Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Celebrating Successes, No Matter How Small

On this day last year, I took the advice of children's author Julie Hedlund and posted my writing successes on my blog [Writing Achievements from 2014]. Julie’s approach is an alternative to traditional New Year’s resolutions that stem from negatives, like 'what I didn’t do last year' or 'what I need to fix about myself.'
Her suggestion is to review your successes and achievements, and then use them as a foundation for setting goals. To me, this makes a lot of sense. I've been thinking about mine. Here are a few of my writing-related successes from 2015:

1. Like last year, 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. I didn’t write one every month but I did end up with five, the same number as last year. And12 x12 also led me to my agent, Janine Le!

2. I played around with an idea I had for an amusing picture book that involves a very large animal and ended up spending a lot of time working on it throughout the year. I was fortunate to have valuable feedback from many wonderful critique partners and an amazing editor, in addition to helpful advice from my agent. I learned so much about writing and revising picture books!

3. In June, I won an honorable mention for my middle grade novel WILDERNESS GIRL in the Rate Your Story Writing Contest. I spent some of the summer and much of the fall revising the novel, again with insightful feedback from critique partners and my agent. At times it was hard work, but the end result was a stronger novel with more spark.

4. During the summer, I also revised another middle grade novel, THE MIRACULOUS DOG CURE. There are more revisions to come, but it was really great to finish a thorough revision of this novel and give it more structure.

5. In September, I bravely ventured out of my writing cocoon to attend my first SCBWI get-together in Toronto. It was interesting, fun and I met a new writing friend, Erika David, who lives practically in my neighborhood!                  

6. In November, I participated in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) organized by author Tara Lazar, and I completed the challenge by coming up with more than 30 ideas by the time the month was finished. I’m looking forward to the fun of creating some new stories.

When I started to compile this list, I didn’t think I’d really done much writing work this year. Just like last year, I surprised myself with my successes. By far, my biggest accomplishment is the way I continue to grow and develop as a writer.

What are you most proud of from your writing or reading life this year? I hope you feel good about your writing and reading successes!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Book Recommendations for Readers Aged 9 to 12

I don’t have one Marvelous Middle Grade Monday feature for you today. Instead, I have a few middle grade book recommendations from my reads this year, in case you’re looking for a gift. I'll be taking a week or two off from featuring books, while I enjoy the holidays and work on my own writing.

For kids who love animals and especially zoos:

For kids who like books about wilderness adventures and survival:

 Stories that take place at a different time in history:

About friendship:

 For kids who enjoy emotional stories about overcoming personal challenges:

Just for fun adventures and mysteries:

What were your favorite middle grade reads this year? I'm always looking for more good books to read and welcome your recommendations!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE ELEVATOR GHOST

The title of this book caught my attention! I haven’t read any ghost stories for a while and this was fun, because it was really several ghost stories inside a larger one. 

Description from Amazon:

When Carolina Giddle moves into the Blatchford Arms, no one knows what to make of her sequin-sprinkled sneakers and her trinket-crusted car. But the parents are happy there’s a new babysitter around, and Carolina seems to have an uncanny ability to calm the most rambunctious child with her ghostly stories.

Armed with unusual snacks (bone-shaped peppermints, granghoula bars and Rumpelstiltskin sandwiches), candles to set the mood, and her trusty sidekick ― a tarantula named Chiquita, Carolina entertains the children with some good old-fashioned storytelling and, at the end, a great Halloween party.

Governor General’s Award winner Glen Huser brings his quirky sense of humor and horror to some time-honored motifs. The artistic Lubinitsky girls find out that artists must be wary of the power of their own creations. Holy terror Angelo Bellini discovers that no one can throw a tantrum like a double-crossed pirate. The Hooper kids, including UFO junkie Benjamin, learn about some eerie goings-on in the New Mexico desert. Timid Hubert and Hetty Croop are practically afraid of their own shadows, until they hear the story of a boy who finds the perfect weapon for overcoming his fear of the dark. And Dwight and Dwayne Fergus, two would-be Freddy Kruegers, finally meet their match in Carolina, and her story of the footless skeleton.

As for Carolina Giddle herself, it turns out that she has a timeworn connection to the Blatchford Arms, and to the ghost who still haunts the building ― especially its old-fashioned elevator.

The Elevator Ghost was written by Glen Huser and published by Groundwood Books in 2014.

My Take:

This book is amusing and full of mildly spooky stories that are linked together by an interesting character, Carolina Giddle. She comes to live in the apartment building and ends up babysitting different children that live in the building – keeping them entertained with ghost stories. At the same time, Carolina is also visiting her ghost friends. 

As a writer, I really enjoyed language and phrasing in the story. It was very interesting the way the author was able to keep a lighter tone and yet still create the suspense needed for a good ghost story.

Opening Line:

“Blatchford was scary any night of the year, not just on Halloween.”


“At an hour past midnight, all of the excitement over Halloween had faded away. There was just the smallest taste of it left, like the sweetness from a caramel.”

“She pulled out tea candles, can labeled Ghost Host: The Drink That Soothes, and a plastic container filled with dessert squares."

“My stories are often a bit raveled,” Carolina Giddle said. “I just tuck the loose threads back in best I can to make a tidy edge.”

Other Info:

Glen Huser has worked as a teacher-librarian, children’s book reviewer, and instructor in Elementary Education. He has written several YA novels, all of which have won prizes or been shortlisted for awards. Currently, he lives in Vancouver.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MINRS

The premise of this book caught my attention. I haven’t read many middle grade novels where kids have to survive underground without any adults. I was also intrigued to find out more about the science and technology of mining in space.

Description from Amazon:
A twelve-year-old boy and his friends must find a way to survive in the mining tunnels after their new space colony is attacked in this gritty action-adventure novel.

In space. Underground. And out of time.

Twelve-year-old Christopher Nichols lives on an asteroid. Earth has been mined to the edge of extinction. Dozen of families, including Christopher’s, have relocated to space to work as miners for terraforming companies.

Then a Blackout hits and the colonists lose communication with Earth. Which means they are on their own when they are ruthlessly attacked.

Now in a race against time, Christopher, along with a small group of survivors, are forced into the maze of mining tunnels. The kids run. They hide. But can they survive?

MINRS was written by Kevin Sylvester and published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division in 2015.

My Take:

This book is fast-paced with lots of action and plot twists. Christopher Nichols is an interesting character who takes on responsibility and learns to become a leader, while struggling to maintain his friendships. I really liked the way the characters all had different reactions to the trouble they were facing – it brought a lot of realism to the story. I also enjoyed the strong female characters who helped question Christopher’s leadership and change the direction of the story. 

As a writer, it was interesting to think about how the information about science and space was blended into the plot without it being too obvious. This was also a good example to study to see how to keep the plot moving along at a good pace.

Opening Line:

“The Earth blinked, and was gone.”


“I held the book against my chest, hugging it. I’d come so close to throwing it away.”

“But I held out hope that if we could just get through this, get through the horror, then we’d be friends again.”

“My dad liked to call me a genius, but I knew I wasn’t, not really.”

Other Info:

Kevin Sylvester is the author of the popular
Neil Flambé series, which also includes some of his drawings, as well as several non-fiction books. He lives in Toronto.

While MINRS doesn’t contain illustrations, the author did make some drawings to help with the writing process, which you can look at on his blog, including a sketch of the disrupter.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: MEERKAT MAIL

Even though I mostly review recent picture books, when I saw this in the library I had to pick it up, fondly remembering visits to the meerkat exhibit at the zoo.  And then I discovered it contained postcards! A lot of fun.

Summary from Amazon.com
Stay safe, stay together!

Sunny the meerkat lives with his enormous family in the Kalahari desert. They are all very close . . . so close, in fact, that one day Sunny decides he's had enough and packs his bags. He's off to visit his mongoose cousins. But from the watery world of the Marsh Mongoose to the nocturnal lifestyle of the Malagasy Mongoose, Sunny just doesn't fit in. And who's that shadowy figure who seems to be following him around?

Meerkat Mail was written and illustrated by Emily Gravett. It was published by Macmillan Children’s Books in 2006.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The cover is so intriguing, since it looks like a paper-wrapped parcel. The endpages are covered with meerkat family photos and news clippings. And I love the line and gesture in the meerkats.

As for the writing, it’s a fun concept to have Sunny leaving home and sending postcards back from really interesting places. It would’ve been even more fun if there was more information about the different animals he visited to add another element for learning, but I enjoyed reading his messages to his family.  

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book is useful for so many things! It’s a good introduction to the idea of postcards and kids will love lifting the flaps. It’s also a great lead in to discussion about different kinds of families and homes and their differences (and maybe similarities). This would also be nice to pair with some non-fiction texts about meerkats and to talk about habitats.  

Themes: nature, family, mail,
Ages: 4 – 8
Grades: preschool – grade 3
Follow-Up Activities:
  • Research a place you’d like to visit and write a postcard!
  • Find out more about meerkats and their habitats. Where do they live? What do they eat?
  • Discuss: Would you ever want to leave home? Why or why not?
  • Write a story or draw a picture about setting off on an adventure. What would you bring?

To find more great picture books to read or to use in your classroom, visit author Susanna Leonard Hill's website for her theme-based summary of Perfect Picture Books posted by book-loving bloggers on Perfect Picture Book Friday.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: CONNECT THE STARS

I like survival stories, and this one was unique because it took place in a desert.

Description from Amazon:

When thirteen-year-olds Aaron and Audrey meet at a wilderness camp in the desert, they think their quirks are enough to prevent them from ever having friends. But as they trek through the challenging and unforgiving landscape, they learn that they each have what it takes to make the other whole.

Luminous and clever, Connect the Stars takes on some hefty topics of the day—bullying, understanding where you fit in, and learning to live with physical and mental challenges—all in a joyous adventure kids will love!

Connect the Stars was written by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague and published by Harper Collins in 2015.

My Take:

I really enjoyed the wilderness survival aspect of this story. I’ve never thought about what it would be like to survive in a desert before, and wondering what would happen kept me turning the pages. The story is told by two different main characters, Aaron and Audrey, who each have an interesting “super” ability that has made life difficult for them with friends and school. I liked the characters and was rooting for them to sort out their issues, which included dealing with bullies, feeling like they didn’t have any friends and figuring out to live with their abilities.

From a writing perspective, I liked the way the authors blended in information about the desert and the sensations the characters were feeling. The dialogue and perspectives of the two different main characters seemed realistic.

Opening Line:

“I was thirteen years old, and I could have written a book on lying.”


“I breathed in the air. It was clean. And clear. And smelled of something sharp and exciting, like a city on a spring day when you ride the school bus to visit the science museum.”

“Thinking is a lot harder than knowing.”

“I could tell that everything wasn’t really okay between me and the others, but every time I opened my mouth to speak, it was like all the words I could think of to say turned to dust on my tongue.”

Other Info:

Marisa de los Santos and David Teague are married. This is their second middle grade novel. They previously wrote Saving Lucas Biggs together. Marisa de los Santos also writes adult fiction. David Teague writes picture books, including Franklin’s Big Dreams.

For another take on this book, check out these thoughts from This Kid Reviews Books:  Review! Connect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Learning from Picture Books -- THIS MOOSE BELONGS TO ME

An interesting story that hits on an issue I see a lot of in my kindergarten class – what if your friend doesn't go along with what you want to do?

Summary from Amazon.com

Wilfred is a boy with rules. He lives a very orderly life. It's fortunate, then, that he has a pet who abides by rules, such as not making noise while Wilfred educates him on his record collection. There is, however, one rule that Wilfred's pet has difficulty following: Going whichever way Wilfred wants to go. Perhaps this is because Wilfred's pet doesn't quite realize that he belongs to anyone.

A moose can be obstinate in such ways.

Fortunately, the two manage to work out a compromise. Let's just say it involves apples.

This Moose Belongs to Me was written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. It was published by Philomel Books in 2012.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really loved the way Wilfred’s rules became part of the story. The scene where Wilfred claims the moose really shows Wilfred’s personality. This a great example of a picture book where the story told in the illustrations is different and even opposite to the one told by the text.  

Using real paintings as a backdrop in the illustrations layered with a more modern digital techiques was interested. I loved the way Wilfred’s clothing and bowtie fit with his somewhat rigid view of the moose and their relationship at the beginning of the story.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book would be a good one for introducing a discussion about compromise, how friends may have different expectations about play, and how an individual cannot control another person’s behavior. It would also be wonderful for discussing the relationship between humans and wild animals.  

Themes: nature, compromise, friendship

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: K- grade 3

Follow-Up Activities:
  • Make a list of  ways that the moose does and does not act like a “pet”, or the way Wilfred expected.
  • What do you think of Wilfred’s rules? Discuss. Create you own list of rules for having a pet.
  • Do some research about moose. Where do they live? What do they eat?
  • Draw a picture or write about your favorite page in the story.
  • Paint a landscape that shows the habitat for your favorite animal.

To find more great picture books to read or to use in your classroom, visit author Susanna Leonard Hill's website for her theme-based summary of Perfect Picture Books posted by book-loving bloggers on Perfect Picture Book Friday.