Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summer Reading

Summer Time (I)
The June bugs are banging on windows. The cicadas are revving up. There's the occasional whiff of charcoal, fresh-cut grass, and sunscreen. Lemonade suddenly tastes so much better. Have you noticed? It’s almost here!

Ah, summer. Sure, the calendar says it’ll be June 20th before summer’s officially arrived, but any middle grader worth his kickball knows that summer begins the moment that school gets out. For some out there, summer’s already begun; others have another week or two left. That's where my school falls. Two weeks left. That means this is my last week to see students. It also means my big push for summer reading.

I won’t see my students over summer (well, except for the random encounter at the pool or at the Summer Snow slushie stand), so I do all I can to get them set up to read this summer. After all, I sincerely believe that it’s the number one thing they can do to get ready for the next school year. I talk about the school district’s reading program and the public library’s reading program, and I share with them some of my favorite bookish websites. Since most of you aren’t eligible for our local summer school or public library reading program, I thought I’d share the websites here. Here are my favorite book lists, incentives, reading challenges for middle graders in summer.
Top 100

The Top 100 Children's Novels

I’ve been sharing this video for the last three years with students. It’s a survey that Betsy Bird over at Fuse #8 did, put together by Maggi Idzikowski. Betsy’s doing new surveys this year (Top 100 Novels), but they won’t be done in time for me to share, so it’s this one again. And, as I say to my kids, these aren't all the good books in the world, but you certainly can't go wrong picking one off of this list. I’m also not too proud to admit that it always gets me a little teary-eyed. I don't know if it's the music, the cramming together of so many old "friends", or hearing my students gasp as their favorites appear. But....every time!

Read Kiddo Read

Read Kiddo Read 

This is James Patterson’s website. He does a great job of making it kid-friendly and I love how he’s divides up his suggested reading lists.

NoveList K-8

NoveList K-8 is a paid subscription we get through the state of Wisconsin, so I can’t guarantee you have access to it. But it’s definitely worth asking at your public library about it. You can type in your favorite book and find read-alikes, you can pick a genre you love and browse, you can even plug in your reading level in the advanced search and find books that way. I’ve often found that sometimes it’s not that kids don’t want to read, they just don’t know WHAT to read. So my fifth graders, who are heading off to middle school in the fall, are creating and printing personal reading lists from the site using the folders this week. (Writers, it’s also a great resource for finding what other books are comparable to yours.)

Mrs. Wojahn Reads
Mrs. Wojahn Reads

What!? You haven’t heard about this site? Ha! This is my own little summer reading challenge I do with my students each year. In the summers, I post what I'm reading on this blog. Then I challenge my students to keep track of their summer reading. Anyone who brings me their reading list on the first day of school gets a free book. And anyone who reads more pages than me in the summer also gets a GOLDEN LIBRARY CARD, which is really just their regular card with a gold sticker on it, but it comes with unlimited book checkout for the school year. You would not believe how motivating that is for kids. And it's a lot of fun for me, too.

The Learning Network - Teaching and Learning With The New York Times
So what are your favorite reading sites? Not just for kids, but for us grown-ups, too? After all, summer is our reading season, too. Share them in the comments here, or, if you're on Twitter, shout out your summer reading plans to the world. Katherine Schulten over on the Learning Network at the New York Times invites you to take to Twitter and share your thoughts, book recommendations, and ideas about #summerreading on June 7.

I can't wait to tune in. Preferably with the grass mowed, lemonade in hand, and the grill fired up. (The June bugs I can do without.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review & Author Interview: THE COLOR OF BONES

AUTHOR: Tracy Edward Wymer

SUMMARY: Twelve year-old Derby Shrewd lives in a divided town. Lights live on the Northside of the Line, Darks live on the Southside. Hillside has been that way ever since the Line appeared naturally from the ground, much like a spring welling up from deep inside the earth. 

Now the Line controls the town, keeping Hillside separated, zapping those who come near it and killing those who dare cross it. 

But when Derby, a Northsider, finds a pile of bones stacked on the Line, he sets out to uncover the person's identity. While doing so, he befriends a Southside girl and soon begins to challenge the Line and the town's rules. And then, before he can turn back, Derby goes too far. 

MY TAKE: THE COLOR OF BONES is a pure middle-grade tale that meets all the requirements of a “good read.” I very much enjoyed the book, and I highly recommend it, especially for upper elementary or junior high use in the classroom. It would be perfect for both ELA and social studies classrooms, and would elicit some great discussions about societal issues.

There is a lot I would like to praise about this book. For starters, the writing is very good, and it avoids the two main pitfalls I often see writers fall into when it comes to MG. It does not have any purple prose (overwriting that misses the relatability mark by a wide margin) and it is not drenched with too much colloquial voice. Instead, Wymer’s writing is natural and this makes it an easy read. Or as our own Shannon O’Donnell explained “…the words and the story flow like water.”

The characters and the story are both superb. Young Derby Shrewd (love the name), the likeable MC, is well-rounded and realistically drawn, and through Derby’s pitch-perfect first-person account, the storytelling is both authentic and accessible to middle-grade readers. Derby’s internal conflict about the Line, and how it forces the entire town to live a life of segregation, is poignant and at the same time not abrasively heavy-handed. From the first page to the last, the reader is “there” with Derby, trying to decide how best to overcome the Line and all its Power. In the end, I found it to be such a powerful statement about whether or not your life is really YOURS to live if you are forced to live it under the hand of someone else, in this case, the Line.

The book is a reasonably priced $4.99 for the e-book version and $7.99 for paperback. To purchase, simply click HERE. If you're a teacher, I'd advise investing in a class set (which won't set you back too much). It’s well worth the money.

INTERVIEW: After reading the book, I asked Mr. Wymer for a brief interview, and he obliged. Here is said interview.

Project Mayhem (Mike): First, tell us who Tracy Edward Wymer is? Don’t go all Navin Johnson on us and 3rd-person your response (obscure reference to Steve Martin in The Jerk—not that I’m calling you a jerk). But please do tell us a bit about who you are as a person, and as a writer.

Tracy Edward Wymer: I'm a native Hoosier but now a left coaster. When I'm not teaching and writing, I like these things: Books. Movies. Running. Kids. Family. Sports. Laughing. All that stuff gives me life.

Project Mayhem (Mike): So what inspired you to write THE COLOR OF BONES?

Tracy Edward Wymer: I grew up going to my grandparents’ house in a tiny, tiny town in southern Missouri. Even in the 1980s the town was segregated. My cousin and I rode our bikes all over that town, but we were not allowed to ride our bikes “over there”. So, many years later, when I started writing, I was drawn to this concept of a divided town. But I’d read, and even taught, books like The Outsiders and Maniac Magee, and I knew I had to write something original and fresh, something that no one else had read before, even though it’s based loosely on the same concept.

Project Mayhem (Mike): Every writer has a story about how the book found its way to print. In a nutshell (either a peanut or a walnut), what is your book’s story from that first light-bulb idea to publication?

Tracy Edward Wymer: I struggled to tell Derby’s story for almost 10 years. I wrote, and even finished, other projects along the way, but I always came back to Derby and the divided town. There was something powerful and unique in that story, and I had to get it right. Then, in the fall of 2011, I received a 3-page email/critique from a literary agent. She pointed me in an entirely different direction. I tossed around her ideas for weeks, and in the end her notes and suggestions felt right. I rewrote the book from page 1 and never sent another query. For a host of different reasons, I decided to publish the book myself.  

Project Mayhem (Mike): What were your favorite books as a wee lad?

Tracy Edward Wymer:  I fell for this obscure “baseball” book called Highpockets, by John Tunis. I also read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at least 50 times. I’d say Roald Dahl was my hero back then. My biggest influence was a stage production of The Cask of Amontillado (Poe), which I saw around fifth grade or so. They made this character, the one who was being walled in, magically disappear on stage. Ever since then, I’ve been drawn to the dark and magical.  

Project Mayhem (Mike): Last question. Every kid has an unrealistic dream of what he or she wants to be when they get older. For example, I wanted to be a fire engine when I grew up (I had to settle for a Halloween costume). What unrealistic notion did you hold as a wee lad that might seem silly now, but was actually an honest-to-goodness dream you held as a kid?

Tracy Edward Wymer:  I wanted to be a big league ballplayer. That’s a generic dream, and one that many kids have, but it’s the truth. However, I also wanted to be the Karate Kid.

Friday, May 25, 2012

THE WILDER LIFE: Laura Ingalls Revisited

For those of you who've followed here for a while, you might have caught that I'm a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. My book, MAY B., was partially inspired by my desire to create my own strong pioneer girl who would feel, in the spirit of Laura Ingalls, both familiar and brave. 
If you, too, are a Laura fan, you have to get a hold of Wendy McClure's THE WILDER LIFE: MY ADVENTURES IN THE LOST WORLD OF LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. As an adult, Wendy rekindles her Laura love and determines she'll learn as much as she can about the Ingalls and their world. Wendy embarks on a butter-churning, midwestern-prairie trekking adventure, where she visits all of Laura's homesites (excluding the Wilders brief stay in Florida), experiments with homesteading techniques (sourdough starter, anyone?), and digs deep into what is real, what is fiction, and what is memory. Those of us who grew up loving Laura Ingalls have memories of our own. 
For me, I remember Laura being the first author I "knew." Sure, I'd been exposed to plenty of books before the Little House series, but it was while listening to my father read that I came to understand Laura the girl and Laura the writer were the same person. I was convinced that Laura had actually typed each page in my book, stuck everything together, and sent it to the bookstore.
Wendy's book covers a lot -- the television series fans vs. the book fans (some of us are both, but lean more one way or the other), the way Laura's books are more fictitious than many realize (For example, LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS actually covers the time before and after LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE; the Ingalls, like many pioneers, had to backtrack before being able to move west again), and the expectation -- and disappointment -- a fan might experience while visiting, as Wendy calls it, Laura World. 

How much of the books comes from true events? How much of our memories of the Ingalls were partially formed by our own childhood impressions? Where is a fan left in the midst of it all? And why did TV Pa solve so many problems by throwing punches?
For this Laura fan, this book was incredibly satisfying. Wendy, like it or not, you've made a new friend.
Has anyone else read THE WILDER LIFE? What were your impressions? 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


By Eden Unger

Last month I wrote about the blur between adult and ‘predult’ literature. Looking at things form the other side has gotten me thinking. Recently, there was a comment on the children’s litserv I joined that there have been some books considered too ‘intense’ for college level readers. That really makes me wonder- what do we consider too intense for younger readers? Is there such a thing?

There is definitely a part of me that says ‘down with censorship!’ of any kind. Living in Egypt, we encounter all manners of censorship that can be detrimental to freedom of learning, reading, and thinking- one big brain ban. Clearly, as a parent, there are things I do not want my younger children reading. My eldest, now seventeen, has a stronger stomach than I do. And now, he can censor what he wants to read. He has learned what works and what doesn’t. For him.

I suppose the question is ‘who gets to choose what is and isn’t right for our children?’ Until our kids can decide from experience, we need to help guide them. With everything else, we need to help our kids be wise readers and learn to make good decisions. But having the government, or even the university, decide for our kids does not make sense. There is the desire to have kids maintain a certain level of innocence- sexual innocence, innocence from cruelties of the world- for as long as possible. We know that, once gone, innocence is really gone. Forever.

Being engaged with kid literature is important. Maybe it’s more important than we realize. I don’t want my kids reading books that tell them what they have to think. Personally, I’d be faster at censoring books that oppress imagination or threaten kids with someone’s rigid morality than books that are irreverent and wacky and help kids think for themselves. But helping kids to select what works means reading along with them. Independence is important, but so is involvement. Every kid is different. Some kids are terrified by Where the Wild Things Are while others are reading Salem’s Lot without a problem. It is important, so we hear, that kids do read things that challenge their sense of safety. Bowdlerized fairytales are not as meaningful as the originals that have lasted for centuries. Kids need skills in life and it is healthy for them to navigate fairytales, real scary weird fairytales, in which people are unjustly oppressed and sometimes good doesn’t look so good. Kids will turn away from what they do not want to read and struggle with things that intrigue and conflict. They need to do that, without being told they are not allowed. But helping them through the experience is what we must do as writers and parents.

I remember when my eldest, at age seven, asked about sex. My husband wisely said that he’d tell, but once you know something, you can’t unknow it and you have to have it in your brain forever. My husband explained that one day, we may have to know all about adult diapers, but, for now, it isn’t something we need to or want to know about- not yet. My son got it. He said he didn’t want to know about sex- not yet. Learning when to know things is the trick. But refusing to discuss or explain is not the answer. Knowing when is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bring on the Funny

Today, we have a guest post by James Milahey, the author of YOU CAN'T HAVE MY PLANET BUT TAKE MY BROTHER, PLEASE.  He is here to tell us all about being funny.  No pressure, James.

Being funny is a funny thing.  It can be mysterious, elusive, frustrating, maddening and unbelievably uplifting.  I have a few trusted friends I bounce lines, scenes, passages off of in order to gauge their success.  It's often hard to judge if something is funny when you're the one who created it.  
Rather than focusing on funny lines, I try to come up with funny ideas which then function as geysers of comedy, spewing humor all over the book.  For example, in 'You Can't Have My Planet But Take My Brother, Please', I have an alien realtor.  He is trying to get the humans evicted so he can sell Earth to a king and queen from another planet and make a big commission.  I planted that geyser at the beginning of my book and it spewed glistening drops of laughter all the way to the final chapter.  At least, that's what readers have told me.  
Originality is always the key.  I needed a mad scientist.  How could I give a fresh take on that?  Well, first of all, I made her a female.  Mad scientists are always men.  Then I made her an alien.  An alien female mad scientist who is obsessed with shoes.  I liked the idea of a mad scientist putting down her beaker and running off to the mall to buy a pair of red pumps.  Then I gave her a moveable face.  It shifts all around her body so you have to stay focused when you're talking to her.
The key to being funny is to always have fun while being funny otherwise you won't be funny and wouldn't it be funny if I kept this sentence going forever by using the word funny but then again it probably wouldn't be funny at all so I'll stop right now!  

Mayhemers, what do you think?  What are some of the funniest MG books out there?  What works for MG humor?  And what doesn't work?  


James Mihaley invented a spaceship that runs on rhyming and put it his children's book 'You Can't Have My Planet But Take My Brother, Please'. Walking in the woods one day, James found some androids turning paper back into trees and asked if he could put them in his book. The androids said they would be honored to appear in the book. James needed a villain for his book. He met an alien princess who had a pirate tattoo on her shoulder. The pirate was alive. It shot a miniature cannonball at James. James was extremely impressed and put them in his book also. The book became loaded to the brim with cool things that were full of adventure and extremely hilarious. The book began to multiply. Copies of the novel came up out of the ground. They fell from the sky. Make sure you catch one before it hits you on the head. This book will remind you why books are important and it will inspire you to take care of this lovely planet we inhabit.

Friday, May 18, 2012

First Page Analysis: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

In case you can't quite read that, it says:
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

Probably one of the better opening lines I've ever read, especially for a wacky, spooky, moving MG novel. I suppose you might expect nothing less from a master like Neil Gaiman, and I probably wouldn't blame you, but because of something I heard him say at WFC last fall, I wanted to focus on this book for a moment today.

Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis did a panel together, in which they basically just had a conversation about writing, and life, and books, and writing. The entire thing was absolutely fascinating, but one thing Neil said really stuck with me. He said (I'm paraphrasing here): "The Graveyward Book was the only book I ever wrote that actually ended up a better story on the pages than it had been in my head."

As writers, I think we all know what he means by that. At the time, I'd read this book a few years before, and I'd enjoyed it, but I hadn't been a serious writer at the time, so I decided to revisit it. The whole thing is truly a joy, but I want to focus on the first page (or the first 200 words or so, since there are illustrations).

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done. 

So, how bout that first line, eh? "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." Ominous, isn't it? It's an interesting first line too. It doesn't give us that much information, but it certainly sets the tone for this spooky novel.

And the second paragraph? Wow, that's quite a knife. This line tells us that perhaps something deeper is going on here. To me, it hints at the supernatural, which we soon discover is par for the course in this novel, but it also showcases Mister Gaiman's extreme talent for saying so much in so few words.

Then, in the third paragraph, things get dark, fast. And yet, this is a middle grade novel, so the darkness is subtle, and oh so clever. For adult readers, we can probably immediately infer that murder has been done, but for younger readers, it might not be so obvious until they come back to it.

From there, we meet the man Jack, a most interesting kind of killer, and things just get stranger and stranger ...

... has anyone read The Graveyard Book? What did you think of the opening? I don't know if it's quite A Tale of Two Cities, but I would still argue that this is one of the better first pages in modern literature. What do you all think?

I could go on for much longer analyzing this page, but I thought it would be more interesting to open a discussion.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wait a Minute, There Aren’t Any Hummingbirds in England!

Okay, I know that’s a weird title for a blog post.  It’s a thought I had recently while reading a book.  And okay, I also know that’s a weird thought to have while reading a book, so let me explain:  The book was a historical YA set in turn-of-the-century England.  The main character had lived in a small English village her entire life.  No mention of her ever traveling, certainly not to other countries or continents, and given the time period, she’d likely have very limited knowledge of faraway places.  I mean, it’s not like she could Google them or anything.  So when she ventured to muse that a certain person in her life reminded her of a hummingbird, the first thought that leapt to my mind was, Wait a minute, there aren’t any hummingbirds in England!  How would she know what one looked like?

Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on hummingbirds, but I have a certain fondness for them.  I like watching them flit around in the sun, pretty little shimmers of green and blue.  I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to lure them into my yard so I might delight in their fluttery forms.  And when I bought my first hummingbird feeder a few years ago, I searched online to find the best way to attract these little feathered beauties.  Thanks to these online searches, I know that hummingbirds are drawn to the color red—it reminds them of flowers—so tying a red ribbon to a hummingbird feeder is helpful.  I know that if I don’t have store-bought hummingbird nectar on hand, I can make my own by boiling 1 part sugar and 4 parts water.  I know it’s against Federal law to keep any part of a hummingbird nest or egg—yes, really—as hummingbirds are protected migratory birds.  I also know that hummingbirds are a New World species, found only in the Americas.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  This is obviously a very tiny detail, not important to the main story arch of the book, and I don’t fault the American author for slipping on this itsy-bitsy factoid.  If I hadn’t read up on hummingbirds, I probably wouldn’t know they’re not in England either.  I’m certainly not going to pretend that it detracted from my enjoyment of the book in any way.  Come on, I’m not that nit-picky.  It did make me think, however, how easily details can trip us up, especially when writing about a different culture, time period, or geographic location.  I suppose this is why research is so key.

Of course, getting the major details right is the most important goal.  Hopefully your slip-ups will be so minor that either 1) most readers won’t even realize you’ve made a mistake, or 2) the rest of your story is engaging enough that they are willing to forgive you an erroneous hummingbird here or there.

What kind of inaccuracies have you found in books?  And let’s be nice by not mentioning any specific author names or book titles, please.  Especially not if the error is in one of my books ;)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Random Act of Kindness BLITZ!

A smile. An encouraging word. A thoughtful gesture. Each day people interact with us, help, and make our day a bit brighter and full. This is especially true in the Writing Community

Take a second to think about writers you know, like the critique partner who works with you to improve your manuscript. The writing friend who listens, supports and keeps you strong when times are tough. The author who generously offers council, advice and inspiration when asked.

So many people take the time to make us feel special, don't they? They comment on our blogs, re-tweet our posts, chat with us on forums and wish us Happy Birthday on Facebook.

Kindness ROCKS!

To commemorate the release of their book The Emotion Thesaurus, Becca and Angela at The Bookshelf Muse are hosting a TITANIC Random Act Of Kindness BLITZ. And because I think KINDNESS is contagious, I'm participating too!

Here, I am blitzing Hilary Wagner, who makes this blog run so smoothly for all of us. She schedules our posts, she regulates review requests, she trouble shoots, and she helps us all feel like a family. I adore her. All the Mayhemers adore her.  

Hilary, for my RAOK gift to you, I am sending you a copy of Angela and Becca’s Emotion Thesaurus. If you already have it, then you may choose any other title you want. 

Do you know someone special that you'd like to randomly acknowledge? Don't be shy--come join us and celebrate! Send them an email, give them a shout out, or show your appreciation in another way. Kindness makes the world go round. :)

Becca and Angela have a special RAOK gift waiting for you as well, so hop on over to The Bookshelf Muse to pick it up.

Have you ever participated in or been the recipient of a Random Act Of Kindness?  Let me know in the comments!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sherlock Holmes for Younger Readers with a little Star Trek trivia thrown in

Sherlock Holmes is back in the news with the return of the PBS series about a modern day Sherlock and Watson. Unfortunately, the series isn’t as family-friendly as I had hoped. Our sixteen-year-old was going to watch the first episode with us and then he had too much homework. After seeing it, I was glad he missed it. I didn’t want to have a conversation about exactly what a dominatrix does. (That’s probably the only time you will see that word in a Project Mayhem post.)

But there are many other ways to introduce younger readers to Mr. Holmes. The original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle aren’t that difficult to read, but some may find them a bit dry. There are so many choices in middle grade and YA books, in fact, it’s hard to pick just a few. Here are two of my favorites:

Modern day twins who are the descendents of Sherlock find his casebook of unsolved crimes in the Sherlock Files series by Tracy Barrett. The first book, THE 100-YEAR-OLD SECRET involves a case on a painting missing for more than a hundred years.  This series gets a thumbs up from my daughter.

Sherlock Holmes - The Legend Begins series by Andrew Lane is more tween/YA.  The first book, DEATH CLOUD, starts when Sherlock is fourteen. The story puts him trying to figure out what happened to two men who died of symptoms resembling the plague. There’s a character who teaches Sherlock some of the methods which lead to his later legendary powers of observation. Here's the paperback cover of the same book (I have a strong preference for one over the other, so I thought I'd post the two):

And because I’ve immersed myself in all things Sherlock lately, here’s some trivia for the Star Trek fans. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock gives us a clue to his background, when he says, “An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.” I could believe Spock was a descendent of Holmes. Leonard Nimoy, the first Spock, even played Sherlock on stage in the seventies.

If you want more trivia, I did a post about Star Wars actors who have portrayed Sherlock on my blog. Sherlock Star Wars

So back to books. Are there any other middle grade or YA Sherlock books you can recommend?

~ Dee Garretson

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Celebrating Childrens' Book Week

The Children's Book Week Poster
by David Wiesner

Hello everyone! How are you celebrating Children's Book Week? Wait, a minute--there's a children's book week?! And it's been going on since 1919?!!

Now, you'd think with all my connections and vast stores of mafioso bullion, that I would be a source of reference, a veritable fountain of knowledge, and a major benefactor for such an august event. Not so. I have obviously been living with my head in the sandpit, because the whole fiesta snuck up on me and took me by surprise. But fear not, I now am able to share some salient facts.
First, and I quote verbatim from the CBW's wonderful website:
Children's Book Week is a truly national celebration, with events happening from coast to coast throughout the week.
  • Check out the line-up of Official Book Week events ! Over 40 cities are hosting author and illustrator events during Book Week (May 7-13, 2012), with additional venues to come! (Yes folks, from Decatur to Denver, from Harleysville to Houston, book stores are hosting all sorts of fun events. Check on the website to see if something's going on close to your neck of the woods.)
  • Each year, the Children's Book Council enlists illustrators to design a commemorative Children's Book Week Poster and Bookmark. Download the 2012 Book Week bookmark by Lane Smith and order your 2012 Poster by David Wiesner!
  • Children's Choice Book Awards Gala ! In 2008, the Children's Book Council created the Children's Choice Book Awards, the only national child-chosen book awards program, giving young readers a powerful voice in their own reading choices. Each year, the award winners are announced live at the highly-anticipated Children's Choice Book Awards Gala during Book Week (May 7, 2012)!

Yes, kids vote!! And now I can reveal the winners for 2012:

Author of the Year: Jeff Kinney for Diary of a Wimpy Kid 6: Cabin Fever (Amulet Books/Abrams)
Illustrator of the Year:
Brian Selznick for Wonderstruck (Scholastic)
Kindergarten to Second Grade Book of the Year:
Three Hens and a Peacock by Lester L. Laminack, illustrated by Henry Cole (Peachtree)
Third Grade to Fourth Grade Book of the Year:
Bad Kitty Meets the Baby by Nick Bruel (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook)
Fifth Grade to Sixth Grade Book of the Year:
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion/HMH)
Teen Book of the Year:
Clockwork Prince: The Infernal Devices, Book Two by Cassandra Clare (Margaret K. McElderry Books/S&S)

Those kid voters sure have good taste!

What are you guys doing for Childrens' Book Week? Did your kids vote? Any opinions about the winners? (Gary D. Schmidt rocks, but I always try to keep my opinions to myself.) Finally, I love their motto: "A great nation is a reading nation." AMayhENm!!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Squirrel Wisdom

 A couple of years ago I was in Indiana visiting my parents. I was taking a walk down the middle of a narrow tree-lined street in the neighborhood I grew up in when I heard a loud, splatting noise behind me, like someone had dropped twenty gallons of Jello from the tree-tops onto the road. It was loud, people.

I turned around. And behind me, on the road, was a fox squirrel laying limp. I didn’t have my camera with me but you know what they look like.

well-fed fox squirrel
I glanced upward. The nearest branch was at least thirty feet off the ground. Five seconds earlier and I’d have broken that squirrel’s fall with my head.

Anyway, I was pretty sure it was dead but I was still fascinated. I mean, I’ve seen a squirrel fall out of a tree and land on leaves and spruce needles and then run away, but this was pavement.

So, I took a step toward the motionless squirrel. My brain was a mix of sadness for the squirrel, and researcher for my writing. How did it die? Why did it fall? Poor thing. It looks so healthy otherwise.

I took another step toward the squirrel and it started to shake. I turned to my wife and said. “It’s moving.” Is it in pain? Is it having a seizure? What should I do? Am I going to be faced with the possibility of ending its suffering? If I get too close, will it try to bite me like an abandoned seal pup did years ago?

I took another step toward it and it started moving—slowly—very slowly—like slow motion-slowly, toward the base of the tree it’d fallen from. It looks like all its legs are working. It’s kind of shaky, but it’s walking.

Then it did something amazing. It proceeded to climb the very tree it’d fallen from just forty seconds ago.

Friday, May 4, 2012

DNF: Are You a Patient Reader?

In the writing/reading/book blogging/generally bookish community, the acronym "DNF" stands for "did not finish". Basically, it says that for whatever reason(s), you didn't or couldn't finish a certain book.

A lot of factors go into whether you keep reading a book. It might be that you picked up a genre you don't normally try... and realized why you don't usually read it. Or maybe you can't click with the writing; it just sounds too stilted and unnatural. Many many times, it comes down to patience.

How often have you read a review that went along the lines of, "Once you get past the beginning, things start to get going"? I know I've personally had friends say to me, "Yeah, it's kind of boring in the middle, but the ending's awesome." With these books, it seems to boil down to whether or not you're willing to slog on for a hundred or so pages to get to the really good part.

So how patient are you? Would you be willing to take on the task of finishing the book even though it looks as though it'll take effort? Or are you the one with the full-to-bursting "did-not-finish" shelf on Goodreads? And what makes or breaks a book for you?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keeping the Gate: How One School Librarian Buys Books

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Scalespeeder

So…if you are a middle grade author (or any kind of author, probably, but I mostly know the middle grade variety), I’ll bet that you’ve had at least one sleepless night worrying about how to get your book “noticed.” Maybe you are trying to get your book noticed by an agent. Or an editor. Or maybe you’ve made that sale (congratulations!) and have moved on to fretting about getting your book noticed by readers themselves. It never ends!

If you look online to figure out what works, it’s an overwhelming mess of responsibilities. Blog tours! Twitter! Events! Giveaways! Swag! Interviews! Contests! Where to begin?

In a recent discussion with my agent, I can’t tell you how relieved I was when she said that she’s not all that convinced that any of that stuff—blogs, Facebook, events, swag—actually makes a difference in numbers of books sold. Maybe it does for YA—teens are online more and have their own money—but not for middle grade. My agent, bless her heart, thinks it comes down to word of mouth. And word of mouth for middle grade generally starts with…The Gatekeepers.

(You know the gatekeepers. The parents, teachers, and librarians who tell the kids about the books, who buy them for them, who place them in the kids’ hands?)

Well, as a middle grade author with a book coming out in 4(!) months, this conversation was both terribly relieving and terribly terrifying.

YAY! It’s okay if I can’t get off of work to handcraft one-of-a-kind bookmarks that I’ll hand-deliver in my own independent tour of bookstores!

YIKES! What if no one talks about my book!?

My agent, being the great agent (and kind person) she is, assured me that they WILL hear about my book. She also said that I already know what those gatekeepers are looking for—after all, I am one.

Hmmm, she’s right. (She's a smart agent, too.) I AM an elementary school librarian. I choose books and put them in kids’ hands every single day. So…what makes a gatekeeper “notice” a book?

Well, in my little corner of the world, there are generally three different ways a book finds its way into my library:

1) It is part of my school’s curriculum. This is the main mission of my library, so if I come across a new book on insects—and I know second grade does a huge insect unit, or I read about a novel with themes on individuality—and that is something that the fifth graders work on, I will buy it for my library.

2) It is a book I know my students will elbow each other out of the way to get it. To me this is really an addendum on #1 because part of my school’s curriculum is teaching kids to read. Well, you only become a reader if you actually spend time reading. So if there’s a Lego Ninjago book or a Taylor Swift biography or a cheesy movie tie-in novel, I will buy it for my students. Because it’s not true that if you only have great literature in front of kids, then they will read it. The truth is, kids are very willing to sit there and NOT read. So sometimes you need the junk to get them started.

3) Professional reviews. This is a tricky one because it’s really overarching. If a book meets the criteria for #1 or #2 but has terrible reviews, I won’t buy it. But there are books that find their way into my library through reviews only. These are books that don’t feature Star Wars characters or fit perfectly with the third grade unit on simple machine. They’re books that simply tell really good stories. I buy those, too. A lot of them.

So how does this help you, the author who is freaking out about how their little book will be noticed? I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t. So much of it is out of our control. But I’m looking back at my list now with my author hat on and it’s got me thinking. Not so much about how I can shout louder about my book, but how I can make it more appealing to the gatekeepers. Some things I can’t change. At this point, my premise is set. My book’s about a talking rat, not Selena Gomez or farting dogs. But maybe I can make it more curriculum-friendly with a book discussion guide that pulls in some of the topics that fourth and fifth graders cover...hmmm.

As for the reviews? Well, I suspect there still may be sleepless nights ahead of me.