Monday, September 25, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ELLRAY JAKES, THE RECESS KING by Sally Warner

ELLRAY JAKES, THE RECESS KING! by Sally Warner (Puffin Books, 2015)

What It's About (from the back cover):
EllRay is down to one-and-a-half best friends, and his little sister, Alfie, suggests that he needs new friends! Or a spare, at least. For emergencies. So EllRay decides to audition other boys for the role of New best Friend.

EllRay's class is brimming with possibilities, but no one seems to share his exact interests. He isn't worried, though--he can fix that once he gets to know them. And the only way to get to know them is to come up with fun things to do at recess. When he's the Recess King, evceryone will want to be his friend!

Opening Lines:
"What's so great about going to the grand opening of the park tomorrow?" I ask my sister Alfie, as I make a snow angel on her fluffy bedroom rug. "So they fixed it up a little. It will still be the same old boring place."
My name is EllRay Jakes, and I am eight years old. I know this kind of stuff."

Things I Liked:
This is the eighth book in the EllRay series, and it made me want to read the others. Sally Warner really impresses by how skilfully she captures the thoughts and voice of a third-grader. Also, there's the usual "boys against the girls" motif, with each faction thinking the other comes from another planet. 

There's humor aplenty. You just know that EllRay's schemes are going to come a cropper, and the kid who read the book with me (we take turns reading the pages)--who also happens to be my youngest and who somehow or other is now in 5th grade (doesn't time fly!)--really enjoyed the whole toilet paper zombie episode. 

EllRay's family is intact, which by now you know is one of my "hoorays" for middle grade. No more dead parents, please. And he has a little sister, Alfie, with whom he has very realistic conflicts. EllRay Jakes, the Recess King! is a quick and clever read, and I recommend it. (So apparently, does the Oregon Battle of the Books, as it is on this year's list. My son and I plan to read all the titles together, so you may see many "OBOB" reviews in the coming weeks!)

Things 5th-grader--man of few words--liked:

"I liked that it was a school story. I liked that Ellray was funny."

About the Author (excerpted from her About the Author page):
Sally Warner is the author of more than forty books, including two works of historical fiction. However, Sally spent the first part of her working life in the visual arts. She was an art education teacher (Pasadena City College) and exhibiting artist.

Sally’s first three books – about creativity – were for adults. And then, as she puts it, “I worked my way up to writing for children.” Sally has written three series to date for young readers: the Lily series, the Emma series, and the EllRay series. Coming soon (2016 – 2018) is a series about Alfie Jakes, EllRay’s little sister!

In addition, Sally has written many “stand-alone” novels for middle readers, and older readers as well. These include “Sort of Forever” (Knopf), “How to be a Real Person (in Just One Day)” (Knopf), “A Long Time Ago Today” (Viking), and “This Isn’t About the Money” (Viking).

Sally’s books have been published in many foreign countries, including Italy, France, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and several countries in South America.

Sally Warner's Website is HERE, and there's a fine interview with her by author Deborah Kalb HERE. (Sally Warner loves Beatrix Potter!)

Sally Warner's author's photo from Penguin Random House author's page

Monday, August 28, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: WEIRD BUT TRUE! DAILY PLANNER from National Geographic Kids


Friends, the mafiosi are back! Summer sped by (hope it did for you too!), with my travels to the mountains of Washington State, and various visits from family. Now the kids are days away from heading back to school--and every mafioso worth his salt is ready for fall: the sounds of leaves gently falling, or the leaves of books gently turning, or the Don going crazy because no one is paying attention to his campaign to rename "middle grade" to "top grade." Oh well, it keeps him out of trouble.

With school on the horizon, what better gift to give one's top grade student but a Weird But True! Daily Planner from our friends at National Geographic Kids. Open it, and you're at once struck by weirdness on its "Belongs To" page, where alongside one's name, one is asked for "weird nickname" and "spirit animal." Then, there's the question sure to start a thousand sniffs: "What do you smell like right now?"

Here's what National Geographic says about the planner on its website:

Prepare to be amazed each day with weird-but-true facts that will impress your friends and stump your parents. Turn the page and record your school work, keep track of activities, and plan your social life, all while learning wild and wacky things about the world around you.

Fun prompts invite you to celebrate weirdness. Plus there are homework help sections and tons of space to write or doodle your daily schedule any way you wish. With beautiful full-color artwork and engaging information and activities, this is the must-have planner. It's a great way to stand out from the crowd."

Yeah, bet you didn't know that the Aztec of Mexico wore popcorn as jewelry, or that sheep burps contribute to global warming! This is a planner that will make you think, laugh, and embrace the weird.

I also received a copy of National Geographic Kids United States Atlas (5th Edition). I have always been an atlas junkie, and this one rocks! Split into geographic regions, it is brilliantly designed, with lots of color and fun facts. As I told my 5th-grader: in 5th grade you have to do a project on an American state. This atlas is going to give you one giant leg up on the competition. (Okay, I admit it, for a mafioso every thing's a competition.)




I'm looking forward to catching up with everyone--visiting blogs old and new. Let me know in the comments what you've been up to this summer, and what you're looking forward to in the fall. Ciao!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Off On My Holidays


It's that time of year again. The Don is hearing the siren call of Sicily, and will be ogling the orange groves and sipping Amaro Averna during warm summer nights. The rest of us are taking advantage of his absence, and going our separate ways.

I'll be spending some time in the Cascade mountains of Washington State, and hosting my family from England and Australia. Thus, I'm not sure how much time I'll have to read middle grade novels and write reviews of them worthy of you, dear readers. So I'm going to be silent here until September.

See you when summer is over! I hope you have a great summer of your own.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: POISON IS NOT POLITE by Robin Stevens

I loved Robin Steven's first book in this series, MURDER IS BAD MANNERS, and reviewed it here last year. Today, I'm over at Project Mayhem, writing about Daisy and Hazel's further adventures in Book 2: POISON IS NOT POLITE. Please hit the link above or here, and pay us a visit!

Ciao!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THE EXPLORERS blog tour: Interview and Giveaway

THE EXPLORERS:THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY by Adrienne Kress (Penguin Random House, April 25 2017)

The Don and I have been busy blog-touring this week--and we are thrilled to have been included in Adrienne Kress' tour. The Explorers has got it all: winning characters, frightening antagonists, and an appealing sense of whimsical humor. (Also, one of the coolest covers around!)

What It's About:
Featuring a mysterious society, a secretive past, and a pig in a teeny hat, The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a new series for fans of The Name of This Book Is a Secret and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Knock once if you can find it—but only members are allowed inside.

   This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It’s not the one you’re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.)
   This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and there is a girl looking for help that only uninquisitive boys can offer.

The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

Opening Line:
"This story begins, like most stories do, with a pig wearing a teeny hat."

Q & A with Adrienne Kress

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

I'm a huge Norton Juster fan, and also Judy Blume (of course). And I'm definitely a Harry Potterphile, and so adore J.K. Rowling. I also really enjoy the classics including J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

Right now I have Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me?, Lesley Livingston's The Valiant, Danielle Younge-Ullman's Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined and Melanie Fishbane's Maud.

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

Oh, man. That's really tough. I think, though . . . I think one of my favourite scenes isn't exactly a scene, it's more like a montage. It's the sequence where Sebastian gets to know The Explorers Society building and all the amazing rooms and objects inside. I think this is because I just really loved creating the Society and kind of sort of wish it was real and I could live there.  [MGM: It is a cool place!]

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....

...at just being generally awesome :) . Okay, but if forced to choose, I suppose I'm pretty swell at absurdity. I love it so much, mostly because I tend to think the world in general is rather absurd.

5) My breakfast of writing champions is...

Yogurt and fruit, a couple of slices of cheese and English Breakfast tea.

6) If you could visit any place, real or imagined, where would it be?

I really really really want to go to New Zealand. So much. It just looks like one of the most beautiful places on earth.


And also Hogwarts. [MGM: Wouldn't we all!]

About the Author:
Adrienne Kress is a writer and an actress born and raised in Toronto. She is the daughter of two high school English teachers, and credits them with inspiring her love of both writing and performing. She also has a cat named Atticus, who unfortunately despises teeny hats. She is the author of The Explorers: The Door in the Alley and The Explorers: The Reckless Rescue. To find out more about Adrienne go to AdrienneKress.com and follow @AdrienneKress on Twitter and Instagram.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LEMONS by Melissa Savage (Interview and Giveaway)

LEMONS by Melissa Savage (Crown Books for Young Readers, May 2nd, 2017)

The Don and I are thrilled to be part of Melissa Savage's book tour. Melissa also agreed to answer our patented Middle Grade Mafioso questions so, after you've read about Lemons, stick around to learn more about Melissa!

What It's About (from Goodreads):
The search for Bigfoot gets juicy in this funny and touching story that’s perfect for fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses and Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw!

Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mama always told her: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But Lem can’t possibly make lemonade out of her new life in Willow Creek, California—the Bigfoot Capital of the World—where she’s forced to live with a grandfather she’s never met after her mother passes away.

Then she meets eleven-year-old Tobin Sky, the CEO of Bigfoot Detectives Inc., who is the sole Bigfoot investigator for their small town. After he invites Lem to be his assistant for the summer, they set out on an epic adventure to capture a shot of the elusive beast on film. But along the way, Lem and Tobin end up discovering more than they ever could have imagined. And Lem realizes that maybe she can make lemonade out of her new life after all

Opening Lines:
"Bigfoot.
It's the very first thing I see when we pull into town. A gargantuan wooden statue of the hairy beast, stuck right smack in the middle of the square, like he's the mayor or President Ford or someone real important like that."

Middle Grade Mafioso Questions for Melissa:

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

I love Kate DiCamillo, Gary Schmidt and Kelly Easton to name a few. I also grew up reading Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, two more favorites. One of my most beloved books growing up was Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? by Paula Danziger.  It was not one of her best known YA’s, but I loved it! That one and her Pistachio Prescription were books I read and reread growing up. It’s a hard question to answer because I’m always finding new favorites. I love going to the book store and finding a gem I didn’t know about. I just did that with Jason Reynold’s, As Brave As You. It should have been on my radar, but it wasn’t and it was just a gem to find. Now I’m a huge fan!

2) What's on your nightstand now? 

I’m reading Rain Reign right now and I LOVE it! I know whether or not I’m going to like a book by reading the very first page. And this was one I knew I needed to keep reading.

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

I especially love to write dialogue between Tobin and Lemonade because they are so different. I think it’s fun for them to debate their differences and then have to come to some kind of agreement or compromise. However, one of my favorite scenes is when Tobin and Lemonade come upon the nest out back of Mrs. Dickerson’s house and find Scotty living there. The scene in which Charlie, Debbie, Scotty, Tobin and Lemonade all come to grips with Scotty being alive is so full of all kinds of different feelings all at once. And it also really shows Lemonade’s growth and healing as she reaches for Charlie’s hand just in case he has his own sadness quicksand.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at.... 

Still being a ten-year-old on the inside, useless Seinfeld Trivia and binge watching cryptozoological reality shows of any kind.

5) My breakfast of writing champions is...

Matcha tea. I start my day every day with a cup of Matcha in my Bigfoot “I believe” mug for cryptozoological inspiration.


6) If you could visit any place, where would it be? 

I just took a trip this year to Scotland, my first time overseas and I loved it! I would love to visit England, Australia and Norway. And maybe . . . Cleveland? Just because I’ve never been there.

Thanks so much, Melissa!
For more information about Melissa, visit her website. And if you want to be entered into a drawing for your very own copy of LEMONS, leave a comment to say 'hi.' Ciao!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM --1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM --1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis  (January 1995)

Even though I'm the Middle Grade Mafioso, there are gaps in my reading. (I know, what a shocker!) I'd never read anything by Christopher Paul Curtis, but that has been rectified now because my 4th-grader was reading The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963 for a class project, and we read it together. I loved it!

What It's About:
Enter the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There's Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who's thirteen and an "official juvenile delinquent." When Momma and Dad decide it's time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They're heading South to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America's history.

Opening Lines:
"It was one of those super-duper-cold Saturdays. One of those days that when you breathed out your breath kind of hung frozen in the air like a hunk of smoke and you could walk along and look exactly like a train bowing out big, fat, white puffs of smoke."

Things I Loved About It:
Well, first, my 4th-grader was captivated by it. It really has "all the feels" as they say. It's at times comic, at others pretty harrowing. The relationship between Kenny and his older brother Byron is complicated but, at the end, we see that Byron, despite all his adolescent demons, really has his eye out for his younger, more tender brother.

As a supporter of living parents in middle grade, this novel gets an 'A' from me. The parents are an integral part of their kids' lives (as parents really are in the majority of families) and they were also realistic characters.

The wider society might have been preoccupied with race relations at this time, but they are peripheral to Kenny (whose focus is mainly on his family and school, and trying to avoid bullies) until the scene in Birmingham (I won't spoil it for you) when the reality of what black Americans have had to face comes to the fore.

I'll let my 4th-grader have the final word: "It was entertaining. I could visualize what happened, and the time period."

About the Author: (from Random House Kids)
Born in Flint, Michigan, Christopher Paul Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint’s historic Fisher Body Plant #1. His job entailed hanging car doors, and it left him with an aversion to getting into and out of large automobiles—particularly big Buicks.

Curtis’s writing—and his dedication to it—has been greatly influenced by his family members. With grandfathers like Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, it is easy to see why Christopher Paul Curtis was destined to become an entertainer.

Christopher Paul Curtis made an outstanding debut in children’s s literature with The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. His second novel, Bud, Not Buddy, is the first book ever to receive both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

 Christopher Paul Curtis and his wife, Habon, have three children, Steven, Cydney, and Ayaan. He lives in Detroit, Michigan, with his family.