Thursday, July 28, 2022

BEYOND THE STARS: MG Book Review, Author Interview, and Giveaway with Guest Blogger, Elliott Kurta

In April, Elliott Kurta reviewed Doreen Berger's science fiction middle-grade novel, The Captain's Daughters. In this post, he reviews the sequel and interviews the author.


IBeyond the Stars by Doreen Berger, twin sisters, and troublemakers Robin and Diane are back, this time with a new friend. In this adventure, their father has asked them to welcome a new arrival to the Polaris, the starship he captains. The sisters quickly befriend their visitor, Jannel, who’s the young future ruler of Lasusia. She has been sent to the starship to wait out a mysterious and lethal virus that’s been spreading across her planet until a cure can be engineered. When the friends decide to take a day trip to the planet, an accident ends up stranding the three of them there. Now infected with the virus, Robin and Diane are in a race to get back to the Polaris before they’re left to the same fate as the rest of the planet.

As Diane and Robin catch the virus, they discover that it isn’t what it appears to be. With the fate of the planet resting on them, the girls will have to outwit a new enemy and make it back to the starship before the secret behind the disease dies along with them.

         Combining science fiction with fantasy, Beyond the Stars is a more playful take on similar works like Star Wars or Star Trek, with an immersive, realistic universe and exciting action sequences that include strong emotional undertones. Robin and Diane, with their unique perspectives and mischievous minds, are the ideal protagonists to introduce kids to sci-fi. But while their adventures may appeal to elementary schoolers, the subject matter of the book is more appropriate for older middle schoolers. Beyond the Stars is more complicated than the prequel, The Captain’s Daughters, as it not only shows the sisters developing an interest in the boys aboard the Polaris but also struggling with their emotions about their father’s relationship with a woman. Additionally, Robin and Diane are kidnapped twice and infected with a lethal pathogen over the course of this story, which might upset younger readers. Still, the cheery protagonists and their antics keep this story upbeat despite all of the emotional scenes and challenges they face.

Robin and Diane make excellent tour guides of an imaginative, expansive galaxy, and are one of many unique characters. Seeing Doreen Berger’s characters interact is often entertaining, and many of the conversations help push the story forward. However, there’s often a general lack of contractions in most exchanges, leading to conversations that sound unrealistic.

         All in all, Beyond the Stars, is the quintessential sci-fi novel for any mature middle-schooler or teen. Packed with laughter and jokes while still taking the reader on a riveting ride through the stars, this story will not disappoint. But despite all the new planets and fascinating alien species, Robin and Diane are what set this book apart from any other. The unlikely heroines are the defining features of The Captain’s Daughters series, capable of conveying shockingly authentic emotions that make even an impossible scenario, like being trapped in an alien world, seem real and relatable. Beyond the Stars may attract readers with a blend of adventure and alien worlds, but it’ll be Diane and Robin that makes them decide to keep reading.


ELLIOTT: What inspired the plot of Beyond the Stars?

DOREEN: Diane and Robin are caring young girls who like to help people, so I came up with a plot that would allow them to do this. Believe it or not, the plot was conceived long before the COVID-19 pandemic and it did not influence the plot at all.

ELLIOTT: Do you have further plans for The Captain’s Daughters series?

DOREEN: Yes, I would like to write a third book! Ideas are floating around in my head!

ELLIOTT: What was your favorite part to write?

DOREEN: My favorite part of the book takes place on Masilon when Diane and Robin are lost in the forest and come upon the unicorn. I think it adds a bit of wonder and awe to the book.

ELLIOTT: Which scene was the hardest to write?

DOREEN: The hardest part to write was Diane’s anger toward her father and the confusion she and Robin felt about their father’s involvement with Joanna, a past love he reconnects with. 

ELLIOTT: In Beyond the Stars, Diane and Robin have both matured. What made you decide to have Diane and Robin age between adventures instead of keeping them young?

DOREEN: To be honest, I really wanted to keep them young, but in the long run I felt it would add more depth to their characters for them to mature and have new experiences. 

ELLIOTTBeyond the Stars features two fictional planets; Masilon and Lasusia. How did you come up with such original worlds, and what influenced the creation of both?

DOREEN: Both planets came from my imagination! Years of reading and watching science-fiction helped to pay a part in how I think about alien worlds and how they might differ from ours…and how similar they might be to ours.

ELLIOTT: How much of Beyond the Stars is based on real science? For example, the Polaris, an enormous starship that Diane and Robin’s father captains, is a remarkable example of some of the futuristic technology in Beyond the Stars. What sort of research did you do before designing the Polaris?

DOREEN: Again, most is from my imagination and what I would like to see on a starship of the future. I really don’t know how much of it is realistic, but it is certainly something I like to dream about! The great thing about writing futuristic science fiction is that anything is possible!


Leave a comment with your email address by August 6 and I'll enter your name in the giveaway. U.S. addresses only. All comments must be approved before they are published. Be patient and you'll see yours published too! Congratulations to Claudia Friddell who won STELLA.

You'll find other great MG books on Greg Pattridge's MMGM blog. Check it out! 

Friday, July 22, 2022

STELLA: A Middle Grade Book Review by Guest Blogger, Josie Murdock + A Giveaway


Stella (Shadow Mountain, September 2022) is the story of a security service dog with trauma issues. Due to an error while sniffing out bombs at an airport, Stella’s handler was tragically killed in an explosion. Stella survived but is now afraid of everything. A kindly trainer takes her home and entrusts her to the care of her own daughter, Cloe. 

Cloe suffers from epilepsy, but she and Stella form a bond of love and trust. Stella gets a chance to help protect Cloe when some unscrupulous neighbor boys light firecrackers and start a forest fire. When Cloe has a seizure and is in severe danger, Stella comes to her rescue. She finds a new purpose in being Cloe’s medical service dog as well as her friend.  

I really enjoyed this book because the story was well paced and very exciting.  The characters were both believable and relatable. I loved how the story was told from a dog’s perspective, but it was still easy to read and never got confusing. The book deals with some very serious and intense topics without sugar-coating them. It speaks carefully and thoughtfully about these issues.    

The book was very sad. Although it does have a good and happy ending, the events described were quite serious, and might even be considered a little frightening for younger readers. It is important however  for kids to understand these grown-up topics like death, illness, bullies, forest fires, emotional pain, and loss.  I benefitted from discussing some of the issues the book brought up with my older siblings and my mom.  

I would absolutely recommend this book for anyone who wants an engaging, easy-to-read story.  Stella teaches many important lessons in words appropriately geared towards a younger audience.  This book would also make an excellent read-aloud for a group discussion or with a trusted adult. The author includes some excellent questions for further discussion.   


Josie Murdock is 10-years-old and lives with her family on a research farm in South Carolina.  She is homeschooled and loves reading, drawing, and foxes.  This is her first time writing a book review.   




I am giving away McCall Hoyle's debut lower middle grade through the July issue of Talking Story. To enter, please leave a comment with your name and email address or email me and I'll enter your name. The giveaway ends July 28. PLUS: If you leave a comment here AND through the newsletter, I'll enter your name twice! U.S. addresses only. 

Congratulations to Dannielle Hammelef who won Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine. 


As I mentioned before, authors really appreciate pre-orders

Here's the book trailer and a video of McCall speaking about empathy.

Make sure you check out other MG books on Greg Pattridge's blog.




Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine: A Picture Book Biography, Author Interview with Beth Anderson, and Giveaway

Yes. Phantasmagoric is really a word. Go look it up! But, just make sure you come back here afterward. It's a hard word to pronounce. But the story is well worth the tongue-twisting effort. 

Beth Anderson's newest picture book is everything that Franz Gsellmann's fantastic world machine was: Creative! Imaginative! and full of Discovery! 


Franz was a very curious little boy. When the cuckoo clock in his parent's Austrian home chirped, Franz wondered, 

What makes the sound? He looked at the gears. What makes them move? He peeked behind the small door. What's going on in there?

Although the nudge to imagine, discover, and create grew louder every year, his family needed him on the farm. At a young age, he left school to help out. 

As an adult, he had an amazing dream about a fantastic, magical, phantasmagorical machine! ....Franz pondered and paced, sketched and crumpled, fussed and fretted. The machine he saw in his dream was unlike anything in the world.

When he heard about a unique and amazing structure at the 1958 world's fair in Belgium, he took a train to go see it. Franz was amazed by the Atomium and bought a small replica to take home- a reminder of how ordinary shapes and lights could become something extraordinary.

Experiencing that structure changed Franz's life. 

Franz listened to his imagination and started dreaming, planning, and building. 

He found treasures and trinkets at the local flea market. He explored junkyards for the right parts. Hula-hoops! Horseshoes! A hairdryer! Wagon heaping, he returned home with his haul. 

Although Franz wasn't sure what he was creating, he knew he'd figure it out eventually.

His neighbors bugged him. "What is going on in there?" They made fun of him. And when he plugged his machine in, the entire village lost electricity!

When newspaper reporters showed up to see the whirring machine, they were disappointed in what they saw. 

"Is it going to do something?" they asked.

Franz's hope fizzled. The machine was doing something. Something amazing.

After the reporters' and his neighbors' negative reactions, Franz withdrew to his attic. But in the middle of his despair, he heard excited voices outside his window.  

"One by one, Franz flipped the fifty-three switches and the machine awoke."

Spellbound, a little girl whispered, "What's going on in there?"

Franz's face crinkled into a smile as he watched the children's eyes twinkle with wonder. His phantasmagorical machine did have a purpose--and finally, Franz had figured it out.



CAROL: What was your inspiration behind this story?

BETHFranz Gsellmann’s story was one of the first true stories that I tackled in my writing journey. I was smitten by the quirkiness of it and had great fun playing with all the sensory information and odd details. The heart of his story actually came through as questions - questions about expectations and the value of creative endeavors and processes, questions that I hope will linger and provide kids an opportunity to think past the usual. Though editors often ask for “quirky,” it’s a challenge to shape such a story, and also to find an editor who "gets it" and loves it enough to take it on. After several years and many revisions, I can see so clearly now how this story of one man’s creative endeavor is like a metaphor for us writers and so many other creatives. His story is an apt reflection of my story of writing his story! 

CAROL:  How did you stumble upon Franz Gsellmann?

BETH: I think I saw the machine on Atlas Obscura. I subscribe to newsfeeds from various sites, and every once in a while there's something that grabs my attention. 

CAROL: That just goes to show you how curiosity is an important tool for every writer! By the way, how did you come up with the title?

BETHI spend a lot of time with an online thesaurus - ha! Always looking for the right words. I was gathering words like “fantastic” but the usual ones just weren’t enough. I stumbled on phantasmagorical, looked it up, and it was absolutely perfect for the machine. And who doesn’t love a great big crazy word like that? AND it’s made up of other pieces, just like his machine!


Without a doubt, this book stirs the curiosity of PreK-third-grade readers. If they're anything like my three grandkids (ages 2-7) they will also enjoy the story, as well as the alliteration, onomatopoeia, colorful illustrations by Caroline Hamel, and the counting image search inside Franz's World Machine, at the end of the book. End Pages also include an author's note, more information about Franz and his machine, and an invitation for readers to share their ideas about machines. 

After reading Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine to my grandkids, I showed them this youtube video which narrates Franz's life and shows a few clips of the machine working. 

My 4-year-old grandson, Luke, kept asking where the flower lights were--something he'd seen in the book. We went from this video to a few simple science videos about gears. I'm not sure who enjoyed it more--him or me!

Speaking of grandchildren...Here are the two grandsons studying the "Golf Ball machine" at The Franklin Institute. 

After watching the video Luke also wanted to know where the balls were in Franz's machine. Goes to show you that literacy happens all around us.


Please leave a comment by July 23 with your name and email address if you are new to my blog. You can also send me an email if you prefer.  U.S. addresses only. If you are any type of educator (home, classroom, librarian) please let me know and I'll put your name in twice. 

Congratulations to Hewi Mason who won The Peach Pit Parade.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

THE PEACH PIT PARADE: A World War I Story. An Historical Fiction Picture Book Review and Giveaway

North Carolina picture book author, Shana Keller, is no newcomer to my blog. Some of you may remember Bread for Words, Tick Tock Banneker's Clock, or Fly, Firefly--her three other engaging books published by Sleeping Bear Press.  Her fourth book, Peach Pit Parade is illustrated by Margeaux Lucas. The soft tones Ms. Lucas used speak of Polly's love for her soldier father. The characters' faces portray their emotions beautifully. 


"Polly felt everything change when the whole world got into a fight. A big fight."

The first page of the book shows the front page headline, "U.S. AT WAR!" The reader is brought into Polly's world in this second illustration:

Even though Polly missed her father terribly, she and her mother stayed busy planting a victory garden and thinking of ways to help with the war effort.

Polly's teacher encouraged her students to get involved.

Polly wondered what could she do?

Miss Jennings had a strange request. "The government needs our help to collect all types of fruit pits, especially peach pits."

Her teacher explained that the pits were needed in the gas masks which the soldiers wore. The pits helped absolve harmful gasses. 

A newspaper ad to encourage Americans to save fruit pits.

Polly's next problem was to figure out how to collect enough peach pits to make a difference. She had participated in "send-off" parades when people gave soldiers extra blankets and books when they were leaving. What about a peach pit parade?

Polly shared her idea with her class and her Girl Scout troop. Neighbors, family, friends, and even the local newspaper got excited about the parade.

With Polly in the lead and flutes and cymbals playing, the parade wound through town. 

"In the end of the day, every wagon, bucket, basket, and barrel was filled with pits."

Polly's smile shone brighter than the sun. In that moment, she felt as if the cloud of war had cleared away. Polly finally felt like she was doing all she could, and she couldn't wait to write to her father about the Peach Pit Parade.


Like Shana's previous books, The Peach Pit Parade is a great addition to the K-3rd grade classroom. You will find additional resources for each one of her books on her website; here is her page for The Peach Pit Parade. This inspiriting STEM book can prompt conversations about war, compassion, service, and how individuals can make a difference.


For an inside view of Shana's book journey and how she became interested in the role of peach pits and the Girl Scouts in WWI, see Kathy Temean's blog.


Leave a comment with your name and email address (if you are new to my blog) by July 18. If you prefer, you can email me. Let me know if you are an educator or librarian and I'll put your name in twice. U.S. addresses only. NOTE: If you don't see your comment immediately, don't worry. I screen all comments and then publish them. 

Congratulations to Michelle Tracey who won Footprints Across the Planet last week.

Friday, July 8, 2022

UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC -Part II by Guest Blogger, Elliott Kurta

In May Elliott Kurta reviewed the first four books in the lower middle grade series, Upside Down Magic. In this post, he shares his thoughts on the second four books written by Sarah Mlynoski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins.

If you missed the first part, you can find it here. This is Elliott's introduction to the series: 

"The Upside-Down Magic series spreads a message of positivity and acceptance by using magic as an analogy for individuality. Perfect for upper elementary and middle-school students, these novels capture a fifth-grade class as they make friends, confront bullies, and define themselves in today’s world. Each book features the protagonist, Nory, and one of her friends."


With four new additions to their series, Mlynowski, Myracle, and Jenkins continue to explore each of the eight students of the UDM (Upside Down Magic) class, with each book bringing in a new character’s perspective. As the UDM class’s magic begins to grow stronger, their adventures begin to grow more and more spectacular. In the second half of the Upside-Down Magic series, Nory and her friends become more audacious. A school protest, invisible owls, a skunk stampede, a magically salvaged parade, and, finally, a new student will bring the friends even closer.

Weather or Not (Book 5)

            Nory’s excited to celebrate Bing Day, a holiday dedicated to Zeponiah Bing, a town hero. The class is being grouped into pairs to make their Bing Day presentations. But when Nory is paired with Willa, her happy mood evaporates. Willa and Nory are complete opposites; Nory is friendly and loud, while Willa is shy and quiet and, in Nory’s opinion, a crybaby. Willa’s equally upset about who she’s been partnered with, but for a different reason. Nory’s been mean to her ever since Willa started spending time with Nory’s best friend, Elliott. Willa’s getting tired of how Nory’s been controlling their project and mocking her magical flare-ups. With Bing Day at stake, can Nory learn to be a better friend and can Willa learn how to manage her emotions? Or, will their fighting ruin the celebration for everyone?


The Big Shrink (Book 6)

            In The Big Shrink, Nory and Marigold team up to make big changes. Marigold’s powers are upside-down, even for the UDM class. She has the ability to shrink things, but can’t make them big again. Fortunately, her teacher, Ms. Starr, may have found a solution. Marigold’s excited to meet her new tutor, who also has shrinking magic. Unfortunately, Layla Lapczynski isn’t the ideal tutor. She’s irresponsible and reckless, but Marigold is too mesmerized by her new tutor’s rebellious nature to notice. Meanwhile, Nory’s discovered a wonderful new toy: Dreggs! Short for dragon-eggs, Dreggs are plastic eggs that release a tiny dragon when squeezed. When Nory goes to bring her Dreggs to school, she realizes that the principal has banned all Dreggs. With Marigold’s help, Nory starts a protest; the UDM class is going to hold a shrink-in! While Marigold is at first delighted to cause some change, she quickly realizes that things might have gotten out of control.


Hide and Seek (Book 7)

            Lately, Nory’s been conflicted. Last year, she failed to test into Sage Academy, where her father is the headmaster. But last week, Nory was offered the chance to retake her entrance exam and she passed! But Nory’s grown to love her new friends, and she doesn’t know if she wants to leave. Luckily, a happy coincidence gives Nory the opportunity to sample both worlds. As a blizzard storms through town, damaging Dunwiddle middle school, the entire UDM class will have to continue learning to control their magic at Sage Academy for a week. But Sage Academy is full of ordinary students who have never seen Upside-Down Magic. How will the UDM class readjust? For Nory, this trip is just another reminder of how Sage will never measure up to Dunwiddle. Her friend Elliott, on the other hand, is excited to be a part of Sage. The Flare teacher, Dr. Vogel, has been helping Elliott work on his Upside-Down magic. Each day, Elliott’s magic seems to be getting stronger and stronger. Nory’s magic, however, has been acting differently since she arrived at Sage. Coincidence? Now, Elliott is determined to find a way to stay at Sage, while Nory will stop at nothing to get herself expelled. And she already has a plan…


Night Owl (Book 8)

Big Night is here! Nory is ready to celebrate the longest night of the year by having a sleep-over at Dunwiddle Middle School, where she’ll make her Big Night resolutions. And, of course, she is looking forward to participating in the main event: a school-wide scavenger hunt. Even more exciting is the prize to the scavenger hunt—a key to a secret room in Dunwiddle Middle School. Divided into two teams, the UDM class is determined to win, one way or another. Sebastian, now a rival teammate, is ready to win the scavenger hunt. His magic lets him see invisible things, like soundwaves. That’s perfect for a scavenger hunt! But his teammates are too busy leaving the actual work to him to take advantage of his powers. As the night goes on, Sebastian’s head is beginning to hurt from too many loud noises. His magic has been getting stronger and more annoying, but none of his teammates are concerned about him. Meanwhile, Nory doesn’t understand why none of her teammates understand that they have to win. With all of the fifth grade competing for access to the secret room, Nory and Sebastian will have to make things right with their teams before they can win the scavenger hunt. Finally, an unforeseen element will make Big Night even more exciting: next semester, a new student will join the UDM class!


Remember to stop by Greg Pattridge's MMGM blog post on Monday for more MG reviews.


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

FOOTPRINTS ACROSS THE PLANET: A Nonfiction Picture Book Review and Giveaway

 What do you think of when you hear the word, "footprint"? If your name is Jennifer Swanson, then it means many things. This simple yet eloquent text is accompanied by amazing photographs which convey that definition onto every page. 

Take a peek at Footprints Across the Planet  (Reycraft Books, August 2022) and discover some amazing footprints.


The book opens with two pictures: the bottom of an elephant's foot and a scrawny two-toed bird. The text reads simply, "Footprints come in all shapes and sizes, colors and species."

Then there are two pages of contrasts:

Footprints can appear very different--and some are hardly noticeable at all.

FOOTPRINTS then transitions from animals to humans.

More contrasts emerge. What does a footprint on a snow-covered mountain look like? How about a "footprint" under the sea? What footprints last? Which are gone as soon as they are made?

What type of footprints show us our past? What might show us our future?

Some footprints represent people who have worked for change in our society. Other people follow in their footprints. 

For better or for worse, digital footprints are now a part of our past, present, and future.

Footprints "remind us that our way of living impacts everything around us."

And footprints are "traces of ourselves." 

This picture book reads like a poem. No wonder! In a Facebook conversation, Jen said, "I had this title for awhile. There were different manuscripts with it. But when the March for Science, the Women’s March, and the Black Lives Matter marches took place, this manuscript was born. It actually wrote itself in my head one when while I was on a bike ride. I had to keep stopping and texting the lines to myself."

Her comment about the marches made me think about the book's layers. She agreed. "There are many layers. All the animals I used are endangered. There are many questions which hopefully evoke curiosity and the need to learn more."


This STEM book can be used in many w
ays. Here are some questions educators can tailor to their K-3rd grade classrooms.

  • What is a footprint? List some of the ways that concept is shown in this book.
  • Teachers/home educators could discuss what a student's footprint is. How do their ideas compare with the author's intent about the word's meaning.
  • "Compare" and "contrast" different footprints.
  • Students could try writing a poem about footprints. 
  • What is a digital footprint? 

FOOTPRINTS ACROSS THE PLANET is released in August. Authors appreciate it when readers preorder their books. You can find a variety of vendors on Jennifer's website.


To enter this giveaway, please leave a comment by July 9 with your name and email address if you are new to my blog. Mention that you are an educator or librarian and I'll put your name in twice. U.S. addresses only. If you prefer, send me an email and I'll enter your name that way. NOTE: If you don't see your comment immediately, don't worry. I need to screen all comments and then publish them. 


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