Monday, November 20, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LUCY AND ANDY NEANDERTHAL:THE STONE COLD AGE by Jeffrey Brown

LUCY AND ANDY NEANDERTHAL:THE STONE COLD AGE by Jeffrey Brown (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017)

What It's About (from Goodreads):
Neanderthal siblings Lucy and Andy are back to their paleo pranks. This time, they have to put up with more than just each other the cave is feeling awfully cramped since the humans moved in. They re in the Ice Age, and legroom comes at a real premium!

Jeffrey Brown skillfully blends humor and history with paleontologist sections: Timeline of Key Discoveries, Ice Age Fact vs. Fiction, Silly Cavemen Myths, and more.

My Thoughts:
One of the things I have started doing this year is being a Reading Friend at the local elementary school, where my son is in 5th grade. I have two 4th grade reading buddies. My job is to be just that-- a friend to kids who, for whatever reason, struggle with reading. One of my buddies likes The Magic Tree House series, and the other one is a big fan of graphic novels. (We read and guffawed at Dav Pilkey's Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties.)

The mafioso, father of three boys, has read his share of Magic Tree House, as well as Captain Underpants and Wimpy Kid--but my kids have now outgrown the newer graphic novels series, such as Lucy and Andy Neanderthal and Jedi Academy (also by Jeffrey Brown). But my graphic novel-loving reading friend is also into dinosaurs, so maybe he can be persuaded to take on Lucy and Andy Neanderthal after we're done with Dog Man. I'll keep you posted.

The Stone Cold Age is the second book in the Lucy and Andy Neanderthal series, and it was a ton of fun. Andy, despite being a neanderthal, often acts like a modern kid with attitude. The humans and the neanderthals get on like a couple of sitcom families, and the book is a real page turner. My favorite part, because I'm a swot, was all the facts about neanderthals and ice ages and fossils sprinkled through the pages. It was a fun way to learn about life 40,000 years ago!

About the Author:
Jeffrey Brown lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. WEBSITE


Monday, November 13, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER: MYSTERY ON MUSEUM MILE by Marcia Wells

EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER: MYSTERY ON MUSEUM MILE by Marcia Wells (HMH Books for Young Readers, April 1, 2014)

What It's About:
Sixth-grader Edmund Xavier Lonnrot, code-name “Eddie Red,” has a photographic memory and a prodigious talent for drawing anything he sees. When the NYPD is stumped by a mastermind art thief, Eddie becomes their secret weapon to solve the case, drawing Eddie deeper into New York’s famous Museum Mile and closer to a dangerous criminal group known as the Picasso Gang. Can Eddie help catch the thieves in time, or will his first big case be his last?

First Lines:
"State your name."
"Eddie Red."
The officer looks up at me and frowns. "State your real name. For the police report." He jabs a meaty finger at the paperwork in front of him.
"Edmund Lonnrot," I reply, making sure to keep my voice steady despite my wobbly insides. Worst Night Ever.

Things I Liked:

  1. Eddie's voice. You can tell that Marcia Wells has spent a lot of time among the target age group. The way Eddie talks is pitch perfect. (And everything is über this or that or something or other!)
  2. Best Friend. Eddie's best friend is Jonah Schwartz, and the two of them are a hoot. Jonah has ADHD, but is brilliant once his meds kick in. It's Jonah that uses chess moves to crack the Picasso Gangs' plan!
  3. Humor. There's a lot of funny stuff, from the incident that gave Mr. Pee his name, to the idea that Eddie will dress as a girl scout selling cookies to gain entrance to the apartments of potential art collectors (thank you, Jonah Schwartz, for that brilliant idea.)
  4. Eddie's Family. You know how I like it in middle grade novels when moms and dads are alive and involved in their kids' lives. Put a check next to Eddie's parents for that.
  5. Diversity. Eddie's black. #WeNeedDiverseBooks
Eddie Red Undercover: mystery on Museum Mile is on the Oregon Battle of the Books list for 3-5th grade. (I think that vocabulary-wise it works best for the upper part of this age range. My son and I had a great time reading it aloud together. My son particularly enjoyed doing Detective Bovano's accent.)

There are two other books in the Eddie Red series. Check them out here.


About the Author:
Marcia Wells has a Master’s degree in Spanish literature and has taught writing, Spanish and math to middle and high school students for the past fifteen years.


When she’s not visiting relatives in New York City and planning new adventures for Eddie Red, she’s at home with her kids, husband, and other farm animals in Vermont.

P.S. If you want to know even more about Marcia Wells, there's a neat interview with her on Marieke's blog, Presents of Love. Ciao!


Monday, November 6, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET by David Barclay Moore (Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2017)

Happy Monday, everyone! I'm sorry to do an Alice Through the Looking Glass kind of thing, but I'm over at my group blog, PROJECT MAYHEM, today featuring this splendid book.

So, if you don't mind some jumping about in the blogosphere this morning, please join me over at PROJECT MAYHEM today.

I'll be back with the mafiosi in a week or two!

Ciao and cheers!

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!

Ciao!

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....

...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 AdrienneKress.com and follow @AdrienneKress on Twitter and Instagram.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LEMONS by Melissa Savage (Interview and Giveaway)

LEMONS by Melissa Savage (Crown Books for Young Readers, May 2nd, 2017)

The Don and I are thrilled to be part of Melissa Savage's book tour. Melissa also agreed to answer our patented Middle Grade Mafioso questions so, after you've read about Lemons, stick around to learn more about Melissa!

What It's About (from Goodreads):
The search for Bigfoot gets juicy in this funny and touching story that’s perfect for fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses and Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw!

Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mama always told her: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But Lem can’t possibly make lemonade out of her new life in Willow Creek, California—the Bigfoot Capital of the World—where she’s forced to live with a grandfather she’s never met after her mother passes away.

Then she meets eleven-year-old Tobin Sky, the CEO of Bigfoot Detectives Inc., who is the sole Bigfoot investigator for their small town. After he invites Lem to be his assistant for the summer, they set out on an epic adventure to capture a shot of the elusive beast on film. But along the way, Lem and Tobin end up discovering more than they ever could have imagined. And Lem realizes that maybe she can make lemonade out of her new life after all

Opening Lines:
"Bigfoot.
It's the very first thing I see when we pull into town. A gargantuan wooden statue of the hairy beast, stuck right smack in the middle of the square, like he's the mayor or President Ford or someone real important like that."

Middle Grade Mafioso Questions for Melissa:

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

I love Kate DiCamillo, Gary Schmidt and Kelly Easton to name a few. I also grew up reading Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, two more favorites. One of my most beloved books growing up was Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? by Paula Danziger.  It was not one of her best known YA’s, but I loved it! That one and her Pistachio Prescription were books I read and reread growing up. It’s a hard question to answer because I’m always finding new favorites. I love going to the book store and finding a gem I didn’t know about. I just did that with Jason Reynold’s, As Brave As You. It should have been on my radar, but it wasn’t and it was just a gem to find. Now I’m a huge fan!

2) What's on your nightstand now? 

I’m reading Rain Reign right now and I LOVE it! I know whether or not I’m going to like a book by reading the very first page. And this was one I knew I needed to keep reading.

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

I especially love to write dialogue between Tobin and Lemonade because they are so different. I think it’s fun for them to debate their differences and then have to come to some kind of agreement or compromise. However, one of my favorite scenes is when Tobin and Lemonade come upon the nest out back of Mrs. Dickerson’s house and find Scotty living there. The scene in which Charlie, Debbie, Scotty, Tobin and Lemonade all come to grips with Scotty being alive is so full of all kinds of different feelings all at once. And it also really shows Lemonade’s growth and healing as she reaches for Charlie’s hand just in case he has his own sadness quicksand.

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

Still being a ten-year-old on the inside, useless Seinfeld Trivia and binge watching cryptozoological reality shows of any kind.

5) My breakfast of writing champions is...

Matcha tea. I start my day every day with a cup of Matcha in my Bigfoot “I believe” mug for cryptozoological inspiration.


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

I just took a trip this year to Scotland, my first time overseas and I loved it! I would love to visit England, Australia and Norway. And maybe . . . Cleveland? Just because I’ve never been there.

Thanks so much, Melissa!
For more information about Melissa, visit her website. And if you want to be entered into a drawing for your very own copy of LEMONS, leave a comment to say 'hi.' Ciao!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM --1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM --1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis  (January 1995)

Even though I'm the Middle Grade Mafioso, there are gaps in my reading. (I know, what a shocker!) I'd never read anything by Christopher Paul Curtis, but that has been rectified now because my 4th-grader was reading The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963 for a class project, and we read it together. I loved it!

What It's About:
Enter the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There's Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who's thirteen and an "official juvenile delinquent." When Momma and Dad decide it's time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They're heading South to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America's history.

Opening Lines:
"It was one of those super-duper-cold Saturdays. One of those days that when you breathed out your breath kind of hung frozen in the air like a hunk of smoke and you could walk along and look exactly like a train bowing out big, fat, white puffs of smoke."

Things I Loved About It:
Well, first, my 4th-grader was captivated by it. It really has "all the feels" as they say. It's at times comic, at others pretty harrowing. The relationship between Kenny and his older brother Byron is complicated but, at the end, we see that Byron, despite all his adolescent demons, really has his eye out for his younger, more tender brother.

As a supporter of living parents in middle grade, this novel gets an 'A' from me. The parents are an integral part of their kids' lives (as parents really are in the majority of families) and they were also realistic characters.

The wider society might have been preoccupied with race relations at this time, but they are peripheral to Kenny (whose focus is mainly on his family and school, and trying to avoid bullies) until the scene in Birmingham (I won't spoil it for you) when the reality of what black Americans have had to face comes to the fore.

I'll let my 4th-grader have the final word: "It was entertaining. I could visualize what happened, and the time period."

About the Author: (from Random House Kids)
Born in Flint, Michigan, Christopher Paul Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint’s historic Fisher Body Plant #1. His job entailed hanging car doors, and it left him with an aversion to getting into and out of large automobiles—particularly big Buicks.

Curtis’s writing—and his dedication to it—has been greatly influenced by his family members. With grandfathers like Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, it is easy to see why Christopher Paul Curtis was destined to become an entertainer.

Christopher Paul Curtis made an outstanding debut in children’s s literature with The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. His second novel, Bud, Not Buddy, is the first book ever to receive both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

 Christopher Paul Curtis and his wife, Habon, have three children, Steven, Cydney, and Ayaan. He lives in Detroit, Michigan, with his family.




Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman (Blog Tour)

Welcome to Day #9 of the One Good Thing About America Blog Tour!
To celebrate the release of One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman (3/14/17), blogs across the web are featuring exclusive content from Ruth and 10 chances to win a copy of One Good Thing About America, as well as a chance to win a Skype visit with Ruth in the Grand Prize Giveaway!
Shelfie by Ruth Freeman
Here’s a “shelfie” of me in front of one of my bookshelves. Travel books, history, novels, photograph albums and…children’s books! A few of the stranger ones are books left over from the research I did for my nonfiction books. The Philosophy of the Bed was for Bedtime, the picture book I did on the history of beds. And The Corset was one book I used when I was doing research for my book: Underwear: What We Wear Under There. I could talk about books and reading for ever but I don’t want to keep you that long. So, I wanted to show you my very, very favorite children’s books… When I read a book, I love going somewhere else, a place I’ve never been. Going on some kind of adventure. I love to find a book where the author uses words so well that you can believe the story is real. I will never go to Narnia, but I can tell you exactly what it feels like to be there with Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy. I will never live in the Plaza Hotel like Eloise, but I know her well enough to love her and Nanny. Reading brings us all these amazing experiences! I learned about being brave and making do in the Little House books, I learned about mean, wicked people in James and the Giant Peach and the Black Arrow, I learned about love in Charlotte’s Web. Books bring us whole worlds we will never know, but we learn so much from them about life and what is means to be a human being.
    *****
    Stop by The Hiding Spot tomorrow for the last stop on the tour!
    Blog Tour Schedule:
    April 10th – Geo Librarian April 11thLate Bloomer's Book Blog April 12th Mrs. Mommy BookNerd April 13thKristi's Book Nook April 14thLife Naturally April 17th – Books My Kids Read April 18th – Chat with Vera April 19th Word Spelunking April 20th – Middle Grade Mafioso April 21st – The Hiding Spot
    Follow Ruth: Website | Facebook Publisher: Holiday House
    ONE GOOD THING ABOUT AMERICA is a sweet, often funny middle-grade novel that explores differences and common ground across cultures. It's hard to start at a new school . . . especially if you're in a new country. Back home, Anaïs was the best English student in her class. Here in Crazy America she feels like she doesn't know English at all. Nothing makes sense (chicken FINGERS?), and the kids at school have some very strange ideas about Africa. Anaïs misses her family . . . so she writes lots of letters to Oma, her grandmother. She tells her she misses her and hopes the war is over soon. She tells her about Halloween, snow, mac 'n' cheese dinners, and princess sleepovers. She tells her about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and how she just might be turning into a Crazy American herself.
    About the Author: Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English language learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She is the author of several acclaimed nonfiction picture books. One Good Thing About America is her first novel..





    GRAND PRIZE GIVEAWAY
    • One (1) winner will receive a signed copy of One Good Thing About America for their personal collection, as well as a 30 minute Skype visit with Ruth Freeman to the school of their choice and a signed copy for the school's library.
    • Enter via the rafflecopter below
    • US Only
    • Ends 4/23 at midnight ET
    a Rafflecopter giveaway

    Monday, April 17, 2017

    What's Up in Mafiosoland

    Okay, it's officially that time of the year when I go "where the heck is the time going?!" Mid-April, already, folks!! I'd like to think the Don and I have been setting the world to rights, or strolling through the olive groves during our spring holidays, but it's actually been nose to the grindstone in my other official role as family chauffeur.

    Those of you familiar with the Mafioso brood may remember that I have three sons. The oldest is in college, but the younger two are both still at home. Middle is a thespian and his latest play--ROBIN HOOD at Portland's Northwest Children's Theater--is about to start performances this week. (A LOT of driving to rehearsals and such.) Youngest is a basketball and baseball player, and we have been attempting to play baseball during what may turn out to be our wettest spring on record. They've played two games, and finally won a game for the first time in two years. O sweet victory! You'd have thought they'd won the World Series from all the carrying on.

    In between, I've been trying to write my novels, keep Project Mayhem up-and-running, and reading all sorts of adult books for my various book groups. (One of the novels being The River Why, which I first read 20 years ago. It bears reading again!) Here's one quote I've just read:

    "Always it is the same; it is the greedy, the cruel, the ungrateful that bring down suffering upon the people."
                                                                    -- Thomas Bigeater

    I do have a busy few weeks coming up, as I've been invited to take part in several blog tours. There will be a post this coming Thursday when I will be featuring Ruth Freeman's ONE GOOD THING ABOUT AMERICA.

    I would love it if you would drop by on the 20th, to learn about  Ruth 's novel, and for the chance of winning an ARC.

    Till then, you'll find me behind the wheel. Ciao!

    Monday, March 20, 2017

    Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Cover Reveal for ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP by Michele Weber Hurwitz





















    One of the Don's and my favorite authors is the talented Michele Weber Hurwitz. We've loved (and reviewed) both her previous novels, Calli Be Gold and The Summer I Saved The World in 65 Days.

    So we were thrilled when Michele contacted us and asked if we'd be interested in revealing the cover for her new novel, Ethan Marcus Stands Up. You bet your socks we were!!!

    Michele also told us what she liked about the cover.

    But first, here's what ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP is about:

    Seventh-grader Ethan Marcus is fed up with sitting in school, and one day, enough is enough. He doesn't cause trouble or wander around, he just refuses to stay seated in class. His spontaneous protest doesn't go over so well with his rule-oriented teacher so Ethan is sent to the principal's office, and then is given two days of "Reflection" -- McNutt Middle School's answer to detention. When the faculty advisor suggests Ethan channel his energy into the school's Invention Day, at first Ethan says thanks but no thanks. He's never been a science-y kid. That's his Irish twin sister Erin's department. Except when Ethan and his friend Brian decide to give it a try, they realize they might have something. And it's good. Maybe great. But can they actually pull it off? 

    Ethan Marcus Stands Up -- narrated by five different kids -- shows how we all may have labels that define us, but that doesn't mean we can't step out of our comfort zone and attempt a new challenge. And, along the way, we may just learn from someone who sees the world from a different perspective. 

    Middle Grade Mafioso: Well, I certainly can relate. Sitting is hard!

    The Don: What are you talking about? You sit around all day long. By the way, what's an Irish twin?

    MGM: (Googling) It means a pair of siblings born less than 12 months apart.

    The Don: Mamma Mia. I feel for their poor mother!

    He was, I could see, on the verge of a sermon. I whipped out Michele's new cover. Dear Readers, we are all seeing it for the first time.

     Here's what Michele has to say about it:

    The cover was designed by Laura Lyn DiSiena and Hugo Santos. There are three elements I love about the cover. First, the bright colors really jump out and give it a fun, bold feel. Second, I like the double image of the boy. He's obviously unhappy sitting at the desk, then he's all smiles with his arms in the air and the chair knocked over, so I think readers will want to know what happened to change the situation. And third, I love the font for the title. If you look closely, there are nuts and bolts and a fun springy thing, as well as a wood grain look to some of the letters. This was meant to convey the feeling that making something is part of the story.

    I can't wait for ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP to be released. The big day is August 29, 2017 from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin Books (hardcover). A sequel will be coming out in 2018.

    You can find more information about Michele Weber Hurwitz on her website, micheleweberhurwitz.com


    Monday, March 6, 2017

    Dear Reader, What Should I Read Next?


    Boy, it's been a while since I read a middle grade book--due to the fact that my book group recently read Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. (Over 600 pages!  Definitely not middle grade!)  I've also been working my way through The Artist's Way for a second time, and that's led me to check out all sorts of books on creativity. At this rate I'll need a new bedside table for the stacks!

    Which got me to thinking that I need to get back into my middle grade groove. So, I headed to the library last week and grabbed a bunch off the shelves. But now I've found myself dithering about which ones to read. I thought it would be fun to have my loyal readers chime in. Below, you'll find the first lines from my selections. Please note in your comment which one you would be most tempted to read. (Bonus points if you can figure out any of the authors.)

    Here goes:

    #1: It all began on one of those days--one of those stupid days when absolutely everything goes wrong. First thing in the morning, when Tom tried to put on his jeans, he found his darling sister had knotted the legs.

    #2: My little sister, Sam, knelt on the sofa, staring out the window. Our next door neighbors moved off base last week, and she was watching for our new neighbors to arrive.

    #3: Papi had pretty much promised to stop bringing Tia Perla to Saint Scholastica school, but when the last bell rings on a Monday afternoon, there she is just the same, waiting for me in the parking lot: Tia Perla, yet again.

    #4: On Monday, at exactly noon o'clock, our teacher, Mrs. Pellington, took us to the auditorium. She said there was a special surprise coming, but when we got there, we only saw other kids. It is a scientific fact that seeing other kids at school is not a surprise.

    #5: My dad always says "Charlie Bumpers, your closet looks like a tornado came through and decided to live there."

    Monday, February 27, 2017

    Blogging over at Project Mayhem today

    The mafioso is over at his other blog, Project Middle Grade Mayhem, today--confessing all about his current experiences with The Artist's Way and reading deprivation week.

    He's love it if you would beetle on over there, if you have a minute to spare from the usual Marvelous Middle Grade Monday features. He'll be back with an MMGM next week!

    Monday, February 20, 2017

    Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MATILDA by Roald Dahl

    MATILDA by Roald Dahl (first published by Jonathan Cape in 1988)

    What It's About (via Goodreads): 
    Matilda is a little girl who is far too good to be true. At age five-and-a-half she's knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Even more remarkably, her classmates love her even though she's a super-nerd and the teacher's pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda's world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there's the large, busty nightmare of a school principal, Miss ("The") Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing champion who flings children at will and is approximately as sympathetic as a bulldozer. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.


    She warms up with some practical jokes aimed at her hapless parents, but the true test comes when she rallies in defense of her teacher, the sweet Miss Honey, against the diabolical Trunchbull. There is never any doubt that Matilda will carry the day. Even so, this wonderful story is far from predictable. Roald Dahl, while keeping the plot moving imaginatively, also has an unerring ear for emotional truth.

    Opening Lines:
    "It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful."

    My Thoughts:
    Every so often at Middle Grade Mafioso, I present a classic. MATILDA was on the Oregon Battle of the Books reading list this year, and my son and I read it together. He couldn't believe how hard I was laughing. I was in tears!

    Maybe this is because I'm originally British, and the book skewers a particular type of bullying British person. Matilda's parents are horrid, and Miss Trunchbull is an amalgam of all the hideous bullies Roald Dahl met as a small child in a British boarding school. She's vicious, self-centred, and prone to outbursts of violence. (Dahl's autobiography BOY: TALES OF CHILDHOOD gives one an unerring insight into what life was like in early 20th century British education.)

    Many adults in a Dahl novel are ghastly. It seems as if he had an insight into how a child might see the world of adulthood and all its fearsomeness. Children, in his novels, can also be awful (think of the self-centred bunch who accompany Charlie into the chocolate factory.) But there's always one--Matilda, Charlie, James--who stands for something more noble, who has not fallen prey to the soullessness of modern life (Dahl can't stand the "telly," or "the dreaded box" as he sometimes calls it. I shudder to think about how he would react to the ubiquity of modern screens!) Personally, I think that's why generations of children have loved Roald Dahl's writing. In his heroes and heroines, they can see themselves fighting the good fight against bullies, braggarts, and goggle boxes.

    Here's an excerpt from his poem TELEVISION. You can read the whole glorious thing HERE:

    So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
    Go throw your TV set away,
    And in its place you can install
    A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
    Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
    Ignoring all the dirty looks,
    The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
    And children hitting you with sticks-
    Fear not, because we promise you
    That, in about a week or two
    Of having nothing else to do,
    They'll now begin to feel the need
    Of having something to read.
    And once they start -- oh boy, oh boy!
    You watch the slowly growing joy
    That fills their hearts. They'll grow so keen
    They'll wonder what they'd ever seen
    In that ridiculous machine,
    That nauseating, foul, unclean,
    Repulsive television screen!

    About Roald Dahl:
    Born in 1916, Roald Dahl was a British novelist, short story writer and screenwriter of Norwegian descent, who rose to prominence in the 1940's with works for both children and adults, and became one of the world's bestselling authors.

    His first children's book was The Gremlins, about mischievous little creatures that were part of RAF folklore. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney for a film that was never made, and published in 1943. Dahl went on to create some of the best-loved children's stories of the 20th century, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach.

    Roald Dahl died on November 23, 1990.

    Website: http://roalddahl.com/





    Monday, January 30, 2017

    Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: GHOST by Jason Reynolds

    GHOST by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, August 2016)

    Another great "sports" book. (And a middle grade finalist for this year's Cybils award.)

    What It's About (via jacket copy):
    RUNNING. That's all that Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But never for a track team. Nope, his game has always been ball. But when Ghost impulsively challenges an elite sprinter to a race--and wins--the Olympic medalist track coach sees he has something: crazy natural talent. thing is, Ghost has something else: a lot of anger and a past that he tries to outrun. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed and meld with the team, or will his past finally catch up to him.

    Opening Lines:
    Check this out. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons... with his nose."

    Five Things To Love:

    1. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is being embraced by the publishing industry, and I loved that this book is written by a black writer, and features a black male protagonist. The language and point of view was so authentic.
    2. Track and field. One of my favorite sports. I was a sprinter on my high school track team, and this took my right back to the feelings of being part of a team and of running fast.
    3. The theme. As it says on the front cover, "is Ghost running for his life, or from it?" In my opinion it could be both. His life is certainly tough, and he has been badly traumatized by a supposed loved one. Being part of the track team allows him the chance to find his way in the world.
    4. Male role models. The biggest wound in Ghost's life was caused by his father. Therefore, it is fitting that he should be fathered/mentored so well by the shop-keeper, Mr. Charles, and Coach. I loved the interactions between Ghost and these two important men in his life.
    5. Ghost's voice. As you can see from the opening lines, Ghost is humorous, engaging, and honest about what's going on in his life. His voice drives this short beauty of a novel. I was so hooked that, right after I finished it the first time, I turned once again to the first page and read it once more.
    About The Author:
    Jason Reynolds earned a BA in English from The University of Maryland, College Park. His novels include All American Boys (written with Brendan Kiely), The Boy in the Black Suit (both which were Coretta Scott King Honor books; When I was the Greatest, which won the 2015 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent; and As Brave As You. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, 


    Monday, January 9, 2017

    Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: BREAKING THE ICE by Gail Nall

    BREAKING THE ICE by Gail Nall (Aladdin, January 2015)

    I am a big fan of middle grade sports books (I'm currently reading one--GHOST by Jason Reynolds--and writing one myself. Mine's about tennis.) I read this for the Cybils awards in 2015, and really enjoyed it!

    What It's About (via Goodreads):
    Kaitlin has always dreamed of being a champion figure skater, and she’s given up a lot to pursue her passion. But after having a totally uncharacteristic and decidedly NOT figure-skating-approved tantrum after getting her scores at a major competition she’s dropped by her coach and prestigious skating club.

    When no other club in town will have her, she's forced to join the ridiculed and rundown Fallton Club, jokingly referred to as the Fall Down Club. At first Kaitlin thinks this is a complete disaster, but after meeting some of the other skaters, including a boy (who happens to have the most perfect hair she’s ever seen) Kaitlin thinks it might actually not be so bad.


    But when she’s tasked with learning a whole new program right before Regionals and figures out that almost all the other skaters target Fallton, she thinks joining the Fall Down Club may just be the second biggest mistake she’s ever made.

    Opening Lines:
    "I have my fingers crossed for a gold medal.
    Not where everyone can see them, of course, but hidden in the sleeve of my maroon-and-white Ridgeline Figure Skating Club jacket. If I win this competition, it'll show the judges I'm the skater to beat at Regionals in October."

    Four Things To Love:

    1.  I can't say I'm a diehard skating fan, but I do like to watch competitions like the Olympics and the World Championships. I also know what a salchow, a lutz, and a toe loop are. One of the riveting things about watching skaters compete is, as in gymnastics, the mix of artistry with power. And, with every jump, you have your heart in your throat, hoping there won't be a disaster. Which is all to say that I enjoyed the subject, and I think many sports-minded readers would do too.
    2. The character of Kaitlin. Technically strong, she needs to develop her artistry. Inwardly, she can be tempestuous (though not brattily so), so we know she can do it. Her concerns--about friendship and fitting in--are appropriately middle grade too.
    3. The friendships. In her former club, Kaitlin has a friend, Ellery, who is really what I've heard called a 'frenemy.' Ellery is superficial and drops Kaitlin like a hot potato when she is forced to change clubs. In the new club, Kaitlin finds people who are more worthy of friendship (Miyu). Gail Nall did a great job depicting this most important middle grade theme. 
    4. The parents. Both Kaitlin's mom and dad are alive. (You know my feelings about MG 'orphan syndrome.')
    BREAKING THE ICE was Gail Nall's middle grade debut, and it was a good one. As you can see in her bio below, she is quite prolific!

    About The Author (from Goodreads bio):

    Gail Nall lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her family and more cats than necessary. She grew up skating, and as a teenager working at the local rink, she rented skates and made nachos (but not at the same time). She spends her early mornings writing contemporary middle grade fiction, her days writing grants for a non-profit, and her evenings reading and trying to stay up past eight o'clock. Her obsessions include hiking and camping, travel, history, and food. Gail's middle grade novels include BREAKING THE ICE and the YOU'RE INVITED series (co-written with Jen Malone), all from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. She is also the author of the YA novel, EXIT STAGE LEFT (EpicReads Impulse/Harper). Her upcoming books include OUT OF TUNE (Aladdin/S&S, 11/8/16) and the co-authored BEST.NIGHT.EVER. (8/15/17)

    CONTACT: Website  Facebook  Twitter


    Monday, January 2, 2017

    Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE WOLF WILDER by Katherine Rundell


    US Cover
    I'm back, after a hectic December, and have a treat with which to start 2017. I hope you enjoy it!

    The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Children's September 2015)

    What It's About (via Goodreads):
    Feodora and her mother live in the snowbound woods of Russia, in a house full of food and fireplaces. Ten minutes away, in a ruined chapel, lives a pack of wolves. Feodora's mother is a wolf wilder, and Feo is a wolf wilder in training. A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: it is a person who teaches tamed animals to fend for themselves, and to fight and to run, and to be wary of humans.


    When the murderous hostility of the Russian Army threatens her very existence, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about standing up for the things you love and fighting back. And, of course, wolves.


    UK Cover

    Opening Lines:

    "Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.
    The girl was Russian, and although her hair and eyes and fingernails were dark all the time, she was stormy only when she thought it absolutely necessary. Which was fairly often.
    Her name was Feodora."

    Five Things to Love: 

    1. Setting. I love stories set in Russia, especially in the snow.
    2. The character of Feo. She is brave, determined, and has an incredible bond with the wolves she is wilding
    3. The wolves. They are powerful forces and, although the idea is for them to be brought back to their wildness after spending time being accoutrements to the Russian aristocracy, they are fiercely protective of their "wilder."
    4. The other children in the novel. They include a boy soldier who wants to be a ballet dancer and who defects to accompany Feo and the wolves, as well as a band of peasants, lovingly described. Their entry in the novel brings both companionship and comedy, with Feo on the run and fearing for her life.
    5. The writing style. It is written to sound almost like a fable. There are beautiful descriptions--here's an example: "The girl would have been extraordinary whatever the weather. A blood-red cloak, freshly washed, flapped behind her. Her forearms, from elbow joint to wrist, were covered in scratches and bruises, but her eyes were gold. The set of her chin suggested she might have slain a dragon before breakfast. The look in her eyes suggested she might, in fact, have eaten it."
    About the Author:
    Katherine Rundell was born in 1987 and grew up in Africa and Europe. In 2008 she was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Her first book, The Girl Savage, was born of her love of Zimbabwe and her own childhood there; her second, Rooftoppers, was inspired by summers working in Paris and by night-time trespassing on the rooftops of All Souls. She is currently working on her doctorate alongside an adult novel. TWITTER
    She recently wrote an article in The New York Times about tightrope walking. There's also an interesting article on her published in 2014 by The (London) Daily Telegraph.

    Katherine Rundell atop All Souls College, Oxford
    (photo by Andrew Crowley)