Monday, June 26, 2017

Blacksouls by Nicole Castroman

Finally reaching Nassau, Anne and her friends, Cara and Coyle Flynn, seek out their uncle, Alastair Flynn, for work and safety. Meanwhile, Teach’s ship, the Deliverance, is attacked by pirates. The captain refuses to fight and is killed, causing Teach to take command and save the ship. Because Teach’s actions can be interpreted as mutinous, Teach and faithful crew members are arrested once they arrive in Nassau. It seems even in the New World, innumerable forces are trying to keep Anne and Teach from being together. But they are determined to find a way, even if it means turning to piracy.

Castroman does not disappoint in her second Blackhearts novel. The suspense, unpredictability, and action is amped up when Anne and Teach enter the New World. Anne becomes a stronger character as she fights for her independence and Teach’s freedom. This is an ironic switch because Teach did the same for Anne while in England. Anne’s profound strength and courage is mostly due to Alastair's wife, Beth. Thanks to Beth, Anne has hope to be with Teach because Beth and Alastair have made a life for themselves in the Caribbean. However, racism, slavery, greed, and Old-World prejudices are still prevalent. When things finally fall apart in Nassau, Anne and Teach realize they must create their own world so they can be together.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming by J. Anderson Coats

After losing her father in the Civil War, Jane Deming gives up her friends and schooling to raise her baby stepbrother while her young stepmother works in the mill. Unexpectedly Jane’s stepmother enlists the three of them in an expedition to bring unmarried women to Washington Territory. Using the expedition’s pamphlet as a textbook, Jane works on developing the social and educational skills needed for surviving in the Pacific Northwest. During their sea voyage, Jane’s stepmother tries to keep Jane from improving her abilities for selfish reasons. Luckily, Jane’s new friends and passengers come to her rescue. When they finally arrive in Seattle, Jane and her stepmother discover that it is a wilder place than they expected. 

Coat’s novel is an unpretentious coming-of-age story full of yearning and determination. When Jane’s father dies, she loses the only person who believed in her potential. Immaturely, her stepmother forces Jane to give up her dreams for their family’s survival. But as they embark on the expedition, Jane’s new friends point out that Jane’s stepmother is using Jane. Quietly, Jane fights for any control over her life. In the end, Jane’s stepmother finally releases her hold on Jane, thanks to Mr. Wright. Once that hold is gone, Jane is free to become her true, independent self. One item Coats should have included is an author’s note stating the historical facts behind her story. This would have given the book more validity and richness. Otherwise, Coats’ tale is a fun, enlightening read for ages 12 and up.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

League of Archers by Eva Howard

Elinor Dray can’t handle being a novice nun. Mercifully, the Reverend Mother uses Elinor’s archery skills to supplement the nunnery’s scarce provisions. Escaping the abbey, Elinor rejoins her friends—her League of Archers—to hunt and daydream about Robin Hood’s deeds. One night Elinor meets a mysterious archer. As they talk, he is shot with a poisoned arrow. While the man dies in the abbey, Elinor learns he is Robin Hood and the Reverend Mother is Maid Marion. As if planned, the constable arrives to arrest Marion—still a wanted criminal—and take Elinor to Baron Lord de Lay’s castle. Once she is there, the baron proclaims Elinor killed the well-loved Robin Hood.

There are many stories based on what happened after Robin Hood and his men finished their excusable plundering days. Most have clumsy structures based more on Hollywood fluff and less on the actual Hood legend. League of Archers, however, is a successful exception. Howard shows the real price one pays when playing a thief, even if it is done for righteous reasons. Trust and communication are lost when one is constantly stealing from others. Elinor and the League must learn from Robin’s mistakes because they are all slipping into his lifestyle, whether they like it or not. Only by building on the solid foundation of friendship and integrity can they have a chance at surviving. League of Archers is a suspenseful, stunning start to a new middle-grade series.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mark of the Plague (Blackthorn Key #2) by Kevin Sands

The plague is sweeping through London’s streets. Christopher Rowe wants to help by using his departed master’s apothecary, but strict rules deny Christopher—still only an apprentice—the right to open the shop to the public. Desperate for money, Christopher finds a cryptic note from Master Blackthorn about a hidden treasure. While Christopher and Tom are out following a clue, an intruder breaks into the apothecary. This break-in entangles Christopher in a deadly conflict between two competing doctors—Melchior and Galen—who claim to be healing plague victims in their own unique ways.

Mark of the Plague seems more like a raw, revealing picture of the past than the code-driven, secret-society fiction used in The Blackthorn Key. Fans of Sands’ codes and cults will still get a taste of these themes with Blackthorn’s cryptic messages and Melchior’s biblically hostile followers. Because Sands based this story on a true event, added selections of the actual Bills of Mortality, and described the crazed, chaotic world Londoners created during the plague, Mark of the Plague has more depth and richness than the first. With such a solid setting, Christopher’s character can be explored and expressed to a greater extent. A little less violent than the first, Sands second book is still a suspenseful ride through Christopher Rowe’s unpredictable world. The next book, The Assassin’s Curse comes out in September.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2017 Warrensburg Children's Literature Festival, Day 3

March 21, 2017

Image result for margi preusEarly in the morning, we headed to see Margi Preus. Preus is a 2011 Newbery Honor winner for her book Heart of a Samurai (see my review).

Preus wanted to be a movie star when she grew up. So when a starring role came up in her elementary school's musical, she tried desperately to get it. Unfortunately, she didn't get the part. But she had a realization that if she wrote her own play and scripts, she could star as the main lead. This pushed her into the writing world early in life. So she said that disappointment led her into writing.

What got her into writing books was rereading the books she loved as a child. This included the book Harriet the Spy.

She gave the advice of reading everything because you just don't know what ideas will inspire you to write. This was true about writing Heart of a Samurai. She was more interested in the friendship between Manjiro and Captain Whitfield than about Japan. But this led her to do more research and write the actual book.

Some of her writing tips were to 1) Challenge yourself to write; 2) Finish what you start; 3) Don't horde ideas because they may be plugging up other ideas from coming out; 4) Keep digging/revising; 5) Keep your eye on the prize; and 6) Just go for it!

Image result for gennifer choldenkoNext we hurried across campus to see Gennifer Choldenko again. This time she was presenting to a large group of kids.

She based most of her presentation on Chasing Secrets. After talking about the plague coming into 1900s San Francisco, Choldenko did a role play with the kids on making up a fake, deadly disease. The kids got to decide the sounds you make when you have the disease, the weird treatments you do, and the cost for those treatments. The kids were absolutely enthralled and entertained by this part of her presentation.

She then talked about her Al Capone series and the facts behind writing those books.

Image result for janice harringtonAfter an early lunch, we headed to our next presenter, Janice Harrington. Harrington is a librarian, storyteller, and poet. She has mainly written picture books but recently came out with a new middle-grade book called Catching a Story Fish.

Catching a Story Fish is about a young girl who is part of a fishing family. She hates to fish, except with her grandfather. This time to fish with her grandfather is precious to her. He tells her about the story fish that is inside everyone and how when you catch it, your life's story opens up. But when her grandfather has a stroke, he loses the sweetness and humor he once had. So the girl is on a mission to help her grandfather remember who he really is through stories.

Harrington had some advice for kids on becoming a writer. She said to 1) Read; 2) Believe in yourself; 3) Write all the time; and 4) Be determined. She did two very entertaining and interactive stories with the kids. This included a story about her sister using her homework to make a rain hat; fireman's helmet, bucket, boat, and a life-jacket. Then she shared a story about an old couple and their farm animals working together to pull up a stubborn sweet potato. Awesome presentation!

Image result for angela cervantesOur final author for the day was Angela Cervantes. She is pretty new to the children's literature world with only two middle-grade books published: Gabby, Lost and Found and Allie, First at Last. But, she was a fabulous and polished presenter.

Animals have been an important part of Cervantes' life. Living in Topeka, Kansas, Cervantes grew up living behind a Mexican restaurant. The dumpsters of that restaurant attracted many stray animals in the area. Her mother would take these animals in, clean them up, feed them properly, and then call friends or family about adopting these animals.  

Besides loving animals, she loved to read. She labeled herself a "flashlight girl". This means she would stay up late into the night reading her favorite books--like Beverly Cleary's Ramona books and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia--under her blankets by flashlight. Her love of reading led her at an early age to become a writer.

At the University of Kansas, she got her degree in writing and mainly wrote content for websites. During a research trip to Guatemala City, a grey and white cat followed her around the city. This inspired Cervantes to write a story about a Kansas girl who wanted to save the animals at her local shelter. This is the premise behind Gabby, Lost and Found.

Once we were done with Cervantes presentation, it was time to head home.

What a fabulous festival full of great authors and presenters! Make sure to check out any author events in your area. They can be a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Fourteen-year-old Manjiro dreams of the sea. Running away from home, he gets his chance by becoming a fisherman. During one of Manjiro’s fishing trips, his crew's boat is blown off-course by a horrific storm. The remaining crew wash up on a tiny, abandoned island. Even though the island is not too far away from Japan, the crew are destined for death. They know Japan has deadly rules to restrict anyone from reentering the country, including their own people. After several months struggling to survive, an American whaling ship discovers them. The crew is unsure if they should accept the American's help because associating with foreigners also means death. Seeing no other choice, Manjiro courageously chooses sanctuary on the American ship. Making that decision, sets Manjiro on an adventure of a lifetime.

Heart of a Samurai is based on the life of Manjiro Nakahama--the first Japanese person to go to America. Several of the illustrations showcasing Manjiro's adventures were actually drawn by him. This adds great validity to Preus's story, giving Manjiro even more life and depth to his character. Aside from this historical background, the way Preus delivers Manjiro's story is suspenseful, well-paced, and beautifully detailed. One weak point is the book's ending. It seems too quickly resolved where it sounds more like a history textbook than a carefully crafted novel. This causes some cracks in the story's solid foundation and dims some of the luster and life Preus had setup at the beginning. Otherwise, Heart of a Samurai is a great, instructive read for ages 12 and up. For fans of this book, Manjiro returns as a supporting character in Preus's new novel, The Bamboo Sword

Monday, April 3, 2017

2017 Warrensburg Children's Literature Festival, Day 1 & 2

Spring Greetings, everyone! And you know what that means....another year attending the Warrensburg Children's Literature Festival. It was a fantastic event with lots of new authors. New is good, but we did miss some friendly, familiar faces (We missed you Henry, Marie, and Obert!).

March 19, 2017

Our usual Warrensburg gang attended the author luncheon. The guest speaker was Newbery award-winning author, Gennifer Choldenko,

Choldenko discussed how she got a picture book published, but couldn't get anything else published for several years. She was about to give up on writing when she saw a news article about Alcatraz Island--a place not too far from her home. So she began her research and learned about the criminals and families that lived on the island. To bring more depth to Al Capone Does My Shirts, so she pulled from her own family background to by creating a character who has Austism, a disorder Choldenko's sister suffered from.

Choldenko also spoke about her inspiration for Chasing Secrets. She was reading a non-fiction book on rats and the plague when she learned that San Francisco had a plague outbreak in the early 1900s. This news sparked her imagination on what it would be like as a kid living in San Francisco during that outbreak.

After her presentation, it was off to get books signed and then have fun the rest of the day!

March 20, 2017

Related imageStarting bright and early, we attended our first presentation with R.W. Alley, illustrator of many children's books, including the Paddington Bear books. Alley and his wife, Zoe, published two "comic book" style picture books on fairytales.

Alley discussed what you need to get you started on becoming a writer or illustrator, based on what happened to him. First, you have a story idea, so then care and feed the inspiration behind it. Second, look at what inspires you. For him it's his family, living in Rhode Island, and the books he loved as a kid. Third, add words (this is Zoe's part). Fourth, add pictures to the words by sketching out ideas. Fifth, create a mock up book by placing the words and pictures together.

Alley has been illustrating the Paddington Bear books for 20 years. Michael Bond, author of the Paddington Bear books, is still alive (he's 96 years old) and sending Alley stories for him to illustrate.

Image result for phil bildnerNext, we saw Phil Bilder, a new face to the festival. Bilder was a high profile lawyer but realized he hated his job. So he went back to school and became a middle-school teacher in New York City. He pulled his love of sports and middle-school experiences together to create his Rip and Red series.

But along with this middle-grade books, Bilder also writes pictures books. One of his most recent was called Marvelous Cornelius. During a New Orleans' trip to help in the clean-up after Hurricane Katrina, Bilder heard about Cornelius and his inspiring efforts to clean up the city. So he wrote a folk-tale style story based on Cornelius's life.

Related imageOnward we went to see E. B. Lewis, an author who will be attending Allen County Young Author's this year.

E. B. Lewis is the illustrator of countless picture books but he considers himself as an "artistrator". When Lewis was a kid, he realized he couldn't read because of his dyslexia. To hide his embarrassment, he acted out and became the worse kid in class. Unfortunately, his behavior led lots of people to not give him a chance. That is until his Uncle Bradley, who saw his potential, brought him to a weekly art class. Lewis found himself among the watercolors, brushes, and jazz music.

Lewis pursed a career in fine art. After one of his pieces was featured on the cover of an art magazine, an editor asked if Lewis would be interested in illustrating picture books. Lewis declined thinking it wasn't fine art. However, as he looked at the artwork in picture books, he changed his mind. His first picture book was Fire On The Mountain.  

Related imageNext we saw Stephanie A. Bodeen. Bodeen is the author of several picture books and young adult novels.

Bodeen grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. She grew up to love reading and animals. In middle-school she was bitten by the writing bug after winning a writing contest. In college she wanted to pursue writing but the only major dealing with that was journalism. Later she got married and she and her husband joined the Peace Corps. From then on they lived all over the world. Their travels inspired her to write her first book Elizabeti's Doll.

For a while Bodeen couldn't get published. When she thought she was about to give up entirely on writing she remembered a story idea she had in elementary school. It was about living in a bomb shelter after a nuclear disaster, the inspired behind her Compound series. It was rejected several times, but those rejections helped her make it the best story it could be. Her writing advice is to treasure the no's because they make you a a better writer than the yes's.

Image result for meg kearneyThe final author we saw was Meg Kearney. Meg is fairly new to the writing world. Her main style is poetry.

Kearney recently did a picture book with E. B. Lewis called Trouper. Trouper is based on her dog that she adopted. The reason why she adopted Trouper is because he only has three legs. Her story is about what she thinks Trouper's life was like before she adopted him.

With the kids in her presentation, Kearney helped them identify concrete sensory words that give off a solid image. After writing a poem together, she challenged kids to write their own poetry using their five senses.

I'll be talking about the final day of the conference in my next blog. Check out these authors and illustrators. They were fantastic!


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Creekfinding: A True Story by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Claudia McGehee

Many years ago, a creek ran through the Iowan countryside. It teamed with fish and insects attracting local wildlife to the creek’s plentiful banks. All that changed when a farmer bought the acreage and bulldozed the creek away from its natural course. For years the land was farmed until a new owner, Mike, bought the property. Mike wanted to restore the parcel to its original wildness by bringing back the creek. Many thought Mike’s plans were foolish, but he moved forward confident in his vision. After much research, hard work, and help, Mike found and restored the creek to its original glory.

Creekfinding is a unique children’s story quaintly illustrating Mike Osterholm’s true-life undertaking. Though the narrative is simple, this story’s message is not naive. Martin takes on the massive debate of man verses the earth and effortlessly switches it to man working with the earth as she relates Osterholm’s tale. Using scratchboard, watercolor, and dyes, McGehee exhibits the colorful process of rediscovering and nurturing wildness. Similar to Henry Cole’s On Meadowview Street, Creekfinding will have young readers thinking how they can find and support their own wilderness in the places they live. A though-provoking yet fun non-fiction read for ages five and up.