Monday, December 21, 2020

MMGM: Astrid Unstoppable

There’s something about a heroine who gets in trouble a lot that appeals to kids. My students enjoyed No, David! by David Shannon, about a boy who hears no a lot. I loved Ramona Quinby as a kid for this reason, and my son really enjoyed Pippi Longstocking when he was young.

Kids spend so much of their time following directions (or trying to!), so they enjoy reading about a heroine who takes rules and requests as a challenge. 

If you enjoyed Pippi Longstocking or other heroes or heroines who rebel in a fun-loving way, you’ll love Astrid Unstoppable.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Pippi Longstocking meets Heidi meets Anne Shirley in this tale of an irrepressible girl in a mountain village who navigates unexpected changes with warmth and humor.

Speed and self-confidence, that’s Astrid’s motto. Nicknamed “the little thunderbolt,” she loves to spend her days racing down the hillside on her sled, singing loudly as she goes, and visiting Gunnvald, her grumpy, septuagenarian best friend and godfather, who makes hot chocolate from real chocolate bars. She just wishes there were other children to share her hair-raising adventures with. But Astrid’s world is about to be turned upside down by two startling arrivals to the village of Glimmerdal: first a new family, then a mysterious, towering woman who everyone seems to know but Astrid. It turns out that Gunnvald has been keeping a big secret from his goddaughter, one that will test their friendship to its limits. Astrid is not too happy about some of these upheavals in Glimmerdal — but, luckily, she has a plan to set things right.

What I liked:

1. A Norwegian setting and mindset! As I’ve talked about on the blog before, I really enjoy reading books in translation. Reading about another culture from an American who’s lived there can be insightful, but I feel like I get so much of a deeper understanding from books written by someone who is actually a native of that country. 

2. A heroine who is spunky but in a kid-like way. One of my friends recommended this book because the heroine doesn’t act like a junior adolescent. She is just a kid. She does do pranks, but they are innocent. This is a book for kids who like being kids.

3. Endearing relationships with adults. When the story begins, Astrid is the only child in her area of Norway, and although that changes, she still ends the story with her best friends still being a grandfather-like character, who’s a lot of fun. I love stories that show that kids can be friends with people of all ages. 

4. Nods to classics like Heidi. I really enjoyed how the novel Heidi was used in this book. Gunnvald, of course, is like grandfather. And Astrid is a bit like Heidi, bringing joy wherever she goes.

5. Ultimate sledding. Gunnvald’s attempts to create an ultimate sled were really fun. As were Astrid’s mishaps!

6. Other: I can’t forget how much I loved that church was just a part of life, even though Astrid is not particularly religious, and Astrid’s nemesis was another grown up, who just didn’t understand kids.

Content Warning: Some reviewers were upset that some of the adults exhibit bad behaviors, although Astrid doesn't approve of them. I've read too many books where the message of the story is that the child must get used to the parent's bad behavior (especially in the case of divorce). That is not the case here. One character has made some mistakes in his past, and he has to own up to them. Along the way, Astrid, who isn't personally affected, learns that when grown ups make mistakes, it's not the child's fault, which I thought was a great message. I also liked that the author seemed more concerned with conveying life in all its joys and pains rather than trying to teach children a lesson by creating cardboard characters who have never made any mistakes.

However, please be aware that there a few scenes where adults are drunk, take chewing tobacco, and divorce and an out of wedlock birth are part of some of the character's backstories.

What books have you loved lately?

To read more middle grade reviews or join in on the MMGM fun, please go to Greg Pattridge's blog Always in the Middle. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

MMGM: Green Ember

Although I’m not usually a fan of anthropomorphic books, my first pet was a rabbit, and I’ve always had a soft spot for bunnies. And then there’s Watership Down. I was sure I would not like a novel all about rabbits, but I loved it. It’s become part of our family culture.

We first heard about Green Ember from some friends whose reading tastes closely match our own. It seems to be all the rage in homeschooling circles, although it’s little known elsewhere.

So when my son devoured Green Ember and kept begging me to read it, I had to find out what all the fuss was about.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Heather and Picket are extraordinary rabbits with ordinary lives until calamitous events overtake them, spilling them into a cauldron of misadventures. They discover that their own story is bound up in the tumult threatening to overwhelm the wider world.

Kings fall and kingdoms totter. Tyrants ascend and terrors threaten. Betrayal beckons, and loyalty is a broken road with peril around every bend.

Where will Heather and Picket land? How will they make their stand?

What I liked:

1.  A brother and sister who like each other. It’s unusual to see siblings without rivalry in middle grade. Although sometimes Heather and Pickett argued at times, they always ultimately wanted to help each other, which was quite refreshing.

2. Picket’s character arc. I know some reviewers have complained that Picket is a little too whiny at times—and that’s certainly true. But I liked how he learned that it wasn’t anger itself that was bad, but what you do with it.

3.  Everyone has a calling. It was a given that all the rabbits have a gift to share with the world.  In the calling ceremony, the master and apprentice bind themselves to each other and the master says, “I bind you…to release you better still.” And storytelling is considered a high calling in this society!

4.   Backstory that is interesting. I liked the backstory of King Jupiter and his fall and betrayal and how that was a huge part of this society. I generally don’t like backstory, but his story, as told by Heather and Pickett’s dad and later by other characters, was interesting and rich.

5.   Themes of hope. The whole idea of the rabbits working and looking forward to a “Mended Wood” was lovely. A good reminder right now that this world is not all that there is.

6. Illustrations! You can tell from the cover that the illustrations (black and white inside the book) are beautiful and evoke that old fashioned fantasy. They add a lot to the story.

Minor Quibbles: While I really loved the beginning and ending of this book, I did struggle through the middle. There are a lot of characters and set up, which don’t get satisfied till the end or in the next book. However, I am not generally a fan of epic fantasy, so that might just be me.

Are you a fan of epic fantasy? What books have you loved lately?

To read more middle grade reviews or join in on the MMGM fun, please go to Greg Pattridge's blog Always in the Middle. 


Monday, December 7, 2020

MMGM: Notorious

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Gordon Korman. When I saw he had a new book out that was a dog mystery, I was over the moon excited. My son loves dogs and raved about this book. I was hooked from page one. First, there's the intriguing setting: an island that is split between Canada and the U.S. Supposedly this island was also once a hang out of the gangsters of the 1930s. 

Then you have amazing characters: Keenan, a kid who’s lived all over the world, but who’s moved to Centerlight (or Centrelight if you’re Canadian) to recover from TB. Then there’s ZeeBee, who’s pining for her dead (murdered?) dog and tells stories too farfetched to believe. Throw in a lot of interesting secondary characters, many of whom have their own character arcs, and you’ve got one delightful novel.

This is probably my favorite Korman to date.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Keenan has lived all over the world but nowhere quite as strange as Centerlight Island, which is split between the United States and Canada. The only thing weirder than Centerlight itself is his neighbor Zarabeth, aka ZeeBee.

ZeeBee is obsessed with the island’s history as a Prohibition-era smuggling route. She’s also convinced that her beloved dog, Barney, was murdered—something Keenan finds pretty hard to believe.

Just about everyone on Centerlight is a suspect, because everyone hated Barney, a huge dog—part mastiff, part rottweiler—notorious for terrorizing the community. Accompanied by a mild-mannered new dog who is practically Barney’s opposite, ZeeBee enlists Keenan’s help to solve the mystery.

As Keenan and ZeeBee start to unravel the clues, they uncover a shocking conspiracy that dates back to Centerlight’s gangster past. The good news is that Keenan may have found the best friend he’s ever had. The bad news is that the stakes are sky-high.

And now someone is after them. . . .

What I liked:

1.ZeeBee! I have a soft spot for difficult kids. It never fails that my favorite students are the ones that all the other teachers gripe about. ZeeBee is that difficult-to-love kid. She’s got a huge chip on her shoulder and never says she’s sorry. She complains a lot, and it’s hard to tell when she’s telling the truth. I loved her!

2. Keenan: While I didn’t find him quite as interesting as Zee Bee, I had fun learning what it was like to live all over the world. I really enjoyed his growth as a character, especially in his friendship with ZeeBee.

3. Bullies who grow up. I was worried at first that Korman was going for the jocks as bullies cliche again (see my review of Restart), but I was totally wrong. There was an amazing character arc in this novel for the middle school goof offs. It’s always nice when bullies have depth too.

4. The dog! Barney Two, who is a pretty tame dog compared to his predecessor, stole the scene a number of times. If you or a child in your life love dogs, I highly recommend this read.

5. An interesting mystery. This is the first Korman mystery I’ve read. There were lots of red herrings and puzzle pieces, but the character development wasn’t overshadowed by the plot. I didn’t guess who did it, but I was very close. (My son unfortunately spoiled the surprise, which is always a danger when you share the same taste in books as your kids.)

Minor Quibbles: None!

What mysteries have you loved lately?

To read more middle grade reviews or join in on the MMGM fun, please go to Greg Pattridge's blog Always in the Middle.


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

ISWG: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to Write!

It's sparkly! It's shiny! It's a new manuscript!

I’m back!
I’m so glad I took a little break for November to catch my breath. I’ve caught up on my reading over Thanksgiving break. More book features are in the works!

In addition, I started a brand new chapter of a shiny new manuscript!

Wow, I can’t actually believe that I started something new. This idea started percolating over the summer, and I’ve been working in the evenings with Save the Cat to come up with a beat sheet and write note cards for key scenes.

The problem was the beginning. I had written a beginning over the summer, but after working on a beat sheet (an outline from Save the Cat), I realized I started too late in the story. That scene needed more set up.

But where to start exactly? I’m a little weird about first chapters. Most of the time, they just come to me. I get an idea or an image, and the scene forms in my mind. I edit my first chapters heavily, but it’s very rare that I change the first scene significantly. So I kept waiting, because I knew I couldn’t write that first chapter without that “this is it” moment.

Over the Thanksgiving break I finally had enough time to let my mind wander a bit. And not think about lesson planning! I had my image. And I wrote that first, beautiful chapter.

I’m sure it will morph and change, but I know where my story starts, and I’m so excited about starting something new. I think—though who’s counting—that it’s been five years since I started a novel length project. I’ve been dibbling and dabbling and rewriting old manuscripts.

Maybe that’s because I’ve been a bit stuck. I’m so thankful for critique partners, who have helped me get back in my writing groove. One dear writing friend, who happily lives close to me, was truly sent by God to encourage me just when I was about to give up.

The question this month is: what time of year do you write best?

Of course summer and all the lovely holiday breaks are prime writing time for me. But I’m also finding that a little bit each day, often handwritten, either brainstorming or drafting, sows the seeds to make those big leaps once I have more time.

What about you? When do you write best?

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! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can't find you to comment back.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say. 

Remember, the question is optional!

December 2 question - Are there months or times of the year that you are more productive with your writing than other months, and why?

The awesome co-hosts for the December 2 posting of the IWSG are Pat Garcia, Sylvia Ney, Liesbet @ Roaming About Cathrina Constantine, and Natalie Aguirre!


Saturday, October 31, 2020

Taking a Short Break


A chipmunk I met on a recent fall hike

Hello everyone! As I've mentioned in a previous post, it's been a whirlwind start to the school year. I've been helping to build the language arts curriculum for our program, and it's been a bit like being a first year teacher all over again.

I've managed to keep blogging just because I banked quite a few posts ahead of time in the summer.

I've decided to take a blogging break in November. I hope that will allow me to catch my breath and come back in December for Insecure Writer's Group and more book features.

Thanks for reading! Have a blessed November and Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 19, 2020

#IMWAYR: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad


I was drawn to Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad  due to its author. M.T. Anderson is brilliant. And then it's about Russia. I studied Russian in college, and I am especially partial to 20th century Russian history, even though it is quite dark. I visited St. Petersburg when I studied in the Crimea in the mid 90s. Here is a photo of a plague commemorating the siege. 

Sorry for the dark photo! My loose translation: Citizens! During the shelling this side of the street is dangerous.

Then there’s Shostakovitch. Back in March, my husband and I went to a concert featuring one of his pieces. And though the conductor implied that Shostakovitch wrote that piece to celebrate the Russian revolution (and we should too, scarily enough), I didn’t believe him. 

Reading this book was my way of proving to myself that Shostakovitch music only seemed to be lauding Stalin and communism.

Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

“This ambitious and gripping work is narrative nonfiction at its best. . . . The book has all the intrigue of a spy thriller. . . . A must-have title with broad crossover appeal.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, writing a symphony to rouse, rally, eulogize, and commemorate his fellow citizens: the Leningrad Symphony. This is the true story of a city under siege, the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a masterwork thrillingly told and impeccably researched by National Book Award–winning author M. T. Anderson.


1.  Anderson points out that it’s really hard to find the truth about Shostakovitch meaning behind his music, because telling the truth meant death during Stalin's reign. But considering that Shostakovitch often wrote letters to help friends who were arrested, never denounced anyone, and was almost purged at least twice shows that he wasn’t a fan of communism.

2.  The people of Leningrad who survived did not lie down to conserve their strength. There’s something about going about your daily tasks and acting as if life is normal that breeds hope. And I loved that they entertained each other by reading and quoting the Russian classics!

3.  I found it interesting that although a German nutritionist advised Hitler to not attack the city because the people would die in a few months of starvation, he was wrong. This nutritionist and the Germans in general underestimated the Russian people, whom they considered subhuman. Yet the Nazis didn't consider how much a people's will to live, their love for their homeland, or the intangibles of life (faith, love, family, etc.) can impact a person's ability to survive.

4.   It is a powerful scene in the book when Shostakovitch's 7th Symphony is finally performed in Leningrad. The audience consists of starving people who’ve given up their day’s rations to buy a ticket, and the band includes Red Army soldiers on leave from their duties, because so many have died of starvation. Yet, with each note they played, they demonstrated how music and the arts can elevate the soul. 

5.   Anderson made a smart choice in letting Shostakovitch be our eyes through the terrible events of the first half of 20th century Russia. I probably couldn’t have stomached the barbarity of the revolution or Stalin’s purges without a mild-mannered man like Shostakovitch to root for. His love for his family and his willingness to do so much for others and so little for himself was truly inspiring.

I think another reason this book spoke to me was the timing. I shared in the spring some funny and light-hearted books that cheer me up. But I’m also finding that difficult books, especially about people surviving trials far greater than I can even imagine, puts life in perspective for me. Reading this book will make you grateful for the gift of food, of family, and the ability to speak the truth without losing your life.

I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Have you read any books about difficult times lately?

Monday, October 12, 2020

MMGM: Roll With It


When I read the premise for Roll With It, I knew had to read it. A girl with cerebral palsy wants to be a baker! I love baking, and I’m always excited to see a book about a kid with a disability where the story is not just about the disability.

This book has a lot of plots and subplots, and they all come together for a heartwarming story about finding your tribe.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Ellie’s a girl who tells it like it is. That surprises some people, who see a kid in a wheelchair and think she’s going to be all sunshine and cuddles. The thing is, Ellie has big dreams: She might be eating Stouffer’s for dinner, but one day she’s going to be a professional baker. If she’s not writing fan letters to her favorite celebrity chefs, she’s practicing recipes on her well-meaning, if overworked, mother.

But when Ellie and her mom move so they can help take care of her ailing grandpa, Ellie has to start all over again in a new town at a new school. Except she’s not just the new kid—she’s the new kid in the wheelchair who lives in the trailer park on the wrong side of town. It all feels like one challenge too many, until Ellie starts to make her first-ever friends. Now she just has to convince her mom that this town might just be the best thing that ever happened to them!

What I loved:

1. A relatable main character: Ellie is a different kind of character with a disability. She treats her limitations in a practical way without letting them totally flatten her. While sometimes her sarcasm grated on me a bit, she showed a welcome range of emotion, and the story didn’t pivot on her teaching other people a lesson, but having her learn one herself.

2. Memaw! I’m not sure if I’ve enjoyed a MG grandma I loved as much as Ellie’s Memaw. Her faith was real and not saccharine. She wasn’t afraid to tell Ellie’s Mom the truth, and she always had Ellie’s back. Loved her!

3. Fun sidekick characters: I really enjoyed how Ellie found her people with Coralee, a pageant contestant and aspiring singer, who tells it like it is (not unlike Memaw) and Bert, who has autism. The scenes with the three of them together were so much fun, especially the miniature golf scene. Coralee wasn’t afraid to tell Ellie the truth, even risking their friendship, which is the sign of a good friend.

4. Letters to famous chefs/bakers! The only downfall with this book in my opinion was the lack of recipes. I wanted to try Ellie’s creations. But I really enjoyed how each chapter started off with a letter to a baker or a chef. Even one of my favorites, Mary Berry, was included.

5. An author who writes from the heart. In the afterword, the author states her story was inspired by her child, who also uses a wheelchair. I have found that some of the most authentic reads about people with disabilities are written by parents. In this way, it reminded me of Out of my Mind by Sharon Draper, another wonderful read by a parent of a child with a disability.


Have you read any good character-driven middle grades lately? 


For more Monday Middle Grade reads or to join in on the fun, please visit Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

ISWG: The Unexpected Benefit of Staying Home

In July, I wrote about my tendency to put off everything to the summer or “Octember”—that mystical month when everything gets done. I have to report that I’ve accomplished a lot last summer.

And that’s made me wonder why.  

I like to look back on the Golden Age of my writing—when I accomplished the most—as the year my oldest was in afternoon kindergarten, and my youngest still took naps. Oh, I had a glorious two hours each day to write. I accomplished much.

But the key was, I couldn’t go anywhere during those two hours. Running to my keyboard was the most exciting option.

This summer, I did work part time for a few weeks, but that structure was helpful. On my days off, I focused on writing. On the days I worked, I gave myself grace and set very low expectations.

I also read some nonfiction. I don’t know what it is about nonfiction that inspires me more than anything else. I got jazzed about two new story ideas—I’m still not sure which I’m going to focus on, but there’s something about new ideas that keeps writing fresh.

I also discovered that if I don’t work on the same thing all the time, I don’t get bored. Right now, I flit between writing blog posts, writing/researching the new projects, and revising my old project. This variety keeps me energized.

When this post is published, I will have been back at full-time work for over a month. September is my busiest, craziest month with the start of school for me as teacher, a homeschooling mom, and it’s also happens to be the month of my 23rd anniversary. Whew! It feels sometimes if I can just make it to the end of the month in one piece I have done well.

I’ve prepped a lot of blog posts ahead of time, but I think September could still be productive because I probably won’t be doing as many outside activities as usual.

Maybe that’s one benefit of all the craziness of the last few months. Staying home more has been a gift. It’s given me more time to write. More time to read. More time with my family. Also, I’ve found without the constant input from people outside my family, I’m less prone to care what other people think.

And I don’t know about you, but caring what other people think is a huge roadblock for my writing. It’s hard to write anything when you imagine people looking over your shoulder, already judging your work.

So, although I can’t say that I’m thankful for all that’s happened in the last few months, I am thankful for having more time at home.

As Mrs. Elton says in Emma: “Ah! there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort writing.”

This month's question: I consider myself to be a hobbyist/aspiring writer, and this is even after I have sold some of my writing. Perhaps it's because writing isn't my day job or that the sales are few and far between. I don't think it's wrong to consider yourself a hobbyist. Hobbyist love their hobbies, and that's where I am at with my writing right now. When I treated it like a career, I ended up feeling guilty all the time and not enjoying it. I write better when I enjoy it, so I'll stay a hobbyist.

Has staying home more affected your writing? What are your writing goals for the fall? Are you a working writer or a hobbyist?

Monday, September 28, 2020

What I Learned About Writing from Watercolors

Image from

One of the interesting things about the arts is the way that artists use the same language. When my son plays at piano competitions, the adjudicator often comments on how he plays “with color” and “texture.” I found these descriptions strange. And yet, so true. Music creates feelings, just as all good art does.

It’s interesting how these terms are used in writing as well. A novel has texture if more is going on than just the main story—if we hear, smell, and see the world of the story come to life. This must be why I love books about food, especially ones set in other countries.

Dabbling in other art is so helpful to writing. I love listening to composers talk about how they are creating a certain feeling with their underlying themes, because I want to do the same thing with words. And I have learned so much over the last few months since I’ve been working my way through this marvelous book, Watercolor with Me in the Forest.

Image from

What I've Learned:

1. Permission to Fail: Now, I am a true amateur when it comes to drawing or painting. It doesn’t come easily to me, but I love it.  With low expectations comes the permission to mess up. I wish I could capture that childlike mindset with my writing. When we feel free to fail, we also take more risks.

2. Patience: As I’ve gotten better at painting, I’ve learned about patience. With watercolors, it’s all about the layering. (As I think it is in other mediums, but I don’t have much experience with them.) You might start out with a light wash, and then a darker one, till you get the shade you want. You must let it dry between each step to get the right effect.

This is excruciating for me. I have a hard time stepping away, and when I tried watercolors before, I often skipped this step. But now I see that this stepping away is key to a good painting.

Might stepping way also be important for writing? My writing is often pushed to the weekends or morphs into journaling or brainstorming during the week. I hear about these people who write and revise a book in a few months (or even weeks!), while I plod along on a novel for years.

Yet, because I have so much space between when I work on my writing projects, I come at it with new eyes. Brainstorming/journaling sessions are not wasted time. Maybe I’m just letting the paint dry. Maybe stepping away is not a bad thing, but something that will make my writing better.

How about you? Does other art impact your writing?

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!