Monday, November 27, 2023

THE ORANGE HORSE: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

 Although The Orange Horse written and illustrated by Hsu-Kung Liu (Reycraft: 2019) was published four years ago, the theme and message of the book are timeless. Written and illustrated with simple language and child-friendly illustrations, this book is playful yet simultaneously touching and serious.


I love the believability of how the story opens:

Every child knows that horses aren't orange, they don't walk on two legs, and they don't carry suitcases through the city. But none of that matters. The child reader suspends disbelief and is immersed in the story world.

Unfortunately, the only clue he had to find his brother was half of a photograph of an orange horse just like him.  

So, he did whatever any normal orange horse looking for his brother might do. He placed an ad in the newspaper. 

He received an answer!

But, it was from a HOUSE. Not a HORSE.

He decided to make his ad more specific:

Notice how each part of orange horse's thought process would make sense to a child. 

After a race car shows up, orange horse decides his third ad needs to be even more specific and he rewrites the ad. "My brother should have a black mane and a black tail." (Notice the classic pattern of three obstacles!)

His third try flops and the orange horse feels ready to give up. He goes to an art gallery, meets a brown horse, and begins to enjoy his company. They chat, run, and eat together. 

Notice the wrong conclusion that the orange horse comes to because of the way he is thinking. What a wonderful discussion point in preschool and K-first-grade classrooms!

After the brown horse mentions that he also had a long-lost brother and half an old photograph, they tried to match their photographs up. "But no, their half-photographs were not a match."

Both horses were upset. The orange horse wished the half-photos didn't exist so they could still hope they were brothers. Angry and upset, the brown horse trimmed the two half-photographs. 

Then he stuck the two halves together. "Don't cry," he told the orange horse. "See? From now on, we are brothers."

The beautiful conclusion is shown on the last page:

I think it is easy for writers to want to moralize and teach a lesson in their story. The Orange Horse is a great mentor text to show us all how NOT to do that. After all, there is more than one way to be a friend. Right?


Thank you to Reycraft Books for generously supplying the illustrations and the giveaway. It will make a wonderful holiday present for a young child on your gift list or for your child's teacher. Just leave me a comment if you wish to enter (with your email address if you are new to my blog) or send me an email. U.S. addresses only. The giveaway ends November 30. If you sign up for my blog, share this on social media, or are a teacher or librarian, you will get additional chances to win this book. 


In this video, Wiley Blevins, editor at Reycraft, reads The Orange Horse. 

Congratulations to Barbara Cantor who won THE LUCKY DIAMOND. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

THE LUCKY DIAMOND: A Fantasy Middle-Grade Review by Guest Blogger, Luther Matarazzo

Please welcome my new tween book reviewer, Luther Matarazzo, as he reviews a fellow MMGM book blogger.  



The Lucky Diamond, by Valinora Troy, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. This book has been created by a truly wonderful writer and her writing style is so interesting. This gem of a book is fairly new, but in my opinion, its author deserves a place with the great writers of the past. One day, this book will be famous and people will talk about Valinora Troy’s excellent book! One of these people will be me, Luther Matarazzo. 

The author, Valinora Troy, has been writing since childhood. When she was just six, her powerful imagination formed the story that would one day be this book. She recently completed an M.A. in Creative Writing, specializing in Children and Young Adult fiction. She has written many short stories for adults that have been published in numerous venues. She used to live in Louth, Ireland, then she moved to Dublin for a time but has recently returned to a “magical” writing cottage in the Louth area. This book, The Lucky Diamond, is her first novel to be published. 

The remarkable setting for the story takes place in the magical land of Nivram. This is a world of fantasy, filled with spooky forests, enchanted rocks, haunted woods, monsters, castles, witches, and dwarf-like people called Nilkens. The impression I get is the setting for the story is like 16th-century Germany or Ireland, but instead filled with enchanted castles, creatures, and forests.

 The story begins with a prologue about a man named Matt, the uncle of five orphaned children. The oldest, Cathy, is only ten. Their uncle was executed for treason, leaving the five to care for themselves. They are unable to leave the town and are hiding from law enforcement which is intent on banishing them. After five years of the children living in secret, Cathy finds a magical, talking diamond named Lucky. Soon after, the children discover that there are evil forces at work that want to kill Lucky and invade their home, the Rock of Diamonds. The children must travel through live rocks that want to crush them; enchanted pools, evil witches, great Forest monsters, and evil Nilkens. They must brave the castle of the witch, Queen Rose. Along the way, they also make new friends including friendly Nilkens. The children must bring Lucky home, and the story ends with a battle of wills between Queen Rose of Cansis, and her evil henchmen, and the Diamonds, and the children. Of course, justice prevails.

I think kids ages 8-15 will enjoy this book just as thoroughly as I did. In my opinion, this story deserves a 4.7-star rating. Other than the fact that the book is without illustrations, it’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read. I love how the author masterfully combines fantasy, suspense, and mystery into an action-filled story! This book is sure to knock the socks off of its readers, keep them spellbound for hours, and push them to the edge of their seats. Thank you, Valinora Troy, for this great book.


My name is Luther Matarazzo. I am 12 years old and I live in South Carolina with my parents and my 6 sisters. I enjoy shooting, playing with my siblings, exercising, biking, taking care of our chicken flock, and building with Legos. When I'm not doing my homeschool work I also enjoy reading. I especially like books about U.S. special forces or firearms.


Valinora is offering a paperback copy of The Lucky Diamond to one of my blog readers. To enter, please leave a comment by November 22. If you are new to my blog, make sure you leave your email address. If you prefer, email me. 

You can find more great middle-grade books on Greg Pattridge's MMGM blog on Monday.

Saturday, November 11, 2023


It's been a long time since I've published a "You Heard It Here First" blog post

It's been an even longer time since I first began writing Half-Truths

My first blog was in 2007 when I wrote about attending a SCBWI-Carolinas conference and finding my character's voice. Since then, I've written over 100 blog posts about this writing journey. The list includes the books I've read, 

a few of the over 100 people I interviewed, the workshops I took, and some of my major revisions. I applied for several SCBWI WIP grants and queried agents and publishers. Although I never won a contest or received a bite (although a few rejections were encouraging and personal), my vision for my book became clearer. 

One of my special interviewees, Price Davis.
He is standing in front of his childhood home in Cherry, NC.

Ask me how many drafts I've completed and I can't answer. Officially, I have ten drafts in Word and fourteen in Scrivener. Each of these drafts was revised countless times. 

One way of visualizing where scenes would go.

Sixteen years is a long time to be working on one book, but as I soon realized after beginning this task, I didn't know what I didn't know. There were times that I took breaks and worked on other projects too. Each time I returned to the manuscript, I still loved the characters and the plot. 

In the beginning, I had an idea about a white girl (Kate) who moved to the Myers Park neighborhood of Charlotte, NC from a farm in either South Carolina or North Carolina. She would feel like an outsider as she tried to figure out where she belonged in the world of 1950s debutantes. Soon after moving to her grandmother's home, she would meet a Black girl, Lillian. They would have an off-and-on friendship but would eventually bond over finding a remedy for Kate's goat's ringworm. There would be betrayal, the uncovering of long-buried family secrets, and clandestine trips to a funeral home and a cemetery. 

All that has stayed the same. But, so much has changed. 

I wrestled with how to begin the story and rewrote the beginning at least 50 times. I put in the murder of Lillian's brother and then took it out. I gave each girl a boyfriend and then, based on Rebecca Petruck's advice that I was getting too far away from my theme, I took them out. I spent two years writing it from both girls' POVs and then abandoned that idea. I made up a fictional town named Crossroads, NC until my mentor, Joyce Hostetter, convinced me that there was real history in Tabor City, NC that I should use. I changed the names of characters, deleted scenes that I loved, battled confusion and discouragement, and tried to figure out if this was a middle-grade or young adult book.

Until I found Monarch Educational Services in July. 

My Talking Story newsletter partner, Rebecca Wheeler, published her debut YA novel, WHISPERING THROUGH WATER with Monarch in January. She recommended querying the publisher, Jennifer Lowry. Despite being afraid of another rejection, within thirty minutes of sending my query, Jennifer responded that it was stellar. A few minutes later she asked for the full manuscript. That was beyond my craziest dream!

In September Jennifer provided detailed editorial input. One of her first reactions was that she saw Half-Truths as a young adult book and not as middle grade. Monarch is committed to clean reads and provides content ratings for all of their books. Since Half-Truths includes a reference to a sexual encounter between a slave owner and his slave, Jennifer felt strongly that it is a young adult novel. Since I've debated this issue so many times I'm happy to identify it as YA and for this conflict resolution! By the way, I've seen this book as upper middle-grade and expect that it will interest readers from 12 and up. 

Finally, after years of writing, rewriting, planning, and proofreading, I'm thrilled to announce, that Half-Truths will be published in June 2025. 

If you're my Facebook friend, you may have wondered why the picture of Blue Willow china has been my profile picture for all these years. If you want to be one of the first to find out its role in Half-Truths, leave me a comment (including your email address if you think I might not have it) and I'll send you a digital ARC (Advanced Reader's Copy) about six months before the book releases. The only qualification is that you post a review on Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, or Independent Book Review.  (Amazon won't allow you to post a review until the book's release.)

Thank you for joining me in this publication journey. 

Friday, November 10, 2023

ZORA & ME: THE CURSED GROUND by T.R.Simon: A Middle Grade Book Review

I don't know how I missed Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon when I was reading books in order to inform Half-Truths, but I did. Fortunately, it's never too late to find a great read! 

Anyone who is familiar with Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) will know that she was a renowned storyteller who portrayed racial struggles in the early 1900s. If you google Zora Hurston + children's book, you'll find several story books that she wrote, some picture books by contemporary authors, and a few biographies.  But I didn't find anything close to this captivating fictionalized account of Zora's childhood adventures with her best friend Carrie--the book's narrator. This is a book that Ms. Hurston would be proud of. The dual timelines of Eatonville, Florida 1903 and Westin, Florida, 1855 are captured beautifully and then come together perfectly at the end.

Here is the publisher's summary:

When Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie Brown, discover that the town mute can speak after all, they think they’ve uncovered a big secret. But Mr. Polk’s silence is just one piece of a larger puzzle that stretches back half a century to the tragic story of an enslaved girl named Lucia. As Zora’s curiosity leads a reluctant Carrie deeper into the mystery, the story unfolds through alternating narratives. Lucia’s struggle for freedom resonates through the years, threatening the future of America’s first incorporated black township - the hometown of author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). In a riveting coming-of-age tale, award-winning author T. R. Simon champions the strength of a people to stand up for justice.  

I'm going to quote some favorite passages. Although I'm quoting them without any context, I believe you will experience the depth of this story, the evocative sensory writing, and the book's profound meaning for today's readers.

"I do not think a slave who has seen the power of the whip can truly sorrow for someone who owns people, no matter how benevolently he owns them. If there is a kindness that can soften the blow of stolen freedom, I have not seen it." (p. 70)

"Beyond the split-rail fence, Mr. Polk's property turned wild; a forest of tall pines, dense thicket, uncut cane, and rebellious scrub led you into deep shade. Daylight was there, but tall trees had conspired to shrink the sun's power, and the density of the dark was palpable." (p. 78.)

"I shivered. It felt funny standing here on Mr. Polk's land, looking at this hull of a house. Everything about it raised questions, and I wondered if not speaking at all was the only way Mr. Polk could keep so much to himself." (p. 84)

"As long as there are slaves, the free benefit. If it were not for slavery, we would all be merely human. It's our slavery that makes you free."  (p.113)

"These white folks pay for what they do. They just don't know it. They pay with a little bit of their soul every time they put their boot on us. Ain't no man nor woman can bring another soul low without losing they own soul. They might not think they lost, but they are." (p. 126)

I had thought Zora was looking to solve a puzzle for the past two days. What she had really been doing was piecing together a quilt, made from the fleeting scraps of the said and the unsaid. She was starting to unfold and show us a whole cloth of Eatonville's history. (p. 174)

My throat burned and my eyes stung. Our lives mattered just as much as theirs, but the truth of that had been erased by slavery. Slavery itself might be over, but neither the Thirteenth Amendment nor anything that had happened since could make us human in the eyes of these men. That was why our parents had fought so hard to create and sustain a corner of the world where we determined our own value. (p.232)

"Why do they hate us so much?"

Old Lady Bronson reached down and took my chin in her hand, firmly yet gently. "They have to hate because you can't take another person's freedom with love."

It was a simple answer, yet contained a universe of truth. (p.248)


I've given you some of the bones of this book; I hope you read and discover the entire story. This would be an excellent resource for students who are studying the aftermath of the Civil War.


For T.R. Simon's thoughts on writing this book, watch this video.

For some background information about T.R. and her co-author, Victoria Bond, watch this short video.


Congratulations to Kathy O'Neill who won A MEMORY QUILT by Lori Keating.

On Monday, Greg Pattridge will feature this book and other great middle-grade books on his MMGM blog. Check it out!

Saturday, November 4, 2023

WHISPERING THROUGH WATER: Two Reviews of Rebecca Wheeler's Debut Young Adult Novel

In this blog post, I'm trying something new. Teen reviewer Mara Scudder and I both read Rebecca Wheeler's book, Whispering Through Water (Monarch Educational Services, 2023) and we each wanted to share our thoughts about it. Today you get a teen's and a senior's take on a book that is obviously for all ages!


Whispering Through Water is a YA summer romance wrapped up in a mystery. The protagonist, Gwyneth Madison, is a high school senior with her eyes set on a college in the far-away city of Boston. Desperate to escape her monotonous small-town life, Gwyn would risk almost anything to get to art school. Her wealthy Aunt Delia, who once promised to pay for her college, is disappointed in her decision and determined to keep her from attending school out of state. When Gwyn finds a mysteriously personal letter addressed to her aunt, she decides to investigate.

The mystery sends her on a series of hunts as she digs through family secrets to discover what really motivates her seemingly pedantic and entitled aunt. Along the way, she meets and falls in love with Isaac, a college sophomore, and grows to understand that there is much more to her family history than she ever thought.

The character arcs throughout this work were well done. Few characters were two-dimensional or static, and many relationships changed and evolved over the course of the novel. These dynamics brought a deeper level of meaning to the themes drawn throughout the book and overall turned the book from a rather dull summer romance into an exploration of what makes a family and what it is worth.

The mystery was also well-written, with the leap from an average high school senior to a teenage detective an understandable one. None of her adventures seemed unattainable or particularly incredible, which made for a more realistic mystery. Her drive to get to the bottom of the family mystery was also understandable, and aside from the romance (which was rushed along a bit too quickly), the plot was well-paced. The character arcs, mystery, and plot were all very well done. Overall, it made for a pleasant read with tangible characters, strong values, and meaningful themes.
Illustration by Terri Moore

CAROL'S REVIEW  (Warning: Spoiler alerts)

As some of you know, Rebecca is my new partner for the Talking Story newsletter. We've gotten to know each other since working together. But as I was reading her manuscript, I kept texting her: "You're not going to believe the similarities between your book and Half-Truths!" In both our books older female foils hold the purse strings to the college education that the protagonists want. Each girl must tolerate tables with fine china, clothes that don't fit their style or taste, and a special luncheon. But most of all--there are family secrets that both teens decide must be brought to light--with serious consequences for the older women. Our stories are separated in time by about 40 years, but both our protagonists learn the difficulties involved in speaking the truth--especially with people they love. 

I particularly enjoyed how authentically vulnerable the characters were portrayed. They made mistakes and sought forgiveness. Even the sweet romance includes conflict as Gwyn and her boyfriend realize that relationships have ups and downs. 

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
When Gwyn first confides in Isaac about her struggles with her aunt, she says: 
"It's like in my mind, I feel as if I'm dreaming for her to understand what I want, what I need, but then when the words leave my mouth, I feel as if--"I paused to gather my thoughts--"as if I'm just whispering through water."  (p. 79)
In a very touching moment, Isaac's mother, Brenda, becomes Gwyn's confidant. After Gwyn shares what she has discovered, Brenda says,
"Even the deepest hidden secrets find their way to the surface." (p. 167)
In a soul-revealing conversation when they talk about the child Aunt Delia was forced to abandon, Aunt Delia says: 

"They told me I would forget about him. They promised I would...They were the ones who lied, Gwyn. Because I could never forget." (p. 180)

One of the first times I heard about objective correlatives was from Christine Kohler. I still have our email correspondence about it from seven years ago. When I read this last conversation with Aunt Delia, I thought about how Rebecca skillfully showed Gwyn's emotions. 

My gaze followed a ladybug as she pulled herself over the window ledge and disappeared. A sudden feeling of peace passed through me.
      "So, you're letting me go," I said softly.
      "Yes, dear. I'm letting you go."

Gorgeously written, this story will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.


Please leave a comment by November 8 if you are interested in winning an EPUB of Whispering Through Water, courtesy of Monarch Educational Services. No limitations on who can win it! IN ADDITION: Rebecca is giving away an autographed copy of the paperback!

Please leave me your email address if you are new to my blog. If you are more comfortable, you can email me to enter. 


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