Wednesday, June 24, 2020

FREE LUNCH: An Audiobook Review

Congratulations to Connie Saunders for winning THROUGH THE WARDROBE from last week's blog. Here's a tip to win a book. Whenever Connie enters my giveaway, she ALWAYS shares it on social media. This earns her more chances to win a book--and it works!

"This book is for every kid. Whether they pay for their lunch or not."  FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle


"Why can’t I get what I want at the grocery store?" Rex asks his mother. Unfortunately, he knows the answer.  It’s been like this all his life. He hates seeing all of the chips, candy, and ice cream that other kids eat that he doesn't; he hates watching his mother try to stretch every dollar and use food stamps; he hates his constantly empty stomach; he hates having cashiers looking at him like he might steal something because his clothes come from the thrift store. 

Told in first person POV, this nonfiction autobiography is Rex's own story growing up in a dysfunctional family. He's angry that his family--including Sam, his mother's stuttering live-in boyfriend; and Ford, his toddler half-brother that Rex takes care of--are all poor. 

And he hates the helplessness and fighting in their home that poverty creates. Rex wants to blame his mother for not working but he also realizes that without a job, "all of the love goes out of Mom." Over and over she tells him how hard it is for her to get a decent job and blames him for being ungrateful.

The ultimate humiliation is when Rex enters middle school and discovers that his mother registered him for the free lunch program. Every day he feels like a beggar while he waits for the lunch lady to check his name off the free lunch checklist.  

Ogle doesn't hold back from painting the realistic but ugly picture of his childhood. The family moves frequently as the adults look for jobs. The lack of money leads to tension, arguing, and fighting. His mother gives him a black eye on more than one occasion. Rex's clothes are stashed in cardboard boxes and he sleeps on the floor--along with the cockroaches. 

The one bright light in his life is his abuela, his Mexican grandmother. She is his cheerleader. "You are smart and handsome. Life is not always fair," she tells him. "I lived in a one-room house without indoor plumbing and dirt floor with my13 brothers and sisters. We made it work. You will too." 

As hungry, poor, and angry Rex is, he tries to control his emotions, to not be rude, and to not hit back. But his own anger makes him feel evil. He has to remind himself that "being poor is not a disease."

In the cauldron of poverty and abuse, Rex experiences problems at school and with his peers. Despite worrying about how he can keep his poverty a secret so that his friends won't turn on him he thinks, "School feels safer than home." 

But things get worse. His friends reject him. He wears a monster costume on Halloween and starts worrying that he is a monster-- just like Sam or his mother. His family moves to public housing which is the last straw. He lashes out and tells his mother, "I hate you." She slaps him. Hard. He is constantly on edge wondering when she will strike back him and how could their lives get worse. Would they be homeless? Would they starve? Would he die? 

He develops a friendship with Ethan, a boy who he sits with at lunch. Ethan's point-of-view -- that his life isn't as perfect as it seems even though he his parents have lots of money--is eye-opening. "Come on, no one has a perfect life!" Ethan says... "Money isn't everything. Trust me."  

Towards the end, his mother gets a good waitressing job and the family takes some steps towards healing. Sam goes out of his way to give Rex an unexpected Christmas gift and the book ends on a hopeful note.  

FREE LUNCH tells it like it was for young Rex Ogle. A few readers might object to some crude language. To me, it was a brutally honest book. As Rex says at one point, "I don’t trust the word free. Look what it’s cost me." 

The audiobook is narrated by Ramon de Ocampo, who performs all of the voices excellently. I was particularly impressed with how well he showed Sam's stuttering. 

In a Facebook exchange, Rex told me this was the hardest book he's ever written--until the one he's writing now which is the sequel. But he's "glad it's helping some kiddos out there."

This is not an easy read; there were times I had to stop listening. I would recommend that middle-grade students read or listen to it with their parents or teacher so they can discuss it together. Although Rex is entering sixth grade in the book, the tough content might indicate it is more for young adults. 


If you're interested in adding this book to your home or school library, please leave me a comment by 9 AM on June 26. The winner will receive an audio code and instructions on downloading the book. As always, if you decide to follow my blog or share this on social media, let me know what you do in the comments. PLEASE leave your email address if you are new to my blog. This giveaway is courtesy of Recorded Books. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

THROUGH THE WARDROBE: How C.S. Lewis Created Narnia

Congratulations to Sarah Maury Swan who won ORDINARY HAZARDS off last week's blog.



Last fall I attended the SCBWI-Carolinas panel in which Lina Maslo co-presented "Bringing Your Voice to Non-Fiction."  I heard about her forthcoming book, THROUGH THE WARDROBE which she wrote and illustrated.  Immediately I knew I wanted to share it with all of you--and with my grandchildren.

This non-fiction picture book provides enough details about C.S. Lewis's childhood and adult traumas to help the reader understand how the world of Narnia came into existence. 

"As a boy, Clive Staples Lewis did not like his name. He imagined himself as more of a... Jack. When he was four years old, he changed it."

Since Jack didn't always like his own world, he imagined and wrote about other worlds. That was a precursor of things to come.

Jack lived in Ireland where it rained a lot. He and his older brother spent hours reading about talking animals and knights in armor. They made up a world populated with frogs, mice, and rabbits who argued about politics and went on quests to defeat evil cats. Conquering evil played a part in Jack's early stories.

Jack's pleasant childhood ended when he was nine. His mother died and he and his brother were sent to a boarding school in England--a horrible experience for him. Jack finished his education with a tutor and was on his way to being a teacher when WWI broke out. Jack went into the army but was determined to be a writer. After the war, he "pushed his imagination away." He taught at Oxford University and wrote many books about "pain, faith, love; about medieval times; about people discovering strange planets."

"But in the back of his mind, Jack had characters waiting for a story of their own."

During WWII, Jack took in evacuees. One day, a little girl asked him if there was anything behind [his] old wardrobe.

That started him thinking. He "decided to write a fairy tale...about a land unlike the dreary one they lived in, and about the characters in his imagination."

Jack's publisher, and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, didn't like his first ideas about Narnia, so he put it aside. But when he got sick, he decided he didn't care what others thought. He would write a story about four children who had been sent far from home during the war. "It was raining, and they were stuck inside a house of endless hallways. They found a wardrobe and crawled in. But as they pushed back the old fur coats, they fell into a magical realm..."

Narnia was a place that children learned about characters who stood up to bullies and that "the worst moments of your life were only leading you to become the person you were meant to be."

Children wrote to him and begged for more stories about Narnia. But by the time he wrote the seventh book, he knew he was finished. "This time, it was up to others--to discover a world only they could imagine and to find the door they were destined to open."


Look closely at the clever cover of the book pictured above and notice what Lina incorporated into it. If you get the book for a young reader--as I hope you will--you'll discover that the hardback cover is a wardrobe. Young readers open the doors of this beautifully written book and step inside C.S. Lewis's life.  

Make sure you don't skip over the endpapers. In the front are imagined letters from children to C.S. Lewis. Since he destroyed all of his correspondence, Maslo created these. The back endpapers are actual letters from Jack to children which can be found in C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children. Back matter includes interesting facts about Jack and an extensive bibliography.


I love stories within stories and in fact, this is a picture book about a man who loved reading and writing books. The illustrations are accessible to children; the color pallet which Lina Maslo used is beautiful. Although C.S. Lewis ages in the book, he still has a child-like wonder in his facial expressions. 

I bought this book for my not-quite-five-year-old granddaughter since I knew her father had already read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to her. During the Covid quarantine, my daughter suggested that I read books to her via Skype. I happily obliged. After my granddaughter received Through the Wardrobe she asked if I could read it to her. I was glad I had saved the F and G's so I could read the book to her.


I have a special giveaway for you! Lina Maslo is donating a personally autographed copy of THROUGH THE WARDROBE for you or for a young reader in your life. All you have to do is leave me a comment (please include your email address if you are new to my blog) by Friday, June 19 at 5 PM. Want extra chances? Share this on social media and tell me what you did. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ordinary Hazards: An Audio Book Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Barbara Younger for winning CAVE DADA from last week's blog.

Nikki Grimes writes powerful young adult books in verse. You'll find my reviews of Between the Lines and Words with Wings on previous posts. Now I know why she is able to write such authentic poetry. It comes from the depth of her soul and the pain from her past. 

Note: since this is a review of the audiobook, I did my best to capture quotes from the book. 


Nikki narrates the book and begins with this definition:

Memoir: A work of imperfect memory in which you meticulously capture all that you can recall and use informed imagination to fill in what remains. As she says later in the book, Trauma is a memory hog.

Quickly, the reader learns about Nikki's schizophrenic, alcoholic mother; her musician father who feels incapable of raising children; and a childhood full of instability, fears, and abuse. Her only constant was her older sister, Carol, who she adored.

“I have a Ph.D. in avoidance 
We’re all masters of selective memory 
We’re all allergic to pain."


Home was never a safe place.
Forget the guns. 
I was put in a dresser drawer away from the rats.

As a child she realized her mother had a secret life since she talked to invisible people. "Mommy who are you talking to?” was met with,  "Shhh!" and a finger to her lips. 

After her father left, the family temporarily lived with a relative but her sons shot heroin. They moved out, her mother went to work, and the girls were left in the care of a person who locked them in a closet during the day. Nikki was 3, Carol was 8. 

A demon lived inside of us for years in fear of the dark.

When neighbors reported that her mother neglected them, social services took them away. That began a series of foster homes. Some she remembered; she forgot several. One foster mother whipped her and her sister. She and her sister ran away to their grandmother's house; she refused to take them in. 

Did we do something wrong? Is that why no one wants us? 
Anger and I stood together on the train. 

When she was six, she found an oasis of love and peace with the Buchanan's foster family. Although she didn't talk for several days, the family's welcome broke down her distrust. She went to church, started school, and took dance lessons. But she was terrified of the night's darkness. She discovered Psalm 18:28: "You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light," and realized, 

Grace! Outstrips the dark every time.

Early on, she started pouring out her feelings in notebooks; the blank page was her safety.

The writing thing was some kind of magic. 
But magicians rarely share their secrets.

Although she grew to love the Buchanan family, she yearned for Carol and wrestled with not hearing from her parents.

Why did mom love liquor more than us? 
Why didn’t they love us?

When someone explained that her mother had a nervous breakdown she asks, How can nerves break? She is told that her mother doesn't know what's real and what's not, and Nikki remembered her mother's imaginary friends. 

When she overheard a relative at a picnic say that Mr. and Mrs. B always took in strays, Nikki realized, This beautiful family was only borrowed.

She found a picture of herself in the Buchanan family album when she was nine.  She had settled in and let her guard down. Then her mother called. She was remarried and wanted Nikki to join them. 

I had to go. How could I say no? One mother is all that you get. I wasn’t ready to give up on her yet."

The city scared her, it was difficult always changing schools mid-term. This time, her mother deliberately kept her father away and spent more time in politics and civil rights than with her. But Nikki moved in any way--what choice did she have? She quickly learned that in Brooklyn you have to join a gang for protection. When she is singed with a cigarette butt, her mother doesn't ask about the bandage. Nikki writes,

Why does she avoid dark and painful things? 
Who taught her to pretend? 

There were gangs on every corner, danger her mother refused to see, and the Brooklyn Library became her refuge. 

My life is like musical chairs. 
Every time the music plays, I have to move. 

When her mother started talking to herself again, she feared that “this stuff” was in her. 

God, please don’t let insanity be my inheritance.
Both her father and stepfather were useless. Nikkie took the situation into her hands; she was a kid who had to get her mother hospitalized. 

Every damn episode wore another hole in my soul.

She entered puberty and was alarmed when boys and her stepfather eyed her funny. She hated the changes in her body. Her sister moved in but didn't stay; Nikki didn't realize why Carol left until after “my mother’s monster” raped her. No amount of showers or notebook entries could take her pain away. In the same way that her mother didn't want to hear the truth about the neighborhood gangs, Nikki knew her mother would be no help against her step-father's abuse.

Her pent up anger terrified her. She learned to vocalize and to translate her feelings into words on the page.

I knew writing could take me places. 
But writing was a lonely place. 

Although her mother discounted her writing talent, at thirteen Nikki performed her first reading with Harlem poets. She was nervous, but her father affirmed her talent. He said, 

Explore every art form. You can be whatever you want.

My father fed me books and art by blacks. 
It left me dreaming of what books I might bring into the world.

After going to the Copacabana with her father she thinks, Not all stars in the firmament are white.

Nikki's faith does not break in spite of the many difficulties she faces. At one point she writes,

How can I not believe in God? 
If it weren’t for Him I’d be in prison or the grave.

As I mentioned, Nikki narrates the book herself. The only time her voice wavered was when she read about the car accident in which her father lost his life. He had promised to see her Easter morning and she blamed herself for him driving too late at night to get home in time. She felt powerless in the face of death.

Why did the one parent who knew my heart have to die? 

Here is an audio snippet to give you a flavor of the book.


This is a powerful memoir that I recommend for mature teens as well as for adults. Nikki Grimes has taken the fragments of her life-- "scattered memories"--and pieced them together into an amazing volume of poetry. Teens who have known abuse will find comfort in reading this book and knowing that they are not alone. Teens who have grown up in safety should gain empathy by reading or listening to Ordinary Hazards


I have a code that you can use to download this book for one of you. Leave me a comment by 6 PM on June 13th to enter the giveaway; please make sure to leave your email address if you are new to my blog. Share this on social media or start following my blog and I'll enter your name twice. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Cave Dada: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Gwen Porter who won CHASING AUGUSTUS from last week's blog.


This week I have another picture book by North Carolina author-illustrator, Brandon Reese. I first featured Brandon on my blog two years ago with his debut picture book, OOTHAR THE BLUE. CAVE DADA is a very different subject, but once again, larger-than-life characters are portrayed in funny illustrations and minimal text in a book that kids and parents will love. To quote from Beauty and the Beast, this is a "story that is as old as time."

Although Dada is tired from his day of hunting and gathering, Baba is not. He demands to be read to.

But Baba is quite firm. He needs a book. And not ANY book. It has to be a BIG book. 

Not even Dada's discovery of fire makes Baba happy.

So, Dada goes on a hunt for a book SO BIG that he needs the help of a wooly mammoth to bring it back.

But what does Dada find when he returns? 

Baba has fallen asleep.

Or, has he?


This book will make a great gift to a new father--or any father for that matter! Children will love the illustrations and even pre-K students will learn to "read" the simple words. Kids and parents will enjoy how true to life it is--and how funny too!


Here is Brandon reading the book--as it's supposed to sound!


To enter, please leave a comment on my blog (with your email address if you are new to my blog). Become a new subscriber to my blog and I'll enter your name twice. Giveaway ends at 6 PM on June 5.


Brandon told me that the sequel to Cave Dada will be coming out in 2021--CAVE DADA PICKY EATER. I can only imagine the hilarious illustrations and storyline for that book! 


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