Saturday, October 29, 2022

STARFISH: A Teen Review of a Middle-Grade Book

My teen blogger Elliott Kurta is now busy being a freshman in high school and doing his volunteer job at the library. So, we'll enjoy his book reviews whenever he has time to get them to me.



           Young Elle is constantly shamed for being overweight; at school, in public, and even at home. To make matters worse, her mother obsessively monitors what she eats and her brother and sister poke fun at her. It’s no wonder the only place Elle feels safe is in her pool, where her weight doesn’t matter, and she can take up as much space as she wants. In this middle-grade novel, Elle finally decides to fight back with the support of her father, a new friend, and her therapist.

            Bringing a rarely seen viewpoint to a young audience, Starfish does a commendable job of not only approaching a sensitive topic but relating the perspective of a young, overweight girl to middle-schoolers. Elle’s bullies are painfully realistic, and so is the fatphobia she experiences every day. Additionally, the book is primarily presented in verse, which forces readers to slow down in order to absorb the cadence and message of each sentence. The poetic format also allows for certain dramatic flourishes in word placement which leaves a lasting impact on readers.

            At times, Elle’s narrative style can lead to confusion while reading. For a pre-teen, Elle uses uncharacteristically sophisticated terms to describe her own emotions and has an unusually mature awareness of her feelings. In her afterword, Lisa Fipps mentions that Starfish was originally going to be a YA novel, which explains why the book reads like one. This instance, found on page 34, highlights the discrepancy in Elle’s age and maturity present throughout the book:


            The first Fat Girl Rule

            you learn hurts the most,

            a startling, scorpion-stinging soul slap.

             Aside from the inconsistencies in Elle’s narration, there’s a subtler flaw in the book. Starfish focuses entirely on Elle’s body, her perception of it, and how it affects her life. Each of the one- or two-page long chapters either shows Elle being bullied at school, talking with her friend about her body, or fighting with her mom over her weight. In fact, one of the major sources of tension in the book is that Elle’s mother wants her to undergo bariatric surgery, a reference that would fly over the heads of most middle schoolers. The singular focus of the book is overwhelming and could even be considered in contrast with the novel’s message. By focusing entirely on one aspect of Elle, her weight, Lisa Fipps undermines the idea that Elle is more than her body.

            Regardless, there’s a reason that Starfish won a Printz award. Line for line, Lisa Fipps’ debut novel is nothing short of extraordinary, bringing the issues of a tween who’s more than her body weight front and center. For middle-schoolers everywhere, Starfish will make them reconsider how they see their friends, family, and most importantly, themselves.


Have you read this book? Elliott and I would like to know what you thought of it.


Elliott is a prolific reader of various genres who is more than happy to share his opinions on books. In his free time, he enjoys writing, reading, and running. He is a 9th-grade student in Charlotte, NC.                                                


Congratulations to Kathy Wiechman who won TEDDY, LET'S GO! from last week's blog.

Don't forget to check out the other wonderful middle-grade books on Greg Pattridge's MMGM site.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Teddy, Let's Go! A Debut Picture Book Review, Author & Illustrator Interviews, and a Giveaway!

 Today, I have the honor and delight to introduce a fellow Matthews, North Carolina writer, Michelle Nott. Michelle is celebrating the publication of her debut picture book, Teddy, Let's Go (Enchanted Lion Books: December 2022). After the review, make sure you read my interviews with Michelle and Nahid Kazemi, the illustrator. It'll make you want to pass this sweet multi-generational book along to your child or grandchild.


I have reviewed hundreds of picture books, but I can't remember any that open with three wordless pages. These pages depict Teddy's "birth." 

Here is one of the spreads:

Following these sewing scenes, the reader meets Teddy's creator. "The wavy-haired woman with love in her eyes pulled me close and whispered in my ear."

Teddy "floats" into his new home and is introduced to his owner. " Teddy," the wavy-haired lady says. 

A nose as small as mine rubbed against my cheek.
We were made for each other.

Teddy goes everywhere with the little girl.  They eat mushy vegetables together and both need a bath. They celebrate their first birthday with cake and party hats. When she begins to talk, Teddy names her.

She soon had a name for everything. "Here's my Rabbit and my Giraffe
and my Teddy and"
So I called her by her favorite word: My.

No matter what they did together, Teddy always listened for his name and knew what would come next, Teddy, let's go."

My grows up and...

One summer, I climbed into My's backpack
and we rode a bus to camp.

Teddy was often left behind in the cabin (which he guarded) and tried to figure out what he was supposed to do next. He watched and the screen door sprung open, and laughter blew in. (I had to include that line because I love it!)

Teddy and My return home after camp and Teddy hiked to the top of her dresser. 

Some days I didn't see much of My. 
But when she noticed me alone, she always
 reminded me how strong I was 
and how high and how far I could go.
And when it was time to settle down, I listened.
"Teddy, let's go!"

After their seventh birthday when "Teddy whispered happy dreams in her ear," he felt something different. Days and nights passed. He listened. Then one day, A small voice cried. My went still. I stretched out my arms and legs so My would know I was still there.

My scrubs Teddy and sews some loose stuffing back inside of him. Then she says, "Teddy, let's go!" She closes one door and opens another.

"This," she said ,"is Teddy."

I floated down to our first bed and to a new baby. This was our moment. 

I listened...and whispered happy dreams in his ear. 


I love so much about this sparsely written and beautifully illustrated picture book. I love how the author brings the story full circle in the same way that Bevan, A Well-Loved Bear did. I love Michelle's lyrical language, her use of repetition, and the threads that connect the grandmother to her granddaughter and then connect My to her baby brother. And as a daughter who learned to sew on my mother's Singer sewing machine and has made her share of stuffed animals and pillows with my own daughters and granddaughters... I love how My sews up Teddy just like her grandma. 

As a special treat, you are going to hear how both Michelle and Nahid drew from their own childhood experiences to write and illustrate Teddy. AND you'll also hear how their vision for the wordless pages was exactly the same without ever consulting with one another. 


Carol: What was the inspiration for Teddy, Let's Go!

Michelle: I was inspired to write this story by the teddy bear that my grandmother hand-made for me when I was born. I still have it right here on a shelf in my office. But I was sitting in my children's bedroom, when they were around kindergarten age, with them and Teddy when I started to think about all the adventures this bear has been on through my childhood. I then envisioned different scenarios that he may experience with my own children. Although the book is not autobiographical, it is heavily inspired by childhood imagination, milestones, and intergenerational love. 

Carol: What was your path to publication?

Michelle: As mentioned, the idea for this story occurred when my children were quite young. At first, I wrote it as a bedtime story for them. Once I discovered SCBWI and CBI, I revised and shaped it in hopes of publication. After querying it for  a couple years, I often read that it was lovely but "too quiet." So, I put it away. 

Fast forward to my daughters in high school, I queried Essie White with a middle grade novel who really liked my writing and asked if I also wrote picture books. I sent her three --two that were more commercial and Teddy Let's Go! She signed me for Teddy. A couple years later, she sold the manuscript to Enchanted Lion Books with Nahid Kazemi as the illustrator. I could not have been more thrilled!

In a very early draft, I had paragraphs describing the grandmother sewing and stitching Teddy together. All that description was lovely for an oral story at bedtime, but entirely too much for a book. Nor would it be necessary. I cut it all before submitting it to agents. I didn't even add an illustration note. And then, I saw the PDF of the final art by Nahid. She had brilliantly illustrated in the first wordless spreads just what I had imagined in my head.


Carol: What medium did you use? I love how the images are soft and almost pastel-like. How did you achieve that effect?

NahidI use chalk pastels in a way that looks like watercolor. In order to get this effect, I've made them powdery. For the red, I used cotton instead of a brush. When I illustrate, I use stuff like cotton, brushes, tissue paper, and cotton swabs.

Carol Out of curiosity, why did you picture the grandmother with a very old Singer sewing machine? The story appears to be a contemporary story except for the hand-turned machine. (Reader: this illustration is not pictured in my review.)

Nahid: Your question about a hand-turned Singer sewing machine is very good. This machine belonged to my mother when I was a kid and we made a lot of creative stuff with it. 

Carol:  I was wondering about the wordless pages in the beginning. Was that something you and the art director came up with?

Nahid: It was my suggestion. I wanted kids to know how Teddy was born. Indeed, I wanted to depict giving birth to Teddy so that it might be a metaphor for giving birth to the baby. This book was a very challenging book. It took a few years to work on the illustrations and I changed most of them a few times in order to get the best result.
Now you know some of the layers that went into creating this special book.


As I have mentioned in previous blogs, you help authors when you preorder their books. You can find Teddy, Let's Go at your local bookstore or here and here

If you live anywhere near Charlotte, NC, come meet Michelle and purchase a copy of her book at Park Road Books on November 19


If you are interested in winning this book (and who wouldn't?) please leave a comment by October 27. This time, if you are a parent or grandparent OR are expecting a baby or grandchild in the near future, I'll put your name in twice. U.S. addresses only. Remember, if you are new to my blog, don't forget to leave your name and email address! 

Congratulations to Emily Weitz, a new subscriber to my blog, who won Bug On the Rug from last week's blog.

Monday, October 17, 2022

2 Bug Books and 1 Giveaway

 Today I am featuring two more picture books published by Sleeping Bear Press. They're as different as STEM is to wordplay, but remarkably, both feature bugs. 


Three years ago I featured Sherry Mary Bestor and Jonny Lambert in their book, Soar High, Dragonfly! Today I'm highlighting another one of their collaborative adventures.

My co-publisher of Talking Story, Mindy Baker, called this informational picture book a fiction/non-fiction hybrid. That's an interesting description.  As many STEM picture books do, the layer of text for younger readers shows a firefly's life cycle using simple words and sentence structure.  Older readers will appreciate the in-depth sidebar descriptions. The different fonts, sizes, and colors of the words also signal to readers which part of the book is meant for them. 

Here is the opening page.
Summer rain cools the earth. Bees Buzz. Birds glide.

Notice the simple language and the poetic use of onomatopoeia.  

The accompanying illustration shows the beginning of the firefly's life cycle.

On the next page, the sidebar explains bioluminescence and how some species begin to glow before they are hatched. 

The life cycle continues as the larva grows and hunts prey by injecting a liquid that keeps snails and slugs from getting away.

Fireflies hibernate,

"Shedding an outer shell, or exoskeleton, is called molting."

and transform. 
When he is ready...
out he comes.
Oh my! It's a firefly!
Once they launch into the sky, fireflies face predators.

But, they are prepared. Fireflies shed drops of white blood which taste bitter and can be poisonous. 

Readers learn how the blinking and twinkling (I love that tall rhyme!)

attracts a mate.

Thus, the life cycle continues...and the reading begins!

My 7-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor, reading 
to her 2-year-old brother, Caleb.

Bug on the Rug

I have featured author Sophia Gholz and illustrator Susan Batori on my blog in the past. It's always fun to pick up a book and recognize either the author or illustrator--it's like meeting old friends!

This fun picture book combines early reader phonics instruction with a cute story complete with conflict, humor, and page-turn drama.

The book opens with Pug's "normal."

Pug on a rug,
cozy and snug.


Bug--looking real smug. 

 That's when trouble begins. 

Pug growls and howls.

Bug buzzes and scowls.

Bug tries all sorts of tricks to hold unto his new-found rug. But, its owner is NOT happy.

Fortunately, along comes...
Slug--right under Pug. 
Pug slips on Slug,
knocks into Bug.

The three tussle and Slug is stuck in between. He tells it like it is: "You're both being mean." 

Pug discovers Bug's backstory and is appropriately contrite. Apologies are given and received. As Bug is about to leave the scene, Slug comes up with a wise solution: 

"You've cleared the air,

How 'bout you share?"


In the end, everyone is happy until along comes....



I've tried to write a phonics-based story, and am very impressed with how Sophia Gholz wrote one that perfectly rhymes and tells an engaging story. The hilarious illustrations by Susan Batori complement the story--young children will love the "bug-eyed" animals. And by the way, the cover and end page drawing tells a story of their own. 


I really loved both of these books and wanted to give Light the Sky, Firefly to my grandkids and keep Bug on the Rug as a mentor text. But I know that my readers love winning books. When I discovered that I could take Bug out of my local library, I decided to give it away here.

Leave a comment by October 20 and I'll enter your name to win Bug on the Rug. If you are a follower of my blog, I'll enter your name twice. (If you aren't already a follower and decide to subscribe, then your name will go in the hat three times!). Just let me know what you do in the comments. Please leave your name and email address in the comments if you are new to my blog.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

MOONWALKING: A Middle-Grade Review

There is a lot to like about Moonwalking (MacMillan, 2022) co-authored by Zetta Elliott and Lyn Miller-Lachmann. This middle-grade verse novel set in New York City in 1980, alternates between the POV of the two protagonists. Pie Velez is a math whiz and graffiti artist, and his most unlikely friend, JJ Pankowski, is a punk rock fan and one of the few white kids at their school. 

When I read books that I plan to review I record some of my favorite passages. Here are a few that I noted.

From Pie's second poem, "Bomb."

.... I never knew mist

wrapped in metal could be

light as air and dark as night

or brighter than a neon sign

I shake the can and

the seed of a rainbow clatters

inside before blooming in my palm

and climbing across the wall


tags spread like wildfire

we write in code on concrete

words most folks can't read

signs that wow


and won't be ignored

WE ARE HERE  (p.8)

From one of JJ's poems entitled, "Three Chords." In this scene when the reader is just getting to know JJ, he's learning how to play his uncle's guitar.

Joe Strummer said  

you don't need talent 

you don't need skill 

       all you need is a loud voice

        an electric guitar

        three chords

        and a story. (p. 15)

Clearly, both boys yearn to express themselves. 

JJ finds refuge in a school that is so crowded no one notices him. This is an excerpt from the poem, "Invisible Me."

They're a team

I won't go out for.

A party for which I don't beg

an invitation.

A universe

I dare not disturb. (p. 25)

Pie struggles with his mother's mental illness, being bullied by neighborhood kids who call her loco, and his dreams of being an artist. JJ's father lost his job and they have to cram into his grandmother's apartment; he doesn't fit in at school and he misses his sister who moved out. 

Slowly, the boys get to know one another and learn to appreciate each other's art. JJ gapes at "Pie murals on subway cars and buildings." Pie invites him to eat lunch in the quiet art room. JJ makes him a mixtape and the boys bond. But when JJ joins him to tag some buildings, the police show up and their encounter becomes a test of their friendship.  

This poem excerpt is from"Tag--I'm It" From JJ's POV:

all I could think about was how    through it all JJ   said nothing

did nothing    just kept his head down      to keep himself safe

Andres was right    no mixtape's gonna change    the system

'cause when it comes to      playing tag with cops

they only ever    try to catch

                    someone like me. (p. 146)

The ending is not your typical "two-different-kids-become-friends" and live happily ever after. But, it satisfactorily concludes the book. I loved the imagery in the poems and the way each character was deeply shown and how the boys helped each other through difficult times.

The main thing that I didn't like was how JJ discovers that his sister is a lesbian and that is why she left home. I thought that was a peripheral subplot that didn't add to the boys' friendship story.  Christian parents, grandparents, and teachers should be aware that this subject material is included in the novel. 

I wrote an email to Lyn Miller-Lachman stating my concerns and she responded: "Thank you for your note and your thoughts. I’m glad you appreciated the poetry and the story of MOONWALKING....The reason for including that thread is to show JJ’s growing realization that the world is more complex than he had believed—one more for his list of 'things that make no sense.' However, this crisis also shows him that he has choices, and he chooses to maintain his relationship with his sister, just as later on he will do what he can to maintain his friendship with Pie in the face of Pie’s anger. If you do include a note to potential readers who are Christians, I could see this as a discussion prompt: What would you do if you found out someone close to you—a family member—was having a same-sex relationship? Would you cut all ties to that person, or would you maintain the connection?”


What do you think, readers? Are you interested in reading this book? Why, or why not?

Congratulations to Gwen McCluney who won EVICTED! and to Hewi Mason who won A Planet Like Ours.

Monday, October 3, 2022

A PLANET LIKE OURS: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

 My long-time blog readers will recognize the author and illustrator of A PLANET like OURS. I have reviewed other books by author Frank Murphy that are illustrated by Kayla Harren and published by Sleeping Bear Press: A Boy like You, A Girl like You, A Friend like You, and A Teacher like You.  Like those other four books, A Planet like Ours includes curriculum-rich content that preK-first grade teachers can use in their classrooms. It is co-written with Charnaie Gordon.  Here are some sample illustrations and quotes from the text. 

We need a planet like ours

to nourish us, protect us, and give us life.

A place to call home.

Our planet. Our Earth.

That is one of the opening pages which succinctly states the theme of this informational picture book: respect our planet. The following pages mention six different resources which we must protect.


It helps grow our food. 

Pollution and chemicals can ruin our soil and our groundwater.

Let's protect our soil


Without water there would be no plants... no people! 
 So we must take care of lakes, rivers, and streams.

I loved this illustration of a child fishing the litter out of the water--what a great message and perspective.


Taking care of creatures means taking care of their 
habitats. Let's protect all living things.


Our trees help keep the atmosphere cool. 
They grow branches that grow leaves that give us shade.


Earth's atmosphere needs clean air.

Pollution comes from factories and energy power plants.


Our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.


We build communities, together.  

                    We learn new things, together. 

The back matter includes personal notes from the authors and illustrator as well as several easy-to-implement activities. Click this link for another Activity page


If you're interested in winning this book, please leave a comment with your email address by October 6. Educators (home or school) and librarians get an extra chance as do new followers to my blog. Just let me know what you've done in the comments. U.S. addresses only. 

THE NIGHT WAR: A MG Historical Novel Review

  By now you should have received an email from my new website about my review of THE NIGHT WAR by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (It'll com...