Wednesday, March 31, 2021

DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE: A Picture Book Review, Author Interview, and Giveaway!

Congratulations to Angela Kunkel who won How to Find A Bird on last week's blog. Kim Doele and Jolene GutiĆ©rrez won Skype visits in their classrooms. 


Last month, I announced Laura Sassi's picture book Master Class sponsored by Write2Ignite on April 24. Today I'm featuring her delightful friendship story, Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse


The story begins with an introduction of the characters and their "backstories."

Fernando loved chocolate
and cheese on dry toast,
and popcorn and gumdrops,
But what he liked most...

was feasting on Mozart, 
Puccini and Strauss,
and lending a paw
at the Old Opera House.

On the next page, we meet Delores.

Delores loved glamour and
spotlights and praise.
She longed to be showered 
with fragrant bouquets.

Now here was her chance,
after years in the chorus,
to take center stage and be
Diva Delores!

Fernando is ready and willing to help Delores with her debut, but she haughtily determines she has no need of him. Not one to take rebuffs easily, Fernando continues to help her--despite her disdain.  On the day before the opening, Fernando comes to her rescue when Delores finds (ahem) that she has a problem fitting into her gown.

With one day remaining

till opening night

Delores discovered

her gown was too tight!

Needless to say, Fernando's efforts aren't appreciated.

Delores FINALLY comes to her senses when she falters during her performance. She needs help from her little friend--but where is he? Has he abandoned her?

Of course not! Fernando pops out of his hiding place inside her wig and saves the show amidst cheers from the crowd.

She sang high, she sang low,
with a voice rich and sweet,
as the Opera House mouse
tapped along to the beat.

And when she forgot 
the last verse of her song,
He said, "I can help!"
Then he tra-la'd along. 

And the audience loved them.
They brought down the house.
"Three cheers for Delores!"
"Three cheers for that mouse!"


Here is my email interview with Laura about her path to publication. 

Carol: Could you tell me a little about Diva’s publication journey? 

Laura: The journey from spark to publication took seven years. I got the original idea for my story while participating in Tara Lazar’s wonderful STORYSTORM challenge, or Picture Book Idea Month as it was called back in 2011. I worked on the story off and on for five years. I played with plot, rhyme, character development - everything but setting, really - until finally it was ready to sub in 2016. It was acquired by Sterling Children’s Books that spring and took another two years to be published, which is typical for picture books.

Carol: How did you EVER think of this idea?

Laura: The story was prompted by paging through my writing notebook and looking at early notes for a completely different piece called “Mouse House”, a short rebus about a little mouse curling up in his house in the woods to sleep.  Seeing those notes, prompted me to imagine where else a mouse might live - and that imagining led me to the opera house! And once I envisioned that opera house mouse it wasn’t long until Delores was there was there as well, snootily preparing for her opera debut.

Carol: How many drafts?  

Laura: I’ve lost count. YEARS worth!  

Carol: The illustrations match the text so well. Did you supply any illustration notes?   

Laura: Illustrator Rebecca Gerlings did a wonderful job and it was really all her! I saw sketches along the way, which was fun, but the illustrations were her domain.

Out of curiosity, I checked the final version I sent to Sterling and saw that I had only three illustration notes. Two were stage notes explaining, for example, that Fernando hides in Delores’s wig and that his home was in a hole at the Opera House (as opposed to elsewhere).
One of Rebecca's original sketches,
"Delores is a hippo."

But there’s a fun story behind the first note which said simply, “Delores is a hippo.”  Obviously that changed. The early sketches of Delores as a hippo were cute, but everyone - Rebecca, me, the art team etc. - all agreed that she wasn’t quite what we envisioned so the art director asked Rebecca to come up with another animal. The result? The wonderfully snooty, yet lovable Delores the seal!  


You'll find several activities related to Delores and Fernando here.


And here is a short video that will make you run out and buy this book for your child, classroom, or grandchild:


Want to know how Laura creates those fun, unqiue rhymes? Want to work on your own picture book ideas? Join her at Write2Ignite's picture book Master class. It's on Zoom and there is room for YOU!

For more information about the class, click here


I'll be giving away a copy of Diva Delores in conjunction with an upcoming blogpost on Write2Ignite. If you leave me a comment, I'll add your name to that contest. Make sure you leave your email address if you are new to my blog. U.S. addresses only. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

HOW TO FIND A BIRD: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

 Congratulations to Sandra Warren who won THE OTHER MADISONS audio book on last week's blog.


I was introduced to How to Find a Bird  through NF FEST, a blog dedicated to nonfiction picture book writers. (Oh, I didn't tell you that I'm working on a picture book? Stay tuned.) Written by Jennifer Ward with engaging illustrations by Diana Sudyka  this new book (Beach Lane Books, 2020) will immediately draw young readers inside the pages.


The text starts with a simple fact,

which is "the wonderful thing about birds."

Of course,

You must move quietly and look all around. Not just in the sky, but also,

Some birds "sneak snacks," others splash, and some hide in trees.

Looking up into the sky works too!

Sometimes birds let you know if they see you or "announce your presence when they see you."

But the best way to find a bird is to LISTEN!


This book will not only be a great read aloud at home, but K-2nd grade classroom teachers can use it to encourage the young birders in their classroom. They can discuss the five senses as well as the birds' habitats.  Jennifer has this great bibliography of bird-focused books. The back matter includes tools and tips on bird watching and ways to become a citizen scientist which would make a great school project. 


Jennifer is giving away an autographed copy of the book to one winner, and TWO Zoom or Skype visits (which can include multiple classrooms) to another winner. Please leave a comment (with your email address if you are new to my blog) by March 26. Please indicate if you are interested in winning the book or the Zoom/Skype visits. I will try to honor your request. 


Here's the book trailer:

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go outside and find the birds who are nesting outside my window. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Other Madisons: An Audio Book Review

 For those of you who know me and my journey with Half-Truths, you will appreciate that when I heard of Bettye Kearse's book, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family, I knew I had to read it. Since I am way behind on my to-be-read books, I was fortunate to receive a review copy from Recorded Books. See the giveaway notes at the bottom to see how you can receive a copy of this rich memoir. 

I heard Bettye speak at a webinar sponsored by the Charlotte chapter of the Women's National Book Association. After I heard Bettye's compelling talk I reached out to her and we met virtually and have exchanged emails and phone calls. I am thrilled to share her book with you, as well as a few thoughts about her writing journey. Let's just stay that I'm not alone in investing over fifteen years into a project I love.


Few of us can trace our ancestry as Bettye Kearse has.  She is a eighth-generation griotte and her mother said to her from the time she was a child, "Always remember--you are a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president." 

Bettye unpacks the full implication of this family credo when her mother passes on to her a box full of ancestral documents, priceless mementoes, and photographs.  At the time, Bettye was a successful pediatrician in Boston. Her life was about to change.

Bettye (around four or five) standing with her mother .

This rich, sensory memoir begins and ends with the voice of Mandy, Bettye's enslaved ancestor stolen from Ghana. Kidnapped from her home, Mandy is crammed into a slave ship. The reader feels the splinters in her hands in the hold of the ship, smells the reek of urine and feces, and feels the horrific chains binding her. 

When she gets to Montpelier, James Madison's Virginia plantation, Mandy's agonies have only just begun. Sexually assaulted by James Madison senior, she gives birth to their daughter Coreen. James Madison's son, James junior, is attracted to Coreen and he takes her for himself--despite the fact that she is his half-sister. (Bettye explains these complicated relationships in this interview.)

Having grown up in the sixties, Bettye is uncomfortable with her mother's unflinching pride in being a descendent of the Madisons. President James Madison had owned and abused her ancestors! How could she be proud of that? 

Knowing that she was challenging parts of her family history that her mother hadn't, Bettye wonders what she can contribute to the family legacy. Though hesitant, Bettye determines to uncover the truths about her ancestors and becomes the first person to write the family history down. 

An 1860 slave census listing Bettye's 
and their children.

Bettye was very close to her grandfather, and the book is full of their relationship. He frequently told her mother, "Our white ancestors laid the foundation of this country, but our dark-skinned ancestors built it." Another time he commented, "Racism is just another challenge, and challenges make us strong." 

Bettye's research into her past takes her to Lagos, Portugal. What she finds rocks her to the core. The people who live in this tourist town are oblivious to the slave trade that had begun there in 1441. "There wasn't one morsel of information about slave stockades. The erasure was complete."

Bettye visits the Elmina Castle in Ghana and imagines what it was like for the enslaved men and women who were stolen, separated from their families, and kept in bondage. Her description of these atrocious events is complete. 150-300 women stood pressed together in "rooms of deep sorrow." They were marched through a "gate of no return" to a slave ship. "The ocean wiped away their footprints."

When Bettye comes back to the states, she visits the National Black Wax Museum in Baltimore. On board a replica of a slave ship, Bettye puts herself into Mandy's horrific experiences of possibly being raped, sick, and close to death. She wonders if she would have made it to the New World. 

There is much more to this book: Bettye's conversations with her mother over the nature of the sexual relationships between owners and slaves (her mother called it "visiting"),  Bettye's first encounter with Jim Crow when she was five-years-old, the racism she still experiences, Bettye's pride for her family and other enslaved Blacks, how she feels holding the picture of her great-great-great grandmother--the first ancestor she could see. 

This is an important book and one you won't quickly forget. 


In one of our conversations, Bettye told me that the hardest part of writing this memoir was what to do with the "rich material" she had received from her mother. Initially, Bettye wrote the book the way her mother wanted, as a record of their family stories. Then, she realized that her story wasn't unique to her and a mentor recommended that she write it as fiction; but that came out "flat." Her mentor then suggested Bettye write a memoir. Inserting her own feelings was difficult, but that process breathed life into the narrative. "It was very rewarding to discover my purpose by writing this as a memoir and realizing that I had a message for others."


The narrator, Karen Chilton, has a beautiful reading voice and immersed me in the memoir. Sometimes I forgot that it wasn't Bettye speaking. Here is an audio snippet to show you how well Chilton reads the book:

Here is a video sequence narrated by Bettye and other historians.


Join Bettye for a virtual screening of the Eduardo Montes-Bradley documentary, The Other Madisons. There are several opportunities to view the film over the next few weeks.


Leave me a comment by March 20 at 6 PM if you would like to enter this giveaway. PLEASE leave me your email address if you are new to my blog. 


This book is a great book club selection. Download the discussion guide here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Born to Swing: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a shelf full of picture books to review, use as mentor texts, and to give away. In honor of Women's History month, here's my next one, Born to Swing (Calkins Creek, 2018) by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Michele Wood. (Images courtesy of Calkins Creek.)

"I was born to swing, that's all. Call it what you want, blues, swing, jazz, it caught hold of me way back in Memphis and it looks like it won't ever let go." Lil Hardin Armstrong


In this vivid picture book biography, Lillian Hardin Armstrong's life and love of music is depicted on every page.

From the time she was a child, Lillian loved to listen to the Father of the Blues, Mister W.C. Handy's band playing outside her Memphis boarding house window.

Although her mother called it "Devil's music," she couldn't keep Lillian away from the family organ. Her legs were too short, so her cousin played the pedals for her!

Lillian played hymns for Sunday School--albeit with a beat. She didn't know it at the time, but she was playing jazz! During a piano contest she lost her place, improvised, and won!

When the Great Migration north started, she and her mother headed to Chicago. There she strolled up and down the Stroll listening to music at all hours of the day and night. 

She got a job playing piano in a music store and earned the tile, "The Jazz Wonder Child."

She met Jelly Roll Morton (who said he invented jazz) and despite being a woman, started playing with the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band.

She was "swinging with the swingingest band in Chicago. I laid those rhythms down so hot, they called me Hot Miss Lil." That's when she met Louis Armstrong. 

"Louis was not a handsome man. His clothes were out of style. But when he blew his horn, oh, gee!"

Of course, they had a jazz wedding! No honeymoon for the two of them, they were too busy touring across the country with the band.

Lil and Louis wrote songs and put a band together they called the Hot Five. Their marriage lasted for 14 years; the author reporting their divorce as Louis moving on. 

Lil continued to write songs and play piano. She also started her own band, ran a restaurant, designed clothes, and traveled to Paris where the French had flipped for le jazz hot. 

When she returned home, the country was wild about rock and roll. She thought maybe everyone had forgotten her, but she was labeled a "living legend" and she was on television-- a new type of entertainment media back in the day!

Interestingly, the book ends with Lil saying,

You won't believe me, but I died at the piano, playing that "St. Louis Blues"--playing hard. Oh boy, I went out swinging.

Right up to the end, I had the widest smile and the biggest brightest eyes.

In 1971, shortly following Louis's death, Lillian collapsed at the piano and had a heart attack on the way to the hospital. Wikipedia notes that the autobiography she was working on, and her personal letters, disappeared shortly after her death.


The back of the book notes include five pages of information including a timeline, bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, and a list of her songs to find online. This is a great curriculum resource for Kindergarten-third graders studying women in the arts, jazz, and African American history. Reluctant readers in fourth-sixth grades will also enjoy the text and pictures.

Here is a youtube short video showing Lil at the piano.

The text is very reader friendly and inspirational. The illustrator's use of yellow throughout the book was magnificent. From Lillian's dresses, to the color of the horns, to the background of several pages--it makes the story pop from the pages. 


Leave me a comment by 6 PM on March 12 along with your email address (if you are new to my blog) and I'll enter your name. If you choose to follow my blog, let me know and I'll put your name in twice. U.S. addresses only. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Korean War by Bruce Cummings: An Audio Book Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who shared Stompin' at the Savoy in three places on social media--and won my copy of the book.


It's been awhile since I've reviewed an audio book because of my new-found fascination with nonfiction picture books. I initially ordered The Korean War from Audible Books to gain a better perspective on what Ben Dinsmore, my protagonist in Half-Truthsfather, experienced during and after the war. 

Bruce Cummings, author of The Korean War (Penguin Random House, 2011), is an award-winning professor and lecturer of East Asian studies. At 350 pages (eight hours) this book is not an easy read, but provides a lot of information and a different perspective of the "Forgotten War." 


The following points helped me understand what Kate's father witnessed.

  • Cummings detailed the “dirty history” of both Communist and South Korean atrocities. 
  •  Cummings believed that American soldiers who fought on behalf of defending the United States against the much-feared Communists, shouldered a thankless task. He also thought that Dean Acheson  arrived at the decision to enter the war alone. It was a question of defeating Russia and obtaining prestige for the United States.
  • South Koreans were trying to go against centuries of inequities of social structure. The state squelched the middle class so there were two classes: peasants and aristocracy.  There was a tiny elite of rich but the vast majority of Koreans were poor. 
  • To Americans, the task of trying to create democracy for South Korea seemed impossible. Their ostensible vision was to bring freedom and liberty to servants who were under Japanese imperialism. 
  • Americans underestimated the enemy, North Korea. American GI’s were infected by the racism they knew in the States. They saw all Koreans as unreliable allies, primitive people of color, who lived in mud and squalor. 
  • Cummings provides the historic context for the conflict both in Korean history, as well as showing American political and military agendas after WWII. He includes a lot of information about what led up to the war: MacArthur's background,  Korean's history with Chiang Kai-Shek), Korean blood lines, how the monarchy was influenced by Confucianism, nationalism in the North... You get the picture. There's a ton of information. 

    Circa 1950: An elderly woman and her grandchild wander among the debris of their wrecked home in the aftermath of an air raid by U.S. planes over Pyongyang, the Communist capital of North Korea. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • During the first two years of war, the American perception was that south Koreans weren’t trained well and just broke and ran in combat situation. 
  • American GIs were constantly threatened by guerillas. 
  • MacArthur contributed to this dehumanization of the "gooks." In the "Naked Parade of Shame," 2000 POW’s were paraded naked after capturing Inchon. The war atrocities came out years later. All sides violated conventions of protecting civilians, women and children. It didn’t dawn on Americans that South Koreans wouldn’t like to be called gooks. 
  • Korea was a picture of extreme brutality. Upward of 100000 Koreans were killed before the war began. Another 100,000 afterwards.  As in Germany during WWII, incendiary bombing was also used in in Korea. Oceans of napalm were dropped on Korea. Depending on which side of the weapon you were on, it was either an infernal jelly or a wonder weapon. 

                                  North American F-100 Super Sabre deploying napalm.

  • The air war was awful. Many innocent civilians were killed in saturation bombing that was unimaginably destructive. 

  • In 1951, newspaper journalism was put under the jurisdiction of the U.S. army and articles were censored. American journalists were cowed and useless. McCarthy used labels instead of arguments during this destructive era--evidence made no difference. 
  • Korea was the place to where the Cold war first came and never left. Seven decades later there is still oriental bigotry.
  • Soldiers were there to kill, but also to save and protect. They are supposed to protect the weak and unarmed. When he violates that, he threatens the fabric of international society. 
  • Cummings argued that journalists and historians misread and misreported the Korean war so that it was slanted against North Korea. Atrocities were hidden and classified for 50 years, such as the systematic slaughter of political prisoners in 1950. He feared American complicity in this and believed the Joint Chiefs of Staff repressed photos for 50 years.  
  • Cummings noted some of the results of the Korean conflict including more U.S. army bases around the world. The military industrial complex rose in the 1950’s with a larger standing army as a result. The armaments industry grew after Korea. 
  • Cummings thought the war was never won. "If you look at the Washington Memorial, you will see mysteries and unresolved tensions on the stone faces". He felt as the war failed to liberate the north. In fact, our war with North Korea continues with fears of nuclear warheads. "Someday archives will open and someday there will be a full understanding of the war."
  • Cummings advocated that the United States find ways to acknowledge past crimes and to reconcile with victims. "Forgetting is a gate keeper of conscience." He favored seeking reconciliation, not placing blame and understanding of one’s former enemy. Techniques of requiem, trial, reparations, and apology will help the country put ghosts to rest.
  • "There is no military solution in Korea, and there never was."


It would have helped if Cummings had placed the history of the area and of American involvement in the first part of the book. Since there was a lot of material, important facts were given in the middle of the book. That made the chronology difficult to follow. 

It was clear by the end of the book that Cummings did not favor American involvement in the war. As it turned out, the day I finished listening to this I met someone who immigrated to America from South Korea many years ago. His opinion was very different. He was vehement in his appreciation of American involvement. 

I recommend this book for any young adult or adult who is interested in learning more about this time period. 

The narrator, David de Bries did a fine job of reading this book. Here is an audio snippet:


If you would like to win a copy of this audio book, please leave your name and email address in the comments and Recorded Books will provide a download code for you. This could be a great gift for the history lover in your life, Giveaway ends March 5 at 6 PM.



  Although I moved to WordPress for my new website , I'm still having issues with sending out blog notifications. Here's this week&#...