Monday, October 16, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MY BRIGADISTA YEAR by Katherine Paterson

MY BRIGADISTA YEAR by Katherine Paterson (Candlewick, October 2017) Yes, that Katherine Paterson, who wrote Bridge to Terabithia! Candlewick sent me an ARC of her latest, set in Cuba in 1961. Of course, as always, the Don and I are committed to giving an honest review, no strings attached.
What It's About: 
When thirteen-year-old Lora tells her parents that she wants to join Premier Castro's army of young literacy teachers, her mother screeches to high heaven, and her father roars like a lion. Lora has barely been outside of Havana -- why would she throw away her life in a remote shack with no electricity, sleeping on a hammock in somebody's kitchen? But Lora is stubborn: didn't her parents teach her to share what she has with someone in need? Surprisingly, Lora's abuela takes her side, even as she makes Lora promise to come home if things get too hard. But how will Lora know for sure when that time has come? Shining light on a little-known moment in history, Katherine Paterson traces a young teen's coming-of-age journey from a sheltered life to a singular mission: teaching fellow Cubans of all ages to read and write, while helping with the work of their daily lives and sharing the dangers posed by counterrevolutionaries hiding in the hills nearby. Inspired by true accounts, the novel includes an author's note and a timeline of Cuban history.

Opening Lines:
"Ai-ee!" In all my thirteen years, I hadn't heard a screech like that since the time I accidentally stepped on the cat's tail. But now it was my own mama's voice, shrieking to high heaven."

My Thoughts:
I am totally into stories told in different cultures and different time periods and it's Katherine Paterson, people!!! (I admit to sobbing during Bridge to Terabithia.) This story is not as heartbreaking (what could be, right?) but there are certainly moments of peril and times when you'll get a lump in the throat.

Lora is an idealist, and the opportunity to be a brigadista--teaching the campesinos to read and write--is not one she can pass up. I loved the relationships that developed between her and the family she was living with, as well as the very honest way she expressed her fears.

There is violence off the page--several people on both sides are killed. It was obviously a very troubled time for Cuba. 

I have seen comments on Facebook denigrating the book as pro-Communist. (The anti-Cuban government lobby in the U.S. is very strong.) In Katherine Patterson's defense, I would have to say that she has chosen a period when idealism was at its height after the corruption of the Bautista regime. She mentions in an author's note that there were abuses by Castro. What comes through strongly is a young person's perspective to do good in the world by helping others.

About the Author:
Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books, including 16 novels for children and young people. She has twice won the Newbery Medal, for Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and Jacob Have I Loved in 1981. The Master Puppeteer won the National Book Award in 1977 and The Great Gilly Hopkins won the National Book Award in 1979 and was also a Newbery Honor Book. For the body of her work she received the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1998, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2006, and in 2000 was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.

She is a vice-president of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance and is a member of the board of trustees for Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is also a honorary lifetime member of the International Board of Books for Young People and an Alida Cutts lifetime member of the US section, USBBY. She is the 2010-2011 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

The Patersons have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Katherine currently resides in Vermont with her faithful dog, Pixie. WEBSITE  FACEBOOK

Monday, October 9, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: POPPY by Avi

POPPY by Avi (Harper Trophy, 1995)

The date of publication makes it a classic, although I'd not heard of the series until this book was listed for this year's Oregon Battle of the Books. There are six books in the "Poppy series" and this is the second one.

What It's About (from the back cover):
"At the very edge of Dimwood Forest stands an old charred oak. A great horned owl, Mr. Ocax, waits there. With his piercing gaze, he surveys the lands he calls his own, watching for the creatures he considers his subjects. None dares disobey him, until the night a courageous deer mouse named Poppy boldly defies him, only to find herself in terrible danger. To lead her family to a better life, will Poppy battle Mr. Ocax to the end?

Opening Lines:
"A thin crescent moon, high in the sky, shed faint white light over Dimwood Forest. Stars glowed. Breezes full of ripe summer fragrance floated over nearby meadow and hill. Dimwood itself, veiled in darkness, lay utterly still.

At the very edge of this forest stood an old charred oak on which sat a great horned owl. The owl's name was Mr. Ocax, and he looked like death himself."

My Thoughts:
What an ominous start! (The sort of start the Don likes very much!) Mr. Ocax is a terrifying villain, and the novel continues with the owl preying on two mice, Poppy and Ragweed. I have to say that the opening scenes would be hard for a tender-hearted child reader!

I have been reading a number of animal stories lately, and have to say that a cast of animal characters gives an author latitude, particularly in creating villains. A human villain deserves some complexity (and a villain is never really a villain to him/herself.) Mr. Ocax, on the other hand, is pretty unrelentingly evil.

I read this aloud with my 5th-grader, and it was a grand read-aloud. There's a lot of dialogue and many opportunities to unleash one's inner actor and do different voices. I particularly enjoyed doing the pompous father, Lugwort, and the loquacious porcupine, Ereth. (And Ereth has his own book later in the series.) I would certainly read another in this series. High on the enjoyment level!

Thoughts from my 5th-grader:
Poppy was adventurous and quite thrilling. There wasn't a lot of comedy. Poppy was brave and Mr. Ocax was horrifying. My favorite character was George the cat.

About the Author:
Avi is one of the greats. You can learn more about him on his website. His explanation about how he came about to write the Poppy books is interesting.

Avi's photo by Katherine Warde

Monday, September 25, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ELLRAY JAKES, THE RECESS KING by Sally Warner

ELLRAY JAKES, THE RECESS KING! by Sally Warner (Puffin Books, 2015)

What It's About (from the back cover):
EllRay is down to one-and-a-half best friends, and his little sister, Alfie, suggests that he needs new friends! Or a spare, at least. For emergencies. So EllRay decides to audition other boys for the role of New best Friend.

EllRay's class is brimming with possibilities, but no one seems to share his exact interests. He isn't worried, though--he can fix that once he gets to know them. And the only way to get to know them is to come up with fun things to do at recess. When he's the Recess King, evceryone will want to be his friend!

Opening Lines:
"What's so great about going to the grand opening of the park tomorrow?" I ask my sister Alfie, as I make a snow angel on her fluffy bedroom rug. "So they fixed it up a little. It will still be the same old boring place."
My name is EllRay Jakes, and I am eight years old. I know this kind of stuff."

Things I Liked:
This is the eighth book in the EllRay series, and it made me want to read the others. Sally Warner really impresses by how skilfully she captures the thoughts and voice of a third-grader. Also, there's the usual "boys against the girls" motif, with each faction thinking the other comes from another planet. 

There's humor aplenty. You just know that EllRay's schemes are going to come a cropper, and the kid who read the book with me (we take turns reading the pages)--who also happens to be my youngest and who somehow or other is now in 5th grade (doesn't time fly!)--really enjoyed the whole toilet paper zombie episode. 

EllRay's family is intact, which by now you know is one of my "hoorays" for middle grade. No more dead parents, please. And he has a little sister, Alfie, with whom he has very realistic conflicts. EllRay Jakes, the Recess King! is a quick and clever read, and I recommend it. (So apparently, does the Oregon Battle of the Books, as it is on this year's list. My son and I plan to read all the titles together, so you may see many "OBOB" reviews in the coming weeks!)

Things 5th-grader--man of few words--liked:

"I liked that it was a school story. I liked that Ellray was funny."

About the Author (excerpted from her About the Author page):
Sally Warner is the author of more than forty books, including two works of historical fiction. However, Sally spent the first part of her working life in the visual arts. She was an art education teacher (Pasadena City College) and exhibiting artist.

Sally’s first three books – about creativity – were for adults. And then, as she puts it, “I worked my way up to writing for children.” Sally has written three series to date for young readers: the Lily series, the Emma series, and the EllRay series. Coming soon (2016 – 2018) is a series about Alfie Jakes, EllRay’s little sister!

In addition, Sally has written many “stand-alone” novels for middle readers, and older readers as well. These include “Sort of Forever” (Knopf), “How to be a Real Person (in Just One Day)” (Knopf), “A Long Time Ago Today” (Viking), and “This Isn’t About the Money” (Viking).

Sally’s books have been published in many foreign countries, including Italy, France, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and several countries in South America.

Sally Warner's Website is HERE, and there's a fine interview with her by author Deborah Kalb HERE. (Sally Warner loves Beatrix Potter!)

Sally Warner's author's photo from Penguin Random House author's page

Monday, August 28, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: WEIRD BUT TRUE! DAILY PLANNER from National Geographic Kids

Friends, the mafiosi are back! Summer sped by (hope it did for you too!), with my travels to the mountains of Washington State, and various visits from family. Now the kids are days away from heading back to school--and every mafioso worth his salt is ready for fall: the sounds of leaves gently falling, or the leaves of books gently turning, or the Don going crazy because no one is paying attention to his campaign to rename "middle grade" to "top grade." Oh well, it keeps him out of trouble.

With school on the horizon, what better gift to give one's top grade student but a Weird But True! Daily Planner from our friends at National Geographic Kids. Open it, and you're at once struck by weirdness on its "Belongs To" page, where alongside one's name, one is asked for "weird nickname" and "spirit animal." Then, there's the question sure to start a thousand sniffs: "What do you smell like right now?"

Here's what National Geographic says about the planner on its website:

Prepare to be amazed each day with weird-but-true facts that will impress your friends and stump your parents. Turn the page and record your school work, keep track of activities, and plan your social life, all while learning wild and wacky things about the world around you.

Fun prompts invite you to celebrate weirdness. Plus there are homework help sections and tons of space to write or doodle your daily schedule any way you wish. With beautiful full-color artwork and engaging information and activities, this is the must-have planner. It's a great way to stand out from the crowd."

Yeah, bet you didn't know that the Aztec of Mexico wore popcorn as jewelry, or that sheep burps contribute to global warming! This is a planner that will make you think, laugh, and embrace the weird.

I also received a copy of National Geographic Kids United States Atlas (5th Edition). I have always been an atlas junkie, and this one rocks! Split into geographic regions, it is brilliantly designed, with lots of color and fun facts. As I told my 5th-grader: in 5th grade you have to do a project on an American state. This atlas is going to give you one giant leg up on the competition. (Okay, I admit it, for a mafioso every thing's a competition.)

I'm looking forward to catching up with everyone--visiting blogs old and new. Let me know in the comments what you've been up to this summer, and what you're looking forward to in the fall. Ciao!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Off On My Holidays

It's that time of year again. The Don is hearing the siren call of Sicily, and will be ogling the orange groves and sipping Amaro Averna during warm summer nights. The rest of us are taking advantage of his absence, and going our separate ways.

I'll be spending some time in the Cascade mountains of Washington State, and hosting my family from England and Australia. Thus, I'm not sure how much time I'll have to read middle grade novels and write reviews of them worthy of you, dear readers. So I'm going to be silent here until September.

See you when summer is over! I hope you have a great summer of your own.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: POISON IS NOT POLITE by Robin Stevens

I loved Robin Steven's first book in this series, MURDER IS BAD MANNERS, and reviewed it here last year. Today, I'm over at Project Mayhem, writing about Daisy and Hazel's further adventures in Book 2: POISON IS NOT POLITE. Please hit the link above or here, and pay us a visit!


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THE EXPLORERS blog tour: Interview and Giveaway

THE EXPLORERS:THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY by Adrienne Kress (Penguin Random House, April 25 2017)

The Don and I have been busy blog-touring this week--and we are thrilled to have been included in Adrienne Kress' tour. The Explorers has got it all: winning characters, frightening antagonists, and an appealing sense of whimsical humor. (Also, one of the coolest covers around!)

What It's About:
Featuring a mysterious society, a secretive past, and a pig in a teeny hat, The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a new series for fans of The Name of This Book Is a Secret and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Knock once if you can find it—but only members are allowed inside.

   This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It’s not the one you’re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.)
   This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and there is a girl looking for help that only uninquisitive boys can offer.

The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

Opening Line:
"This story begins, like most stories do, with a pig wearing a teeny hat."

Q & A with Adrienne Kress

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

I'm a huge Norton Juster fan, and also Judy Blume (of course). And I'm definitely a Harry Potterphile, and so adore J.K. Rowling. I also really enjoy the classics including J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

Right now I have Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me?, Lesley Livingston's The Valiant, Danielle Younge-Ullman's Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined and Melanie Fishbane's Maud.

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.

Oh, man. That's really tough. I think, though . . . I think one of my favourite scenes isn't exactly a scene, it's more like a montage. It's the sequence where Sebastian gets to know The Explorers Society building and all the amazing rooms and objects inside. I think this is because I just really loved creating the Society and kind of sort of wish it was real and I could live there.  [MGM: It is a cool place!]

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at.... just being generally awesome :) . Okay, but if forced to choose, I suppose I'm pretty swell at absurdity. I love it so much, mostly because I tend to think the world in general is rather absurd.

5) My breakfast of writing champions is...

Yogurt and fruit, a couple of slices of cheese and English Breakfast tea.

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

I really really really want to go to New Zealand. So much. It just looks like one of the most beautiful places on earth.

And also Hogwarts. [MGM: Wouldn't we all!]

About the Author:
Adrienne Kress is a writer and an actress born and raised in Toronto. She is the daughter of two high school English teachers, and credits them with inspiring her love of both writing and performing. She also has a cat named Atticus, who unfortunately despises teeny hats. She is the author of The Explorers: The Door in the Alley and The Explorers: The Reckless Rescue. To find out more about Adrienne go to and follow @AdrienneKress on Twitter and Instagram.