Friday, June 28, 2013

Podcast Friday: Summer Reading for Kids

If you're looking for some summer reading for your kids, check out this podcast from CBC radio. It's the Children's Book Panel - Summer 2013, with recommendations for picture books, middle grade and YA books by Ken Setterington and Michele Landsberg.

I was excited to see that one of their YA picks was AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE by Susan Laidlaw, a member of my writing group, the MiG Writers! Ken Setterington referred to it as "a powerful book".

Monday, June 24, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Summer of the Gypsy Moths

Today’s Pick: Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

Published by Balzer & Bray, 2012

From Amazon:

From Clementine author Sara Pennypacker, this is a poignant middle-grade novel about two foster children who must find a way to work together in order to survive.

Eleven-year-old Stella misses her (unreliable) mom, but she loves it at great-aunt Louise’s house. Louise lives on Cape Cod, where Stella hopes her mom will someday come and settle down. The only problem? Angel, the foster kid Louise has taken in. The two girls live together but there’s no way they’ll ever be friends.

Then Louise suddenly passes away one morning—and Stella and Angel decide not to tell anyone. Now they have to depend on each other for survival. Now they are forced to trust each other with the biggest secret ever.

With great empathy and humor, Sara Pennypacker tells the story of two very different girls who unexpectedly become each other’s true family.

My Take:

As an adult reader, the plot of this story sometimes stretched believability for me, but I’m not sure it would for a middle grader. Once I accepted the idea that the two girls could hide Louise’s death from other people, it was interesting to see how they managed to cope and how their relationship changed as they tried to solve the problems that came their way. I loved the quirkiness of Stella relying on helpful hints from Heloise.

The cover illustration on the copy I read threw me off a bit and made it seem like this book was for younger kids, who might find some elements of the story a little disturbing. But I see they have changed it for the paperback edition and that one is more in keeping with the tone of the story.

As a writer, I’d return to this novel to see how the author used details to give the characters and the setting personality.

Favourite Quotes:

“A full moon lit the backyard silver, so bright the trees threw clear shadows on the ground. But I still heard rain—not a soft gentle rain, but a sharp pattering that made me shiver.”

“Angel elbowed me to shut up, but it was no use—my blabber instinct had kicked in full power.”

“The music flooded through my cramped-up heart and burst out in tears, hot and wet on my cheeks.”

Opening Line:

“The earth spins at a thousand miles per hour. Sometimes, when I remember this, it’s all I can do to stay upright.”

Other Info:

Sara Pennypacker lives in Massachussetts. When she was growing up, she loved art projects and reading, and did her school work quickly so she could get to something more interesting, like making sculptures out of bars of ivory soap. She was also obsessed with baseball!

On her website, she describes her writing process: “I want every sentence to be as clear as it can be, as interesting, as well-written, and as moving. I revise a lot - I rewrite everything at least twenty times!”

Other Books Include:
Sara is the author of the Clementine series. Some examples:

Clementine and the Spring Trip
Clementine and the Family Meeting

The Talented Clementine

...and more!

She also wrote four of the Flat Stanley series:

The Mount Rushmore Calamity
The Great Egyptian Grave Robbery

The Japanese Ninja Surprise
The Intrepid Canadian Expedition

For more info, visit Sara Pennypacker’s website.

Visit author Shannon Messenger's blog for up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Bigger Than A Bread Box

Today’s Pick: Bigger Than a Bread Box  by Lauren Snyder

Published by Yearling, 2011

From Amazon:

A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for—as long as it fits inside? It's too good to be true! Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents' separation, as well as a sudden move to her gran's house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be. Laurel Snyder's most thought-provoking book yet.

 My Take:

The idea of a magic bread box was intriguing and really drew me into the story. But the story ended up going in a different direction than I expected. I liked the complications of the magic that Rebecca ended up having to deal with and her solutions. This is another a great book to have in the classroom, because of the family issues and the way Rebecca struggles in her relationships with friends and classmates.

As a writer, I especially enjoyed the way the author used Rebecca’s memories and past experiences to help develop the story.

Favourite Quotes:

“I peeled my banana very carefully and ate it as slowly as I could, to give him a chance to step in and fix things, but I guess he didn’t get the message.”

“The other girls craned their necks and bunched around me to see, like dogs in a pack.”

Opening Line:

“I remember this one time: Mary Kate and I were at the playground, sitting in the swings, waiting for Mr. Softee to make his way down the hill to us.”

Other Info:

Laurel Snyder lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She started writing in elementary school, when she and a friend made their own books with cardboard covers.

In an interview with Kate Messner about her revision process, Laurel said: “I’m a big believer that boredom and silence are required for generating ideas.  There’s not enough silence in the world today. Silence is KEY to revision too.”

Other Books Include:
Penny Dreadful

Any Which Wall
Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains


For more info, visit Laurel Snyder’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: Me...Jane

Since I’m inescapably drawn to writing picture books when I'm not working on my middle grade novels, I decided I’d better start reading more of them and figuring out what makes them work. So every other Friday, I'm posting "Learning from Picture Books" to share what I've learned.


written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell

published by Little Brown and Company

From Amazon:

In his characteristic heartwarming style, Patrick McDonnell tells the story of the young Jane Goodall and her special childhood toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. As the young Jane observes the natural world around her with wonder, she dreams of "a life living with and helping all animals," until one day she finds that her dream has come true.
My thoughts as a writer
I loved the way the author took biographical information and pulled out the small details that a child could connect with, such as a stuffed toy, reading, climbing trees and playing outside. Every word counted in this story.
The illustrations complimented the story and also told a story on their own if you didn’t consider the text. It's a really good example of how to make biographical information accessible for young children.

My thoughts as a teacher:
This story had a wonderful message of following your dreams and interests in life.
It also would fit well with discussions of observing and drawing nature and the outside world, as a good springboard for talking about the kinds of observations or “miracles” children might witness outside. Children might like to try this cartoony-style of drawing to depict the environment outside their school.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Close to Famous

Today’s Pick: Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

Published by Viking, 2011

From Amazon:

When twelve-year-old Foster and her mother land in the tiny town of Culpepper, they don't know what to expect. But folks quickly warm to the woman with the great voice and the girl who can bake like nobody's business. Soon Foster - who dreams of having her own cooking show one day - lands herself a gig baking for the local coffee shop, and gets herself some much-needed help in overcoming her biggest challenge - learning to read . . . just as Foster and Mama start to feel at ease, their past catches up to them. Thanks to the folks in Culpepper, though Foster and her mama find the strength to put their troubles behind them for good .

My Take:

I just loved this book! Foster has an engaging personality and I liked her right from the beginning. I also had a lot of sympathy for her, because she was in a tough situation. And of course, I loved the idea of her selling her cupcakes and reading about all the different flavours made me want to run and bake. This book touches on some really difficult issues -- literacy, physical and verbal abuse, dealing with death of a loved one -- but the story has an underlying theme that you can get through your difficulties if you persevere. I think it’d be a great book to have in the classroom, because of the careful way it portrays Foster’s reading difficulties.

This book reminded me a little of Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo because of the way the main character interacted with the different people in her neighbourhood, and the way everyone was changed through meeting up with Foster and her cupcakes.

As a writer, I loved the writing style. A lot of the story is told through dialogue, which gave it a fairly quick pace. Backstory is woven in seamlessly. The writing style is spare and direct, with just enough detail to create vivid images in my mind. I read this as an e-book from the library, but I'm going to get my own copy to study more closely and learn about plotting, weaving in backstory and writing dialogue.  

Favourite Quotes:

“I wish somebody could take an X-ray of my heart to show me all I’ve got inside.”

“It’s here in the quiet waiting for a fish that you can fill up for when the tough times come.”

“When you’ve got a big problem, just start somewhere. Do one little thing to make it better. Then do another little thing, and another.”

“Knowing you belong it like putting frosting on a cupcake. It totally seals the deal.”

Opening Line:

“The last place I thought I’d be when this day began is where I am, which is in a car.”

Other Info:

Joan Bauer is married and lives in Brooklyn, New York. When she was growing up, she was always writing stories and poems. In her bio she says: “My best times as a writer are when I'm working on a book and laughing while I'm writing.  Then I know I've got something.”
On her blog she says, “you can't talk about new ideas right away -- they're made of wisps in the beginning and so easily can blow away.”

And she gives this advice to writers: “Write when you feel like it and write when you don't. It's the discipline on the off days that gives power to the on days, and after a while, you're trained to write through the storms and the sunshine.”
Joan did lots of “cupcake research” while working on her book and she has recipes for some of the cupcakes in Close to Famous on her website.

Other Books:
Almost Home

Best Foot Forward

Stand Tall
Hope Was Here

Rules of the Road



For more info, visit Joan Bauer’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Time to Play = More Creative Work

If, like me, you sometimes beat yourself up about not having enough time and not working on enough writing projects, you need to see this video (Creativity Requires Time)

Here's a great quote from the video: "creativity is not inspired by the pressure of time, but by the freedom, the playfulness and the fun!"

I hope you make some time to play with your writing this weekend.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Author Interview: Frances Watts

I'm so pleased to have a chance to interview Frances Watts, Australian author of The Song of the Winns trilogy!

Here's a bit about the books:

In the series’ first book, The Song of the Winns: Secret of the Ginger Mice, four courageous young mice discovered that ginger mice like themselves are descendants from the country of Gerander. Their country was conquered long ago by the neighboring land of Souris, and now all ginger mice face the threat of imprisonment by the Sourian government to prevent a possible Gerandan uprising. 

In the second book, The Spies of Gerander, the mice creep deep into enemy territory. Alistair and Tibby Rose have to find their way to a remote island prison to rescue Alistair’s parents, while Alex and Alice become spies in Sourian-occupied Gerander. (For more on The Spies of Gerander, see my Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.)

Don't they sound exciting? And now here's the interview with Frances Watts:

Share a little about how you ended up as a writer - and specifically a middle grade writer, since I know you also write picture books.

Being a voracious reader definitely inspired me to write; I’ve always loved language and stories, and I started writing stories around the time I learned to read. That’s not to say that I always knew I wanted to be a writer…Before I was a published writer I was (and still am) an editor. I’ve just always wanted to work with books.

Although my working life has been so entwined with books and writing, I never dreamed of becoming a writer myself—until I had that light-bulb moment and the idea for my first book popped into my head. That book was a picture book called Kisses for Daddy, and the idea was inspired by a scene I witnessed between a father and son up at my local shops. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I hadn’t walked past that father and son that day. Would I have become a writer? I wasn’t looking for a story; the story found me. But once I began to write, a whole new world of possibilities, of stories, opened up. And now I can’t imagine what my life would be like without writing.

So I started out writing picture books, but I found that the more I wrote, the more ideas I had, and those ideas kept getting bigger, until I was writing junior fiction and then, ultimately, middle-grade fiction. It felt like a natural progression for me; that these were the stories I had been working up to.

How did the idea for your story emerge?

One evening I was watching a news story about a country attacking a less powerful one and I started wondering how kids would understand an event like this. When I was a kid I used to read a lot of books set during wartime. Of course the settings made them dramatic and compelling, but they were very character-driven too—and the questions they posed, the demands they made of their characters, had an urgency and immediacy that spoke to me then and still speaks to me today; questions about justice and integrity and personal responsibility.

But while these issues are very much part of the Song of the Winns series, I didn’t want them to overwhelm the stories. More than anything, I wanted to write page-turning adventure stories, fast-paced and full of intrigue, funny and moving, with characters that readers will care about. The characters just happen to be mice! I wanted to be able to incorporate ideas about war and injustice in a non-confronting way; using mice gives the reader a bit of distance, while I could still at the same time make them human enough for readers to be able to engage with them.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?

On a practical level, like many writers, I sometimes struggle to carve out enough writing time while still maintaining another career. When you are working on a ‘big’ idea, it can be difficult to maintain momentum and energy. That said, I’m fortunate to have established a freelance career that is both stable and flexible—and very rewarding in its own right.

And, of course—again, like many other writers—I have bad writing days, when ideas aren’t working, when the writing seems laboured, when I question my ability…For me this was magnified by the fact that I was writing in a new genre, and that meant I had a lot to learn. But the pleasures, too, were magnified; I really became engrossed in the world and characters I had created.

Each book I write teaches me something about the world, myself or the process of writing. What did you learn through writing your book?

The writing process for middle-grade books is definitely different to that of picture books: where the art of picture books lies in being able to distil stories, writing for older age groups is about extending stories. The plots are more intricate, the ideas and language and humour are more sophisticated, there is room to develop characters more fully. For me it has meant really thinking about what I love to find in books as a reader, and then focusing on those elements in my own writing. I also learned a lot about structure and pace when I was editing the first draft of The Secret of the Ginger Mice. In some ways I think that’s the point at which I really made a leap forward as a writer, between the first and second drafts of that book. The lessons I learned then really made the writing of The Spies of Gerander easier. (Note, that’s “easier”, not “easy”!)

Because I love reading as much as I love to write, I’m always curious about what other people like to read. Do you have any favourite books?

I know I’m far from the first person to say Bridge to Terabithia affected me deeply as a young reader. And my love of Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows probably explains why I am drawn to animal characters. But if we’re talking about the kinds of books I read for pleasure these days, there’s a lot of contemporary fiction on my bedside table. Recent favourites include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and anything by Ann Patchett. I like the classics, too. Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope are two writers I return to again and again for characterisation and brilliant storytelling.
Frances, thank you so much for telling us about your writing process and how the stories evolved!


Have you seen author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Wednesday feature, Would You Read It? You can help other writers with their story pitches, and maybe even submit one of your own to get a sense of how well it’s working. This week, it’s my turn with a picture book pitch that I’d love some feedback on, if you have a chance.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Spies of Gerander

Today’s Pick: The Spies of Gerander by Frances Watts
[Book 2 in The Song of the Winns trilogy]

Published in the USA by Running Press, 2013

From the publisher:

′It had been four years since the triplets had seen their parents -- and for most of that time, they′d thought their parents were dead...′

Alistair, Alice and Alex have returned home safe from their adventures, but now that they know their homeland, Gerander, is in danger they can′t sit by and do nothing. Together with their friend Tibby Rose, they join FIG -- an organisation working to free Gerander from the rule of greedy Queen Eugenia of Souris.

Posing as orphans, Alex and Alice are sent on a risky undercover mission to the capital of Gerander in a desperate attempt to learn the Sourians′ plans -- only to encounter some old enemies . . . and some new ones.

Meanwhile, Alistair and Tibby Rose set out to find Gerander′s secret paths and rescue Alistair′s parents from an enemy prison. But someone is determined to stop them -- someone who seems to know their every move. Is it possible FIG has a traitor?

"A breathless plot alternates between Alistair and Tibby Rose′s quest and Alex and Alice′s spy activities, carrying the resilient, endearing mice to a surprise ending... An animated sequel that does not disappoint." Kirkus Reviews

My Take:

This was an exciting adventure, with lots of plot twists and turns. I loved the distinctive personalities of the mice, and especially Alice’s ingenious ways to get them out of sticky situations. It felt a bit like the mice characters could just as easily have been humans, since they used chairs, desks, whiteboards, etc., and I'd have liked a bit more of the mouse perspective. But I think many readers will get wrapped up in the story and want to find out if the young mice ever do get through all the obstacles and find their parents.

From a writer’s perspective, I enjoyed the descriptive detail and how the author created a strong sense of the setting. This book is a good one to study if you want to learn how to write cliffhangers, since most chapters end with one.

 Favourite Quotes:

“Huddling in the dark, a dark as complete and black as any he had ever known, Alistair tried to stay calm even as his mind threw up frightening scenarios.”

“That’s the hardest part about the kind of struggle we’re engaged in—learning when to think with your heart and when with your head.”

“If there’s one thing I know, it’s that a spy can never afford to get too comfortable. You need to have your wits about you at all times.”

Other Info:

Frances Watts was born in Switzerland, but she moved to Australia when she was a child.
In her notes for teachers, she says, “When I first started writing The Song of the Winns, I set out to write the kind of book that I loved as a child:  something fast paced and full of adventure, with characters that I would get to know and love.”

Come back on Wednesday for an interview with the author, Frances Watts!

Other middle grade books by this author:
The Secret of the Ginger Mice [The Song of the Winns: Book 1]
The Secret of Zanzibar [The Song of the Winns: Book 3]

Frances Watts is also the author of several early chapter books and picture books, including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit's Book About Books.

For more info, visit Frances Watts’ website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the very energetic Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!