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!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE INQUISITOR'S MARK by Dianne K. Salerni

THE INQUISITOR'S MARK by Dianne K. Salerni (HarperCollins, January 27, 2015)

Dianne Salerni is fast becoming one of my favorite middle grade novelists--and I don't just say that because she's a comrade of mine on Project Mayhem (although the Don's all for nepotism.) I adored Dianne's THE EIGHTH DAY, and her sequel was, in some ways, even more gripping. But more on that in a minute!

What It's About: (From Goodreads)
After the all-out Eighth Day war in Mexico, Jax, Riley, and Evangeline have gone into hiding. There are still rogue Transitioners and evil Kin lords who want to use Riley, a descendant of King Arthur, and Evangeline, a powerful wizard with bloodlines to Merlin, to get control over the Eighth Day.

So when Finn Ambrose, a mysterious stranger, contacts Jax claiming to be his uncle, Jax’s defenses go up—especially when Finn tells Jax that he’s holding Jax’s best friend, Billy, hostage. To rescue Billy and keep Riley and Evangeline out of the fray, Jax sneaks off to New York City on his own. But once there, he discovers a surprising truth: Finn is his uncle and Jax is closely related to the Dulacs—a notoriously corrupt and dangerous Transitioner clan who have been dying to get their hands on Riley and Evangeline. And family or not, these people will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Opening Lines:
"Jax Aubrey's phone rang at least once a day, and it was always the same number. Only one person ever called him, wanting to know where he was, what had happened to him, and when he was coming back."

Why I Loved It:
Sequels are hard. You've got to remind readers what happened in Book 1 without bogging down the narrative, and you've got to further the story convincingly. Dianne K. Salerni does a magnificent job on both counts. The narrative is off and running from the start, with Jax's friend Billy trying to contact him, and all sorts of complications set in place as Jax eavesdrops on Riley and hears him say that "Jax has got to go."

Immediately, we are in chapter 2 and in the head of a new character, Dorian Ambrose. Dorian is with his father, watching a prisoner being interrogated. And we learn that Dorian, and his father Finn, are related to Jax! Holy cannoli!!

So that's the set up, and if there's a writer who can write chase scene and battles as well as Dianne Salerni, let me at 'em because they have big shoes to fill. The tension in several scenes (a chase through the New York zoo, and a battle with a magical creature called a wyvern) is truly hair-raising. I defy anyone to put this book down for a second. In fact, I was getting at 5 a.m. to read it before my kids woke to get ready for school.

Then there are Brownies with tunnels. You've got to read this book to find out about all that!

Finally, a shout out to the artist who designs the covers of this series. I'll let the Don have the last word: Bellissimo!

About the Author: (adapted from her website)
Dianne K. Salerni lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania with her husband Bob, her two daughters, Gabrielle and Gina, and her trusty dog, Sorcia. (Plus — new in September 2014 — Luna the kitten!) She taught fourth and fifth grade for 25 years.

Now, instead of teaching, Dianne writes, blogs, and chauffeurs her daughters to their various activities. She spends her free time hanging around creepy cemeteries and climbing 2000 year-old pyramids in the name of book research.

Dianne’s first novel, We Hear the Dead, is a YA historical based on the real story of 19th century teenage spirit mediums Maggie and Kate Fox. Her second novel, another YA historical, The Caged Graves, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and was inspired by two real caged graves in an abandoned Pennsylvania cemetery. Her debut book for children, The Eighth Day, released in 2014 to critical acclaim and is the first in a planned fantasy series. The second book, The Inquisitor’s Mark, is due out in January. (editor's note: And it's here now!)

I loved THE INQUISITOR'S MARK so much that I'm buying my own copy. Which means I have my gently loved ARC to give to one of you good people. Just holler in the comments section and the Don will choose one lucky winner out of his fedora. Ciao!

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Winner... and a Book Birthday!

As you know from my last post, I just loved Mel Ryane's TEACHING WILL. I'm happy to report that did it's thang, and Karen Lee Hallam won a copy. (Karen look for an email from me in your inbox.)

The grooviest happening this week is the book birthday of THE INQUISITOR'S MARK, my Project Mayhem colleague, Dianne Salerni's latest. Publication date is the 27th!

I loved the first book in this series, THE EIGHTH DAY, (see my review and interview with Dianne from last year), and the sequel doesn't disappoint. Dianne is really skillful at creating tension and writing action scenes--and I am zipping through it, but not quite ready to post my review till next week.

Okay, back to reading. (Yikes, Jax and friends are being chased through the New York zoo by guys shooting tranquilizer darts. I can hardly breathe!) Have a great week, mafiosi!

Monday, January 12, 2015


Teaching Will (Mel Ryane, Familius Books 2014)

Sometimes, if you're a really lucky mafioso, you stumble upon a book which makes you believe it was written just for you. Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn't is just such a book.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a complete Shakespeare nut. Add to this the fact that I have two children who spend a great portion of their lives on stage (for child #3 it's the basketball court, but you can't win 'em all)--and I was totally enthralled by Mel Ryan's funny, honest, and ultimately touching portrayal about what it's like, without any formal educational training, to start a Shakespeare Club in a lower-income school.

What It's About: (from the back cover blurb) ~ "Power. Revenge. Love. Shakespeare's themes can be found in any schoolyard. And so a naive Mel Ryane volunteers to create The Shakespeare Club at a public school--for kids who have never seen a play, much less acted in one. With a lifetime of theatrical experience but zero classroom skills, Mel throws herself into this rollicking adventure expecting to inspire young lives. Alas, the first lesson: beware of expectations."

Opening Lines: "Did you know him?"
"Oh no, William Shakespeare lived over four hundred and forty years ago."
"Yeah, but did you know him?"
Twelve sets of eyes scope me out as I sit in front of them. Two boys and ten girls from the third, fourth, and fifth grades. Russell Crowe, Colosseum... I get it. These tiny Romans are salivating over my certain death. My mouth trembles as I smile, slapping on a sunny disposition.
"No... sad to say, I've never actually met the man."

Why I Loved It: As you can see from the above opening, Mel Ryan has an engaging writing style. She draws us immediately into the scene, and it's not much longer--while she is being badgered about her acting past by one of the students--that she writes: "God, give it up! I want to scream, but you shouldn't scream at children. That's never a good idea, and certainly not at the very first meeting." When I read that, I knew I was in excellent hands.

I loved the way the book is set out. Ryane begins each chapter with a Shakespearean quotation. Each chapter also has insets, where she quotes from the children s' journals, as well as sharing a thought about what she herself has learned, under "Lesson Plans." Throughout the narrative, Ryan intersperses anecdotes about her early life, conversations with her husband, and memories of her life on the stage and what it means to be an actor.

None of this experience is sugarcoated. The children are challenging, and Ryane is honest about the frustration she experiences. But, as they work towards putting on A Midsummer Night's Dream, they all begin to find the closeness that being cast in an  acting performance brings. As Mel Ryane writes: "During our battles, I never thought the kids would deliver anything beyond an ordinary recitation of the play. I was wrong. These ten kids held hands and climbed a golden mountain... together."

This is a wonderful book, and I recommend it to anyone who loves Shakespeare, who works with kids, and who loves the stage.

I was lucky enough to contact Mel Ryane and ask her my notorious Mafioso questions. Here are her answers:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?

E.B. White (Charlotte's Web), C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Laura Ingalls Wilder (the Little House series). To this day I fantasize of being in Wilder's little snowbound house on the prairie.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro and Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel.

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel--or in this case, memoir--and say why you like it:

I especially like Chapter XIV, "War Declared."

The Shakespeare Club meets in the library that week because we've been kicked out of our regular classroom. The kids start a paper fight and I just lose it. In that moment I remember my own seventh-grade self in our school library with our poor librarian completely losing control of chaotic kids. It reminds me that children view their job as gaining power from adults. It's kind of a battle and the adult, being the adult, has to finesse the upper hand. Tough stuff for any teacher, parent or coach.

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

1. cooking
2. sleeping
3. writing
4. teaching

I'm really lousy at a longer list of things, but since you didn't ask….

5) My favorite breakfast is…

Leftovers! I'm not really a fan of traditional breakfast foods but I love spaghetti for breakfast, or a salad with a poached egg on top, or a tuna sandwich. All with strong coffee, of course.

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?

I would love to spend a month in Portugal. There are castles along the Portuguese coastline that have been converted into pensions. I could see myself happily dining on grilled fish and sleeping in castles. (Me too, Ms. Ryane. Me too!)

Ahout the Author:
Following a distinguished career as a classically trained actor onstage and in film and television, Mel Ryane has found a new artistic home in the written word with her memoir, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn't.

Mel became a professional actor during her teens in her native Canada, and then followed her career to New York City and to theatres across North America. After applying her skills to coaching actors on major studio and network projects, Mel was accepted into the Directing Workshop for Women at the prestigious American Film Institute. She subsequently wrote a screenplay that advanced to the semifinal round in the Motion Picture Academy's Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition.

Mel travels across the country teaching "From Page to Podium: Reading Your Work Aloud," a workshop that helps writers find their public speaking voice. She also offers school workshops introducing Shakespeare to students. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their dog and cat.

I am also delighted to be able to giveaway a copy of this great book, courtesy of Ms. Ryane's publicist, Darlene Chan. All you have to do is leave a comment, telling me what your favorite Shakespeare play is. Ciao!