Archive for October, 2009

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

Heart of a ShepherdWhat a wonderful book.

Not a very original statement, I know, but when considering this book I’m unable to speak in anything but superlatives.

11-year-old Ignatius “Brother” Alderman is the only one (along with his grandparents and a hired man) left on the family ranch after his father’s reserve unit ships out to Iraq, and his brothers go back to school. Almost every able-bodied man and woman in the county is in the reserve unit, so everyone, not just the Aldermans, is spread thin.

The best way to describe this book is a coming-of-age story, but it’s without the specifically adolescent experiences that the tag usually implies. Over the course of the year, Brother learns a lot about his family, his father, his grandfather and himself, but even though the book ends with a firm decision about his future plans, adolescence and the teen years are still unthought-of.

The book does deal with some weighty themes, but it’s also hiliarious, charming, sweet, and thoughtful by turns. In spite of the serious subject matter, this book would appeal to 5th and 6th graders–and anyone who likes a moving book.  Even if you don’t think you like this sort of story, you owe it to yourself to try this one out. Highly recommended.

Posted by: Sarah

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The Curse of the Bane by Joseph Delaney

Curse of the BaneThis is book 2 in The Last Apprentice series. I normally do not recommend violent, scary books but occasionally I do like to read them and this is a series that I enjoy and it is October! The moon is bright, the nights are dark and moody and Halloween is right around the corner, so if you like gruesome, scary books this might be a series for you. But beware, it is not for the faint of heart. It is medieval and has a Spook whose job is to rid the country of witches and boggarts and other dark spirits. This particular book also has a Quisitor who gets rich by accusing people of witch craft and then convicting them and burning them at the stake and confiscating all their worldly goods. There is an evil spirit , the Bane, who lives in the catacombs under the cathedral . It is an ancient evil that was locked behind a silver gate but now is growing stronger and corrupting the priests and the people. The Spook was unable to totally defeat the bane when he was young but he has returned with his young apprentice, Tom, to try once again. Tom, though only an apprentice for 6 months is the seventh son of a seventh son and his mother is a good witch so he has lots of inner strength and has already had lots of experience. When the Spook is captured by the Quisitor it is up to Tom to save him and help him with his challenge. Recommended for stout hearted 6th graders and up.

Posted by: Fran W.

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Special! An Interview with Author Marfe Ferguson Delano

Marfe Ferguson Delano is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher, and Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World. We’re very excited to share her answers to our interview questions.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

When I was a kid, a writer was one of the things I wanted to be. I also pictured myself as a concert pianist, as a French teacher, and as a brilliant criminal defense attorney, like the ones I saw on TV who always proved in the nick of time that their falsely accused clients were innocent.

When did you start writing?

I wrote and illustrated my first picture book when I was in sixth grade, for a class assignment. My story was about a boy who built his own rocket and zoomed to a faraway planet, where he had adventures with strange creatures. Some of my classmates and I got to share our books with a first-grade class. I can still remember how my heart thumped when I stood in front of the little kids and read my book to them, and the thrill I felt when their eyes widened at the scary parts and they laughed at the funny parts.

I began writing professionally about 25 years ago, selling recipe columns to a magazine called “Working Mother.” Cooking and testing recipes and then writing them up was great fun, although I think I probably spent more money on ingredients than I was paid for the articles. A few years later I took a job as a copy editor with Time-Life Books, and I eventually began writing for them on topics ranging from vegetable cookery to the Civil War to UFOs. That helped me learn to be versatile, a valuable skill for a children’s book writer, or any writer for that matter.

If you weren’t a writer, what your job be?

I’ve worked as an editor before, so I might do that again, in part because it would help me stay connected with the many wonderful and creative people in the children’s book world. But I think I might also like to teach. I’ve recently become a volunteer ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for adults, and I really enjoy the interaction with the students, who come from all over the world. Sometimes I fantasize about opening a cozy family diner that would only serve breakfast and lunch. I would make delicious soups and stews and become friends with all the customers. Maybe I’d compile my recipes into a cookbook, and then…oh wait, I’m back to writing.

How long did it take from starting to write to having the book published? Did you get many rejections?

About 12 years ago I was lucky enough to be asked to write my first children’s book by an editor at National Geographic, who had learned about my work from another editor at Time-Life. Called Sky, that book was all about the weather and the atmosphere. It was part of a series called Nature Library, and it was the first of many series-type nonfiction books that National Geographic hired me to write. Eventually I began proposing my own book ideas to my editor there, some of which she’s taken on and some of which she’s declined. She’s also given me some great ideas for books, including Helen’s Eyes and Earth in the Hot Seat. It usually takes at least a year and a half from the time I start my research for a book to the time that published books are available.

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?

I start editing the minute I start typing, which makes it darn difficult to finish a sentence, much less a paragraph. Then I go back and revise the paragraph. The whole process starts again with the first sentence of the second paragraph–and then I might go back and revise the first paragraph again, and so on. As you can imagine, this nonstop editing approach makes writing a very slow business for me. I’ve tried and tried to let the words flow, to just get my ideas down in a crummy first draft, as so many writing teachers rightly recommend. But that annoying editor inside of me refuses to let go. Because of this I write fewer full-length drafts than many other writers I know. One trick I’ve started playing with myself, however, is to exceed the length I’m aiming for by at least 30 percent. Then I go back and prune the manuscript down to size.

For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

Moving on from the research to actually writing the book is the most difficult part for me. Forcing myself to tackle the first chapter is always my biggest challenge, especially when there are so many other tempting things to do, like going for a bike ride by the river…or reading the newspaper…or making soup…or doing more research.

I love to do the research for a book. For Exploring Caves, I got to explore a wild cave in northwest Georgia with two expert cavers. To gather information for Inventing the Future, I went to Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. I went to Helen Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and to the Perkins School for the Blind History Museum in Watertown, Massachusetts, to research Helen’s Eyes, my biography of Annie Sullivan. Sometimes I go to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which isn’t far from my home. But I often go no farther than than my wonderful local public library, which I can bike to. And of course I can do internet research at home.

I love to keep digging for information, especially when I’m working on a biography. The more I learn about someone, the closer I feel to him or her personally, and this keeps me going. Author Deborah Heiligman describes this as “falling in love with dead people.” Annie Sullivan really crawled under my skin–in fact she pestered me. During a low point while I was working on Helen’s Eyes, I considered requesting that the release date of the book be pushed forward a year to give me more time to write the manuscript. And then when I was on my walk one morning, a very impatient voice broke into my thoughts. The voice was female, with a light Irish accent, and it upbraided me for being such a pitiful procrastinator: “Sure, if you’ll stop lingering over the newspaper every morning for hours wasting time on things you don’t even remember reading about later, then you’ll have time to write my story. And be sure you do it well.” From that point on I wanted to please Annie, and every time I started to slack off, I could hear her tart tongue chiding me. My excuses seemed pretty lame, especially in light of all that she and her famous student overcame and accomplished in their lifetimes. And so I finished her book.

How do you get your ideas?

As a nonfiction writer, I’m always looking for new ideas. Sometimes I get them from reading an article in a newspaper, magazine, or book. Visiting a museum or a historic site and talking with friends and family members are other great ways to get ideas. So is getting out in nature and taking the time to watch the world around you. My husband inspired me to write Genius, my biography of Albert Einstein, when he told me that he was born in Princeton Hospital in New Jersey on the same day that Einstein died there!

Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?

Lately I’ve found myself drawn to the rich history of my birthplace of Memphis, Tennessee, from the city’s role in the civil rights movement to its legendary music scene. I’m hoping a book will spring from my explorations–and from conversations with my relatives who still live there and witnessed a lot of the city’s history for themselves.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read, of course! Read books, read magazines, read comic books, read newspapers, read the sports page, read anything and everything. Think about what you read, why you like one thing and why you don’t care for something else. Keep a journal and write in it regularly. And keep your eyes and ears and mind open. The best writers are careful observers. You might want to keep a small notebook with you at all times, so that you can jot down notes about anything interesting that you see or hear or feel or smell or taste. Finally, get outdoors and explore nature. Watch ants march in and out of an anthill, listen to birds chirping, feel the rain on your face, smell the flowers…you get the idea.

Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

I’m currently doing research at Mount Vernon, a historic estate that’s only about five miles from my home in Alexandria, Virginia. This might help you guess the person who plays a prominent role in my next book!

Who is YOUR favorite author or book?

E.B. White is one of my favorites. I adore Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and his Elements of Style, which I first read in high school, is still my Bible for good, clear writing. Two memoirs I’ve read recently and highly recommend are The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson and Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka. Both are hilarious. I also read a lot of mysteries. Lately I’ve been enjoying Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, which are set in Venice.

What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?

I sing with a choral society and read a lot for pleasure. I like to explore the museums in Washington, D.C. I go on long walks in my neighborhood almost every day and I hike in the mountains as often as I can. I especially enjoy cooking for my family and friends, and then sitting down to eat and talk and laugh with them.

A big Thank You to Marfe Ferguson Delano! If you’d like to learn more about her, you can visit her website, check out her blog posts at INK: Interesting Non-fiction for Kids, and the related database for teachers, Ink Think Tank

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Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn

Closed for the SeasonOctober is a terrific month to read first-rate thrillers and very few authors cover the genre better that Mary Downing Hahn. Closed for the Season is her latest entry into a long list of chillers like Wait ‘til Helen Comes, The Doll in the Garden, The Old Willis Place and All the Lovely Bad Ones to name a few.

Generally with a murder mystery, you get the usual list of suspects. There’s always the hero and most of the time, a sidekick. Then there’s the villain—usually a bully—a victim and many times a “red herring” suspect. In the case of Hahn’s Closed for the Season there’s also a boatload of missing money. But, the real standout in this fast paced thriller is the location, the “Magic Forest,” an abandoned amusement park, gated, padlocked, posted, rotting and almost totally obscured by a blanket of kudzu–a siren’s song for curious 13-year-olds with a sense of adventure.

Hahn has all the right pieces in place and uses her deft touch with this genre to turn out a truly ominous page turner. It’s a genuine grabber that builds like a roller coaster ride continually increasing the tension then plunging into breathless exhilaration before pulling into the “station” with a satisfying ending.

If you’re looking for a good read, don’t be put off by the KEEP OUT signs on the fence or the smell of decay. Places like “The Magic Forest” are only truly Closed for the Season to readers who don’t have the guts to go in…

Posted by: Eileen

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The Flight of the Union by Tekla White

The Flight of the UnionIf you have been to Niagara Falls and crossed the suspension bridge over the Niagara River between the United States and Canada you probably didn’t even think about how they were able to start building that bridge way back in 1847. Young Homan Walsh and his kite made it possible. The ups and downs of Homan flying his kite in a history making kite contest make a good story that should interest kids aged 5-9 whether it is read to them or they can read it themselves. Adults will be interested in the historical background information at the back of this easy reader.

Posted by: Iris

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Why? by Lila Prap

Why?Anyone who sees this book just can’t pass it up. Why? Because it is filled with eye-catching illustrations and interesting animal facts that kids and grown-up will both enjoy. Each two-page spread features a question about an animal and includes some silly answers along with real facts. Kids will laugh at the silly answers and learn a thing or two while they are at it.

Posted by: Liz

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The Lake Monster Mystery by Shannon Gilligan

The Lake Monster MysteryThey’re BAAACK! The Choose Your Own Adventure series has been brought back from the dead (well from the dust at least)! The updated version of this series is now in an easy reader format with colorful and appealing illustrations. Since I had never read one of this series, I thought I would try it out. What fun! I loved the idea of changing the outcome by making my own choices, and most of the endings and adventures were just right. I do have to mention though that the first adventure/ending that I chose left me a little flat, but when I went back and tried all the other paths, I was pleasantly surprised. Kids will definitely like having choices and will have lots of fun reading and rereading these books.

Posted by: Mary

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Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur

Love, AubreyI have a feeling this book is going to be very popular with kids and also get nominated for lots of awards as well. At the start of the book, Aubrey is living on her own. At first, she thinks it is fun. She can stay up late, eat whatever she wants, and not worry about anything. But that soon starts to grow old. After having her phone calls avoided by Aubrey, her grandmother comes to find her and discovers that her mother has abandoned her. So she takes Aubrey back to live with her. Slowly, we find out that Aubrey’s dad and sister died in a car crash. While at her Grandmother’s house, she learns to heal and find the joy in life again. The ending is not all syrupy sweet, but neither is it heartbreaking. LaFleur accurately describes what it must be like to go through that, but is not maudlin about it.

Posted by: Kate

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Fancy Nancy: The Dazzling Book Report by Jane O’Connor

Fancy Nancy: The Dazzling Book ReportFancy Nancy has a way of charming her devoted fans, young and old alike. Our easy reader collection of this series continues to grow as Jan O’Connor keeps us amused with Fancy Nancy’s latest exploits!

In this book, Fancy Nancy’s antics take us to her library day at school. Everyone in Nancy’s class chooses a book for their first book report. Nancy has chosen a biography on Sacajawea and is oh- so excited to begin designing the cover for her report. She is quite confident with her artistic abilities and uses yarn and beads and fringe and glue to create a fancy-schmancy cover. Unfortunately, she spends so much time working on the cover that she only has time to write two sentences for her book report. When she realizes that everyone else has written a longer report, Fancy Nancy uses her ingenuity to dazzle her class with her report.

Posted by: Wendy

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Special! An Interview With Author Mary Ann Rodman

Mary Ann Rodman is the author of innumerable books: picture books and older fiction both. We like her book Yankee Girl so much that we’re using it as part of our Battle of the Books this year. She’s generously agreed to answer our questions.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.

When did you start writing?

I started writing before I learned to write. Or more specifically, I drew my stories in page panels on school tablet paper, so when I finished I would have ” book.” I was probably three or four when I did this. I was really excited when I learned how to write, and could put words to my pictures.

If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?

I have been a high school librarian, and I’ve also directed high school theater and local theater. I would be happy doing either or both of those jobs again.

How long did it take from starting to write to having your first book published?

There are two answers to this question. I started writing when I was six, and I sold my first book nine years ago.
Or, to be a little more encouraging…about seven years after I decided to write seriously for children.

Did you get many rejections?

Yep. Everybody does. Some people keep track of how many rejections they get; I don’t. I don’t want to focus on who doesn’t want my story; I’m too busy thinking of who might want it. However, to give you an idea, another writer friend (who is very successful and has published over a 100 books), STILL gets over 400 rejections a year.

Rejection is just part of this job, and I have to remind myself that there are a zillion reasons why this particular story didn’t sell to this particular publisher. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer.

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?

As time goes on, I find that I have become less compulsive about endlessly revising. After a certain point, the changes you make are like switching around the pictures on your bedroom wall. It’s different, but it doesn’t make any real difference in how the room looks, (or how the book reads.) I can tell I am in my NEXT TO LAST draft of a book when I start getting sick of my characters. When I am at that point, I know I have one more go round of changes. I know that the writing is ALMOST right, but not quite. I usually rewrite my novels four or five times, beginning to end. Picture books are another story. They take an average of five years, and as many as fifty completely different versions.

For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

Getting rid of scenes or characters that I love, but who really drag the story off in a different direction or take attention from the main characters and plot. I save all that stuff in a special computer file, and promise those characters that they will have their own story some day.

How do you get plot ideas? Are you inspired by incidents from your own childhood? Newspaper articles?

About 90% of my ideas come from my own family. I come from a family of terrific storytellers, and I was a kid who paid attention when my grandparents and aunts and uncles told stories about their own childhoods. My mother was the middle child of eight, and as an only child myself, I thought she had the most fascinating childhood of anyone. She lived on a farm during the Great Depression,helped her mother run a boarding house, and her brothers and sisters were wildly creative and adventurous. I asked my father-in-law to tell me about growing up in the Indiana farm country, mother-in-law in a mansion overlooking Sydney Harbor in Australia, my dad and uncle about surviving a devastating natural disaster. Add to that, I have a fifteen year old daughter who I have been observing since the day she was born.

I can tell you where each of my books came from: YANKEE GIRL, as you mentioned, is based on my own childhood in Mississippi; JIMMY’S STARS comes from my mother’s family. MY BEST FRIEND and FIRST GRADE STINKS are based on things that happened to my daughter. SURPRISE SOUP came from a story my husband told me about making pancakes when he was a little boy and my own memories of my dad making soup. A TREE FOR EMMY is a story I got from one of my daughter’s friends when she was really little. CAMP-K-9, a picture book that will be out in 2011, came from my dog, Nilla. Right now I am working on two novels based on my Grandmother Rodman’s stories, and a picture book that comes from my daughter’s experiences when she was little. I am always listening for good stories, but somehow most of them seem to come from my own family.

Were you ever in a situation like that of Alice in Yankee Girl, who wants to be popular, but knows that she can’t be if she goes with her instincts and befriends an African-American girl?

Yes. YANKEE GIRL is the closest thing I’ll ever write to an autobiography. Although that book is about a sixth grader, I have found myself in the same position…befriending someone unpopular or who is an outcast for some reason…over and over. And yes, I paid the price of my decisions, over and over. As you grow older, you learn that people who won’t be your friend because you have chosen a friend of a different race or religion, aren’t people who would have made a good friend in the first place. (Yes, it still happens to me even though I am an adult!)

Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?

Are you kidding? I have a sign in my office that says “So many books, so little time.” I think it is meant to be about READING books, but for me it’s about having so many stories you want to tell, and not enough time. I hope I get to most of them. The one thing I have wanted to write and haven’t, is a non-fiction book about the unsung heros of the Civil Rights Movement. But I am so used to writing fiction I just can’t make myself stick to the facts. One of these days I hope I become disciplined enough that I can just tell their stories without having to make up stuff.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read, read, read. Write, write, write!

You can’t be a writer if you aren’t a reader. How will you know what kind of books you’d like to write, if you don’t read?

As for the writing part, I’m not talking about class assignments, or book reports or school journals. (Down here in Atlanta, my daughter has had to write in a school journal for at least ten minutes every day, and she’s in high school now!) Write whatever it is you like…poetry, stories, graphic novels, whatever. I know it’s hard to work on big projects all the time when you have so much else going on in your life. I did a zillion things when I was growing up besides write. What I always had time to do was to write in my personal journal every single day. I have had a journal ever since third grade. This is a private thing where you write down your thoughts, descriptions of places and people you want to remember…anything you want. You don’t have to write in complete sentences or even spell things right (as long as you can tell what you’re saying) This is NOT the kind of journal where you write down everything you did that day. I’ve done those kinds of journals and most days are alike. It’s the things that make THAT day different that you want to write about. For instance, one of my all time favorite entries is from my third grade journal. We lived in Hazel Crest, Illinois, and it was February and below zero…and the school bus didn’t show up. In those days, if the bus didn’t show up, you were stuck, because in our neighborhood people only had one car…and the dads took that one car to work. I won’t tell you exactly what my friend Chuck and I did while we waited for the bus (it finally did come…an hour late) because I still think I might write a story about it. Most of it had to do with our noses dripping from the cold…and we didn’t have any Kleenex. (Disgusting, hunh?) But I thought it was funny when I was eight, and I still think it is today.

Write every chance you get. When I was a kid, I wrote for our local newspapers and the school paper. If I were a young writer today I would probably blog or maybe even try a graphic novel.

Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

As I said before, I am writing two novels, that take place in Southern Illinois in the early 1900’s. The picture book is about my daughter learning a skill…and what she learns besides that. I know this sounds really vague but I don’t like to get too specific while I am still writing, in caseI I change my mind about something.

Do you prefer writing chapter books or picture books?

I like both equally. I like chapter books (novels actually….I think of chapter books being for readers a little younger than the ones I write for) because I have lots of time and space to create a whole fictional world. I like picture books because they teach me to write in a completely different way…in as few words as possible. When I am stuck writing novel, I switch over to a picture book for a day. You can write a whole draft of a picture book in a couple of hours.

What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?

I don’t suppose reading counts? I am a photographer, and I still like to mess around with art. (My daughter is a much better artist than I am.) I like cruising around antique stores and flea markets. Being around all those old things that once belonged to someone…well, it’s another way I get ideas.I also like to cycle, and am a big fan of figure skating (my daughter is a competitive skater.)

Thanks again to Mary Ann Rodman, a fabulous author and interviewee–we can’t wait to see her 2011 book!

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