Monday, June 23, 2014



The winner of Jess Keating's stellar debut is....

Please e-mail me with your snail mail address, and I'll send it right along.

Thanks, everyone for entering! Have a great week.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied by Jess Keating--plus Interview and Giveaway

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied (by Jess Keating, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky June 2014)

What it's About (from Goodreads): Ana didn't ask to be named after an anaconda. She didn't ask for zoologist parents who look like safari guides. And she definitely didn't ask for a twin brother whose life goal seems to be terrorizing her with his pet reptiles. Now, to make matters worse, her parents have decided to move the whole family INTO the zoo! All of which gives the Sneerers (the clan of carnivorous female predators in her class) more ammunition to make her life miserable-and squash any hope of class tennis stud, Zack, falling in love with her. Ana tries to channel her inner chameleon and fade into the background, but things are changing too quickly for her to keep up.

Opening Lines: "Don't. Freak. Out.
It was the day before my twelfth half-birthday, and I was spending it holding the business end of a crocodile."
What I Liked About It:  Did I say 'liked"? I meant LOVED! This is one of my fave reads of the year, because it's the sort of book I myself would love to write. It's funny, the characters are compelling, and Jess Keating utterly nails the middle grade voice.

And she utterly nails middle grade concerns as well. Ana is not an extrovert like her parents and grandfather. The last thing she wants to do is be in front of a TV camera because, well, what if everyone--particularly the mean girl clique (so beautifully named the "Sneerers"--judges her? What if her best friend, who's gone to live in New Zealand, no longer wants to be best friends? What if her crush looks at her when she's doing something stupid? As Ana would say: Oh. My. God.

I think middle grade readers are going to love this novel. The cover is immensely eye-catching, and there's going to be a series!!! (The next book is called How to Outswim a Shark Without a Snorkel.) And furthermore, Jess Keating is a zoologist and totally knows her animal stuff. I mean, didn't you know that armadillos sleep for an average of eighteen hours a day?! [Each chapter begins with an animal fact such as this.]

Speaking of Jess, she is really good at Twitter (so go follow her), really fast at replying to e-mail, and lives in Canada. So three Mafioso cheers for her!

Jess took some time to answer the usual Mafioso questions. Please enjoy:

Middle Grade Mafioso: Hi Jess

Jess: MG MAFIOSO! Thank you for having me!

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

Ack! It's cliché, but the truth is I just have too many favorite authors to choose just one! I think books are like vitamins. Sometimes, you're low on Vitamin Kate DiCamillo, so you pick up one of her books. Then one day you wake up and you find you need some Linda Urban, so you go for that instead.

I learn so much from nearly every book I read, so I truly do see many authors as mentors in a way. I will say that while I don't have a favorite, I often find myself turning to Meg Cabot, Rachel Renée Russell, and Judy Blume when I need something really voicey. I'm also inspired by Katherine Applegate, Jennifer Nielsen, Tom Angleberger, Jenni Holm, Eliot Schrefer, and the two ladies mentioned above!

There are also several picture book writers whose books constantly inspire me, such as Mo Willems, Ame Dyckman, Bob Shea, Molly Idle, and Oliver Jeffers. I know, I know, you said middle grade authors only, but I think that MG writers can learn a lot by studying picture books—it takes a lot of skill to distill that much voice and story into so few words!

Do you like how I turned what should have been a two word answer into several paragraphs?

MGM: Love it! But hey, the floor is yours, so be my guest.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

A TBR pile that's taking over the rest of the room. I just finished THE CABINET OF WONDERS, by Marie Rutkoski, which features the best fictional spider since Charlotte. I'm also rereading THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET, by Nancy Cavanaugh, along with THREATENED by Eliot Schrefer. There's also a tattered copy of WE ARE IN A BOOK!, by Mo Willems, just for good measure.

MGM: I love Charlotte! So now I've gotta find THE CABINET OF WONDERS!

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

My favorite scenes to write were the ones where Ana suffers the most. That's pretty terrible, isn't it? I'm learning now that these are also the scenes where readers laugh and cringe the most! I love the scene where she botches her live television interview. I also loved the night time caveman scene with Daz, mainly because he's an absolute nutjob. (MGM: He certainly is!)

On the flip side, my favorite scene to read is the ending. Without spoiling things, I can say that I thought about this ending a lot, and knew I was opening a can of worms for Ana. I already can't wait to surprise readers in book two! (MGM: Hooray!)

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at.... finishing sentences! I'm also great at making popcorn in fun flavors like caramel apple, and lime parmesan. (MGM: Well, the Don will like the lime parmesan...)

5) My favorite breakfast is... second breakfast.

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

If we're talking real places, I'd love to visit Australia! I was lucky enough to travel through New Zealand, but never got a chance to skip across and visit the Land of Oz. There are so many amazing animals there (most of which can kill you by simply looking at you), that's hard to pass up!
If we're talking fictional places, I would visit Hogwarts, so I could take Hagrid's Care of Magical Creatures class.
What about YOU, Mr. Mafioso? Where would you visit?

MGM: I've lived in Australia, and it is all that it's cracked up to be. Hey, I've even held a koala. I do think now that I'd like to revisit Italy. I haven't been there since I was about 9. And I really want to check and see if the gelato is as good as I remember it. Thanks for asking, by the way.

About the Author: You can catch Jess at her great website, which has a ton of good things. And, as I said, she's an ace at Twitter.

One More Thing: I'm giving away my ARC of How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied. All you need to do is comment. International entries welcome, seeing that Jess is an international author. If you tweet, let me know--and I'll give you an extra entry.

Until next time, ciao!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE SUMMER I SAVED THE WORLD... IN 65 DAYS by Michele Weber Hurwitz

THE SUMMER I SAVED THE WORLD... IN 65 DAYS by Michele Weber Hurwitz (Wendy Lamb Books/Penguin Random House, April 2014)

What It's About (from the author's website): It's the summer before freshman year in high school and 13-year old Nina Ross is feeling kind of lost. Her beloved Grandma died last year; her super-lawyer parents work all the time; her brother's busy with his friends and his job at the pool; and her best friend Jorie is into clothes, makeup, and boys. While Nina doesn't know what her "thing" is yet, it's definitely not shopping and makeup. And it's not boys either. Though, has Eli, the boy next door, always been so cute?

This summer, Nina decides to change things. She hatches a plan. There are 65 days of summer. Every day, she'll anonymously do one small but remarkable good thing for someone in her family or neighborhood, and find out: does doing good actually make a difference? Along the way, she discovers that people are full of surprises and secrets. In this bighearted, sweetly romantic novel, things might not turn out exactly as Nina expects. They might be better.

Opening Lines:
It starts with Mrs. Chung.
And flowers.
My grandmother believed in what she called STs--Simple Truths. This was one of her favorites: Things happen when they're meant to happen, and the sooner people realize that, the more content they'll be. Most people, she said, don't understand, even when those things are right in front of them."

Why I Liked It: I admit it--Michele Weber Hurwitz is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. I loved her debut, CALLI BE GOLD, which I reviewed in November 2011. I said then that I loved the combination of humor and heart, and THE SUMMER I SAVED THE WORLD... IN 65 DAYS pulls off a similar feat.

Michele Weber Hurwitz has an uncanny ability to get into the mind of a 13-year-old, and Nina's worries about her family, about her friends, and about the neighborhood in which she lives ring very true to life. Each family in the cul de sac--including Nina's own--has problems. For Nina, it's that her parents are workaholics, and her brother seems to have gone off the rails a bit and she feels disconnected from him.

Spurred on by her memories of her grandmother, Nina decides she'll do a good deed for each of the 65 days of summer. Some of the good deeds, like picking up her friend Jorie's lip gloss on the bus and slipping it back into Jorie's bag, seem inconsequential (except that we know Nita has an increasingly complicated relationship with Jorie, who is also interested in the boy that Nita likes.) Others, like helping the injured Mrs. Chung with her mail and her garden, are more practical. What they all have in common, however, is that they bring the neighborhood closer together.

One of my favorite librarian bloggers, Karen Yingling, wrote in her review that THE SUMMER I SAVED THE WORLD... IN 65 DAYS is "pitch perfect for girls on the cusp between middle school and high school. It also made me want to go do random acts of kindness." As I laughed and cried through this wonderful ode to the power of community, I couldn't agree more!

Being the Mafioso I am, I just had to get to know Michele Weber Hurwitz a bit better. Here's how she handled the customary Mafioso grilling:

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

There are so many authors I love, it's hard to choose. I'm a big fan of Sarah Weeks, Deborah Wiles, Tom Angleberger, and Rainbow Rowell, although she's more YA. My favorite all-time middle grade book is Holes by Louis Sachar.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

Bird by Crystal Chan, and a grown-up book, which I don't read as often -- The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I loved her YA book Elsewhere.

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

It's hard to choose! There's one scene early on where an older neighbor, Mrs. Milllman, calls the police after the main character, Nina, starts doing some of her secret good deeds. That scene is so funny to me, because Mrs. Millman is suspicious and thinks "someone" has been trespassing in the neighborhood. She grows more and more hysterical (in both senses of the word) throughout the book. There's also a pivotal moment in the story when Nina does something in memory of her grandma, who died a year earlier, and the poignancy of that scene gets me every time! And, any scene with Thomas, the five-year old boy in the neighborhood, tugs at my heart and makes me smile at the same time. {Mafioso here: Thomas rocks!}

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

Organizing things! Shelves, closets, desks, you name it and I can organize it in twenty minutes flat. It's a weird talent. More like an obsession. I often drive my family crazy :) {You totally have to come and organize the Don's compound, Michele. He's bound to give you The Order of the Eggplant after that!}

5) My favorite breakfast is...

French toast with berries and maple syrup or a really gooey cinnamon roll. {My wife'll join you in that gooey cinnamon roll...}

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

Paris. I took French through high school and college but I've forgotten most of it. I'd love to try to speak the language again, as well as spend time in that beautiful city. {Mais oui, Paris!}

Michele Weber Hurwitz, courtesy of Rinker Photo
About the Author: In my dealings with Michele Weber Hurwitz, I can say she is a lovely person. She has a fabulous website, with a great ABOUT ME page. (where you can learn that she is obsessed with post-it notes, and dislikes tomatoes.) You can also find her on Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz.

Thanks so much, Michele, for answering my questions--and for writing two amazing novels!