Happy Memorial Day–from me and da Strawberry Man!

Memorial Day is about looking back, and honoring all those who’ve sacrificed their lives so that our freedoms and way of life can continue–and that’s something I wholeheartedly support!


But, it’s also an excellent time to look back on our own lives, and on our year.  It’s not quite the mid-point of the year, but there’s still been a lot of space between us and those January goals we made.  All the way back to January…it seems such a long time ago!  This entire year to date has felt a bit like that, for me.  Super busy, great creative energy, but I’m pleased to say I’m still on target for my major goal this year to hit 366 written or revised words.  And that feels great!

So, I’m going to share with you a little video about my friend Strawberry Man that I created approximately five years ago.  Hopefully it will provide a laugh, but I mostly want to celebrate the joy of creativity–in my life and yours. 🙂

Happy Memorial Day!

The turtle of Oman, by Naomi Shihab Nye

I’m pretty sure I picked this one up after hearing another MMGMer recommend it.  But, it’s been long enough that I can’t remember where it was I heard it!  If you see this post, please jump up and down and yell ‘Me, me, it was me!’ so I can thank you properly. 🙂

The turtle of Oman is about a little boy, Aref, who doesn’t want to move.  He’s fine and happy just where he is, with a polite thank you for asking!  However, his parents have decided to go to school in the US for a few years, and the book begins with his father actually catching a flight out.  The rest the book is devoted to the last few weeks Aref has in Oman, as he says goodbye to his homeland with a less than willingly outlook.  I rather enjoyed it–starting with the gorgeous cover!

Now, the truth is I mentioned having really enjoyed it because I’m going to start with a few things that irked.  However, I think most of them were of a personal nature, so I want you to hold in the back of your head the fact that I really enjoyed it–okay?  Alright, here goes.  First up, the writing vacillated between gorgeous and fluid and so lovely to hear…and seriously klunky.  It would have been easier for me to enjoy if it had picked a happy medium and stuck with it, because as is it felt a bit like listening to a kid practicing your favorite classical piece on their beautifully tuned new instrument, and doing a great job aside from their botching the tricky parts.  Second, I found the mom a too long suffering.  That sounds like a horrible criticism (and maybe it is–I did mention this might be personal!) but it seemed to me like it wouldn’t have ogreized her or damaged Aref if she’d sat him down at some point and said ‘listen, I get that you don’t want to move.  You’ve made that very clear, and I won’t tell you how to feel.  But, sometimes in life we need to make the choice of being positive even when we don’t get what we want.  This is a wonderful opportunity for you to practice that, now, so I’m hereby requiring that you tell me two positive things about your life–including this move–for every three things you complain about, from now on.  Deal?’  And Aref could have seen how many great things were still going on in his life, and ‘discovered the new thing’ of being able to see the silver lining around the cloud.  But, that’s probably just me!  Because, sometimes his unyielding negative perspective got old, and he started sounding like a broken record.  So, that–his attitude–was my third thing I didn’t enjoy…even as I recognize that kids are often like that.  And, finally, my last irk was that this child’s age/voice was all over the place!  Sometimes he seemed six, and sometimes at least ten.  I never did figure out approximately what age he was, though I may have missed a clue.

Okay, so that was a fair amount of negative!  Usually when I have that many negative things to bring up about a book, I skip it because I’m not really interested in bashing books on here.  But, this one kept pulling me along and kept me reading every time my irks added up to wanting to stop.  And over time, I fell in love with Oman, and came to have a sneaking suspicion that no one would ever willingly leave Oman and Aref was taking the only reasonable perspective, after all.  Since I’m quite sure that’s not true, and it isn’t in fact Eden, that says to me that the book was highly successful in what it set out to do–create a sympathetic character and bring his loves out in such a way that they became my loves.

So, that’s probably the number one reason I think this book belongs in classrooms and on kids bookshelves.  Not because it’s the best ever parenting (though it’s true that while his mother may be overly long-suffering, she’s also a saint) or even because I came to realize that Aref’s unique ability to live deeply in the moment and connect strongly to his roots, plus perhaps some fears over living without Siddi while his parents are overly distracted, created in him the deep unwillingness to move that he demonstrates throughout the book.  Despite those pluses, the main reason this book got an MMGM spotlight was that it does an amazing job of transporting the reader to what is (for many of us) a totally foreign clime and helped us fall in love with a land that could easily be ‘other.’  Possibly the best job I’ve ever read.  There is so much of fear and ignorance in this world.  Books that tear those negative views down by growing love and respect in their place should always be cherished.  Those are the books we need on our shelves.

And, finally, because Aref’s grandfather–called Siddi–could be the most priceless gem ever brought to life through pen and ink!  Would that every child could have a Siddi in their lives.  He reminded me of my own Grandpa, whom I loved dearly and always new something about everything and taught me to see my world and love it, too.  Only, Siddi is even better than any real Grandpa could be–he’s perfect, actually.  The Grandpa mold need never be cast again. 🙂
Let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it:

IMG_20160516_103529761 (2)“Where are the turtles?  That’s what I’d like to know.  We see just a bit of them, that’s true, and I really enjoyed the falconer and his falcon.  But, I’m quite sure I was promised more turtles!”




Like many cats, Apricot doesn’t much care for water, but she does enjoy watching those things such as turtles that do enjoy it.  Alas, if readers pick up this book looking for reptiles, they’re going to be disappointed.  In this book, Aref is the turtle–metaphorically speaking–in that he’ll be voyaging off in the big world and coming home again, eventually.  However…maybe kids will overlook his lack of a hard shell and take up his practice of making lists of those new things he discovers every day.  That was another of my favorite things, from the book.  And, truly, all of those favorite things added up to much more than the irks!  It may not be the kind of book you can’t put down and rush to get back to, but it is the kind of book you’ll be grateful you read.

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



Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol, for MMGM

Would you guys think me lacking in perception if I told you that I had no idea this was a graphic novel, til I opened it?  I picked it up at the library on a whim, because I liked the cover.  I may have flipped it over to glance at the back.  But, I suspect I fell prey to the perception which clouds any discussion of graphic novels–the one that says they’re less of a book, or not ‘real’ in the way others are.  Which is especially funny, given I’ve tried to push that perception back!

At any rate, here’s the cover that snagged my attention:

I’m glad I picked it up, as I found it to be funny, insightful, and a wonderful fusion of art and story.  It reminded me of the point in time when I first came across a picture book that wasn’t just a well-told story with art to accompany it, or an artistically designed book of pictures with text alongside, but a joining of the two mediums to tell a story that could not be told without the other.  I think in that case it was my first reading of Where the Wild Things Are, many, many years ago.

This story kind of felt like that–it wasn’t a comic or graphic novel ‘type’ of story, and yet was better off for having been told through this medium.

It’s the story of one Anya, who is Russian but doing her best to forget that.  She’s ditched the accent, learned the way of the people, and successfully blending in her high school, if not exactly thriving.  Unfortunately, she’s not happy with her blended status, and has picked up some bad habits such as smoking*, incessant negativity, and a healthy dose of truancy.

Then she falls down a hole in the middle of a lonely walk, in the park, and is stuck down there for two days…with no one for company but a ghost, who also fell down the hole some hundred or so years ago.  And is still there, obviously.  When she gets rescued, the ghost comes with her, and shennanigans ensue.

I’m hoping you’ll get the chance to read it, so that’s all I want to say.  There’s little else I can disclose without sharing spoilers.  Okay, except this: yes, she gets everything she wants (momentarily), yes, she grows and changes (fulfillingly), and yes, there’s a lovely plot twist that I did NOT see coming!

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it:

Apricot wise head tilt“An excellent example of wishing for that which you don’t really want, something we cats try to avoid.  Except in the matter of cat-nip.  And climbing too tall trees.  But, really, this is mostly a human concern, as the areas where you two-legs do this are too many to list!  Humans would be wise to read and write more books like this one.”






I’m glad Herself was feeling generous today, and ready to admit that cats DO occassionally make this mistake, as well.  It’s easy enough to think that our lives can be readily patched up and put in perfect working order if only we had [fill in the blank here], but of course, reality often proves otherwise.  Anya’s Ghost did a delightful job of exploring the kind of struggle that usually precedes true change, and why a ‘just fix this’ attitude rarely works!

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

*And, in the mean time, I’m curious how you guys feel about the portrayal of a teen (albeit high school student) smoking, in a middle grade book.  In this case I didn’t have a problem with it, but I’m very interested to hear what you all think!



Runaway Twin, by Peg Kehret, for MMGM

How would you feel if you had a secret friend, a twin, you hadn’t seen since you were both tiny?  What would you do if you had the chance to find that long lost twin?  After Sunny Skyland comes across a backpack full of cash–which she makes a reasonable effort of finding an owner for–she makes the decision to embark on a cross country trip and track down her twin.  No matter what it takes.  Runaway Twin is her story.

The setup of finding a pack back of cash in the woods–cash that no one steps forward to claim, and that isn’t counterfeit or marked by a bank as stolen–is a bit far fetched, and gives a pretty good indicator of how realistic the story that follows will be.  But, hey, we’re talking about a story where twins are separated at a super young age and never reunited and where no one makes any effort to figure out where the missing twin is, so how realistic do we really expect this story to be?  It’s a teen fantasy, a flight of what if, and as such has several major strengths to recommend it:

  • It can get kids talking about the assumptions they make about those who are less fortunate–kids they may know who’ve been in ‘the system’ or don’t have a traditional family.  If they’re not wearing the latest clothes, and maybe their grades aren’t as good, what are the strengths they do have?  What are the ways their life experiences have (perhaps) helped them grow?  Valuing each person for their own unique strengths is one of the first signs of true maturity.
  • It can help kids think about priorities, and the way that wanting to impress someone else–even your parents–can lead to poor choices.
  • It provides great insights into a perspective of entitlement, and the way that such an outlook can sour a person on their life and rob them of the very blessings/riches they’re accustomed to.

The story does this so well because the author did such a superb job of creating in Sunny a likable, sympathetic character.  She’s highly flawed, and makes more than one judgement call that almost gets her killed.  But, she’s a brave soul, kind-hearted, and wise beyond her years.  She’s also clever, which a character should be whenever they can possibly manage it.  This genuine likability on Sunny’s part carries the story past many obvious flaws (including small ones, like the absence of cell phones and presence of pay phones), and left the story thoroughly enjoyable despite its flaws.  Rather like Sunny.

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it:

Apricot attitude in your face“Must you torture me so?  Oh, yeah, it’s easy to like Sunny, but what about that dog of hers?  He’s so disgusting, and dog-like, and…thoroughly dog-defining.  And yet, I would have been sad if she hadn’t found him and they hadn’t cared for each other.  Do you see what you’ve done?  I’m feeling sympathy for a dog!”





So…I think that’s a loved it, from the kitty?  Truly, the author’s great strength was writing a story with characters she made you love, and she did it repeatedly with multiple background characters, in addition to Sunny.  Bravo, for that!  She also did an excellent job of giving us a twist at the end, which is unusual in these stories but was highly satisfactory.

I do have to add one more caveat…at the very tail end of the book, it’s stated that Sunny will be writing her story for a school essay and titling it The Runaway Twin.  If you, like me, hate that kind of ending–since it smashes the veil of believability just when I want to enjoy the close of my book–let your eyes glaze over that bit, and make up whatever final sentence you want.  I think you’ll feel the story is worth it. 🙂

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


Mark of the Thief, by Jennifer Nielsen, for MMGM

Hello MMGMers and blog readers!  Happy last-Monday-in-April, from me and my newest lily, to all of you. 🙂  What are you planting, lately?  Got any gorgeous garden projects coming along?



Today I’m spotlighting a new (to me) series by Jennifer Nielsen, who you may remember as the author of The False Prince series.  Picking this one up was an obvious choice, since I loved Sage, who may or may not also be known as Prince Jaron, and adored all three of the Ascendance books–my spotlight’s here.

Mark of the Thief was very different.  It’s alternate history, for one thing, since it’s set in a magic-influenced Roman Empire.  It’s also not nearly as playful.  And the tone and structure are different, too.

That said, different isn’t always bad.  In this book, we meet Nic, a boy who has spent the majority of his life a slave in a mine outside of Rome, along with his sister.  Their father is dead and long gone.  Their mother is possibly alive, but sold away from them years ago.  And while Sage had a tough life but felt only marginally affected by it–his natural buoyancy and sense of self seeing him through–Nic’s troubles have been of a much more personal nature, and have deeply impacted his character.  He wasn’t dodging a swift kick because he’d cleverly swiped something, as Sage was.  He was systematically beaten because he was a slave, and because he refused to obey orders that probably would have killed him.  He feared for his life and his sister’s life every day.  And he did so with nearly no hope.  So, the tone of the story is very different, despite the boys sharing many similarities.

The historic aspects of the book are another plus.  While this Rome is very different from the real Rome (as appropriate, given it’s got gryphons and magic) and perhaps not 100% accurate in other respects, the setting can nevertheless provide an excellent way for kids and classrooms to bring this civilization to life.  I also thought the book did a great job of accurately reflecting the terrible institution of slavery, the discrepancy between the classes, and the cruelty of the entertainment and blood bath that went on in the Colosseum, while keeping this book a solid middle grade that kids in the older middle school grades can realistically read.  That is no easy feat, and I was really impressed with Ms. Nielsen’s handling of some tricky subjects.

However, I’m sure you all can hear the ‘but…’ that’s coming.  The problem was, for all this book had its strengths, when compared to the Ascendance triology, it was a disappointment.  The voices felt muted, the characters a little more blurred, and the plot and structure a slightly flawed but passable net instead of the expertly knotted and woven masterpiece that we enjoyed in The False Prince and its sequels.  That said, I still think most readers would enjoy this book.  I certainly did.  The key is to head into it with reasonable expectations, and let it stand alone, as its own story.  If you do that, then you’ll see Nic’s determination and admire his courage in the face of fear, enjoy the resiliency Aurelia shows, and her kindness to other exposed children, you’ll love the magic of Caesar’s bulla, and revel in the political intricacies of Rome in all its glory.  I really think you will!

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

Apricot Headshot opinion looking down“Hmph.  It was better plotted than The Lighting Thief.  If this had been the author’s first book, you’d all be raving about it.  You people need to learn to live in the moment a little more, and let each book feed you in its own way.  Only humans would let yesterday’s mouse spoil today’s mole.”




It just goes to show that you can’t please everyone because as for me…I’ll pass on eating both mice and moles!  Not my thing, even as treasures, but thanks all the same to our ‘generous’ kitty. 😉

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


The Inquisitor’s Mark, by Dianne Salerni for MMGM

I went digging through my archives for this one, so I could provide you guys with a link to my spotlight on the first book, and was shocked to realize it’s been a full two years since I posted my review of the (then) arc!  Time flies when you’re reading books, eh? 😉

You’ll find that spotlight on The Eighth Day here, and I do recommend you begin this series at the beginning, with the first book.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers in my spotlight of the sequel, The Inquisitor’s Mark!

I was rather smitten with the first book so my expectations for the second were rather high.  In a contrary sense, that may be part of why it took me awhile to get to the second–I just wasn’t sure it would measure up.  Of course now I’m kicking myself for waiting…except that this means the third one is out, too!  Yay for The Morrigan’s Curse, which has swooped down and settled on the top of my TBR pile!

Okay, so let’s see what I can say about The Inquisitor’s Mark without giving too much away.  Dianne Salerni has brought back all our favorite characters–Jax,who is a young transitioner that just learned about the eighth day and was left (when his father died) in the care of a fellow teen…who is himself a descendant of King Arthur, plus Evangeline, who is a descendant of Merlin and key to keeping the spell intact that prevents an ancient prison from busting open and destroying the world–and the world is the same in that a select group of people can ‘transition’ into an eighth day which serves as a prison for some seriously messed up ancient dudes and their descendants.  Modern technology doesn’t work in the eighth day unless it’s pre-computer chip, but that doesn’t prevent people from blowing stuff up and pulling out big guns.  The science fiction aspects and the fantasy spells are all mixed up in a way that doesn’t seem like it would work, but actually does, and just as in the first one, the pacing is impeccable and the plotting phenomenal.

But, in this book I felt we got to know the characters better, and they live inside my head at the close of this book in a way they didn’t at the end of the first.  I loved the first one–loved it, and haven’t quite forgiven the young MG student who borrowed my arc and never gave it back–but I was more enthralled with the adventure, the concept, the epic scale, and just how much fun it was.  In this one I felt like all that was there, but I also got to know the characters as they moved and functioned on a human level, inside families and as they navigated relatable human relationships that all of us struggle with.

I also loved–really loved–a certain character who I won’t even name, and how this character’s arc intertwines with Jax’s so that both boys can grow and their changing relationship inform the story theme.  Aargh!  It’s hard to talk about it and not talk about it, you know?  Let’s just say that this quote:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

–Edmund Burke

Plays a significant part and shapes the destiny of all the kids, and through them, the book and the story world.  And as grand as that sounds, it does so through a regular-style kid doing something any kids in his shoes could do.  Even now, I get warm fuzzies thinking about it. 🙂

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

IMG_0993 (1)“I made my views pretty clear last time: if I were ever given an Eighth Day, I’d use it to take a very long nap.  Preferably in the sunshine.  These kids run here and run there til it’s not clear why they’re running any more.  Also, that Arthurian kid hasn’t got much sense, getting himself handcuffed like that.  He should have known that as soon as he did, all the crazy would come loose and fire off every which way!”




We’ll forget Apricot-kitty’s almost plot slip there, and move on to her sensible suggestion of a nap.  That’s something I could go for.  And it does make you wonder–if the transitioners are living an extra day every week, wouldn’t they age faster than everyone else?  Because aging has to do with wear and tear on the body, right?  Perhaps their magic helps them in some way, or maybe the spell does, but I’m a little surprised there isn’t more focus on visits to a super high quality (and restful) spa!

What would you do with an extra day?  And if you’d spend it reading, which books would you take with you, assuming you had to carry them?

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


Half Upon a Time, by James Riley and the Out of Abaton winner!

Last week wrapped up my spotlight on Out of Abaton, and that means this week I get to announce the winner of the giveaway!  There must be something in my blood that’s half fortune hunter because I get a little giddy when I get to announce a winner, like I’m about to open a treasure chest and getting butterflies on your behalf.  So, let’s get our drum roll–

*clashing cacophony of sound*

Er, yeah.  Thanks…we’ll work on that.  And the winner is:

Cindy, from Cindy Reads a Lot!  Congratulations, Cindy!  I truly believe that you’ll love it, and will get it in the mail asap.  Thank you again to both John and his publisher for letting me have the fun of a giveaway, and share this beautiful book with all of you!

Now, on to another fun book, which has been waiting in the wings since Christmas and is excited to step on stage and take its turn in the spotlight.  Today we’re taking a look at Half Upon a Time, by James Riley.

Just as the cover suggests, this book has no problem poking fun at itself.  A very tongue in cheek fairy tale mashup, it is told from the perspective of Jack, the Thirteenth by that name, who is not–unequivocally not–interested in being an adventurer.  For one thing, he’s terrible at adventure training, and not just cause he accidentally gets the fake princess ‘killed’ and flunks every test.  For another, he has no interest in pursuing it given how infamous his dad is, after climbing a bean stock and stealing from a giant.  However, his grandfather won’t listen to Jack’s protests, and the fates seem to be conspiring against him as well.  So, he soon finds himself careening around the country trying to reunite May, aka the Princess of Punk, to her grandmother and save them both in the process.

The story was a huge hit with my daughter, who went on to gobble down the next two in the series, as well.  And, I think it will grow on me, just as The Hero’s Guide series did.  It took me ’til book two or three to really get into that one, too.  In the case of Half Upon a Time, I did really enjoy the first book.  It’s very clever, with a fabulous kind of twisty logic applied to the character’s problems and a way of tying odd plot threads back in just when you least expect it.  It also did a great job of referencing the fairy tale world and tropes without ever hitting them too on the nose.  And of course, it was super funny!  I just…didn’t find myself connecting with it as deeply as I might have liked.  When I set it down and had walked away, the scenes didn’t stay with me.  I enjoyed the characters, but they never truly came to life for me.

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

Apricot kitty scary dark stairs“Are you sure the scenes didn’t stay with you?  One hundred percent positive that the next time you see a miniature gingerbread house, you won’t think twice before licking it?  I know that’s a scene I won’t forget, and I also really loved the twist at the end.  A cat likes to look into the darkness, and watch for what could be hiding there.”








Does that make any of you shiver, a little, or is it just me?  Cats can be a bit…uncanny, even a cat as sunny as Apricot-kitty!  Anyway, yes, she’s right, I will never look on a Gingerbread house in quite the same way again.  And in fact, that’s something else this book did really well–it kept a perfect balance between light and dark, so that readers who don’t want to have nightmares from their books could still enjoy it, but readers who aren’t wild about fluffy pink stories could dig it, too.  Truly, I think it’s the kind of book most readers would love!  I hope you guys will pick it up, and report back what you thought of it. 🙂

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


Interview with John Claude Bemis, for MMGM, plus GIVEAWAY!

I’m so thrilled to have John on the blog today, answering a few of my questions, and talking about his latest book.  I did a spotlight on Out of Abaton last week and today presents another chance to enter to win–or, if you entered last week, double your chances to win–a hard back copy of Out of Abaton!

In addition to my spotlight, here are a few of the pretty things being said about Out of Abaton:

“Dangerous magic, strange machines, talking beasts. . .Bemis hasn’t just rewritten Pinocchio, he’s rewritten Pinocchio’s world!” –Tom Angleberger, New York Times best-selling author of the Origami Yoda series

“Pinocchio gets a new look in this curious, complex novel of betrayal, rebellion, and loyalty.” –The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“An exhilarating and insightful journey.” –Kirkus Reviews

John Claude Bemis author photo 2016Hopefully all of that has piqued your curiosity!  Now, let’s throw some questions at John, and see what we can learn about his writing and his shiny new book.

SW: I was amazed at how completely new and fresh this story was, while doing a lovely job of paying homage to the traditional Pinocchio story. At what point in your writing journey did you know this would be a retelling of Pinocchio’s story?

JB: I didn’t realize at first this was going to be a story about Pinocchio. My wife has family outside Venice, so we’d traveled to Italy several times. On those trips I grew fascinated by Venetian history, alchemy, and with this figure from European legend called Prester John. Back in Medieval times, Europeans were obsessed with Prester John, who they believed to be a magical king who ruled somewhere beyond the known world. Fake letters circulated about the wonders of his land (the original viral sensation). I began developing a story world where the Venetian Empire went down a different historical path after discovering Prester John and introducing the magic of his kingdom into Venice. Alchemists were now able to take the designs of visionaries like Leonardo Da Vinci to create floating palaces, give their soldiers mechanical wings, and build wooden robots.

It was only after I began to envision this fantastical Venetian Empire that I started to see connections to Pinocchio. He could be one of these wooden robots—automa, as they’re called. And his surrogate father Geppetto wouldn’t be a simple carpenter, but an alchemist who had betrayed the emperor of Venice and was now a wanted criminal. Each aspect of the original story (the talking cricket, the scoundrel fox and cat, the monstrous whale, the blue fairy) found rebooted roles in the world of my story—all tied to Prester John’s magical kingdom—which is called Abaton in my book.


SW: Talk to us about the secondary characters, which make up a wonderful background cast. Which was your favorite to write? And I know Sop is referred to as a cat…but is there any chance he’s a skunk?

JB: Ha! Sop might not be the most hygienic, but he’s not a skunk. He was a lot of fun to write, as was his partner the fox Mezmer who is little more than an outlaw but has these dreams of being a glorious knight of Abaton.
Even though he’s a nasty piece of work, I loved developing the djinni (genie) fire elemental Al Mi’raj who runs the marionette theater pitting captured automa against one another in gladiator-style battle.


SW:A girl can’t be blamed for asking, right? My apologies to Sop. 😉
I found the World building and the fantastic world you created to be so amazing! Did you set out to write a steampunk story? Or did you see it more as a fantasy story with a steampunk slant?

JB: I wanted it to be Da Vinci-punk. I love the way steampunk mashes up semi-futuristic elements with an old-fashioned world. But for The Wooden Prince, I went back a bit further. This is set just after the Renaissance. The technology is pre-steam engine. So the world is full of strange machines based more on those designs Leonardo Da Vinci dreamt up but was never able to build, and also a fair smattering of weird fantasy. I don’t think Da Vinci would have gone quite as far afield as the mechanipillar.


SW: I can definitely see Da Vinci’s influence.  I think you did him proud!  Another thing I loved–and was so impressed with–was the blending of the plot arc and the character arc. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How much do you outline before you begin to write?

JB: A story can be full of exciting action and twisty-turny plots, but to captivate readers, stories also need heart. Readers need to be drawn into wanting to see the hero make a powerful transformation. Pinocchio makes a physical transformation, of course, but I wanted to see what sort of emotional transformation he’d make as well, as he discovered what it meant to be alive in the world.

Whenever I’m developing a story, I try to weave together the outer story of the plot with the inner story of the characters. They need to complement one another. I don’t overly rely on particular story maps to outline my stories. I spend more time wondering, “Where will this story end up?” Not just in terms of an exciting action-filled climax (although that’s important too), but where will my characters end up in their personal transformations? How will they be shaped by the events of the story, by the choices they have to make, by the challenges of their circumstances?

Once I have a sense for how I want that emotional journey to evolve, then I go back and look for ways to develop it across the story through action/plot and character development. That’s when I begin to put together a rough outline to guide me in my writing process.


SW: Very nice!  That gives me food for thought.
The book does well as a standalone, but it’s also clear from the ending that there’ll be more books in this series. Yay! Without giving too much away… do you think we’ll get to see some characters from this book that we might be missing at the end, in the next one?

JB: No spoilers, but Pinocchio has had to leave someone important behind. This takes an emotional toll on him, and he wants nothing more than to rescue this friend. All I’ll say is that this urge drives Pinocchio in the next book, Lord of Monsters (which comes out March 2017). Although before he can save this friend, he and Lazuli have all sorts of new dangers to face in Abaton.


SW: That sounds delightful!  I’m even more excited for the sequel.
Last question from me.  I often ask debut authors what their publication journey was like, but you have many other published books behind you.  Was there anything unique about this book’s publication story?  Anything about its origins you’d like to share?

JB: After doing four books with Random House, I lost my editor who decided to be a stay-at-home dad (which I applaud!). I was working on the early draft of The Wooden Prince knowing we’d have to shop it to a new publisher. My amazing agent Josh Adams sent out a partial of the story, and there was lots of interest. I was thrilled when the book ultimately landed with Disney-Hyperion, since Pinocchio has a special connection to Disney. And I couldn’t be happier with my insightful editor Rotem Moscovich and the whole team there.


Wow–I can only imagine what a rollercoaster that must have been!  I’m so glad Out of Abaton found such an excellent home.  And now, a question from Apricot-Kitty:
Apricot kitty looking down her nose from the fence“This was an excellent book, liked it. However, I noticed most of the animals are either automa or chimera. Why aren’t there more regular animals, like dogs and cats, in Pinocchio’s world?”




JB: That’s a great question. I suppose with so many half-beasts lurking about the Venetian Empire, many of the dogs and cats are hiding. I’ll see if there’s a way to work you into one of Pinocchio and Lazuli’s future adventures, Apricot-Kitty!


That’s it, folks!  Many thanks to John for being my guest today.  Here are some links, so you can follow his journey and keep in touch with him:

Website — johnclaudebemis.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/John-Claude-Bemis-34934544469/

Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/johnclaudebemis/


I wish you all the best of luck in the giveaway!  Entries will close on Friday, the 8th, and the winner will be announced next week, on the 11th.  Additionally, just for fun, I’d love to know if any of you have a favorite folk or fairy tale, and if there’s an adaptation or re-imagined version of it out there that you’d like to recommend.  I’m always looking for new stories to add to my list. 😀

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



Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince

Hello my beloved MMGMers and blog followers!  This week’s spotlight is on Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince.  GIVEAWAY details at the botom, after my rambling update, and Apricot-kitty’s two bits.

My swamp trip this past weekend was just as glorious and restorative as I’d hoped!  We had a lovely time, filled with wonder and including a very tiny turtle.

Tiny Turtle Grande View Hampton Va

As my FB friends and followers will know, the week preceding this trip was a bit taxing.  My teen daughter, who has had complicated health throughout her life, was diagnosed with a rare genetic connective tissue disease, called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  She’ll be fine–the type she has is relatively benign, and after all, she’s had it all her life–but the diagnosis meant extra doctor’s appointments, lots of back and forth as we got up to speed on her medical needs, negotiations with her school, and of course, a few deep breaths for my family, myself, and our daughter as we took this in and wrapped our heads around the changes it will bring.

I learned many years ago that a book can provide a priceless refuge at times like this–a place for the mind to wander, and the soul to find solace.  For me this past week, that book was Out of Abaton.  I tell you all of that because I feel as if I’m trying to throw an introductory spotlight on my dearest, beloved, long-lost best friend, and suspect I’ll be a bit biased.  I also know John in a peripheral kind of way, and feel he’s a great guy, and an excellent writer.  But, if the truth must be confessed…I wasn’t so terribly taken with his first series.  They were fine books, and had some interesting world building, but I wasn’t smitten.  This book, on the other hand, has instantly taken up residence inside my heart and become one of those wonderful books which will stay with me forever.

How much of that was my reading the right book at the right time?  Well, I can’t say for sure…but I invite you to read it and find out for yourself. 😉

So, what’s it all about?  The story’s main character is Pinocchio, and it’s a very revolutionized retelling of the fairy tale story of Pinocchio.  As you read, you’ll recognize critical turning points which match up with the original story.  But in this tale, Pinocchio begins as an automa–a kind of alchemical/steampunk/magical robot, for lack of a better term.  His ‘father’ is Gippetto, true enough, but as a ‘puppet maker’ in this world, he’s the Doge’s supreme alchemist–or, ex alchemist, given recent political developments.  And the talking cricket you may know as Jiminy?  He’s now Maestro, a truly enjoyable music connoisseur and musician in his own right, straight from the magical Court of Abaton.  The three share the story with a great cast of secondary characters, including Lazuli, a re-imagined blue fairy who is so much more than that, and a few rascals that will stay with you long after you close the book.  Given that the story’s basic elements are known, I think you’ll be surprised and impressed by its twists and turns, and I know you’ll love its inventiveness.  Moreover, the depth of the world building will amaze, as you enjoy a truly creative world of early mechanically-inclined Italy woven with magic and creatures from myth, then brought to life in a story that is deeply grounded in reality.

However, all that aside, the reason this book saw me through my extra challenging week was the lovely internal awakening of Pinocchio as he comes to life.  Because of a quirk of that process we get to see it happen slowly over time, while also being inside Pinocchio’s heads several times when this ‘awakened’ sense is temporarily taken from him.  It was absolutely amazing to be there with him as he matured and grew, and also as his sense of self took form, or was taken away.  Just–stunning.  And also a great lift, since Pinocchio’s approach to life is one of hope, and enduring belief.  Truly, I found both Pinocchio and the book a delight, with a buoyancy in outlook that inspired me and helped to boost my day in a better direction each time I picked it up.

But now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it.  She tends to be a harsher critique.


Apricot Headshot one“The story was all very well–lovely, just as you say.  But, did you happen to notice the head hopping going on?  There were times when I felt I was watching the cricket as he leapt from one pov to the next–and worse, I couldn’t reach in and catch him!  Highly distracting.”




Well, there you go.  Even great stories won’t please everyone, and that’s especially true when a story chooses a pov mode or style that isn’t currently the rage.  The Wooden Prince is told in omniscient POV, as Apricot-kitty points out, with the story told from primarily two characters, with insights from others.  However, I think most kids won’t even notice it, and most adults will be able to slide by it.

Now, for the best part!  The giveaway will be open for two weeks, and will be for a FREE hardback (and signed, if I can connect with John) copy of Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince.  The winner will be chosen from those commenters with a US address, and will be announced in two weeks–on Monday, April 11th.  However, if you want a SECOND chance to win you can comment this week and then come back to comment again next week, when I’ll be posting an interview with author John Claude Bemis, on this coming Monday, April 4th!  Got all that?  Comment below to enter to win, and come back for the fun next week to comment again for a second–or doubled–chance to win. 😀

And thank you all for your love and support!  You’re the best.

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


A Swampy Update and GIVEAWAY sneak peek

I still plan to hop around and see everyone’s MMGM blogs today–I owe you guys, from last week–but will be spending half my week at the Dismal Swamp, so I’m feeling a bit below water and will have to get my own post up next week.

However–a heads up!  Over the next couple Mondays I’ll be posting my spotlight on Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince, by John Claude Bemis AND hosting an interview with John in which we’ll also give away a FREE hardback copy of his book!

Here’s the sneak peek–the story is even more gorgeous than the cover!  Look for that, and if you don’t see me here next week…send in Crocodile Dundee, I suppose. 😉