Monday, April 13, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Saving Houdini

If you enjoy time travel books and/or magic, this is a great pick! It’s one of the finalists for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award.

Here’s the Amazon description:

A classic adventure story set in historic Toronto—with a dash of humour and a lot of heart Dashiel Woolf is ecstatic when famous magician Bloom the Beguiler brings him onstage during a special performance to mark the eighty-fifth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. But a century-old trick invented by Bloom’s grandfather goes inexplicably wrong—sending Dash back to 1926. Wandering the historic streets of Toronto, he barely recognizes his city but with the help of his new friend, Walt, he hatches a plan to invent the trick that will transport him home. In doing so, they just might prevent the Great Houdini from taking part in the event that ended his life, possibly changing history forever.

Saving Houdini by Michael Redhill, HarperCollins Publishers, Toronto, 2014

My Take:

I really liked the concept of a boy traveling back in time through a magic trick. The friendship between Walt and Dash was portrayed realistically, since they don’t become instant friends. I especially liked the scene where Dash had to convince Walter that he was from the future.  Since I live near Toronto, I found the historical details of the city quite interesting. I would have liked a little more to the story of how Walt and Dash tried to prevent the events of Houdini’s death, but it was an entertaining read anyway.

From a writer’s perspective, this one is a great example to study to see how to use details to create a setting that comes alive for the reader.

Opening Line:

Not me, not me, not me—”  Dashiel Frederic Woolf sat completely still.


“The really good thing about a full-grown two-hundred-pound pig is that it is excellent camouflage for a lanky eleven-year-old, and both Dash and Walt fit that description.”

“Maybe the big lesson in all of this was that life could be as crummy in the past as it was in the present.”

“You will learn there are many ways to have a friendship, Dashiel. If distance alone kills it, it wasn’t a friendship in the first place.”

Other Info:

Michael Redhill lives in Toronto. Saving Houdini is his first book for children.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: Maple and Willow Together

This sweet and simple book about two sisters captures the relationship between sisters so well! I borrowed a copy from the library after hearing about this book through Perfect Picture Book Friday.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Maple and Willow do everything together. They love playing outside throughout the whole year, welcoming the sun, rain, leaves, and snow. But it’s not always sunshine and rainbows, because sometimes big sisters can be bossy—and sometimes little sisters can be frustrating—and even the best of friends need a break from each other . . . at least until they can no longer bear to be apart.

Maple and Willow Together is written and illustrated by Lori Nichols and published by Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.

My thoughts as a writer:

I love the way this story takes simple, everyday experiences and puts them into a story that young children can connect with. I especially liked the way the author chose to have the characters solve their conflict, in own their way, with little adult intervention. The argument between the sisters is portrayed in a realistic way.

This story is a good one to study to see how the text and illustrations work together. It also provides a great example of how page breaks help to propel the story forward.

To learn more about how Lori works and get a peek at her workspace, try this interview with Lori Nichols at Miss Marple's Musings.

My thoughts as a teacher:

The love of nature that Maple and Willow share in the outdoor setting fits nicely with a recent emphasis on learning outdoors. This book would be a great introduction for discussions on friendship, whether friends or siblings always need play together, having different interests, and ways friends can solve problems on their own. The clear and simple illustrations make this book perfect for preschool and young primary students.

Themes: siblings, friendship, bossiness, getting along, individual differences, solving social conflicts, imagination, nature

Suggested Ages: 2 - 6

Possible Activities:

- brainstorm ideas for different activities to do outside during different seasons of the year
- have students draw or write about something they like to do with a sibling or friend
- talk about a time when a friend or sibling was bossy and how they solved the problem; share solutions with other students
- discuss what it means to “meet halfway”

The author also provides a collection of Story Hour Activities on her website.

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, consider checking out the list of Perfect Picture Books, put together by author Susanna Leonard Hill.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: September 17

I think I learn most of the history I know from reading fiction! I really enjoyed this fictionalized story about the plan to save children from the bombings in Britain during World War II. This book is another one of the nominees for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award.

Here’s the Amazon description:

In July 1940, a British government-sponsored program called Children's Overseas Reception Board -- or CORB -- was set up to send children from Britain to Canada and other Commonwealth countries, in order to rescue them from the bombings of British cities. The City of Benares was a luxury liner that was recruited in September 1940 to transport 90 of these children to Canada, along with the ship's regular passenger complement. A convoy of ships including The Benares set off from Liverpool in mid-September and approximately six hundred miles out, after the naval escorts had withdrawn, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in about half an hour. Only thirteen of the CORB children survived the sinking. As a result of this tragedy, the program was cancelled.

September 17 is a novel that tells the story of three of the children that were on board the City of Benares, as they experience and survive the disaster and wait to be rescued. One lifeboat was not picked up by the destroyer sent to make the rescue, and was at sea with 46 passengers, children and adults for eight days until it was picked up near the Irish coast. Two teenaged girls held onto an overturned lifeboat for 18 hours before they were picked up, while another family, including two children not on the CORB program, floated on a tiny raft for hours before being rescued. The characters whose adventures are described are all real, though some conversations and encounters have been fictionalized by author Amanda Lewis.

September 17 by Amanda West Lewis, Red Deer Press, Markham, Ontario, 2013.

My Take:

It was so interesting to learn about the City of Benares and the CORB experiment, and how children might have reacted and experienced the events! I found the book a little slow to get started, but this changed as the trip got underway. There were quite a few characters to keep track of, but they all had different stories and perspectives.

From a writer’s perspective, I’d look closely at how actual facts were embedded into the story to make a compelling narrative.

Opening Line:

“A heavy clod of wet earth fell on Ken’s head. His hands began to shake.”


“He’d been so focused on drawing that he’d forgotten completely where he was.”

“As she stood staring out over the concrete breakers, she imagined the German boats landing on her beach that wasn’t a beach anymore.”

“The raft soared up to the top of each wave and then came smashing down, slamming their bodies with the impact.”

“There was no moon, and the stars covered every part of the sky and were reflected in every part of the water. He was living in a bowl of stars.”

Other Info:

Amanda West Lewis has written five books for young people. She enjoys many different creative pursuits such as writing, directing theatre, and calligraphy. She is the artistic director of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre.

She is married to author Tim Wynne-Jones.

On her website, Amanda West Lewis says, "As a writer, I love the extraordinary complexity, subtlety and magic of language."

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied

The main character in this story has a problem that I could relate to – anxiety about public-speaking—and she also lives in a zoo! That's definitely a fun and intriguing situation. I'm delighted to have discovered this book on the shelf in my local library.

Here’s the Amazon description:

Ana Wright's social life is now officially on the endangered list: she lives in a zoo (umm, elephant droppings!?), her best friend lives on the other side of the world, and the Sneerers are making junior high miserable. All Ana wants is to fade into the background.

Yeah, that's not going to happen.

Creature File for Ana Wright:

Species Name: Anaphyta Normalis

Kingdom: The Zoo, Junior High

Phylum: Girls Whose Best Friend Just Moved To New Zealand; Girls Who Are Forced To Live In A Zoo With Their Weirdo Parents And Twin Brother

Weight: Classified

Feeds On: Daydreams about Zackardia Perfecticus and wish cupcakes

Life Span: Soon to become extinct due to social awkwardness

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied by Jess Keating, Sourcebooks Jaberwocky, Naperville, Illinois, 2014.

My Take:

This book manages to be funny and touching at the same time. I enjoyed the animal facts and unique perspective from Ana, whose parents have moved their family to live in a research station inside the zoo. Although some of the characters seem familiar, like the crowd of “mean girls” that bully Ana or the sweet-but-annoying twin brother, Dax, I wanted to read on to see whether Ana solves her problem. Middle grade students will relate to feelings of awkwardness and anxiety and her friendship issues.  

Writers, this is a great example of a middle grade novel with a really strong main character voice.

Opening Line:

“Don’t. Freak. Out. It was the day before my twelfth half-birthday, and I was spending it holding the business end of a crocodile.”


“It felt so good to escape from the rest of the world and surround myself with quiet, safe books. Books didn’t expect anything of you, and they didn’t even care that you weren’t super confident like the rest of your crazy family.”

“If you add up a bunch of negatives, you’re going to get something even more negative. This is like starting off with getting bird poop on your shoulder, and then stepping in a puddle of muck while wearing your favorite shoes. “

“But you know what I’ve learned about bravery? It’s something you choose. And the more you choose it, the more it grows.”

Other Info:

Jess Keating is a writer with a degree in zoology

Her next book in the series is called How to Outswim a Shark Without a Snorkel and came out in January. I’m going to be looking for it!

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied has been nominated for the Red Maple Award.

Some thoughts for writers from Jess Keating’s website: “…there is no wasted writing. If it doesn’t get finished, it’s not wasted. If it doesn’t get published, it’s not wasted. Every single word, every single idea, every single chunk of random premise will make you a better writer. Because words, ideas, and premises are our life blood.”

For more, visit Jess Keating’s website.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Podcast Picks for Writers - March 2015

Since January, there have been some changes in my household that left me struggling with balancing my writing work, my teaching work and my family life. So even though I've been listening to podcasts, I haven't blogged about any for a while. My goal is to get back to that a little more often. Here are three that I found especially interesting this March:

This year, the team at Writing Excuses is following a different format, where for three of their weekly podcasts in a month, they focus on one aspect of creating a book, e.g., characters, structure. I found this episode on structure especially useful. 

Something that stuck with me was their discussion about considering the overall tone of the book during the planning stage.

I recently started listening to this series of podcasts about creative professionals taking risks as they develop their craft. I really enjoyed this interview with author-illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi, and not just because she's my friend. Like Debbie, I’m a total introvert.

Debbie:  “I bet there are so many introverts out there who were in my position, getting rejections, who could feel they were on the edge, on the cusp of success. If I could talk to my younger self, I would say, get out and starting meeting people.”

Debbie's latest picture book WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? is coming out on May 12, 2015 from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.

Introducing Generation Z: A Special Edition of The Current with Anna Maria Tremonte at CBC Radio.

These three podcasts aren't focused on writing, but if you are writing YA or upper MG, they might give you a peek into what teens are thinking and talking about and how they view the world.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Red Wolf

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book to read, if it wasn’t nominated for the Silver Birch Award, but I’m glad I got to read it. Everyone should read this book.

Here’s the Amazon description:

Life is changing for Canada’s Anishnaabek Nation and for the wolf packs that share their territory.

In the late 1800s, both Native people and wolves are being forced from the land. Starving and lonely, an orphaned timber wolf is befriended by a boy named Red Wolf. But under the Indian Act, Red Wolf is forced to attend a residential school far from the life he knows, and the wolf is alone once more. Courage, love and fate reunite the pair, and they embark on a perilous journey home. But with winter closing in, will Red Wolf and Crooked Ear survive? And if they do, what will they find?

Red Wolf  by Jennifer Dance, Dundurn, Toronto: 2014.

My Take:

This book is an eye opener if you don’t know much about the experiences of Native people in residential schools. It was heart breaking to read Red Wolf’s story – and to realize that it’s based on real events. Along with the story of Red Wolf, there’s a parallel story of a wolf pup struggling to survive after its parents were killed, but I was more emotionally connected to the story of Red Wolf and what was happening to him. This is definitely a book that makes you think. It may also make you feel angry and sad that these atrocities happened.

As a writer, this is a good book to read to see how to build an emotional story using historical details and facts.

Opening Line:

“The men slowly reached for their rifles, eyes searching through the lengthening shadows.”


“Red Wolf froze like a frightened fawn, hoping the predator would pass him by.”

“The day before, when Red Wolf was still a child, he would have giggled, but today there was no laughter in him.”

“After a fresh snowfall, when the barbs of the fence were piled high with soft white cones, an illusion of peace blanketed the school.”

Other Info:

This is a debut novel for author Jennifer Dance.  She lives on a small farm in Ontario and enjoys 
spending time with her horses. She is concerned about the environment and loves the outdoors.

Red Wolf won a Moonbeam Medal for Historical-Cultural Preteen fiction.

On her website, Jennifer says, I know from my life experience what it's like to be discriminated against…I think that this has given me a slightly different perspective when it comes to my writing.”

Her second book, Paint, was published in January 2015. I'm looking forward to reading it!

For more, visit Jennifer Dance's website.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Striker

This is a great book for any kids who enjoy sports! It’s another one of the nominees for this year’s Silver Birch Award from the Ontario Library Association.

Here’s the Amazon description:

Thirteen-year-old Cody is aching to get back onto the pitch. Last year he had a tumor removed from his leg. Though it's a struggle, Cody tries out for the Lions and makes the team as a "super sub" -- one of eleven players who jokingly named themselves that because they're never allowed to play. Secretly Cody is relieved, since he hasn't told anyone on the team that he had cancer. 

But then there's a shakeup in team management and suddenly Cody and the super subs are the only players left. Cody has no choice now but to play, even if his leg does begin to hurt. At an end-of-season tournament it becomes clear that he and another player, Paulo, are close to being the perfect scoring duo. Without being aware of it, Cody has been holding himself back, striking with his left leg instead of his right. 

When he finally comes clean to his teammates about his disease and injury from the year before, they encourage him to trust his leg and his skill.

Striker by David Skuy, James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2013

My Take:

I don’t know much about sports, so I learned a bit about soccer from reading this book. But I could relate to the emotions Cody felt in worrying about whether he was good enough and whether he’d fit in and could make friends with the other guys on his team. I thought the story was realistic and liked that Cody’s parents were involved in the story too.

As a writer, this is a good one to read to see how to include the parents in the story in a realistic way. I also thought it was great the way the author integrated Cody’s thoughts with the story action.

Opening Line:

“Cody fought the urge to rub the back of his right leg.”


“I don’t need an ambulance because I bumped into someone. Rush me to the hospital the next time I stub my toe, why don’t you?”

“She began to bounce the ball with her right foot. Cody could barely watch, convinced she was going to embarrass him again.”

“You have to want to win more. A normal effort won’t cut it, an above-average effort won’t either; you need the effort of your lives.”

Other Info:

David Skuy writes fast-paced books about sports and issues in the world around us.

One of his previous books, Undergrounders, won a Silver Birch Award.

This is what David Skuy says about his books: “I write for kids who want to relate to something in their own lives, who want to lose themselves in the drama; and while my books have a general sports theme, I really write for all kids, boys and girls alike, who love to read about the world they live in.”

Writers will be interested to know that the published version of Striker came from an old manuscript that David Skuy went back to, with a new main character. Check out: Inspiration… or Perspiration – Books Hiding in Those Old Manuscripts  

For more about David Skuy, visit his website.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade series, Keeper of the Lost Cities.