Thursday, April 16, 2015

GIVEAWAY of Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) Prize Pack

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) is the second installment in Liz Pichon’s series for middle-grade readers. Tom Gates is a best-selling phenomenon in the UK and kids on this side of the pond will love him too.

Tom Gates #2: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff)
by Liz Pichon
9780763674748 – On Sale May 12th, 2015

What It's About: No school for two whole weeks! Now Tom has plenty of time for the good stuff, like finding new ways (so many!) to annoy his big sister, Delia. Or watching TV and eating caramel candy. Or most important, band practice for DOGZOMBIES in his best friend Derek’s garage (while not encouraging Derek’s ’60s-music-crazed dad). All that stands between this band and rock greatness is, well, a song (besides “Delia’s a Weirdo”). And finding a drummer. And landing a gig. Will Tom let a killer toothache and pesky overdue homework get in his way?

Prize pack includes:
One galley of Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) by Liz Pichon
One Tom Gates bookmark
One Tom Gates tote bag

Book page on Candlewick
Tom Gates activity kit

Follow Liz Pichon on Twitter
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Leave a comment and you'll be entered in the prize pack giveaway. (US/Canada readers only, please.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD by Varsha Bajaj

ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD by Varsha Bajaj (Albert Whitman and Company, March 2014)

What It's About (from Goodreads): What thirteen-year-old Abby wants most is to meet her father. She just never imagined he would be a huge film star--in Bollywood! Now she's traveling to Mumbai to get to know her famous father. Abby is overwhelmed by the culture clash, the pressures of being the daughter of India's most famous celebrity, and the burden of keeping her identity a secret. But as she learns to navigate her new surroundings, she just might discover where she really belongs.

Opening Lines: "The one thing I want in my life...? Hmm.
Miss Cooper needs to know that? Really?
My eyes dart from Zoey on my right to Priya diagonally across from me to the clock directly above Miss Cooper's head. Three minutes to the bell. Unlike me, my friends are scribbling furiously."

What I Loved About It:

Varsha Bajaj got the MG voice just right. Abby is a likable character, with friends. The novel moves swiftly (Abby has an allergic reaction in the first chapter, which rapidly raises questions about whether her father--whom she's never met--might also have a similar allergy) and soon Abby is on her way to India, where her father is a huge Bollywood star. There, culture shock awaits as she experiences Mumbai as "both a city of dreams and of extreme poverty."

Quite unusually for middle grade, there really aren't any antagonistic adults either. Abby is greeted and welcomed in India by her grandmother, her father, and the servants of the house. Her father's girlfriend, a famous actress, is also kind to her. Essentially, Abby's only enemy is herself, as she goes through very relatable emotions about her relationship with her dad and whether he wants to accept her publicly or not.

There is also a very sweet (and completely MG!) romance between Abby and Shaan--an Indian-American boy who is also visiting family in India.

I also think the cover is delightful!

N.B. ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD was a middle grade finalist for the 2014 Cybils award.

I contacted Varsha Bajaj, and am thrilled that she graciously agreed to answer the Mafioso questions. Here goes:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) authors): Kate D’Camillo, Gary Schmidt, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt are some of my favorites.

2) What's on your nightstand now?
Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Stitching Snow by RC Lewis, The Truth about Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh, and All Four Stars by Tara Daiman.

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.
I loved writing the scene where Abby and Shaan go for a ride in the rickshaw. I love rickshaw rides myself. They are bumpy and I love the way rickshaws are decorated. Each one has an over the top unique style. Rickshaws have a roof but no doors and that to me is a bit crazy.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....
Putting my feet up and reading a book all afternoon. I have a hot cup of chai and possibly chips to munch on while I read. (MGM: I agree--that sounds delightful!)

5) My favorite breakfast is...
Toasted bagel with butter, or scrambled eggs on an English muffin and if I am splurging and it is available a dosa.

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?
I have to choose one? I want to see the world but I would especially love to visit Italy. (MGM: The Don gives you his seal of approval, Varsha!)

About the Author: 
Originally from Mumbai, India, Varsha Bajaj came to the United States in 1986 as a graduate student. As she says in her website bio: "After a dozen intermediate years in which I got a Masters degree, worked as a Counselor, got married, had two children and became a citizen, I started writing. It was 1999, two years after my daughter was born; my son was five and I had fallen in love with the picture book." Prior to Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood, Varsha published two picture books: How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (2004) and T is For Taj Mahal: An India Alphabet (2011). She is represented by Jill Corcoran at the Jill Corcoran Literary Agency.

Varsha Bajaj's website  Twitter

Thanks for stopping by today! Ciao!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND by Paul Greci

SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND by Paul Greci (Move Books, March 2015)

Paul Greci is one of my Project Mayhem colleagues, and this is his debut. And a very fine debut it is too!

What It's About: (From the Move Books website)
Tom is kayaking with his father in Prince William Sound near Bear Island. When the waters turn rough and the boat overturns, Tom is stranded and alone with a pocket survival pack his father insisted he carry. But is it enough? Will he survive on the desolate island where his only company are bears, other wild animals and the harsh terrain? His dad would know what to do, but is Tom savvy enough to survive?

Opening Lines: 
A wall of dog-like heads was closing in on us. Sea lions, six or eight of them, swam side by side. They raced toward us like they were gonna swim right through us, stretching their necks and plowing through the water like they had motors attached to their backs. I gripped my paddle tighter and held it just above the water, waiting, watching, just like Dad. then, at the last second they dove."

Why I Loved It:
I must confess I'm not much of an outdoorsman, and the reality is that I wouldn't last more than a day stranded on an island inhabited mostly by bears. But Paul Greci's novel was so engrossing and so lifelike that I really began to feel like I was in Tom Parker's head during this ordeal.

Tom survives for more than sixty days, using his ingenuity and paying heed to the teachings of his father, who appears to have been lost at sea. In fact, Tom believes he actually hears his fathers voice--and this adds to the book's innate tension: will he find (or be found by) his father? Or is he really alone, and will he be able to hunt and gather enough food to survive? There are incidents with bears, porcupines, salmon, and a baby sea otter--as well as a heart-pounding bear chase.

The novel is made even richer by the zigzags in the narrative as it moves in time between Tom's present, and the past events which led to the accident--as well as the knowledge that Tom's mother also died in an accident, and the guilt that Tom carries because of that.

Finally, the book also brings Alaska to life. Paul Greci knows the land about which he writes, and the setting is as much a character as any of the humans depicted within.

I treated Paul to the traditional mafioso interview--as well as some special extra questions about Alaska. Enjoy!

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
I have many favorites, but here are three: Will Hobbs, Jill Patton Walsh, Natalie Babbitt.

2) What's on your nightstand now?
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it:
Let’s see. The scene where Tom encounters a sea otter pup. I like this scene because it illustrates the complexities involved in making external survival decisions coupled with internal conflict. And, the scene turned one of my readers into a vegetarian.

4) Fill in the blank: I am really awesome at... getting up early in the morning and squeezing in some writing time before heading to work.

5) My favorite breakfast is... oatmeal. I eat it five days a week. Pretty boring, I know. But it is grounding, too.

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?
Wow! There are so many places I’d love to go but I’ll just choose one. I’ve always been fascinated by Easter Island and those big stone statues.

Some extra questions: Have you ever been stranded like Tom?
I have never been stranded like Tom but I have felt like I’ve been a couple of paddle strokes away from being in his position on a few occasions in remote corners of Prince William Sound.

Did you have real-life experience of catching and eating porcupine (as well as salmon and deer)--or did you come by your information another way?
I have fished for salmon many times and have cooked them the way Tom does. On a solo kayak trip I came up with the cooking method that Tom uses. I have never eaten a porcupine!

Have you ever been chased by a bear?
I have seen polar bears gnawing on a whale carcass, grizzly bears digging for ground squirrels, and black bears fishing for salmon. I have had bears zip by me running 30 plus miles per hour, but I never been chased by a bear. I hope I am not jinxing myself by making that statement!!

About the Author: Paul Greci is a teacher and writer who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. If you want to see photos of his many adventures, you can find them on his Bio page on his website, Northwriter.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Middle School Literature Circle: Revisiting THE HUNGER GAMES

My son's 6th grade class was doing literature circles, and his teacher asked for parent volunteers to help out. Being a kind and generous mafioso, I doffed my fedora and told him I was his man. So, for the past three Thursdays, I've been meeting with 7 students (1 boy and 6 girls) to hear their take on THE HUNGER GAMES.

Now, I'm not sure if THG can truly be considered middle grade, but it certainly appeals to middle schoolers. No surprise but, although several of the students had read the book before, ALL of them has seen the movies. Here is a sampling of their opinions:

1). To a person, they wanted the action in the book to start sooner. "Get to the Arena" seemed to be the general battle cry.

2) Several had parents who did not approve of the book (but I guess they let their kid read and/or watch the movie anyway.) Interestingly, before one of the sessions, I had to endure one of the other parent volunteers excoriating the novel. "Who would ever allow their children to take part in such a grisly event," she bewailed. When I shared this with my group, they rolled their eyes. "Hey, the parents didn't have a choice!" they said.

3) The majority of the readers read ahead each week, testament to Susan Collins's skill in pacing and building tension. She's great at tantalizing chapter endings!

4) They gave three cheers for strong female characters. "Love triangles" didn't bother them. (I know that they bother a number of other writers and readers, because they are an overdone trope. My middle schoolers didn't bat an eye.)

5) They enjoy dystopian fiction. There were discussions about other books, such as Divergent and Matched. Agents and editors may be tired of dystopia, but the interest is still out there.

6) They were all eager to read on in the series. "Hey," one of them plotted. "Let's ask Mr. C. if we can read Catching Fire for our next literature circle."

I have to say I had a great time with them. They were engaged and enthusiastic. It's nice to know that reading and discussing books still matters!

I'm heading off on Spring Break, and hoping to get a little reading in. May the reading and writing force be with you. Ciao!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


When things go wrong on the blog, you can bet your bottom dollar it's the work of my arch-nemesis, Luca Brasi, Jr. As longtime readers may recall, Luca has been coveting my job ever since I first put fingers to keyboard, and it seems he will stop at nothing to make me look incompetent,

Luca's latest scheme? He pilfered the Don's fedora--you know, the one from which the Don draws the winning ticket--and planted it on me!

Now, prior to the great reveal, with the fedora goodness knows where, and the Don ranting and raving about sunbeams bouncing off his pate, I tried to convince the boss to try You should have heard the fireworks! "Nuttin' in this life is random," the Don berated me. "If you don't know that, you don't know nuttin'."

Believe me, you don't argue with the Don when he's in one of these moods. He's more doctrinaire than the Pope.

The fedora was finally found almost in plain view, perched behind my computer monitor. Fortunately, I had it dusted for prints and the arrogant, glove-eschewing Luca's were all over the brim.

Luca's apparently taken a short trip to Switzerland.

And now, after much delay--and with many apologies--I am able to announce the winners of both Dianne Salerni's ARC of The Inquisitor's Mark and Ami Polonsky's Gracefully Grayson. Boss, would you do the honors?

(Drumroll, as thick fingers descend into the fedora...)

The winner of Dianne's ARC is:

The winner of Gracefully Grayson is:

I'll be contacting you both, a.s.a.p. And now, back to work! Ciao!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polansky

GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polansky (Hyperion, 2014)

I found this to be a profoundly moving book. Five hankies!

What It's About (from Goodreads): Alone at home, twelve-year-old Grayson Sender glows, immersed in beautiful thoughts and dreams. But at school, Grayson grasps at shadows, determined to fly under the radar. Because Grayson has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body.

The weight of this secret is crushing, but leaving it behind would mean facing ridicule, scorn, and rejection. Despite these dangers, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Strengthened by an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher who gives her a chance to step into the spotlight, Grayson might finally have the tools to let her inner light shine.

Opening Lines: "If you draw a triangle with a circle resting on the top point, nobody will be able to tell it's a girl in a dress. To add hair, draw kind of a semicircle on top. If you do this, you'll be safe, because it looks like you're just doodling shapes."

Why I Loved It: I have a friend, a grandmother, whose grandson knew from an early age that he was actually a girl. Watching this family validate this child has been a beautiful thing. (By the way, if you met this young girl, you wouldn't have a clue that she was biologically born a boy.) This experience has opened my own eyes to transgender issues.

So, when I saw this book on my local library shelves, I felt I needed to read it. I wasn't disappointed.

1) It is beautifully written. Ami Polonsky enters her character's mind with unerring precision--and I was immediately drawn into this story of hiding one's true self in order to remain safe.

2) There are some wonderful adult portrayals in this novel. Mr. Finnegan, ("Finn,") who is Grayson's Language Arts teacher, is incredibly supportive of Grayson's choices, even if it puts him under scrutiny by the administration. Grayson's aunt and uncle are believable in their conflict about how best to support Grayson. (Grayson lives with them because his own parents were killed in a car crash when Grayson was four.)

3) I am a sucker for stories that delve into the world of theater. (I have two sons who are complete and utter thespians.) It is great to see the way the child actors come to accept and support Grayson, who wins the role of Persephone in the school play.

4) I was hugely emotionally invested in Grayson. She has lost so many people in her life, and she continues to lose people throughout the novel through death and other factors. The final scene, when Grayson makes an important decision, is beautifully rendered. As I said, I cried several times during this novel. (I had to tell the Don it was because his wife was cooking onions!)

Having read and loved this novel, I immediately sent a note to the author. Ami Polonsky wrote back, and I am honored to be able to share this interview with you all.

MGM: Hi Ami, thanks for answering my questions today. I'm starting off with the most important one: how did you end up writing about a transgender preteen?

AP: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Michael!

Many people have asked me this question. I have a son and a daughter and when they were little, I became very aware of the way that our society brands boys as “blue, sports-lovers and tough” and girls as “pink, princesses and dainty.” This bothered me so much as a mom. I wanted my kids’ paths in life to be wide open, but the outside world wanted my son in a “blue box” and my daughter in a “pink box.” I began to wonder what someone’s experience would be like if they really didn’t fit into one of these two boxes. What kinds of challenges would they face? And how would it feel if your true self was the opposite of what everyone saw when they looked at you? Grayson’s character was born from these questions.

As for Grayson being a preteen, the easy answer is that I used to teach fifth and sixth grade, so the preteen experience is very near and dear to my heart. But, in addition to this, the idea of having an external identity that is different from your internal identity is pretty universal. It’s something that we all grapple with and the struggle is especially fierce and poignant during the preteen and teenage years.

MGM: I agree with how society puts kids in a box. And yes, as you say,  the idea of having an external identity that is different from your internal identity is pretty universal. Second question: Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?

AP: I have so many; some of my favorite books are middle grade novels. I am very emotionally attached to Sharon Creech and Lois Lowry because WALK TWO MOONS and THE GIVER hooked me on middle grade literature when I started teaching in 1999. I love Rodman Philbrick because so many of my sixth graders found reading FREAK THE MIGHTY to be a transformative experience. Uri Orlev is a lesser-known middle grade writer whose novel THE ISLAND ON BIRD STREET broadened my students’ worlds in significant ways. On a personal level, I’m indebted to Judy Blume for TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, the book that made my son a reader.

MGM: What great suggestions (I'll have to look into Freak the Mighty after this!) What actually is on your nightstand right now?

AP: I currently have three books on my nightstand—ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr, THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY by Jessie Ann Foley and THE MAGICAL ADVENTURE by my six-year-old daughter. ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE doesn’t technically need to be on my nightstand anymore because I finished it about a week ago, but I can’t stop thinking about it. From a purely visual standpoint, it changed the way I look at my world. I’m a very visual person and I can’t (and don’t want to!) shake some of the imagery in the book. I bought THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY last week after meeting Jessie Ann Foley at a children’s literature event. Her writing is so smooth that the words almost disappear; all you’re left with is a beautiful story floating in front of you. Finally, THE MAGICAL ADVENTURE is the, um, riveting novella about a girl whose feet are bitten off by a shark. Her adventure becomes magical when she grows new feet.

MGM: I haven't heard of the latter two, but I am desperate to read All the Light We Cannot See. Sounds as if I won't be disappointed. Okay, pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it:

AP: I love when Sebastian stands up for Grayson toward the end of the book. At its core, Gracefully Grayson is a book about bravery and remaining true to who you are. This holds true for Grayson as well as some of the characters around her. I really enjoyed creating Sebastian. He’s an unlikely hero and I was happy to have him step out of the shadows, show his compassion, and remain true to his heart the way that Grayson remains true to hers.

MGM: You're right about Sebastian being an unlikely hero. That made that scene so much more powerful for me! Right, now some questions to put you on the spot:

Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....

AP: Coordinating lots and lots of different schedules, timetables and events. You say each kid has a birthday party to go to today, your camel ride departs from Morocco at noon and we have dinner plans at six? Oh, the car is in the shop? I’ll have everyone where they need to be five minutes early. I am an incredibly anal organized person.

MGM: (Smiling at the above!) My favorite breakfast is…

AP: Kind of boring. I have coffee with vanilla soy creamer and a piece of toast with peanut butter every single morning. I’m a creature of habit.

MGM: If you could visit any place, where would it be?

AP: Can I cheat here? Can I time travel, too? I want visit my parents’ childhood houses and hang out with my mom and dad as kids. I’d learn so much about my own life, and probably collect some great story ideas at the same time.

MGM: Cheat all you want! I'd love me some time travel as well! Ami, thanks for being part of Middle Grade Mafioso today, and thank you for writing such a great novel!

About the Author (from the back cover): 
Ami Polonsky is a reading and writing tutor, a mother to two young children, and an author, among other things. A former Language Arts teacher and literacy coach, Ami remains passionate about guiding children toward a love of books and helping to create life-time readers. Ami lives outside of Chicago with her family. Gracefully Grayson is her first novel.

You can find Ami Polonsky at her WEBSITE and on Twitter @amipolonsky

Special Offer: The Don and I love this novel so much that we are going to buy a copy for one lucky person. Just leave a comment, and next Monday we will choose a winner. We will then contact the winner and order a copy for them to pick up at their local indie bookstore. (US and Canada Entries only, please.) Ciao!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: OVER SEA, UNDER STONE by Susan Cooper


Sometimes it's nice to revisit a classic, folks--or in my case to visit it for the first time. Can you believe I have never read this? I mean, it was published 50 years ago (in 1965), so is a bare two years younger than me! And it's not as if I wasn't a major fantasy mini mafioso, either. One of my favorite books from childhood was Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea (which I can affirm is just as good when read many decades later.)

So who knows what went wrong? However, I kept seeing The Dark Is Rising sequence in lists put out by other authors when asked about childhood favorites. So it seemed about time for the Don and me to give it a go.

What It's About (description from Amazon): On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that -- the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril. 
This is the first volume of Susan Cooper's brilliant and absorbing fantasy sequence known as The Dark Is Rising. 

Opening Lines: "Where is he?" Barney hopped from one foot to the other as he clambered down from the train, peering in vain through the white-faced crowds flooding eagerly to the St. Austell ticket barrier. "Oh, I can't see him. Is he there?"

Why I Liked It:

1): It was very English. (And, as such, it brought me back to my youth.) The way the children speak is exceedingly dated, but none the worse for that--although I do wonder what a modern child would think. I was reacquainted with words like "swizz" and "rucksack."
2): We get into the action straightaway--and there is plenty of action. The children, at a loose end, start exploring the house and find an ancient map. Chases by land and by sea follow, as well as a kidnapping.
3): The parents are alive (thank goodness, I have middle grade orphan fatigue!), but are conveniently shunted out of the way so that the children can fend for themselves. 
4): Hints of Arthurian legend. I have decided, what with my love of Dianne Salerni's The Eighth Day series, that I am a bit of an Arthurian legend buff. Hey, I might even write a book about it myself, one of these days.[Interestingly, both Cooper and Salerni are brilliant at chase scenes.]

I will definitely read on in the sequence. The Dark Is Rising is next!

About the Author:

Susan Cooper is the author of the classic five-book sequence The Dark is Rising, which won a Newbery Medal, a Newbery Honor Award, and two Carnegie Honor Awards. Born in England, she was a reporter and feature writer for the London Sunday Times before coming to live in the United States. Her writing includes books for children and adults, a Broadway play, films, and Emmy-nominated screenplays. Her most recent books for children are King of Shadows and Victory, and for adults a portrait of Revels founder Jack Langstaff called The Magic Maker. In 2012, Susan was given the Margaret A. Edwards Award and in 2013 she received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement. Her children’s novel Ghost Hawk was published in 2013. Susan lives and writes in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Susan Cooper has a nice-looking website, and a Facebook fan page.

Have a great week reading and writing, everyone! Ciao!