Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 6-8’ Category

From Bibi Belford comes Another D for DeeDee, a heart-warming middle school novel. DeeDee has a lot to learn about friendship but is a sympathetic character with a good heart. Similarly, her family struggles without the Dad but make endearing attempts to stay united as a family. Belford draws on real-life situations she encountered as a teacher to create a funny and serious story that will resonate with readers.

DeeDee is the type of misfit kid I have long wanted to create. Trust doesn’t come easy for DeeDee. She’ll lie rather than face embarrassment. She’ll steal rather than ask for help. She’ll even betray a friend, rather than risk losing her status. If you met DeeDee in person, you’d probably find it hard to like her. But deep down, DeeDee isn’t a bad person. She’s just learned to be tough, because her learning disability and her Mexican background have set her apart. Belford does an incredible job of giving us insight into DeeDee’s heart, where we see her vulnerabilities. As with many “bad kids,” DeeDee needs the right circumstances to help her change. Number one is being diagnosed with diabetes, which requires her to be more honest with herself and others if she’s going to stay healthy. Number two change is a new neighbor. River offers to teach her how to skateboard and to help find her dad, but their friendship is tested when River starts attending DeeDee’s school. DeeDee begins to realize what is important to her, and that she must change if she wants to hold onto family and friends. Although DeeDee’s initial attempts to change are awkward and sometimes half-hearted, her true potential eventually radiates, and she’s a character that we can all root for to succeed. My one reservation is that by resolving all of DeeDee’s dilemmas in the conclusion, Belford has sacrificed a little bit of realism for the sake of a feel-good novel.

As with her first novel, Belford tackles many issues that impact young people. Through an entertaining story, she subtlety educates readers about the life of a diabetic. Belford credits two girls for increasing her own awareness. One day Belford passed out jellybeans as a reward to students who had completed assignments, only to discover that one of her students couldn’t eat sweets. A girl who loved Belford’s first book allowed the author to accompany her on visits to monitor her diabetes. Through the complex character of River, readers are introduced to the world of the hard of hearing students. A fellow teacher not only provided her with facts, but also gave feedback on her rough drafts of Another D for DeeDee. In addition, Belford had many discussions with a college senior who relies on a wheelchair for mobility and advocates for students with disabilities. Finally, Belford teaches migrant students. She also had a chance to talk with a researcher of immigration issues. Stories give us a glimpse into worlds that we may not otherwise experience. My wish for a future novel is that Belford would give recognition to documented immigrants; their road to citizenship can be hard for them too.

Bibi Belford has a gift for writing stories about characters who make bad decisions but learn from them how to love. She also the heart of an advocate and knows the power of words to give voice to issues. I look forward to future novels from this outstanding author.

Emily Hall’s love of her cats and enthusiasm for taking them on outdoor adventures radiates on every page of The Beginner’s Guide to Traveling & Adventuring with Your Cat. This seven-chapter e-book is a colorful, well-designed, and easy-to-read guide about how to turn your cat into an adventure cat. Hall wrote her book “to help educate and encourage people to try adventuring with their cats” and picked content based on what she viewed as important info and on common questions she’s been asked. The Beginner’s Guide to Traveling & Adventuring with Your Cat available for free simply by subscribing to her blog Kitty Cat Chronicles.

In chapter one, Hall gives three reasons for people to have adventures with their cats. For starters, it’s fun! Hall inspired me to take my youngest cat to pet-friendly stores, restaurants, and parks this past year. Second, it’s a great way to bond! I learned that Rainy prefers to start out in her stroller when visiting new places, but that she also appreciates the opportunity to sit or walk next to me when she becomes comfortable. Third, it’s healthy! Rainy doesn’t like being outside by herself nor would she be safe. At the same time, an active cat like Rainy goes stir-crazy being indoors all day. Taking her on adventures is the solution.

Chapter two overviews the personality traits of an adventure cat. Those traits are: calm, confident, inquisitive, and easily-handled. My experience is that these traits are trickier to access than you might expect. Case in point is our oldest cat. In our house she displays all the traits of an adventure cat, but outside of her comfort zone those traits tend to diminish. When my husband and I used to take her to visit his parents, in contrast to Rainy who explores their house, Cinder curled up on a resting place and waited for us to go home. A year ago when I brought her outside, she plainly showed that she preferred the comforts of home by making a beeline for our house.

The next two chapters cover gear and training needed. Personally, I would recommend that one buy some gear, do some training, buy some more gear, and continue to alternate. If your cat absolutely hates the harness and/or the leash, the rest of the gear will be of no value. Even if your cat learns to accept them, there still may be limits to the adventures you’ll have with your cat and thus the type of gear you’ll have. Categorizing the gear as beginner, intermediate, and advanced would be helpful. Alternatively, given that Hall dedicates all of chapter six to road trips, perhaps chapter three and four could just cover the basic necessities.

Chapter five is dedicated to helping you brainstorm destinations for you and your cat. In this chapter, Hall lists backyard, pet stores, parks, and pet-friendly businesses. Elsewhere Hall also refers to the woods and on the water. A number of the photos show her cats in these more adventurous places. In her sequel, I’d like to see tips on how to acclimate cats to these vary different environments, each of which have their own dangers and perks.

In chapter six, Hall talks about road trips. She stresses that you call ahead to confirm that a hotel will allow you to bring a cat (or multiple cats) with you. This is sound advice anytime you take your cat to a public place. Some parks and businesses allow pets; others don’t.

What if you have a cat like our Bootsie who is nervous, shy, timid, and difficult to handle? Then chapter seven is for you! Even the least adventurous cat will tire of having nothing to do. Every cat needs enrichment: You can provide enrichment with scratchers, climbing trees, hiding places, and natural treats such as cat grass.

With three adventure cats of her own (Sophie has been adventuring for about 5-6 years. Kylo Ren for almost 3, and Caster for almost 2), Hall drew on her personal expertise to write The Beginner’s Guide to Traveling & Adventuring with Your Cat. If her guide inspires you to take your own cats on adventures, I highly recommend joining the online Facebook group KCC Adventure Cats, where members are encouraged to share adventure spots and suggestions, training tips and tricks, and fun photos and stories of their adventure cats, and more! Hall took a year to write her guide, which has received favorable feedback, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

This is my second post about the 2018 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Now in its 23rd year, the festival is for anyone who loves to read or write children’s books.

This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for older readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.

LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON

Laurie Halse Anderson is a New York best-selling author known for her children’s and young adult novels. In 2010, she received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 2010 for her contribution to young adult literature. I bought her book Speak with me to get signed as well as a title from her Vet Volunteer series.

This is her second time in Nebraska. A couple of years ago she visited Omaha and was greeted with lots of popcorn. The title of her presentation at Plum Creek was “Speaking up About Hard Things.”

Adolescence is hard; our culture often doesn’t know how to talk about it.

Anderson currently lives in Philadelphia. Her son is back from the military. He posted recently on social media about the need to listen to victims of sexual violence. This made her cry, because he obviously listened to her passion about this issue. She had five grandsons under the age of six; another grandson is on the way. Life is amazing for her now, but it didn’t use to be.

People who had known Anderson a long time ago and had tried to help her survive are surprised at her current life. As a child, she struggled with speech, attention, and reading. She loved being taken out of class by special education teachers to learn how to read. Once she figured out “the code of reading,” she read all the time and everywhere. On Thursdays, the library used to remain open a little late, and she’d stay to read books on her belly.

Silence poisons us and hurts our society. Identify those things which make you not comfortable and talk about them.

Adolescence was complicated for Anderson. Her family moved three times and she wasn’t happy in middle school. She was no longer a girl but growing into a women. She grew up in a culture of silence and wasn’t taught how to deal with periods. No one talked about changing bodies, relationships, race, or other uncomfortable issues.

Her dad grew up in a small town. He wanted to operate a gas station. Fighting in the war and seeing concentration camps changed his life. He saw firsthand what hate does and decided to live in love by becoming a minister. He wrote poetry and Anderson was inspired to write because of him. Then he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and began to drink. He became an alcoholic and lost his pastoral position. They were living in a parsonage and so they lost their home. Eventually, her dad figured stuff out, and he returned to the church.

The family continued to move, and Anderson hated high school. Their house was a dump. She was tall and didn’t fit in with her peers. In a three-week relationship with a guy, she allowed him to kiss her and he raped her. She didn’t talk about it because she was afraid her dad would shoot him. She values that her parents loved her, but the problem was that she was afraid they’d react out of love and go to jail. Instead she spent a year on drugs, but she had a gym teacher who encouraged her to pursue sports. He inspired her to stay clean and to do her homework. She started hanging out with people with healthier relationships.

Every author gets letters from kids who say they stopped reading at fourth grade, because the books are no longer fun or don’t connect with them. Those kids who aren’t reading at age 18 are another lost citizen. We do a disservice to young people when books don’t reflect their experiences.

Anderson read every book she could find, but not the books being taught in school because she didn’t see herself in those book. For 25 years, Anderson didn’t tell anyone about being raped. Even then, she only spoke up because she was a mother, but she was depressed.

When you’re surrounded by light, you don’t need candles. It’s in the dark that you need light. Even the “normal” kids are confused when they reach adolescence.

Her books are known as a problem novel, a term Anderson dislikes. To her, if a book doesn’t have problems, it’s a phone book. She prefers to call her books “resilience” literature, an ideal which she believes all kids need to learn this.

Her book Twisted was written in reaction to Speak. Only 27% are reported of sexual assaults reported; false reporting is only 2-7% which is the same as other crimes. Boys liked Speak but didn’t understand why the main character was so upset. Anderson said that society need to hear their reaction and to educate them. Guys might say “I pushed too far” “I took it too far” “It’s not rape.” Society needs to talk about boundaries. Her book Shout is a free-verse book that covers experiences of young people who have talked to her about sexual assault.

Her book Wintergirls is about anorexia, which has highest mortality rate in the US. A teen had her mom do a tattoo on her neck: “I am thawing.” Anderson said we all know adults who didn’t make it through their adolescence but are scarred today. We don’t want people to be scarred; we want them to be vibrant.

History is the study of gossip.

Anderson wrote Fever 1793 after reading an article about the fever epidemic in Philadelphia. She likes gross medical things and thought middle school students would too. While doing her research, she stumbled across a fact that changed her life: Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. In his later life he realized this was wrong, but he couldn’t change the situation in his lifetime, and so he released them in his will. Anderson began to research slavery and found a lot of things she didn’t know about the Civil War but hesitated before taking on the project of writing a book from the viewpoint of African Americans. She talked with her editor for six months about race before writing Fever 1793. He told her “Slavery is not the African American experience; it’s the American experience; We as white people owe our nation to learn more.”

Censorship is the child of fear and father of ignorance. Jesus didn’t just say NO; he told stories. When we engage with stories, we fill in the blanks and make connections.

Some of Anderson’s books have been censored. At first, she was hurt and then mad, but this wasn’t constructive and so she began to listen to what the censors had to say. She found out they were afraid. They don’t know how to talk to the kids. They believed if they didn’t talk about it, then bad stuff won’t happen. She’s tried to respect the fear and engage censors in conversation.

MEGAN MACDONALD

Megan MacDonald is the author of the popular and award-winning Judy Moody and Stink series. She is also the author of The Sisters Club and has written many picture books. I bought the first book in each of the series for her to sign. In her presentation, she shared a little about her life and a lot about the inspirations behind her books.

Her dad dropped out of school in eighth grade but was always a reader and instilled a love of reading in MacDonald and her sisters. Her dad’s nickname was “Little Storyteller” because he could turn anything into a story. The threat worked. One day MacDonald and her sister resolved to read all the books on the bookmobile. The sisters didn’t realize that the books were replenished every night and so there was no way to read all the books. Shed learned how to measure the value of a book from her sisters. If the last page made them made cry, the book was good. A family rule was no books at the supper table. Her dad made the threat he would rip out last page if anyone caught with a book.

As the youngest, MacDonald never got to say anything and so developed a stutter. Her mom tried to solve the problem by going to the bookstore to get a book about how to help kids who stutter. A bookstore person suggested Harriet the Spy instead, which inspired MacDonald to start taking notes. She didn’t want to spy on neighbors and so instead she spied on a local famous person. The guy had a big dog and the dog bit her. Her spying days were over, but she continued to journal.

At college, MacDonald picked creative writing to major. She wore her best turtleneck and black pants and tried to look the part. She met with the head of the English department. He told her to go home and rip up her poems. She jumped up to leave but he stopped her. He told her, “You’re a prose writer.” She ran home and looked up the meaning of prose in dictionary to find out who she was. Prose was defined as ordinary and dull. Somehow, she still became a writer. She realized it was okay to write about ordinary stuff.

MacDonald started with picture books. She was working at a public library and running its story time. Puppets were donated. She couldn’t find a story for the hermit crab and so she made up a story. The parents wanted to know where to find the book. She decided to write it down. Next, she wrote about tales from her dad’s life, from history, from illustrations. Some of her books became Reading Rainbow offerings and Sparks New Reader offerings.

Ideas can come from anywhere. MacDonald has a photo of her face down on the driveway. Her parents just wanted a nice photo, but she wasn’t having anything of it and threw a tantrum. This photo inspired the idea behind Judy Moody.

MacDonald wrote two drafts of her book. The first version was a set of random stories. Her editor suggested she find a common theme. Megan submitted a 300-page book. Her editor told her this was too long but suggested she write a series. And she did!

The illustrator took 200 tries to get the cover of Judy Moody right. Judy was too young. Too sad. Too scary. Then impish and just right. The publisher printed the artwork on a cover that looks like brown paper. McDonald’s editor didn’t want to tell her for fear she wouldn’t like it, but the idea worked because brown paper is what Megan grew up with.

Her books start out as an idea written down on whatever is handy. MacDonald wrote down Judy Muddy on a napkin. The idea turned into Judy Moody Becomes Famous. Judy Moody Gets Famous is her book that receives the most mail. Some kids think Judy should have gotten famous by doing something big. Others love that she was famous by a good deed.

MacDonald saved the napkin because the idea on it had turned into a book, but also because students kept telling her that she could sell it on Ebay for millions. She received a book made of napkins. Now she can keep a book of her ideas.

Yes, there is Judy Moody movie! She co-wrote the movie screenplay. The director wants action and so McDonald suggested a chase scene after Bigfoot. Judy Movie has an ABC gum collection: Already Been Chewed gum! The movie people made a gum board and labeled the gums and gave it to McDonald.

The idea of a series about Stink came from boy readers who wanted more about Judy Moody’s brother. The science stuff he likes is based on MacDonald’s interests. She was upset that Pluto was demoted from being a planet. In her town there is a zombie walk. She fed cereal to slime mold, the slime grew, and she took pictures that she sent to Megan. A nephew was the only boy at Shakespeare camp. And the list of ideas continues!

 

Make way Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew! There’s a new detective team in town. In Ra The Mighty Cat Detective, Ra and his scarab beetle friend Khepri work to save a young servant girl who has been framed for theft of an amulet in a delightful new mystery for young people by A.B. Greenfield.

The duo of Ra and Khepri immediately won my affection. Ra is spoiled and lazy, liking nothing better than to sleep and eat 24-7, while Khepri is his hardworking sidekick. When Miu pleas for their help, Ra agrees only because he’s blackmailed by Khepri who threatens to fill Ra’s treats with dung if he does nothing. However, Ra soon finds himself enjoying the thrill of hunting down clues and prowling after suspects. He also shows that buried underneath his selfish demeanor lays a caring heart. The longer he works the mystery, the more convinced he becomes that Tedimut is innocent and doesn’t deserve a death sentence. As for Khepri, he proves himself as more than a sidekick, when he puts his life on the line to save Ra from an aggressive leopard and other dangerous encounters. He also shines as a character in his own right, using his mental prowress to figure out the real thief.

The setting for Ra The Mighty Cat Detective fascinated me. Greenfield seamlessly integrated details of ancient Egyptian court life, royal food, religious artifacts, and beloved animals into a comical and engaging adventure. What’s even more impressive is how much rooted in real history the mystery is. In the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, one can find a statue of a cat and a scarab beetle, and this statue inspired Greenfield’s story. There really existed a Director of the Royal Loinclothes and other important people with long titles. Egyptians loved to serve all kinds of meat delicacies except for fish. Amulets were worn for luck and protection. Finally, Egyptians revered animals–particularly cats and beetles. Cats were often worshipped. As for beetles, they were favored due to Egyptians due to the ability of beetles to roll dung into large balls and to have baby beetles emerge from those balls.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention other elements that I enjoyed. The plot is full of twists and turns. Every time Ra (and I) thought he’d figured out the suspect, a new piece of information proved him wrong. There is a huge cast of characters, especially of animals. Every reader will have their favorite, but mine is Miu, a cat whom everyone should have in their life due to her self-sacrificing and preserving personality. The style is easy-to-read and should appeal to both reluctant readers. At the same time, there’s enough attention to detail that avid readers will also find their attention held.

Although I’ve been trying to reduce the number of Advanced Reader Copies I accept, Ra The Mighty Cat Detective is one I couldn’t resist due to the original and fun concept. And now that I’ve been introduced to this new and endearing detective team, I’ll be watching for sequels.

Talon Come Fly With Me by Gigi Sedlmayer is a quiet adventure about a young girl with special needs who befriends two mated condors. While the story suffers from a weak plot and simple writing, it’s also a heartwarming and informative one.

Nine-year-old Matica has a growth handicap that traps her inside a body the size of a two-year-old. It also causes her to be rejected by the residents in the remote village of Peru where she lives with her brother and Australian missionaries. Size however does not impact how she’s viewed by a local mating pair of condors. After a year of her watching them, Matica attempts to meet them face to face. She does this by visiting them in the same place day after day, until one of them becomes curious and flies near her. After this, she brings them dead lizards to eat. As a way of the male bird saying thank you, he flies up to her and allows himself to be touched.

Seldmayer could have easily filled a book with just the above drama, but instead strips her narrative to a few bare-boned chapters. She does the same disservice to Matica’s encounters with poachers, largely because Sedlmayer fails to integrate any tension, conflict, or surprise twists. Instead she relies heavily on a passive narrative laden with dialog. While this simplistic style might make the story more palpable for reluctant readers, it unfortunately left me at times bored.

After Matica has the opportunity to touch a male condor, her relationship expands to include his mate. When poachers attempt to steal a condor egg, the condor couple turn to Matica for help. She carries the egg home with her, where she keeps it warm. Every day the condors check with her to see if their baby has hatched. When the baby is finally born, Matica feeds it, cleans it, and even helps it to learn to fly. The second half of Talon Come Fly With Me is dedicated to Matica’s relationship with the baby condor, and here’s where Seldmayer’s admiration for these unique birds shines through.

Although Matica is a sympathetic character, a story from the viewpoint of the condors alone may have resulted in a stronger emotional connection for me. The condor family are the stars, and through Seldmayer’s detailed portrayal of them, I learned about their idiosyncrasies and their diminishing numbers. Talon Come Fly With Me is a pleasant way to launch one’s reading of nature books, after which one should turn to literary giants of the genre such as Jean Craighead George.


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