Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Secrets of Kidlit: Surviving the Winter

I know what you're saying. Winter? It's June! But I recently read a blog post written by Pitch Wars alum Amelia Coombs about moving on and making it through the hard times in a writing career.

Because this writing thing? It ain't all sunshine and roses twenty-four/seven.

But you know that. We all know that -- we just don't talk about it often. And it doesn't matter what stage of your career you're in, we've all been there, feeling lost and wondering if it's all over. Whether you're shelving yet another manuscript after navigating the query trenches as a veteran, your critique partners think your current project is a cliched dud, your agent's getting crickets on your manuscript (again), you're a published author who keeps writing and writing and writing and yet no one seems to want to buy that second (or tenth!) book, or you're well into your career and reading terrible reviews about your latest release (or worse -- no reviews because no one's even reading your latest release) . . . Welcome to Winter.

There's something comforting about knowing you aren't alone in feeling like this. And alone is how a lot of us feel when we hit Winter. Because out there, in Happy Cheerful Summer Sunshine Twitter and Facebook World, it feels like everyone is signing with agents and selling four-book deals and getting sixteen starred reviews and everyone is retweeting it and yes, you're genuinely happy for that person and you know that their success has no impact at all on your career, but you're also thinking, "But I don't even need to hit the list! All I want is ________." Yeah. It feels isolating, doesn't it?

You are not alone. We all deal with this at some time or another, many of us more than once, and some of us for long stretches of time. And the worst part about it is how it can affect your creativity. You might feel this intense urge to get your work out there so you can "catch up" to all of these other people somehow, but that urge ends up being exactly what's holding you back. It's almost impossible to find that quiet place in your mind to do your best work when you feel like you have to get it done now, now, now or else your career will shrivel up and die.

So what can you do?

1) Unplug. Get off social media. Everyone understands the need for a break now and then. You might find it much easier to get the words written if you're not constantly bombarded with the very thing that's making you feel like you're falling behind or not good enough.

2) Find your people and vent. It is OKAY to share these feelings! But what's important is finding the right people to share them with. (a.k.a. not your public Twitter account). Critique partners, family (if they get it), writer friends, tight-knit writerly Facebook groups ("tight-knit" is key here -- you need to feel secure that your privacy will be respected). Letting it out can help so much.

3) Rediscover the joy of simply writing. We can get so caught up in the business side that we lose the true reason we choose to write. Take a moment, a day, a week, a month to write whatever you're most inspired to write. Don't worry about whether it's a hot genre or whether it'll sell. Just write for the love of writing. It's not something you ever need to show anyone, unless you want to. The agents and the editors will still be there when you're done.

4) Find the rest of your life. It's easy to fall into the I'm a Writer and That's All I Am trap. You're not just a writer. You're a human being with family, friends, and hobbies. Plan that family vacation, start that exercise routine, try out those recipes, take up knitting, do whatever makes you a whole person, apart from writing.

5) Breathe and remind yourself that it's not a competition. This sounds obvious, I know, but simply taking a few breaths and remembering that we aren't competing against each other can do wonders in relieving that pressure to succeed.

You might also want to check out this great Kidliterati post from Becky Appleby on professional envy and how to use it for good. And remember -- you're not alone!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review: The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Silvensky

The Countdown ConspiracyThe Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a ride! This book is Star Trek for Middle-Grade readers.

Only the best of the best are chosen, and thirteen-year-old, engineer, Miranda Regent, from the USA, is preparing for a flight to Mars. Her adorable mechbot, outfitted with thrusters, is her companion. She’s one of six kids from around the world, training for this mission aboard the Ambassador.

But the bombs! The kids barely escape. A war is about to break out on Earth. Miranda receives threating messages. Someone wants the space agency destroyed. Has Miranda been singled out as the target? And it’s only training day.
What if they never have the chance to blast off, after a life’s worth of training because the space agency is in ruins?

Suspects, mystery, and intrigue; no one can figure out who’s trying to sabotage the space program. Is it the Russians? A great cast of international kid characters, dealing with living and working in close proximity. There are rivals and jealousy, high stakes, and adventure!

The details about flight create an outstanding realness, and it’s science, due to the author being a science educator. She knocked this book out of the park – or I should say, into outer space. Energizing and inspiring and perfect for STEM readers.

View all my reviews 

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


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