Allison's Book Bag

If the terrorists kidnapped your friend, would you know how to save him? Fourteen-year-old Jane not only knows how to track down criminals, but she also knows how to use a gun. However, Jane Blond International Spy by Stan and Brittany Schatt isn’t just about bad guys and espionage. Jane spends a large part of her teen life battling school bullies and dealing with the fallout from her parents’ divorce. Suspense and teen drama mix in this two-hundred page novel aimed at young adults. Sounds too good to miss, right? Unfortunately, I struggled to finish.

From the youngest to the oldest reader, who hasn’t wanted to be either a detective or a spy? Or least doesn’t enjoy a good mystery or suspense story? Jane Blond must prevent terrorists from blowing up her school during a presidential visit, as well as protect CIA secrets from falling into the wrong hands. To do so, Jane draws on the help of a friend with Aspergers and a parrot with an attitude. I enjoyed the positive portrayals of those with special needs, as well as found amusing the scenes with the family parrot.

Its target audience will also appreciate how modern Jane Blond International Spy is. Everyone makes ample use of cell phones and computers. They regularly send emails and text. On one occasion, Jane lands in trouble when an unfriendly computer programmer hacks her account to send a nude photo of her to all her classmates. On another occasion, Jane tracks down an incriminating blog of a bully. In addition, Jane uses the internet at other times for seeking out clues to the whereabouts and activities of the bad guys.

With all these positives, why did I struggle to finish Jane Blond International Spy? Mostly, I didn’t care for the character portrayals. The good characters are too inconsistent in their actions. One minute the adults in Jane’s life are praising her and seeking out her help; the next minute they’re disparaging her and acting as if she’s wasting their time. The same rollercoaster is true for how Jane treats her friends. One minute, Jane praises them but the next minute she’s outlining their flaws. In gym class, despite knowing that her friend is viewed as clumsy, Jane doesn’t even use the opportunity of being leader to stand up for Anouk. Instead she picks her second to last. Many people often do send conflicting messages, and so there’s a certain amount of realism to the characters, but I felt too often jerked about like a yo-yo to feel as if any of them were memorable.

As for the bad characters, they’re sadly all stereotypes. The popular kids in Jane’s school call her names, try to fix votes to keep her off the cheerleading team, and even attempt to get her kicked out of school. More offensive is how anyone who isn’t white was depicted. While Anouk (who is Inuit) is portrayed in a somewhat positive way, her parents not only arrange her marriage but ignore that her intended abuses her. In addition, the popular kids follow the Muslim faith, and use the Koran to excuse their death threats on Jane, her friends, and even on the country. While bad can exist in any nationality or race, there’s an imbalance here.

Jane Blond International Spy has been aimed at young adults. I’m guessing the reason for targeting older readers is the violence. Not only do bad guys attempt to kill Jane and her friends, but she shows no remorse in gunning one down when she’s threatened. However, the simplicity of the book’s style feels more suited to a middle-school novel. While at times Jane Blond International Spy does make for an engaging read, I was disappointed in it.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

StanSchattDr. Stan Schatt and his grand-daughter are the co-authoring team of the young adult novel Jane Blond International Spy. Shatt has taught at the university level, spent many years “as a futurist responsible for forecasting future technology products and markets for Fortune 500 companies,” and authored over thirty books. Below is my interview with Schatt.

According to Tiffany Clark Kent, when Shatt’s grandchildren were young, he began making up stories to tell them at night. As they grew older, his stories became longer and more complex, and he ended up inspiring his grandchildren to write too.

His grand-daughter, who came up with the basic plot and major characters of Jane Blond International Spy. She also wrote dialogue that captured the way teenagers actually talk. Tomorrow I’ll review Jane Blond International Spy. Save the date: May 27!

ALLISON: Have you always wanted to write?

STAN: My childhood consisted of lots and lots of reading. I set out at 12 to write a novel because I wasn’t happy with the selection in my school library.

ALLISON: Why did you start to write?

STAN: I loved reading and couldn’t find the book I wanted to read.

ALLISON: What appeals to each of your about spies?

STAN: There is something fascinating about people forced to play secret roles. There’s a lot of drama built into the notion of someone who is in danger should their real identity be discovered.

ALLISON: How easy or difficult was the collaboration process?

STAN: Very easy — Brianna came up with the characters and plot and later added dialog.

ALLISON: Talk about the road to publication.

STAN: The biggest problem was finding a cover that we both liked; Brianna is much more visually aware than I am. The book went through a number of publishers until we hit upon Booktrope.

ALLISON: Sell my readers on Jane Blond.

STAN: Jane is a normal 14-year old girl with a world of problems that most girls her age don’t have. It’s bad enough having a father in prison and a mother who insists on having her boyfriend living with her, but poor Jane finds herself under constant attack at school from a bully and queen bee. What I think makes the book fun is that Jane is forced to use a lot of skills and traits she doesn’t even realize she has in order to save the day. She’s one of the few people who is nice to or pays attention to a boy with Asperger’s. He provides a clue that helps her solve a mystery. She discovers she has courage and intelligence she never realized. So, in that way the story is very satisfying since most of us would like to believe that we are all superheroes just under the surface.

To read more about the process behind Jane Blond International Spy, check out the below links:

RoseWishThingRose and The Wish Thing is not a typical picture book. The misty illustrations hold an air of the mysterious and are my favorite part of this brief story. As for the text, parts of it are straightforward and tell a universal tale of being new and alone. Other parts feel more abstract and even have details left out, which at times left me confused. For those who embrace Rose and The Wish Thing, the entire package will stir the imagination.

The watercolor spreads, intricately hashed with black ink, immediately captivate me. At the start, an abundance of muted shades of brown, orange, yellow, and green convey Rose’s deep loneliness. As Rose looks beyond her room and her house to worlds far away, a plethora of grays are added. While all these somber colors might conceivably create a sense of dreariness for some, I personally found that they instead invited me to feel Rose’s great turmoil as she unsuccessfully sought out the wish thing. Some pictures reveal what the wish thing is not. Others send Rose swirling into stormy skies and seas, as she searches for the wish thing, and inspire me to use my imagination. When Rose finally does encounter the wish thing, an abundance of brighter colors allow me to revel in her joy. The illustrations perfectly capture Rose’s inner emotional world.

RoseWishThing_InsertThe text is a little more problematic. On the positive side, it unfolds at a gentle pace, along with being simple and easy to read. Often there’s just one line or maybe up to three lines per page. Sentences are typically short such as in: “Everyone searched and searched.” The vocabulary is at an ideal level for being independently read too.

On the negative side, the plot at times feels incomplete or perhaps overly subtle. The plot begins with Rose being a new face in a new place. And as such she naturally feels alone. The problem is I don’t really understand what a “wish thing” is and why Rose is so intent on finding it. Readers are told the wish thing doesn’t have a name and given a list of familiar items which aren’t the wish thing. Yet even when Rose draws the “wish thing,” I don’t know what it is except maybe the equivalent of an imaginary friend? Or perhaps, even though her parents and her dog help Rose look, we aren’t really supposed to know what the wish thing is? Maybe we’re just supposed to use our imagination? I’m not sure, except in the end Rose not only finds the wish thing and also makes new friends.

My one reservation aside, Rose and The Wish Thing is a sweet and magical story. There’s plenty of dramatic and whimsical events. Even if one never figures out the actual identity of the wish thing, I can see imagine young people embracing this new concept into their vocabulary and even creating picture books about their own wish thing.

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

How would you rate this book?

CarolineMagerlCaroline Magerl spent the majority of her childhood at sea on her parents’ yacht. Born in 1964 in a small German town near Frankfurt, picture book author Caroline Magerl moved with her parents to Australia when she was two. Shortly afterwards, while the family lived in Sydney’s suburbia, her dad built a 45-foot yacht. Until Magerl was fourteen, the family sailed the east coast of Australia, and she attended more than ten different schools. At age sixteen, Magerl joined another yacht, crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Not until almost her twenties did Magerl settle to life on land.

Although her heart’s desire was to create children’s books, Magerl worked steadily as an artist. Drawing on her sailing experience, Magerl made a living as a cartoonist for a yachting magazine. In 2001, she moved and her husband moved to a village in the coastal hinterland of Queensland, Australia, and began painting and exhibiting fulltime. While staying busy time with sell-out shows, Magerl made important connections with art gallery owners. Then, in 2006, the family moved once again. This time, Magerl learned printmaking at from a master printmaker, and soon had a press of her own.

CarolineMagerl_BoatHer wish to create children’s books received a boost when she won the Children’s Book Council of Australia, 2001 Crichton Award, for best new talent in the field of Children’s Book Illustration. Tomorrow I’ll review her first children’s book, funded by a grant, Rose and the Wish Thing. The illustrations were exhibited at the Chris Beetles gallery in the United Kingdom. Save the date of my review: May 25!

Each time she wrote, Magerl sent me samples of her beautiful artwork. I have enjoyed my email exchanges with her, and hope you’ll also appreciate getting to know a little of her background through the below interview.

ALLISON: What about Australia would you show a visitor?

CAROLINE: That could make a long list, but I will show some discipline and say the far north of Queensland for a start. High hills covered in monsoonal cloud, rainforests, huge butterflies and amazing bird life such as cassowaries, with the Great Barrier Reef offshore. There is so much to see in that part of the country in terms of tropical scenery and wildlife.

Penguins at Tasmania by Caroline Magerl, Used with permission

Penguins at Tasmania by Caroline Magerl, Used with permission

The other place I love is Tasmania, the island to the south of the continent. I stayed in a historic lighthouse cottage a couple of years ago at the mouth of the Tamar River. At night, the headland came alive with Fairy Penguins traipsing up to their burrows to feed their young. That was a fabulous experience in a part of the country rich in extraordinary natural beauty and historic interest and I only managed to see the east and north coast!

ALLISON: You had the unusual experience of being raised aboard a yacht. What was the best experience?

CAROLINE: The sheer proximity to the natural environment impressed me deeply, partly because it was so unavoidable and frequently uncomfortable, but also because it was so stunningly beautiful.

Coming up into the cockpit at dawn to see a completely different coast after a night of travel was one of those experiences that had a lasting impact. On one particular morning, I recall emerging from below and asking Dad the names of two islands that I saw to the east. He told me they were called Moon Island and Bird Island. Both were just barren lumps of rock as if randomly hurled into the sea, with tufts of green clinging here and there on the otherwise scoured rock-faces. The sight of these places were all the stronger for being the first thing I saw after a long night of hearing the diesel engine thump-thump-thump and knowing miles of coast had slipped by in the dark.

CarolineMagerl_Boat2On a different note, living aboard offered a completely unique bathroom experience, one of which still brings a smile. We had a sea water toilet and on very dark nights, if I left the light off, it was possible to see the sparkling of plankton in the toilet bowl. These microscopic creatures are bioluminescent and so flash a cold greenish light, particularly when disturbed. One particular night, a tiny fish had been sucked into the toilet via the pump and I saw it go round and round the bowl like a tiny comet trailing its phosphorescent plankton wake. That experience was on a whole other level, for me!

ALLISON: You had the unusual experience of being raised aboard a yacht. What was the worst experience?

CAROLINE: The look on my parent’s faces one particular night, as we entered Crowdy Head Harbor. I was in the aft cabin below deck and my job was to read out the depth of water under the keel from the depth sounder. The sea was quite rough and the situation tense as we came close to the breakwaters on either side of the harbor entrance. Suddenly the stern of the boat was lifted high as a large wave swept under the yacht, and I saw the depth gage indicate shallow water under the hull. I looked up and glimpsed the alarm on my parent’s faces as they watched a wave, which was out of my view. We had passed over a rock or reef at the entrance of the harbor, which had caused the sea to heave up. That was one of the scarier moments of our boating life.

However, there was one worse thing, the week the yacht was sold and we moved off the Rosa-M. For all that it was a home which never stood still, the boat was the only home I felt connected to. It was awful saying goodbye to that triangular room and the life we had onboard.

ALLISON: How difficult was adapting to life off the yacht?

CAROLINE: Adapting to life aboard was strangely easy for me, in that it was genuinely interesting to live in a tiny triangular cabin at the bow of the boat. I was able to see the ever changing scenery through the portholes, day and night. I took less notice of the lack of hot running water, shower, any appliances such as washing machines and of course no phones. I am sure my mother felt these inconveniences more than I did.

Generally speaking, the fun of it all outweighed the negatives for me, but it left me with a bunch of odd habits. I did my laundry by hand right into my late twenties, and still cannot waste water for fear of empting the water tank.

Even when at last I moved ashore, I would find myself tilting a little whenever anyone came up the front steps of the house. That was because the yacht would always list over a bit when anyone stepped aboard, and I had an unconscious expectation this would happen even after a year living on dry land. My husband finally teased me out of that little foible.

ALLISON: What got you started in the business of making picture books?

Dreamt of Birds by Caroline Magerl, used with permission

Dreamt of Birds by Caroline Magerl, used with permission

CAROLINE: My family immigrated to Australia when I was two years old. My father had escaped the communist East Germany leaving his family behind. My Grandmother would send picture books to me from East Germany and these books had an enormous impact on me as a child. They were a window into the world we had left behind and also a window into my Grandmother, who I would not meet again for twenty years. I treasured the books from Germany, but was also deeply engaged with the literature I found in school libraries in Australia. I became convinced of the power of books to connect you to people and places.

As for my own picture books, I submitted work to publishers and art directors for nearly ten years. Then, in my thirties, after much effort I got my first picture book illustration contract. This book was presented with the Crichton award for best new illustrator of the year (Australia). After receiving the award and buoyed with a new found confidence, I rang every publisher I knew with the news hoping to drive home my advantage and get more texts to illustrate. As I waited on the line to be transferred to an art director at one major publisher I heard the secretary announce ‘a call from Mrs. Crichton’… Ouch! Things did get better from there.

ALLISON: How did a childhood living on a yacht shape your art and writing?

CAROLINE: Life onboard was a Spartan existence, we had no hot running water, a toilet which relied on manipulating various valves and pump handles, and a tiny portable television in a cheerful shade of orange. The yacht was 45 feet long but had little spare cabin space. I spent a lot of my time reading and drawing.

A great deal of the atmosphere of ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’ came directly from the experience of living on the boat. In one scene the Wish Thing is espied by Rose through a cardboard telescope. It bobs in and out of view in little circular images, which were inspired by the view out of my childhood round cabin porthole. Our yacht would swing at anchor and the scene outside passed by in a dizzying fashion, as if seen through a moving telescope; clouds, waves, distant shorelines. I used this device to add some suspense in illustrating the approach of the Wish Thing in the story, now you see, now you don’t….

ALLISON: What is your most memorable friendship experience?

CAROLINE: My friendship story revolves around a girl who lived on another boat. Christine and I met when we were both around ten years old, in a town called Bundaberg. Her family also lived aboard a yacht. We rowed between her boat and mine, and played in horse paddocks under the bridge with Christine’s beautiful dingo dog, Simba. When my folks sailed on to Townsville, Christine and I wrote letters to each other. Our paths crossed on a number of occasions and it was always a happy day when I saw her boat chug into harbor. The letters we wrote to each other became a habit for me… writing and illustrating, day to day events. I continue that same thing in my Illustrated Letters, as it feels entirely natural and reminds me of a wonderful time and a wonderful friendship. Christine and I are still in touch and she still has the most amazing devotion to her dogs.

ALLISON: The bond between Rose and the Wish Thing is a strong theme in your book. Why was this theme so important?

CAROLINE: As I was writing this story, I remembered how as a child I drew much strength when holding a particular toy. It had somehow been nominated to provide protection and courage. This is something I have seen many other children do and is heart-warming to watch, but also deeply intriguing. It occurred to me that there is something significant to be learnt from these fleeting relationships.

During the years of writing Rose and the Wish Thing, I happened to see a boy tenderly carry a kitten in the hood of his jacket. We were on a Melbourne tram and he kept his composure by gently stroking the whiskered face at his shoulder, all the while under slander from other youth sitting nearby. This incident was instrumental in shaping a part of the story, that of Rose carrying the Wish Thing in her hood.

Finding the Wish Thing was just the start for Rose, her courage was there all along, but now it was engaged. The world outside her door is after all the object and desirable end to the tale of finding the Wish Thing. It is the friendship that happens once a Rose finds her place in the world, which is the less obvious but true focus of this story.

AwwwMondays-Puppy-AvatarWith our household of critters having expanded to include three cats and a dog, I thought it fitting to join a meme related to pets. After searching around, I came across Awww….. Mondays. The one rule is: “Post a picture that makes you say Awww…. and that’s it.” Every photo seemed to feature a pet and so the meme is a perfect.

Sharing is a concept that the Cat Trio had to figure out. Two are only two cat towers and only one stroller, and so they had to learn to share their space. They do all have their own food dish, water dish, and litter box, but they also like to sniff from each other’s stuff. As for toys and beds, there are plenty of them, but none of them belong to one cat. Of course, them all being cats, one would naturally expect them to need to figure out the sharing concept.

Not so with the solitary dog. You could expect him, being a dog and not a cat, to have his own dishes and beds and toys. You’d also expect his stuff to be left alone. And for the most part that is all true. But there are exceptions. One involves space. Barnaby loves to keep a watchful eye from the recliner for his master to return. The cats also happen to think this is a nifty spot from which to observe the world. Sometimes there are spats over space. Another involves food. If Barnaby doesn’t eat in a timely manner, and being a senior he often doesn’t, then any one of the other cats will think his food is available to them. Sometimes there are spats over food.

One day even the scratching post became an issue. Cinder and Rainy tried using it the same time. They soon learned to stay on opposite sides. Rainy and Bootsie also tried using it the same time. This ended in a tussle, but only because anything involving Rainy ends up involving play. Of course, all this is normal enough for cats. Where exactly though does Barnaby fit into the picture? After all, dogs don’t use scratching posts!

Barnaby_ToyBut dogs do drop their toys. And one day he dropped a toy on the scratching post. At the same time as Bootsie decided she needed to trim her claws. Both stared at one another. Neither wanted to invade the other’s space. But Barnaby wanted his toy. And Bootsie wanted a good scratch. Both stared at one another. Then Barnaby backed up. And Bootsie backed up. Then he grabbed his toy. And she ran away. But eventually she came back. While he stayed at a safe distance with his toy.

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May: Advanced Reader Copies

Those ARCs are piling up! Below are a few that I'll review in May. I'll also review books for our local animal club. Enjoy!

  • Plotted by Andrew DeGraff
  • Unslut by Emily Linden
  • Under a Purple Moon by Beverly Stowe McClure
  • The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon
  • International Spy by Brianna and Stan Schatt
  • Rose and the Wish Thing by Caroline Magerl
  • California The Magic Island by Doug Hansen

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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.

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