Monday, November 25, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE TRUTH OF ME by Patricia Maclachlan

THE TRUTH OF ME by Patricia MacLachlan (Katherine Tegan Books, 2013)

What It's About (from the book jacket): When Robbie and his dog, Ellie, spend the summer at his grandmother Maddy's house, Robbie revels in his grandmother's easy, relaxed ways, such as eating doughnuts once for dinner. Robbie understands there's something missing in his everyday life with his parents, but he doesn't know what it is.
Maddy makes Robbie's parents nervous, which is one of the reasons Robbie likes Maddy. He likes her stories and he likes the way wild animals come right up to her, without any fear. Maddy helps Robbie find "the truth of me." The truth has to do with something that happened to his mother a long time ago. And it helps Robbie realize what he's really missing and gives him the confidence to make things right."

Opening Lines: "My name is Robert. There are many Roberts before me--a family of Roberts. There are my uncles, my great-uncles, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather, and on and on. I think of all those Roberts when I go to the ballpark and see a line of men waiting to go to the bathroom. All those Roberts."

What I Liked:
Emotional Honesty: This is a story about a child who is unsure of his parents' love. His parents are classical musicians, and often on the road. Robbie mentions that his mother loves her violin more than she loves him.

A good "what to do with the parents" solution: If you read a lot of middle grade, you know that the thorny question of "what to do with the parents" comes up often. Orphans abound. I, on the other hand, like to see living parents--and I'm always heartened when a writer chooses to approach the parent trope in an original manner. Here, Robbie is allowed autonomy because his parents are busy, highly successful, and ABSENT. Yet he also has adults who are involved in his life, particulary Maddy. Let's hear it for Grandmas! (The solution is similar to that in Cynthia Rylant's MISTER MAX, where the theatrical parents disappear and Max relies on his grandmother.)

The Dog! I must be on a dog kick, (see last week's LARA'S GIFT), despite not having a dog--although "dog!" is top of my 10-year-old's Christmas wish list. Ellie, the "brown hound mix" in this novel is a star in her own right--a loyal friend, and the character who ends up "saving the day." Let's hear it for Pooch Power!

The Verdict: I can see this novel becoming beloved by teachers--it would be a great 3rd/4th grade read-aloud. It is also well-suited to the "tender-hearted reader" brigade.

About the Author: Patricia MacLachlan has had a storied career. She won the Newbery with SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and has written many novels and picture books. She lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, with her husband and two border terriers. [Here's a fun interview with her at Publisher's Weekly.]

What the week has in store: School conferences (and hence no school for my younger two); jury duty on Wednesday; and, of course, Thanksgiving. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish all my American readers a happy Thanksgiving. I'm grateful for having you in my life, for fostering a sense of community and fun which makes my writing life a whole lot of wonderful. May you all have a blessed time celebrating the good in life!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LARA'S GIFT by Annemarie O'Brien

LARA'S GIFT by Annemarie O'Brien (Knopf 2013)

What It's About (from the jacket flap):

Young Lara is being groomed in the family tradition to take over as Count Vorontsov’s next kennel steward, breeding borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar. But when Lara’s baby brother is born, she finds herself supplanted as her father decides to make her brother the next kennel steward. Lara has a special gift of understanding these incredible dogs—a gift that her father eyes with fear and superstition. Can Lara convince him to let her fulfill her destiny with the noble borzoi? And can she save her favorite dog, Zar, and the rest of the borzoi from a hungry pack of wolves threatening life on the estate?

Opening Lines: "On the eve my beloved Ryczar was born, under a bright full moon, the north wind whistled and howled. Like a forest spirit gone mad with merriment, it ripped through the Woronzova Kennel and sprawling grounds of Count Vorontsov's grand country estate. All night long, icy flakes of windswept snow drummed against the stable windows until the last pup was born at dawn."

Why I Liked It:
Autobiographical note: I'm sure I've bragged here before about being a Brit--but what I haven't mentioned, I think, is that I am half-Russian. My mother's parents both fled from Russia during the Bolshevik revolution and settled in China, before fleeing once again as the Chinese communists closed in. I'm sure there's a novel in there somewhere! Apparently, my grandfather's family was of the minor Russian nobility, so perhaps that's why I have airs and graces above my station?
Anyway, I am interested in Russia, and all things Russian--and Lara's Gift did a beautiful job of taking me to pre-Revolutionary Russia. Countless times, Annemarie O'Brien did a masterful job of setting, particularly when writing of weather (as in the opening lines quoted above.)

The character of Lara: Lara has been an only child for many years, and as such she is in line to become the next kennel steward. She gravitates to taking care of the dogs, instead of doing needlework--she is essentially going against prescribed roles in her society. I loved how O'Brien built her character, especially with Lara's complex feelings after her brother Bohdan is born. She is jealous, but also full of love for her baby sibling. O'Brien has created a character who, throughout the novel, balances strength with tenderness.

Dogs: I learned a lot about the borzoi breed, which were dogs bred by the nobility for hunting. But, like Lara, these strong dogs also have a very tender side. Zar, the runt whom Lara saves at the beginning (shades of Charlotte's Web!) is extremely brave--to the point of tackling a wolf--but also loyal and gentle with Lara.

A sense of the supernatural: Lara's "gift" is that she has visions--flashes of sight where she can foretell the future. This puts her in conflict with her father, as the family's forebears have previously suffered because of a disastrous event which came about as a result of a vision. Lara's Papa tells her she must never reveal her visions, and Lara keeps her promise. However, the time comes when she must reveal what she knows, or else something terrible will befall those she loves. High stakes indeed!

Bottom Line: This is a delightful historical novel, beautifully rendered and researched, which I feel would be well-received by both girls and boys. I could see a teacher reading it aloud to a 5th or 6th grade class. And who doesn't love a brave and loyal dog?!

About the Author (from her website): 

Annemarie O’Brien has an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing courses at UC Berkeley Extension, Stanford Continuing Studies, Pixar, and DreamWorks, as well as edits children’s books for Room to Read which advocates literacy in developing countries. Lara’s Gift is her debut middle grade novel inspired from a former life when she lived and worked in the former Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era and was gifted Dasha, her first borzoi puppy. WEBSITE Twitter

Annemarie O'Brien with her borzoi, Zola and Zar

Monday, November 4, 2013

November Natterings

I'm nattering about November, because I have yet again not got a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday to share with you. The reason: I am deep into Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. I am enjoying it, but it is not a fast read! I've discovered that I quite like these long and involved fantasies (Game of Thrones, anyone?), but they do take time.

Also in November: my group blog, Project Mayhem--the Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers, is unveiling three new participants this month. Braden Bell, Joe McGee, and Joy McCullough-Carranza have joined the team, and I am very excited to see what insights and opinions they'll share with us. [And I have been promoted to blog manager, continuing my quest for total world-wide-web domination. The Don is proud.]

One of my favorite blogs, Miss Snark's First Victim, is gearing up for the Annual Baker's Dozen Auction. In fact, the YA/MG entry submission dates are this week (on Tuesday and Thursday.) If you have a manuscript ready to go, I would strongly advise you to consider this. It's where, in 2011, I got my mojo to send my work to an agent, and I will be forever thankful to Authoress Anonymous for giving me the confidence to reach for the stars. (Details on the Baker's Dozen HERE).

If any of you are knee-deep in NaNoWriMo: good luck! I've never had the urge to do this, but I doff my fedora to those who do. In fact, I doubt any of you NaNoites are reading blogs these days, so on fire are you to reach those daily word counts.

I hope to be back to MMGM next week. Better stick my nose into Mists again! Have a great reading and writing week!