Monday, January 29, 2018

WE ARE PARTY PEOPLE by Leslie Margolis - A story for kids who just want to blend in, for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

This book was so much fun! I really liked Pixie Jones and all the details about party planning. A great story about learning to be yourself and being forced into the spotlight when you think you want to be invisible.

Description from Amazon:

When a character who feels forced to do things they might not want to do, it spells trouble. There are lots of funny moments in this story as Pixie struggles with fitting in at school and with her friends, while trying to keep her role in the party business under wraps."I am the opposite of a mermaid and that’s exactly the way I like it." Shy and quiet, Pixie does everything she can to fade into the background. All she wants is to survive middle school without being noticed. Meanwhile, her parents own the best party-planning business in town. They thrive on attention, love being experts in fun, and throw themselves into party personas, dressing as pirates, princes, mermaids, and more.

When her mom leaves town indefinitely and her new friend Sophie decides to run for class president, Pixie finds herself way too close to the spotlight. How far is she willing to go to help the people she loves?

We Are Party People by Leslie Margolis was published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers in 2017.


Why you want to read this book… 

Pixie doesn’t like to be in the spotlight, but with her mom away she has to take on a bigger role in her family’s party planning business. It’s always intriguing to read about a character who feels forced to do things they might not want to do. 

There are lots of amusing moments in this story as Pixie struggles with fitting in at school and with her friends, while trying to keep her role in the party business under wraps. The details about party planning are so much fun!

My mom says it's good to be observant and sensitive. She says I don't miss a thing. But sometimes I wish I would miss certain things. It's not so fun noticing everything. Not in middle school. Not when some of the stuff I witness is simply horrible and soul crushing.


Opening Line:

“We need you to be  mermaid next Saturday,” my dad says, all matter-of-fact, like this is no big deal, as if he’s simply asking me to make my bed, which I’m not going to do, either.


If you’re a writer… 

You might be interested in the way the author handled social media and technology. She doesn't shy away from it (Instagram is mentioned and so is texting) and included it as part of everyday normal life. 

I also really admired how the main character’s thoughts and feelings are integrated in the story. Interiority! (If that word leaves you feeling overwhelmed, check out editor Mary Kole for more).

We are so different, too. What if my mom decides, one day, that she doesn’t need me as a daughter, that I’m too different?
Maybe she’ll  up and leave again.
Or maybe she already has.


If you’re a teacher…

As a child, I was always hungry for books that dealt with the ups and downs of friendship, the pressures of peer groups and finding the place where you can truly be yourself. There’s even a crush in this book. This is a great one to have in the classroom or school library for general reading.

“I think you are born a certain way. This is who you are. Also, this is who other people think you are. The world decides.”

"That’s giving too much power to other people,” says Sophie. “It’s not up to them.”


About the author

Leslie Margolis is also the author of the Maggie Brooklyn series, about a girl with a secret dog-walking job, as well as the Annabelle Unleashed series. (I've previously reviewed the first Maggie Brooklyn book, Girl's Best Friend.)

Friday, January 26, 2018

CINDERELLA AND THE FURRY SLIPPERS by Davide Cali & Raphaëlle Barbanègre

I love modified fairy tales, but what I love even more is when they have strong girls at the heart of the story.

A humorous take on a traditional fairytale with a strong female character and an engaging voice. Reviewed at That's Another Story by Andrea L Mack
Summary from the publisher:

Handsome princes, fancy castles, extravagant balls . . . in this girl-power fractured fairy tale, Cinderella learns that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is, and it’s better to create your own happy ending.

Cinderella is dying to go to the ball. She’s seen pictures of the fancy castle and the handsome prince, she’s heard the fairy tales about true love, she’s found the perfect dress in Princess magazine and she’s even found an ad for a Fairy Godmother. She’s all set.

Except the fairy godmother doesn’t look like the one in the ad. And the castle doesn’t look like the picture. And the prince . . . well, Cinderella decides her fairy-tale ending is going to look different–and be a whole lot more fun.

Cinderella and the Furry Slippers was written by Davide Cali and illustrated by Raphaëlle Barbanègre. It was published in 2017 by Tundra Books.

Opening:

Once upon a time there was a poor little girl named Cinderella who lived with a terrible stepmother and two even worse stepsisters.
She spent her days housecleaning while her awful stepmother and stepsisters had tea and cake.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This humorous take on the traditional fairy tale shows a strong female character who makes her own decisions. The author has created an engaging voice for the story and provided us with a non-traditional ending that leaves some room for speculation.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This is a nice choice for showing students that princesses can be strong and make their own decisions—and maybe even try a different job.  It would be interesting to compare and contrast this with a traditional version of the story.

Ages: 4 - 7

Grades: PreK – Grade 2

Themes: princesses, fractured fairy tales, careers

Activities:

Discuss: What is your favorite page in the story? Why?

Draw/Write: What new job do you think Cinderella decided to try? Draw and write about it.

Draw or write a story to show what happens next!

Monday, January 15, 2018

THE LIST by Patricia Forde -- Exploring Language and Censorship for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

Now that I've finished reading books for the Cybils Awards Picture Book and Board Book panel (see my post here if you're interested in what I learned), I'm so happy to be back to reading middle grade fiction. This one was published in 2014 and I wonder how I missed it! The idea behind this story is so intriguing.

Description from the publisher:
There are lots of tense moments in this story! I was intrigued by the idea that language is limited and some words were forbidden. I loved the writing style and the detail in this story.  It was so interesting to think about issues of censorship and the role of language in our lives.


The city of Ark is the last safe place on Earth. To make sure humans are able to survive, everyone in Ark must speak List, a language of only 500 words.
Everyone that is, except Letta.

As apprentice to the Wordsmith, Letta can read all the words that have ever existed. Forbidden words like freedom, music, and even pineapple tell her about a world she's never known.

One day her master disappears and the leaders of Ark tell Letta she is the new Wordsmith and must shorten List to fewer and fewer words. Then Letta meets a teenage boy who somehow knows all the words that have been banned. Letta's faced with a dangerous choice: sit idly by and watch language slowly slip away or follow a stranger on a path to freedom . . . or banishment.

The List by Patricia Forde was published by SourceBooks Jabberwocky in 2014.


Why you want to read this book… 

There are lots of tense moments in this story! I was intrigued by the idea that language is limited and some words were forbidden. I loved the writing style and the detail in this story.

“The words danced in front of her eyes just as they had when she’d been a small child. She remembered lying in bed with all the words she’d learned in school flying about her head, fireflies from some magical place, red, electric fireflies.”


If you’re a writer… 

You might study this book to see how the author integrated Letta’s thoughts and feelings into the story. The setting is also a big part of this story – I wanted to visit the wordsmith shop and the old pumphouse.

“Inside, behind a counter made of solid oak from trees from another time, Letta could see row upon row of shelves honeycombed with cubbyholes. The cubbyholes cradled the vanilla-colored, four-inch square cards, and the cards held precious words.”


If you’re a teacher…

There are opportunities for interesting discussions or reflections about censorship and the importance of language in our lives, as well as thoughts about the future and the depletion of resources and water. There is some violence in this novel, including torture and murder, but the descriptions of these events are not overly graphic.

“Without words, we will be imprisoned in the here and now forever.”

Opening Line:

“Letta, the wordsmith’s apprentice, buried her face in her hands, exhausted.”





Thursday, January 11, 2018

WALK WITH ME by Jairo Buitrago & Rafael Yockteng

A sad, disturbing but important book to read for adults as well as children.

Summary from the publisher:

A simple, imaginative story depicting the complex emotional reality of a girl whose father no longer lives at home.

The girl conjures up an imaginary companion — a lion — who will join her on the long walk home from school. He will help her to pick up her baby brother from daycare and shop at the store (which has cut off the family’s credit), and he’ll keep her company all along the way until she is safely home. He will always come back when she needs him, unlike her father whom she sees only in a photograph — a photograph in which he clearly resembles a lion.

Walk With Me was written by Jairo Buitrago and illustrated by Rafael Yockteng. It was published in 2017 by Groundwood Books.

Opening:

Keep me company on the way home,
then I can have someone to talk to so I don’t fall asleep
on the long walk out of the city.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

A nice example of a simple text that provides a glimpse of a child who imagines as lion as her companion to help her feel safe. A lovely way to show a difficult life that may resonate with many young children.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This story shows the reality of life for some children and a way to cope through imagination. There is a disturbing scene that depicts a man lying on the ground and a woman screaming, which may require a preview by the teacher and some thinking about how to respond to student discussion. Students may need guidance to make a connection between the picture with her father at the end and the lion that keeps her safe. A important book for a teacher's collection.

Ages: 5 - 12

Grades: K – Grade 5

Themes: emotions, hardship, family

Activities:

If you were to have an imaginary animal to help you through your daily life, which animal would you choose? Paint a picture of your animal.


Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Cybils Fiction Picture Books and Board Book Finalists -- With Tips for Writers

Happy New Year! Thank you for your support of my book reviews and my blog!

We’ve reached the end of this year’s deliberations for Round 1 in the fiction picture book and board book category for the Cybils Awards and it’s time to announce the winners! [For the official announcement and lists of finalists, check here.]

I am so appreciative that authors, illustrators and publishers trusted me to evaluate the extensive work that went into creating their books. It truly was an honour. The process of discussing amazing texts and illustrations with the other panelists was enlightening, inspiring, challenging and a lot of fun. It was excruciatingly difficult to winnow down our many favourites to come up with a shortlist for the final round of judging. (Unfortunately, some nominated books could not be evaluated by all of our team members because we weren’t able to track them down if we didn’t receive review copies, so we had to exclude them.)

As a teacher:

The process of choosing finalists made me more aware of the many stories that are available to share with my students. I now have my own list of books from 2017 that are “must reads” to introduce different topics in the classroom or would be just a lot of fun to enjoy with my students. (In case you are wondering, the review copies I received for evaluating these books will be donated to my classroom, my school, my school’s family learning centre and my local public library.) I love the knowledge I have gained and my increased ability to recommend some great books to families or teachers with particular interests or needs.

As a writer:

I’ve learned so much from reading and thinking about these books! Here are three key learnings:

1) Many stories start off strong, but falter when it comes to the ending. Writers, pay more attention to your endings. Endings that are emotionally strong or offer a big surprise for the reader linger with readers.

2) Despite much of the advice we get as writers to be subtle about morals or being “preachy,” some rule-breaking writers straightforwardly state their message, but are able to weave it into the story effectively so it doesn’t sound overly didactic. This was really interesting.

3) Layers rule! The books I liked best all had different levels of interpretation and were fun to read for both children and adults. Humor plus a deeper level of meaning and a story that doesn’t overwhelm with words is a winning combination. Stories with a more serious tone stand out when they have a strong voice, authentic or specific details and amazing illustrations.

In no particular order, here are the shortlists for my panel:


FICTION PICTURE BOOK FINALISTS

After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) written and illustrated by Dan Santat (Roaring Brook Press)

Baabwaa and Wooliam written by David Elliott and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Walker Books)

Escargot written by Dashka Slater and illustrated by Sydney Hanson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Flowers for Sarajevo written by John McCutcheon and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (Peachtree)

Big Cat, Little Cat written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper (Roaring Brook Press)

Creepy Pair of Underwear! written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown (Simon & Schuster)

The Book of Mistakes written and illustrated by Corinna Luyken (Dial Books)

BOARD BOOK FINALISTS

Circle, Triangle, Elephant: A Book of Shapes and Surprises written by Kenji Oikawa and illustrated by Mayuko Takeuc (Phaidon)

Hair written and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli (Candlewick)

One Happy Tiger written and illustrated by Catherine Rayner (Tiger Tales)

When Your Lion Needs a Bath written by Susanna Leonard Hill and illustrated by Daniel Wiseman (Little Simon)

Changing Faces: Meet Happy Bear written by Nathan Thoms and illustrated by Carles Ballesteros (Harry N Abrams)

Bears are Big written by Douglas Florian and illustrated by Barbara Bakos (little bee books)

Peek-a-Moo written and illustrated by Nina Laden (Chronicle Books)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Celebrating Successes from 2017


As I've done for the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to think about celebrating successes from the year instead of revisiting what I didn’t accomplish and resolving to do better (for more on this approach see Julie Hedlund’s recent blog post). Her suggestion is to use your successes and achievements as a foundation for setting new year goals.
This was a year of struggles in my personal life and they seemed to squelch my creativity and time for writing. I can claim only a few writing and reading successes for 2017, but I’m sharing them anyway, proud to have accomplished anything in the face of so much emotional change:
1. I participated in the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge again and for the first time completed the challenge by writing 12 picture book drafts in 12 months. (No one said the drafts had to be good.)

2. I read over 300 new fiction picture books and board books as a first round panelist for the Cybils Awards. It was so much fun discussing these books with my fellow panelists!

3. I worked hard on revising a middle grade novel and am close to finishing my revisions.

4. I revised several picture book manuscripts and my agent sent some of them on submission.

5. I participated in an adult fiction book club at my local library. 

No matter how they are, taking time to celebrate successes lifts you up. I urge you to give it a try and dive into 2018 on a positive note! What are you most proud of this year? I hope you feel good about your successes!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Learning from Picture Books –NOW by Antoinette Portis

A deceptively simple book that reminds us about how young children experience the world.

Summary from the publisher:

Follow a little girl as she takes you on a tour through all of her favorite things, from the holes she digs to the hugs she gives.

Now was written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis, and published in 2017 by Roaring Brook Press.

Opening:

This is my favorite breeze.

This is my favorite leaf.

This is my favorite hole (this one)
because it’s the one I am digging.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The text is a nice demonstration of how repetition of the structure can help to move the reader through the story. The text itself is short and feels very immediate, which goes well with the point of the story.  

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

While I think this is an excellent story for parents and young children to read together, it also would work in a preschool or kindergarten class for talking about “favorites.” It could spark an investigation into “favorite things.” I love how it reminds us of the young child’s perspective.

Ages: 2 - 6

Grades: Toddler  – Grade 1

Themes: appreciating the moment, family, favorite things

Activities:

Discuss: What is your favorite right now? Draw a picture or explain why.

Make a class book of pictures of “favorite things.”

Show students how to create a survey and have them collect data about their “favorite things.”

Have children take turns bringing a “favorite thing” to show and share for “Today’s Favorite.”

NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.