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Monday, May 23, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: CICI RENO #MIDDLESCHOOLMATCHMAKER by Kristina Springer

CICI RENO #MIDDLESCHOOLMATCHMAKER by Kristina Springer (Sterling 2016)

Somebody raved about this on Twitter (see, Twitter has some uses) and I immediately needed to read it for the tag-line alone: "She's Cyrano de Bergerac in yoga pants..."

I wasn't disappointed.

What It's About (via Goodreads blurb):
Middle school is a test, but Cici Reno has all the answers. She's the go-to girl for advice. She's cool, she's funny, and she's enlightened (thanks to yoga classes at her mom's studio). So when her pretty BFF, Aggie, is too shy to speak to the boy she's crushing on, Cici goes online and does the talking for her. The only problem is, Cici starts to fall for the guy herself! For the first time in her life. she doesn't have a clue.

Opening Lines: 
"Ugh. My nail polish is smudged. I glance around for something to wipe up the blue-green nail polish on the side of my toe. Spotting nothing else available on the pool deck, I decide to use my beach towel. There. Much better."

Things to Admire:
First off, the cover is brilliant--a real snatch-off-the shelfer. This book perfectly catches all the middle school drama, and Cici is an endearing character: quick-witted, intelligent, and a friend to all. Being a yoga fan myself--I have to be, working for The Don and enduring all the stress he puts me under!--I enjoyed the way each chapter began with a yoga-inspired tweet from Cici. (Although I have to say that Twitter, judging from my 7th-grade son's choices, is not the go-to media platform for middle schoolers. That would be Instagram.)

The middle-school voice was pure brilliance--and laugh-out-loud funny at times, from the way Cici bickers with her brother, to the comments she shares with her bestie, Aggie, about their teachers:
"...Mr. Adwell, the gym teacher. Did you know he's dating the school librarian? Guess he's been checking out more than books."
"Ewwww," Aggie says. "They're both, like, a hundred years old."
"Senior citizens need love too, Aggie. Don't judge." 
For writers: If you want to see how to write a fast-paced and humorous book set in middle-school, look no further than CICI RENO!

I was able to get in touch with Kristina Springer and ask her my Notorious Mafioso Questions. Here are her responses:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
Lauren Myracle, Meg Cabot, R.J. Palacio, Sarah Mlynowski

2) What's on your nightstand now?
An advanced copy of Howard Wallace, P.I. by Casey Lyall

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.
I LOVE the scene at the hockey rink in chapter 27. I don't want to say too much but it's a goose-bumpy kind of scene.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at.... being a mom. :-)

5) My favorite breakfast is... eggs w/ avocado slices

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be? Italy (MGM: Kristina, The Don says grazie!)

About the Author (from her website):
Kristina Springer is the bestselling middle grade and young adult author of The Espressologist, My Fake Boyfriend is Better Than Yours, the Just Your Average line of books (Just Your Average Princess, Just Your Average Geek, and Just Your Average Celebrity), and the forthcoming Cici Reno #MiddleSchoolMatchmaker (Sterling Children's/April 2016). She has a Masters in Writing from DePaul University and resides in a suburb of Chicago with her husband and children.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli

MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli (1990)

Since confession is good for the soul, I have to admit I'd never read this Newbery winner until last week, when I took it with me to a beach retreat. The impetus for giving it a look was the book club I heard about, started by Andrew Luck, who is the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts football team. (The mere fact of a quarterback starting an online book club was so intriguing that the Don and I were sold. The Don's reading this month's adult selection, which is The Boys in the Boat. I can see a lot of sailing in our future.)

I flew through the book, and I have to say: what took me so long?!

What It's About: 
Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn't made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run--and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

Opening Lines (Prologue): 
"They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring."

Things To Love:
This has the feel of a fable to it. It is swift-moving, and deals with important issues (race, neglect, bullying, and loneliness) in a clear-eyed yet humorous fashion. As you can see from the opening lines of the prologue, the sentences sing with a giddy inventiveness. You can open any page of this novel and find wondrous descriptions--Maniac's sneakers are said to be "hanging by their hinges and flopping like dog tongues." The novel also shouts its Americanness unabashedly, with scenes of football and baseball, prizes like a weekly pizza, and a zoo which includes buffalo. I think it would make an exuberant read-aloud, and I can't wait to read it to my soon-to-be 4th grader. I can see why this is considered a modern-day classic.

About the Author:
When Jerry Spinelli was a kid, he wanted to grow up to be either a cowboy or a baseball player. Lucky for us he became a writer instead.

He grew up in rural Pennsylvania and went to college at Gettysburg College and Johns Hopkins University. He has published more than 25 books and has six children and 16 grandchildren.
Jerry Spinelli began writing when he was 16 — not much older than the hero of his book Maniac Magee. After his high school football team won a big game, his classmates ran cheering through the streets — all except Spinelli, who went home and wrote a poem about the victory. When his poem was published in the local paper, Spinelli decided to become a writer instead of a major-league shortstop.

In most of his books, Spinelli writes about events and feelings from his own childhood. He also gets a lot of material from his seven adventurous kids! Spinelli and his wife, Eileen, also a children's book author, live in Pennsylvania. WEBSITE

What other Jerry Spinelli books should I read? (I've read EGGS, but that's it.)

Monday, May 2, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: BOOK SCAVENGER by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

BOOK SCAVENGER by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman ( Henry Holt, 2015)

What It's About (via Goodreads):
Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold's attackers make them their next target.

Opening Lines: 
"Garrison Griswold whistled his way down Market Street, silver hair bobbing atop his head like a pigeon wing. He tapped his trademark walking stick, striped in Bayside Press colors, to the beat of his tune."

Things to Love:
Book Scavenger was another middle grade Cybils finalist, and it's very easy to love. Bertman has come up with a super concept--a book scavenger hunt--and who among us didn't love clues and ciphers and treasure hunts when we were young? (I mean, some of us may still do!)

The setting--in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities--is great. (There's even a chase down Lombard Street. How cool is that)

Book Scavenger reminded me a little of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, but I found the friendship between Emily (the main character), and her neighbor James to be better drawn than in the latter title. Bertman does a great job of describing what it feels like for a 12-year-old to be moving all over the country and the loss of stability that engenders.

Also, if you're a Poe fan, you will really enjoy all the Poe details and allusions. I can't wait to read the sequel (which is scheduled for January 2017!)

About The Author (from website):
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman writes stories with a bit of mystery, a bit of humor, and a lot of fun. Her debut novel, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt for Young Readers), was an Indie Next Kids’ Top Ten Pick, a Junior Library Guild selection, and one of five titles chosen for Publisher’s Weekly Best Summer Middle Grade Books for 2015, among other accolades. A sequel titled The Unbreakable Code will be published in 2016, followed by a stand-alone middle grade mystery in 2017. She has an MFA in creative writing and worked in publishing for over a decade before becoming a children’s book author.

Photo by Joseph Jestes

Monday, April 25, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai

LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai (Harper, 2015)

What It's About (from Goodreads blurb):
A California girl born and raised, Mai can't wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai's parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn't know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.

Opening Lines:
"I whip my head toward the airplane window as soon as Dad scoots into my row. There's nothing to see except clouds and more clouds, but anything is better than looking at his fakey sorry-to-do-this-to-you face."

Things to Love:
Mai/Mia (her parents have given her one name she can use at home and a more anglicized-sounding name for school) is a completely believable teenager--in that everything in life revolves around her. She starts off huffy and snotty (after all, she wants to spend summer on the beach in California, rather than accompanying her grandmother to grandmother's country of origin: Vietnam.) But once in Vietnam, she begins gradually to appreciate the country, through her experience of village life, in a completely believable way, even to making friends with the oddest girl in the village. Listen, Slowly is many things: humorous, insightful, profound. It is about a journey to understanding one's past and one's present by means of listening, slowly.

Thanhha Lai's debut, Inside Out and Back Again, was a powerful novel-in-verse. In my opinion, her first prose work, Listen, Slowly is just as powerful. I loved it.

(Listen, Slowly was a finalist for the Cybils' middle grade section.)

About the Author (from the book jacket):
Thanhha Lai was born in Viet Nam and now lives with her family in New York. Like the father in Listen, Slowly, Thanhha has been buying bicycles for poor children in Viet Nam since 2005. To learn more about Thanhha and her charity, Viet Kids Inc., visit

Thanhha Lai, photographed by An-Lai Omer

Monday, April 18, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: PILFER ACADEMY by Lauren Magaziner

PILFER ACADEMY by Lauren Magaziner (Dial Books, February 2016)

What It's About (from Amazon):
Troublemaking George has never heard of Pilfer Academy, a top-secret school for cultivating young crooks, until he's kidnapped as its newest student. The teachers are kooky at best, and naughty does not even begin to describe his sneaky, smart, and morally bankrupt new classmates. Between disguise classes, cracking safes, and DIY gadgets, George becomes an expert bandit and finds true friendship with Tabitha, his new partner-in-crime. But everything is ruined when George comes to a shocking realization: He is just too good-hearted to be a thief!

Unfortunately, not thieving is not an option at Pilfer Academy, and "misbehaving" students face Dean Deanbugle's favorite punishment—the Whirlyblerg! In order to gain their freedom, George and Tabitha must pull the biggest heist the school has ever seen and reveal their true colors not as thieves, but as kind (and, okay, mischievous) kids.

Opening Lines:
"The small truck had parked two houses away from George's home so as not to arouse suspicion. But the neighbors kept looking at it, tapping their feet expectantly before getting frustrated and moving on."

My Take:
Quite simply, this is a romp. Having been locked away educated in an English boarding school myself, I am a fan of boarding school stories and this one has a delicious twist: it's set in a stolen French chateau and the sole academic focus is in training young thieves. Our hero, George, is a miscreant and has been chosen (and kidnapped!) for the incoming class. The faculty is a bunch of misfits, and a lot of humor derives from their antics.

Great cover, too.

Lauren Magaziner has written a well-paced novel that hits the middle grade motherlode!

About the Author:
Lauren Magaziner is originally from New Hope, Pennsylvania. Her first book, The Only Thing Worse than Witches, was an Indie Next List Pick. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes full time. Website  Twitter

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

I'm on the DIYMFA Street Team! (And announcing the winner of THE TURN OF THE TIDE)

Dear Readers,

Have you heard of DIYMFA? It's the brainchild of Gabriela Pereira, and you can read about the origins of it HERE. The website is beautiful, and there are a ton of tools for writers. I signed up for Gabriela's newsletter a couple of years ago, and jumped at the chance to join her "street team" to publicize the DIYMFA book which is coming out from Writers Digest later in 2016.

Gabriela is great at building community, and the Street Team has a Facebook page and a weekly writing prompt. This week's prompt was: "What is your origin story," meaning "how did you become a writer?"

I'm sure most of us writers can point to a love of words from our earliest days. As a child, I always had my nose in a book, (I still do, actually) and I particularly loved mysteries. I read both Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys (later it was Agatha Christie, and Georges Simenon, and John le Carré.) And in 4th grade, I was determined to write a story for my school magazine.

At the time, I was a student at the Intercommunity School of Zurich in Switzerland. The students came from all over the world, which was fascinating. My 4th-grade teacher, Mrs. Benz, was American and a little intimidating, but she worked us hard and I remember loving her reading program. She reviewed my story and said she thought it was good enough to submit.

The story itself was lushly written. At that age, I had never met an adjective I didn't love--and the more the merrier. I piled them on as I described an old, abandoned house and a weed-choked garden upon which my three young sleuths had stumbled. An unearthly scream drove them away. My readership--because, yes, this story was published--was enthralled. I still remember an older girl asking me suspiciously "did you really write that?"

I can attest that seeing one's name in print is a great thrill!

When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

P.S. The winner of THE TURN OF THE TIDE by Rosanne Parry is Greg Pattridge. Congrats, Greg!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE TURN OF THE TIDE by Rosanne Parry (Plus interview and giveaway)

THE TURN OF THE TIDE by Rosanne Parry (Random House, January 2016)

Today I have the great good fortune to feature the latest novel by someone who is a friend in real life, Rosanne Parry. Rosanne and I have known each other for about 20 years, and are in a critique group together. I have benefited immensely from her wisdom and skill--and it's been wonderful to see the process her books go through for publication. Rosanne is the Revision Queen.

I told the Don about my feature today and that I was worried about nepotism. His response: "Nepotism makes the world go round. Tell Rosanne she's part of the family."

OK, Boss! (Also, I haven't done a giveaway for a while, but I have an autographed copy for one lucky commenter. Just leave a comment, and an email address if it's not linked to your blog profile. Grazie!)

What It's About (via Goodreads):
On a beautiful day in June, the ground broke open.

In Japan, you’re always prepared for an earthquake. That’s why Kai knows just what to do when the first rumbles shake the earth. And then he does the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do: He runs. And then the tsunami hits.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Kai’s cousin Jet sets sail off the coast of Astoria, Oregon. She knows she should have checked the tide—she always checks the tide. Except this time she didn’t.

When the biggest mistakes of their lives bring them together, Jet and Kai spend the summer regretting that one moment when they made the wrong decision. But there’s something about friendship that heals all wounds and, together, Jet and Kai find the one thing they never thought they’d have again—hope.

Opening Lines:
"When the earth broke open, there was a noise that came before the quake. It was so deep Kai felt it on his skin before he heard it. It came before the crack of broken trees, before the hard rain of broken glass, even before the pop and whoosh of blue fire when the transformer behind the playground blew."

Six Things I Loved:

  1. Not many authors can write emotion like Rosanne does. If you've read her Heart of a Shepherd you'll know exactly what I mean. She writes about loss in such a perceptive way that before you know it, you're shedding a tear or two. 
  2. But she's also got great humor, often brought out in the interactions between characters. Jet and Kai are great foils for one another.
  3. The cultural differences between the US and Japan are handled deftly. (I can say that, having lived in Japan for three years.)
  4. I know absolutely zip about sailing, but found those sequences to be riveting. Disaster is often a tack or two away. (Yikes, who put that big ship there?!) Rosanne writes adventure stories that appeal to both boys and girls. This is a great one.
  5. I loved the cover the moment I set eyes on it in draft form. The colors and the font are eye-catching--it certainly stands out on a crowded book shelf.
  6. It's set in Oregon!

I also got the chance to ask Rosanne some questions. I hope you enjoy this short interview:

1) What sort of research about Japan and Astoria did you do for your novel?

The Astoria research was relatively easy. Astoria, Oregon about an hour from home and all the places mentioned in the book—the museum, the comics shop, the sailing club—were easy to visit.

Japan was trickier because I can’t afford a trip to Japan, as much as I wanted to go. But I had two critique partners who had lived in Japan for several years who were great about helping me get details about Japanese school culture right. Thank you Mike, and also Amy Baskin, for your patient and through reading of many drafts of this story!

My daughter's Japanese teacher was also terrific. She checked all the language in the book to make sure I was using it clearly. What’s more, her family lived near the area of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami so she was able to help me understand how the trauma of that day has played out in the short and long term for her own family and how Japanese culture has shifted in response to the disaster.

I’m a chatty person and so I’m always gleaning little bits of information even when I’m not formally researching. Years ago a talk at the Portland Japanese Garden about the similarities in climate and fauna between Japan and western Oregon gave me an insight into what Kai might be feeling as he climbs Saddle Mountain. A brief chat with a chef about Japanese cuisine helped me think about what flavors Kai would be most homesick for. A childhood friend who spent every summer in Japan with his grandparents gave me some insight into the relationship Kai has with his Ojii-san and Obaa-san.

2) Are you a sailor in real life? A geocacher?

My husband and I both read and loved The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin which made us both want to be sailors. Years ago we bought a broken sailboat and fixed it up and taught ourselves to sail. I don’t go sailing nearly as often as I’d like, but the Saga in my book is modeled on our own boat, the Selkie.

When my children were younger we hiked a lot and did geocaching as a part of our family hikes all the time. This spring I’ve been hiding geocache boxes near bookstores and filling them with mini-books and an invitation to visit the local bookstore. There are six million geocachers world-wide so it’s a great way to get tourists to stop by the bookshop. And I love the little messages finders leave in the geocache log about their favorite books.

3) As a bookseller as well as an author, do you have recommendations for other MG adventure books, sailing or not?

Linda Sue Park has a brand new fantasy series called Wing and Claw about two cousins who are animal-loving apothecaries and uncover a sinister plot in a forest kingdom. If you like an adventure story that’s not fantasy, Dan Gemeinhart’s Some Kind of Courage is about an orphaned boy who risks everything to rescue the horse he loves from horse thieves. If you loved Heart of a Shepherd, you should definitely give it a try.

Bonus Question: What's your favorite thing about book signings?

My favorite thing to happen at a school book signing was when a seven-year-old boy came up to me, eyes alight, clutching my newly published book in his hands. “Eragon is my favorite book ever!” he said. “Will you write Christopher Paolini’s name in this book?”  Because, to a seven-year-old, authors are all basically the same person. 😃  I don’t mind signing another person’s book with my name but plagiarism just felt wrong so we had little conversation about what an autograph is and he was SO disappointed. I told him he could ask for the autograph of any person he admired and he took my book straight to the school custodian!  Isn’t that awesome! I was smiling all day.

About the Author:
Rosanne Parry is the author of the award winning novels Heart of a Shepherd; Second Fiddle and Written in Stone. Her newest novel for young readers is The Turn of the Tide (Random House, January 2016.) Rosanne has taught writing at schools, conferences, educational non-profits, and on-line at the Loft Literary Center. She and her family live in an old farmhouse in Portland, Oregon. She writes in a tree house in her back yard.

Thanks, Rosanne! To learn more about Rosanne Parry, you can visit her website. She's also active on Twitter: @RosanneParry

Thanks, everyone! Happy Monday, and Happy Writing. Ciao!