Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman, for MMGM

Yay for being back! I don’t realize how much I miss these posts until I have a longerish break, and then come back. I love talking middle grade books and hearing all your thoughts on the books you’re reading!

My goals this year are pretty simple, and include stuff like: eat more pumpkin pie. This because my fairy tale MG mashup will be on submission within the week (SQUEEE!!!), and my first Lily Black romantic suspense will enjoy a Bookbub ad, also this week, so I feel my life is already peddle-to-the-metal writing-wise and I need to make sure I breath and find joy in the process. And so two other (more real) goals I have this year are read even more middle grade and do more book photography on the books I read! Also maybe doodle-draw, because how is that not fun?

What are your goals–fun or serious–for the new year? I’d love to hear about them, and cheer you on!

Now, back to the subject at hand. On beginning this post, I went looking for other Neil Gaiman books I’ve spotlighted, and was horrified to find I have neglected The Graveyard Book, which I absolutely adored! No idea how that happened. However, I did spotlight Odd and the Frost Giants–which could be a fitting winter read if you’re snowed in–and you’ll find that here. Today’s spotlight is on Fortunately the Milk, which was clever, hilarious, and 100% Gaiman.

cover Fortunately the Milk

A slim little book, it has regular illustrations by the always-super-cool Skottie Young, which really enhanced the story and helped clarify this image-rich book. In fact, the clever interplay between text and words felt rather like the best balance found in graphic novels, or great picture books. I don’t recall seeing that kind of balance in a traditional middle grade before, and plan to pick up a copy of my own at some point, so I can study it. Like a good magician’s tricks, it wants to be studied.

The story itself is a bit reminiscent of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie books by Laura Numeroff, which the title hints at. I also picked up on what felt like a nod to The Cat in the Hat. The story begins with Mom heading out of town, while Dad takes a distracted approaching to managing things in her absence. As a result, the family assembles for their chosen breakfast of cold cereal and tea, only to find there is no milk. However, hero dad will come through, if only the kids will be patient, and makes a quick jaunt down to the corner shop to procure milk.

Only, he isn’t so quick about it, and on his return, the brother and sister get to hear why. You see, he had very good reasons for taking so long, involving pirates, a highly advanced stegosaurus, aliens, a volcano, and saving the world from an unspeakable fate. The kids listen with some skepticism as their father’s yarn grows and morphs. It ranges and rambles and takes on crazy shapes, with the precious jug of milk nearly lost, smashed, or banished a dozen times, only to come through in a significant way in the end.

I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that the ending was very clever, and I found it highly satisfactory. I see this book being an excellent fit for family reading time in homes where parents like to spin tall tales. Ours was like that, and someday I plan to write a book with a few of the snarls which befell my children’s tooth fairy, and kept her from promptly picking up their teeth. I can also see this story working great in classrooms with a wide variety of reading levels, since it will keep the interest of the advanced readers and feel manageable to everyone. Moreover, it opens itself to a discussion of what is real, and how to tell when someone is pulling your leg. Most of all, it’s just a lot of fun! A milk and cookies kind of book. 😉

book photography Fortunately the Milk

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

IMG_1001 (2)“If I had a time machine, I’d go back and bash on the head anyone who threatened that jug of milk. Partly because they were often idiots, but more because they endangered the precious deliciousness that is milk. Unpardonable, I tell you!”

 

 

 

 

Remind me not to let my cat get her hand’s on a time machine, or you know, assist her in any evil over-lord tendencies, okay? Also, maybe we should cut back on the milk I occasionally slip her. Just to be safe.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways stop by the blog of our fabulous new permanent host, Greg Pattridge! And many thanks, again, to Greg, for carrying on the hosting torch from Shannon. 🙂

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The Art of the Swap, interview with Kristine Asselin, and giveaway winners announced!

This post will be a bit shorter than I’d like, because I sprained my hand/wrist this past week and am still wearing a brace. I’ve made seven typos just typing this. XD So first up, so many congratulations to Kathy D and Richard M, our winners of The Art of the Swap and Hatter Madigan!

MMGM Holiday giveaway 2017

Thank you all for the generous follows, and support!

And now, on to my (thankfully already typed!) interview with awesome Art of the Swap author Kristine Asselin. It was such fun to get this glimpse inside Kris’s head, because I LOVED The Art of the Swap! It’s a wonderful story, cleverly told, with super fun glimpse into another time.

cover Art of the Swap

SW: Can you tell me what the germination of this story was like? Did the idea to have the girls swap bodies spring out fully developed, or did you grow it over time?

KA: Initially it wasn’t a time travel story. I’d visited Newport, RI with my family and my daughter and I had imagined how cool it would be to be the child of one of the caretaker’s of a mansion like those from the gilded age. Living in a museum sounded so cool! I’d been tossing around how to write that story for a year or two.

In June 2015, Jen Malone and I carpooled from Massachusetts to New Jersey for a conference and we started talking about things we were working on–when I mentioned this idea of the caretaker’s daughter in a living museum, we started brainstorming and all of a sudden it was this amazing multidimensional project spanning a century with two distinct voices. We had the first few chapters drafted and pitched to Amy Cloud at Simon and Schuster by early September of that same year. She bought it based on those chapters.

SW: Wow, that’s a great publishing story! I was impressed with the language differences, in the way the two girls spoke. Hannah with her heavy reliance on slang, and Maggie’s more formal way of speaking. Was it difficult to write these girls and keep them separate? Did they ever try to steal each other’s dialogue?

KA: We worked really hard to be sure the voices were really different–we both worked on the first few chapters, but as we got into the writing, it was easier to each take a character and her arc. It was really important for Maggie to have a more formal voice as an heiress in the early twentieth century. And of course, Hannah is a child of the ’00s, so her voice had to be super contemporary. It’s always fun to see if readers can guess which girl Jen writes and which one I write!

SW: The gilded age setting for Hannah’s half of the mystery was so well-developed, and so fascinating! How much research did you have to do, to develop that world and make it historically accurate? Were you an antique-savvy kid, like Hannah?

KA: Both Jen and I did a ton of research. One of my favorite memories was a trip to The Elms where we had a great sit down with the current caretaker Harold Mathews, who did happen to bring up his daughter in the house in the ’80s. We took a lot of inspiration for Hannah’s life from that meeting with Harold. We also talked to his daughter (grown now) about her experiences. Our research for the early 1900’s life in the house came from a number of really good books, information about the house from the Newport Preservation Society, and a lot of googling.

We don’t claim that it’s 100% historically accurate (though we tried really hard to get all the details right)–the story and the characters were more important. We also took some creative license with “real” people–this is definitely not a biography in any way! We made changes even after the ARC was printed with a couple of details when we realized we were a bit off. One good example is the camera that Hannah uses in 1905. We were imagining those giant tripod cameras–but then we realized that the Kodak Brownie had come out in 1900 and gave people a hand held camera to use.

I was not necessarily a history buff like Hannah but I’ve always been a fan of living history. Our favorite family trips are to antique properties, historic cities and locations, cemeteries, and the like.

SW: That’s so cool you got to visit The Elms, and hear Harold’s stories in person! I really enjoyed the unfolding mystery within the story, and the art heist shenanigans. Without giving away anything spoilery, can you tell us how you developed the mystery? Did you know who the culprit would be from the beginning, or did you spy them out as you wrote?

KA: Thank you! We didn’t know who the culprit was going to be–that might have been one of the last mysteries we needed to solve for the plot. Another challenge was making sure the continuity worked with a couple of items that needed to be hidden in 1905 and found in 2018–probably the most time we spent on any part of the plot was making sure that worked.

SW: I find it interesting that you and Jen Malone co-wrote the book . Can you tell us what that process was like? What do you see as the most important thing in making an author teamship work?

KA: Jen is one of my favorite people on the planet–I loved working with her on this. We worked so well together, I can’t even remember much of the actual writing. We used a shared Google doc, which isn’t great as a writing tool, but allowed us to each see the live document in real time. The MOST important part of the team work for us was something we said at the very beginning. Our friendship was more important than the book. We knew we were going to have to be honest with each other as we progressed and said from the outset that nothing was going to impact our friendship.

SW: It’s great that you were able to put your friendship first–and how perfect that the book grew this way given the friendships in the book! What projects do you have in the works now, or news on the writing front? Will there be more books about Maggie and Hannah?

KA: I’m not sure we’ll see more of Maggie and Hannah–I think their story is pretty much told. But we *might* have something up our sleeve for another time swap type book. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’ve recently had the opportunity to rerelease my debut digital-only Young Adult novel in print format for the first time. ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT is about a girl who defies her parents to covertly play on a boys hockey team. Link here: AWYSI

This is the Amazon link, but it’s available from Barnes and Noble, as well as other outlets, and from Ingram for libraries and book sellers.

Congrats, and good luck to your YA book!

Finally, no interview would be complete without a question from Apricot-kitty:

A: It seems the Elms was a pet-free household. Was that typical of big homes in the gilded age? Because honestly, I’m pretty sure the girls could have used the smarts of a cat, in solving that mystery.

KA: I think the girls could have used a savvy cat! And no, not all gilded age homes were pet free. In fact, Elizabeth Drexel, who makes a brief appearance in SWAP had little dogs that she loved. There’s a famous portrait of her hanging at The Elms with one of her little dogs!

Lovely! I’ve now added visiting The Elms to my bucket list. 🙂 So many thanks to Kris for satisfying my questions, and to her publisher for supplying the arc! Giving away books makes me feel like Santa Clause!

This will be my last post until some time in January, when I get back from my winter break–hopefully with a healed up hand. To that end, I will see you all again in 2018, and I hope you all have a fantastic holiday!

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday interviews, reviews, giveaways and spotlights stop by Greg Pattridge’s blog, and happy reading!

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The Unicorn in the Barn, an interview with author Jackie Ogburn, and my Holiday GIVEAWAY!

I am delighted to be able to share with you today both my holiday giveaway and an interview with The Unicorn in the Barn author Jackie Ogburn! Jackie was one of my first friends/mentors within the kidlit world, and I adore the wonder and rich imagery of her picture books. When I heard she was writing her first middle grade, I was thrilled, and couldn’t rest till I got my hands on a copy!

cover Unicorn in the Barn hi-res

The cover perfectly sets the mood for this novel. Beautiful, with lingering images and a story that will resonate long after you’ve closed the book. I am so pleased to have Jackie here on the blog to share a bit about how this lovely book came to be. Feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments, and be sure to scroll all the way to the end and enter my holiday giveaway!

S: This is probably a question you get all the time, but I must know: where did you get the idea for The Unicorn in the Barn?

J: The initial inspiration came from my younger daughter. She had a stuffed unicorn, and one day she remarked that unicorns would be hard for doctors to treat, because of the horn. That made me wonder, how would a human vet treat magical animals?

S: How did the story idea germinate?

J: I love fantasy in contemporary settings, like The Dark is Rising series. I wanted it to be a bit different, so I decided to set it in North Carolina. The house and farm is modeled on the family farm where my mother grew up. I always want to have my stories be a little bit different, so instead of a girl having adventures with the unicorn, I decided it should be a boy. I wanted it to be very grounded, as if a unicorn really did come out of those woods, why would she be there and what would happen.

Research is always a big part of my books, so I read a lot of books about vets, went to the NC State vet school open house. I read books of horse anatomy and ailments, of which there are multitudes. Horses are really delicate creatures. To figure out what a boy could realistically do to help, I volunteered for six months at the Piedmont Wildlife Center. That involved lots of housekeeping, also cool icky things like unpacking mealworms, which came mail order in bags stuffed with newspaper and worms, and preparing frozen lab mice for the raptors to eat.

There is also some American folklore in the book.  The squonk is a Fearsome Critter, part of the lore around the American frontier, as is the jackalope.

S: You’ve made quite a name for yourself writing lyrical picture books. At what point did you know you were writing a middle grade?

J: I knew right away, this idea was too big for a picture book, even one of mine.  It needed more space to get into the details of how one would treat magical animals, how you would keep them safe and secret. I worked on it for years, because I had to learn how to write a novel.  It was like being good at the 50-yard dash and then deciding to run a marathon.

S: I can see how hard that would be! I don’t want to give away spoilers, but I’d love to hear how you developed your idea of what a unicorns is like. For example, what could be dangerous to unicorns, what its powers are, how they live. Can you talk about that process?

J: I decided right off that this would not be a rainbow sparkle unicorn.  No flying, no rainbow colored mane or sparkly tails. This unicorn would be an actual animal, one that poops and needs to be fed and groomed.

One big thing I had to figure out was a way that the unicorn could not just heal all the animals and the people. I needed a reason for her to stay around, but not take over the vet practice. Creatures from Fairie are traditionally harmed by iron, so having the unicorn wounded by barbed wire was a good reason for her to seek help. Having twins is very dangerous for horses–they are rarely carried successfully–so a high-risk pregnancy gave the unicorn a reason to be in the barn over a longer period of time. The pregnancy would also be a good reason for her not to use her healing powers very often.

In folklore, the horn has healing properties even when no longer attached to a unicorn.  I thought then that the hair might also be able to heal, but at a lower level.  That way I could have some magical healing going on without everything being cured.

I also decided that Moonpearl would be intelligent, but couldn’t speak human language.  That led me to the character of Timothy, the Cheshire cat, who can talk, and turn invisible. He acts as a translator.

The unicorn does have a herd. Moonpearl had to run into a unicorn stallion at some point. I think they live in Fairie, in the Underhill, but with connections to our world and sometimes travel between the two. They are not native to the U.S., they followed the European settlers. Harper’s Woods has a doorway deeper in the woods and that’s why there have been so many magical creatures passing through.

Many things I only figured out during the writing.  For example, that Moonpearl decided to stay with the vet once she knew she was carrying twins. She knew that they would be born in winter, and that was risky for the babies.

S: I LOVE all these details! In my Fairyland MG Mashup–going out on submission soon!–my character, Esme, wears a pendent of a black unicorn, and I hope to one day have a unicorn in the books. Hopefully I’ll pull mine off as well as you have yours!
What projects are you working on now? Will there be a sequel or companion novel for The Unicorn in the Barn?

J: Yes, I have started a sequel, with the same setting and many of the same characters.  It centers on Allegra, and she is dealing with a wounded griffin.

S: Wonderful to hear there will be a sequel. I can’t wait to hear more! Now, we have a couple of questions from Apricot-kitty for the Cheshire cat, Timothy:

IMG_20160516_103529761 (2)A: I found your power of invisibility fascinating. Got any great stories, of times you were invisible and something interesting happened?

 

 

 

 

Timothy: The charm of invisibility is that one can make things happen and the humans don’t even know. One of my favorite games is “Torment the Dog.”  I can stroll right up to the silly thing and bat it on the nose. The look of outrage and confusion is delicious.

A: Just my kind of game! My humans are a bit dense at understanding what I’m saying, though they do try. Do you find overall you like being able to speak to humans? Or does it create its own problems?

Timothy: One would think it would be easier to get waited on, but humans manage to ignore even plain English. I am afraid they just aren’t very bright. The biggest problem is that humans seem to think that one is actually paying attention when they chatter on and on. They keep asking questions and expecting a reply. It can be quite boring.

A: Hmm, yes, I can see how that would be a problem. Just in case I were ever interested, how does one become a Cheshire cat? Is that something you have to be born into?

Timothy: One must be born a Cheshire cat.  We are quite rare. I have not met another outside of my litter mates and mother.

***

Thank you to Jackie and Timothy for answering our questions! And now, on to the Holiday giveaway of TWO beautiful middle grade books!

First up is a gently used arc of The Art of the Swap, which I was delighted to get an early look at. You’ll learn more about how Kris and Jen came to write this wonderful time-traveling mystery in two weeks, on Monday Dec. 11th, in my interview with Kris!

Some lucky reader will also win a copy of Hatter Madigan: Ghost in the Hatbox, by Frank Beddor. This is an adventure tale about the teen-age Hatter Madigan, and looks really fun! It’s on my TBR pile and something I’m looking forward to. Not being big on self-denial when it comes to books, I’m giving away a spare copy. 😉

I will do my best to get these books out the door ASAP once the giveaway ends, so they will hopefully arrive in time for gift giving. Best yet, by entering the giveaway you’re giving each of these authors a small holiday boost, since I’ve included everyone’s social media links and authors love to see readers give them a follow! Fingers crossed that the instagram links go through…this is the first time I’ve done the ‘build your own’ feature on Rafflecopter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thank you all so much for reading and commenting, and for being the wonderful folk you are! I can’t wait to send out your books. 🙂

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, interviews, giveaways and reviews, stop by Greg Pattridge’s blog (since Shannon is still on tour) and happy reading!

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Goddess Girls: Persephone and Athena, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

This delightful series has been one I’ve enjoyed for quite some time, so I was surprised on checking to find that I’ve never spotlighted any of the Goddess Girl books. I did do an interview with Joan just shy of two years ago. You can find that here–and I loved that I got this chance to look at it again!

Before heading into the two books I’ll be spotlighting today, let me reiterate how lovely this series is! At the end of October, I sent my latest (and hopefully greatest) version of my Fairyland’s Witness Protection middle grade back to my agent. And since this all-new revision meant aiming the book younger, at the 8-10 crowd, and bringing it in around the 30k mark, I spent all of October while I was writing it reading every Goddess Girl book I could get my hands on. Why the Goddess Girls? Well, the truth is…none of the other series that had the plot rhythm I needed remained engaging enough to pull me back after two or three books. In their defense, I wasn’t reading the books the way they’re meant to be read! I was reading them to keep my internal radar for plot and pacing in sync with the book I was writing, and I’m also way out of the intended demographic.

However, the Goddess Girl books remained thoroughly enjoyable twelve–yes, 12!–books later, and held up amazingly. I was impressed to find myself still drawn in, still looking forward to each book, even after reading so many in so little time. If you’ve got a reluctant reader on your holiday gift list, or a younger reader reaching up towards the Percy Jackson books but not quite there, let me recommend the Goddess Girl series. Between the four diverse main characters–Athena, Aphrodite, Persephone and Artemis–and the many other students at Mount Olympus Academy who get their moment to shine, there’s something here for everyone.

It was hard to pick which ones to spotlight, but two of my favorites are Persephone the Phony and Athena the Wise.

It’s not a stretch for me to understand why I enjoyed Persephone’s struggles. I am a confident adult, and did well enough as a teen, but as a young teen I went through a stage in which I pretended to find boys cute just because my friends did, pulled an attitude with adults because that’s how cool kids rolled, and came pretty close to vandalizing a building once, again, because that’s what my friends were up. Nowadays, I make sure that any trouble I find I come by honestly. 😉

Persephone struggles in similar ways, though her friends aren’t actually a bad influence. They just don’t know what Persephone likes or doesn’t, because she’s never spoken up and told them! Her mom has always taught her to blend in and get along, and she’s perhaps over-perfected the process. I love that the challenge of beginning to speak up has its own bumps, as Persephone at first over corrects, and I love that the story also addresses what it means to be a good friend, and how gossip can have unintended consequences. Parents may frown over Persephone’s running away from home, but I think the outcome is positive and that it would make for a good discussion. Because after all…this book won’t likely be the first time a kid encounters the concept of running away! Though it might be the first time they hear of someone running to the underworld. 😀

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In Athena the Wise the young Goddess Girl finds herself caught up in her father, Zeus’ schemes. She’s rather intimidated by her father–she hasn’t known him long–and wants to be as wise as everyone believes she is. So she agrees to help…even though she’s not sure what she’s agreeing to. As she sets out to help Hercles settle in to the school as Zeus asked her to, she finds herself liking the mortal boy, and puzzled by that since her initial impression of him isn’t all that favorable. She also has to juggle how much help to give, and how to respond when her status as a Goddess comes under threat.

While I found the characters sympathetic and enjoyed watching Athena grow, it was the clever solutions to Hercles’ twelve ‘labors’ or tasks that really caught my attention. Over and over again the kids, and especially Athena, came up with smart solutions to problems which appeared to merely need muscle thrown at them. I won’t give any of their solutions away, but I was happy to see that this book avoids a common problem in kidlit, in which we’re told that the young characters are wise or smart or genius, but shown little evidence of that. So, this one goes on my list as a great story for all the problem-solvers out there who love to see characters being savvy!

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Apricot Looking Up“You should have spotlighted Aphrodite the Diva, because of the glimpses we get of Egypt. Now there was a place that new the value of cats! However, my most pressing question is why those fluttery winged sandals of theirs aren’t being sold as cat toys. I’ll take five pairs, please!”

 

 

 

Ah, yes, the winged sandals students use to skim up and down Mount Olympus, as they head to the Immortal Market or visit Earth. All they have to do is strap them on–if the student is immortal–and away they go. I can see why they’d capture Apricot-kitty’s fancy, and I wouldn’t mind having a pair myself!

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, and giveaways stop by Greg Partridge’s blog! He’s hosting MMGM for Shannon, while she’s on tour, cause he’s an all around great guy. 🙂 Make sure you come back in two weeks–on Nov. 27th–for my spotlight on The Unicorn in the Barn, complete with a super fun interview with author Jackie Ogburn and a chance to enter my holiday giveaway! I’m excited to share the lovely books I’ll be giving away, and hope to see you all then!

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DragonMasters One and Two, by Tracey West

Happy Halloween Eve! I hope you all aren’t tired of these highly readable younger middle grades! Once I began reading them, I was too blown away by the quality of my favorites to skimp my spotlight. So, here we have a pair of fanciful tales just in time for Halloween, the Dragon Masters!

First in the series is Rise of the Earth Dragon.

Cover Dragon Master rise of the earth dragon

In this story we meet the main character, suitably named Drake, as he’s whisked away from his home on an onion farm and taken to do a secret work for the king. But even after finding he is to become a dragon master, it appears he hasn’t left his humble roots behind. While the other three dragons–fire, sun, and water–fly gorgeously and have amazing powers, the earth dragon Drake is assigned to train appears to be a dud. However, Drake loves his dragon anyway and bonds with him over their mutual loneliness. And in the end, this special bond saves all the dragon masters and their dragons, as the humble earth dragon unlocks previously hidden talents!

In the second book, Saving the Sun Dragon,

Cover Dragon Master saving the sun dragon

the beautiful Sun dragon Kepri takes ill. The wise wizard who watches over all the dragonmasters and dragons tries everything he can think of, and the kids pitch in to help. Eventually it is their mutual efforts which result in the kids being transported to a place where Kepri can get the healing she needs. Along the way and woven throughout, Kepri’s young dragon master, Ana, has felt she was failing her dragon. But in the end, she discovers that through her self-sacrificing love for her dragon they have bonded, and the group goes home happy.

These are simple stories–given their super skinny spine, they have to be! But they each bring up a story question and an opportunity for character growth, and each book also forwards the underlying series plot, and what I suspect are nefarious purposes on the part of the king.

Chances are these books won’t supply the meat older readers are generally looking for. However, when my teen daughter came across the books sitting on the table she picked them up, and read them through. They took next to no time, but she was surprised at how readable and enjoyable they were, all the same. So, this series is my recommendation for anyone with a beginning reader and a preference for keeping their sanity while helping their young reader with books. 😉

Now let’s hear what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Apricot in witch hat“Well, I thought the books were…hey! You put something on my picture, didn’t you? What is it? A dragon mask? Dragon fangs? Take it off–I won’t be partial to any more dragon nonsense!”

 

 

 

 

You’ll have to excuse madam grump. She and I had a disagreement about whether she’d be dressing up for Halloween this year, and even though she won, now she’s in a bad mood. Also, I’m pretty sure she’s jealous of all the adoration dragons get…but don’t tell her I said so. 😉

I hope you all have a lovely Halloween, assuming you celebrate, and I will see you all in November! I’ve got some great books going into the pre-holiday line up, and have plans for a giveaway.

For anyone who might live locally to me in the greater Raleigh area, there’s a chance I could truly see you! I’ll be teaching a series of flash fiction workshops at each of the regional libraries throughout the month. Here’s a graphic with the times and dates,

Stronger, better writing (1)

and you can also see the workshops listed on wake county’s library event page. Though I’m doing these as Suzanne Warr I’ll be passing out mini-book chocolates and bookmarks for my Lily Black book, as well as signing Storm of Attraction, and would LOVE to say hi if you can stop by!

I’m also SUPER excited that I’ll be meeting Shannon Messenger in November, at the Raleigh stop of her Nightfall book tour. Lucky for me, my daughter and her friends are even more excited, so I can hide in the middle of them to sort of blend in. 😉 Stop by Shannon’s blog for the details on where she’ll be, and for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts!

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Cupcake Diaries: Emma on Thin Icing, by Coco Simon

As was the case with Charlie’s adventures–highlighted in my last MMGM–I picked up Emma on Thin Icing for research, because I wanted to better acquaint myself with what was happening at the younger end of the middle grade spectrum. I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the story on a personal level!

Cover Emma on Thin Icing

In this story, which is #3 in the cupcake diaries, Emma is thrilled to learn that she and the other cupcake clubbers have been asked to be junior bridesmaids, at their friend/member Mia’s mom’s wedding. However, she’s not sure she’ll be able to cough up the dough for the bridesmaid dress, given that it’s $250. She doesn’t want to ask her parents for the money because she knows how tight things have been since her mom was furloughed from her job at the library. She doesn’t even want to tell them what the dress costs. And so, by herself, she sets about earning the needed cash. She has a jump start on the money, because she was already saving up for a new mixer. As sources of income she has the cupcake club, and she has her dog walking. Plus, she’s very organized and good with numbers. So it should be doable, right?

The catch is that she’s also babysitting her little brother, since her mom is working a crappy job in the afternoons and evenings. She also has commitments to her friends and the club, since she can’t simply take and take, without putting in. And perhaps just as importantly, life rarely goes according to plan–even when you’re a champion organizer.

The conclusion won’t come as any surprise to mature readers! Emma makes a mighty effort, but in the end she can’t pull it off by herself. I love that she needed help to get there, but also love the beautiful qualities that the book illustrates in Emma on the way. She wants desperately to be dependable, someone her parents can count on. She has faith in her own organizational skills, and is very good at getting the most out of her time. She’s not intimidated by big goals. She’s (generally) able to take a deep breath and try again when she flops. While the down sides or vulnerabilities of these strengths are well shown, I love that this slim little book holds these positive qualities up to readers and shows them what they can do, too.

But let’s see what Apricto-kitty thought of it:

Apricot half angry direct put down“Waay too many dogs, behaving with precisely the decorum and intelligence one expects from a dog. On the other hand, the girl may be on to something with her idea of mixing bacon with cupcakes. As you know, I like a bit of the sweet stuff, myself, and of course I’d hardly be a cat if I didn’t like bacon. Why don’t you get on that?”

 

 

 

I have to agree with Apricot-kitty on this one–bacon cupcakes at first sounded disgusting, but by the end of the book the description had me dying for a sample! I’ve decided to try making some myself, maybe even for Halloween if I can get my family on board! Here’s a maple bacon cupcake recipe that should be pretty similar to the ones in the book, and here’s one with chocolate bacon cupcakes, because chocolate. 😉

What’s the weirdest treat you’ve been tempted to try? And did you like it? Tell me in the comments!

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, interviews, reviews and giveaways stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!

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Charlie Small Adventures: Gorilla City, by Charlie Small

I wasn’t expecting myself to like this slim little book, though I was determined to read it. My nephews are growing and needing new books, and I’m also writing toward a younger audience in my latest book, so I’m making a thorough study of these younger middle grades. The problem was it seemed this one was going to use keep-the-kids-reading gimmicks, and those are generally a turn off for me. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised! Charlie Small and Gorilla City swept me up, and kept me reading.

Cover Charlie Small

Charlie’s narrative makes clear quite quickly that this may be something of a tall tale, of the kind many a small boy has found himself bringing home to his slightly skeptic family. In the beginning of the book, Charlie has forgone outdoor adventures in order to master a new level on his game. When circumstances plus looming chores force him out the door, he grabs his ready-rucksack of all things an adventuring young soul might need, and heads off to try out his new raft.

What he doesn’t take into account is a rain-swollen creek, and he’s soon headed off into an unknown land filled with giant crocodiles determined to have him for a snack, a protective and companionable steampunk rhino, and of course the gorilla village where Charlie is first taken captive and then takes refuge. Throughout are drawings and insertions as if Charlie were writing up the adventures in real time, and the pace plus the story voice make for a fairly nonstop adventure story!

But let’s ask the expert on quiet adventures, Apricot-kitty, what she thought of it:

IMG_20160516_103529761 (2)“It was okay, once the boy got out of the water and when he wasn’t eating bananas. The part with the rhino was my favorite. Do you suppose we’ll get to see creatures like him again?”

 

 

 

 

That’s a good question! The story is compact, but does a nice job of hinting at further world building which will hopefully get explored in future books. And yes, that means I may have to, erm, do further research and read some more of these! 😉

I hope you’re having a lovely first Monday of October, and have all kinds of delightful adventures planned for this the most imaginative of months. Me, I’m torn between a day at the NC State Fair, or a day at the Renn Faire just south of me. Or maybe both? Because how can I ever choose between sitting in a globe-lit garden watching a fire dancer while I munch pimiento on a stick, and watching glass blowing in full pirate regalia?

Tell me what you’re reading, and be sure to stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways!

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Mari’s Hope, by Sandy Brehl, for MMGM

I’m so grateful I got to be a part of Mari’s journey! My heart is full, here at the close of this series. From the very beginning, when I was fortunate enough to receive an arc of Odin’s Promise from Sandy, I was moved by the significance of these books. Within my soul something whispered that these stories need to be read. This is true not only because they teach of a period in WWII history that many are unfamiliar with, but also because of the way Mari and her family cope with the challenges they face. We live in a difficult world, and have a deep need for books which model the ways families and individuals can stay strong in the face of their challenges. What was harder for me, at the time I read the first arc, was that Mari’s story seemed to be getting overlooked. I’m thrilled to have witnessed that change as the books have collected awards and word has spread, and I’m delighted to spotlight Mari’s Hope today!

Cover Mari's Hope

In this story we finally see the end of the war, and the hopes Mari has been holding out for come true. Given that this is the third book, I will do my best to avoid spoilers. To that end I will highlight things I loved in this book and the series, rather than go over individual events.

One of my favorite things was the way Mari grew and came into herself. At the beginning of Odin’s Promise, she’s so painfully shy that she’s nearly incapacitated by her own embarrassment. She makes progress throughout the first book at overcoming this shyness, but it isn’t easy. Step by baby step she does it because she recognizes the need for her to stand tall and use her voice for good. In this she has the support of her family, who help her find the humor in painful situations, stand behind her when she’s frightened, and shower her with love.

Something else I really enjoyed was the different stripes of heroism that are highlighted in this third book, in particular. Mari makes new friends and finds people who have a bold courage. Friends who show the kind of spunk and daring which is most commonly associated with heroism. However, it’s also very clear that quiet, mild-mannered Mari takes just as great risks and plays a more significant role on an individual level, and perhaps even in the grand scheme of things. The truth, of course, is that every individual and every kind of person would be tested by circumstances such as Norway faced during the Nazi occupation, and every person’s unique talents and individual courage would be needed. I love how Mari’s Hope highlights that.

I also loved seeing Mari’s medical training continue to progress, and thoroughly enjoyed the way that Mari and her cohorts used the Nazi’s germ phobia against them. Brilliantly done! In fact, the folks making up the Norwegian resistance were clever and innovative over and over, as they outsmarted the Germans in sometimes laugh-out-loud moments.

And that’s another thing I loved about this book. Mari’s parents and grandmother are not immune to the hardship they experience. It takes a toll, and in this third book Mari has matured enough to see the price they have all paid throughout the occupation. However, her parents and Grandmother never falter in modeling for Mari a stalwart courage and steady good humor that will see them through any trial.

Now I will admit…there was one aspect of this third book I would have preferred to see handled differently. Without giving away spoilers, there’s an opportunity for reconciliation at the end that is mostly passed over, as Mari licks her wounds from the war. However, I can see reasons for this to go the way it did, and for me it was a preference, rather than a deal breaker.

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty thinks:

Apricot concerned looking over shoulder“I really liked this story. Spunky people, who know better than to put up with goats–or goat-like men. In fact, my only problem with this book is how hungry it made me! Suddenly my dry, boring cat food seems rather like their rations, and I’m craving something nicer. Get me some tuna, STAT!”

 

 

 

Yes, this book WILL make you hungry! In fact, even lutefisk (which I suspect would normally have zero appeal) will sound good to you, by the time the book is done. And piping hot bread slathered in butter and honey? It’ll seem like heaven. 🙂

Many thanks to Sandy, again, for letting me take party in this journey and for allowing me to support her in the launch of Mari’s Hope! Check out her website, and be sure to tell your friends about these lovely books!

For additional MMGM reviews, highlights, spotlights and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog. And happy reading!

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Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer L. Holm, for MMGM

As it happens, my September books have a WWII focus…which I suppose would make more sense in November, because of Veteran’s Day. However, today is also September 11th, which is a day of special import to me and I know to many others, and I think a good day to remember both the cost of freedom, and the importance of remembering who this country belongs to–which is all of us.

I’m pleased to share with you today Penny from Heaven, another lovely middle grade by Jennifer L. Holm!

Cover Penny From Heaven

This was one of those stories that simply demanded I read it. First the cover pulled me in. Then it hooked me further when I realized it’s one of Jennifer’s books. You might remember that I spotlighted Full of Beans almost a year ago, and loved it! However, I was super busy with other books at the time I brought home Penny from Heaven, and so told myself I should set it aside and read later. I actually tried twice to put it away so I could meet other book deadlines. But each time, Penny reeled me back in, and I ended up reading double-time instead!

One of things which I was surprised by…and which I feel squirmy about admitting…is I had no idea there were Italian-Americans placed in camps during WWII, or that Italians experienced suspicion and discrimination to the extent the book shows. Of course now that feels like a duh, but without reading this book, I don’t know if/when I would have realized this!

For that reason I really believe this book would make for an excellent discussion of war time fears, here in America, and the paranoia which can snowball over small things. However, I also feel that many kids would love reading this book simply because it’s a story about a girl who’s growing up non-to-gracefully, and uncovering the truth about her family and who she is while she’s at it. I loved the way Penny’s growth throughout the book, and Frankie’s too, was driven and informed by their mistakes. I also loved the way that personal details of Penny’s life–like her struggle to accept her new soon-to-be stepfather–were woven into the mystery elements. There was never the feeling that we had more than one story going on, despite the disparate elements of the book. Instead the story had a complexity beyond its appearance, and a thoroughly enjoyable depth.

Another thing I found intriguing were the historic details–like the focus on polio. My grandmother died of polio when my mom was four, but somehow despite that, people’s fear of the disease has always felt to me like it must have belonged to a totally different time period in history. I didn’t associate it with people who drove to the beach, swam in community pools, and (later in the story) watched the baseball game on TV. That felt much more modern than I was expecting.

All in all, I felt this was a wonderful book, and I’m so grateful it insisted I read it when it did! Now let’s hear Apricot-kitty share her two cents:

Apricot Headshot evil eye“That Penny should have stuck out her claws and sent her cousin packing, right from the first page! Just look at how many weeks Penny was stuck in a hospital, because of him! I’m all for naps, but even I would get restless if cooped up for that long. That boy was nothing but trouble!”

 

 

 

She makes a good point! Frankie is okay by the end, and adults will readily sympathize with his situation, but he doesn’t exactly have a positive influence on Penny’s life. However, that too makes for a great learning point, since even Penny learns to say no to his schemes by the end of the book.

Stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, and come back this very next week for my spotlight on Mari’s Hope, as part of Sandy Brehl‘s book launch blog tour, and have a wonderful week!

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Happy Labor Day

I hope your labor day involves very little actual labor, and lots of sleeping, reading, or chillaxing in the sunshine. 🙂

Apricot deck chair sleeping in sunshine

I’ll be sharing MMGM posts both this coming Monday and the one after, and am super excited to get into the routine once again! Here’s hoping your summer was a-maz-ing!