Allison's Book Bag

At the heart of The Exile, a clean fantasy aimed at middle-school boys, is four boys coming of age and a community tradition. When Buffington focuses on the boys, I found myself drawn into his imagined world of Denall. Intertwined is a plot involving a corrupt magician named Lord Mordyar who is searching for the stones of power. Unfortunately, especially when it comes to the latter, The Exile has some outstanding stylistic flaws.

The Exile contains two intriguing elements. First, there is the tradition whereby when a boy reaches the age of seventeen, he must leave the village for a year (or four seasons) to prove his manhood. Although families often break the rule, no advice is to be given on the day of departure, nor are the boys to stash food outside of the village to find on their journey. One of my favorite scenes is where Bendar buries three piles of supplies, the first with the idea not only that it would be found and removed but that it also would trick his parents into not searching for further stashes. His parents instead left the stockpile untouched, figuring now Bendar would have to determine what loot he should carry with him and what he should leave behind.

Second, there are the powers which every individual has. Some have developed keener sense of sight than normal, others hearing, some knowledge, and still others strength. All of these can be used to their advantage to help them survive, but when combined with a stone of power can result in magical capabilities. In the case of our characters, Kaz is the one who receives the stone of sight. It enables him to shoot arrows at distances far greater than any other man. How he finds the stone makes for a memorable scene. He almost discards it, because it comes in the form of a woman’s necklace.

Intriguing as those elements are, it’s the four boys which give heart to The Exile. The journey which the four boys take together has different effects on them. For example, Garin will leave behind a girl, and so is eager to just be done with the whole ordeal. His brother, in contrast, has no allegiances and is your typical teen who can’t wait to leave home and never return. As for the other two boys, one is well-liked by all while the other is more of an outcast, and I enjoyed how Buffington used their exile adventures to develop them into complex characters. Kaz might seem like the traditional popular boy, but has quirks such as knowing how to knit. Bendar might seem like the traditional nerd, but when his calculated plans fail he makes sacrifices for the group.

Unfortunately, The Exile has some stylistic flaws which are impossible to ignore. One of them, that of telling the story from multiple points of view, is most annoying at the start. While introducing the main characters, Buffington not only delineates their feelings about their upcoming journey but that of each of their set of parents. Further on, Buffington thankfully only switches viewpoints with new chapters and new scenes. Another flaw mostly arises during the scenes not involving our main characters. Here, he often summarizes events, which has the effect of distancing me from the story. Sometimes as Buffington writes about the delivery or discovery of the stones, I even feel confused.

The flaws effect enough of The Exile that I found the opening scene to be slow and occasional subsequent chapters to be dull. At times, I felt tempted to discontinue reading The Exile. The four boys save the story, however. Eventually, I also found myself enjoying the story of the thieving P, a female who comes into Kaz’s life. On these latter merits, I’m recommending The Exile.

EricBuffingtonI often tell my students that they can write, even if they struggle with spelling and grammar. Author Eric Buffington would probably back me up on that statement. Buffington himself almost failed his English classes, to this day doesn’t know how to use commas, and was told by his teachers that he just isn’t an English person.

Born in Canada, Eric Buffington lived there until he was eighteen. After that he traveled with a Canadian government program, before moving to California to serve a two-year mission working with the Laotian people. Shortly after returning home he met the love of his life, moved to Pennsylvania and married her. He also completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in education, which enables him to work as a High School math teacher in an online cyber school. You can watch his math lessons on his Youtube channel.

Buffington loves to tell stories, which is how he got his start as an author. He’s been writing now for about three years and has one trilogy, Stones of Power, pretty much written. The first volume of it, The Exile, I’ll review here tomorrow. Save the date: August 28!

For The Exile, Buffington just started writing it. According to The Candlelight, about thirty pages in he realized he needed an outline. He stopped for several months to make character outlines and restructure the entire trilogy. Through this experience, he learned that he works best with an outline. At the same time, Buffington has learned to make the outline as basic as possible because characters tend to change things as they develop.

Buffington contacted me about reviewing Stones of Power, because one audience which I try to feature books for are boys. These are our most reluctant readers. I also enjoyed learning that Buffington is a fellow-Canadian, and through my interview with him, other interesting aspects of his life.

AUTHOR BACKGROUND

ALLISON: If you were to write a memoir about your childhood, what highlights would need to be included?

ERIC: One of my early childhood memories was a great playroom we had in our first home. My brother and I used to go up there and play for hours. We had stuffed toys that became cool characters, and Legos that became everything we wanted them to be. That was a room of imagination coming to life. Then when the weather was nice we would race down the steep hill next to our house on ‘big wheels’ type vehicles and we even tried driving my parents car down that hill. The neighbor’s car was not too happy about that…. neither was my mom.

ALLISON: English wasn’t your top subject at school? How has that been a disadvantage? What was your best subject? How has it helped you?

ERIC: For years I was told that I was just not an, ‘English person’ and unfortunately I believed the people who told me. Not thinking I was ‘good’ at English resulted in me not putting forth the effort I should have and now I greatly regret not taking advantage of all that I could have learned in school. One of my greatest weaknesses is punctuation. I have very little grasp on how to correctly use a comma. Some of the minor rules of grammar still escape me and it has been a very steep learning curve trying to catch up. My editors have been very helpful.

My best subjects were math and science, they came to me easily. That helped because I was able to earn money in college as a calculus tutor, and now I work as a math teacher, and I have a youtube channel with several math videos.

ALLISON: How does life in the United States compare to that in Canada? What do you miss about Ontario? What do you love about Pennsylvania?

ERIC: Living in the United States vs. Canada wasn’t too hard a transition. I think things in the States are more fast paced, and sometimes stressful, but overall it’s pretty similar. One thing I miss about Ontario is being able to go skating on a frozen pond. I used to do outdoor skating every year in Canada, and in Pennsylvania it gets cold, then thaws, then cold again, and so the outdoor ponds and rinks are not very smooth.

What I love about Pennsylvania is the rolling hills, and the fact that my wife is here. She’s what brought me to Pennsylvania. We live out in the country where we have space for a garden and some fun landscaping projects. Although the soil here seems to be more rocks than anything else, we do love getting out and working on yard projects.

ALLISON: What was it like to serve on the two-year mission working with Laotian people?

ERIC: Easily one of the best experiences of my life. I loved meeting people from Laos, they are so polite, kind and humble. They were able to teach me so much, while I was there working with them. It was also one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but that’s how life goes. If you face difficult challenges you grow and looking back see what benefits came from struggling through the challenges. Every day of my life I use what I learned during that two-year mission.

ALLISON: What does it look like to teach math in an online cyber school?

ERIC: I guess it looks like a bunch of people sitting at home on their computers all over Pennsylvania. As a teacher, I use technology to teach live lessons, grade papers, contact students and parents. As a student, everyone has a schedule of classes they need to attend and a list of work to do each day. It sounds like it would be something so different from a regular school, and in some ways it is, but in a lot of ways it looks just like school.

ALLISON: You didn’t take courses but learned on your own to write novels. What have you learned about the writing process?

ERIC: I spent almost a year working on my book and thought it was something so special, then every time I gave it to someone else they came back telling me all the things that were wrong with it. That is not an easy thing to deal with, but it has been a great growing experience. I have learned that criticism is good. People give feedback not to be mean but because they believe in what your book can become and they want it to be the best it can be. I guess we can relate that to life sometimes too.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: Have you done any oral storytelling?

ERIC:When my daughter was born I used to put her to bed every night with a story about a young princess in the Kingdom of Buff. The princess was, of course named EmmaLeigh, after my daughter, and she had red hair just like my girl. Each night she insisted that I came up with a different story. It was a challenge but also very fun and I guess that was the beginning of me needing to make up stories and tell them to another person.

ALLISON: How much research fed into your world-building?

ERIC: While finishing up my Master’s degree I was doing a 5-10 page research paper every week. I really don’t like research! That’s when I started writing The Stones of Power. I enjoyed writing, but not doing research. Then I realized that making a fantasy world did require some work on my part. I have several pages of bullet point notes outlining the different regions of Denall, the people who live there and all sorts of other things that never show up in the books. I wanted to create a realistic world that had real people in it and that took time.

As far as preparation for writing a book, I have been researching on how to write a fun fantasy novel since the time I was in ninth grade. I remember when I first read Piers Anthony’s Ogre, Ogre. It was fantastic and I was hooked. Since that time I have read many fantasy books, and played far too many video games. These influences helped me know what I did and did not like in books so I could write something that was engaging.

ALLISON: Given that your series is set in the past, why did you choose to write fantasy instead of historical novels?

ERIC: The primary reason for making the trilogy fantasy was so that I could have magic, I very much enjoyed setting up a magic system. I also made the choice to avoid an actual historical location because I couldn’t find one that fit what I wanted to do. I wanted a medieval world where most people were taught how to read. I also wanted to avoid setting up any internal political or religious tension, which seemed to always be present in medieval times. Basically I wanted a united, peaceful kingdom that had a good economic system, decent education and was located on a fairly large island. What I wanted was so specific that it was better for me to just make up a new location and create a world.

ALLISON: What was your favorite moment while writing Stones of Power? Most frustrating moment?

ERIC: My favorite moment was when I sat down and wrote the archery tournament. That part of The Exile may seem small, but it is so pivotal that it is again told, from a different perspective, in The Invasion. It was a challenge to write because I had so many small things happening that needed to be exactly right so that it would connect with the second book. For me this was a really fun challenge.

ERIC: The most frustrating moment was when I had the book finished and I had to start the process of looking for a publisher. It’s not easy, and after getting your book polished it is sometimes hard sending out letters to publishers and agents and not hearing back. I’m not a huge fan of waiting around, but I have learned that it is important to be patient and wait for a company that is a good fit for you.

ALLISON: If you could pick a moment in your novel to experience, what would it be? Did you draw any real life moments to write it?

ERIC: This is a tough question! I think it would be easier to pick things I would not like to experience. I don’t think I’d like to get attacked by drams, starved, kidnapped, or shot with an arrow. I think I’d like to experience the training that Kaz had. The archery training by Boon or the sight training with Kire were both great experiences for him. I also think it would be cool to have an enhanced ability like the people in Denall have.

ALLISON: You credit your wife with changing the direction of your novel. What are the highs and lows of having your spouse as your best critic?

ERIC: The best part of having my wife as a critic for the novels I’ve written is that I know she wants what is best for me and for the books. I needed to learn how to take criticism and having it come from her first was a great way for me to start realizing that a criticism on my book is not an attack on me personally. Another great asset is that I know she reads romance novels. When I was writing Book 3 in this series, there is a more developed romance with two of the characters. When I got to that part I didn’t even try to write it the first time through, I just wrote, “talk with MaryBeth.” I knew that I could put off writing that part until after I discussed it with her and it would be much better. It’s great to have someone who can strengthen my weaknesses.

SharonDraperAs a full-time writer, Sharon M. Draper loves what she does. She gets to write, travel, read, sleep late, go to the beach, or do nothing. No two days are ever alike. She feels blessed. When researching her life, I found it interesting to learn random things from Fireside Musings about her such as she loves Hagen Daaz ice-cream and can’t swim. If she were stranded on a desert island, according to Fireside Musings, she would bring building tools, a satellite telephone, and the complete works of Shakespeare! As for the coolest thing to most recently happen to her. Out of my Mind was on the New York Times Bestseller List! I reviewed it on August 6. Now I’m excited to post an interview with Sharon M. Draper, wherein she shares from her personal life as well as talks about Out of My Mind.

AUTHOR BACKGROUND

ALLISON: If you could share only one thing from your childhood with readers, what would that be?

SHARON: I was an avid reader as a child. I went to the library every single Saturday and checked out the maximum number of books, which was ten. I’d take them home and read them, then go back the next week and get ten more. I really did read most of the books in our small branch library. Seriously. All that reading probably got me started as a writer.

ALLISON: People tend to love or hate their adolescence. Which describes you?
I was an awkward adolescent. Because I was studious and I guess kinda nerdy, I was left out of the more socially mobile crowd, but that turned out to be a good thing. My best friends stayed true and loyal. We are still close friends even today. Adolescence can be survived!

ALLISON: A challenge from a student started you on the path of literary recognition. What was that challenge? What was “One Small Torch” about? And where might one find a copy?

SHARON: One of my students, a young man who did not like to write very much, challenged me to do some writing for a change, instead of just assigning it. So I entered a short story contest and I actually won! The story was called “One Small Torch”. You can read it today as chapter one of Forged by Fire.

ALLISON: You have received many honors for your writing work. What the first one you received? And what was that like? What was it like to visit the White House? And to represent the United States in Moscow?

SHARON: I’ve been blessed to receive many, many awards and honors. I am always a little awed, and always very grateful for the recognition of my writing. I guess the first really big one was to receive the New Talent Award by the American Library Association for Tears of a Tiger, my first book. The White House is awesome. The food there is unbelievably delicious, by the way. I’ve been to Moscow twice—it’s fascinating. I love to travel, but the best flight is always the one that brings me back home.

ALLISON: You have written stand-alone books and series. Which is your preference? How has the process differed?

SHARON: Some books need to be continued, and some say it all, and there is no need to further the story. Out of my Mind, for example, begins and ends with the same words, which literally brings it full circle. There is nothing left to say. But Panic, on the other hand, just begs to be continued. And so I shall.

ALLISON: According to some interviews, realistic fiction is your favorite genre to write. With fantasy being so popular among young people, have you ever been tempted to write it?

SHARON: Nope. I don’t think I’d be very good at it. I have no interest at all in even trying. I’ve always believed one should focus on what one loves, and the result will be wonderful.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: How did you come up with the idea of Melody to have a Medi-Talker? Why did you wait until halfway through the book for this to happen?

SHARON: Many real children with disabilities use electronic talking devices. It is a wonderful help to those who have all their words and thoughts stuck inside. Modern technology is making these devices better every day.

ALLISON: Your daughter has a disability. Has she used the Medi-talker? Or other technology which has opened up her world?

SHARON: My daughter tells me to remind people that she is not Melody (even though she loves the attention.) But I do know lots of young people who do use such a device.

ALLISON: Several reviews have criticized the end as negative. Do you view it this way? Why didn’t you opt for a more positive end?

SHARON: The end is realistic. A child like Melody will not get “cured,” or change in any way. Her life will be difficult for the rest of her life. But as long as she can maintain her optimism and spirit, she can survive.

ALLISON: Some individuals with disabilities have made the statement that they would love if an author would write a book with characters who are like them and that would help others understand them. Your now having written a book about a girl who has a disability, what advice would you offer to other authors hoping to do the same?
SHARON: The world is full of characters and writing possibilities. But never write a story to “teach a moral” or to “make someone understand.” Write the story so the character soars and the reader can see the humanity of that character. The understanding will come effortlessly.

ALLISON: What are your favorite books which portray individuals with disabilities?

SHARON: I think Wonder is a really good book, but I’m not an expert on the topic. My next book will be about a different character is a different situation living in a different century. I’m not aware of other books about this time and place. I simply become an expert on what I’m doing at the time.

Counting books. We all grew up with them. Now here comes one from Rene Saldana Jr. called Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers. In it, Mateo’s birthday is full of excitement with many things to count in numbers in English and in Spanish. The full-spread illustrations are photorealistic, while the accompanying bilingual text is minimal. Together, the pictures and words create a story easy enough for young readers to independently enjoy.

Through the artwork alone, readers will figure out most of the story details. Mateo is having a birthday. So we learn from the balloons. It is on Saturday at 3:00. So we learn from the birthday invitations and the time on the analog clock. About a dozen children will attend. So we learn from the birthday hats placed on the table and the surprise gift boxes being filled with marbles, spinning tops, and toy cars. Because of the piñata, we can also guess that this is a Latino birthday. I mostly enjoyed the photorealistic illustrations. For the one page, where a hand is shown holding a digital camera, I initially felt confused about what was being pictured. Also, at times such as when bubbles were being blown and the piñata was being broken, I might have preferred a little less realism and a little more whimsical art. Over all though, the artwork is lavish, beautiful, and draws one through the story. I also liked the unifying use of a piece of piñata candy being repeated on most pages.

The text nicely complements the artwork, with Spanish first and English on the bottom. The vocabulary is simple enough, with even longer words being that which one might find on a primary word list such as birthday, children, and happiest. Most pages have only a short phrase, or perhaps a sentence, with the longest text being only four short lines. The one exception is the piñata song, which is eight quick lines.

Some ideas are introduced, which will perhaps be unfamiliar to English audiences, such as the piñata. I also wonder if the wrestling masks are unique to Latino culture, because they are not a known part of birthdays to me. Some reviewers raised the question about why there wasn’t a note at the end explaining these aspects of culture. Initially, I felt inclined to agree with them. Then I started to doubt this view, feeling it to be ethnocentric. Caucasian Americans don’t complain that children’s books about OUR culture don’t explain the references. Why should we complain when books about other cultures don’t? Latino readers will probably have grown up being acquainted with the various aspects of Mateo’s birthday celebration and appreciate a story to which they can relate. As for me, my questions spurred me to search the internet and to discover a whole history exists behind the origins of piñata, not all of which are Spanish.

Counting books. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one. Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers is an excellent addition, with the wonderful hook of a birthday. Anyone with small children or young students will do well with this picture book in their book stash.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

This past spring, Rene Saldana Jr. had his first picture book published. Titled Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers, it is a bilingual counting book that follows a boy on the day of his birthday fiesta. According to his bio blurb, Saldana has broken enough pinatas that he has stopped having them for himself, but he still loves throwing fiestas for his children. I’ll review his book on August 26. Save the date!

AUTHOR BACKGROUND

Born and raised in Texas, Saldana still lives there with his wife, their children, and their pets. A perusal through his blog will reveal that he grew up loving to read. As a child, he most liked a character named Wet Albert. Later, in high school, The Count of Monte Cristo became the first novel he couldn’t book down since his elementary school days. Although he always enjoyed books, it wasn’t until college that he gave himself the permission to consider becoming an author. Even then, he viewed himself more as one in training rather than an actual writer. Now he is both a teacher of creative writing and a successful published author.

You can read more about his reading, writing, and teaching experiences at his blog:

BOOK BACKGROUND

Next month, I’ll be back with more reviews of Latino holiday picture books. For now, a little background about pinatas. According to Wikipedia, their origins seem to be Chinese. In the shape of a cow or an ox, the Chinese piñata was used for the New Year and meant to produce a favorable climate for the upcoming growing season. The pinata was decorated with symbols and colors, filled with seeds, and then hit with sticks. After the piñata was broken, the remains were burned and the ashes kept for good luck.

In the 14th century, the tradition came to Europe, where it was associated with the Christian celebration of Lent, and became a celebration known as the Dance of the Piñata. The Spanish initially used a plain clay container, before starting to decorate it with ribbons, tinsel and colored paper.

Later, in the 16th century, the tradition was brought to Mexico. Ironically, a similar tradition already existed here. The Aztec tradition commemorated the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, a deity of war. Priests would place a clay pot decorated with colorful feathers. When broken with a stick or club, the treasures inside would fall to the feet of the idol as an offering.

Pinata, Wikipedia Commons

Pinata
Wikipedia Commons

According to Go Mexico, the pinata was also used in Mexico for Christian celebrations. In this case, the original piñata was shaped like a star with seven points. The points represented the seven deadly sins, while the bright colors of the piñata symbolize temptation. The blindfold represents faith and the stick is virtue or the will to overcome sin. The candies and other goodies inside the piñata are the riches of the kingdom of heaven.

Over time, the piñata has lost its religious significance and become popular in many types of Mexican celebrations, including Christmas and birthdays, the latter of which is the focus of my review book. Each participant, usually a child, will have a turn at hitting the piñata, which is hung from above on a string. The participant is blindfolded, given a wooden stick, and then spun a number of times. As the participants works to hit the piñata, another moves it to make it harder to hit. There is a time limit to any one person’s attempts, which is marked out by the singing of a traditional song:

Hit it, hit it, hit it
Don’t lose your aim
Because if you lose it
You will lose your way

You hit it once
You hit it twice
You hit it three times
And your time is up

ONLINE SOURCES

Most of the online sites I browsed provided information similar to that which I’ve given above.

  • However, San Benito History expanded upon the symbols of the pinata and the occasions when the pinata is used.
  • Pinata History explained the folklore associated with the pinata.
  • And Kidzworld provides instructions on how to make a pinata.

Of possible interest too is a review of Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers by Latino Author.

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September: Classics

I'm excited to review a few books I grew up reading which have stood the test of time to become classics. I'll also continue to include reviews I write for our local multicultural group and for our local dog club. Enjoy!

  • Are You My Mother? by PD Eastman
  • Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
  • Little Bear by Else Minarik
  • Ellen Tibbets by Beverly Cleary
  • Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
  • Henry Reed by Keith Robertson
  • Pinballs by Betsy Byers
  • My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weill

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Thirty days. Minimum average of 1666 words per day. A total of 50,000 words. I am a NaNo Winner for two years in a row and my novel in its second version.

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