Allison's Book Bag

Ever since discovering the series about Jenny, a cute black cat, I’ve been trying to read every book featuring her. My most recent selection by Esther Averill was Jenny’s Birthday Book. It’s largest appeal lay in my familiarity with the characters and settings, as well as how it could inspire writing ideas.

Naturally, I’m familiar with the main character, the shy Jenny. Then there’s also her brothers, whom I learned in Jenny and the Cat Club had initially made Jenny jealous. For that reason, they almost didn’t stay with Jenny and the Captain. I enjoyed meeting them again. Then there are the twins who have a birthday present for Jenny that she can’t open until all the invited cats reach the park. Next up is Pickles, the famous fire cat whom I first met in an I Can Read book. He picks up the party invitees on his red fire truck. And there’s quite the crew, let me tell you, so many cats in fact that I kept counting their numbers with each new page I turned.

Naturally, I also know the setting, that of New York City. From Jenny’s yard, one can see the cityscape. We’re also told by Averill that the cats are headed to a park to celebrate Jenny’s birthday and that this park is in a busy part of the city. Jenny and her brothers scamper through streets and watch for traffic lights. They pass a flower shop and a fish stop. The next stop is the fire house. After that, all adventures happen in a certain red fire truck, including that of speeding with the siren on through the city streets. Finally, all the cats gather in the park, where all the birthday festivities begin.

When I started thinking about what to say about Jenny’s Birthday Book, I began to imagine how it could inspire pet memoirs. Averill based Jenny on her own cat. What if you or the young person in your life were to write about your pet’s birthday or other holidays that you celebrate together? How different or the same would this tale look? With every writing club, I always share a story of how my Lucy cat got lost one day. Without fail, at least one if not many, of my students are now inspired to tell their own lost pet stories.

There’s nothing exceptional that happens in Jenny’s Birthday Book. Averill simply tells of a warm-hearted and cheerful gathering of friends. But, the story has a calming feel. Therein, lies its charm and sweetness. It’s should go on your shelves, right next to Jenny and the Cat Club.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Saturday Snapshot invites bloggers to share photos. On April 21, my husband and I celebrate our seventh anniversary. Below are the highlights from both before and on that special day.

To start our celebration, we  spent the previous weekend doing special stuff. This included going out to our favorite restaurant, Kinja. We like all the creative ways they prepare sushi. Andy topped off our meal by ordering champagne.

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It also included going out to a movie. We saw “When We’re Young” about a childless middle-age couple whose lives are disrupted when a disarming young couple enter their lives. It was funny, weird, and a little sad.

Finally, we spent a few hours looking through old email exchanges about places to visit, activities to do, and foods to try. This inspired Andy to make Hong Kong French Toast.

The weekend over, we headed into a long week. We’ve been taking new homeowner classes in the evenings. It’s also near the end of my teaching year, which can be a hectic time.

Andy decided to surprise me on our anniversary itself too with a special gift. In the middle of my reading with students, our security monitor came to my classroom carrying flowers. She told me that office had been enjoying them, but it might be nice for me to have them.

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My students were full of questions about who the flowers were from, as well as wanting to smell the flowers. To them, they smelled like bubblegum. :-)

I told them, my husband gave the flowers to me. Of course, they then wanted to know how long we were married. The reading class turned into one of personal questions. As soon as I could, I rounded up another teacher to take photos.

I also finally got to leave one of those obtuse messages that some people put on Facebook. Mine simply said: “Thank you!” Then I added: “This is one of these mysterious messages where the recipient knows what the message means but no one else does. ;-) Anyone is welcome to make guesses!”

Lucky Strike is a light-hearted tale about a boy whose fortune changes when he miraculously survives being struck by lightning. Through the use of magical realism, Bobbie Pryon also explores complex themes such as friendship, bullying, and what luck really is. While Lucky Strike might a departure from Pyron’s more serious works, it remains thought-provoking and well written.

Magical realism might seem like a contradiction. After all, the one is about impossible events and the other depicts events that could be true. Pyron manages to pull it off, by creating one character who wholeheartedly believes in luck and another character who accepts only the laws of probability and logic. Nate carries around a rabbit’s foot, wishes on birthday candles, and forever hopes for his misfortune to change. In contrast, Gen persists in calculating chance, persisting in the belief that if one tosses a coin one hundred times, the odds are one will get heads about half the time.

Pyron also successfully walks the tightrope between magic and realism, by entrenching readers in the realistic world of the sea, fishing, and turtleheads, while at the same time dipping into the improbable world of being struck by lightning, living to tell the tale, AND being blessed with a Midas Touch. On the one end, Nate and Gen spend each spring visiting the beach and protecting turtle eggs. On the other end, Nate finds himself surrounded by more friends and enemies than he knows how to handle, due to his mysterious ability to pick winning numbers and tickets.

Finally, Pyron manages to pull off a magical realism tale with a style that relies on exaggeration. Open to any page and you’re bound to find a few examples. To illustrate, page one tells us that Nate’s hound dog had been snatched up by a tornado “doghouse and all” never to be seen again. Moreover, Nate had never “in the history of his eleven years on God’s green earth” won a prize. Around the midpoint, we’re told about Nate’s visit to a carnival. He plays a game where one has to knock down four miniature clowns with a ball. After Nate successfully strikes the first three clowns, he could have sworn the fourth “tried to hide behind the other clowns”

All of the above makes for a highly entertaining and fun tale, but Pyron is also a master at creating fiction of depth. There’s a message about friendship. When Nate gains popularity for the first time, he forsakes his previous friends. As a twist on this common mistake, Pyron has Gen push herself out of her comfort zone to find others who need friends. There’s a message about bullies. Not long Nate forsakes his previous friends, he ends up having to choose between them and a gang of boys whose skills lie in taunting others. Finally, there’s a message about luck. Like a person who has won the lottery, Nate is catapulted into the center of attention after being strike by lightning. Sometimes though, fame isn’t everything one expects, wants, or needs.

With each new novel, Pryon shows herself adept at writing for different age groups and in diverse genres. I first encountered her writings in 2011 when I reviewed A Dog’s Life and The Ring as part of a virtual tour. It’s been an equal delight to read Lucky Strike, so much so that I’m already looking forward to her next book.

BobbiePyronAs part of a virtual tour for A Dog’s Way Home, I interviewed Bobbie Pyron. Now on her fourth book, Pyron’s life took many twists and turns before she become a published author.

Animals, books, and family stories have always been a huge part of Pyron’s life. Everyone in her family loved animals. They always had a dog. They also made frequent trips to the zoo. Pyron and her father used to read the newspaper comics together before she started kindergarten. As for family stories, they seemed to provide a continuity in her otherwise fragmented life.

Her childhood was pretty hard. Pyron’s father died suddenly when she was seven. As a result, all of her books seem to explore loss. Pryon grew up a shy and quiet child who worried about many things.

As an adult, Pyron attended college and obtained degrees in psychology and anthropology. For a time, she sang in a rock and roll band. Then she went back to college, earned credentials as a librarian, and has been in this field for over twenty-five years. Eventually, Pyron sat down to write her first novel and in October 2009 became a published author.

Pyron’s titles to date are: The Ring, A Dog’s Way Home, Dogs in Winter, and Lucky Strike. The last I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: April 24!

ALLISON: Lucky Strike is about friendship. What is one of your memorable childhood friendships?

BOBBIE: I was a very shy child so most of my friends were either imaginary or dogs. My very best friend when I was young (from age 3 until I was about thirteen) was our beagle named Puck. He rarely ever left my side. I made mud pies for him, dressed him up in clothes, explored the back yard with him. Once he saved me from a rattlesnake. Once I got older—like seven and eight—I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted in our small Florida town as long as Puck was with me and I minded him!

ALLISON: Share a lucky moment of yours from growing up.

BOBBIE: I had a very difficult childhood after my father died when I was almost seven, so I don’t think I had many lucky moments. But I was sure lucky Puck saved me from that rattler!

ALLISON: In one interview, you noted that all of your books explore loss. Why? How do you feel that as a grown-up you’ve learned to deal with loss?

BOBBIE: When I was almost seven, my father was killed in a car accident. It was devastating for us! Losing a parent as a child to death is very different from losing a parent in divorce. And when it’s very sudden, it takes away your childhood. Nothing ever really feels safe again. I think, even as an adult, I still take loss of any kind very hard.

ALLISON: Lucky Strike has been described in places as magical realism, a departure from your other works. How has the process been different in writing realistic, historical, and now supernatural fiction?

BOBBIE: As a writer, I love to try new things, to challenge myself. So it was exciting fo me to play with magical realism in the book. It was a lot of fun! It really allowed me to not be so concrete and earthbound, yet at the same time, I had to keep my hand light—I didn’t want it to stray too far into real fantasy. I wanted the reader to wonder just a bit was it really the lightning strike that changed Nate or was it something more logical.

ALLISON: What inspired Lucky Strike?

BOBBIE: After my agent sold my 2012 book, The Dogs Of Winter, we talked about what I wanted to work on next. She mentioned that a lot of editors were looking for middle grade fiction with elements of magical realism. I’d just read a memoir by a woman who’d been struck by lightning several times and had lived. I started thinking about how surviving something like that could change a person and, of course, how something can happen in the blink of an eye that changes your life. I’d been eager to set a book in the area of Florida where I grew up. Seeing as how Florida is the number one lightning strike capitol of the United States, it was a natural fit!

ALLISON: Lucky Strike is your fourth book. How has life changed since the publication of your first book?

BOBBIE: Well, I signed with a wonderful agent just after my first book, The Ring, came out. That has made a huge difference on so many levels! She’s able to get my manuscripts in the hands of editors (like Arthur A. Levine) that wouldn’t look at my work otherwise. My books have also made it into some foreign markets too, especially A Dog’s Way Home. About a year and a half ago, I left the library system I’d worked in for twenty-five years so I could write full time. That’s had its pluses and minuses, but I still think of myself as a librarian who happens to write.

ALLISON: This is my second interview with you. Catch readers up on highlights from your life since we talked in 2011?

BOBBIE: Probably the two biggest “lights” was the publication of my book, The Dogs Of Winter (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books) and leaving my career as a librarian.

ALLISON: When not writing how do you spend your time?

BOBBIE: Outside, with my dogs, as much as I can! I love to hike, bike, and just wander around the woods. I also am quite involved in several animal rescue organizations in Utah.

ALLISON: What is a fun quirk about you?

BOBBIE: Like Gen in Lucky Strike, I’m a little bit OCD. When I’m at the gym and I’m doing repetitions of things (like sit-ups), I can’t end on an odd number unless it’s a multiple of five. I also can’t eat off certain colors of plates or bowls. I also have a music soundtrack constantly going in my head that I have no control over. It even plays when I’m asleep, sometimes so loud it wakes me up!

ALLISON: What’s the one question you have yet to be asked? What’s the answer?

BOBBIE: “If you weren’t an author, what would you be?” The answer: a mermaid.

Based on a true story, Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron tells of five-year-old Ivan, a street kid in Russia who formed a close relationship with a pack of feral dogs. While this young adult novel is well-written and full of enough adventure to appeal to even the most reluctant reader, at about the halfway point, the heart-breaking events portrayed also became too much for me to bear. Dogs of Winter is a book I both love and hate.

The symbiotic relationship between Ivan and the dogs is touching and beautiful. One cold day a large brown and black dog presses next to Ivan as he huddles next to a steam gate in the sidewalk. Ivan holds his breath, wondering if the dog will eat him. Instead the dog simply curls up at Ivan’s feet with a sigh and closes his eyes. As the two lay there, the people hurrying past them begin to leave coins. Soon, there is enough money for Ivan to buy two hot potatoes. As Ivan eagerly eats his purchases, the dog begins to lead Ivan away from the busy streets. He leads him to a hole in the wall, where there is a starving mother and her puppies. Pryon proved herself a master of dog stories with A Dog’s Way Home and shows herself adept once again here. Ivan and the dogs give each other warmth and food, protect one another from danger, and become a family. In this regard, Dogs of Winter is an absolute must-read story for dog lovers.

Except… Dogs of Winter will also make you weep. In her historically-based book, Pyron brings to the forefront the horrible plight of homeless children, of which there are over 100 million worldwide, and that of homeless animals. When Ivan’s mother loses her job, the man she lives with hits her. And then one day she is gone. The man tries to bring Ivan to an orphanage, but instead Ivan runs away. He is rescued by a group of street kids. Only even they do not truly love him. They want to use his cuteness to bring in money and food and clothes. One day the police show up and Ivan mistakenly thinks that they’ll be kind to him. After all, his mother always taught him that police helped those who are lost. Instead the police spat in his face, tossed him over their shoulder, and otherwise abused him. When Ivan finds the pack of feral dogs, his life begins to have hope. When even this hope begins to get crushed, I started to bawl. Sad stories, especially those that are true, are hard for me to handle. In this regard, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Dogs of Winter.

When Pyron first read Ivan’s story in an article, she immediately wanted to tell his story. Yet she also felt daunted by the task of telling this story of a homeless boy from Russia who formed a close relationship with feral dogs. She ended up having to take breaks from the writing of Dogs of Winter. About halfway through my reading of her intense tale, I had to stop and instead read books about how to change the world. Pryon considers Dogs of Winter the book she is most proud to have written. She has good reason to, in that it’s well-crafted and inspirational. However, as with Bambi and Old Yeller and other similar books, one time is probably the most I can ever read it.

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

How would you rate this book?

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April: Advanced Reader Copies

Every few months I reserve slots for reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. In April, I'm honored to feature the sequel for The Ridge by Nick Hupton as well as the newest book by Bobbie Pyron who also wrote A Dog's Way Home. As usual, I'll also feature reviews of books for our local pet club. Enjoy!

  • Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
  • Jenny and the Birthday Club by Esther Averill
  • Close Your Hands Open Eyes by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Ridge by Nick Hupton
  • Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron
  • Lucky Strike by Bobbie Pyron

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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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