Monday, December 16, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: A SONG FOR BIJOU by Josh Farrar

A SONG FOR BIJOU (by Josh Farrar, Walker Books 2013)

What it's About (from the book jacket): From the moment Alex Schrader sees Bijou Doucet, he knows that she is the girl for him. So what if his friends would rather goof around and play video games? Alex must win Bijou's heart.
When Bijou meets Alex, she can't believe a boy would even talk to her, let alone ask her out. Recently moved from Haiti after the devastating earthquake, Bijou is still adjusting to the drastic differences of life in America--life that includes a new school, new friends, and, now, even boys.
Alex has a lot to learn when it comes to girls--both in Haitian culture and with his own friends--but he won't give up on Bijou. And Bijou might just be interested in Alex...
It will take the help of great friends and a grand plan to make Bijou see that her interest in Alex doesn't have to be a betrayal of all that she lost.

Opening Lines: "The first time I see her, following Mary Agnes Brady out of Peas 'n Pickles at 3:47 on a Wednesday afternoon in the second week of March, the slow motion thing happens. It's like the pause button's been pushed on everything I see. The image--a beautiful girl with butterfly braids, snapping back the tab on a can of ginger ale--freezes for a millisecond. After the sound of the can's sharp pop and the little breath of fizz that follows it, time stops, and I think, Who is that incredible girl?"

What I Liked:
Diversity: This may be because the novel is set in multi-ethnic Brooklyn, but there's a naturalness to the diversity here. Many of the characters are from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, or are Japanese American, but that is not really what defines them. Alex never thinks it's a big deal that the girl he's attracted to has black skin. She's just a beautiful human being, with a rich culture. And I loved learning more about Haiti--particularly the Haitian street music called rara.

Pitch Perfect Middle School Speak: There were times when I was reading this when I wondered if Josh Farrar had been following 7th graders around with a camcorder (like Alex's friend Ira does.) He captures this particular age's interests and speech patterns perfectly.

The Role of Adults: Those of you who are regular readers know that I'm on a mini crusade against the meme of littering the pages of middle grade fiction with the corpses of adults. Sometime middle grade can read like a meeting of Orphans Anonymous. I much prefer when adults are present in children's lives, and can be used to further the narrative. In this case, two of the adults (Bijou's uncle, Tonton Pierre, and Alex's mother) are powerful impediments to the young people's plans to get together.

From A Writer's Perspective: A Song for Bijou is first person present, told by dual narrators. This, by the way, is not my own favorite narrative technique--far from it--but if you want to study its successful use, you would be well-served by studying what Josh Farrar achieves here. The choice of dual narratives is perfect, because we see events from such amazingly different cultural perspectives. The first person POV brings out both Alex's and Bijou's particular voices, and the present tense gives the story an immediacy because there's a dramatic revelation towards the end. If you want a comparable title, it reminded me a little of Rebecca Stead's Liar and Spy, in that some essential information is kept from the reader--until the character him/herself is ready to face it. I also love what I call the thematic circle--in which the book starts with that slow-motion image, and ends with it too. I live for these Aha! moments while reading. For me, they are the mark of a master storyteller.

The Verdict: A book with a middle grade boy's POV on romance! (There's not that many of them around.) An insight into an unfamiliar culture! There's plenty to smile and laugh about, as well as a moment to tear up over. (Remember, 5-star books for me are those that make me both laugh and cry.) This ranks as one of my favorite reads of the year, and think it would be a popular choice for 5th to 7th graders of both genders.

About the Author (from the book jacket): Josh Farrar is the author of Rules to Rock By. Josh wrote A Song for Bijou as a kind of love letter to the borough of Brooklyn, New York, where he lives. While working on the story, he took long winter walks in the neighborhood of Flatbush, sampled many delicious West Indian dishes, listened to rara music in Prospect Park, and bruised his thumb in a Haitian drumming class. Website:

Happy Holidays: This is my last post of the year. Wow--didn't 2013 go quickly?! The Don is off on his annual winter trip to the gaming tables of Vegas, and so he allows us minions to leave the compound and spend time with our own families. I'll be guzzling eggnog, dreaming of Christmas pudding, and looking forward to the arrival of my family from England, who are going to spend New Year's with us in Portland!

Thanks to you all for visiting this blog on a consistent basis. I treasure all your comments and interactions. I will be at PROJECT MAYHEM on Wednesday the 18th for a three-book giveaway, so if you have time pop over there. Best wishes and blessings for the coming year, and may 2014 be a year when dreams are realized. Ciao!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: HARD LUCK (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8) by Jeff Kinney

A couple of weeks ago, Jeff Kinney came to town. Fifty fourth and fifth graders from my son's elementary school were invited to meet him at one of our local indie bookstores. My son was thrilled to be one of those chosen.

When I asked him why he liked the Diary of a Wimpy Kid so much (we now have all 8 books in the series) he replied that they were funny, and that he felt he could read them quickly. As a reluctant reader, this obviously gave him a strong sense of accomplishment.

As we drove past the bookstore in the morning, this is the sight we saw:

Holy tour buses, Batman!

On the strength of this showing, I decided to read all 8 of the Wimpy Kid books. I found my son was right: I could read them quickly and yes, they were funny.

Greg Heffley, the eponymous Wimpy Kid, is a pretty flawed character. Throughout the books, he treats his "best friend" Rowley Jefferson abominably. Rowley is pretty much a stooge for whatever scheme Greg is dreaming up. And woe betide Rowley if he doesn't jump to Greg's tune. The major story of book 8 is that Rowley has a girlfriend, and Greg doesn't. All the usual shenanigans Greg has with his family and at school continue--although Greg's older brother Rodrick features less. (I kinda liked the Loded Diper subplots of the first few books.)

The books are written with verve, and the heavily interspersed illustrations are pitch perfect. I think Wimpy Kid was the catalyst for the ever-increasing number of these heavily illustrated middle grade series (my son says I must read Big Nate next.) I had the dubious honor of making the woman who was reading Anna Karenina in the tea shop where I like to hang out look at me disapprovingly several times, as I sniggered at something silly. She probably thought "why is that grown man reading such tripe?!"

Jeff Kinney told my son's class that there will be two more Wimpy Kid books. What with movies and all the tie-ins, I think I can safely say that this series is a classic.

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!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MISTER MAX--THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by Cynthia Voigt

MISTER MAX: THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by Cynthia Voigt (Alfred A. Knopf 2013)

What It's About (via Goodreads): Max Starling's theatrical father likes to say that at twelve a boy is independent. He also likes to boast (about his acting skills, his wife's acting skills, a fortune only his family knows is metaphorical), but more than anything he likes to have adventures. Max Starling's equally theatrical mother is not a boaster but she enjoys a good adventure as much as her husband. When these two disappear, what can sort-of-theatrical Max and his not-at-all theatrical grandmother do? They have to wait to find out something, anything, and to worry, and, in Max's case, to figure out how to earn a living at the same time as he maintains his independence.

Opening Lines: "William Starling carried the packet back into the dining room, where his wife and son were seated. In those days, most families did their most ambitious cooking for the midday dinner, but the Starlings were theatrical, and you cannot give a good Sunday matinee on a full stomach."

What I Liked: Well, first of all, I am a theatre buff--so anything about acting is going to whet my whistle. I'm also a fan of a good mystery, and this book--the first of a planned trilogy by Cynthia Voigt--has mysteries in spades.

The first mystery is why Max's parents have disappeared, and where they have gone to. Max, fortunately, has a great "Grammie" who is nothing if not resourceful and calm. Plus she's a librarian! (I love her already.) She allows Max to live in his home (right next to hers, but still...) while they try to figure things out. Max shows great resourcefulness in becoming a "Solutioneer," and earns his keep my solving  such things as finding missing dogs and missing spoons, which lead to the reuniting of a pair of lovers who have  been the victims of a huge and painful misunderstanding.

There are a galaxy of creepy characters: the repugnant Baroness Barthold, and the scheming charlatan, Madame Olenka. I also liked the setting (the made-up city of Queensbridge, which has a bit of a European flair to it) as well as the time period (dates never given, but feels like the early years of the 20th century.)

And I loved Max's stretching himself. Unlike his parents, he is not an actor, but on his own he becomes a master of disguise, using characters from the plays his parents put on at their theater. ("Max, in the costume of one of the unsuccessful suitors from Adorable Arabella, was not surprised by  the bad manners of the old woman..." and "Max, in the suit his father had worn to play Banker Hermann in the Wordly Way and with a smaller pillow than the one he'd worn for Inspector D0ddle..."

I have a suspicion that this would be a good classroom read aloud for grades 5 and above--because of all the characters and the shenanigans. I'm looking forward to Book 2: Mister Max: The Book of Secrets, coming in 2014.

About the Author (from the flap copy): Cynthia Voigt is the author of many books for young readers. her accolades include a Newbery Medal for Dicey's Song (Book 2 in the Tillerman cycle), a Newbery Honor for A Solitary Blue (Book 3 in the Tillerman cycle), and the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults. She is also the author of Homecoming (Book1 of the Tillerman cycle), the Kingdom series, he Bad Girls series, and Young Fredle, among others. WEBSITE

Monday, October 14, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL by Veera Hiranandani

THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL by Veera Hiranandani (Dealacorte, 2012)

I have to admit that I love middle grade novels that have diverse characters. In this one, the MC is half-Indian and half-Jewish--and she feels she fits into neither world!

What it's About (from the jacket copy): After her father loses his job, Sonia Nadhamuni, half Indian and half Jewish American, finds herself yanked out of private school and thrown into the unfamiliar world of public education. For the first time, Sonia's mixed heritage makes her classmates ask questions—questions Sonia doesn't always know how to answer—as she navigates between a group of popular girls who want her to try out for the cheerleading squad and other students who aren't part of the "in" crowd. 

At the same time that Sonia is trying to make new friends, she's dealing with what it means to have an out-of-work parent—it's hard for her family to adjust to their changed circumstances. And then, one day, Sonia's father goes missing. Now Sonia wonders if she ever really knew him. As she begins to look for answers, she must decide what really matters and who her true friends are—and whether her two halves, no matter how different, can make her a whole.

Opening Lines: "I'm in school, sitting with my hair hanging long down the back of my chair, my arm around my best friend, Sam. We're planning our next sleepover. Sam's parents have the tent and sleeping bags; her mom even bought us cool spy pen-flashlights just for the occasion. To top it off, it's Friday and summer's only two weeks away."

What I Liked: As you can see from the opening lines above, Sonia starts the novel feeling happy. However, within the space of a page-and-a-half, Sonia goes from thinking "life's pretty good," to hearing the news that her dad's lost his job, and that her future is about to change. Next September, she is to leave her beloved school, called "Community." and enroll in a public school. 

Veera Hiranandani does a great job making Sonia's emotions believable. She does an equally great job at mapping out changing friendships. Sonia and Sam are never going to be as close again; in fact, Sonia is thrust into a new set of friendships which are very confusing. I liked the fact that the cliquish girls were not too stereotypically unlikable. Kate, a cheerleading type, takes an interest in Sonia, and Sonia ends up becoming a cheerleader (much to her mom's amazement and chagrin.) Sonia's friendship with Kate is always tenuous--beset by highs as well as embarrassments. 

There are also interesting explorations about subtle and not-so-subtle racism, about mental illness (Sonia's dad disappears because he is suffering from a major depression), and about what it means to be biracial and wondering where you really belong. The ending is nicely understated. Sonia's father is in treatment, and the family goes to visit him. There, Sonia and her father have a conversation. 
Sonia says "Sometimes it feels like I'm the only one like me."
"We all feel like that, for one reason or another. But I'll tell you one thing."
 "What's that?"
"There is only one Sonia. And the rarer the thing, the more special it is."
"Like the Taj Mahal."
"Exactly," he says. 

About the Author (from the jacket): Veera Hiranandani... received her MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College and has written fiction for children and adults. Besides being a writer, she is also a Montessori teacher. Veera lives in New York with her husband, daughter, and son. This is her first novel for young readers. WEBSITE   TWITTER

Monday, October 7, 2013

Still Time to Make Those Cybils Nominations!!

The week got away from me, and I didn't have time for a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posting! However, I would like to take this opportunity to toot the Cybils trumpet (yes, I am a second round judge and want to read some stellar stuff) and have you go and look at the list of nominees so far--and perhaps nominate one/some of your own. So many Middle Grade Masters visit this blog: please share some of your knowledge and taste with the Cybils.

Here are the links: Middle Grade
                            Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Nominations close on October 15th. The eligibility requirements are as follows (from the Cybils FAQ page): Any English or bilingual books published in the U.S. or Canada between the end of one contest and start of another. For 2013, that means books released between Oct. 16, 2012 and Oct. 15, 2013.

Have a wonderful reading--and nominating--week!

Thursday, October 3, 2013


The following scene occurred the other night, just after the Don finished watching Breaking Bad...

The Don: Michele, youse know what I think? This Walter White guy--we gotta bring more teachers into the famiglia. My nephew, Lorenzo: he could do with some tutoring.

Me: Um, this is a TV show, boss.

The Don: Hey, but there's no smoke without fire. Speaking of which, Lorenzo came to me talking about some crazy quiz you did. And he's says youse the smoke that's gotta get fired.

Me: I beg your pardon?

The Don: He got only one question right. Now what kinda quiz is that? And he tells me there's a whole bunch of dames who done good. And youse gonna pay 'em. Tell me my ears are deceivin' me.

Me: Well, yes. Lorenzo's right--

The Don: --He's a clever boy.

Me: Yes, Don. I know. He's right. There are a bunch of amazing middle grade know-it-alls out there--

The Don: These brainy dames?

Me: Yes, they do all happen to be women.

The Don: (Sighing) What are they doin'? Reading all the hours God gave 'em? Perhaps I should put them in charge of this blog thing of yours?

Me: Well, they'd probably do a better job.

The Don: Hey, I'm just jokin' with ya, Michele. You're doin' okay. But next time, you talk with me first, capice? We gotta get Lorenzo in the winner's circle. Otherwise, my sister gonna kill me. He's her favorite son.

Me: Got it, boss.

The Don: So who are these clever dames then? We should pay them a visit.

Me: (thinking I better look up the number for the witness protection program) There were two of them who got 100 per cent.

The Don: An A++. Brava complimenti. Their names?

Me: Joanne Fritz and Nikki Matteson. So, I'm going to split the prize and give them each $25--

The Don: You mean 25 grand?

Me: Uh no. Not unless you increase the blog budget.

The Don: They did all that work for $25 measly bucks? No wonder Lorenzo's not going places.

Me: Well, Nikki's going to get an extra $5 because she referred someone to the quiz.

The Don: Now you're talking! A pyramid scheme. So much cleaner than being a chemistry teacher in a meth lab. Che pazzo! Hey, this Nikki. She Italian?

I left him making plans to get Joanne and Nikki involved in something nefarious. In the meantime, J & N, I'll be contacting both of you soon--please change your names and rent a post office box. Look for a plain brown envelope. Take it, and run!

Everyone: thanks for taking the time to do the quiz. You all rock. (Special honorable mention to Akoss, who got 95%.) I've got warm and fuzzy feelings thinking about all the Middle Grade Masters out there.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: DOLL BONES by Holly Black

DOLL BONES by Holly Black (Margaret K. McElderry, 2013)

What It's About: (via Goodreads):
Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . .

Opening Lines: "Poppy set down one of the mermaid dolls close to the stretch of asphalt road that represented the Blackest Sea. They were old--bought from Goodwill--with big shiny heads, different-colored tails, and frizzy hair."

What I Liked: Shameful admission time, but I haven't yet read The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony diTerlizzi. So, I don't know how this stand-alone novel compares. What I do know is that I am spooked by dolls.  (When I was young, I watched a movie that had a hideous doll that came to life. The famous line I remember was : "Rosa doesn't like you. She will punish you." Avid Googling has failed to turn up the name of this movie, so perhaps I was just possessed...) Thus, having a potentially haunted china doll causing all sorts of problems for Zach, Poppy, and Alice ratcheted the creep factor up nicely.

And it is creepy. The effect, I believe, is a result of the narrative voice--Zach's POV, but quite distant, allowing the narrative voice to say things like: "He wasn't sure how much time had passed when he finally stopped crying. It was a beautiful day--crisp, the way early fall days can be warm but have an occasional chill wind. The sky overhead was as blue as spilled ink from a pen. Leaves shivered above him." The narrative voice overlays the character's senses, making such lyrical descriptions possible.

Talking about descriptions--this is definitely one of Holly Black's strengths. She does a marvelous job portraying the dying heart of East Liverpool, and her passages about sailing make you feel like you own a boat yourself.

The story also has to do with testing friendships, and with children being on the cusp of growing up--and realizing they're growing up. As Poppy says: "I hate that you're going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I'm next."

For kids that like creepiness in their stories, this one's a definite keeper!

About the Author (From Goodreads bio): 
Holly Black is a best-selling author of contemporary fantasy novels for kids, teens, and adults. She is the author of the Modern Faerie Tale series (TitheValiant, and Ironside), The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), and The Good Neighbors graphic novels (with Ted Naifeh) The Poison Eaters and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction, and The Curse Worker series (White CatRed Glove, and Black Heart). She is also the co-editor of three anthologies, Geektastic (with Cecil Castellucci), Zombies vs. Unicorns (with Justine Larbalestier), and Welcome to Bordertown(with Ellen Kushner). Her most recent works are the middle grade novel, Doll Bones, and the dark fantasy stand-alone, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Theo, in a house with a secret library.

Follow Holly Black on Twitter!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Fiendishly Difficult Middle Grade Mafioso Quizathon: Your Chance to Prove Yourself a Middle Grade Master!

Are you a Middle Grade master? If so, you may be tempted to take my fiendish quiz.

Here are the rules: You have from now till Monday September 30th, 11:59 PM PST to take the quiz and send me the certificate of your results. (Correction: Actually, you don't have to send me the certificate. The Quiz program allows me to see your results! So, just send me an e-mail to, subject line I TOOK THE QUIZ, or leave a comment on the blog). One attempt per entrant, please!

The prize: a $25 gift certificate to a brick and mortar bookstore of your choice (including Barnes and Noble).

Extra prize: For every person you refer to take the quiz (and who mentions your referral in the comments), you will receive the chance of an extra $5, up to a grand total of $50. (i.e. refer 3 people (3 x $5) and, if you win, you would collect $40.

I'm hoping this will work and not have any glitches--this is the first time I've used the ProProf quiz maker. If there are snafus, the quiz will have to be taken down and reworked. But the Don and I are very confident! Good luck, and may the Middle Grade Knowledge be with you!

P.S. After you rock the quiz, head to Project Mayhem to congratulate our three new Mayhemmers!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MY ROTTEN LIFE by David Lubar

MY ROTTEN LIFE by David Lubar (Starscape, 2009)

I have to start by saying that I follow David Lubar on both Facebook and Twitter and he is unfailingly witty and wise, as well as a veritable pun-meister. He is also very prolific!

What It's About: Ten-year-old Nathan Abercrombie is having a really bad day. First, Shawna Lanchester, the prettiest girl in his class, doesn't invite him to her party. Then he gets picked last in gym class. Things couldn't get any worse... until he gest doused with an experimental serum that turns him into a half-dead zombie!

Nathan soon discovers that being half-dead isn't all bad. He doesn't need any sleep, so he can stay up all night and play games online. He doesn't feel any pain, so there's no need to worry about Rodney the bully anymore. Still, Nathan would rather be human. Will he find a cure? Or will Nathan be half-dead forever?

Opening Lines: "It's no fun having your heart ripped from your body, slammed to the floor, and stomped into a puddle of quivering red mush. It's even less fun when it happens three times in one afternoon."

What I liked about it: The cover is an absolute winner. And the pacing never flags. By the end of chapter three, Nathan's already been doused by the Hurt-Be-Gone potion that will turn him into a zombie. And this version of a zombie is a winner: Nathan leads his school to victory by doing two hundred and thirty nine chin-ups, and then he shows what an amazing gamer he is (after all, zombies don't have to sleep, so Nathan can hone his gaming skills all night long.) It's a classic, rip-roaring middle grade novel that will have you in stitches--and rooting for the zombie.

About the Author:  David Lubar has written a ton of books, including several others in the Nathan Abercrombie series. He lives in Pennsylvania. You can find all sorts of information on his books, his life, and his views on humor at his website.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

O Happy Day! (Cybils Mark 3)

I teased you yesterday about some big news--and now I'm finally able to reveal it. I will be a Cybils Middle Grade panelist/judge for the third straight year!

For those of you who usually pay no heed to my ravings, the Cybils stands for Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards. 2013 marks the 8th year of the awards and, as usual, the Cybils are trying to honor books that combine literary merit with kid appeal. In other words, our winners are books like Origami Yoda, which is well-written and fun but isn't going to win the Newbery.

In 2011 I was a first round panelist, which meant I had to read over a hundred books. Brain Death ensued. Last year, I decided that being a round two judge and having to read only seven books in five weeks was more my speed. Fortunately, I was chosen to be a round two judge for this year too.

What I like most about the Cybils is the introduction it gives me to a huge crop of fun middle grade books, as well as an introduction to other book bloggers. We have great chats as we decide on our choices/winners, and so I'm always excited when the judging lists are published and I recognize old friends. This year, the first round for middle grade contains good pals like Deb A. Marshall, Jennifer Rumberger, and Jennifer Donovan. Our fearless leader (also a first round panelist) is the great Karen Yingling, whom I hold in the highest esteem.

As yet, I don't know the other second rounders, but I can bet they'll all turn out to be super-duper. The one thing that links us all, from our different backgrounds and experiences, is our LOVE for children's literature.


(Here's the full list)

2013 Middle Grade Fiction Judges

First Round

Second Round

Monday, September 16, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: PENELOPE CRUMB by Shawn K. Stout

PENELOPE CRUMB by Shawn K. Stout (Philomel 2012)

Opening Lines: "Miss Stunkel's art class is my All-Time Favorite. Don't get me wrong, the rest of fourth grade is all right, I guess. But for me, drawing is like wiggling my toes in the ocean. It just feels good."

What It's About (from jacket copy): There are some things that Penelope Crumb knows for certain:  Onions are the worst vegetable because they look like worms when they get all fried up. Miss Stunkel's Friday lizard pin is the best one of the week because it has rubies for eyes. And when a person is Graveyard Dead, they can never, ever come back back to life. Except... what if that person is your grandpa Felix? And what if you discover that you have his very same nose--one that happens to be EXTREMELY BIG?

When all of these things happen to Penelope Crumb, she knows just what to do: become a nose detective to find her long-lost grandfather and make her family whole again. But finding him isn't that easy, and Penelope has to sneak around, lie an eensy-weensy bit, and break about a gazillion of her mother's rules, risking the Very Biggest Punishment of Her Life. Is Grandpa Felix worth it? Penelope is pretty sure he will be--if she can ever find him, that is...

What I Liked:  I defy anyone not to fall in love with Penelope Crumb. She is one spunky fourth-grader, with a voice and a world view all her own. She just knows her older brother has been turned into an alien and renamed Terrible (his real name is Terrence.) She also knows that looks have descriptions all their own and in capital letters, especially if they come from Mom ( Mom "gives me a face that says, You Probably Aren't Going to Like What I'm About to Tell You.") Best of all, she wears her "colossal" nose as a badge of pride. After all, it's a link to her grandfather who (for reasons never spelled out) has been ignoring the family ever since Penelope's dad died.

Shawn K. Stout writes with appealing verve and with great insight into what it's like being a fourth-grade girl. I eagerly followed Penelope through the twists and turns of the narrative. The most delightful thing is that, throughout the novel, Penelope was the highly verbal engine of her own fate. I would highly recommend this novel [and hey, I've just found out there are sequels, (Penelope Crumb Never Forgets and Penelope Crumb Finds Her Luck) now both making their way to the top of my huge TBR list] to readers age 9-12.

About the Author: Shawn K. Stout's other novels are about Fiona Finkelstein, (but have been recently retitled.) She received her MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives with her family in Frederick, Maryland. She is represented by Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Agency.

Find out more about Shawn K. Stout on her website here!

Finally, a big fat, happy September-back-to-school month from us at Middle Grade Mafioso. Lots more time for me and the Don to kibbitz and discuss media strategy now that the kiddos take the armor-plated limousine to school. I've got a whole bunch of book reviews I've been piling up, plus some exciting news to share tomorrow (though unfortunately not of the "I'm being published" kind, though we can but dream.) So pop on back on the morrow and find out my news. Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 12, 2013

NICE AND MEAN by Jessica Leader

NICE AND MEAN by Jessica Leader (Aladdin, 2010)

Opening Lines: "When I realized I was about to flip through the Seventeen Back-to-School Fashions for the third time that afternoon, I slammed the magazine shut and hurled it across the room."

What it's about: Told in dual POV. Marina is the "Mean." She's a 7th-grade Queen Bee, who is feeling threatened by one of her "friends," Rachel. She hatches a plot to show Rachel up in a video called Victim/Victorious.

Sachi is also in 7th grade, and she is the "Nice." However, she's also definitely a C-lister, and usually far beneath Marina's notice. Her family moved to New York from India when she was a young child, and they are focused entirely on Test Prep so that Sachi can get into the best high school. Sachi has a love for making videos.

That's how Sachi and Marina end up in the same video class. Much to their horror, the teacher assigns them to be partners.

What I Liked: This novel has great insight into middle school cliques and manipulations. Both voices are captivating and very different. Each POV shift is introduced with either an excerpt from Marina's "Little Black Book" or from Sachi's Video Nightmare/Lifemare, in which Sachi runs a screenplay through her head of all the awful things befalling her.

It has a satisfying ending. Sachi and Marina find they can cooperate. They will never be in the same social circle, but they have learned valuable lessons about themselves and about one another. The final words are very appropriately "Fade to Black."

About the Author: Jessica Leader is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Brown University and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. NICE AND MEAN is her first novel. You can learn more about Jessica Leader on her fun website.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Have A Hot Time Hades by Kate McMullan

HAVE A HOT TIME, HADES by Kate McMullan (Stone Arch Books, originally published in 2001, reissued in 2012)

A total slouch--that's what I've been on Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. After all, I don't have the Don breathing down my neck as "blog editor-in-chief," the kids are out of school for the summer and busy booby-trapping the back yard, and what little time I have for "me" is usually spent wrangling with the interminable work-in-progress. That's why, at a delightful 158 pages, Have a Hot Time, Hades was so easy to pick up. Add to this the fact that I've been in love with Greek mythology since at least the 3rd grade, and it all ended up as a splendid summer read for the too-busy blogger.

What it's about: (from the Capstone site) Think you know the real story behind the Greek myths? Think again. Most people only know what Zeus wants them to. But the truth is, Zeus is a total myth-o-maniac. Hades, King of the Underworld, is here to set the record straight on how he ended up as Ruler of the Underworld and Zeus became King of the Gods.

Opening Lines: "Call me Hades. My full name--His Royal Lowness, Lord of the Dead, King Hades--is a bit of a mouthful.

Why I liked it: VOICE--Hades's narrative has this in spades. The conceit--that Zeus is a cowardly braggart--and that Hades saves him all the time, without any credit, is executed with a great deal of panache.

Pacing: This is a fast and fun read, Writers, if you want to study how to construct a fast-paced narrative, this would be a good one to study.

Humor: Spot on for the target audience, which I figure would be 8-12 year olds. Here's an example, as the three brother gods approach the Underworld. (Po is Poseidon).
 "This must be the River Styx," I said. Mom told me about it.""You mean the River Stinks," said Po."Pee-yew!" Zeus agreed.The smell was strong, but to me it just smelled like an old auntie who'd put on too much perfume.

The good news is that there are seven more titles in the series, with a new one coming out this year. I'm looking forward to reading them all!!

About the Author: Kate McMullan is the author of many books for young readers, including I Stink!, winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor; I'm Mighty; Meg's Prairie Diary, a historical fiction trilogy set in St. Louis and Kansas in 1856, and the Dragon Slayer's Academy chapter book series. Kate McMullan lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband and collaborator, noted illustrator Jim McMullan, their daughter, two cats, and a dog. Kate McMullan's website

Monday, July 8, 2013


The winner of FISH FINELLI:SEAGULLS DON'T EAT PICKLES, which I reviewed on June is:

I'll be contacting you soon, Akoss!

As for what I was doing for most of the past two weeks: watching Britain's 77 year drought of men's Wimbledon's single's champions come to an end with the sterling victory of Andy Murray. So proud and happy!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bad, Bad Blogioso

Folks, I am feeling very ashamed of my recent blogging efforts. (Please don't tell the Don. He's on his annual hols in Sicily, and may not even have Wifi, which has totally saved my bacon.)

I feel bad not only because I'm not posting much, but especially because I'm not being a very good pal and visiting you guys' blogs. And I miss you. I am going to make a concerted effort to do a better job from this day forth. After all, July's a good month for new resolutions, isn't it?

If you have a moment to spare, check out my review of author and agent Anna Olswanger's powerful short novel about the Holocaust, which is over at Project Mayhem today.

And thanks for being such patient and long-suffering blog pals.


Friday, June 28, 2013

YA Friday: WINGER by Andrew Smith

Okay, so occasionally the MG Mafiosi stray into YA territory, usually at the recommendation of some YA guru like Matt MacNish. For a while now, Matt has been trumpeting the praises of Andrew Smith and then, well, I heard Andrew's latest novel was about rugby and I knew I had to read it.

Some of you may know I'm originally from England. Less of you know that, from the age of 9 until 17, I was a pupil at an English boarding school located on the Yorkshire moors. As with most British "public" schools (which are actually private schools), the main winter sport was rugby--and I played in rugby teams from the age of ten until I left the school in my final year as a member of the 2nd XV. (I originally played second row, but as I got older I was moved to wing--which for those of you in the rugby know is a very curious transition.)

Which brings me to WINGER. It too is set in a boarding school--although a co-educational one. (My school was all-boys until about 20 years ago when they allowed girls to enter. About time!) The school is located in Oregon, which is where I now live. The main character, Ryan Dean West, is so clever that he is a 14-year-old high school junior. He's also very fast, as a rugby winger has to be. [More similarities: I was a 14-year-old sophomore, so Ryan Dean is only a wee bit cleverer than me.]

Don't you agree that this novel has my name on it? I started it one morning and read all the way through in one sitting, it was that compelling. From the first scene, with Ryan Dean being held over a toilet by a pair of football playing thugs, the book has an air of menace to it. The menace continues throughout--the weather becomes a character, in typical dreary wintry Oregon fashion--and there are several violent episodes, including a knifing, which are harbingers of a tragedy to come.

Yet it is also a very funny book, and a book about friendship. A lot of this has to do with Ryan Dean's energetic take on the world, and the cartoons he draws which frequently make it onto the novel's pages. What's more, Andrew Smith has a pitch-perfect ear for the teen voice--and several times I had to stop to pinch myself that this wasn't being written by an actual teenager.

It is very true to boarding school life, with underage drinking, rivalries, and plenty of petty and not so petty cruelties. I won't spoil the ending, but I was not alone among readers (if Twitter is to be believed) in finding tears flowing down my face as I read it.

Friendships sustain us, and they sustain Andrew Smith's characters. But cruelty is also part of the human condition. The bullies who attack Ryan Dean in the novel's first pages, and who are responsible for the book's sad denouement, are not, in my experience, too far-fetched. In my boarding school, there were definitely a couple of characters that everyone in their right mind tried to stay away from. They were sadistic tormentors of younger boys. One of them in particular was a very talented individual and extremely skillful on the rugby field. But he had cold, cruel eyes and a penchant for violence which was truly unnerving. (Now that I'm old I wonder what it was in his personal life that drove him to such cruelty. But as a youth I knew just to duck and cover.)

My high-school junior read the front flap and wanted to read the book immediately. I would recommend it to high schoolers, with the knowledge that there are no punches pulled with the mature subject matter and the frequency of cuss words. As for me, I was thoroughly captivated by it, and will remember it for a long time. Thanks, Matt MacNish, for introducing me to Andrew Smith. I'm heading off to read his other novels now.

Monday, June 24, 2013


I am fortunate to kickoff the blog tour for E.S. Farber's new middle grade series Fish Finelli. I have to say in passing that Chronicle Books is one of my very favorite publishing companies (they also are the publisher for Michaela McColl's novels, which I've raved about on this blog before.) Chronicle's books always have great production values, and it's evident that a lot of care has gone into their design. These books are good to hold.

And read, of course! I read Fish Finelli in one sitting, and I'm sure my boys, who are nearly seven and ten  would love it too. It's a terrific "boy" book without all that tiresome flatulence and booger jokes. Although there is a scene with goose poop which, as Fish says, "seriously puts the N in Nasty."

What it's About: (From the Chronicle Books catalog)--When bully Bryce Billings bets Fish Finelli that he can’t find Captain Kidd’s legendary long-lost treasure, Fish and his friends embark on a quest to find real-life pirate treasure. Between sneaking into the library to track down Captain Kidd’s map, stowing away on a boat, and trespassing on an island, Fish and his friends have their work cut out for them. But will Fish actually be able to find Captain Kidd’s booty and win the bet?

Opening Lines:  "It all started the morning I broke into my lobster piggy bank. I had chosen a basin wrench for the job. It's a good tool for a delicate operation. I know this because my dad is a plumber and taught me lots of stuff about tools."

Why I liked it:

The three amigos -- I really liked Fish and his two buddies, Roger and T.J. Roger is a wisecracker of a sidekick, and T.J. is the grandmaster of snacks. Fish himself is a fount of information (and he doesn't even wear glasses!)

The humor -- The corny jokes are exactly how boys of this age interact. Here's an example from page 82. 
"You can say that again," said T.J., grinning.
 "That," said Roger.
 T.J. threw a malt ball at him.
The adventure --  There's stowing away on boats, trespassing for pirate treasure, and spying on potentially villainous librarians (sorry, librarians!). And the pace moves fast.

The illustrations -- These are the work of Jason Beene. Every few pages there is a fun, one-page pictorial spread. The cartoony look fits the narrative to a tee.

The sidebars, packed full of tidbits of information -- As previously mentioned, Fish is a bit of a walking encyclopedia. E.S. Farber has added a number of sidebars to expand information on historical characters mentioned in the narrative (Captain Kidd, Nikola Tesla and Marco Polo), animals (lions and ospreys), and history (the origin of the white flag of surrender, as well as the history of the microwave oven). Cool stuff.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: E.S. Farber is the mother of a boy who likes facts along with his fiction, which inspired her to write Fish Finelli. She has authored numerous books for children. She lives in Amagansett, New York.

Here are the other tour dates:

Youth Literature Reviews
Author Interview
Give Away

Somewhere in the middle
Author Interview

Ms. Yingling Reads
Author Interview
Give Away

There's A Book

Give Away

Thanks for stopping by today. Leave a comment, and you will be entered into a drawing for a giveaway of a copy of Fish Finelli: Seagulls Don't Eat Pickles. Happy Reading!