childlike in other ways.

3. Pacing: If anything the pacing was faster in this novel than the first because the stakes are higher with increasing crackdowns on Norwegian traditions and language. Still, the tension never felt forced, but always grew organically from the characters.

Now onto the interview!

Hi, Sandy, and welcome to my blog. I so enjoyed Bjorn's Gift and am so excited to have you here today.

Hi, Jenni, it’s great to be a guest on your blog. Thanks so much for your review and for asking such interesting questions.

1.   I like how Mari is a shy character, something we don’t see a lot of in kidlit. But one of the difficulties in creating quieter characters is that they don’t make things happen as much as more outgoing characters. How did you develop a character that is shy while also giving her enough agency to drive the story?

In the original book, Mari’s safe, predictable life changed overnight. Until then, her intelligence and her powerful emotions found outlets through reading, a safe step back from the real world.
In the course of that first year Mari struggled to redefine her place within a dangerous world. On top of that, she realized that people she loved and trusted most, her family, were deeper than the two-dimensional, predictable people she had always known. Perhaps it was recognizing the complexity of their lives that let her confront her own anger, fear, and stubbornness, uncomfortable emotions that put her at risk but also propelled her beyond her patterns of dependence and avoidance. 

The bottom line is, I work at listening carefully to how Mari is feeling, to what she needs, and to how she can best tell her own story about surviving in such challenging times.

2.  I also liked how you kept the reader guessing as to Mari's schoolmate Leif’s true motives and whether Mari’s perceptions of him were true or imbalanced. His ambiguous nature reminded me a bit of Snape from Harry Potter. Can you speak about developing a character that might be good or bad?
Wow, that’s a compliment of the highest order, to have created a character that reminds you of J. K. Rowling’s Snape in some way. Tusen takk! (A thousand thanks!)
Bjorn’s Gift encompasses Mari’s critical early adolescent years. She’s forced to move past her rigid sense of right and wrong, good and bad, to a more realistic but painful recognition that NO ONE is all good or all bad, always right or always wrong. That happens to young people in every circumstance during the transition from childhood simplicity to adult realities, but in her life it was an unavoidable issue. 

Because I know Leif’s full story (which will be revealed in the final book) I could step back a bit and imagine his feelings and motivations while keeping Mari in turmoil about the changes she witnessed. Research provided helpful examples of citizens whose choices alienated them from their friends, neighbors, and even family members. Choices they made based on a variety of motivations.
It was actually more challenging to create scenes in which Mari had to acknowledge that even adults dearest to her heart were making choices that didn’t fit her world-view. Then she had to consider: are they flawed, or should she adjust her expectations? If so, would that compromise her core values?

3.  One of the things I loved about both Odin’s Promise and Bjorn’s Gift 
was the historical details. What was the most interesting thing you learned in your research? Was there any tidbit that you left out?
It’s wonderful to hear that you connected with the history underlying this trilogy! I’m not Norwegian, but I heard fascinating stories of the occupation and resistance while visiting in Ytre Arna with people who lived through those times. Their detailed memories revealed a history about which I knew nothing. 

Sandy Brehl
Since that inspiration many years ago I’ve read stacks of books and spoken with many people with powerful stories. “Most interesting” is a challenging answer, but I’d have to say the full story of the treatment of Norway’s small Jewish population came as a complete surprise. I barely brushed the surface in this book, but felt it was crucial to include some key events in that era. There are countless details on that topic and many others that won’t make it into the pages of this trilogy. Some were modified or omitted to support the story arc, timing, tension, and suitability for the target age. 

I’m preparing website additions to help clarify which story elements come from research or personal accounts and which are entirely fictional. I’ll post some “side stories” from research and even some scenes “from the cutting room floor” that aren’t in this book or the next. I welcome questions from readers, too. Readers can subscribe to my quarterly newsletter and to news updates on my website.

Thanks, Jenni, for your interest in my books, in my writing experiences, and for your always valuable posts for all of us who love kidlit.
 If you'd like to hear more from Sandy or read other reviews of Bjorn's Gift, check out the other stops on her tour:

September 1 Interview with Todd Burleson at GROG blog:

September 7 Review: Stephanie Lowden at golowd, a blog about teaching and books

September 11 Guest post Unleashing Readers

September 14 Review by Erik at This Kid Reviews Books,

September 19 Review, Suzanne Warr, at Tales from the Raven, for MMGM:

September 20 Olivia and Oscar- review of ODIN’S PROMISE at Kid Book Reviewer:

September 27  Olivia and Oscar- review of BJORN’S GIFT at Kid Book Reviewer: (giveaway ends Sept. 30.)

September 29 Alex Baugh review at The Children’s War

October 3 Jenni Enzor  MMGM with review and interview

October 5   MomReadIt-  Review by Rosemary

October 7 Trisha at Mindjacked

October 11  Guest post Rochelle Melander

Photo credit: Photo of the author and book cover courtesy of Sandy Brehl.

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



  1. I have already added this author to my list based on your recommendation, but I love that, as you say, we can have middle grade reads with friendships instead of love interests. It's refreshing. Thanks.

  2. Great interview. I've added this one to my list though it may be a few months until I can get to it. Best of luck with your book, Sandy.

  3. I just finished Bjorn's Gift, too, and loved it. Now, I can't wait for the third book in the Mari series. Thanks for the great interview

  4. Great interview. I somehow missed this series, but I have now added it to my to-read list! :)

  5. Thank you, Jenni, for your kind comments and wonderful support. I really enjoyed the interview questions, too. And thank you, all, for your interest in adding these titles to those toppling TBR piles. It's an honor to have made the cut and I look forward to reading what you think of both books if/when you have a chance to read.

  6. I hadn't heard of this series, but I'm adding it to my TBR list for sure. Thanks for the review and the interview!

    1. Thank you for your interest, Creel Family. I hope you'll enjoy both books, and each has a list of other titles related to the time and area that I believe you'd find fascinating and entertaining.

  7. Fascinating series, in the hands of a very able storyteller.

    1. Thank you, Mirka. The storyteller label means the world to me, since story is the core of history.

  8. This series sounds quite wonderful. Thanks for telling me about it and for the interesting interview.