Monday, May 23, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Anything But Typical

My choice this week is Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin. I am drawn to books about kids who are not "neurotypical," as my eldest has ADD and sometimes struggles with social cues.

Here's the blurb from Goodreads:

Jason Blake is an autistic 12-year-old living in a neurotypical world.Most days it's just a matter of time before something goes wrong. But Jason finds a glimmer of understanding when he comes across PhoenixBird, who posts stories to the same online site as he does.
Jason can be himself when he writes and he thinks that PhoneixBird - her name is Rebecca - could be his first real friend. But as desperate as Jason is to meet her, he's terrified that if they do meet, Rebecca wil only see his autism and not who Jason really is. By acclaimed writer Nora Raleigh Baskin, this is the breathtaking depiction of an autistic boy's struggles-and a story for anyone who has ever worried about fitting in.
My review:

I admire the way Raleigh Baskin enters the interior life of 12-year-old Jason, who is on the autistic spectrum. Jason is a good writer, but his outward mannerisms antagonize most of the people in his life. He starts an online friendship with a GIRL(!!), but is terrified about what will happen when the two of them meet face-to-face. As in all good fiction, there's a roller-coaster of emotion linked to plot, when Jason thinks he's been able to ensure his secret is safe, followed swiftly by his worst nightmare: an actual meeting with PhoenixBird, who loves his writing but won't, he is sure, love the real him.

And Jason is a talented writer and observer about writing. Here are some of his insights: "The most important thing you can do when you are writing a story is to find a dilemma for your character to grapple with... You can make up this whole new world and all these amazing characters, but it's just that in order to make a story, basically, something bad has to happen." (pg. 111)

"Hamilton (the writing instructor) told us that writing is a process. It doesn't always come out right the first time... Like life, he said, but in writing you get to fix it. You get to rewrite. And rewrite and rewrite until you have the exact words you want." (Pgs. 193-4)

This is a touching novel, which will appeal to tender-hearted readers. (I didn't even bother to show it to The Don.) Myself, I'd love to be pointed to other novels with autistic children as MCs. Got any recommendations?

Other fine writers showcasing some middle grade love this week are:

Barbara Watson is highlighting NOWHERE TO CALL HOME. Click HERE to see what she thinks.

-Myrna Foster is spotlighting JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW. Click HERE to read her review.

-Shannon O'Donnell always has fabulous MG love going on at her blog on Mondays. Click HERE to see what she has going on today. 

-Anita Miller is showcasing THE GIRL WHO COULD FLY. Click HERE to learn more about it. 

-Deb Marshall is featuring LOCH & REEF OF DEATH. Click HERE to read her review. 

-Joanne Fritz is highlighting THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL. Click HERE to read her thoughts.

And don't forget the originator of it all: Shannon Messenger. She has Shannon O'Donnell guesting at her blog reviewing James Dashner's 13th REALITY. Read all about it HERE

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Can We Reach Them?

(Sorry guys, I hate it when these things don't post on schedule!!! Blogger Fail yet again!)

I am a huge fan of the blog Literary Rambles. Casey McCormick started it in 2008 and it is the definitive resource for finding out all about your favorite agents. Natalie Aguirre came aboard this year and is doing all sorts of book reviews and interviews with authors. Great stuff!

Yesterday, Natalie began her new series which she's calling "Ask the Expert." And who is this expert? None other than the guys for whom we middle grade mafiosi (and ninja and jedi and just plain writers) write. You can find her first interview with a guy named Justin here.

It was fascinating. Justin is an 8th-grader and a reader, but he doesn't find his reading choices on blogs. He gets recommendations from friends or sees ads on Facebook or Wikipedia.

In fact, this is what Justin has to say about writers and their blogs: If authors had websites that looked nice, loaded quickly, and were updated on a daily or weekly basis, I would follow them.

I don't know about you, but I've been to a lot of websites and most of them look lovely, upload quickly, and are updated regularly. So what can we do to get teens to visit, barring having them bussed in by the Don and his underlings?

I have to hand it to Justin, though. At least he reads. Because I am not at all sure that middle school kids are reading much these days. Unless it's the text on their iPods, iPhones, and iDon'tKnowWhatElses.

I googled "time teens spend reading," and came up with this blog post from a teacher in Canada called Elona Hartjes. Apparently, a report published in the Chicago Tribune called "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 year olds" found that children in this age group spend about 53 hours a week looking at screens. As Elona Hartjes continues:
Kids spend most of their time on their cell phones checking out Facebook, MySpace, texting, playing video games, watching TV and listening to music. They actually don’t spend much time actually talking on their cell phones. Those 53 hours kids spend on media takes away from family time. Communication between parents and kids is almost non existent.
All I can say is that when my 14-year-old finally saved enough money to buy himself an iPod touch, his screen time went through the roof. He used to be a big reader; now I have to force him (most of the time) to crack open a book.

(And I know, I know. It's the parents' responsibility to keep track of the time their kids spend on their devices and impose limits. I laugh now when I think of the "One hour of screen time a day" rule I had when he was younger!! As he points out, with a teen's chutzpah, "you're always on the computer yourself, Dad.")

With summer fast approaching, I can look into my crystal ball and see certain things happening: 1) If I want my kids to be active, as well as spend their down time reading, I'm going to have to 2) spend way less time blogging and more time connecting with them.

Either that, or I'm going to have to wake at 4 in the morning for my blog fix. I mean, who needs sleep, anyway?

Anyone else have "a friend" whose teen spends too much time on-screen? If so, what strategies does your "friend" use to make sure his/her child knows what a book looks like? A middle grade mafioso would be grateful for some advice.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Words in the Dust

Thanks so much, everyone, for making me so welcome on my Marvelous Middle Grade Monday debut last week. I appreciated your comments and visiting some other great blogs.

Now for this week's offering: Words in the Dust, by Trent Reedy

I have a softspot for novels set outside the USA. If you want some rudimentary psychoanalysis (which I'm sure you don't, but I'm giving it to you anyway), this interest in other cultures probably stems from my being schlepped across the world as a child by my diplomat parents and living in eight different countries.

Which is a long preamble to why I'm RAVING about a book about a young girl with a cleft lip in Afghanistan. Words in the Dust is the debut of Trent Reedy, and is told from the viewpoint of thirteen-year-old Zulaikah. She is jeered at and sneered at by the local ruffians, and constantly reminded by her father's second wife that she will be lucky if anyone wants to marry her.

Zulaikah, however, has immense inner resources. (She is also a bit of an action heroine at one point, rescuing her younger brother from a dangerous situation.) She strikes up a friendship with an older woman--a friend of her dead mother's--and under this woman's tutelage begins the long struggle to learn to read. (She scratches out her letters in the dust, hence the title.)

(Subplot: Her older sister, Zeynab, is Zulaikah's best friend. So it is with a mixture of pride and sorrow that Zulaikah watches Zeynab's marriage to the well-off brother of a local luminary. This seems to be a marriage of one's dreams, but tragedy awaits.)

Enter the Americans. A convoy, traveling through the village, spots Zulaikah. They return with a medical officer--a woman, much to the dismay of the Afghans--who tells Zulaikah's father that she thinks Zulaikah's lip can be fixed. The American-Afghan relationship is shown in all its complexity, with the understanding that, for the Afghans, the Americans are strange creatures, powerful yet uncomprehending of even the simplest of Afghan cultural courtesies. (Zulaikah is horrified that Captain Mindy, the medical officer, shakes her father's hand, and talks to Zulaikah before addressing her older brother.)

The novel ends with a rollercoaster of events, which I won't reveal so as not to spoil the ending for you. (Because you must read this book!)

P.s. My wife, who had a cleft lip and palate as a child, and therefore has some great insights, also wrote a review on her book blog.

Other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviewers you HAVE to read:

-Joanne Fritz features GREY GRIFFINS: THE CLOCKWORK CHRONICLES (Books 1 and 2) with a GIVEAWAY. Click HERE to read her review and enter.

-Shannon O'Donnell always has an awesome MMGM recommendation. Click HERE to see what she's featuring this week.

-Barbara Watson is highlighting BELLE PRATER'S BOY. Click HERE to see what she thinks.

-Aly Beecher is featuring JUNIPER BERRY--with a GIVEAWAY. Click HERE for details on how to enter.

-Myrna Foster is spotlighting THE SECRET OF PLATFORM 13. Click HERE to read her review.

Plus, of course, the MMGM Mother of them all, Shannon Whitney Messenger, who reviews Shannon Hale's THE GOOSE GIRL--with a GIVEAWAY. You can find the review HERE.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D.Schmidt--A Review

Hi, everyone. I'm back from my secure and undisclosed location. The no-internet thing was getting to be a drag (I missed you all!). Plus, I had trouble sleeping. The place was way too noisy. One morning I woke to see a helicoptor on top of my neighbor's wall, of all things. I mean, if I'd written that in a novel, you wouldn't have believed me.

Don Vito's thrilled I'm back. But he wasn't so thrilled when I gave him a book to read. I thought The Wednesday Wars would be an intriguing title, but he kind of got fixated on the etching of Shakespeare on the cover.

Don Vito: This is about Shakespeare? Michele, this Shakespeare is not top grade.

Me: Really, Godfather? I mean, everyone thinks he's the world's greatest writer.

Don Vito: Pah! You read Dante? That's who's the world's greatest writer. (Starts quoting flamboyantly in Italian.)

Me: Fine. But this book also features a couple of dirty rats who do a jailbreak and end up falling through the classroom ceiling...

Don Vito: Why didn't you say so in the first place? Doity rats?! Now that's good literature.

Off he went to his study. As I write this review, I can hear him muttering and laughing. So far so good.

Before he comes back, let me fill you in on a few things:

Where I found this book: Powell's bookstore, the shelf with Newbery winners and honors. (The Wednesday Wars won a Newbery honor in 2008.)

Why I picked it up in the first place: the etching of Shakespeare on the cover. (As you know, Shakespeare is one of my heroes.)

Setting: Long Island, late 1960s.

Main Character: Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader.

Plot in a nutshell: Holling thinks his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates his guts. He's convinced of her nefarious plots to get him. Life truly becomes terrible when he ends up, on Wednesday afternoons, as the only student in his class not being bussed out for religious studies. (Half the class is Jewish, the other Catholic--Holling is the lone Presbyterian.) Mrs. Baker makes Holling do all sorts of drudgeful tasks, including whacking the blackboard erasers to rid them of chalk dust. Eventually, he graduates to reading and discussing Shakespeare with her. He discovers she isn't the ogre he once imagined. She's actually a teacher with his best interests at heart, although she is prone to rolling her eyes and folding her arms. Holling takes part in The Tempest, joins the cross-country team, has a great experience in Yankee stadium, and makes peace with his older sister.

Lots of other things going on: Holling's father is interested only in winning architectural honors and is a cold fish to his children; the school cook's husband is killed in Vietnam, where Mrs. Baker's husband also goes missing. 1968 is the year in which both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are assassinated, and Holling's sister begins to protest the war. Holling begins a tame romance with Meryl Lee, his classmate.

And yes, there are two "doity" rats called Caliban and Sycorax who escape while Holling is cleaning their cage. And a cloud of blood-sucking mosquitos. And a happy ending.

Did it make me laugh: Yes! (Funny jokes about Presbyterians.)
Did it make me cry: Yes! (Don't tell the Don.)
Would I read more of Gary D. Schmidt: Emphatically yes!

Here comes the Don now. Oops, things aren't looking good--he's got a huge frown on his face. He's reaching out to grab me. Aargh! Bear hug!

The Don: Michele, even the Shakespeare stuff wasn't so bad. And the school has a Mrs. Bigio and a Mr. Petrelli! Those are my kind of teachers. And Yankees baseball with Joe Pepitone... I don't care what they say about Joe, he's good famiglia... And everyone should have a teacher like that Mrs. Baker, I'll send my limo round for her, take her out to dinner..."

(Postscript: the Don went on in such vein for a while. I'm beginning to think he has a hard time distinguishing fact from fantasy. Perhaps he should be a writer?)

(Post Postscript: This is my first review on Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, started by Shannon Messenger. This week, she is reviewing Justin Case by Rachel Vail.

Here is a list of other MMGMers. You might like to check them out too!

Joanne Fritz discusses THE SHADOW CHILDREN SEQUENCE books. Click HERE to read her review.

-Shannon O'Donnell always has an awesome MMGM recommendation. Click HERE to see what she's featuring this week.

-Natalie Aguirre is interviewing author Rosanne Parry, with a giveaway of SECOND FIDDLE. Click HERE to read more and enter.

-Sheri Larson is hosting author Kari Lee Townsend on her blog to talk about SAMANTHA GRANGER. Click HERE to read the interview. 

-Barbara Watson is highlighting STEINBECK'S GHOST. Click HERE to see what she thinks.

-Sherrie Peterson, is reviewing the audiobook for THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD. Click HERE to read all about it.

-Aly Beecher is featuring JEREMY BENDER VS THE CUPCAKE CADETS. Click HERE to read her review.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Gary D. Schmidt: Where Ya Been All My Life?

Dear fellow MG Mafiosi:

I'm coming to you live this week from a secure and undisclosed location. The reason? Well, it's hard being the current protege of the Godfather himself. Don Vito's been sending insistent e-mails (yes, he's taken to technology like a seal to salt water) telling me he'd be happy to "take care of" the competition for me. Also, I'd like an agent? His capo, Mr. Clemenza, has a sister whose boy would like to get into that racket. There was a lot more about the worthlessness of 15%, and about a real agent's anatomical rigging being worth much more than this paltry sum, but this is a family blog and sometimes the Godfather's words aren't fit for little ears.

So, I'm watching the workmen put up the twenty foot walls, with razor wire on the top, and figuring I'll have a bit of a reprieve from Don Vito, as I've specifically asked for no internet access. Instead, I'm reading a book which I adore and whose author is my new hero. (Don't tell the Don!)

I've got only a few pages to go and have been laughing and crying in equal measure. This guy, Gary D. Schmidt, can write. Once I'm done, I'm going to write a review and see if I can't sneak out to the local internet hookah joint  French cafe and link it to Shannon Messenger's next Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with the title, of which I feel even Don Vito would approve--though I'd have to spend time telling him it's not about laying waste on a Wednesday to the other "families". I wonder what the Godfather thinks about Shakespeare? (Yup, my main man, Billy S., figures big in this Am-azing novel...)