Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Bread for Words-- A Frederick Douglass Story: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who won Galapagos Girl from last week's blog.

As the new blog coordinator for the SCBWI-Carolinas blog, I was excited to "meet" Shana Keller through email and schedule her blog on writing picture book biographies. When she told me that her newest biography, Bread for Words was being published by Sleeping Bear Press this month, I immediately requested a book to review and give away. Beautifully illustrated by Kayla Stark, this is another wonderful picture book to add to your personal collection.  Kindergarten through 4th grade teachers should add it to their classroom libraries and use it during Black History Month.


Written in the first person point of view, the book opens with this remarkable statement: "I know where I was born, not when."

Frederick wasn't at all happy about giving up his freedom and although he met his brothers and sisters at the Great House Farm, he was so sad to leave his grandmother that he didn't even play with them. 

He met Daniel, the young boy who lived in the great house and they hunted and fished together. "Except for the color of our skin, it was hard to know why we were different."

Frederick wanted to learn how to read and write, but he learned early on that it was illegal, unlawful, and unsafe for him to become literate.

Perhaps it was because he showed the master's family that he was just like Daniel, he was sent away from the plantation to live with the family's kin. Conditions were better for him and the master's wife began to teach him.

But, his new master disapproved and forbade her teaching.

"From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. If I learned to read, I could loosen the changes of bondage."

Frederick's jobs including escorting young Thomas to school and running errands for the family. When we met some hungry boys on the streets, he remembered how it felt to be hungry and he came up with a plan. 

Frederick copied letters he saw at the shipyard and wrote them on fences, brick walls, and the pavement. He copied letters from Thomas's discarded copybooks. 


This inspirational book ends with a summary of Frederick Douglass' life and why Ms. Keller chose to write the book as she did. Notice in some of the illustrations above, the words in bold are Frederick's exact words taken from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In keeping with Ms. Keller's example, I put words in bold that I copied from Bread for Words that were Mr. Douglass' exact words. 


As I consider writing a picture book biography, I plan to look for the nugget in each book around which the person's life (and thus the biography) revolves. For Galapagos Girl, it was Ms. Cruz's passion for her native island and animals. What do you guess the story nugget is for Bread for Words? Hint: I think there are several "right" answers.


For a chance to win my copy of this book (which I hate to give away--but I will for some fortunate reader's sake!) please leave me a comment along with your email address if you are new to my blog. Giveaway ends on February 1. For extra chances, share this on social medial. Just let me know what you do. Continental United States Only

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Galápagos Girl: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Linda Phillips who won Buddies, Bullies, and Baseball  from last week's post.


My faithful readers will recognize Marsha Diane Arnold's name. The author of picture and chapter books, I have featured her several times on my blog, but this is the first time for a bi-lingual book. Her publisher, Lee and Low Booksdecided to translate the book thus making it accessible to both English and Spanish speakers. 

Galápagos Girl was translated by Adriana Domínguez and beautifully illustrated by Angela Dominguez

This is the life story of biologist Valentina Cruz. Born into a large, but poor family, Valentina grew up playing with and loving the beautiful animals with whom she shared the Floreana island.  

Her father taught her that many Galapagos animals were endangered. Valentina's response was to want to help keep them safe.

Although Valentina was reluctant to leave her beloved island, her parents encouraged her to go to school. 

When Valentina sailed away from Floreana,
she made a promise to the animals and her islands.
"I will not forget you," she said.
"And I will keep you safe."

When she returned on school holidays, she camped on remote islands to study the birds, insets, reptiles, and mammals.

Now, not only is she a biologist, but Valentina is a nature guide and continues to share her love for the islands and animals with visitors from around the world. 


The back matter includes why Ms. Arnold decided to write this book, information about the islands, animals, and a detailed bibliography. These additions make this book a great classroom resource for K-3rd grade. Here is a teacher's guide and an activity page for your students.

Gálapagos Girl received a Green prize for sustainable literature. 


Interested in this book? Leave me a comment by January 25 to enter the giveaway. PLEASE leave your email address if you are new to my blog. Share on social media for an extra chance to win.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Buddies, Bullies, and Baseball: A Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won ANY GOOD THING from last week's blog.



This week I have a short book (just under 100 pages) that would be perfect for the 2-4th grade boy who either a) loves baseball or b) is struggling with being bullied.

In Buddies, Bullies, and Baseball, author Phyllis J. Perry authentically portrays the problems that Jack, a fifth grader and avid baseball fan, encounters at school every day. 

Here's the opening paragraph:
"I squeezed my eyes together as tight as I could, praying that when I opened them again, the two distant figures that I saw leaning against the fence wouldn't be there. But I knew better." (p.1)
From that point on, Jack is confronted with Steve and his sidekick, Cliff, who harass him every day. He chooses not to tell his friends or his parents about how they tease him, take his lunch, and how he doesn't stick up for himself.
I didn't want Dad to know I was a coward. I was afraid he'd be so disappointed in me if he found out that I was letting Steve bully me, and that I didn't even try to stand up for myself. And nothing could be worse than disappointing my dad. p. 10-11
Jack tries several different ways to avoid Steve and Cliff, but avoidance doesn't work and he ends up more disappointed in himself for not speaking up. At the same time, he is appointed to help out a new student, Hans from Germany, who helps him see the situation differently. 

When Jack finally speaks his mind to the bullies it's over something that matters to him even more than his own reputation--his beloved baseball glove that his uncle gave him. 

At the end of the book the reader discovers what many adults know: young bullies often see bullying in their families or are victims themselves. 

When Jack finally confides in his parents that he didn't want to be a tattletale or disappoint his parents, his mother's response is one I wish all parents in this situation would echo:
"I probably wouldn't know what was best to do about it either," Mom said, "But I'd never think you were a coward for avoiding a fight with two bullies." (p.77)
One of my favorite lines is when Jack prepares himself to come face to face with Steve and Cliff. "...I wasn't really scared. It was funny, but I was over that. Part of being scared is not knowing what to do." (p. 80). Jack also helps a boy younger than himself confront his fears. That is a sweet demonstration of Jack passing along what he has learned.

This would make a great elementary school classroom read. The book's (unfortunately) current topic makes it accessible to older reluctant readers also. 


I'm giving away my copy of this book. Leave me a comment (with your name and email address if you are new to my blog) and I'll enter your name. Share this on social media (and tell me what you do) and I'll add your name a second time to the proverbial hat. Giveaway ends January 18. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Any Good Thing: Adult Contemporary Fiction Review & Giveaway

Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who won an autographed copy of SNAKES AND STONES.

Any Good Thing is Joy Rancatore's debut novel and clearly she poured herself into writing and publishing her first adult book. From the cover design through to the acknowledgments at the end, Joy's passion for her characters and topic shine through. 


The book dramatically opens with 15-year-old Jack Calhoun's life permanently altered: a teenage drag race ends in death and disaster. From that point onward, Jack shoulders the guilt of four deaths--compounded later by two other deaths for which he takes responsibility. 

In the first chapter the reader meets Jack's girlfriend, Rachel Burns, her father Ben, and Jack's mother, Becky; the three people who are his trinity of support as Jack wrestles with demons from his past. 

Jack's father abandoned the family when Jack was young and Ben becomes a father figure to him. Quickly after the accidents, Jack descends into alcoholism; Ben helps him to get into a rehab. There, Jack confesses his motivation to get over his addiction: "I want to be better for my mom and the people who've stuck by me...despite all I've done." (p. 43)  

Although this refrain is repeated throughout the book, Jack's fatal flaw is that he believes the only way he can help the people he loves is to remove his poisonous influence from their lives. "No more would he sit by and watch people he loved get hurt by whatever curse had claimed him as its host. The final tendrils of the sun's red hair slunk before him as he headed west." (p. 90)

With this faulty conclusion guiding him, he joins the Marines and vows to make something of his life and become a source of pride to his mother. 

Jack's internal conversation shows that he sees himself as a failure, but at the same time the author portrays him as a successful carpenter and outstanding Marine who is consistently promoted. Even when he feels responsible for his best friend, Tray's, death in Iraq, Tray's mother forgives him, but he doesn't forgive himself. 

Jack feels hopeless when he returns home after taking a bullet in his right arm. His days as a Marine Scout Sniper are over and he refuses to get help. He enters into a bleak, near-suicidal time of roaming through North Carolina. His only help for the reoccurring PTSD anxiety is a stray, shaggy hound, Scout, who provides the companionship which Jack desperately needs.  

For me, the most powerful part of this book came in the last one hundred pages. An unexpected encounter with his father helps Jack begin his journey home, eventually leading to his emotional and spiritual healing. Rachel's unconditional love is poignantly portrayed. Jack's self-absorption (which is the lie behind "I'm too bad for even God to love me") is shown in the last few pages. Although Jack's coming to faith was predictable, it provides a satisfactory resolution to Christian readers.  

Although much of what the author loves is packed into 418 pages--southern food, the Marines, small southern towns, romance, and the peace of Christ--the constant point of view shift from omniscient narrator to one of the characters, was distracting. In the author's desire to include seventeen years of Jack's life, I had to frequently remind myself what his age was; many of his thought processes make him seem older than his stated age. 

Overall, I would recommend this book for the reader who loves fiction which carries a character through the dark spots of his life to Christian victory. 


Please leave your name and email address if you interested in entering the giveaway for an autographed copy of Any Good Thing.  Giveaway ends on January 11. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Snakes & Stones: A Middle Grade Review and Giveaway

I hope you enjoyed your holiday as much as I did. Mine was full of family and good food; now I'm back into my writing routine including sharing more books with you. Sandra Warren won Miep and the Famous Diary and Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc. Barbara Younger won Everyone Says Meow and Susan Rice won America, Here I Come! 

I'll start the new year with a review of Lisa Fowler's debut middle grade book, Snakes and Stones (Sky Pony, 2016). I'm holding onto my copy so I can review Fowler's great use of dialect, narration, and voice, but see below for Lisa's generous offer. 


You may have heard how a book's setting can act like a character in a story. Although the setting for this book changes as twelve-year-old Chestnut Hill and her younger triplet siblings (Hazel, Filbert, and Macadamia) and their traveling salesman father go from southern town to southern town peddling his elixir, it also stays the same. It's 1921 and their old horse-drawn circus wagon is their home, storefront, and stage for their "show." Chestnut's job--which she hates--is to testify that the elixir has worked for her and to spot the doubters in the crowd.

When her family isn't working a crowd, Chestnut tries to keep order among her siblings, convince her father that selling his fake elixir is a lie, and somehow make it back to their mother--who will fix everything. All of this is told in Fowler's love-for-the-North Carolina-mountains voice. Chestnut's Southern narration helps create the setting for the book. Here's an example from the beginning:
I'm crouched in the corner of the wagon, huddled on top of the triplets the same way a mother hen would gather her brood up and under her wings for protection--way too much responsibility for an ordinary twelve-year-old in a dirty, torn dress, frumpled hair, and shoes with holes in them the size of Missouri. Especially a girl that's been snatched from her mama against her will. (p. 2)
Her father gets run out of one town after another and Chestnut devises a plan to help her mother find them. She tacks up flyers in each town with a picture of their wagon with the name of the elixir painted on the side, and the name of the town they're headed to. She's not proud of keeping a secret from her father, but rationalizes he's the one who taught her to lie.

Her desire to find her mama rules her day and night and leads her to a decision she regrets. Alone in a store, she sees a wide open cash register with more paper money than she can imagine. An internal dialogue ensues:

But you  need that money to buy a train ticket to get back to your mama. Girl being with her mama's not wrong. Girl going back to where she was when she got snatched away from her home's not wrong. Stealing's wrong but only if you don't have a good enough reason. (p. 115)
Suddenly, life gets a lot more complicated as Chestnut's guilt eats a hole in her gut. The family is joined by Abraham, an old friend of their father who worked the coal mines with him before they lost their jobs. He provides another perspective.

"Mama didn't do nothing. It was Daddy who stole us away. Mama went to town, and while she was in the store, Daddy run off with us." 
"You sure 'bout dat?" Abraham asks with raised eyebrows and more questions than answers on his face. 
"Well yes, sir; I was there." 
"Maybe you was, but things not always de way dey seem. You think about dat, missy. Jes' you think. Dat's all ol' Abraham say." (p. 157)

Abraham reveals that he and her father were raised together in an orphanage. Slowly, Chestnut begins to see her father in a new light. When he is put in jail because he's falsely accused of stealing the money which Chestnut took, her life unravels. 

Without including a spoiler, her mother's return isn't at all what Chestnut imagined. Truth is spoken between her and her father. Forgiveness is given and received. The reader is left with a sense of closure for a story that will resonate in hearts and minds after the book ends.

Lisa Fowler's apt use of similes and metaphors makes the book a pleasure to read. Descriptions like, "My face is as hot as a fresh-pulled log from a fire." (p. 129); "Once we're in the heart of town, Daddy hops from the wagon and weaves like a bobwhite in an open field, trying his best to see if anyone's watching." (p.66); "Everyone knows adults stick together like warts on the back of an old toad." (p. 181) inspire me as a writer and add to the authenticity of this middle grade historical fiction. 


Lisa is giving away a personally autographed copy of this book. Please leave me a comment (with your email address) by 6 PM on January 4th to enter. Share this on social media (or follow my blog) and I'll enter your name twice. 


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