Monday, July 30, 2018

Between The Lines: A Review and Audio Book Giveaway

Congratulations to Connie Saunders who won Behind These Hands from last week's blog.


Nikki Grimes' sequel to Bronx Masquerade, BETWEEN THE LINES (Penguin Random House, 2018), combines narrative and free verse in a moving book about teens whose lives are changed through poetry. The audio book published by Recorded Books is narrated by different actors; each eloquently expresses a different character. Listen or read this book and you'll reach the same conclusion that I did: Grimes masterfully created authentic voices and personalities for the six different point of view characters. 


For various reasons ranging from a desire to write poetry to attendance only because of a guidance counselor's suggestion--the students in Mr. Ward's poetry class are thrown together. The universal theme of wanting to belong weaves the students and their poems together. This commonality provides the reader a window into the the personal and interpersonal struggles and triumphs they face.

The reader first hears about Darian, a Puerto Rican teen who sees himself as a newspaper man, not a poet. He lost his mother to breast cancer and by the end of the book his poetry gives him a way to express his grief. 

Private Pain

Numb, I sit on the edge
of the bed
Mami y Papi share.
I feel light as the ghost
my mother has become.
Her picture 
on the bedside table
looks blurry until
I wipe my eyes.
"Pobrecito," she would say.
If she were here,
if she were anywhere
in this world.
"Mijo," she would whisper
and touch my cheek,
and I would answer,
But this time,
The word never leaves
my throat.
And what difference
does that make?
When I wasn't looking
Mama's heart stopped
like a broken clock.
Half past 36,
the final tick,
the final tock.
Explain to me
exactly how 
I'm supposed to
tell time now. (pp. 130-1)


Li Cheng is "all Chinese and all American." Her poetry is full of "contradictions which squeeze into one small body."


How can I explain
the duality of Li?
The muffled sounds
of mah-jong tiles touching,
clicking together,
flips a switch in me
as my parents follow
the ritual 
of the ancient game.
The Mandarin calligraphy
clinging to our walls
sends my soul sailing 
to rice paddies
oceans away,
to the land of silk,
red sunrises,
and the jade mountain peaks
my parents
often speak of.
China whispers 
through their blood,
You are part mine.
And I nod, silent
and ashamed
that my untrained
American lips
are unfamiliar 
with my ancestors'
local lingo. (pp. 26-7)


Jenesis has been placed in thirteen foster homes and is worried about aging out of the system and having nowhere to live. Here is some of her story. 

Blue Eyes Squared

I see you staring at me.
You be boring a hole in my soul
as if the alchemy
of your curiosity
could somehow turn
these blue eyes brown,
but you might as well forget it.
You frown at my blond curls,
even though girls with hair
the color of sun
the color of spun gold
are supposed to have more fun.
At least, that's the story
they try to sell on TV.
Yeah, I'm different, but
don't call me freak
or assume I'm the only one.
There are bound to be
other brown beauties
with pale blue eyes
eerily like mine,
wearing smiles crooked
in exactly the same way,
noses that scream
matched set.
Are there more like me?
Yeah, you bet.
When I find them,
I'll fit in without question,
never mind that
the world thinks
I'm odd as H-E-
well, you get it. (pp. 33-34)


Val feels the pain of the prejudice her father faces as an Argentinian immigrant.

What You Don't Know

Mi padre, Ignacio,
is a book you haven't read.
It's filled with poetry
that can curl its fingers
around your corazón 
and squeeze out joy.
Pero you've never
cracked the cover.
You scribble crítica  
that questions
the measure of the man,
but you've never
 peeled back the pages
of his biografía.   
You toss el libro
onto the trash heap
marked "Immigrant"
y ustedes dicen it has no value.
But, of course,
you are categorically incorrect,
which you would know
if only you could read
las palabras.
If only you, too,
were blessed
to be bilingual. (p. 51)


Marcel has been labeled a troublemaker. His past includes his father's unjust imprisonment and how that demoralized him and shattered their family.

Troubled (partial)

What is it
with people and their labels,
as if the way they mark me
makes them able
to understand who I am
or why?
"Troubled kid"
tells you exactly nothing
about the trouble
my pops has seen 
or Moms
or me.
We stare from windows 
caged in iron,
in state prisons
or rented rooms,
which are only better
by degree.
We are forced
to survive outside
the neatly mowed landscapes
of your imagination.
Our stop on the train station
is worlds away
from your manicured lawns
and lives
and the lies you tell
about the days
of racial discrimination
being in the past.
Quit asking
why I'm angry
or I'll tell you. (pp. 39-40)


Freddie takes care of her eight-year-old niece and her alcoholic mother. This is a portion of one of her poems.

School Rules

Stage right,
the lights fade on a daily life
of tiptoeing around
my niece's feelings about the mom
who traded time with her
for time spent cozying up to crank.
The truth is too rank
for her tender little-girl ears.
And so, until she's fast asleep,
I keep bitter thoughts
under my tongue's lock and key.
Have I mentioned how it hurts me?
That neither my niece nor I
manage to have a mother
worthy of the name?
Oh, mine is present,
in an alcoholic-fog kind of way,
which is to say, hardly at all. (p. 148)


Nikki Grimes stitches a story together so real and touching that after the boys vs. girls poetry slam which produces outstanding poetry on both sides--I want to know what happens to each character. This would be a great curriculum resource for teens: some readers will resonate and identify, others will be informed by stories much different than their own. Read it out loud in reader's theater. Let it inspire you and your student to write poetry. The results may surprise you.  


I am giving away my audio book, courtesy Recorded Books. Leave me a comment with your email address if you are new to my blog. will pick a winner on August 3.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Behind These Hands: A Review and ARC Giveaway

Congratulations to the following readers who won books:

Linda Townsend won Strange, Unusual, Gross & Cool Animals by Charles Ghinga

Kathleen Burkinshaw won Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe by Jo Hackl

Jane Leah B. won Nature's Friend by Lindsey McDivitt 

Mary Housel won The Extraordinary Ordinary Moth by Darlin Gray

Thanks to all of you who entered these giveaways. Don't give up! I have lots more books to give away.

I am blessed with amazing writer friends whose stories inspire my writing. This week I am pleased to share BEHIND THESE HANDS by my writing buddy, Linda Phillips. Some of you may remember the cover reveal and when I blogged about Linda's unique path to publication for this book, which is her second novel in verse. Now you can glimpse inside this beautifully written young adult novel that came out last week. I must note that it was hard selecting which poems to share. There are many more that are poignant, eloquent, and carry the story forward. 


Fourteen-year-old music prodigy, Claire Fairchild, is headed towards a music competition. Her only worry is if she takes first place over her best friend Juan--who is actually proving to be more than "just a friend." The book opens with Claire's piano practice interrupted by her younger brother Davy who is visually impaired and recently diagnosed with a learning disorder. He smiles a lot and Claire thinks, 
It bothers me that he smiles so much, 
maybe because it doesn't seem normal; 
maybe because I know for sure  
if I were in his shoes 
my smile would be the first to go.  (p.6)

This is her first attempt to write down the music she has composed for the competition:
"The Kite" takes off 
in the dead silent stillness 
of this tiny room 
as if the breezes were driving  
through these walls, 
and I chase it with the melody 
that has gelled in my brain 
these weeks of practice, 

and now 


I slide on the bench  
to the little table, 
and begin the task of setting down the notes 
that are strung across my brain, 
ready to pluck down 
like washing on a clothesline. (p. 15)
Into the middle of her preparation that is constantly interrupted by her parents worries about Davy, his medical tests, her need to watch both brothers while her parents work, and her own self-doubts, comes devastating news: 
The suspense is over. 
Our house feels like 
those pictures you see 
after a tornado levels        
but the victims are alive, 
shuffling around the debris 
in a daze. 
It's called Batten disease. 
it's going to get worse.  (pp. 31-32)

In heart-wrenching verse Linda leaves nothing to the imagination as Claire and her family reel from the news that truly does get worse: Davy will die from the disease, Claire is unable to concentrate on practice, she wants to give up music all together because it feels meaningless, she is pummeled with guilt, her father won't talk about the diagnosis within the family, everyone acts like their family is normal when it is anything but, her mother is coming unraveled from lack of sleep and worry, and a cooling off with Juan that she can't explain--these are all more than Claire can bear.
Batten has rearranged our family 
like pieces of familiar furniture 
placed awkwardly in a new setting. (p.72)

When genetic testing reveals that her other brother, Trent, also has Batten, Claire finds out devastating news about herself:

What does that mean          
what she just said?                        
What does that mean? 

I put my head in my hands 
seriously feeling faint now, 
miles away as if I had just stepped          
of my own body. (pp 96-97)
Into the middle of this devastation steps Claire's best friend, Mia, who drags her along on a journalism assignment. Together, they befriend  Mrs. Shepherd, an elderly woman who shares her past sorrows as well as her wish that she had celebrated life more. This, along with attending the Batten Disease conference with her father, gives Claire the tools and drive to regain purpose and a plan to combat "the beast." 

I know I'll find a way to help my brothers. 
I know that wasting my time feeling sorry for myself                 
                       needs to be a feather      
                       not a rock.
I know that celebrating life needs to be a rock      
                       not a feather.
I know it might not be a bad day after all      
                       if I keep this up. (p.199)

BEHIND THESE HANDS doesn't cut corners or pretend something is pretty when it isn't. Batten Disease cuts short the life of young people and leaves families devastated by pain and loss. But it is the story of a brave young woman who faces it head on and learns to celebrate the life of her two young brothers. In the end, she, Juan, and Mia meet with her parents to plan a fund raiser for Batten research. Other friends come to the house singing one of Mrs. Shepherd's favorite songs, "This Land is Your Land."
We all join in. 
Out of the corner of my eye 
I see Davy and Trent sitting at the top 
of the stairs, 
smiling and clapping. 
Mom brings them down and we finish the song.

"Are we having a party?" 
Davy says.

"Yeah," Trent says, rubbing his eyes, 
"How come you didn't invite us?"

All eyes fall on me.  
"This is just a preview, guys, 
the first of many
          and you will be invited

       to every single one of them.
I promise." (p. 288-9)



This book belongs in the classroom to help young adult readers gain empathy for those facing severe medical difficulties.  As Linda demonstrates in two scenes where bullies tease her brothers; it is often easy to pick on those who are weak. 

I am giving away my autographed ARC to one fortunate reader. Leave me a comment by Thursday, July 26 to enter. PLEASE leave me your email address if you don't think I have it. If you start following my blog or share this on social media, I'll enter your name twice--but let me know what you do!

Linda on her way out the door
with her two verse novels-
on her way to ALA!


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Two Nature Picture Books and Two Giveaways!

Congratulations to Jan Brent for winning the ARC of Jo Hackl's debut novel, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE.

NATURE'S FRIEND: The Gwen Frostic Story

Like myself, you might not have heard of Gwen Frostic, a 20th century Michigan artist. Author Lindsey McDivitt and illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen have produced a beautiful tribute to a woman who would not allow her physical disabilities to keep her from the art she loved (Sleeping Bear Press, 2018). 

As a baby, Gwen contracted a disease similar to cerebral palsy. Although it left her with slurred speech and she frequently fell down, she worked her hands extra hard just to learn how to write. "She sketched and scribbled. She doodled and drew. Gwen's grip grew stronger and stronger."

Throughout her childhood, "Nature felt like a friend, pulling her out to play." In high school she signed up for mechanical drawing--"learning to use rulers and compasses to draw machines--and the men squawked like angry blue jays." 

In art school Gwen discovered how to make prints from blocks she carved out of linoleum. Eventually she launched Presscraft Papers stationary company which is still in business today. Drawn to the outdoors, she relocated to Lake Michigan's Betsie Bay so she could capture nature in her artwork.  

Nature's Friend is a lovely tribute to a woman who once said, "Love this earth, love its enough to keep it clear." 


In another lovely nature picture book, Author Karlin Gray and illustrator Steliyana Doneva, team up to bring young readers a story in rhyme celebrating an ordinary moth (Sleeping Bear Press, 2018). 

Although the moth feels like it's not as massive as an Atlas moth, as beautiful as a butterfly, or as graceful as a Luna Moth, a young boy is delighted when he finds it:

"A moth! A moth!"
a boy then screams.
He's running up to me.
I freeze and blend in with the wall.
Maybe he won't see.

But when his twinkling eyes shine bright...
his smile grows wide with pure delight...
His happy face is such a sight...
I move forward toward his joyful light. 

I enjoyed the moth's "metamorphoses" at the end -- not into another insect-- but rather into an appreciation of itself. This last poem reminds me of Miriam Franklin's debut novel, EXTRAORDINARY.  

So how 'bout that?!
I'm someone's FAVORITE!
Little, grayish me--
proof of how
Ordinary can be.


I am giving away these books, both excellent curriculum supplements with activities included, through the summer issue of Talking Story on "The Great Outdoors."  Leave me a comment here (including your preference) and I'll add your name to the list. Leave a comment through Talking Story and your name will go in twice. Don't forget to leave your email address if you are new to my blog. Giveaway ends July 23. 


Since to my knowledge a book that I've featured has never been on a billboard before, I have to share this picture that I grabbed from Eileen Ryan Ewen's Facebook page!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe: A Review and ARC Giveway

Introducing Jo Hackl

Over two years ago I had the pleasure of sharing Jo Hackl's path to publication. (Both Part I and Part II are great reading; Jo shared how she came up with the ideas for the book and the process of acquiring a publisher). Jo and I have been friends through SCBWI-Carolinas for over ten years, and now that her hometown of Greenville, SC is also mine, I proudly claim her as my critique partner also.

It is with great joy and pride in her publishing accomplishment that I share my review of Jo's debut middle grade novel, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE. 


Read these opening paragraphs and hear voice oozing out of every sentence:
Turns out, it's easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketfuls of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for-merchandies from Thelma's Cash 'n' Carry grocery store.
The hard part was getting up the guts to go.
 It happened like this: There I was in Thelma's produce section, running my fingers up and down a bundle of collards. Collards never did make for good eating, but I was wondering if maybe they were some kind of sign that it was time for me to skedaddle. Collards always reminded me of Mama. She used to make me drawing paper out of collards, sumac seeds, dryer lint, and newspaper Daddy chopped up in his wood chipper. She plunked things in her paper the way other people stuck things in scrapbooks. Thread from the hem of her wedding dress, a four-leaf clover, Daddy's first gray hair. Mama's paper held so much life, it made my drawings pop off the page.
That was the kind of Mama and Daddy I used to have.  (p.1-2)

Who wouldn't keep reading after a hook like that?

Soon the reader discovers that Cricket is on a quest to find Mama who ran off and left her with Aunt Belinda. Taking a cricket who she names Charlene, a little bit of food, her father's pocketknife, a doogaloo, and a small notebook full of Mama's paper, she sets off. 

By nightfall she gets to the woods near her family's property. Here is a setting description that I used in my writing classes this summer: "The woods smelled like a hundred and fifty years of dark. A goose-bumpy ghost-town kind of dark."(p. 19)

She climbs into the tree house that "smelled like cedar, clean and wild," which her father built before he died. There, she reviews a letter addressed to her mother indicating her Grandmother's tombstone was to be placed on March 1-- in exactly eleven days. On it her mother had scrawled before, "I'm off looking for my birds." This brings back memories of all the times her mother left to find the "Bird Room" so she could prove it was real. 

With her few supplies, Charlene to keep her company, hope, and a pocketful of clues, Cricket begins her quest--but first she has to learn how to survive living outdoors. 

Like all good stories, Cricket's search has several twists and turns that test her gumption:  raccoons steal her food, snow, and a copperhead bite. The last is too much for her to deal with alone and she seeks help from Miss V., an eccentric woman who provides more answers about her mother and the bird room than Cricket could have dreamt of. At the same time that the story moves forward, the author provides bits and pieces of backstory that help put the puzzle pieces together. 

SMACK DAB is not only a story of outdoor survival or putting puzzle pieces together. It is also a story of a young person coming to grips with her mother's mental illness. Beautifully woven into the text is Cricket's slow realization that her mother's behavior was eccentric, unexplainable, and unstable. Like Laura in CRAZY by Linda Phillips, Cricket begins to see a different picture:
What about all the sharp looks in the grocery store? The looks at Mama. The looks at me. 
If my mama was crazy, just what exactly did that make me? 
The floorboards felt like they were shifting. Nothing felt solid. I grabbed hold of the wall. 
Is this what going crazy feels like? (p. 141)

After I finished reading SMACK DAB I told Jo, "When I grow up I want to be like Cricket." Readers young and old will be inspired by Cricket's courage and spunk--as well as her love for her mother and the truth. And of course, also for her love for the outdoors.


Just in case my review didn't sufficiently entice you, here is the trailer:

I took this picture when Jo hand-delievered
the ARC to my house!

Please leave your name and email address (if you don't think I have it) in the comments for my gently read autographed copy of this ARC. Winner will be drawn on July 13. Jo, our expert for the summer issue of Talking Story is also giving away a personally autographed copy too (anyone see an outdoors theme here?). Share this post on social media (and tell me what you do) and I'll enter your name twice. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Strange, Unusual, Gross and Cool Animals by Charles Ghigna: A Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Joan Edwards who won the audio CD of "The Road to Bittersweet." Thanks to all who left comments. Keep persevering and entering. More giveaways coming up--starting today!

Charles Ghigna, the Father Goose of children's books and no stranger to this blog, has done it again. But this time, it's not a clever book in rhyme for the youngest readers. Strange, Unusual, Gross, and Cool Animals  (Animal Planet, 2016) will appeal to kids of all ages who want to get up close and personal to some very weird animals. 

The animals are divided the way the title predicts: Strange, unusual, gross, and cool. Within each section there are four types of pages: a gallery spread which shows animals that live in different parts of the world but have adapted to their environment in similar ways; a featured creature that highlights one phenomenal animal through details about its life, stats, and maps; a creature collection which compares and contrasts a large group of animals; and macroview pages which show tiny details of very small animals.

Charles Ghigna gave me a "behind-the-scenes" look at the book's creation. After he agreed to write this book in nine months, he realized it would be a book that was, "Full of facts. No fanciful word play. No imaginative nonsense rhymes for toddlers. My tranquil treehouse would become the center of the universal pursuit of the biggest, baddest, best creatures on the planet. No more loose and loony alliteration. This was serious business."

Enter Strange, Unusual, Gross and Cool Animals--an accessible, factual, humorous book that will make every young reader want to learn more about the animal kingdom--even if she's scared of snakes and spiders like me. And guess what? Ghigna couldn't resist including a rhyme or two.


Strange how we as humans
view creatures great and small--
for we who see their strangeness
are the strangest of them all!

How strange is the star-nosed mole? Pretty strange. "It's nose is covered in 22 sensitive appendages that are so good at detecting vibrations they can tell when earthquakes are coming...It can even smell underwater by blowing bubbles it then breathes in through its nose." (p. 10)


Unusual is what we call
The weird, the fast, the rare.

We classify each creature--

But do they really care?

The thorny dragon looks like it comes from prehistoric times. Besides having a camouflaged body covered in hard, sharp spikes and two horns--it also has a false head growing on its shoulders! The sharp spines make it difficult for a predator to swallow. Besides, as Ghigna points out, "Who would want to eat a thorny, two-headed , puffed-up dragon?"


Gross is used instead of yuck
for words like poop and pus,
but all these animals agree--
it's only gross to us!

From my experience with kids, many are delightfully intrigued by gross stuff. From finding out that honey is really regurgitated nectar and millipedes can secrete yucky liquid that burns other bugs, discovering parrotfish who poop out sand, reading about a Goliath bird-eating spider that can be up to five inches long and when threatened, has a hiss that can be heard 15 feet away--readers looking for gross animals will find it in these pages.


Cool is how we think we look
when we try to impress,
but animals are born that way-
with lots of cool finesse!

Because of its translucent skin on its belly, "you can see through the glass frog and see its liver, heart, and intestines without an X-ray machine, just like Superman can!" (p. 108) Some see-through creatures include glasswing butterflies, the pelagic octopus, and the big skate that looks like a slimy ghost! Other cool animals glow in the dark, sport blue feet (blue-footed booby) or climb walls like Spider Man (mwanza flat-headed rock agama). 

A book to leaf through or read from cover to cover, young readers will enjoy discovering new animals just as much as Ghigna did: "The Blobfish first caught my eye. Icky pink and bulbous looking. Voted the “World’s Ugliest Animal,” I knew that one would become a hit with the 8-12 year old crowd. Who could resist the Rosy Wolfsnail, the fastest snail on earth? Who just happens to be a cannibal from Hawaii. And who just happens to inhabit my home state of Alabama and throughout the Southeast. Or the Fangtooth Fish whose teeth are so large it can never close its mouth?"

Ghigna told me, "I am glad I could be a part of this irresistible collection of amazing creatures whose lives will be explored by an endless parade of curious kids who might even put down their iPhones to ponder these scary, stunning pictures of exotic animals from around the world taken by some of the world’s top photographers."


In mid-July Joyce Hostetter and I will publish our summer issue of Talking Story on "The Great Outdoors." Since all of these animals can be classified as existing somewhere in that category, I'm going to give away this tremendous classroom resource through Talking Story. Leave me a comment here (with your email address if you are new to my blog) and I'll enter your name once. Follow the directions to enter the Talking Story giveaway (and if you don't know about this quarterly newsletter for teachers and librarians here is a link to the spring issue. You can subscribe through the link) and your name goes in twice. Winner will be drawn on July 21. 

THE NIGHT WAR: A MG Historical Novel Review

  By now you should have received an email from my new website about my review of THE NIGHT WAR by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (It'll com...