Sunday, August 31, 2014


Megan Sovern owes me a Saturday afternoon. That’s what I lost because I had to take a nap because I was up half the night reading her debut novel.

THE MEANING OF MAGGIE by Megan Jean Sovern, Chronicle Books, 2014

I learned a long time ago I can’t pull an all-nighter the way I used to. That knowledge didn’t stop me from wanting to see how Maggie’s life turned out when it began with her dad in the hospital and ended in the same place except…

It’s the "except" part that kept me reading. Maggie is sprightly, fun, bright, too bright some would say, but smart girls should be IN not left OUT of things, especially when you have Maggie’s temperament, are the future president of the United States of America and own stock in Coca-Cola. She loves, especially her family, cares, especially about other people, is spunky, and thinks her dad and mom are the top guys on the planet. Mom and Dad may be pushing that last part, however as Maggie gets older and begins to realize her older sisters aren’t all bad and maybe Mom and Dad aren’t all perfect.

Maggie is about to turn 11 or as the book jacket puts it, “one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. *” Footnotes throughout the book tell us what Maggie thinks, and the tattoo footnote tells us Maggie thinks tattoos are terrifying.  It’s just nice to know she is one year closer to getting one if she wants to.

As care-free as Maggie seems, she is super worried about her cool dude dad whose legs have fallen asleep. She tries hard to honor the family motto, “Pull up your bootstraps.” Not easy. Author Sovern’s insights into how each member of the family handles Dad’s increasing disability turn Maggie’s family into the reader’s family, too.

If you lose a night of sleep reading this book, it’s not my fault. Tell the author. She lives in Atlanta. Probably hangs out in coffee shops with a notepad and pencil. Or a laptop. Maybe a tablet. Smart phone? Happy hunting.


Saturday, August 23, 2014


You may not be anywhere near the Birmingham Museum of Art. You may not be able to enjoy its current exhibit, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. That won’t stop the readers at your house from getting caught up in the action of a debut novel that combined this ancient art with our American love of baseball. Speaking of which, I am hooked on Little League these days. Anybody else watching the World Series with me?

SAMURAI SHORTSHOP by Alan Gratz, Dial Books, 2006

As noted, this was a debut novel. The author did not stop there. In addition to his obvious penchant for thorough research, he delights in combining and twisting unrelated topics: Bushido--the Samurai code--and baseball. Shakespeare and pulp mystery fiction. He makes disparity work. Gratz's latest middle grade series is being launched as I write this. It combines steam punk and the 1870’s.  

First Samurai Shortstop: Toyo is 16. The year is 1890. When the mighty Shoguns were overturned twenty years earlier, Japan’s isolation ended. Toyo is born into a country opening its eyes to the rest of the world. However, his father and uncle belong to the traditional world of bushido, the way of the warrior.
When Toyo’s uncle commits ritual suicide to avoid modernization, Toyo agonizes that his father may do the same thing.

Toyo’s traditional samurai training at the prestigious Ichiko Japanese boarding school and his clash with the spirit of Ichiko law lands him squarely in the same dilemma faced by teens today: how do you fit in and still stand up for yourself?

Alan Gratz figured this out and young readers casting about for one last absorbing story before summer ends will find the ending as satisfying as a baseball game when your team wins.

Now is the time to check out the author’s web site and see what other twists he has in store.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


If you’re headed to the Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor exhibit  at the Birmingham Museum of Art, this book will whet the appetite of your middle grade boy readers. Girls, too.  It’ a riveting book, museum trip or not.

WHITE CRAIN by Sandy Fussell, illustrated by Rhian Nest James, Candlewick Press, 2010.
Niya Moto, narrator, is a 14 year old boy whose father was a samurai. However, Niya can’t attend his father’s school for training because he has only one leg.

Along with five fellow students who have their own obstacles to overcome, Niya studies with sensei Ki-Yaga, an ancient but legendary warrior. Ki-Yaga teaches them not only physical skills, but mental and spiritual ones.

The humor is sly and subtle. Chapter titles like “Bad Breath and Big Feet” are gigglers.

The learning process is deep and gentle. A glossary of useful words and the 7 virtues of Bushido (samurai code) ground the story.

The kids are well defined personalities and even though they encounter great cruelties because of their lack of physical perfection, disability is only a small part of what tags each one. Sensei leads, guides, prods them into greater perspectives. Their spirit totems reveal character while friendship, loyalty, and using one’s head to think a problem through create triumphant outcomes.

This is Sandy Fussell’s debut novel. Illustrator Rhian Nest James has illustrated more than 60 children’s books. Both live in Australia.  



Hillview School Library