Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love - she's lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can't stomach the idea of rejection. So she's careful. Fat girls always have to be careful. 

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie's orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly's cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly's totally not dying of loneliness - except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie's new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny and flirtatious and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she'll get her first kiss and she'll get her twin back. 

There's only one problem: Molly's coworker Reid. He's an awkward Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there's absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

The Upside of Unrequited is a fun, fast-paced book that is nearly impossible to put down. Molly, the main character, is easy to love because her voice is humorous, snarky, and brutally honest. She tells the truth about what it feels like to be surrounded by people who seem to have it all together - people who are more beautiful, successful, and more accepted than you are. Molly tries to see the value in the walls she has built to protect herself from getting hurt, even though it is painful to have need of them. But as her sister pressures Molly to start dating, and as she starts falling for her coworker, Reid, Molly starts to question the validity of those walls.

As an added bonus to The Upside of Unrequited, fans of her previous book, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda will be thrilled to find Simon's cameo appearance. After all, who doesn't love it when a favorite character shows up in another book!

Overall, I highly recommend The Upside of Unrequited. Not only is it a fun read, but it deals with the important issues of the nature of love and self-acceptance.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

K10: TRICKED by Jen Calonita

Tell us a little about yourself: what is your first name, how old are you, and what is your favorite flavor of ice cream? 

My name is Sierra and I'm eleven years old. My favorite flavor of ice cream (right now) is pistachio.

What book did you read and why did you choose it? 

The book I chose is called Tricked by Jen Calonita. It's the third book in the Fairy Tale Reform School series (Flunked and Charmed are the first two books).

Can you describe this book in one word? 


What was your favorite part of this story? 

When Gilly and her friends met Red (Little Red Riding Hood) because I really liked Red's personality.

If you had a problem similar to the main character's problem, what would you do? 

In Tricked, Gilly's sister is hanging out with some not so good people (they steal candy and got Anna thrown into Fairy Tale Reform School (FTRS)). Gilly tells her younger sister, Anna, that she shouldn't hang out with people who aren't nice. Anna doesn't listen to Gilly, but I would have done the same thing and tried to talk to her about it too, but I would have been less intense about it.

What would you say to your best friend to convince them to read this book? 

I'd tell her that the book is awesome--you never know what's going to happen next. But I'd suggest that my friend start with book 1 in the series, Flunked.

What do you think about the book's cover? 

I was confused (in good ways) and intrigued by it.

Would you want to read another book about these characters? Why or why not? 

YEAH!!! Totally because the book had a mega-cliff hanger and I love all of the characters.

Can you name another book that reminds you of this one? 

Not really, it's too unique. But it does remind me of the show Ever After High because it's about the sons and daughters of fairy tale characters. Oh, also The Descendants

If you could ask the author one question about this book what would it be? 

What gave you the idea to bring Rumpelstiltskin into the story?

🌟Thanks for sharing this book and your thoughts on it with us, Sierra!🌟

Things are changing at Fairy Tale Reform School.
At least, that's what Gilly's heard through the Enchantasia rumor mill. Word is, notorious trickster Rumpelstiltskin has taken over management from Headmistress Flora, and he's locked down the school tighter than the Pied Piper's pants. Not that this news concerns Gilly. She's been released from FTRS and is now suffering through attending Jack of All Trades School, where she gets to learn about different kinds of shoe leather and ways to measure feet. Truly riveting stuff.
But when Gilly's little sister Anna gets whisked off to FTRS thanks to her troublemaking new friends, Hansel and Gretel, Gilly knows she's got to get Anna out of there. There's only one thing to do; make some serious trouble and get thrown back into FTRS.
It's time to out-trick a trickster.
Praise for Fairy Tale Reform School: Flunked
"Fairy Tale Reform School has a clever concept and a fresh and funny take on the enchanted world. (I always wanted to know what happened to Cinderella's stepmother too!)"―Julia DeVillers, author of the Liberty Porter, First Daughter series and co-author of the Trading Faces series
"Spell-binding and wickedly clever."―Leslie Margolis, author of the Annabelle Unleashed novels and the Maggie Brooklyn mysteries.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Review: The Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser

The Book JumperThe Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sixteen-year-old Amy Lennox and her mother escape their troubles with school and romance in Germany and return to the family homestead on the island of Stormsay off the coast of Scotland. There Amy learns from her grandmother that she comes from a long line of book jumpers, people who are able to leap into a story, explore its settings, and interact with the characters.

Amy is amazed by her extraordinary power, but quickly learns that someone is stealing ideas from the books she jumps into. When a famous character turns up dead, she and her new friend Will, who is also a book jumper, decide to solve the mystery. However, her recent incursions into the book world have made Amy one of the prime suspects to other book jumpers, and now she must stop the perpetrator in order to clear her name.

Recommended by a true book lover, my YA niece Theresa, it comes as no surprise that this is a book lover’s book. Several books within a book, (The Jungle Book, Oliver Twist, and Alice in Wonderland to name a few) The Book Jumper is all about stories and their fascinating characters and plot devices. Award-winning Gläser has a talent for invention and plot twists and handles the literary device of stories within a story with aplomb.

The only minus to this excellent novel is that it may suffer from loss in translation: the language isn’t as engaging as the story. Nevertheless, The Book Jumper is an enchanting read, and it underscores the importance of reading the classics of children’s literature and the delight and critical faculties that a well-rounded literacy brings to young readers.

All the best, Chris Brandon Whitaker

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reaching Readers

I had the opportunity to interview a 5th grade teacher recently about how she gets her kids engaged in reading. 

Gail’s students are what experts call “economically disadvantaged.” The school has a 94% free/reduced lunch rate and 36% of the students have “limited English proficiency.” The teachers and students have their challenges, and Gail says they're also the most hardworking and eager-to-learn students she’s ever taught.

How long have you been teaching?
I've only been teaching for four years. I've taught one year in fourth grade and three years in fifth grade. (Note. This is a second career for Gail.)
Tell us a little about your school.
My school has a rich heritage in cultural diversity. We’re located in the Southeast and our demographics are about 49%  Hispanic, 35% White and 12% Black, 4% Multi, with a total population of 565 students. In 2015, we were designated as a low-performing school, with our test scores the lowest 10% in the system. We've worked hard to improve student achievement and recently exited that list. We continue to show great progress. Congratulations to your students and faculty!

What’s the biggest challenge you face in getting your students to read?
Many of my students have a story at home that is unbelievable. Today I had a student fall asleep in the bathroom because his home life is in such turmoil. He probably doesn’t ever get a peaceful night’s sleep. Another challenge is the fact that many of our students’ families are just trying to survive—have enough to eat and pay their rent/mortgage. Many don’t have books in their homes or have parents who don’t read books themselves. Students often don’t see a reading model at home. 

What have you found gets your students excited about reading?
My students love to hear a book read aloud to them. I think many of them were not read to as toddlers and preschoolers. I’ve read several books to my 5th graders this year and they have loved every one of them. Lots of books have a theme of survival, and that theme resonates with my students. 

I’ve read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and one of my reluctant readers begged to hear Brian’s Winter by the same author. I really didn’t want to read it because I knew it would be so similar to Hatchet, but with an alternate ending. But the kids were really into it (the boys especially because of the gory hunting parts). They also enjoyed Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtiss. I think many of my students could identify with the main character running from the terrible conditions in a foster home and trying to find his dad. Many of my students have a similar story to tell. 

What types of books do they like most? Do you notice differences among girls and boys?
My students really enjoy historical fiction. I read I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944 (I Survived #9). The book is lower than fifth grade reading level, and I usually try to read a higher level book aloud, but someone in my class recommended it. I obliged, and I’m so glad I did. The kids really got into this book because we had just studied WWII in social studies.

Currently, I’m reading Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. Everyone is so glued to this book!  They are hanging onto every word. I have one boy who you would never think would be so into this book. He’s one of my poorest and lowest readers, and he wears camo every day. He asked the media specialist to “please order the sequel.” I would have never imagined that he’d be interested in Stargirl. He seems more like a Hatchet kid. But maybe he's connected to Stargirl's unique style and desire to be her own person. I think all of my kids like the book’s hint at romance and are interested in the high school type of drama.

Are you able to find books with characters similar to your students? 
I try to find books with characters that are similar to my kids. Last year, I read A Week in the Woods about a rich kid moving to a new school. It was hard to feel sorry for the main character who had everything anyone could ever want, just not the attention of his mom and dad. My kids didn’t relate and didn’t seem to connect with the story. 

The teacher next to me is reading Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan. She said her kids absolutely love it. They talk about it at recess. The teacher said they connect to the strained relationship between the once absent mother and daughter and the mother’s problem with alcoholism. Sadly, this is something our students encounter in their homes.

This is just my opinion, developed over these few years with my students, but I think my kids are most hungry for a book with a main character going through the same struggles as them—a changing family structure, money problems, overcoming challenges, etc. This engages them in the story perhaps even more than the main character physically looking like them. Of course, they always want to be entertained as well.

How do you get your students excited about writing?
I’m not sure if I’m successful at this. We recently wrote an opinion essay about whether or not President Trump had a successful 100 days. My kids were very engaged and everyone had a strong opinion on the matter. We also watch Flocabulary’s Week in Wrap each week, and my kids love to see what’s happening in the world. They enjoy writing about topics like that. 

What do you wish authors knew?
This is a tough one. I don’t know if there’s anything I wish authors knew. I wish more people (parents, teachers, and other adults) knew that kids of all ages love to be read to. I love to be read to. 

Thank you, Gail! It’s always insightful to take a peek into different classrooms to see what’s going on with students.

If you're interested in reading more about the benefits of reading aloud to children, see these previous Reaching Readers posts: Teaching by Reading and Read to Them Aloud, At Any Age

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan by Patricia Bailey

The Tragically True Adventures of Kit DonovanThe Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan by Patricia Bailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I killed my mother. Twice, if I am to be completely honest—though she only died the one time.”

Entering Kit’s word we are sent back to 1905 Goldfield, Nevada during the gold rush, and meet Kit Donovan, thirteen-years-old, blaming and publically shaming herself for her mother’s death from pneumonia.

It’s dusty and dirty, and she lives in a tent with her father. Her school is in a tent. Classmates tease her incessantly and throw stones! Her teacher ostracizes and humiliates her. It’s the hard knock life for sure.

Kit’s father works in the local gold mine, and one day she comes home and finds the neighbor, Wild Woman, Clara, pulling wood splinters and bandaging her father’s arm and talking about Mr. Granger, the corrupt owner of the mine Goliath, who wants to blow the wells to kingdom come. Regardless of who is harmed or killed.

Kit convinces her father to speak out about the dangers of the gold mine, and when he doesn’t she takes the truth to the local newspaper. The whole town explodes with the news. Her father’s gunned down on Main Street right in front of her. Granger holds the smoking pistol, shouting, “It was self-defense.” Her father now labeled “agitator” and dead.

She finds solace at the horse stables with a borrowed copy The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The only book she has, other than the Bible, to keep her from “becoming as dull and stupid as this savage place” A promise she made her mother. She meets Arnie in the stables, a Shoshone boy, reading the copy of Huck Finn, and he quickly becomes an ally.

With her keen curiosity and determination, advanced spelling skills, (even if she suppresses her intelligence so she’s not teased at school) she lands a job at the local Times, after a few adjustments to the part about being a girl, she goes undercover in the mines to find out first hand and prove her father’s innocence. She learns that her father knew even more about the dangers of the mines.

This book was such a pleasure to read. The setting and atmosphere were well developed and the characters grip your heart. You’re right with Kit, as she heroically and tragically sets off, each adventure more tragic than the next.

Published on April 25th, 2017 by Albert Whitman

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

K10: Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever

The Kidliterati Ten is an interview series with young readers. We ask them about a favorite book and hope that you enjoy their answers.

Tell us a little about yourself: what is your first name, how old are you, and what is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
My name is Leo, and I’m 7. My favorite ice cream is Mint Chip.

What book did you read and why did you choose it?

I just finished reading Cabin Fever (Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, by Jeff Kinney). It's my favorite chapter book! Since it's been hot and I've been sweating, reading about the cold makes me feel cool.

Can you describe this book in one word?

What was your favorite part of this story?
When there was a huge snow storm coming, Greg didn't do his homework. But then the snow storm wasn't that bad and he had to go to school without his homework done. It was funny!

If you had a problem similar to the main character's problem, what would you do?
Greg made up a story. I would be honest to my teacher.

What would you say to your best friend to convince them to read this book?

All my friends have read this book, but I would say there are lots of jokes and it's really funny.

What do you think about the book's cover? 
[Touches the cover.] It has good texture.

Would you want to read another book about these characters? Why or why not?
Yes, because it's so amazing.

Can you name another book that reminds you of this one?
Dog Days in the series was really similar.

If you could ask the author one question about this book what would it be?
How long does it take to produce each book?

In answer to Leo's question, Jeff Kinney has this FAQ on his author website:
"How long does it take you to write a book?
It takes about nine months to create a new Wimpy Kid book; six months to come up with all the ideas/jokes (I need 350 per book), one month to write it, and two months to illustrate."

Thank you, Leo, for sharing with us!

Greg Heffley is in big trouble. School property has been damaged, and Greg is the prime suspect. But the crazy thing is, he's innocent. Or at least sort of.

The authorities are closing in, but when a surprise blizzard hits, the Heffley family is trapped indoors. Greg knows that when the snow melts he's going to have to face the music, but could any punishment be worse than being stuck inside with your family for the holidays?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Secrets of Kidlit: World-Building in Contemporary Stories

We often hear a lot of craft tips about world-building for fantasy and science fiction, but what about contemporary worlds? You might think that in real-world stories, world building is somewhat less critical than in stories that must establish fantastical settings, but I'd argue that world-building is critical in any story. The goal of every story is to communicate a character's particular experience, and to do that, we must understand how the character fits into their world...or in most cases, how they do not.

The Why

For writers of contemporary fiction, world-building may seem like more of a boring, necessary task than a thrilling insight into a character, and that's because we're already familiar with the real world. We live in it. We drive cars, we eat tuna fish sandwiches, we blow dry our hair and brush our teeth...and isn't that all so ordinary and boring?

In short, yes.

If all you do is show your character going through the motions of life without any opinions about that life, the story will read flat. No one finds a minute-by-minute accounting of another human being's rote actions particularly thrilling. What we're interested in is the character's point of view. We want to hear their opinions. We don't read to understand what happens, but why it happens. All stories are based on answering this one basic question: why?

Why do some humans make the choices they make?
Why didn't they make a different choice?
Why would they treat someone that way?
Why would they care?

As soon as we begin to ask why, we begin to relate to a character. We may all live in the same world, but each of our experiences are unique. That is why the first rule of world-building in contemporary fiction is asking why. Why does this setting matter to my character? Why does this world pose a challenge to them? Why are they at odds with their environment (including the other characters in it)? Why does history or geography pose a challenge to their goals?

The answers to these questions should guide your choice of setting and cast. In some ways, the world grows as the character grows, for every part of the world should support your character's story. That is how we build a contemporary world with agency and specificity that is as interesting to readers as worlds with wands and flying books.

The What

World-building by definition is the process of constructing an imaginary world with coherent qualities like history, geography, and ecology--which sounds pretty straight-forward, but if you were to include every detail of your character's world in your story, your book would never end. There are too many potential details. That's why the next step in building a successful contemporary world is choosing what serves your story best.

Some details are more valuable than others. In this excerpt from Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the main character Ally introduces us to the restaurant where her mother works. While we learn about the restaurant, we also learn that Ally is creative, sometimes to the point of distraction, and that she might have a conflict with her mother over that. A restaurant offers a stronger setting to show those characteristics than say, a quiet library.

Choose details that not only build the setting, but also introduce conflict. Conflict is the heart of every story, and there must be some part of your world that your character is in conflict with. Every person and place in your novel is a potential antagonist--in fact, I'd go so far as to say that we are always in conflict with every element of the world around us to a degree. Think of it as priming a charge. When you load the world with backstory that's ready to blow, it's easy for your character to encounter difficult plot choices that add pace and interest to your story.

For example, a character who hates the beach they're visiting for the summer raises a question in our minds: Why do they hate this beach so much? What happened here? The answer to those questions can be as simple as an interesting piece of backstory which builds the history of the world, or it could also be used to introduce an active conflict. Perhaps this beach was the setting for a terrible loss, and by returning to the beach the character risks suffering another loss.

This doesn't mean that your character always has to hate the world they inhabit. They can have deep love for their hometown and still resent the limitations it places on them, just as they can have deep love for a parent whose actions thwart their goals, but even well-loved details should serve more than one purpose. The bonus insight that a bit of world-building offers us might be a clue to a mystery, a key point of character development, a mood indicator, or a point of conflict. A good detail tells us something about the world and something about the character, too.

The setting details Kat Yeh chose to focus on in The Truth About Twinkie Pie hint at a mystery ahead.

The Where

When you're writing a real world story, it's easy to think you should change your plot to suit your world, but it is far easier to construct a world that suits your story. Sometimes in contemporary stories, that means altering a real-world setting to better suit your story, which is allowed! We see this in author's notes all the time.

For example, sometimes you need two locations to be within walking distance. Instead of coming up with elaborate excuses as to why your middle grade character could walk that far on their own, change the setting. It is okay to take a real life setting and create your own world within it.

The NYC street view I used to create the setting in Counting Thyme.

We're lucky that these days, we have a lot of great tools to assist world-building. Google Earth can show you topical and perspective views of many places round the world. And thanks to the internet, you can also find tons of casual pictures of just about every setting to build your world upon. Emphasize the details that create the experience. If there are details that don't line up with the point you're trying to make, change them or leave them out.

The Who

Secondary characters are an important part of your world. They should not exist just for the sake of existing. Secondary characters should offer either a mirror or contrast to your character's journey. When well designed, secondary characters can provide plenty of plot ideas. In fact, if you choose their traits carefully, the plot will appear to drive itself. All it takes is placing characters with opposing goals in the same room, and their innate differences will drive the conflict.

In Two Naomis (by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick), both Mrs. Hill-Davis and Naomi's father are secondary characters whose details reveal insights about Naomi herself. While the neighbor's actions build our mental image of the neighborhood and give us a sense of security and warmth, they also reveal Naomi's burgeoning desire for independence. Additionally, we get the sense from the details the author chose that perhaps Naomi is in conflict with her father, which invites us to keep reading.

Similarly, a secondary character with an emotional arc that parallels your main character will offer moments of connection and reflection that help your character on their journey. This can also reinforce your themes. But even if a secondary character is not in conflict with your main character, they must be interesting and unique. Each secondary character should have their own identity and emotional arc so that your world is as authentic and dynamic as the real world.

The When

Don't waste any time getting into the meat of your world. Remember, your character has already inhabited this world for some time, and will continue to after your story has concluded. This sense of continuity should come across to the reader from the very first line.

Some manuscripts make the mistake of offering extensive world-building details in the opening pages with little insight as to why those details matter to the character. That's a quick way to encourage an agent or editor to stop reading. One trick I like to use to make sure I'm only including details that are relevant to the character is stopping to ask myself if the character would really have time to think all of that, and if they would care in the first place. If not, then those details belong elsewhere. We leave things out of stories for a reason. Select only the information that is necessary for the story, and your focus will only enhance your point.

For opening pages that grab your reader, remember to focus on the why and to do it right away. Don't hide the ball too much. Let us dive right in. A confident, vibrant world encourages the reader to get lost in your story and trust that you are taking them someplace they've never been before. The best contemporary stories create worlds that the reader inhabits long after the final page has been read.


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