The POP of a champagne cork is one of my favorite sounds. There really is no time when that thoop isn’t signaling a special occasion. And last month, I got to pop open a bottle I’d been holding onto for … Continue reading
When thirteen-year-old Sam Barrette’s baseball coach tells her that her attitude’s holding her back, she wants to hit him in the head with a line drive. Why shouldn’t she have an attitude? As the only girl playing in the 13U league, she’s had to listen to boys and people in the stands screaming things like “Go play softball,” all season, just because she’s a girl. Her coach barely lets her play, even though she’s one of the best hitters on the team.
All stakes now rest on Sam’s performance at baseball training camp. But the moment she arrives, miscommunication sets the week up for potential disaster. Placed at the bottom with the weaker players, she will have to work her way up to A league, not just to show Coach that she can be the best team player possible, but to prove to herself that she can hold a bat with the All-Star boys.
Home Run: THE SWEET SPOT ebook is available for pre-order on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01D8VYWK6 and in iBooks
I met Addie last summer. She rode around in the car with me, and I fell in love with her 12-year-old self. She is funny, resilient, and in need of love and a stable home. I would have adopted her … Continue reading
Welcome today to author Jane Sutcliffe, who, as luck would have it, graciously agreed to answer some questions about writing for children. Jane has written over two dozen non-fiction books for young readers, and is an experienced presenter. Her school visit … Continue reading
I’m enjoying a growing trend in Middle Grade reading: novels in verse.
These stories have a narrative arc, and character development, and all the things you’d expect from a novel-length work. But, they are told through the medium of poetry rather than prose.
Two of the main things I love about this type of novel are the beauty of the language, and the accessibility of the stories. This style of writing is particularly well suited for people who claim to not like poetry, or kids who are reluctant readers. There is a lot of white space in poetry, which can be very welcoming to readers who feel stuck when they see a page full of words.
Through a connected series of poems, Woodson chronicles her life growing up in the 1960s and 70s in both the North and the South. I gained a much deeper appreciation of the landscape of our country at that time while reading her touching, often funny, and deeply personal story.
My favorites were the “how to listen” poems.
how to listen #3
Middle of the night
my grandfather is coughing
me upright. Startled.
how to listen #7
Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.
Give yourself the chance to listen to her words. They’re beautiful.
The Crossover is a heart-pumping story of basketball phemon twin-brothers Josh and Jordan Bell. But as the jacket flap says: Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him – a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line.
This book is a natural summer reading pick for sports lovers. The word play, especially during scenes that describe basketball games, is really fun.
…Be careful though,
’cause now I’m CRUNKing
and my dipping will leave you
SLIPPING on the floor, while I
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight to the hole:
However, it’s not exclusively for sports fans. There’s a tender story of family at the heart of this novel that will appeal to all readers.
Basketball Rule #1
In this game of life
your family is the court
and the ball is your heart.
No matter how good you are,
no matter how down you get,
on the court.
If you’re casting about for gift ideas for your friends and family, I suggest you consider giving BOOKS! You might not steal the show at the holiday gathering, but later, when you have tired kids who want to curl up with the original hand-held escape, the glory will be yours. When the mid-winter relatives have cabin fever, and the book you gave is their salvation, you will be thanked. (If you’re worried about giving books as gifts in case they’ve already been read, just be sure to include a gift receipt!)
There are SO MANY great choices out there. This is a small sampling of some I’ve come across in 2014. In each case, I suggest a “pair with” gift and a profile of who the book may be best suited for. Happy shopping!
Picture Books (ages 0-5+)
FLORA AND THE PENGUIN by Molly Idle. This is a seriously adorable wordless winter tale of a friendship on ice. Young kids will enjoying “reading” it themselves, over and over. Great for kids who like interactive (lift-the-flap) books, ice-skating, and/or penguins. Pair with a stuffed penguin or a coupon to take the recipient ice skating.
THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES by B.J. Novak. On the flip side to Ms. Idles wordless book, this book is pictureless. Perfect for the “little devil” on your list, the book goads the adult reader into saying silly sounds and words because “Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say.” Pair with a whoopie cushion.
Middle Grade novels (ages 8-13ish)
THE DIRT DIARY by Anna Staniszewski. The first in a series, this book introduces us to Rachel, whose imperfections make her perfectly lovable. Rachel is a girl who loves to bake, but to help out her mom, must clean toilets instead. Great for the kid who always seems to have good intentions that lead to bad results! Pair with a cookie sheet and baking mix.
HATTIE BIG SKY by Kirby Larson. Another first in a series, this is perfect for Little House on the Prairie type fans. Hattie is a 16-year-old who leaves Iowa to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim near Vida, Montana. Pair with a pair of warm socks and/or a cat.
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, THE LONG HAUL by Jeff Kinney. Kids simply can’t get enough of this series! A natural choice for reluctant readers, text and pictures intertwine to tell the latest adventure of Greg Heffley and his family as they set out on a road trip. Pair with one of the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID book journals – a combination of blank pages and journalling suggestions – to get kids writing as well.
Young adult novels (ages 12 +)
THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey. This book is perfect for your older sci-fi loving kid. In brief, it’s a classic “alien’s attack and take over the world” scenario, with fantastic pacing and lots of layers. I read it because I was vetting it for my own kid, and was surprised how much I liked it. There is a smattering of profanity, but it is used as needed, not gratuitously. Pair with an air-soft gun.
ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry. I thought this was going to be another sci-fi story, due to the setting being a town called Roswell Station. But this haunting book is actually historical fiction. The main character, Judith, is unable to speak, yet you will never forget her voice. Perfect for older kids who will understand the nuance of mentally imbalanced adults, and the importance of sometimes sharing secrets. Pair with tickets to a local colonial village.
Fiction and Non-Fiction for the grown-up set
UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the incredible story of olympian-turned WWII Lieutenant Louis Zamperini. Recently made into a movie, this book will appeal to the avid runner and/or history buff on your list. Pair with a WWII documentary, or movie tickets to see Unbroken when it opens.
CASTING OFF by Nicole R. Dickson. This book tells the story of Rebecca Moray, who comes to an island off the coast of Ireland to research a book on Irish knitting, and how she and her daughter interact with the people there. Perfect for the knitter on your list. If they’re Irish, extra points. Pair with knitting needles/yarn.
I’m sure you know of several more books in each category that you’ve loved and could give as gifts! This year, I encourage you to do just that. Happy holidays, and happy reading!
Have you ever read a story and wished you could ask the author questions about it? That is what happened to me while reading A TIME TO DANCE by Padma Venkatraman. And guess what? My wish came true! A hearty welcome today to Ms. Venkatraman, who graciously agreed to give us a behind the scenes peek at how this beautiful book came to be.
First, a bit about the story itself. Here is an overview, from Goodreads:
“Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.
Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.”
Bharatamatyam is a classical dance form of South India. Here’s an example:
As I read A TIME TO DANCE I was especially carried away by the description of the dancing itself. So, the first question I asked was:
Nancy: What is your experience with Bharatanatyam dance? As I was reading, I was guessing you must have personal experience. Am I right?
I call that answer glib, because, for me, hearing the voice and being possessed by a character is incredibly important. It’s everything. BUT, editing is also everything – and that begins with self-editing.
I fought against writing A TIME TO DANCE in the verse form because although I love and read poetry, I’ve never studied it. Luckily for me, Richard Blanco (who later read at President Obama’s inauguration) let me sit in on a poetry workshop he was doing at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and his friendship and faith in my ability helped me overcome my fear of experimenting with this form. Many other modern award-winning poets who are also academics, helped and encouraged me: Scott Hightower, Peter Covino, and Peter Johnson also encouraged me.
My editor, Nancy Paulsen, is a self-confessed “fan” of the verse novel, I believe. So she was a stalwart supporter and stood by me through numerous revisions. She was very excited about this work and encouraged me strongly to experiment with this form.
Finally, as I was revising my work, I realized that this form is particularly well suited to two of the three main themes in this story: Veda’s love of dance and her spiritual awakening. A character’s spiritual growth is incredibly hard to write in verse. It’s virtually impossible to capture in straight out prose – or was, for me, for Veda. Spiritual growth – and the power of art – especially of dance – two key themes in A TIME TO DANCE – go beautifully with verse.
Nancy: I was very interested in all the religous elements of the story. You don’t always see a lot of spirituality in books for this age level. Did you get any push-back against including these details from your agent/editor/others?
My agent, Rob Weisbach, is an incredible ally. He admitted he was scared when he saw the word “God” on the first page, because few writers dare to approach this topic. He said it was damnably hard to write spirituality without coming off as religiously bigoted or proselytizing – and he’s right. But he said, even in the draft phase, that I had pulled it off – and he had nothing but praise for this aspect of the book. He never once suggested that I should tone down this core aspect – and he pointed out something that’s very important.
While Veda’s spiritual awakening is grounded in the religion to which she’s been exposed, the book is not religious; it’s spiritual. Her awakening is universal, not limited to one particular context. The novel is, in no way, trying to push a particular religion – in fact, if anything, Veda’s philosophy is based on acceptance. The title is a Biblical quote (Ecclesiastes) – a quote that has significant meaning to Veda.
An editor whom I deeply trust, Stephen Roxburgh, also read a draft, and his belief that I should and, moreover, could, pull off the spiritual aspect of Veda’s story, was vital. He called A TIME TO DANCE the “La Vita Nuova” of Bharatanatyam. La Vita Nuova is a text by Dante Allegheri, and in it, the main character progresses through different stages of love/understanding, as Veda does, maturing from Eros to Charis to Agape.
Stephen’s note was something I looked at every time I felt scared. Writing a story that touches on spiritual grown is one of the hardest things to do – for any age group. For the younger audience, it’s even harder, I think. Especially if the spiritual growth occurs in a character whose religion isn’t part of the mainstream. But Stephen’s encouragement kept me going, looking ahead, listening to Veda, seeing AT TIME TO DANCE play out in my mind’s eye, allowing her and the other characters to possess me.
It took years to write this novel right. And my own editor, Nancy Paulsen, as I’ve said earlier, was immensely patient. Her patience is truly unparalleled and it is amazing to have someone like her to help me polish my work and make it shine.
But after it was done, I was, frankly, terrified. It was really a tremendous relief that A TIME TO DANCE was released to starred reviews in 5 journals: Kirkus and Booklist and VOYA and SLJ and BCCB. And I am thrilled that so many newspapers carried glowing reviews. I’m also delighted to share the recent great news that it’s a Booklist Top 10 art book for youth!
Nancy: Even though Veda has experienced a horrific life-changing event, I love how you wrote so many typical problems into her world via her crushes on two different guys, including Jim who fits her prosthesis (and is basically her physical therapist). Was the program Jim was working through to help people in India be fitted for limbs based on a real group you know about?
Padma: I spoke to several disabled people, physical therapists, doctors, and physiatrists when I wrote the novel. I went “method” the way actors sometimes do – and spent a lot of time doing experiments to simulate the tactile illusion of a phantom limb, using crutches, etc. In my late teens, I narrowly escaped the loss of a leg, so I guess in some ways Veda’s experience was nearer to my heart that I realized, until I wrote the book. All this to say, Jim’s character is inspired by several Americans whom I met, who volunteer to travel to other countries to help with the making of prostheses. And, when I visited India, I did come across many programs to aid socio-economically deprived people who were, among other things, disabled. But I saw several groups of people in India and elsewhere, who inspired me. I can’t point to just one person or one group. Then again, Robert C. James and his son Josh James, who create artificial limbs in my home (Rhode Island), gave me more time than probably anyone else did – so, in part to honor them, I named my character Jim.
[Note: What a fun way to honor them – I love it!]
For more information on the novel, a free downloadable discussion guide, and lesson plans, please visit Padma’s author website: www.padmasbooks.com. Also, check out her other titles, including: ISLAND’S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS.
Thank you for your time and for sharing your process with us, Padma! I encourage all readers to make time for A TIME TO DANCE. It’s gorgeous.
Have you ever wondered what Clementine, Ramona, or Junie B. would be like in middle school? I hope they would stay spunky and turn out a lot like Maggie Mayfield, the main character in Megan Jean Sovern’s THE MEANING OF MAGGIE (Chronicle Books, 2014). In any case, I know they’d be friends with her!
Maggie is someone I was rooting for from the minute she wished her hospitalized dad would wake up so they could split a Little Debbie. (She’s willing to eat the whole thing herself, but she’d rather share). Then, I just – plop – fell in love with her when she was describing how amazing her first day of sixth grade was, including this:
“And lunch was the best because I got a whole table to myself so I spread out my notebooks and went to town on a stack of syllabi.”
She’s quirky, she doesn’t fit in, and she doesn’t care! She has much bigger things on her mind, such as her report on Sandra Day O’Connor, and her new friend, Clyde, “the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.”
Underneath this layered, interesting character is a story of family bonds that are tested by parental illness. From the jacket flap:
Eleven years old. The beginning of everything!
For Maggie Mayfield, turning eleven means she’s one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. It’s time for her to pull herself up by her bootstraps (the family motto) and think about more than after school snacks and why her older sisters are too hot for their own good. Because something mysterious is going on with her cool dude Dad, whose legs have permanently fallen asleep, and Maggie is going to find out exactly what the problem is and fix it. After all, nothing’s impossible when you’re future president of the United States of America, fifth grade science fair champion, and a shareholder in Coca-Cola, right?
Maggie’s position as youngest child and her own personality leave her somewhat oblivious to the true reality of her dad’s worsening struggle with multiple sclerosis. She doesn’t have much time for her “hot, but not on a school night” older sisters, Layla and Tiffany, but we as readers can see how they help shelter her from their dad’s illness and mom’s return to work.
This is a serious book on a difficult topic, but the author makes you laugh out loud along the way. Maggie’s inner dialogue, highlighted by footnotes, made me feel like I was visiting with a real kid every time I picked up the book. And there is a clever connection at the ending, which made this a “clutch it in your arms and sigh when you finish reading it” kind of book for me. I recommend this book for kids in grades 5-7 ish, (or anyone who loves realistic middle grade novels.) It will be especially meaningful to readers who have been touched by MS. Ultimately, the unpredictable and relentless nature of the disease is woven into a story of strength and hope.
Don’t miss MAGGIE!
*Special thanks to Alyson Beecher and her wonderful book-based blog, Kid Lit Frenzy, for offering a copy of TMOM as a prize via Chronicle Books.*
Welcome Anna Stanizewski, whose latest novel, THE PRANK LIST (Sourebooks) will be released July 1, 2014! Anna is the author of many books for children and young adults, including: THE UNFAIRY TALE LIFE SERIES THE DIRT DIARY SERIES ..and two upcoming picture books from … Continue reading
Summer’s here! Baseball season! Here are some baseball-themed middle grade reads to take with you to the sidelines:
NO CREAM PUFFS by Karen Day (2008, Wendy Lamb Books)
Goodreads says: “MADISON IS NOT your average 12-year-old girl from Michigan in 1980. She doesn’t use lipgloss, but she loves to play sports, and joins baseball for the summer—the first girl in Southern Michigan to play on a boys’ team. The press call her a star and a trailblazer, but Madison just wants to play ball. Who knew it would be so much pressure? Crowds flock to the games. Her team will win the championship—if she can keep up her pitching streak. Meanwhile, she’s got a crush on a fellow player, her best friend abandons her for the popular girls, the “O” on her Hinton’s uniform forms a bulls-eye over her left breast, and the boy she punched on the last day of school plans to bean her in the championship game.”
Nancy says: I’m not really a sporty gal (shocker!), but you don’t have to be a hard-core sports fan to enjoy this book. I loved how the main character, Madison, wished she could just side-step all the typical pre-teen angst and play baseball. But there are issues we all must confront when we’re growing up, whether we want to or not. This is a great story for tween girls who enjoy pushing boundaries, but also want to fit in.
HANG TOUGH, PAUL MATHER by Alfred Slote (1985, Harper Trophy)
Goodreads says: “Paul Mather’s a pitcher — a really good one. His off speed pitch is enough to bowl a kid backward, and his fast ball is pure smoke. There isn’t anything he can’t throw, from sliders, change-ups, and sinkers to a mean curve ball that breaks at just the right moment. He’s pitched no-hitters and perfect games. To Paul, pitching is what you live for and why you live.
Lately, though, Paul hasn’t been allowed to do much of anything, much less play ball. He’s got leukemia, and it’s put him into the hospital several times already. His parents are so worried, they’ve forbidden him to play the game he loves so much. They’re afraid that if Paul strains himself his illness may come back a final time…and maybe even take his life.
But Paul is a winner. His team needs him, and he won’t give up without a fight. Paul Mather is determined to pitch every inning…to keep playing baseball, and to keep hanging tough, no matter what the odds.”
Nancy says: This is an “oldie but a goodie.” Paul Mather was the first fictional boy to make me cry. (Jesse Aarons came soon after – I was a mess in 5th grade!). Again, the baseball is there as a great hook for sports-loving reluctant readers, but the story also has a lot of heart. This is definitely one worth going back in time for.
SCREAMING AT THE UMP by Audrey Vernick (2014, Clarion Books)
Goodreads says: “Twelve-year-old Casey Snowden knows everything about being an umpire. His dad and grandfather run a New Jersey umpire school, Behind the Plate, and Casey lives and breathes baseball. Casey’s dream, however, is to be a reporter—objective, impartial, and fair, just like an ump. But when he stumbles upon a sensational story involving a former major league player in exile, he finds that the ethics of publishing it are cloudy at best. This emotionally charged coming-of-age novel about baseball, divorce, friendship, love, and compassion challenges its readers to consider all the angles before calling that strike.”
Nancy says: This one’s on my to be read pile; I’m intrigued. I’ve also recently met the author, and if her writing style is anything like her personality, this story will have a lot of pep and zing!
KING OF THE MOUND: My Summer with Satchel Paige by Wes Tooke (2012, Simon & Schuster)
Goodreads says: “Nick was going to be a star baseball player, no doubt about it. People for miles around talked about the twelve-year-old boy with the golden arm. And then Nick is diagnosed with polio; a life-threatening disease in the 1930s. Everyone is devastated, especially Nick’s father, who copes by closing off from his son. When Nick finally leaves the hospital he wants nothing more than to get back in the game, but he seems to be the only one who thinks it’s possible. But after he begins working for Mr. Churchill, the owner of a minor league team, Nick meets Satchel Paige, arguably the best player in baseball. Satchel faces obstacles of his own; his skin color prevents him from joining the major leagues; and he encourages Nick to overcome the odds and step out of the dugout.”
Nancy says: This one is also on the TBR pile. When I saw the name Satchel Paige, I thought of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. The basic idea of this campaign, is to bring attention to the need for diverse characters in children’s literature, as well as to help support authors of color in the marketplace. There has been quite a bit of attention given to this topic at book conventions and on social media sites. I wonder if sales would have been better for KING OF THE MOUND had it come out now vs. two years ago? (I have no idea what the sales figures were -they may have been fabulous! But it would be an interesting comparison if one had a crystal ball.)
That’s all, sports fans! Enjoy your summer reading!