Monday, April 14, 2014

MMGM: DIEGO'S DRAGON by Kevin Gerard (with Interview)

DIEGO'S DRAGON, BOOK ONE: SPIRITS OF THE SUN by Kevin Gerard (Crying Cougar Press, 2011)

What It's About (from the book jacket): Eleven-year-old Diego Ramirez has no idea how much his life is about to change when he wins a district-wide writing contest for sixth graders. His prize: a statue of a handsome, glistening black dragon. 

Magnifico, his family and friends exclaim. Diego decides that will be his dragon's name. It's a good choice, because Magnifico actually is the dragon's name. Magnifico isn't really a statue. He's the leader of the Sol Dragones, dragons that live within the magical fires of the sun--and Diego is his unknowing guide.

As Magnifico comes to life he becomes quite mischievous, playing tricks on Diego to embarrass him. When Diego discovers his bloodline, however, he assumes greater control over his dragon and his destiny. In the climactic journey, he frees his people and suffers a terrible loss by guiding Magnifico to their goal.

Opening Lines: "Diego knew the dragon was alive the moment he touched it. Even though only a statue, and only eighteen inches tall, Diego felt a pulsing heartbeat when he accepted it from the author."

What I Liked:

1) The cover: I found the colors of the cover very appealing. 
2) The Latino main character. Diego is an appealing young guy, and I liked the interactions between him and his family and friends. 
3) Magnifico. What a character! This dragon is feisty, and not always in a good mood. I liked the fact that often it is only Diego who can see the dragon--that leads to a number of comic misunderstandings. I also liked the fact that the dragon is a Mexican dragon, and the fact that the quest had to do with the sufferings of crossing the border.
4) The pacing. The story pulses along at a good clip. It doesn't take much to get lost in the world Kevin Gerard has created.
5) Realism. The characters are faced with issues often prevalent in the real world, especially violence. A caveat: I am a very open-minded reader, and don't mind things getting a little gritty--but I have to warn more sensitive readers that there is quite a lot of alcohol consumption (Esteban, Diego's older brother, is an alcoholic), as well as some bad language in both English and Spanish that you don't typically see in middle grade.

I e-mailed Kevin Gerard a few questions, and enjoyed his answers. 

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
James Matlack Raney
Katherine Longshore
Bruce Hale
Kirby Larson

2) What's on your nightstand now?
Jim Morgan and the King of Thieves by James Matlack Raney

3) Pick a favorite scene from DIEGO'S DRAGON: SPIRITS OF THE SUN, and say why you like it
Well, the first time Magnifico comes to life in the school library is wonderful, and it's incredible when Diego and Magnifico save Diego's brother, Esteban in the middle of the night, but if I had to pick one scene, I love it when Magnifico hides in the ivy on the side of Diego's house and then can't suppress a sneeze. Ka-BOOM! The concussion from the sneeze knocks Diego and his father out cold and sets off car alarms in the entire neighborhood. It's always nice to add a little humor to a character as powerful as Magnifico.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....
Talking to a multi-purpose room full of students about Diego's Dragon. The students think they're having the best time, but the big secret is that I'm really a 10 year old at heart, and I have as much fun as they do!

5) My favorite breakfast is...
A five-egg omelet with onions, green peppers, and mushrooms. Throw some turkey bacon and a few Aussie Bites (get them at CostCo) on the side, and I'm starting my day right.

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?
The Glade of Champions, where all the giant cat warriors in the Conor and the Crossworlds series live. I'd like to meet all of them. If I had to stick with reality, though, I want to go to Ireland someday. My great, great, great, great, who knows how many grandfathers ago, left the old country and came to America. I'd like to go back home and scrunch some native soil in my fingers.

There are two other books in the series: Dragons of the Dark Rift and The Battle at Tenochtitlan. Kevin Gerard is also the author of the Conor and the Crossworlds series. You can find out more about him at his website, Diego's Dragon.

EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! Kevin's going to run a contest for these cool dragon claws. 

Sign up for Diego and Conor's newsletter list, and find out about it. All you have to do is go to Diego's home page and the sign-up box is on the right.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Nosy Mafioso Wants to Know...

Photo by Yunhee Kim
Shame and guilt have filled the Mafioso compound at the continuing silence at this blog, and the Don has decreed that we cannot remain dark a minute longer. (He gives me no credit for all my back-breaking labor at Project Mayhem, or my own writing, or my having read six middle grade novels in the last two weeks, but not yet sending questionnaires to the writers to squeeze out every last drop of information...)

In order to mollify the man, I am nosing about in others' bedrooms. My mission? To uncover what is on your nightstand now. For the record, I have just finished The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern (Chronicle, May 2014) am about to plunge into the long-awaited ARC of my pal Tara Dairman's All Four Stars (Putnam/Penguin, July 2014) Can't Wait!

What is on your nightstand now? Do spill. (Photos a bonus!)

Monday, March 10, 2014

No MMGM today--Because of Shrek...

I wish I had an MMGM for you this week, I really do. But between last night's high school auction (don't worry, the Don wouldn't let me bid big) and the fact that my son has been in the cast of SHREK: THE MUSICAL, which just ended a two-week run this afternoon, I've barely had time to pick up a book.

(The book I have been reading is Andre Agassi's autobiography, OPEN. Really revealing about life as a prodigy. I saw Agassi at the Champions Tennis event a couple of weeks ago, and am happy to report he can still smack a forehand.)

Next week, I am heading for a blissful two-day solitary retreat at the family  beach house on the Oregon Coast--so there won't be any blog posting then. But I do intend to write and read a lot--so look for me on the 24th. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing what you all have been reading for MMGM.


Monday, March 3, 2014

SA Larsen's "It's All About Gratitude" Blog Hop

At the beginning of February, Sheri Larsen announced her It's All About Gratitude blog hop. I am not generally a blog hop kind of person, but this topic spoke to me. 

It is easy to fixate on all that is "wrong" on the road to publication, instead of being grateful for what has already been achieved. When I remind myself to be grateful, I notice first a shift in my thinking, and then a shift in my mood.

Please forgive me for being serious and personal for a moment. I would like to share the story of my oldest son, who is now 17. Christopher was born extremely prematurely (at 24 weeks gestation) and weighed 1 pound 6 ounces at birth. He spent four months in an NICU, clinging precariously to life. We were told he had a 50 percent chance of major disability--including cerebral palsy.

Now, at 17, he is remarkably unscathed by his birth experience. He did have a form of epilepsy, which he has outgrown (thank you, God!), and has ADD. We are blessed to have a school in our city, Thomas A. Edison High School, which serves children with learning differences. Christopher has blossomed there. One of the benefits is that the school is on the campus of a large Catholic high school which has a phenomenal drama department. Chris loves the theater, and has been able to take part in several musicals.

This year marked great growth for him, as he got a speaking role in a student-directed one act (which he rocked!) We have just returned from a performance of Shrek--this year's musical. Chris was an elf and danced and sang with great gusto. In both the one-acts and the musical, I have found myself sitting there blinking back tears, so grateful that my son is able to do something he loves without impairment.

So many things in life are tough--but if we approach life in a spirit of gratitude we can be blessed rather than blighted.

Here's the link to Sheri's initial blog post. At the bottom, you can find others signed up for the blog tour who are sharing their experience of gratitude. 

1.Literary Rambles2.Sharing Thanks
3.Alex J. Cavanaugh4.Leigh Talbert Moore
5.Constantine6.Catherine Stine's Idea City
7.Jenni Enzor8.Fanny Barnes Thornton
9.Parents for Character10.Miranda Hardy
11.Jemi Fraser12.Julie Musil
13.Middle Grade Mafioso14.Jamie Burch
15.Mama Diaries16.Chandara Writes
17.My Road To Happiness18.Swords and Stilettos
19.Margo Berendsen

Grateful for the Elf
(my son Chris and his friend Jimmy, the Frog Prince)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Contest over at Project Mayhem: Win One of my Favorite Cybils' nominees

This year marked my third venture as a Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Blogger's Literary Awards) panelist. In 2011 I was a first round panelist for middle grade fiction (everything except speculative fiction), which meant I got to speed-read 140 novels between October and December. In 2012 and 2013, I chose a more sedate position--that of a second round judge. A second-rounder has to read a mere five or six titles--those on the shortlist--and crown a winner.

This year, the finalists were: 

If you head over to my post on Project Mayhem this morning, you can find out how to win one of these titles!! Here's the link:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO'S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein (Random House, June 2013)

What It's About (from the author's web page): Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library plunks a dozen sixth-graders into the middle of a futuristic library for a night of nonstop fun and adventure.
Kyle Keeley is a game fan—board games, word games, and especially video games! Kyle's hero, the famous gamemaker Luigi Lemoncello, is the genius behind the design of the town's new public library, which contains not only books, but an IMAX theater, an electronic learning center, instructional holograms, interactive dioramas and electromagnetic hover ladders that float patrons up to the books they want.
Lucky Kyle wins a spot as one of the first twelve kids invited to a gala, overnight library lock-in filled with of fun and games. But the next morning, when the lock-in is supposed to be over, the doors remain locked. Kyle and the others must follow book-related clues and unravel all sorts of secret puzzles to find the hidden escape route if they want to win Mr. Lemoncello's most fabulous prize ever.
Opening Lines: "This is how Kyle Keeley got grounded for a week.
First he took a shortcut through his mother’s favorite rosebush. Yes, the thorns hurt, but having crashed through the brambles and trampled a few petunias, he had a five-second jump on his oldest brother, Mike.
 Both Kyle and his big brother knew exactly where to find what they needed to win the game: inside the house!
Why I Liked It: As you can see from these first lines, with boys racing and crashing about, this is one exuberant romp. Middle grade readers will love the puzzles and the humor. Chris Grabenstein has a well-tuned ear for how kids this age speak and his dialogue crackles.
You have got to love a book set in a library where the head librarian is described as "world famous." This one was a finalist for the recent Cybils award, and with good reason. (I also really like the cover--I know, I'm shallow. But I do judge a book by its cover.)
About the Author: Chris Grabenstein has quite the pedigree, with a number of novels (including several written with James Patterson) to his name. His Web page is one of the best author ones I've seen out there: very easy on the eye, and Mr. Grabenstein seems to know how to connect with his readers. Plus, he likes dogs. The Don approves!
Chris Grabenstein with his dog, Fred

Monday, February 17, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE EIGHTH DAY by Dianne K. Salerni (with Interview)

THE EIGHTH DAY by Dianne K. Salerni (HarperCollins, April 22, 2014)

What It's About (from Goodreads): In this riveting fantasy adventure, thirteen-year-old Jax Aubrey discovers a secret eighth day with roots tracing back to Arthurian legend. Fans of Percy Jackson will devour this first book in a new series that combines exciting magic and pulse-pounding suspense.

When Jax wakes up to a world without any people in it, he assumes it's the zombie apocalypse. But when he runs into his eighteen-year-old guardian, Riley Pendare, he learns that he's really in the eighth day—an extra day sandwiched between Wednesday and Thursday. Some people—like Jax and Riley—are Transitioners, able to live in all eight days, while others, including Evangeline, the elusive teenage girl who's been hiding in the house next door, exist only on this special day.

And there's a reason Evangeline's hiding. She is a descendant of the powerful wizard Merlin, and there is a group of people who wish to use her in order to destroy the normal seven-day world and all who live in it. Torn between protecting his new friend and saving the entire human race from complete destruction, Jax is faced with an impossible choice. Even with an eighth day, time is running out.
Opening Lines: "Jax pedaled home from the store and muttered in cadence with the rhythm of his bike wheels: This sucks. This sucks. This sucks."

Great Stuff: This is truly a fast-paced book which I couldn't put down. It starts with a mystery: after Jax's father's death, why is Jax no longer living with his his aunt Naomi? Why is Riley Pendare, a teenager whom Jax despises, his new guardian? And what did Riley say to Aunt Naomi and the lawyer to make them change their minds?

I loved the character arc, in which Jax little by little begins to understand his situation. I loved the interweaving of Arthurian legend, and the fantastic world Dianne Salerni creates, with Transitioners and Kin, and the mysterious Eighth Day. And the final battle atop a Mexican pyramid is a heart-stopper.

About Dianne: Dianne K. Salerni is a felllow member of Project Mayhem, my middle grade group blog. She teaches 5th grade in Pennsylvania, as well as writing novels such as The Caged Graves. I thought it would be fun to interview her--and I was right! Take it away, Dianne!

  1. Have you always been interested in Arthurian legend? Do you have a favorite novel set in this time period?
I’ve long had an interest in Arthurian legend. I can’t say that I have a favorite, but what I really enjoy is seeing the legends retold in new and surprising ways. (For example, I read an early draft of Camelot Burning, an Arthurian steampunk novel by Kathryn Rose. Highly recommended!)  

To be honest, when I started planning The Eighth Day, Arthurian legends weren’t part of the story at all. Then, while researching something else, I randomly stumbled upon the story of Merlin’s apprentice Niviane tricking him into a place of suspended time. Some versions of the tale call it an eternal forest; others describe it as a cave. There were similarities in the way this place was described and the vision I had for the eighth day. Once I’d noticed the possible connection, the idea stuck – and blossomed.

  1. Is this your first published middle grade book? Can you tell us about the process of working with your editor?
This is my debut as a middle grade author. It’s strange that I waited so long to write a book for this age group, since I’m a fifth grade teacher.

Working with my editor, Alexandra Cooper, and her assistant, Alyssa Miele, has been wonderful. Originally, my book was acquired by Barbara Lalicki, and when Barbara retired, it was a few months before I was assigned a new editor – and I had a lot of time to worry if the new editor would love my book as much as Barbara did.

But Alexandra was great to work with. We went through several rounds of revision, and boy, did she make me work hard! But she got a better book out of me, and when I submitted my second manuscript to her, I couldn’t wait to receive her editorial notes. I trusted that her instincts would pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of my story and help me take it to a higher level.

  1. If you were a Transitioner, who would you choose as your liege?
Without question, I would swear my allegiance to Riley. I know he doesn’t make a good impression at first, but Jax has reason to resent Riley in the beginning. We get a biased view of him. He’s not perfect, certainly, and he’s only 18 and inexperienced at leadership. However, by the end of the book, I think he’s someone worth following.

  1. I loved the battle scene set on top of an Aztec pyramid. Did you travel to Mexico for research? Did you have any help in creating such a melee, or are you a military strategist in your own right?
I am in no way a military strategist! Originally, I planned the scene based solely on books, photographs, and YouTube videos of people who filmed themselves climbing the Pyramid of the Sun. For military expertise, I called on my brother-in-law, who’s a retired federal agent with combat experience. He laid out basic strategies for me, and I wrote the scene. Afterward, I sent him the chapters to read, and he let me know where I needed to tweak them.

Dianne: "Those steps were hard!"
But I worried a lot about writing all this based on the photographs and videos of strangers, so my husband said, “Let’s go to Mexico.” And we did! I can’t tell you how amazing it was to visit Teotihuacan after writing the book – and best of all, to discover that my scenes worked in that setting!

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

  1. How do you balance working as a teacher and being a writer, as well as being an involved parent?
There are many days when it’s really hard to juggle those things. I’ll have schoolwork to do when I want to be writing. I’ll have emails from my editor I want to answer when I have a class to teach. Sometimes, I wonder why my family tolerates me when I’m holed up in the basement, writing and ignoring them.

In February and January, we lost a lot of school days to snow, ice, and power outages. We no longer have a spring break, and we might be going to school in July, but I used the days to make significant progress on the draft for Book 3 in the series. So for me, it was a blessing.

  1. Are there any sequels in the works? Or any movie deals on the horizon?
Three books are planned, with the option for more if the series is successful. My editor and I completed revisions on Book 2, The Inquisitor’s Mark, in January. I’m hoping to get Book 3 written before The Inquisitor’s Mark boomerangs back from copy-editing.

Book 2 is tentatively scheduled for release in the Winter of 2015, and I think Book 3 will come out late that same year. No movie deals yet, but my agent is in contact with a Hollywood film agent with plans to shop it around.

Michael, thanks so much for having me here at your blog. I am thrilled that you enjoyed The Eighth Day!

My pleasure, Dianne!! I wish you every success with the publication of The Eighth Day.