Monday, May 22, 2017

Cleo Edison Oliver in Persuasion Power: A Review and Giveaway

Cleopatra Edison Oliver is a fifth grade force to be reckoned with. Her superpower is the art of persuasion and she is convinced that she can not only create and market personalized hair clips ("Tell the world who you are!") to every girl in her grade, she's sure that her idol, talk show host, Fortune A. Davies, will endorse her. Following the pervious book, CLEO ADDISON OLIVER: PLAYGROUND MILLIONAIRE, PERSUASION POWER by Sundee T. Frazier (Scholastic Books, 2017) will appeal to 4th-6th grade girls.  

In one of the initial scenes Cleo's teacher, Mr. Boring, rebukes her for not focusing on their language arts lesson. Cleo admits that she can't imagine how metaphors or similes could be useful. Mr. Boring points out she used a metaphor in the ad copy for her passion clips. Like an inside joke, for the rest of the book Sundee Frazer sprinkles flavorful similes and metaphors into Cleo's thoughts and speech. For example, when Cleo thinks about another girl who became quickly popular she thinks, "The girl was all whipped cream and no pudding." 

Although this is a book about how Cleo translates her passion for hair clips into big sales, it is equally about Cleo wanting to find her birth parents. 
Her parents loved her. A lot. And yet lately she'd felt a growing desire to know more about her birth parents. To have a relatives list of her own. To see herself in her family. To have some clues about what she might look like all grownup. (p.73)
The author uses an apt simile to describe Cleo's feelings about her adoption: 
She had her parents. But something else--a gnawing, like hunger, except it wasn't in her stomach--told her that something was missing. She just wanted to know: Did they [her birth parents] remember her, wonder about her too? (p.82)
Cleo comes up with a foolproof plan to find her birth mom. She'll become a "kidpreneur" on Fortune's show, her birth mom will see her and contact her. When her mother warns against getting her hopes up too high, 
Cleo lets the words slide off her like grease on a non-stick pan. She was a seed in dirt, a dog chasing a scent, a dentist with a scaler! Nothing--not even her overly cautious mom--could stop her from trying to reach Fortune. (p.107)
Despite anxiety over meeting her birth father, she tells him, "I'm a girl with big dreams who won't let anything stop her. I may be young, I may be small, but I'm as persistent as the Itsy-Bitsy Spider." Her birth father gets a funny look on his face and she's worried that she said something wrong until he says, "That's exactly how I was when I was your age."
Suddenly, she was flinging her arms around his middle and hugging him as hard as she could. His arms hovered above her, then slowly he embraced her, ...and the feeling of her birth dad's arms around her mingled together and became a memory she would never forget--a coin in the piggy bank of herself that she would never, ever spend. (p. 228)
And even though Cleo never appears on Fortune's television show, the ending leaves the reader with a satisfied smile. I have just two points of critique. As much as I enjoyed this fast-paced contemporary novel, I would have liked if better if Caylee, Cleo's "business partner" was a little more developed and provided more push-back. It seemed as if Caylee was always hard at work creating the passion clips and worried over Cleo taking on more orders than they could manage--but there didn't appear to be consequences of Cleo's choice to turn over the majority of the "manufacturing" to her best friend. Similarly, Cleo spends a lot of class and homework time daydreaming about her business passions without any  consequences to her grades. 

This book will entertain the lower middle grade crowd and I have a paperback copy to give away. (My apologies in advance; the book arrived from the publisher with creases in the cover.) Leave me a comment by May 26 and your email address if you are new to my blog, and I'll enter your name in the giveaway. It would be a great book for your daughter, granddaughter, or to add to your classroom library. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Nerdy Books Blog

As blog schedules may have it, I was a guest blogger on Nerdy Books the day after I blogged for Kirby Larson. If you're not familiar with this comprehensive blog for readers, I hope you'll check them out. They have several different types of essays throughout the week; click on "Posts" and browse around.

In my Nerdy blog last week, I highlighted ten mentor texts that have helped me as I've written Half-Truths. Next week I plan to be back in your inbox with another book review and giveaway. Thanks to all of you for your support. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friend Friday: Guest Blogger for Kirby Larson and a First Page Critique

Congratulations to Joan Edwards who won SOPHIE QUIRE and THE LAST STORYGUARD off last week's blog.

I've been a Kirby Larson fan ever since I read Hattie Big Sky followed by Hattie Ever After. I recently reviewed two of Kirby's newer books Audacity Steals the Show and Liberty. I was honored when she invited me to write a guest blog for her!

Can you imagine what my topic is? 

For the answer, check out this Friend Friday post and leave a comment. I'm also offering a first page critique; you have until May 17 to enter the giveaway. Make sure to leave your email address if I don't already have it. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Avi, Auxier, Life after Death, and "Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard" Giveaway

Congratulations to Connie Saunders who won CALL ME SUNFLOWER from last week's blog.

This week I'm taking on a difficult topic: life after death. I have recently read two middle grade books which include references to eternal life. Although not the central theme of Avi's THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDS or Jonathan Auxier's SOPHIE QUIRE, protagonists in both books experience the death of important secondary characters. 


In Medieval England Sybil, a young servant girl, is in bondage to Thurston, an alchemist determined to make gold and procure eternal life. In his quest, he creates green stones that give him magical powers and eternal life when swallowed. After swallowing the first stone, he "dies" but then comes back to life 20 years younger. In fact, he dies three time. 

"I must live because I don't want to die," he says. Each time Thurston thought he had outwitted death and was enabled to live life all over again. In an almost contradictory note, the narrator concludes that there is no magic because magic takes away what it gives, but life gives what it takes. 


Auxier provides a rich sequel to PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES, which I listened to and enjoyed. Sophie Quire, a twelve-year-old bookmender is enlisted by Peter Nimble to save the world from the imminent destruction of all its storybooks. The Herculean quest on which Sophie and Peter proceed is layered with literary allusions, beautiful imagery, and the importance of books--often with inside jokes that writers will enjoy. 

I smiled at this reference to the hero's journey:
She had read enough stories in her life to be familiar with the trope in which heroes make a great show of being reluctant when told they must embark on a dangerous quest. They often refuse the call to adventure, only to change their minds at the very last moment. This had always bothered Sophie, who thought that such dithering was both unrealistic and unheroic. But now that she was the hero and she was being told she must embark on a dangerous quest, she suddenly understood just how difficult it was to take that first step. (p. 159)
But like THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDS, after important secondary characters die, magic brings them back to life.


In these novels for boys and girls, both Avi and Auxier are grappling with a huge truth: death happens. In my mind, they unveil the universal fear of one's own mortality. People don't want to die and would rather imagine they can live forever. 

Most young people don't think about death as a fact of life, unless confronted by the death of a close friend ore relative. How should writers who are writing for the children's or young adult market take on this subject?

Avi and Auxier chose to provide magical answers. To the question of what happens after death they've answered, "Magic can allow you to live forever." In my estimation, there is only one author and book that doesn't shy away from this tough subject and doesn't offer magic as the answer. 

In the gospel of John, there is a record of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Just prior to this miracle Jesus tells Lazarus' sisters, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." (John 11: 25-25, New King James Version)

Jesus went on to demonstrate his power over death by rising from the dead, a miracle that was witnessed by the disciples on several occasions (Matthew 28: 16-17, Luke 24: 13-16, John 20: 1-2, 19, 24, by Paul (Acts 9: 3-5), and by 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6).

I think that layered underneath Avi and Auxier's magical portrayal of characters coming to life is a fear of death itself. The author of Hebrews (most likely Paul) writes, 
"Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." (Hebrews 2: 14)
There is life after death--but it's not obtained through magic. 


For those of you who are my friends or faithful blog followers, you know that I don't often reference my faith in my book reviews or on this blog. I had such a strong reaction to both of these books that I felt compelled to write a response from a Christian perspective.

If you are interested in receiving my hard copy of SOPHIE QUIRE (provided by the publisher, Abrams) please leave me a comment by May 6th with your email address if you think I don't have it. I look forward to your comments about this post or  your thoughts on other children's books which have tackled this difficult topic of death. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Call Me Sunflower: A Review and ARC Giveaway

Congratulations to Sandra Warren who won the audio CD of WISH last week. Thanks to everyone who entered.

I seem to be on a roll with middle grade books featuring a girl protagonist who had to leave her home and wants to return. This week I am introducing CALL ME SUNFLOWER, Miriam Spitzer Franklin's second middle grade novel that comes out next month (SkyPony Press, 2017). 

Like Charlie Reese in WISH who doesn't like her name Charlemagne, Sunny Beringer hates being called Sunflower. Both girls have difficulty coming into new schools and both identify with stray animals who they rescue. Both books include an older grandparent-type figure who factor into the girls' adjustments to their new homes. Similar set-ups and conclusions book end the two novels, but the plots are quite different. 

Twelve-year-old Sunny has just moved to North Carolina from New Jersey with her mother and younger sister, Autumn, leaving behind Scott, a beloved father figure. Sunny's internal struggles are identified early on,
The whole move thing didn't make any sense to me. Mom had told me she needed a change--a break from her job--and the only way she could afford it was if we moved in with my rich grandmother in North Carolina. But Scott could have moved in with us in New Jersey instead of living in his own condo if we needed to cut down on expenses. 
When I suggested that to Mom, she just repeated that it was time for a change. 
If it were up to Mom, we could stay in North Carolina forever, and I'd barely get to see my dad at all. That's why it was so important to come up with the perfect plan, and soon. (pp. 5-6)
With that, the reader is introduced to the main plot: how is Sunny going to get her mother (who adopted her and Autumn as a single parent) and Scott back together. 

At the same time that Sunny navigates being part of a Odyssey of the Mind team, missing her best friend and forming new friendships, plus figuring out how to respond to her proper grandmother who owns a fur store, she concocts one plan after another to help the people she identifies as her parents fall in love again. In the process of making a photo album for her mother's birthday, Sunny discovers a photo that uncovers a secret and opens her eyes to the true relationship between Scott and her mother. 

An important sub-plot is Sunny's conflicts with her grandmother and her dislike for her store. When Sunny decides to join an animal rights group's "Fur-Free Friday" protest she starts down a path of secrets and lies. Her decisions lead to consequences spinning out of control until even her new friend Lydia, sees through her lies. 

I sank down into an empty chair, dropping my head on my arms. There were mess-ups and there were mess-ups. This was the kind that just kept getting worse and worse. It was like the time I was mowing the grass and a rock hit the window. At first it was a little hole. Then I heard a crackling noise and lines started shooting down from the hole and, before I knew it, the glass shattered and the window fell into a million pieces.  
Except this time, it felt like I was the one cracking. (p. 226)
Like Charlie in WISH, at the end of SUNFLOWER, Sunny realizes that her definition of family can be different than what she had grown up believing. After her grandmother takes Sunny's stray cat to the vet, the two of them talk.
"It gets pretty cold out there at night," Grandma Grace said. "She'll need to stay in the house, at least while she's recovering." 
"Does that mean we can keep her?" Autumn asked. 
I held my breath.
"Of course," Grandma Grace said. "Believe it or not, I happen to like cats."
I felt my eyes opening wide. "Really?" 
"Don't be so surprised," Grandma Grace said with a wink. "Besides, we're already paying the vet bills so this cat is officially yours to keep."
"Thanks so much, Grandma Grace. I can't wait to bring her home." 
I threw my arms around her and felt her arms encircling me, hugging me back. (p. 258)
To win my ARC, please leave me a comment by Saturday, April 29. If you are new to my blog make sure you leave your email address. If you share this on social media I'll enter your name in twice. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wish: A Review and Audio CD Giveaway

Reminiscent of the 2010 Newbery medal winner MOON OVER MANIFEST, Barbara O'Connor's latest middle grade novel, WISH (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2016) is the story of a young girl who feels abandoned by her parents, is forced to live with strangers, and searches to understand her past. Like MOON, it tugs on the reader's heart strings and shows the conflicts of a young girl who yearns to return home.

From the outside, eleven-year-old Charlie is an angry fifth grader who is forced to leave Raleigh, NC in order to live with her aunt and uncle (Bertha and Gus) in Colby, NC--home to hillbillies and kids who eat squirrel sandwiches. She's mad that her teenage sister, Jackie, gets to move in with a friend and live closer to their mother and visit their father (Scrappy) in prison. But as O'Connor skillfully portrays, Charlie's hard-to-control temper masks her deep longing for a home where her mother doesn't stay in bed all day with the curtains drawn and not caring if she watches TV and eats cookies for lunch. 

On the first day at her new school, Charlie meets Howard Odom who she thinks of as the "up down boy" because of the awkward way he walks. As her backpack buddy, Odom persists at befriending her despite Charlie's attempts at discouraging him and her insistence that she's going back to Raleigh. But even as Charlie repeats that line to Howard and the other children she meets, she wonders how long it might take for her mama to get her feet on the ground, as the social worker had said. 

Ever since fourth grade, Charlie has had a secret wish. Although the reader never finds out what the wish is, by the end of the book it is apparent that wishing on such things as hearing a bird sing in the rain, watching an acorn drop on the porch and turning around three times, or eating the pointed piece of the pie is not what makes Charlie's life better. Rather, the love of a new family and a special friend bring this story to a happy and satisfying ending. 

Part of the lyrical beauty of the story is Charlie's relationship with a stray dog (Wishbone) that she and Howard trap. Charlie has heard that dogs love their owners no matter what and she has an urgent need for that type of relationship.
Out on the porch that night, Bertha told Gus about her day while I sent my thoughts zipping through the trees to wherever Wishbone was. I wanted him to know he didn't have to be a stray like me. I wanted him to be mine. (p. 79)
Charlie and Howard finally trap Wishbone and bring him home. When Gus puts a tag around the dog's neck with his name on it, Charlie feels as if he belongs right there with her. But, the middle of that happy moment, I had a tiny seed of a thought that I hurried to push out of my mind before it had time to grow. That thought was this: Where in the world do I belong? (p. 111)
Later, after Wishbone runs off and Charlie is feeling miserable over being mean to Howard and she wonders if Wishbone wants to be a stray. Bertha reminds her,
"Charlie Reese," she said. "You think that dog don't know a good thing when he sees one?" 
"What good thing?" I said in my pouty baby voice. 
She held up a finger each time she counted off. "One, he eats bologna for breakfast. Two, he sleeps on a pillow. And three, he is loved by an angel." (p. 130)
Howard forgives Charlie, Wishbone returns, and by the end of the book Charlie has learned to appreciate the love she has received from her aunt and uncle and the Odoms. 

Here is the book trailer, 

and a glimpse into O'Connor's inspiration for WISH:

Suzy Jackson, the narrator, does a great job providing the different North Carolina voices. This audio book would be a beautiful book to listen to in the classroom or on a car trip with your family. If you would like to enter this giveaway, leave me a comment (with your email address if I don't have it) by Friday, April 21. If you share this on social media or become a follower of my blog tell me what you do in your comment. I'll add your name in the hat accordingly. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Meet My Experts III- Vermelle Diamond Ely

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won the autographed copy of Darlene Jacobson's book, WHEELS OF CHANGE.

As promised several weeks ago, I want to share more about Vermelle Ely, one of my generous experts for Half-Truths, my WIP which takes place in Charlotte, NC in 1950.
Vermelle and I in her Charlotte, NC home
March, 2017

As anyone who writes historical fiction knows, you can't use every detail you glean from your interviews--no matter how delicious it is. In no particular order, here are some of the snippets I learned from Vermelle which have informed Half-Truths. 
  • In the late 40's and early 50's, a light-skinned African American girl was treated like a queen. If her hair was long and fair, she was even more special.
  • Sometimes people passed for convenience: to go out to eat, get their hair done, get waited on, or to move up to the front of line. Kids at the time might think, "In the movies no one would know know if you’re white or black.  Let’s see if we can do it just for fun."
  • Vermelle commented on my two characters that, "Lillie could have gone anywhere with Kate because she was so light. But Kate would have stuck out in the black community. She would have been accepted, but the police would have questioned her."

I found these posters at Vermelle's house and
photographed them. They were taken in 1968 to commemorate
the Queen City classic rivalry between
Second Ward and West Charlotte High

  • According to Vermelle, the girls would have been too scared to go to the movies or library together, but they may have talked on the phone. 
  • About 100 students who attended Second Ward lived in Biddleville and it took them 30 minutes to walk to school, including going through a cow pasture near Thompson orphanage
  • "We didn’t know, 'separate but equal.' We heard our parents talk about it though. We got all the hand me downs from the white schools. Books would have so many names in them, you couldn’t even put your name in it and the backs were off. We got stuff from Central High and inherited blue and white because that was their school colors."
  • Vermelle’s great-grandfather was from England and her great-grandmother was native American. When her maternal grandmother and grandfather died, the family went to Wilson, NC for the funeral.  She discovered that her great-grandfather  was buried in the white cemetery and her great-grandmother was buried in the black cemetery. “I was grown before I knew it. Nobody talked about race. My mother said her mother’s family was very fair and her father marched in the Elks parade."

Vermelle as Miss Queen City Classic in 1948
  • Vermelle remembered that the black WACS in WWII had to go up the backstairs of Montaldo's (a very expensive department store in downtown Charlotte) to try on their uniforms. 
Vermelle has struggled with poor eyesight for years and can no longer read printed material. Recently I read several chapters to her. You can imagine how pleased I was when she nodded and agreed with my descriptions and the characters' interactions. Sharp as ever, she made comments on what was true to life and what wasn't. Happily, she didn't find much that was inaccurate. 

I am indebted to Vermelle and my other experts, who have shared their life stories so that my story is more authentic.