Saturday, December 31, 2022


 I always enjoy supporting my fellow SCBWI-Carolinas writers, particularly those who live in Charlotte. Today I'm bringing you Chrystal D. Giles' debut novel, TAKE BACK THE BLOCK (2021: Random House Books for Young Readers).


I spent the morning of my eleventh birthday carrying a sign that read WE WERE HERE FIRST.

How do you like that for a dynamic opening line? How could any middle-grade reader not want to know more about this protagonist?

In the first chapter, readers find out what Wes wants: not to be a part of his mother's protest against the destruction of apartment complexes which are scheduled to be replaced by new condos.  

But they will also see his love for his neighborhood. After the protest, he and his mother return home. Entering Kensington Oaks is like being hugged by a grove of lake trees and sunshine. (p. 6) Bravo to the author for immediately setting up Wes's conflicts. 

The young protagonist's voice is also clearly heard. Here's a description of his former friend, Kari, whose family had to move out of the neighborhood after his parents split up.

Just last year, he rocked four different hairstyles. Bald fade, low fade, baby Afro, then twists. This year he started growing locs. They were short, frizzy, and uneven--kinda like him...

I peeked at the strings hanging from his shorts. I wouldn't be caught dead in that outfit. (p.23)

Giles uses this simple physical description of Kari to show more than what he looks like--we also have a glimpse of his character and Wes's too.

After meeting Wes's friends and his new middle school,  the plot begins to unfold. Wes's mother gets a notice that a development company wants to buy Kensington Oaks and redevelop it. Suddenly, his mother's concerns are now his. 

Flashes of all my favorite memories popped into my mind--a highlight reel of my life. How could I leave all that? (p.51)

As Wes tries to figure out how the redevelopment will affect him and his friends (wouldn't it be cool to be able to walk to a place that sells organic smoothies?), he reads an article in the local paper that his Social Studies teacher wrote entitled, 'Is Gentrification the New Segregation?' With his teacher's help, he organizes a team of kids to join the fight and save his neighborhood. But there's a problem: not all of his friends' families want to resist the development. They'd rather take the money that is being offered so they can move into a bigger house.

Wes also needs to find a topic that matters to him for his social studies project. After ditching researching climate change, he finally realizes that the topic that matters to him the most is gentrification. He tackles it with gusto and ends up being a community organizer--just like his mom but--a much flyer version. 

I don't want to give away the ending, but it's enough to say that Wes's determination pays off in a way that even he wouldn't have imagined. 

I hope that readers will come away from reading this contemporary middle-grade book for boys and girls with the hope that their voices and efforts can matter. 

Chrystal Giles writes in her Author's Note that although this book is loosely based on her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, her first up-close view of gentrification was during a walking tour of Harlem. She realized that change was sweeping away a great amount of Black culture and history. Although she thought that was only a big-city problem, when she came home she saw it was happening in Charlotte too. "Historic neighborhoods, parks, and restaurants would be there one month and gone the next. Beyond the places, what happened to the children and families? I wondered. That question plagued me for years and eventually became the motivation for Take Back the Block."

Chrystal's next book is coming out soon! I look forward to reading and reviewing Not an Easy Win.


I have an autographed copy that I am giving away. Please leave me a comment by January 4 along with your name and email address if you are new to my blog. If you are a teacher or librarian, please tell me and I'll put your name in twice.

Monday, December 26, 2022

EVERY MISSING PIECE: A Middle-Grade Review by Debut Tween Blogger, Olivia A.

 Today I have the pleasure of introducing a new tween blogger, Olivia A. She's a granddaughter of a friend of mine, and a bibliophile. (When her family moved from North Carolina to Texas she brought along her 1000-book library!).  Let's help her celebrate her book-reviewing career with her thoughts on EVERY MISSING PIECE by Melanie Conklin.

Maddy has trouble with anxiety; when her dad dies it gets even worse. Whenever she feels like something bad is going to happen, she has the urge to call the police. She decides to stuff those feelings down inside of her and hold back these urges. Six months later, a boy goes missing. A mysterious kid named Eric starts living on the neighbor’s property and Maddy suspects it's the missing boy. She believes it’s him because he looks like the missing boy that she researched on her computer. She thinks to herself, “It can’t be him, it’s not possible!” and she resists the urge to call the police. Is it the missing boy? Or is it just a normal kid? I guess you will find out, but only if you read the book!    

Maddy is sparky, kind, and loving. The author, Melanie Conklin, makes her imperfect because she has normal kid problems that other kids can relate to. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the author fits pieces of the action and Maddy’s everyday life together perfectly. It seems as if the story is coming alive in front of your eyes.  She is not a suspenseful author, but the book is so descriptive that she hooks you almost immediately. Here’s a quote from the book that grabbed me:

“That you Diesel?” A lanky pale-haired boy popped out from behind the tree in front of me like a ghost appearing out of thin air. White blond hair, skinny arms, stick-out ears.” I love how the author writes with so much conversation. It's so inviting to people, it’s as if you are in Maddy’s world just quietly standing beside them while everything is happening.


I didn’t believe I would like Every Missing Piece at first, because I normally prefer fantasy and adventure over realistic fiction. But this book surprised me, it had mystery, action, and everyday problems like dealing with fights with your friends. Normally, realistic fiction has a lot less action and more regular life stories that readers can relate to easily. This book had surprising twists, when I thought I had figured the plot out, it turned a different way. The twists astonished me, and I couldn’t put the book down. If you’re a fan of fantasy and adventure books (and realistic fiction) then you should definitely give this book a try! 

Olivia is 10 and has one little brother, Liam. She has 2 dogs Baxter and Cookie.

She likes Star Wars, softball, and of course, she loves reading.

Monday, December 19, 2022


 Today I'm proud to share two informational picture books by my SCBWI-Carolinas colleague, Megan Hoyt. No giveaways this week--my grandchildren will be the proud recipients of these fine books. But in case you need one (or two!) more gifts for the young reader in your life, check out these marvelous books.

Megan Hoyt discovers small pieces of history that are stories begging to be told and then writes them in a way that engages both children and adults. These picture books are for slightly older readers and can be used as classroom resources in grades 1-3. Both books have extensive back matter which include Megan's interest in the topic, additional information about the subject, timelines, and sources. BARTALI'S BICYCLE also includes a letter to the reader from Gino's granddaughter, Lisa. THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL includes the petition which Isaac Stern wrote to save Carnegie Hall. 


BARTALI'S BICYCLE is stunningly illustrated by Italian illustrator, Iacopo Bruno.

Gino Bartali thought of himself as an ordinary bicyclist in Italy in the 1930s. But he was far from ordinary.

For eight years he trained along Italy's mountains and rugged paths. He won race after race, including the prestigious Tour de France in 1938. 

When World War II broke out, Gino refused to believe the lies that leaders were spreading about the Jews. 

He watched as Jews were rounded up and taken away on trucks. He wanted to help--but how?

A priest contacted him and asked him to deliver secret identity papers to Jews who were trying to escape. Although he was afraid of getting caught, he decided to help. "Some medals are pinned to your soul, not your jacket," he said. 

He stuffed the fake identity papers into his hollow bicycle bars and delivered them to hundreds of families, he hid his friend's family in his cellar, and rescued prisoners. 

Gino was a humble man who didn't want to be recognized.

"Good is something you do, not something you talk about," he said. 

But stories trickled out. Children came forward. 

Grateful families remembered the remarkable Gino Bartali, the Tour de France winner, Italian sports hero, and...secret champion.

THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL is brought alive by talented illustrator, Katie Hickey.

When Carnegie Hall opened in 1891 in New York City, Issac Stern wasn't even born yet. He was a young promising violinist in 1934 when Albert Einstein educated the audience with theories of splitting atoms and bending time.

But someone new would soon step onto the legendary stage. Without him, Carnegie Hall's story might have ended right there.

Issac was talented, but his parents were poor Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. They scrimped and said until pennies became dollars. Then they sent their son to the best violin teacher in town."

Issac practiced for years and at 23, made his Carnegie Hall debut. He ended up playing there more than fifty times. This cavernous ruby-colored room felt like a second home to Issac.  Little did Issac know that a powerful city planner, Robert Moses, had other plans for Carnegie Hall. 

His mind swirled with grids and sketches and pans. It may have looked like he was making the city more beautiful, but when Mr. Moses decide Manhattan needed a new, bigger, music hall, he didn't mind knocking down eighteen city blocks to make room for it.

The wrecking ball was scheduled for March 31, 1960. But Mr. Moses hadn't met Issac Stern's opposition.

Music lovers, musicians, and dancers protested against the demolition. But to no avail... Issac couldn't persuade the mayor to preserve the Hall--and he didn't have the five million dollars that was needed to purchase it. 

But Jacob Kaplan, a wealthy business man did! In the nick of time, Issac and his supporters were able to save the magnificent hall and...

Carnegie Hall opened its doors to talented performers from all over the world--rich and poor, young and old, American-born or immigrants seeking a better life, like Issac Stern's family did many years ago.


Megan told me that she is attracted to stories that hold a personal connection.  For Megan's connection to each topic (and a hint at what she is working on next), please visit the Talking Story Facebook page. (Interviews will be posted on December 20 and 21. If you aren't a member yet, just request to join and I'll approve you.)


Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who won The Snowman's Waltz and to Marci Whitehurst who won Baa, Baa, Tap, Sheep 

Monday, December 12, 2022

Two Rhyming,Counting, Dancing Picture Book Review + Two Giveaways

 I'm happy to share two more picture book giveaways both courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.


This beautiful winter story by Karen Konnerth and illustrated by Emily Neilson, is a unique friendship story between dancing snow people and penguins. Yes. You heard that right. Snowmen, snow women, and even a snow child learn how they can dance with penguins. 

Here's the opening page showing the snowmen enjoying themselves.

Suddenly, they receive a great surprise.

Uniforms that all are matching.
Black and white and looking fine.
Purple sky peeks down to see them.
Penguins tramping in a line.
The snowmen don't quite know what to make of the intruders.

They gather together and try to talk it out. But, the snow people waltz to a beat of one, two, three. And the penguins march with a one, two, three, four rhythm. As the adults wonder how they can get together, they watch as a little penguin and a snow child say hello.

Marching, marching all together,
Penguins step and snowmen glide.
 They figure out that together...
Back and forth they bump and waddle
Having fun they slip and slide.

And finish with,


A waltz!

The book ends with "The Snowman Waltz" lyrics and music by Karen Konnerth and a finger dance activity.


In a fun adaptation of the Baa, Baa, Black Sheep nursery rhyme, author Kenda Henthorn and illustrator, Lauren Gallegos, have created a lively sheep counting book that may or may not help little ones go to sleep. 

The book opens with the sheep learning to dance behind a sparkly curtain. 

The numbers that are pinned to their chest and their practice moves immediately brought Dancing with the Stars to mind. 

Baa, baa, tap sheep, practicing their moves.
Helping out at bedtime. Count their dancing grooves...

 As the sheep tiptoe twirl, tango, and waltz, the children who are imagining these sheep Rockettes picture, 

...Nine sheep, Ten Sheep

Softly swaying. Still.


Goodbye, sleep!

One sheep, two sheep,

jitterbug and jazz.

Three sheep. Four sheep.

Faster! More pizzazz!

But even sheep have to call it quits at some point.

And finally, tired children sleep.

Except...what's going on with rap sheep? 


I predict that children will enjoy counting along with their favorite readers and ask for these books over and over again--and I'm giving away both of them! To get in the running, please leave a comment by December 15 along with your name and email address if you are new to my blog. New giveaway rule this time! If you have at least one snowman inside or outside your house OR a sheep I'll enter your name twice. If you have a snowman AND a sheep, I'll enter your name three times. (pictures, stuffed animals, statues, cards pillows, etc. all count). Tell me in the comments what is decorating your house and which book you want to win.

Added feature: This week Kenda, Lauren, and Karen will share parts of the backstories behind these books on the Talking Story Facebook page. 

Congratulations to Glee Dunbar who was excited to win SHE SANG FOR THE MOUNTAINS last week.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

2 Picture Books by Shannon Hitchcock, 1 Giveaway

 If you've been following my blog for a while, you may remember my post on Shannon Hitchcock's book, Saving Grandaddy's Stories. I'm happy to share two more books that Shannon has written about unsung Appalachian artists. I love these books so much that I'm saving one for my granddaughter who I'm teaching to sew. 

The illustrator is mixed-media artist Sophie Page. Sophie used clay, fabric, paper, and wire to bring these stories to life. Both books are published by Reycraft Books.

As you read my reviews, notice Shannon's poetic text that emphasizes the importance of each word and Sophie's illustrations that show depth, color, and texture. Her images are like mini-stories.


SHE SANG FOR THE MOUNTAINS: The Story of Singer, Songwriter, Activist Jean Ritchie.

The book opens with a simple line that says so much about Jean Ritchie.

Jean came from a large family who loved to sing while they worked. In the evenings, they rested on the porch swing and sang accompanied by their father's dulcimer.

Jean wished she could turn back time.

Her brothers and sisters left home one by one.
Finally, it was Jean's turn to go.


Jean taught the songs of the hills
to the children of the city--
songs that had echoed 
through the mountains for generations.
In the process, Jean was noticed by a song collector. 

Jean was far from the home she loved in Kentucky, but when she heard about companies that mined coal and then moved on--leaving men sick or unemployed--she realized that she wanted to protest too.

She sang about the unemployed coal miners and the strip mining that poisoned the water. 

Jean never stopped singing important songs which inspired others. Even when she was old and moved back to Kentucky, she kept 

singing for the mountains
and heard music everywhere.

To this day, Jean's music lives on,
in the hearts of folksingers,
dulcimer players
and activists
who raise their voices and sing for the mountains.
The author's note includes more information about Jean. To hear her sing and play, click on this youtube video.

STORY QUILTS: Appalachian Women Speak

Here's the opening page that says so much:

The women had large families and worked hard. Their days were filled with cooking, cleaning, gardening, and canning.

Then, at day's end, they threaded their needles,
reached for their rag bags,
pieced colorful squares
and turned scraps into quilts that told stories.
Daughters watched their mothers until they were old enough to create a quilt of their own.

Sometimes, the daughter watched her mother pull out scraps from an apron that once looked like this:

Blue was special because,

Scraps of pillowcases became clouds or snow; other scraps became wildflowers.

She would move her quilt squares like puzzle pieces,
until they told a story.


The author's note includes Shannon's inspiration for this beautiful story of forgotten women. Sophie lists some of the quilters who inspired her illustrations.

Shannon is giving an extensive interview--plus information on her next book in this series--on the Talking Story Facebook page on Monday. (Not a member? Click on the link and ask to be admitted and you'll be in!). But she told me that she is drawn to writing about the past because she grew up on a farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. "We lived primitively compared to lots of families. My grandparents were farmers. They raised cows, pigs, and chickens. My grandma churned butter, had a large vegetable garden, canned, and quilted. Writing these books reminds me of home and a way of life that I want to preserve in my stories."


If you have never won a book from my blog or are a new subscriber, I'll put your name in twice for SHE SANG FOR THE MOUNTAINS. Make sure you leave me a comment by December 7 with your name and email address if you are new to my blog.

Eileen Heyes entered last week's giveaway and told me that since she didn't have any "littles" in her life to give it to a library. Per her request, I gave Christmas with Auntie to Matthews Elementary School. Congratulations to Barbara Younger who won Miss Mary's Mittens


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