Saturday, November 16, 2013


Nobody writes a better swamp story than Kathi Appelt, author of Newbury Honor book, The Underneath.


This is the summary from the front of the book: Twelve year old Chap Brayburn, ancient Sugar Man, and his raccoon-brother Swamp Scouts Bingo and J’miah, try to save Bayou Tourterelle from feral pigs Clydine and Buzzie, greedy Sunny Boy Beaucoup, and world-class alligator wrestler and would-be land developer Jaeger Stitch.

Yup. That says a lot.

But there is so much more.

It’s easy to see why this book is one of five nominated for the National Book Awards, young people’s category. Winners will be announced next week. Events connected with this prestigious award ceremony are listed on the website.

Back to the story. Let’s begin with Chap. His mom bakes sugar pies from cane break sugar and runs the Paradise Pies CafĂ© which is about to lose its lease from Sonny Boy Beaucoup. (Boo. Hiss.) Her dad, Audie, set all of this in motion when he befriended the Sugar Man. In the more than 60 years since Audie signed a lease with the Beaucoup Corporation, they haven’t had a lot of customers, but they’ve had enough.

When Audie Brayburn died, Sonny Boy decided to go against this generations old agreement. To stave off foreclosure, he wanted a boatload of cash (which might or might not have been enough) and that was precisely what Chap and his mom didn’t have.

Sonny Boy brought in land developers, rubbed his hands in greedy anticipation of turning the swamp into Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park in partnership with Jaeger Stitch--World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere--and cared not one bit about the residents of the swamp, human or otherwise.

The setting for this fast approaching clash of good and evil is the Bayou Tourterelle, a slow moving stream that runs through the Sugar Man Swamp. Fluttering just above it, so rare that one has to wonder whether it ever existed at all, is a great and glorious ivory-billed woodpecker. 

In between, disturbed by ominous noises and lulled by soothing lullabies, snuggled in their home, a 1949 Sportsman DeSoto, loveable raccoon brothers Bingo and Jeremiah, the True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, stand ready to do the right thing.

Considering they are about to face alligators, a snake named Geraldine, and the ferocious and feral Hogs, Buzzie and Clydine, it might make the struggle shaping up between Chap and Sonny Boy seem tame. Don’t you believe it.

When things get really dire, meaning too dreadful to imagine without a good old fashioned shivering, it’s up to Bingo and J’miah to wake the awesome Sugar Man who is as mythical as Barmanou, Sasquatch, or the Yeti. Did we say awesome? Think quake in your boots terrifying. The Sugar Man will save the day and the swamp, too. Everybody knows that and has known that since the beginning of the swamp. One catch. First Bingo and J’miah must find him. Well, maybe two catches. The Sugar Man doesn't like being awakened.

This is the kind of tall tale you can turn your ten year-old loose to enjoy without giving it a parental reading first. Oh, but why would you want to miss it? This is a perfect book for families to read together. And laugh together.

Picture your family gathering together before bedtime, reading a few pages. The chapters are so short you will want to read just one more and then another and then… Different age groups will find different reasons to giggle. However, there are more than 300 pages so a single sitting will make it hard to get kids up the next day.

For added fun, visit the author’s website and download the activities. Give each of your true blue scouts a membership card. Bake a few of those sugar pies (the recipe is on the website) and make this a true blue experience.

P. S. Nobody writes a better tall tale than Kathi Appelt. Nosireebob.


Monday, October 7, 2013


Here’s good advice for all of us. A child robot is my inspiration.

DOUG UNPLUGGED by Dan Yaccarino, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

Doug is a robot. His parents want him to be the smartest robot ever.
Every day when Mom and Dad, also robots, pick up their briefcases and head out the door, they wish Doug, “Happy downloading,” and plug him in.  Facts about cities are filling Doug’s files when he sees a pigeon at his window. He has just learned there are 500 million pigeons in his city and this one starts him wondering if…off he goes, out the window, to see what he can see. In short, Doug unplugs.

What does Doug learn? How does he use what he already knows? What does he discover? Is the ending a happy one? I’ll answer that last question: YES! You’ll have to read the book to answer the others. Whether you read this with or without a toddler on your lap, there is a lesson here. I’ll leave it to you to find it.

Once again author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino breaks down the greatest complications of life into a story that’s not only fresh and compelling but carries a message straight to the heart, bypassing the inner critic that takes delight in spoiling fun. 

When you visit—and you must!—click on books. Doug is in the upper left hand corner, holding a plug in his hand. You’ll tap your feet to the music in his trailer every time you watch.    

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How? And Another Why?

This is an anniversary year for Birmingham Alabama, memorializing the sacrifices and struggles of the civil rights movement fifty years ago. Birmingham's role became a catalyst for change far beyond its own streets. This year city leaders are giving special honor to the heroes, those living and dead, those known and unknown, all whose contributions were significant. The city is also looking fifty years forward.

A struggle must have opposing forces, and young readers, perhaps their parents, too, might wonder how Birmingham came to a brink that caused caring people around the world to gasp in disbelief. Why are events that happened fifty years ago receiving so much attention today?

BLACK AND WHITE: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor, by Larry Dane Brimner, Calkins Creek, 2011

The book jacket promises: “Black and White is the unforgettable story of Fred Shuttlesworth’s courageous stand against Bull Connor.”  That promise is met as the story leads the reader into the center of the battle for justice and equality.
Bull Connor championed the ways of the Old South, especially segregation of the races. He often resorted to violence to enforce his tenets.

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s mission was equal rights.  Although his preaching style was considered “fiery”, he practiced nonviolent direct action. 

Both text and archival photographs highlight the dramatic confrontations between the two men. The  power on both sides is intense.
Reverend Shuttlesworth emerges as the stronger of these two forces, only partly because we know how the story turns out. We have had the benefit of time and the judgment of a nation’s conscience.
More is known about Reverend Shuttlesworth. It is doubtful that much would be known about Bull Connor if he and the preacher had not tangled and wrangled and stood firm against each other. Author Brimner points out the similarities between the two men such as their humble backgrounds but notes that their greatest similarity may be their "doggedness."   

Both men have died, but author Brimner was able to visit with Reverend Shuttlesworth during his last days. For that time together he expresses gratitude to Reverend Shuttlesworth and his widow, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, “for opening their hearts and sharing their time and thoughts with me so that Fred’s story could be told.”

Brimner’s research took him to dusty collections of FBI files, court records, archived newspapers, and other primary court documents as well as modern archives like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Black and White includes a bibliography, index, and an author’s note which lends itself to a “what happened next?” feeling.  Additionally, you can read an insightful interview with the author here explaining how and why he wrote this book.

A word about quality nonfiction books written for children. They will be meticulously researched and skillfully written to engage the most critical audience, your children. 

If you, the parent, read these books together or separately, the benefit is great. You may be inspired to read further and you may find yourself well prepared for a spirited discussion, too.
It takes a writer to document the events and landmark decisions that resulted and weigh which ones will best serve as an historical foundation for the reader. It takes a writer to show how slow the pace to cause some major changes but present them in such a way that the reader does not tune out. It takes a writer to motivate the reader to maintain what is good and continue working to change that which is still not. Larry Dane Brimner is a writer like that.

Why is Birmingham's role in civil rights important today? Great discussions begin with well written, well researched books.


Saturday, September 7, 2013


This month Birmingham, Alabama is much in the news as it remembers four little girls who were killed in the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. It happened 50 years ago, but the pain is still sharp and will undoubtedly remain so. It will take many books to explain the civil rights movement, how it began, what propelled it, and where it is today. Here is one of my picks to help your young readers navigate the events.

BIRMINGHAM, 1963, by Carole Boston Weatherford, Wordsong, 2007
For ages 9-12. An award winning poet employs free verse and a fictional child to give voice to her tribute to the four little girls killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan put 19 sticks of dynamite under the back steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL on September 15, 1963.

This fictional character is like every child who is nine and looking forward to her tenth birthday. On her long-awaited day, she enjoys a family breakfast of biscuits and red-eye gravy. Her pigtails are tugged by her rascally little brother. She’s practiced This Little Light of Mine countless times, and she can hardly wait to stand up in church and sing her heart out. The reader follows her to church and gets a glimpse of four other girls, a little older, heading down the hall. Our character wishes she could join them. If only they’d let her. Maybe next week—when she’s ten.  
However, moments later, her tenth birthday is shattered. The lives of the four little girls giggling in the hallway, heading for the girls’ room, are stilled forever.  As the author says, ”Someone…lit the fuse of hate.”  That someone snuffed out the promise of the lives of these four little girls.

Who were these little girls, Addie Mae, Cynthia, Denise, and Carole? The author focuses on each child and what made her special. Who might she have become?  

The author’s note is brief but covers the turbulence surrounding all children growing up on Birmingham’s streets in 1963. Parents unaware or far removed from that era will find this book is a helpful introduction to how real families suffered and survived.

For further background, if you are following the Civil Rights Trail or paying heed to respected travel guide Fodor’s which places Birmingham, Alabama in the top five of its list of cities to visit this fall, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute offers a full calendar  of events and displays. Guides who were foot soldiers offer personal experiences to mesmerized listeners.  The BCRI presents extensive human rights coverage from both a local and a global perspective all year long.
For older readers, including adults, Birmingham Sunday, by acclaimed author Larry Dane Brimner, is reviewed here.  You will want to view his moving trailer and click on the link in the sidebar to hear Joan Baez singing "Birmingham Sunday."

With both of these books in hand, parents will be prepared to help their young readers grasp the significance of this fifty year commemoration.  

To quote Carole Weatherford’s dedication in Birmingham, 1963, “The struggle continues.”


Saturday, August 24, 2013

#1 on Summer’s List

Raise your hand if you ever missed going to the zoo during summer vacation. OK, I’m looking, but I don’t see any hands out there.

For my brothers and me, it was a pack a picnic lunch, spend the day occasion. The event usually included at least two or three aunts and several cousins. During winter months I wrote letters to Suzy the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo (which I never mailed). When I grew up, I took my own kids, chaperoned classes and troops, even hosted a birthday party at the Louisville Zoo. I remember looking back over my shoulder at the cleanup crew hosing out our party room, washing away ice cream and chocolate cake and trampled party streamers and thinking that was the ONLY way to celebrate a birthday. What took me so long to learn this?

Did I ever want to live at the zoo? No, but what if I had? Author Irene Latham could be a kindred spirit.

DON’T FEED THE BOY by Irene Latham, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin, Roaring Book Press, 2012

Whit, eleven, has lived his whole life at the Meadowbrook Zoo. Dad is head elephant keeper and Mom is a veterinarian and zoo director. Ms. Connie is his kind, understanding, home-school teacher who has always been there for him.

Wherever one lives, a few well thought-out rules make life run more smoothly. Here are the rules Whit’s parents expect him to follow:

1) Don’t feed the animals.

2) Schoolwork comes first.

3) Don’t leave the zoo property for any reason.

Now that Whit is approaching middle school, these rules are beginning to feel confining, like a skin that’s growing too tight. He looks at life, his life in particular, and wonders what it would be like to fit into a world of people. Little does he know that is exactly what other middle school kids are wondering, too. They just do their wondering at a public school while Whit is fulfilling Ms. Connie’s assignments and bemoaning his predictable routine at the zoo. In some of his moodiest moments, he even thinks his parents care more for the animals than they do for him.

And then Whit notices a girl who looks to be about his age and who appears at the zoo every day. She settles into the same spot and draws pictures of the birds. He christens her “Bird Girl” and wonders why she is always alone. It takes some time, but he finally works up enough courage to talk to her. His courage is rewarded. They become friends.   

Surely there is an ancient saying somewhere that says one should always see home through another’s eyes to truly appreciate it. Whit thinks his ability to recite all the keepers’ public performances for the public--like every word the keeper says at feeding time at Pelican Plaza-- shows just how dull and boring his life is. However, Stella’s eyes grow round with surprise and admiration at each recitation. As Whit points out small things that only an everyday person could see or observe or understand, he realizes how much he loves his home.  

When Whit gets to see what Stella’s home life is like, his theories about families and the lives other people surely must enjoy more than he enjoys his, come to a screeching halt.  Stella needs help. Whit is determined to provide that help. As Stella and Whit try to solve some adult-sized problems, the carousel and train figure into a variety of plot twists and turns.  

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say parents will applaud and kid readers will be happy for both Whit and Stella. (No, Whit’s parents do not adopt her.) 

Illustrations capture the characters and their emotions as if a photographer followed this engaging pair and offered them a package of photos at the end of their zoo trip to be a souvenir of their vacation. In her acknowledgements, Author Latham addresses illustrator Stephanie Graegin:  ”You’ve charmed Whit and the Bird Girl to tender life.” Tender is a fitting word. They are like tender shoots of the flowers they will become.

For more about Irene, see her webpage and be sure to visit her blog and read happy news about Don’t Feed the Boy.  


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Blog Hop—Not a Book

This is not an entry from my Book Log. It is not about books. It is about people who write them.

I’ve been tagged!

Connie Fleming and I are members of an on-line critique group known as the Golden
Girls. Our other member is Kathye Marsh.

Connie writes for all ages and her blog is especially helpful for those of us who sit at our computers for long stretches, write, eat (after all, we have to keep up our strength) write and eat some more. 

Kathye writes the most fun fantasy novels for young readers and some rather stark paranormals for older readers. I’m older than her older readers, and I read Kathy’s work when I’m not alone at home. She’s too good and I react to strange noises. 

Kathye’s middle grade novel, Pansy Pants, was a recent runner up in the CBAY competition. You can read all about this on her blog

Connie tagged Susan Spain, a member of her writing group, Kathye Marsh, and me for this Hop and we were asked to answer at least four of ten questions. Then it was our turn to tag three authors of our own choosing. 

Here are the questions I answered:

1. What are you working on right now?

A novel for ages ten and up set in Alabama during the 1960’s.

4. Why do you write what you do?

Underdogs call my name. If the team I root for doesn’t win, I consider that a second place win, not a loss. This drives me to write about characters who strive to do the right thing, no matter how many times obstacles bowl them over. They struggle to stand again, dust off, and start over.

6. What is the hardest part about writing?

Surviving transitions between writing stages.

A) Research. All parts of the research process, interviews, archival digging, reading stacks of books on the topic or all around the topic, taking copious notes, and traveling to actual settings—all of this fascinates me. I never want it to end.

But it must.

B) Writing the story swallows me whole. I forget where I am. Hours disappear. Suddenly it’s 4 o’clock and I haven’t fixed anybody lunch. The dog is giving me that  you-should-be-ashamed-of yourself look. This can go on for weeks.  

C) Polishing the manuscript--like choosing which adorable kids' vacation pictures to share. All are memorable (the manuscript looks pretty darn good) and Mom (also a literary parent) is button popping proud.

D) Handing the package over the counter to the friendly postal person. She knows I'm a writer. She’s going to be one, too, when she has time. I make encouraging comments and go home to wait.

E) Waiting. It’s tough to let go of the characters who’ve moved out of my head and into the hands of others. It’s time to move on, to meet new characters solving a new puzzle.

During the transition from one stage to the next, my confidence fails me. I should call a halt to this time consuming thing called writing. Whoever told me I could write anyhow? OK, so a few people have said that but they were friends or relatives or editors who probably didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I know how to turn every supportive comment on its head.

The hardest part of writing is I can’t quit. I can’t not do it.

8.Who are the authors you most admire?
A)  the ones who didn’t quit

B) today’s pre-published writers who refuse to quit.

I salute you all.

Now I get to tag.

I’ve chosen three talented writers who model the most intriguing characters: distinctive, authentic, and hard to forget. I’ve known each one a long time and still am surprised by their myriad interests and abilities.
When I asked Gina Hagler which blog to link—she has several—I was amazed to learn about her financial management background. Who knew? Not I. Certainly, writers need tips and tools for managing the business of writing. And make no mistake, publishing our work is a business.
Sandy Fry is a world traveler and photographer. Her challenge will resonate with all of us who research a topic and create stacks of important information which quickly explode all over our homes and offices. How Sandy wrestles with this problem is definitely a blog worthy topic for every creative person.
Jan Godown Annino introduced me to blogs and talked me through posting my early ones. She was one of the first authors I interviewed and I was delighted to review her stellar biography, She Sang Promise, The Story of Betty May Jumper, Seminole Tribal Leader. Jan is a master at finding the hidden muse. Sometimes the muse finds her. Scroll through her photographs and phrases and see if your own muse doesn’t whisper your name.

To all who click your way through this blog hop, explore and enjoy!

Monday, July 15, 2013

A What if Gift

Have you ever said you wouldn’t wish a certain illness or excruciating pain on your worst enemy? Well, what if you could? 15 year old Nya can. She has the gift of absorbing pain in her own body and if she chooses, shifting it into another person. Warning: this gift can be dangerous.

THE SHIFTER by Janice Hardy, Balzer + Bray, 2009

This is Book I in The Healing Wars. Before I could blog about it, I treated myself to Book II, and both books are reviewed below. Just as I was, readers will be eager to follow the main character far beyond her introduction.    
As The Shifter begins, the Gevegians have lost the war to the Baseeri.  Orphaned by that war, Nya, 15, is fiercely devoted to her only remaining family member, Tali, 12. Through a series of machinations, Nya sees to it that Tali becomes a Healer’s apprentice for the League led by the Luminary, names that strike terror into the hearts of Gevegian’s. Nya sees it as a safe spot in the eye of the storm. For now.

Besides Healers, the reader will meet Takers, enchanters, and trackers. Although Nya tends to take on the task of saving everyone and everything by herself, she is admirably supported by friends Aylin and Danello, whether she wants them to risk their lives in her endeavors or not. In their own way, they are as stubborn as Nya.
Hunger and exhaustion  threaten  Nya, but her greatest enemy is discovery. And that’s what this book is about: discovering gifts and realizing that sometimes a gift must be used as a weapon, no matter how loudly one’s conscience speaks. Protecting the lives of loved ones turns Nya’s gift into a necessary weapon. Sort of like discovering atomic power and how to use it. 

BLUE FIRE by Janice Hardy, Balzer + Bray, 2010
The Healing Wars, Book II.

The page turning action continues, and the characters behave non-stop, remaining brave and resilient. They are willing to risk all. It amazes me how much pain Nya can absorb even though I understand that this is part of who she is and what she does.
In Blue Fire, Nya is still 15 and wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit. Teen readers will relate to the quandary Nya encounters as she struggles to do the right thing but evil nips at her heels on all sides.

Darkfall, the third book in the trilogy is available and I have ordered it. (Note: another book by the same title is written by a bestselling author. This Darkfall is part of The Healing Wars, a Young Adult series. The other Darkfall is not.)

Reading is so addictive! I have to stop and share or I never will. Author Hardy has written more books…


Thursday, July 4, 2013

For Undercover Readers

What parent can resist this bedtime negotiation: "One more chapter? Pleeeze?"

DOUBLE VISION by F.T. Bradley, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2012.

“Who, me?”  This could be the theme song of 12 year old Lincoln Baker. He’s his teacher’s field trip nightmare.  Sometimes Linc makes trouble on purpose, but usually it’s for a good cause, like helping out a friend.  Other times, it looks as if Trouble has Linc on speed dial. If this is your son or daughter, reader identification will be immediate.

Linc’s family consists of two loving parents who barely keep the family finances above the red mark. Mom is a nurse and Dad runs a car shop which struggles. Grandpa watches crime shows on TV and absorbs useful tips. I hope we see him in future books.

A software program matches Linc’s face on YouTube with the face of a missing secret agent. How did Linc’s face get on YouTube? It’s a fun story for the reader, not for Linc. Enter two agents from Pandora. (Don’t call them spies. They prefer “secret agents.”) They are close to taking down a criminal organization, but the whole mission is at risk now that top kid agent Benjamin Green has disappeared. The agents see Linc’s match to Benjamin as their opportunity to do Linc a major save the family fortune favor (think reason for YouTube notoriety.). All Linc has to do is stand in for the missing agent. It won’t take long. Linc has much to gain and very little, probably nothing at all, to lose. Said the spider to the fly. 

And we’re off. Twists, turns, friends who are villains or secret agents who turn rogue or might be, instead, deep under cover. Linc dashes from crisis to cliffhanger. The reader just keeps on ploughing through the chapters. It’s hard work to write a book that reads this easily and the writer has been careful to learn her craft.

Linc and his friends’ middle school voices are authentic and consistent.  Henry, a brilliant agent boy wonder scientist teams up with Linc. “The key is to be smarter,” says Henry. He will surely be given more room to shine in future books.

All this talk of future books is more than a wish of mine. Double Vision is the first of a planned series. Double Vision: Code Name 711 will be available in October.  Couple this series for 8-12 with Sound Bender by Lin Oliver and parents who say with a sigh, “my kid is a reluctant reader” will soon enjoy deleting “reluctant” from that sentence.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Summer + Books

Beach, mountains, or my own back yard, my favorite summer spot is a comfortable chaise, chair, or swing, with a stack of good books in reach—always. I’m just back from the beach, rested and ready to share the books I enjoyed the most with you.

Do undercover agents intrigue you? Was Harriet the Spy a favorite book? Are you a James Bond fan? Do you ever wonder about ordinary people waiting for a bus or standing in a grocery line? (I do.) Could they be spies? For those who share your home AND your attraction to suspense (especially ages 8-12), hide this book and leave some clues.

IN DISGUISE! Undercover with Real Women Spies by Ryan Ann Hunter, Beyond Words/Aladdin 2013.
For starters, the author is not what she seems to be. Try to set up a meeting with Ryan Ann Hunter. She can’t come. She doesn’t exist. Ryan Ann Hunter is two people, Elizabeth G. Macalaster and Pamela D. Greenwood who write together under a pen name.
This book was first issued ten years ago but spy tales didn’t end when the authors finished their manuscript. With the release of formerly classified files, new stories emerged. Ryan Ann added more women spies and daring deeds. This edition spans 300 years and covers 30 brave women, including a few who might have stood next to you on an elevator. Ryan Ann Hunter may be a pen name, but the authors’ subjects really lived and some still do.
Readers will meet Anna Smith Strong who lived during the American Revolution and used her laundry as a signal. During the Civil War Mary Bowser was a freed slave whose photographic memory and her position as a servant in the Richmond home of President Jefferson Davis enabled her to pass information about troop strength and war strategy to other Union spies. More recently, Lindsay Moran worked doggedly to achieve her goal to join the CIA. She later resigned and wrote a book, Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy. Her book and an email response to the Pam Greenwood half of Ryan Ann Hunter, add immediacy to this spellbinding collection of stories about women secret agents.            

Puzzles and trivia are scattered throughout the pages plus some tips about how to hide in plain sight. I liked the creative ways spies delivered messages and maps long before the aid of high tech. Here are a few: a wax head, a skytale (rhymes with Italy—you look it up) and a few hollowed out eggs in a market basket. How many eggs must be broken to make an omelet or find the secret message? Breakfast must have been an adventure.

Well researched, with notes, a bibliography, and interviews, In Disguise! could open a new career path for readers. It has for me. Right there on page 124 a “Spy Files” note leaped right out at me. “When spies break into a building to plant a bug, they sometimes take their own dust along to replace the dust they may disturb on a table, desk, or windowsill.”


Is dust in short supply?  With endless resources, I am eager to become a dust supplier to secret agents. For contact information look under a jar of pickles shelved among the cake mixes. Only you will know it’s been misplaced for a reason. (Note: I think this is called a dead drop.)



Saturday, January 26, 2013

Guns in Middle Grade Novels

In my last two blogs, guns were agents of survival. In many homes, especially in the American rural south, guns are enmeshed in tradition and culture.

GONE FROM THESE WOODS by Donny Bailey Seagraves. Delacorte Press, 2009
Daniel Sartain isn’t expecting his life to change. At least, not much. Daniel is 11. It’s 1992, a crisp November day in North Georgia in the Sartain Woods, owned by Daniel’s family for generations. His Uncle Clay is going to teach him to hunt.

Daniel doesn’t really want to shoot rabbits, or anything else for that matter, but he doesn’t want to let his uncle down. How could he?  Clay had presented Daniel his father’s gun—Daniel’s grandfather’s gun--for his 11th birthday.  This hunting trip would be a rite of passage.

So be it. In spite of his reluctance to shoot anything that lives, Daniel decides that if Clay thinks he should learn to hunt, then hunting is what he will do.

Daniel depends upon Clay as a friend and mentor. Add father figure. Clay’s older brother, Daniel’s father, has demons which no amount of alcohol will drown. Daniel’s feelings for Clay border on hero worship.

Clay’s special name for Daniel is D-Man, a super hero identity which swells Daniel’s chest and builds the confidence his father's words and actions erode on a daily basis. It’s easy to imagine D-Man and Clay growing old as hunting buddies, spinning tales by a fire built in the woods, listening to the sounds of the night.
And then…an accident. Daniel shoots Clay with Granddaddy’s gun. Nothing will ever be the same again.

How will Daniel cope? Overcome guilt? Survive the grief? How can he find meaning in his life after taking the life that meant the most to him?
This debut novel by a seasoned writer and veteran newspaper columnist covers lots of tough issues: gun safety, fault finding, living with alcoholism, depression, suicide, getting into therapy, counseling in school.

The author lists web sites and hot lines for people under stress.  It’s unfortunate that the counselor crafted by author Seagraves for this novel isn’t available to every young person suffering from an emotional trauma. Mrs. Hardy offers Daniel the right amount of comfort and understanding to help him reach out for healing.
To read an excerpt of this thought provoking book, see the author’s web page.
Read the entire book and be ready for questions from your tween or teen. Good stuff here.

Let the discussion begin.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Guns in Young Adult Novels

Alone with a corpse in an isolated cabin in an Artic wilderness. The corpse is your father. You are 14.
REVOLVER by Marcus Sedgwick, Roaring Brook Press, 2009
Starting on the first page, this Young Adult novel chills the bones. A sinister character arrives and the situation worsens. He wants his share of stolen gold that dates back ten years to the Alaskan Gold Rush in 1898. He has no patience and he threatens violence. Sig, the son of the dead man, knows nothing about the gold. He does know a loaded Colt revolver is hidden in the cabin storeroom.

The author of numerous acclaimed novels, Marcus Sedgwick lives in Sussex, England. A Horn Book review suggests that fans of Gary Paulsen and Jack London will be drawn to this high anxiety tale. 
Sedgwick paints with bold brush strokes on a wide outdoor canvas but creates a landscape of human emotions. The characters of Sig and his father are fleshed out with the details of a painter given to tiny, layered strokes. Those who analyze such things say that English writers tend to inflict more emotional pain and physical suffering on their characters than American authors do. It seems true here.

A Horn Book reviewer pointed to a “wealth of moral concerns--good versus evil: faith, love, and hope; the presence of God: survival in a bleak landscape; and trusting the lessons parents teach…”. I liked all the contrasts because they provide endless grounds for discussion.
This is definitely a YA for the reader able to handle mature concepts, however. There is murder, rape, death, greed, threats, bullying, and intense fear on all counts. As the plot evolved I felt as if I were watching a snake think. Is that beady-eyed slithery reptile more afraid of me than I am of it? Sig’s courage develops as he assesses the stranger. Is the snake (bad guy) poisonous or not?

Meanwhile, the Colt revolver awaits, loaded and ready. Sig’s father said it would protect him.  His feeling of security grows. Or is it false security?
The author shares an anonymous but telling quote from a newspaper of the early 1900’s: “It wasn’t God or the Declaration of Independence that made all men equal. It was Samuel Colt.”

Does Sig use the Colt to save his family, even a score, intimidate, or kill? What would the reader do?
I repeat: the themes in Revolver offer endless grounds for discussion.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Guns in Children’s Books

To have a gun in the house–or not. For parents who would like a path into a family discussion about the role and responsibility of guns, children’s books can help.

SWIFT by Robert J. Blake, Philomel Books, 2007.
Swift is a hero dog. He’s also the main character in this adventure that grew carefully and thoughtfully, emerging from the notes and sketches of an author/illustrator who has spent many hours outdoors.

Lucky us! We stay warm and safe in our favorite reading places while Swift and his creator lead our imaginations on a wild and dangerous chase. You might want to have a sweater handy.
Readers will relate to Johnnie who has yearned since his earliest days on this earth to go hunting with his dad and their dog Swift. “This year I passed the gun course,” an excited Johnnie tells us. This is only the second sentence in what will become a survival story. Parents will hear the message: training first. 

Gorgeous Alaskan scenery beckons. Swift looks out at the mountains, at attention, as though danger is on the other side of the page turn.  Braving danger is a necessity. Johnnie’s homesteading family depends upon a successful bear hunt to feed them all winter.
Turn the page and the bear appears. We're off and running. Readers forget to breathe. The story barely stops to take a breath. Text and art work together in frantic syncopation.

Pa is hurt and must be left behind with only his gun for protection. Johnnie and Swift take off to find help. Johnnie carries his own gun (which he has been carefully trained to use, remember?)
Do they make it? Far be it from me to spoil the ending. I’m still shaking from the first sighting of that bear.

The author’s web page chronicles the development of Swift from first idea to final version. Anyone interested in the process of bringing a story to life on the page will be fascinated. Other writers and illustrators will appreciate Blake's candid remarks.
Parents and young readers—ten year old boys would be a great audience--will be glad this book exists.

Who knew reading could be this exciting?

Who knew the topic of gun safety could be introduced so smoothly?  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Poetry in Unexpected Places

Tons of fun packed into one little book?
How can that be?
You’ll see.

THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK: A Book of Found Poems, edited by Georgia Heard, illustrated by Antoine Guillope, Roaring Brook Press, 2012.

 A number of highly regarded poets were challenged to take text from a form other than poetry and turn it into a poem. Editor Heard gathered their creations into forty pages that will delight any age reader or maybe turn any reader into a poet or maybe turn everyone into a reader. Well, let’s just say this small volume could be transformative.

Janet Wong  found her contribution on a box of OxyClean. Lee Bennett Hopkins  developed his poem from selected words in a SPRINT newspaper ad. Robin Hood Black was in that wonderfully inspirational place many writers know well, her laundry room, when she found her poetic lines folded up in a LASERTAG results report. 

At some point in her household adventures, Robyn found time to interview Joyce Sidman who also participated in this challenge. Joyce found her poem in the 2010 Greenpeace calendar.
You’ll recognize the names of poets Jane Yolen, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, and David L. HarrisonOthers may become your first writerly discovery of the new year.
Georgia Heard, who edited The Arrow Finds its Mark, is a writer and educational consultant.  She’s also a crusader, taking her message about writing  and using poetry with children around the world.

Sylvia Vardell is surely a sister crusader. Her blog, Poetry for Childrenis a poetry resource that keeps on giving.   

Now, where have you spotted a poem in hiding?  Cereal boxes on the breakfast table?  Vanity license plates in a traffic jam?

Possibilities are endless!

Hillview School Library