Friday, June 30, 2023

THE WALL: Growing Up Behind The Iron Curtain: A Graphic Novel Review

I found THE WALL (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007) by Peter Sís in my library under graphic novels and since it was historical, I thought I'd check it out. It's the size of a picture book (9 x 12) with about the same number of pages you'd find in a picture book. But, don't be mistaken. This book is NOT for little kids. It should be compulsory reading for middle- and high-school students; adults can learn from it too. 

Sís used maps, cartoon caricatures of Russian leaders, timelines, photographs of himself and his drawings, black and white panels with sprinkles of red, journal entries from his diary growing up, and a cartoon style to tell the story of his life behind the Iron Curtain. 

Each page tells a different part of his story in a different way. Sís saved full color for the joyous, exciting part of his life in 1968:

But besides all of the amazing ways that Sís found to tell and illustrate this story, there's the story itself. Written in the third person, Sís shows what it was like growing up an artist (and teenage free thinker and music lover) in Prague under communist control. 

He writes of himself as a teenager, "He was painting dreams...and then nightmares. The dreams could be kept to himself, but the drawings could be used against him. He stopped drawing and was left with only his dreams. But he had to draw. Sharing the dreams gave him hope."

Not only is this thin book an amazing pictorial tutorial about life during the Cold War and how the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to the collapse of the Communist system, but it shows the pernicious effects of brainwashing--something I plan to tackle in NIGHTMARE IN NUREMBERG.

By the way, the wall came down only a little over thirty years ago. Hard to believe, isn't it?

For more great middle-grade book reviews, make sure you stop by Greg Pattridge's ALWAYS IN THE MIDDLE blog.

Monday, June 26, 2023

BRAINSTORM! A Word Play Picture Book + A Giveaway

 Every once in awhile in my "career" as a picture book reviewer, I come across a book and I ask myself, "Why didn't I think of this?" BRAINSTORM! written by Rebecca Gardyn Levington and illustrated by Kate Kronreif is one of those books. From the title, to the puns, poetry, and figurative language on every page--there is A LOT of wordplay going on.  


In the first spread, we find our character feeling stuck.

Like raindrops, words and pictures start dropping into the girl's mind as a storm lets loose.

  An easy breeze... becomes a blast of funny phrases flying past.

Suddenly, there's a word whirlwind!

After stomping around in the mud of ideas and words, (and what writer can't identify with that metaphor!)

 I pounce and play, embrace the storm, as sentences begin to form.


It stops. It's over. Done. The clouds float off and out comes...sun.

That's the climax, but there's a wonderful denouement that brings this story full circle.


This is a text that kindergarten to second-grade teachers will be able to use in the classroom to encourage young writers. If I were in a classroom, I would first read it out loud and let the class enjoy the rhythm and images. The second time, I would ask students to pick out the figurative language: similes, alliteration, onomatopoeia; as well as great adverbs and adjectives.  It would be fun to discover how many ways the author, illustrator, and the little girl all play with words. 

A fun extension activity would be to ask the students to draw words playing in the same manner in which Kate Kronreif dances them on the page!


For a behind-the-scenes look at the book’s backstory, how Rebecca worked with the illustrator and her publishing journey, please see this interview: 


The July issue of Talking Story is on wordplay and I will be giving away this book then. Leave me a comment now and I'll add your name to the giveaway list. Leave a comment through the newsletter (not a subscriber? Click here to subscribe) and I'll enter your name twice. If you’re a teacher or librarian, I’ll enter your name twice. Trust me. This is a book that every writer, caregiver, and teacher should have on her shelf to share with the young readers in her life! U.S. addresses only. I have to approve comments, so be patient if your comment doesn’t appear immediately! 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

A SKY FULL OF SONG: A Guest Review by Mara and Sophia Scudder PLUS a Giveaway



My cousin, Mara, and I read A Sky Full of Song, by Susan Lynn Meyer, and we both found numerous flaws with both the story and the main character, Shoshanna, a young Jewish pioneer. We didn’t find her to be relatable or likable. The book drowned its own message with too many woke topics like extreme bullying, the injustice of periods, sexism in the family, and mistreated immigrants, none of which were resolved. And, most importantly, there wasn’t any real hope offered, which left both the readers and the protagonist feeling defeated.

Although the author included beautiful descriptions of the North Dakota land surrounding Shoshanna’s home and the title implied that the beauty of midwestern America would become a comfort and resolution to the numerous conflicts the book attempted to juggle, it ultimately resolved none of the conflicts within the work. While the protagonist was upset about how unfair periods are, how her mother never favors her, how hard it is to have a different religion than anyone else, how mean the bullies at school are, how much she misses her home country, how hard it is to live in America, how unfair the government was to the Native American tribe that used to live in their area, and how her brother teases her, the author only resolved the issues between her and her brother. She explained that Shoshanna had merely forgotten how they used to tease each other, and after remembering that he meant no harm when he teased her, she teased him back. After reading this apt resolution, we were hopeful that the other conflicts would be resolved, as well. 

Unfortunately, they were not. Instead, the book ends with the protagonist Shoshanna still wondering whether or not she should offer forgiveness to the bully who apologized for mistreating her. Although she decides not to hide her culture and beliefs from her friends, she mainly does this to appease her sister, Libke, and to smooth over the division between them. Meanwhile, her frustration with the partiality her mother supposedly shows to her brother, the anger she feels on behalf of the Lakota people, her discontent with both her old and new home, and her outrage at discovering that only girls have periods, remain unaddressed. The author drops these issues halfway through the book.

Life was hard, and only going to get harder.

Pioneering at that time and place was very difficult, especially for immigrants who would struggle to cross both cultural and linguistic barriers to set up a permanent home in the West. It is important that we tell stories about individuals growing up in unusually hard settings (as this story did). But the reader was never offered the resolution that hope brings. Not only is this unsatisfying, but it is also inaccurate. The pioneer spirit was a very real, powerful thing that transformed the mostly empty wilderness of midwestern America into a prosperous land. Immigrants were especially poignant displays of such spirit and determination. The depressed spirit of Shoshanna, who consistently complains about the difficulties of her old home while also mourning the challenges she faces in America, is in sharp contrast to the unbeatable optimism of those in her generation. 

Laura Ingalls, for instance, survived three years of locusts destroying her family’s only income, a difficult winter that starved her village for seven months, and being consistently bullied in her school while keeping a pioneer spirit stronger than ever. 

Another example would be the fictional story of Lyddie, who was sold off as a servant to pay her family’s debts. She dreamed of a day when the farm would be paid for, her father would return, and the family could work the farm together. Instead, her family fell apart, her closest friends fell ill, and she lost the only people she could depend on. Yet her final words are filled with hope that she would determine her own destiny and never fear anyone. She would finally be independent, even if it meant letting go of the dreams that she knew now would never come to be. 

Western Americans, immigrant or not, were highly adaptable and strong because of it, and the author showed none of this in either her protagonist or the other characters. Instead, it seemed as though it was Shoshanna’s right to complain about the injustices around her and her injured spirit was never addressed as a flaw. Rather, it was referred to as an inevitable result of the difficulties she faced, rather than a hurdle she had to overcome to achieve happiness.

    Overall, Shoshanna came off as whiny and unrelatable, giving the reader no reason to stick around for the rest of the story. She complained about the myriad of problems in her life but never got around to actually fixing them. And the one quality that could possibly redeem this book, the themes of hope, love, and a hard-working spirit, was missing too. We need children's stories that remind future generations of the strength, hope, and determination that built this country. Unfortunately, A Sky Full of Song is not one of them.


Please leave a comment by June 22 if you are interested in receiving this book. U.S. addresses only. Keep in mind that your comment might not show up immediately; I need to approve it first.


Hi! My name is Mara, and I’m a Christian artist, violinist, and blogger. I love acting (especially musical theater) and I am the co-founder of a small stage productions group at my church. I’m an adventurous entrepreneur and a fierce negotiator who loves debates. But most of all, I love good stories.

I remember the day that I decided that I would learn something new about what makes a good story from every book I picked up — whether it was good, bad, or a mixture of both. I use my blog as a way of sharing some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned and highlighting which books, cartoons, and movies have taught me the most about writing an awesome story, even if they didn’t do it especially well themselves.

Hello, I’m Sophia! I’m a child of God and I love to write! I’m also a total theater kid and a strong dessert (specifically cupcake) enthusiast. For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed both reading and making my own stories. I’m so glad I get to share with you what I’ve learned from some of my favorite (or sometimes least favorite) stories on my blog. I live in Philadelphia and am in ninth grade.


Make sure you check out Greg Pattridge's MMGM blog with other middle-grade reviews.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Three Mentor Middle-Grade Graphic Novels

When I first started thinking about my WIP, Nightmare in Nuremberg, I envisioned it as historical fiction. 

After a recent trip to Europe, where centuries of hidden inside churches, city streets, bridges, and town walls, I started imagining something different. 

It began like this. I walked by a stone ramp in Belfast, Ireland (not far from where fellow blogger, Valinora Troy lives!) that looked something like this--steps down into the Moselle River in Cochem, Germany.

I started thinking. What would happen if two kids went down a ramp that led them to a mysterious boat that took them back in time? 

That's how my idea for writing my story as time travel began.

I had already signed up for the Children's Book Academy course on Graphic Novels. But I knew NOTHING about time travel books. Or fantasy.

Mentor Texts to The Rescue!


by Chris Kientz and Steve HockensmithIllustrations and Color by Lee Nielson. Original research byAnthony Bellotti.

I was very happy to find my first time travel mentor text at my local library. Four middle-grade students go back in time to prevent evil investors from ruining the Wright brothers famous flying machine. 


  • A knowledgeable adult guides them into the past and then disappears.
  • Once the four characters enter the past (which is just shown as an opening in a wall with a different world on the other side), the kids immediately are dressed in period-appropriate clothes. (Later on, this is explained as a hologram).
  • The kids are each given a tool--a Siri-like wristband (this book was published in 2016-- right after Apple watches were released. Who had the idea first?) that answers their questions, tells them where they are in history, and gives them an idea of their mission.
  • The kids discover that history is going to be irrevocably changed by the bad guys unless they intervene. 
  • Interesting twist to the story: the bad guys are also time travelers, although the story doesn't explain where or when they came from.
  • When they arrive back in the Smithsonian Museum after their adventure, the hallway they had been in has disappeared. 
  • Lots of STEM ideas as well as history are included, along with an explanation on the last page as to what was fiction and what was fact. 
  • Very engaging, fun, colorful, and relatively short book. 
  • Five stars as a mentor text.


by Lars Jakobsen (Time travel)

Like THE WRONG WRIGHTS, this graphic novel is also short (48 pages including several pages of back matter). 

  • A "forward" explains that a new technology for time travel--a time gun--has been developed but is falling into the wrong people's hands. Secret agents are fighting a dangerous crime wave as these criminals are taking artifacts out of their own time. 
  • Although it is clear from the header that the story takes place in Denmark in 1929, I had to read the entire book a few times to understand what was going on. 
  • The hero, Mr. Mortensen, is summoned into the past because of his time travel abilities. His mission is to make sure that time doesn't get rearranged and save a young mute woman who is being accused of being a witch.
  • In my mind, there wasn't enough dialogue or clear action to make the story make sense. The transitions from one panel to another weren't very clear. I frequently got confused over what was happening. 
  • Illustrations (a light blue color was used) show the characters shifting into a different time period.
  • Moral of the story for me: make sure that the reader has a clear idea of what is taking place on every page. Time warps must be clearly shown from panel to panel. Dialogue must support action. 
  • Two stars as a mentor text.


by Matt Phelan (historical fiction plus fantasy)

I can see why this book won the Notable Children's Book Award in 2010. The simple text and poignant illustrations with limited but perfect use of color made this a five star mentor text. 

  • The setting, a dust storm in Kansas in 1937, is a character and an antagonist. 
  • Jack Clark, the young main character, is picked on by the town bullies and  disapproved of by his father. Most of this is seen in action panels without text and by the author/illustrator showing Jack's visceral reactions to how he is treated.
  • secondary character, Jack older sister, is very important to Jack's story. She suffers from "dust pneumonia" and escapes into the world of books which she shares with Jack. The two feed on these stories and their mother's stories of her childhood--which are colored with vivid hews, so different than the grey, black and brown of the dust storm. 
  • Jack's inner conflict over his role in the family and whether or not he has "dust dementia" is acutely portrayed. 
  • The sequencing of events is very clear in text and pictures. 
  • Fantasy is intertwined with the history of dust storms in the midwest. 
  • An excellent middle-grade read.

Do You Use Mentor Texts?

What mentor texts have you used when you are writing? Please share in the comments and let us all know what you have learned from them.

Congratulations to Antoinette Martin who won Linda Phillips' book, BEHIND THESE HANDS. 

Be sure and check out other great middle-grade books on Greg Pattridge's MMGM blog.

Friday, June 2, 2023

BEHIND THESE HANDS: A Review and Giveaway

I am blessed with amazing writer friends whose stories inspire my writing. This week I am pleased to share BEHIND THESE HANDS by my writing buddy, Linda Phillips. Some of you may remember the cover reveal and when I blogged about Linda's unique path to publication for this book, which is her second novel in verse. Now you can glimpse inside this beautifully written upper-middle grade/young adult novel. 

But first, an update from Linda:

"Since the publication of BEHIND THESE HANDS in 2018, I have had the opportunity to share the keynote address at the National BDSRA (Batton Disease Support and Research Association) along with Laura King Edwards, whose younger sister, Taylor, partly inspired this story. Sadly, both Taylor and the other inspiring student whom I taught, Brandon Hawkins, have succumbed to this dreadful disease. Their legacy lives on through the work of the foundation, Taylor's Tale, and other foundations supported by BDSRA. Many thanks to my publisher, Light Messages, for keeping the fire going through this opportunity for my ebook to be selected as a Kindle Monthly deal through the month of June.  I hope you enjoy the read, and I always love hearing your feedback:"


Fourteen-year-old music prodigy, Claire Fairchild, is headed toward a music competition. Her only worry is if she takes first place over her best friend Juan--who is actually proving to be more than "just a friend." The book opens with Claire's piano practice interrupted by her younger brother Davy who is visually impaired and recently diagnosed with a learning disorder. He smiles a lot and Claire thinks, 
It bothers me that he smiles so much, 
maybe because it doesn't seem normal; 
maybe because I know for sure  
if I were in his shoes 
my smile would be the first to go.  (p.6)

This is her first attempt to write down the music she has composed for the competition:
"The Kite" takes off 
in the dead silent stillness 
of this tiny room 
as if the breezes were driving  
through these walls, 
and I chase it with the melody 
that has gelled in my brain 
these weeks of practice, 

and now 


I slide on the bench  
to the little table, 
and begin the task of setting down the notes 
that are strung across my brain, 
ready to pluck down 
like washing on a clothesline. (p. 15)
Into the middle of her preparation she is constantly interrupted by her parents' worries about Davy, his medical tests, her need to watch both brothers while her parents work, and her own self-doubts, comes devastating news: 
The suspense is over. 
Our house feels like 
those pictures you see 
after a tornado levels        
but the victims are alive, 
shuffling around the debris 
in a daze. 
It's called Batten disease. 
it's going to get worse.  (pp. 31-32)

In heart-wrenching verse Linda leaves nothing to the imagination as Claire and her family reel from the news that truly does get worse: Davy will die from the disease, Claire is unable to concentrate on practice, she wants to give up music altogether because it feels meaningless, she is pummeled with guilt, her father won't talk about the diagnosis within the family, everyone acts like their family is normal when it is anything but, her mother is coming unraveled from lack of sleep and worry, and a cooling off with Juan that she can't explain--these are all more than Claire can bear.
Batten has rearranged our family 
like pieces of familiar furniture 
placed awkwardly in a new setting. (p.72)

When genetic testing reveals that her other brother, Trent, also has Batten, Claire finds out devastating news about herself:

What does that mean          
what she just said?                        
What does that mean? 

I put my head in my hands 
seriously feeling faint now, 
miles away as if I had just stepped          
of my own body. (pp 96-97)
Into the middle of this devastation steps Claire's best friend, Mia, who drags her along on a journalism assignment. Together, they befriend  Mrs. Shepherd, an elderly woman who shares her past sorrows as well as her wish that she had celebrated life more. This, along with attending the Batten Disease conference with her father, gives Claire the tools and drive to regain purpose and a plan to combat "the beast." 

I know I'll find a way to help my brothers. 
I know that wasting my time feeling sorry for myself                 
                       needs to be a feather      
                       not a rock.
I know that celebrating life needs to be a rock      
                       not a feather.
I know it might not be a bad day after all      
                       if I keep this up. (p.199)

BEHIND THESE HANDS doesn't cut corners or pretend something is pretty when it isn't. Batten Disease cuts short the life of young people and leaves families devastated by pain and loss. But it is the story of a brave young woman who faces it head-on and learns to celebrate the life of her two young brothers. In the end, she, Juan, and Mia meet with her parents to plan a fundraiser for Batten research. Other friends come to the house singing one of Mrs. Shepherd's favorite songs, "This Land is Your Land."
We all join in. 
Out of the corner of my eye 
I see Davy and Trent sitting at the top 
of the stairs, 
smiling and clapping. 
Mom brings them down and we finish the song.

"Are we having a party?" 
Davy says.

"Yeah," Trent says, rubbing his eyes, 
"How come you didn't invite us?"

All eyes fall on me.  
"This is just a preview, guys, 
the first of many

          and you will be invited

       to every single one of them.

I promise." (p. 288-9)




This book belongs in the classroom and will help readers gain empathy for those facing severe medical difficulties.  As Linda demonstrates in two scenes where bullies tease her brothers; it is often easy to pick on those who are weak. If you are a librarian or teacher let me know in the comments; I'll put your name in twice. I will pick a winner on June 7 and Linda will autograph a copy of the book. Please, U.S. addresses only.  

Make sure you check out Greg Pattridge's wonderful ALWAYS IN THE MIDDLE blog with other middle grade recommendations.


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