Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Physical’ Category

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.

The second half of December I treated myself to three dog cozy mysteries. All three are titles my husband bought for me at a library book sale. The first is by an author (David Rosenfelt) whom I know about through the animal rescue world, while the others are by authors with four or five-star ratings at Cozy Mystery List.

My interest in the Andy Carpenter mysteries by David Rosenfelt comes from my having read his funny account of the start of a dog rescue foundation. The series contains sixteen titles to date and features a reluctant attorney who is most likely to be persuaded to take a case when a dog is somehow involved. In Dog Tags, the eighth book in the series, a German Shepherd police dog witnesses a murder. If his owner, an Iraq war vet and cop-turned thief, is convicted of the crime, the dog could be euthanized. Dog Tags didn’t fit my perception of a cozy mystery, which supposedly don’t focus on violence and contains bloodless murders that take place off stage. Instead Dog Tags revolves around a murder case with roots in Iraq, payoffs, hit men, and even a possible national security threat. Indeed, some reviewers have noted that Dog Tales is darker than earlier Andy Carpenter titles. What helps lighten the intensity of the plot is Andy’s sarcastic style, adamant opposition to danger, and obvious love of his wife and dog. I also enjoyed the quirky characters including Pete who is always calling in a favor, Marcus who eats as if there were no tomorrow, and Hike who puts pessimists to shame. Dogs are front and center, with one being on trial and the other being Carpenter’s own pet. Dog training and the building of trust are also integrated into the mystery.

The Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn have the most unusual quality of being narrated by a dog. To date, the series contains eight regular novels and four behind-the-scenes books. In Thereby Hangs a Tail, the second book in the series, Chet and Bernie are hired to investigate threats against the unlikely target of a pampered show dog named Princess. Although the series reads more like a thriller than a cozy mystery, I’ve become a fan due to the style, characters, and the location. More than any other animal book, thanks to his unique style, Quinn had me wondering what goes on in the mind of my dog or for that matter any dog. As a canine partner, he likes to puzzle out what scents mean for the case. He’ll also wag his tail, growl, and bark to turn Bernie onto clues. And he enjoys helping Bernie tackle criminals. At the same time, he’ll also interpret phrases so literally that conversation can be quickly lost on him. He’ll also scavenge places for food and will rarely turn down food—no matter what it’s source. Bernie is an equally multi-layered character. He makes bad financial investments, and proves a tough guy with criminals, but also has a soft heart for his dog and the woman he loves. Thereby Hangs a Tail takes place in remote areas in Arizona, well-suiting it to the cozy mystery genre.

The Rachel Alexander and Dash mysteries by Carol Lea Benjamin is my only selection by a female author. The series contains nine titles to date and features a female detective and her pit bull. In The Wrong Dog, the fifth book in the series, Sophie Gordon hires Rachel because her cloned dog does not possess the skills of a service dog as was promised to her. While Rachel is searching for the Side-by-Side agency that led Sophie astray, she’s thrown into a deeper mystery when Sophie is killed. I found the first two chapters, wherein Sophie recounts her story to Rachel, somewhat confusing and dull. After that, the narrative improves. I enjoyed how the plot unfolded, with Rachel finding herself in more and more danger as she digs deeper into Sophie’s murder. I also appreciated Rachel’s attempts to find Sophie’s two service dogs a home. Although the dogs (and an iguana!) are often in the background, they’re still prevalent in the story. The dogs like playing in the dog park and accompanying Rachel on her sleuthing expeditions.

Now that I have read six animal cozy mysteries, I’m curious about trends. Are dog mysteries normally darker, written by men, and starring male leads? Are cat mysteries normally lighter, written by ladies, and starring female leads? I’d also welcome reader recommendations! For those of you who are fans of animal mystery cozies, who are your favorite authors and why?

Fifty years ago, Joni Eareckson took a dive that left her paralyzed and changed her life forever. Today she runs a non-profit organization called Joni and Friends that offers many ministries to those impacted by disability. In her autobiography, Joni, she shares her journey into faith, and in A Step Further she attempts on a personal level to answer why God allows trials. Fifty years later, these books remain fresh and inspirational.

Joni is a compelling story of an average athletic and church-going adolescent. Growing up, Joni enjoyed riding horses, hiking, tennis, and swimming. While she believed in God and knew scriptures, her spiritual walk was lukewarm. On July 30, 1967, Joni dove into Chesapeake Bay after misjudging the shallowness of the water. She suffered a fracture between the fourth and fifth cervical levels, which for some have meant death but for Joni instead resulted in her becoming a quadriplegic. In writing about her rehabilitation, she holds nothing back of the emotional upheaval she felt—anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, and religious doubts. Her openness is part of what makes her story such a page-turner. When she writes about at times turning away from but ultimately turning to God, I’m ready to listen because this isn’t just another feel-good conversion story.

As great of testimony as Joni has, I’d be remiss if I don’t point out that the well-crafted writing style is key to my repeat enjoyment. Joni has excellent character portrayal and setting description. People are developed through dialog and succinct sentences such as “His large dark eyes, usually smiling and full of good-natured fun, were clouded with concern.” Places are revealed through perfect word choice such as “The hot July sun was setting low in the west and gave the waters of Chesapeake Bay a warm red glow.” At every point of Joni’s narrative, I feel as if with her no matter where she is or what experiences she’s facing, and so I am pulled into her world.

During her two years of rehabilitation, Joni learned to paint with a brush between her teeth, and began selling her artwork. She also writes this way. To date, she has written over forty books and recorded several musical albums. One book, A Step Further, Joni wrote in response to the thousands of letters she received from people who identified with her depression, despair, and loneliness. The writing of it she says required much study on her part. The result is a well-balanced answer that incorporates additional autobiography while also providing scriptures that address suffering and the destination for every Christian of heaven. Naturally, in being an exposition not a narrative, A Step Further isn’t as suspenseful as Joni. However, it is just as easy to read, and just as honest. There aren’t any pat answers, but rather carefully thought-out encouragement from someone who accepted God’s response of “No” to her prayer for healing.

For me, Joni and A Step Further are treasured religious classics. I read them back in junior high, and Joni was one of the first movies I saw on the big screen. If you’ve yet to discover them, you’re in for a treat.

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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2018

This month I’m reviewing Advanced Reader Copies! I’ll also have some major news to share. Keep watch.

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