Monday, December 21, 2015

Bye 2015; Hello 2016

Here's the Middle Grade Mafioso family, taken during our August vacation in Florida. We wish you all a Happy New Year.

Yes, that's right--another year has gone by already. It seems we were just getting started on 2015, and now I'm already racing to the store to snag me a copy of a 2016 calendar (20% off!)

Blogging-wise, 2015 was a pretty sparse year. Many blogs have fallen by the wayside since I started Middle Grade Mafioso in 2011, and bog readership is down across the board, as we gravitate to platforms that require shorter and shorter attention spans (I'm looking at you, Twitter and Facebook.) However, I intend to stay put--and am looking forward to the New Year, when I will be introducing you to my favorite reads from the Cybils (and there were a whole bunch of them.)

Speaking of the Cybils, I had a blast with my first-round panelists. Let me introduce them--and, if you're on the look-out for great new blogs to read, give them a visit:

amela Groseclose: Pamela is a Youth Service Associate for a library in southwest Missouri. She works with all ages, but her primary interest is with tweens.

[Photo+on+4-20-14+at+2.02+PM.jpg]Brandy Painter: After teaching fifth grade for four years before her first child was born, Brandy now teaches the 4th-6th grade literature and all the High School English classes in the homeschool co-op her children attend.

Sarah Sammis is a librarian from Hayward, California. She posts a book review a day at her blog, Puss Reboots (hence her avatar!)

Debbie Tanner: Debbie is a former classroom teacher, now a school librarian. She works in a public Montessori Elementary School in Southern Florida. She has a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education and a Master's degree in Technology. 

Julie Williams is a teacher-librarian at a grade 1-5 school in Maine.

Libertad Thomas: Libertad blogs with twin sister Guinevere Thomas, fighting to bring multiculturalism to YA, Fantasy, and Science Fiction novels.

Great people, all. Look for the first round choices of the Cybils middle grade panel to be revealed on January 1st. I'll see you all in 2016!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: KIDS ATHLETES by David Stabler; illustrated by Doogie Horner

KID ATHLETES:TRUE TALES OF CHILDHOOD FROM SPORTS LEGENDS (stories by David Stabler; illustrations by Doogie Horner, Quirk Books 2015)

Honestly, I don't read much nonfiction, but when this came up for review I jumped on it. Why? Because my youngest son is completely enraptured by basketball, and the Portland Trail Blazers in particular. Now that he's in 3rd grade, this was a perfect book for us to share as a read aloud, with he doing his fair share.

What It's About (from Goodreads): 
The author and illustrator of Kid Presidents have reteamed to share 20 true tales from the childhoods of famous athletes. From Babe Ruth (so incorrigible that his parents put him in reform school at age 7) to Muhammad Ali (who learned to fight at age 12 after a thief stole his bicycle), Kid Athletes is packed with inspirational stories from the world of sports. Billie Jean King rose from modest circumstances to win 39 Grand Slam championships; race car champion Danica Patrick fended of bullies who told her "girls can't drive"; and martial arts legend Bruce Lee credited his success, in part, to childhood dance lessons. Every goal, touchdown, and championship comes to life in these kid-friendly and relatable stories, all with Doogie Horner’s whimsical full-color illustrations. Kid Athletes is a slam dunk for young sports fans everywhere.

Why We Liked It:
The stories are well told. Most of them start with the fact that the kid athlete was undersized or had some challenge. (This particularly resonated with my not-particularly tall son.) There is a good mix of male and female athletes, as well as several from other countries (Yao Ming, Lionel Messi). And it's not only the usual sports that are featured.  There's sumo wrestling (Jesse Kahaulua) and horse racing (Julie Krone).

I also enjoyed the humor of the illustrations. The book feels good in one's hands and the graphic design is appealing. There is also suggested further reading in the back, which I'm sure would be appreciated by teachers and librarians.

Bottom line: my son and I enjoyed this a lot. We are now on the lookout for the other collaboration by David Stabler and Doogie Horner: Kid Presidents. (Also, there's a rumor of a new book in the series: Kid Artists.) Count me in as a fan!

P.s. I've been very slothful on the blog this year, especially the past few months when I have been underwater as one of the 1st round Cybils' panelists. But that journey soon is ended, and the good news is that I should have a bunch of novels to fawn over and praise come the New Year. Thanks for hanging in with me through thin and even thinner!

Monday, November 9, 2015

I Met Shannon Messenger!!!!

There's been radio silence on the blog for a bit, as I am still barricaded behind my stack of Cybils' nominees. But the Don and I had to make an exception and come out of hibernation when we heard that Shannon Messenger was coming to town to celebrate the release of Book 4 in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series: NEVERSEEN.

Shannon... who started Marvelous Middle Grade Monday...
Shannon... who is currently writing both a middle grade (Keeper of the Lost Cities) and a young adult (Sky Fall) series ...
Shannon... who loves cupcakes.

We were in that limousine before you could say 'hot cappuccino'...

Shannon was going to be at the Beaverton outpost of Powell's Bookstore. We got there and found nearly every seat taken so, much to the Don's chagrin, we took up residence at the back. No matter--we still had a mafioso's eye view of Shannon at the podium.

Boy, was she impressive! She was smart, funny, and completely available to her awesome fans. She didn't read portions of her book, she just took question after question (and there were a ton of questions!) Her fans LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the Keeper series. You can tell by the way they are so completely wrapped up in the characters--Shannon several times had to remind them and herself what her mother tells her: "Remember, these guys aren't real people." But maybe Mom is wrong--because to the young people in the audience, Sophie, Finn, Keefe, Dex, and Biana are very, very real.

Shannon gave every question plenty of time--she even dealt charmingly with the oddest question I've ever heard at an author appearance which went something like "What would you do if you saw a stack of your books in the trash?" [The Don was in complete agreement with Shannon's answer which, to paraphrase, went something like "I'd clean them off and hope someone would buy them."]

The event started at 7. A Powell's employee gently cut off the questions at 8. By 9, there was still a line waiting for Shannon to sign, because Shannon gave every single one of us plenty of her time. She signed copies of the new book, as well as the earlier ones--and trust me, people came with piles of books. She chatted, and smiled, and posed for photographs, and made sure that people got the insides of the books stamped. She gave out swag, and smiled again, and thanked everyone for coming.

She is one class act.

You can bet that every single one of those young fans went to bed happy that night. And, the next morning at school, I bet they told all their friends about the great author whose books they love, and who was soooo great!

The Don says he wants to be Shannon Messenger when he grows up. So do I!

Here are the rest of her tour dates. If you live in Tempe, Idaho Falls, or Oceanside, I highly recommend you go see Shannon in action:

Tuesday November 10
Changing Hands
6428 S McClintock Dr.
Tempe, AZ 85283

Friday November 13
Barnes & Noble Grand Teton Mall
2300 E 17th Street
Idaho Falls, ID 83404

Friday November 20
Barnes & Noble Oceanside
2615 Vista Way
Oceanside, CA 92054

Monday, October 12, 2015

I'm a Cybil Again

The news has been out for a while, but I have once again been selected to be part of a middle grade fiction Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) panel. In 2011 I had my first taste of judging, as a first round panelist, reading over a hundred novels. In 2012 and 2013, I was on the second round panel, which chooses a winner from a shortlist of around seven titles. In 2014, I took a break and enjoyed everything from the sidelines.

This year, I once again girded my loins and have plunged into the heady first-round waters. So far, we have over 50 books to read and judge. Of course, we'd love more!

What are the Cybils about, you may ask. Here's what we're looking for (from the website description):
"The Cybils Awards aims to recognize the children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal. If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussels sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious."
You can nominate your favorite middle grade novel HERE. (Fantasy and Speculative fiction have their own panel.) It's one nomination per person. There are still a bunch of good books that should be nominated, so look through the list and add a favorite if it has yet to be chosen.

Right, off I go to polish my glasses and get out my notebook! Have a great reading and writing week, everyone!

Monday, September 21, 2015

YA for a Day: EVIL LIBRARIAN by Michelle Knudsen

(Occasionally, Middle Grade Mafioso goes YA for a day. This is one of those days.)

EVIL LIBRARIAN by Michelle Knudsen (Candlewick Press, September 2014)

What It's About (from Goodreads blurb): #EvilLibrarian He’s young. He’s hot. He’s also evil. He’s . . . the librarian.

When Cynthia Rothschild’s best friend, Annie, falls head over heels for the new high-school librarian, Cyn can totally see why. He’s really young and super cute and thinks Annie would make an excellent library monitor. But after meeting Mr. Gabriel, Cyn realizes something isn’t quite right. Maybe it’s the creepy look in the librarian’s eyes, or the weird feeling Cyn gets whenever she’s around him. Before long Cyn realizes that Mr. Gabriel is, in fact . . . a demon. Now, in addition to saving the school musical from technical disaster and trying not to make a fool of herself with her own hopeless crush, Cyn has to save her best friend from the clutches of the evil librarian, who also seems to be slowly sucking the life force out of the entire student body! From best-selling author Michelle Knudsen, here is the perfect novel for teens who like their horror served up with a bit of romance, plenty of humor, and some pretty hot guys (of both the good and evil variety).

Opening Paragraph: "Italian class. The shining highlight of my Tuesdays, Wednesdays , and Fridays. Not because I'm any good at Italian (I'm not), or because I like the teacher (I don't). It's because Ryan Halsey sits one row over and two rows up from where I sit, which is absolutely perfect for forty-five minutes of semi-shameless staring."

Why I Liked It: The cover is great! Cyn's voice is pitch perfect, and there is a lot of inner lusting going on (hence the YA rating.) As the father of thespians, I also liked the fact that both Cyn and Ryan are heavily involved in the school musical, Sweeney Todd which, wouldn't you know, is also a demon favorite. And these demons aren't pussy-footing around either, folks. There are several adult deaths during the course of the novel, and a sort of demon gunfight at the OK corral which was pretty exciting action stuff. I wasn't surprised to hear that Evil Librarian won the 2015 Sid Fleischman Award for Humor from the SCBWI. In summary: it's a funny, fast-paced frolic, complete with sharp-looking teeth and hooked talons.

About the Author (from her website bio): Michelle Knudsen is a New York Times best-selling author of more than 40 books for young readers, including the picture book Library Lion (illustrated by Kevin Hawkes), the middle-grade fantasy novels The Dragon of Trelian and The Princess of Trelian, and the young adult novel Evil Librarian, which was awarded the 2015 Sid Fleischman Award for Humor. Her most recent book is the picture book Marilyn's Monster (Candlewick, March 2015), illustrated by the wonderful Matt Phelan. Michelle also works as a freelance editor and writing teacher, and is a member of the Writing for Young People MFA faculty at Lesley University. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MOONPENNY ISLAND by Tricia Springstubb

MOONPENNY ISLAND by Tricia Springstubb (Balzer and Bray, February 2015)

What It's About (from Goodreads blurb):
Moonpenny is a tiny island in a great lake. When the summer people leave and the ferries stop running, just the tried-and-true islanders are left behind. Flor and her best, her perfect friend, Sylvie, are the only eleven-year-olds for miles and miles—and Flor couldn’t be happier.

But come the end of summer, unthinkable things begin to happen. Sylvie is suddenly, mysteriously whisked away to school on the mainland. Flor’s mother leaves to take care of Flor’s sick grandmother and doesn’t come back. Her big sister has a secret, and Flor fears it’s a dangerous one.

Meanwhile, a geologist and his peculiar daughter arrive to excavate prehistoric trilobites, one of the first creatures to develop sight. Soon Flor is helping them. As her own ability to see her life on this little lump of limestone evolves, she faces truths about those she loves—and about herself—she never imagined.

Tricia Springstubb tells a warm and deeply affecting story about what it means to see, and why the biggest feat of all may be seeing through someone else’s eyes.

Opening lines: “Transparent. That’s how Flor and Sylvie are to each other. See-through. Flor knows everything about Sylvie, and Sylvie? She knows things about Flor before Flor knows them herself.”

Why I Loved It: 
Moonpenny Island  is a lovely, elegiac novel about friendship, and siblings, and the power of community. From the first lines, I was swept into Flor's story. Flor is a young girl who lives life with passionate energy, a girl who feels things deeply. As the author says, with a nice touch of humor, “When she was little, Flor was famous for her bad temper… But now she knows how to handle her anger. Mostly.”

There is a lot of pain beneath the surface of island life. Flor's parents argue; Sylvie's family is dealing with alcoholism, as is the family of "bad boy" Joe Hawkins. But fortunately, Dr. Fife and his daughter, Jasper, come into Flor's life, and temper Flor's loneliness. The end of the novel moves toward hope and reconnection, and I found myself thinking about how the characters' lives would go on beyond the pages. Captivating stuff!

I'll let Dr. Fife have the last word: “Moonpenny Island! A microcosm of Earth’s complex and infinite variety! An old scientist could spend his life studying this place and only scratch the surface.”

I was lucky to have Tricia Springstubb agree to answer my Mafioso questions. Notice how she points out my bent towards "favoritism." the Don would approve!

Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers? I'm terrible at picking favorites (bites thumb, hunches shoulders) but here are a few MG writers I especially love: Linda Urban and Kevin Henkes, who both beautifully limn the quieter corners of childhood; Anne Ursu, who fearlessly faces loss and loneliness; Rebecca Stead, a master of deft economy; Kate DiCamillo, for the wordplay and wit of her most recent books.

What's on your nightstand now? My nightstand--I know it's under there someplace. On top are half a dozen New Yorker magazines, Marilynne Robinson's "Lila", "World War I for Dummies" (research for my next book), Judy Blume's "In the Unlikely Event", and "Binny in Secret" by Hilary McKay (who should have gotten mentioned in Question 1)

Pick a favorite scene from your novel and say why you love it: Favorite again? Uh oh. Okay. I'll pick the scene near the end of "Moonpenny" when Flor, Cele and Thomas play their old game Town. It's a make-believe game they invented long ago and have never shared with anyone else. Flor and her big sister are too old for it now, and they play it in a wistful, bittersweet, nostalgic way that chokes me up. During that scene, Flor realizes that her own heart has become a mystery to her, and may lead her places she never expected. The past, present and the future layer on top one another, and it's a moment I think all middle graders will recognize.

Fill in  the blank: I'm really awesome at... petting cats.

My favorite breakfast is... What's with this favorite business? Forced to choose, I'll go with homemade bread slathered with marmalade and lots of good coffee.

If you could visit any place, where would it be? Narnia.

About the Author: 
Tricia Springstubb was born in New York City, and lives in Cleveland Ohio. She's written a number of great books, including WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET; MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND; and CODY AND THE FOUNTAIN OF HAPPINESS. If you want to learn more about her, you can visit her blog's page Frequently Asked Questions

Next year she has two new books out. One is the second book in her Cody series, CODY AND THE MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE, and the other is a middle grade novel EVERY SINGLE SECOND.
Here's the flap copy for EVERY SINGLE SECOND, which publishes in June 2016. (Tricia says it's a shade darker than her usual novels.):

 Twelve-year-old Nella Sabatini’s life is changing too soon, too fast. Her best friend Clem doesn’t seem concerned; she’s busy figuring out the best way to spend the “leap second”—an extra second soon to be added to the world’s official clock. The only person who might understand how Nella feels is Angela, but the two of them have gone from being “secret sisters” to not talking at all.

Then Angela’s idolized big brother makes a terrible, fatal mistake, one that tears apart their tight-knit community and plunges his family into a whirlwind of harsh publicity and judgment. In the midst of this controversy, Nella is faced with a series of startling revelations about her parents, friends, and neighborhood. As Angela’s situation becomes dangerous, Nella must choose whether to stand by or stand up. Her heart tries to tell her what to do, but can you always trust your heart? The clock ticks down, and in that extra second, past and present merge -- the future will be up to her.

Tricia Springstubb’s extraordinary novel is about the shifting bonds of friendship and the unconditional love of family; the impact of class and racial divides on a neighborhood and a city; and about a girl awakening to awareness of a world bigger and more complex than she’d ever imagined.

You bet I'll be reading this one! Thanks for stopping by, everyone--and have a great week.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Lovely to See You Again, My Dear

Summer vacations can drag on and on, it seems--and it was with perturbation I looked at the date of my last post and saw it was in July! Shocking!

It has been a very busy summer, what with almost two weeks in Orlando in August (gulp!) and the succeeding weeks being busy getting #1 Son ready for college. We drive up there next Friday, so that will be an interesting day...

I have been taking a break from middle grade fiction, and instead read THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown. Fascinating stuff, especially since I was a rower in my younger days--although I never feel quite so spiritual while slaving over my oars as did these young men in the 1930s. There were great insights, too, about life during the Depression years, and of pre-war Germany under Hitler.

I am almost done, too, with Michelle Knudsen's EVIL LIBRARIAN, which is a fun YA and which I may post about one of these days in my occasional "YA for a Day" series.

In two weeks, I will definitely be back full-time on Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, featuring Tricia Springstubb's MOONPENNY ISLAND

What about you? How has your summer been, and what have you read? Do spill.

Monday, July 20, 2015


And the winner of the copy of SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK (via is....

I'll be in touch soon, Akoss!

Have a great week, everyone!!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK by Robert Beatty

SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK by Robert Beatty (Disney Hyperion, 7/14/15)

What It's About (from the Netgalley description):
"Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul."

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate.There's plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate's maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is:a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore's corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore's owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak's true identity before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina's hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

Opening Lines:
"Serafina opened her eyes and scanned the darkened workshop, looking for any rats stupid enough to come into her territory while she slept. She knew they were out there, just beyond her nightly range, crawling in the cracks and shadows of the great house's sprawling basement, keen to steal whatever they could from the kitchens and storerooms. She had spent most of the day napping in her favorite out-of-the-way places, but it was here, curled up in the old mattress behind the rusty boiler in the protection of the workshop, that she felt most at home."

Doesn't this sound like a total creep fest? I can't want to get my teeth into it when it publishes next week. And the cover is fantastic! I think this book is going to be BIG!

Interview with Robert Beatty:

I put Robert through the usual Mafioso questions, and he handled himself with aplomb. Here we go:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
JRR Tolkien (The Hobbit)
T.H. White (The Once and Future King)
Roald Dahl (Matilida, etc.)
Elizabeth George Speare (The Witch of Blackbird Pond)

2) What's on your nightstand now?
The Man Who Planted Trees (which I’m re-reading for the millionth time. Love this French folk story)

The Night Gardener (MGM: Yay for yet more creepy stories like Serafina and The Black Cloak!)

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it:
One of my favorite scenes in Serafina and the Black Cloak is when Serafina must ride in a carriage for the first time. She’s with a boy named Braeden Vanderbilt, known as the “young master” at Biltmore Estate. Serafina has much to tell Braeden and wants to trust him, but doesn’t know if she should. Calamity strikes and they must spend the night in the carriage together, fending for themselves against the darkness of the forest where the carriage has stopped. I love the spookiness of it, and the sense of togetherness—two new friends against the world.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at….
Focusing on the mission. Staying focused has always been one of my strengths. Conversely, procrastinating on and ignoring things I’m not interested in (like the mundane tasks of life like paying the bills) has always been one of my weaknesses.

5) My favorite breakfast is…
Homemade pancakes made by my daughters using eggs from our chickens and blueberries and strawberries from our garden. (MGM: I'll be right over!)

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?
I have traveled all over the world and really enjoy it. Lately, I’ve been keen to see Vienna and the mountains of Austria. Also, I’ve been to England multiple times, but I long to spend more time there.
(Well, dear readers, as you know England is my country of origin--so Robert has very good taste.)

About the Author (from Robert's website):
Robert Beatty lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and three daughters, who help create and refine his stories. He loves to explore the grand Biltmore Estate and the darkened forest trails where his novels take place. Robert’s Disney Hyperion novel Serafina and the Black Cloak will go on sale July 14, 2015. He writes full-time now, but in his past lives, Robert was one of the early pioneers of cloud computing, the founder/CEO of Plex Systems, the co-founder of Beatty Robotics, and the chairman/CTO of Narrative Magazine. In 2007, he was named an Entrepreneur of the Year. Answering a question about the inspiration for his book, Robert said, “Serafina’s journey grew out of my desire to write a story about an unusual and heroic young girl for my three daughters.”

Robert Beatty has one of the most arresting websites I've come across--it's just beautiful. You can visit it HERE, as well as Like Serafina and the Black Cloak on Facebook and follow Robert Beatty on Facebook. He Tweets @BeattyAuthor.

Comment to enter to win a copy of SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK from the publisher (US addresses only, please.)

Breaking News: SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK's book trailer has just gone LIVE: watch it here. (Warning: it is gorgeous...)

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July. It was fireworks on the beach for me and the rest of the Mafiosi. Ciao!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: NIGHTBIRD by Alice Hoffman

NIGHTBIRD by Alice Hoffman (Wendy Lamb Books, March 2015)

What It's About (from Alice Hoffman's website): Twig lives in Sidwell, where people whisper that fairy tales are real. After all, her town is rumored to hide a monster. And two hundred years ago, a witch placed a curse on Twig’s family that was meant to last forever. But this summer, everything will change when the red moon rises. It’s time to break the spell.

Opening Lines: "You can't believe everything you hear, not even in Sidwell, Massachusetts, where every person is said to tell the truth and the apples are so sweet  people come from as far as New York City during the apple festival. There are rumors that a mysterious creature lives in our town..."

Why I liked it:

I've realized I'm a big fan of stories that are set in our world but in which something is just a little off kilter. I mean, a witch's curse leading to a boy with wings: delicious.

Hoffman does a great job of weaving the past into her narrative, and if you're ever concerned about how to introduce backstory effectively, I recommend you look at Nightbird.

Finally, I love the way Twig, the MC, goes from being an unhappy, invisible girl to finding the value of friendship through having true friends. The character of Julia is instrumental in this--and I adored Julia's fierce spirit. Favorite lines from her: "I don't really care what people think anymore," Julia confided. "I make up my own mind." She grinned. "I'm from Brooklyn."

Hooray for all the Julias in this world!

About the Author (abridged from her website): Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing.  She currently lives in Boston.

Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford. Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has published a total of twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults.

Website  Facebook

Monday, June 15, 2015

Big Cover Reveal for LANDFALL by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Isn't this a great cover? It is Book One of Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's THE GUARDIAN HERD SERIES--and today I also have the pleasure of revealing the cover for Book 3: LANDFALL.

But before we get to that, Jennifer has given me permission to reprint the interview she did on her blog with the cover artist, David McClellan. Here it is:

Please enjoy my inspiring and informative interview with the Guardian Herd book series cover artist and illustrator, David McClellan. Not only will you get a "behind-the-scenes" peek at what goes into making a book cover, but you'll also learn tips for making your own amazing art!

1)      At what age did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I knew from a pretty early age. It was probably around 4th or 5th grade, when I realized that becoming a professional basketball player was out of the question. I guess it was really in college, when I chose to major in illustration, that I actually solidified the decision. 

2)      What is your favorite medium for expression and has it evolved over the years?

In high school it was Prismacolor pencils. Then, in college I did most of my illustration assignments in acrylic paint because the fast drying time meant I could get the assignments done on time. After college I got introduced to digital painting and never went back to the acrylics again. Everything that I was trying to achieve with the acrylics worked so much better with the digital media. So now all of my illustration work is done in Photoshop. But I do try to keep one foot in the door of traditional painting, so I do a lot of studies in oils to keep my skills up.

3)      How did you turn your passion for art into a career?

Basically, it’s been about getting an education and then continuing to learn my whole life. I studied illustration in college, so I learned some good fundamental principles about drawing and painting, as well as communicating ideas through images. And I learned about being a professional and meeting deadlines and keeping clients happy. After college, I knew that illustration jobs would be inconsistent so I got a job as an artist at Disney Interactive Studios, a video game developer, which has been great because that has meant working with many other talented artists as a team and learning from them. And of course, working with 3D software is a different animal than 2D art, but much of it overlaps in terms of what you need to know. I’ve basically had to learn how to be a landscape painter, except that the landscapes are virtual 3D worlds. So I think the knowledge and skills I’ve gained as a video game environment artist have helped my illustration career and vice versa.   

4)      How did you become the cover artist for The Guardian Herd series? 

The art director at Harper Collins had hired me before, but on a completely different kind of subject matter. As she considered me for this job, she asked if I was any good at painting animals and asked for some examples, and I told her that I was okay, but that I was probably weakest at horses. Of course, horses were exactly what she needed. And she agreed with me that my horses were not my best work, but for some reason she took a chance on me anyway. I immediately went and got some books on horse anatomy and started trying to figure it out. In hindsight, I think I was probably equally bad at drawing all animals. It’s just that horses are animals that humans are really familiar with, and have such specific proportions and musculature, that people can always tell when artists get them wrong. If you draw a dog wrong, you can just say it’s a different kind of dog.

5)      Please describe your process, from conception to delivery, for creating a Guardian Herd book cover. 

The art director gives me a description of what they want to see on the cover as far as characters and what kind of setting they want. Then I do several sketches to try and turn all those elements into a composition, taking into account where the title and author’s name will be. Those first sketches are usually so rough that no one else would understand them. Lately I have been doing those kind of sketches on my phone. I then pick out a few that have the most potential and make more finished sketches of those ideas to send to the art director.  She will then review the sketches with the editor and author (you!) and then either ask for changes or give the go ahead on the one that they like best. Then I will do color studies and work out the big picture before rendering any details.  I will have to do research and gather reference materials, in this case, lots of pictures of horses and wings. I have used toy horses for reference too since the photos usually don't have the right kind of lighting.  So sometimes I set up the toy horse with some makeshift paper wings to help me figure out what the shadows need to do. Then, from that point on, it’s just a lot of hours of painting time to refine and finish it off.

6)      Your perspectives on the covers are dramatic! Can you give readers any tips on how to draw interesting pictures?

As far as perspective goes, on both of these Guardian Herd covers so far I have dropped the horizon line lower so it feels like you are looking up at Star which makes him feel more heroic. There are so many potential answers to the question of how to make interesting pictures. Coming up with an interesting idea that is worth the time spent creating it is certainly crucial. Doing several rough sketches to get at the best possible idea helps. Making your image clear and legible helps. For example, it helps to have a clear focal point that is the most important thing in your picture and then have all the other elements complement rather than compete with that main focal point. I believe that contrast is a big key to making things interesting. Our brains naturally look for contrast to make sense of things. And not just contrast of light and dark but just about everything you can think of has an opposite that you can use to set it apart and make it stand out. Of course, not everything should stand out. Only the important things. But if you want something to feel light, surround it with some dark. If you want something to feel big, put something small next to it. Try to keep variety in your shapes and not make everything too similar or monotonous.

7)    Do you have any specific tips/advice on how to draw horses and feathers?

Well, start by getting the best reference materials you can get. You may not be able to see all that you need to understand in a photo of a horse, so a book on horse anatomy or a diagram of the muscles of the horse can be helpful. With feathers, it seems to be a little like drawing fingers or hair. If you are drawing a hand, it works best to mass in the fingers as a group first before trying to depict each individual finger. And with hair, it’s the same thing. You draw the mass of hair and then define only as many strands of hair as you need to in order to show that it’s hair and no more. With the feathers, start with the shape of the wing as a solid mass with the structure of the bones underneath in mind, and then add the feather detail on top of that foundation. And remember that you don’t have to define each feather with equal importance. Pick a few main ones to be the ones that tell the story.

8)      How important has the computer become in the world of art? 

It’s extremely important. And along with computers I would list smart phones and tablets and any electronic device that can be used to either create art, or view it. But the thing to remember is that the hardware and the software are just tools. The music is not in the violin. It has to come from the musician. So a software expert with no artistic training probably won’t create something as beautiful as a good artist with little software training might be able to. So I always tell people to use the software to express their designs rather than to let the software dictate the design.

9)      Can you recommend any software programs that budding artists might want to learn?

I really only work in Photoshop for my illustration work, although I sketch in the Sketchbook Pro app on my phone. I have messed around with the Brushes and Art Rage apps on my iPad. I think the kids probably know better than I do what the cool new painting apps are. I always recommend that kids get really good with real pencils and paints before getting into digital art because I think that foundation really helps.

10) Parting thoughts from David
I just want to say thanks Jennifer, and that I have really enjoyed doing the illustrations for the Guardian Herd series, and I’m excited for the next book! I hope that the fans of the books enjoy the illustrations and feel like they do justice to the characters. I look forward to seeing some cool fan art soon!

About the Artist
David McClellan grew up near Portland, Oregon and then studied illustration at Brigham Young University in Utah. In addition to illustrating books he works as an artist for Disney Interactive Studios, where they make the video game, Disney Infinity. He still lives in Utah with his wife and four boys. 
You can see more of his work at and @mcclellan_art on Instagram.

Please visit the author’s website to see the amazing fan art created by readers of the Guardian Herd book series.

Cover for Book 2: STORMBOUND

And now for the big reveal. Here's the official book blurb for LANDFALL:

It has been many moons since Star received his starfire power. He has gone from being born a dud—unable to fly and shunned by the five herds of Anok, including his own—to becoming a strong yearling, ready to lead his own herd as an over-stallion. But now he will face his toughest challenge yet. Nightwing the Destroyer, Star’s eternal rival, is amassing an army to destroy him and all of Anok. The only way for Star to defeat him is to learn how to fight like a warrior—without using his starfire. For if he uses his power, even to heal, Nightwing will know where to find him. As the threat of war looms over Star’s head, he can’t help but wonder if the current peace among the united pegasi is strong enough to defeat the powerful Destroyer once and for all.With increasingly difficult challenges and brand-new areas of Anok to explore, Jennifer Lynn Alvarez will thrill readers with this epic and exhilarating third installment of the Guardian Herd series.

I love the light in this one, and the way it melds with the green of the forest. Jennifer Lynn Alvarez has offered a prize package for one lucky winner. Here are the details: Guardian Herd Swag Prize Package—a Guardian Herd tote bag; a series poster for Book #3, LANDFALL; and a sheet of character trading cards. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing. (US,UK, and Canada only, please.)

Guardian Herd Tote Bag for one lucky winner!

More Information about Jennifer:

You can find lots more information about Jennifer Lynn Alvarez on her WEBSITE. She's also on Twitter @JenniferDiaries

Her books can be found on IndieBound, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Writer's Voice 2015: Query and First 250 of... The Friday Night Fright Club

Holy Moly!  Alerted this morning by a tweet from the great Krista Van Dolzer, I entered The Writer's Voice, and the bot picked me. Now, if it would just pick me some winning lottery numbers, I could retire from this malarkey and make my home in the Canary Islands. (The Don, by the way, is all over this. He thinks I've won The Eurovision Song Contest. I'm not disabusing him--as long as I don't have to wear sequins.)

Here we go:


Dear Ms. Awesome-Agent,

Twelve-year-old Nita Adams desperately wants to see a ghost. After all, she’s president of the Friday Night Fright Club and an expert in all things paranormal—and she needs her friends to focus more on phantoms than on sports and boys. (As if boys could ever compete with banshees or bhoots—Indian ghosts with backward facing feet!)

To make matters worse, there’s trouble with the new girl in school. Destiny claims to be a REAL summoner, and she appears to be taking over Nita’s friends’ minds. Nita rises to Destiny’s challenge, and the race to see who can summon a spirit is on. Ouija boards, spell books, magical lockets, and sneaking into “haunted” houses are all part of the duel.

However, as Nita discovers, some spirits should definitely remain unsummoned. That's because the spirit she unleashes has mayhem and murder on his mind. And if Nita can’t stop him, someone close to her may very well end up dead.

THE FRIDAY NIGHT FRIGHT CLUB is a middle grade ghost story, complete at 45,000 words. I like to think of it as being a bit like Heather Vogel Frederick's Mother-Daughter Book Club series--if the only books the girls ever wanted to read were GoosebumpsI'm querying you specifically because (xyz etc.)

I belong to the SCBWI, and am active in children's literature circles, managing the group blog Project Mayhem: The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. For the past three years, I have also judged middle grade fiction for the Cybils’ awards. Originally from England, I now live in Portland, Oregon.
Thank you for your time and consideration,

Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

First 250:

The skull gleamed in the dim light of the battery-powered votive candles. Wisps of fog snaked through its empty eye sockets, and its yellowing teeth grinned as it faced one bedroom wall and then another. For a moment, it trembled in Nita’s Adams’ hand. Then it swooped down and smacked the seventh-grade social studies textbook lying beneath it.
Nita shook the skull a couple more times, for good measure. “I, the Mistress of Graves, call this meeting of the Friday Night Fright Club to order,” she said, in her spookiest voice.
As if on cue, the wind roared through the fir trees in the ravine behind Nita’s neighborhood. Rain tap-tap-tapped against her bedroom window. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the tapping was the sound of a ghost, desperate to return to a previous life? Nita would race to the window and let the lost spirit in.
She had to admit it: October in Oregon was totally her favorite month. Tonight, in honor of Halloween—only a couple of weeks away—she was doing everything in her power to amp up the fear factor. It seemed to be working—at least with one of her best friends. Brenny, wide-eyed, looked completely spooked. Now, to complete the mission and terrify Maddie…
Nita positioned the plastic skull in front of her and flung her arms wide. Vapor from the fog machine on her dresser swirled around all three of them. They looked like wraiths.
“I have two words for you,” Nita said. “Bloody Mary.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MIDNIGHT BLUE by Pauline Fisk

Midnight Blue by Pauline Fisk (Bloomsbury 2003--first published in 1990)

It's been all-go in Mafioso land, what with the eldest mini-maf graduating from high school in less than two weeks; middle mini-maf having just completed a middle school run of The Sound of Music; and mini mini-maf still in mourning because of the Portland Trailblazers defeat in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Also, as my one reader pointed out last week, I am in the midst of querying--having parted ways with my agent in early January. The Don has told me his cousin Alfonso is available and only takes 50% of any deals made, but I'm holding out for better terms (and an agent who actually reads!)

Those of you who know me well, know that I have somewhat of a morbid streak. This manifests especially when an author dies. Immediately after reading their obituary, I want to read all their books--even, nay especially--if I've never heard of them before.

This is what happened with MIDNIGHT BLUE, the absolutely stunning novel by Pauline Fisk, an English author who died in January. Her obituary in The Guardian described her as an author "with a strong sense of place and a rare gift for blending the natural with the supernatural in ways that made the latter seem entirely credible."

Now, I am also a writer who loves to blend the natural with the supernatural. My books are set in modern times, but there's always something a little "off" in the world--objects that allow one to time travel, or ghosts. So I knew I had to read Midnight Blue right away (or at least right after I finished Moby Dick  for my book group.) I wasn't disappointed.

What It's About: 

Bonnie, a girl torn between the harsh reality of her mother's weaknesses and her grandmother's strong will escapes her home one day by sneaking into her neighbor's hot air balloon. But instead of flying into the clouds and back down, she lands in another world, something like her own, but both kinder and somehow much more terrifying. She's not sure if she can ever leave this nearly parallel world and return to her own. And if she did, she isn't sure she'll be able to bring back with her the sense of warmth and love she has grown to cherish. Amazingly, she does both.

Opening Lines:
"It began as it always did with sweet, solitary notes of music that called to her from somewhere beyond the sky, a single piper's cry that reached down for her and scooped her over the roof tops and streets, office blocks and electric pylons, railway stations, shops and parks."

Why I Loved It:
As I mentioned above, Fisk's world is a recognizable one, but one that is suffused with magic. Her writing is lyrical, and her sense of place is extraordinary. Here she is, describing the hill in which Bonnie has landed with her balloon:
"The holly grove was ancient. The trees were twisted and dark, their branches tortuous. They formed a dense, gnarled ring with a large grass-and-moss clearing in the centre. You slipped into that ring and it was as if you'd entered another world....Long strands of fleece hung like listless washing on a line. Last dots of pink foxglove wilted in their shade."

There is also great suspense, because the people who inhabit this parallel world are people who Bonnie recognizes. Dad is like her neighbor, Michael; Mum is like her own mother, Maybelle; and Arabella is like Bonnie herself. Into this world comes the figure whom Bonnie fears most, her domineering grandmother, whom she calls "Grandbag." This new manifestation of Grandbag--Grandmother Marvell--has a magic mirror which can suck out a person's soul and leave them as a husk, a weird approximation of themselves. The novel ventures into dark places--literally!--as Bonnie and her friend, Jim, the shadow boy, try and outwit Grandmother Marvell and rescue Arabella from a horrible fate in the mirror.

This novel will stay with me for a very long time, and I look forward to reading more of Pauline Fisk's work.

About The Author:
Pauline Fisk was born in London in 1948, and moved to Shropshire with her husband, David Davies, in 1972. She wrote 11 books for children, including Midnight Blue and Sabrina Fludde (2002), often considered her most ambitious work. As she said of herself: “My whole life has been spent trying to bring together real life and the world of fantasy, in particular by finding new and interesting ways of expressing a sense of the magical in my writing. Ever since I was five years old, hunting down fairies in the back alley behind my parents’ house, a sense of more to life than meets the eye has been part of who I am. When I was a child, life was one big fairytale. That was how I felt. But how to get into that fairytale?”

Pauline Fisk had three daughters and two sons. She died on January 25th, 2015.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Over at Project Mayhem today, featuring Tara Dairman's THE STARS OF SUMMER

Blog Tour button designed by Kristin Rae
I've been neglecting Middle Grade Mafioso horribly--mainly because I'm currently querying agents as well as cracking the whip as blog manager over at Project Mayhem.

Speaking of which, Project Mayhem is last stop on Tara Dairman's The Stars of Summer Blog Tour. 

As I say in my review, it's hard to get a grizzled old Middle Grade Mafioso to laugh. (Tears are a different story. I'm getting much more lachrymose in my old age, when I think of the vicissitudes of life.) But reading The Stars of Summer, I laughed a lot. Knowing, as I do, how much kids this age are into cooking shows, I'm betting that Tara has another hit on her hands.

If you're so inclined today, hop on over to the Project to say Hi! 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

GIVEAWAY of Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) Prize Pack

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) is the second installment in Liz Pichon’s series for middle-grade readers. Tom Gates is a best-selling phenomenon in the UK and kids on this side of the pond will love him too.

Tom Gates #2: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff)
by Liz Pichon
9780763674748 – On Sale May 12th, 2015

What It's About: No school for two whole weeks! Now Tom has plenty of time for the good stuff, like finding new ways (so many!) to annoy his big sister, Delia. Or watching TV and eating caramel candy. Or most important, band practice for DOGZOMBIES in his best friend Derek’s garage (while not encouraging Derek’s ’60s-music-crazed dad). All that stands between this band and rock greatness is, well, a song (besides “Delia’s a Weirdo”). And finding a drummer. And landing a gig. Will Tom let a killer toothache and pesky overdue homework get in his way?

Prize pack includes:
One galley of Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) by Liz Pichon
One Tom Gates bookmark
One Tom Gates tote bag

Book page on Candlewick
Tom Gates activity kit

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Leave a comment and you'll be entered in the prize pack giveaway. (US/Canada readers only, please.)