Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Heart Changer by Jarmila del Boccio: A Review and E-Book Giveaway

Congratulations to Jana Leah who won D is for Down Under from last week's blog.

I will never read 2 Kings 5 the same again.

For those of you who don't know this Biblical account, this chapter of the Old Testament tells about Naaman, a captain in the Syrian army, who has leprosy. A young Israeli girl who he captured and gave to his wife, tells Naaman about how the prophet Elisha might be able to heal him. Despite his reluctance and pride, Naaman follows Elisha's instructions to dip seven times into the Jordan river and is healed. 

In Jarmila del Boccio's (she goes by "Jarm") debut middle grade novel, The Heart Changer, this Old Testament story is brought to life.

The young Israeli maid who Jarm named Miriam is given an authentic backstory which makes her believable and likable to modern-day girls. The story opens with Miriam's capture by the Syrians. Immediately, the reader empathizes with Miriam as she is torn away from her family. She is brought to Naaman's palace where the language, customs, religion, and people all are strange to her. Miriam is angry with Naaman for stealing her away, with God for deserting her, and for being forced into servitude to a woman who worships foreign gods. Add to that she is overwhelmingly worried that she will ever see her family again and must share a room with the servant girl who she replaced and who despises her. 

Throughout the book Miriam struggles with wanting to please her Heavenly Father and accept His will for her, at the same time that she struggles against homesickness and wanting her freedom. Bonds are established between Miriam and her master's wife who treats her as if she is her own daughter. In time, Miriam is able to say a few words to her mistress about the one true Jehovah. When Naaman discovers his leprosy, Miriam is the one who encourages him to seek the Lord's help--through the prophet Elisha. 

Miriam accompanies her master and mistress as they travel through Samaria to find Elisha. When they get to her village Miriam is fearful that her family has been killed. She is overjoyed to find out that they are still alive. 

In the end, not only is Naaman's body cleansed, but his heart is also changed. And so is Miriam's. She and her family learn to forgive those who harmed them and to accept the Lord's sovereignty in their lives.

Jarm's exhaustive research into the typography, animals, plants, food, dress, and customs brings the book to life. Girls from 8-12 and their mothers will enjoy reading or listening to this book together. 

I listened to the audio version and thought that the narrator, Brittany Goodwin, did an excellent job with the variety of voices. If you click on the audio version link, you'll find a link to hear a  snippet. 

To celebrate her book's one year birthday, Jarm is giving away a copy of the ebook to one fortunate reader. Leave me a comment (with your email address if you are new to my blog) by 6 PM on May 1 and I'll enter your name. Share this on social media or subscribe to my blog and I'll add another chance to win! 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

D IS FOR DOWN UNDER: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

Look at this cover.

Now, look again. 

This is a great example of illustrator, Geoff Cook's self-defined quirky sense of humor. The illustrations in D is For Down Under: An Australian Alphabet are just part of what will engage readers in a book that is part of Sleeping Bear Press's Discover the World series. The text by Devin Scillian combines poems for young readers and longer exposition for students in grades 2-4. Facts, trivia, and history are packed into spreads about every letter of the alphabet. 


The perfect opening for this book is A for Aboriginal People. The reader immediately learns of the ancient people who first populated this island continent. Their art, music, and traditions still influence Australian culture. 

The following pages contain both familiar facts and unusual information that will entertain and educate. Take "G" for example. You probably would expect that in a book about Australia, G might be for the Great Barrier Reef:
You're swimming round in snorkel and mask staring in disbelief, 
surrounded by our letter G, the Great Barrier Reef. 
Sharks and starfish turtles and whales, fish of every size.
The colors of the rainbow parade before your eyes.

In the same way, you might guess that K would be for kangaroos, koalas, and kookaburras. 

But, would you have guessed that  E is for Echidna? This spiny anteater rolls up into a ball to defend himself and is only found in Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea. 

Maybe you have heard of a Jackaroo, but I guarantee the illustration of this modern farmhand will get some laughs out of young readers!

Q is for Qantas Airline--what else? Here's another example of Geoff's artistic humor and Scillian's poetry:

Do you know what Vegemite is? It's a brown sticky paste that Australians and New Zealanders love to eat on toast. It tastes salty and slightly bitter and apparently is a treat that the rest of the world doesn't quite appreciate.

W is for Waltzing Matilda. I remember singing this folk song in elementary school--without a clue as to what the words mean!

All of the other letters of the alphabet are appropriately honored with their contributions to Australia's landscape and people. This book would make a great classroom resource as well as a fantastic read-aloud at home or in a library.  


I am giving away one copy of D is For Down Under through my blog, and another through the spring issue of Talking Story on Australasia. Leave a comment on my blog (along with your email address if you are new to my blog) for one chance to win. Leave another comment through the link provided in Talking Story and you'll be entered twice. (Tip: You'll find other giveaways through the newsletter too!) Winners will be drawn on April 25. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

LIVING--and WRITING and ILLUSTRATING--in the Time of COVID-19: A Guest Post by Melissa Cole Essig

Congratulations to Theresa Milstein who won ILLUSIONS and Sandra Warren who won STONES from last week's blog. 
Today, I'm bringing you a guest post by a fellow North Carolina children's writer, Melissa Cole Essig. This article first appeared on the SCBWI-Carolinas blog, PEN & PALETTE. Melissa graciously allowed me to share it with you.

A Moment of Gratitude for Our Relative Good Fortune

My son and I were walking the dog the other day when a jogger bumped into him.
I was outraged, in a way that would have been totally unreasonable a few weeks ago. What was this woman thinking? Why didn’t she run around us at a safe distance? How could she so selfishly squeeze onto the sidewalk beside my child, close enough to breathe on him?
It was a moment that encapsulated the exhausting reality of living in the time of COVID-19. On the one hand, I was outside in the sunshine, taking a walk with my son—a rarity in the “normal” world crammed so full of soccer practices and music lessons and homework that we are left with little time to just be together in no hurry. All these long walks I’m taking give me a chance to connect with other people as well, to shout hello to them across the street and check in with neighbors sitting on their front porches. To be more firmly and consciously in community. 
On the other hand, I expect a distance. I write blog posts about poor, thoughtless joggers who fail to observe it. 
It’s this apparent contradiction—connection yet distance—that, I think, makes writers and illustrators better equipped to handle sheltering in place than many. And that gives us a crucial role to play in bringing a little bit of peace and sanity to a world that so desperately needs it.
No matter how we approach our craft, at some point we have to sit down, alone, and tell a story in words or images. We know how to appreciate the solitude, even as we now fret about the very frightening consequences that come from so much of it for so many people all at once.
At the same time, we are uniquely able to bridge the gap between solitude and connection. In “What Writers Really Do When They Write,” George Saunders offers this bit of brilliance (and a great many other bits as well): “We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place ... and then welcome the reader in.” 
Think about this (and apply it, as well, to nonfiction and illustration). We create worlds and we welcome our readers in.
We can do this, even now. Even when we can’t invite our readers into our homes or our offices or bookstores or libraries or, for the vast majority of school-aged children in the U.S. right now, their schools. 
We can, in our own shelters-in-place, make something that COVID-19 can’t touch. That doesn’t require frequent hand-washing or worrying about how to get to the food distribution site or whether that person coming toward us on the sidewalk is coughing. Something we don’t have to leave on the floor untouched for 24 hours when we bring in the mail or spray down with disinfectant when we brave the grocery store. 
We—writers and illustrators for young people—have the power to connect, at a deep and intimate level, with readers who need connection in the midst of their isolation.
Yes, the manuscript I’m working on at this moment won’t make it into readers’ hands for years, if at all. But that’s true of everything we do as artists, every day. 
Every day we hope our work will find its audience.
And in this time of fear and confusion and anxiety, we can offer that same hope—the kind we’re so good at harnessing—to the people who need it. All we have to do is continue to create worlds where young people now separated from their friends and communities can find a connection. And invite them in.

Melissa Cole Essig writes middle-grade and YA fiction and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her spouse, two kids, and a hound dog who always needs walking. She would love to connect with you on Twitter @MColeEssig

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

STONES and ILLUSIONS: Poetry Collections by Charles Ghigna Part II: Author Interview & Giveaway

If you missed last week's blog, please take a minute to read some of the poems I enjoyed in Charles Ghigna's new collections, STONES and ILLUSIONS. In this follow-up post, Charles answers questions I sent him via email.


CAROL: First of all, why poetry? What is it about poetry that you love and couldn’t do without? What made you start writing poetry in the first place? Have you written poetry since you were a kid? (confession: I have!)

CHARLES: Poetry provides the perfect little package of words for sharing thoughts and emotions. It lifts the heart and sends the spirit soaring. I started keeping a daily journal as a kid. Within a few weeks the writing bug bit and I couldn't stop. Soon I found myself putting those random thoughts into rambling little poems, some with rhymes, some not. Most of my early poems were silly nonsense -- until I was smitten by a girl in high school. I started pouring my heart out in verse -- writing lots of bad, self-conscious drivel, keeping it to myself and throwing most of it away. I also had an English teacher who inspired us with his readings of poetry -- Frost, Millay, Sandburg, Teasdale and others. By then I was hooked. I started reading and writing poetry most every day. It's like breathing. I couldn't stop now if I wanted to.    

CAROL: Where do your ideas come from? You talk about nature, the circus, relationships, imagination, yourself as a child…on and on. Do you get entranced with a subject and write a series (like with the circus) or do they come out in bits at different times and then you realize, “oh, I’ve just written my fifth poem about the circus”? What is your favorite thing to write about?

CHARLES: I'm inspired by little things, quiet moments. I like to listen and observe. I like to celebrate life. I practice gratitude. I take long walks. My inspiration and ideas come from Nature, children, pets, animals, family, friends, and from the real and imagined visions I see along my daily two-mile hike. Much of my inspiration for my books and poetry for children comes from my beloved grandchildren, Charlotte Rose and Christopher. Their names are proudly displayed on the dedication pages of my latest books. My wife inspires all my love poems these days. My son's art inspires me too. Our first book together, ILLUSIONS, was just released. You can see samples of his paintings at

CAROL: You seem to like/use both rhyme and free verse equally. Am I correct? How do you decide which you’ll use, or does the poem decide for you? 😁

CHARLES: Yes. I like to write in rhyme and free verse. Most of my poems for children are written in rhyme. Most of my poems for teens and adults are written in free verse. Sometimes it's fun to sneak in a rhyme or two within the lines of my free verse to lift the language -- and to see if anyone's paying attention. 

CAROL: Ha ha! You seem to like to play with words a lot. How do you know when your poem is done? (speaking from someone who recently changed a short poem several times). Can you comment on your process? Do you work on several poems at a time? Get inspired, write it down, and then move on? Do you “try” to write poetry? Or does it just happen? 

CHARLES: My poems usually come fast and furiously. I write them down as though I'm taking dictation. After I get it all out in a rough first draft, I usually let it sit a day or two. I then return with fresh eyes to polish and revise. When it all sounds about right and feels about right, I stop. Your great question, "How do you know when your poem is done?" makes me think of Paul Valery's comment, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." Also, Robert Frost's famous anecdote comes to mind. When asked, "What does your poem mean?" Frost replied, What do you want me to do, say it over again in worser English?"

CAROL: At one point you said that ILLUSIONS was more for a YA audience. Just curious why you said that. It seems as if both collections would appeal to both YA and adult readers.

CHARLES: Thank you for that. I agree. I always hate to limit the age of the potential audience for poetry. I'd like to think that my poems in ILLUSIONS: Poetry & Art for the Young at Heart is for all ages -- middle graders, teens, YA -- and EVERYONE who is young at heart!

CAROL: Did you and Chip collaborate on the illustrations? I’d like to hear a little about that process if you can. 

CHARLES: This project was great fun -- and a great surprise to us! We really didn't sit down to write a book together. It just happened. I was writing a few poems to go with some of his paintings -- and he was painting images to go with some of my poems. We posted some of them on social media and people seemed to like them. We kept the fun going and before long we realized we were creating an entire collection of poetry and art that maybe others might enjoy too. 

Indigio by Chip Ghigna 


I'm giving away my copy of STONES and Charles is giving away a copy of ILLUSIONS--autographed by both himself and his son Chip. Please leave me a comment, along with your email address if you are new to my blog.  A winner will be drawn the evening of April 10. If you share either this post or the last one on social media, I'll enter your name twice; just make sure you tell me what you did.


If these posts whet your appetite for more poetry, here are a few more titles that Charles is proud of Dear Poet: Notes to a Young Writer came out at the end of last year. A beautiful new picture book, Once Upon Another Time, is coming out this fall and is co-written with Matt Forrest Esenwine and illustrated by Andres Landazabal. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

STONES and ILLUSIONS: Poetry Collections by Charles Ghigna, Part I: Reviews

Charles Ghigna, aka Father Goose, is known by many readers for fun poetry for kids. The last time I featured him, I shared his book, Strange, Unusual, Gross and Cool Animals. (You can see two of his other children's books that I've reviewed here: First Times, and Who Can?). This time I'm showcasing his two new poetry collections, STONES: The Collected Short Poems of Charles Ghigna and ILLUSIONS: Poetry & Art for the Young At Heart. No question about it: as entertaining as Ghigna's poems are for children, his poems for adults are thought-provoking.  

In this post, I'll provide poetry samples from each book. In the next post, you'll get a peek inside Charles's writing process. Leave a comment on each blog post and you'll be entered into a special giveaway. I'm giving away my copy of STONES and Charles is giving away a copy of ILLUSIONS--autographed by himself and his illustrator--who just happens to be his son! 

If you are new to my blog, please leave your email address with your comment so I can add your name to the giveaway list.


Almost all of the poems in this collection are four lines or less. The description that came to my mind when I read them was "poetry snippets." As you read some of my favorites, consider the imagery and figurative language that Ghigna uses. (I wish I was teaching a creative writing class right now so I could use these as examples!)

Some of Charles' poems rhyme:

Picket Fence

Around the summer house it stands
like rows of children holding hands.


But most don't:


The hot whip enters,
holding at the end
a fragrant man.


Many of the poems make you look at something in a different way. Like this one:


Sturgeon swim into the eye of liquid moon, 
leave shining sleeves of self and salt,
hide upside-down from each new birth of sun
like bats without wings.


His poems can make you smile, 

Homerun Voyeur

Again the crowd rises,
watches Gravity lift
her heavy skirt of down.


or think:

The Ballet of a Boxing Fan

A crushed program in his fist,
he moves in his ringside seat
at spotlight's gauzy edge
like a dancer with no legs.


Some poems are sad,

Attic Haiku

Stacks of old phone books
hide in the shadows like bound


Some are puzzles.

Honest Lies

You weave words
in webs of fire.
You turn Truth
into a liar.


And many are philosophical:

Loco Motion

Time, a runaway train,
races through the tunnel vision of our future
while we sit and stare at the mirrored windows
of our past.


The poems in Illusions are longer, but just as thought-provoking. Here is a sample, along with a few illustrations by Chip Ghigna, Charles' son.


I'm going on vacation in my mind
I'm going there to see what I might find.
If I'm not back by half-past eight,
Please don't stay. Please don't wait.

Please don't call. Please don't write.
I'm going, going out of sight.
Please don't cry and carry on.
I'm going, going, going--gone.

Earth Bound

In the vastness of time and space
We ride this one little star
Never stopping to ponder our fate
Or how fragile and fleeting we are.

Optical Allusion

Like the baby who first 
sees himself in the mirror
and thinks he has met a stranger,

we shuffle through the old photographs
searching for the one we used to be.
But no matter how many times we smiled,

no matter how many times
we combed our hair and acted coy,
no matter how many times

the camera made us small,
we can only guess the fate 
of this smiling, young stranger

who once resembled us
this smiling, young stranger
we hold like a fortune, in our hands.

The last poem in this book is so beautiful, I had to include it.

Final Lines

Artist. Poet.
Creative minds.
We spend our lives
Making lines.

We paint.
We write.
All day.
All night.

Lines connect.
Father. Son
Lines that bind
To make us one.

Chip and Charles Ghigna

Poetry Month

Celebrate National Poetry Month--buy a book of poems! And now that many of you are spending more time at home with your children--read them poems and help them develop a love for wordplay. Come back next week for an interview with Charles and more information about the giveaway. Remember, leave a comment on both blog posts and your name will be counted twice!


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