Monday, August 31, 2015

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling: A Review and a Giveaway!

Sometimes titles of books are difficult to come up with. But when I consider, Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling (PenguinRandom, 2014) I think, Lucy Frank, this title is perfect. 

Written out of Ms. Frank's own battle with Crohn's disease, this novel-in-verse is simultaneously beautiful and earthy. The premise is simple and as alluded to by the title, focuses on two young women--as opposite in lifestyle, character, and background as you can imagine--who share a Crohn's disease diagnosis, as well as an hospital room. 

This is not exactly a book written in two-points-of-view, but then again, it is. As Ms. Frank explains before the novel commences, the line down the center of many pages represents the curtain separating the two hospital beds. No line means the curtain is open or that Chess, the main character, is no longer in the room. The reader is told that the verses on the left belong to Chess; those on the right are Shannon's. Although the reader discovers more about Chess' backstory and struggles, Shannon's history, pain, and family relationships are also gradually revealed. This format is a clever way of presenting this story. 

Like drips out of Chess' IV bag, the reader slowly begins to understand the events leading up to Chess' hospitalization. Although readers might guess that the date Chess had before she was taken to the ER culminated with sexual harassment or rape, the truth of a beautiful night which ended in disaster is slowly revealed. 

To show you how well this book is written, here are some segments. (Since I can't mimic the 2-columns of the book, I've put Shannon's words in blue.)
Bald-head doctor's voice too fast, too smooth, too jolly, hearty, way too close, drawing squiggly pictures of intestines as Mom nods and peppers him with questions I can't listen to.
I don't know this hard and tough language. Don't speak Disease.
And I am so tired,
I close my ears until he's gone,
and through the curtain Shannon mutters:
"Duh. I could've diagnosed her two days ago. You don't need to be a friggin; genius to know she's got Crohn's. Same as me. Crohn's. Inflammatory bowel--" 
"Excuse me?" 
C-words ricochet around my brain.
"You don't know me!You know nothing about me or my..."
My mouth runs screaming from the B-word.
"Mom. Could you see if this curtain closes any tighter?
"Fine with me.Who said I was even talking to you? I'm just saying it pisses me off, these turkeys talking about tough.They wouldn't know tough if it bit them on their flabby ass." (p. 73-4)


And I whisper to the dark:
"I wish I could be just me. Without my body."
Then through the curtain,
so soft
I hardly know
it's her:
"Sometimes it helps if you imagine purring. One of those big old stripey-I'll just stand here on your pillow and keep this going all night long as you don't do something to annoy me-tomcats with a rumbling purr that quiets down your breath and helps your heart un-hurt.
"Anyway. That's what works for me sometimes." (p. 105-6)
Even if you've never faced a life-threatening illness, there's much to appreciate about this award-winning novel. I can understand why it won the 2011 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship and was picked as one of the Best Teen Friendship Books of 2014 by Kirkus.

But don't just take my word for it. View this trailer, and leave me a comment by 9 AM on September 3 to win this book. If you are new to my blog, please leave me your email address. If you start following my blog or share this on Facebook or Twitter, I'll enter your name twice--just tell me in your comment. If you don't win, buy this book for the teen reader in your life who feels as if she's battling a disease or situation which makes her feel scared and alone. 

This review was originally published on LitChat on August 18.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Way to Stay in Destiny- A Review and an Audio CD Giveaway!

The minute sixth-grader Theo Thomas gets off the bus and arrives in Destiny, Florida with his Uncle Raymond, I’m right there with him. Award winning author AugustaScattergood, uses great details to pull readers into the character and setting: Theo grabs his bags, baseball mitt and a tattered book, Everything You Want to Know About Baseball; the heat hits him like a slap in the face; diesel fumes whoosh around him; he encounters slithery gray stuff hanging from the trees; and no "old men in shorts and flip-flops" meet him and his uncle at the Marathon gas station. 

Theo’s shakes his head at the banner stretching across the street, Destiny, Florida: The Town Time Forgot and wonders, “Man, what am I doing here?”

Writers are encouraged to start a story at the moment in the character’s life when things change. True to that advice, Augusta starts this book with the fact that Theo’s life has taken a turn for the worse. As the story moves forward and Theo becomes acquainted with his new hometown, the reader finds out that he lived with his maternal grandparents on their Kentucky farm since his parents died in an accident when he was four. His Vietnam vet uncle had to come back from his happy life in Alaska to sell the farm, put his parents in a nursing home, and take care of him. Raymond resents it all.

At the same time that his uncle lays down the law about how life is going to be now that he's in charge, Theo is busy discovering that downstairs from his room in Miss Sister Grandersole's Rooming House and Dance Academy, there is a beautiful piano. He also makes the acquaintance of Anabel Johnson, who would rather be playing baseball than taking tap dance lessons. 

The piano is like a magnet to Theo and despite his uncle's displeasure, he can't keep his hands off of it. Miss Sister recognizes Theo's special talent to play music by ear, but all his uncle can say is, "No one but a fool wastes his time playing a piano."

Although this is Theo’s story of discovering a way to make a life without his grandparents in a new city, it is equally about Raymond coming to grips with his Vietnam nightmares and sorrows. I loved how slowly his backstory is revealed and how Theo discovers his uncle's hurts as an unappreciated Vietnam veteran. Their reconciliation is beautiful and authentic without being sappy or maudlin. 

I appreciated the way in which Augusta wove together the strands of the other character's stories. Besides Uncle Raymond's story, other sub-plots include Anabel's passion for baseball and her determination to uncover part of Destiny's history; and Miss Sister’s dancing dreams, which turned out different than she expected.

I also loved that Theo was as passionate about playing the piano as he was about practicing baseball. These two strands create a very unique character. 

There are too many great lines from this book for me to quote, but here are a few: 
  • "Music Makes Memories" the sign in Sister's practice room. The sign provides great subtext for the novel.
  • When Theo plays the piano he describes it as "music jumping out of his fingers."
  • Uncle Raymond: "I don't know nothing about raising kids. Especially ones that remind me of the bad times."
  • Theo: "I'll start acting like family when you do."
  • Uncle Raymond: "I hate everything that happened. I hate you having no one but me."
Why did Augusta Scattergood name the town Destiny? Why does Uncle Raymond want to leave Destiny? How does Theo figure out a way for them to stay and a way for them to be a family. You’ll have to read (or listen to) the book to find out.

Here Augusta reads a snippet of The Way to Stay in Destiny (Scholastic, 2015):

I am giving away a copy of the Audio CD expertly narrated by Michael Crouch. If you would like to win, please leave me a comment (with your email address if you are new to my blog) by 6 PM August 20. If you become a new follower of my blog, or share this post on Facebook or Twitter, I'll give you additional chances to win; just let me know in your comment what you did.

This review originally was published on LitChat on July 28, 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

Behind the Scenes of Prisoner B-3087

Last week I reviewed Alan Gratz's acclaimed Holocaust book, Prisoner B-3087. Today, Alan generously agreed to answer questions about what this book has meant to him both professional and personally.

CAROL: I understand Scholastic contacted you first, to see if you were interested in writing this book. Can you share what went into that decision making process for you?

ALAN: Yes, Scholastic approached me. Jack and his wife Ruth took his story to Scholastic, and they immediately saw that it would make a great book. But neither Jack nor Ruth are writers, so Scholastic asked me to write the book. Once I heard Jack’s account of his time in the camps, I couldn't resist—it was such an incredible story! In particular, I liked that he survived. So many stories of the Holocaust of course did not end so well. And I knew that for writing middle grade, that would be important.

CAROL: What was you process for writing the book? I assumed you interviewed Jack at least once.

ALAN: I worked on the book for a while before I ever met Jack in person, using what he and his wife had told Scholastic about his experiences in World War II and doing a lot of research on the concentration camps on my own. Then, about halfway through writing the first draft, I got to fly to New York and meet Jack. We spent the afternoon at the Holocaust Museum in Manhattan, where some artifacts of Ruth's time during the war are on display.

Jack's memory isn't what it once was, and he wasn't able to remember the answers to some of the questions I had for him. But later, when he read my first draft of the book, a lot of things came back to him. I think he needed the world of the book to help jog his memory. Writing this book became a real process of discovery as Jack and I uncovered some memories he didn't know he had. I'm pleased that I was able to write something that brought the past to life again for him, even if a great deal of that past was painful.

CAROL What did you do next? I assumed you consulted other books on the Holocaust. Or did you interview other survivors? What stands out as the most helpful "other" source of information? 

ALAN: I didn't interview other survivors, but I did read more accounts of the Holocaust--both academic and personal. I think the personal accounts were the most useful. It's the details I was looking for, not the general history. Specific things that happened to people. Events I could use to show real things that happened in the Holocaust. The reality was horrific enough without having to make things up.

CAROL: This is a novel and you make it clear in the back that it is a work of fiction. I don't know if you are able to distill how you wove together Jack's story with other information about the Holocaust, but your process interests me. How did you know when to take liberties with Jack's story? Perhaps an example or two might be helpful.

ALAN: Almost everything that happens to Jack in the book is real. But as I said before, Jack's memory isn't what it once was, and Scholastic really wanted us to see each of the ten camps Jack went to. And of course as a writer, I didn't want to just see them, I wanted something important to happen in each one. So while I had amazing stories from Jack's actual experience to put in--like hiding under the floorboards from Amon Goeth, or dealing with Moonface the kapo again and again, or watching the boy Fred die, or almost dying and then being tattooed at Birkenau--there were other times where I needed to fill in the blanks in Jack's memory. He remembered being at the salt mines, but not much more than the statues there. So I added, from reading another survivor's account, the scene where Jack sees the murdered body of a Jew who worked with the Nazis in the Krakow ghetto. Later, Jack remembered being at Bergen Belsen, but didn't have a specific story to tell about that experience. I had Jack see the "zoo" they kept at that the concentration camp, where the animals were fed better than the prisoners. Again, if something happens TO Jack, it's a good bet it really happened to him. It's the stuff he just sees and witnesses that I sometimes added, as I say in the back of the book, to give a fuller and more complete vision of the Holocaust. This was, after all, a book we expected to be used in Holocaust studies in schools.

CAROL: Do you consider this a collaborative work? Did Jack read any of your drafts and/or have input into them?

ALAN: As I said, Jack and his wife Ruth did read the drafts, and they gave me feedback on them. But I really did all the writing. Their input was more to get the details right. Part of the discovery was big things, but sometimes it was just small details. When I first interviewed him, Jack didn't remember the street he grew up on. When I chose one of the few streets in the Krakow ghetto then to be his home street for the story, he read that and immediately remembered that it wasn't right--and then DID remember the correct street. It was an odd book to write in that way--it was like the character I was writing would pop up every now and then and tell me, "No! Wait! That's not how it really happened!"

CAROL Have you done any public appearances with Jack?

ALAN: Jack and I filmed a video for Scholastic, which went on a DVD shown to students before releasing them into the Scholastic Book Fairs at their schools. But we haven't done any public appearances together. He's in New York, and I'm in North Carolina. Jack and Ruth both used to do a lot of school visits, telling their stories of survival, but they're both much older now and have a harder time traveling. I do a lot of school visits in Jack's stead now, carrying the torch for him and his story to a new generation.

CAROL: How has writing this book affected you both personally and professionally?

ALAN: Personally, spending time with Jack and his story and the world of the Holocaust has made me appreciate what I have--food on the table, a roof over my head, my family, my freedom--so much more. It's so easy to get wrapped up in day-to-day First World Problems and think the world is falling apart around you. All I have to do is think about how Jack's world really DID fall apart around him, how he lost EVERYTHING, even his name, his very identity, and it puts things into real perspective.

Professionally, PRISONER B-3087 has been a huge book for me. We've already sold more than a quarter of a million copies--most of those through the Scholastic Book Fairs--which makes it easily my best-selling and most widely-read book. It's been nominated for a dozen state awards, and its won three of them. I get two or three letters from student readers every week, and all of them clamor for me to write more books about World War II. Which is exactly what Scholastic wants too! I just turned in the first draft of a book about an Irish boy who is a spy in Nazi Germany in World War II as a part of the Hitler Youth, and I'm busy developing another book about the war. I will be very happy if my career becomes writing middle grade World War II historical fiction if kids keep begging to read more!

It's hard to keep up with all of Alan's books. His most recent novel, Code of Honor was just released. I'm currently reading The League of Seven, a steampunk/alternate history fantasy which won the 2015 SIBA Young Adult Book Award. Look for my review in a few weeks. And maybe a giveaway... although I think I have to save my autographed copy for my grandkids! 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz

Congratulations to Tonya Goettl who won Wonder at the Edge of the World in last week's giveaway. Stay tuned for another great giveaway coming up soon. But first, two posts about Alan Gratz's middle grade Holocaust book.

I'm going to tell you from the start this review contains spoilers. It's a story driven by a young boy's desire and need to survive. But of course, the spoiler is implied by the very nature of this book. Prisoner B-3087 by North Carolina author Alan Gratz, is based on the true story of Jack Greuner, an Holocaust survivor.

The book opens in 1939 in Kraków, Poland. Yanek Gruener (much later he changes his name to Jack) is ten-years-old and his father doesn't believe that Hitler's invasion of Poland will last for more than six months. 

His family soon finds out how deadly wrong he is. 

In magnificent prose that combines accurate details from Yanek's life with historical research, Alan Gratz has woven together a painful-but-true portrayal of a young boy's determination to survive which carried him through ten concentration camps in six horrific years. 

Within three years the family goes from rationing; to losing jobs, their synagogue, and access to schools; to being sealed off within the walls of the ghetto. Life is horrible, but at least Yanek has his family around him. After his secret bar-mitzvah, he is terrified when the sick and elderly are killed. He thinks,
I was a man and I wanted to do something. Something to stop the Nazis. To save my family. I asked myself over and over again what I could do to help, but I had no answer. p.50
He argues that his family should not give in to the Nazi's demand to be "selected" and buys more time for them all. But one day he comes home and witnesses his parents being brutally herded away by the Nazi soldiers. 

Yankee is sent to the Płaszów concentration camp and is amazed to find his Uncle Moshe who gives him survival instructions: 
From now on, you have no name, no personality, no family, no friends. Do you understand? Nothing to identify you, nothing to care about. Not if you want to survive…We have only one purpose now: survive. Survive at all costs, Yanek. We cannot let these monsters tear us from the pages of the world. (pp. 68, 70)
As Yanek is packed into cattle cars and moved from one concentration camp to another he learns what he must do to survive:
  • Don't share your portion of bread with someone, even if that person might be kept alive by what you have.
  • Don't miss a roll call. You will be beaten.
  • Don't show fear. The Nazis' dogs will attack.
  • Don't befriend anyone.
  • Always obey orders. 
  • Don't think for yourself.
  • Don't question orders even if it means moving back-breaking rocks from one side of the yard and then back again. 
  • Don't fight back. If you do, you'll be killed.
  • Don't complain when you are forced to sing and entertain Nazi soldiers feasting on a dinner. Look away so your stomach won't grumble and you won't be shot. 
Yanek clings to the smallest "comforts" in his pursuit of survival:
I stood at the water pump, scrubbing my body. It was bitterly cold out, but I didn't care. I would scrub my body, I decided, each and every morning, no matter how cold it was, no matter how tired I was. I was alive, and I meant to stay that way.
…I paid careful attention to where I had been tattooed. Too many others had let their tattoos get infected, and that had taken them to the camp surgeon. You didn't want to go to the camp surgeon. Ever. I even rubbed my teeth with my wet fingers--we had not toothbrushes or toothpaste, of course, but it felt important to remember what it was like to be human. (p. 136)
As the war ends, Yanek's will to survive does not:
The war had come to Dachau, and any moment a shell or a bomb might fall on our building and kill us all. So many times I had wished for a bomb to fall on me, to end my suffering, but now I prayed that no bomb would hit me. Not now, when I was so close to the end! If only I could survive a little longer, I thought, just a little longer-- (p. 242)
As I said in the beginning of this review, it is obvious that Yanek Gruener does survive. So, it's not a spoiler to quote the last lines of this memorable book:
I stepped on board the train and didn't look back. For nine years I had done everything I could to survive. Not it was time to live. (p.256)
Next week Alan shares his process of writing Prisoner B-3087 and what it has meant to him both personally and professionally. To whet your appetite, here is a video of Alan with Jack and his wife Ruth, that Scholastic created. 

Next week Alan shares his process of writing Prisoner B-3087 and what it has meant to him both personally and professionally. To whet your appetite, here is a video of Alan with Jack and his wife Ruth, that Scholastic created. 


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