Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: Sway by Kat Spears

SwaySway by Kat Spears
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a few occasions at BEA (Book Expo of America) this past May, I was in the right place at the right time. One of those right times resulted in me being handed an advance copy of SWAY by Kat Spears.

In Kat Spears’s hilarious and often poignant debut, high school senior Jesse Alderman, or "Sway," as he’s known, could sell hell to a bishop. He also specializes in getting things people want---term papers, a date with the prom queen, fake IDs. He has few close friends and he never EVERlets emotions get in the way. For Jesse, life is simply a series of business transactions.

But when Ken Foster, captain of the football team, leading candidate for homecoming king, and all-around jerk, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of the angelic Bridget Smalley, Jesse finds himself feeling all sorts of things. While following Bridget and learning the intimate details of her life, he falls helplessly in love for the very first time. He also finds himself in an accidental friendship with Bridget’s belligerent and self-pitying younger brother who has cerebral palsy. Suddenly, Jesse is visiting old folks at a nursing home in order to run into Bridget, and offering his time to help the less fortunate, all the while developing a bond with this young man who idolizes him. Could the tin man really have a heart after all?

A Cyrano de Bergerac story with a modern twist, Sway is told from Jesse’s point of view with unapologetic truth and biting humor, his observations about the world around him untempered by empathy or compassion---until Bridget’s presence in his life forces him to confront his quiet devastation over a life-changing event a year earlier and maybe, just maybe, feel something again.


I hadn't heard of the book but the cover got my attention right away so SWAY was one of my first reads when I got home. The cover has changed since the final book was published in September, but I like them both. Here's the version from the ARC that I have:


The main character, "Sway" (AKA Jesse Alderman), makes quite an impression from the start. He's trouble, you can tell that right away, but you can't help but like him. He sells term papers and fake IDs and just about anything else his fellow high school students request. But the most interesting request comes when he's hired by one of the school's biggest jerks to help him capture the attention of Bridget, one of the most innocent and sweetest girl's in the school. It's a setup that could easily play out like other stories but thanks to the depth of the characters doesn't.

Sway's gritty, sarcastic and realistic voice matches the feel of the story, one reason this is definitely a story for the older side of YA. But in the midst of the dark and brooding there are light and hopeful moments and humor. And love.

View all my reviews



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

K10: Malcolm at Midnight by W.H. Beck


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

11697763Tell us a little about yourself: what is your first name, how old are you, and what is your favorite ice cream flavor?
My name is Lydia, I'm 8, and my favorite flavor of ice cream is Rocky Road.

What book did you read and why did you choose it?
I read Malcolm at Midnight. I went to a book talk and met the author so I thought it would be a good book to read.

Can you describe this book in one word?
Adventurous.

What was your favorite part of this story?
My favorite part is the first time when the school pets get together at night for a meeting of the Midnight Academy. 

If you had a problem similar to the main character's problem, what would you do?
I would try to figure out what is going on so I can help.

What would you say to your best friend to convince them to read this book?
You should read Malcolm at Midnight because there are a lot of adventures and the pictures are fantastic. Some of the cat pictures were so real, they freaked me out!

What do you think about the book's cover?
I love it because it tells me what the book is about and it looks so real.

Would you want to read another book about these characters? Why or why not?
Yes because I’m wondering what happens after Snip the cat is gone.

Can you name another book that reminds you of this one?
No, because I haven’t read any other big books about talking animals.

If you could ask the author one question about this book, what would it be?
What made you decide to use footnotes throughout the book?


**** Thank you for sharing with us, Lydia! ****


I reached out to W.H. Beck and she was kind enough to answer Lydia’s question. Also, her website has a lot of interesting "behind-the-scenes" information about this book!

The main reason there are footnotes in Malcolm at Midnight is because it's fifth grader Amelia Vang who is telling Malcolm's story. She's a perfectionist/overachiever sort who not only knows what footnotes are and how to use them, but she also has a lot of side commentary on what's going on in Malcolm's story. The footnotes were a fun way for me to show these aspects of her character.

Thanks for thinking of my book!

**** Thank you, W.H. Beck! ****
When Malcolm the rat arrives as the pet at McKenna School, he revels in the attention. He also meets the Midnight Academy, a secret society of classroom pets that keeps the nutters (kids) safe. There’s just one problem…rats have a terrible reputation! So when the Academy’s iguana leader is kidnapped, Malcolm must prove his innocence—and that even rats can be good guys. Illustrated by Brian Lies of Bats at the Beach, this engaging middle-grade novel will have readers rooting for Malcolm as they try to solve the mystery alongside him.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: 2015 Middle Grade Preview

One of the best perks of joining a debut authors' group is reading everyone's ARCs. I've enjoyed so many great MG and YA books that are coming out next year, and since I couldn't decide on one specific book for my MG review today, I thought I'd highlight four excellent middle grade ARCs I've read recently.


Blackbird FlyBlackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apple has always felt a little different from her classmates. She and her mother moved to Louisiana from the Philippines when she was little, and her mother still cooks Filipino foods, makes mistakes with her English, and chastises Apple for becoming “too American.” It becomes unbearable in middle school, when the boys—the stupid, stupid boys—in Apple’s class put her name on the Dog Log, the list of the most unpopular girls in school. When Apple’s friends turn on her and everything about her life starts to seem weird and embarrassing, Apple turns to music. If she can just save enough to buy a guitar and learn to play, maybe she can change herself. It might be the music that saves her . . . or it might be her two new friends, who show how special she really is.

I love a good, realistic, no-holds-barred MG, and this is definitely one. The main character, Apple, struggles to fit in with her "friends" at school, and some of these scenes are so very real that they're almost hard to read. Such a great, diverse book! Highly recommended.


My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!)My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are many things that 11-year-old Stanley Slater would like to have in life, most of all, a father. But what if Stan's missing dad isn't "dearly departed" after all? Who better to find this absent hero/cowboy/outlaw than manly Stan himself? Unfortunately, Stan's fending off his impossible cousin Geri, evil Granny, and Mama's suitors like Cold-Blooded Killer Stinky Pete. If only he could join the River Drive, the most perilous adventure of all, where even a fellow's peavey is at risk. It's a wild ride for Stan as he finds out about true manliness. But at least Stan has his scrapbook, full of 200 black-and-white 19th-century advertisements and photos, "augmented" with his commentary and doodles.
 
So. Much. Fun. I loved this! It is a -- get this -- humorous historical. I can honestly say I've never read anything like it. Stan is a hilarious narrator, and his story is peppered with old-timey photos and ads that he's drawn on and captioned for his scrapbook. This book is so original, and just a delight to read.


Villain Keeper (The Last Dragon Charmer, #1)Villain Keeper by Laurie McKay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All his life, Prince Caden has dreamed of being sent on a quest to slay a dragon. But before he has the chance, he is ripped from his home in the Winterlands of Razzon and finds himself in Asheville, North Carolina—a land with no magic and no dragons. But a prince must always complete his quest. And the longer Caden is in Asheville, the more he realizes there is magic in this strange land after all. More important, there may just be dragons here, too. But what if Caden’s destiny isn’t to slay a dragon, like he's always believed?

Loved this book! It starts out as a fish-out-of-water story, with Prince Caden finding himself and his friend mysteriously landed in Asheville, North Carolina. But it quickly turns out that everything is not as it seems in Asheville, and in fact, they're not the only people from their realm to be living there. The book is full of humor and adventure, and the characters are all really well-drawn. Can't wait to read book two!



Dr. Critchlore's School for Minions: Book 1Dr. Critchlore's School for Minions: Book 1 by Sheila Grau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dr. Critchlore’s School for Minions is the premier supplier of minions to Evil Overlords throughout the Greater Porvian Continent. Twelve-year-old Runt Higgins has grown up as Dr. Critchlore’s ward, a werewolf who couldn’t keep up with the other pups. Now Runt’s determined to make it into the elite Junior Henchman Training Program so the pack who abandoned him will be so proud, they’ll take him back. But that won’t happen if the school closes down, a fate that grows likelier as disasters keep striking with alarming regularity. Runt decides to find the saboteur himself, since nobody knows the school better than he does—and hasn’t he got the keen senses, strength, and speed that werewolves are known for?

This book is full of some crazy-amazing world-building. Every single character stands out, and I especially loved that Runt, the main character, wasn't the most gifted guy around. It's funny, exciting, and just a good read.


And, check out these other upcoming 2015 middle grade books featured on Kidliterati earlier this year:

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones
Raising Rufus by David Fulk
I Am Drums by Mike Grosso
Ruby Reinvented by Ronni Arno
Breaking the Ice by Gail Nall
You're Invited by Jen Malone and Gail Nall







Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cover Reveal: I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso

Today we are lucky to host a really fun cover reveal for I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso, debut author! Stay tuned for a signed ARC giveaway below, but first, here's the blurb for this middle grade contemporary coming September 2015 from Egmont:

While other kids dream about cars, sports, and fashion, all Samantha Morris dreams about is playing the drums. But it's hard to make her dreams come true when her parents are against it, she bangs on dictionaries because she can't afford a real kit, and her middle school is cutting its music program.


Sam's only hope to accomplish her dream is to find a private music teacher and pay for lessons herself -- even if it means borrowing the family lawnmower without permission to make the money. But when one of her friends tells her she's the worst percussionist in the band, she starts to wonder if she's got what it takes. If Sam wants to become a real drummer, she must also overcome her parents’ doubts, her classmates’ doubts, and her own doubts to succeed.

Haven't we all had that moment, when we wonder if we've got what it takes? Here's the inside scoop from Mike on why he wrote this story:

I feel like the adult world loves telling kids they can be whatever they want to be, but only if their dreams fit into a shiny little box. Kids who dream of music nowadays are more likely to get eye rolls than real support to make their dreams come true.

I wanted to write about a kid who has all the drive to make it happen but has to fight harder than anyone else to prove it. Sam was always a percussionist in my imagination because drummers are unlike any other musician. They live on another planet much cooler than our own.

Sam sounds like just the kind of girl we'd want on our side in middle school! Without further ado, here's the cover reveal!

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What do you think? We LOVE how the title curves through the air like music from Sam's drums. We're also curious about those red converse, and the star on the drumset. It looks like there's a lot to learn about this story. Now, here's the inside scoop from Mike on the cover design:

I absolutely love the cover Chris Piascik designed. The guy is a monster of an artist, and his work screams with energy.

The beat-up drum set front and center is perfect – Sam's dreams are held back by the monetary requirements that come with learning an instrument, and yet she still sees her musical life as beautifully rough around the edges. The title is where you can truly see Chris’s magic touch. I couldn't have imagined a cooler font, and it’s great how it flows out of the drum set like sound waves. I also love the inclusion of the shoes in the corner. It's a small character detail, but it says so much about youthful energy and the inner drive to rock out. It also doesn't hurt that I was best man at a wedding where we wore similar shoes with our tuxes -- they felt surprisingly classy!

Be sure to enter the Rafflecopter below for a chance to win a signed Advanced Reader copy of I AM DRUMS!


Mike Grosso is a writer, teacher, and musician from Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and son. He hopes to one day live in a house where he can have a drum set without driving his neighbors insane. He always keeps a guitar in his fourth grade classroom, and encourages his students to study music whenever the opportunity presents itself. I AM DRUMS is his debut novel.

Website | Twitter




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Thanks, Mike, for sharing I AM DRUMS with us today!


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Secrets of Kidlit: Author Spotlight on Elizabeth Cody Kimmel

Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
photo by Diana Horowitz
The spotlight series brings to light authors’ approaches to writing for young readers and the secrets to their success. In this edition, Elizabeth Cody Kimmel will tell us her secrets to writing a series, researching places, and creating supernatural worlds. Kimmel is the author of many books for children, including the popular Lily B. and Suddenly Supernatural series, several historically based works, and adaptations of the animated films ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.

Welcome, Beth! It’s a treat to speak with such a prolific author about the craft of writing for young readers.

Thank you so much for asking me!

You’ve written books based in either realistic or supernatural worlds. What are the differences and advantages with writing realism and fantasy?

With the genre of the supernatural and its willing suspension of disbelief, there is more latitude for a broad scope in plot, such as going back and forth in time to unravel a mystery. And writing a good old-fashioned ghost story is fun, and when a book is fun to write, that’s probably going to come through to the reader. Writing realistic fiction can be more challenging to do without it getting stale. I've found more and more I need to wait until I have a really unique angle or setting, so that the realistic characters are in some way out of their element.

Some of your books have a geographical setting in common, such as the American West and the polar regions. What was your inspiration to write about these places?

I have been enthralled with cold, remote, and dangerous places for as long as I can remember. I must have hundreds of books on my shelves by explorers, mountaineers, naturalists, and adventure-seekers describing their endeavors and expeditions, so having the opportunity to write about an explorer like Ernest Shackleton, or the sled dogs of Nome, is a great pleasure for me. In writing historical fiction about the American West, such as the Buffalo Bill series,
I was taking on an area of the country and a time period that was much less familiar to me. Although, I didn't need to go to Antarctica to write about Shackleton (much as I would have enjoyed it), I did need to go out west to write about Bill. It was imperative. So I followed his family's factual covered wagon journey from Iowa through Missouri and ultimately Kansas. I went from state to state visiting historical societies, any museums or homesteads associated with the family, and reading period non-fiction. The connection to Bill's story was a personal one—my father is a descendant of his—and I was dedicated to getting his story right.

You’ve also had success with several series. What are the challenges to writing a series versus a stand-alone novel?

I don't find writing a series to be especially challenging or significantly different than a single novel, since any book in a series should also be accessible to a reader, who has perhaps grabbed book 3 without having read the others. If you are setting out to write a series or are simply hoping for a sequel, the trick is to keep the door open for further adventures, and to keep the passage of time contained. If the first book takes the protagonist all the way through the 7th grade, that doesn't leave much development room for three more books. With a stand-alone novel, I do always try to leave an opening as well, in the event a publisher decides down the line that they would like a sequel.


What is your secret to writing for middle-grade readers?

The rule of thumb is that readers usually want a character slightly older than they are, hence many of mine are 12 or 13. I think the secret to writing for that age group is to create strong characters with issues or challenges that the reader can identify with and to do so without being didactic or sounding artificial. Then you must also stay within the confines of that genre in terms of subject matter, word choice, and length. You must, in other words, learn to write within the limitations in such a way that it the limitations themselves are not apparent. The first and most crucial way to do it is through the strength and magnetism of your characters.

Is there some secret about you that our readers may be surprised to know?

I can yodel.

As a sneak preview, can you share with us any secrets about upcoming projects?

One of them will be an installment in a very recognizable series. Beyond that, I am developing a mystery involving an ancient manuscript and a portal to another world, and also an adventure that will take place out west, in wolf country.

Thanks for such an interesting interview, Beth. We’ll keep an eye out for your upcoming books. All three sound very intriguing!


Monday, December 8, 2014

Review: The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer


The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The prestigious Selwyn Arts Academy is full of brilliantly talented teens. It's full of dance classes, literature classes, vocal classes. But what it's not full of is a TV reality talent show called For Art's Sake that exploits the students for a miniature bump in ratings.

Oh, wait.

Scratch that.

That's exactly what Selwyn Arts Academy has this year.

And the school couldn't be more thrilled. I mean, it's not every day that you get to go to class and maybe run into some huge TV producer and accidentally camera bomb the shot and OMG I'M GOING TO BE ON TELEVISION!

Except if you're Luke. He's had it up to here (holds hand way above head) with the way For Art's Sake has decided to cheapen the meaning of the word art with its weekly broadcast of overdramatized schlock. So he and his best friends, Ethan, Elizabeth, and Jackson write a vigilante poem to begin an epic underground movement that will rattle the very foundations of the reality TV show kingdom and bring For Art's Sake crumbling to the ground in a heap of HD cameras, gaff tape, and half-empty Starbucks cups.

In no time, the friends' words are scurrying off the lips of every student and teacher in the school. The plan is working. And there's not a thing the TV show can do about it. Except cast Luke, the brainchild of the poem, on the program.

Which it does.

Now Ethan, Elizabeth, and Jackson--along with a furry gerbil sidekick, Baconnaise--must figure out a way to infiltrate the inner circle of cast members to save their must-be-brainwashed pal, their school, and the entire viewing audience from the undying evil of reality television.

There's not a single thing I dislike about this book. No joke. Ethan, the narrator, has one of the most genuine teen voices I've ever read. Yes, the story deals with art in its many forms and the weapon of choice is a long poem inspired by Ezra Pound, but every single character is accessible and the language never even throws a sideways glance toward pretentious.

What made me fall hard in love with this, though, was how Hattemer skirted the traditional rules of story format right off the bat. The book has three beginnings. And yeah, you read all three. You have to. Not because you'll miss some key fragment to a seemingly broken plot point down the road if you don't. It's because her writing is so flipping good you don't want to miss any of it. It's funny. It's honest. It's smart. And, as a writer, it's inspiring.

If it sounds like I'm gushing, it's probably because I am. This is a book I want to gush over. I've recommended this to just about every person I know who knows how to read. And now I want to recommend it to you.

Like art? Read it.

Like humor? Read it.

Like relationships? Read it.

Like ______? Read it.

Seriously. You won't regret it. Because Selwyn Academy has everything. Except you. So jump in.






Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Reaching Readers: Running the School Book Fair



I’ve had the pleasure of running our school book fair for several years now, and I’ll never give it up! What’s not to love? I get to play with all the shiny books before the kids lay hands to them. Unpacking all the boxes from the Scholastic warehouse is like opening presents on my birthday. I never know what I’ll find inside the box. Will it be the new Rick Riordan book? Or will it be a Spongebob Movie Tie-in book (blech!)?

It’s fun sorting through the boxes knowing that special book will, without a doubt, be bought by little Johnny who loves monster adventures, or that other special book will be bought by the middle school science teacher who just the other day was looking for a book on weather patterns. Oh yes, I know every book that I’ll sell out of. I also know every book that will sit untouched like the sad puppy at the pet store waiting for a new home.
That's my book fair! Look at all the pretty books!


My number one tip for running a successful book fair?

Know your readers.

I spend enough time in my children’s school (volunteering, chaperoning school trips, reading to the kindergarteners, talking to teachers) that I’ve gotten to know the school community. I know what gets the children and the faculty jazzed and I align the book fair accordingly.

This isn’t always easy. We use Scholastic for our book fair and, generally, Scholastic likes to send their “book fair in a box.” You get what you get and you don’t get upset. I’ve tried to get Scholastic to work with me on the book selection, but it’s often a losing battle. Instead, I open the boxes and see what I have to work with. One year, when THE LORD OF THE RINGS was crushing the movie box offices, I knew the two copies of Tolkien’s book I received would not nearly be enough to satisfy middle school demand. So THE LORD OF THE RINGS, along with about thirty other titles I knew would be big hits, went on a special rush order with Scholastic. I received the books within 2 days, in plenty of time for our book fair grand opening. The books I special order are always our biggest sellers.

I repeat...Know your readers!

Here are a few of my other tips to help you run a successful book fair:

  • Get teachers involved. Ask teachers to recommend books and display teacher recommendations prominently. Kids respect teacher recommendations.
  • Pay careful attention to book placement. Best sellers and popular selections should be placed right up front.
  • Group like with like. Middle grade books should not be placed on the same table as board books. Make shopping easy.
  • Encourage teachers to setup book wish lists for their classrooms. Parents love buying books for their child’s class. This is usually our biggest money maker.
  • Kids come with parents. Get some adult books (cookbooks, women’s lit, etc.) to draw parents into the shopping. Scholastic often staffs a reasonable adult selection on special order.


Do you have any other tips to help run a successful book fair?


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