Monday, January 19, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Pack of Dorks

As a middle school “dork” myself, I often choose middle grade books where the dorky kid finds a place for themselves. This one was interesting because the main character had a new baby sister with a disability. I read it as an e-book from my public library.  

Here’s the Amazon description:

Lucy knows that kissing Tom Lemmings behind the ball shed will make her a legend. But she doesn’t count on that quick clap of lips propelling her from coolest to lamest fourth grader overnight. 

Suddenly Lucy finds herself trapped in Dorkdom, where a diamond ring turns your finger green, where the boy you kiss hates you three days later, where your best friend laughs as you cry, where parents seem to stop liking you, and where baby sisters are born different.

Now Lucy has a choice: she can be like her former best friend Becky, who would do anything to claim her seat at the cool table in the cafeteria, or Lucy can pull up a chair among the solo eaters—also known as the dorks. Still unsure, Lucy partners with super quiet Sam Righter on a research project about wolves. Lucy connects her own school hierarchy with what she learns about animal pack life—where some wolves pin down weaker ones just because they can, and others risk everything to fight their given place in the pack. Soon Lucy finds her third option: creating a pack of her own, even if it is simply a pack of dorks.

Weaving tough issues, including bullying, loyalty, and disability, with a thread of snarky humor, family bonds, and fresh perspective, Pack of Dorks paints characters coming-of-age and coming-to-terms. Beth Vrabel’s stellar debut contemporary middle grade novel is sure to please fans of Jack Gantos, Elizabeth Atkinson, and Judy Blume.

Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel, Sky Pony Press, 2014

My Take:

Lucy has a lot of problems with kids at school, not to mention the problems that arrived when her new baby sister was born. I haven’t come across many middle grade books where the main character has to deal with a sibling having Down Syndrome. Lucy's behaviour and actions seemed realistic for her age and I was rooting for her to find a way to solve her social problems and fit in. I especially liked her unconventional grandmother, and learning about wolves and the wolf sanctuary. 

From a writer’s perspective, it was interesting to think about how the author stayed true to Lucy’s point of view, by having her more concerned and aware of problems with her friends than the issues related to her new sister, which were consuming her parents.

Opening Line:

“This was the biggest recess of my life.”


“Dad nodded at me, and the sick feeling I had trapped under my ribs since our fight trickled away.”

“Maybe I should’ve stood up for April the way she had for me, but I couldn’t seem to move.”

“She pushed back the sleeves of her uniform and I could see her arms weren’t soft like the soggy chicken skin on Grandma’s arms. They were solid and rippled with muscle. I swallowed hard.”

Other Info:

Beth Vrabel lives in Connecticut, and once wanted to be a wolf biologist.

Her next book, The Blind Guide to Stinkville is coming in the fall of 2015.

On her blog, Beth Vrabel says this about writing: “First I think of a character. Over the course of weeks or even months, I think about that "person," what makes him tick and how he'd react to different situations. And then I (hopefully) find my plot.”

 For more, visit Beth Vrabel’s website

Monday, January 12, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: All Four Stars

I’m hooked on Master Chef, Master Chef Junior and The Taste, so to anyone who knows me, it’s not going to be a big surprise that I really loved this food-related middle grade book! I waited for a long time for it to become available at my public library, and finally got to read the e-book. But I think I might buy a copy of my own.

Here’s the Amazon description:

Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world.

But in order to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret! Easy as pie, right?

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014

My Take:

This story was a lot of fun! I heard many good things about this book before I read it, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. I really liked the concept of an 11-year-old girl secretly becoming a restaurant critic. Gladys’ parents were interesting characters, seemingly very different from her (they were hopeless at cooking) and although they did spend a lot of time at work, there was a strong sense of family. I also liked Gladys’ attempts to solve her problem of how to actually get to the restaurant she was supposed to review. This book has interesting settings (food shop, Broadway show) and humor with all the difficulties that Gladys encountered with her friends.

As a writer, I’d study the plot in this story, as well as the pacing. The story moves along quickly, so there were no slow or dull moments. Each scene is important to the story.

Opening Line:

“Gladys Gatsby stood at the counter with the spout of her father’s heavy blowtorch poised over the ceramic cup.”


“A warm, happy feeling course through Gladys, like the kind you get from a sip of hot cider on the first cold day of fall.”

“That night after dinner (a piece of fish that had been blackened beyond recognition on the outside but was still frozen on the inside), Gladys set to work.”

“It took only one bite for Gladys to conclude that this crumble was the best thing she’d ever cooked.”

Other Info:

Tara Dairman lives in Colorado, where writes plays and middle grade novels. She enjoys traveling and spent two years traveling around the world.

A sequel to All Four Stars, called The Stars of Summer, is coming in May of 2015.  I can hardly wait!

All Four Stars is a finalist for the Cybils Awards, in the category Middle Grade Fiction.

Tara offers a free 20-minute author Q&A session on Skype or Google Hangout with any class, book club, or library group that has read All Four Stars.

For more, visit Tara Dairman’s website.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade series, Keeper of the Lost Cities.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Learning from Picture Books - The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life

Even though the text in this picture book biography of Lois Ehlert is written for children, I really enjoyed learning about her techniques and how bits of her life are woven into her stories. Teachers will find this valuable to read to students, who are likely familiar with many of the books this biography mentions.

Here's the summary from Simon & Schuster:

Lois Ehlert always knew she was an artist. Her parents encouraged her from a young age by teaching her how to sew and saw wood and pound nails, and by giving her colorful art supplies. They even gave her a special spot to work that was all her own. 

Today, many years and many books later, Lois takes readers and aspiring artists on a delightful behind-the-scenes tour of her books and her book-making process. Part fascinating retrospective, part moving testament to the value of following your dreams, this richly illustrated picture book is sure to inspire children and adults alike to explore their own creativity.

The renowned Caldecott Honoree and illustrator of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom provides a moving, intimate, and inspiring inside look at her colorful picture book career. 
The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert was first published in 2014 by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

My thoughts as a writer:

The design and text of this book are lovely and well thought out. But I was most fascinated by the content. I loved reading the “behind-the-scenes” details about how her books developed, from the idea to the illustrations to the entire story. She gives some wonderful tips and quotes for fledgling writers and artists: “Everyone needs time to develop their dreams. An egg in the nest doesn’t become a bird overnight.”

I appreciated all the hard work and persistence that goes into a single creation. It was fun to see how her life intersected with her writing.

My thoughts as a teacher: 

I’d love to share this book with students, and especially students who are interested in art and writing. This book shows how ideas for stories and art can come from everyday life, and some of Lois Ehlert’s process in creating a book. It's also a good way to show students how much hard work and persistence goes into a single project.

As a follow up to reading this, it would be fun to try some of the techniques she used to create her collages and illustrations. Another interesting activity would be to go back and study the books she mentions. She also includes some fun art-related activities in the book.

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reading Goals for 2015

This was the first year since I started my 100 book challenge that I didn't achieve my goal of reading 100 MG and YA books. I know that sounds like something I should be disappointed about, but I'm not. The main reason I set goals is for something to work towards and to focus on. I can always set another one or a different one if that one doesn't work out. I like to be flexible. 

I still strongly believe that reading a lot of books is an important way to improve your writing. But the other important thing that goes along with that is actually doing the writing. And in 2014, I was writing. I also re-discovered my passion for writing picture books, which I gave up a few years ago because of the frustration of rejection. This year, I'm ignoring that and doing what I love. Besides, almost every day I come home from work with another picture book idea (one of the benefits of teaching kindergarten). I'll still be working on my middle grade novels, too, because I love the ideas and challenge. 

What does this mean for my reading goals? This year, I'm going to be changing my 100 Book Challenge to include picture books as well as middle grade novels, and a sprinkling of young adult novels because I love them too. I'm not setting a number for how many of each type, because I like to see what I find. I choose books to read based on recommendations from other readers and writers, as well as from what I find in my local library. If you have any recommendations for me this year, please share them in the comments!

Here are my 2015 reading goals:

1. Read 100 children's books - picture books, middle grade and young adult.

2. Read all of the picture book and middle grade fiction finalists for the Cybils Awards, and maybe some of the finalists for speculative fiction for elementary and middle grades, if I have time. (For more about these awards given by book bloggers, visit 

3. Read all of the Blue Spruce and Silver Birch nominees from the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading.

4. Try to remember to keep track of my reading on GoodReads, though I'll also be tracking it here on my blog.

I'm so excited to begin! I already read a couple of the nominees and finalists towards the end of 2014, so I'm off to a good start. Do you have any reading goals? Feel free to share or link to them in the comments. I'll be back Thursday with a Learning from Picture Books feature and then next Monday I'll have my first featured post for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday in 2015. Happy reading!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Writing Achievements from 2014

Children's author Julie Hedlund challenged participants of her 12 Days of Christmas for Writers series to post their writing successes on their blogs this year. She believes the way New Year's resolutions are traditionally made come from a place of negativity - what DIDN'T get done or achieved in the previous year.  Instead, she suggests we set goals for the new year that BUILD on our achievements. With that in mind, I've been thinking about my writing achievements from 2014:

1. In January, I signed up for Julie Hedlund's 12 x 12 (12 picture books in 12 months), with the goal of writing more picture book manuscripts. Although I didn't write one for each month, I did write more manuscripts than I would have otherwise. Most importantly, I re-discovered how much I love writing picture books!!

2. During the summer, I finished a draft of a new middle grade novel that I wrote "just for fun".

3. I also participated in Teachers Write with Kate Messner, Jen Vincent and Gae Polisner, which was a lot of fun and helped me with the new (still untitled) novel I wrote. 

4. I watched and worked through the PlotWriMo video series by literary agent Jill Corcoran and the "Plot Whisperer" Martha Alderson, to develop a deeper understanding of the process of revision.

5. In the fall, I revised another middle grade novel, Wild Girl Genius, the story of a city girl who stumbles into a wilderness adventure trip.

6. I attended CANSCAIP's Packaging Your Imagination conference to learn more about writing and connect with other writers and illustrators. 

7. In November, I participated in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) organized by author Tara Lazar, and I completed the challenge by coming up with one idea every day.

8. I also bravely tweeted my pitch for Wild Girl Genius on #PitMad: When a TV wilderness show audition goes horribly wrong, city-girl Jade must use all her survival skills to get home alive.

When I took time to think about all of my writing-related accomplishments from 2014, it surprised me a little. In many ways, 2014 was a difficult year, yet I still managed to continue to develop and grow as a writer. What did you accomplish this year? I hope you feel good about your writing and reading successes!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dreaming of a White Christmas...

The dogs and are I still hoping we'll see a little snow for Christmas... perfect for cozy-ing up inside with some new bones...and books (I hope).

But while we're dreaming and hoping, I'll be busy finishing off my last bit of shopping, hanging out with my girls, playing lots of board games and of course, going for walks. So I'm probably not going to be posting again (or doing much writing) until the New Year.

Wishing you a happy holiday! Enjoy, have fun and make lots of special memories!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Learning from Picture Books: This is a Moose

This book is so much fun! The publisher’s description calls it hilarious and I definitely agree. 

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Lights! Camera! Moose!

MOOSE? Yes, Moose! When a movie director tries to capture the life of a moose on film, he's in for a big surprise. It turns out the moose has a dream bigger then just being a moose--he wants to be an astronaut and go to the moon.

His forest friends step in to help him, and action ensues. Lots of action. Like a lacrosse-playing grandma, a gigantic slingshot into space, and a flying, superhero chipmunk.

In this hilarious romp, Richard T. Morris and bestselling illustrator Tom Lichtenheld remind us to dream big and, when we do, to aim for the moon.

This is a Moose, written by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, was first published in 2014 by Little, Brown and Company.,

My thoughts as a writer:

This book is a conversation between a director (unseen for most of the story) and the narrator as well as the Moose and a couple of other animal characters. It’s a great concept that is executed with lots of humor and surprises. There were a lot of interesting characters, especially Grandma Moose. 

This book shows a real partnership between the work of the author, the illustrator and the book designer. The text that is told through speech bubbles changes color, size and font to reflect the emotions of the unseen director.

My thoughts as a teacher:

Children will love the humor in this book! There is a wonderful message about being persistent and following your own dreams, though the message is subtle and secondary to the fun. It also would provide an opportunity to talk about animals and how they are adapted for their own habitats.

A fun activity related to this book might be to have students create their own short story about an animal of their choice that doesn’t act as expected in their own movie (involving research about their animal to find out what it’s normal behaviour would be). Another idea might be to take one of the characters in the story and think about what its secret dream might be and write or draw a picture about it.

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.