Middle Grade Review: Red, White, and Whole

Red, White, and Whole
                     Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca     
                      February 2021, Quill Tree Books 


Red, White, and Whole is a beautifully written and descriptive novel told completely in verse. The rich details about the 1980's pop music, fashion and styles will introduce young readers to a decade long before they were born, and fill older readers (like me!) with nostalgia for our teen years. 

Just as she did with Midsummer's Mayhem, author Rajani LaRocca brings food to life in ways that engage the senses and makes your mouth water. I'm definitely craving curry, samosas, and paneer as I'm writing this review!

More than anything, however, this book is about family. Main character Reha loves her family, and they love her. Her parents, like many who relocate to another country, surround themselves with a support network of other people who share their culture and traditions. In addition to this, she has extended family in India. Reha will need the support of all of these people when her mother is diagnosed with Leukemia.
But, Reha also has her school friends and she wants to fit in with them. What 13 y.o. doesn't? But since her mom makes her clothes and her family comes from another country, the reader easily sees how Reha feels as if she sticks out.  

I found myself identifying with Reha's struggle to fit in between two worlds--America and India. She doesn't feel as if she truly belongs in either one for much of the novel. The beautiful truth about this story is how universally relatable Reha's journey is. We've all walked that tightrope of our own hopes and dreams vs. our parents' expectations for us. In Reha's case, this is compounded by the fact she's an only child and her parents have sacrificed so much to give her opportunities. 

The novel's format suited this poignant story beautifully, as the author skillfully used verse to heighten the emotional impact of some of the most touching scenes. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to crying in a few places. You might want to grab a few tissues before you settle in to read.

This would be a great novel for 4th and 5th grade classrooms. Especially in rural areas like the town in which I currently live. Kids would enjoy the exposure to the different foods, celebrations and attire from Indian culture. I highly recommend this upcoming novel. Here is a link to pre order it.

A Week of Mentorship

From the moment my feet touched the ground at the Highlight’s Foundation property in Pennsylvania, I knew I’d made the right choice. I selected Summer Camp at the Barn from a long list of amazing workshops for the opportunity of mentoring. I shared a van from the airport with three of the talented and generous mentors for the week, and from the beginning I felt welcome.

I discovered fairly quickly after arriving that it wasn’t only the official mentors I’d learn from during the week. The group of talented writers assembled at Summer Camp 2017 taught me more than I’d thought possible. Through critique sessions on the screened porch of the farmhouse, impromptu discussions between activities, and chats during meals, I learned. I grew as a writer. I felt a part of a community.

Here it is, October already, and I’m taking time to reflect on how much this experience meant to me. I’m happy to say that through a Facebook group and email list, some of us are exchanging manuscripts for critique and sharing exciting news. One of our group just signed with an agent, and another was chosen as a mentee in Pitchwars. I’m polishing two articles I plan to submit to Highlights, and have already received feedback from two of my fellow “summer camp” alums.

I would highly recommend this experience to anyone interested in writing for children and teens, no matter where you are in the writing journey. You will meet people at varying stages at Highlights that will become a part of your own journey. The generosity of the staff, mentors, and other attendees will remain with me for years to come.

 

Hoping It’s the Highlight of my Summer!

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Copyright Highlights Foundation

I’m all set to attend my first ever week long writing workshop, and this is a big one. I will be traveling to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to participate in a “Summer Camp” for writers. I’ve sent in a writing sample and will be paired with a mentor for the week. There will be time for writing, honing my craft, networking with other authors, and a little bit of fun! I will blog again about my experiences there, but I know I will learn a great deal about writing books for young people.

Here are some pictures of the facility:

I’ll update the blog once I’ve arrived. Wish me luck! 🙂

Wolf Hollow: What Does Evil Look Like?

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Image copyright: Dutton Books for Young Readers, Penguin Group (USA)

Wolf Hollow is a book that I couldn’t write about for quite a long time. It required some time to think about first–to marinate in my brain for awhile due to its themes. The writing is amazingly descriptive and beautiful. It evokes the same beautiful rural imagery of books like The War that Saved My Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Because of Winn Dixie. And like those books, it also deals with some very adult issues that kids face on a daily basis in this world.

In Wolf Hollow, the main character Annabelle comes from a loving home and is surrounded by a large support network. Even though the novel is set during war time, she lives a relatively peaceful life until a new girl moves to town to live with her grandparents. Enter one of the most unlikely villains you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature. Betty isn’t your typical school-yard bully. She isn’t Nelly Olson on steroids. She is sadistic. Cruel. Manipulative. Dangerous. Dishonest. Evil. She poses a threat to anyone who comes between her and whatever she takes a liking to at the moment.

How could a young girl be evil? Ms. Wolk brilliant shows readers this as the narrative unfolds. Her writing is gorgeous, and makes the reader feel as if he/she is right there in the thick of it all. The story will force a reader to face prejudices and ask the question,”What does evil look like?” Kids and adults alike will root for Annabelle and Toby (a veteran of WW1) who appears to suffer from PTSD (known as shell shock back then) and keeps to himself.

Betty makes it her mission to torment Toby. Her methods are calculated and terrifying to read about. You will ask yourself, “How could a little girl be this cruel?” Almost as frightening as the fact that Betty would do some of the awful things she does, is the fact that people so readily believe her side of things. She’s like a spider, craftily spinning her web and waiting for an innocent victim to wander into her trap. If J.K. Rowling had written a book about a middle school aged Bellatrix Lastrange, Betty could have been Bellatrix’s best friend–they are cut from the same cloth.

Wolk’s perfect pacing builds to a momentous climax. I won’t spoil the ending, but be prepared that it will make you think. It’s not easy, and certainly not your typical fairy tale happily ever after. But when are endings ever that way in real life?

My Favorite Ghost Stories

One thing about being an author is you never know what ideas will pop into your head. I was driving home from work a few weeks ago and I heard a song on the radio. The song started my mind down a certain train of thought. By the time I got home, I had a fully formed idea for a novel. After dinner, I went out by the pool with a clipboard, crashed into a chaise lounge chair and completed a 4 Act Plot Chart for a YA novel involving a MC who isn’t still living. This is a huge departure for my writing, but so far I’m enjoying this work in progress and just passed the 6K word mark.

Anyone who knows me, will understand this isn’t a scary story. I don’t do horror in any shape or form. In fact, I’m a huge chicken when it comes to scary books or movies. Beginning this new project made me start thinking about my favorite books and movies that involve ghosts of any kind. Some of them are mildly scary, but certainly not horrifically so. So, without further ado, here’s a list of my favorites.

  1. Ghost. What’s not to love about this 1990 movie with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore? It’s got all the emotions you want to see in a romance, plus the comedic element added by Whoopi Goldberg (who completely nails the role of the psychic Swayze nags into agreeing to help him). You’ll laugh, cry, scream at the screen, and even swoon at the famous pottery wheel scene.

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    Image copyright Warner Brothers Studios
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This classic tale has been retold many ways over the 100+ years since it was released, but it’s never lost its punch. This great exchange at the very beginning of the novel between Ebenezer Scrooge and his nephew is just a tiny example of the wit evidenced in this book:

    “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
    “Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
    He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
    “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”
    “I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
    “Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
    Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
    “Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
    “What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

     

    Does it get any better than this? Haha. Boiled in his own pudding? But this novel isn’t all humor. There are poignant lessons learned by Scrooge that can benefit us all to this day. * Note: The link above directs you to a free copy of the novel online through The Gutenberg Project.

  3. The Sixth Sense. Oh this movie…sigh. I loved it. I dragged my husband to see it a second time because I just couldn’t believe we’d miss the signs that could have led us to figure out the big plot twist before it happened. And yes, on the second viewing it was much more obvious. 🙂 But what I loved about this movie was the heart of the MC, and his relationships with child psychologist Bruce Willis and his Mom. The scene in the car with his mom where he recounts for her something his grandma told him will cause an ugly cry instantly.

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    Image copyright Buena Vista Studios

    4. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I knew nothing about this book when I began reading it, but by the end it had a powerful hold on me. As a pediatric nurse, I’ve experienced first hand the devastating effects losing a child can have on a family. Even as a child dies, he/she worries about the sadness of the parents.  A child viewing the post-mortem disaster her family becomes in the wake of her death makes for a gripping novel. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare in more ways than one.

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    Copyright Random House 

    5. Casper the Friendly Ghost. Admittedly, this one goes back to watching the cartoon as a child (and reading the comics!). It was comforting to think of ghosts as friendly and childlike. Nothing like the scary ghosts of my teen years, like the ones found in The Shining or Poltergeist. My sister was always terrified of ghosts, but I never have been. But like I said earlier, I’m a chicken so I avoid reading or watching scary ghost stories if I can help it. 🙂 Casper is my kind of ghost! Casper_the_Friendly_Ghost_issue_No.1_(March,_1991)

     

    I’m sure I could think of more favorites, but I need to get back to working on my own ghost story. As a writer, you have to write never knowing for sure if your story will see the light of day. So you’ve got to love what you do. If you have favorite ghost stories, I’d love for you to comment and share them. Thanks.

A Look at Childhood Poverty

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Several years ago when I taught fourth grade, I attended a training on childhood poverty. We were each handed a tool to measure how comfortable we were doing various tasks. The questions were things like, “Would you know how to cash a check without a bank account?” and “Could you organize a formal function for 300 guests with a seating chart?” I don’t remember what the exact questions were, but when I was finished and was told how to “score” my inventory, it revealed that I was solidly middle class. How could this assessment measure my social class? It simply looked at the tasks that I felt I could easily accomplish. I felt completely comfortable performing tasks that middle class Americans tend to perform on a regular basis, and because of this “comfort zone”, I was categorized as middle class.

Why is this important? Because most teachers in America come from a middle class background. It’s what they know. It’s where they are comfortable. It’s what they understand. Therefore, when planning lessons, assigning homework, holding conferences with parents and interacting with students, the teachers are viewing each situation through a “middle-class lens.”Through this workshop, it became apparent to me that the very way I perceive the world, react to situations, evaluate objects and behave are all tied to my socioeconomic level.

And this is fine if I’m teaching in a school where my students all have the same perceptions and experiences. But what about when we have students who live in poverty? When assigning homework and projects, don’t I make the assumption that my students will have pencils, crayons, paper and electricity? And to be honest, don’t we tend to assume that a student will have a parent to help them? Because we help our kids and our own parents helped us. This is where we can run into trouble.

The book, How to Steal a Dog, offers readers a glimpse into what life is like for a child living in poverty. Even though Georgina’s family has lost their apartment (after being abandoned by her father), life goes on for them. Her mom still has to work and the kids still have to go to school. They live in their car with no assurance of safety, no comfort, and no real hope that things will get better any time soon. Georgina’s teacher isn’t aware of her changed circumstances and makes incorrect assumptions.

I highly recommend this book. Read it yourself and read it with your kids. It offers a wonderful insight into what life is like for families living in poverty. Families who are hit with unexpected setbacks or tragedies that change their circumstances in the blink of an eye. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you think. Also, if you’re a teacher with experience teaching children who live in poverty, please reach out and let me know of your experiences.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: FS&G, 2007. Frances Foster Books

 

The Song of the Valley Dweller

Have you ever been to a place that has captivated you? A place with the spirit of an enchantress? Somewhere you want to stay forever? I’ve been fortunate enough to spend many of my life’s hours in such a place. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia is a tiny valley that most people have never heard of- but if you’ve been there, you’re not likely to forget. It oozes with charm and a level of serenity that will almost convince you that you’ve stepped back in time.

My great-grandfather, Dr. John Coit, was captivated by the Nacoochee Valley. The views he saw all around him-mountains, streams, rivers, granite cliffs, waterfalls, sunsets, etc., inspired him to pen a poem titled, The Song of the Valley Dweller. It is a beautiful love story, written for a place, rather than a lover. The last two stanzas of the poem read:

Fair Nacoochee, Vale of beauty,
Thou has won my very heart,
All my love is gladly given, 
For a smile of love thou art.
Lynch, Tallulah, Tray, and Yonah, 
May thy circling summits high,
Ever guard this charming valley,
As the years pass swiftly by.
Then if I should fail to hear Him,
And these hand should folded be.
And this heart must cease its labor
Ere the Master’s face I see;
Then may those who know and love me,
Come and lay me close to rest
By the bright streams of Nacoochee,
Near the hills I love the best.

J.K. Coit, May 1922

Years after these words were inscribed as a tribute to the valley, his adopted daughter (my grandmother) moved there with her family. My grandfather became the only doctor in the valley and treated patients in a room converted into his office. The house, with its wrap-around porch and mountain views, was enticing enough to inspire someone in a NYC office to select an image shot from that very porch as the cover of the New York Times best selling  novel, The Notebook.

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The 1800’s era farmhouse comes complete with ghost stories, Native American legends, and a sleeping porch upstairs with full windows on 3 sides. Lucky for my own family, and others who’d love to experience these majestic views for themselves, the house operates as a Bed and Breakfast named, The Stovall House. If you are planning a trip to this area, at least plan to stop in for a meal at the restaurant and soak up the views from the porch.

If you do get a chance to stop in, I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you have a place in this world that has captivated you the way this valley has captivated me and so many others before me, please let me know.

What I Love about R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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Penguin Random House Books

I finished reading Wonder in March, but I can’t stop thinking about this book. I’ve recommended it to more people than I can keep track of. The ones who’ve read it get back to me and thank me for recommending it. The book is just that good. This book resonated with me for several reasons. First, I grew up in a family with a sister who had special needs. I also have a son with special needs. I’m a pediatric nurse who’s cared for children with the same kind of anomalies that the main character was born with. Finally, I taught elementary school for 4 years and high school for 1, and Ms. Palacio nails school dynamics beautifully.

If you haven’t read this wonderful book yet, here is a brief introduction: August Pullman has never been able to attend school due to his extensive medical needs. He was born with severe craniofacial anomalies, and has had many surgeries. At the opening of the story, his parents have decided to enroll him in a private school. Auggie is nervous about how the other kids are going to respond to him. The principal picks three kids that he thinks will help ease the transition for Auggie, but it doesn’t work out so well. (It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to give spoilers!) However, there is another student named Summer who befriends Auggie without prompting from anyone. Through the narrative, the reader becomes a part of the Pullman family as well as their extended family and friends.

  1. The story unfolds through multiple perspectives. Even though Auggie is an extremely observant kid, there is no way he could know the motivations and back story for every other character in the book. Palacio beautifully puts us inside the head of each character, and this is one of the reasons this book has such a huge heart. No one is a cliché, but a fully developed character with motivations guiding their behaviors.
  2. The book is written with humor. Even though I cried in many places, this book is not in the least bit depressing. The Pullman family relies on humor to get them through the tough times. I came to love this family so much. They made mistakes and they didn’t always agree. But they loved each other and it comes across so beautifully in the writing.
  3. The beautiful writing itself makes the book a pleasure to read. In the very beginning of the book, Auggie tells us, “the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.” He is perceptive and notices the way others react to him. He also shares at one point that if he had a magic lamp, he’d wish for an ordinary face. Being inside of Auggie’s head doesn’t feel like a pity party. But the frustration he feels that even his own family doesn’t seem to be able to allow him to be “normal” comes across beautifully. It’s gut wrenching, but at the same time it’s hopeful.
  4. Via’s experiences were the ones that resonated the strongest for me because this teenage character is able to put her family’s existence into words better than I’ve ever been able to. When it’s Via’s turn to tell the story, she compares her family to a solar system. “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun.” Wow.
  5. Another beautiful part of Wonder that was especially meaningful for me was the relationship between Via and her grandmother. In her early years, having her grandmother’s unconditional love and adoration helped to offset the dynamics of her nuclear family. My grandmother was exactly this for me. And just like Via, she died unexpectedly when I needed her support the most. Via’s grandmother shares a secret with her about why she feels the way she does. “I love Auggie very, very much,…but he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you.”
  6. This book is “real” in every since. Palacio doesn’t sugar coat anything. She allows Auggie to be resentful of “normal” kids at times. Via feels betrayed by her mom at times when she focuses so much attention on Auggie and his needs. The parents have arguments. Some kids are just plain mean, because let’s be honest, some kids just are. Perhaps the best part of the authenticity of Wonder is that is shows how acts of kindness that might seem small at the time, can have an enormous impact on someone who needed the kindness. In fact, this book started the Choose Kind movement through American schools.

To say that I recommend this book is an understatement. If you haven’t read it, you can go here for more information from the book’s publisher. If you have read it, please share your comments. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Dragon Con 2016

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I was fortunate enough to attend my first Dragon Con last weekend in Atlanta with my family. This was the 30th anniversary of the pop culture, fantasy, and sci-fi convention, and I was joined by more than 77,000 others on this adventure. According the the post- convention press release, “Fans came from around the world and all 50 states, with this year’s convention attracting people from as far away as Japan, New Zealand, and Fiji.” In other words, I was in good company.

What I knew about Dragon Con is that people engaged in cosplay–dressing up as their favorite characters from movies, comics, television programs, video games, and just about anything that reflects their interests. I knew this because I’ve assisted my young adult kids in making these costumes and/or purchasing items to make them look authentic. I vaguely knew that they held panels for people interested in writing because my daughter, who volunteered this year in media relations at the con, had told me about them last year.

What I didn’t know about Dragon Con could fill Lake Michigan. Here’s just a few facts that I found impressive.

  1. The con has it own awards/recognition program called Dragon Awards. These recognize the creators of science fiction and fantasy in books, comic books, games and filmed entertainment.
  2. The con raises money for charity. According to the press release, $98,000 was raised this year for its 2016 official charity, the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency, which helps put homeless individuals on a pathway to achieving a healthy independence.
  3. The con attracts famous actors, writers, producers, etc. There was some serious talent in that place. There are far too many to name, but a few of the individuals that I’ve watched in television during my lifetime were in attendance such as Alex Kingston, William Shatner, Gillian Anderson, and Jason Isaacs and Adam Baldwin. There was a pool of talent at the con that would appeal to people of all ages and interests.
  4. The sheer size of the con! I mentioned the numbers above, but nothing would prepare you for how many individuals (costumed or not) were crowded into a huge area of Atlanta. Event organizers added more than 215,000 square feet to the venues, including the AmericasMart Building 2. The con consumed meeting space in the Sheraton, Marriott Marquis, Westin, Hyatt and the AmericasMart buildings.
  5. The con is quite civic minded. In addition to the fundraising efforts, there was a blood drive held in which over 6,000 units of blood and blood products were donated to an Atlanta blood bank. Also, disability services were visible everywhere and provided assistance to individuals with special mobility/seating needs.
  6. The diversity of the people attracted by Dragon Con was one of my biggest surprises. There were people there who were less than half my age as well as people (almost!) twice my age. There were people there of every race, gender and socioeconomic level. Some costumes were Captain America shirts from Walmart and some looked professionally made to the cost of thousands. The attendees for the most part were gracious with posing for pictures, and seemingly unflustered by the long (and I mean long!) lines, wait times and sheer crowds you had to part to just move anywhere. I loved seeing families there with their kids, all in costume having a great time. 14317415_1242873745744756_2617542351912526429_n
  7. I’m saving the best for last. 🙂 I was stunned at the writing community that was in attendance. There were some terrific panels at the con on the writing craft as well as specific elements of publishing. Brandon Sanderson, who is probably best known for finishing Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, was on a panel that I attended. I ran into him outside of one of the hotels and he was warm and gracious in answering a question and then chatting for several minutes. The authors who attended seemed very willing to interact and share insights with attendees. I was impressed with the breadth of options of panels to attend that focused on writing.

    My takeaway from Dragon Con 2016 is that there is truly something for everyone there. If you’ve ever read or watched anything related to science fiction or fantasy, if you’ve ever watched superhero movies or read comics, if you enjoy art or especially if you like people watching–this is the place to be during Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. 14195279_1059995960781223_8651517751153972000_o

     

    Have you been to Dragon Con or think you might be interested? If so, I’d love to hear your comments! For more information on Dragon Con 2017, please visit the website www.dragoncon.org for more information. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Photo Credits: Sarah Maney

 

What was your biggest reading disappointment?

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In two weeks, the much anticipated novel Go Set a Watchman will be released. I have my copy on pre-order, as do many other fans of Harper Lee’s only other published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I hope I love it. I desperately want to love it. But the last time I allowed my hopes to get this high, I was sorely disappointed.

As an avid fan of Gone With the Wind, I enjoyed the novel Rhett Butler’s People by Daniel McCaig. I’ve never been a real fan of Scarlet, so reading more from Rhett’s perspective was an enjoyable experience. When I heard that McCaig was writing a novel from Mammy’s perspective, I was ecstatic! I pre-ordered a copy of Ruth’s Journey, and drooled over the cover image. I got the hardcover book, but didn’t want to spoil it, so I ordered the Kindle version too. But try as I might, I just could not get into the book. Mammy is my all time favorite character from GWTW, so why wouldn’t I love her book?

Sometimes, there no real explanation for why a book just doesn’t “click” with a reader. But there is no denying that this phenomena happens to even the most avid readers. I’m throwing out this question because I genuinely would like to hear back from you about this. What was your biggest reading disappointment?