Monday, April 28, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big, Fat Quitter

The book I’m featuring today is by my friend and part-time Ninja, Carmella Van Vleet! It’s a great story about taekwondo and not giving up. Carmella also has a very cool “Black Belt in Kindness Club” on her website that kids can join when they do something nice for a friend.

Today’s Pick: Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big, Fat Quitter

by Carmella Van Vleet

Holiday House, 2014

From Amazon:

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.

My Take:

Eliza’s personality really shines in this story. It’s fun reading about the trouble she gets into and how she tries to get herself out if it. I also enjoyed the fact that her parents and family were in the story and supporting her, even though Eliza solves her own problems. (None of that “dead parents” syndrome common in many middle grade books.)  It was great to read a story where the main character has a disorder (ADHD), but where coping with it isn’t the main focus of the story.

As a writer, I think this would be a great book to study if you’re working on creating a unique character voice. It’s also interesting that the book is organized in short sections rather than chapters, which fits with Eliza’s personality and her ADHD.

Opening Line:

“I was peanut butter, and Tony was jelly.”


“Mom says decisions are like coats because they weigh on your shoulders.”

“But I found out wanting to do something isn’t anywhere near being able to do something.”

Other Info:

Carmella Van Vleet is a full-time writer who lives in Ohio. She writes non-fiction as well as fiction. Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big, Fat Quitter is her debut middle grade novel.

In an interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl, Carmella gave this advice for writers: “One of the most important things you have to remember is not to compare yourself to other writers.”

Carmella talks about writing non-fiction for middle graders in an interview for Middle Grade March

Non-fiction books by this author include:

Great Ancient EGYPT Projects: You Can Build Yourself

Amazing BEN FRANKLIN Inventions: You Can Build Yourself

Seven Wonders of the World: Discover Amazing Monuments to Civilization with 20 Projects

Explore Ancient Greece!: 25 Great Projects, Activities, Experiments

Amazing Arctic & Antarctic Projects You Can Build Yourself (Build It Yourself series)

Explore Electricity!: With 25 Great Projects

Writing Club: A Year of Writing Workshops for Grades 2-5

For more, visit Carmella Van Vleet’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, April 21, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Awesome, Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz

After reading The Awesome, Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz, I wanted to have a magic pen (but for writing, not drawing)! This was a really fun story, a great way to end off my project to read all of the nominees for the 2014 Silver Birch Award. Now I can settle back and see which one kids will pick as the winner – the official voting day is this Wednesday. It won't be an easy choice.

Today’s Pick: The Awesome, Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz

by Alan Silverberg

Aladdin, 2013

From Amazon:

Best friends Matt and Larry “Craz” Crazinski couldn’t be more different. Matt loves order, while Craz lives on the edge. The boys share a passion for cartooning, but thanks to the school paper gatekeeper (and kind-of bully), Skip Turkle, it seems their cartoons will never be published.

But then the boys discover a pen that promises to help them DRAW BETTER NOW!—and quickly realize it’s no ordinary pen: Whatever they draw comes to life!

They start small with their drawings—bags of cash, cool gadgets. Next, they get their pesky English teacher to take a unique and extended vacation. But when the boys get a little bolder in their magical drawings, they realize that things don’t always end up as perfect as the art they create....

In this funny, slightly zany, and ultimately heartwarming story, Sid Fleischman Award–winner Alan Silberberg demonstrates the power of friendship—and that the best life is not always sketched out in advance.

My Take:

I had fun reading this story about two friends, their magical pen and their crazy schemes to get their comics noticed (and all the trouble that got them into). The story moved along quickly and held my attention. The humor was fun and the problems that Matt and Craz encountered seemed totally appropriate for the situation and their age.

As a writer, I was thinking of re-reading this story to help me with structuring one of my own novels, since I liked the pacing.

Opening Line:

“If Matt was a better cartoonist and Craz hadn’t been dropped on his head as a baby, the gym wouldn’t be a gigantic beehive.”


“Craz pulled the “Cartoon King” comic out from beneath his T-shirt and was glad he hadn’t ruined it with any of his body sweat, though he did give it a quick whiff to make sure it hadn’t absorbed any unwanted smells.”

“He instantly pictured himself as much younger, rolled into a tight ball in his bed, humming so he didn’t have to hear the exact words of the fight—just the dull, barking sounds of it.”

Other Info:

Alan Silberberg is a cartoonist/TV writer who lives with his family in Montreal, Canada.

On the author page of his website he says: “Even as a kid I found that telling stories was powerful - bullies, friends, teachers gave me space whenever I made stuff up that filled the gaps in my life that needed filling.”

Other books by this author include:

Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze
Pond Scum

For more, visit Alan Silberberg’s website. 

If you’re interested in what I have to say about the Silver Birch nominees, I’ve posted about each one: Eldritch Manor by Kim Thompson, Nobody's Dog by Ria Voros, Ultra by David Carroll, The Curse of the Dream Witch by Allan Stratton, The Hypnotists by Gordon Korman, Record Breaker by Robin Stevenson, Yesterday’s Dead by Pat Bourke, Neil Flambe and the Tokyo Treasure by Kevin Sylvester and The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney.

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, April 14, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - The Metro Dogs of Moscow

Two members of my extended family have gotten new dogs recently and all the dog-meet-dog interactions are fun to watch. They definitely put me in the right mood for reading The Metro Dogs of Moscow, another one of the fiction nominees for the 2014 Silver Birch Award from the Ontario Library Association. 

Today’s Pick: The Metro Dogs of Moscow

by Rachelle Delaney

Penguin Group, 2013

From Amazon:

JR (short for Jack Russell) is an embassy dog. His human, George, works in embassies around the world and so they both travel. A lot. Now George is working at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. While George loves the globetrotting life, he doesn’t think JR needs any more excitement than hanging out at the park with the other embassy dogs.

JR, however, has had quite enough of leashes and perfectly manicured parks—not to mention the boring embassy dogs. Inspired by seeing a stray dog steal a coil of sausages, JR sneaks out of his apartment to do a little exploring on his own and soon meets up with the wily stray and some of his friends. This is the life: amazing city smells! Mouthwatering stuffed potatoes! And best of all, the freedom to travel on the Moscow subway.

But then JR's new friends mysteriously start to disappear. When an embassy dog goes missing as well, JR knows he must use everything he’s learned about his new home to solve the mystery of Moscow’s missing dogs.

My Take:

It’s always interesting to read stories that are narrated from a very different point of view—in the case, a dog’s perspective. JR was a fun character to tag along with on an adventure. I especially enjoyed the setting. I learned a little bit about Moscow and Russian food while reading this book. I haven’t read many middle grade books set in Russia before. I like the bits of humor the author sprinkled into the story.

As a writer, I thought the writing style captured JR’s doggy personality. The phrasing and word choice kept me anchored in the dog’s perspective.

Opening Line:

“The key turned in the lock.”


“Very Bad Things always happened—so fast he couldn’t stop them even if he wanted to. One second he’d be doing something innocent, like counting ceiling tiles, and the next second he’d be mauling the coffee table.”

“The Sit-and-Look-Cute.” Fyodor grinned. “It’s when you just sit there and bat your eyelashes until someone gives you food.”

“He blinked and yawned, stretching in the sunbeam that had made for the ideal Saturday morning nap.”

Other Info:

When she’s not writing novels, Rachelle Delaney enjoys adventures like tree climbing, trail running and snowshoeing.

On her website, Rachelle mentions that she was inspired to write this book after reading a newspaper story about stray dogs in Moscow that ride the subway. 

In an interview with Vikki VanSickle, Rachelle Delaney talks about how reading books as a child influenced her writing: “My favourite books were usually about animals, so yes, they’ve definitely inspired me.”

Rachelle Delaney's new adventure with JR and some of his dog friends, The Circus Dogs of Prague, is being released at the end of April.

Other books by this author include:

The Ship of Lost Souls
The Lost Souls of Island X
The Hunt for the Panther

 If you’re interested in what I have to say about some of the other nominees for the 2014 Silver Birch Award, these are the ones I’ve read so far: Eldritch Manor by Kim Thompson, Nobody's Dog by Ria Voros, Ultra by David Carroll, The Curse of the Dream Witch by Allan Stratton, The Hypnotists by Gordon Korman, Record Breaker by Robin Stevenson, Yesterday’s Dead by Pat Bourke and Neil Flambe and the Tokyo Treasure by Kevin Sylvester. One more to go!

For more great middle grade reads, check out the list of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday links on author Shannon Messenger's blog!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Inspiring Creativity Through "The Spark"

This morning, I finished listening to the audio book of The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett. It's not a children's book, although my 14-year-old heard snippets of it in the car and seemed just as fascinated as I was. 

It's the story of Jake, who became a researcher in quantum physics at the age of twelve, and his family, especially his mom, who nurtured his genius and helped him learn to live with his autism.

Two things about this book really stood out for me and inspired me. 

1) It got me thinking about what you can achieve if you put your energy into doing what you love. 

2) It reminded me of the importance of having a strong support system, one that provides the right environment for the spark to develop.

As a mom, I loved the way Kristine and her family supported her children's interests, giving them what they needed so they could explore and discover on their own. It makes me think about my own children and their "sparks" are, and making sure they have time to follow them.

As a teacher, I loved this story because it fits so well with what I strive to do every day in my teaching in play-based kindergarten, for even just one child.

As a writer, reading this book inspired me to keep following my passion. I'm already thinking about ways to nurture my own creativity and "spark", as well as the creativity of others. How do you feed your "spark"?

In case you want to know more about this book, here's the Goodreads link and part of the Amazon description:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At nine he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize, and at age twelve he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine’s journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes.

The Spark is a remarkable memoir of mother and son. Surrounded by “experts” at home and in special ed who tried to focus on Jake’s most basic skills and curtail his distracting interests—moving shadows on the wall, stars, plaid patterns on sofa fabric—Jake made no progress, withdrew more and more into his own world, and eventually stopped talking completely. Kristine knew in her heart that she had to make a change. Against the advice of her husband, Michael, and the developmental specialists, Kristine followed her instincts, pulled Jake out of special ed, and began preparing him for mainstream kindergarten on her own.

Dramatic, inspiring, and transformative, The Spark is about the power of love and courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child, and in all of us.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure

Today I have another one of the nominees for the 2014 Silver Birch Fiction Award from the Ontario Library Association. This is the fourth book in the Neil Flambé series, and I’ve read all of others, after being introduced them through Silver Birch. [My thoughts on Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse and 

Today’s Pick: Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure

by Kevin Sylvester

Simon and Schuster, 2012

From the publisher:

Something smells fishy—and it’s not the sushi—in this addition to the culinary mystery series celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey calls “good fun.”

World-class chef Neil Flambé isn’t thrilled when his cousin Larry moves to Japan to work on an online manga comic book. Now who’ll help him in the kitchen? But he finds a replacement in Gary the bike courier, and life, and the restaurant, moves on without Larry. That is, until the news that life may have really left Larry behind—he’s been lost at sea.

Neil is devastated. But then he checks Larry’s online manga. There’s a subtle change in the plot, something Neil and Larry had discussed—something only Neil would notice. Is this a cryptic message from beyond the grave—or is Larry still alive? Determined to find out, Neil heads to Japan to solve his next mystery.

My Take:

This story is full of the over-the-top adventure that I’ve come to expect in the Neil Flambé series. I always have fun reading about Neil’s cooking exploits and his attempts to save someone he cares about from danger—in this case, his cousin Larry. I like the way Neil’s keen sense of smell always leads him to a key clue in solving the mystery.

As a writer, I admired how the author creates such a great sense of fun and humor in his stories. It's a good one to read if you are struggling with how to include the sense of smell in your writing.

 Opening Line:

“Neil Flambé leaned back in his chair and watched the final panel of The Chef fade to black on the laptop screen.”


“Twenty minutes later, after changing trains successfully, Neil poured out with the crowd at Shibuya Station like steam from a soufflé.”

“He and Kong were going to cook toxic mushrooms and they’d have to decide whether to poison everyone, themselves, or just one judge.”

Other Info:
Kevin Sylvester is a writer, news broadcaster and cartoonist based in Toronto, Canada.

The character of Neil Flambé was originally part of a radio serial Neil Flambé and the Case of the Caustic Cumin

In a recent video interview at the Ontario Library Association Superconference, Kevin Sylvester talked about his books: “I try to entertain…but hidden in that is valuable information on world history and exploration.”

Other Books by this author:

Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure
Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction
Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders
Game Day
Don’t Touch That Toad
Gold Medal for Weird 
Sports Hall of Weird

 For more, go to the Neil Flambe website or visit Kevin Sylvester’s blog.

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).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Learning from Picture Books: In the Tree House

I'm continuing with my goal of reading all of the nominees for the 2014 Blue Spruce Award from the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading. Other nominees I've featured so far include Oddrey by Dave Whammond (OwlKids Books), I Dare You Not to Yawn by Helene Boudreau (Candlewick Press), A Good Trade by Alma Fullerton (Pajama Press) and Sky Color by Peter H. Reynolds.

In the Tree House

written by Andrew Larsen

illustrated by Dusan Petricic

published by Kids Can Press, 2013

From Amazon:

An evocative story about two brothers who are growing up (one faster than the other), an unusual summer night and a special tree house that proves childhood is not just a time but also a place.       

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I think many children dream of having their own tree house -- I know I definitely did!  It was really interesting the way this book took a beloved place (or idea of a place) and built a story around it. The author includes lots of sensory details in simple language that is perfect for young children. I liked the way there were layers to the story with the emotion of the changing relationship between the main character and his brother. The illustrations capture the personality of the tree house as well as the characters.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book offered many possibilities for making inferences (e.g., Why did they have to eat the ice cream during the blackout?) and personal connections (e.g., Have you ever experienced a blackout?). This book could be used to start discussions about siblings or changing friendships, loneliness, and things to do when you don’t have the use of technology.

It would be fun to have students draw their own plans for an ideal tree house. 

Looking for other great picture books to use in your classroom or to read with your children? Check out these recommendations for Perfect Picture Books over at Susanna Leonard Hill's site.