Middle Grade Review: The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove

World building is no small task, and S.E. Grove raises the bar exponentially in her debut book, The Glass Sentence. The story follows thirteen-year-old Sophia Tims as she rushes to save her kidnapped uncle, Shadrack Elli, a renowned cartographer. But Sophia isn’t simply riding trains and sailing ships through a familiar world. Years prior, the Great Disruption altered time, leaving each continent in a different age, some countries a mixture of various eras in human history. And hot on Sophia’s tail are the very people who abducted her uncle!

Overall, I enjoyed The Glass Sentence. I cared about Sophia, a spunky, precocious, but ultimately lonely girl who barely blinks at the tasks ahead of her. Each chapter provided an unexpected twist, making it very difficult (for me anyway) to predict where the action of the story would take Sophia. This book required patience to read (and to write, I’m sure!), but I did find that each time I had a question about how the world worked or why a new character was introduced, Grove provided an answer or at least the suggestion of one. There were a lot of characters–at every turn Sophia ran into a new person, it seemed–and at times I wondered if there were too many to flesh each one out adequately. That said, as the story develops, each character fell into place. I had many “aha!” moments (and I did say them aloud) during the second half of the book, and I’m glad I didn’t put it down. This story is definitely one to stick with.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves new worlds with unexpected rules and lots of plot twists and characters. There’s a few scary people (the men with grappling hooks on the cover were creepy to me), and a few moments of very age-appropriate romance.

Don’t be surprised at the end, as I was. This is a series! One of my pet peeves is reading a book thinking it’s a stand-alone, only to discover that the story isn’t over. Nothing against series in general. I just like to know ahead of time. :)

I learned about this book from Indie Bound’s Indie Next List newsletter. I get the newsletters at my local independent bookstore, and find it them a great resource for new books. To check out their summer recommendations for kid lit (the fall link wasn’t available), find them here.

And here’s my plug for independent book sellers. I picked up my copy this summer at Powell’s City of Books, one of the largest independent new and used bookstores in the world. If you’re in Portland, Oregon, visiting Powell’s is a must! I never leave without a sizable stack of books. To buy The Glass Sentence from Powell’s (they ship), click here.

Review: Chloe and the Lion

Chloe and the Lion CoverChloe and the Lion

Written by: Mac Barnett

Illustrated By: Adam Rex

Disney-Hyperion, 2012, Hardcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Creativity, Friendship

How We Discovered This Book: Aidan chose this book from our new book bin at the library. The cover peaked his interest, since the author and illustrator appear on it in claymation form. He wondered, “what would be in this book?”

Summary:

The author and illustrator attempt to tell a story about Chloe and how she meets a lion, but they have a falling out. The author fires the illustrator, and tries to replace him with others, but no one knows how to draw the lion (or save the story) quite like the illustrator. Chloe herself has to intervene to get the pair back together.

What I Liked:

This is a unique book that really smashes the fourth wall. The author and illustrator talk directly to the reader from the beginning and throughout. The main character has to get involved to drive the story to its conclusion. Interestingly, the main “story” within the story is somewhat incidental.

What Did My Kids Think?

Aidan liked how the author kept doing things that just made the situation worse. Not only were the author’s actions funny, but the dialogue was sharp and witty at a child’s level. The illustrations change along with the action, which just adds to the humor. Elizabeth thought it was funniest when the author tried to illustrate the book himself, and failed miserably.

Resources:

Check out the book trailer on YouTube – it gives you a flavor of the dynamics between the author and illustrator.

Now make your own book trailer: Take a favorite book, write down what you like most about it and a short summary, and get to filming! Use of humor, props, or reenactments get you extra bonus points.

Get out some clay or play dough and make soft versions of yourself – or even better, versions of your friends and family!

Back to School!

It’s that time of year again: it’s cool in the mornings, but still warm mid-day. In my house, counters are covered with lunch containers, water bottles, new pink erasers, and sharpened pencils.

School is back in session!

photo 3

For me, this means getting back to a more “normal” schedule now that my kids are back in school. Hopefully this schedule means more time for writing. I have just begun writing a new middle grade novel, and I want to keep the momentum going. I haven’t decided if the pumpkin spice lattes at my local coffee shop will be a motivator or a distraction, but I’ll guess I’ll have to try and find out.

I’m not sure why, but I also find that back to school and the fall season are prime times to read. My son and I read quite a bit this summer, but there is something about fall that inspires me to dig into the long list (and pile) of books that I have been wanting to read.

My son did not meet his goal of reading 20 chapter books this summer, but it was a good kick-start to a new summer tradition. We enjoyed reading together, and discovering new characters and worlds. I think the biggest accomplishment for the summer was when my husband asked my son if he wanted to watch a particular family movie, and my son responded, “but I want to read the book first!” Yay for reading! Aidan and I will continue to work our way through the chapter books on our list, which will be a nice compliment to the non-fiction books his teacher has already begun sending home.

I hope you all had a lovely and relaxing summer, and will make time for reading (and writing?) as you ease into fall.

Review: Rosie Revere, Engineer

Rosie Revere Engineer CoverRosie Revere, Engineer

Written by: Andrea Beaty

Illustrated By: David Roberts

Harry N. Abrams, 2013, Hardcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Creativity, Persistence, STEM

How We Discovered This Book: This book was in the new books bin at our library, and it caught my eye.

Summary:

Rosie loves to create and invent things. She takes what other people would discard (broken toys, gears, etc.) and makes things. She tries to create solutions for people she knows, but it does not go well. Then her Aunt Rose stops by to give the right kind of encouragement just when Rosie is ready to give up.

What I Liked:

Both of my children are very mechanically-oriented, and they are fascinated with how things work. As I consider their education, I seek opportunities for them to expand their talents through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs and activities. I also believe that girls need just as many opportunities to succeed in these fields as boys. This book showcases a girl who uses her creativity (and her apparent obsession with cheese) to make the world a better place with a few stumbles along the way. Additionally, there is an inference that Aunt Rose was a Rosie the Riveter-type trailblazer during WWII. The author includes a note at the end about this time in history.

What Did My Kids Think?

My kids liked Rosie’s persistence – she kept trying difference things until she figured out what worked. Elizabeth especially liked the silly parts – like when she made helium-inflated pants.

Resources:

Abrams Books has two whole pages of great activities related to this book. Check them out!

Book Recommendations: Our Favorite Picture Books

A few months ago, we shared our favorite books for children 1 year and under. Next, we are sharing our favorite picture books. It is a good mix of recently published and rediscovered classics. To choose our list, we considered several criteria. First, did we enjoy reading it as adults (quality of craft and/or a multilayered story)? Did our children ask to read it repeatedly? Did we feel compelled to buy it and add it to our permanent home library? Can we anticipate saving the book for future generations?

As before, each of our personal lists brought back many memories. We will have to read some of these again soon!

Here are our favorite picture books for children, in alphabetical order by author:

An Egg Is Quiet, Dianna Ashton

The Mine-o-saur, Sudiptha Bardhan-Quallen

The Curious Garden, Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, Peter Brown

One Cool Friend, Toni Buzzeo

If You Find A Rock, Peggy Christian

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, Cressida Cowell

Llama Llama Red Pajama, Anna Dewdney

Moonshot, Brian Floca

Whoever You Are, Mem Fox

Ox-cart Man, Donald Hall

Bread and Jam For Frances, Russell Hoban

The Horse in Harry’s Room, Syd Hoff

The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Bill Martin, Jr.

Me…Jane, Patrick McDonnell

Race You to Bed, Bob Shea

Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist, James Solheim

The Stinky Cheeseman and other Fairly Stupid Tales, Jon Scieszka

Grandpa Green, Lane Smith

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems

Owl Moon, Jane Yolen

You are a Lion, Taeeun Yoo

Do have other favorites not on this list? Please share!

Review: Papa’s Mechanical Fish

Papa's Mechanical Fish coverPapa’s Mechanical Fish

Written by: Candice Fleming

Illustrated By: Boris Kulikov

Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2013, Hardcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Creativity, Persistence

How We Discovered This Book: This is another fiction book based on a real person’s story. You can read my previous review for a book of the same type, called Building Our House.

Summary:

Papa loves to invent things and solve problems, so one day when his daughter asks, “What would it be like to be a fish?” he goes into his work shop and doesn’t come out until he has a prototype. He tests idea after idea, until finally one works.

What I Liked:

I liked that Papa has not invented anything that works, but he still sticks with it. The story is told in a rhythm similar to a song- there is plot, and then a “refrain.” In the refrain, each family member comments on the events. The manner in which each person talks tells us so much about each character. In most cases, it is the only way we find out what the characters are like.

What Did My Kids Think?

They liked Papa’s creativity, and that his family was so willing to support him even when his solutions seemed silly. Similarly to Building Our House, there is a page in the back that describes the real man that inspired the story- my kids love this kind of real life reference. An inventor named Lodner Phillips created his own submarine in 1951, which made significant improvements on existing submarine designs including steering, an air purifying system, and a boiler than generated steam underwater to run the engine. His family actually went out into Lake Michigan with him in his invention.

Resources:

As suggested on Celeste Reads, you could have children brainstorm their interests, talents, passions, or hobbies in a journal. They can then set a realistic goal (with help), set a timeline, and when the time has passed you can have a presentation day to see what they did and what they learned.

Sit down with some art supplies and paper, and brainstorm some things you’d like to see be invented. And then draw as many as you can!

Summer Here We Come!

It’s officially summer in our house: the weather’s warmer, the pool’s open, the kids are out of school, and the grill is fully operational. We’re working on some summer projects here that I thought I would share with you.

Summer Reading:

My kids love the reading program at our local library, and we have already stocked up our shelves with tons of books we are planning to read. I was inspired by a reading challenge that a fellow blogger does with her daughter, so I have challenged my son as well. I gave him a list of about 35 books, and I challenged him to read 20 of them this summer. I gave him a few weeks head start before school got out to get the momentum rolling. If he finishes all 20 this summer, he will earn a prize (likely a day out together – still to be decided by Aidan).

Aidan is stuck in a Geronimo Stilton rut (not a bad rut to be in, but still), so I designed the list to encourage him to read more high quality books and continue to advance his vocabulary and reading skills. Most of the books on the list are either books I loved as a kid or books I somehow missed, so we will likely be reading most of the books together. Having each of us read alternate chapter aloud seems to work well for us.

In case you’re interested, here’s the list (targeted to a soon-to-be third grader who loves to read and has a good vocabulary)

A Wrinkle in Time
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The Phantom Tollbooth
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Secret Garden
The Hobbit
Anne of Green Gables
The Mysterious Benedict Society
The Tale of Despereaux
Because of Winn-Dixie
Alice in Wonderland
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
James and the Giant Peach
The Lightning Thief
Black Beauty
Shiloh
The Adventure of Tom Sawyer
Little House on the Prairie
The Neverending Story
The Wind in the Willows
Stuart Little
The Boxcar Children
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
The Indian in the Cupboard
Pippi Longstocking
Treasure Island
The Borrowers 
Charlotte’s Web 
Holes 
The Little Prince 
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Velveteen Rabbit 
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
The 7 books at the bottom are the ones Aidan has already read during this challenge, including Mrs. Frisby which we will likely finish tonight. The bonus in the challenge is that most of these books also have decent movies, so as we finish each book we reward ourselves with the corresponding movie. We have had some lively discussions about the differences in the storytelling between movies and books, why movies leave certain things out, and whether movie characters match what we have created in our heads.
I’ll keep you posted on how this challenge works out.
Summer Project
I am working on a project for the blog that will hopefully add another dimension and keep things interesting for you readers. I won’t spoil the surprise just yet, but hopefully we will have a periodic visitor who will share their thoughts with us on children’s books. Stay tuned – they may be ready to join us by the fall.
Summer Blog Schedule
Originally, I thought we would just plow through on the regular schedule, but now summer is underway and I am late posting for the second week in a row. A more realistic schedule is probably in order. Starting with today’s post, we will be moving to twice a month for new posts until the end of August. So we’ll see you again in 2 weeks!

Connections Across the Miles

I believe that technology can be an amazing resource for a writer. It certainly can have its downsides, but used properly it can make information and support much more readily available.

In my writing, I often have questions about certain details. For example, I am writing a picture book about a boy in Venice. As I was writing, I wondered: What type of boats do your average Venetians own? If the main character went out into the Adriatic Sea, would he be able to see land? How do you say “my boy” in Italian? Thanks to Google, YouTube, and other Internet resources, I had my answer quickly and could focus on the story telling. Just 10-20 years ago, I would have needed to make a list of my questions, go to my local library, and search for the answers in reference books. And if I still had questions, I might need to write letters to experts, or travel to other libraries.

Technology such as video chatting, email, online courses, and file sharing sites help us stay connected as writers. I began my formal writing journey years ago with an online course with Gotham Writer’s Workshop. I took several courses with other aspiring writers from all over the United States, and the world. As a result of that class, several of us formed a critique group that met virtually – first by email and Google Docs, and then by video chatting.

Over 3-1/2 years later, our critique group endures. Its members have ebbed and flowed, and we have added other tools to help us better support each other’s writing. The constant has been Joanna and me, and our writing partnership.

Prior to this week, Joanna and I had only met once before in person at an SCBWI conference 2 years ago. I need to often remind myself of this, since I talk to her frequently by email and video chats every few weeks. This week, Joanna travelled all the way from Wyoming to the East Coast for her MFA residency. She spared a few days before school began to visit with me and my family.

Joanna was only here for less than 24 hours, but connecting with her in person was such a blessing. We hiked, we talked, I showed her my town, and my children totally fell in love with her. When she got on the train and waved goodbye, my daughter cried and I couldn’t help feeling a little sad too. She has had such a positive impact on my writing, and has supported me through all the ups and downs of new projects, rejections, and becoming a better writer.

So technology has brought me wonderful resources, feedback, support, and friends. It sustains me through the long writing process. But it could never replace how it feels to connect with another person, walking beside you. We got a little lost on our hike, but as always, we found our way out together.

Review: Building Our House

Building Our House Cover PageBuilding Our House

Written and Illustrated by: Jonathan Bean

Farrar Straus Giroux Books, 2013, Hardcover Edition

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Creativity/Family

How We Discovered This Book: This book was in the new books bin at our library, and it looked like good choice for my kids who are very much interested in how things are made.

Summary:

A girl and her family pack up their belongings and move from town out into an empty field. They live in a trailer for 1-1/2 years as they build their own home from scratch. Every member of the family has a part to play in the hard work and love it takes to build a home.

What I Liked:

Given the increased focus on non-fiction books in our schools, I’m very interested in books that take a non-fiction topic and put a twist on it. This is a fiction book, but is factually based on real events and a real building process. Rather than make it a dry book about construction, the author intertwines the family story with all of the work they did to build their own home. Kids will learn, without really being aware they are learning.

What Did My Kids Think?

Both of my kids enjoyed this book, and I think they now have a slightly better appreciation for what it has taken for us to renovate our own house. They had lots of questions that extended the discussion into other books and videos. The whimsical illustrations pair nicely with the story. The author includes some of his parents’  photographs from their house building at the end, which is an extra treat.

Resources:

PBS has a fun activity where kids can measure and build a house for some of their favorite storybook characters.

Scholastic has an activity focused on the business process from plans to completion.

Improvise, and see what other kinds of houses you can build: birdhouses, gingerbread houses, or even a house for your guinea pig.

Our Responsibility to Share

This morning, I took my 7 year old son running with me for the first time. I’m usually very private and protective of my running. As a busy mom of two young kids, my runs are my only true alone time. I use the time to clear my head, reset my mood, and push myself physically.

But I figured out a compromise – I completed my 3 mile run alone, and then I met my son at the bottom of the driveway. We ran almost a mile together, and then walked and ran the mile back. He ran 3/4 of a mile without stopping, which was pretty good for his first run of any distance. He loves to sprint, but he adapted to pacing himself well.

I loved spending the one-on-one time with him. Running is something on my mental list of things I’d like to share with my children, and I enjoyed sharing my love for running with him. My dad has many interests, and he always shared those interests with my brother and me when we were young. We could try whatever we wanted – some things stuck, and some things didn’t. The best part of trying new things was trying them along with Dad, who fostered a sense of curiosity, self-drive, and life long learning.

Some of the things I’d like to share with my kids are big- how to care for others, how to figure out what you love to do, and how to dream. Some are smaller but still important – how to ride a bike, play cards, or make a hand puppet.

As a writer of children’s books, I feel it is my responsibility and privilege to share these same things with child readers. My challenge is sharing without being preachy or didactic. Children (including mine) can smell a “lesson” coming. It has to be put out there, like cherry to be picked. And then if you can make the cherry seem tantalizing and tasty, they will pluck it and make it their own.