Monday, July 29, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

Today’s Pick: Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff

Published by Houghton Mifflin, 2013

From Amazon:

In a magical kingdom where your name is your destiny, 12-year-old Rump is the butt of everyone's joke. But when he finds an old spinning wheel, his luck seems to change. Rump discovers he has a gift for spinning straw into gold. His best friend, Red Riding Hood, warns him that magic is dangerous, and she’s right. With each thread he spins, he weaves himself deeper into a curse.

 To break the spell, Rump must go on a perilous quest, fighting off pixies, trolls, poison apples, and a wickedly foolish queen. The odds are against him, but with courage and friendship—and a cheeky sense of humor—he just might triumph in the end.

My Take:

I enjoyed this different take on the story of Rumpelstiltskin. It’s a fun read if you’re a fan of fairytales. The book is full of interesting characters and humor, and I especially liked the friendship between Rump and Red.

I could tell that the author and her editors worked really hard to get every word right. I loved the way the descriptions were blended in to the story and there was such a strong sense of character from just a few words. As a writer, I'd study this novel again to learn more about creating character.

Favourite Quotes:

“You can’t grow all the way if you don’t have a whole name."

“You see, if you’re going to give someone advice, it’s important to be specific. Watch your step is not specific at all. You take a lot of steps every day, so it would be really helpful to know which step to be careful on.”

“We hugged our ration sacks to us, the promise of fresh bread inside them."

Opening Line:

“My mother named me after a cow’s rear end.”

Other Info:

Liesl Shurtliff lives in Chicago with her husband and three children. Rump is her first published book.

In an interview at OneFourKidLit, Liesl says, “My inspiration stems from my own philosophy on the power of names. Of course I don’t think a name determines a person’s destiny, but names are full of meaning and history and culture and I do think they affect us in various ways.”

Over at Literary Rambles, Liesl Shurtliff talks with Natalie Aguirre about her writing process: “I figure if I’m surprised while I’m writing, then my reader will be surprised while reading.”

Other books in the works:
Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk (2015)
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood (2016)

For more info, visit Liesl Shurtliff’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!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

Before I get to my usual picture book analysis, I wanted to tell you about a great place to learn more about writing picture books. Over on her blog, author Pam Calvert is running Picture Book
University - a mini workshop for picture book writers. In her weekly post she covers different genres, storyboarding, and what terms like "character-driven" mean. I definitely recommend taking a look if you're interested in writing picture books!

And now, for this week's picture book:

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

written and illustrated by Mo Willems

published by Balzer + Bray, 2012

ages 3 - 7

From the Publisher:
Once upon a time, there were three hungry Dinosaurs: Papa Dinosaur, Mama Dinosaur . . . and a Dinosaur who happened to be visiting from Norway.

One day—for no particular reason—they decided to tidy up their house, make the beds, and prepare pudding of varying temperatures. And then—for no particular reason—they decided to go . . . someplace else. They were definitely not setting a trap for some succulent, unsupervised little girl.
Definitely not!

This new take on a fairy-tale classic is so funny and so original—it could only come from the brilliant mind of Mo Willems.

My Thoughts as a Writer:
I love the way the humor in this story isn’t dumbed down for kids. The author cleverly uses the structure of the original story but adds a twist where the Dinosaurs are trying to lure Goldilocks inside and catch her. It reminds me how important the concept or idea behind the story is for a picture book.

The narrator talks to the reader with in such a way that child readers will predict the opposite or know that the opposite is going to happen – a great strategy for helping them to understand the plot.  In the illustrations, the expressions on the character’s faces add to the interpretation of the story, and there are lots of funny details for observant readers (e.g., signs).

My Thoughts as a Teacher:
This book is just so much fun it’d be a great read aloud to promote the love of reading. I’d use it after students had heard a couple of more traditional versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, so that they have a better foundation for the jokes and differences from the original. Follow up activities could include comparing the traditional version with this one, especially in grades 1 and 2.

Even though some of the humour might be difficult for younger kindergarten students, they would enjoy this book too and probably ask for a re-reading.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Aviary

Today’s Pick: The Aviary  by Kathleen O’Dell

Published by Yearling/Random House, 2011

From Amazon:

Twelve-year-old Clara Dooley has spent her whole life in the crumbling Glendoveer mansion, home to a magician's widow, a cage full of exotic birds, and a decades-old mystery. Clara loves old Mrs. Glendoveer, but the birds in the aviary frighten her—they always seem to screech and squall whenever she's near. And then one day, the mynah bird speaks, and a mystery starts to unravel.

Clara discovers dark secrets about the family, and about her own past. Somehow the birds in the aviary seem to be at the center of it all, and Clara can't shake the feeling that they are trying to tell her something. . . .

My Take:

I liked the spookiness of this mystery, as well as the historical time period. It’s a quiet, mysterious story, so don’t expect a lot of fast-paced action (though there are some action sequences near the end). It reminded me a little of The Secret Garden, since the main character, Clara is stuck in the house all the time with a supposed heart condition. Talking birds and a magician's secrets were intriguing.

As a writer, I’d read this to study how the author used details to create atmosphere and setting. The language and dialogue structure suits the historical tone of the story.

Opening Line:

“As a young child, Clara Dooley had felt that the Glendoveer mansion contained the whole world.”

Other Info:

Kathleen O’Dell lives in Los Angeles. She once worked in a library at her children’s school and that’s what inspired her to try writing a children’s novel.

On her website, she gives this advice to aspiring writers: “When you find a writer you like, imitate them for fun.  Try to figure out what they do and how they do it.”

Other Books Include:

Agnes Parker... Girl in Progress

Agnes Parker... Happy Camper?

Agnes Parker... Keeping Cool in Middle School

Ophie Out of Oz

For more info, visit Kathleen O’Dell’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by author 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!


Thursday, July 18, 2013

There Are Always More Books

As I climb the steps, I’m thinking about what’s waiting for me. I open the door, feel the whoosh of cool air and step in. All the possibilities stretch out before me, lined up neatly on their shelves, inviting a look. Middle grade, YA, picture books, novels, cookbooks, new releases, raves & faves. I just love visiting the library!
I have fond memories of hanging out in the basement-like children’s section of the Waverly Resource Library in Thunder Bay, skimming for the next Black Stallion adventure. Browsing the shelves with my firstborn at the Westmount branch in London, Ontario, finding out we loved Kevin Henkes’ Owen, Chrysanthemum and Lilly characters. Or all the storytimes and armloads of books (to feed my second daughter's obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine) we took home from the Lakeview and Mississauga Valley branches in Mississauga.

I wonder how many library books I’ve borrowed in my life time? I usually bring home more than 5, sometimes as many as 15.

Even now, I visit the library at least once a week. I’m always thrilled when I see one of my students (or former students) reading in the library, because sometimes I wonder what will happen to physical libraries with more and more books available on-line.
Actually, downloading online books is one of the ways I use my public library. It’s pretty convenient to read a book on my iPad, into the late hours of the night, since I don’t have to keep a lamp on to disturb my husband.

But I also love physical books. They’re perfect for those moments when I have to wait for someone or to take out on the patio or deck and enjoy with a glass of lemonade. So I use my library to look up books (often recommended by other bloggers) and have them sent to my local branch for pick up. If I can’t find a book, I’ve also been known to contact the library to recommend it for purchase. And I always browse the “new titles” shelf, where I usually find another book or two that looks interesting to pop into my bag.
Anyway, if you’re bored with the kids this summer and it’s raining (it’s been doing a lot of that in my part of the world), think about checking out your local library. As teenagers, my own kids seem to think that going to the library is about as much fun as seeing the dentist, but I’m hoping that’s a phase they grow out of, and that one day they’ll be able to appreciate the library at least a little. And maybe they’ll even find one of my books there.
Do you use your local library? How do you use it? What do you think will happen to libraries in the future?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - The Boy at the End of the World

Today’s Pick: The Boy at the End of the World  by Greg van Eekhout

Published by Bloomsbury, 2011

Blurb From Amazon:

In a future world, Fisher is the last boy on earth. But evidence suggests there may be a far-away survival bunk with other humans. In order to get there, he'll need to rely on a ragtag team he assembles, including a robot, a mammoth, and a prairie dog with basic English skills. Readers will be riveted as this unlikely team races toward survival.

My Take:

This is a fast-paced book and I read through it in one night. I enjoyed the quest theme and how the author wove in details about fishing, trapping and outdoor survival. The characters in this story have a lot of personality. It was a fun read and a great one for boys.

As a writer, I was interested in how the author included a futuristic theme in a short middle grade novel. The writing style is very simple and direct, but there’s lots of humor, especially from the robot sidekick. I also really admired the author’s imagination! This is a great example of how you could brainstorm to create unexpected obstacles.

Favourite Quote:

Is mistake that brings death and destruction not just to humans, but to all. That is the way of human mistakes.”

Opening Line:

“This is what he knew: His name was Fisher.”

Other Info:

Greg van Eekhout lives in San Diego. He wanted to be a cartoonist or comic book artist, but found out he wasn’t so great at drawing so turned to writing. He didn’t start out so great at that either, but he kept practicing until he got better and people wanted to buy his stories.

Some advice to writers on his website: “…if you want to write professionally, develop some good work habits. Try to write at least a little bit every day.”

Other Middle Grade Books Include:

Kid vs. Squid

For more info, visit Greg van Eekhout’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible 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!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: The Imaginary Garden

The Imaginary Garden

written by Andrew Larsen

illustrated by Irene Luxbacher

published by Kids Can Press, 2009
ages 3 - 7

From Kids Can Press:

Theodora loved her grandfather's old garden. His new apartment's balcony is too windy and small for a garden. But what appears to be a drawback soon leads to a shared burst of creativity as Theo and her Poppa decide to paint a new garden. As they work side by side — sowing seeds with brushes and paint — a masterpiece begins to take shape that transforms the balcony into an abundant garden.

When Poppa goes away on holiday, Theo helps nurture the garden and it begins to take on a life of its own. This garden grows not from soil but from love, imagination and creativity.

Readers will marvel at each stage of this fertile garden as it grows from seed to full flower, revealing the power of art to enrich our lives.

My Thoughts as a Writer:
One of the reasons why this book is successful is because of the concept of creating an imaginary garden by painting on canvas. It definitely hooked me. I liked the way the author shows how Theo gradually becomes more independent in the process and takes on the job after her Poppa goes away on a trip.

The illustrations and their layout was integrated with the text, so you could really see how important the illustrations are to the story, from the tiny illustrations to show the steps for painting a bird or flower to the full page illustrations of the garden mural that brought the fantasy element to life.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This would be a good book to use in introducing spring painting activities (e.g., mural painting) as well as talking about signs of spring. It would also be helpful for reinforcing procedural writing, since the text explains how to paint birds and flowers.

It’s great to see the closeness between Theo and her grandfather, and Theo’s gradually developing independence with the project. It’d be a good addition to a classroom or school library. This book is recommended for ages 3 to 7, but at around 700 words, I think the text might be a bit long for kids at the younger end of this range (and might need two sessions).

Monday, July 8, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - The Year of the Book

Today’s Pick: The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng

Published by Houghton Mifflin, 2012

From Amazon:

In Chinese, peng you means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated. When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through A Wrinkle in Time, or peering over My Side of the Mountain, books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world. Books, however, can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend. She’ll have to discover that on her own. In the tradition of classics like Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and Eleanor Estes’ One Hundred Dresses, this novel subtly explores what it takes to make friends and what it means to be one.

My Take:

I got hooked on this chapter book through the character of Anna and her love of books. I can definitely relate to turning to a “bookworld” as an escape. Anna has some difficulties with her friendships, and they are portrayed in a realistic way. I like how she stays true to herself and gradually makes some friends. Anna had a very caring personality and this quiet story was a nice change from books where there are “villains” or “mean girls”.

I love it when characters in novels have interesting hobbies, and I liked Anna’s hobby of sewing, since I haven’t seen that in many middle grade novels. She also likes to paint and it’s fun to see some of her drawings through the story.

The writing style is very simple and direct, but there is a lot of subtext about Anna’s issues with her friends. I enjoyed all the references to the books Anna read or remembered - there was one in almost every chapter.

Favourite Quote:

“I always wished I had a mom who spoke perfect English and who got her driver’s license when she turned sixteen. But if Mom wasn’t the way she is, she wouldn’t be my mom and I wouldn’t be me.”

Opening Line:

“Ray, the crossing guard, is waiting at the curb in his orange vest that catches the sunrise.”

Other Info:

Andrea Cheng lives in Cincinnati. She started writing stories when she was in elementary school, and had a sixth grade teacher who was very encouraging about her writing.

On her website, she talks about her route to publication:  “Many times I decided not to write anymore, or to stop submitting stories to publishers, but I always went back to it, mostly because I love writing the stories.”

She also says: “Writing is like doing exercise. If you don't do it a lot, you can't do it well.”

Other Books Include:

The Year of the Baby
The Lemon Sisters

Goldfish and Chrysanthemums
Grandfather Counts

The Key Collection
Tire Mountain

Where the Steps Were

When the Bees Fly Home
Shanghai Messenger

The Lace Dowry
Honeysuckle House


The Bear Makers
Brushing Mom’s Hair

For more info, visit Andrea Cheng’s website.

For an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books on Middle Grade Monday, visit author Shannon Messenger's blog.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cool Blog Quote: How to Make Your Own Luck

From time to time, I feature a quote from another blogger that inspires me. This one is from my awesome critique partner, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, who has taught me a lot about determination and has given me so much encouragement and advice (thanks Deb, for introducing me to Twitter).

"...stop angsting about what you can't control and do what you can to make your own luck."

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Luck, Lightning Rods and the Publishing Industry: Tips on How to Make Your Own Luck, posted on the MiG Writers blog, July 3, 2013

I love this quote because it actually applies to all areas of life, not just the writing part of it.  For me, it's about taking action to reach a goal and not passively waiting for something to happen (just like what we're always saying the main characters of our stories need to do).

It's also about not wasting energy obsessing over what might happen or how it might happen or when it's going to happen, but instead focusing on things that might help you get closer to your goal, even if they seem small or insignificant.

If you want some ideas for applying this to your writing life, check out Deb's tips for how to make your own luck over at MiG Writers.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Happy Canada Day!

I'm celebrating Canada Day today - hooray! So I don't have a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post for you.

I'll be watching a rowing regatta on the Toronto Islands, but chances are, I'll have a good book along for the dull moments.