Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wish: A Review and Audio CD Giveaway

Reminiscent of the 2010 Newbery medal winner MOON OVER MANIFEST, Barbara O'Connor's latest middle grade novel, WISH (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2016) is the story of a young girl who feels abandoned by her parents, is forced to live with strangers, and searches to understand her past. Like MOON, it tugs on the reader's heart strings and shows the conflicts of a young girl who yearns to return home.

From the outside, eleven-year-old Charlie is an angry fifth grader who is forced to leave Raleigh, NC in order to live with her aunt and uncle (Bertha and Gus) in Colby, NC--home to hillbillies and kids who eat squirrel sandwiches. She's mad that her teenage sister, Jackie, gets to move in with a friend and live closer to their mother and visit their father (Scrappy) in prison. But as O'Connor skillfully portrays, Charlie's hard-to-control temper masks her deep longing for a home where her mother doesn't stay in bed all day with the curtains drawn and not caring if she watches TV and eats cookies for lunch. 

On the first day at her new school, Charlie meets Howard Odom who she thinks of as the "up down boy" because of the awkward way he walks. As her backpack buddy, Odom persists at befriending her despite Charlie's attempts at discouraging him and her insistence that she's going back to Raleigh. But even as Charlie repeats that line to Howard and the other children she meets, she wonders how long it might take for her mama to get her feet on the ground, as the social worker had said. 

Ever since fourth grade, Charlie has had a secret wish. Although the reader never finds out what the wish is, by the end of the book it is apparent that wishing on such things as hearing a bird sing in the rain, watching an acorn drop on the porch and turning around three times, or eating the pointed piece of the pie is not what makes Charlie's life better. Rather, the love of a new family and a special friend bring this story to a happy and satisfying ending. 

Part of the lyrical beauty of the story is Charlie's relationship with a stray dog (Wishbone) that she and Howard trap. Charlie has heard that dogs love their owners no matter what and she has an urgent need for that type of relationship.
Out on the porch that night, Bertha told Gus about her day while I sent my thoughts zipping through the trees to wherever Wishbone was. I wanted him to know he didn't have to be a stray like me. I wanted him to be mine. (p. 79)
Charlie and Howard finally trap Wishbone and bring him home. When Gus puts a tag around the dog's neck with his name on it, Charlie feels as if he belongs right there with her. But, 
....in the middle of that happy moment, I had a tiny seed of a thought that I hurried to push out of my mind before it had time to grow. That thought was this: Where in the world do I belong? (p. 111)
Later, after Wishbone runs off and Charlie is feeling miserable over being mean to Howard and she wonders if Wishbone wants to be a stray. Bertha reminds her,
"Charlie Reese," she said. "You think that dog don't know a good thing when he sees one?" 
"What good thing?" I said in my pouty baby voice. 
She held up a finger each time she counted off. "One, he eats bologna for breakfast. Two, he sleeps on a pillow. And three, he is loved by an angel." (p. 130)
Howard forgives Charlie, Wishbone returns, and by the end of the book Charlie has learned to appreciate the love she has received from her aunt and uncle and the Odoms. 

Here is the book trailer, 

and a glimpse into O'Connor's inspiration for WISH:

Suzy Jackson, the narrator, does a great job providing the different North Carolina voices. This audio book would be a beautiful book to listen to in the classroom or on a car trip with your family. If you would like to enter this giveaway, leave me a comment (with your email address if I don't have it) by Friday, April 21. If you share this on social media or become a follower of my blog tell me what you do in your comment. I'll add your name in the hat accordingly. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Meet My Experts III- Vermelle Diamond Ely

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won the autographed copy of Darlene Jacobson's book, WHEELS OF CHANGE.

As promised several weeks ago, I want to share more about Vermelle Ely, one of my generous experts for Half-Truths, my WIP which takes place in Charlotte, NC in 1950.
Vermelle and I in her Charlotte, NC home
March, 2017

As anyone who writes historical fiction knows, you can't use every detail you glean from your interviews--no matter how delicious it is. In no particular order, here are some of the snippets I learned from Vermelle which have informed Half-Truths. 
  • In the late 40's and early 50's, a light-skinned African American girl was treated like a queen. If her hair was long and fair, she was even more special.
  • Sometimes people passed for convenience: to go out to eat, get their hair done, get waited on, or to move up to the front of line. Kids at the time might think, "In the movies no one would know know if you’re white or black.  Let’s see if we can do it just for fun."
  • Vermelle commented on my two characters that, "Lillie could have gone anywhere with Kate because she was so light. But Kate would have stuck out in the black community. She would have been accepted, but the police would have questioned her."

I found these posters at Vermelle's house and
photographed them. They were taken in 1968 to commemorate
the Queen City classic rivalry between
Second Ward and West Charlotte High

  • According to Vermelle, the girls would have been too scared to go to the movies or library together, but they may have talked on the phone. 
  • About 100 students who attended Second Ward lived in Biddleville and it took them 30 minutes to walk to school, including going through a cow pasture near Thompson orphanage
  • "We didn’t know, 'separate but equal.' We heard our parents talk about it though. We got all the hand me downs from the white schools. Books would have so many names in them, you couldn’t even put your name in it and the backs were off. We got stuff from Central High and inherited blue and white because that was their school colors."
  • Vermelle’s great-grandfather was from England and her great-grandmother was native American. When her maternal grandmother and grandfather died, the family went to Wilson, NC for the funeral.  She discovered that her great-grandfather  was buried in the white cemetery and her great-grandmother was buried in the black cemetery. “I was grown before I knew it. Nobody talked about race. My mother said her mother’s family was very fair and her father marched in the Elks parade."

Vermelle as Miss Queen City Classic in 1948
  • Vermelle remembered that the black WACS in WWII had to go up the backstairs of Montaldo's (a very expensive department store in downtown Charlotte) to try on their uniforms. 
Vermelle has struggled with poor eyesight for years and can no longer read printed material. Recently I read several chapters to her. You can imagine how pleased I was when she nodded and agreed with my descriptions and the characters' interactions. Sharp as ever, she made comments on what was true to life and what wasn't. Happily, she didn't find much that was inaccurate. 

I am indebted to Vermelle and my other experts, who have shared their life stories so that my story is more authentic. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Wheels of Change: A Review, Autographed Giveaway, and Free Skype Visit!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good title is worth at least as much.

WHEELS OF CHANGE (Creston Books, 2014), Darlene Beck Jacobson’s debut middle grade novel, is exactly what it purports to be: a novel about change. And of course, about wheels. 

The story, based loosely on Jacobson’s grandmother, shows 12-year-old Emily Soper in the middle of personal, family, and societal changes. Set in Washington, D.C. in 1908, WHEELS OF CHANGE is an ideal book for girls who loved the historical American Girl series and are now ready for meatier fare. 

Emily loves everything about her father’s carriage shop: the sounds, smells, and even the “pulsing waves of heat [which] make it feel like summer year round.” (p. 2). The following quote not only shows Emily’s affection, but foreshadows troubles to come:
I stare into the fire’s belly, watching it move and change colors as if it were a living thing. Some folks might think the forge is dark and dreary, with only one small window. But the fire is like a beacon that lights up the whole barn and makes it shimmer. Papa’s barn without the forge would be like Mama’s house without the kitchen. The heart would be gone. (p.2)

In truth, Emily wishes she could be a blacksmith—but of course, that’s not a fitting trade for a young woman in the beginning of the twentieth century.  As a result of her friendship with Henry, the Negro blacksmith who she enjoys watching, she learns first hand about racism and loyalty. 

Whereas impetuous and worry-wart Emily feels more at home in the forge than in her mother's kitchen, her mother has other plans for her. She wants Emily to learn domestic skills including how to host a tea for the neighborhood women. Emily surprises herself by enjoying baking, but the tea proves disastrous when Emily violently disagrees with one of the guests. Without spoiling the book, let's just say that Emily's courage saves the forge when a disgruntled employee, angry over Henry reclaiming his job, attempts to destroy it.   

After the tea, her teacher muses, 
".....Mr. Lincoln must be rolling over in his grave with grief to think that after all these years since the war, people still act this way. The war was supposed to change things." 
There's that word again. Change. Even after a horrible war, people still hold on to their old ideas about folks like Henry. The truth of it makes my insides churn and ache. 
Maybe folks can do without physical changes like cars and electricity. But old ideas about colored people and women should change. They must. (pp.153-4)
When her father's business starts failing because more people are buying motorcars, she suggests a new idea to her father:
"All this time, we liked everything to be just as it is. But some changes can bring really good things, Papa. Like colored folks living peacefully next to white folks and women getting to vote. What if you changed carriage making into something else?" 
"Like what?" 
"Maybe folks still need other things that horses pull. Wagons, carts, surreys, and coaches." My eyes open wider as more ideas pop into my head. "Baby buggies will never need motors. Sleighs and sleds for winter..." (p. 188-9)
And with that, Emily becomes an agent of change.

Honorable Mention, 2015

I am giving away my autographed hard cover copy of WHEELS OF CHANGE plus curriculum materials. Jacobson has volunteered to provide a SKYPE visit if the winner is an educator; if you prefer you can donate this visit to a school of your choice. If you are a media specialist, teacher, or home school parent, please let me know and I'll enter your name twice. If I don't have your email address make sure you leave it.  Giveaway ends on Saturday, April 8. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Little Literacy

Congratulations to Deborah Allmand who won, Midnight Without a Moon from last week's blog.
I'm thankful that each of my five grandchildren's parents are encouraging literacy from an early age. I was on grandma duty last week so allow me to share some pictures and videos I've accumulated over the years. 

At a few days old, Eleanor Edgar was introduced to Sandra Boynton.
Two years later, she's still a fan.

At ten months, Eleanor was "selecting" books.

Now she plays alphabet games with her Mommy,

enjoys independent reading,

and shares books with her dog.

Her cousin Libbie Kasten enjoyed reading DON'T LET THE BEDBUGS BITE by Niki Masse Schoenfeldt in the car.

She memorized favorite books,

and wrote her name in the sand.

My grandson Mason Clark discovered that literacy includes receiving HOW TO CHEER UP DAD signed to him by Fred Kohler,

as well as reading Biscuit, a first reader all by himself.

Caitlin, Libbie's big sister, was extremely proud when she began reading chapter books. She loved the Princess Posey books by Stephanie Greene.

As well as writing her own book.

Caitlin actually told her parents that she hoped to major in reading when she goes to college. Her scientific/math-minded parents raised their eyebrows about that, but she is a girl after my own heart!

My oldest granddaughter, Ebby Clark, is in fourth grade and offered these two book reviews:

I'm delighted that my grandchildren have discovered through The Cousins Club that their Grandma LOVES books!

If you're not tired of videos yet, here is one more that will entertain the favorite toddler in your life:

As a parent or grandparent, how have you encouraged literacy? I'd love to hear your stories!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Midnight Without a Moon: A Review, ARC Giveaway, and Focus on "The Emotional Craft of Fiction"

This blog post is courtesy of Augusta Scattergood who gave me a copy of Linda Williams Jackson's debut middle grade novel, MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) and Vijaya Bodach who recommended Donald Maass's book, The EMOTIONAL CRAFT of FICTION (Writer's Digest Books, 2016).

Since Half-Truths is on hold right now while I'm waiting for feedback from my readers, I started working through the outstanding writing exercises which Maass stuffed into his latest book. Since I love sharing craft resources with my blog readers, I picked a few selections to show you how Linda Jackson answered the question Maass poses to writers, "How can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?" (p. 2)

Heavy Baggage

In the first chapter Maass says, "Only when a situation has heavy emotional baggage will readers pick up the baggage and carry it (Maass, p.14).

Let's look at thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter's life in Stillwater, Mississippi in 1955. In the opening chapter the reader relives the day Rose's mother left her with her maternal grandparents: 
"Rose Lee, honey, yo' momma 'bout to marry a fine man. And I'm go'n take care a his babies for him."
"What about me and Fred Lee? Ain't we yo babies?"
Mama giggled like a silly schoolgirl. "You and Fret'Lee big now, she said, waving her hand at me. "Callie and Christopher is the babies. Besides, y'all got Papa and Ma Pearl..." 
"Can me and Fred Lee come, too?"  
"Nuh-uh," Mama said frowning, as she leaned toward her reflection. "Two babies is more'n enough for me to care for."
After making sure that she was a lovely as a spring morning, she bent down and placed her soft hands on my shoulders. Kissing my forehead, she said, "You be a good girl for Ma Pearl and Papa. Don't make Ma Pearl have to whup you."
That was the last thing she said to me before she became a mama to Sugar and Li' Man and a memory to me and Fred Lee. (pp. 12-13)

The Emotional World

In Maas's second chapter, "The Emotional World," he says, "Creating a world that is emotionally involving for readers means raising questions and concerns about that world. It means both welcoming readers inside that world and making them curious, or uneasy, about where they are." (Maass, p. 29)

A difficult part of Rose's world is that her cousin, Queen, also lives with her grandparents. 
....Plenty of folks in our family were yellow, but Queen was different. And with the way she never lifted a finger to even wash a plate, she acted like she was white, too.
Folks said that when Queen was born, Ma Pearl took to her like ants to a picnic. They said she snatched that newborn baby from Aunt Clara Jean's bosom and claimed her like a well-earned prize. That's because Ma Pearl favored pretty. And to Ma Pearl, light equaled pretty, even if the person was as ugly as a moose. 
Folks said that when I first came out of Mama, my skin was as pink as a flower. Mama said she took one look at me and declared, "I'm go'n call you Rose, 'cause you so pretty like one." But Ma Pearl said, "Don't set your hopes high for that child, Anna Mae. Look at them ears. They as black as tar. By this time next year that lil' gal go'n be blacker than midnight without a moon, just like her daddy."  
Of course Ma Pearl was right. (pp. 35-36)

Rose longs for an education but Queen is allowed to attend school whereas Rose has to work in the cotton fields. Ma Pearl frequently criticizes Rose in comparison to Queen, thus making the reader uncomfortable. 

Joyce Hostetter has taught me to always consider the wider world in which the character lives. Rose's world is filled with blacks who are murdered by whites. This passage follows Rose finding out from her friend Hallelujah that a mutual friend had been killed:
As I stumbled clumsily between the dusty rows of green cotton leaves, I could't help but resent them. Levi Jackson, a fine young man, had spent most of his life tending to this field, bringing that cotton to life every summer. Now he no longer had his.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream until my anguish was heard all over Stillwater--all over Mississippi--all the way to Chicago, straight to my mama's ears. I don't know why but I hated her at that moment. I hated her more than the nameless face that had shot Levi Jackson for no good reason.............I shouted into my palms. "Why, Hallelujah! Why?"
"He registered to vote," Hallelujah said, his voice hoarse. "And they killed him." (pp. 43-44)

Stirring Higher Emotions

Rose's and Hallelujah's world also includes Emmett Till, who was hunted down and brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman. As these events sink into Rose, she is torn between desperately wanting to leave Mississippi and Hallelujah's comments:
"...if she [Rose's Aunt Belle] had been able to open a shop here, in a place where our people are shunned and oppressed, it would have made her feel even more accomplished than she already does."
"Stars shine brighter in the darkness," I said quietly.  
Hallelujah crossed his arms over his chest and nodded. "Dreams have more meaning when you have to fight for them," he said. "That's why folks like my father choose to stay. They know they have a right to be here, and they're willing to do whatever ir takes to make those rights equal." (pp. 254-255)
 Maas says, 
When we are moved and inspired by the actions of characters, what we feel are higher emotions....
When reason prevails over impulse, when disgust is replaced by insight, when an act of generosity is underserved, when love is given where rejection seems certain, when someone sticks up for another, when help is unasked for, when apology is humbly made and forgiveness unexpectedly given, when doors are opened in welcome, when truths are spoken and the origins of conflict laid bare, such acts stir in readers the swelling of the chest and opening of the heart. (Maass, pp. 43-44)
Aunt Belle invites Rose to move to St. Louis with her and Rose struggles over her decision to leave Stillwater: 
My heart ached, both at the thought of leaving and at the thought of staying. 
Levi stayed and he didn't live to see a week over the age of twenty-one. Would that happen to me? I didn't know--couldn't know--but I had to be strong enough to find out. I had to stay--not just for the sake of those I didn't want to leave behind, but for my own sake. I had to know if I could shine in the darkness.
Imagine how bright a star would shine at midnight without a moon! (p. 308)
It was difficult selecting only a few passages from both books to quote here. I hope I've provided enough that you'll decide to read them yourself. To enter the giveaway for Midnight Without a Moon, please leave me a comment by March 25th with your email address if you are new to my blog. If you are an educator or a new follower, I'll enter your name twice. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Meet My Experts - Part II

Congratulations to Kathy Wiechman who won FIRE, COLOR, ONE from last week's blog.

Three years ago I posted a blog about some of the people I'd interviewed for Half-Truths. These experts as well as other men and women willingly shared their life stories with me in order to make my story more authentic. 

Since I'm at the beta/sensitivity reader stage, I'm no longer interviewing folks but I'm still fact-checking and always keeping my eyes and ears open for material that will inform Half-Truths.

For example, I had written a scene about Sam, Lillie's older brother who had enlisted for the conflict in Korea. But as I was re-reading my manuscript I wondered:

    a) Did Sam enlist or was he drafted? How would his choice affect my story? (Lillie's father came home from WWII and met with ridicule in North Carolina. How would he react to his only son enlisting in the service? In turn, how would that affect Lillie?)

   b) Was there even a draft then?

Not finding the answer online, I turned to the Korean Veterans Club in my community. 

KWVA  Chapter 169
I was allowed to speak at one of their meetings and discovered that men could enlist or be drafted. (Whew! I was safe with that part of my story!) When they found out the premise of Half-Truths, the men were quick to tell stories of those first attempts at integrating the armed services. It reinforced, to me, how integration was a process that happened over time. 

  • One vet laughed about being mistakenly assigned to a black truck company. 
  • Another told me of how the troops were integrated during training on Parris Island, SC and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina (during the mid-50's), but as soon as the men stepped off the base, "segregation was rampant." He said that it was as if the blacks lived in two separate worlds. On base they were treated as equals, but if they left camp, they were in a different, biased world. 
  • One man's brother who had served in WWII said, "Treat Negroes with respect because we bleed the same red blood to keep this country free." 
  • One vet said he was accused of being a "McCarthy boy" because he wanted to go to college. The consensus in this group was that Communism wasn't talked about much at home.
  • Truman knew the country wasn't ready for another war, that's why it was called a "police action."
  • I was left with the overall impression that these men worked and fought with black men and that was their "normal".

Of course, I've read some of this accounts online and in articles. But it was different hearing these stories from the men who witnessed and lived them. 
I received this star from one of the vets.
And their stories make mine a little bit richer as a result.

Stay tuned. Soon I'll be sharing stories and pictures of one of my African American experts in Charlotte who has meant so much to me. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fire, Color, One: An Audio Book Giveaway, Review, A Look at Flashbacks, PLUS Story Innovation

Congratulations to Rosi Hollinbeck, my California blogger counterpart, who won FUZZY on last week's blog.


FIRE, COLOR, ONE by Jenny Valentine is about as different from FUZZY, the book I reviewed last week, as you can get. Jenny Valentine's edgy young adult novel is a serious portrayal of Iris, a young woman caught up in the addiction of pyromania. With some language and an attempted rape scene, it might not be the book for every teen reader. But, it's also a story of healing, friendship, art, and found family. 

Plus, it's a story masterfully told through many flashbacks. (Disclaimer: since I listened to the audio book provided by Tantor Media, some of the quotes might not be as exact as if I had read the print version.)

"I wasn't ready, once I found him, to let him go."

That line from the book's prologue summarizes Iris's heartache and grief. Like a pretzel without beginning or end, this prologue is actually the end. From the beginning of the story, the reader knows Ernest, Iris's father, dies from cancer. What we don't know, is how she "lost" him.

Enter the masterful flashbacks. 

As the story moves forward. the reader discovers that Iris, her selfish mother (Hannah) and egotistical step-father (Lowell) have returned to England. You don't know where they came from or why Iris is unhappy until Iris reflects on the fact that, 

"...when the only person you care about is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and that person is not talking to you and you haven't had time to say goodbye and haven't had time to say I'm sorry."

The reader discovers more backstory as Iris looks around her new sterile room and misses the California landscape, the posters on her walls, and Thurston standing at her window waiting for what they're going to do that day.


Valentine's masterful use of simple flashbacks layer in vital backstory but keep the story moving forward. As a reader/listener I was never bogged down in the past. Rather, these flashbacks always informed what was happening in the present. 

In this way, the reader learns how and why Iris began to set fires. She says, "Some days inside my head there is nothing but fire." Imagining herself setting a fire relaxes her and provides an adrenaline thrill of excitement and a rush of release. Iris is not an arsonist; she doesn't want to harm anyone or anything. But she is an angry, hurt young woman.

Upon his request, Hannah brings Iris to her father's deathbed. Iris does not want to be near the man she believes abandoned her as a baby, but eventually bonds with him over art, music, and literature. As Iris watches her father draw near to death, she hears his story, her mother's story, and finally, the truth of her own story. Valentine fits these puzzle pieces together through one flashback after another. 

Towards the end, as Iris stands outside her father's bedroom door, she hears her mother talk about how dangerous she is as an arsonist. Iris has moved from not caring about her father, to being worried about what he'll think of her. "I knew there was nothing I could say or do to save myself."  As she listens to her mother's betrayal, it's excruciating for the reader who knows that inevitably, Iris will start another fire looking for the calm, peaceful, emptiness it gives her.  When her mother came to find her, "The next morning my fire was still smoldering. I was still angry. So is she." 

Valentine does an excellent job portraying Iris's troubled relationships with Hannah and Lowell. They are wannabe actors and their pitiful attempts at pretending to be people who they aren't is in juxtaposition with Iris's real emotional struggles and Ernest's serious physical struggles. Valentine's portrayal of Iris's grief after her father dies was authentic; it reminded me of how I felt when I lost a loved one forty years ago.

When the reader gets to the end (which remember, is the beginning) Ernest gives Iris a huge surprise--after his death. Even within this last twist, flashbacks are folded into one another.


Coincidentally, at the same time that I listened to FIRE, COLOR, ONE in my car, I listened to THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin on my phone. (Well, not exactly at the same time, but you get the idea.) Although this a totally different book (adult fiction with two POV: Lina is a white, modern lawyer; Josephine is a black runaway slave in Virginia before the Civil War) from FIRE, there have a lot in common. Both center on art and involve mothers who abandon their children in one form or another. There is a similar close POV (in FIRE it is first, in THE HOUSE GIRL it's a tight third) with well-chosen details showing the characters, their nonverbal language, and vivid settings. Like FIRE, THE HOUSE GIRL heavily uses backstory to propel the story forward. Much of this backstory comes from documents that Lina uncovers as she searches for a plaintiff in a civil rights reparations case. 

Conklin is as masterful as Valentine in weaving a story together. Both authors do not present books with a linear plot path of Beginning-Middle-End. The books reminded me of this recent article on Writer Unboxed in which Heather Webb wrote,
Story—and innovation—is king. To keep readers coming back to the blessed book, it’s imperative to stand out in all the noise. Maybe this is why writers are experimenting with stylistic changes. Readers are demanding something sensational that really grips them, and even changes their view of the world. Writers can’t sit back on their laurels. They must STRIKE OUT and be unique, as well as create a story that’s universal. (You know, because that’s so easy.)

There you have it. Two books which demonstrate exactly what Heather Webb described. 


Gemma Dawson, FIRE, COLOR, ONE's narrator, does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I'm always impressed when a narrator does both male and female voices and flips between different accents without a hitch. It was interesting that Iris spoke as if she was British, although she spent most of her life in the United States. Perhaps it was because she ended up coming home to her British father.

I am offering my copy of FIRE, COLOR, ONE to one of you. Please leave me a comment by March 11 with your email address if you are new to my blog. As always, if you share on social media, I'll enter your name in twice.  

For more information:

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fuzzy: A Review, A Mini-Lesson on Sidekicks, and an Audio CD Giveaway!

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won LOVING vs. VIRGINIA from last week's blog. 

This week's blog post comes courtesy of Recorded Books (who provided FUZZY) and Elizabeth Sims, contributing editor to Writer's Digest, whose article, "Stepping Up Your Sidekicks"  in the February, 2017 issue, prompted the template for this review. 

Tom Angleberger, best known as the author of the popular Origami Yoda series, co-wrote FUZZY, a clever middle grade book with Paul Dellinger. The premise is guaranteed to attract both boy and girl readers: What happens when an experiment to create a robot that mimics a middle school student is so successful that the robot actually begins to think and act like a middle schooler? 

Chaos. Trouble. Fun. And a slew of interesting dilemmas for the scientists behind the Robot Integration Project.  


The protagonist, Maxine Zelaster (aka Max) is a smart, seventh grader struggling against a school increasingly dominated by vice-principal BARBARA--the computer who runs Vanguard One's Middle School. She is so determined to have an excellent school that her rules end up being burdensome and ridiculous. When Max demonstrates initiative or out-of-the-box thinking, BARBARA punishes her by lowering her test scores. Max gets into trouble with her parents and the threat of being sent to a disciplinary school looms over her. Fortunately for Max, she is also Fuzzy's mentor-friend. 

Although misunderstandings with Max's parents and conflicts with the school's administration is an interesting plot, the real focus of the book is Fuzzy, the robot. He is named this because he is learning to think how humans do--which can be fuzzy at times, not totally logical or linear.

Fuzzy, in Elisabeth Sims' words, is Max's sidekick. 
Sidekicks fulfill several functions heroes can't, and they make us love them while they do it. A good sidekick can provide support for the protagonist--or inadvertently screw things up for her. He can pivot the plot in sudden, unexpected directions, or bring a fresh set of eyes to a problem...Without sidekicks, many heroes would be mere shadows of themselves. (p. 58)
Fuzzy does all of this for Max from encouraging her to cheat on a test (which totally goes against Max's grain and gets her into trouble) to breaking into BARBARA's office and trying to, I'll put this nicely, re-program the vice-principal. 

Seven Types of Sidekicks

According to Sims, there are seven kinds of sidekicks:

  1. The Chronicler (think Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby).
  2. The Servant Savant (think Jim, Huckleberry Finn's trustworthy companion).
  3. The Gang (think Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter).
  4. The Rogue (think HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
  5. The Enigma (think Creature in Frankenstein).
  6. The Pain in the Rear (think Chris in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).
  7. The Loyalist (think Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings.) (pp. 58-60)
Fuzzy fits the seventh type perfectly. 

Their primary purpose is simple: to show that at least one person feels the hero is worthy enough to deserve a steadfast friend. They act as messengers, deflect unwanted attention from the hero, or come to the hero's rescue. [Fuzzy decides it is his duty to figure out why Max's test scores are plummeting and to do something about it. Which leads to the afore-mentioned altercation with BARBARA.] Ultimately, however, a true loyalist must be willing to sacrifice his life--literally or metaphorically--for the protagonist. (p. 60)
Which Fuzzy does. But since this is science fiction, Max doesn't get thrown out of school, Fuzzy gets a second life, and all's well that ends well.

Sims suggests that in order for writers to create unforgettable sidekicks they should "possess some or all of the following attributes." Let's see how Fuzzy measures up.

  • They are fiercely loyal to the hero. Check. 
  • They are different in at least one key respect from the hero (in temperament, class, gender, race, age, etc.) Check. You can't be more different than non-human.
  • They possess a strong moral compass (rogues being the notable exception.) Check. Even though Max does not have a conscience, as he becomes more and more human, he has a growing sense of right and wrong.
  • They have unique, useful skills. Check. Fuzzy's ability to access information instantaneously, tap into the school's computer system, and compute logical outcomes is very useful to Max. 
  • They are somehow dependent on the hero, if only emotionally. Check. Fuzzy finds "himself" attached to Max.
  • They're not looking to overshadow or be more valuable than the hero. Check
  • They have unique backstories and character arcs. Check. Even as a robot, he learns and grows.  
  •  They are too essential to the hero and the story to be killed off. Check. (p. 60)
Erin Moon, the narrator, did an excellent job of portraying the different characters. Even though I finished listening to this book a month ago, I can still hear Fuzzy's voice in my head!

Classroom Resource

Not only could a middle school teacher ask her students about the role of the sidekick, this book could generate great classroom discussion:

  • What is the role of technology in schools and society?
  • If you were a student at Vanguard, would you have made the same choices as Max? Why or why not?
  •  Can an inanimate object like a robot have a conscience? Could it/he make moral decisions?  
  • How was Fuzzy sacrificial for Max? Can a robot do this?
  • Fuzzy gets a "second life." Are there implications of this theme?


Sims provides great reasons to have a sidekick in a novel. In your comment, let me know if you have a sidekick in your book. What role does he or she serve? If you're not a writer, who is your favorite sidekick in literature? This giveaway ends on March 3. As before, if you are an educator, new follower to my blog, or share this on social media let me know and I'll put your name in twice. If you are new to my blog, make sure you leave your email address. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Loving vs. Virginia: A Review and Autographed ARC Giveaway!

Congratulations to Connie Saunders for winning AUDACITY JONES STEALS THE SHOW.

Loving vs. Virginia (Chronicle Books, February 2017)  by Patricia Hruby Powell is more than just a book about the interracial couple who challenged Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. It is a documentary novel, which combines free verse, black and white illustrations by Shadra Strickland in the Visual Journalism style, period photographs, and copies of civil rights documents. The net result is a book which will teach middle and high school students about the black struggle for equal rights. 

As I often do when reviewing free verse novels, here are excerpts from some poems that show Mildred and Richard's love and struggles. These quotes speak for themselves; Powell's poignant verse intimately connects the characters with the reader.

(this is in the middle of a poem about a community gathering at Mildred's house. Fall 1952)

One of the fathers calls
a square dance
and everyone joins in.
Otha dances
Mama dances
Lewis dances
I surely dance.
Some of the big boys dance.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving--
eyes fastened on each other
even when they've been passed
to the next person--
their names are
Twilley and Lola.
I love their names. 
But we call them
Mr. and Mrs. Loving
of course.
And they pretty much are.

If I stop and watch
I see young and old--
Indians, Negroes, Whites--
all mixed together. 
Everyone likes each other 
in our neighborhood.
Everyone dancing

Whites and coloreds--
we go to different schools--
to different churches,
drink from different water fountains.
But our section is different.

My world is right here
in Central Point.
That's what it's called.
Central Point,
the center
of my universe.
My family.
My world. (p. 27-28)

(In this poem Richard hitches a ride from his black friend, Ray. The local sheriff pulls them over. Fall 1952)

Me, I'm white, but my daddy,
he drives a truck for P.E. Boyd Byrd--
maybe the richest roundest jolliest "colored" farmer in the section.
In other parts, a white man working for a colored man--
that would be unusual.
But that's how it is here in Central Point.

Sheriff don't like this one lousy bit.
White man puts hisself beneath a colored man?
Workin' for him?
Worse than being colored, right, Sheriff?
'Course I didn't say that.
Just thinkin'.

Sheriff looked like he was chewin' on his teeth,
kept turnin' over that itty-bitty license,
trying to figure out what mean thing he could to us.
We wait quiet
while he walked back to his car.

To Sheriff Brooks there are only two races--
white and colored.
In all of Virginia, just two races--
white and colored.

We know Sheriff ain't done with us,
but he let us of for now. (p. 31-32)

(This poem touched me since Mildred reflects on the two of them being seen in public together. She alludes to how some folks have passed and left their community. This theme is echoed in Half-Truths. July, 1956)

Richard once said,
      "It could be worse, Bean.
       If you was the white one
       and I was the colored one,
       people saw us together?
       They'd lynch me.
       We can do this."

I'm not really dark--
'bout the color of a grocery sack--
and I have good hair,
but I surely
There are plenty of people
from our section,
who are mixed like I am--
and one day,
when they're grown,
they leave home
and never ever
come back.
And we know they
into white society--
away from 
where everyone know you,
where everyone truly
cares about you.
I feel sorry for them
who pass-
and don't come
home. (p. 82-3)

(after Mildred is denied access to a dance. October, 1956)

The moment they said,
No, you can't go in,
he saw--
I know he really saw--
what it is 
to be colored.
His face folds up
He steps out of the car.
I wail.
He's gone what feels like
in the dark.

I'm in the car whimpering.

He comes back.

Drives me home. (p. 93-94)

(This is after Mildred gets pregnant with their second child. May, 1958)

Ray said, You can't marry a colored girl. Not in Virginia. 
     "You're white, Man. Did you forget that?

I told him, "We'll do the marrying in D.C.

He said, "For godsakes, Man, live next door to her,
        if you have to be big about it.
        Look at Farmer.

In our section
white man named Farmer
set up his colored woman in a little house
and he lived next door.
They have a mess of kids.
Everyone knows, but no one says.
All his kids take her name and when they grow up, they
pass as white people.
Away from here.

Farmer didn't want to rock the boat.

Millie deserves better.
I called Ray a pig. I called him worse than that. 
Ray said, You are dreamin'. You been rockin' Sheriff's
      racial hatred
      a long time--
      pretending all y'all ain't no different,
      everyone the same.
      Race mixing?
      That ain't gonna slide in Caroline County. (p. 113-114)

(After their second child is born, October 1958)

I stand before Justice of the Peace
Edward Stehl III
in the Bowling Green courthouse.
I am told I acted
"unlawfully and feloniously"
by marrying a white man.
Our lawyer, Mr. Beazley,
advises me to plead
just like Richard did
at his hearing in July.

And then I go home
to my baby
and little Sidney.
You'd think that 
they'd want 
us to be married,
what with a child and all.

But it's our beautiful brown baby
that is the problem.
This perfect baby is the result
of race mixing.
This child is the very reason
they don't want us married. (p. 147-148)

(After Mildred wrote to Bobby Kennedy and the ACLU, Mr. Cohen, a lawyer called them. September, 1963)

We went to the lawyer's little office--
nothin' fancy--
and talk and talk and talk.
He said something like,
      I think we can win, but it will be a long process.

     More than a month? Why?
     We just want to live as husband endwise in Virginia.
What is so difficult about that?

Mildred put her hand on my wrist.

Then he said,
      If you were to go back to Virginia together--
     get rearrested-
     that might be a good way
     to get this back in the courts.

This guy is complete nuts.
Mildred grabbed hold of my hand
real tight--
like she thought I'd get up and walk out. (p.188)


Nine years after Mildred and Richard were married, in the famous Loving vs. Virginia case, Chief Justice Warren and the eight associate justices ruled unanimously that marriage between members of different races was not unconstitutional, thus ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage.

Mildred and Richard went home.

Illustration by Shadra Strickland

I have an autographed ARC to give to one fortunate reader. If you are new to my blog, share this on social media, or are a teacher/home school educator and plan to use this in your classroom, please let me know and I'll put your name in twice. Giveaway ends February 24th. 

Please see this interview with Powell that provides some of the backstory for this book; and an interview with Strickland with glimpses into her studio and this book.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Audacity Jones Steals the Show: Review, ARC Giveaway, and a Mini-Lesson on POV

Congratulations to Sandra Warren for winning Augusta Scattergood's book, MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG.


Here's the question:

On a multiple choice test, which would you choose?

a. Kirby Larson's newest book, Audacity Jones Steals the Show (Scholastic, 2017), is about an eleven-year-old girl ("Audie to her friends") who makes an elephant disappear.

b. Audacity Jones is about Cypher, who in his new job with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, is charged with the duty of keeping an eye on Theo Quinn. 

c. Audacity Jones is about a young scientist, Theo Quinn, who provides Houdini with the necessary illusions to cause a seven-foot elephant to vanish. 

d. Audacity Jones is about Harry Houdini's newest and most fantastic trick ever.  

e. Audacity Jones is about Min; a persistent, smart chocolate-striped puss, who speaks Dog, learns to speak Elephant, and refuses to let her girl out of her sight. 

f. Audacity Jones is about the fraud Oberon who thinks he can use Theo Quinn to outwit Mr. Harry Houdini and become the world's greatest magician in his place. 

g. All of the above.

Third Person Omniscient POV

The answer is probably obvious, but I gave you these glimpses into this story for a reason. Although Audi is the heroine, Kirby Larson uses third person omniscient point-of-view to show readers what these important secondary characters think and want.

The interplay between these characters moves the story forward at a fast pace. Since this device is not seen in too many contemporary books (and generally advised against, particularly for new writers), I asked Kirby what prompted her to write Audacity Jones in this manner. 

She said, "I do not have any fancy names or explanations for the method I used in writing this book. I was aiming for an old-fashioned storytelling feel, thus the moments of omniscient narration; I also chose to break the “fourth wall” by speaking directly to the reader on a few occasions (a nod to Jane Austen). And I do know that we writers of books for children are advised not to use multiple viewpoints, etc., but honestly that is how I felt the story needed to be told. And I am lucky enough that my editor and publisher supported my choice, no matter how many “rules” there are against it!" 

A recent Writer's Digest article, "Why Point of View is So Important" by Joseph Bates, concludes: "Oftentimes we don't really choose a POV for our project; our project chooses a POV for us...Often stories tell us how they should be told--and once you find the right POV for yours, you'll likely realize the story couldn't have been told any other way."

Min's Voice

As I think you'll see from this scene from STEALS THE SHOW, that's exactly what Kirby Larson has done. This is from the POV of Min, one of my favorite characters. In this scene, she has snuck on board a train bound for New York City, for "Where the girl went, so did she." (p. 15)
Despite her abilities and intuitions, Min was stymied by the cargo put aboard at the most recent stop. More cage than crate, it took six men to load it into the baggage car. The creature inside was ten times greater than the heft of both Corgis combined and a thousand times more intelligent than the chickens. Min struggled to interpret the new creature's language, reminiscent of Bison, with a hint of Eagle. It didn't help that the language--or perhaps it was the speaker; Min hadn't worked that out yet--was rather nasal in tone. Min had worked out that the creature was either named Punk or was a punk; at least that's what the men had called it. By its limited vocabulary, she had also surmised it was not full-grown. It smelled of hay and apples and something else: The young thing reeked of sorrow. Once the cage had been situated in the baggage car, that smell did more to keep Min awake than all the clucking of those flibbertigibbet hens.
Early on, Min had learned how to comfort little Audie during lonely nights. Min hesitated: Would this baby, huge as it was, also welcome such comforting? If Punk stepped on her, then farewell to one of Min's remaining lives. Yet, she could not bear the creature's melancholy any longer. She padded close, straw shifting and scratching under her paws, to rub her scent against the metal bars of Punk's crate. After a few moments, the creature slowed it's rocking. Made a snuffling noise. Min waited, not a muscle twitching. Then something stroked her back through the bars. It was Punk's curious appendage, the one that hung from between his eyes. If it was Punk's nose, it was the most ridiculous nose that Mind had ever seen on an animal, but she kept that to herself. Hard enough for this baby to be alone; no need to rub salt in the wound by pointing out how homely he was. But then truthfully, what animal compares to a cat?
"Moww-rr?" Min inquired, paw poised in midair. 
Punk snuffled again. Puffs of warm air from his long appendage blew tracks in Min's chocolate-striped fur. Min took this as permission and eased slowly between the bars, into the cage, a cage too small for Punk to do anything but stand. She pressed against Punk's front leg and he stopped rocking altogether. Then he slowly eased his solid self into a lean agains the metal bars. Min leapt to a spot at the back of Punk's flat head, between ears as big as boat sails. Turning once, twice, three times, she settled herself, purring. Though Punk could not lie down, Min felt him relax.
Min locked at the leathery skin beneath her. It was dry. Punk needed water. Needed rest. Needed...
He said something.
Punk said something. And Min understood.
Thank you, he said. Thank you, friend (p.39-41. Used with permission.)

Giveaway and Resources

I have an autographed ARC to send to one of you. If you share this on social media or become a new follower of my blog, I'll enter your name twice. Just be sure to leave me your email address if you are new to my blog and tell me what you have done. Giveaway ends on February 17. Kirby is donating a portion of her royalties to The Elephant Sanctuary.

For other resources on using the third person omniscient POV see:

Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited  by Nathan Bransford

How to Write in Third Person Omniscient POV by Brian Davis. Brian gives good examples of "head-hopping" (which is NOT what Kirby has done) and subjective vs. objective omniscient. 

Whose Head is it Anyway? by Janice Hardy.

Immersive POV by Donald Maas. Not specifically on third person POV, but excellent article. (Aren't all articles by Maas eye-opening?)