Monday, March 23, 2015

Middle School Literature Circle: Revisiting THE HUNGER GAMES

My son's 6th grade class was doing literature circles, and his teacher asked for parent volunteers to help out. Being a kind and generous mafioso, I doffed my fedora and told him I was his man. So, for the past three Thursdays, I've been meeting with 7 students (1 boy and 6 girls) to hear their take on THE HUNGER GAMES.

Now, I'm not sure if THG can truly be considered middle grade, but it certainly appeals to middle schoolers. No surprise but, although several of the students had read the book before, ALL of them has seen the movies. Here is a sampling of their opinions:

1). To a person, they wanted the action in the book to start sooner. "Get to the Arena" seemed to be the general battle cry.

2) Several had parents who did not approve of the book (but I guess they let their kid read and/or watch the movie anyway.) Interestingly, before one of the sessions, I had to endure one of the other parent volunteers excoriating the novel. "Who would ever allow their children to take part in such a grisly event," she bewailed. When I shared this with my group, they rolled their eyes. "Hey, the parents didn't have a choice!" they said.

3) The majority of the readers read ahead each week, testament to Susan Collins's skill in pacing and building tension. She's great at tantalizing chapter endings!

4) They gave three cheers for strong female characters. "Love triangles" didn't bother them. (I know that they bother a number of other writers and readers, because they are an overdone trope. My middle schoolers didn't bat an eye.)

5) They enjoy dystopian fiction. There were discussions about other books, such as Divergent and Matched. Agents and editors may be tired of dystopia, but the interest is still out there.

6) They were all eager to read on in the series. "Hey," one of them plotted. "Let's ask Mr. C. if we can read Catching Fire for our next literature circle."

I have to say I had a great time with them. They were engaged and enthusiastic. It's nice to know that reading and discussing books still matters!

I'm heading off on Spring Break, and hoping to get a little reading in. May the reading and writing force be with you. Ciao!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


When things go wrong on the blog, you can bet your bottom dollar it's the work of my arch-nemesis, Luca Brasi, Jr. As longtime readers may recall, Luca has been coveting my job ever since I first put fingers to keyboard, and it seems he will stop at nothing to make me look incompetent,

Luca's latest scheme? He pilfered the Don's fedora--you know, the one from which the Don draws the winning ticket--and planted it on me!

Now, prior to the great reveal, with the fedora goodness knows where, and the Don ranting and raving about sunbeams bouncing off his pate, I tried to convince the boss to try You should have heard the fireworks! "Nuttin' in this life is random," the Don berated me. "If you don't know that, you don't know nuttin'."

Believe me, you don't argue with the Don when he's in one of these moods. He's more doctrinaire than the Pope.

The fedora was finally found almost in plain view, perched behind my computer monitor. Fortunately, I had it dusted for prints and the arrogant, glove-eschewing Luca's were all over the brim.

Luca's apparently taken a short trip to Switzerland.

And now, after much delay--and with many apologies--I am able to announce the winners of both Dianne Salerni's ARC of The Inquisitor's Mark and Ami Polonsky's Gracefully Grayson. Boss, would you do the honors?

(Drumroll, as thick fingers descend into the fedora...)

The winner of Dianne's ARC is:

The winner of Gracefully Grayson is:

I'll be contacting you both, a.s.a.p. And now, back to work! Ciao!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polansky

GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polansky (Hyperion, 2014)

I found this to be a profoundly moving book. Five hankies!

What It's About (from Goodreads): Alone at home, twelve-year-old Grayson Sender glows, immersed in beautiful thoughts and dreams. But at school, Grayson grasps at shadows, determined to fly under the radar. Because Grayson has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body.

The weight of this secret is crushing, but leaving it behind would mean facing ridicule, scorn, and rejection. Despite these dangers, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Strengthened by an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher who gives her a chance to step into the spotlight, Grayson might finally have the tools to let her inner light shine.

Opening Lines: "If you draw a triangle with a circle resting on the top point, nobody will be able to tell it's a girl in a dress. To add hair, draw kind of a semicircle on top. If you do this, you'll be safe, because it looks like you're just doodling shapes."

Why I Loved It: I have a friend, a grandmother, whose grandson knew from an early age that he was actually a girl. Watching this family validate this child has been a beautiful thing. (By the way, if you met this young girl, you wouldn't have a clue that she was biologically born a boy.) This experience has opened my own eyes to transgender issues.

So, when I saw this book on my local library shelves, I felt I needed to read it. I wasn't disappointed.

1) It is beautifully written. Ami Polonsky enters her character's mind with unerring precision--and I was immediately drawn into this story of hiding one's true self in order to remain safe.

2) There are some wonderful adult portrayals in this novel. Mr. Finnegan, ("Finn,") who is Grayson's Language Arts teacher, is incredibly supportive of Grayson's choices, even if it puts him under scrutiny by the administration. Grayson's aunt and uncle are believable in their conflict about how best to support Grayson. (Grayson lives with them because his own parents were killed in a car crash when Grayson was four.)

3) I am a sucker for stories that delve into the world of theater. (I have two sons who are complete and utter thespians.) It is great to see the way the child actors come to accept and support Grayson, who wins the role of Persephone in the school play.

4) I was hugely emotionally invested in Grayson. She has lost so many people in her life, and she continues to lose people throughout the novel through death and other factors. The final scene, when Grayson makes an important decision, is beautifully rendered. As I said, I cried several times during this novel. (I had to tell the Don it was because his wife was cooking onions!)

Having read and loved this novel, I immediately sent a note to the author. Ami Polonsky wrote back, and I am honored to be able to share this interview with you all.

MGM: Hi Ami, thanks for answering my questions today. I'm starting off with the most important one: how did you end up writing about a transgender preteen?

AP: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Michael!

Many people have asked me this question. I have a son and a daughter and when they were little, I became very aware of the way that our society brands boys as “blue, sports-lovers and tough” and girls as “pink, princesses and dainty.” This bothered me so much as a mom. I wanted my kids’ paths in life to be wide open, but the outside world wanted my son in a “blue box” and my daughter in a “pink box.” I began to wonder what someone’s experience would be like if they really didn’t fit into one of these two boxes. What kinds of challenges would they face? And how would it feel if your true self was the opposite of what everyone saw when they looked at you? Grayson’s character was born from these questions.

As for Grayson being a preteen, the easy answer is that I used to teach fifth and sixth grade, so the preteen experience is very near and dear to my heart. But, in addition to this, the idea of having an external identity that is different from your internal identity is pretty universal. It’s something that we all grapple with and the struggle is especially fierce and poignant during the preteen and teenage years.

MGM: I agree with how society puts kids in a box. And yes, as you say,  the idea of having an external identity that is different from your internal identity is pretty universal. Second question: Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?

AP: I have so many; some of my favorite books are middle grade novels. I am very emotionally attached to Sharon Creech and Lois Lowry because WALK TWO MOONS and THE GIVER hooked me on middle grade literature when I started teaching in 1999. I love Rodman Philbrick because so many of my sixth graders found reading FREAK THE MIGHTY to be a transformative experience. Uri Orlev is a lesser-known middle grade writer whose novel THE ISLAND ON BIRD STREET broadened my students’ worlds in significant ways. On a personal level, I’m indebted to Judy Blume for TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, the book that made my son a reader.

MGM: What great suggestions (I'll have to look into Freak the Mighty after this!) What actually is on your nightstand right now?

AP: I currently have three books on my nightstand—ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr, THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY by Jessie Ann Foley and THE MAGICAL ADVENTURE by my six-year-old daughter. ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE doesn’t technically need to be on my nightstand anymore because I finished it about a week ago, but I can’t stop thinking about it. From a purely visual standpoint, it changed the way I look at my world. I’m a very visual person and I can’t (and don’t want to!) shake some of the imagery in the book. I bought THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY last week after meeting Jessie Ann Foley at a children’s literature event. Her writing is so smooth that the words almost disappear; all you’re left with is a beautiful story floating in front of you. Finally, THE MAGICAL ADVENTURE is the, um, riveting novella about a girl whose feet are bitten off by a shark. Her adventure becomes magical when she grows new feet.

MGM: I haven't heard of the latter two, but I am desperate to read All the Light We Cannot See. Sounds as if I won't be disappointed. Okay, pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it:

AP: I love when Sebastian stands up for Grayson toward the end of the book. At its core, Gracefully Grayson is a book about bravery and remaining true to who you are. This holds true for Grayson as well as some of the characters around her. I really enjoyed creating Sebastian. He’s an unlikely hero and I was happy to have him step out of the shadows, show his compassion, and remain true to his heart the way that Grayson remains true to hers.

MGM: You're right about Sebastian being an unlikely hero. That made that scene so much more powerful for me! Right, now some questions to put you on the spot:

Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....

AP: Coordinating lots and lots of different schedules, timetables and events. You say each kid has a birthday party to go to today, your camel ride departs from Morocco at noon and we have dinner plans at six? Oh, the car is in the shop? I’ll have everyone where they need to be five minutes early. I am an incredibly anal organized person.

MGM: (Smiling at the above!) My favorite breakfast is…

AP: Kind of boring. I have coffee with vanilla soy creamer and a piece of toast with peanut butter every single morning. I’m a creature of habit.

MGM: If you could visit any place, where would it be?

AP: Can I cheat here? Can I time travel, too? I want visit my parents’ childhood houses and hang out with my mom and dad as kids. I’d learn so much about my own life, and probably collect some great story ideas at the same time.

MGM: Cheat all you want! I'd love me some time travel as well! Ami, thanks for being part of Middle Grade Mafioso today, and thank you for writing such a great novel!

About the Author (from the back cover): 
Ami Polonsky is a reading and writing tutor, a mother to two young children, and an author, among other things. A former Language Arts teacher and literacy coach, Ami remains passionate about guiding children toward a love of books and helping to create life-time readers. Ami lives outside of Chicago with her family. Gracefully Grayson is her first novel.

You can find Ami Polonsky at her WEBSITE and on Twitter @amipolonsky

Special Offer: The Don and I love this novel so much that we are going to buy a copy for one lucky person. Just leave a comment, and next Monday we will choose a winner. We will then contact the winner and order a copy for them to pick up at their local indie bookstore. (US and Canada Entries only, please.) Ciao!