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

Podcasts 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.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: Here Comes the Easter Cat

I love the way this book sparks imagination with the unexpected! It's a good one for writers to read if they are worried their work is too predictable.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Why should the Easter Bunny get all the love? That's what Cat would like to know. So he decides to take over: He dons his sparkly suit, jumps on his Harley, and roars off into the night. But it turns out delivering Easter eggs is hard work. And it doesn't leave much time for naps (of which Cat has taken five--no, seven). So when a pooped-out Easter Bunny shows up, and with a treat for Cat, what will Cat do? His surprise solution will be stylish, smart, and even--yes--kind.

An homage to classic comic strips from the author of The Quiet Book and The Loud Book, this Easter treat has a bit of bite, a sweet center, and a satisfying finish—sure to inspire second helpings.

Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood and Claudia Rueda was published in 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers, New York.

This book is a finalist for a Cybils Award.

My thoughts as a writer:

It was so much fun the way the main character interacts with the narrator through the use of signs. It's really a conversation between the narrator and the book character, This is a perfect example of how illustrations and text work together to tell a story. I admired the lovely illustrations --  they are simple yet show so much emotion.

This book shows how you could write an imaginative story by taking a twist on a familiar concept, like the Easter Bunny, and taking it on a different path by asking yourself questions about what happened next (or in this case, what the main character needs to solve problems).

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is a fun story to read with preschool and kindergarten students. There are lots of opportunities to make predictions about what might happen in the story. The character expressions show so many different feelings to discuss with children! It’s also very interesting that the cat communicates by using signs, an idea that children could incorporate into their play.

Some possible activities:
- encourage children to make signs and retell the story
- talk about what other jobs the cat might do (e.g., Tooth Fairy) and what might happen
- discuss being helpful and say or write one way to help a friend (e.g., this could even be done by writing a message on a paper cutout of an egg for a "Helpful" Easter basket display)

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - The Night Gardener

I chose to read this book because it's one of the nominees for the Silver Birch Award in the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading. But it was great to read something I might not normally pick up. [So far, I've only featured one other nominee, The Hidden Agenda of Ingrid Sugden.]

Here’s the Amazon description:

When orphaned Irish siblings Molly and Kip arrive to work as servants at a creepy, crumbling English manor house, they discover that the house and its inhabitants are not what they seem. Soon the siblings are confronted by a mysterious stranger and the secrets of the cursed house will change their lives forever.

This much-anticipated follow up to Jonathan Auxier’s exceptional debut, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, is a Victorian mystery in the tradition of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. The Night Gardener is a mesmerizing read and a classic in the making.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier, Puffin: New York, 2014

My Take:

This was a deliciously spooky story. It seemed a bit slow to get started, but the mysterious elements started to build, leading me to feel curious and also to dread what might be going to happen. I especially liked the character of Kip, with his crutch called Courage and his concern for doing what’s right.

From a writer’s perspective, I'd study how the author set the mood and tone for the story. It's interesting how real life historical events created the backdrop for this work of fiction, and the author explains more about this in the author's note.

Opening Line:

“The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October.”


“The mud was black and greedy, holding on to whatever touched it—including their back wheel, which had lost three spokes only the day before.”

“Do they count as stories when the other person thinks they’re true?”

“A lie hurts people,” she finally answered. “A story helps ‘em.”

Other Info:

Jonathan Auxier grew up in Canada but now lives in Pittsburgh.

He listens to music to remind himself of the feeling he wants to create for a book. Here’s his post about his soundtrack for The Night Gardener

To learn more about how the author conquered his own fears through writing his books, check out Matthew Winner’s conversation with Jonathan Auxier on the Let’s Get Busy podcast

The Night Gardener is one of the nominees for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award

For more about Jonathan Auxier, 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 novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Learning from Picture Books -- KNOCK KNOCK: My Dad's Dream for Me

From the very first page, I was intrigued by the art in this book. And then I read the story and it really tugged at my heart. This is an important book – everyone should read it.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Every morning, I play a game with my father.
He goes knock knock on my door
and I pretend to be asleep
till he gets right next to the bed.
And my papa, he tells me, "I love you."

But what happens when, one day, that "knock knock" doesn't come? This powerful and inspiring book shows the love that an absent parent can leave behind, and the strength that children find in themselves as they grow up and follow their dreams.

KNOCK KNOCK: My Dad's Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier, Little Brown and Company: New York, 2013.

My thoughts as a writer:

The spare, repetitive sentences beginning with “He never comes…” made my heart begin to ache for the boy in the story after only a few pages. There is a lovely rhythm with several sentences beginning with KNOCK KNOCK which feels like a call to action.

Although as writers we are often told not to write a book with a message, this book does have one. I think it works because of the sadness the reader feels at the beginning, and then the determination that begins to build through the story. The illustrations complement the story, with somber colors at the beginning, and the blue of hope as the story continues.

This book was a finalist for a 2014 Cybils Award.

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is a story for students of all ages, from primary grades to high school. Some students will be able to relate and connect to the main character because of his experiences, others will appreciate learning another perspective and feeling empathy. This story gave me a lot of think about. Students might speculate on what happened to the boy’s father, but could also discuss what life would be like or is like without a father. This book provides an opportunity for discussion about the choices you make and how to become the person you want to be.

Some possible activities:
- have students draw or write about a dream for their future (which they may or may not wish to share)
- discuss the line in the book “KNOCK KNOCK to open new doors to your dreams.”

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.