Contest for Impatient Readers

Sometimes it can be hard to wait.  I’m feeling a little impatient about the books of 2008 for a few reasons.

As a writer, I’m feeling impatient because my second MG historical novel, Champlain & the Silent One,  is still seven months away from the shelves.  It’s off being edited and illustrated now, so all my work is done, except the waiting.  I can’t wait to see the illustrations and the cover, and I really can’t wait to start talking with kids at schools & libraries about Samuel de Champlain and the tribes who guided him on his voyage from Quebec to Lake Champlain 400 years ago.

As a reader and teacher, I’m excited for a whole roundup of 2008 titles from favorite authors & friends & other writers whose work I’ve heard about and can’t wait to read.  I’ve been lucky enough to get sneak peaks of some of them, like Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score, which I reviewed here. This one is so unbelievably good that I’ve decided it’s a crime not to pass it along so someone else can read it and love it and hopefully talk about it, too.

So here’s the contest.  I’m giving a way my pre-read and somewhat well-traveled ARC of Keeping Score.  I won it in a drawing on

‘s blog a few weeks ago and asked Cindy if she’d be okay with me giving it away again.  The ARC traveled with me to the Kindling Words retreat in Vermont last week, where Linda Sue Park (

) graciously signed it for the giveaway.  It’s not a shiny, perfect, unread-by-human-eyes ARC, but it is signed and got to hang out with the likes of Linda Sue and Laurie Halse Anderson and Sara Zarr and Katie Davis and Jane Yolen and other wonderful people.  It’s an ARC with lots of good karma.

If you’d like to be entered the drawing, just leave a comment below with the title of one 2008 release that you can’t wait to read.  The contest ends at 6pm EST on February 13th.  I’ll figure out some bizarre and random way to choose a winner and announce it here on my blog on Valentine’s Day.

A Home Run!

Linda Sue Park just hit another one out of the ballpark.

Watch for this book.  It’s due out from Clarion in March, and I predict It’s going to win awards.

Keeping Score is the very best kind of historical novel – one that first introduces kids to funny, dynamic characters they’ll love and then brings in historical elements that are so much more meaningful as they affect the lives of those characters.

Ten-year-old Maggie Fortini loves the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Loves them with a big, fat capital L.  When Jim, a pal at her dad’s firehouse, teaches her how to keep score, she finds a way to be an even better fan and believes she’s helping the team when she keeps track of every play.  But as Maggie cheers the Dodgers in the early 1950s, the Korean conflict rages overseas. The war that isn’t called a war comes crashing into Maggie’s life when her friend Jim is drafted and suddenly stops communicating with her.

Knowing Park’s work, knowing that she’s a Newbery Medalist, I expected this book to be fantastic. Still, there were some passages that took my breath away, some that made me cry, and some that made me feel like I’m missing out on something spiritual because I’m not much of a baseball fan.  Readers will feel like they’ve moved right into 1950s Brooklyn, especially when Park describes Maggie’s walk through her neighborhood on game day:

She would walk past the row of houses that looked just like hers, all built of dull brownish-yellow brick, one window downstairs, two windows up – to Pinky the butcher, or Mr. And Mrs. Floyd at the bakery, or the drugstore, and she wouldn’t miss a single pitch.  Everyone would have their radios on, the sound of the game trailing in and out of each doorway like a long thread that tied the whole neighborhood together.
Keeping Score does for the Korean War what Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars does for Vietnam – contextualizes it through a funny, poignant story of life on the home front, told from a young person’s point of view.

This is a perfect book for baseball fans, so Clarion’s plans to roll it out in time for the first pitch make perfect sense.  But you don’t have to be a baseball fan to love this one.  Like so many great kids’ books, baseball may be the hook, but there’s so much more here.  

Keeping Score
is full of colorful characters, like George at the firehouse, who shares his roast beef sandwiches with Maggie, her dad, who worries about crowd control, and her mom, who prays for the Dodgers while she knits.  It’s about baseball, but it’s also about family and friends and war.  Most, though, Keeping Score is about holding on to hope – something that old-time Dodgers fans knew all about.

PS – Thanks,

!  I loved this book almost as much as Maggie loves the Dodgers!

Seeing Sky-Blue Pink

Most of the Cybils finalists for the middle grade fiction category were skewed toward the higher end of middle grade, more appropriate for the 10-12 crew than for kids who are 8-9 years old.  That said, those of us who served on the nominating panel read — and loved — some wonderful books for the younger set.  Candice Ransom’s Seeing Sky-Blue Pink is one of them.

This isn’t an action-packed book. There’s nothing nerve-wracking or edgy about it.  But it’s a book that I would have read and loved with a passion when I was eight years old.  I would have kept it on a special place on my shelf and wanted to do all the things that Maddie got to do.

Maddie is eight years old herself, and she’s got a lot to deal with when the book opens.  She’s just moved to a new house in the country from her old house in town, and she has a brand new stepfather.  He’s not the stereotypical evil step-parent.  He’s loving and funny and kind, and he introduces Maddie to a delicious summer of new experiences in her new home that almost make up for the special sundaes she used to eat with her mother on their shopping days in town.

The characters in Seeing Sky-Blue Pink are likable and memorable.  The language is simple and lovely.  If you long for the days when kids enjoyed old-fashioned pleasures like staring at sunset skies, treasure-hunting in creeks, and building tree houses, you’ll feel right at home in these pages. 

Novels in Verse…Not just for girls!

Many of the 7th grade girls I teach LOVE novels written in verse.  They devour anything by Sonya Sones, and then I usually steer them to Karen Hesse and others who seem to capture that same magic but in different ways.  Novels in verse, well written, pack a lot of punch with few words, and they usually offer lots of white space on the page, so they’re fantastic for reluctant readers.  I haven’t found too many that appeal to boys, though, which I why I was so happy to read these two standouts in the books nominated for the CYBILS.

G. Neri’s CHESS RUMBLE is appealing to reluctant readers, especially boys, on a number of levels.  Neri nails the voice of a boy growing up in the inner city in a way that’s reminiscent of Walter Dean Myers.  Neri’s main character, Marcus, is a young man dealing with family troubles and fights at school, until he meets a powerful mentor and learns to fight his battles on a chessboard instead.  This novella in verse is full of language that’s vivid and accessible, and Jesse Joshua Watson’s illustrations in shades of black, brown, and gray help to set the mood.  This one has serious kid-appeal — not just for the kids who already love to read but for those who don’t often find books on the library shelves that seem to be written for them. This one is.

Katherine Applegate’s HOME OF THE BRAVE is another novel in verse that will appeal to boys as well as girls.  It may help that plenty of middle grade readers already know Applegate from the ANIMORPHS series, but this book has a completely different feel to it.  HOME OF THE BRAVE is about Kek, a Sudanese immigrant who recently arrived in America after witnessing the death of his father and brother. He left his mother behind and wonders every day if she is alive.  The poems that explore Kek’s emotional state are poignant and accessible to young readers, and the more traumatic scenes are set alongside lighter stories of Kek adapting to life in America and experiencing new things, from snow to washing machines.  This is a kid-friendly story (those who love animals will have an additional connection) that explores a dramatic issue in current events in a manner that is personal, sensitive, and hopeful.

Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam

Certain books should come with a warning label:  Do not read in a room full of 7th graders (unless they’re already used to seeing you sob your way through middle grade novels). Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam is one of those books.

I know what a gifted writer Cynthia Kadohata is, but I still wasn’t expecting to fall in love with this book the way I did.  I’m…er…not exactly a dog person.  There are certain dogs I really like, but I don’t like it when strange dogs come bounding up and jump on me during my morning run.  Anyway, I thought this might be a book for dog people, but it’s much more than that.

Cynthia Kadohata does a remarkable job letting us inside the minds of Rick, an angry young man who is sent off to Vietnam as a new dog handler and his dog, Cracker.  When  the narrative slips into Cracker’s point of view, it does so seamlessly and convincingly.  Not surprisingly, Rick is changed dramatically by his experiences in Vietnam and by the relationship he forges with Cracker.  Cracker, too, becomes a different kind of dog – more in tune with her instincts and committed to the job she has been given.

Cracker’s story is compelling and eye-opening, and this novel provides a realistic look at what went on in Vietnam while remaining appropriate for older middle grade readers.  This is probably one for the 10-14 crowd, and it’s not a book that’s just for boys.  The 7th grade girl I loaned it to this week returned it with a glowing review the next day.

Meanwhile, I’m still wiping my eyes, but in a good way.  Cracker, Rick, and Cynthia Kadohata won my heart with this one – a historical novel and dog story that’s not just for dog lovers and history buffs, but for all of us.

The Wild Girls

The Wild Girls is a book for writers.  It’s a book for girls who don’t always follow the rules and for girls who play with spotted newts.  As a girl who enjoys writing, newts, and occasional rule-breaking, I fell in love immediately.

 Pat Murphy tells the story of two girls — the rule-following Joan (aka Newt), who just moved to California from Connecticut and has always written the kinds of stories she thought her teacher would like, and Sarah (aka Fox), who hangs out throwing rocks in the woods near the run-down house where she lives with her dad, a motorcycle-writer-guy who doesn’t fit the image of any dad Joan has ever known. Fox and Newt form the kind of bond that can only be forged in secret clearings and treehouses, and together, they weather the storms of family trauma and trying (or not) to fit in among their peers.  More than anything, though, they learn about writing and about the power of story to help us see truth — especially when truth is different from the story that the grownups are dishing out.

Joan and Sarah call themselves the Wild Girls — thus the title — and through this new sense of self, they’re able to confront questions that always lurked in the shadows before.  This book reminds me of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman ArchetypeWomen Who Run With the Wolves is non-fiction aimed at adult readers, but the spirit of the two books feels the same.

There are so many fantastic moments in The Wild Girls.  My copy is riddled with Post-It notes marking my favorite passages.  One of them comes when Azalea, a colorful character Joan meets during a writing class on the Berkeley campus, offers her a chance to try walking on stilts.

I hesitated, thinking about it. “I don’t know. I’d probably fall.”

Azalea frowned fiercely, shaking her head.  “That is the wrong attitude.  That’s a Failure of the Imagination.”  When she said that, I heard it in capital letters.  By her tone, I knew that a Failure of the Imagination was a terrible and contemptible thing.  “All it takes to walk on stilts is imagination. If you believe that you can walk on stilts, then you can.”  She looked at me.  “What do you think?”

What do I think?  I think I after reading this book, I could walk on stilts…or finish my WIP…or jump across a stream…or…or….just about anything.  It’s empowering in that way, and that makes it a perfect choice for kids, especially girls who love to read and write. 

Leepike Ridge

The used book gods were smiling on me last weekend.  Somehow,  a copy of Leepike Ridge ended up in the Barnes & Noble bargain room for three dollars.  I scarfed it up and read it in two sittings that would have been one sitting if people around here hadn’t started getting hungry on Sunday.  It was that good.

I read a review (I think it  might have been from Fuse #8, but I’m too lazy to go hunting for it right now) that made comparisons between this book and Louis Sachar’s Holes.  This kind of comparison always makes me skeptical.  “We’ll just see about that,” I thought.  I read it.  I saw. And I get it now.  This one is worthy of that comparison — and then some.

Leepike Ridge is a book for every kid (and every grown kid) who played in refrigerator boxes, caught critters in the woods, and floated down creeks on homemade rafts.  It’s a fantastic story with a grand adventure, a heroic boy, bad guys that you love to hate, a loyal dog, and a hidden treasure.  The fact that it’s beautifully written with magical, transporting descriptions is gravy.

If you know and like a boy between the ages of, let’s say 9 and 13, you really ought to pick up Leepike Ridge for him this holiday season. 

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

This story begins Emma Jean Lazarus opens a door.  Literally, it’s the door to the girls’ bathroom at school, where she finds Colleen Pomerantz (a kind, sensitive girl and not one of the usual 7th grade criers) sobbing over a problem with a friend.  Figuratively, it’s the door we all open when we make the sometimes scary decision to reach out to another human being.  This is a big deal for all of us, but especially for Emma Jean, who’s one of those brilliant, wise-beyond-her-years kids who seems to watch everything from the sidelines.  She reminds me a lot of Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius.  Because Emma Jean is brilliant at math and logic, just like her father who died two years ago, she uses logic to find solutions to her classmates’ problems, with results that are hilarious and heartwarming.

There’s a lot to love about this book.  If you’re a writer, you should read it because it’s a fantastic example of how to pull off changing points of view in third person narrative.  If you spend any time in a middle school, you’ll love it because the characters are so real.  As a middle school English teacher, I recognized these kids.  I’ve seen Emma Jean watching the other kids at lunch.   I’ve comforted Colleen when one of her friends was mad at her.  And I’ve seen them all in their specially picked outfits at that first middle school dance.  Author Lauren Tarshis has nailed middle school to a tee; she even understands one of the great secrets of school hallways: that the custodians are the real heroes.

Emma Jean Lazarus goes out on a limb in this middle grade novel (and yes, she really does fall out of a tree).  Her journey is one that manages to be funny and sad and uplifting and true, all at once.  You’ll love this book.

Me and the Pumpkin Queen

This is one of those books that sneaks up on you.  It caught me off guard.  Based on some positive reviews I’d read and the back cover blurb, I expected it to be cute. I thought I’d kind of like it.   I didn’t expect to be so swept up in Mildred’s quest to grow the perfect giant pumpkin that I was tempted to ignore my 7th period English class today.

But I was.

Marlane Kennedy captures the voice of a fifth grader who has settled into life with her dad after her mother’s death and explores the very real issues that face fifth grade girls – shopping for a first bra, getting ears pierced, and dealing with a bossy aunt.  I found hints of Judy Blume in the coming of age parts of this book and big servings of warm humor on just about every page. Add to that one huge issue – growing a HUGE pumpkin, and protecting it from bugs, fungus, drought, and tornadoes – and you have one amazing book. 

I was enchanted by the story and terribly intrigued by the process of growing a giant pumpkin.  I kind of want to try and grow one myself now. Mostly, though, I want to stand up and cheer for Mildred and for Marlane Kennedy.  ME AND THE PUMPKIN QUEEN is a little book with a giant-pumpkin sized heart.

Someone Named Eva

I’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction set in Nazi Europe, but SOMEONE NAMED EVA by Joan M. Wolf takes a look at a part of World War II that I never knew about.  Eva is really Milada – a young Czech girl who has blond hair and blue eyes that allow her to pass as a German.  The Nazis raid her village and steal her from her family; they take her name, her language, and her very identity in an attempt to remake her into one of them.  

This book is beautifully written, and I simply ached for Milada, renamed Eva, every time I turned a page.  Wolf writes with a sensitivity that allows us to understand how a young Czech girl could feel herself slipping into another identity.  

The characters in this historical novel seem painfully real, and the author’s extensive research, which took her to Czechoslovakia in search of her roots, is evident throughout the book. The author’s note explains how that research is woven into the novel, though it never feels like you’re being fed facts while you’re reading. No matter how much you’ve read about the Holocaust, you’ll come away with a new perspective.  Mostly, though, your heart will break for Milada.

Joan Wolf’s debut novel provides a unique perspective on a much-written-about chapter in world history. More than that, though, it provides readers with a heartbreaking and thought provoking journey through the human spirit – at its best and at its worst.  SOMEONE LIKE EVA is a poignant book about survival, redemption, holding on, and remembering who you are.