Monday, June 4, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: DASH by Kirby Larson

DASH by Kirby Larson (Scholastic, 2014)

This novel was in the 3rd-5th grade division in The Oregon Battle of the Books. My 5th grader and I enjoyed reading it together.

What It's About (from Kirby Larson's website):
Although Mitsi Kashino and her family are swept up in the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mitsi never expects to lose her home — or her beloved dog, Dash. But, as World War II rages and people of Japanese descent are forced into incarceration camps, Mitsi is separated from Dash, her classmates, and life as she knows it. The camp is a crowded and unfamiliar place, whose dusty floors, seemingly endless lines, and barbed wire fences begin to unravel the strong Kashino family ties. With the help of a friendly neighbor back home, Mitsi remains connected to Dash in spite of the hard times, holding on to the hope that the war will end soon and life will return to normal. Though they’ve lost their home, will the Kashino family also lose their sense of family? And will Mitsi and Dash ever be reunited?

Opening Lines:
"Mitsi Kashino packed her sketch pad, her binder, and her worry in her book bag. Dash sniffed the straps before flattening himself on top of it, muzzle resting on his front paws. He watched Mitsi with worried brown eyes. She ruffled the scruffy almond-colored fur on his head."

What I Loved:
Kirby Larson is a masterful writer, ast he first paragraph above shows. We immediately know that both the main character and the dog are worried, and we see that dog and girl have a wonderful bond. The paragraph which follows tells us that something has gone terribly wrong in Mitsi's world, but that she is hoping that things have righted themselves at school because time has passed.

Not so. Things are even worse.

The indignities suffered by Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor are a shameful chapter in American history. The fact that these events are seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl ramps up the injustice of it all. We feel for Mitsi as her friends turn against her, as the mean girl at school taunts her, and as she is forced to leave her precious dog behind as her family is sent to an internment camp. Larson has done some great research, and we get all the sights, sounds, (horrible) smells, tastes, and dust from camp life. Throughout, Mitsi shows tremendous resilience, and we get to enjoy the "correspondence" she and Dash have.

This is the sort of novel which leads to great conversations about what can happen if a society falls prey to fear of "the other." And who can fail to love a story about a girl and her dog? Not this Mafioso.

P.s. Has there ever been a cuter cover? Just look at those puppy dog eyes!


About the Author:
Kirby Larson is the acclaimed author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky, a young adult historical novel she wrote inspired by her great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. That book, and encouragement from her mentor, Karen Cushman, gave Kirby the confidence to embrace her passion for historical fiction; she has since written the Dogs of World War II series (Scholastic), which include Duke, Dash (recipient of the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Prize), Liberty and Code Word Courage. Kirby melded her passion for history and mystery in Audacity Jones to the Rescue, and Audacity Jones Steals the Show (nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award).

Kirby lives in Kenmore, Washington with her husband, Neil. When she’s not reading or writing, Kirby can be found beachcombing or bird watching with Winston the Wonder Dog.

Website   Facebook   Twitter

Monday, May 7, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: STICKY NOTES by Dianne Touchell

STICKY NOTES by Dianne Touchell (Delacorte Press, 2018)

The latest novel from Australian author, Dianne Touchell. In Australia the title was Forgetting Foster, published by Allen and Unwin in 2016.

What It's About (from Goodreads):
For fans of Counting by 7’s and Fish in a Tree, a touching story about the power of love and family in the face of a parent’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Foster Sumner is ten years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school, and the beach. Best of all, he likes listening to his dad’s stories.

But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. Dad would go out for milk and come back with cat food, when the cat had been dead for five years. But then the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.


A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten, as well as the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s and the strong families behind those who suffer from it.

Opening Lines:
"Foster smelled it first. A bitter smell like microwave popcorn popped too long. Except Dad wasn't making popcorn. dad was making bacon sandwiches."

What I Liked About It:
First off, I thought the writing was luminous, at times almost poetic. On every page, there's a fantastic phrase--just the right verb, or pinpoint adjective. Just opening the pages at random I find "Foster would run out back and climb that jacaranda... and sometimes he'd see his dad watching out the kitchen window, his stare rasping just like his walk." (What a lovely and descriptive word rasping is for a stare.)

This is a tough book. Tough subject matter--early onset Alzheimer's in a parent--and tough, unflinching characterizations. It had a fairy tale quality to it, and not just because Foster loves stories with dragons and princesses. Every character has a dark side--Touchell is most definitely not a writer given to sentimentality. She's thrown curve balls at almost everyone: Foster's mom is disfigured from an accident, and struggling just to make it with a spouse who is barely there mentally. Foster's aunt is a complicated character. She provides some balm for Foster, but just as often antagonizes her sister-in-law. Foster himself is angry and petulant at this terrible turn of events, and yet he perversely enjoys the interest of his classmates when he tells them of the "crazy" things his dad has done.

As such, it is difficult to know quite who this book's ideal reader is. Despite the character's young age (seven in the Australian edition, ten in the American), I think it would be a book better savored by older teens or adults. For writers, Touchell's sentences are worth studying, a reminder of the power of a well-chosen word. It makes me think of that quote by Mark Twain: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

About the Author (from Goodreads):
Dianne Touchell is a middle child who feared Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy — and any other stranger who threatened to break into the house at night.


She has worked, amongst other things, as a nightclub singer, a fish and chip shop counter girl, and a bookseller. Dianne would rather talk to her dog than answer the phone.


Dianne's other novels are Creepy and Maud and A Small Madness. I liked her writing so much I have the other books on order!


Monday, April 30, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: RIDERS OF THE REALM:ACROSS THE DARK WATER by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Once again, I'm over at my group blog, Project Mayhem, with a review of this first book in Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's Riders of the Realm series. The Don would be delighted if you went and visited us over there today!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Over at Project Mayhem for a Book Trailer Reveal for RIDERS OF THE REALM


I'm very excited to be writing on Project Mayhem (my middle grade group blog) about Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's new series, RIDERS OF THE REALM. Jennifer's Guardian Herd series was a smash hit, and I'm sure her legions of fans will be very excited for new adventures of the Pegasi.

Head on over to Project Mayhem. If you leave a comment there, you will be entered in the drawing for a signed copy of the new novel. Ciao!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE POPE'S CAT by Jon M. Sweeney

THE POPE'S CAT by Jon M. Sweeney; illustrated by Roy DeLeon (Paraclete Press; 2018)

Full disclosure: the illustrator, Roy DeLeon, is a former colleague of my wife's. He's a delightful man, and a fantastic artist. It was a delight to see his illustrations in this marvelous book.

What It's About (from Amazon):
This is the story of a stray born on the Via della Conciliazione in Rome, how she’s adopted by the Pope, and then “rules” the Vatican from museum to floorboard! First in a new series.

No one has a closer view of what’s happening in the world’s tiniest nation, Vatican City, than Margaret, the Pope’s new cat. But she wasn’t always Margaret, and she wasn’t always the Pope’s cat. She started out as a stray on the streets of Rome, and there are those in the Vatican who wish she’d never been allowed inside.


This fun, adorable new character will appeal to all kids!  Here is a cat who does what she likes regardless of what others, even someone like the Pope, expects of her—even when the Queen of England comes on a state visit!

Opening Lines:
"People walk by Maria's Roma Gelato stand every day without noticing the cat sitting on the cobblestones. Actually, she isn't so much sitting as she is lounging in the shade provided by Maria's trash cans. But the people are too busy."

My Thoughts:
This is more chapter book than middle grade, weighing in at 62 pages. It's a very sweet story about an animal-loving Pope (the front matter claims that 'no historical Pope or Holy Father, past or present, is intended'--but it's difficult not to think of the current Pope as the model.) The plot is simple: during his early morning walk, when the Pope has the Vatican to himself, he comes across a stray cat. He scoops her up, smuggles her into his apartment in the Vatican, and names her Margaret.

Mischievous Margaret sneaks out of the apartment and heads straight for the state dinner with the Queen of England!

The promotional material focuses on a Catholic audience, but I think this story could be savored by those of all faiths as well as none. As a teaching tool, it could lead to discussion of the nature of the papacy, of Rome, and of life in the Vatican, introducing such fixtures as the Swiss Guards. But it is also a simple tale of a man's loves for animals, and for taking in the strays of the world--who are labeled by no less than the mayor of Rome as a "menace to good society," and are targeted and rounded up. Knowing how the real Pope Francis feels about the plight of the world's refugees, it was impossible not to make this larger connection.

The illustrator, Roy DeLeon, is a family friend--and it was delightful to hear of his work on this book, and to have a finished copy in our hands! There will be a second book in the series, coming in October, 2018.

About the Author (adapted from Amazon bio):

Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar and author of popular history, spirituality, poetry/mysticism, memoir, and young reader fiction. He is the author of 30 books including many about Francis of Assisi such as When Saint Francis Saved the Church, The Complete Francis of Assisi, and The Enthusiast. HBO optioned the film rights to Sweeney's history about the medieval Celestine V, The Pope Who Quit. Sweeney, a father of four, is married to a congregational rabbi and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


About the illustrator (from the book jacket)
Roy DeLeon is an Oblate of St. Benedict, spiritual director, yoga instructor, graphic designer, and professional visual artist. He is also the author of Praying with the Body. Roy lives in Bothell, Washington, with his wife, Annie.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. Le Guin

THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. Le Guin (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1970)

What It's About (from Goodreads):
When young Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away - home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan.


While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs' greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and together, he and Tenar escape from the darkness that has become her domain.

Opening Lines:

Prologue
"Come home, Tenar! Come home!"
In the deep valley, in the twilight, the apple trees were on the eve of blossoming; here and there among the shadowed boughs one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star. Down the orchard aisles, in the thick, new, wet grass, a little girl ran for the joy of running; hearing the call she did not come at once, but made a long circle before she turned her face toward home. The mother waiting in the doorway of the hut, with  the firelight behind her, watched the tiny figure running and bobbing like a bit of thistledown blown over the darkening grass beneath the trees."

My Thoughts:
When I was a school boy in England, many moons ago, I read Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. It made a lasting impression on me (as it did Neil Gaiman, as he writes HERE.) But, I had never gone ahead and read the other books in the series. When Le Guin died earlier this year, I decided to put that to rights.

Ged Sparrowhawk, the protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea, makes an appearance in this book, but the main focus is on Tenar, renamed Arha, The Eaten One, when she becomes the One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan.

Le Guin's world building is tremendous. Her father was a well-known anthropologist, and his interest in the study of humankind obviously made its way to his daughter. The search for a new priestess upon the death of a preceding one reminded me of the Tibetan belief in reincarnation, and the search for the new child born upon the death of a Dalai Lama. Poignantly, the carefree child with whom the novel opens, is taken at age five for training in a desert compound near the tombs. Her training is severe, and she becomes hardened and hardhearted.

But, even in this dark place, a shard of her former self remains. So, when she spies Ged hunting for the Ring of Erreth-Akbe in the tombs, curiosity gets the better of her. As she gets to know him, she begins to doubt what she has been told about her life as the One Priestess. She and Ged escape.

The theme of the novel might be that of a girl coming into the knowledge of her true power. In an Afterword written forty years after the book was published, Le Guin writes: "Maybe it was the whole primitive, hateful idea of the feminine as dark, blind, weak, and evil that I saw shaking itself to pieces, imploding, crumbling into wreckage on a desert ground. And I rejoiced to see it fall. I still do."

A woman friend of mine told me recently that when she read the Tombs of Atuan when she was twelve, it was transformative.

Ursula Le Guin's writing will do that to you!

About The Author:
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California. She published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. A long-time resident of Portland,  Oregon, Le Guin died on January 22nd, 2018.



Monday, February 12, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: FAIRY MOM AND ME by Sophie Kinsella

FAIRY MOM AND ME by Sophie Kinsella (Delacorte Press, January 2018)

Sophie Kinsella is a bestselling author from Britain--if you read adult literature she has a well-known series: Shopaholic. Now she's written her first book for children, and it's a fun and frothy confection starring fairies. Once the mafiosi got past the glaring pink cover, we enjoyed it immensely.

What It's About (from jacket copy):
Ella Brook can't wait to grow up, because one day she will become a fairy and have her own sparkly wings and a teacher on Fairy Tube, just like her mom! Until then, Ella has to watch her mom in action. But sometimes spells go wrong, and Ella's mom can never seem to remember the right magic codes.

A lot of the time it's up to Ella to come to the rescue. Does she have what it takes to be a fairy one day? Or will there be more glitches than glitter?

Filled with Sophie Kinsella's sparkling humor and Marta Kissi's charming illustrations, Fairy Mom and Me is a story about a savvy girl, her imperfect mom, and a little bit of magic.

Opening Lines:
"Hi there. My name is Ella Brook, and I live in a town called Cherrywood. I have blue eyes and brown hair. My best friends at school are Tom and Lenka. My worst enemy is Zoe. She lives next door and she's my Not-Best Friend. She looks mean even when she smiles. You'll meet them all later."

My Thoughts:
This is a rollicking romp, and a great deal of fun. Mom is quite inept at her fairy magic, and every spell she tries ends up in a great big mess (literally!) I love that the modern fairy learns spells off FairyTube, and employs "Computawand V5s." (Grandma, of course, has an old-fashioned wand.)

There's not a huge amount of character development, but that's not the strength of stories like this. It's all in the crazy mayhem that ensues when fairies try to clean house, or get fed up standing in line at the grocery store. Frenemy Zoe is an out-and-out villain, and little brother Ollie is a one-man wrecking machine.

The illustrations are super, and this is a quick read which would be perfect for 2nd-4th graders. The good news: there is a book 2 in the pipeline: Fairy In Waiting! Also, in late January, Lambur Productions announced it had optioned the book for a live-action television series!!! A modern-day Bewitched, maybe?!

(P.s. I received a free copy from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.)

About the Author:
Sophie Kinsella's books for grown-ups have sold over thirty-eight million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than forty languages. They include the Shopoholic series, Can You Keep a Secret?' and The Undomestic Goddess. She is also the author of the YA novel Finding Audrey. The adventures of Ella and Fairy Mom are her first stories for children. She lives in London, England, with her husband and family. WEBSITE