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Monday, November 28, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC by Sarah Mlynowsi, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins (Scholastic, September 2015)

It's been a while since I've posted! As all parents know, every day is busy--but some seasons are busier than others. My 8th-grader is currently rehearsing for the local children's theater's production of The Wizard of Oz, and my 4th-grader is playing basketball. Wow! I'm putting in the miles on the minivan.

For the past few weeks, I've put off my blog post till the last minute, and then something invariably pops up, and the last minute becomes too late. This week, with Thanksgiving, I have had a few more moments of time, so HOORAY! I get to do Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

The book I'm featuring is on the Oregon Battle of the Books list. Also, my son's 4th-grade teacher asks them to do a monthly book report. November's theme was Fantasy, so we read the book together and killed several birds with one stone. Another HOORAY!

What It's About (via Amazon):
In a world of elite magic academies, weird and wonderful things happen when you’re sent off to public school . . . and put in the Upside-Down Magic class.

It’s never easy when your magic goes wonky.

For Nory, this means that instead of being able to turn into a dragon or a kitten, she turns into both of them at the same time—a dritten.

For Elliott, the simple act of conjuring fire from his fingertips turns into a fully frozen failure.

For Andres, wonky magic means he’s always floating in the air, bouncing off the walls, or sitting on the ceiling.

For Bax, a bad moment of magic will turn him into a . . . actually, he’d rather not talk about that.

Nory, Elliott, Andres, and Bax are just four of the students in Dunwiddle Magic School’s Upside-Down Magic class. In their classroom, lessons are unconventional, students are unpredictable, and magic has a tendency to turn wonky at the worst possible moments. Because it’s always amazing, the trouble a little wonky magic can cause . . .

Opening Lines:
"Nory Horace was trying to turn herself into a kitten.
The kitten had to be a black kitten. And it had to be completely kitten-shaped.
It was the middle of summer. Nory was hiding in her family's garage. Kitten, kitten, kitten, she thought."

Things to Like:
This is a quick read, with an appealing main character (Nory) who comes from a successful magical family--her father is the headmaster of an elite magical academy--but who is cursed with being 'wonky.' Her talent, that of Fluxer, means that she should be able to turn herself into an animal at will, as well as control herself in her animal body. Nory can do neither. Her kitten becomes a bitten, or even a dritten (dragon/kitten), and once transformed she acts more animal than human.

Comedy is a great part of this novel's appeal (imagine what happens when Nory turns into a skunkephant (skunk/elephant) when dealing with some bullies at her new school! I also enjoyed the camaraderie between the so-called outcasts, and the way they eventually come to accept their differences and see that their are strengths in their "wonkiness." (Having a lovely, affirming teacher helps.) I was a little concerned that Nory's father basically seems to ignore her once she leaves for the less prestigious school, but maybe this abandonment is address is later books in the series.

The 4th-grader gave it a thumbs up!

About the Authors:
One of the things that left me wondering was how three well-established authors could collaborate so well. There was no obvious difference in style between the chapters, so I did a little digging about their method. As Sarah Mlynowski says:
"I wrote this book with Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins, two brilliant writers who happen to be two of my closest friends. How do three people write a book together? In a nutshell: I outline, Lauren writes the first draft, and Emily edits. But we all do a lot of everything.
The best thing about working with friends is that because we love and respect each other, it's completely okay to share ridiculous ideas. In fact, it's encouraged. The best scenes come from ridiculous ideas. Our friendship gives us the freedom to jump as high as we can-and to trust that we are each other's built in net. Just in case any of the ideas are a little too upside-down."

Here are links to the respective authors' websites:
Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, Emily Jenkins.

Also: a guide for teachers to use UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC in the classroom

Here's hoping that things don't go back to being so hectic, and I'm able to be back next week. Ciao!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: JOURNEY'S END by Rachel Hawkins

Blog Tour for JOURNEY'S END by Rachel Hawkins (October 25th, 2016)

What It's About: 
The town of Journey's End may not literally be at the end of the world, but it sure feels like it to Nolie Stanhope. Spending the summer with her scientist father in the tiny Scottish village isn't exactly Nolie's idea of a good time, but she soon finds a friend: native Journey's Ender Bel McKissick.

While Nolie's father came to Journey's End to study the Boundary--a mysterious fog bank offshore--Bel's family can’t afford to consider it a threat. The McKissick’s livelihood depends on the tourists drawn by legends of a curse. Still, whether you believe in magic or science, going into the Boundary means you'll never come back.

…Unless you do. Albert Etheridge, a boy who disappeared into the Boundary in 1914, suddenly returns--without having aged a day and with no memory of the past hundred years. Then the Boundary starts creeping closer to the town, threatening to consume everyone within.

While Nolie's father wants to have the village evacuated, Bel's parents lead the charge to stay in Journey's End. Meanwhile, Albert and the girls look for ways to stop the encroaching boundary, coming across an ancient Scottish spell that requires magic, a quest, and a sacrifice.

First Lines:
"Albert Macleish woke up early on the morning he disappeared.

It had to be early is he was to leave without his mum and da noticing, so it was still murky and dim when he opened the front gate and slipped out into the quiet, rutted lane that ran past his house..."

I'm just in love with this cover! Spooky Scotland seems to be all the rage this year, Earlier this year, I reviewed Janet Fox's THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, and if you liked that I believe you will like Rachel Hawkin's JOURNEY'S END also. The friendships are strong, the fog is scary, and who doesn't feel the hairs on the back of their necks prickle when you hear the words "ancient Scottish spell that requires magic, a quest, and a sacrifice"?

About The Author:
Rachel Hawkins is the author of the Hex Hall series. She lives in Alabama.

Rachel Hawkins' Tumblr photo
Other stops on the Blog Tour:
10/24: The Reading Nook 
10/25: Buttermybooks 
10/27: Novel Novice 
10/28: In Wonderland 
11/2: YA Bibliophile 
11/4: The Book Wars 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The STAT series by Amar'e Stoudamire

My youngest son is a basketball fiend, and last year (when he was in 3rd grade) he found this series in his school library. We've spent many an evening reading through the series. If you have a sports-loving kid, be sure to check these out!

What They're About
Based on NBA-star Amar'e Stoudamire's life, these books trace the success of young Amar'e (a.k.a STAT, the name given him by his father, and which is an abbreviation of "Standing Tall and Talented") on his middle school basketball team. STAT has two close friends, Deuce and Mike, who also love to play basketball--but Amar'e's talent takes him to another level, causing a rift. However, by the third book, the friends realize Amar'e's talent really is something else, and become his biggest supporters as he joins the school team and has to deal with some hostile 8th-graders.

There are five books in the series now. The first on e was published by Scholastic in 2012. Amar'e Stoudamire actually writes very well, and the books are well-structured and enjoyable. Other subjects dealt with include divorce (Amar'e's parents live in separate states,) and balancing school work with sport.

About the Author:
Born and raised in Lake Wales, Florida, Amar'e Stoudamire was a stand-out high school player, who went straight from high school to the NBA when he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2002. During his career, he played for the New York Knicks, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Miami Heat. He currently plays for Hapoel Jerusalem.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


ADDISON COOKE AND THE TREASURE OF THE INCAS by Jonathan W. Stokes (Philomel, October 11th, 2016)

This is hot off the presses--and I'm part of a select blogging group who are featuring it this week. Other participants are:

Monday, 10/10 | Novel Novice
Tuesday, 10/11 | Ms. Yingling Reads
Wednesday, 10/12 | Middle Grade Mafioso
Thursday, 10/13 | The Reading Nook
Friday, 10/14 Stories & Sweeties

What It's About (via Goodreads):
Smooth-talking, refined twelve-year-old Addison Cooke loves a grand adventure, especially one that involves using his vast knowledge of history and archaeology, learned from his aunt and uncle, both world-famous researchers. If that adventure includes an expertly-knotted Windsor tie and an Arnold Palmer on the rocks, all the better.

Luckily for Addison, adventure has a way of finding the Cookes. After Addison's uncle unearths the first ancient Incan clue needed to find a vast trove of lost treasure, he is kidnapped by members of a shadowy organization intent on stealing the riches. An expert in Incan history, Addison's uncle is the bandits' key to deciphering the ancient clues and looting the treasure. . . unless Addison and his friends can outsmart the kidnappers and decipher the clues first. So it's off to Peru (business class, no less), across the Amazon, and all the way to Machu Picchu in a race for riches and history.

First Lines:
Addison Cooke sat cross-legged in the school library, engrossed in an Incan history book. Under the spell of a decent read, Addison could forget meals, forget sleep, and even forget to go to class."

Here's The Scoop:
This is a helter-skelter ride of a novel, with chase after chase. (I keep thinking, as I was reading, what a great movie it would be.) There are evil archaeologists complete with a gang of Russian henchmen; Ecuadorian gangsters; and caimans--South American alligators--just dying to take a bite out of you. There are spills and scrapes aplenty, and the '86-ers' (named after the street they live on in New York City) are up to the challenge. Jonathan Stokes does a great job of bringing his kid characters to life, giving each of them recognizable quirks. Addison comes across as a bit of an English gentleman from bygone days, and is quick on his feet. Molly, his sister, is a speedy sportswoman. Eddie is a bit nervous, but is invaluable for his Spanish skills, and Raj is a highly decorated Boy Scout and survival camp veteran with a brown belt in karate.

The plot hinges on deciphering the three keys that will lead to the hidden Incan treasure (which is based on a legend.) I enjoyed the setting and getting to learn some details of Incan history at the time of the conquistadores. This is a fun, fun read that really hits the middle grade adventure sweet-spot. (Oh, and the cover's tremendous too!)

About The Author:
Jonathan Stokes is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He has written on assignment for Fox, Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, New Line, and Sony. He is the author of several upcoming kids' books being published by Penguin Random House. Jonathan is a street taco aficionado, an urban explorer, and koala enthusiast. WEBSITE  TWITTER

Monday, October 3, 2016

THE INQUISITOR'S TALE Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 27, 2016)

What It's About:
1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne's loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. In a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Why I Loved It:
This is clever, fun, philosophical and highly entertaining. Adam Gidwitz (who wrote the highly popular Grimm trilogy) is steeped in medieval French lore, and there are surprises aplenty. The supernatural is not considered outlandish--there are indeed canine resurrections, farting dragons, a character who can foresee the future through visions akin to epilepsy, and an archangel. I loved all three of the children, a motley crew who band together to come to the rescue of each other--and whose goal is to prevent the mass burning of Talmud books in Paris. There's also a magnificent chase across the causeway to Mont-Saint-Michel. This would be a great classroom read-aloud for 5th grade and up.

I was fortunate to be able to ask Adam some questions about medieval France. He replied in the form of a fun quiz.

Six Things Fun, Fantastic, and Fabulous about [Medieval] France

How about we do this in the form of a quiz? Let’s go! (Note: if I’m going to visit your school, please don’t share this with your students. I will give them a form of this quiz in person! And it’llbe way funnier in person, I promise.)

QUESTION THE FIRST: In the Middle Ages, there were men called Inquisitors. What was their job? WAS IT...
a) to act as the detectives for the Pope and the Church
b) to find people who believed in God incorrectly and to punish them
c) to collect stories and write them down

ANSWER:  Inquisitors acted as detectives for the church, finding people who believed in God incorrectly and punishing them. Some wrote the stories of their investigations down. So, all of them.

QUESTION THE SECOND: When it got cold at night, where would peasants’ cows sleep?  WAS IT...
a) in the church 
b) in their owners’ beds 
c) underground

ANSWER When it got cold at night, the cows would often sleep in the peasants’ homes, and sometimes curled up in their beds of straw next to them! So yes, peasants slept with their cows. When it was cold and rainy during the day, they would often leave the cows in the church—because Mass was only on Sundays, and it was a nice, sturdy building. But at night, they wanted the cow’s body heat. Like the biggest, smelliest space-heater ever invented. 

QUESTION THE THIRD: The monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel had some serious natural defenses, which was good, because the monks who lived there were regularly attacked by Vikings, Normans, Bretons, and just about anyone with an army. Which of these defenses did it have?
a)surrounded by cliffs 
b)able to suddenly become an island 
c)surrounded by quicksand 

ANSWER: All of the above!!! It is built on cliffs, surrounded by quicksand, and when the tide comes in, it becomes an island!  This is absolutely true. I have walked in the bay, when the tide was out, and our expert guide took us to a bed of quicksand and taught us how to sink into it—and how to get out. WARNING: if you visit Mont Saint Michel, ONLY walk in the bay if you have an expert guide who does this every day of his or her life. Otherwise you may indeed drown and die. Consider yourself warned.  

QUESTION THE FOURTH: What was illegal for Jews in France in the High Middle Ages? WAS IT...
a) joining a trade guild, like the blacksmiths’ guild, the weavers’ guild, or the architects’, and learning a craft  
b) learning howto read 
c) studying with Christians 
d) reading the Talmud, which is the Jewish companion to the Bible 

ANSWER: Most Jewish children learned to read, which was otherwise very rare in the Middle Ages. Even girls often learned to read.  Jewish rabbis often studied with Christian monks, comparing translations of the Bible and teaching each other new methods of scholarship.  Jews were severely constrained, though, in how they were allowed to earn money. They couldn’t join the guilds, almost none of them owned land, and so they were forced into either rag-picking, trading, or money-lending. And in 1242, twenty-thousand volumes of Talmud were burned in the center of Paris. 

QUESTION THE FIFTH: If you were at a lord’s banquet in the High Middle Ages and you had to pee, where would you go? WAS IT...
a) to the bathroom, obviously 
b) to the outhouse 
c) in the closest corner 

ANSWER: If the lord was really fancy, he might have had an outhouse. But probably, you just would have gone in the corner.  

QUESTION THE LAST: In the Life of Saint Martha, written in the 1280s, what was the diabolical power of the dragon that Saint Martha killed?  WAS IT...
a) the ability to transform itself into a murderous chicken 
b) irresistible tickling ability 
c) farts so deadly that when they touched you, you burst into flames 

ANSWER: It was the farts. Really. All of this, and much more, appears in The Inquisitor’s Tale. Check it out!

About the author: 
Adam Gidwitz is the author of the critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling Grimm trilogy. He spent six years researching and writing The Inquisitor’s Tale, including a year living in Europe. Adam lives with his family in Brooklyn, NY. Find Adam online at or @AdamGidwitz.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Back-to-School Bookshelf Tour: Part Two

Last week the Don and I welcomed four fantastic middle grade writers to the blog. The good news: now there are eight! Please welcome them, and then enter to win each one of their books at the Rafflecoptor link below:

1) MGM: "What is the funniest mistake you ever made on your journey to publishing this book?"

Mike Grosso
Released: 9/6/2016

My funniest mistake was emailing my editor when I should have been watching my son, who was two at the time. I was trying to send my first round of revisions when he ran up to my desk and pounded on the keyboard, auto-correcting several words and sending my half-finished email in the process. That technically means my editor received an email with "I AM DRUMS Revisions" in the subject line full of incomprehensible gibberish. My son thankfully didn't interfere when I sent a follow-up later that day with an explanation of what had happened.

2) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?

Sarah Reida
MONSTERVILLE: A Lissa Black Production
Release: Sept. 20, 2016

It depends on what kind of book I'm in the mood for. If it's humor - which is what I usually read - it's Judy Blume. Gosh, I love her Fudge series. I will never forget how ashamed I felt when I was eight and accidentally left a library book of Superfudge on the back bumper of our van. When we drove the van, the book fell off, got rained on, and was then picked up by the librarian at my grade school. (Thanks, Mrs. Clasquin!). I paid for it out of my own allowance - $8. And I still have it! Partly out of shame, and partly because I truly love that book and there's no such thing as a "ruined" book so long as you can read the words. (For the record, the only ruined books I own are the THREE John Green novels my dog has eaten. The man offends him).

3) MGM: Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.

Kathleen Burkinshaw
Released: August 2, 2016

I loved writing about the Cherry Blossom celebration because it was one of my mother’s favorite memories with her entire family and her friend.  It was also one of the last “normal” holidays before the atomic bombing on August 6th. This quote seemed to sum up my mother's thoughts: "I looked around the room at their happy faces, realizing that even though there is so much uncertainty and fear, joyful, happy moments still existed. And I smiled."

4) MGM: "What book is on your nightstand now?"

Jennie K Brown
Released: September 13

Right now I am reading What Light by Jay Asher. I love his work and was so excited to pick up a copy at ALA in late June! I'm about half way through it so far and it's absolutely magical. The setting is during the holiday season, so it gives you all the warm and fuzzy Christmas feels!


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Back-To-School Bookshelf Tour: Part One

One of the great things about being The Don's slave employee is meeting so many middle grade--I mean "top-grade"--authors. And now that autumn is upon us, The Don has turned his attention from his vegetable patch and is actively soliciting me to fill the compound with gangs of authors. Because, as he says, "September's the time for all-out reading, youse guys."

I was therefore fortunate to be approached by a merry band of middle grade authors who've organized themselves into "The Back-To-School Bookshelf Tour," and who agreed to take a stab at my Magnificent Mafioso questions. I think you'll find the answers illuminating. The Don has decided that these authors are worthy of the Order of the Eggplant, and is sending them each a vegetable basket, bruschetta, and a flask of his finest espresso.

Here we go:

1) MGM: Respect is a Middle Grade Mafioso's watchword. Use the word "respect" in a sentence or two (or a few) about writing for Middle Grade readers.

Released: September 13, 2016

When you write for middle grade readers, you have to respect their intelligence. They’re smart, they’re opinionated, and they probably know more about electronics than you do. Engage them honestly, and they’ll listen. Also, a little humour helps too.

2) MGM: If you found yourself in a tough situation, how would you use your book to get out of it?

Bridget Hodder, THE RAT PRINCE Released: August 23, 2016

If I were in a tough situation...let's say, a post-apocalyptic scenario, I would tear off THE RAT PRINCE's awesome cover (by Charles Santoso) and use it to barter for food. Then my family would make our way to a post-apocalyptic cave full of grim, sad people whose trust I would win by reading them the book and brightening their lives with the climactic happy ending (since no actual happy ending is possible in a post-apocalyptic cave).

3) MGM: Fill in the blank: I’m really awesome at….

Casey Lyall, HOWARD WALLACE, P.I. Released: September 6, 2016

Okay, I have thought of and discarded SO many answers for this question. For example, I thought, “You’re awesome at keeping secrets!” But only for other people. I’m terrible at keeping my own secrets because I get excited and blurt them out to everyone.

Then I thought, “You’re awesome at baking cookies!”But I’ve been watching the Great British Bake-Off and whoa – talk about being awesome at baking cookies.

There are more items on the list, added and scratched off, but I think I have the answer now. I’m really awesome at being me. Top notch Casey-ing happening over here. I’m the only me there is and I think I’m pretty good at it! Correction. Awesome at it.

4) MGM: If you could visit any place, where would it be?

Erin Petti, THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE, Released: September 13, 2016

I'm about to let my dork flag fly here a little bit. I desperately want to visit the locations in New Zealand where Peter Jackson filmed the Lord of the Rings movies. My husband and I have been planning this make-believe trip for literally years. I honestly can't think of a place I'd feel more at home than outside Bilbo's hobbit hole enjoying the view and a hot cup of tea.

Join this fabulous crew for a Twitter party on September the 28th:
PLUS enter this Rafflecoptor giveaway for the chance to win each of these authors' book--eight in all!