Monday, July 24, 2017

MMGM: Beautiful Blue World

I picked up this book at my library. I was drawn in by the beautiful cover and the fact that it was about two girl friends, but seeing it was by Suzanne LaFleur closed the deal. I'm convinced she can't write a bad book—and her ability to convey emotion is extraordinary.

If you like suspenseful books about war or the power of friendship, this book is for you.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Beautiful Blue World is a thrilling and moving story of children who become the key to winning a war.

Sofarende is at war. For twelve-year-old Mathilde, it means food shortages, feuding neighbors, and bombings. Even so, as long as she and her best friend, Megs, are together, they’ll be all right.

But the army is recruiting children, and paying families well for their service. If Megs takes the test, Mathilde knows she will pass. Megs hopes the army is the way to save her family. Mathilde fears it might separate them forever.

This touching and suspenseful novel is a brilliant reimagining of war, where even kindness can be a weapon, and children have the power to see what adults cannot.

What to love about Beautiful Blue World:

1. An expertly drawn girl friendship: While boy-girl friendships are very common in kidlit (possibly to appeal to both kinds of readers), I find them less common in real life. The story of these two girls really resonated with me and reminded me of the close friends I have from childhood. We need more books like this that show girls sacrificing and looking out for one another (no more mean girls, please).

2. A close family relationship: You would think that because a family is willing to send their daughter off to work for the army, that they do not care for her. So the neighbors think. But Mathilde's close relationship with her sisters, her mother, and especially her father were so lovely. LaFleur’s use of memorable details makes this happen.

3. Mathilde’s gift is not your typical “talent”: Mathilde is not chosen not for her math or science or writing skills, but her gift with people. It made me think of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences; academic smarts are not the only kind of smarts. What a wonderful message for kids.

4. Children are important and insightful: I think what will appeal to a lot of kid readers is how the children in the book are integral to the war effort, though not in ways you might think. The emphasis in this book is how adults might from kids.

5. Suspense, emotion, and depth: This is a book I had a hard time putting down. When I analyze why, it wasn’t just that it was suspenseful and had high stakes; it’s that those stakes had meaning and emotional resonance. While you might speed read through this book to find out what happens, it’s not a book you’ll quickly forget.

I’m not sure what to compare this to, although the testing at the beginning reminded me of THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY,  the high stakes and emotion of THE HUNGER GAMES,  and the war time setting (albeit a made-up country) of many fine MGs about life during World War II.

If you like Suzanne LaFleur’s other work, this is vastly different, but the strong emotional core that she excels at in LOVE, AUBREY  and EIGHT KEYS (reviewed here) is very much present.

And if you enjoyed BEAUTIFUL BLUE WORLD, its sequel, THREADS OF BLUE is out in September. I can’t wait to find out what happens to Mathilde!

Have you read any books set in war time that you enjoyed lately?

If you'd like to check out more Monday middle grade books, go to Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, July 10, 2017

MMGM: I Am David

I initially picked up this book for my son. He’d been studying modern history this year, and I wanted a book about what it was like behind the Iron Curtain. He didn’t read it, but I did. And what a book! Many of you know I have a place in my heart for anything Eastern European or Russian. Honestly, I think it goes back to my own teen years. Before the wall fell, I watched an interview of Russian teenagers on TV.

 “They’re just like me,” I thought. And that one show changed my life. I went on to study Russian in college and live there for a semester because I wanted to meet in person these teens who “were just like me.” I still feel fortunate to call these people, former Soviets, friends.

I think when you read I AM DAVID, you will be struck with the same sort of “ah hah” moment. Yes, he has suffered more than most. He’s never known joy or a loving family or even tasty food. But at its heart, I AM DAVID, is about the strength of the human spirit, about not giving in and rising above those people who’ve sinned egregiously against you. I dare you not to fall in love with his amazing boy.

David's entire twelve-year life has been spent in a grisly prison camp in Eastern Europe. He knows nothing of the outside world. But when he is given the chance to escape, he seizes it. With his vengeful enemies hot on his heels, David struggles to cope in this strange new world, where his only resources are a compass, a few crusts of bread, his two aching feet, and some vague advice to seek refuge in Denmark. Is that enough to survive?

David's extraordinary odyssey is dramatically chronicled in Anne Holm's classic about the meaning of freedom and the power of hope.

What to like:

1. An amazing main character: What I loved about David, more than anything, is despite his various mishaps and misunderstandings of the world outside, he never loses his desire to not be like his captors. “You must hate what is bad or else you grow just like them.”

2. An outsider’s view of the western world: One of the most interesting parts of the book for me is David’s innocence, which seems ironic, seems he's been exposed to so much. But his misunderstandings about babies, families, God, among other things, are quite realistic and endearing.

3. A book in translation. As I shared here, I think we have too few books in translation in the United States. While we are a large country with lots of talented writers, I love reading children’s books from writers from other countries. It expands your view of the world.

It's hard for me to come up with bullet points for this book. I loved it because this character touched my heart and gave me a glimpse of a completely different world. I was initially drawn in by David’s unusual experiences and reactions, but I walked away inspired to be like him.

Have you read any inspiring books lately? Or something set during the Cold War?

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

ISWG: Just Keep Writing

Last spring my son had two piano performances—a festival and a recital—on the same day. I watched as he struggled to continue playing after he made a few mistakes (he wanted to start over) and another student did the same. But the interesting thing to me, is that neither of these students were beginners. The beginners don’t struggle as much if they make mistakes. These two kids had high standards and their fingers couldn’t keep up with how they imagined the piece should sound.

I realize I do the same thing with my writing.

I am thankful that writing is not a performance art. Unlike when I played piano, no one sees the tears I cry at a harsh critique or a rejection from a much hoped for agent. I get to do that in private, which I am extremely grateful for.

But like the piano students, my fingers haven’t caught up with my imagination.

With other things in my life, I pick a sane, easy route. (While I love to bake, I will not be making anyone a wedding cake any time soon.) But with writing, I have the strange desire to pick the hardest thing ever.

I wonder now if some of my problems with my earlier books are that I made everything too complicated: several hundred subplots, anyone? Mashups of as many genres as possible?

See, with writing, I don’t hold back. I am not sane. And the fact that I still need to develop as a writer has never stopped me from tackling something beyond my reach.

And now here I am, having just finished a draft of a new book. I still have a lot of work to do. My rough drafts are usually more like filled-in outlines; the big work of revision is ahead. And this book is complicated in every way: a culture not my own, a theme so close to my heart it feels about to burst, a genre I’ve never tackled before.

I’m afraid that I’m going to fall on my face, or behave like I did at my piano recitals, run out of the room crying.

But I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t stretch myself, tackle a piece that’s just beyond my reach.

I need to remember the advice the adjudicator told my son: Just keep playing.

The question this month is what is the one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing? I’ve learned many things, but the most important is perseverance, or in other words, Just keep writing.

What is the one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing?

What is Insecure Writer's 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!

To see more ISWG posts or to sign up, go here.