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Monday, February 8, 2016

SWEET HOME ALASKA by Carole Estby Dagg

SWEET HOME ALASKA by Carole Estby Dagg (February 2nd, 2016, Penguin Young Readers)

What It's About (from publisher's promotional materials):
It’s 1934 and the Great Depression is hitting the Johnson family quite hard in Wisconsin. Terpsichore, “Trip”, is doing her best to provide for her family after her father loses his job at the mill. With her whole town turning to relief, President Roosevelt has provided them with an option—to become settlers of a New Deal Colony in Palmer, Alaska. Trip tries to make the best of her new living situation by channeling her idol, Laura Ingalls Wilder to embark on this grand adventure. Pro: No homework for kids who have to plant crops with their families. Con: No libraries or radios to entertain each other with after a hard day’s work. Pro: Making a new stake in virtually untouched land. Con: Scarlet fever epidemics. As they face the hardships of turning tents into barns, can Terpsichore and the other two hundred families find their place in the new colony?

Opening Lines:
"It was because Terpsichore was the only unmusical Johnson that she dragged a hatchet across the yard toward a pumpkin as big as a pickle barrel."

Things I Liked About It:
  • Terpsichore is an engaging character who is self-sufficient (and I love that she has all sorts of issues with her problematic name.)
  • Great portrayal of family bonds and friendships.
  • Insight into both the Great Depression, and the fact that FDR had a program to resettle hard-hit families from the midwest to Alaska.
  • The additional material at the back of the book, including a recipe for Jellied Moose Nose.
I had the pleasure of asking Carole Estby Dagg my middle grade mafioso questions!
Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
There are so many wonderful middle grade writers I’m going to narrow it down to middle grade historical fiction writers. What’s more, I’ll put them in alphabetical order so I don’t have to choose favorites:

Avi, Gennifer Choldenko, Karen Cushman, Karen Hesse, Jennifer Holm, Kirby Larson, Lois Lawry, Patricia MacLachlan, Katherine Patterson, Richard Peck, Caroline Starr Rose, and Jacqueline Woodson.

What’s on your nightstand now?
(Pause while I lug in the stack so I can type ititles here at the computer)
Last in a Long Line of Rebels, by Lisa Lewis Tyre
All-American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton
Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez
Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon
Recipes for Love and Murder, by Sally Andrew

Like Terpsichore in my Sweet Home Alaska, I don’t like that bedside stack to go below at least three. And six is better.

Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.
I love happy endings, including the one in Sweet Home Alaska that has friends and family working together and learning to appreciate diverse skills and personalities, reuniting long-ago sweethearts, and concluding with a hearty sing-along.

Fill in the blank: I’m really awesome at…
weaving. I won Best of Show at the county fair a few years back. Here’s a picture of a shadow weave silk and wool scarf I wove for my daughter.

My favorite breakfast is….
French toast with strawberries, but I usually settle for Fiber One cereal topped with fruit and nuts.

If you could visit any place, where would it be?
It would be Hill Top Farm in the Lake Country of England, where Beatrix Potter lived. I’ve also always wanted to visit Prince Edward Island, where Anne of Green Gables takes place.

Carole Estby Dagg was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and has lived in Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. She has degrees in sociology, library science, and accounting. She spends most of her time writing and reading, but her real-life adventures include tiptoeing through King Tut's tomb, sandboarding the dunes of western Australia, riding a camel among the Great Pyramids, paddling with Manta rays in Moorea, and smelling the penguins in the Falkland Islands. She is married with two children, two grandchildren. Her son lives in Palmer Alaska, and that is what inspired her to write this story.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MURDER IS BAD MANNERS by Robin Stevens

MURDER IS BAD MANNERS by Robin Stevens (April 21st 2015, from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

What It's About (from the author's website):
When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency at Deepdean School for Girls, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)

But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident – but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive.

Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. Determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again (and before the police can get there first, naturally), Hazel and Daisy must hunt for evidence, spy on their suspects and use all the cunning, scheming and intuition they can muster. But will they succeed? And can their friendship stand the test?

Opening Lines:
"This is the first murder that the Wells and Wong Detective Society has ever investigated, so it is a good thing Daisy bought me a new casebook. The last one was finished when we solved The Case of Lavinia's Missing Tie."

Five Things I Thought Were Great:
  • Maybe because I went to an English boarding school between the ages of 9 and 17, (although my experience was in the 1970s, rather than the 1930s) I thought the author got so many things about boarding school right. The slang. The overbearing manner of the prefects and senior students to the younger. The fascination and repulsion about the teachers.
  • So much humour. Of all the Cybils nominees I read, this one elicited the most chuckles.
  • The relationship between Daisy and Hazel. Daisy is the daughter of a lord, and Hazel is from Hong Kong. Both are extremely intelligent, but Daisy does her best to appear "thick." Hazel is soon on to her, though, and they join together to start the Wells and Wong Detective Society. 
  • A fabulous supporting cast, of both students and teachers. Each one had a quirk which helped solidify them in my mind's eye.
  • The murder mystery is a good one (although I did suspect the culprit halfway through.) I do hope there's going to be a sequel! (P.S. There is! See below.)
**Highly recommended for Anglophiles, as well as murder-mystery lovers!**

I had the great good fortune to be able to ask the author, Robin Stevens, my notorious Middle Grade Mafioso questions. She's a "good egg," as one of her characters might say.

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
I have a lot of favourites, but I particularly love Rebecca Stead and Katherine Rundell - I think they're some of the best middle grade authors writing at the moment! (MGM: Yay for English spelling!)

2) What's on your nightstand now?
Too many books to even count! It's a tower. But the book I'm reading right now is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I just finished And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, and next I think I'm going a bit more middle grade with Kevin Sands' The Blackthorn Key. (MGM: I'll be featuring the latter later!)

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.
The scene from Murder is Bad Manners where they sneak into the school at night, alone, to recreate the murder - and then see someone else's flashlight in the distance - was one of my favourite ever to write, and still gives me the shivers when I think about it!

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....  reading. I can go at super-speed if I need to - I used to work as an editor and it was very helpful!

5) My favorite breakfast is... I discovered poached eggs last year, and it was a major revelation. Where have they been all my life?

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?
Hong Kong! I'm actually going there soon - lifetime dream achieved! (MGM: Definitely a favourite destination of mine. My wife and I had a grand time there when we lived in Asia.)

Now for the good news. The series is going great guns in the UK, and the second novel, titled Poison Is Not Polite will be coming out in April this year. Interestingly, the UK and US editions have different titles and different cover art. You can check them out HERE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her Goodreads bio:)
Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She has been making up stories all her life.

When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up. When it occurred to her that she was never going to be able to grow her own spectacular walrus moustache, she decided that Agatha Christie was the more achieveable option.

She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She then went to university, where she studied crime fiction. Robin now works full-time as a writer and lives in London with her bearded dragon, Watson.

You can visit her website HERE, or follow her on Twitter @redbreastedbird

Monday, January 18, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: BLACKBIRD FLY by Erin Entrada Kelly

BLACKBIRD FLY by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow Books, 2015)

What It's About (from Goodreads blurb): 
Apple has always felt a little different from her classmates. She and her mother moved to Louisiana from the Philippines when she was little, and her mother still cooks Filipino foods, makes mistakes with her English, and chastises Apple for becoming “too American.” It becomes unbearable in middle school, when the boys—the stupid, stupid boys—in Apple’s class put her name on the Dog Log, the list of the most unpopular girls in school. When Apple’s friends turn on her and everything about her life starts to seem weird and embarrassing, Apple turns to music. If she can just save enough to buy a guitar and learn to play, maybe she can change herself. It might be the music that saves her . . . or it might be her two new friends, who show how special she really is. Erin Entrada Kelly deftly brings Apple’s conflicted emotions to the page in her debut novel about family, friendship, popularity, and going your own way.

Opening Lines:
"On the day we moved to America, it snowed in Chapel Spring. Louisiana, for the first time in twenty years. My mother said it was a sign that the seasons of our lives were changing. Even though I was only four years old, I can still remember how she hugged me close and said we had something wonderful to look forward to: a life as real Americans.

What I Liked About It:

  • An attractive cover, perfect for middle grade
  • A thoughtful portrayal of the immigrant experience. Apple experiences all the middle school embarrassment about one's parent, with the added worry about her mother not being American enough.
  • An insight into Filipino culture--I really like novels which show cultural diversity
  • The importance of music in Apple's salvation
  • Lump-in-the-throat moments. The meanness and cruelty, the superficiality were hard to take, but spot-on. Most people remember middle school as the hardest time of their lives, and Apple is no exception. However, she moves from one group of friends (the cruel and callous and jerky one) to another (more of the misfits), and the novel ends on a note of sweet reconciliation.

About the Author (from back jacket):
Erin Entrada Kelly grew up in south Louisiana and now lives in Philadelphia. Erin's mother was the first in her family to immigrate from the Philippines. Blackbird Fly is Erin Entrada Kelly's first book.

**BLACKBIRD FLY is a CYBILS finalist! Look for the winner to be announced on February the 14th.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bye 2015; Hello 2016

Here's the Middle Grade Mafioso family, taken during our August vacation in Florida. We wish you all a Happy New Year.

Yes, that's right--another year has gone by already. It seems we were just getting started on 2015, and now I'm already racing to the store to snag me a copy of a 2016 calendar (20% off!)

Blogging-wise, 2015 was a pretty sparse year. Many blogs have fallen by the wayside since I started Middle Grade Mafioso in 2011, and bog readership is down across the board, as we gravitate to platforms that require shorter and shorter attention spans (I'm looking at you, Twitter and Facebook.) However, I intend to stay put--and am looking forward to the New Year, when I will be introducing you to my favorite reads from the Cybils (and there were a whole bunch of them.)

Speaking of the Cybils, I had a blast with my first-round panelists. Let me introduce them--and, if you're on the look-out for great new blogs to read, give them a visit:

amela Groseclose: Pamela is a Youth Service Associate for a library in southwest Missouri. She works with all ages, but her primary interest is with tweens.

[Photo+on+4-20-14+at+2.02+PM.jpg]Brandy Painter: After teaching fifth grade for four years before her first child was born, Brandy now teaches the 4th-6th grade literature and all the High School English classes in the homeschool co-op her children attend.

Sarah Sammis is a librarian from Hayward, California. She posts a book review a day at her blog, Puss Reboots (hence her avatar!)

Debbie Tanner: Debbie is a former classroom teacher, now a school librarian. She works in a public Montessori Elementary School in Southern Florida. She has a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education and a Master's degree in Technology. 

Julie Williams is a teacher-librarian at a grade 1-5 school in Maine.

Libertad Thomas: Libertad blogs with twin sister Guinevere Thomas, fighting to bring multiculturalism to YA, Fantasy, and Science Fiction novels.

Great people, all. Look for the first round choices of the Cybils middle grade panel to be revealed on January 1st. I'll see you all in 2016!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: KIDS ATHLETES by David Stabler; illustrated by Doogie Horner

KID ATHLETES:TRUE TALES OF CHILDHOOD FROM SPORTS LEGENDS (stories by David Stabler; illustrations by Doogie Horner, Quirk Books 2015)

Honestly, I don't read much nonfiction, but when this came up for review I jumped on it. Why? Because my youngest son is completely enraptured by basketball, and the Portland Trail Blazers in particular. Now that he's in 3rd grade, this was a perfect book for us to share as a read aloud, with he doing his fair share.

What It's About (from Goodreads): 
The author and illustrator of Kid Presidents have reteamed to share 20 true tales from the childhoods of famous athletes. From Babe Ruth (so incorrigible that his parents put him in reform school at age 7) to Muhammad Ali (who learned to fight at age 12 after a thief stole his bicycle), Kid Athletes is packed with inspirational stories from the world of sports. Billie Jean King rose from modest circumstances to win 39 Grand Slam championships; race car champion Danica Patrick fended of bullies who told her "girls can't drive"; and martial arts legend Bruce Lee credited his success, in part, to childhood dance lessons. Every goal, touchdown, and championship comes to life in these kid-friendly and relatable stories, all with Doogie Horner’s whimsical full-color illustrations. Kid Athletes is a slam dunk for young sports fans everywhere.

Why We Liked It:
The stories are well told. Most of them start with the fact that the kid athlete was undersized or had some challenge. (This particularly resonated with my not-particularly tall son.) There is a good mix of male and female athletes, as well as several from other countries (Yao Ming, Lionel Messi). And it's not only the usual sports that are featured.  There's sumo wrestling (Jesse Kahaulua) and horse racing (Julie Krone).

I also enjoyed the humor of the illustrations. The book feels good in one's hands and the graphic design is appealing. There is also suggested further reading in the back, which I'm sure would be appreciated by teachers and librarians.

Bottom line: my son and I enjoyed this a lot. We are now on the lookout for the other collaboration by David Stabler and Doogie Horner: Kid Presidents. (Also, there's a rumor of a new book in the series: Kid Artists.) Count me in as a fan!

P.s. I've been very slothful on the blog this year, especially the past few months when I have been underwater as one of the 1st round Cybils' panelists. But that journey soon is ended, and the good news is that I should have a bunch of novels to fawn over and praise come the New Year. Thanks for hanging in with me through thin and even thinner!

Monday, November 9, 2015

I Met Shannon Messenger!!!!

There's been radio silence on the blog for a bit, as I am still barricaded behind my stack of Cybils' nominees. But the Don and I had to make an exception and come out of hibernation when we heard that Shannon Messenger was coming to town to celebrate the release of Book 4 in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series: NEVERSEEN.

Shannon... who started Marvelous Middle Grade Monday...
Shannon... who is currently writing both a middle grade (Keeper of the Lost Cities) and a young adult (Sky Fall) series ...
Shannon... who loves cupcakes.

We were in that limousine before you could say 'hot cappuccino'...

Shannon was going to be at the Beaverton outpost of Powell's Bookstore. We got there and found nearly every seat taken so, much to the Don's chagrin, we took up residence at the back. No matter--we still had a mafioso's eye view of Shannon at the podium.

Boy, was she impressive! She was smart, funny, and completely available to her awesome fans. She didn't read portions of her book, she just took question after question (and there were a ton of questions!) Her fans LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the Keeper series. You can tell by the way they are so completely wrapped up in the characters--Shannon several times had to remind them and herself what her mother tells her: "Remember, these guys aren't real people." But maybe Mom is wrong--because to the young people in the audience, Sophie, Finn, Keefe, Dex, and Biana are very, very real.

Shannon gave every question plenty of time--she even dealt charmingly with the oddest question I've ever heard at an author appearance which went something like "What would you do if you saw a stack of your books in the trash?" [The Don was in complete agreement with Shannon's answer which, to paraphrase, went something like "I'd clean them off and hope someone would buy them."]

The event started at 7. A Powell's employee gently cut off the questions at 8. By 9, there was still a line waiting for Shannon to sign, because Shannon gave every single one of us plenty of her time. She signed copies of the new book, as well as the earlier ones--and trust me, people came with piles of books. She chatted, and smiled, and posed for photographs, and made sure that people got the insides of the books stamped. She gave out swag, and smiled again, and thanked everyone for coming.

She is one class act.

You can bet that every single one of those young fans went to bed happy that night. And, the next morning at school, I bet they told all their friends about the great author whose books they love, and who was soooo great!

The Don says he wants to be Shannon Messenger when he grows up. So do I!

Here are the rest of her tour dates. If you live in Tempe, Idaho Falls, or Oceanside, I highly recommend you go see Shannon in action:

Tuesday November 10
Changing Hands
6428 S McClintock Dr.
Tempe, AZ 85283

Friday November 13
Barnes & Noble Grand Teton Mall
2300 E 17th Street
Idaho Falls, ID 83404

Friday November 20
Barnes & Noble Oceanside
2615 Vista Way
Oceanside, CA 92054

Monday, October 12, 2015

I'm a Cybil Again

The news has been out for a while, but I have once again been selected to be part of a middle grade fiction Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) panel. In 2011 I had my first taste of judging, as a first round panelist, reading over a hundred novels. In 2012 and 2013, I was on the second round panel, which chooses a winner from a shortlist of around seven titles. In 2014, I took a break and enjoyed everything from the sidelines.

This year, I once again girded my loins and have plunged into the heady first-round waters. So far, we have over 50 books to read and judge. Of course, we'd love more!

What are the Cybils about, you may ask. Here's what we're looking for (from the website description):
"The Cybils Awards aims to recognize the children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal. If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussels sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious."
You can nominate your favorite middle grade novel HERE. (Fantasy and Speculative fiction have their own panel.) It's one nomination per person. There are still a bunch of good books that should be nominated, so look through the list and add a favorite if it has yet to be chosen.

Right, off I go to polish my glasses and get out my notebook! Have a great reading and writing week, everyone!