Thursday, February 27, 2014

Learning from Picture Books: A Good Trade

This week I'm taking a closer look at one of the nominees for the Blue Spruce Award from the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading for 2014. Other nominees I've featured so far include Oddrey by Dave Whammond (OwlKids Books) and I Dare You Not to Yawn by Helene Boudreau (Candlewick Press).

A Good Trade

written by Alma Fullerton

illustrated by Karen Patkau

published by Pajama Press, 2012

From Amazon:

In a small Ugandan village, Kato wakes early to start the long barefoot trek beyond his village and along fields dotted with cattle and guarded by soldiers. As it is every day, his destination is the village well, where he will pump a day's supply of water into two jerry cans before trudging home again. But this is no ordinary day. The aid worker's truck arrives at the village square, and in the back is a gift so special, the little boy rushes home to look for something to repay the aid worker.

Alma Fullerton's spare, lilting prose tells a deceptively simple story of one day in a little boy's life. But in a place ravaged by a generation of civil war and drought, a village well brings life, a gift of shoes is a cause for celebration, and a simple flower becomes an eloquent symbol of peace and gratitude.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This book is a good example of how spare language and imagery can highlight social issues in a way that young children can understand. I’d read this book again to study how the author uses words to create compelling images. The illustrations evoke a strong sense of atmosphere, as well as providing more to think about in showing details of Kato’s life in Africa.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I loved the illustrations and simple text that allows important issues and ideas to be introduced to young children. There is a lot to talk about here, comparing the realities of Kato’s life in Africa to life in a reader’s city or country.

I wished this story had some additional background information at the back of the book that I could use as a teacher to help explain life in Africa. However, this book would be a good starting point for researching the topic as a whole class or in small groups. The story provokes many questions to answer.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Sugar

As a child, I was always fascinated by stories that introduced me to life in a different time period, and I still am. I found out about this book through a post on From the Mixed Up Files, a great place for learning about writing and reading books for middle grade readers. The version I read was an e-book from my local library.

Today’s Pick: Sugar

by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Little Brown and Company, 2013

From Amazon:

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn't make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner's son.

Sugar has always yearned to learn more about the world, and she sees her chance when Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane. The older River Road folks feel threatened, but Sugar is fascinated. As she befriends young Beau and elder Master Liu, they introduce her to the traditions of their culture, and she, in turn, shares the ways of plantation life. Sugar soon realizes that she must be the one to bridge the cultural gap and bring the community together. Here is a story of unlikely friendships and how they can change our lives forever.

My Take:

Sugar is a strong and spunky character with lots of questions about her life situation. This is a fairly short book, so I read it quickly. I found it really interesting to read about what happened to some of the slaves after they were set free. I hadn’t thought before about how difficult it was to work harvesting sugar cane. For me, the best part of the story was how Sugar came to lead the way in accepting and learning about the Chinese workers that came to live at their plantation.

I enjoyed the poetic language in this book. It’s another example of a story with a great voice.

 Opening Line:

“Everybody likes sugar. Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.”


“I run past the cane fields, then up the grassy knoll where the big house sits to keep dry when the river overflows.”

“Even though the day is bright, worry and fear are striking like invisible lightning and silent thunderbolts.”

“It’s exciting, making new friends.”

Other Info:

Jewell Parker Rhodes lives in Pennsylvania, where she teaches creative writing.

Her first novel for children, Ninth Ward, was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book  and was featured as a Today show Al's Book Club for Kids selection.

Sugar was chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Here’s what Jewell Parker Rhodes says about writing historical fiction for children: “While teaching historical facts is important, fictional techniques allow readers to empathize with characters and feel, sense the events via concrete details.”

Other Children’s Books by this Author:

Ninth Ward

For more, visit Jewell Parker Rhodes at her website for children’s books.

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Celebrating Family Day

Up here in Ontario, it's Family Day. After all the snow and cold we've had so far this winter, it's great to have an extra day to just relax and not have to go anywhere.

But if you're looking for a good middle grade or YA book to read, I recommend you check out some of these websites:

Always in the Middle

Barbara Ann Watson

Jennifer Rumberger - Children's Author

Literary Rambles

Middle Grade Mafioso

My Brain on Books

Project Mayhem

Ms. Yingling Reads 

Or you could check out some of these brand new books by my MiG Writer friends!

I also keep a few lists of YA and middle grade reads on my 100 book challenge page.

I'm sure there are lots of links I forgot to mention, so if you review middle grade or YA books, feel free to add your link in the comments!

Happy reading!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Interview with Carmella Van Vleet: ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER

Today I'm so excited because Carmella Van Vleet dropped by to answer a few questions. She's the author of the debut middle grade novel, ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER, and also one of my amazing MiG Writer friends.

Share a little about how you ended up as a writer.

I’m one of those writers who always knew this is what she wanted to do. I wrote all through high school and some in college. But then I took time off to teach and have my children. At one point, I volunteered to edit a newsletter for a local moms’ organization. When I needed to fill space, I wrote family humor pieces. The response was overwhelmingly positive so I pitched a monthly column in a local newspaper. From there, I began freelancing for magazines. A couple of years later, I began focusing on non-fiction for kids. I loved doing that and sold over a dozen books, but I always dreamed of writing fiction. So, a few years ago, I gave up all my non-fiction gigs, took an online class, found a critique group and began writing for middle grade and young adult readers. 

 How did the idea for your story emerge?

My daughter and I were in the car one day and talking about how she didn’t fit in at middle school. She

said, “I’m like the letter Y, not really a consonant but not really a vowel either.” I thought this would make a great opening line for a book. (This isn’t the book’s opening line, but I still think I might use it someday.)

Pretty soon after that, my main character, Eliza, started showing up and talking to me. I knew I wanted to write about someone who had ADHD (like my daughter), but I also knew I definitely didn’t want to write an “issue book.” In fact, I wanted the ADHD to be, for the most part, a positive thing because there are plenty of really cool things about it. The fact Eliza lands herself in a taekwondo class came pretty naturally, too. I’ve been training in the martial arts myself for about eight years, and so I know about being out of your comfort zone.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?

For me, the hardest part of writing any book is figuring out what you need to include and what you should leave out. It’s like doing one of those jigsaw puzzles that comes with extra pieces. (For the record, I hate those.) Even though I knew a lot about Eliza - mostly because I lived with the real life version of her! - I had to decide what part of her story and personality to focus on. There were many scenes and favorite lines that ended up being cut because they simply needed to be.

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

Even though I’d been writing non-fiction for many years, I was surprised just how much goes into the revision process. ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG, FAT QUITTER went through numerous revisions with my critique group, then with a freelance editor, and then with my agent. And then, to top it off, there were revisions to do for my editor. Each and every round improved the book so I was happy to do the work. But after a while you start to feel like, “Really? I have to revise again?”

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’m not sure about favorite (because how can you pick favorites?!), but there are several that made me want to be a writer, inspired me, or changed the direction of my career. In no particular order:

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Savvy by Ingrid Law

A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Monster at the End of This Book (Sesame Street, Little Golden Book)

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

  Is there anything else you’d like to share about your book or an upcoming project?

As part of my goal to spread kindness (like Eliza does), I have a special project called Black Belt in Kindness Club. If kids do ten kind things and let me know, I’ll put their names on a Wall of Fame on my website and send them a special postcard. Teachers and parents who’d like more information can click on the Flying Ninja Girl on the Home or MG-YA pages on my website

I'm so excited about Carmella's Black Belt Kindness Club! I hope you all check it out! Here a blurb from Amazon about ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER by Carmella Van Vleet (Holiday House Books, 2014). By the way, her book is a Junior Library Guild selection!

"In this uplifting novel about determination and the rewards of hard work, a preteen girl struggling with ADHD must stick with a summer taekwondo class to prove that she s dedicated enough to pursue her true passion: cake decorating."

Cover artwork is by Karen Donnelly.
Carmella's book officially launches tomorrow, February 14th, but it's already available!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities

I won a copy of this book about a year ago in a contest on Shannon Messenger’s blog (thank you, again, Shannon!)  It's been sitting on my night table, waiting for me to get around to reading it. I really shouldn’t have waited so long! This book is so much fun!

Today’s Pick: Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities

by Mike Jung

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012

From Amazon:

A SUPER funny, SUPER fast-paced, SUPER debut!

Vincent Wu is Captain Stupendous's No. 1 Fan, but even he has to admit that Captain Stupendous has been a little off lately. During Professor Mayhem's latest attack, Captain Stupendous barely made it out alive - although he did manage to save Vincent from a giant monster robot. It's Vincent's dream come true... until he finds out Captain Stupendous's secret identity: It's Polly Winnicott-Lee, the girl Vincent happens to have a crush on.

Captain Stupendous's powers were recently transferred to Polly in a fluke accident, and so while she has all of his super strength and super speed, she doesn't know how to use them, and she definitely doesn't know all the strengths and weaknesses of his many nemeses. But Vincent and his friends are just the right fan club to train up their favorite superhero before he (she?) has to face Professor Mayhem again. And if they make it through this battle for the safety of Copperplate City, Vincent might just get up the courage to ask Polly on a date.

My Take:

This is a fast-paced adventure with lots of humor and, like all good middle grade fiction, the kids save the day! I really liked all the twists and turns in this story, and the fact that the secret identity of Captain Stupendous is a girl. A really interesting girl, especially from Vincent’s perspective. It was fun thinking about a world where superheroes and villains are part of ordinary daily life.

I thought this book was a perfect example of middle grade fiction, from the storyline to the dialogue to the voice. I especially liked the way the dialogue sounds right. Kids actually talk this way.

Opening Line:

“There are four Captain Stupendous fan clubs in Copperplate City, but ours is the only one that doesn’t suck.”


“Old people like to talk about how young other old people look.”

“She was, like, the fastest smile in the west, but it was kind of nice to know she wasn’t pissed off ALL the time, even if the smiling part made me nervous in a totally different way.”

“We’re ready to flex the skinny biceps of justice whenever evildoers come around, whether they’re supernatural boogeymen; pissed-off, foreign demigods; or sixth-grade bullies.”

Other Info:

Mike Jung lives in Northern California, where he is working on his plot to "achieve galactic domination", and hopefully another book, too!

He talks about his decision to make Polly the superhero with Sayantani DasGupta in an interview at From the Mixed Up Files“Thinking about gender issues is something I always try to do – it’s a big deal, you know? I want my daughter to grow up in a world that doesn’t devalue or dismiss her because of her gender, and I think our personal sensibilities and values do infuse our work to at least some degree.”

For more, visit Mike Jung’s website.

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).

Monday, February 3, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Curse of the Dream Witch

I was introduced to Allan Stratton’s darkly funny middle grade adventure The Grave Robber’s Apprentice last year when reading the books nominated for the 2013 Silver Birch awards. This one is similar in tone and just as creepy (maybe creepier).

Today’s Pick: Curse of the Dream Witch

by Allan Stratton

Scholastic Canada, 2013

From the publisher:

It is the age of the Great Dread. The Dream Witch wants the heart of Princess Olivia. Until she has it none of the kingdom's children are safe. Olivia's parents seek help from the Prince Leo of Pretonia and his uncle, the Duke of Fettwurst, but the treacherous duo seize their castle instead. It is up to Olivia to defeat the Dream Witch, Prince Leo and his uncle. She makes a daring escape from her turret cell and races to the forest to take on the Dream Witch in her underground lair. Two friends are by her side: the peasant boy Milo and a curious talking mouse with a surprising past. Together they must face danger and fantastical adverseries to lift the Great Dread, save their families and rescue a kingdom.

My Take:

There are some pretty creepy elements in this story (including the witch, who has with eyes like burning coals) but lots of funny bits too. The quick pace got the main characters moving along on their adventure right away. There were a couple of places where I got confused about where the characters were exactly, but it didn’t detract from the story. It was fun to notice all the connections to traditional fairy tales while reading. There were also lots of fun details like pysanky (decorated eggs). But you might not want to read this before bedtime, because of some of the disturbing images it might conjure up.

I admired the voice and was impressed by the way the author wrote with a sense of humor and fun even with all the scary images and events in the story. It seems like a tricky balance to pull off, but in this novel it was successful. The voice will definitely help this book to appeal to its target readers.  

Opening Line:

“It was the twelfth year of the Great Dread.”


“Imagination is a powerful thing,” Ephemia said darkly. “What we believe—what we think we know—can destroy us.”

“Life isn’t fair,” the Dream Witch shrugged. “And that, my pet, is the scariest nightmare of all.”

Other Info:

Allan Stratton lives in Toronto with his partner and 4 cats.

Curse of the Dream Witch is a finalist for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Awards in the Silver Birch category. 

Last year, his novel The Grave Robber’s Apprentice was also nominated for the Silver Birch award. You can read my thoughts on that book here.

Other books by this author include:

The Grave Robber’s Apprentice
Chanda’s Wars
Chanda’s Secrets
Leslie’s Journal

For more, visit Allan Stratton’s website.

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).