Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

Gabby Duran is a name you’ll remember. She’s the world-renowned babysitter in a hilarious science fiction series by Elise Allen and Daryle Conners for middle schoolers. What makes Gabby so famous? The fact that she’s sought by leaders and celebrities all over the world for the most impossible babysitting jobs. What classifies the books as science fiction? The fact that the Association Linking Intergalactics and Earthlings as Neighbors hires Gabby as babysitter of aliens. To date, the series has three titles. All are fast-paced, action-packed, and will have high appeal to reluctant and avid reader alike.

Gabby Duran and the Unsittables introduces Gabby’s family, friends, and enemies. Her mom is single and believes her husband lost in a war. Gabby has a younger sister who, although she lacks social skills and interprets every speech as literal, is super smart and handles all the family’s finances and schedules. Best friend Zee is a mad scientist stuck in an adolescent body who would like nothing more than to analyze the aliens that Gabby meets. In contrast her musician friend Satchel remains blissfully ignorant even when Gabby’s life is in danger. At the same time, Gabby’s sworn enemy is zealously determined to get to the bottom of Gabby’s secrets and to outplay Gabby in the school band. This initial title also introduces Edwina, Gabby’s contact with alien parents. Edwina is uptight, primly-dressed, and no-nonsense. She’s also totally confident of Gabby’s abilities and deeply concerned about the safety of her alien charges. These charges come with some tall orders. For example, Gabby’s first job is to care for a girl who is no larger than a garden gnome and who can transform herself into anything she wishes. Oh, and she’s also in line for the throne for one of the plants, and so key to intergalactic peace.

The subsequent two titles introduce equally unusual babysitting charges. In Gabby Duran and Troll Control, Gabby encounters the first family to truly dislike her. The mother wrinkles her nose upon meeting Gabby, describes her as “uneasy on the eyes,” and throws around the word unpleasant. The father attempts to act polite, but can’t resist a sneer or cleansing his hands with sanitizer after Gabby and he shake. And who is Gabby’s charge? A frizzy-haired, mole-covered troll with a habit of stealing and showing off. Gabby also encounters the first true setback of her new job. Prior to now, she’s successfully remained secretive about her job and handled babysitting at odd hours. With this newest charge, she inadvertently allows him to get kidnapped. In Gabby Duran and Multiple Mayhem, Gabby has not only redeemed herself in the eyes of Edwina, but received the dubious honor of babysitting One. It’s her first experience with a real baby; all her other charges have been toddlers or preschoolers. Gabby soon discovers that One isn’t all he seems to be. In one short evening, One has replicated into not just two, three, four babies but thirteen! Despite it being against agency orders, out of desperation, Gabby calls her friends to help. To make matters worse, a classmate discovers Gabby’s secret and her mother might be dating a bad guy.

Is there anything I don’t like? Okay, the characters are mostly one-dimensional. But that’s often the case with light-hearted books. Besides, over time, idiosyncrasies are revealed such as the fact Gabby blushes, sweats, and speaks in a high-pitched voice when telling a lie. True, the plots are simplistic. But again, that’s often the case with easy-to-read series. And, eventually, subplots are developed such as the mystery of what happened to Gabby’s dad. The most serious criticism I have is that the overblown “good versus bad guy action” is so outrageous that I gave up trying to understand it.

Over all the series has a lot of creativity and heart. It reminds me of the Scary School series by Derek the Ghost. Those titles entertained me for a few hours and turned one of my reluctant readers into a fan of books. I’m enthused to own the first three titles of Gabby Duran and equally eager for the next book to be published.

Audrey Penn takes her one-woman educational program, the Writing Penn, into schools, libraries, and children’s hospitals where she shapes and refines her story ideas in partnership with kids. She is also highly sought after as a conference keynote speaker by groups of teachers and other professionals who work with children.Audrey is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Kissing Hand (and other books in the Kissing Hand series). She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

ALLISON: Share a favorite (or not so favorite) childhood moment with siblings.

AUDREY: One day my older brother said that he intended to stay at the fraternity house overnight. I was then allowed to use the double beds in his room for a sleepover with my girlfriend. About midnight when my friend and I were asleep, my brother came home. He tiptoed upstairs not to disturb anyone in the family and literally dove into bed. He was midair when my girlfriend opened her eyes and let out a scream. My brother landed next to my friend who was now curled up in bed shrieking. I reached over and turned on the light and burst out laughing. In my book Chester the Brave, Chester jumps onto his brother while sleeping. The idea and illustration came from that night with my girlfriend and brother.

ALLISON: You’ve had quite the career! What was it like to dance professionally? What was it like to serve as a choreographer for the US Figure Skating Team? How did you land those careers?

AUDREY: I was very lucky and attended extremely good ballet schools that flowed over into companies. The feeling of being on my toes and responding to music and story line was absolutely joyous. Jazz dancing was a totally freeing experience. The hard work it took to dance was ninety percent of the job. While dancing, I had a teacher from Russia who taught alignment. I began seeing things in athletes that could be improved by alignment study. Somehow the experiences snowballed into a brilliant second career.

ALLISON: What inspired you to write your first book?

AUDREY: My first book, Happy Apple Told Me, came out of a fairytale I wrote as a Christmas gift for friends I had in theater. I took things from my childhood journals, and my experiences in the theater, and developed a story with a serious theme told in a fanciful way. A year later I received a call from a publisher telling me that they wanted to publish my book. I asked them “What book?” They said, “Happy Apple Told Me.” I have never found out who submitted it for publication.

ALLISON: Your favorite thing about writing is getting to work with kids. What is a discouraging part and how do you handle it?

AUDREY: Getting stuck. It’s not as much writer’s block as it is resolving some problem in the storyline. My most effective means of dealing with it to date has been to go take a shower. I am amazed at the clarity I get standing under hot water.

ALLISON: You’ve always enjoyed writing and have learned lessons along the way about what it takes to be an author. What advice would you give to teachers of writing?

AUDREY: Every teacher comes with his or her own experiences in writing and story telling. The hard part for most people is getting started. Some students can’t wait for that blank piece of paper to fill with their imagination or special interest. Other children are terrified of that blank sheet of paper. If they are having a really hard time, I have them draw a picture and then describe the picture.

It took many years to develop my writing program, The Writers Curve, for the younger children. One of the first lessons I teach is to know your ending. They wouldn’t leave their house before knowing where they were going; they wouldn’t call a friend without knowing what friend was at the opposite end of the phone. An arrow needs a target. A story needs an ending.

I want teachers to teach awareness. Tell the student to see, hear, smell, taste, touch life in order to tell about it in a story.

Teach the students to keep a journal recording the things they learn each day.

It is important to first just get the story down, then come back to it and add the details during the rewriting process. Do not interrupt the creative time for corrections in grammar, etc – it stops the process in its tracks. These corrections come LAST.

And no ‘wenting.’ He went, they went, I went. I can’t see anyone went. I can’t draw anyone wenting. Make writing visual and tactile.

And have fun.

ALLISON: Why do you like to write about raccoons?

AUDREY: I was in a park with my four-year-old son and we took a ride on a small train that took us through the forest. We were midway through the ride when the train stopped and the engineer left to get a park ranger. We all thought there was a deer lying across the tracks. I told my son to stay in the train while I got out for a better look. I was completely surprised to see it was a mother raccoon and her tiny cub. While I watched, the mother took the cub’s hand and nuzzled his tiny palm. The cub then put his palm on his cheek. The Kissing Hand is that story.

ALLISON: You have two dogs. What has been your greatest adventure with them?

AUDREY: Sadly, we lost our boxer, Charlie, last year. And our lab-mix, Koko, just had the dog equivalent of a double “knee replacement” last year. She is doing very well for an old dog. Koko never leaves my side. She is my constant shadow. She sleeps in our bed and wakes us when she’s having a dream that she’s protecting the house from those pesky deer. She runs in her sleep kicking me in the shins usually then falls blissfully back to sleep while I’m wide awake. Koko is my rock and helps me type by walking on my computer keys.

ALLISON: What book is next?

AUDREY: I am finishing up the fourth book in my YA mystery series, which began with Mystery at Blackbeard’s Cove. I should have this one, Blackbeard’s Legacy: Shared/Time, out by the 300-year anniversary of Blackbeard’s death, November 22, 2018. I am always developing several other stories at the same time, but it’s too soon to talk about anything else as yet.

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Marie Letourneau is a full-time illustrator and graphic artist, with a BA in Fine Arts from Hofstra University’s New College on Long Island. She has done design work for (and appeared on) The Nate Berkus Show, and The Revolution with fashion icon Tim Gunn. In 2014, Marie was a finalist in the Martha Stewart American Made Awards for her stationery shop Le French Circus, on Etsy. She loves animals, beets, and roller skating. Marie is the author and illustrator for Argyle Fox. She and her family live on Long Island, New York.

ALLISON: Your bio indicates that you made books as a child. Do you still have one, and if so, why, and please describe? Or do you remember one that you gave as a gift, and if so, why, and please describe?

MARIE: I think only one of my childhood books exist. My aunt has a book I made for her when I was about 11 or 12. I think it was about a forest-dwelling creature called a “Blump” (sort of a cross between a gnome and a hobbit) I don’t remember the storyline, but it was based off of a stuffed toy I won at an amusement park.

ALLISON: What other interests did you have a child?

MARIE:Art in general was my main interest. But I also loved roller skating (which served me later in life when I joined women’s roller derby!)

ALLISON: Share an unforgettable memory from adolescence.

MARIE: I was 13 and my sister, Michelle and I were at the beach. Suddenly a baby whale appeared and we swam out past the breakers to meet it. We went back every day for a week to ‘play’ with it.

ALLISON: Is there someone who helped you become an artist that you can tell us about, and how they influenced you?

MARIE: My parents and family always encouraged me to pursue art. I also had some great teachers in school – namely, Celeste Topazio (elementary school) and Don Bartsch (jr & sr high). I am so grateful to them both.

ALLISON: When did you also become an author, and why?

MARIE: I always liked to write stories. As a kid I was constantly creating comic strips, writing plays and making my own books. It wasn’t until 2002 that I seriously started thinking about submitting my work and pursuing a career as an illustrator.

ALLISON: What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

MARIE: Practice as much as you can. Work on developing a style, but be patient with yourself. These things take time.

ALLISON: You have two dogs and a cat. What has been your most fun adventure with them? Or what has been one of their fun solo adventures?

MARIE: Every day is an adventure. They are constantly getting into mischief of one kind or another. Like the time I found one of my dogs standing on our piano. I didn’t even know she played.

ALLISON: Please tell us more about your love of beach glass.

MARIE: There’s something about the colors and shapes that fascinate me–like little jewels. Knowing they have been in the ocean long enough to be shaped and smoothed, then suddenly ending up in my hand is extremely cool. I’m very particular about which pieces I take home. They need to have been well-worn by the ocean.

ALLISON: What’s something quirky about yourself?

MARIE: I like to collect old things. Old film projectors, dial-up telephones, typewriters, trunks, etc. I have a lot of my grandparents stuff, including a very heavy, metal (iron, I think) Art Deco table fan. It still works. My grandfather kept all of his things in immaculate working order.

ALLISON: What’s your next book and/or creative project?

MARIE: I’m in the process of brainstorming this one. I have a couple of ideas. I can’t really say exactly what it will be, but it may just involve an adventure at sea.

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Miriam Franklin is the author of Extraordinary, a novel about friendship. Besides reading children’s literature and writing, she loves to teach. Franklin currently teaches language art classes to students in home schools, in public schools, and community groups. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two daughters, and two cats. To find out more, check out my interview. 🙂

Here’s one important lesson I’ve learned: If you quit when you feel discouraged, you’ll never find out what you could have done if you’d stuck with it instead. Or, even better: The ONLY way to fail is to quit!

ALLISON: Do you view the jar as half empty or half full? Why or why not?

MIRIAM: When I’m writing, I try to create main characters who view the jar as half full. I think it’s important for readers to see characters who overcome difficult challenges or learn to accept changes in their life with a hopeful and positive attitude.  I hope this shows readers that while dealing with unexpected changes isn’t easy, it can make you a stronger person in the end.

ALLISON: Both of your novels are set in middle school. How does middle school differ from when you attended? How is the same?

MIRIAM: My elementary school was from kindergarten up to sixth grade, and junior high was seventh through ninth, so I was the oldest in sixth grade instead of the youngest. In junior high, when the bell rang the halls filled with seventh through ninth graders which was intimidating for a tiny twelve-year-old, especially when kids were retained more back then and it wasn’t uncommon to see a big sixteen-year-old in ninth grade!

One thing the same is that at this age, kids care a lot about what everyone else thinks. Your social status is determined by who you sit with at lunch, so the same problem about how you choose your friends and how you accept others still exists.

ALLISON: Your main character, Pansy, wants to become extraordinary. What were some of your goals in middle school? What were some of your failures?

MIRIAM: I’d had the same group of friends since kindergarten, and we moved from New Jersey to North Carolina in middle school, same as Sunny, the character in CALL ME SUNFLOWER. I spent most of junior high trying to find a place I fit in. It seemed like all of the kids at my junior high knew each other from elementary and as an introvert who’d always taken friends for granted, it wasn’t easy.

I didn’t worry too much about grades, but I should have since daydreaming during math class brought a D in algebra that I managed to hide from my parents. Each subject was written on a separate slip of paper and I just didn’t show them the last quarter grade! (Haha, I don’t think they ever found out about it, either)

I was determined to find something I was passionate about, but I discovered there weren’t many offerings for beginning dancers or gymnasts at age 12. Finally I enrolled in ice skating classes at the end of eighth grade after spending 6 weeks with a broken ankle…and not only did I find something I wanted to do every day, I found my first real friends since I’d moved to NC, and I found a place I fit in.

ALLISON: You and your husband once ran a toy and gift store with her husband. What were the highs and lows of that experience?

MIRIAM: The best part was getting to go to the Toy Fair in New York where we spent a couple of days looking at the latest toys and gadgets. It was so much fun poring through catalogs and choosing things that we thought would make our store unique. We rented an old house and my mom painted murals on the walls. It was like a dream come true watching the place come together and filling it with hand-picked toys and gifts. The low point is when we realized we couldn’t make a living from our small shop that most people didn’t know about and after a year, Creative Earth Toys and Gifts had to close its doors.

ALLISON: You have two cats. Do you think you’ll ever write a book about pets? Why or why not?

MIRIAM: CALL ME SUNFLOWER actually features Stellaluna, my black cat! There’s another cat in the story as well, a stray Sunny adopts when she moves in with her grandmother. I’ve also included dogs in another book I’m working on. I’m a big animal-lover so I’m guessing they will find their way into my stories!

ALLISON: Pansy’s best friend gets sick and becomes disabled. Is her story drawn on experience? Tell us about your inspiration.

MIRIAM: My niece, Anna, was actually the inspiration behind EXTRAORDINARY. She suffered a brain injury similar to the character in the book, although she was only around two when it happened.

ALLISON: Extraordinary is your seventh or eighth book, but your first published. What happened to those other books? How did you persevere?

MIRIAM: Some of those books were early attempts that were part of learning and improving my writing craft. Others I’ve continued to rewrite over the years and one of them turned into CALL ME SUNFLOWER, which will be published in May. While I received many rejections over the years, I’ve also received encouragement and I could tell my writing was improving so I kept at it even though at times it was rough! I knew I had stories I needed to tell so I tried to focus more on the joy of writing and less on the publishing process.

ALLISON: You home school language arts to students. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

MIRIAM: Read, read, read! The best writers are also avid readers, and they pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work in a story. What makes you keep reading? What makes you connect to the main character and care about what happens to him/her? Keep a journal about books you read, making note of strengths and weaknesses. My oldest daughter started doing this in middle school, and she has an overstuffed notebook she calls the “All-Book Binder” where she rates her favorite books/series. (HARRY POTTER has remained number one!)

Also, write, write, write! Expressing your personal thoughts through a journal or diary is one place to start, and a way to discover your own unique writer’s voice. You can keep a notebook that you carry with you so you can jot down story ideas, characters, and settings when they pop in your head. Pay attention to people around you, the way they talk and their mannerisms. Take note of interesting expressions when you hear them, and collect newspaper articles as well that might inspire you to write a story.

extraordinaryExtra Ordinary is a delightful debut novel about friendship. The main character of Pansy, who is quiet and fearful but also exuberant and determined, won my affection. I also admire the author, Miriam Spitzer Franklin, for creating a sweet but realistic story about disabilities. Just as what lies at the end of Pansy’s year isn’t exactly what she had expected, so I too was surprised at plot twists in Extra Ordinary, and both are good things.

But there are also those children who persevere despite challenges, always accept the differences in others, and are full of spirit and heart. I wanted to write about a girl who considered herself average, and didn’t realize her own gifts that made her extraordinary.

–Miriam Spitzer Franklin, An Interview with Miriam Spitzer Franklin

I relate to Pansy. Until fifth grade, Pansy had allowed her fears to rule her decisions. Consequently, she’d already piled up a heap of broken promises to her best friend. The last of them had led to a major fight, the last that two girls would have. You see, the summer that two were to attend camp, Anna developed meningitis and became intellectually disabled. At the start of fifth grade, Pansy learned that Anna would have a surgery that maybe would heal her. Or so she thought. And this belief led Pansy to decide fix her broken promises. Not only would she cut her hair as promised, but she would learn to roller skate, and to take on all the other challenges that Anna would have. Some of them are funny such as brushing off the fact she accidentally wore misshapen shoes. Some are inspiring such as Pansy giving up weekends to pile up points in the class reading competition. I too have often allowed fear of the opinions of others, the unknown, and even plain hard work deter me from a goal. Through her awkwardness and failures, but also her courage and successes, Pansy learns that venturing out of her comfort zone can lead to new friends and experiences. It can also give her the confidence to speak up for others. And thus, while I never felt as if the author were leading my hand and teaching me the lesson of being brave, Pansy served an endearing example of how to live an extraordinary live.

Having seen and read numerous stories about characters with special needs, there’s a part of me that both expects and braces for that miraculous end. We naturally all root for the main character, and so part of me wanted Anna to acknowledge Pansy’s efforts to change. I also wished for Pansy’s sake that Anna would make a full and speedy recovery after her surgery. In all honesty, however, part of me also was ready to be disappointed if those things happened. After all, I’ve taught students with special needs for over ten years, and I know that the improvements are sometimes miniscule at best. Certainly, none of them could hope that a surgery would suddenly remove their disabilities. And so, I felt happy to see Pansy and Anna’s brother struggle with hopes and doubts all at the same time as they anticipated the surgery. I also view the end as a satisfying one.

First-time novels tend to have missteps. I saw one definite blunder. In chapter four, Pansy is wearing kneepads during her skate in a park. In chapter seven, she complains that her knees are stiff from her falls, but she’s found a solution: kneepads! Please do correct if I’m wrong, but wasn’t she already aware of that solution? The other error might not really be one. When Pansy’s new best friend is introduced, the description of her suggests that she’s your typical snobby, pretty, rich girl but instead her sidekick is. Even if I simply misinterpreted, I’d still have preferred Pansy’s new clique to have been average girls.

Those few little flaws certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying an extraordinary reading experience. I’d taken a break these past few months from reading books for young people. Extra Ordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin reminds me of why I’d been such a fan of children’s literature.


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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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